Friendly Atheist vs. Unfriendly Atheist (

Hemant Mehta is a friend of mine.  I love the guy and never want to follow him on stage as a speaker.  My friend is displeased with how some of us, including me, went after Alain de Botton.  I won’t comment on the top half of his post, but for the latter half I think I need to defend myself (I should note that Ian Cromwell has already done a solid job on that front).

Hemant says…

de Botton later made headlines when he said “the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true.’” WHAT?! BUT THE TRUTH IS ALL THAT MATTERS!said a bunch of atheists in response. They seemed to ignore the part where he said:

To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. It seems clear that there is no holy ghost, spirit, geist or divine emanation. The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to if one concludes he doesn’t. I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

I don’t think those two are connected.  We say the truth is important.  I even say making your best effort to be reasonable is a moral obligation.  But de Botton treats the truth like it isn’t the most important thing.  It doesn’t matter if de Botton shares our conclusion that god doesn’t exist.  That does not absolve him of being on a completely different side of the issue than me because the conclusion is not the point.  I am an advocate of reason.  I want others to treat reason like it’s a necessity, not an option.  The whole point of my post is that the truth matters, but de Botton treats reason as a passing concern, if he treats it as a concern at all.

And what’s more, his whole piece was full of so many things that are just factually wrong.  Hemant even concedes that point in his post.

… religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring.

We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages. We can’t build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude.

This is where his argument falls apart… if you take it at face value.

It’s easy to counter with examples of “religious morality” that endangers women and hurts gay people, but there’s no doubt that religious people give more money to charity than atheists do — and that goes beyond tithing. Also, atheists have no problem discussing ethics. Sure religions have made use of art and architecture, but there are historical reasons for that (like the fact that religious monarchs in previous centuries were the ones with the money and power). We may not like “sermons,” but I love listening to TED Talks. We may not thank god for anything, but we can stand in awe of the power nature and evolution has in our world. We can show our gratefulness to the people close to us in our lives, whether it’s through affection or gifts or our words. We may not have temples where our communities can meet, but we communicate and share our live with each other over the Internet and through local groups. We may not go on pilgrimages, but we can dedicate our lives to various causes that have meaning for us.

He’s basically throwing secular values under the bus for the sake of making his point. But the responses (like the ones I just mentioned) are right there if you go looking for them. Why de Botton never mentions this, I don’t know.

This convicts de Botton of precisely what I had him on trial for.

Ok, now step back for a second. de Botton is basically saying there are some things religious people do that we ought to find a secular replacement for. He’s not wrong about that. I’m simply saying we have already found those replacements.

But that’s not all he’s saying.  What’s more, he’s trying to give credit to religions for things for which they don’t deserve any credit (music and gratitude, seriously?).

I’m saying that all the things he mentioned that religion does can be done better without religion.  This seems obvious to me.

“To say something along the lines of ‘I’m an atheist; I think religions are not all bad’ has become a dramatically peculiar thing to say and if you do say it on the internet you will get savage messages calling you a fascist, an idiot or a fool. This is a very odd moment in our culture. Why has this happened?”

Again, he’s right about that. If you’re an atheist and you aren’t whole-heartedly anti-religious (or, dare I say it, you suggest there might be something to learn from religious people), there’s a segment of critics online who won’t stop attacking what you say until you’ve basically removed yourself from the conversation. They’ll call you names or take your statements far more literally than you intended so that you’re thoroughly humiliated in front of people who will never read your works for themselves.

Well, yes.  But there’s also a lot of us who say religions are all bad because irrationality is never good, and religions keep irrationality alive as a virtue.  When people say there are things that religions do well that makes their defense of faith worth overlooking, we’re never given concrete examples.  Read de Botton’s article and see how nebulous he gets with all of it.  In my experience this is pretty standard fare.

We demand people defend reason because it’s relevant.  If religions are not the enemy of reason, we demand it be explained why they’re not.  You can tell us that the music’s pretty (though, a theorist like me might argue to the death with you about why church music blows) until you’re blue in the face, but it won’t save religion from being the edifice behind which irrationality hides.

Why am I saying all this? Because it’s not necessary to treat these atheists like they’re not on our side. They’re not hurting our cause. They’re with us. They’re not the enemy.

If you’re saying that whether or not religion’s true matters less than the behaviors beliefs sometimes produce, we’re going to clash.  You are not on my side on that issue if you don’t think reason is paramount or that figuring out what’s true is essential.  I do not criticize charity work (unless religion is unduly getting the credit for atheists’ efforts).  But you can do all the charity work in the world and still be saying that people who are not reasonable (and who, by convincing others that faith is noble, encourage others to be unreasonable) are not working in our best interests on that front – which is exactly what we’ve done.

To convince others that the truth is not the most important concern, I believe, does hurt our cause.

And what’s more, let’s not imagine that atheists on the opposite side of the spectrum have not spent a great deal of time telling us that we’re doing it wrong, as de Botton did in his post.  You can’t watch us respond and then act like we’ve just attacked them.

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.