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.

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.

  • Randomfactor

    Sorry this is at the FA site, and OT to boot (FAOT?) But today’s the last day to contribute:

  • Randomfactor

    “the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true.’”

    It certainly seems important to the theists. Ask ‘em.

    Isn’t it a form of disrespect for their views to set aside the question of truth as irrelevant?

    • Timothy (TRiG)

      It certainly seems important to the theists.

      Actually, not necessarily. Which, I must say, confuses me. But I do know theists who seem to not much care about whether their beliefs are true.

      I can “get”, to an extent, the atheist Pagans, who see the Gods as useful archetypes, or who read tarot as a way of sorting out their own thoughts, without actually believing it to be true. If that sort of thing works for you, then great. And I know that in many groups (much of Judaism and many neo-Pagan groups, anyway, and perhaps some others), practice is more important than belief. Pagans who believe there are many different Gods, Pagans who believe the many Gods are different aspects of just two Gods, or one God, and Pagans who believe in no Gods at all, can share rituals. (On the other hand, Pagans with very similar beliefs may have incompatible rituals and practise.) Judaism is also, historically, defined more by practise than by belief. And that’s fair enough.

      But I have heard people say that they don’t actually care whether their beliefs are true, and seen one very intelligent woman saying that some of the things she believes are “probably false”.

      So no, it’s not necessarily the case that the truth is important to theists, though I suspect that much of the confusion is due to using words in different ways. Definitions. Context. Language is complicated.


  • Art Vandelay

    Heh. I read Hemant’s post this morning rolling my eyes the entire time. I had a feeling this was coming. You did not disappoint.

  • WilloNyx

    Another great response to Hemant.

  • Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    Agreed. I took a shot at de Botton, too. It’s not wrong or controversial to say that tradition and ritual is useful, but it’s not an end in itself, it’s a way to preserve and strengthen shared values. Most religious ritual is focused on maintaining values we abhor, and it’s doubtful they can be so easily stripped of their context.

  • fastlane

    de Botton’s argument is as hollow as the ceremonial deism excuse that the courts in the US cooked up to keep all the (clearly unconstitutional) religious references in government sponsored form.

    It’s not those of us who are naysayers and trying to get it removed that make the case that it’s really religious. It’s the supporters, those who want to keep their religious privelege that way, that provide the concrete proof of the religious underpinnings of these things. This is demonstrated by their actions any time someone suggests removing these things from government sponsorship.

    The same is true of de Botton’s claims. If the truth isn’t important, I would suggest he go around to, say, 1000 churches, of varying denominations and sizes, and ask that question of the congregations. Better yet, make it a statement, and see how long it takes for the lynching to occur.

  • iknklast

    Good job, JT. One problem I have with the idea that religious people do more charity – I am faculty advisor for an SSA group here on campus (currently moribund, but hopeful of getting stronger as the four Christian movements begin to push harder). We attempted to set up a much-needed charity, one that would be much more helpful to our students than anything anyone has ever done. We were stymied – the campus couldn’t face the idea of having an “atheist” charity, even under the somewhat more benign name of “freethinkers”.

    If atheists in this town attempted open charity (as atheists), we would be run off or burned at the stake. People simply refuse to accept godless money, even if it is the only hope they have. So I do my charity work through secular organizations without religious affiliations – and no one can see what is being done. In fact, much of that credit still goes to the religious, because it’s simply assumed that the religious are the ones doing charity.

  • Sam Salerno

    Man it seems like we’ve been going through this De Bottom crap forever. When I first read his schpeel I thought he was giving religion credit for innate human attributes. To say that religion has some kind of moral upper hand is just a load of crap. Morality is a human attribute that religion has hijacked from humanity to make itself look like the authority on it. It is no more the authority on morality than it is art or architecture. And it is definitely no authority on science.
    These people hijack everything invented by the human race and claim god did it. It’s about goddamn time credit is given where credit is due. And it sure the hell is not religion. Religion did one thing Atheists did not do and only because we trusted them. And that is build a community. Now that we know that there agenda is to get into our government and our schools we are now building communities because we have to protect our constitution from these thugs.
    How dare any of us give respect to those that treat us inferior. The only thing religion is really good at is threatening people into submission. Which is bullshit. “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead.” It’s time for religion to take what they have been dishing out to the human race for centuries. It’s time to send them back to their churches.

  • Rieux

    What, no mention of the fabulous melee a few of us have going on in comments regarding Hemant’s defense (in that same post) of über-faitheist Chris Stedman? Hmph!

    De Botton, in the material I’ve seen from him, is mainly just doofy and wrong. Stedman, IYAM, is much more malignant and destructive.

    And JT’s a music theorist? Awesome—I have a music degree as well. Musical atheists FTW.

    • ‘Tis Himself, OM

      Stedman, IYAM, is much more malignant and destructive.

      Just because Stedman lies about gnu atheists is no reason to say such a thing. Just ask his apologist, James Croft, about how great a guy Stedman is. He loves kittens and doesn’t spit on the homeless and has something to do with Harvard. Stedman even loves you, as long as you’re a goddist.

  • Rory

    I was pretty disappointed with Hemant’s take on this. I don’t know any atheists who go around shoving religious folks’ heads into toilets for the fun of it, or who refuse to contribute to a good cause simply because religious groups might also be involved with it. At the end of the day, all the good things religion gets credit for are things that secular society either already does or something it’s perfectly capable of doing. And as JT’s pointed out, even if religious belief was every bit as wonderful as they say, the fact that it requires embracing faith over reason would be damning in and of itself.

  • Brian Wood

    I’ve always thought the prototypical christian sermon to be: “Kill them all; God will recognize his own.”

  • rorschach

    Yummy yummy deep rifts ! Not surprised about Hemant’s stance on this, it’s consistent with what he has said in the past. There’s a reason he looks like Mooney, hadn’t you noticed ?

  • James Croft

    Did you read the book, JT?

    • Rory

      Would reading the book make what seems drastically wrong in the article less wrong? I don’t personally feel the need to spend a few hundred pages having it explained to me that as an atheist I have no concept of truth, beauty, or morality simply because I reject religion’s claim to these qualities, but maybe others feel differently.

      • James Croft

        If you read the book, you will see that no argument of the kind is made therein. My point is made.

        • JT Eberhard


          If I was responding to Alain’s book, that would mean something. But I’m responding to his article in CNN. Obviously.

          Pointing out that he doesn’t make the argument I’m rebutting in the piece I’m not rebutting is a very strange defense.

        • NathanDST

          James, what JT said. But also, many of us cannot, for various reasons, read the book. We may not have the money to make the purchase, or the time to read if we do. We may have the money and time, but both are limited, and we’re unwilling to use them on a product written by someone whose freely available statements seem to say certain things fairly blatantly. This applies whether it’s Alain de Botton, Richard Dawkins, or James Croft. I admit, there may be arguments that require the fuller format of a book to properly develop. But if you can’t make clear what you’re at least aiming at in the articles you publish, then that demonstrated lack of writing skill doesn’t give me much hope for your book, and thus, not much reason to read it.

          Finally, if those arguments in the book are so good, perhaps you could make them for him, instead of simply telling everyone they should use their valuable time and money to read the book? Maybe you could give some of us a reason to decide the book is worth a go.

  • willross

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

    1. Then we should support de Botton, as he is taking the view that we should be looking for the concealed truth in religion, not the obvious falsehood.

    He is not saying that truth is not the most important concern. He is saying that whether “God” is a metaphor or an observable fact is not the most important truth.

    2. Actually, I’m not sure I buy this statement in the first place. Whilst truth is certainly desirable, there are limits to the amount of suffering I would inflict on other people to attain it. Does that make me a Bad Atheist?