Review of de Botton

Alain de Botton is touring around speaking at various places.  He’ll be at the University of Kansas (where Michaelyn goes to school) this weekend and I hope the atheist communities in and around Lawrence show up to hold his feet to the fire in the Q&A.

Anyway, he was in Philadelphia last week where Shaun from Polyskeptic caught his speech.  Shaun has written a review in which he provides a full and thorough breakdown of the talk and some of the places de Botton gets it wrong.  It’s about what you’d expect from de Botton’s previous salvo in CNN.

Here’s what he is missing; by saying that we should be looking to religion for what it is doing right, he commits three critical errors.

  1. He is mis-attributing natural human behaviors to religion.
  2. He is maintaining the association between those natural human behaviors with supernatural superstition.
  3. He is, probably unknowingly, pulling some of the terrible ideas and behaviors along with the good.

As for the first error, mis-attributing natural human behaviors to religion, the error goes something like this.

As religions developed over the millennia, they inevitably co-develop with behavior patterns and subsequently become usurped by the religious traditions.  The intricacies of religious anthropology (what I have my undergrad degree in, BTW) are too complicated to get into here, but suffice it to say that things such as morality, ritualistic behavior, and other in-group behavior pre-existed religious doctrine and institutions, and they were subsequently adopted and somewhat changed by those traditions.

And because religions usurped human behaviors for their use, they subsequently became associated with religion almost exclusively.  De Botton seems ignorant of this fact, and it leads him to urge us to look towards religion for these behaviors which he likes when he should be encouraging us to leave the superstition behind and allow these natural behaviors to form on their own, as they most-likely will.  It is almost like he is unaware that without religious beliefs (the doctrines he finds so unbelievable), the behaviors around those beliefs would all disappear.

And the frustrating thing is that de Botton has had this explained to him by myself and others, yet he just goes charging along giving religion the credit for secular concepts.

Go check out Shaun’s review.  It’s a solid read.

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.

  • Brownian

    And because religions usurped human behaviors for their use, they subsequently became associated with religion almost exclusively. De Botton seems ignorant of this fact, and it leads him to urge us to look towards religion for these behaviors which he likes when he should be encouraging us to leave the superstition behind and allow these natural behaviors to form on their own, as they most-likely will.

    This. This is what irritates me about de Botton and others like him. I didn’t delve too deeply into religious anthropology, but anthropology in general is also (one of) my undergrad(s), and I’m well aware of the importance of, for example, ritual in human communities regardless of religiosity.

    None of the things I’ve seen/heard/read De Botton talk about are specific to or require religion to have, other than a belief in supernatural entities or processes.

    (Incidentally, that’s why I refuse to give religion exclusive use of the term ‘marriage’, leaving ‘civil union’ or whatever to cover same- and different-sex legal relationships, that some argue would solve the same-sex marriage issue with the religious. The religious didn’t invent marriage, no matter what they say, and I am not going to let them have yet another victory of ignorance. We already see how they use their claim that they invented “Thou Shalt Not Kill” as a cudgel against atheists and non-Abrahamists alike, and I’m not interested in handing them any more, especially when truth is not on their side.)

  • http://Templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    Yeah, this post again misses his point entirely, and fabricates positions for de Botton which he does not hold. Another person who hasn’t read the book passing judgment on it. It really is a short read.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

      James,

      You’re really starting to aggravate me by droning that people have missed the point of de Botton’s book.

      First, you imply that you read the review when you say it misses the point. Then you get on Shaun for “not reading de Botton’s book” and “passing judgment on [de Botton's book]“.

      Yet, in paragraph two of Shaun’s review (it’s hard to miss because it’s the whole second paragraph) we have…

      In any case, this will not be an evaluation of the book itself. Rather, this will be an evaluation of the talk he gave yesterday about the book.

      Which you should have noticed reading the review you came here criticize. It seems you’ve just lost any right to get mad at others for criticizing something they haven’t read.

      Which brings me to my second point: nobody I’ve read is criticizing something we haven’t read. When de Botton published his bit in CNN, we responded to that. We linked to it. We quoted it. I was puzzled then and am puzzled now how you can think anybody has gone after his book rather than his CNN article or his public appearances. Nobody has said we are. In fact, we are saying very clearly that we’re going after other things de Botton has said. De Botton has more material to which we can respond than his book. Stop ranting at people for missing the point of his book when that’s not what we’re talking about.

      I have already explained this to you.

      You have had this explained to you by others.

      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.

      I really cannot fathom why we must keep plowing this field.

      And the terrible irony here is that you came here to gripe that Shaun has missed the point in a book he presumably hasn’t read (even though you have no way of knowing this) by saying Shaun missed the point and fabricated positions for de Botton in his critique of a talk you did not attend.

      Surely you can understand how many of us are just shaking our heads in bewilderment and/or head desking right now.

      JT

    • Michael R

      I agree with James. There’s a whole lot of fabrication and motivated reasoning leading to overblown exaggeration of the “errors” in de Botton’s reasoning. Which begs the question: why? What is motivating this widespread vehement opposition to de Botton by many atheists? I don’t get it.

      Sure, there’s a grain of truth to the three points of contention in this post. But to think that de Botton is not aware of them is beyond belief. De Botton is speaking to the masses, so the message has to be simple, and forensically picking over the bones of his speeches is to take attention away from his ground-breaking shift in focus from beliefs/rationality/atheism to values/emotion/humanism. A shift that embraces a complete humanism of emotional values and rational beliefs, as opposed to a contemporary atheism that speaks mainly of beliefs and seldom of values.

      • http://freethoughtblogs.com/wwjtd JT Eberhard

        You can be concise without being wrong. Brevity does not excuse his slew of errors.

        Also, when we criticize de Botton, we cite him directly. So don’t give me this nebulous “you missed the point” line – tell us precisely where we have erred so we can defend it.

        And you do not agree with James, at least not in this thread, because James did not make that point. James got onto Shaun for failing to address something Shaun flat out said he wasn’t addressing. Go back up and read it.

        And lastly, if you don’t think we fierce critics of religion ever talk about values, you are not paying attention. We even discuss values while criticizing de Botton.

        What he’s doing is not “ground-breaking”. It’s the same thing other atheists have been doing forever, the only difference is that de Botton is trying to give religion credit for human values and tendencies. He’s devaluing humanity by giving religion credit humanity is due. Humanism my foot!

        JT

      • http://polyskeptic.com ShaunPhilly

        Michael R,

        I agree with James.

        JT already addressed that.

        There’s a whole lot of fabrication and motivated reasoning leading to overblown exaggeration of the “errors” in de Botton’s reasoning.

        Such as? His errors are pretty clearly stated by me, and I don’t see how they are overblown. If you have specific analysis, please give them here or at my blog. I invite criticism of my ideas, but you give me no meat to chew on.

        Which begs the question: why? What is motivating this widespread vehement opposition to de Botton by many atheists? I don’t get it.

        My vehemence against de Botton is his obtuseness in the very area he is supposedly talking about. He gives religion credit for something and demonstrates an overwhelming ignorance about religion. My opposition continues because he admits to not caring about what is true while liking the concept of Original Sin. A fairly poor combination.

        Sure, there’s a grain of truth to the three points of contention in this post. But to think that de Botton is not aware of them is beyond belief.

        If he is aware of them, I have seen no indication of it. And if he is merely aware of the concepts, he is then unaware of the logical consequences of such a concept. The fact that he may be aware of these points but refuses to deal with them in a serious manner means that he is not even taking his own argument seriously. Why, then, should we take him seriously?

        De Botton is speaking to the masses, so the message has to be simple, and forensically picking over the bones of his speeches is to take attention away from his ground-breaking shift in focus from beliefs/rationality/atheism to values/emotion/humanism.

        Two things. Pandering to the masses is one of the things that is wrong with religion (see mt point #3 above). But, even if this is what he is doing, then all he is doing is appealing to people who are uninterested in truth, and so they really should not mind that those of us who are interested in truth point out how wrong he is.

        Second, his work is not ground-breaking at all. We have been doing all of those things for years. Its just that people like de Botton have not noticed because they don’t care what the truth is so they only hear the surface-level media-driven aspects of the new atheist movement. Just like much of religion, he is interested in surface level analysis and easy answers to complex problems.

        A shift that embraces a complete humanism of emotional values and rational beliefs, as opposed to a contemporary atheism that speaks mainly of beliefs and seldom of values.

        Come on over to my blog. I have been addressing issues like this for more than three years. I am very interested in values, emotion, and humanism. Read Greta Christina, Eric MacDonald, and (of course) JT (more) because all of these people address these issues.

  • Ray

    That’s the same reaction I had to his appearance on CBC. I don’t think he cares now what rebuts his position. He just wants to sell books.

  • Michael Lewis

    is this zerowing 21 formerly of xanga?

  • guest

    After people defended de Botton I went and watched his TED talk. I disagree with his first premis, that life without religion/religious structure is empty. And he goes on from there and it doesn’t get better, and I really wanted to give him the benefit of a doubt the entire 20 min.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    Is it wrong that I feel a little thrill that JT quoted me? :D

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      That was supposed to be a reply to JT’s reply to James . . . whoops.


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