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.


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