Alain de Botton on Meeting Strangers

Alain de Botton on Meeting Strangers March 11, 2012

I am reading through Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion one chapter at a time and blogging my responses as I go. In the beginning of his chapter on Community (specifically the subsection “Meeting Strangers”) de Botton paints with pretty prose a picture of profound alienation between people in the modern world. Unfortunately he paints only in black and white for the most part. Despite his general eloquence, I have the nagging suspicion that one could pen a paean with equal poignance to the enduring and satisfyingly tightening social interconnectedness between people in the modern world.

One could find articulate ways to describe how our lives are so much less provincial and so much more globally intertwined than ever before. We are constantly advancing our technological capacities to reduce the space between us and to keep those we love with us everywhere we go, via tweets and texts and status updates and phone calls, etc. Through social media we can also casually stay connected to, and up to date on, many more hundreds of people in our social network whom we genuinely value but do not have the daily time to interact with one on one. We can keep old friends even as we move great distances and create new friendships in new places. And even the most solitary, isolated, and socially maladept people can find instant human contact by just logging on to the internet and posting in a public forum with hundreds or thousands of participants. (Go ahead, basement dweller—comment on this blog post! Here’s your chance!) Members of despised groups or those with minority opinions can also find each other in profoundly more effective ways through the internet, allowing for incredibly vast networks of support for people who in prior eras would have been far more isolated, lonely, and incapable of developing their identity with likeminded others.

On and on, we can do as de Botton does and focus on the ways that the modern world distinctively shapes our inevitable and ineradicable tendencies towards loneliness. But we can go on equally long (and I am inclined to say longer) counting up ways that the modern world also opens up whole new exciting vistas of social connectivity through utterly transformative technology, burgeoning institutions, and increasingly diversified identity rallying points. And if we are really being scrupulous, we should pay close attention to the ways that broad generalities about “our” overall degrees of alienation or sociability are likely to be false simply because individuals’ lives are all quite different and afford radically disparate opportunities for social connection. There is no one “modern, secular condition”, but many such conditions.

There may indeed be things we can learn from the distinctive tools religions use for fostering social community. There may be valuable structural forms or functionalities that religions have devised for uniquely effectively meeting people’s social needs which secular institutions may yet need to learn how to replicate if they are to make religious institutions utterly obsolete.

But it is not necessary to set up an analysis of religions techniques for community building with an exaggerated and lopsided account of modern alienation. The modern world does not need to be rescued by religion. Modernity’s already done a staggeringly good job of replacing, and drastically improving on, religious institutions in countless areas of life, including the social. Whatever may yet be profitably learned from religion will only build on and continue to strengthen the secular realm, rather than save it from some imagined, historically new, especially dire existential tragedy of social alienation.

To adequately debunk de Botton’s ideas in his deeply flawed consideration of what secularists have to learn from religion about community building, I will need a few more posts. In the meantime, Your Thoughts?

My first post on de Botton was Why I Bother Writing About the Boring Question of Whether Religious Beliefs Are True.

More analysis of de Botton’s views on community are in my post on The Dubious Value of Interpersonal Charity.

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