Contra de Botton: Religions Are NOT To Credit With Universalistic Humanistic Values

Contra de Botton: Religions Are NOT To Credit With Universalistic Humanistic Values March 12, 2012

Alain de Botton’s chapter on community in his book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion is filled with half-baked thinking. After one-sidedly disparaging modern social life from numerous selective (and sometimes specious) angles, he goes on to model really effectively how not to try to learn from religion (Kindle Location 189):

Solitary though we may have become, we haven’t of course given up all hope of forming relationships. In the lonely canyons of the modern city, there is no more honoured emotion than love. However, this is not the love of which religions speak, not the expansive, universal brotherhood of mankind; it is a more jealous, restricted and ultimately meaner variety. It is a romantic love which sends us on a maniacal quest for a single person with whom we hope to achieve a life-long and complete communion, one person in particular who will spare us any need for people in general.

First of all there is a merely apparent poignancy to his analysis here. It is striking until you ask yourself, “Do romantic comedies really sum up the entirety of modern social psychology?” and realize that the answer is, “Probably not.” Real people are enmeshed in other people’s lives, as they always have been. Countless of us are engaged in service oriented jobs, some of which demand of us emotional and interpersonal investment in those we serve. Many of us are committed to family members beyond our spouse. Many of us looking for a partner are hoping to build a family that involves more than just them. Many of us commit to political causes and feel empathetically towards those affected adversely by government or corporate policies. Many of us connect on Facebook with hundreds of people besides a significant other, all of whom interest us. Many of us work in team relationships with others that develop strong bonds of comradery. I could go on and on.

But my main gripe here is with this bogus contrast between the secular and the religious. He vaguely writes of the superiority to be found in “religions” which he claims speak of “an expansive, universal brotherhood of mankind”. This conveniently elides the fact that many of the major world religions traditionally had no such universalistic conception of themselves and most, in many of their sects’ ideas and/or implicit practices, still don’t. The monotheistic religions of the West are all insular. Religions in general drift in cultish directions quite naturally. The dangerous flip side of their enviable powerful abilities to forge ironclad communities is their ability to foment powerfully corresponding out-group hostilities. This needs to be taken seriously by those who want to extol religion’s virtues.

In the Old Testament the Jews claim to be God’s chosen people and take themselves to have mandates to commit genocide against other peoples deemed unfit to live. The New Testament is replete with contrasts between “the world” on the one hand and “the church” on the other.

In the New Testament Jesus himself tells prospective disciples that they will have to “hate their mother and father” (Luke 14:26) if they are to follow him. Appealing to this verse, I once asked a very earnest, studiously conservative, morally conscientious, self-assured, friendly but uptight, young religious woman whether she would disassociate from her parents were they to reject the faith and she said yes. I said, really? She said, Yes, I’m a Christian. And the Koran’s clear distinction between Muslims and infidels—and its numerous specifications of times and places when it is necessary for Muslims to kill infidels—are too notorious for de Botton to so blithely ignore.

One does not even need to dwell on the major religions’ hostilities towards each other to falsify de Botton’s ludicrous implication that religions are especially good at creating a sense of shared universal human bonds. The intra-faith sectarian bloodshed within religions is, and always has been, horrifying. The slightest disagreements on arcane, rationally unsettlable disputes about superstitious “faith-based” doctrines have led to violent divisions in eras past and to cold shoulders and harsh condemnations even in peaceful secularized countries where religion has been defanged today.

The phrase “the universal brotherhood of mankind” is just a 19th Century liberal Protestant kind of religiosity and not necessarily anything more universal to religions or anything especially expressive of what is distinctively religious in character. The concept is flagrantly an attempt to reinterpret religious symbols in terms of secular values of egalitarianism which had become widespread and were transforming Europe and North America by the end of the 18th Century. The idea that we secularists need to learn this concept from religion is perverse and insulting even. No religion has anything on secular masterworks like Immanuel Kant’s Ethical Philosophy: Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals & Metaphysical Principles of Virtue or the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights or countless secular celebrations of democracy, or the last century’s staggering secular developments of the concepts of women’s, gays’, and other minorities’ rights.

And speaking of women’s full inclusion in humanity—it is fittingly revealing and annoying that de Botton, in turning to religion for a principle of universal human bonds, could not do any better than to find and uncritically adopt a sexist formulation which excludes half of humanity. He celebrates the universal brotherhood of mankind. Because we’re all men and so that makes us all brothers. That’s good old fashioned religious patriarchy for you. It has been secularists—and religionists who are still denounced today as secularists by other religionists—who have fought tooth and claw against misogyny and racism and tribalism and homophobia. Religions, with their typically large percentages of adherents who are committed to way outdated texts for their moral guidance, have always been among the most conservative and reactionary and regressive forces standing athwart such moral universalism and progress.

And, finally, even were religions the first place where we had formulated the concept of universal humanity, we would in no way need religious forms or practices to retain or justify the idea going forward. If the idea is a good one to emphasize, one grounded in a moral truth or advancing an invaluable moral ideal, etc., then it is justifiable by reason. Good ideas that happened to have religious expressions are not in any way uniquely religious. They can be coopted without any big song and dance about how we are “learning from religion” in some distinctive way. Atheists can coopt a true moral principle without fearing that in some way this makes religions necessary or that it makes uniquely religious structures of belief and practice necessarily worthy of emulation.

Only if you can show that somehow specifically religious forms and practices are integral to true feeling of (or belief in) the morally important sense of the universality of shared humanity, is it important to stress that this idea comes from religion. But I think even a cursory view of history shows that not only does a feeling of the universality of shared moral humanity not have its roots in uniquely religious forms and practices but that the exact opposite is true. Routinely, religions intensely unite tribes, subcultures, and/or whole nations of shared participants to each other and against outsiders.

The greatest force for creating a sense of shared and universal humanity with shared moral obligations derived therefrom has been secularism—with its celebration (in distinct contrast to the widespread religious mistrust) of all the ways we are all commonly part of the world.

Your Thoughts?

More of my critical reading of Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists:

Why I Bother Writing About the Boring Question of Whether Religious Beliefs Are True

Alain de Botton on Meeting Strangers

The Dubious Value of Interpersonal Charity

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