What the heck is ‘religious atheism’? It’s religion minus faith. Huh?

What the heck is ‘religious atheism’? It’s religion minus faith. Huh? May 13, 2019

As more and more Americans escape religion, too many are curiously trying to replace their faiths with communal rituals that very much resemble what they’re supposedly escaping.

religious atheism alain botton
Alain de Botton speaking in San Paolo, Brazil (Fronteiras do Pensamento, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

This kind of “religion for atheists” is discussed in a very interesting if troubling interview on the online news site Vox, titled “Religion without God: Alain de Botton on ‘Atheism 2.0.’”

The article’s subhead — “Why ‘Is God real?’ is the most boring question you can ask” — reveals the crux of de Botton’s argument.

A religious guide for nonbelievers

A 49-year-old Swiss-born British philosopher and author who emphasizes philosophy’s relevance to everyday human existence, de Botton has penned several best-selling books, including Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion.

A review on de Botton’s Amazon.com book page explains it this way:

“What if religions are neither all true nor all nonsense? The long-running and often boring debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is finally moved forward by Alain de Botton’s inspiring new book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false—but that it still has some very important things to teach the secular world.”

From my point of view, this kind of philosophical hair-splitting is dangerous, by suggesting a thin but unverifiable fracture — a bogus entry point for debate — in the rational conclusion that supernatural religion is wholly imaginary.

The baby and the bathwater

It’s the “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” argument, but falsely implies that discarding a living baby is the moral and practical equivalent of choosing to disbelieve in things that cannot be confirmed to exist in the first place.

It’s not equivalent, however.

Yet, as de Botton says in the Vox interview:

“For me, and I think for many other people as well, the issue of religion actually goes way beyond belief in the supernatural, and yet a lot of the debate around religion started by people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins reduces to familiar questions: Does God exist or not? Do angels exist or not? Is it stupid to believe in angels?

“While I understand the kind of emotional resonance around that, I think the real issue is why did people get drawn to religion? Why did we invent religions? What need did they serve? And also what are the aspects around religious life that may be disconnected from belief that nevertheless have great validity and resonance for people outside of faith today?”

Religion is not something else

In fact, religion does not “go way beyond belief in the supernatural.” The supernatural fundamentally defines faith, and any good that religion may provide — if nonexistence of God is assumed — is simply a byproduct of delusion. In that respect, it seems a little disingenuous to continue acting like you believe after you’ve stopped believing.

Certainly, supernatural religions, as products of delusion or not, have bestowed a lot of good in the world over history but also a lot of misery and horror. And because of its appalling and well-documented downside, the veracity of religious belief remains an important target of inquiry.

It seems like so-called “religious atheism” is just a way to try and have your cake and eat it, too, but before confirming that the cake actually exists.

De Botton supposes that religions are “machines for living,” in addition to their claims about supernatural beings and realms.

“They aim to guide you from birth to death and to teach you a whole range of things: to create a community, to create codes of behavior, to generate aesthetic experiences. And all of this seems to me incredibly important and, frankly, much more interesting than the question of whether Jesus was or wasn’t the son of God.”

Why not humanism?

Why even invoke religion at all? Humanism itself has all the tools necessary to achieve all the life- and happiness-affirming things that mainstream monotheistic faiths — indeed, most faiths — claim to pursue, but without the mumbo-jumbo.

I think de Botton and others who are trying to rescue the beloved nonsupernatural parts of their faiths while discarding the essential elements that, frankly, are what make religions religions. No need, and, in fact, it’s just a way to keep religion on life-support after it’s no longer intellectually viable.

Why not, once we leave religion, finding something completely different to replace it?

“As I often say, I disagree with almost every vision of what the best self is, according to religions,” de Botton says, “but I admire the ambition and the structure that religions place upon this ambition.”

What’s to admire?

That’s like saying you admire something fraudulent and inferior.

“And I suppose I’m interested in the kind of atheism that starts with the assumption that of course God doesn’t exist, we made him up, that’s fine,” de Botton added. “Now let’s move the conversation forward and look at questions like: What can religions teach us and provoke us with today? This is an atheism that knows how to engage with some of the ambitions of religion but has nothing to do with the supernatural.”

No. This is an atheism that seeks to timidly tether itself to the effectiveness of ancient fantasies in controlling human behavior, not create a realistic new human paradigm.


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