de Botton and living in the absence of God

de Botton and living in the absence of God September 2, 2014

Religion for Atheists

I admire a lot of Alain de Botton’s work: I loved Status Anxiety, very much enjoyed The Consolations of Philosophy, and I thought How Proust Can Change Your Life was very thoughtful and enjoyable, though, having not gotten around to reading Proust, that hypothesis remains untested. I follow de Botton on twitter.

In his book, Religion for Atheists, I found the main idea, that the least interesting question we can ask about religion is whether or not it’s true, to be very, very compelling, and I certainly agree that atheism should be a starting point and not a conclusion. Atheism ought to be a premise in an argument, I think, and not a means to winning one.

I think Ned Resnikoff recently gave a great critique of New Atheism. He says, “Dawkins’s problem is that, much like the atheists in Nietzsche’s parable, he fails to take God’s absence seriously,” a criticism that, in my opinion, extends to a lesser or greater degree to every atheist. He goes on to write, “Whereas the death of God was the starting point for a very long line of inquiry for Nietzsche, it’s the end of a very short one for Dawkins.”

I think that de Botton takes these issues seriously, which I admire. However, his line seems a bit too short as well, and the conclusion he comes to a bit too easy. He suggests that humanity can find meaning, find a base in morality, and find guidance for how to live our lives with art and literature and music. In modern society, religion is to be replaced by culture.

This is all, of course, assuming that de Botton didn’t intend for it to be easy, perhaps wanting something simple and digestible for a large audience because some guidance for how to live our lives, though perhaps incorrect or imperfect, can be better than having no guidance at all. That aside,my main criticism of this point is that, well, I don’t see any grounding for it.

Of course, there may be routes to meaning offered, guidance and advice suggested, bases for morality proposed. However, as a quick walk through a library or a search on Amazon suggests, there isan abundance of advice and guidance available without any means of discerning the good from bad. With the wealth of information available to us, we’re left a little like a librarian in Borges’s Library of Babel: having a vast library holding every possible ordering of our language at our disposal, a library that, of course, must contain all useful information, but can’t help us until we find the book that perfectly indexes the library.

Perhaps the books we care about, the important books, are the canon, and it’s these books primarily that have lessons to teach us. We may all agree that there are wonderful things in Shakespeare or Plato’s Republic, but, for very different reasons, monarchists also thought that there were great things in Shakespeare. Fascists loved the Republic, but for its blatant support of fascism.

Of course, we find certain books profound or useful or moving, and, of course, there are the things we politely turn an eye away from, dismissed as a relic of the times. How do we determine which is which, though, aside from leaving it a matter of taste? To replace religion with culture, though perhaps very pragmatic, leaves us without the solid foundation that belief in God might allow.

I tend to agree with Rilke when he wrote in the second letter in Letters to a Young Poet, “… for ultimately, and precisely in the deepest and most important matters, we are unspeakably alone; and many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled,[1. If you think that seeing a billboard is one such event, get out of my face.] for one human being to successfully advise or help another.” The irony of my turning to literature here is not lost on me, and, I hope, suggests just how many of de Botton’s ideas I really do agree with.

Perhaps a more charitable interpretation of de Botton’s view is that we are all fundamentally alone in this quest for meaning and guidance and lessons about morality, but we have a vast library to learn from and take from what we will, with more access now to the great philosophers and writers and thinkers of history than ever. Though we are left without a criterion for what it is that made them and their work great, that, at least, is something.

I agree with de Botton that it’s a mistake to throw the baby out with the religious bathwater, Ecclesiastes is, in my opinion, one of the best things written ever, and like de Botton, I really enjoy looking at old churches. I’d like to stress, though, that being a human being is difficult, and being an atheist and accepting all of the burdens it entails is perhaps more difficult, still.

This, more than anything, is what I’ll be trying to address with my writing here at NPS. We’re tiny creatures on a tiny rock in an enormous universe. Perhaps we can simply resign ourselves to be unable to understand the universe and our place in it, resign ourselves to an inability to answer how to live our lives and find meaning, because after all, why would tiny creatures on a tiny rock in an enormous universe be able to do such things? If, like me, you aren’t ready to resign yourself to this quite yet, there is more work to do.

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