Atheists can learn lessons about morality from believers, says UK philosopher

Atheists can learn lessons about morality from believers, says UK philosopher January 28, 2012

RIGHT now, there’s a blazing exchange taking place on the BBC World Service’s Facebook page, following a broadcast on religion this morning which utterly infuriated me.

Alain de Botton
Getting wound up by the squads of religionists who get a disproportionate amount of airtime on the BBC is something that happens to people like me far too often – but in this case it was an ATHEIST who got me spitting tacks.
Alain de Botton, philosopher and author of a new book entitled Religion for Atheists, argues in a piece – now posted as an audio file on Facebook – that atheists have a lot to learn about cohesiveness, morality and aesthetics from religious communities. WTF!
According to this blurb, de Botton’s book:

Explains ways in which atheists should look to religion for some solutions to contemporary ills. In doing so, he hopes to move the tired old debate between atheists and believers onto more fruitful ground.
Blending deep respect with total impiety, de Botton proposes that agnostics and atheists should stop mocking religions and start stealing from them. For too long, he believes, we have faced a false choice between either swallowing doctrines or doing away with consoling and beautiful rituals and ideas.

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  • Bill Murray

    Publicity sells books.

  • stargraves

    What an absolute load of drivel. If this man is a supposed to be a philosopher, then how come it’s such a bloody stupid thing to say – he clearly hasn’t done much thinking about the matter.
    Religion is a veneer – a construct of pious ritual and supernatural nonsense, that masks the most abhorrent selfish bigotry and prejudice.
    Frankly – there are many things to be learned from observing it’s adherents – such as how NOT to behave towards women and so on – but this chap has clearly taken to the artifice and vacuous pomp. As atheists have nothing in common but a healthy rejection of primitive myths, so why they should band together to ape the backwards, superstitious mumbo jumbo is beyond me.
    Also – that clown sentamu is mouthing off at gay marriage again.

  • barriejohn

    I saw that, Stargraves.
    The government should not overrule the Bible on the issue.
    But presumably the government SHOULD overrule the Bible on such isssues as racism, slavery, gender equality, divorce, capital punishment, etc. What an idiot!

  • Stonyground

    I have yet to find a single atheist blogger or commenter who agrees with De Botton. Somehow I don’t think that he is going to gather many followers.

  • Buffy

    de Botton proposes that agnostics and atheists should stop mocking religions and start stealing from them
    Sounds good to me. Any time I want to get away with bad behavior I’ll claim Satan or some other evil influence made me do it. Then I’ll say my god forgave me (screw all the people I harmed as they’re not important).
    And I’ll pen a book of “scriptures” which allows me to hate and discriminate against whomever I want with impunity. Nobody can criticize or try to stop me, of course, or I’ll sue for Religious Persecution. [/sarcasm]
    Good grief, what a pile of garbage.

  • Nelmonster

    The more I hear about this guy the more I think, ‘NUMPTY’.

  • Angela_K

    The Guardian [where else!] has been promoting de Botton’s book and disturbingly publishing very pro-religion articles of late. I have a book of de Botton’s purchased about 20 years ago called “The consolations of philosophy” it is mainly philosophy-light tosh but not as bad as his latest outpouring. de Botton does atheism, rationality and fellow philosophers a disservice by suggesting we could benefit from the religious; doesn’t he realise that everything the religious stand for is anathema to us?

  • Bubblecar

    I doubt that this person is either an atheist or a believer, just a self-promoting cretin.
    Angela: “The Guardian [where else!] has been promoting de Botton’s book and disturbingly publishing very pro-religion articles of late.”
    I gave up on the Guardian when I realised that whoever now owns it is obviously deeply religious. Probably a consortium of Christians and Muslims, funded by Saudi Arabia and Prince Charles :-/

  • barriejohn

    There has been a LOT of criticism of the Guardian’s pro-religion stance recently. What has happened to the paper?
    Meanwhile, back to the BBC:

  • Newspaniard


  • David Lawson

    This guy also spoke about this at TED. I started watching it but had to stop…I couldn’t take it anymore. I would pay good money to watch Sam Harris destroy him.

  • David Anderson

    As Dan Dennett would say, “he believes in belief”.

  • remigius

    I think it’s inspiring that a man with such obvious learning difficulties can make a living in a field that has, until recently, been the preserve of intellectuals.

  • Ian

    It was whilst listening to de Botton speak on TED that I realised why tv’s have OFF SWITCHES!

  • Jim Dawson

    I think that I read somewhere that he’s building an Atheist church in London!

  • ZombieHunter

    The one thing I’ve learnt from religion is that if you have some sort of imaginary deity on your side you can justify any old bullshit.

  • Ivan

    Here is the video of Sentamu making his pathetic argument from tradition whilst arrogantly declaring that the state has no right to decide what a civil marriage is and, by implication, that other religions cannot have the freedom to decide what a religious marriage is either.
    It is somehow worse than seeing it in print. It must be the look of entitled stupidity on his face.

  • AngieRS

    Seems to me that he;s talking of out his Botton.

  • David Anderson

    @Jim Dawson:
    That’s right. He wants to build a tower in London as a temple to atheism. He thinks that it would be a positive move for atheists rather than what he sees as the negative views of peole like Dawkins who want to (he thinks) destroy religion.
    Last I heard, there was a pole in the Guardian that was 84% against.
    I think the gilipolla is batshit crazy.

  • Debo

    This really gets my goat (oh the great good god, Pan, are you listening?). De Botton may answer to the description ‘philosopher’ but he does not actually write philosophy. He only trots out feelgood tracts – and now, in spite of his atheist pretensions, he has succeeded in making religionists to feel good about themselves.

  • Graham Martin-Royle

    What everybody else said!

  • David Anderson

    By the way, I don’t know if the 84% against the tower is religious people voting against anything atheist or atheists voting against because it’s a stupid idea. Probably a mixture of the two and at least something xians and atheists can agree on.

  • Har Davids

    Alain seems to be a closet Christian. I wouldn’t mind a ‘temple’ devoted to reason and philosophy, but I doubt us Atheists can learn lessons about morality from believers in general. Doesn’t he ever read the papers? The Jesus and Mo controversy is a perfect example of the kind of tricks some believers are capable of.

  • There are already temples devoted to reason and philosophy and free inquiry all over London. They’re called libraries, and the Tories haven’t closed all of them yet.
    Also, regarding Bishop Sentamu:

    “The Archbishop said he had never encountered racism from white clergy during his rise through the ranks of the Church.
    But he said: “When I was a vicar there was a lady who didn’t want me to take her husband’s funeral because I was black. I took one funeral and at the end a man said to me, ‘Why did my father deserve to be buried by a black monkey?’ We received letters with excrement in.””

    Really? REALLY? You’re going to sit there and talk about how terrible it was to be viciously discriminated against because of a trifling innate characteristic as some kind of way to underline why you should be allowed to discriminate against other people?
    And de Botton thinks atheists can learn something from people like this. What exactly are they going to learn? How to be completely lacking in self-awareness and empathy?

  • Oh, and of course if the government is not allowed to overrule the Bible, I expect to see Sentamu launch an equally vigorous criticism of William Wilberforce (MP).

  • Broga

    Sentamu has long been taken in by his fantasies of his own importance. He is one of the most obnoxious clerics, in a highly competitive field, and I suspect he nurses a secret ambition to succeed Rowan Williams. I am in favour of this as I think his hunger for publicity combined with his rent-a-gob approach would finish the C. of E. His weakness, one of many, is that his lusting ambition is so obvious. I heard him inveighing against gay marriage on the grounds that it contravened the bible. If we stick to what the bible wants and doesn’t want life becomes impossible. However, as is the way with the Sentamus of this world, deceitful selectivity is all.

  • The atheist / theist debate is tired, because the outcome has been the same since ancient Greece. We win, they ignore the victory or punish us. Then they poach the higher ground, claiming they were against science until they were for it, they were for slavery until they were against it.
    I do read up on mythology and fairy / morality tales, and enjoy it. I did benefit from learning Aesop’s fables. But I don’t have to believe in talking animals, and I certainly don’t have to legislate to make others believe in talking animals, to get that benefit. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and the rest are just more fairy stories. Sometimes there is value there (Ecclesiastes, almost without exception) and I’ll say it in public.
    The risk is such an admission will be seen as a victory for the theists. ‘See, Trevor likes Ecclesiastes, therefore he is a closeted believer.’ Thus I make it clear while I like some of their fairy stories, I like their horror stories too (hit ’em again, God!) and I don’t believe a word of it. A good laugh is where you find it.
    I have not read Mr. de Botton’s book.

  • Don

    What a smug twerp. An atheist temple? Why? So we can point and laugh?
    Spend the money on museums and libraries.
    Back in the day we could have just thrown him to the Hitch.

  • The South Place Ethical Society (London, Conway Hall) has been an ‘atheist church’ since the 19th Century.
    A friend and I were looking at the few shelves of atheist titles in a large bookstore years ago. He wished there were more. I reminded him that all the books that weren’t specifically advocating religion were ours. All the science and history, all the novels, all the art, all the medicine, all the music, the biographies, everything. Islam is especially clear that they have one book only, but the rest are likewise looking pretty shabby in the face of all the secular world has accomplished.

  • Ivan

    Yeah right,is he really a philosopher?More like a dumbfuck to me.

  • tony e

    What s cheap sell out!

  • john c

    Religion has many great moral examples for atheists, it shows in so many ways how not to behave.

  • AgentCormac

    Alain de Botton is a tedious buffoon who, if he really is an atheist at all, doesn’t actually understand atheism.
    Sentamu, however, is a man who knows exactly what he’s on about – and that just happens to be ensuring that his church claws back some of its clout. In his proclamation on the subject of gay marriage he said, “Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is.” The clear implication there being that Sentamu thinks his views transcend those of everyone else and that it is the role of his archaic, out-of-touch, dying-on-its-feet behemoth known as the Church of England to define, on behalf of us all, what marriage looks like in the 21st century.
    He also claimed that Cameron will be acting like a ‘dictator’ if he attempts to allow same-sex marriage. I for one don’t seem to remember voting in any elections in which Sentamu or anyone else at the Church of England was democratically elected to stipulate what legally does or does not constitute a true and proper marriage. No doubt Chris Evans will have him on BBC Radio 2 next week where he will be given ample air time to expand on his iron-age views.

  • Harry

    de Botton has a point. Watching Sentamu reminds me of the importance of gay rights more than any conversation with gay friends ever does.

  • Alan

    What religion has to do with morality?

  • Daz

    What Trevor Blake said.
    Any book, show, or artwork that isn’t specifically religious is, de facto, atheistic. De Botton: not a Gnu Atheist, but a Gnu Ageist.
    On a lighter note: Oops!

  • Just to add my voice to those who think de Botton is a dick.
    David B

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Explains ways in which atheists should look to religion for some solutions to contemporary ills.
    Does that include contemporary ills caused primarily by religion?

  • What this man proposes – to ‘move the tired old debate between atheists and believers onto more fruitful ground’ – is, as he as a philosopher ought to know, called a false comprimise. There is nothing whatsoever in this world which could be any more wrong about ethics in general, especially the motivation for moral behaviour, than this world’s religions.
    Atheism, on the other hand, implies that you alone, and no one else, are responsible for what you do: no excuses referring to higher powers, prophetical teachings, or following some weird doctrine. Atheism on its own does not make you a morally better person, however. You still need to recognize what it entails, and then act accordingly.

  • 1859

    I watched the de Botton show on TED – he is an eloquent and articulate fast talker, and that’s disturbing because eloquence can persuade anyone that the moon is truely made of Stilton cheese. But as he talks I noticed this faint smile on his face the whole time that drove me insane and made me switch off – I think he knew had a bestseller to promote. We should of course reverse his argument – if he believes that atheists ought to plagarise the ‘good’ bits from religions, then religions ought to take the ‘good’ bits from atheism …and where might that lead?

  • Robster

    “either swallowing doctrines or doing away with consoling and beautiful rituals and ideas.”..did the bloke explain what rituals could be considered “beautiful”? I mean the pope’s nice red cloak thingy is kind of cool, as are the tricky red shoes in an over the top kind of way, but beautiful? Maybe he like the incense, or dry crackers pretending to be bits of the “actual” jesus. come to think of it, some of the music from those big ‘ol church organs can be majestic in an empty kind of way.

  • Stuart H.

    If Sentamu really believes it isn’t the place of the state to define what marriage is, then can we look forward to the C of E giving up the right to conduct a legally binding marriage, and refer all applicants to the nearest registry office?
    It would put us all on an equal footing, leaving us to create ‘unofficial’ ceremonies after the legal signing formalities which, because they have no legal importance, can be as simple or lavish as we like, calling on anyone from family and friends to any Magic Friend you want to imagine to bear witness….
    What’s that? The C of E wouldn’t want to do that because….oh, because renting out their bat sanctuaries to the gullible and taste-challenged rakes in valuable income…?
    Oh, OK then.

  • Steve

    I’m not sure whether I’m just really lucky or not to have never heard of this man until recently. I’m fairly well educated but I don’t think you need to be to understand his attitudes. I think deep inside this man is a religious zealot just as much as the openly ones are. His ability to bypass the inherent bigotry, misogyny, pederasty, murderous and intolerant attitudes in most major religions is an insult to my sentiments.

  • Blimey, some of the comments left here are so unnecessarily aggressive.
    I think he makes some interesting points actually. The community aspect of religion is not replaced fully by the gym or “online” stuff, and we don’t sing together! Do we?

  • Kommando

    He has real point, all the negative comments are from militant atheists who got enraged without even analyzing what he said… only an idiot mocks other religions/ideologies, and there is no lack in idiots, but few who i call the elite can really overlook religious people and consider them brothers in humanity at least, taking from them some useful thoughts as well as they taking from atheism some useful thoughts.

  • Le petomane

    Charlie Brooker doesn’t think much of him either:

  • Matthew

    I agree with most of the other posts.
    However, I am am also left wondering if this guy has ever heard of Unitarians. He is apparently so self-centered in his research he never noticed this has already been done, and for quite a long time now. There are a ton of Unitarian Churches, at least in the US, that have lots of pomp and circumstance, but no one gives a fig what you do or do not believe about anything. I know there are a couple hundred Unitarian Churches in the UK, they are probably similar. Personally I have no use for it, when I learned enough history to dump religion I never felt the need to play dress up either, but this has already been done for anyone who feels the need.

  • Brian Rogan

    John Blackburn, sorry but where are these aggressive comments that you mention in your post? I didn’t read any threats or anything aggressive being said, maybe a couple of “idiot” or “dick” comments, but that’s hardly what you would consider aggressive; if you’re looking for aggressive or threating comments, post on a religious website that you don’t believe in God and you’ll be told quickly enough about how you’re going to burn in hell, you might even get attacked & thrown into jail (Ref – Alexander Aan). Botton uses the same language in his presentation when he refers to Dawkins, using words such as “aggressive” & “destructive”, again I’ve never heard of Dawkins being aggressive or destructive in any way, Button would have carefully prepared that talk and is clearly being dishonest with his use of language.
    And since when did religion hold the exclusive rights over community or singing? There’s a million & one groups you can join if you wish to mix with others in your community; if you want to sing, join a musical group or play in a band. Botton talks about how we should “steal from religion” and that to me is where his argument fails, on behalf of religion he claims the rights over morality, good speaking, art, etc., but he seems to have forgotten that religion borrowed these things from man, not the other way around!
    I reckon Botton is either an idiot or someone looking to create enough controversy so that he can sell copies of his book, I for one will not be buying into any of his crazy “religion for atheists” nonsense!

  • Oh I know what you mean Brian, the comments you mention I am used to seeing, but I just tend to ignore them. I think Dawkins is a gentle soul…. And I do play in so there go you!
    Anyway… I bought the book to read. So far I am not convinced. It is an interesting hypothesis, but I think he goes out of his way to prove a point. I’ve yet to finish the book though.

  • Zaki Aminu

    This fellow has taken the first necessary for escaping from the disgusting clutches of atheistic thinking. He needs to go all the way now – IMMEDIATELY – to the discovery of true spirituality; otherwise his awakening soul is bound to fall back into the state of torpor engendered by Atheism which it seems to be freeing itself from now.

  • Zaki Aminu

    “…..I know what you mean Brian, the comments you mention I am used to seeing, but I just tend to ignore them. I think Dawkins is a gentle soul….”
    Dawkins, “gentle soul”? Don’t make me laugh! Philosophically, he’s the nearest thing I can think of to a bull in a china shop! A sort of intellectual Genghis Khan.