Alain de Botton Gets it Backwards

Alain de Botton Gets it Backwards February 28, 2012

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Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, is, as you might guess, a bit persona non grata with the New Atheist blogosphere.  After reading his most recent CNN Opinion piece (“What atheists can learn from religion”), I’m guessing religious folks will also be thinking, “Please, don’t help us.”  Here’s an excerpt:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

…One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Fivefold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring. In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

Saying you can take the good and leave the bad from religious practise is actually a bigger insult to faith than it is to say you think we’d be better off without it entirely.  De Botton assumes that religious ritual can be totally separated from it’s content and context.  He seems to think he’s paying them a compliment by implying they’ve taken a lie (or, at least, a profound misunderstanding of the world) and used it as the foundation for a complex, beautiful, useful machine.

Atheists who spurn religion are closer to agreement with the adherents of these faiths because they agree ideas have consequences.  Start with a falsehood and there will always be a festering weakness at the heart of the world.

Tradition, ritual, and community aren’t unique to religion, and, if they were, de Botton would probably have to do some thinking about how a fundamentally wrongheaded claim managed to stumble into such a good idea.  His advice to atheists is similarly misguided.

It is more accurate to say that tradition, ritual, and community are powerful parts of human life than it is to say that they are good.  De Botton is correct that living without these influences would be an impoverished kind of life, but these aren’t the kind of things you can embrace abstractly.  We want to live in a particular tradition, reinforced by particular rituals, and supported by a particular community.  All three woven together in support of a particular telos.

Atheists don’t need to need to adapt the trappings of religion.  We just need to pursue truth, practise philosophy, and try and share both with others.  The fights about how to use ritual and the role of authority and hierarchy are incoherent unless we have some idea of what principles we’re designing these structures to sustain. Once you’re evangelizing and developing a worldview, the community can develop, but you can’t build a tradition by fiat around a flat negation of someone else’s ideas.   Instead of asking atheists to revise their organizing principles, de Botton would be better off promoting the positive ideas atheists and everyone should organize around.

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  • Brandon

    I like Blackford’s take on the matter –

    I read Religion for Atheists on my flight over to the US – this is the new book by Alain de Botton. Verdict? Well, just quickly what I got out of it is that religions are comprehensive, totalitarian systems in which everything (art, architecture, music, the order of everyday life) is integrated and bent to a single purpose, with no room to manoeuvre except what the system itself provides. In other words, religions are even scarier than you thought.

    Really though, de Botton seems to be what the overused pejorative “faitheist” was coined to describe. The guy can’t seem to help but heap a weird sort of backhanded praise on religions that seems pretty insulting to both atheists and theists.

    • I’m not sure how this differs from any culture. Maybe I’m a horrible cynic, but that’s part of what culture is: a framework of allowable actions and thoughts. Whether it’s religious or not makes no difference. I’m not claiming that certain religious groups, past and present, haven’t been more totalitarian than liberal secular culture as it exists today. I’m just saying that some liberal secular utopia or atheist republic would be subject to the same charges: expression (maybe even thought?) can only exist within the space the culture provides, and all actions must be justifiable under the purposes the culture deems justifying (which seems to be much the same as uniting everything to a common purpose). We choose the best system (insofar as we do) based on what spaces and what justifications we want to live with…but of course we make that choice within the culture itself, so… (Oh, and I’d also like to say that religion isn’t always and necessarily as totalitarian as it has been in the past.)

      If you need some optimism from me, here: all cultures, including religious ones, generate the possibility of their own subversion. I’m taking this claim from Stephen Greenblatt, who says it of sixteenth-century England. I suspect, though, by extending his arguments, that it’s true of almost every society that holds any basic moral sophisticiation or attempts to justify power. (The world of /1984/ is an exception, of course, because it holds no goods other than power, without justification.) So there is always wiggle room–that is, by playing justifications off one another–just as all cultures are somewhat totalitarian.

  • I’m not sure I agree. There’s a distinction between genre and content; of course (of course) they influence each other, so they cannot be entirely de-coupled. But, for instance, meditation (as one example) can be used in multiple religious worldviews. There is some change to the practice according to the religion, and the practice produces some change in religious experience, but it’s still identifiable. If this weren’t the case, things like syncretism and inculturation couldn’t happen. (Neither could many kinds of interfaith learning that do happen.) Religions can change and develop in part because they can borrow systems and institutions from one another.

    A result of this seems to me that at least some of these practices/systems/institutions (what I would call genres) should be transferable to atheism (or given atheist content). This would change the genre, sure, and likely the content, but that would be a good thing, yes? And looking at how religious people load these genres with their content might help you figured out how to load them with yours. It’s not a simple plug-and-play, but I wouldn’t think you’d want it to be. I’m not invested in anyone doing this, other than the fact that I find it kind of amusing, but I don’t see why it would be a problem.

    And as a religious person looking at this claim, again, I don’t see why I should find it insulting, or feel closer to the New Atheists on this issue. He’s saying, “At least you get some things right,” rather than, “You’ve got it screwed up all the way through.” The former seems much more reasonable to me than the latter.

    • @b

      meditation (as one example) can be used in multiple religious worldviews. There is some change to the practice according to the religion, and the practice produces some change in religious experience…

      Academic institutions have taken popular religious teachings and figured out which are right and which are wrong.

      If you trust the current academic concensus (and you ought to, unless those academics recognise your expertise) then Transcentental meditation is out (no benefit), Mindfulness meditation is in (psychology), Prayer is out (medical science, psychology),

      • No, see, practices cannot be right or wrong. That’s like saying that particular grammatical structures are right or wrong. (“Linguistics has conclusively demonstrated that complex sentences are right and simple sentences are wrong.”) Content can be right or wrong. So I can be praying, and the beliefs that action expresses can have truth-value, but prayer itself cannot. Now, an atheist may say that there is no case in which prayer can express true beliefs, since prayer requires something to pray to, and there is nothing real to fill that spot. Fair enough. But the /practice/ is not wrong; the practice requires false content. (I say this as though I were an atheist. I am not. But you get the point.)

        This may seem to be a quibble, but it matters more when you get to other practices. I used meditation in my example because it does not require a particular feature in the content (ie. a recepient); meditation only requires a mind and some form of concentration. (Indeed, it requires even those in their most barely-defined forms, since Buddhism–or “classical” Buddhism to be more specific, if less academic-sounding–isn’t big on selves in the first place.) The practice cannot be right or wrong. But the beliefs activated by the person using it can be. (I selected it as an example because I have atheist friends who meditate. I could have also chosen yoga, I suppose.)

        But you aren’t actually talking about truth value, are you? You’re talking about measurable, quantitative benefits, right? Are you willing to defend the proposition that only ends that are measurable and quantitative are valuable? (The question is rhetorical: if you say yes, I stop listening. I’m not trying to be rude; I would just see no way of actually communicating.)

        (And I share Katie’s incredulity that you think there is such a thing as academic consensus, particularly one so emphatically consensual and academic and current as to warrant bold font.)

  • @b

    de Botton’s vision depends on us having a trusted way of deciding whether to adopt a religious teaching.

    Otherwise as individuals -or as society’s leaders- we’re simply having a stab in the dark.

    Fortunately we do have a way: the current academic concensus.

    Anyone teaching the public “trust us, academia is wrong about xyz” are simply wrong; incorrect, self-interested, ethically suspect. History shows us that we ought to be trusting in our professors to sort out what’s right and wrong, not our religious teachers.

    • Katie

      Wait, seriously?

      Academics disagree, within and between disciplines, within and between historical eras. Can you show me something even close to an academic consensus on a major ethical problem? Say, the trolley problem?


    • keddaw

      The same academics who were so vociferously pro-USSR in the UK back in the 60’s and 70’s?

      Trust academics in their fields, where they know more than you, but ethics is an open field (NB. Religious, that means you get to challenge your sacred scriptures and your priests/pastors/imams!)

  • Emily

    I think I disagree on two points.

    First, from an anthropological perspective, his interest in how religions works for people and societies, and your interest in particular traditions, are not incompatible. They work AS particular systems, and they are wrapped up in culture, not handed down complete from on high. It sounds to me like he’s advocating looking at them from different perspectives and thinking about their effects in the world, rather than stopping your questioning with “is it true, yes or no,” or faithlessly following their rituals or anything like that.

    Second, from a convert’s perspective, he’s right that sometimes doctrine can leave you cold, while observing and partaking in the practices and fruits of religion can warm you up…and maybe eventually change the way you view the doctrines, or maybe not, but following Christianity couldn’t start for me until I stopped trying to get in through the “logic” door and hung out on the threshold of “practice” for a while, just watching. Religions are more than propositions. I’m not sure why it would be necessary, or even always possible, to value and understand all parts of a given religion to the same extent at the same time. You also probably shouldn’t essentialize them because we all DO experience particular traditions rather than religions in the abstract. My universalist Protestantism with its northern American cultural trappings is not exactly the same bundle of Christianity as Russian Orthodoxy in rural Siberia, and while they are the same religion at the core, they’re not exactly interchangeable to the point that converting to one makes all traditions accessible.

  • deiseach

    Because we’re human, we do create rituals. There are secular rituals outside of religious ones; I’m thinking of, for example, the American High School Prom which (if I am to believe the slew of movies and television shows) is a ritual of such power it can still influence the thoughts, behaviours and attitudes of participants twenty or more years later. (Apparently, “I don’t have a date for the Prom!” is much more of a traumatic experience than “I don’t have a date for my Debs!”). Graduation from school, from university, birthdays, engagements, weddings, leaving your old job, moving into a new house – you name it, we’ve invented something to commemorate and celebrate it.

    Where I disagree with Mr. de Botton is that merely copying religious ritual and leaving out any disagreeable content (like straining the lumps out of porridge) can achieve the aims he recommends. If you don’t accept the reasons for a particular action, then it’s just playing dress-up and it will translate badly or not at all into a secular sphere (come on, can anyone really see even the most militant atheist devotee of evolutionary-theory-as-theory-of-everything celebrating Darwin’s birthday by dressing up in Victorian frock-coat and muttonchop whiskers every 12th February and standing at the lectern in a gas-lit hall to give readings from the works of Darwin before an audience who will respond to “A reading from the First Letter to Huxley” with “Thanks be to Science”?)

    You can’t cherry-pick the bits of religion that you find socially useful while dismissing the rest as fairy-tales, even if you think fairy-tales are a valid branch of literature. Religion is not social work, and any confusion between the two usually ends up serving neither.

    • deiseach

      Mind you, if there are any non-theistic evolutionists and/or atheists and/or freethinkers who want to celebrate Darwin’s birthday by dressing up in appropriate costume, renting a hall, and doing a series of readings and responses, I say “Go for it!”


    • leahlibresco

      I am totally unable to respond to the substance of this comment as I skipped my HS prom to go to a math competition. 🙂

      • deiseach

        We didn’t even have a Debs (our version of the Prom) as the nuns banned us from having one for various reasons, one of which was our intransigence in the face of the new P.E. teacher (a laywoman, import from Dublin, and completely got off on the wrong foot from Day One by insulting us as a bunch of culchies – er, rednecks? – and not even bothering to turn up on time or even at all to classes).


  • You’re confusing things that are true as fact with things that are True as symbolism; ie confusing logos with mythos. I think de Botton is brilliant, if a bit naive in how he wants to construct things.

    Suggested readings: “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong; “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus

    Then we can talk a little bit more.

  • Paul

    You write “Saying you can take the good and leave the bad from religious practise is actually a bigger insult to faith than it is to say you think we’d be better off without it entirely. ” (which, I believe, is true); but how does what you say differ from accepting a ‘Lenten practice’ without, at the same time, accepting the major tenets and belief structure around that Lenten practice? Can you do one without the other?

    • leahlibresco

      Paul, I tried to tackle that in this post.

      • Paul

        Certainly making a change “during” Lent is different than making a change “for” Lent; and having a prescribed time in which to do so (socially, personally, religiously, whatever) is helpful. But it seems to me that it could be better to set aside a time for making a change in one’s life as a self-discipline rather than piggy-back off a “system” that one does not accept from the start. I do not make any “New Year Resolutions” as I find that such resolutions do not help. But do make “New Resolutions” as such time as they are necessary for my own life, or for such time as my behavior negatively affects the greater good of those withwhom I am involved. BTW – I enjoy reading your posts.

  • Eli

    Uh…is it just me, or isn’t this part a religious trapping:

    “We want to live in a particular tradition, reinforced by particular rituals, and supported by a particular community. All three woven together in support of a particular telos.”

    That sounds pretty distinctively religious (and unsupported by, say, evidence) to me.

  • Dominick Lawton

    I’m not quite sure what to think about this. If de Botton’s project is at all similar to yours, Leah — and it looks like it probably is — then yes, instrumentalizing the by-products of organized religious doctrine to “make us all better” or “lead a more fulfilling life” is insulting and stupid (also plays into a tendency shared by both theists and atheists that I HATE: namely, assuming that the intellectual structures of religion are the only possible vehicle for the emotional and social life they can impart. Reverence, charity, community spirit, awe, etc. are not magically unlocked for you by belief in God. They’re accessible, in different ways and with different objects, to secularists.)

    On the other hand, from an anthropological/religious studies/cultural studies/historical standpoint, I couldn’t agree more with him that “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”” I care infinitely more about understanding how religion can and does work and what religion does than about fine-tuning my epistemological equipment. I want its stories, not its myths.