Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
A little background and setting
Yesterday, which was Sunday March 11th, 2012, for those of you reading this from the future, I went to see a free talk given by Alain de Botton about his book, Religion for Atheists. There has been considerable conversation about de Botton over the lest couple of months, and after reading some of his work as well as much of the criticism (both for and against), I had already felt pretty strongly that I was not in favor of his view. But I have not read the book and wanted to hear what he had to say for myself, with the possibility of asking a question (I was not able to).
In any case, this will not be an evaluation of the book itself. Rather, this will be an evaluation of the talk he gave yesterday about the book.
I arrived a bit early, and easily found a seat in the second row, but to the side. The auditorium filled up quite quickly, however, and there was almost no available seating by the time he was introduced. The audience was primarily older, although quite a few people in their 20’s and 30’s were there as well.
Many were toting a copy of the book.
I saw few of the people I know from the local atheist community. The significance of this I will have to leave until after I evaluate what de Botton said in his talk, as I think it will be a fact which illuminates an important problem for the atheist community as a whole.
For now, let’s skip the description of the scene and get to some of what de Botton said, and what I thought of it.
There is no god. Where do we go from here?
As de Botton has done a lot of recently, he immediately mentioned and criticized the harshness and tone of the atheist critiques over the last decade. While not always naming names, or even using the term “new atheist,” it was clear what types of people he has in mind; the new atheists such as Dawkins, Dennet, and the late and great Hitchens.
De Botton sees the new atheist criticisms as having a “disgust” for religion, and as an attempt to create and maintain a “complete separation” between religion and the secular ideal of reason. he sees them going too far, and wishes to rebut their criticisms with a milder, reverent, approach.
He states, flatly and without reservation, that for him “God does not exist” while inviting anyone offended by this to exit at their leisure. He admits there is much bad about religion, but wants to focus on the good in this discussion and leave the bad aside. The issue for him is, in admitting unashamed atheism, “where do we go from here?”
And this has been a question which many of us in the atheist community have been pondering for some time. I honestly don’t know to what extent de Botton has paid attention to the atheist community besides his surface familiarity with its harshness and overly aggressive criticism, but from his talk it is quite clear that he is quite bereft of sufficient perspective on the many points of conversation, especially those conversations among us more “aggressive” atheists. Like most accommodationists, he is quite ignorant of our point of view, and has bought into a caricature and a straw man, which he attacks like Don Quixote with his windmills.
The irony of distancing oneself from, while signing in harmony with, Richard Dawkins.
His ignorance came through quite early in his talk. He says that when it comes to the question of whether a god actually exists, or truth of religion generally (an idea he finds “boring“) he admits that “the doctrines are impossible to believe, but…” and then goes on to list many things he likes about religion. He mentions holidays, hymns, art, architecture, and many other admittedly nice things that coincide with religious institutions. But I have heard Richard Dawkins, the man who is, in many people’s eyes, the most aggressive and militant of us, say pretty much the same thing.
Richard Dawkins really likes Christmas, for example. He likes much about religious music, aesthetics, and even goes to church occasionally for the experience. And Dawkins is not alone in this, although many of us also feel no affinity for those things (I’m one of them) we recognize that these things are often pretty, useful, and worth keeping around on their own merits. I wonder if de Botton knows any of this. I doubt it.
Thus, while de Botton is trying to distance himself from those aggressive atheists, he ends up saying something very similar to what many of them say. When you fight straw men (or windmills), you will often get straw in the eye (or knocked over by windmill blades). De Botton is, frankly, ignorant of what the objects of his criticism believe and say, and so much of his criticism falls flat.
He does go further in his accommodation to religion, of course, but his blindness to these facts, precisely where he is attempting to emphasize his distance from the aggressive types, is telling.
The “pick and mix” of the litter
Here’s what de Botton wants to do, essentially. He wants to look at what religion is good at, what it does well, and pick them out for our usage as
non-religious, I mean atheist of course, people. He wants to “pick and mix” attributes, practices, etc from religion to improve the atheist experience, community, etc such that we can emulate what religion has done right in moving forward as atheists, rather than try to get rid of religion whole-cloth.
He recognizes that this is problematic for believers, but cannot understand how this would be a problem for atheists. Why would an atheist care if another atheist found something useful in religion? But here’s the thing; I don’t think any atheists should have an issue with this either. From one point of view, he is exactly right; if we look at religion and find something good, there is no reason not to adopt that one thing (or several things), perpetuate it, or re-brand it for our use. That is, there is no reason to not do something merely because it is something that some religion does. That would be absurd.
Here’s what he is missing; by saying that we should be looking to religion for what it is doing right, he commits three critical errors.
- He is mis-attributing natural human behaviors to religion.
- He is maintaining the association between those natural human behaviors with supernatural superstition.
- He is, probably unknowingly, pulling some of the terrible ideas and behaviors along with the good.
As for the first error, mis-attributing natural human behaviors to religion, the error goes something like this.
As religions developed over the millennia, they inevitably co-develop with behavior patterns and subsequently become usurped by the religious traditions. The intricacies of religious anthropology (what I have my undergrad degree in, BTW) are too complicated to get into here, but suffice it to say that things such as morality, ritualistic behavior, and other in-group behavior pre-existed religious doctrine and institutions, and they were subsequently adopted and somewhat changed by those traditions.
And because religions usurped human behaviors for their use, they subsequently became associated with religion almost exclusively. De Botton seems ignorant of this fact, and it leads him to urge us to look towards religion for these behaviors which he likes when he should be encouraging us to leave the superstition behind and allow these natural behaviors to form on their own, as they most-likely will. It is almost like he is unaware that without religious beliefs (the doctrines he finds so unbelievable), the behaviors around those beliefs would all disappear.
Our natural behavior patterns, rituals, etc certainly would change sans religion, and some would likely disappear altogether (and good riddance!), but we don’t behave ritually because of religious tradition, we have maintained those behaviors because religion needs them to survive. The behaviors which religion uses are deeper than the religions themselves, and will survive religion’s demise.
This leads right into the second error, that of maintaining the association between those natural human behaviors with supernatural superstition.
By not avoiding the middle man and getting his preferred human behaviors through religion rather than just doing them because he likes them and finds them useful, he perpetuates the association between those behaviors/structures and the supernaturalism that even he is leaving behind. He is strengthening their co-dependence in people’s lives, rather than divorcing them, as they should be divorced.
By doing so, he is also appealing to a lower aspect of our nature, what Nietzsche called the ‘metaphysical need,’ which keeps us pinned down to irrational thinking. He wants us to maintain a reverence for the history of our behavior, even through the parts where it believed in and stuck to fantasy. By doing so, he is helping to curtail human progress away from superstitious, medieval, and irrational thinking which many of us, skeptics specifically, are working to address as a cultural problem.
Again, this leads into the third error; pulling some of the terrible ideas and behaviors along with the good. Because he fails to see how these sets of behaviors are accessible to us without getting them from religion, he seems blinded to the fact that he has fished up some garbage with the fish.
Probably most egregious in this regard is his unabashed like for the concept of Original Sin. He “likes” the idea of Original Sin, even as an atheist. A cry from the audience (it was not me, but it was a person I know well who sat next to me) cried out “but it’s insulting” to which de Botton said nothing substantial in response. De Botton thinks that the idea that we are fundamentally broken is preferable to thinking that we are ok. It gives us humility, something to work on, etc.
And they say that we gnu atheists are unsophisticated theologically. Here is an atheist philosopher defending one of the most decadent and morally bankrupt concepts—a McDonald’s of philosophical ideas—in the history of ideas, and he does so with a smile! It is astounding how someone can be so unaware of the danger of this idea for people. It’s not an idea that says “hey, you have some self-improvement to do” or “don’t be so arrogant!”
No. It is an idea that we are, from the very bottom up and due to a mistake made a long time ago by a (mythological) woman who could not have known better or done otherwise, fundamentally broken spiritually, intellectually, and physically and thus deserving of eternal punishment by a god who loves us unless we kiss his ass. Even divorcing it of the theological content, it is perhaps the most despicable of ideas I have ever heard, and I have been listening to the GOP presidential debates!
Not to be repetitive…
Let’s be clear here; Alain de Botton wants us to emulate educational practices of religious traditions. He wants us to repeat, emotionally charge lectures into sermon-like presentations, and use propaganda.
First, he straw-man’s secular education by describing is as “pouring in of information” and expecting it to stick in their minds. He then sets up religion’s alternative technique of ‘education’ in the form of repetition, through ritual and structure. He wants to create a way to educate which focuses on having information given a temporal and logistical structure. This is precisely what good teachers are already doing as part of their teaching curriculum and techniques. Again, he wants to learn from religion where all he needs to do is look at what people are already doing without religion (necessarily). And where we may learn from religion in this regard, we risk taking on manipulation, indoctrination, etc. we are better not learning this from religion per se.
He also wants more sermons and less lectures, because they are exciting and emotionally engaging. he talks about the energy of a sermon, using a Pentecostal service as an example, and (fallaciously) compares them to a lecture, which is obviously boring. Fallaciously beause he is giving a lecture, and not a sermon.
It makes me wonder if he has seen Sam Singleton do his atheist revival. Probably not.
And he also wants us to stop thinking of propaganda as a bad thing, just because Goebbels and Stalin made it look bad….which, of course, is precisely what we are doing; disseminating information in the name of a cause. We just are not doing it primarily with emotional manipulation, slogans (they’re easier to
chant repeat), etc. We are disseminating information in the name of a cause.
Our aggressiveness, which de Botton goes out of his way to deride, is precisely what propaganda, in its real sense, is. Yes, the term has been associated with the underhanded, dishonest, manipulative techniques of the NAZIs and Stalin’s USSR, but we, again, already are using this tactic without getting it from religion, but from secular sources…precisely where religion and totalitarians get it from. And then we hear from critics, ironically like de Botton, for doing so.
The important things
De Botton thinks that we are not spending sufficient time structuring our lives to deal with the important things. I agree that far. I have been advocating for being introspective, philosophical, and taking time to enjoy the finer and more subtle aspects of life for a long time, but I see what he is proposing as a atavism, not a step forward.
One of my complaints over the years has been that when most people get hit with some tragedy, have something to be thankful for, or just when they are feeling introspective or ‘spiritual’, most people don’t have experience with much of our history of culture such that they can express this type of experience of beauty, pain, or subtlety without appealing to the religion they grew up around.
Even if they are not very religious, the only outlet for such moments, for most people, is religion rather than the wealth of non-religious art, philosophy, and science which gives us insights into these things.
De Botton’s advice would have us perpetuate the poverty of our culture by continuing to associate the most base, unsophisticated, and untrue expressions of human creativity. Religion is not the highest expression of what humans have to give, although for centuries intellectuals had nowhere else to go because of it’s oppressive nature. Religion, specifically Christianity, is a true decadence of what is best within and between us as beings, and de Botton is only wedding atheists to an impoverished view, rather than help free them.
It’s truly unfortunate, his perochial view.
And what’s worse, is that the audience responded to him with resounding applause. To loosely quote Star Wars…so this is how reason dies. to thunderous applause.
Some side thoughts about the future of the atheist movement
What I see coming now is a further split in the atheist community. Accommodationists now have another dim bulb to follow through their darkness. Those who stood and applauded Alain de Botton yesterday are the future of the critics of the new atheists and our goal to disseminate reason sans religion, faith, and theology.
The only upside is that most of them are old.
The major downside is that de Botton and his ilk will be around for a while to taint the progress of reason, skepticism, and secularism. Their view is mediocre, trite, and atavistic.
All that is rare for the rare, I suppose.
Alain de Botton is not rare. He is all too common.