Celebrated philosopher and author Alain de Botton expects to upset a great number of religious people and atheists alike with his proposal that: “it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling.”
De Botton is in Australia to promote his new book: Religion for Atheists: A non-believers guide to the uses of religion; and if articles such as Why religion is too important to be left to the religious are anything to go by, de Botton’s thesis is guaranteed to attract attention.
De Botton demonstrates an equal-parts intriguing and infuriating audacity: baldly dismissing intelligent belief in a deity, whilst laying claim to all the benefits and “consolations” religion might provide. This is his great departure from the New Atheist movement, and from those who have excoriated religious practice and religious institutions as poisonous emanations from utterly false belief systems.
Instead, de Botton suggests we:
recognise 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.
Lest he be accused of going soft on believers, de Botton never fails to remind the reader – in a cool, matter-of-fact tone – that he is preaching to the secular. “God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir”; “To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given”; “I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist”.
What de Botton proposes is not a sympathetic regard for the believer, but a hostile take-over of religion by the secular world. He writes:
The challenge facing modern secular society is how to reverse the process of religious colonisation: how to separate ideas and rituals from the religious institutions which have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them.
It is not clear how such a challenge will be met in practice. Earlier this month, de Botton’s plan to build a temple for atheists in the heart of London sparked a media stoush with atheist champion Richard “Atheists don’t need temples” Dawkins; others seem to view the plan as a harmless but misguided eccentricity, ultimately doomed to failure.
What suggests failure for de Botton’s grand project is the fact that people tend to do things for a reason, the greater the act, the more powerful the reason. But while de Botton may see no obstacle for an unbeliever to “dip into a number of faiths”, his reasons for even wanting to do so are incredibly abstract and thin. To the potentially irritated atheists among his readers, he argues that
religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have.
He further exhorts:
For those interested in the spread and impact of ideas, it is hard not to be mesmerised by examples of the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.
Herein lies the tragedy of de Botton’s secular religiosity: its appeal is limited to those “interested in the spread and impact of ideas”. While religious believers are ideally motivated by such things as a yearning for enlightenment, the promise of heaven (or hell), and the love of God, it seems that de Botton’s coreligionists will be moved by the spirit of anthropological inquiry and social observation. That’s fine in principle; but how many of de Botton’s secular or atheist peers will find this sufficient reason to worship at the temple of atheism?
What this suggests is that de Botton’s secular religion will comprise primarily atheist European philosophers with an intellectual curiosity in the vestiges of religious practice – a group that does not quite epitomise mainstream secular Western society. De Botton’s thesis is atypical in the current debate over religion and atheism, largely because de Botton himself is atypical. An English philosopher of European origin who excelled at writing popular works on travel, architecture, and the consolations of philosophy – he is an uncommon creature. Despite the reactions garnered by his provocative words, it is hard to imagine his uncommon approach gaining a greater following.
To those of us “interested in religion” it seems slightly incongruous to read de Botton’s effective denunciation of religious belief alongside his keen interest in religious practice. There is an unpleasant disjunction between admiring the “conceptual ambition” of religion and admitting the failures of secular society, all while calmly dismissing the very convictions that make religious practice meaningful and worth doing – the beliefs that make religion at all.
Without belief, the religious practice de Botton has in mind sounds dismally weak and uninspired:
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.
This is the intellectual curiosity of an unusual man. His proposal is so jarring because it advocates an entirely contrived and ultimately disingenuous approach to something either held sacred or contemned by the vast majority of human beings. One might as well seek romance while attesting that love is a delusion, study philosophy while asserting that truth is a fiction, or offer a fervent and heart-felt prayer to a God you do not believe in.
De Botton may raise important points about the intrinsic value of religious practices, and indeed about the emptiness of secular society. He is right to lament the destructive attitude of Dawkinsian atheism, and to call for a more constructive response from secularism. But his solution; his almost schizoid combination of implacable atheism and religious envy is not something I can believe in.
Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.