Yakaru’s recent post about finding “common ground” between religion & science by distorting both reminded me of a review I wrote in 2012 on the Amazon site of the book Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion, by Alain de Botton. It’s maybe a different phenomenon from what Yakaru was talking about, but similar in some ways. I thought I’d copy an edited version of my review here.
Atheism for the Religious?
This book is seriously weird. In it, Alain de Botton advocates the remodelling of our now thoroughly secular societies, which are sad, sick and generally horrible, by importing elements he considers good from the domain of religion, whence, apparently, all good things come. By the time I had got to the suggestion, not very far into the book, that we reintroduce an official period of debauchery once a year in newly created “Agape Restaurants”, because people hate following the rules all the time (Agape Restaurants having been created as places where people can show each other non-religious, non-sexual, but somehow spiritual love, over coffee, to replace the function of churches) , I thought I must be reading it wrong. Was it some kind of satire? Or had de Botton lost his mind?
As another reviewer noted, de Botton appears to be a religious person in all but name. He refers tediously often to the “human soul” and its needs, but fails to question what the soul is.
De Botton’s view of atheism and secular society is so dismal that it rivals some of the worst pronouncements from pulpits. We are lost, helpless children, insane, violent, forgetful and greedy. His remedy is to celebrate “secular saints” and “sacraments” to provide guidance and succour, now that religion is, supposedly, gone. He does not bother to establish whether modern culture is in any real sense secular, but considers that feature the source of its sickness anyway. A quick search online shows that non-religious people make up somewhere in the region of 10 percent of the world, and my experience is that it’s stuffed full of magical thinkers like himself. He never once considers how much religion might be contributing to societies’ ills.
Unfathomably, de Botton hardly mentions science (surely the sharpest tool sculpting atheism) and when he does, he makes these points (paraphrased): scientists talk in technical language that leaves him cold; there are awesome vistas of time and distance that science could use to teach us perspective instead of boring facts; therefore we should build various pieces of architecture, disregarding scientific education, simply to inspire us with awe. To show how marvellous science could be, he sketches a Temple to Perspective, a tower 46 metres high, with a layer 1 mm thick made of gold at the base to represent humanity’s time on Earth in proportion to the latter’s age, which seems a monumentally silly idea to me.
He names a few scientists as examples of “secular saints”, and suggests we should meditate on their valour on chosen days of the year, although he doesn’t seem to have learned much of their actual work. He doesn’t get it: scientific awe and guidance only follow from learning actual facts, and it is the facts that are and should be important and inspiring, more than any imagined saintly valour of their discoverer.
De Botton is steeped in a different aspect of human culture: literature, philosophy, art – and yet apparently he does not understand how deeply these have been influenced by Judeo-Christian psychology. He sees “the human soul” as philosophers have handed it down to him, a mental or spiritual entity composed of various ideal aspects, or a vessel requiring filling with virtues. Had he studied psychology, he might know that our brains are hard-wired to navigate the social world as peaceably and successfully as possible (yet prone to a lot of cognitive errors and unhelpful emotion).
Indeed, if anything can, a scientific understanding of evolution, of our impulses to compete and co-operate, could empower us to forge a peaceful global future. It seems pretty clear by now, but escapes de Botton, that temples and sermons have failed to do it. Ironically, de Botton is didactic and authoritarian, which would seem to be one of the biggest barriers to inter-cultural harmony. He’s envisaged a truly disturbing Orwellian dystopia of statutory moral education, with giant electronic billboards depicting Forgiveness, where the evil Footsie used to be. You probably think I’m making this up or exaggerating.
I am shocked that a philosopher could tackle this problem without asking what goodness and evil actually mean to an atheist, when these terms are so deeply religious in tone and origin, and when a moral vacuum is perhaps the greatest fear the believer holds concerning the increase of atheism. He colludes with this fear and appears to feel it acutely himself. He paints a pessimistic view of people, just as Christianity does, and chides modernity for its empty, disproved optimism.
When an exponentially increasing proportion of the world learns most of its moral sense and factual information online, peer-to-peer (I don’t think he mentioned the Internet once), he wants grand architecture and a string of identically branded therapy shops to save us from our pathetic selves. This is a prejudiced, fearful book about the evils of atheism for the (unwittingly) religious. It really would make more sense to reverse the title.