Agape, Anyone?


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.

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7 Responses to Agape, Anyone?

  1. Yakaru says:

    De Botton puts me to sleep just with his book titles, and the sumamries of his ideas that I’ve read. I’m glad to discover I wasn’t missing anything. He sounds pretty much like I imagined, only somewhat sillier.

    It looks like he — like many others — uses religion as a reference point for “human needs” and then tries to water down the bad stuff. But religion has figured human needs and then parked itself on top of them and either indulges them (fear & narcissism, bossiness) or prohibits them (sex, drugs, rock & roll). Religion has claimed ownership of those things and de Botton has effectively ceded religion that ground and is trying to compete with it. And his attitude to science seems to cede even more ground.

    “Ironically, de Botton is didactic and authoritarian, which would seem to be one of the biggest barriers to inter-cultural harmony.”

    Interesting observation!

  2. Donald Telfer says:

    I have not read the book and I have not studied much psychology (and psychology was my worst subject at university).
    Alain / Alien de Botton has made a few television series which I have mostly seen and found worthwhile. From memory, he is an admirer of Montesqieu (if I spell that correctly). Critics who know more about the subject matter than AdB claim his presentations are simplistic.
    I think there are good and bad, but not evil.
    As far as I can tell, I would agree with him that many / most people are greedy, violent, forgetful and sheep-like. Plenty of people watch on television Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Rugby League. People tend to say different or contradictory things depending on who is listening without realising that they are doing it. And people mostly agree that if a lot of people agree about something then they are right. (Even experts make mistakes though.)

    In respect of the book being weird. Somebody has devised an acronym WEIRD for White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. By which the wit means that the person who wrote the book, the people who read the book, or write blogs like this about the book, or write comments on blogs like this, are WEIRD, more often than not.

  3. Woody says:

    As much as I may appreciate the efforts of some who would join together the religious faiths with those of no religious beliefs, lettersquash describes well some of the inherent problems with the project. How the atheists or simply ‘non- religious’ people are seen by the religious folks makes each attempt and the reactions to each attempt more a philosophical discussion that cannot reach a goal. Some atheists may see religious people in a light far different from reality, just as some of the religious don’t seem to understand atheists at all. As if we simply are avoiding responsibility and motivated by our own greed and lusts in this regard. Do religious people know that the way we see them is not so different? Is each side standing on opposite sides of a fence and hurling the same stones at each other?
    If despite all of our intelligent, mature and well-reasoned attempts to find a peaceful and civil ground on which to explore a better future between opposing belief structures (and blogs such as this and Yakaru’s have a really good, selfless go at it) are for naught, does this not represent an evil, backward and unproductive devil in itself?
    I know that at least a lot of the time my own attitude can seem biased, slanted or one-eyed. I’ve been accused of worse and those accusers, I know, may have their own view as honestly as I have mine.
    I am pessimistic about the world’s ability to grow closer to peaceful harmony between religion and secularism, a pessimism that has been proved again and again by the divisive species we belong to. But still I appreciate these efforts. People, some atheists, some deists, even some theists, who openly discuss the prospect. More eager to find something that will help, move us all forward and remove an awful lot of unproductive talk/action. In this subject, that’s where I see the intelligent and rational ideas, not just two opposing sides of an argument, both standing on their side, throwing rocks at the other.
    I am as guilty as many and have enjoyed creating atheist rants that just seem to flow from my fingertips into the keyboard and onto the screen. Religion has provided me with ample, and I do mean AMPLE ammunition to use in such cases. Has atheism provided the ammunition for the faithful to use or do they just spill seemingly ignorant and ill-considered thoughts out to demonize those who think differently to themselves? For the purpose of this rant, it doesn’t matter and I see how I am just firing more rounds to support my own views and to degrade theirs.
    This may be the most open-minded and peace-seeking comment that i’ve typed in a long time.
    Like many of you, for all my bluster and incisive point making, I don’t seek to destroy my opposition, I seek to make the situation better for everyone.

  4. lettersquash says:

    Woody, thank you for that very interesting set of ideas, grappling with the ethics of the atheist-religious debate/battle. I keep wondering what my stance should be, how vehemently I should argue, how accepting I should be of religious views, and what my goals are in this regard.

    I think the struggle is, for me, enlightenment against irrationality, rather than atheism against religion. Or maybe that’s just the way I try to frame it to make it sound better! It doesn’t work. Instead of being offended that I’m attacking their religion, the person feels offended at having their irrationality explained, even though I admit I am often irrational and the evidence is that we all are, and that’s why we need to work at it and why we need science. The most annoying thing about Relgion for Atheists is that de Botton is wantonly irrational and scientifically ignorant, which seems unforgivable in a philosopher.

    We can try to be polite, but I believe we should give absolutely no quarter on the argument front. Where we see error, or suspect a person is deluding themselves, as a general rule, we should try to enlighten them. There may be times when it’s caring not to. I wouldn’t try to shake someone’s religious confidence on their deathbed, or in other situations where its comfort is clearly of very great importance.

    And I also feel there are times when we don’t need to be polite, or it might help to be sarcastic or harsh. Sometimes that’s because it’s a public arena, and I’m possibly talking past them to other readers. I watched a video on TED the other day about FreeSpeech, a sort of language using images. A commenter posted agreeably, congratulating the inventor and asking if he had thought of translating the Bible into it, so as to reach more people. I replied, “or On the Origin of Species”. If the rocks are words, is it so bad to throw them across the border? And are they rocks? What if we think of them as gifts?

    I liked your tongue-in-cheek argument for the existence of a devil. At least I hope it was tongue-in-cheek. I’ve been meaning to read The God Delusion for years, and finally found an unwanted copy left for me in the tea room at work. It’s too much of a coincidence. I reckon it was left there for me by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    I agree with you that there is a lot of misunderstanding across the divide, but I’m much more optimistic about the future, because we’re winning. The Internet is exposing more and more people to science. People are educating themselves. They’re arguing and learning. That’s challenging their hand-me-down mythic explanations and doubtful (sometimes disgusting) moral teachings, and I’m confident atheism has a very strong future. You used the important word “secular”. Secular societies have room for all sorts of belief systems, they just resist any set of religious opinions having power over empirically demonstrable ones.

    Donald, yes, “people are greedy, violent, forgetful and sheep-like”, but why focus on these attributes? They are not entirely these things, but are also, to some degree cooperative, peace-loving, intelligent and independently minded. They are more of these things, according to research, with each generation. And, I’d argue, more so exponentially. Kids growing up now are much less affected by the teaching and behavioural attitudes of their parents than in previous generations, getting more influenced by the global cultures online and – I conjecture – developing better moral sense through discussion and exposure to alternatives. I may be somewhat biased by being British. Teachers at my school could still use the cane, and parents who advocated non-violent child rearing were mocked. We thought there was little wrong with habitual casual racism, sexism and homophobia – those were the norm, even in official circles. Political allegiances almost entirely followed bloodlines and class divisions. Etc. Part of our forgetfulness is not remembering how awful things used to be mere decades ago.

  5. Woody says:

    I understand how you are unsure of your stance in the religion versus non-religion debate. Before I identified as an atheist, I felt that pause myself. While showing understanding and tolerance of the religious doings of some family members and friends, should I take such a firm stance against religion elsewhere?
    I also appreciate your views on the improvement, the advancement of secular thinking that seems more obvious to those who see more of the internet. I needed reminding of this trend. I have been made aware of this in the past and should have remembered. When I was checking out a blog called ‘The Adorable Atheist’, a post called ‘Savita’ led me to comment on my inner feelings about religion and the slow, crawling pace that I saw in secular advancement. But in finishing my comment I asked the host on her thoughts and she replied that what she had seen on the internet, the thoughts and admissions, the flavor and style, showed clearly to her that the secular society and advancement away from religious codes that are useless in the modern world was progressing faster than the picture that I was painting. I was glad to hear it and i’m glad to hear it from you.

    P.S. I enjoyed ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins. Often in that book was referenced ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’ by Sam Harris. I decided to find it as well to better understand what Richard meant and i’m glad I did.

  6. Donald Telfer says:

    “Donald, yes, “people are greedy, violent, forgetful and sheep-like”, but why focus on these attributes? They are not entirely these things, but are also, to some degree cooperative, peace-loving, intelligent and independently minded. They are more of these things, according to research, with each generation.”

    I can be greedy myself, and violent vicariously (by which I mean I like to watch disaster films etc. although I am consciously trying to reform myself).

    I focus on the problems because the other bits of one’s behaviour or attributes do not need fixing.

    I think there are very few genuinely intelligent, independently minded, unselfish people, that is just the impression I get from dealing with a variety of volunteers, staff, visitors and non-visitors (from various countries, nearly always westerners though) at/to the museum I am involved with. That is a generalisation on my part, but it is based on encounters in Danmarkwith a randomised subset of society. If I was to instead consider Australia, my verdict would be worse. In Africa (of which I have 3 1/2 years experience) and parts of Asia (no personal experience) and parts of South America (no personal experience) worse still.

    I also find that some cultures are inferior to others in certain respects, while being superior in certain different respects as well. Looking from the west we would find fault with Samoans, but Samoans can find fault with Europeans too. I agree with the criticisms of both sides of the foreign sides, they are both right about what is wrong with the others and right with themselves. And no ethnic group is without imperfections.

  7. Yakaru says:

    @LS
    Re rationality vs irrationality, rather than atheism vs religion — One of the things that annoys me somewhat about some, but not all atheists is a general shallowness. As if religious people believe in God purely because they are unaware of all the smart things privileged rich academics like Dan Dennett would tell them. I think Dennett (de Botton too) don’t seem to know what it’s like to feel abandoned and lonely, or suffering from a nameless emotional pain that comes for no reason and won’t go away, or to be in a desperate situation with no way out, etc… Or simply to be busy with other things to feel any need to question it.
    Atheism simply isn’t answer to those problems. Of course, religion isn’t an answer to them either, and is very often the cause of them in the first place, as well as a hindrance to their resolution, in many different ways.

    But de Botton is an arrogant for fool for suggesting atheism can replace religion in that manner. Utterly shallow. Relgion can be replaced by medical science, social justice, rock and roll, drugs, sex, honesty, community, individuality, sensitivity, ridicule towards those who talk nonsense, etc…

    Atheism is simply the realization of the fact that there are no gods, or at the very least if there are, they’re not helping; and any sensible atheist will also follow the obvious consequences — all authority based on religion is undeserved and usually fraudulent, all mixing of religion and state must be avoided (ensuring both freedom of- and from religion).

    Atheism should be doing its best to AVOID emulating religion.

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