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The de Botton Confusion: Religion for Atheists

Monday, 2 April 2012  | Mick Pope

I’ve always liked Alain de Botton; his gentle manner and voice, his desire to use philosophy to help people live better lives. After all, if philosophy is love of wisdom then Christians as much as anyone should be for it, be it ‘inspired’ or ‘general’ wisdom. Of course de Botton has never hidden his atheism but neither have I ever noticed it being up front or in your face.

This approach has changed somewhat in his new book. Of course his approach is outwardly different to that of Dawkins, whom he tacitly mentioned in his public lecture in Melbourne. However, with regards his atheism he is no different. For de Botton, arguments about the existence or non-existence of God are dull. What follows is more interesting to him. He seems to have been subject to a fairly strong atheistic upbringing. The story of his parents driving his 8 year old sister to tears in expunging her remnant belief in God bring to mind Dawkins’ accusations of brainwashing.

De Botton’s essential argument is that since religion is merely a product of human culture, and we regularly pick and choose from culture, why not do the same with religion? He openly embraces the criticism that he is taking an a la carte approach and sees no shame in it. Of course he realises he will get criticism from both sides, but in typical de Botton fashion he pushes on. At times he is outright patronising, dismissing the Catholic Mass as ‘offensive to reason’ (Enlightenment reason of course), incomprehensible and sleep inducing. Yet he (unsuccessfully in my view) tries to appropriate it for his own reasons.  His approach is in one sense more pleasant than the approach of Dawkins that sees religion as the ‘root of all evil’, but he is no less reductionist in his approach.

Of course the trivial criticism is that not all religions are merely products of culture. As Christians we assume that the Bible is the chief and final record of God’s revelatory acts, calling it the Word of God. Furthermore, not all religions are the same, can ideas be made into a pastiche in the same way a music collection can be eclectic as he suggests? There is no explicit methodology to de Botton other than taste, after all in the absence of any sort of truth there cannot be. He chooses the aspects he likes or matches with Enlightenment ideals like education, but steers clear from unpleasantries like dealing with evil, injustice, the death penalty and so on. Someone behind me at the lecture pipped in to themselves ‘what about religious wars’. Funny how atheists have a blind spot to the Godless wars of the 20th century, especially the atrocities of atheistic Communist states.

In the end, his approach is utilitarian or means to an end, his concern a matter of technique. For example, when it comes to institutions, he sees that they can do better than individuals to affect others. He contrasts books (by atheists like Dawkins) and institutions (like the Catholic Church) with their schools, architecture, music, etc. The concern is the ability to influence, not the truth claims themselves.  In an absence of an understanding of truth or its coherence he can suggest both that the Catholic Church survives simply because it makes money well out of its product which is ‘soul stuff’ as opposed to the ‘body stuff’ of multinationals.

Further, in the absence of the inner logic of transcendence, he makes nonsense of all he touches. The Church he suggests helps create a sense of community sadly lacking in modern society simply because it is a good host! Rather than the gatherings of social media where people are united by common interests, church is united by our humanity and the goal to turn people into human beings. Half correct. His understanding of the Catholic Mass betrays his approach. The Mass is designed to build bonds of affection. He is right to see the Mass (and by extension Protestant forms) uniting people from different backgrounds who would not otherwise meet, that status is devalued and the pride is addressed. And yet without a sense of the transcendent, de Botton misses the point. The unity is not simply based on a common humanity but a sense of sinfulness, God’s holiness and our need for forgiveness. The ultimate community is that we share with the Trinity.

This ‘make of it what you will’ approach is no clearer than when de Botton recognises that communion belongs really as part of a real meal historically, but then goes on to turn it into something perverse. By focussing on an obscure Medieval feast known as the Feast of Fools, he is able to advocate for annual orgies at ‘Agape Restaurants’!

Another place where de Botton truly misses the mark is in his chapter on perspective. Again he is right to see no direct answers to Job’s questions and no solution to the problem of evil. However, then really kids himself when he sees the stars as a source of perspective for believers and non-believers alike. Humans can only be dwarfed by the immensity of the stars, their number and age. The transcendence they provide can only be one of complete pointlessness and inadequacy, rather like the total perspective vortex machine from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adams, an atheist and Dawkins disciple, understood the nihilistic implications of a huge lonely universe without God. The Psalmist however in Psalm 8 understood even better the significance given to us by God in spite of our smallness.

Ultimately I can understand why an atheist who lacks the bluster, arrogance and ignorance of Dawkins might want to mine religion for its goodies. We’ve had great architecture and art (not to be belittled by a Reformed iconoclasm which borders on dualism), strong community and (not as often as we should) a strong grasp of the centre of the gospel which is love. Likewise Eastern religions have a strong sense of serenity, discipline and beauty (think Zen gardens, art and ceremony). Yet without the transcendent centre, attempting to acquire these positive aspects to create some atheistic religion would be a greater lie than any atheist believes religion to be. The book is a nice appreciation of the positives of religion, perhaps even making it an apologetic tool. In the end however, it’s a shallow treatment of its subject; an accusation made of all of de Botton’s work.

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