I’m slightly familiar with Alain de Botton’s work, and I’ve taken something of an interest in the so-called “New Atheist” movement — Hitchens, Dawkins, et al — so when a review copy of Religion for Atheists showed up a few weeks ago, it piqued my interest. I found its cover playfully annoying—a hole in the holy book—and its subtitle—A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion—downright obnoxious. Still, I gotta give props to the design team at Pantheon for the book that’s under the horrid jacket:
Unfortunately, an attractive hardback design sans jacket is the best this book has to offer.
By way of explication (and my own laziness and indifference on this volume) here’s some copy on the book from de Botton’s website:
What if religions are neither all true or all nonsense? The boring debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is finally moved on by Alain’s inspiring new book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false – and yet that religions still have some very important things to teach the secular world.
Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, Alain (a non-believer himself) proposes that we should look to religions for insights into, among other concerns, how to:
- build a sense of community
- make our relationships last
- overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy
- escape the twenty-four hour media
- go travelling
- get more out of art, architecture and music
- and create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs.
For too long non-believers have faced a stark choice between either swallowing lots of peculiar doctrines or doing away with a range of consoling and beautiful rituals and ideas. At last, in Religion for Atheists, Alain has fashioned a far more interesting and truly helpful alternative.
The tone of the copy gives one a sense of the utter glibness of de Botton’s pamphlet. The book smacks of crude self-helpery, a hodgepodge of faux-intellectual poses for those who can smugly dismiss the history of philosophy. It’s like The Purpose Driven Life for atheists. There is a picture or graphic on every other page; de Botton seems to include these in lieu of, say, providing verbal imagery, or meaningful context, or simply trusting the intellect of his audience.
I suppose that I am fundamentally at odds with de Botton. I agree that religion has done much to initiate and facilitate (and in fairness, perhaps at times mitigate) atrocity; I agree that many (if not most) of the Big Problems in the world stem from the herd-mentality that organized religions impose on the people they indoctrinate. But de Botton would like to replace one herd with another.
Here is the Swiss writer suggesting that the academy (which he too-readily identifies as a bastion of atheist mores) follow the practices of black Southern Baptist churches:
The contrast with the typical lecture in the humanities could hardly be more damning. And unnecessary. What purpose can possibly be served by the academy’s primness? How much more expansive the scope of meaning in Montaigne’s essays would seem if a 100-strong and transported chorus were to voice its approval after every sentence. How much longer might Rousseau’s philosophical truths linger in our consciousness if they were structured around rhythmical verses of call-and-response. Secular education will never succeed in reaching its potential until humanities lecturers are sent to be trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers.
What we see here is a romanticization and idealization of a particular part of a culture that I think de Botton in no way understands. What’s even more disturbing here is his elevation of groupthink and indoctrination practices (I hear, “Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children” humming in the background). We see here the same teleological thinking that marks much of religious dogma, the sense that truth has been attained; the search is over—we just need to repeat it rhythmically enough, soak our young in it, until they think just like we do. This position strikes me as potentially dangerous as any organized religion’s attempts at indoctrination.
Religion for Atheists is full of sloppy logic gussied up in rushed anecdotes and glossed over with barely-connected pictures and silly graphs. Look at the following example, a visual non sequitur masquerading as meaningful information:
Are we supposed to be horrified that the British spend more on potato chips than poetry books? Apples and oranges, bro. But what’s really ridiculous is the stinky pious claim that “Only religions have been able to turn the needs of the soul into large quantities of money.” This claim is plain silly, or at least predicated on a too-singular definition for “needs of the soul.”
Religion for Atheists seems to miss the point that many (if not most) atheists and agnostics are at heart free thinkers. De Botton romanticizes the mystery, awe, and grace of religion, even as he suggests that there is no metaphysical center from which these attributes emanate. His most basic argument really boils down to something like, “Hey, there is no God, no spirit, but religion does a good job of consoling people and keeping them in moral order, so, instead of TV and junk food, we should use the aesthetics of religion as consolation.” There is nothing revolutionary about this idea.
Religion for Atheists is a smug little tract, the sort of book that a supermarket would sell along with Chicken Soup for the Soul if supermarkets had the guts to sell self-help books for atheists. Readers should not be duped into thinking that de Botton has taken any real stance or said anything new here. Instead, hiding behind the pasteboard mask of utility, he offers a crass dodge away from meaningful inquiry. Get thee to Nietzsche instead.