“Morality Is the Adjustment of Matter to Its Environment” — H.P. Lovecraft

Morality is the adjustment of matter to its environment—the natural arrangement of molecules. More especially it may be considered as dealing with organic molecules. Conventionally it is the science of reconciling the animal Homo (more or less) sapiens to the forces and conditions with which he is surrounded. It is linked with religion only so far as the natural elements it deals with are deified and personified. Morality antedated the Christian religion, and has many times risen superior to coexistent religions. It has powerful support from very non-religious human impulses. Personally, I am intensely moral and intensely irreligious. My morality can be traced to two distinct sources, scientific and aesthetic. My love of truth is outraged by the flagrant disturbance of sociological relations involved in so-called wrong; whilst my aesthetic sense is outraged and disgusted with the violations of taste and harmony thereupon attendant. But to me the question presents no ground for connexion with the grovelling instinct of religion. However—you may exclude me from the argument, if you will. I am unduly secluded though unavoidably so. We will deal only with materials that may presumably lie within my feeble reach. Only one more touch of ego. I am not at all passive or indifferent in my zeal for a high morality. But I cannot consider morality the essence of religion, as you seem to. In discussing religion, the whole fabric must bear examination before the uses or purposes are considered. We must investigate the cause as well as alleged effects if we are to define the relation between the two, and the reality of the former. And more, granting that the phenomenon of faith is indeed the true cause of the observed moral effects; the absolute basis of that phenomenon remains to be examined. The issue between theists and atheists is certainly not, as you seem to think, the mere question of whether religion is useful or detrimental.

— From H.P. Lovecraft’s 1918 letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe; the letter is collected in The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens).

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Facile Self-Help Book that Entirely Misses the Point of Free Thinking

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.

“Death Is a Very Liberating Thought” — RIP Christopher Hitchens

Writing (and Drinking) Advice from Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens on J.D. Salinger

Christopher Hitchens on Orwell’s Animal Farm

Christopher Hitchens on George Orwell’s Animal Farm in this weekend’s issue of The Guardian. From the essay:

It is sobering to consider how close this novel came to remaining unpublished. Having survived Hitler’s bombing, the rather battered manuscript was sent to the office of TS Eliot, then an important editor at Faber & Faber. Eliot, a friendly acquaintance of Orwell’s, was a political and cultural conservative, not to say reactionary. But, perhaps influenced by Britain’s alliance with Moscow, he rejected the book on the grounds that it seemed too “Trotskyite”. He also told Orwell that his choice of pigs as rulers was an unfortunate one, and that readers might draw the conclusion that what was needed was “more public-spirited pigs”. This was not perhaps as fatuous as the turn-down that Orwell received from the Dial Press in New York, which solemnly informed him that stories about animals found no market in the US. And this in the land of Disney . . .