Religion for Atheists: What is the ‘it’ that De Botton doesn’t seem to ‘get’ ?

February 2, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

I have been a big fan of Alain De Botton for a number of years, and have enjoyed many of his books. As an undergraduate I was excited by the very title ‘How Proust can Change your Life‘, before I had even heard of ‘Prooost’, and I remember a diagram on the improbability of a couple meeting on an aeroplane, I think in ‘Essays in Love‘, that made me ponder the idea of fate more deeply than I ever had before. I am also a fan of The School of Life, which he inspired, and broadly support his considerable efforts to make philosophy, non-academically conceived, more engaging, accessible, and, frankly, enjoyable.

I believe Status Anxiety was by far his most powerful contribution. He gave name and form to a pervasive felt sense that constantly eats away at people, and elucidated the individual craving for ‘love from the world’ which pervades almost every aspect of modern life. (On a personal level, I related to the idea as a chess Grandmaster because the chess rating system functions as such a tangible status metric).

I didn’t get much out of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work although it was such a beautifully designed and produced book that I kept expecting to, and enjoyed travelling hopefully. And now I am struggling a bit with Religion for Atheists, which he spoke about at the RSA last week.

He gave name and form to a pervasive felt sense that constantly eats away at people, and elucidated the individual craving for ‘love from the world’ which pervades almost every aspect of modern life.

Richard Holloway, one of the wisest thinkers in the country, seemed to value the book, which gave me pause, especially because he felt it would be most appreciated by “uneasy believers” who would “welcome it like a well of water in a dry place.” In other words De Botton’s reappraisal of religion is thought to be deep and sophisticated enough to revitalise moribund traditions, by reminding them that the true sources of their value are not, and never have been, wedded to doctrine. (Karen Armstrong makes a similar point in The Case for God).

So what’s the problem? Why do I feel, as I recently tweeted, that De Botton doesn’t ‘get it’? As Emma recently wrote, and Cognitive Media beautifully illustrated “Without a properly articulated framework of values, his arguments for why atheists should grab a bit of religion just don’t stand up.” But that’s just part of the story. Something deeper is bugging me.

I felt a similar dissatisfaction when he interviewed Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (about eight and a half minutes in) and it was related to De Botton’s somewhat promiscuous attitude to ideas. In essence he argues that the value in not subscribing to any particular tradition is that an individual can freely ‘pick and mix’ from all the available ideas and thereby come upon those ideas that suit their needs and interests at a given point in time.

This is not a religious position, but you might call it De Botton’s ‘Life stance’  which is an increasingly popular term used to describe people’s spiritual position, or perspective on how the way they live their lives relates to matters of fundamental concern. (‘a properly articulated framework of values’, even).

My concern for this position is that it doesn’t acknowledge the positional nature of depth, of the need to stick with something even when you don’t like it and it’s not working for you.

De Botton is surely right that you can experience depth in a variety of settings without religious commitment- there is depth in art, architecture, music, literature etc. But I wonder if the kinds of existential challenges we face can be adequately dealt with in this relatively piecemeal fashion. For instance, why read the Bible for insight into human experience when you could read Shakespeare? Why pray to an unknowable God when you could just enjoy the aesthetic power of the sunset?

I think there is an answer, and it relates to a  story I came upon from a less revered but much enjoyed cultural resource, the WestWing:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.”

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’

The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”

The integrity of a religious tradition is that it places obstacles in your path that you are obliged to overcome on that path if you want to grow, and cannot eschew by casually rejecting the path and going on to another.

The idea that ‘I have been here before’ and ‘I know the way out’ is what I mean by positional depth in this context. In the context of a shared tradition we recognise similar human needs that are culturally embedded and socially constituted, in a way we cannot by a personal pick and mix approach.

The integrity of a religious tradition is that it places obstacles in your path that you are obliged to overcome on that path if you want to grow, and cannot eschew by casually rejecting the path and going on to another. I don’t quite feel I have nailed it, but I think this might be the ‘it’ that De Botton doesn’t seem to ‘get’.


  • Jayarava

    It’s more natural to be pick and mix with religious ideas than not. I study (and practice) ancient Indian religions. They were totally promiscuous in borrowing ideas and practices from each other. As I read the history of religions and broader cultures interacting pick and mix is the norm. Same with languages which borrow from each other. Of course we have a context that we want to have some kind of integrity, but why should novel ideas really pose a problem. We assimilate ideas from technology all the time. 

    I suggest your unease at pick and mix comes from monolithic Christianity itself – that monstrous spectre that cast a long shadow over the Western Intellectual tradition. That is the only example in world history of any concerted effort at purity of religious ideas. And it failed. 

    And don’t forget that not all religions are theistic. I’m an atheist and a Buddhist (though de Botton dismisses Buddhism along with the rest).

    Think in terms of apps. Your life is an iPhone. You want to get the apps to fit your aspirations and life style. You only download and install what you want. You can change when you like. 

    One excellent example at present is the mindfulness app. This is borrowed from Buddhism and proving a credible alternative to medication for minor mental health problems. It functions perfectly well in the new context.

    Ideas are made to be shared, borrowed, or even stolen. Relax and enjoy it.

  • Jayarava

    One more comment about this: “The integrity of a religious tradition is that it places obstacles in your path that you are obliged to overcome on that path if you want to grow, and cannot eschew by casually rejecting the path and going on to another. ”

    Every generation remakes their traditions.  My own tradition is constantly renewing and reinventing itself – drawing on whatever is going on around it. Alaine is saying it is time to remake our traditions. It is time because we are going through a transition.

    The path is only one metaphor for a religious tradition. It can also be a garden. Or a mirror that must be polished. Or a lost city to be explored. We aren’t stuck with only one metaphor for how to live, even within traditions.

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks again for your comments. I don’t think we are really disagreeing. I am not saying traditions don’t evolve or that there isn’t enormous scope for interpretation, and my own sympathies are not theistic. I do increasingly believe there is value in commitment to a path and form of practice rather than constantly making paths of one’s own. Both have their place, but many wise leaders (Dalai Lama comes to mind) have said that spiritual progress is easier within the context of a tradition, while I see a lot of pseudo-spirituality that is really narcissism in disguise.

      • Jayarava

        Yes. And yet the Dalai Lama is probably the most innovative of his line, and has made more changes and adaptations that any lama before him, precisely because his circumstances are unprecedented.

  • sgediting

    I’m interested in the concept of ‘positional depth’. Could you possibly elaborate?

    • Jonathanrowson

      I tried to above and I may return in another blog. Broadly it’s the idea that depth arises from returning to things, places and experiences and not turning away from them and moving on to others. It is positional in the sense that you need to ‘stick’ to make significant progress….but I lack the time at the moment to elaborate.

  • Peter Roberts

    Shared tradition can be good but that isn’t always the case.  Most of us today are appalled at the way earlier cultures and their associated religions have treated slaves, prisoners of war, foreigners, non-believers, women, children, the poor, the sick and disabled, etc.  Many today are as disgusted at the way our present societies conduct business and treat other species, the environment, foreigners, non-believers…

    • Jonathanrowson

      I broadly agree- tradition is not good in itself, but there is value in commitment, dedication and perseverance and such things are often supported by tradition, even if not without attendant risks.

  • Peter Roberts

    I won’t be buying this book. I suffer from high blood pressure already.He says he is trying to develop an idea of Atheism that incorporates the good ideas / social functions of religion. Three thoughts come to mind. 
    Some of these ideas / functions are not specific to religions.  They are largely various methods that can be used to scare people or create awe or separate a group from outsiders.  All very useful if one’s interest is in social control and many have already been borrowed before by fairly nasty people. Why don’t we leave them to the religions. 
    Others have already been borrowed – holidays are certainly good – and some like music, arts and crafts are no longer under religious control and don’t need to be borrowed. 
    The trouble with the other ‘best bits’ is that they often require some sort of religious background to even understand.  This atheist personally finds the idea of anyone actually needing ritual bizarre and ‘transcendence’ incomprehensible.

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks Peter. I don’t share what sounds like generic hostility to religion, but I appreciate that many of the religious resources he highlights are not the exclusive provenance of religion. However, isn’t that precisely De Botton’s point?
      More generally, I liked his point about the generation gap- that much anti-religious sentiment comes from those who have experienced aspects of social control, but there is a whole new generation who have not been so-traumatised (of which I suppose I am part) who struggle to buy into the doctrine, and would resist the social control, but can still see sources of value that might otherwise be neglected.

      • Peter Roberts

        I’m an atheist; of course I’m hostile to religion.  I’m hostile to most of the people who run religions and use these tools to manipulate and exploit people too.   

        It sounds like each generation has to relearn how they are controlled.  I’d give you a nudge but I’m not that subtle.