Throwing out the baby, not the bathwater
I’ve just returned from Alain de Botton’s talk on the content of his new book ‘Religion for Atheists’. There was so much in what he said that speaks directly to my personal experience, my academic interests and my current professional life at the RSA that I could quite easily ‘go off on one’. But, time is short, so I will hold back on the ranting and make a just few points in response to Alain’s talk.
In summary, de Botton argues that atheists don’t need God, or the structured philosophy, values and codes of a religion, but they do have spiritual needs that can be met by picking and mixing from all of popular culture. This broad thesis, I am in agreement with, but for me, there’s a massive gaping hole in de Botton’s vision of atheist religiosity.
The Durham Street Auditorium was packed, so along with several other members of RSA staff, and those members of the public unable to get in, I watched the talk from the live video link room in Vault 1. Once it was time for questions, I couldn’t resist sneaking in order to ask one myself and the question I asked him was about the apparent lack of conceptual model for what a modern day atheist stands for.
Without a properly articulated framework of values, his arguments for why atheists should grab a bit of religion just don’t stand up.
Although he intimates that there are general principles of living which are basic common sense and says explicitly that he is in favour of savouring and maintaining the secular preference for complexity, he doesn’t offer a framework for aligning these. Without a properly articulated framework of values, his arguments for why atheists should grab a bit of religion just don’t stand up.
In my view, the vague suggestion that ‘we all know that love is sacred’ isn’t enough. It only works if we reach a conceptual consensus of what love is first. Although I absolutely agree that, as a species, we do have sufficient cultural resources, including religious ones, to find the things that we need to get through life, I don’t think that the idea that we’ll just spontaneously do it without any kind of road map is a robust one.
Beyond the argument he makes in the book, de Botton appears to have got quite carried away with establishing a brand identity for atheism. His vision is grand. His website is graphically impressive, and lays out his plans to build and run atheist temples all over the country, to set up a chain of high street atheist therapy clinics, along with a family of atheist-appropriate spiritual hotels and a repositioning of the role of museums. It all seems a little messianic to me. You can read Steve Rose’s thoughts on this in the Guardian today. For me, there’s something about it which just feels dark. I don’t doubt that de Botton could be onto something in terms of a capitalist venture, but personally I’m more troubled than I am inspired. As I said to him after the event, his business model is better than his conceptual model.
his business model is better than his conceptual model
But, that’s not to say he doesn’t also make some very important points. In the early part of his talk he mentioned the way in which religions provide people with what you might call a calendar of character development. In Christianity, saints days are a regulated reminder to reflect on the spiritual lessons in the stories of each of those saints. Festivals, be they Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, bring light into our lives when the changing seasons bring darkness.
The point of these calendarised events isn’t just to give people a random ‘check in’ though – the structures also guide people through the lifelong quest of coming to understand ourselves and our place in the world. To do this requires perseverance when the going gets tough. Continued reflection, deeper consideration, engaging with the struggle – all of these are a necessary part of the spiritual journey. And, what religion offers is a values-based foundation for this process, which insists on depth.
De Botton’s view of the pick and mix doesn’t seem to account for, take seriously, or accommodate this need for values-driven assessment of where we’re at. And, although some people might be quite good at coming up with their own frameworks and living by them, I don’t trust a vision for atheist religion which is essentially structureless. So, yes, you can accept the non-existence of God, that’s fine. And yes, the idea of keeping the trappings of religion which are helpful is also fine. But, to draw on the metaphor, if you want atheism to resemble or be analogous to religion, you still need a baby in the bath.