Throwing out the baby, not the bathwater

January 26, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

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.


  • Anonymous

    “It only works if we reach a conceptual consensus of what love is first.” A consenus on what love is….the sort of thinking that may make sense in North Korea or Brave New Wolrd, but not in a world of free thought, free expression and individualim please.
    “And, what religion offers is a values-based foundation for this process, which insists on depth.” The values of organised religion may be apparent. Alas the behaviour of those who practice it suggests that the ‘depth’ is only skin deep and rarely translates into reality. Emma may want a baby in the bath. Having seen what the ‘framework’ of organised religion breeds, many of us aetheists are quite comfortable running around in the shower!

    • Emma Lindley

      Thanks Clive.

      What I’m ultimately trying to say is that atheism is not a religion, and I think de Botton’s attempt to get people thinking that it is somehow analogous to religion is really dodgy.

      I’m an atheist. I have a set of values which I try to live by. I am influenced by Quakerism and Buddhism, but I don’t belong to either religion. So, I’m running around in the shower too, and I’m also quite happy with that.

      But, if you’re going to start organising atheists into pseudo-religious practices, you need to be damn careful about the philosophical foundations of it.

      • Anonymous

        I understand and indeed sometimes feel that Dawkins is becoming a pastiche of the very thing he is trying to destroy!

        • Emma Lindley

          If you wanted an organising principle ‘love thy neighbour’ would be a good start.

          • Fellow Passenger

            ‘Love thy neighbour’ or ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated’ are both terribly flawed forms of behaviour.  Why?  Both of these behaviours use projection.  Projecting your frames of reference/prejudices onto others.  Instead ‘Treat others the way THEY WANT to be treated’ requires a lot more work.  You must first learn about others and then adjust your behaviour to suit them, not force others to suit your ‘selfish’ self.  Of course expecting any religion to learn about other religions is not going to happen.  This is where the individual can take control and choose for themselves how to behave!  What would it be like if everyone understood that we are ALL just passengers on this space ship called “Earth”

  • Anonymous

    Maybe I am missing something. I thought you were advocating a framework. Principles dont need a framework, what they need is compatable behaviour! PS Rather than ‘love thy neighbour’ I would settle for treat your neighbour as you would wish to be treated. I dont need nr want to love everyone. I’ll leave that sentiment for Oscar winners t make in their acceptance speeches.

  • Dave James

    Hi Emma
    I’m also an atheist – and I don’t think atheism could ever be described as a religion – because religions are based on faith (something for which there is no evidence of any scientific kind), and on received information which cannot be questioned (usually a ‘holy’ text written down years ago by a ‘prophet’ who declares it to be the ‘word of God’), which is therefore unalterable even though it was written at a very different time and place, when ideas about society and science were very different. Atheism is not a faith because it looks for evidence of what is, rather than for what we might hope for; and the texts which it relies on (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution) are not ‘holy’ texts, but can be modified in the light of new ideas and discoveries.
    I was absolutely horrified, just recently, by two bits of news about events which took place recently here in Britain: the teenaged boy who was killed by his parents because they thought he was a witch; and the young men who were sentenced for suggesting that homosexuals should be executed because their religion (and their holy book) said they should be executed. (I hope I’ve got those two examples correct).
    Faith (which is another word for superstition) and holy texts (which cannot be questioned) are to blame for these two (and many other) horrendous crimes against humanity.
    We live, I know, in a tolerant secular society, in which people can practise their religions as long as they obey the law; but as long as religions based on faith and holy texts exist there will always be a tendency for certain individuals and groups of individuals to believe that they represent the ‘truth’.
     Atheism is a negative term: an atheist is someone who does not believe in a god or gods; perhaps we need a more positive name for a secular philosophy which esteems scientific knowledge and the principle ‘treat your neighbour as you would wish to be treated’, without being seen as a religion; which demands proof rather than faith, research and discovery rather than holy texts. How about ‘Humanism’?