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’.
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.
“What is encouraging about this article is the dusty response it is getting from commenters on the Guardian website. Great numbers of them, it seems, are as bored with “I’m an atheist buttery” as I am. I think we are starting to see a genuine change. A year ago, a piece like Caspar’s would have been followed by a baying chorus of but-heads in full cry. I think a tide is turning and significant numbers of people are seeing through the ill-informed “New atheists are shrill meanies” mantra. Richard”
The event was an attempt to move the terms of the debate away from the black and white of emancipating scientists versus deluded monotheists, and recognising the abundant and far more interesting shades of grey in between. Did it succeed?
Mark Vernon, who is invariably trenchant on such matters, and should perhaps have been on the panel, gave a typcally lucid overview of the content of the event, but felt that it failed to move the debate on significantly.
“The task of thinking is to live with doubt in the service of understanding, rather than living with certainty in the preservation of ignorance.”
I hope to come back to the issue of finding the ‘transcendent moment’ in the debate, where both sides (part of the problem might be that there are not really two sides at all, but several, and some sort of variegated spectrum of degrees and kinds of belief and disbelief, experience and inexperience) agree about what they disagree about. In this case, it is fairly clear to me that there are disagreements at the level of ontology(what kinds of things there can be) and epistemology(what it means to know something) but that is for another day.
For now, my favourite quotes from live scribbles at the event, which means they should not be taken as verbatim!
(What we need is…)”A democracy of ontology in which we concede the mystery of everything we encounter.”
“New Atheism does not acknowledge the centrality of human consciousness”
“Nothing is more sacred than the fact that these kinds of conversations continue to be meaningful”
‘Parascience’(quoting from Marilynn Lee): “Stories that scientists tell themselves to keep morale high”
(Dislikes) “Implicit dualism- there is science and there is ignorance and no third option”
“New atheism is not a new phrase- goes back to 1690s!” (makes reference to Spinoza)
“There is irreligious experience and religious inexperience!”
Dawkins as Liberator? (with reference to The God Delusion)
“The only message that sells books in millions: ‘We are setting you free’”
“Sex used to be the primary revalation of the sacred in people’s lives.”
“We are not just objects, but subjects in relation to each other- a revalation we experience in communities.”
(Reference to Wittgenstein) “The limits of reason are not the limits of the world.”
“Controversy is good if bound by rigour on both sides of the debate.”
RS: As Tocqueville argued: “Revolutions liberate. But you can only liberate people from something that is dying.”
MR: “The word rationality bothers me because it is often used by people who think they are more reasonable than they are.”
JR: “Believe what you believe, but recognise that you won’t believe it forever.”
RS: “Yes reason is all we have, but the fetishisation of science is not rationale…Take Marxism… 70 million people had to die before this was acknowledged.”
RS: “Humanism discredits itself if it doesn’t recognise the deep need for transcendence.”
JR: ” It’s important not to be frightened on either side of the debate…How can we avoid winning arguments in advance by insisting on only one language form?” e.g. “God is being itself”
RS: “People need a sense of foundation…” (it occurred to me that many strains of Buddhism think differently, that the grasping after foundations may be why/how we perpetuate craving)
JR: “The problem is absolutism- when certain things are non-negotiable…”not because there is no such thing as absolute truth, but because you don’t know it until you’ve found it.”
JR: “The main danger is getting defensive, both sides get worse.”
RS: “Science proposes something and then does everything it can to disprove it. Religion is not like that. It proposes something and does everything it can to keep it from being disproved.”
RS: “Religion is vulnerable because collapse of belief threatens to fracture community.”
Why was it such a success? Julian Glover in the Daily Mail argues that it was because
“the Pope spoke to the soul of our country, affirming eternal moral verities which our own political and religious leaders normally prefer to avoid“
Who knows how much truth there is in Glover’s views, but I would venture to propose an alternative hypothesis; perhaps the Pope’s visit was such a success because there are a large number of Catholics in the UK who want to see the Pope. This fact seems to be a surprise to some people.
Friends have told me how surprised they were to find out that work colleagues were going to see the Pope. Many had not realised that their colleagues were Catholic in the first place.
perhaps the Pope’s visit was such a success because there are a large number of Catholics in the UK who want to see the Pope. This fact seems to be a surprise to some people.
Perhaps this is not so surprising. A recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at the political attitudes of friends on social networking websites. They found that “friends are typically unaware of their disagreements, even when they say they discuss the topic… friends disagree more than they think they do”
Perhaps it is still as true as ever that we do not discuss religion or politics at the dinner table or on our social networking websites.