Atheism for the incorrigibly religious

“Throughout my career I’ve been in search of guidance…
… I don’t believe the business of life is obvious…”

– Alain De Botton
Sydney Opera House,
23rd February 2012

Went to see De Botton last night, courtesy of a friend’s spare ticket and too busy wife. I try to cultivate a studied disdain for De Botton’s brand of PopPhil. But honestly, it’s mostly rooted in envy. Who wouldn’t want to swan around the world, basking in the borrowed glory of real philosophers, talking about the Good, the Wise, the Beautiful?

No, that’s unfair and too harsh.
De Botton’s brilliance is one of empathetic understanding. He has an ear for the tragic, for vulnerability, for calling attention to the underpants of life, and he’s an exceptional communicator. He brought all these considerable gifts to bear last night in his lecture, On Religion for Atheists.

For De Botton, the fundamental question, too often overlooked in a culture of free-market consumption, is, “How to Live the Good Life?” The central premise of the lecture (and in his book I imagine), is that world religions have provided remarkable guidance in exploring and answering this question, but that availing ourselves of these religious insights doesn’t require acceptance of all the supernatural mumbo-jumbo that comes along with. He promotes, unashamedly, a ‘pick and mix’ approach. If religions are cultural products (and they are), why don’t we treat them like we do other cultural products? You don’t need to like every song the Beatles recorded to appreciate ‘Hey Jude’. In the same way, you don’t need to accept every tenet of Christianity or Islam to appreciate the beauty of religious art or religious community. There isn’t really much argument beyond this, the rest of the lecture consists of a curator’s tour of the gallery of world religions, highlighting the bits any self-regarding atheist could happily plunder.

The reason that religions have much to teach atheists, according to De Botton, begins with the insight that humans are basically ‘not ok’: the basic human condition is one of vulnerability, fragility, lostness. For De Botton, this is the fundamental truth behind the Christian doctrine of original sin. And it’s a truth that New Atheism, proclaimed from the High Tables of Oxbridge, abjectly fails to reckon with. The modernist humanistic project has been altogether too quick to leave us to our own devices and what is needed is a thoroughgoing reappraisal of our need for an education in the disciplines of living well. Religions understand this, they understand that education is not about skilling people for tasks, but a process of moral formation and guidance to help us navigate the twin uncertainties of our world and our hearts. The rationalist education produces better hairdressers; the religious, better people.

De Botton’s sampling at the bain-marie of religion is guided by his desire to introduce atheists into these effective practices of moral formation. In order to address the human frailties of memory, will, and desire – frailties that ensure that even when we know the good life, we fail to consistently live it – religions apply techniques of habituation, exhortation, organisation, attention to desire, attention to sociality. De Botton spends time glorying in the power of liturgical calendar to ensure we spend time in reflection on virtue (a theme close to my own heart); on the sermon as an art of exhortation (compared with its bloodless alternative, the ‘lecture’); on the power of religions to build genuine community rather than mere voluntary associations; to produce art that moves our hearts toward virtue. All of this was delivered with eloquence, pathos, humour.

At this point, I was fairly sure I’d entered into a bizarre parallel universe. The crowd, composed to a measurable degree of those militant atheists who lay their coats down in the street for Richard Dawkins, were lapping this up. I kid you not, one man a few seats to the right of my own, regularly punctuated De Botton’s points with enthusiastic cheers of agreement: ‘Yes! That’s Right! We need that!’ Possibly the most strange moment was when De Botton started talking up the priesthood, commending the idea of having people devoted to guiding us through the various stages of life, providing counsel, conversation, ritual, consolation. He lamented the fact that all that secular society has been able to provide as an alternative is the psychotherapist, ‘and they’re all sitting around in their bedrooms’. Now, my impression is that for most New Atheists, the word ‘priest’ is synonymous with ‘paedophilic leeches upon the common weal’.  But the crowd swallowed this down with nary a peep.

The lecture ended and I sat there for a while, soaking in the warm glow of a satiated crowd. And I have to admit, I enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a ‘non-religious’ person speak so empathetically and insightfully about the value of practices of Christian community. Nothing De Botton said surprised me, after all, he’s describing things that I love. I think the basic ‘philosophical’ anthropology underlying religious practices in a whole variety of traditions is far more sophisticated and true to the human condition than the thin soup offered by atheist alternatives. It’s not hard to see why: most ‘New’ atheism consists in a frenzied yet parasitically dependent denial of religion. New Atheism doesn’t really have a positive philosophical anthropology, just negations. For that reason, it’s usually not worth getting out of bed to slap down.

Ultimately, I’ve decided that I agree with De Botton’s fundamental thesis, I don’t think you need to buy into all the claims of a religion in order to appreciate that it might have some great insights about living well. I’m an evangelical Christian, but that doesn’t stop me appreciating the peacefulness of a Buddhist garden. I differ from De Botton in understanding that what I love about the peacefulness of a Buddhist garden is a reflection of the fundamental goodness with which God created the world. A goodness so abounding that it is refracted through all sorts of human cultural endeavours, including religions that I happen to think are profoundly mistaken; refracted even through De Botton’s ‘tragic’ atheism.

Strangely, I found within De Botton’s praise of religion a rather compelling critique of certain versions of conservative evangelicalism. Too frequently, conservative evangelicalism operates with a truncated theological anthropology. As a product of the rationalist Enlightenment, evangelicalism frequently forgets the power of exactly the kinds of practices that De Botton commends: we jettison liturgical habituation to the truths of the gospel, we fail to engage with the fact that we are creatures of desire, of community, who thrill to beauty, who are inescapably embodied. If the full galleries at the Opera House last night are anything to go by, people are craving the kinds of things that make church ‘churchy’. Ironically, in our passion to make churches as welcoming to outsiders as possible we actively trash our rich heritage of these practices until the church gathering becomes indistinguishable from the philosophical lecture, apart from some vestigial (embarrassed) singing.

Now, I’ve praised Alain De Botton, but the reality is, I do have some questions. Rather serious questions actually…

It begins with my nagging sense that the kinds of practices which De Botton most likes about religions are ‘disciplinary’ practices. Following a liturgy, participating in a community, submitting to the authority of a scripture, are all, in an important sense, ‘non-voluntary’. Religious practices universally involve an element of self-surrender, of submission and sacrifice. We scoff at ‘pick and mix’ versions of religion and call them inauthentic precisely because they miss this basic condition. De Botton is right to identify that religions operate with a sense of the fragility of the human condition, but it is a fragility in the face of something transcendent, something that is in principle not capable of subjugation to human powers. What De Botton views as a set of ‘therapies’ for the fragility of the human condition (practices that ultimately circle back to terminate upon the acting subject), religions view as disciplines whose ultimate aim is to properly orient and prepare the subject for an encounter with something larger.

Now it would be possible on this basis to say to Alain: ‘you haven’t really experienced religion or these religious practices that you affirm until you’ve experienced them as disciplinary practices, that is, until you’ve genuinely submitted yourself to them as a mode of acknowledging your accountability before the divine/transcendent.’ Now, the mode of submission and accountability required to genuinely experience these practices is in principle incompatible with the ‘pick and mix’ mode of appropriation of these practices for a humanistic end, and therefore, it is in principle impossible for an atheist to genuinely experience the full value of these religious practices. He is condemned to watch from outside the window.

To which De Botton would reply (and he did reply to a question along these lines): ‘You’re probably right. However, even if I’m only getting a pale imitation of the full value of the religious practices, what I’m getting is good enough for me and for my purposes of moral formation.’ To which I take my hat off. It’s a very good rejoinder.

However, that’s not really my problem with his programme. I don’t really care whether De Botton has the full-strength or lite-beer experience of religion. What I do worry about is that if these practices are all inherently ‘disciplinary’, if they require a form of submission from the practitioner, then replicating them in atheistic contexts creates the possibility of terrible interpersonal abuses. Let me explain:

Religions are paternalistic, it’s a function of the underlying belief that we are frail and in need of guidance. De Botton acknowledged this out the outset and even remarked on the tendency of religions to address adherents as ‘children’. But in most religions (most of the time) this paternalism is held in check and stopped from becoming a terrifying totalitarianism by the belief that humans have a fundamental accountability to God. Particularly in Christianity, a philosophical anthropology of human frailty is counterpoised with a theology of divine sufficiency, of redemptive grace. This is precisely what atheistic humanism lacks. As long as it refuses to admit human frailty, atheism is merely a weird and implausible intellectual fad. But as soon as atheistic humanism adopts a philosophical anthropology of human frailty that it cannot counterpoise against a transcendent sufficiency (and it can’t in principle because of its humanistic commitments) then it struggles to avoid drifting further and further toward a programme of unrestrained social engineering: a paternalism that becomes totalitarian. Humans are left to becomes their own redeemers. And honestly, nothing is more bloody or more brutal than atheists on a quest to redeem humanity.

History is littered with examples of precisely the sort of programme of atheistic ‘moral formation’ that De Botton romanticises. De Botton is really just rehashing some of the proposals in Plato’s Republic (poets beware). But these programmes, from Plato onwards, have an unnerving tendency to drift until they becomes something more akin to the Communist ‘re-education’ camp. If the only counter to human frailty is a better engineered human rather than a transcendent redemption, then, in principle, there are no lengths to which we should not go to achieve this ‘new’ humanity.

Am I over-reacting? Of course. But it might be worth posing the question.

My final reflection, as I wander out from under the sails, down the stairs, and into the night sky: it seems hard to avoid the sense that perhaps what De Botton is providing is not so much ‘religion for atheists’ as a form of atheism for the incorrigibly religious human soul; an athei-anaesthetic for an uneasy consciousness.

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