De Botton’s Slippery Religious Yearnings

As I casually make my way through Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, I find myself desperately wanting to agree with Alain de Botton, but just as I’m about to grasp the point he has struggled to make, it vanishes like so much spun sugar.

The Swiss-born popular philosopher has something important to say to atheists about religion. If you want the short version, mosey on over to big think for his Athei-Easter Message.

De Botton argues that while we aren’t short of things we can believe in, like the values of kindness and fairness, we are short on methods for making those beliefs stick. Our secular world view compels us to think that if someone tells us that we shouldn’t do something, that person is in some way impinging on our freedoms. The religious world view, on the other hand, wants to remind us of how good we want to be and freedom means being able to do those things which are most in line with the highest vision of ourselves. You probably find this a little vague, and I don’t want to do a disservice to de Botton’s position, so I recommend reading Religion for Atheists, but since most of you are busy, at the very least read an excerpt.

De Botton is an atheist, but he’s not an anti-theist, and he frankly isn’t interested in the traditional debates about religion. He recognizes that debating the existence of God and biblical criticism has its satisfactions, but he wants to reframe the discussion: You see, we have all been rather confused about religion because the real issue for atheists isn’t the truth of religious claims, but how atheists should proceed:

[I]t must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

Secular society hasn’t been particularly good at handling the same issues that have preoccupied religions like social-cohesion and coping with suffering and mortality. De Botton anticipates criticisms, acknowledging that his perspective regarding religion will be seen as selective and perhaps detached from religious institutions and the beliefs of religious people. Atheists of the “militant kind may also feel outraged, in their case by a book that treats religion as though it deserves to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings” (emphasis added)..

One of the reasons why I desperately want to agree with de Botton is that I share his fascination with religion. Religions are conceptually ambitious; they have dramatically changed the world; and we shouldn’t be surprised to find some valuable nuggets among the rubble. I do not think myself unique in this regard and a close reading of the Four Horsemen’s work (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens) will reveal a complimentary perspective. This would no doubt be a surprise to de Botton who has rhetorically set himself against the New Atheist movement.

I don’t think there is a “religion in general,” and even if I did, I’m not sure I would agree with de Botton’s analysis. I suppose this is a methodological point but there’s something perverse about his approach to religion as an essence that can be studied as something in itself, even if it is a supposed response to universal human needs. There isn’t much in Religion for Atheists about social and political institutions except towards the end when he acknowledges Comte, and so I might be wearing my sociology on my sleeve when I resist attempts to separate religion from socio-political contexts.

As far as I’m concerned, religions are forms of culture, and I don’t think they’re as unique as de Botton makes them out to be though I might be persuaded by a more rigorous set of arguments. All of this might seem rather academic, but I think it’s important to recognize that human interests are not neatly funneled through institutions and ideologies. We don’t need to steal from religion, which is just one way of getting at a problem, and not necessarily the best way.

Rather than Religion for Atheists, I suggest reading Phil Zuckerman’s Invitation to the Sociology of ReligionSociety Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment, and A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.