Alain de Botton and Second-Wave Atheism in Seattle

Alain de Botton (Photo: Vincent Starr)

Seattle’s book readings can attract famously large, literate crowds, but it was still impressive to see Alain de Botton crossing the expanse of stage at Meany Hall like T.E. Lawrence did God’s Anvil, or at least as O’ Toole did in David Lean’s film. You almost wanted more ways to pass the time during his walk to the Seattle Arts & Lectures podium–check Twitter, scroll through Facebook, any emails? Ah, he’s almost there!

A Zurich-born Harvard-PhD dropout, de Botton belongs to the set of popular-thought authors that also includes Malcolm Gladwell: People who are known less for originating ideas than for the facility they have for disseminating them. This drives the fustier, mustier, tweed-elbowed set mad. With his new book, Religion for Atheists, de Botton has every chance of adding to his envy-addled detractors, as he has transferred his “just the good bits,” buffet approach to philosophy to religion, as well.

Thanks to his time at Cambridge and King’s College, the thin, balding, soberly dressed de Botton can make this approach sound eminently reasonable, even sophisticated. Not giving an inch to the Very-Serious-or-Religious, he wonders whether they would like to apply their categorical absolutism to literature: Would they be horrified at the way you “pick and mix” between Jane Austen and Will Self? Henry James and Martin Amis? (Austen was his, for the rest, I’m ad libbing.)

Canny, that set-up, because of course any devoutly religious person’s mindset likely precludes treating revelation as literature; it just serves to remind everyone at book readings how much they broad-mindedly enjoy literature. And de Botton is quite clear at the outset that he’s not there to argue the existence of God, that he belongs in the camp of the post-religious for whom belief in a deity seems a bit ridiculous, and there is no fruitful argument to be had. “Sorry you’re damned” and “Sorry you’re stupid” is how he characterizes the pro and con positions.

For himself, he says, the question is, How do you have a good life without God? And it turns out that, belief in deities aside, “lots of things about religion are fascinating to me.” He lists Christmas carols, churches, holidays–the “quite nice secondary bits.”

But in fact he has bigger Jesus fishes to fry. Contrasting the secular approach to education, where the student is a receptacle for career skills, de Botton discusses the religious school’s drive to help students become more fully human. We have an intense desire for meaning, he says, thwarted by an educational system that really fails to equip us for the fact that life has to be lived. Oh no, he says, it’s nothing much (rattling off a long list of major life transitions) and then you get into the coffin, shut the lid, and you’re done with it.

Religion understands, he says, changing tack, that we’re all barely holding it together, that we need ongoing assistance in life. And because religion is frequently persuaded beforehand of humanity’s flawed origins, it has less faith in the epiphanic power of truth to set us right. Secular education lectures, dispassionately, and often with no great regard for your interest. Religious education is a sermon, a parable, something meant to engage you emotionally as well as intellectually, and it is repeated again and again, because knowledge is more likely to wear off than stick.

Religion creates an outer structure for an inner life. Zen Buddhists have appointments with the full moon. It’s not that the secular world doesn’t have this, de Botton adds: “It’s a lot of what Wordsworth is on about. The problem is, none of us read Wordsworth.” Ritual makes us get around to doing those things we keep meaning to do. Religion can also–not always, Calvinists!–take special care with the aesthetics of wisdom, to try to reach people through their senses. Even austere Buddhists may hold a tea ceremony.

De Botton is a founder of London’s School of Life, which seeks to provide life wisdom (he defines wisdom as “helpful truth”) without the trappings of esoteric academia. It’s a bias that appears in his discussion of religious (versus secular) art, where he praises the didactic nature of religious art, the way it seeks to instruct clearly, rather than mystify you with the complexity of modern life. He quotes Hegel saying art is the sensory presentation of ideas, and somehow this leads to a riff on “Hey, Jude,” which, again, sounded sensible and right-thinking at the time. (My notes also indicate that you’re to take a look at Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” “Courage” is underlined.)

But the secular world doesn’t care, often, for art that has a definite point of view. When you wonder what a painting is about, de Botton says, you’re likely to lean in and read the curator’s breakdown of the kinds of paint used, and what the canvas is made of.

Further, he argues, artists in the modern world are almost always lone actors, as against the organized force of religion. “Witty and sarcastic books,” he points out, “won’t bring religion down.” (By the way, leaflets were being handed out as you entered that promoted a Bellevue visit by Richard Dawkins.)

So, to sum up: Religions are “fantastic resources,” with “lots of stuff to steal.” They are “too wise, powerful, and beautiful to be abandoned to the people who happen to believe in them.” In the Q&A section, de Botton delivered what sounded like another practiced formulation: “We’re not short of values, we’re short of ways of making them stick.”

4 thoughts on “Alain de Botton and Second-Wave Atheism in Seattle

  1. I would have found his book more convincing if he came from a religious background, I think. But he comes across like he doesn’t truly GET the emotional connection to those beliefs and rituals, and the personal meaning people make out of them. It reads like he’s making light of faith, which I don’t think he intends to do.

    I really like his overall concept (that the secular world can learn a lot from religious tradition), but my other critique is that his suggestions are so far out there as to be ludicrous. An “agape restaurant” where we talk to strangers about the people we can’t forgive? I’m uncomfortable even typing about it. Some of the most squirmy moments of my life were because a church leader decided to force the group to have a collective Moment.

  2. I was nudged by quite a few friends to see if I wanted to see him speak. I refused the invitation after watching his 20-minute-long TED talk ( on the same subject.
    As an atheist (who are likely a hefty majority of deBotton’s intended audience) not only do his suggestions come off as naive, but dangerous in advocating the creation of new ideological projects using religions as their model. I would’ve thought we’d have learned our lessons from the 20th century’s failed utopian projects.
    Despite the stereotype that all atheists are liberal in their political persuasions, the only real correlation I can draw between atheism and politics are a pervading inclination to anti-authoritarianism. To the atheist any church, fraternity, political party, or sports team which asks for the subversion of the self for “the cause” are at the root of what is dangerous about religion (and consequently, about all “sacred cows,” both secular and sacerdotal). Suggesting the need to remedy the apparent societal crisis by reconciling atheists with believers with the formation of a church, holding erudite sermons, or creating other quasi-spiritual public rituals as a way to access some type of “wisdom,” is an appeal to submission and the surrender of rational thought.
    I sense that de Botton is attempting to play the role of the ecumenical peacekeeper in the wake of the more intellectual or vitriolic attacks from other popular atheists like Dawkins (religion is biologically-driven delusion), Hitchens (religion is implausible ideological poison) or Harris (religion is a problem of conversation). His thesis seems to be derived from the idea that there is a wound that needs healing, namely finding a function for sheltered, curmudgeonly anti-social atheists in the Great Spiritual Machine so that they can be “welcomed back in the fold” of polite society.
    A separate (and far messier) discussion de Botton unfurls here is the role of so-called “spiritual” experience, or the lack thereof. Indeed, there are *some* human experiences that are difficult to reconcile with a strict materialist view of reality. It is tempting for the materialist to catalogue these experiences in the same phylum as delusion, hallucination or some other type of cognitive failure. The validity of this aspect of reality, I argue, should not be downplayed or denigrated by atheists. In the same way that those who label themselves “spiritual” or “religious” practice an equally regrettable condescension in asserting that atheists must be deficient or deluded in some way because of their denial of the potential of these experiences. Undoubtedly, humans do feel things which are mysterious, those that of us that are skeptical of the existence of souls, parallel realities or transcendent beings would do well to not deny the personal (and real) nature of so-called spiritual experience in favor of an attitude which says “how can I learn more about this?”
    Additionally, I find it unsettlingly to have a conversation about what “spiritual” is, as the meaning of the word has so many divergent applications (appropriated by too many provacateurs, charlatans and bscurantists) that it has moved into the neighborhood of words like “socialist,” it has been drained utterly of comprehensible meaning. I concede that de Botton has probably felt deeply spiritual when reading British poetry, I too have felt such a thing in my clearly impoverished, emotionally-stunted existence. For me, it was an unusually profound, tear-inducing, heart-swelling tsunami of emotion on watching the first episode of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” But, I’m not rushing out to create The Church of Starstuff with “Sagan as Our Prophet.”
    Personally, de Botton’s attempts at this kind of ideological fusion are flawed from their inception. Religion (lower case ‘r’) lies someone within the intersection of ideology and identity. Once matriculated in the individual, that these two become inseparable. Atheism is neither an ideology nor an identity, as such. Atheism is merely the lack of belief of theistic claims (as atheists enjoy satirizing this confusion that “bald is not a hair color” or “not collecting stamps is not a hobby”). Accordingly, apart from a label (a placeholder if you will), says nothing substantive about the identity of an atheist. As Sam Harris points out, we don’t have a label for “Not a Witch,” and we don’t form non-profit organizations, blogs and Facebook pages rallying around all the cause of “Not-Witchism.” The current public face of atheism is, in actuality, the work of antitheism, a related but altogether separate political and ideological platform. The confusion is understandable because the antitheists uses ‘Atheism’ as the rallying cry and, when challenged, theists resort to an oversimplified dualism to rally support. To present the label ‘atheist’ as the reverse side of dualistic theist worldview is to profoundly misunderstand the nature of epistemological structure of human belief.
    In response to de Botton (and those like him): I am not broken. Please don’t try to create hymns and sermons and Super Bowl socials on behalf of my impiety. I’ve got better things to do with my Sundays.

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