Op-Ed: A Rebuttal to Alain de Botton’s Second-Wave Atheism

by on March 22, 2012

Commenter Casey responded to our earlier summary of Alain de Botton’s Seattle talk, and did so at such length, we were prompted to give him his own post. Casey can be found more regularly at Transmit-Receive.

I was nudged by quite a few friends to see if I wanted to see Alain de Botton speak. I refused the invitation after watching his 20-minute-long TED talk on the same subject.

As an atheist (as is, 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 fraternity, political party, or sports team which asks for the subversion of the self for “the cause” is, at the root, mimicking 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, antisocial atheists in the Great Spiritual Machine so that they can be “welcomed back into 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.

Yet 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 unsettling 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 obscurantists) that it has moved into the neighborhood of words like “socialist,” 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, I find de Botton’s attempts at this kind of ideological fusion flawed from their inception. Religion (lower case “r”) places us at the intersection of ideology and identity. Once incorporated in the individual, these two become inseparable.

But atheism is neither an ideology nor an identity, as such. Atheism is merely the lack of belief of theistic claims (atheists enjoy satirizing this confusion by noting that “bald is not a hair color” and “not collecting stamps is not a hobby”). Accordingly, apart from a category label (a placeholder if you will), atheism 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.

4 thoughts on “Op-Ed: A Rebuttal to Alain de Botton’s Second-Wave Atheism

  1. I’m not condoning de Botton’s viewpoints. I staunchly disagree with him.

    However, Atheism is not merely a lack of belief of theistic claims. That’s more akin to agnosticism (the great Swiss of beliefs).

    Atheism is an active disbelief in theism.

    Disbelief is not simple a lack of belief. That word is unbelief. Lacking something is passive. Disbelief is active.

    Disbelief is a choice; Atheists choose to not believe that gods and magic exist.

    I agree, there is a movement in the last few decades, to create Atheism as something closer, or into, Antitheism. But don’t let this fool you. The definition of Atheism is and always has been a disbelief in theism.

    As you felt from de Botton’s claims that you are broken, I find it, as an Atheist, equally insulting that you think atheism is simply a lack of belief.

    If you’d like:

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/atheist

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/disbelief

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/unbelief

  2. Great post. I was initially excited by the idea of a fresh outlook on atheism and religious belief when I first heard rumblings of deBotten’s latest work, but more and more, I’m largely unimpressed. what he suggests not only sound somewhat uninspired, it isn’t even really a new concept. I also find it suspect that deBotten seems to rely heavily on the premise that to be an atheist is to somehow be ‘spiritually incomplete’ or whatever. I certainly don’t feel that way, and like most people, it is a bit insulting to be told that that is the case.

  3. @1 Agnosticism is profession of the state of *knowledge* about theistic claims (“I don’t believe it can’t be known that gods exist). Atheism goes to your belief in god claims (“I don’t believe that gods exist”). As a response to your page-slapping, take a look at the Wikipedia page on Agnosticism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnosticism), and read the first sentence.

    I am frankly unsure how much I could insult you by being semantically unclear.

    Atheism has nothing to say about magic. Either. You can absolutely be an atheist and believe that magic exists. You can be an atheist and believe that the earth is 6,000 years old. You can be an atheist and believe that people have telekinetic powers.

    Here’s a better way to look at it. If someone asks you “Do you believe in God?” Any answer you give other than “yes,’ including “I don’t know,” you are an atheist. Now being an atheist doesn’t necessarily entail you are on a project of perpetually aware opposition to theism.

    Your assertion that “disbelief” is a choice, I find also misleading. Newborn babies are atheists. They do not have a belief in gods because they simply have no been expose to, comprehended or accepted claims of belief. Are newborns in a state “active disbelief” of theism? I think not.

    Rather than being insulted when another atheist talks about the word atheism in a way that you may disagree with for purely rhetorical reasons, perhaps you should be insulted that Alain de Botton (and other ecumenicals of his ilk) want to convince the world that you are flawed and that you need to be “born again” in some farcical ceremony to grant you legitimacy.

    • Oh, I am certainly insulted when Alain de Bottnon and others claim that I am flawed for my disbelief.

      I just want to be clear: answering “I don’t know” is not atheism. A fresh born baby is not an atheist. Atheism is, again, not a lack of something else. That trivializes it.

      Your example of a new born baby is one that has no knowledge of theism, fits much closer to an agnostic view than an atheist view. That being said, they’re not in a position to give a shit, so it’s a fallacy of an argument.

      Again, I do not rebut the spirit of your article and the rally against Botton’s claims. I support that. I’m just saying there is more, much more, to being an atheist than a void. If anything, your definition aids Botton and his ilk.