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¿Religion for atheists?

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Last year, writer and philosopher Alain de Botton gave a TED Talk at the TED Global 2011 in Edimburgh, Scotland. It has been doing the rounds online for a couple of months now. He had been writing a book called Religion for Atheists (coming on March 6th), in which he asks atheists not to succumb to the temptation of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We atheists are already convinced that the factual claims of religion are false, says de Botton, but “even if religion is wrong, why can’t we enjoy the best bits?”

It seems like a perfectly sensible question to ask and one that causes a knee-jerk reaction from many of us. Some of us see religion in the same way that Bertrand Russell did when he said that “[i]t is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.” We think this way because there is plenty of empirical evidence to support this conclusion. To put it mildly, religion has been a roadblock on the way to knowledge, human development and world peace in a way that no other idea or philosophy has ever been. To put it bluntly, it has been the direct cause of many of the world’s misery. It has inspired wars, crusades and inquisitions; it has ennobled dogmatic faith, which is a painfully wrong way to think about the world; and it has divided the world into “Good” vs “Evil” camps. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “[t]he Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” This is not limited to Christianity, of course. What some vocal atheists have been doing is pointing out these things, as well as pointing out that the whole thing is ridiculous to begin with. 

We are all perfectly justified in thinking this, says de Botton, but if we concentrate too much on this aspect, we take the risk of missing out on some of the good bits that religion has to offer, which are the ones that make them so attractive to people in the first place. And that is a very dumb risk to take, according to de Botton. “[W]e invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill” says de Botton. “[f]irstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.” This, in short, is his central argument. The reason he wrote a book, the reason he appeared on the TED stage.

I agree with his assessment on why religions were invented in the first place, although I believe that the issue is much more complex than that. What I don’t agree with is his other assessment - that secular society has not been able to deal or engage with those things. One has to wonder what he means by “secular society”. Perhaps he explains it in much more detail in his book, but the impression that I get so far is that he means something more akin to an atheistic worldview, than a society with secular values per se. If this is the case, I need only to point de Botton towards a subject he’s very familiar with: philosophy. It may not be perfect or provide one with answers to all of life’s riddles, but then again, neither does religion. Philosophy can help you realize that there might be more than one or two sides to every issue, and it can get you thinking about questions that may never have popped-up in your head if it weren’t for Plato, Hume or Nietzsche. Hell, even Heidegger can stimulate the occasional neuron. Ever wonder where morality comes from? Read Plato’s Euthyphro. Reflect upon it. Go out for drinks with your friends. Read David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. Reflect upon it. Go make love to your loved one. Read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. Reflect upon it. Resist the temptation to kill yourself. Read them all over again. You may not have come out of the experience with an absolute answer to your initial question, but at least your ignorance is much more informed than before. Repeat this experience with enough books, and you will very likely discover a deep truth about the human condition - our lives are driven by uncertainty, and one of the best things we can do for ourselves and for humanity is to learn how to live with it. 

Another area that can be very illuminating and opens up a whole new world of ideas, answers and possibilities is science. It shows us exactly where we stand in the grand scheme of things, and can fill us with deep humility. And, continuing with the road opened up by philosophy, a scientific understanding of the world can inform our ignorance even further. It is often said that philosophy asks questions and science answers them, providing philosophy with more things to ponder about in the process. Sticking with the question of where morality comes from, scientists can take the ideas of Plato, Hume and Nietzsche and get to work in the lab, thinking about possible ways to test them and come up with actual answers. Often, scientific research in other areas, can bring in ideas and data from unexpected places. Such was the case with morality and Charles Darwin. His work is now the unifying theory in all of the biological sciences, spawned new ones and even illuminated philosophy. This is because, as philospher Daniel Dennett puts it, “[t]here is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” Thanks to Darwin’s work, which was expanded upon by many scientists since his time, we now know that morality is certainly a trait that evolved in social mammals, all the way to humans. Thanks to neuroscience, we can correlate moral behavior with neural activity. So, where does morality come from? According to the best of our knowledge, it arose in nature and stayed with us because it provides us with behaviors that are useful to social animals such as ourselves. There are still some gaps in our knowledge of morality, but there are many people - very intelligent people - determined to close them. Just as with all the gaps that currently exist in all of our knowledge.

Some say that scientific knowledge is “dry”, that it fails to connect with human preoccupations. Such people surely have never read Carl Sagan. He dedicated his life to bringing scientific knowledge to the masses, and more importantly, into taking such scientific knowledge to its ultimate consequences, providing a “naturalist spirituality” of sorts. His work is filled with awe-inspiring words such as these: “We are star stuff which has taken its destiny into its own hands […] We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. We are creatures of the cosmos and always hunger to know our origins, to understand our connection with the universe.” This awesome reflection is based on the “dry” knowledge that the atoms that form our body are created in the cores of stars. If this does not elicit a feeling that can be called “spiritual”, about nature, then I suspect that you might be clinically dead.

Contrast all of this with sticking to what religious books and leaders have to say, and you will rapidly see why de Botton is seriously misguided. Atheists are most definitely not “living on a spiritual wasteland under the guidance of Walmart and CNN”, as he is eager to claim. Atheists are actually sitting in the middle of an enormous library whose shelves are filled with thousands upon thousands of tomes written by some of the most thoughtful mammals that have ever lived on this planet. All they have to do is get up from their chairs and begin to indulge. Most atheists have already done this. It’s precisely why they are atheists now. A lot of atheists have already realized that religion can only ever address important questions, never actually answer them. And it does so in a mediocre way because it has to adhere to one or several dogmas. Science and philosophy may sometimes be questions without answers, but religion is answers that can never be questioned. Even the religious have been realizing this for several years, and church pews have been slowly emptying. The impression that I get is that de Botton is catering a banquet of attractive-looking meats to people who do not like the taste of meat.

De Botton does point out something very important that countless academics before him have pointed out. Namely, that our dominant educational system sucks. He is not the first one and will most certainly not be the last. We know that secular schools and universities are doing something horribly wrong when they fail to interest people in science and philosophy. Which, as I have argued above, are vastly superior ways to head towards truth and meaning. The problem (if it can even be called a problem) with science and philosophy is that they require effort. They require active learning from people. Reading, thinking, discussing, investigating, questioning. Some of these things come naturally to us when we are children, but are seriously diminished as we grow up and go to school. We are often not taught to think, but to memorize. Parents play an important role in this too. How many times is an inquisitive child wanting to know why things are the way they are, brushed away as an annoyance? So, this is truly a problem. But what is it exactly that de Botton is proposing to avoid this? A “new way of being an atheist”. He calls it “Atheism 2.0”. In a nutshell, in Atheism 2.0, “[t]he real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to if one concludes he doesn’t.” And according to de Botton, we need to take the argument right back to religion and “steal from [it]”. Sermons, rituals, services, clothing, hierarchies, food, temples. The whole shebang. Minus the supernatural doctrines, of course.

De Botton thinks that gathering in a place built specifically for the occasion, to hear someone read from books and deliver sermons about “living well”, is a good way to fill the void of secular education. He says that people often forget why they do the things that they do, and religions cope with this rather ingeniously:

By constantly hammering them into their heads.

Right here, I’m not sure de Botton is identifying a real problem. People forget why they should be generous or why they should not embark on murderous rampages? Most atheists deal with a godless morality rather well. And religious people have their own - often reward/punishment based - reasons for their actions. I don’t share them and wish they would reconsider them, but they have them, nonetheless. What a misguided and condescending view of humanity that de Botton has. Furthermore, I am very confident that what this constant hammering of points accomplishes is lazy and dogmatic behavior. So, what de Botton identifies as virtue in the repetitive educational methods of religion, is really a vice. Instead of creating people who think critically about things and who are able to find depth in anything Plato, Hume, Nietzsche or Sagan have to say, while at the same time identifying the deficiencies, de Botton’s way only makes the problem worse. Educating in sermons is not only a horrible idea, it is also condescending and insulting. Which is something that I perceive along the entirety of “Atheism 2.0”.

Matters become worse when he proposes to blend this communal aspect of religion with art and architecture. Plans to construct an “atheist temple” (reminiscent of A.C. Grayling’s example of “sleeping furiously”) in the center of London are already underway. Some atheists (his intended audience) are already pointing out that this is a waste of time and money and an embarrassment to what atheism is all about. I agree with them, for the reasons I already pointed out. Also, atheism has had to deal with misguided and often derogatory accusations of being just another religion, when in fact, it’s nothing of the sorts. It’s like calling non-stamp collecting a hobby or calling baldness a hairstyle. What is an atheist temple going to do in the minds of the religious?

Exactly.

To add insult to injury, de Botton completely ignores the uncomfortable fact that billions of religious followers around the world do believe the doctrinal bits, and take them so seriously, that they are often willing to strip people of their liberties or even kill them. The reason those people from “North Oxford” have been so vocal is because of these things. I have often discussed with fellow atheists that if religious people were just “comforted” by their beliefs, and those beliefs were limited to finding meaning in life, we would have no need to be “loud”. Not at all. However, religions often make claims about reality that are completely at odds with what we know through the aid of science. And not content with holding these misguided beliefs, they constantly pressure governments to create legislation based on them. They don’t want homosexuals to get married. They want to stop the teaching of evolution. They want government to control women’s reproductive rights. “Shrill” atheists like Sam Harris, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Westergaard and Aayan Hirsi-Ali, often speak about these uncomfortable, but necessary subjects, often at the risk of their lives. By failing to engage with these facts, de Botton appears too eager to own the friendly-sensitive-atheist-who-gets-standing-ovations-at-TED niche and joins the ranks of people who should know better than to hammer these vocal atheists for their troubles. Yes, some of their methods are open to criticism, but this holier-than-thou attitude does nothing to advance them. Ironically enough, the people he criticizes so much, would most likely agree with de Botton’s concerns - if not with his solutions - and have even publicly expressed their appreciation of religious art and architecture.

I don’t know how this whole thing is going to end. After all, I haven’t read the book yet. But considering that de Botton seems to have thought about all these things for a time shorter than thirty seconds before writing his book, appearing at TED and embarking on architectural enterprises; together with the fact that atheists are the ones who are supposed to engage with his “Atheism 2.0”, I have a feeling that it will not get past the beta stage. All we may be left with is a jarring abandoned tower in the heart of London as a reminder that we atheists - or anyone else, for that matter - do not need religion or religious imagery in order to lead fulfilling lives.

To answer de Botton’s original question - “even if religion is wrong, why can’t we enjoy the best bits?” Well, while there are some good things about religion - community and an interest in morality for example - I feel that de Botton seems very confused about what the “best bits” actually are. He seems to want to steal bits that secularists already have, or the things that allowed the worst things to flourish in the first place.

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