Atheism: Two Point… Oh No. – A critique of Alain de Botton’s ‘Constructive Atheism’

Posted on 2012/02/10

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Feature Image - Atheism Two Point... Oh no. - A critique of Alain de Botton's 'Constructive Atheism'

There are very few people who can annoy me more than the multitudes of religionist who make demands upon others, infiltrating almost all aspects of life.

Some might go so far as to say that I have a small preoccupation with trying to reduce the amount of this religious noise that permeates the world.

However, one sure way to distract me from this continuing ambition would be to declare yourself a non-believer, insult some of the most serious religious commentators of our age, and finish it all off by saying some profoundly stupid things that makes us all look like idiots.

Cue philosopher Alain de Botton.

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I first became aware that something like this might happen around 2008, when de Botton wrote an article for Standpoint Magazine called ‘A Religion For Atheists‘.

Until I read this piece, I used to think the most off-putting opening line in the history of literature can be found in Genesis 1:1. However, de Botton has somehow managed to rival it with the words:

‘The most boring question to ask about religion is whether or not the whole this is “true”.’[1]

I don’t think I have seen a more efficient trivialization of the battle to diminish religious encroachment on secular society.

Perhaps de Botton really does find the Catholic Church’s contribution to the African AIDs epidemic boring. And is equally bored of the growing threat of Islamic fascism, or apocalyptic Zionism. Then there are those tiresome debates in the United States about the teaching of evolution, the equal rights of LGBT, and other faith-motivated policy.

Anyone who has participated in these disputes will know that the opposing side are quite openly motivated by religious propositions they hold to be true.

A political philosopher might at this point want to step in and talk about what it means for something to be ‘true’, or discuss the implications of dialectic materialism for free will.

Nevertheless, however you might want to socialize these problems, I don’t think it can be denied that these people at least think they are motivated by religious convictions. And, in the absence of confrontation, these ideas are so easily proliferated to the minds of children, who in turn will grow up to make the same theocratic demands upon the lives of other.

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Yet, de Botton calls any attempt to challenge this process as ‘destructive’, and is critical of Dawkins, Hitchen, Dennett and the rest of ‘these people, many of whom have lived in north Oxford’.

A recent addition to the TED online talks was de Botton’s July 2011 talk called ‘Atheism 2.0′. Three years after original article, he still maintains:

‘Of course there’s no god. Of course there are no deities or supernatural spirits or angels, etc. Now lets move on.’[2]

While, almost in the same breath, admonishes these Oxonians for pointing out that ‘believing in god is akin to believing in fairies and essentially that the whole thing is a childish game.’

Sure, they do sometimes make mythical comparisons. But none of them think it’s a childish game.

Implicit in all this is an irresponsible, dangerous dismissal, and one that threatens all we value. It is to pretend there isn’t a ongoing battle between secular freedom and religious fascism.

If the religious had none of the wealth, none of the political power, none of the influence – then maybe we could leave the truth content of their ideas aside, and get on with our lives.

But this isn’t a decision we are allowed to make on our own. The religious decide this for us. Can this be made any clearer than from the demands and actions of Al Qaeda, the Catholic Church, Christian right wing lobbyists, or mad Israli settlers?

‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters,’ and de Botton can recommend the best way to facilitate our slumber: ‘Atheism 2.0′.

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Despite declaring himself a non-believer, de Botton seems to be the only atheist I have encountered who feels comfortable with accepting the classification of ‘new-atheist': a phrase dreamt up by the religious to make it appear that non-beleiving is a new-fangled invention, still in its beta-testing phase.

That should be enough of a bad sign, but it gets much worse. [I derive the following quotations from the two source already listed.]

‘The secular world is full of holes. We have secularized badly,’ he says. We should, ‘…attempt to confront the thought that there are certain needs in us that can never be satisfied by art, family, work or the state alone.’

The whole enterprise reminds me of those doomsdayer Luddite anti-technologists who view global warming as evidence of  how our advancements only lead to our destruction, and consequentially advocate a regression to pre-industrial societies.

Well, what do you think we should do Mr de Botton?

Recent press releases suggest that, among other things, de Botton thinks we need secular cathedrals. ‘We are the only society in history to have nothing transcendent at our centre, nothing which is greater than ourselves.’

This sort of thing is supposed to appeal to, ‘people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic communal side of religion, but can’t bare the doctrine.’

What about museums, art galleries, concert halls and other opportunities to access the numinous? de Botton says ‘the potential is there, but we’ve completely let ourselves down.’

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As many others have pointed out, this seems like a very easy way to waste a lot of time.

However, what hasn’t been noticed is the more sinister motives that dwell at the foundation of de Botton’s secular structures.

It is his view on education.

To being his criticism of secular education, de Botton draws attention to how modern universities dwell on only imparting ‘information’.

In contrast, he see merit in the pedagogical methods of religious institutions, and suggests how they can be incorporated into secular activities:

  • He praises their emphasis on moral education, and the methods they use to impart their ideas.
  • Similarly, he values their structure of ritualistic practices. ‘Religions are cultures of repetition,’ he says.
  • He likes how religions teach people to ‘speak well’. Initially I thought this was to mean speak with clarity, but he really means a good rhetoric and persuasion.
  • He advocates the sort of hero worship that mirror Eastern ancestor worship practices. We are to praise Plato, Socrates, Austin – perhaps even dedicating days in their honor.

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His ideas of moral education are the primary motivation for his criticism of our secular approach to architecture and art.

Art, in his view, should be ‘didactic’. It should teach morals. It is an opposition to ‘art for art’s sake’ (as Alan Poe would put it) and the galleries, museums and concert halls that house them.[3]

However, he isn’t advocating a secular moral education we might suppose. It is not an education based on  learning about the suffering of others. No, de Botton advocates a that we press solutions into students by means of propaganda.

In defense of the term he says, ‘propaganda is a manner of being didactic in honour of something. And if that thing is good there’s no problem with it at all.’

Another bad sign.

In the three monotheistic religions, Didactic is nothing more than a series of instructions. Morality isn’t learned, as we might learn through a process of scientific inquiry. No, in these religions, morality is remembered and obeyed.

de Botton does not seem to understand that part of what anti-theists abhor in religious institutions is the assumption that ‘moral instruction’ has any role in society. As Hitchens put it, we should not ‘swallow our moral code in tablet form’.[4]

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We see the same inability to notice this problem in the present Pope.

Many non-believers try to insinuate that Benedict XVI was a Nazi by drawing attention to his membership in the Nazi youth. Sure, he really was a member, and we have pictures of him in the uniform (pictured above). Yet, all reports suggests (and I do not doubt that) he was an unenthusiastic member.

Could there be anyone on the planet more qualified to notice how easy it is for children to be indoctrinated, and how their lives can be ruined as a result?

Yet, this man is in charge of the largest organization in the world that indoctrinates the young into blindly believing what they are told. Of course, the Pope would be quick to point out that whereas the Nazi’s are wrong, Catholicism is correct.

And that is the nature of the mistake. Many of the Nazi’s thought they were correct too.

Who would you choose to decide what is good, and then propagandize the message to children?

An open-society cannot be maintained if its education is authoritarian.

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In a different attempt to make the same error, de Botton praises the Catholic church for its annual revenue, and suggests philosophers should try to be ‘multinational, branded, so they don’t get lost in a busy world.’

It’s like he’s asking a vegetarian socialist to stop whining about the cruelty to animals stuff and seriously consider how the McDonald’s business model can be adapted to spread their own message.

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The reason for all this propaganda seems to be that de Button thinks communication by open discourse is inadequate. ‘Books written by lone individuals are not going to change anything,’ he says.

He might wish to acquaint with Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’, which was the catalyst to persuaded the American colonies that independence was worth fighting for. Or Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels ‘Communist Manifesto’, Galileo Galilei’s ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’… Need I go on?

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Yet, the one thing de Botton has failed to poach from the world religions is the Christian idea of original sin. That we are, fundamentally, damaged in some way.

Of course, the Christian conception of this idea is that we are immoral and need outside help from God to fix us.

Following de Botton’s model, we might take the premise, but reject all the theological baggage.

We are damaged. We are rising apes who seem to require religion superstition for comfort.

Yet, again to borrow from relgion, scientific inquiry is the ‘ying’ to religions ‘yang’. Our ability to guess patterns and abstract can lead to religious doctorine.

With a clearer thinking, and anti-authoritarian ideas, these same faculties can lead to scientific inquiry. Required in this thinking is a stance of fallibilism: a concession that we might be wrong. We choose this democratic free inquiry, not because we think our moral ideas are correct, but because we recognize it is the best way to get closer to the truth.

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References

[1] de Botton, Alan (June 2008) A Religion For Atheists

[2] de Botton, Alan (July 2011) ‘Atheism 2.0

[3] Poe, Edgar Alan (1850) ‘The Poetic Principle’

[4] Hitchens, Christopher (April 2010) ‘The New Commandments‘ [for Vanity Fair Magazine]

Posted in: atheism, Criticism