Is there Nothing Wrong with Being Religious?

March 17, 2012

It feels unnatural to be reading philosopher Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists.  His title doesn’t have a ghost of a chance with me.

Keeping up with scientific accounts of religion myself, I don’t need reminding that De Botton is expressing a theory that certain forms of religious life meet human needs -- the aesthetics, the communal practices, the rites of passage, the psychologies of comfort, etc.

Maybe that theory is right.  It’s only natural that religions would hit upon ways to meet some core human needs.  Explaining religion’s origins, or its widespread popularity, would be difficult to explain if that weren’t the case.

What disappoints me is the way that De Botton makes a huge leap from a thin theory about how religion appeals to people to an overblown claim that all people need some religion.  It’s right there in his title:  Religion for Atheists.  Even if his book explains his nuanced position, that atheists could benefit from some secular versions of religious forms of life, few will ever notice.  Most religious people will only hear this message:

* There’s Nothing Wrong With Religion *

If De Botton is right that even atheists need religion, then there can’t be anything *that* wrong with religion.  What a relief!  If those who complain about religion the most, those loud nonbelievers, actually need religion (just what religious folks have always been saying!) then religion’s supremacy remains assured.  Religion’s friends are swiftly concluding that all the fuss over New Atheism can just go away.  Naturally, the popular media is highlighting the oddest caricatures of his ideas -- how his “Temples to Tenderness” will inflate into gigantic Atheist Cathedrals, for example.  The religion-friendly media will enthusiastically broadcast how a smart atheist thinks that religion remains essential for everyone.  The faithful couldn’t have hoped for a happier ending!

I’m mildly interested, to be sure, in the way that De Botton is surveying a few rationales for religious humanism.  There’s nothing in his book that hasn’t been elaborated already by somebody during the past 150 years, from Ethical Culture leaders and humanist UUs down to religious humanist leaders today.  Even secular humanists over the years have had the notion that their local organizations should help deal with the all-to-human aspects of ordinary life.  But none of those folks started out by attacking anything secular.  There’s something radically new about De Botton’s recommendations, but it has nothing to do with religious humanism.

Consider how De Botton goes about calling for more religion in everyone’s lives.  He basically says that secular society is devoid of “high spiritual aspiration and practical moral guidance.”  He can’t be looking at the same society that I see.  From human rights and civil liberties enshrined in secular constitutions around the world, to the secular colleges and universities spreading the light of knowledge, and on to all the arts and sciences benefitting humanity in countless ways, I’d say that those worldly institutions and their entirely secular values have elevated human existence during the past 400 years far more than the last 40,000 years of religious domination. If De Botton can’t agree, I dare him to publicly say so.  But he needs to divert our attention away from this life towards an alternative vision of his own imagination.

What secular society does De Botton think he sees?  Precisely because so many evils of this world are attributed by De Botton to “secular society”, as if all the fine things in our civil life had disappeared to leave only the dregs and disappointments, his readers are left to assume that such a dreadfully depressing world is the exact world hoped for by religious and secular humanists.  That just isn’t true.  But De Botton won’t tell you otherwise -- it is just too convenient how most everyone is now taking “secular” and “atheist” to mean the same thing, so a rotten secular world must be a rotten atheist world.  And De Botton would never get anywhere unless most of his audience wanted to hear that we are potentially looking at a rotten atheist world.  

De Botton must know that religious and secular humanisms supply plenty of practical moral guidance, urge fidelity to higher things such as ethical ideals and human rights, and advocate worthy goals like social justice and international peace.  De Botton had better not point to all that hard work by nonbelievers, lest his audience realize how he has invented nothing new at all, and that atheists can be pretty good without God.  His act of attacking atheism isn’t new either, but religious people will never get enough of that.

What is one to do with all those nonbelievers?  They are the ones to blame for the sorry state of our materialistic civilization, one must suppose.  Even if religious and secular humanism did get any credit at all for trying to ethically upgrade this world, it’s still not spiritual enough for De Botton, I guess.  It’s certainly not spiritual enough for true believers, either.  What could be more spiritual than actually being religious and returning to the flock?  Funny how De Botton never says exactly when one is getting too religious.  That’s the danger of praising religious things for practical goals.  Praise them enough, and religious believers will simply assume that the smartest thing to do is stick with the True Religion to get the most benefits. That’s what their own religion has been telling them all along anyways, and now another atheist is practically saying the same thing too.

There’s really no way to win when praising spirituality.  The faithful can’t see where a sharp line can be drawn to divide “enough spirituality” from “too much spirituality”.  The point of spirituality, after all, is to get oriented towards matters of supreme value and significance, and for the truly religious, that’s God.  If there’s no God, then there’s no spirituality, and hence little chance for serious ethical conduct, period.  As for nonbelievers, it can seem deceptively easy to say, “Here’s exactly how much spirituality to have, in these specific ways.”  And De Botton sounds like he thinks he’s invented the first fine recipe ever.  My question is this: If De Botton thinks that nonbelievers should live their lives in certain psychologically healthy and civically ethical ways (fine with me), then what does an orientation towards something else have to do with such worthy standards?  If you truly value those worthy human things, then THOSE THINGS are what you should be oriented towards, and not something else that can only be distracting and confusing.  If De Botton actually possesses a sound theory about why religious spirituality about something else – something beyond what is best for our human lives – must be necessary to make sure humanist ideals are translated into civic action, there’s no sign of it in his book.  

For those religious humanists eager to embrace De Botton and unhappy with my take on his book, and especially for religious humanists fast assuming that I’m criticizing all of them along with De Botton, they need to carefully think about the actual message he is managing to convey.  It’s really not the same as the message of religious humanism, upon which I’m passing no judgment here.  A crucial message of religious humanism is that the secular world could go on just fine even if all belief in God happened to disappear.  De Botton’s book title manages to say the exact opposite: the secular world is going to hell without enough religion.  And that’s something not even religious humanism has been saying, much less atheists in general.  De Botton is basically telling the world that even those nonbelieving religious humanists aren’t religious enough.  If he didn’t intend to say that to the religious world, he should not have published his book under that title.  Of course “Good Without God” was already taken, but De Botton is surely clever enough to come up with an alternative.  Funny how he didn’t bother.  I guess he understands how the media and most of the religious world would never actually crack open his book – to achieve his real purposes, maybe he got his title just right.

According to De Botton, we’ve somehow gotten trapped in the materialistic world of Pottersville and nonbelievers have no idea how to escape from that frightening nightmare.  In De Botton’s dramatic script, atheists can wake up to truly see how It’s a Wonderful Life only by realizing that they should never have sold their souls in the first place.

Maybe I’m too hard on De Botton.  What’s a public intellectual to do?  Nowadays, the media only pays close attention to atheists either trying to send all religion to hell, or offering to praise religion to the skies.  That’s right, Alain, another angel just got his wings.


#1 John D (Guest) on Saturday March 17, 2012 at 8:53pm

I am with you 100% on this one John.  I have read several excerpts from De Botton’s book and watched his TED speech “Atheism 2.0”.  He is making some very odd claims and is ignoring obvious evidence that refutes his position.

He appears to ignore all of the social and psychologically healthy activities non-religious people find within culture.  For example, he claims that we need to celebrate stories and fiction because we don’t have it in secular society.  This is baffling.  Modern secular society has so many ways we can engage in storytelling, and socializing, and learning, and wondering that religious experience looks like foolish fantasy…. which it is.

Has De Botton never been to a movie or a play?  Has he never read a modern novel or attending a book club?  Has he never been to a parade or a sporting event?  I wonder what planet he lives on…

I cannot prove that he is insincere and perhaps he believes his story, but part of me actually thinks he is simply trying to sell books.  He is certainly getting plenty of press for his mediocre research.

#2 L.Long (Guest) on Sunday March 18, 2012 at 11:49am

Name one thing that I need from religion????
The ‘I’ can be anyone.  The only answer I get is that ‘I’ am terrified of death and the religious myth of the afterlife gives me comfort.  Well OK but my answer is ‘grow up!’ and accept reality and make the best of this while you can.
I see nothing religion has that I cannot find in the secular environment.

#3 johndbraungart on Tuesday March 20, 2012 at 6:49am

I very much appreciated this well articulated, and well deserved, take-down of De Botton’s terribly unsound and insupportable premise as conveyed in his new book’s title and the publicity statements he’s making in order to shill it.

One minor, and perhaps trifling, point of note is that George Bailey’s existential crisis was not concerned with giving up his soul, but rather of giving up his life (as he contemplated suicide on the bridge). Seeing the world as it might have been without his ever having lived, and thus minus all the ethical good he’d contributed, is significant especially because George’s behavior throughout his life was predicated almost solely upon his community-based ethics, rather than fear of punishment, hope for reward, mindless indoctrination, or religious certainty.

#4 Jenifer (Guest) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 at 9:17am

Having also read much of De Botton’s ideas, I believe that he is sincere and has simply observed closer-knit sections of society such as exists in the southern states where I was raised. Leaving my religion was a 10-year process, not because I was conflicted about the logic or confused about the absence of a god but rather because of all that I was giving up socially, emotionally, and spiritually. There is no replacement in small (or even large) southern areas for your church. Every local orginization is entwined through it, whether it be the arts, city council, humanities, outreach to the poor and needy, you name it - that chairperson is elected through the church or a church connection. Upon meeting a new person here, you give your name and in turn that person asks what church you attend. It is customary and not at all seen as rude. To answer that you are atheist or do not attend church is to ostracise oneself. This is not a local phenomenon. I have lived in SEVERAL southern states.
So, perhaps this book was simply written from a different perspective than yours. I didn’t hear him say that religion is good at all. I heard him say, exactly as I feel, that there isn’t adequate support and replacement in the atheist community for what the religious person leaves behind. And before we, as atheists, act all high and mighty offering logic as a solution to everyone’s problems maybe we should consider all that we are asking them to sacrifice and walk away from when they leave their religion, their community, and their comforting rituals when we have no true answers for them and can offer only the surety that no one hears them when they pray, no one is in control of the universe, no one cares what happens to them and we’re not equipped to deal with the depression they’re about to experience. Is it any wonder they cleave to religion?! It doesn’t make it right. De Boutton simply acknowleges what is.

#5 John D (Guest) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 at 10:21am

Jennifer - I agree that there are few things that replace the kind of in-group love and support that comes from a tight community church.  Perhaps it is also found in some parts of the military or business where a group is very self involved and where the stakes are high.

But, when we think about all the good feelings we get from these tight small social groups we must also think about the abuse that often comes from these groups.  The reason people feel so loved and powerful when they are in the majority in a small southern town is that being with the in group gives automatic social status and power.  This is the kind of power that is at the heart of bigotry and intolerance.

In order to replace this in secular society we would have to encourage people to form groups that identified themselves as special, and powerful, and RIGHTEOUS!  This is one of the problems as I see it.

It looks to me like de Botton is proposing that there is a social in-group of atheists and if you are part of the in-group you can obtain political and social power.  You can join the group if you follow the proper ritual, tithe to the congregation, support the approved charities, and keep your mouth shut when you disagree.  (But doesn’t it feel good when we all sing John Lennon songs in our pretty new lofty temple).

#6 johndbraungart on Wednesday March 21, 2012 at 11:14am

I think it must be pointed out that the problem Jennifer illustrates so poignantly in her personal account is precisely the measure of divisiveness which is deliberately created and reinforced by religious certainty (which is not the same as to say that divisiveness has no other discernible causes, but merely that religion is one of it’s major causes throughout history and to this day).

The idea that someone needs to pass a litmus test, which also sounds like a kind of a placement test, that takes no other factors of an individual’s value into consideration other than his or her supernatural beliefs is an appallingly narrow minded and frightening concept around which to organize a community. It should be glaringly obvious that this type of attitude shows absolutely no regard for human compassion, nor any willingness to learn how to cooperate in a diverse world.

Will the members of a progressive secular society need to work very, very hard in order to replace this outmoded construct?

Will this create painful challenges for people going through the difficult transitional period?
Without doubt.

Does telling atheists they need some form of secularized “religion” in order to live a meaningful life solve any conceivable problem?
Arguably no.

Does blaming atheism for the current state of religion’s dominance make any sense whatsoever?
Absolutely not.

#7 CB (Guest) on Sunday April 08, 2012 at 7:57am

I felt the same about Bruce Sheiman’s book, “An Atheist Defends Religion”

#8 Jon Jermey (Guest) on Tuesday April 17, 2012 at 2:26am

I think De Botton is living out a fantasy in which the secular leaders, having gained power, find it’s all turning to dust and ashes like Dead Sea Fruit. The cry goes out: who can take control and bring us back to the ways of High Culture? Shyly smiling, a slight, balding figure steps forward from the crowd…

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