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.