In Defence of Alain de Botton

Published by timdean on

My oh my, atheists can be a sensitive bunch. The furore that has erupted over the opening lines of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists, has put not a few noses out of joint amongst the more arm-waving ranks of non-believers. But many of them have just served to reinforce de Botton’s point, which starts like this:

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.

This line inspired some bile-laden posts from a cadre of vocal atheist bloggers, seemingly intent to denigrate de Botton rather than engage with his argument. PZ Myers retorted with a “fuck you very much”, Martin Wagner related de Botton to a Nazi accommodationist, JT Eberhard dismissed most of de Botton’s CNN article as “bullshit”. Others, like Dan Fincke, have made more of an effort to at least understand what de Botton is saying, before getting all defensive about their approach in the face of criticism from de Botton directed towards “fanatical atheists”.

It’s pathetic.

If the so-called ‘new atheists’ want to know why so many people are dismissing them as “fanatical,” one need only peruse these posts. They’re aggressive, mocking, self-righteous and many represent an almost wilful misinterpretation of de Botton in order to thump another table in the name of anti-religion, like that’s the only argument in town, and all others are beneath contempt.

They’re effectively saying to the world of thinkers on religion: “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

The tragic thing is that de Botton is right. The question of whether we’re governed by supernatural forces is boring. It was answered decades ago. Those who still cling to the divine are slow to catch on, but the fact the arguments have been around for so long suggests it’s not a simple lack of realisation on their behalf. There may be other reasons they cling to religion. This suggests more hammering them in the face with rational arguments or derisive invective is unlikely to bring them around.

A far more important question – one that is, as yet, unanswered – is what to do in a world without the divine?

That’s the hard question. And that’s the one that de Botton has engaged with. He’s already agreed with the ‘new atheists’ about their central tenet, and he’s not interested in adding his voice to the chorus shouting into the void of irrationalism. Instead, he wants to talk about building something positive, and that’s a move that should be welcomed, not attacked because of some misguided insecurity.

So let’s get this completely clear: the question of whether or not god exists has been answered. People who say god does exist are wrong. It’s a fairly black and white issue, as far as these things go.

The question of what to do next has not been answered. It also not the kind of issue that likely has a single correct answer. Instead there will be many perspectives, and much debate and discussion over which is preferable.

Some may prefer an entirely individualistic world predicated on freedom of thought and expression. Some might prefer to keep a refined selection of the tools of religion, and just strip them of their supernaturalist underpinnings, and weave them together in an ad hoc manner. Some might seek a ‘secular religion’ that looks and feels like organised religion but is based on reason rather than faith (something I’ve suggested in the past, but am not yet convinced is the correct way to go).

This is a debate worth having, not worth quashing.

And little lines like this one from Eberhard just demonstrate that many of the ‘new atheists’ are pursuing a different (and tired) agenda rather than reflecting on religion as being more than a system of false beliefs:

But religion is absolutely, positively, without qualification NOT useful.

The whole point of mountains of literature, including Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project, is to suggest that religion most certainly WAS useful. But whether religion still is useful into the future remains an open question.

That de Botton wants to move the debate forward, that he wants to tackle this question, and engage with more than just those who are aggressively atheist, is a positive step.

He’s effectively saying: “if you’re not against us, you’re with us.”

And the more the ‘new atheists’ dismiss such approaches out of hand, the more they’ll marginalise themselves and write themselves out of the most important debates yet to be had.


Nathan Duffy · 18th March 2012 at 12:48 pm

“the question of whether or not god exists has been answered. People who say god does exist are wrong. It’s a fairly black and white issue, as far as these things go.”

This is false.

Still, this debate has merit, proceeding from the assumption that most, or all, of the parties engaging in it don’t believe in any god or religion. That is, the study of religion as a cultural, societal force for change and influence and examining things it might do, in terms of process, that could have merit or value even where the central truth claims of the religions don’t. The responses of the atheist reactionaries are predictable and pathetic, as you say, dismissing the question out of hand for no sensible reason.

Still, de Botton’s seems to be a quixotic project if you approach it on the level of ‘religion’, since talking about ‘religion’ is notoriously vacuous. I assume his book delves into many specifics and examples, which is what must be done for the project to be of any value. But talking of ‘religion’ generally will get you nowhere fast.

JG · 18th March 2012 at 1:53 pm

The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.

If the majority of religionists agreed with de Botton, this would be a reasonable starting point. But the opposite is true: although there are exceptions (I’ve sat in a pub with a Church of England priest who told me that he, personally, was an atheist), to the vast majority of religionists the truth of their belief is absolutely central.

So, while you or I might be content with a statement like “People who say god does exist are wrong”, to add that “It’s a fairly black and white issue, as far as these things go” is too far a stretch. To the majority of those in the broad church (excuse the term) to whom de Botton is trying to appeal, it’s not a black and white issue at all.

The whole point of mountains of literature, including Philip Kitcher’s new book, The Ethical Project, is to suggest that religion most certainly WAS useful.

It can “suggest” as much as it wants to, but there’s absolutely no way it can go beyond that, or for you to draw the conclusion that religion has actually been a useful contributor to humankind’s history. My own belief is that it has in fact severely hampered us (and today, through science denial, is quite likely finally to destroy us), but, while I can adduce lots of supportive evidence, there’s nothing conclusive I can offer to back up that conviction — in other words, the answer to “what if?” questions like this one is almost by definition: “We don’t know.”

John S. Wilkins · 18th March 2012 at 2:02 pm

More to the point, the issue of whether atheism will serve as a replacement religion is also settled. Much of the new atheist behaviour is just as tribal, just as exclusionary, and often just as emotive and irrational, as the religion it supplants. De Botton’s view appears to be: given this, pick the best aspects of religion, of which there are many, and apply them to atheism.

onefuriousllama · 18th March 2012 at 2:15 pm

… and the ‘new atheist’ position is that you need not ‘pick’ anything from ‘religion’ to use to create a facsimile, even if it’s supposed to be more rational, since the ‘good’ bit’s are not exclusive to the supernatural superstitions who happen to have large followings.

isomorphismes · 18th March 2012 at 2:29 pm

I just watched the TED talk, didn’t read his book. By the talk, de Botton’s idea was namby-pamby and missed the point of existing cultural institutions.

I agree with you, though, strident atheists are annoying as f_ck.

Tim Dean · 18th March 2012 at 3:11 pm

@JG: The question of whether god exists is fairly simple. However, I’m not suggesting the question of how to convince people of this is just as simple.

In fact, I believe a live demonstration of a fulfilling life without god is likely more persuasive than more rational bludgeoning by atheists, which is why I’m interested in de Botton’s programme.

And I think you grossly underestimate the importance of religion in our past. And you maybe mistake religion for a belief system.

For most of human history it’s been far more than that. It’s been an integral part of culture. And it played a potent role in encouraging cooperation amongst large groups of people.

Nothing about this diminishes the fact that it also caused tremendous harm in other ways, nor that includes some false beliefs, nor that we should attempt to eliminate the false beliefs without also discarding any useful elements that can be built around true beliefs.

Jason McDonald (@physicsman) · 18th March 2012 at 5:05 pm

My response to his TED talk:

Alan de Botton is about the import of religious ideas and values into a secular society. I would contend that any useful idea or value in religion originate from secularism. He asks questions and makes up his own answers there is no more truth in what he says any more then there is truth in ‘because I said so’. People don’t go to school to become better or noble people. They go, for a promise of a more lucrative future, for a chance to understand something better, and even to obtain tools to enact their already noble ideals. School does not ennoble a person. He thinks we need some source of morality. We do not. Morality can come from the altruistic examination of society and how it relates to you. No book or guidance necessary (who guided the guider etc..). Calendars are for crops (yesh). We don’t need to be told to appreciate the world around us as he says. If you could appreciate the moon just by being told to look at it you wouldn’t have to have been told in the first place. On art, I find his ideas of art repulsive. He may be confused in a modern museum I wouldn’t say most are. This asshole wants to confine art to ideology and doesn’t even realize it. Okay his praise of institutionalizing ides is terrible. At the end he is advocating for the mechanisms of religion of which some are most despicable. The mechanisms of religion are built up as a war machines against the mind. If we can learn anything from religion its what not to do with the various, secular, social institution constructs.

Shane McKee (@shanemuk) · 18th March 2012 at 5:37 pm

I think de Botton’s book is excellent and thought-provoking, and he has some good ideas. However, it’s not clear that some of the supposed “needs” catered for by religion are not those seeded by religion itself (for example, “salvation” only became “necessary” when the church pompously informed everyone that they needed it). But do we need to religify secularism? Why not do it the other way round? I give you:

julian · 18th March 2012 at 10:34 pm

“A far more important question – one that is, as yet, unanswered – is what to do in a world without the divine?”

Yes. That’s exactly what we all live in. A world where no one thinks about God, what he wants, what’d be the best way to please Him or ever tries to co-opt Him in order to validate their politics.

J. J. Ramsey · 19th March 2012 at 2:53 am

julian, it’s pretty obvious from the context that “a world without the divine” means a world where the divine doesn’t actually exist, regardless of whether people believe in divinities or not.

Mark Sloan · 19th March 2012 at 4:12 am

In Defence of Alain de Botton

Though a lifelong atheist, my personal experience is that religions can be quite valuable. I sympathize with de Botton’s point.

In societies that maintain supportive secular communities (Scandinavian countries?) that take interest in people’s individual welfare and that promote and enforce some cultural agreed on moral code, religion is not so needed or useful. But, in much of the world, supportive communities are often limited to family and religion.

Religions often provide supportive communities that take a personal interest in the well-being of individuals and provide useful moral references and some enforcement beyond rule of law.

We are not born knowing that we ought to “Do unto others as they do unto you”. We certainly don’t want everyone to have to “figure out morality on their own” or perhaps just act minimally morally to the extent enforced by rule of law. As game theory shows, social morality without enforcement of some kind is nearly impossible.

It is trivial to point out the evil done by religions.

But the criteria for the net good of religions for many people is not “Are religious moralities sensible and optimum?” but “Are religious moralities preferable to no morality beyond that enforced by rule of law?”

shaunphilly · 19th March 2012 at 12:23 pm

De Botton’s criticisms of the new atheists demonstrate his ignorance of the atheist community’s efforts to find ways to create meaningful ways of life without divinity which have been going on for years now. His unfamiliarity with the actual worldviews of such people as Dawkins, PZ, and others leads to this as well as the following mistakes:

1. He is mis-attributing natural human behaviors to religion.
2. He is maintaining the association between those natural human behaviors with supernatural superstition.
3. He is, probably unknowingly, pulling some of the terrible ideas and behaviors along with the good.

(see the rest here:

I saw his talk in Philadelphia last weekend and found his arguments flaccid, his like of such ideas as Original Sin as unfortunate, and his grasp of the relevant issues severely lacking.

    John S. Wilkins · 19th March 2012 at 12:53 pm

    That, at least, is a sensible response, for which my thanks. De Botton seems to have that British, or rather English, sensibility that the Church of England is actually a benign institution once you get rid of the fanatics. History is not so sanguine. The CoE has been, if not as bad as the Catholic Church, pretty nasty in its own way over the years, and not long ago, either. Lately it has had some of its prelates accusing non-Christians of not being fully human.

    But I think that the only alternative to a conscious evaluation of the, as you say, human institutions and behaviours as found in religion (and politics, and sport, and military life, etc.) by atheists is an unconscious reinvention of the worst aspects of these human behaviours, and what I, and possibly Tim, object to is the tribalism that seems to characterise a lot of the atheist movement (and the skeptical movement, and the feminist movement and… well, you get the idea).

    This replicates the exclusionary nature of religion (etc.) in ways that seem to me, at any rate, to be antithetical to what should motivate atheism. When Tim made his criticisms, for instance, he was attacked for being religious on Twitter! Tim is not religious. But his critics certainly looked and sounded like the ways the religious looked and sounded in the past and today.

    While PZ is not, I think, tribal (Dawkins, who I saw deliver his opening address in the God Delusion tour, I am less sure about), many of those who align themselves with the so-called new atheists are, and treat the in-infidels (the fidels?) as worth only contempt and abuse. If atheism is a humanism, that is unforgiveable. If it is not, then I want no part of it as a movement.

Tim Dean · 19th March 2012 at 1:21 pm

Thanks for the comment shaunphilly. I read your linked post, and it raises some good points. As I mention in my post above, I’m not suggesting de Botton is right about his prescriptive recommendations, but I think it’s wrong to dismiss his entire project. Or to dismiss thinking about the world after atheism, as some commentators have done.

And I agree with John that much of what I read in the ‘new atheist’ strain is not really trying to move things forward. Rather much of it (or much of the comments) just tries to signal membership to a new in-group, the ‘faithless’.

For mine, I happen to be an atheist. But that’s one of the least interesting ways to describe what I think or care about. It saddens me that so much energy is expended on espousing a negative thesis rather than moving on to talk about new positive and prescriptive ideas. De Botton might be wrong about some stuff, but he’s right about moving on from atheism.

Robert Oerter · 20th March 2012 at 12:06 am

Thanks for this, Tim. I haven’t read de Botton but I’m agree with the importance of asking, “Where do we go from here?”

It seems to me that many atheists who write on this topic miss the fact that there are already non-religious social groups that, to some extent at least, try to provide what is missing. I’m thinking Ethical Societies (we have one here in Washington, DC – I don’t know how widespread they are), Unitarian Universalist churches, and (to some extent) Quaker meetings. The last two are not strictly non-religious, but they are often welcoming of and sympathetic to atheists.

Atheists who are looking for a community and some of the other things religion provides (and I recognize that not all atheists feel the need for such) might try out these options, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

Q.E.D · 20th March 2012 at 3:16 am

Based on Alain de Botton TED talk I conclude that de Botton painfully misses the point that we do not live in a post religious world where we can pick the corpse of the church clean for anything of value. Religions are powerful institutions that affect the world we live in. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor still thinks atheists are “less than fully human”. Faithful muslims still stone women to death and murder people over burnt books. The Pope and the “Princes of the Church” fight tooth and nail against civil rights for gays. The Vatican still harbours paedophile priests. I could go on but you already know the list.

Sure there are interesting, good things that come out of religion. The same can be said for slavery. Religions give us NGOs, hospitals and schools, all to the good but at the cost of unwanted proselytizing in exchange for food and aid, hospitals who won’t treat women and won’t dispense contraception and schools that brainwash children into believing lies. Likewise slavery gave us the civilizations of Athens and Rome (not to mention the US), enduring art, philosophy and architecture but at the cost of untold, incalculable, human suffering.

There is an ongoing struggle by the religious to force their will on the rest of us and it is the “strident”, “mean”, “nasty” atheists who are speaking truth to power. Accomodationists like de Botton are the Neville Chamberlains in this struggle. He is happy to flatter the religious and project an image of himself as a respectful, reasonable, nice atheist mostly by throwing New Atheists under the bus. In the TED talk he specifically makes the false equivalence between religious fundamentalists and New Atheists (clue: the former kill and oppress people, the latter say mean but true things about religion in books and lectures).

Tim Dean · 20th March 2012 at 8:07 am

@Q.E.D. So I take it you think we shouldn’t talk about a post-religious world until existing religions are diminished or extinct? I fear that might be too late.

Q.E.D · 20th March 2012 at 10:14 am

@Tim Dean, more than happy to discuss a post-religious world, I hope against hope to see it one day. I am a strong advocate of post-conflict resolution planning. However, it is absurd for de Botton to assume that we already exist in a post religious world while various religions are still in power and their organizations and minions actively, energetically and successfully do the evil that they do so well (apologies to Cole Porter).

de Bottton is engaged in utopian fantasy (that I find anti-utopian. Have you read his plans for a Mordor-esque black tower temple to Atheism in central London?). He does this while the very real battle rages around him. Worse, he denigrates the “new atheist” footsoldiers in that battle for his own self-aggrandizement.

Maybe you are a diplomat by nature and the world needs atheist diplomats but religions will never give up their privileges and power without a fight.

It’s all very well and good to pretend that one is above the fray but face it, “nice atheists”, diplomats, accomodationists et al.need us “New Atheists” who won’t go to the back of the bus, will speak truth to power and are willing to get dirty in the trenches. As Clausewitz said “war is the continuation of politics by other means”

Maybe you are constitutionally so formed that you can talk to clerics who think you are “less than fully human” and think your gay friends are “objectively disordered” and your wife with an ectopic pregnancy should die rather than be provided with medical care. Me, not so much, I will call them out as the murderous, misogynist, homophobic,, misanthropic bastards they are.

In the words of Frederick Douglass:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

shaunphilly · 20th March 2012 at 10:33 am

Well, having been a part of the atheist movement, from the inside (but not too deep inside to know the secret handshakes), I have a different perspective.

Yes, there are some pretty zealous people who follow some new atheist “leaders” with something akin to religious fanaticism. a lot of it is like hero-worship; they really defend people who articulate the ideas they like better than they can. And there are some pretty well-spoken people (despite their flaws, which we also talk a lot about) with ideas that are pretty devastating to religion, faith, and what is sometimes called “accommodationism.”

For me, reality is important. I think how we approach the truth is important. And I think that the institutions of the world which lie (in the way Nietzsche meant it toward the end of The Antichrist) are doing measurable harm, and de Botton is not helping the cause of promoting skepticism and science by perpetuating religious tendencies.

After all, the issues you cited above (in the comments), where the atheist movement is like religion, are precisely the criticism of de Botton’s approach I brought up. I am concerned with the insular and in-group mentality in the atheist community. Alain de Botton’s ideas are largely exacerbating that problem, and I want to point out that we need to do a better job of not making those mistakes.

I address ideas such as this here:

TL;DR: early attempts to learn from religion, in the humanist movement, have only succeeded in emulating the parts of religion which may be harmful. We need to dig under all the assumptions and tendencies of religious behavior and thinking and start anew. Including not becoming tribal.

jim p houston · 25th March 2012 at 2:42 am

Melbourne Philosopher John Armstrong (discaimer a coleague of de Botton who worked with on the themes of the book) wrote a piece on the book here::

I’m not prmoting de Botton or saying Armstrong’s right – I just thought it might be of interest to some.

Timmo · 29th March 2012 at 1:36 am

“The question of what to do next has not been answered.”

I think you’re right to highlight an important philosophical question: what does atheism imply for who we are and what we ought to do with our lives? You probably know this already, but this was an issue that Sartre took up. In his existential philosophy, Sartre tried to “draw the full conclusions of a consistently atheistic position” and this meant working out the difficult “process of becoming-an-atheist.” This was an idea he adapted from Kierkegaard, who always talked about becoming a Christian instead of being a Christian. Sartre thought one cannot authentically be an atheist and he might have said of the so-called new atheists that they had bad faith and were inauthentic, precisely because they don’t raise the questions that de Botton thinks atheists should ask.

As a Christian theist, I naturally don’t agree that the existence of God was settled decades ago and that Christianity lives out in the “void of irraitonalism.” Nevertheless, I think the cultural debate about whether such-and-such religion is basically true is boring. The reason is that people are not motivated to be believers or non-believers on the basis of arguments. Nobody ever died for the ontological argument or for the problem of evil. What’s at stake is moral, existential, political, and social, and Sartre would be the first person to tell us that framing things in another way would be in bad faith.

Ockham’s Beard badly needs a shave · 18th March 2012 at 9:50 pm

[…] now ! Is there really no end to the terror rule of Mister Pop Philosopher Alain de Botton, or the fleas who think it their duty to defend the man’s mindless inanities ? I’m getting tired of […]

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