In Defence of Alain de Botton
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”.
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.