Philosophy Weekend: Alain De Botton on Religion

Whenever Alain De Botton writes a new philosophy book — which is often — I root heartily for the guy.  The young Swiss intellectual has been aiming to establish himself as the world’s foremost public philosopher, seeking the attention of common readers rather than the regard of academic peers by publishing a steady stream of short, friendly books about the way we fall in love, or the work we do to earn a living, or the homes we select to reflect our personalities.

I prefer public philosophers to academic ones (it takes so much more bravery, for one thing, to approach a popular audience) and I want to be an Alain De Botton fan.  Unfortunately, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I have begun at least seven of his books, and have never felt compelled to finish a single one.  I’m always impressed with his sense of mission but put off by a languid, Proustian preciousness of tone, by a sense that I am reading the Martha Stewart of philosophy. His books are illustrated with crisp photos that seem to try to evoke W. G. Sebald, but his meandering prose does not deliver the enigmatic emotional punch of a W. G. Sebald book.  The idea of Alain De Botton may be better than the substance … or perhaps, more optimistically, like Ludwig Wittgenstein he may get better with age.

His newest book, which is getting a lot of attention, is called Religion For Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. The main idea is that atheists (De Botton is an atheist, and was brought up as one) deserve to have the same fun religious people have — feasts, swooning ecstasies, extravagant holidays, fantasies of moral redemption, grand artistic projects. Non-believers ought to grab the bull by the horns and start initiating the same kinds of structures, traditions and events that religious organizations have been enjoying for years.

This is hardly a new idea; it was the basis of Felix Adler’s once hugely influential Ethical Culture movement, for one thing, and similar attempts can be traced at least as far back to Maximilian Robespierre’s ill-fated Festival of the Supreme Being, which was intended to be the culmination of the spiritual ideology of the French Revolution.

The book’s main idea would not need to be new if it were expressed with great force and original insight, but the delivery here feels pedestrian. Most importantly, De Botton fails to bridge any gaps between believers and atheists, and directs the book only towards those who already do not believe in a religion.  He misses a gigantic opportunity here, and this indicates that the earnest philosopher may not have a strong sense of the irony and psychological conflict that often already exists beneath the surface of every single spiritual mind.  He misses the fact that there is already religion for people who do not necessarily believe in God.  It’s called religion.

Does he really think that innocent and simple belief, based in some profound sense of God’s presence, is behind the popularity of religion?  No, in fact, the biggest attractions for religion already are, and always have been tradition, community and family history.  Many American Christians, for instance, love Christmas more than they love Christ (this was the point behind the famous early South Park cartoon that pitted Jesus Christ in a death battle against Santa Claus, and there’s little doubt which of the two would win a popularity contest today).

So this book’s thesis has already proven itself, and has done so without De Botton’s help. The proving ground can be found in the churches and temples in every neighborhood in the world, because all these organizations thrive on exactly the social balms that De Botton prescribes, and they already minister to non-believers on a regular basis.  I know this because I talk to many people about religion, and I know how many person feel no qualms about going to a church, participating in all the rites, wearing the identifying symbols and following the rules (at least the easy ones), and then saying, in answer to a question, “no, I don’t believe it myself, but I like it.”

Ministers and priests and rabbis and gurus and popes and imams seem to be fully aware that their congregations are highly skeptical, and it’s a fact that no major church or temple in the world will kick you out for declaring yourself a non-believer.  “Stay, have some food”.  These organizations are more clever than De Botton credits — indeed, with competitors like these, his plain and spiritually bland “religion for atheists” will have a hard time finding any customers at all.  Why would an agnostic person choose a church for atheists when the family church also welcomes them, and has better stained glass windows?

Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote that “Atheists are as dull, who cannot guess God’s presence out of sight.”  This is why De Botton’s religion for atheists is guaranteed to inspire no followers at all, though it may sell some books.  A philosophy of life must not only avoid error to find any takes — it must also fire the imagination, and this pedantic book falls short on this front.

I suspect that De Botton knows this, but hasn’t figured out how to improve his pitch.  Like many of his previous books, Religion For Atheists succeeds as a lively conversation-starter, but is not likely to change the way anyone thinks, or improve the world in any way.  I still have hope for Alain De Botton’s career, though, and I wish I could present him with a challenge: please stop writing pretty books aimed to decorate our minds with philosophy, and instead write a book so shocking and provocative that we will all have to decide to love or hate you, to virulently agree or disagree with what you prescribe.  This is what the great public philosophers from Socrates to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Bertrand Russell to Ayn Rand have done.

Alain De Botton has written many books, but they all go down too easily. I have never heard two people on the street yelling at each other over whether or not Alain De Botton is right or wrong about something.  Until this starts happening, he is only playing a public philosopher on TV, and risking the hazard of evolving into nothing but a “pet philosopher”, a TED familiar, a social success, a coffee-table book author.   A little less Marcel Proust and a little more Fyodor Dostoevsky may be what Alain De Botton needs to attain the lofty goals he has set for himself when he began his writing project years ago.  I hope his next book pisses off more people than Religion For Atheists ever will.

16 Responses

  1. “He misses the fact that
    “He misses the fact that there is already religion for people who do not necessarily believe in God. It’s called religion.”

    Thanks for this…

  2. Thanks to you, Levi, I had
    Thanks to you, Levi, I had never heard of the man until I read this, and thanks to you, I have no desire to read any of his books. Many thanks to you for saving me some precious time.

  3. “…there is already religion
    “…there is already religion for people who do not necessarily believe in God. It’s called religion.”

    I’ve never seen a definition of religion that excludes belief in God or supernatural powers. The Latin origin of the word means “respect for what is sacred, reverence for the gods,” according to the encyclopedia and dictionary.

    In fact, “religion” and not “God” are what most contemporary atheists reject. The ability to be “inspired” or “in awe” can be derived through encounters with science, which investigates and describes physical wonders in a way many find more satisfying than “God is great.”

    “Community” is likely the most powerful motivator people have in choosing a particular religion, but Christians among predominantly non-Christian communities in non-Christian nations don’t go to non-Christian services – instead they band together and have their own, even if only three people attend. They may of course be friendly and even “ecumenical” with non-Christians, but they do not go to non-Christian institutions to gain a sense of “community.” (Indeed, their religion suggests they not do so, lest they be corrupted by alien beliefs.)

    As for “it’s a fact that no major church or temple in the world will kick you out for declaring yourself a non-believer,” we may quibble over “major,” but I’ve known more than one person asked to leave a church for merely questioning a particular doctrine, much less declaring oneself outside the community of believers. I’ve witnessed entire congregations torn asunder because of an argument over a single chapter of II Corinthians. And let’s not even begin to get into what happens if you are a member of a Catholic congregation and you *openly* declare yourself a non-believer: you may not be kicked out of the church, but you will not be allowed to receive the sacrament of communion. You might question why a non-believer would want to receive communion, to which I’d point the commonality of “communion” and “community,” and ask if it’s all about the latter why deny someone their place over a little piece of cookie?

    I’m with you on contemporary philosophers however – I’d like a book half as “shocking” or “thought-provoking” as the weakest effort by Nietzsche or Ayn Rand. We as a society and culture certainly could use it, and we may even need it.

  4. “He misses the fact that
    “He misses the fact that there is already religion for people who do not necessarily believe in God. It’s called religion.”

    I had a genuine LOL moment after reading that line. Good work.

    That is one of the reasons I stear clear of churches. There’s not enough genuine belief, people seem to be just going through the motions. When I was a kid, I liked going to church to check out the girls in their dresses. Now that I’m older, I realize what a crime that was. I believe in God but I don’t see myself going to church any time soon. My house is my church. My mind is my temple.

    I do have a question for you tho, Levi. What is wrong with being a TED familiar?

  5. Thanks for these responses
    Thanks for these responses …

    Cal, I definitely think a firebrand like you (I say that with respect and affection) would get kicked out of lots of churches. Yes, if you protest openly against a church or temple’s sacred practices and rules, you can get kicked out. But this is different from the kind of apathetic indifference to religion I’m describing. A very small number of people will protest against a religion. A much larger number — a majority of any large religion’s population, I bet — will ignore that religion’s core beliefs and principles, all the while remaining a “member” of that religion for reasons of family, community or tradition.

    This reminds me of when I took my kids to a Buddhist temple in Elmhurst, Queens, many years ago. I was very excited to do this, having studied Buddhism in books for a long time. Imagine the comical shock I endured when I showed up at an actual Buddhist church for the first time in my life, expecting perhaps to be greeted into the most enlightened society I had ever encountered– only to realize that this was a neighborhood church, packed with middle-aged men and women and their families (almost all of them speaking Chinese, and looking exactly like people on the street in any other part of this family) who seemed to be there in a purely social mood, bringing food, carrying out ritual prayers, greeting each other’s kids, no differently than if they were at a party or a dance. There was nothing there for me, because I was not a member of the community, and clearly never would be. I realized then that, for all my rarefied notions of what Buddhism was, for these “believers”, the temple was simply a community gathering place for families that knew each other. If anybody pondered the meaning of the Four Noble Truths in this temple on this day, I must have missed it.

    Catalyst, my problem with Alain De Botton at TED is that, like I wrote, I admire his mission to be a public philosopher — for ALL the public. There is no reason he should not attend TED, but there is a risk that he could get caught up in the trendy exclusivity of it (hell, they don’t invite ME) and I think this could be a distraction to his more egalitarian mission to reach regular people through his books. Which is what i like best about his work in the first place.

  6. Levi, thanks for this
    Levi, thanks for this excellent and much-awaited article on a world-class intellectual who had the courage to write for the general public–not just for a restricted scholarly audience–about art, literature and philosophy. I think there are few who do this as engagingly and as effectively as Alain de Botton: in the U.S. the closest comparison would be to Martha Nussbaum (Love’s Knowledge, Cultivating Humanity, etc). As you know, I’ve written my own review of Religion for Atheists and De Botton’s role as a public intellectual, from the point of view of my own experience in literary studies in the American academia:

  7. PS: Levi, Although we
    PS: Levi, Although we obviously agree to disagree on your assessment of De Botton’s works, I appreciate your well-articulated point of view, as always. I wonder if our differences of opinion are not partly due to our different formations in comparative literature versus philosophy. I think that De Botton, in contradistinction to so many literary theorists I’ve read, writes very clearly and has the capacity to establish the relevance of literary and philosophical works for a general audience. I have found this to be a lost artform in itself, which very few scholars excel at nowadays. In recent intellectual history, only a handful of American scholars did (or still do) this: Dworkin, Rorty, Danto, Nussbaum, Fish, Bloom and a few others. I don’t know, however, how he’d measure up if analyzed by contemporary standards of “philosophical rigor”. You obviously think not too well. However, I don’t think that’s the audience he targets or the standards he aspires to. To my mind, he’s a rare breed nowadays–a “public intellectual”–that offers a bridge between canonical works in literature and philosophy and a general audience (that would probably have relatively little interest in them, without a catalyst like De Botton’s works).

  8. I didn’t know about Alain De
    I didn’t know about Alain De Botton, and I think I’ll steer clear of him after this blog post.

    I’m in favour of an “accessible” philosophy, and of open divulgation to common readers, but “aiming” to be “the world’s foremost public philosopher” sounds to me like, for a pop star, aiming to be on the top of the music charts. That, very often, is in conflict against the free expression of the musician best talent. Usually trying to be on the top of the charts corresponds to producing easy listening, “commercial” music, putting away (or reducing anyway) the creative impetus, and being subdued to the (usually low) habits and tastes of the mass (usually low educated) consumers. To put it plain, the Police sold much less discs than Lady Gaga… so, it seems that to be more “accessible”, Alain is weathering down philosophy to a bunch of “life hits and tips” or easy recipes.

    The main idea of this book seems to me like a contradiction. I see already many forms of secular organizations where someone can try to achieve “feasts, swooning ecstasies, extravagant holidays, grand artistic projects” and maybe even “fantasies of moral redemption” (it depends on the meaning of “redemption” for atheists) without messing with divinity and religion.

    I am sorry to read about the very poor esteem granted to religious people. For sure, there are many people that declare themselves religious and then almost completely ignore the precepts and, even worse, the core meaning of their religion, frequenting their rites just to get the “social factor”, or just because of tradition or family heritage, as Levi stated. There are also people declaring themselves religious, believers of their god, but not in their church, and not participating in their rites or religious social life.

    So I am not surprised of Levi’s experience with the Buddhist church, or to read about north american christians loving more Christmas than Jesus (still, I feel a bit sad about that…).

    And finally there are also truly religious peoples, participating in their rites and in the life of their church as the secular implementation of their belief in their god. It is possible they are a reduced number, but it is not correct to ignore them entirely. I don’t think it is common to keep professing a religion in a place where this put you in risk of your life, without a serious belief. I don’t think someone will participate in a many hours long Via Crucis just for the “social factor”, or will practice complete abstinence from physical union since young age until marriage without a strong faith.

    Taking seriously the message of a religion, and accepting to change their own life every day according to it, is a very difficult thing, so I think is understandable than many peoples participate in their religion with the good intent, but fail to persevere in the everyday life or to achieve some form of shift in their life.

  9. i don’t know what percentage
    i don’t know what percentage of “religious people” are in it mostly for the community aspect, and essentially “go through the motions” on points of doctrine and worship, but i suspect you’re right— it’s probably a sizable number.

    of course this doesn’t mean that a core group of zealots, even if technically a minority, can’t hold considerable sway over aspects of our society at times, and even profoundly influence government policy at times. e.g.– my old church was very big on “end times” doctrine— literalistic interpretations of the second coming of christ and the holy land’s restoration to israel. such a world view, even if presumably internalized by policy-makers as an article of belief and not directly voiced, could have implications for our middle eastern foreign policy.

    even bush’s iraq invasion purportedly had a distinct religious angle to it— that is, if former french president chirac’s revelation a few years ago is true. chirac, after leaving office, reported that bush called him in 2003 to make a last-ditch attempt to secure france’s support for war in iraq, and that in this phone discussion bush claimed the invasion was “willed by god,” and cited “gog and magog” (prophetic figures in ezekiel). i read this account almost three years ago. did anyone else read about this?

    anyway, if we want a hard-hitting book on religion, perhaps these are the sort of issues that would make some bigger waves.

  10. Sorry but I can not see what
    Sorry but I can not see what the supposed affirmation of Bush has to do with the “serious” discussion about the participation of peoples to religion…

  11. Well, Subject Sigma, there
    Well, Subject Sigma, there was a whole lot of “faith” talk underlying George W. Bush’s entire presidency, though I agree that these points are a bit of a distraction to this conversation.

    Regarding your points about religion — I agree, yes, there are many people for whom religion is a deeply serious and personal thing. Well, that’s why I used words like “many” or “most” rather than “every” and “all” in my article.

    Sigma, I also want to clarify that Alain De Botton never, as far as I knew, stated that he wanted to be the world’s foremost public philosopher. I was interpolating his mission from much available evidence within his books, interviews, etc. But he never made a statement so blatant, and shouldn’t be blamed for doing so. Just want to make that clear!

  12. what i’m saying is: A) these
    what i’m saying is: A) these belief systems are perhaps more widespread and ingrained, both consciously and subconsciously, than we may realize, and B) the world view they engender within a significant portion of the electorate and those elected to power, may be influencing both american and israeli policy in dangerous ways.

    i could be wrong about this– overstating the potential harmful influence of these belief programs on the future. as 9/11 and our grossly disproportionate response fade in our rear-view, perhaps bush will turn out to be the only “idiot” on this front to gain enormous power, but i wouldn’t count on it.

  13. @ Levi: ok, you interpolated
    @ Levi: ok, you interpolated from his books and I interpolated from your blog post… so I will “suspend my judgement” about Mr. De Botton – but not about the main idea of this book.

  14. Christian Atheism makes about
    Christian Atheism makes about as much sense as people who gave up eating animals but buy veggie hot dogs

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