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.