Alain de Bot­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Miriam Cosic

Re­li­gion for Athe­ists By Alain de Bot­ton Hamish Hamil­ton 320pp, $35 (HB)

ALAIN de Bot­ton has made his name — and pre­sum­ably a sec­ond for­tune (the lucky man in­her­ited wealth) — writ­ing best­selling books of pop­u­lar phi­los­o­phy, such as How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Con­so­la­tions of Phi­los­o­phy. Good on him. He seems like a nice guy. His stated mo­tives, to in­crease the spread of hap­pi­ness and beauty, are fine ones.

The prob­lem is the books. In bring­ing phi­los­o­phy to a wider public than pro­fes­sional philoso­phers gen­er­ally do, de Bot­ton man­ages to strip the use­ful­ness right out of se­ri­ously use­ful con­cepts. He re­duces the ur­gent search for mean­ing to squidgy hom­i­lies. In sum, he un­err­ingly misses the point. If he were a car­pen­ter, his nails would be bent, his shelves unassem­bled and his thumbs a bloody pulp.

In his lat­est book, Re­li­gion for Athe­ists, de Bot­ton loses a bob each way. He wrings re­li­gion of its his­tor­i­cal and meta­phys­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, and bleaches it of its dra­matic in­ten­sity. He also pa­tro­n­ises athe­ists, his fel­low-trav­ellers, by sug­gest­ing they learn from the leached-out leav­ings he dis­plays.

The book is lovely to look at and to han­dle, and is or­gan­ised un­der al­lur­ing chap­ter head­ings such as Com­mu­nity, Kind­ness, Per­spec­tive and Art. In each, the au­thor uses as­pects of Catholi­cism, Ju­daism or Bud­dhism to teach us how we — he as­sumes his readers are athe­ists — might be­come bet­ter peo­ple.

The rit­u­als of the Day of Atone­ment, for ex­am­ple, show us how we might get over such ap­palling in­ci­dents as a miss­ing in­vi­ta­tion, an un­kind re­mark or a for­got­ten birth­day. He writes lyri­cally of the most solemn day of the Jewish cal­en­dar and the po­etic le­gal­ity of the Kol Nidrei, with its stern in­junc­tions, and then turns them to tame such slights. No men­tion of the big ones — in­fi­delity, fraud, mur­der — that re­ally test our moral strength.

Else­where he gives a gloss on the Catholic Mass which might sur­prise the faith­ful. He recog­nises that Mass com­mem­o­rates the Last Sup­per, though he doesn’t go into the hor­ror of the cru­ci­fix­ion the fol­low­ing day, or that Christ died that way for our sins.

He ex­plains that Chris­tians, like Jews with the Sab­bath meal, ‘‘ un­der­stood that it is when we sa­ti­ate our bod­ily hunger that we are of­ten read­i­est to di­rect our minds to the needs of oth­ers’’.

Tell that to fast­ing Catholics whose stom­achs used to rum­ble right through Mass. And the Last Sup­per was hardly a feast, what with the dis­ci­ples’ poverty and Je­sus mak­ing all his bleak pre­dic­tions. De Bot­ton also doesn’t men­tion that while Angli­cans be­lieve that Com­mu­nion is sym­bolic, Catholics, with their doc­trine of tran­sub­stan­ti­a­tion, be­lieve that, in the mo­ment, the wafer and the wine are changed into the ac­tual body and blood of their Saviour. Can­ni­bal­ism, as an athe­ist might view it, may be a step too far for de Bot­ton’s friendly mes­sage.

He goes on to rec­om­mend a sec­u­lar ver­sion of the Mass and the Passover meal at an ‘‘ agape res­tau­rant’’. There, un­like in the ster­ile en­vi­rons of mod­ern-day eat­ing places, peo­ple will pay a mod­est fee to en­ter an ‘‘ at­trac­tively de­signed in­te­rior’’, where they will be split from their friends to sit with strangers, who they will ask pre­scribed ques­tions, such as ‘‘ What do you re­gret?’’ or ‘‘ Whom can you not for­give?’’ in­stead of the usual in­tro­duc­tory ba­nal­i­ties about work or chil­dren. Tell me he’s jok­ing.

This would, he sug­gests, ‘‘ in­spire char­ity in its deep­est sense, a ca­pac­ity to respond with com­plex­ity and com­pas­sion to the ex­pe­ri­ence of our fel­low crea­tures’’. It would make us privy to ‘‘ ac­counts of fear, guilt, rage, melan­choly, un­re­quited love, and in­fi­delity’’.

That, of course, is what good nov­els do, as de Bot­ton recog­nises later in the book when he sug­gests that Anna Karen­ina and Madame Bo­vary be set in a univer­sity course study­ing the ten­sions of mar­riage, rather than the usual dross of, say, nar­ra­tive trends in 19th cen­tury fic­tion.

In sim­i­lar vein, think­ing of the Seven Sor­rows of Mary de­picted so mov­ingly by Re­nais­sance and baroque artists, he sug­gests that con­tem­po­rary artists be set themes such as the Seven Sor­rows of Par­ent­hood or the Twenty-one Sor­rows of Di­vorce.

But to re­turn to those pre­sump­tu­ous pre­set ques­tions at the agape res­tau­rant, the in­stant in­ti­macy of them makes a mock­ery of the slow and ten­ta­tive self-rev­e­la­tion over time that ce­ments real friend­ship, the ideal of agape, the word Chris­tians took over from the Greek to des­ig­nate love for our fel­low man.

Else­where, de Bot­ton writes that con­tem­po­rary moral thought is based on the as­sump­tion that the col­lapse of tra­di­tional re­li­gion has left us bereft of tools with which to build a con­vinc­ing new eth­i­cal frame­work. This ap­par­ently athe­ist view, he says, hides an as­sump­tion that God once did ex­ist and that the foun­da­tions of moral­ity were su­per­nat­u­ral.

No, it doesn’t. It’s de Bot­ton who begs the ques­tion here. We may re­alise that man cre­ated re­li­gion, in­clud­ing an om­nipo­tent de­ity, to en­force so­cial or­der and pro­vide an ideal to as­pire to, and worry how we will jus­tify eth­i­cal rules with that au­thor­ity gone. If God is dead, Dos­to­evsky warned us, any­thing is pos­si­ble. In­deed, one of the great projects of phi­los­o­phy now is how to ground ethics in a dis­en­chanted world. That doesn’t pre­sume there once was a God, only that we once be­lieved there was.

What de Bot­ton has done is to de­fang re­li­gion: to neu­tralise its for­mi­da­ble weapons against hu­man­ity’s tra­di­tional foes, such as evil and an­ar­chy, and con­tem­po­rary foes such as anomie and ni­hilism.

He seems not to see that a mid­dle way ex­ists be­tween the re­li­gios­ity of the Mid­dle Ages, when be­lief sat­u­rated ex­is­tence and al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tions were lit­er­ally in­con­ceiv­able, and the ag­gres­sive ma­te­ri­al­ism of the noisy New Athe­ists.

There is more than one type of athe­ist. There are those who leave a re­li­gion dis­il­lu­sioned and an­gry, feel­ing they’ve been had. There are also those who were never raised with one and can view the va­ri­ety of re­li­gion in the world with not only equa­nim­ity, but of­ten with in­ter­est. Some of the great 20th cen­tury philoso­phers were athe­ists or ag­nos­tic and stud­ied the­ol­ogy in their pur­suit of ethics and on­tol­ogy. Han­nah Arendt, raised a sec­u­lar Jew, wrote her dis­ser­ta­tion on St Au­gus­tine and love.

De Bot­ton was ap­par­ently raised in an athe­is­tic, nom­i­nally Jewish house­hold too, which is pre­sum­ably why he doesn’t take the bit­ter track. ‘‘ I’m not that in­ter­ested in the heat. I don’t want to get into a de­bate with a fierce athe­ist or a fierce fun­da­men­tal­ist,’’ he told me re­cently. ‘‘ It will hap­pen, but I’m not in­ter­est in re­li­gious wars.’’

He may be re­lieved to find it doesn’t hap­pen, be­cause nei­ther side needs take much ex­cep­tion to his book. He is just snide enough about re­li­gion to state his po­si­tion and get an­gry athe­ists on side, but there is no se­ri­ous is­sue with it: no dis­cus­sion of the pur­pose of ex­is­tence or the ori­gins of life, no ref­er­ences to re­li­gious war or child abuse or the sub­ju­ga­tion of women. He cherry-picks the nice bits and leaves the rest alone.

Nor does he seem to re­alise that most peo­ple se­cure enough in their con­vic­tion to call them­selves athe­ists, rather than un­cer­tainly ag­nos­tic, will have have al­ready looked into re­li­gion and so de Bot­ton brings no news.

In fact, some born athe­ists (as op­posed to the an­gry re­nounc­ers) will read­ily ac­knowl­edge that the eth­i­cal code they live by is deeply in­debted to the Chris­tian ori­gins of our so­ci­ety. As re­li­gious stud­ies pro­fes­sor, Charles Mathewes, puts it, we are still liv­ing on sur­plus cap­i­tal in­vested by pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, and that in­cludes the moral cap­i­tal banked by the­olo­gians and be­liev­ers across mil­len­nia.

Re­li­gion is al­ready for athe­ists.

Alain de Bot­ton is tour­ing Australia to pro­mote Re­li­gion for Athe­ists. He will be at Melbourne Town Hall on Tues­day, Fe­bru­ary 21, Syd­ney Opera House on Thurs­day, Fe­bru­ary 23 and at Grif­fith Univer­sity, Bris­bane on Fri­day, Fe­bru­ary 24.

Squidgy hom­i­lies . . . Alain de Bot­ton

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