Alain de Botton
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