‘A Religion for Atheists?’
Imagine with me.
It is a beautiful and bustling Saturday afternoon in Cambridge, and I stand in a massive queue. It begins at the door of the Cambridge Union, meanders through an alley, and takes a right angle down the street. It is full of scores of people from diverse walks of life, every age range, and all levels of education. This whole host of people is eagerly awaiting entrance to hear the philosopher Alain de Botton. While it is striking in itself to have a philosopher draw such a large crowd of non-academics (try to imagine 12 year-old children showing up to a lecture on Epistemic Warrant), the content of the lecture is even more surprising: “Religion for Atheists.”
To add a sad layer of irony to the scene, the queue into De Botton’s talk actually wraps around the 900-year-old Church of the Holy Sepulchre—a beautiful display of Christian architecture and the place where I work. People are lining up and walking just past an ancient symbol of Christianity in order to hear an atheist speak on religious values—beauty, humanity, and meaning. Could it be that this scene is a sign of the times—that the church has become so marginalised and disconnected that the masses go to an atheist to find meaning for their lives?
This scene betrays the tragic reality that the church has in many ways lost its relevance. The only way to regain it is to begin engaging intellectually, artistically, and personally—to show that Christianity is the only rational and consistent humanism on the market.
As a huge fan of De Botton’s earlier writings (you must read The Art of Travel), I was very interested in seeing what he had to say about religion. De Botton is known as a “popularizer of philosophy,” and it is easy to see why his work has drawn such wide appreciation. In an age when academic philosophy has waxed esoteric and disconnected from most people’s real lives, De Botton offers a ray of literary hope. He writes both accessibly and beautifully, and yet his writings often offer substantial explorations of everything from self to society, travel to beauty.
And on 14 April, De Botton gave a talk on his latest book, Religion for Atheists: a non-believers guide to the uses of religion. He summarized his book by focusing on three areas: Education, Art, and Community. He used these three as examples of places where secularism can learn from religion.
Education, De Botton claimed, should be aimed at training up “full human beings.” He insinuated that religious education has aimed at doing just this, and our secular education system should follow suit. Particularly entertaining was his contention that Cambridge University professors could learn something about rhetoric from African American Pentecostal preachers from Tennessee.
In the realm of Art, he claimed that religious art is better because it takes a stand and tries to convince us to act in a certain way. He called art ‘good propaganda’ and said that modern art is bad because of its extreme vagueness. He was quite critical of the modern idea that art should not endeavor to convince us of anything particular.
Finally, De Botton cited Community as a concept at which secularism has particularly failed. This fact is most evident, says De Botton, when you try to remember the last time you sang in the company of a stranger. The ability to make strangers into friends, he contended, has been a unique and admirable capability of religion.
I find myself ambivalent to the strategy and content of De Botton’s foray into “religion.” On the one hand, I very much appreciate his treatment of religion as a residual force for good. However, I worry that his particular way of writing is too shallow, in that it does not deal with the opposite conclusions of many atheistic thinkers (the Stoics, Nihilists, and Existentialists). All these groups of atheists argued that there was indeed no ultimate meaning in a universe without God.
In spite of these hesitancies, I believe there is something for us to learn from De Botton.
What Can Be Affirmed:
1. Christianity is (actually) good.
I am thankful that there is an atheist who can honestly admit the substantial good that has been produced by religion—particularly Christianity. He even admits in his book that religions are “the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.” He recognizes the insightfulness into human nature of concepts like Original Sin and flatly rejects the idea that religion is only (or even primarily) responsible for evil. De Botton goes as far as dismissing the harsh stance of biologist Richard Dawkins, calling him “The Wind from North Oxford.”
2. Reductionism is ugly, wherever you find it.
Alain de Botton is so popular precisely because he is not guilty of the reductionism of the New Atheists. Whereas Dawkins and Sam Harris seem to hold to the doctrine that science can tell us everything we should care to know, De Botton accepts a much more holistic view of human life and knowledge. This view borrows largely from the biblical view of man, that he is not only rational but relational—that he has real needs aesthetic, moral, communal, and emotional. Perhaps the evangelical church can learn something here, too. Evangelicals all too often view man as little more than a soul to be saved. This reductionism makes us both unattractive to the culture and unfaithful to the biblical view of reality—the view that God created a good and beautiful and rational world.
What Can Be Challenged:
1. Secularism is (just as) good.
De Botton seems convinced that there is a way to achieve all the benefits of religion without any of the actual content of any religion. To do so is not only impossible (due to the inherent link between faith and practice), but it is also inconsistent. Although he admires human virtues and disdains vice, De Botton admits himself that humans are the sole “authors of our own moral commandments.” It is clear that if there is no ultimate foundation for morality, then the values of beauty, faithfulness, and love that De Botton esteems are mere products of culture—just like the religions he so readily dismisses.
2. Reductionism is not inherent in secularism.
De Botton is, it seems, a naturalist, but he endeavors to disbelieve reductionism (the belief that all things—including human beings—can be reduced to molecules and chance). De Botton is right to admire the beauty of Bach’s sonatas, the transcendence of St. Giles Cathedral, and brightness of Jesus’ moral teaching. But naturalism—the view that there’s only material stuff—is not an intellectual framework which allows De Botton to hold such a high view of these things. If he were consistent, I believe he would abandon his high view of human beings, creativity, and morality. In light of the overwhelming popularity of De Botton’s message, combined with its shallowness, I believe the church has an opportunity to respond confidently. First, Christians must begin engaging intellectually, artistically, and personally with the surrounding culture. Second, we must argue convincingly that Secularism is not as coherent worldview as De Botton and others have argued, that Christianity is the only rational and consistent humanism on the market.
Jon Thompson is one of our four apprentices. They blog on our website, this is a revised version of a blog post, and it’s a fascinating collection of articles. christianheritage.org.uk/blog