I’m way behind on this, since other bloggers have already piled on, but I wanted to comment on this essay by Alain de Botton. Here’s how it opens:
Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.” Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.
De Botton hails from that segment of the nonbelieving population that endlessly trumpets its own moderation. Not for them the histrionics of those militant atheist fundamentalists, with their blanket condemnations of religion and utter lack of subtlety and nuance. No, they are the calm, sensible ones, who see the value in religion even while rejecting its factual assertions.
And then you read paragraphs like the ones above, and you realize what a sham that is.
When someone says the truth or falsity of religions are their least interesting aspects, you can be sure you are reading the work of someone who thinks they are false. If there were a strong argument to be made on behalf of the truth claims of Christianity or Islam, say, that would not be boring at all. That would actually be a momentous contribution to humanity’s understanding of the world. No, pooh poohing a discussion of religion’s factual status is what you do when you consider it obvious that religion is false.
This is a major departure from the view taken by countless believers. To them, religion is interesting only because its factual assertions are true. They are not organizing their lives and defining their identities around religion because they find the rituals quaint and enjoy socializing at the receptions after services. They are doing it because they believe what their religion’s tell them about the world. To them, nothing of value would remain if definitive evidence appeared that their religion were false.
Once that is understood, it becomes clear that de Botton’s statement is far more arrogant and condescending than anything coming from the new atheists. Do you think it seems respectful to religious believers to have the central concerns of their lives dismissed as boring by someone who regards their beliefs as obviously false?
The arrogance only continues in the next paragraph:
I prefer a different tack. To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. It seems clear that there is no holy ghost, spirit, geist or divine emanation. The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to if one concludes he doesn’t. I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling — and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.
The real issue, for whom? How casual he is about dismissing as answered (in the negative) fundamental questions about the existence of God, and how gracious of him to grant that religions are, at least, sporadically useful. But do these strike you as the words of someone who makes a genuine effort to take religion seriously? Or do they strike you instead as the emanations of a stereotypical ivory tower intellectual, brazenly dismissing the concerns of countless believers and lecturing everyone as to where the real issue lies? Let him move to the American South and see how far he gets pontificating about how the real issue in religion has nothing to do with whether God exists. Let him try giving that speech in the Middle East.
de Botton continues:
We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.
God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes.
de Botton seems unaware that there are majority godless societies on earth, in Scandinavia for example, and they seem to have very harmonious communities indeed. And religion’s only contribution to dealing with death is to invent myths which, if you can persuade yourself that they are true, provide some comfort. Discard the myths, as de Botton is plainly inclined to do, and I fail to see how religion has anything left to contribute.
And that, ultimately, is what is so, so wrong about de Botton’s argument. What religion provides is not community, but tribalism. It unites members of the tribe together around a set of common beliefs and practices, but those beliefs and practices also serve to divide them from other communities. In many circumstances it even makes those other communities seem scary and menacing. As a basis for community it does a very poor job indeed. Mimicking it is the last thing nonbelievers should be interested in doing.
Discarding those false beliefs is a great liberation. Societies in which free peoples decide that religious faith is not important can then base their sense of community on their common interests as human beings, and not on any blinkered notion that they know the route to God’s favor.
de Botton’s essay is titled, “What Atheists Can Learn From Religion.” It goes on for quite a few paragraphs, but even after reading all of them I simply have no idea what I am supposed to learn from religion. Personally, the main thing I’ve learned is that if you can persuade people that they have God on their side, then you can get them to behave in some exceedingly nasty ways. I certainly have not learned anything about how to build strong, healthy communities, or how to deal sensibly with the unpleasant aspects of life.