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.

Comments

  1. #1 Kel
    March 8, 2012

    Julian Baggini expressed similar sentiments recently, but instead of just condemning the new atheists, if put it to the test and presented it to believers. And to his dismay, it turned out the truth of the supernatural was more important to believers than he thought.

    The main problem I see with the argument is that if it was actually true, them the reaction to attacks by the new atheists on the supernatural should have been met with indifference. The hostile reaction suggests it matters far more than people say it does.

  2. #2 Lenoxus
    March 8, 2012

    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.

    I disagree. Thanks to things like cognitive dissonance, people who really do “believe” their religions (whatever that means) may indeed say this. It’s one of the consequences of rejecting the atheist’s cold, cold empiricism. If I had to distill it into a single sentence, it would be “Just because God doesn’t exist doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist.” But of course jthat would be unfair and terribly lacking nuance, typical gnu atheist me.

    To be more serious, though, I do think religious belief is in fact quite complex. One difference between me, and certain others who also feel that religion is (at least in the minds of its adherents, if not in the real world) “more complex than just true or flase”, is that I’m no more awed by this than I am by the complexity of a Ponzi scheme or an optical illusion. Tricking themselves is just a funny thing our brains are capable of doing, that’s all.

    Anyway, I don’t believe that even fundamentalists or literalists care so deeply about Truth Per Se as someone like me does. For them, there is still this vague overlap between (what they perceive as) the good that their religion does, and its truth value. God Is Love and God Is Truth and all that. (Even the word “truth” is quite problematic because of this vagueness. Perhaps “facticity” would be better.)

  3. #3 Lenoxus
    March 8, 2012

    Kel:

    The main problem I see with the argument is that if it was actually true, them the reaction to attacks by the new atheists on the supernatural should have been met with indifference. The hostile reaction suggests it matters far more than people say it does.

    Excellent point. This phenomenon is well-described by Greta Christina in her post What if people treated religion as just a metaphor?

  4. #4 eric
    March 8, 2012

    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 think you are giving religion too much credit by focusing on the bad things it does. If persuading people with a monumental lie gets them to behave in some exceedingly nice ways, its still wrong.

    Or at least ethically suspect in that it seems to violate the golden rule: all of us see ourselves as the ones who don’t need the lie and the ones who would get to do the manipulation. None of us want to be the ones manipulated.

  5. #5 greg byshenk
    March 9, 2012

    Another huge problem with this sort of argument is that the supposed “consolations” of religion are dependent upon the claims of religion being true – or at least of someone believing that they are true. The “sure and certain hope of resurrection” is hardly consoling if one recognizes that it is surely false.

  6. #6 Birger Johansson
    March 9, 2012

    The one thing that I find interesting with religion is the way it serves as a vehicle for cultural memes.

    Some memes are blatantly harmful (the death sentence on those who defect from Islam, the Hindu cast system and so on) and should be openly challenged at every turn.

    The Scandinavian churches have mutated into a rather harmless form of religion with priests as a kind of social workers, and I have no problem getting along with them.

  7. #7 James Sweet
    March 9, 2012

    Loved this line:

    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.

    Ain’t that the truth…

  8. #8 TTT
    March 9, 2012

    De Botton is a pseudointellectual and his bizarre rabbit-hole diversions are worthless in any discussion of religion. He reminds me of Andrew Sullivan, saying that if atheists feel a sense of wonder and joy at how big and beautiful the universe is, then they’re actually religious (and probably actually Christians) because that’s what religion and God are, just a sense of wonder and joy.

    These people have no awareness of the world beyond the margins of their latest machined-out op ed column.

    The whole POINT of religion is to make truth-claims that explain life. Everybody who bothers to believe in a religion does so because they believe it is true.

    But any argument, no matter how weak or bizarre or self-defeating, is a worthwhile argument as long as it boils down to “atheists should sit down and shut up, volume 99883939737383893999″.

  9. #9 Bernard Kirzner, M.D.
    March 9, 2012

    There are two ways to look at this from a psychological angle. As a psychiatrist I see a lot of depressed people. One set of literature (you know, a-religious, evidence based research)indicates that depressed people notice all the negative aspects of reality at the expense of noticing positive events or aspects of their lives when depressed. That leads to reality based therapies to help people see reality better, i.e. notice the positive things.
    However, there is also literature indicating that when depressed, peoople actually see reality more acurately. Further, people recovering from depression do so more quickly if they in essence ignore some of reality.

    The oblivious-to-negative-life-events people recover from depressions quicker and have happier lives until their next depressive episodes.

    So, don’t be so quick to serve up reality testing as a cure for pessimism, depression, and poor reality testing. Sometimes myths can be very funtional, especially when they help one ignore reality.

  10. #10 SQ
    March 9, 2012

    I’d phrase it as: When someone says it doesn’t matter whether religion is true or false, he or she really means it doesn’t matter that religion is false.

  11. #11 Dart
    March 9, 2012

    Thanks for the discussion.

    Perhaps religions need not experience automatic opposition as a function of their beliefs and practices.

    I am in the camp that wants to live and let live, as an atheist. Its too wasteful of my time to worry if I’m too unsubtle to “get it.”

    Religion’s benefits to its believers is a good thing.

    For myself, I like the “cold empiricism” of those non-believers. I try to be useful and tolerant on my best days …and thrill to the beat of empirical scientific work and its stance,which often evidences imagination as well.
    Happy E=mc2 and F=MA to everyone!

  12. #12 Anthony McCarthy
    March 9, 2012

    What one atheist has to say about the value of religion is uninteresting to me, what a half-dozen or so have to say about religion is exactly as uninteresting to me. But, then, I read Russell say pretty much the same things forty years ago and it didn’t interest me much after I got around to his autobiography.

    De Botton is an architect, that’s all I needed to know. Architects playing philosopher make me allergic.

  13. #13 Xuuths
    March 9, 2012

    Dr. Kirzner, you can find “literature” espousing just about every kooky idea about psychiatry — but you should be loathe to practice it, or give it any sort of respectability. We have many examples of psychiatrists prescribing gay reparative therapy, for instance.

    While myths may be “functional” — they do not solve any problems. The ‘magic feather’ from Dumbo did not give him the ability to fly, it was only the first attempt to deal with his stage fright and insecurity.

    Anyone suggesting someone else use safety belts of just single-ply toilet paper and telling them that “they’re magic, and will protect you” is being heinous. The same with analogies to counseling.

    The truth is always better than myth. One cannot handle grief or move forward as a person while wallowing in myth — and no one should suggest they do, regardless of any good intentions.

  14. #14 Dominic Cronin
    March 9, 2012

    You say: “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.”

    While I see the point you are making, a truly religious person would not understand you. To them, the notion of definitive evidence appearing that contradicted their core beliefs is just plain absurd. How could such evidence appear?

    I suspect that truly religious people, faced with such evidence, would reject the evidence rather than their beliefs.

  15. #15 eric
    March 9, 2012

    The oblivious-to-negative-life-events people recover from depressions quicker and have happier lives until their next depressive episodes.

    There are methods for gaining a little healthy obliviousness without being lied to and manipulated. Videogames, books, movies, plays, hobbies, vacations…chatting on internet blogs…

    Sometimes myths can be very funtional, especially when they help one ignore reality.

    Well sure, being lied to and manipulated is one way to escape the depressing bits of reality. But if there are other ways that don’t involve what you, the physician, think are lies and manipulation, don’t you think you should prescribe them first?

    And for the record, I’m not saying all religious leaders are con artists. I’m saying a physician who doesn’t believe in God A should not prescribe religion A just to cure depression, at least not as anything except a last resort.

  16. #16 Barry
    March 9, 2012

    Did anyone understand Anthony McCarthy’s comment #12? It sounds like he is uninterested in anything anyone actually says…especially architects. Did I miss something?

  17. #17 Tim Harris
    March 9, 2012

    ‘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…’
    This is foolish and unpleasant smear. The man is either dishonest or ignorant. Secularism as a political principle has in fact been of immense importance on bringing about a situation in which believers of different persuasions, as well as unbelievers, can live together without burning or disembowelling one another, or discriminating against one another. And it remains of immense importance. There is a splendid defence of secular principle in ‘The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism’ (Jens-Martin Eriksen & Frederik Stjernfelt; Telos Press), a book that I strongly recommend: it deals with the appalling political situation in Malaysia, the attempts of various religions, and in particular Islam, to make blasphemy a punishable offence in ‘secular societies, and also in the case of Islam the attempt to retain the ban on apostasy (which is retained in most if not all majority Muslim countries); it also deals with the Danish cartoons and the way the issue was manipulated.

  18. #18 Tommykey
    March 9, 2012

    de Botton’s essay is titled, “What Atheists Can Learn From Religion.”

    I didn’t read the essay, but based on his title, he doesn’t seem to realize that a lot of atheists once were religious. The reason we became atheists is because we already learned all that we felt we needed to know about religion.

  19. #19 Tim
    March 9, 2012

    A claim I hear repeatedly is this shopworn prattle: “religions.. serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, … 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.”

    A little over a year ago, I sat in a church and watched my wife deliver a beautifully inspiring eulogy on the occasion of the death of her best friend. She said very little about God or religion. What she did talk about was her relationship with her friend, how much she will miss her friend, and the good things she remembered about her friend. In contrast, the pastor of the church (who had known the deceased for many years) gave a ritualistic sermon – devoid of emotion and significance. The only purpose of his words, as far as I could tell, were to use the death of my wife’s friend as another occasion to proselytize and to numb the mourners with ritualistic, generic incantations. After my wife spoke, even he must have sensed the shallowness of everything he’d said.

    Religion is as likely to paper over loss with cheap, synthetic ritual – the “comfort” it provides is quite often cold.

  20. #20 Wyocowboy
    March 11, 2012

    listen to John Safrin “Atheist Door Knocking” see the Bishop of a Mormon hitting John with his cane.

  21. #21 Kevin
    March 14, 2012

    “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 find it surprising that someone trained in formulating precise statements should feel so at ease tossing metaphorical grenades like this.

  22. #22 hio48
    April 10, 2012

    “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true”.

    I wonder what would be the most boring answer to this question…

    The fact that religion is considered true by only some people raises another question: Why don’t all people, for instance, recognize Christianity as “true”? Why can’t or don’t ALL people see the “truth” in Christianity where its adherents assert that once you see the truth you are bound to recognize it?

  23. #23 Wow
    April 12, 2012

    “Did anyone understand Anthony McCarthy’s comment #12?”

    Nobody ever does, Barry. He throws out memetic phrases that push his buttons (materalistic scientism, for example, or another favourite, militant atheists) because he hates people who want reason rather than woo and don’t put up with woomancer BS. But to ensure he can continue to use these dogmatic phrases to vilify anyone who doesn’t immediately agree with him, he never (at least any more) tries to explain who or what they are.