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Since writing this post on Godless theology, I’ve been meditating a lot on the possibility of religious atheism. That could mean anything from Jewish humanism to Zen Buddhism to the ideas outlined in Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship.” Jewish humanists, Siddhartha and Russell all have different ways of finding meaning in a world absent a personal God, and your mileage for each may vary; but I’ll wager that the least satisfying of those accounts is still infinitely more nourishing than Alain de Botton’s banally Gladwellian “atheism 2.0.”
De Botton begins a recent TED Talk (via — who else? — Andrew Sullivan) by attempting to distinguish his cuddly, family-friendly atheism from the more vituperative New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and the recently deceased Chris Hitchens. But the New Atheists, despite their numerous failings (of which I’ve written extensively in the past), are at least willing to treat religious claims as if they mean something. By trying to please everyone, De Botton ends up condescending to both the serious faithful and the serious faithless — in other words, anyone who bothers to think critically about big questions. As insufferable as PZ Meyers and his ilk may be, I’ll take combativeness over a pat on the head.
De Botton’s starting point for developing atheism 2.0 is reasonable enough: he argues that atheism, which is to say the rejection of a narrow band of metaphysical claims, is not on its own a sufficient foundation for a whole worldview or collective identity. So far so good, but his proposed alternative is utter pablum. He says:
I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways — and I’m being both very respectful and completely impious — of stealing from religions. If you don’t believe in a religion, there’s nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion. And for me, atheism 2.0 is about both, as I say, a respectful and an impious way of going through religions and saying, “What here could we use?”
I’ve complained in the past that atheists all too often try to dodge serious existential problems by just appropriating religious concepts and giving them a pseudo-rationalist gloss. De Botton not only does the same thing, but proudly announces his intention to do so. Too bad for him that a religion isn’t a salad bar, where you can nibble on the parts you like and elide the nasty bits; the pieces fit together to form a larger whole. Decontextualizing the parts you like and plugging them into your own worldview willy-nilly means importing some of religion’s most grating excesses as well: its smugness, its philosophical complacency. If atheists want to interface with religion — and that is, for sure, something I encourage — then they must be willing to interface with all of it. That means opening yourself up to uncertainty, confusion, and even fear.
De Botton clearly finds uncertainty and fear distasteful. Otherwise, he might have a very different attitude towards religious art than the one he expresses below:
My view is that museums should take a leaf out of the book of religions. And they should make sure that when you walk into a museum — if I was a museum curator, I would make a room for love, a room for generosity. All works of art are talking to us about things. And if we were able to arrange spaces where we could come across works where we would be told, use these works of art to cement these ideas in your mind, we would get a lot more out of art. Art would pick up the duty that it used to have and that we’ve neglected because of certain mis-founded ideas. Art should be one of the tools by which we improve our society. Art should be didactic.
One might wonder how one of the greatest religious artists of all time — Fyodor Dostoevsky — fits into this notion of didactic art. No doubt a didactic Christian artist in the De Botton mode never would have written the parable of the Grand Inquisitor — a critique of Christian morality so devastatingly persuasive that the author himself never discovered a proper rebuttal. That is what true religion and true art look like: struggle. Yis’rael is often translated as “He who wrestles with God.”
If religion has anything to give atheists, it’s more than just a series of empty gestures and defanged observances. Religion can help us define the terms of greater struggles, but only as a means toward taking those struggles seriously. The problem with atheism 2.0, then, is the problem with De Botton’s whole shtick: he peddles anesthetic, not real medicine. Like his spiritual brother-in-arms Simon Critchley, he specializes in masticating thorny philosophical questions into easily digestible gruel for the educated but intellectually timid. If he really wanted to do his audience a service, he would acknowledge that there is such a thing as despair.