Scratching the Surface

English: Leeds Student Radio Web page article ...

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Critic Aengus Woods gets at what’s so dissatisfying with Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists:

De Botton fluently identifies how religion traditionally addressed social needs before offering his own secular proposal for meeting them anew. For example, religion has traditionally provided a sense of community that can override divisions of class or income. We might therefore regain this sense of togetherness through rituals that mimic, say, the Eucharistic service. De Botton suggests a restaurant where “our fear of strangers would recede” and “the poor would eat with the rich.” And Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall might be replaced by electronic billboards “that would anonymously broadcast our inner woes,” thereby reminding us that “we are none of us alone in the extent of our troubles and our lamentations.”

The problem with this approach is not simply that the solutions are trite or feel crassly commercial. The problem is that it is utterly impossible to get any sort of consensus on what we poor secularists need from religion. The beauty and danger of organized religion has always been its authoritarian aspect: It tells us what is wrong and what is right, what is healthy and what is impure. Apply these edicts to the secular world, and they begin to look suspiciously like indoctrination. Where is the place of criticality here, and exactly whose values get to be promoted? If they are common-sense values, we will soon find a plethora of competing commonsensical values. We should remember how quickly Socrates’ ideal republic begins to look like a totalitarian state.

To put it another way: Religious rituals signify something, and figuring out what they signify — or how to translate the relationship between the signifier and the signified into something compatible with your own experiences — isn’t as easy as de Botton makes it out to be. A fully developed theology is born out of conflict and dialogue: dialogue with tradition, intuition, philosophy, the hard and soft sciences, and the critiques of other denominations and religions (not to mention atheists).

The idea that you can just skip the whole dialogue and get straight to establishing rituals that conform to your own vague pre-existing sentiments is frankly bizarre. In doing so, de Botton would have atheists export some of organized religion’s worst diseases: bland and indistinct “spirituality,” the thoughtless reenactment of ritual for its own sake, and the smug certainty of chronic incuriosity. These things are bad enough on their own, but — as Woods hints — terrible things can happen when they crash headlong into the inscrutability of life as actually lived.

If de Botton is truly intent on constructing a religion for atheists, he would be wise to start building from the foundation instead of the lobby. That would mean developing, yes, a theology. It would require seriously engaging with moral philosophy, epistemology, and even — perhaps especially — the theology of real-life theists. Kierkegaard and Buber aren’t a bad place to start. If there’s not something in their metaphysics and phenomenology that doesn’t resonate with you on a deep level, then why pillage the rituals they use to reaffirm their faith in these things?

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I've written a lot on this blog about theology and philosophy of religion from the perspective of a self-identified and resolute atheist, so for the sake of clarification I should probably note that the label "atheist" no longer reflects my philosophical commitments as accurately as it once did. If that sounds equivocal and wishy-washy, that's because it's not an easy position to condense into a pithy label. Probably the pithiest way to summarize it would be to say that I like Mordecai Kaplan's reconstructionist theology, and especially this Wittgensteinian interpretation of Reconstructionist Judaism, but I'm dismayed by Kaplan's Zionist nationalism. Martin Buber's I and Thou has also been extremely helpful in clarifying certain things, which is ironic, because very few people would accuse Buber of clarity. Or me, I suppose.]

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6 Responses

  1. Are you trying to say that you’ve found god

    By all means, expand

    • Sort of? But not really. I’m sympathetic to Kaplan’s naturalistic account of God, and Buber’s existentialist/phenomenological account. But I don’t believe, and probably never will believe, in an intelligent Creator deity.

      • Thing is, the difference between esoteric and exoteric understandings of God, or of god concepts, has existed within monotheism and in different ways within all religions. Much history has turned on orientations toward the status of this difference. So, I think we can assume, at least ahead of a philosophical definition of terms, that many nominal or professed theists would also reject, or at least find unsatisfactory, whatever you are thinking of or picturing when you refer to an “intelligent Creator deity.”

        It’s effectively a political decision whether to use the word “God” to refer to the concept or process whose function is to complete or absolutize your discourse, and even if you mark His or Its place with an absence or indeterminacy or even a refusal (of completion or totality). The sacred literature, at least in its esoteric moments, tends to do the same thing, because it has to, sooner and later.


  3. From the description, De Botton comes across as typically and indeed rather comically incurious about the origins of his own moral commitments. In other words, he seems, like most self-styled atheists or new atheists, to possess the same limitations in regard to “criticality” that he starts out presuming to be the chief fault of the conventionally religious.

    Here’s a try at formulating the problem: It is merely superstition to presume that any particular negation of superstition implies a general advance in understanding. Atheism as ideology merely re-locates and re-distributes false consciousness.

  4. Ned I think it is a serious mistake to look to philosophy and theology when arguing against de Botton’s assertions about ritual. I appreciate the fact that de Botton is a philosopher but his view of ritual is quite clearly based in the study of ritual, which is primarily social scientific. You write:

    “Religious rituals signify something, and figuring out what they signify — or how to translate the relationship between the signifier and the signified into something compatible with your own experiences — isn’t as easy as de Botton makes it out to be.”

    Do they signify “something” (as in a specific something) and regardless is the benefit of ritual tied to what this something is? To the former I would suggest that the something you appear to be referring to is only meaningful in the context of the theological initiate, which in most religions means 0.1% of the affiliated population. But it’s the latter that is most important here anyway. Social scientists have long ago abandoned the notion that ritual efficacy has much of anything to do with signifiers. It’s not belief, but action that is important. Ritual efficacy is the product of an embodied social experience and not some intricate web of theological claims that justify it. I highly recommend Seligman et. al’s Ritual and its Consequences for an up to date discussion of the “work of ritual.”

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