Scratching the Surface
March 13, 2012

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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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Against Atheism 2.0
January 22, 2012

Alain de Botton

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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.

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On Godless Theology
November 26, 2011

Guys, I dunno about this:

It’s important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we’re different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don’t simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we’d like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end.

My first thought on reading something like the above is that I must be pretty shitty at being an atheist. For one thing, I’m terrible at scaring religious people, even when I wear my black turtleneck and talk about how heaven is a lie and death is the end of existence. (It does not help that I am not a very intimidating dude.)

But then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I certainly don’t “openly and unabashedly” call for the death of religion, like good atheists are supposed to. That’s probably because I openly and unabashedly don’t care whether or not people believe in God.

Really, the whole New Atheist “death to religion” push seems like a case of misdirected priorities to me. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of Communism and watching The Big Lebowski, it’s that people don’t need religion as an excuse to do shitty things to each other. Religious people don’t even have a monopoly on banning abortion!

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that religious claims are false, and people shouldn’t be teaching their children lies as a means of controlling them. To that, I again say: “Eh.” It really depends on the character of the religious claim being made. People shouldn’t have to grow to adulthood thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs died because they got left off the ark (the world is actually 8,000 years old, and dinosaurs died because they were too awesome for this fallen world). But most religious claims — indeed, the most popular and important ones — are metaphysical in nature. They don’t concern facts in this world, but the other world. You know, that one.

You can call claims about that world “lies,” but I prefer to think of them as “fictions.” A lie is a verifiably false claim — false in the sense that it contradicts a fact. But what is the nature of a “fact” that takes place outside of the physical world? On what grounds do you call a claim about that world “false?”

The standard atheist response here is that such a world doesn’t exist. “There is something beyond the material world” is a false claim, and any subsequent claim that takes that one as a premise is also false. Which, sure, okay. The only problem with that argument is that most of the people making it don’t seem to really believe it.

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Atheism Is No Excuse For Intellectual Complacency
December 21, 2010

Freedom From Religion Foundation
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I’m an atheist. A nonbeliever. A heretic. Call me by any of those names, or any others you’d like, but, for the love of Spider-man, never, ever, call me a “bright.” Or, worse, a “freethinker.”

Because the truth is, calling yourself a “freethinker” is self-contradictory. To say someone thinks freely is to suggest that she has no uncritical attachment to any ideology or belief system. It calls to mind someone who is always roaming, always seeking truth, and never satisfied with the easy facsimile of truth someone puts before her. That is what a freethinker is — at least unless you’ve ever met anyone who calls herself that. Because in the real world, “freethinker” is a smug term for someone who’s an atheist, and thinks that anyone who isn’t an atheist is, well, an un-free thinker. They’re all sheep, man.

No one who seriously thinks there is a binary distinction to be made between the atheists and the brainwashed hordes can be said to be thinking freely. In order to hold that view, you would have to find it inconceivable that any sane, intelligent individual could think critically about a particular faith, consider all the alternatives, read the literature, and still sign up.

I have a few friends like that. One of them is Jamelle Bouie. Jamelle is a very smart, literate, and introspective man who also happens to be a committed Christian. He’s not a “freethinker,” but he is a free thinker. Lately, he and I have been having a lot of conversations about faith, and I’ve been learning quite a bit: about Christianity, of course, but also atheism. My own and others’.

I hope all of you godless Americans out there have at least one friend like Jamelle. If not, you should go out and make one. Because if anyone can be said to have actually earned the title freethinker, it’s the guy who welcomes challenges to his own beliefs (or lack thereof) from people smart enough to make the case. When he hears those arguments, this guy — the freethinker — actually listens. He goes through every step to make sure he’s doing the argument justice, and where there’s ambiguity he gives it the most generous possible reading. If that undermines his position, so be it. The goal isn’t to score points.

All of this probably sounds pretty obvious and intuitive, but it’s worth reiterating in the age of brights, freethinkers, New Atheists and so on. I see more and more atheists behaving like there’s no difference between blind faith and self-critical faith. I see more and more atheists presuming that they basically have religion figured out, and believers have nothing to teach them.

That presumption is obviously, patently untrue. Religion doesn’t have to convert us in order to teach us something. For one thing, it can help atheists refine our understanding of what our atheism means, and lead us away from some of the logical fallacies popular atheism too often falls into. Plus, religion can teach us a great deal about what it means to be a human being.

I’ll get into a little more detail regarding those last two assertions somewhere in the next few days. Oh, and by the way: It’s totally a coincidence that I’m doing this the week before Christmas, I swear. Did not plan that.

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The Art of the Religious Narrative
September 24, 2010

Via Alyssa, here’s a trailer for “the Christian Movie Event of the Year,” whose chief selling point seems to be how it effortlessly fuses self-righteous didacticism with the wooden, dull-eyed imitation of life we normally associate with the walking dead:

This is really the latest offering in a whole cottage industry of truly artless, half-assed religious propaganda. Of course these heavy-handed conversion narratives are nothing new—nor are they limited to Christianity, or even religion—but this specific subset of evangelical porn truly is a trend unto itself. A trend starting, I think, with the Left Behind series, and branching out into Twilight (which, to be fair, is a good deal more subtle about it) and less well-known works like Fireproof.

There’s a lot you can blame for the general suckitude of this subgenre—semi-comatose actors, cheap production values and so on—but I think the fatal flaw here is that the whole enterprise is misguided. You simply can’t craft a compelling narrative based around a central philosophical question—Should we let Jesus Christ into our hearts?—when you’re already so thoroughly persuaded of the answer that you can’t even come up with any reasonable objections.

Take the above trailer as an example. The protagonist seems to have no dilemma whatsoever: everyone around him confirms that God exists and is awesome, and the big guy Himself conspires to align everything so that conversion to Christianity is the best possible choice. No cost, all reward. That’s propaganda, not art.

It’s a bummer, because we know for a fact that deeply religious narrative art can be done well. Example A: Dostoevsky, arguably history’s greatest practitioner of the philosophical novel. Crime and Punishment ends with Raskolnikov finding spiritual salvation, but the road he takes to get there goes through some dark, unabashedly nihilistic territory. And Dostoevsky takes that nihilism seriously. Raskolnikov’s initial worldview is twisted, to be sure, but it’s also coherent and strangely compelling.

(Another good example, also courtesy of Alyssa: In Paradise Lost, Satan is pretty much the most interesting and sympathetic character in the whole damn poem. Milton’s no Satanist, but he cares enough to show us why the Lord of Darkness might feel like he has a legitimate beef with the Lord.)

For a more contemporary example of how to do this stuff correctly, look at the TV show Kings, a prematurely cancelled revisionist take on King David’s rise to power. In the show, God is inscrutable, demanding, and seemingly morally ambiguous. Though of course we know that He’s going to be revealed as right in the end—He’s God, after all—we also understand why King Silas, long His faithful servant, struggles with the urge to fight back against His divine will. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Silas ends up being a far more compelling character than David, the show’s ostensible protagonist. (Though that could also have a lot to do with the fact that Silas is played by Ian fucking McShane.)

The irony is that where Left Behind and its spawn fail—and Dostoevsky and Kings succeed—the Bible succeeds as well. Jesus has his moment of doubt on the cross. Abraham is told to murder his own son, and later actually negotiates with God in an attempt to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah. Jacob—the founder of the tribe of the Israelites—is named Yis’rael, or He Who Wrestles With God.

What makes these stories compelling isn’t that they involved square-jawed men doing the will of an infallible being. It’s that the heroes, before they carry out God’s will, must first struggle with epic spiritual questions that A) do not have easy answers and B) have unimaginably high stakes. As an admitted outsider, I have way more respect for the long, hard, seemingly endless road to spiritual peace than the quick and easy medicine with a spoonful of sugar. It’s more honest, it’s more nuanced and interesting, and, most of all, it makes for a way better story.

Culture War 2.0
August 20, 2010

Glenn Beck
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I was initially skeptical of Adam’s assertion that we’re in the midst of a new culture war, since the battle lines are drawn more or less the same way they always were: those who believe in American pluralism and equality of opportunity versus a group of predominantly Christian conservative white folk fueled by class and race resentment. So what if this time around, the white supremacist rhetoric is a little more subdued and euphemistic?

But on further reflection, I think Adam’s spot on. The clash on first principle grounds may be more or less the same, but there is something new and undeniably peculiar about the right-wing culture warriors self-image as a guerilla revolutionary. You can see it in everything from the silly Tea Party tricorner hats to Glenn Beck’s confounding claim that he and his followers are going to “reclaim the civil rights movement.

This isn’t just a matter of posturing, but a matter of policy. The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a radical, historic pivot point in American history. The Dixie Democrats and others who opposed the civil rights movement (the same one their ideological descendants now want to “reclaim”) were fighting to maintain the status quo.

Now the situation is more or less reversed, if not exactly. When progressives aren’t playing defense, they’re pushing reforms which, while deeply important, likely won’t register on the great richter scale of history the way the Roe v. Wade decision, or the rolling back of the Jim Crow laws, did. The new right-wing cultural warriors may lace their rebuttals with references to the America of their childhood, or America the way the Founders intended, or some other platitudes about a grand, bygone Golden Age, but they’re not really advocating a return to some prior status quo. Instead, they’re advocating a radical, sweeping revolution.

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Nobody’s Saying Muslims Don’t Have the Right to Build a Mosque Near Ground Zero
August 19, 2010

Except, that is, for half of everybody.

There’s a lot to pick apart in this poll—for example, you could point out that whether or not Muslims have the legal right to build a Mosque near Ground Zero has nothing to do with current plans to build an Islamic Cultural Center. But I think the more salient point is regarding what this says about how a lot of Americans view constitutional issues.

There is no debate to be had over whether or not Imam Rauf and co. have a constitutional right to build Park51. They do. It is empirically, demonstrably true that they do.

It is not empirically true that they have a right in the moral or metaphysical sense to build Park51, because that is not the sort of thing that can be empirically verified. (Metaethical naturalists might argue that it can be empirically proven, to which I verified: Then do so.) That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong to say that they have the right. I believe they do, and I would hope that the vast majority of people who live in a liberal democratic society and also believe that rights exist in the first place would agree with me. But giving a proof of that gets into some thorny, potentially unanswerable ethical questions, whereas a proof answering the constitutional question would be irrefutable and consist of one step, which reads: “Read the goddamn document.”

My point being that if you think that Park51 doesn’t have a constitutional right to exist, then you really have no idea what the constitutional angle is on this. In which case, the only way you can give an answer besides “I don’t know” is by substituting your own moral intuitions for the actual letter of the law.

This is the sort of widespread backwards thinking on legal issues that the Onion lampooned brilliantly awhile back. And if you want another example from today’s news, check out Laura Schlessinger complaining that private individuals and companies violate her first amendment rights when they aren’t sufficiently indulgent of her racist tirades.

(Aside: I know it’s way too easy to pick on Sarah Palin, but compare her full-throated defense of Schlessinger to her previous well-documented condemnations of the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Evidently when brown people construct benign outreach centers too close to the sites of national tragedies it shows an unfortunate lack of sensitivity, but when a white person spouts racial epithets on a popular radio program she’s just exercising her rights and anyone who takes issue with that needs to man up.)

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Philosophers Agree: Existence of God and Nature of Morality are Two Different Questions
July 10, 2010

Well whaddya know. On the same day I argued that the existence of universal moral norms can’t possibly be contingent on the existence of God, the inestimable Massimo Pigliucci (the author of my favorite philosophy blog right now), wrote this:

Despite the fact that more and more people are comfortable “coming out” as atheists, the word is still very much associated with being immoral, or at the very least amoral. This, of course, despite the fact that there is neither logical nor empirical reason to draw that conclusion. Ever since Plato’sEuthyphro dialogue, philosophers have agreed that gods are simply irrelevant to morality, regardless of whether they exist or not. And of course modern sociological research shows that atheists are just as moral as religious believers. Still, the stigma persists.

It’s not uncommon to hear people—mostly critics—say of philosophy that it offers no answers, only further questions. And while that may be true in the sense that you can’t empirically verify a philosophical proposition (at least not since we stopped called science “natural philosophy” a few centuries back), there is such a thing as an overwhelming consensus among philosophers. In the case of folks like Governor Mitch Daniels, it may be impossible to prove or disprove his attacks on atheism, one way or another, but suffice to say that anyone who has made a serious study of philosophy understands that basic logic is not on his side.

By the way, the rest of Pigliucci’s post on the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon is very much worth reading. I don’t have much to add to it except to say that I’ve been planning for a while on writing a post with more or less the exact same conclusions, except probably not as good.

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People Are Bad at Happiness
June 28, 2010

infinite jest
Image by dorywithserifs via Flickr

Earlier I argued that it’s a fool’s errand to make your life-long project a quest for personal satisfaction for its own sake. If you want to understand why, all you have to do is try and conceive of what such a project would look like.

By definition, we’re not talking about a project that seeks to directly better the lives of others. Nor is it one that aims towards any higher moral ends. This is a project that is either purely hedonistic or projects towards some other kind of self-affirmation: say, a carefully cultivated self-image or career goal.

So a goal like that is necessarily materialistic. A non-materialistic endeavor projects itself towards something larger than, and outside of, ourselves. If we’re not going to find fulfillment in moral virtue, religion, idealism, compassion or anything else, where does that leave us?

A lot of you probably share my belief that narcissism is morally monstrous, but that’s not really the argument here. I think the more salient point is that it is necessarily self-defeating, for the simple reason that it is impossible to satisfy. That’s because, when it comes to satisfying our own happiness, we’re notoriously bad at figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The things we think will raise our overall happiness in the long-term, usually don’t; after the initial endorphin rush dissipates, we’re just left with a higher threshold for maintaining our current happiness level.

David Foster Wallace’s great insight was making the link between a lot of the wildly disparate way in which we pursue happiness through material things: in Infinite Jest, he juxtaposes the pursuit of entertainment, career advancement, fame, and chemically altered states, suggesting that they all operate on more or less the same principle. A small measure of that book’s genius lies in how he demonstrates, with humor and compassion, that all of these things can dull our anxiety and suffering in the short term while really just crippling our ability to function normally without them in the long term.

A lot of self-help pop philosophy is focused on the question, “How do I find happiness?” But reflecting on this stuff has led me to reject the premise. I’m not so sure that happiness qua happiness is a reasonable or worthwhile lifelong goal. If you’re lucky, it’s the byproduct of pursuing a different, worthier project.

(I’m going to try and make this my last Infinite Jest/DFW-related post for a little while. For one thing, I don’t want this blog to become too one-note. But I’m also running out of non-repeated pictures to run at the top of these things.)

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The Perennial Philosophy
June 24, 2010

I think Julian Baggini is spot on here. Too often the project of combining aspects of religions, philosophies and mystical traditions from all cultures devolves into logical incoherence. To the extent that there are extremely broad commonalities, it’s because these traditions satisfy common human needs. That is the “deeper truth” we can find from comparing how they overlap.

That’s why I find phenomenology a much more compelling way to look at how they overlap. Why are we so hungry for philosophies of transcendence? What hole does that plug?

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