Against Atheism 2.0
January 22, 2012

Alain de Botton

Image by juan tan kwon via Flickr

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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Why is Susan Blackmore Writing for The Stone?
August 22, 2010

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I guess we can blame Simon Critchley’s discerning taste again. But this is just silly. Where once we had philosophers writing about things that had nothing to do with philosophy, we have now devolved to work by non-philosophers about non-philosophy.

To be fair, I do think there is some food for thought in Blackmore’s work about the relation between memetic development and human evolution. And certainly the idea of memes being living, replicating, evolving organism carries a certain amount of metaphorical appeal. But to take this stuff seriously and worry about memes as some sort of predatory, parasitic threat is waaaay off the deep end. Certainly, it has no place on a blog ostensibly dedicated to philosophy.

For those who detect the faint but unmistakable reek of pseudoscience in Blackmore’s essay, it should come as no surprise that before she started in with all of this vaguely mystical sounding stuff about memes, the bulk of her scholarship was on the overtly mystical: i.e., psychic powers, near death experiences, so on. She’s since seen the, um, light on ESP and NDEs, but all this talk about “temes” is only one or two degrees removed.

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The Pseudo-Intellectual Placebo Effect
August 9, 2010

To take my critique on the sorry state of pop culture criticism a little further, it’s worth noting that this checklist-crit and surface skimming undermines one of art’s great gifts. I’ve written much before about the decline of deep introspection, and the cost of that decline; art is another avenue back into introspection. Developing a robust understanding of a true masterwork requires burrowing deep into yourself and confronting that which we purposefully keep hidden from ourselves for 95% of our waking moments. Art makes looking at this stuff more palatable because you’re doing it hand-in-hand with the artist. This is what David Foster Wallace called the “conversation around loneliness” that drew him to literature.

Art makes it easier, but this sort of thing is difficult and scary under even the best of circumstances. Which is why checklist-crit offers an alternative: the illusion of deeper understanding without any of challenge. Sometimes I find myself wondering if this streak of pseudo-intellectualism is more anti-intellectual and pernicious than mere stupidity.

Incidentally, this is why I find the work of public pseudo-intellectuals like Katie Roiphe, Simon Critchley and Alain de Botton so offensive. They provide an opportunity for the educated and relatively well-off—those with the free time, the tools, and the luxury to spend many hours going deep within themselves—to marvel at their own erudition without accomplishing anything at all. It’s like Vitamin Water; we drink it for the taste and the image it projects of a health-conscious yuppie, when in reality we’re just consuming another overpriced sugar drink.

Meanwhile, Tony Judt is dead.

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Against Critchley’s Passive Nihilism
July 21, 2010

Simon Critchley
Image via Wikipedia

One of the major catalysts for my increased philo-blogging was my deep dissatisfaction with New School Philosophy Chair Simon Critchley’s own attempts to bring philosophy to the masses, so I guess in a way it’s fitting that he would eventually pen something representing much of what my larger blogging project stands against. I am referring here to his paean to what he calls “passive nihilism“—a worldview that he and the usually worthwhile Philosophers’ Magazine apparently believe to be among the top 10 greatest ideas of our young century.

Critchley (pictured) writes:

The passive nihilist looks at the world from a certain highly cultivated detachment and finds it meaningless. Rather than trying to act in the world, which is pointless, the passive nihilist withdraws to a safe contemplative distance and cultivates his aesthetic sensibility by pursuing the pleasures of lyric poetry, yogic flying, bird-watching, gardening or botany, as was the case with the aged Rousseau (“Botany is the ideal study for the idle, unoccupied solitary,” he writes in the Reveries of a Solitary Walker). In a world that is rushing to destroy itself through capitalist exploitation or military crusades – which are usually two arms of the same killer ape – the passive nihilist withdraws to an island where the mystery of existence can be seen for what it is without distilling it into a meaning. In the face of the coming century, which in all likelihood will be defined by the violence of faith and the certainty of environmental devastation, Gray offers a cool but safe temporary refuge.

I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink railing against other, less finely delineated versions of that philosophy, so I won’t rehash the arguments here. Only the bullet points: It is morally and personally untenable, a sad attempt at justifying narcissism and apathy as an intellectually legitimate position.

I expect Critchley is trying to mount a preemptive defense against that charge when he describes nihilism as a temporary refuge, but it’s not much of a defense given he offers every indication in the rest of the essay that it should be a permanent one. After all, what’s the point of returning to the world of meaning and action if both are a waste of time at best and actively malicious at worst? If there’s no justification for doing anything at all, then there’s no reason to ever leave the comfy confines of one’s utter indifference about the world.

But more to the point, if we should all “simply learn to see the mystery as such,” and “not seek to unveil it in order to find some deeper purpose within,” then why the fuck is Critchley a philosopher? Isn’t seeking meaning and purpose kind of built into the job description? Passive nihilism reads less like a philosophy and more like an anti-philosophy that seeks to negate any attempts at a priori reasoning and introspection by throwing up its metaphysical hands and crying, “Unsolvable mysteries of the soul! Wakka-wakka!” It is, in other words, a philosophy that seeks to make even the most basic philosophical inquiries seem frivolous and naïve.

If nothing else, that outlook certainly explains Critchley’s mushy, facile attempt to define a philosopher in the pages of the Times. If I were a professional philosopher with this much contempt for the philosophical project, I might use it as an excuse to pen smug, empty crowd-pleasers too.

I can understand why the same newspaper that employs Maureen Dowd might subsidize this stuff, but The Philosophers’ Magazine? For real?

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The Stone Hits a Bullseye
June 28, 2010

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...
Image via CrunchBase

I’ve done my fair share of ragging on The Stone, the New York Times’ paved-with-good-intentions attempt at bringing philosophy to a wider audience, but this pair of essays, intended to respond to the all-too-common complaint that philosophy is too abstract and esoteric to have anything to do with the interests and concerns of real, non-PhD-holding people, is quite good. At the very least, it’s a nice antidote to Simon Critchley’s embarrassing nonsense. And a couple parts in each column nearly had me pumping my fist in the air. To whit, here’s a great excerpt from founder Alexander George’s entry:

It certainly doesn’t help that philosophy is rarely taught or read in schools.  Despite the fact that children have an intense interest in philosophical issues, and that a training in philosophy sharpens one’s analytical abilities, with few exceptions our schools are de-philosophized zones.  This has as a knock-on effect that students entering college shy away from philosophy courses.  Bookstores — those that remain — boast philosophy sections cluttered with self-help guides.  It is no wonder that the educated public shows no interest in, or perhaps even finds alien, the fully ripened fruits of philosophy.


And here’s Frieda Klotz:

Plutarch thought philosophy should be taught at dinner parties. It should be taught through literature, or written in letters giving advice to friends. Good philosophy does not occur in isolation; it is about friendship, inherently social and shared. The philosopher should engage in politics, and he should be busy, for he knows, as Plutarch sternly puts it, that idleness is no remedy for distress.

Also yes!

The point that philosophers should be involved in politics is, I think, a particularly good one; if you believe that the study of ethics and political philosophy has any merit at all, then surely you believe that the people who devote their lives to studying it have something to contribute to, and gain from, the political sphere.

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The Gray Lady Does the Gay Science
May 16, 2010

Well, not specifically the Nietzsche book, but philosophy in general. And no, it doesn’t really have anything to do with GLBT anything, person who clicked over from Twitter or Facebook thinking that was what I was writing about. Gotcha!

To be more specific, the Times just started a series of blog posts about philosophy from various academic philosophers. Brian Leiter, who I suppose you could call academic philosophy’s foremost new media ambassador, is unimpressed.

Now I can’t comment on his allegations of hackery against Simon Critchley, writer of the series’ first entry, but I can say that the entry didn’t do a whole lot for me, and did not, I think, come close to adequately explaining what philosophy is. Will Durant has a far more succint definition on the first page of his excellent history, The Story of Philosophy:

[…] philosophy will again be understood as the synthetic interpretation of all experience rather than the analytic description of the mode and process of experience itself. Analysis belongs to science, and gives us knowledge; philosophy must provide a synthesis for wisdom.

All of that being said, I’ve got high hopes for the series. I’ve argued again and again that philosophy is a fundamental human endeavor; everyone does it, and the more they understand what it is they’re doing, the better. Kudos to the Times for even attempting to spread some understanding.

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