With Religion for Atheists , de Botton’s intention appears to be to reinvigorate Auguste Comte’s project for a new ‘religion of humanity’, but seems to think that if atheists steal all the best tools for indoctrination from religious tradition without calling it ‘religion’ then it’s all fine.
Chapter one is titled Wisdom without Doctrine, yet one of the most common ideas presented throughout the rest of the book is that atheists should adopt the highly prescriptive approach of religions, which dictate precisely what, when and how we should learn, think, communicate and even eat. If that isn’t doctrine, I don’t know what is.
This is a book where papal edicts are seen as a good thing, as they create and ensure uniformity. Everyone thinking and doing things the same way because someone in a position of knowledge (read power) decrees it apparently trumps the plurality of ideas and practices that stem from individual, rational, scientific thinking. People thinking for themselves is apparently just too messy. How de Botton cannot see that adopting the dogmatic approach of the religious is the very antithesis of the ideal of free-thinking that he apparently loves is beyond me. Who exactly sets the rules in de Botton’s secular vision is conveniently left out, but Comte ended up calling himself ‘the Great Priest’, so we can see where this might take us.
When asked on Facebook what I thought of this book, my immediate reaction was: “I'm surprised that it got published; it's poorly reasoned, barely cogent religious apologia. Just awful.” There is the odd phrase that catches the imagination, for example “Religious codes began as cautionary precepts, which were projected into the sky and reflected back to earth in disembodied and majestic forms”, and I found the writing accessible, but that’s as much as I have to say that’s positive about this book.
My initial idea for writing this review was to list and dissect each idea, but actually my criticism would just be the same for all of them, namely “atheists already do that, and often do it better”. I feel plenty of community spirit sitting in a cramped pub with the rest of my skeptical friends; attending weekly talks at the Humanismens Hus is my weekly sermon; I tweeted only last week that looking at the moon immediately calms me down and gives me a sense of perspective when I get worked up over trivial things; and I don’t see how a walk through a National Trust garden with my wife is any different to ‘Zen walking meditation’. Much of the book just reads like I am being told that I don’t enjoy art, relationships, learning, eating, museums or walks in the park in the right way. I’m apparently not getting the most out of my life because, unlike faithful Christians, I am doing it all wrong because no one no one told me how to do or think things properly.
The whole book is predicated on the flawed and distressingly common assumption that those without religion are missing something vital – that they have a hole in their lives that only religion, or something like de Botton’s poorly realised simulacrum, can fill. In order to justify his thesis, de Botton seems to be at pains to point out how empty, materialistic and misanthropic ‘our’ lives are, but in the process errs far too close to the flimsy quasi-psychoanalysis favoured by exploitative self-help manuals and awful Paulo Coelho books.
de Botton concedes that his ideas are anti-libertarian and most definitely paternalistic, but does not seem to see the accompanying condescension, or if he does, doesn’t mind. “Just like children, therefore, we need assistance. Knowledge must be fed to us slowly and carefully, like food cut into manageable bites.” is one of innumerable instances where there infantilising nature of religion, which I take to be a wholly bad thing, is actively advocated.
Many, if not most, of his ideas are absurd, but there is one example I want to give because it genuinely made me laugh out loud. (Come to think of it, there was a second occasion where I laughed, when I read his whine that that ‘there is just too much news’ these days). de Botton seems to think that adopting the excitable, feverent call-and-response approach so loved by Evangelical and Baptist Christians in the lecture theatre, in response to what he caricatures as the lifeless, disinterested monotone of the majority of university lectures, is the true path to understanding Montaigne and Keats. Hallelujah, Praise Goethe! Even in cases where I half agree with him, for example the idea that university education has become a product-oriented service that is moving away from the lofty ideals of learning for learning’s sake, he constantly undermines himself with half-baked, wholly unworkable ideas.
One of the more notorious of de Botton’s suggestions for re-appropriating religious concepts is the idea of building a ‘temple to atheism’ in central London. The idea was swiftly, and rightly, torn to shreds as soon as it came to light (but not before, of course, fuelling publicity for this book).
John Gray summed up the whole thing very nicely: “Rather than trying to invent another religion surrogate, open-minded atheists should appreciate the genuine religions that exist already. London is full of sites – churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship – that are evocative of something beyond the human world. Better spend the money that is being raised for the new temple on religious buildings that are in disrepair than waste it on a monument to a defunct version of unbelief.” That said, the results of a Guardian CIF poll seem to disagree.
It’s a minor point, but I feel one worth mentioning, that every third page of Religion for Atheists is taken up with a photograph, either of a religious artefact or an irrelevant and poorly realised mock-up of one de Botton’s ideas. A rant about poor university teaching accompanied by a this helpful picture, for those wondering what a bored student might look like. There are also a couple of graphs which purport to show data demonstrating things like the British spending more on crisps than poetry, but it's little more an comparing apples and oranges. The illustrations add little or nothing to the text and prove to be little more than padding. Take the 90 or so superfluous illustrations away and the whole volume would be a third shorter and much truer representation of the flimsiness of the ideas within.
The book would also be more accurately titled Judeo-Christian Religion for Atheists, as save for a couple of nods in the direction of Buddhism, all the other major world religions are completely ignored. This, de Botton explains early on, was the result of a conscious effort to focus on ‘comparing religion in general to the secular realm’. How Islam, as the second largest religion in the world, with arguably a much greater influence on current culture and thinking than Buddhism, doesn’t figure in this, I don’t know.
That said, de Botton has stated many a time that he prefers a non-combative approach to discussing religion and I think this was just an excuse to avoid the inevitable overblown controversy caused by a small group of easily offended Muslims. In a New Humanist interviewwith him about the book, he explained that “There has been a lot of intolerance from Islam and then a lot of intolerance from people attacking it. I thought the best response was just to ignore it”. By taking a so-called ‘non-combative’ approach, de Botton is just another willing participant in the self-censorship that means that Islam is all too rapidly developing immunity to serious critical discussion, whilst Christianity, and pretty much all other religions, remain fair game. Salman Rushdie’s non-appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival after threats of violence from Muslim activists and the lack of support from the festival organisers is a recent example of this in action.
de Botton’s central thesis seems to be that over-optimistic atheists have too much freedom to think for themselves (and consequently think about all the ‘wrong’ things). I can’t for the life of me think of a reason why complete intellectual freedom, and arriving at understanding for yourself rather than having it drummed into you, is a bad thing. The narrow, dictated wisdom of religion is precisely what has held us back and is the cause of much of the strife caused by the religious. Why would we want any of that? In arguing that atheists should use religion’s tools of indoctrination,
Religion for Atheists is scraping de Botton of an empty barrel.