Pass de Botton: An atheist’s appraisal of religion misses the cue
November 12, 2012
A review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (Hamish Hamilton-Penguin, 2012)
by Brian Lapsa
Not long ago Starbucks sandwich boards advised us to “Take comfort in ritual”—in this case the diurnal rites of lattés and Frappucinos. It’s clear enough that the Giant of Joe benefits from regular patronage, but less clear is why recommending ritual might not be off-putting to a clientele whose apple of wisdom is to “think different.” Ritual is religious (or is thought to be) and is therefore considered wholly personal. Most Westerners tend to regard its presence in public space with suspicion.
One latter-day secularist, Alain de Botton, thinks it’s time we reassess our mistrust of ritual and religion. In Religion for Atheists (2012, Hamish Hamilton-Penguin), de Botton argues that the West has thrown the cultural baby out with the creedal bathwater. He is, to be sure, an atheist. For him, the question of God’s existence is settled; its continued discussion is “boring and unproductive.” Yet, while reason rejects theism, it must also recognize that religion has changed the world as “few secular institutions ever have”—often for the better. Countless masterpieces of art, music, architecture, literature, and philosophy owe their greatness to the “conceptual ambition” (however erroneously derived) of their creators. Moreover, our deepest “soul-related needs” still have no better answers than the wisdom and customs that religion preserves. If we are to lead fulfilling lives while maintaining that there is no God, de Botton says, we must find ways to “import certain religious ideas and practices into the secular realm.”
Believers find their inspiration not as individuals but in community, the prime locus of enculturation. According to de Botton, community has largely collapsed since the nineteenth century, a tragedy of technological advancement compounded by the “privatization” of religion. The ensuing “worship of professional success” has reduced the individual to his business card, his inviolable worth being forgotten. Utility determines value, and when hidden costs threaten unprofitable elements of society, they are, well, hidden. Indifference, or even contempt, greets activities with ends other than “financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.” The public sphere pretends at a moral neutrality that its contents belie. Billboard consumerism devours our lives. Art defies tradition (and interpretation) and leaves us disoriented. Our academic sages spew out ambiguities rather than guidance, and the modern state “enters our lives…far too late” to make us decent. And sterile community centers, namely, “insultingly designed structures whose appearance paradoxically serves to confirm the inadvisability of joining anything communal,” demonstrate secular culture’s failure to foster a genuine collective spirit even when it tries. With religion under the assault of “libertarian” skepticism, we have lost a “moral atmosphere” and a “convincing ethical framework.” We have given up the task of realizing “a holistic conception of flourishing.” Good ideas “must be supported by institutions of a kind that only religions have so far known how to build.” The problem is that we don’t have any.
If the ambitious, collective spirit was crippled by the disappearance of public piety, de Botton asks, just how did religion once “enhance” it and bind us together? In the Catholic Mass he finds a few clues. At the liturgy one discovers teachings and practices “utterly unlike those that hold sway in the world beyond”—the church structure itself forms a border between sacred and profane. De Botton’s idealized congregation, “a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values,” prays for peace, abandons “references to earthly status,” and shares symbolic food. Through their shared life of worship and their conformity to liturgical structures, congregants discover that happiness and companionship are not functions of material success. The Mass shows that ritual can unite ideas and activities and can build community. But, according to de Botton, faith-based solidarity is impossible in a rational, pluralistic age. His question, then, is: Can secular society ever recover this communal spirit without returning to the theological principles that were entwined with it?
Certainly, he answers in a Feuerbachian stroke, because what was really important in religion was never divine but human all along. It is therefore still accessible to us. De Botton offers us new institutions—museums of mourning and self-knowledge, temples to perspective and reflection, schools of life and wisdom—to meet the challenges of “finite existence on a troubled planet.” The crown of his project, where community will be rebuilt and balanced souls cultivated, is the “Agape Restaurant,” an ersatz church named for the feasts given by early Christian communities. The Agape Restaurant’s banquets would separate members of the same races, families, classes, and, of course, confessions. Everyone would be equally (un)comfortable, allowing them to pledge “allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.” The marginal would never fear the dominant, for a Book of Agape (a secular take on the Roman Missal) would prescribe all conversation along safely secular lines. Options for table talk include: “What do you regret? Whom can you not forgive? What do you fear?” Maintaining the distinction between the profane and the pseudo-sacred, the restaurant’s “attractively designed interior” would feature “some kind of art that displayed examples of human vulnerability.” This setting would welcome orthodox and secular alike and would “inspire charity in the deepest sense,” here defined as “a capacity to respond with complexity and compassion to the existence of our fellow creatures.” Community—and culture with it—can make a comeback, and it can do so while obviating God.
The kitschy Kumbaya-ishness of it all exceeds even some of Communism’s ceremonial silliness. Nevertheless, we should take a moment to thank de Botton. Many atheists, and nearly all “New Atheists,” simply echo Bertrand Russell’s boast that, since its few and ancient contributions to astronomy, theism hasn’t helped humanity one whit; others are hitched to the idea that it has never done anything but harm. De Botton’s celebration of the good in something he regards as unfounded is refreshing, and he is right to include the disappearance of faith in his narrative of decline (although his sweeping claims do not give the problem the analysis it deserves). He makes the obligatory nods to the triumph of science but never pretends that positivism has all the answers, even going so far as to blast the techno-political meliorist myth. He also avoids cheap shots at the politicking, priggishness, and presumption that most religious organizations are not without. Above all, his call for non-believers to engage with believers respectfully is welcome and should be answered in kind.
Ultimately, however, de Botton’s effort misses the mark. His treatment of religions is undermined by his glib generalizations and his indifference to (or lack of awareness of) the reasons believers do what they know or believe is right. De Botton acknowledges a debt to Christianity (and then to Judaism and Buddhism), but he considers whatever is vaguely Christian to be religious, obscuring real differences between religions and failing to identify secular influences that have co-existed with the sacred within historical Christianity. Witness his admiration for “the way in which religion promotes morality, inspires travel, trains minds and encourages gratitude.” Does “religion” really do this? The Greco-Roman gods gave no absolute commandments, and their deeds were often more vicious than virtuous; life was tragic, eternity joyless. Yet the Christian God, demanding both obedience to his law and imitation of his life, promises paradise in union with him: beautiful, indeed, and different.
De Botton scarcely examines a belief before deeming its content insignificant. For him, it is the practice and the proximate points of similarity that count. Heaven and nirvana look about the same, right? Thus, “Chinese Buddhists will visit Guan Yin for the very same reasons that Catholics call on Mary”: Both devotions simply express the universal yearning for maternal tenderness (and so, allegedly, does the cult of Venus). Real faith is of little import; Calvary is moving, but basically the cross is “intended to be a route to moral and psychological development, a way to increase our feelings of solidarity.” Religion “knows” what we need and packs it into bite-sized capsules for us.
De Botton’s underestimation of the “shared commitment to certain values” also undercuts his foray into Christian liturgics. The prayer he cites approvingly (which is neither the Gloria in excelsis nor anything recited in unison by the congregation, as he implies, but is rather read on occasion by the priest alone) refers to the “Lord,” “grace,” and a chosen people. Yet theological concepts are inessential in de Botton’s socio-psychological telling. So, he clears them away: a church was always “technically devoted to celebrating the equality of man,” the liturgies within meant “to direct…minds to the needs of others.” True, Christians believe in equality before God; they believe in brotherly and neighborly love and in other “certain values” with social implications, too. Yet they erect their houses of worship not primarily to promote agape, but rather that God may be glorified on earth. The distinction between the sacred and the profane, the “tightly choreographed agenda of activities,” and the “joyful immersion in a collective spirit” should be considered in light of the belief in God’s self-revelation as Jesus Christ. It was not to crush fraternity but to safeguard the faith that nourished it that the “agape feasts” de Botton mourns were banished from the sanctuary.
Hamstrung by superficial fixations, de Botton hobbles through a number of ridiculous schemes. Take learning, for instance: Secular humanities lecturers ought to be “trained by African-American Pentecostal preachers” – for then, readings from Montaigne and Rousseau could be “structured around rhythmical verses of call-and-response.” That a congregation’s electricity might come from actually believing something escapes de Botton. Or emotional balance: Just as “medieval Christianity” encouraged the cathartic, saturnalian “Feast of Fools,” so the Agape Restaurant ought to have an annual orgy. The fact that the abuse at such feasts consistently encountered both lay and clerical censure doesn’t make it less Christian: Christians did it, and evidently enjoyed themselves, and that is enough. Experience and act, in de Botton’s world of “wisdom without doctrine,” would render truth claims irrelevant. But his own case depends on truth claims that no exaltation of praxis can obscure: for example, that Rousseau deserves adulation and that promiscuity can be good. Pragmatism sits ill with the belief, which pervades his project, that we are “lambs in need of a good shepherd” to show us the way. This shepherd, unfortunately, is content to leave many of his buried assumptions interred and undefended.
For all the shortcomings of his exploration of ritual, the fact that de Botton is so interested in it warrants further consideration. It plays a crucial role in his Agape world; at the very least, it is already a significant part of ours. Scores of formerly religious rites, despite our now-conventional misgivings, have become beloved secular events. Each year universities follow the customs of their ecclesiastic predecessors in conferring awards on students wearing long gowns. Men and women still marry in ceremonies that are much more Christian than they may know, even if the presider is a justice of the peace and the couple isn’t religious. Elaborate funerals persist, often in churches, even for those who view humans as soulless hominids.
In fact, secular activists have long claimed that we need rituals. Deists and atheists of the French Revolution tried to reform culture with rites for the Supreme Being and for Reason. German Socialists and Freethinkers later created the Jugendweihe (“Youth Consecration”) to replace Christian confirmations for non-believing youths; Communist East Germany finally mandated participation. While the modern Olympics mimic ancient devotions, some of their nineteenth-century architects envisioned them as expressions of an anthropocentric religion complete in itself. Even Ayn Rand, literary prophetess of American anarcho-individualism, had one of her fictitious protagonists erect a “Temple of the Human Spirit” for the contemplation of the industrious self. And Auguste Comte’s positivist “Religion of Humanity,” to which much of de Botton’s last chapter is devoted, was to establish a hierarchical priesthood that would serve as society’s psychological, aesthetic, and ethical authority for nurturing those parts of man’s nature not immediately intelligible to science.
But rituals do not merely support or oppose faith; they can also be found almost anywhere, from the daily crossword puzzle to the (slightly creepy) morning cheer that Wal-Mart employees perform. Rituals might even be inescapable—for bodily life is cyclical and patterned. Every sunrise, storm and season is both repetitive and fresh, and likewise every breath, heartbeat, and footfall. Anchored in physical environments, we discover form and pattern in all of human existence: Birth and death, love and strife, leisure and toil, abundance and scarcity, dominion and servitude, reverence and rebellion are all marked by the tension between the recurrent and the novel that lies at the heart of ritual. We face in the present what has been met before and will be seen again, and as humans we interpret these encounters. Whether they help us touch the transcendent or understand the immanent, they are symbolic, with meanings beyond their mechanisms.
The groups de Botton wishes to emulate are committed to meaningful beliefs about the nature and destiny of man, his soul, place in the cosmos, and creator. Consensus on these claims lends vitality to their communities and helps secure their continuity. In time a ritual and its communal context not only express but also shape thought, ethics, and worldviews. These in turn shape and create rituals. When participants encounter each other, they meet as those submitting to the same authority, perceiving the same truths, and drawing from the same source of wisdom for guidance. Truth and assent to it bind community members, giving their fellowship a special reason for being.
So, practically speaking, what will bind the patrons of the Agape Restaurant? The club’s most important activities—the meals and the conversations at table—are meant to be detached from its members’ most important beliefs. Man’s greatness and his frailty will be celebrated, as long as the talk skirts the anthropological and cosmological commitments necessary to understand them. Somehow the guests (including the religious, whom de Botton takes pains to invite) are to offer and receive counsel while avoiding discussion of the fundamental principles of their worldviews, for those would divide rather than unite. The plan ensures that any ritual’s meaning cannot mean too much, and that no one will have to commit to any truth difficult enough to be worth sharing. But if no one actually believes in anything (or can admit to and share belief in something), they cannot be expected to act—that is, commune—as those who do. Instead, opposition to orthodoxy will force participants into a functional pragmatism, an orthopraxy. They will be left with no consistent language in which to communicate, no reason to suspect that anything might be truer than their feelings, and no hope that their gatherings will ever be anything but palliative.
If, in spite of all this, a community does form, it will hardly be the pluralistic microcosm of “orthodox and secular” society that de Botton envisions. The religious (if they bother to attend at all) will tire of the implicit denials of anything but man and nature, and will not return. The club’s faithful, probably few in number, will be a lot like its founder: cosmopolitan and thoroughly secular. Their awkward exchanges (to say nothing of their orgies) are likely to produce many pronouncements of mutual appreciation and many self-congratulatory toasts to similarly ‘diverse’ societies. With neither a missionary impulse nor a crass appeal (outside of said orgies), and with its sentimental, anti-dogmatic posturing and half-closeted atheism, the club will amount to little more than an edgy Unitarian Universalist congregation, minus even that sect’s rigorous creed. Self-content and self-contained, torn between normative authority and doctrinal license, it—and the rest of the Agape world—will subsist in blessed irrelevance in the crowded late modern marketplace until a more interesting spiritual fad comes along.
Brian Lapsa is managing editor of the Clarion Review.