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Morality Religion

Alain de Botton’s Atheism 2.0

Alain de Botton’s talk at the TED Global event last year (Edinburgh, July) spoke of some of the themes explored in his most recent book, Religion for Atheists. The book “suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies”. I haven’t read the book yet, so can’t comment on whatever virtues it might possess (Terry Eagleton has, and thinks it has few – if any – virtues). But if the TED talk is an accurate reflection of the book’s thesis, I suspect I’d end up agreeing with Eagleton.


The first concern this talk raises is that it starts from a presumption that so-called “new atheism” is the only game in town. It sets up a false dichotomy between “living in a spiritual wasteland” and being a churchgoing zombie, which allows de Botton to swoop in and propose “atheism 2.0” to fill the gap between those extremes. In atheism 2.0, we would develop secular mechanisms akin to religion’s “giant machines, organisations, directed to managing our inner life“. But the “new atheism” trope can quite plausibly be described as a caricature, especially if put in the terms de Botton begins with in the TED talk. Yes, there are lighting-rod type atheists, just as you’ll find more vocal proponents of any contested view. This sort of engagement isn’t compulsory, and it’s to my mind not even typical – it’s simply one element of a strategic interaction with religious believers, in an attempt to persuade them of the wrongness of their views.

Of course it’s true that religions have been very effective in inculcating certain beliefs, habits and dispositions. But they have done so partly by dissuading thought – by creating an impression that certain propositions have the strongest possible truth value, because “God” says they are true, and you can’t argue with that. Any attempt at creating an organised – but secular – form of religion should immediately make atheists wary, because part of the point of a reason-motivated life is that groupthink is in general a poor guide to truth. I can agree with part of what de Botton says, in that he points out the dangers of a potential lack of “moral mentorship” once one escapes from whatever doctrinal understanding of morality your religion brings, or brought. Even here, though, we have all sorts of competing grand narratives already – things like human equality, justice, rights and free speech – which are arguably already as or more entrenched in human minds than any moral notion that results directly from a religion. For better or worse, those sorts of concepts already constitute a kind of groupthink – and if “atheism 2.0” is meant to encourage them, de Botton is offering us an empty box with pretty wrapping.

But that’s not all “atheism 2.0” is good for – we should, according to de Botton, borrow elements of religion to improve things like education, and to find sources of consolation. Listen to the talk yourself – he describes various ways in which elements of religion can be deployed in order to help us to understand “how to live”. Again, the stuff that works has either already been secularised or will be, or was never “owned” by religion in the first place. As for education, PZ Myers is right in dismissing de Botton’s claims that our educational practices can benefit through using sermonising techniques such as repetition. And of course we can be more effective public speakers – but that’s something we can learn through experience, or Toastmasters. We don’t need to study the techniques of the person behind the pulpit.

As for meaning, art, and sources of consolation: Of course we might all get value from ritual, ceremony, community and so forth. Most of us do this already in celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, and even in those regular social interactions with people we know, trust and love. This doesn’t need a label, and doesn’t need any formalising through inventing a new way of being secular.

In summary, here’s the thing: of course we can learn from religion. We can learn from anything, and already do so. But it’s not true – at least in my experience – that there are “so many gaps in secular life”, as de Botton claims. It’s only if you grant that premise, and furthermore claim that religion provides opportunities for learning that aren’t available elsewhere, that religion can be granted any form of privileged status as a source of meaning. The status that it might have is already accommodated in good old-fashioned atheism, and atheism 2.0 seems to be little more than the theme for a book-tour. Which is fine – I wish I could make as much profit from saying so little – but let’s not imagine there’s anything particularly interesting in the idea.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

9 replies on “Alain de Botton’s Atheism 2.0”

I haven’t read de Botton’s book but, as always, a post about religion attracts my interest… particularly this line (which you seem to disagree with):

> religion provides opportunities for learning that aren’t available elsewhere

Whence but Buddhism would you learn about the philosophical concept of emptiness or learn a systematic framework of practices for training stable, strong and precise attention or cultivating universal compassion? And would you really debate that ‘secular society’ lacks these?

I also think it’s problematic to be so dubious of the “organised” in organised religion, because it’s difficult to see that any of the alternatives are worth embracing. Disorganised religion (take, for instance, much of the New Age) doesn’t seem to produce much of value. It tends to become spiritual materialism, which accomplishes either nothing or precisely the opposite of genuine spiritual practice.

Organisation certainly has drawbacks, as you point out: groupthink is dangerous. But without organisation, you don’t get much of value because people don’t work together on the project. You don’t get to test whether a treatment (say, shamatha meditation) actually works or whether it’s working in a counterproductive way.

I think the key here is whether one thinks that spiritual practice is actually useful, or merely a harmless hobby or worse. Do you think that consciousness can undergo lasting, valuable and deeply meaningful transformation, as contemplatives and mystics of all religions have said, or do you not? If yes, then we do indeed have something to learn from religion and a ‘secular religion’ (good practices without superstition) is actually a good idea. If no, the most we have to learn are some interesting ideas about how to structure a good society, most of which we can jettison.

But I do think you have to answer that question before you can assess the value of religion in a meaningful way. Until you address the question of “the work” (as it’s called, meaning spiritual practice) you’re just missing the basic point, like trying to assess a cake by the colour of the plate it’s served on.

(Also, I think the comments to Eagleton’s review are fairly signal.)

As an introductory aside, I think we’d want to first debate whether Buddhism ‘counts’ as a religion. You’ve got a good-looking point there re. emptiness – but can’t it be replaced to all intents and purposes by the recognition (via cosmology or biology, for example) that we’re insignificant to anyone but ourselves? I know that’s not the same thing, but it could be a step on the route to being less self-absorbed. A quick response to your substantive question:

I think the key here is whether one thinks that spiritual practice is actually useful, or merely a harmless hobby or worse. Do you think that consciousness can undergo lasting, valuable and deeply meaningful transformation, as contemplatives and mystics of all religions have said, or do you not? If yes, then we do indeed have something to learn from religion and a ‘secular religion’ (good practices without superstition) is actually a good idea. If no, the most we have to learn are some interesting ideas about how to structure a good society, most of which we can jettison.

Yes, I agree that we, as conscious agents, can learn transformative lessons of that sort, and that we can learn them from religion. But I think we can also learn them from meditation (not necessarily of the woo sort, nor even of the Harris sort). Thinking deeply about history, ethics, art, music, etc. can teach us all those things. For the moment, religion might well be more effective at doing so – it has a massive head start, after all. But I’d rather see us encouraging learning those lessons outside of religion, for simple cost-benefit reasons, in that religion comes with baggage that might be difficult to shake off. This sort of moderate or secular religion may end up being a prop to keep the bad sort alive, so if it’s not necessary to do so, I’d rather not.

By the way, on Eagleton, I don’t mean to endorse his review – certainly not a fan of his writing on religion.

Thanks, Jacques.

My stance is that Buddhism is definitely a religion. The only way I think it could be disqualified is by its nontheism, but I think that’s a poor criterion (also, although no strain of Buddhism has a Prime Mover, Tibetan Buddhism does have deities).

Emptiness can’t be replaced by the recognition that we’re insignificant to anyone but ourselves because that’s not the meaning of emptiness in this context. In Buddhism, emptiness means phenomena lack inherent existence. I highly recommend an excellent PDF here (http://tinyurl.com/7m5oa4c) which explains and explores the complexities of the idea, especially as it pertains to logical contradictions and the limits of what can be thought.

In addressing my substantive question you’ve said that religion, having a massive head start in this field, might well be effective in teaching us transformative lessons. This seems to mean that we can learn from religion, in at least this one way.

We’d make more progress on whether we can learn from religion if we cleared up an innocent misunderstanding here about what I mean by transformation. Learning lessons, getting new ideas or pondering deeply about art, ethics and so on are very valuable; they give us new ways to think or feel about reality. Our new ideas might be holistic instead of atomistic, emphasising forgiveness instead of blame, perhaps relational instead of analytic. But whatever new belief or language or paradigm we learn to use to translate our experience of the world, to make sense of our experience, it does not change our level of consciousness. In the context of the self (to introduce that psychological structure as a useful reference point) these ‘translative’ processes create meaning for the separate self, they do not transform it. The self is made more content.

And if we are talking about translation only, then I would tend to agree with you: we have very little to learn from religion because, with a few useful exceptions, we have almost totally outgrown whatever translative paradigms it offers. But translation is not the true point of religion – transformation is.

Transformation is not conceptual. It is a direct, profound insight into the nature of the self and reality, a change at the deepest seat of consciousness. It may be gradual or sudden, but it changes your level of consciousness, what you experience as being you. The process of translation itself is witnessed, challenged, undermined and eventually dismantled because of the fictions it cannot help but perpetuate. In complete transformation (or enlightenment) the self is not made more content; the self is made toast. When I say that it’s important to decide whether you think spiritual practice is useful, whether transformation happens, whether what contemplatives and mystics report is true, this is what I’m talking about.

Hi Jacques,

I don’t want to inconvenience you, but if time allows would you like to reply to the previous comment about transformation? Up to you, of course. I think that particular aspect of religion is rarely raised in debates about the value of religion, so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, whether you think it’s just woo (which I suspect you might) or whatever.

Patrick, my 2 years of being vaguely Buddhist are now 20 years in the past, so I haven’t responded mostly because I’m out of my depth on those details (and re-familiarising myself with them would not be an efficient use of time at this stage). So whatever I were to say would probably just drag me into debate on further nuances that I’m not aware of.

Two things, though: first, I don’t say we can’t learn from religion. But I’m wary about creating a non-religious religion, and the kind of prescriptivism that appears present in de Botton’s stuff whereby this process needs to be formalised. Second, your suspicion around woo is right – the language of especially your last paragraph (in the second-to-last comment) is far too metaphysical for my tastes. Transformation, enlightenment and so forth are not concepts that I see any value in (in the strong sense of those words). ‘Mind is what brain does’, and it’s constantly transforming – but any posited end-point of that transformation is to me deeply value-laden and entirely subjective.

I don’t doubt that contemplatives and mystics get some of the value they claim to from these ways of engaging – it’s just that I don’t see their merit as normative ideas.

It’s true, but…,

This language pattern that I see in your text shows an interesting biad,in my opinion.

From my perspective, De Botton did not say we shouldnt learn from other places. His talk was sbout the dichotomy that he refers to from the beginning, so why would it be a false dychotomy ?

He chose to talk about religion and atheism. Thats his choice.

He didnt say there ard no other choices