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.