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Have a big fat freaking sh!t-ton of Alain de Botton abuse! You’re welcome.

I have no idea where this Alain de Botton guy sprung from, but he can spring right back. You’ve heard Dawkins mention the Neville Chamberlain school of atheist accomodationism, but de Botton, an atheist who thinks atheism would be really awesome if only we were all religious about it, is full-on Vichy. His latest excrescence, inflicted upon the world through no less a source than CNN (or as they prefer to be called, Fox Lite), might charitably be described as a car crash that caused a train wreck that fell off a bridge causing a shipwreck that settled into the sea bed to become home to a pod of fail whales. Apart from that, it’s not so bad.

(Though I usually don’t like those “more after the jump” type blogs, let me just say, there’s more after the jump.)

The stupid comes running at you like a screaming homeless guy convinced the aliens are chasing him right from the lead.

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

That sentence, right there, is enough to invalidate anything at all de Botton has to say on any subject for the remainder of his life. Really. Once you have discarded truth as an irrelevance, and reason itself as something tedious to put up with, like that annoying aunt who always gave you a sweater instead of some awesome toy for Christmas, exactly what do you hold of value? In de Botton’s case, the answer would be, “Why, warm fuzzies, you silly man. What else?”

de Botton has this goofy idea in his head that little things like insisting “Are your claims true?” just get in the way of the kum-bah-yah important stuff, like, oh, getting together in groups, singing and clapping hands, and — oh yes — apparently every achievement humanity has ever come up with of any kind. Talking about the good ones, of course. de Botton is conspicuously silent on religion’s failings and evils.

Religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture — a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history.

Actually, he’s not wrong that religion’s contributions to fashion have a lot to do with putting people to shame.

So you know, if people did it, and it doesn’t suck, you can thank religion, evidently. That’s not even the worst of de Botton’s unctuousness, people. Behold.

Secular society has been unfairly impoverished by the loss of an array of practices and themes which atheists typically find it impossible to live with. We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages. We can’t build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude.

Yeah, because I never learned to say “Thank you” when they served me my gruel at the orphanage. I always wondered why I kept getting hit with the spoon!

I want the IQ points I lost while reading this gloriously fiber-laden mountain of bullshit back. Honestly, does de Botton ever leave his house for any reason at all, other than to park his car outside churches and sigh wistfully at the hymns emanating from behind the lovely stained-glass windows, wishing he had some of that “beauty” stuff in his life he keeps hearing about but that his atheism denies him? Really, you know you’re a moron when, before anyone had ever heard of you, The Onion was already making fun of you.

Now that we’ve digested the above, let’s examine the stool, shall we? Because like most sewage, it comes out of its source easily enough, but requires a lot of treatment afterwards so the toxins don’t poison the groundwater.

Secular society is “frightened of the word morality”? I must have been too busy making sure the baby in my microwave didn’t explode to notice. The notion that only religion provides a source for morality is one that even the smarter religious apologists know better than to use. Hitchens never in his lifetime got an answer to the challenge he posed to theists — name a single moral precept that religious people hold that a secular person could not also hold for a secular reason — and I don’t see de Botton addressing it either. He simply asserts that secularism has no criterion for morality and thus is “impoverished” thereby.

But what “morality” does religion offer? What I see the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths calling morality looks a lot more like “obedience to authority” to me. Perhaps de Botton, being, you know, a fucking moron, has allowed himself to be suckered into accepting theism’s claim to moral authority on its face, probably by arguments about “objective standards” and other foolishness they trot out. But even if one could demonstrate a divine source for moral precepts, the Euthyphro Dilemma still holds. And the believer would still have to make the choice, based on some criterion, that this divine source is correct in the precepts it assigns as moral. And being a personal judgment call, that criterion is necessarily subjective. But bear in mind, when I use the phrase “subjective” in this context, that’s still not what Christians mean when they use the term. They simply use it as a synonym for amorality. And this seems to be what de Botton has swallowed.

A long long long long really seriously long time ago, a fellow called Aristotle figured out, in his Nicomachean Ethics, that “virtue arises from the proper application of reason.” But then, Aristotle was one of those ancient Greek eggheads with an awesome white beard who had the whole “reason” thing down like a boss, and Alain de Botton, QED (yay, Latin!), is a fucking moron (yay, profanity!) who is both beardless and an embarrassment to anyone with male pattern baldness. Yet I think it’d take more than a white beard to help him out.

Do we “bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon”? Why, yes. Because we are free thinkers, we prefer open Socratic dialogue, argument, and the exchange of ideas to simply being preached to, specifically when there’s a good chance the fellow delivering the sermon may not be the totally trustworthy moral authority de Botton and the rest of the congregation thinks he is.

“‘Bridle’? I’ll try anything once! Just remember I’m COMPLETELY HETEROSEXUAL.”

How much more insulting and idiotic can de Botton get? Well, considering I spent ten years as a professional artist and now work in the film/TV industry, and that pretty much all my life, art and literature and cinema have been central to my appreciation of the world, its culture, and the power of the human imagination in general, I must say that when you tell me I “flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission,” my response to you will be something like this.

“That’s what you get for dissing Nickelback, motherFUCKER!”

Perhaps de Botton has spent a little too much time listening to Christian pop music, and has gotten the curious idea that, where art is concerned, an “uplifting, ethical mission” means “advertise my beliefs.” It’s as if the idea of art as a means of personal expression and communication by an individual is alien to him, because it’s only art when it’s got the madonna-and-child in it, or stars Kirk Cameron.

“Because Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole…not like you!”

As many people have pointed out, some with a tad less snark and bad language than I, de Botton is bizarrely enamored of ritual for its own sake. He’s adopted the strange idea that religion can only offer ritual that is meaningful, and yet really, the Onion utterly nailed his curious cognitive dissonance without realizing they were even writing about him. “Yeah, it’s obvious there’s no God or anything, but man, religious people get to have all the fun!” And he curiously overlooks all the bad stuff that history can lay at religion’s feet as well. You know, wars, tribalism, pogroms, the subjugation of women, the stunting of scientific and cultural progress, homophobia…all those things. All fade before the glory of ritual and cant. de Botton says,

In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

It is possible, as long as you’re a fucking moron, an achievement Alain de Botton has unlocked right out of the box. All I can tell him is that if he really feels “unfairly impoverished” because he doesn’t think secularism allows him the tools to experience joy, pain, wonder, awe, and the whole gamut of human experience in-between, then I feel sorry for him, and I wish he wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that I and all the rest of us in the rational world are similarly pathetic and disadvantaged.


Addendum: Naturally, a lot of criticisms are being lobbed at those of us beating up on de Botton. And in my humble, the vast majority of them consist of tone trolling. No less a fellow than the fine Hemant Mehta has joined that choir. I was going to draft a new post to address these specifically, but Crommunist has done a perfectly cromulent job of it himself, without all the F-bombs I’d drop into the bargain. (George Carlin once referred to the bad language he’d use in his stand up as “the spice in my stew,” and while I’d never match his talents if I lived to be a zillion, I agree that sometimes really rude language and snark are perfectly acceptable ingredients in the polemical toolkit when you use them at the right times.)

I’ll reiterate a point I’ve made in some comments below: If de Botton’s only point was as benign as his defenders think it is — that there are some nice things about religion that enhance the life experience of believers, that atheists would do well to embrace on our own terms — he wouldn’t be attracting such abuse. It’s that, in order to sell the point, de Botton has to construct a barren, sterile, emotionally bereft secular world that none of us actually lives in, but we do, because he says so. And that our unwillingness to connect to deeper meanings and stuff is because we’ve willfully deprived ourselves of our humanity, choosing to be coldly logical Mr. Spocks, without even the benefit of a badass mind meld or 3D chess to enliven our spiritual malaise. It’s in de Botton’s blanket, generalized devaluation of all of us to promote the things religion offers that he insists we need (because, I guess, he does, and so what’s right for him is necessarily Right, period) that he earns the, ahem, uncivil criticisms we’re giving him. Concern trolls will be concerned, but I make no apology for defending my convictions that the secular life is far from an unfulfilled (let alone intentionally unfulfilled) one, or for calling anyone a fucking moron for saying fucking moronic things.

Comments

  1. says

    In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

    I expect de Botton has never gone to a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It has everything worthwhile one might find in a religious service, from the sense of community, the singing, the dancing, the convoluted morality lessons to the crazy supernatural storyline. All that and Meatloaf too!

  2. says

    De Botton is a lightweight purveyor of half-baked philosophy, and he has a book to sell.

    His game is promotion, and it grieves me we have to counter his idiocy when we could be attending to more important stuff such as pushing against religious resistance to secularism.

  3. Theodoric says

    The stuff about us not expressing gratitude really irks me. For me, saying thanks to another person is a deeply personal thing between and that person, saying that I value that person and her or his efforts to aid me, even if it cost him or her something; and that I am willing to do the same for that person in the future.

    It is incredibly human and, in a way, ‘pure’. It should not be sullied by involving some probably non-existant mythical being that, one can only guess, spies on us for its amusement and punishes us if we don’t comfort its ego, or a troubled individual’s attempts at making that make sense somehow.

    • says

      For me, saying thanks to another person is a deeply personal thing between and that person,

      No, you see, without God, you cannot thank anyone. Without God as a transhuman medium, that encapsulates that “thank you”, quantum tunnels it through the spacetime continuum, to the next person, you could never make that connection.

      Thus, being thankful without God would simply be a violation of all known laws of physics.

  4. PermanentStaycation says

    Terrible writing, this article; I couldn’t manage to read it all. Who are you trying to be? Whomever it is, I should think again.

    • says

      For real? I rather enjoyed it with phrases like…

      “Aristotle was one of those ancient Greek eggheads with an awesome white beard who had the whole “reason” thing down like a boss”

    • daniellavine says

      I will never understand the people who just comment to say “This sucks and you suck for writing it!” Maybe you could share some specific reasons why you thought it sucks so that your comment could be received as constructive criticism instead of idiotic crapscreaming?

    • jacobfromlost says

      As an expert, I say the article was well written, informative, and entertaining. Therefore Martin wrote a wonderful article and is wonderful for doing so.

      Also as an expert, I say PermanentStaycation is a poopyhead.

  5. says

    I watched de Botton’s TED talk, and concluded that he was witty, charming, and almost entirely wrong. This most recent article of his cements the latter opinion while eroding the others. It’s frustrating that he seems to be becoming a media darling.

      • Arkady says

        He’s been around as a pop-philosopher in the UK for quite a few years. Never liked him much tho, so never paid much attention to his media appearances and writing.

    • waspbloke says

      I watched the TED talk and it irritated me as de Botton casually conflated atheism and secularism. Secularism, as coined by G.J. Holyoake, is an inclusive movement that broadly equates to the promotion of humanism in society. For the most part, modern secular societies still conform to that goal. Given that, it is possible and even arguably the norm in western Europe, for people of religious convictions to also be secularists. Whilst it’s surely true that a good deal of atheists self-identify as secularists (or at least in favour of church/state separation,) the secular movement does not share the anti-religious agenda that seems to be prevalent amongst many vocal (new) atheists. Indeed, the New Atheism phenomenon is in part, born out of frustration with the softer tone of secularism towards religion.

      I view de Botton as a snail-paced secularist who’s accommodating attitude to religion as good as makes his atheism (and his arguments) irrelevant in the public discussion about truths.

  6. says

    Am I imagining things, or has this position of “I’m an atheist who loves religion!” become some kind of trend among young writers trying to make a name for themselves? The atrocious SE Cupp is the only other example springing to mind at the moment, but I feel as if there are more.

    Call me cynical, but I think people like this are using atheism as nothing more than a ploy to get people to buy their books, read their articles, or whatever else they’re selling. They’ll label themselves whatever they think will attract the most audience. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if some of these so-called “atheists” turned around and wrote a book about how they found religion after all….

    • gfunk says

      Yeah, I think they appeal to a niche of accommodationists on both sides of the religious debate (mild theists and atheists) who just want everyone to to get along. I get it, conflict is scary, and if your position is mild, you want to hear people who tell you happy things.

      And that niche is growing because there is enough access to info (atheist speakers, scary extremists, science education) that there are lots of new people who can’t fully embrace the myths they were raised on but they still remember all the warm fuzzies they had and want to believe there is great value in those traditions.

      Morons like de Botton are just pandering to that.

  7. annabucci says

    I agree with almost everything Martin has said. I disagree with the idea that theism necessarily claims a moral authority, and I also want to point out that not all religions claim a divine source for the morality they espouse.

    • says

      Well, I’m simply replying to de Botton’s views. I suspect that when he’s thinking of religions, his mind is in a very traditional place, and isn’t giving much thought to religions outside the cultural mainstream and how they view such issues as morality and community (though he’d probably just agree they were better too).

  8. Randomfactor says

    If the whole “being true” thing doesn’t matter, why are religions so defensive about dogma? One belief’s as good as the next one, right?

  9. tosspotovich says

    I can’t help but think he is a theist in disguise, trying to usher lost sheeple back to the herd. Well deserving of snarkiness.

  10. Felipe says

    Does anyone else sometimes feel like we have religious fundamentalists plants in the skeptic community? Things like this make my paranoid bone tingle.

    • Josh says

      Freethoughtblogs at this point certainly seems to be a focus point for ideological atheism/skepticism, which isn’t much better than any other ideology.

      • says

        Assuming that we’re working under a definition of ideology as “the body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture,” it occurs to me that to say an ideology rooted in the notion that truth claims should be supported by sound evidence and that ideas always ought to be open to critical evaluation and revision “isn’t much better” than, say, one that demands unquestioning adherence to unverifiable revelation and inflexible dogma is pretty goddamned idiotic.

        • Felipe says

          This is great. Once I sent it to an agnostic friend who posted on Facebook something like “atheism is just another form of fundamentalism”. He immediately deleted me. Totally worth it.

        • says

          I’m going to go ahead and say that I don’t have a problem saying that I’m a fundamentalist to science.

          I suppose it depends on the definition, but if it means “adhering to a basic set of principles”, then sure. I adhere to science not because of dogma, not because an authority told me to, but rather because it works.

          I use a hammer to drive nails into wood because it works well, as opposed to making up a story about pretending that the nail has been driven into the wood and then walking away.

          We can be fairly lazy about articulating nuances in our points. For instance, when liberals talk about how it’s bad to be intolerant of people who are different, conservatives will often come back with “Well you’re intolerant of intolerance. Hah!”. Similar to the concepts of discrimination or skepticism, we often fail to convey that there’s more to it.

          There are valid things to be intolerant of, and invalid things. There are valid things to discriminate against, and there are invalid things. While it’s not valid for an employer to discriminate against black people when hiring, it is perfectly valid to discriminate against blood-soaked axe murderers. We as thinking entities can identify that one attribute of a person is relevant to employment, and another is not. We can decide that some aspects of humanity are “sacred” enough to be off limits without starting a slippery slope of allowing/disallowing all attributes from discrimination.

          So when we say “you’re being intolerant”, what we should be saying is “you’re invalidly intolerant”.

          Likewise, what’s wrong with “fundamentalists” isn’t fundamentalism. The problem is that they’re wrong, and causing harm in the process.

          Just as with every caller who calls in to point out that, despite ragging on religions, we as atheists are forming social groups too and that we’re hypocrites. Forming social groups isn’t what is wrong with religion.

          As long as fundamentalism doesn’t require authoritarianism/totalitarianism, blind dogma, closed-mindedness, etc, then I have no problem saying I’m a fundamentalist.

          I just thought I’d throw that in.

  11. Vall says

    de Bottom says “We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages. We can’t build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude.”

    I think he’s using the Royal “We.” No other usage makes sense. Maybe the sermon one, but not because of the religious stuff, I just don’t like arrogant dishonest assholes.

  12. terrycollins says

    Martin wrote this? So unlike what we see on the show. So nasty.

    Never heard of de Botton, but I abandoned CNN a while ago. Does the guy not realize there are already godless religions like Buddhism?

    “We have grown frightened of the word morality.”

    No, it’s the idea of absolute morality that “we” hate.

    “We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon.”

    Nope, unless it’s about going to Hell unless “we” conform.

    “We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission.”

    Is the greeting card industry going out of business or something? I really have no idea what he bases that statement on. Please define art. Does it include music?

    “We don’t go on pilgrimages.”

    Are you sponsoring the trip?

    “We can’t build temples.”

    Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Baseball Hall of Fame. Biggest ball of twine in Minnesota. Museums. Disneyland.

    “We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude.”

    Express gratitude to whom and for what?

  13. yiab says

    Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

    I have to say I agree with this statement for a very good reason: the answer is obviously that religion is not true.

    A question being boring, however, does not mean that it is irrelevant or unworthy of being asked, answered and understood.

    As for secular art not having ethical messages, I invite Mr. de Botton to watch some Star Trek and then repeat that statement.

    As I see it, the reason that religion blends so many aspects of human life together in a single package is that it is a relic from a time when most aspects of human life could not be conceptually separated. Part of the flourishing of humanity has come from the specialization allowed by separating (though not segregating) human institutions from each other enabling, for example, a human to make progress in astrophysics without having to first go through medical school. In other words part of the reason we can do things well is that we can do things separately, which explains why religions do very few things well at all. I for one do not yearn for a world in which professional ethicists must first learn to play a musical instrument or solve differential equations, while I admire any person who can do all these things well.

    • says

      Point. The fact that religion happened to get there first, so to speak, when human civilization was establishing its institutions and traditions in no way should imply that religion, or even the approach taken by religion (which is really what de Botton’s cheerleading for), is the only necessary path to the benefits people have historically gotten from those things.

    • David says

      Maybe there’s something to this…

      Yes, let’s compare a religion with other philosophies of life – it doesn’t actually matter whether it is true or not (in this context). What matters is if it gives a person a better life.

      If, for example, wearing a burka genuinely made women happier, then maybe it should be something that we integration into our lives.

      The problem is that most religions justify their practices on the back of “This is true, therefore…”. So you can’t really avoid the question.

  14. rippe says

    Ever since Alain’s TED talk brought him to my consciousness I’ve found him loathsome. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

  15. stubnitz says

    I usually like the articles on Axp, but this one is just nasty.

    de Botton hasn’t “sprung” from anywhere, its just that you haven’t heard of him, there is a difference.

    Try to remember that de Botton is writing from Europe, not Texas. In Europe, we’re not facing the same battles with fundamentalists as you guys are in the States. Most church-goers here don’t deny evolution, and aren’t trying to legislate what two men do together or what a woman does with her uterus. Most of our believers aren’t real believers, it is well known that several priests here in Denmark don’t even believe in god (http://www.bt.dk/nyheder/praester-ikke-et-krav-tro-paa-gud). You and de Botton are coming from completely different places. Once you’ve understood that, you might be on your way to understanding his point. If even priests don’t believe in God, then arguing with the religious about the “truth” of the bible is very boring indeed.

    I don’t want to be in the position of defending de Botton, but how about actually addressing his argument of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater? We’ve acknowledged that we have no need of the theological claims of religion, but in doing so we’ve also dismissed the social and cultural aspects of religion, without examining whether these might have some benifits of their own, and whether we can adapt them for our own purposes.

    de Botton sees some glorious art, music and architecture that are the remains of a time when religion was considered to be “true”. He wants to capture that sense of reverence that has previously only been the domain of religion.

    And your response? To kick someone in the balls. Wow.

    de Botton writes “philosphy for beginners” stuff, and has released plans for an atheist monument in London. I’m not a fan of much that he does, but I at least understand what he’s trying to do.

    And he curiously overlooks all the bad stuff that history can lay at religion’s feet as well

    He didn’t defend the bad stuff, he wants to keep the good stuff. A bit rich for you to call him a fucking moron when you haven’t even grasped that point.

    • says

      I did grasp it. I just think it’s horseshit. That I’m coming from an American perspective and he’s coming from a European one does not on its own invalidate my criticisms of his views, and to imply it does is just a poisoning the well fallacy.

      de Botton (and you) are simply wrong that no one out there in the secular world is adopting or even attempting to adopt or re-create that “sense of reverence” about life, the universe and everything that people have traditionally gotten from religion. The only way anyone could come to a conclusion so dumb is if they are not engaged in the world around them, or cognizant of the myriad human contributions to culture and community that exist everywhere, and that stem from other than religious sources. And he (and you) seem utterly clueless that one man’s meat is another’s poison: the joy and transcendence one person receives at a church service may just as easily be experienced by another from a family gathering, the Super Bowl, going fishing, attending a film festival, or something as simple as petting your dog or hugging your child or watching a sunset.

      That was what the ball-kick response was for. This assertion that secularism provides no outlet for this kind of appreciation of life or sense of connection to others. If de Botton’s only point were as benign as you claim — let’s ditch the bad parts of religion and keep the shiny stuff — he wouldn’t be getting heaped with ridicule from all over the godless blogosphere. No, what’s drawing our ire is his insistence that we’re all empty and bereft, because his argument requires a sterile, emotionally barren wasteland of a secular world that none of actually inhabits in order to work. As a creative person in both my private and professional life, you better believe I’ll aim for the balls if you arrogantly try to tell me I don’t believe art has transcendent value.

      As you point out, those of you living in a predominately secular European world where many of the clergy are even atheist have a much different perspective from those of us in America, where outright fundamentalist theocrats are running for the presidency and nearly half the population thinks the Flintstones is a documentary. The point you spectacularly miss is that you think my views are the ones at fault for failing to appreciate de Botton’s European privilege. In fact, it’s de Botton’s inability to understand what life is like in a profoundly religious culture that damns his argument. In dismissing outspoken atheists as nothing more than grumpy old men who like peeing in religion’s corn flakes because we’re just as fundamentalist as they are, he utterly cannot comprehend the anger and frustration at living in a nation where the religious want to insert myth into school science classes, demand legal sovereignty over women’s uteruses, and deny GLBT people marriage equality while telling them Jesus really loves them and will make them nice and straight if only they pray hard enough. You guys may have the luxury of finding discussions of truth boring and irrelevant. To us they matter like hell.

      So before chiding me for supposedly failing to grasp de Botton’s points, it might behoove you to grasp mine. We already have one fucking moron in de Botton. We don’t need any more.

      There. Nasty enough for you?

      • stubnitz says

        Your second paragraph is approaching the argument that you could have made if you weren’t so keen on calling de Botton a fucking moron.

        And I never said I agreed with him, but name calling and ball kicking don’t make up an argument. I don’t share the viewpoint of atheists that “believe in belief”, but if some of them think it is a shame that a secular society would never produce a St Pauls, I don’t see how “you fucking idiot, whats wrong with the superbowl?” is a legitimate response.

        I didn’t say that your views are invalid, I said that you’re looking at his comments in a totally different context. I say: “you didn’t understand him”, you say: “you didn’t understand me”. Okay fine. The only way that is going is in circles.

        But,

        The point you spectacularly miss is that you think my views are the ones at fault for failing to appreciate de Botton’s European privilege. In fact, it’s de Botton’s inability to understand what life is like in a profoundly religious culture that damns his argument

        Eh? So when I claim that he wasn’t referring to your circumstances, you can claim he should have, and because he didn’t, he’s wrong? Remember that your type of athieism is your response to your environment, it is not the default stance of all atheists. You have to fight for the legitamacy of your beliefs, others don’t.

        When de Botton says that we shy away from sermons and morals, remember that people raised in a totally atheist society don’t do the same research into their beliefs as you do. You have had to provide a solid philosophical argument for your basis of ethics, whereas I can take it for granted. You might share the same values as someone from secular Europe, but I’m sure you would be much better placed to provide your arguments than the average European. So when de Botton wants to address “morals” and “sermons”, he wants people to take an active interest in what they believe and why. In that, I agree with de Botton.

        de Botton wants to provide a secular option for the impulses that seem to drive many towards the church. To quote another review of his work:

        …the view that ideas become powerful in our lives not merely when we understand them, but when they become habitual, when they are shared communally, when they are supported by external prompts

        For some reason, a number of people attend church, not because god wants them to, but because they find things there that our society hasn’t been great at addressing outside the church. You don’t think so, fine.

        In general I believe we have the same viewpoint (and a shared distaste of Botton), but I didn’t like the tone of the article and thought that it didn’t address de Bottons arguments on the grounds that he made them. Save the vitriol for the people that actually don’t like you, there are enough of them.

        • says

          Stubniz, you’re not doing yourself or de Botton any favors when you cannot represent his views accurately in your attempts to defend him. This:

          So when I claim that he wasn’t referring to your circumstances, you can claim he should have, and because he didn’t, he’s wrong?

          …is a steaming load of tosh. Read de Botton’s piece again. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You’ll notice that when he uses phrases like “the error of modern atheism” or “secular society,” he doesn’t add qualifiers like “modern European atheism” or “European secular society, the circumstances of which are far different than American secular society, about which my opinions here do not apply.” No, he’s devaluing all of us in order to sing the praises of religion’s precious ritual and cant. When he says stuff like “We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission,” he’s arrogantly speaking for all of us, not just his inner circle of fellow philosophy academics. Perhaps you are suggesting that it’s implicit de Botton is not referring to the experiences of non-European atheists when he makes his sweeping, condescending generalizations, but that still prompts the question of how you know. Because I’m reading his actual text, and don’t see the qualifiers you’re seeing.

          Most people create straw men to attack them. You’ve created a straw Alain de Botton to defend!

          You’re right that people attend church because there are things churches address that secular society doesn’t. But that’s the little thing we as atheists are clued into: those unique matters churches address — that there is a God, he loves you but he’ll send you to hell if you don’t love him back, that you better darn well watch out what you do with those dangly bits between your legs — are bullshit. As in, untrue. And rational society doesn’t need them.

          But ah-ha, here’s Alain de Botton to tell us that truth is boring. Never mind that, when people believe in the truth of untrue things, they sometimes do amazingly fucked up stuff, like crashing jet airplanes into buildings because they’ve been promised their own private harem to shag in the afterlife. No no, just listen to the pretty hymns and admire the lovely cathedrals. Well, the cathedrals are nice. And there are some gospel singers out there who can really bring it. But we forget that their fine gifts are in aid of delusion and divisive, sectarian superstition at our peril.

          As for the tone trolling, fine, I’ll give it to you. Not everyone likes sarcasm and ridicule, but I’ve always considered them legitimate ingredients in the polemical cookbook. Civility is a good thing when it’s warranted, and it’s not warranted when the whole premise behind the argument you’re attacking is that truth is boring, and people who embrace it suck while those who reject it are special snowflakes we should emulate so that we suck less.

          • says

            I love the “we shy away from morality.” I guess de Botton’s “we” manages to omit A.C. Grayling and Sam Harris, whose latest high-profile book releases have been books on secular morality.

        • davidct says

          In raising awareness of the atheist position we need many voices. Martin’s is one of the more blunt. The civil rights movement did not make that much progress when those, whose rights were being denied, just said “Yes Massah” and politely moved to the back of the bus. de Botton is particularly offensive in that he calls himself an atheist and then goes on to create the atheist straw man to argue that we should be more “religious”. Some ideas deserve and actually require ridicule. Of course Thomas Jefferson was not a European.

      • stubnitz says

        Fractally wrong! I’d not heard that before, I like it.

        Although he is an athiest, so he is right about something.

    • waspbloke says

      Try to remember that de Botton is writing from Europe, not Texas.

      …on a US-centric media outlet, in order to promote sales of his book in the US.

    • says

      If even priests don’t believe in God, then arguing with the religious about the “truth” of the bible is very boring indeed.

      In that case, it’s not that it’s boring to argue about. Rather, it’s simply that everyone agrees that it’s not true. There’s a difference.

  16. mattkovach says

    I dont feel so bad now,

    after seeing how much press de Botton was receiving I was sure that the body snatchers had landed and they had begun to

    go after the atheist population one continent at a time

    • says

      Why would we want to build temples? What good is a temple? Bereft of gods and dogmatic ritual, it’s a building that looks pretty and serves no purpose beyond “somewhat inconvenient lecture hall.”

      Here’s a crazy thought: instead, let’s build universities and libraries and museums. We can incorporate all the same beautiful architecture and stained glass windows and what have you, but also have an actual purpose to it, actual intrinsic value. There’s no reason for us to copy religion when we have the ability to improve on the good bits of religion, since we’re not weighed down by the ineffable demands of fictional beings or the pointless minutiae of ancient ritual.

  17. says

    I find De Bottons views so offensive. How dare he speak on behalf of all atheists and say our lives lack all the warm and fuzzy things that religion provides. I have morals and ethics. I have role models and I am part of a close knit community with shared values to which I feel connected. I don’t need a congregation and Pastor to be my moral compass, If ever I’m not sure of right from wrong I will ask any one or more of my atheist friends who are more generous and kind humanitarians than any religious people I know. I do have someone, many heros infact to turn to for guidance (not like but better than a local Priest). I’ve heard him on T.V saying that we atheist lack all these things. The Global Atheist convention is my anual celebration. More uplifting than any religious celebration I attended in my youth. Alain De Botton please speak for yourself! Your life may be empty and void of meaning but mine most certainly is not.

  18. Cassie says

    I agree with the general sentiment that de botton’s whole spiel is a litany of strawmans. Makes it sound like my life is quite depressing without religion. I however do quite like sleeping in on a sunday!

  19. sarahmorehouse says

    I think he’s attacking a straw man. The bloodless atheists with their cold, hard science. Everything in their world is glass and plastic and steel! How they must long for… *wistful sigh* music! And art! And community! And meaning!

    He seems to be oblivious to or ignoring the fact that we can have all those things without indoctrination, groupthink, and saccharine.

    Maybe because we use most of our energy to debunk the supernatural and promote rationality and evidence, an idea has grown up that we do not experience feelings of awe or warm fuzzies. I go through phases of depression now that I am an atheist, and I can’t fall back on what I used to – assuming the gods have a plan for me, or that my spirit is on a sacred path in which every experience is perfectly tuned to help me learn and grow. It IS harder, but then again, those former psychological supports didn’t help much. They made me feel better and then I’d run into a wall because whether I believed it or not, I could still make dumb mistakes and I was still susceptible to dumb luck.

    Now when I feel that way, I meditate, do exercise, read a Douglass Adams novel or watch one of the good Star Trek episodes, or maybe some Doctor Who, check out what’s going on in scientific and anthropological developments, go to a filk night or a stitch-n-bitch, donate to a charity, immerse myself in nature, make some art, whatever. And I feel connected and happy and alive again. All without sermons and thought-stopping rituals!

    de Botton probably needs a sense of meaning and connection for himself, and thinks he has found the one and only source. Now he is promoting it for everybody? That is not very rational or humanistic.

  20. sarahmorehouse says

    de Botton is impractical when he wants a temple of atheism. He is disturbing when he wants indoctrination and groupthink. But maybe if there is ONE good idea in there, it’s that just because your animal brain wants some good stories and communal habits that are gratifying to the senses and emotions, doesn’t mean you’re sliding down the slippery slope to knee-bending and crystal-fondling.

    Myth and ritual can and must be understood as art, used as art. He says this like it’s news to us, and that makes it sound like more than it is. But it’s still a good idea.

    • says

      Again, though, where he goes off the rails is in claiming we are utterly bereft without it, that we’ve come up with no secular alternatives to it, and we are without it because we’ve chosen the path of being heartless and unfeeling Mr. Spocks.

  21. zengaze says

    You nailed it Martin.

    Tone trolls are simply asshats who don’t like confrontation. Sometimes things have to be confronted in a manner that lets every one know just how strongly you disagree. I’d rather address stalin as a murdering subhuman fucking scumbag, than a leader of men who through context committed acts which modern society finds unacceptable.

    To paraphrase from a superb film “they teach us to drop bombs on children but won’t let us write fuck on our airplanes because it’s obscene”.

    The anal nature of asshats astounds me,they can miss the argument completley because you articulate it with words they have been conditioned to percieve as offensive. To paraphrase carlin “when you’re born you get a ticket to the freakshow”

  22. Supermental says

    Requesting permission to use the following:

    “might charitably be described as a car crash that caused a train wreck that fell off a bridge causing a shipwreck that settled into the sea bed to become home to a pod of fail whales. Apart from that, it’s not so bad.”

    Good stuff!

  23. DavidH says

    Great post!

    I wrote this idiot off when I saw his TED talk (and pretty much wrote TED off at the same time) I see no reason to alter this thus far.

    There was a cartoon in the ‘culture’ section of the Sunday Times newspaper the other week which featured ‘DE Botton’ talking to his publisher saying something like “So your going to accept the manuscript for my new book without reading it?” and the publisher replies with something like “well your a balding middle aged white guy who’s had a mid-life existential crisis… whatever you write is just going to Fly off the shelves…”

  24. jacobfromlost says

    Two points I want to make:

    1) What de Botton advocates, if it to be done under the umbrella of “atheism”, cannot be done. There will be too many atheists who say it is nonsense and reject it. If it is NOT to be done under the umbrella “atheism”, then what he advocates is being done already, and always has been. Religion got all of that stuff FROM HUMANITY, not the other way around. We still have it, ABUNDANTLY, but de Botton is ignoring it while saying we should reshape it into a form that looks the way he thinks it should look.

    2) de Botton’s advice/advocacy reminds me a lot of the advice of people like “Dr. Laura”. I don’t even think she’s on the radio anymore, but people used to call in all the time and ask about problems that had really obvious solutions. Most of the time she gave advice that was at least in the reasonable ballpark– “Your friends hate you because you lied about them? Maliciously? Several times? APOLOGIZE TO THEM AND STOP LYING ABOUT THEM! Then let them decide if they still want to be friends and don’t demand that they must if they don’t want to.” de Botton seems to be trying to take that brain-dead super-simple approach one step up from an advice radio show for morons, or an advice column for idiots, and turn it into an organized (non)religion because “the masses” can’t figure out lying is bad, or stealing is bad, or murder is bad, so we atheists have to trick them into understanding it with songs and myths and buildings.

    No we don’t. Besides, the songs and myths and buildings I like (or love) may or may not be religious, but MY LIKING THEM is never religious–because I’m not religious. Does de Botton understand this? I can and do enjoy songs and myths and art that are overtly religious, but they don’t hold any supernatural reality TO ME because I don’t believe in supernatural stuff. So in that broad sense, what de Botton is saying is just the way life is for atheists already. (Also, I can take moral lessons from all of life–real events, life experience, television, movies, myths, etc etc, just like everyone else. Creating a new category of “atheist culture approved by de Botton” doesn’t do anything new or interesting.)

  25. NoApologetics says

    What I find most disturbing about this de Botton guy (other then his cynical attempt to cash in on the uptrend in atheism, seriously, who is this books target audience? I’m guessing liberal believers and their allies)is his belief that somehow religion holds some sort of exclusivity on art and beauty in our world. Growing up religious I still found the Twin Towers to be more awe-inspiring then the Sistine chapel (later in life finding that most critics panned the Twin Towers but what the hell does an 8yr old care what they say?), dinosaurs and evolution held more mystery and were infinitely more interesting then the trinity, and music, the Stones elicited a larger emotional response within me then Ave Maria. Has this fucker not seen the Bradley Building or the Walt Disney Concert Hall? Has he not heard A Love Supreme? I’ll take Fallingwater over the Hagia Sophia any day, questions of taste aside. It’s not to say that religious things are not without their charms just to say they do not hold a monopoly or even worse a superiority over art and beauty within culture.

    I’m not even going near that ca-ca poo-poo about wether or not religion is “true” is boring.

    Ohhhh… and to boot he’s claiming that he “has suffered abuse at the hands of this cult(neo-atheism <– Whatever that is.)" This sense of persecution I've only known from the Christian sect when their ideas are challenged by non-believers. Nice to know it's being adopted by atheists whose ideas are rejected by the atheist community at large.

    • gfunk says

      His strawman assertions where almost so stupid as to be unworthy of response. But, sadly, people will certainly hear him say these things and think “yeah, good point.”

      I just don’t understand how someone who has put 2 minutes of thought into those statements could put them in print with their name attached.

    • says

      Just one pedantic detail. A Love Supreme was in fact an album Coltrane recorded while in a God phase. Of course, my appreciation of its beauty doesn’t come from a God place in my own life. And later, Trane dumped religion, discovered LSD, and recorded his final free jazz experiments, like Ascension and Om. Pretty much disproving de Botton’s point that religion has a monopoly on art all over again. :-)

      • NoApologetics says

        ::in a panic:: It’s true, it’s true everything you just said is true. I was going to go with the Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool but as a compilation album it’s just not as conceptually satisfying a listen. ::bursts into tears and runs away::

        If de Botton played A Love Supreme during services I might consider going to his obelisk:

        Friend: Hey, where you going?
        Me: Down to the obelisk to listen to free jazz
        Friend: Oh, is that a club?
        Me: ahhh… kinda… more of a monolith to religious atheism.
        Friend: uh-huh…

        On second thought. nahhhhhh… Like Dollywood, ice capades or a creation museum I could only enjoy it ironically.

  26. says

    The other AdB troll I’ve noticed is the one who says “All Alain is saying is…” and then repeats his thesis verbatim as if we weren’t already discussing it. I loved this post, it pushed me from feeling slightly sorry for the obviously dim witted little man to frankly agreeing that he’s a fucking moron. I commented about 20 minutes ago at J&M that there were some good things in religion but that most were not exclusive to religion. What I should have stated was that there were NO aspects exclusive to religion. A bowling team with a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian and an Atheist all enjoying “community” without religion playing a part in it is a purely secular event. I don’t get why AdB seems to think we need a secular church to make this at all meaningful. Awe and wonder? Try a planetarium, or a Hubble slideshow (for me at least). A sermon? There are motivational seminars, but those aren’t much better than a church sermon, most are full of woo, and they use the same group-think techniques as most preachers and magicians. I’ll take a lecture where I learn something tangible supported by evidence and can ask questions. Hymns? Dude, try a fucking Korn concert.

  27. Cassie says

    The anti-human basis of his arguments such as where he claims religion is necessary to curb our innate violent impulses is also deeply offensive. Martin should rip into him and those ripping into martin for being less than impressed should also be ripping into the insulting nature of de bottons assertions.

  28. bsk says

    I haven’t read all the comments so this may have been pointed out already, but isn’t it a little strange for de Botton to be arguing that “religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have.”

    That kind of overlooks – just a little bit – the towering edifice of modern (and ancient) science, which has greatly extended our lives, hauled millions out of poverty, demystified the human condition and comprehensively answered many of the “big questions” – not to mention the little everyday conveniences we take for granted, like the fucking _internet_.

  29. Zengaze says

    De Botton is a moron who writes any crap that pops into his head to satisfy his over inflated pseudo intellectual ego. Upon even the most cursory study his thinking patterns demonstrate the same flaws common amongst theists. He reshapes reality to fit his premise ignoring all and any evidence to the contrary, makes blind assertions, and appeals to personal woo.

    He is in short a religionist, who couldn’t give a toss for logic or truth if the construct makes him feel wooey in the inside. The need to keep having the god debate until woo heads such as de botton can’t assert there is a god without fits of laughter breaking out all around them is demonstrated through the below news story:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-17006924

    The fact that De Botton doesn’t get that makes him boring, and more importantly; irrelevant.

  30. says

    I first heard about this guy when he presented his Atheism 2.0 idea. From the very start he made me slightly nauseous. The guy’s a fucking idiot. I was kinda hoping we’d never hear from him again, but lately he’s been popping up all over the place. Urgh.

  31. Rachel says

    I was originally okay with de Botton, because I heard a summary of his ideas, for an ‘atheist temple’. Despite the deeply stupid terminology, the basic idea was, religion, regardless what you think of it, has spurred the creation of some really lovely art and architecture. We should have some beautiful explicitly secular art and architecture.

    I am an atheist and I totally buy into the idea you can like religious art just for the aesthetics and I really like choral church music, just for the way it sounds.

    However, having read his latest, I’m beginning to think that nice little summary I read must have been heavily edited for stupid waffle-nonsense.

    • Aquaria says

      Are you stupid? Have you missed the incredible contemporary art all around you right fucking now?

      The West has literally millions of artists, writers, musicians, actors, poets–ready for you to look at their goddamned work.

      The modern era is the single largest explosion of artistic and architectural achievements on a more massive scale than has ever been seen. Ever. More people are engaged with the arts right fucking now than ever have been. Do you not own an iPod, where you can have 500 years of the most beautiful music in the world in your hand at any given time?

      And you think we need religion for any of that?

      Shut up.

  32. InvincibleIronyMan says

    See, now here’s where he couldn’t be more wrong – I simply *adore* the word “morality”. I especially enjoy smacking theists round their fat, ugly heads with it.

    This is fascinating: it says here that Alain de Botton is a “philosopher”. Looks like the vandals have been at Wikipedia again. Ha, ha, very funny, grow up guys and gals!

    Tone trolls can suck my salty balls.

  33. BlueNTX says

    Martin,
    All those decrying your tone obviously haven’t delved into the TAE blog archives. This was actually rather subdued for you I thought. :) When I saw it was a Martin post I automatically thought “This is gonna be gooood!” Please don’t tell me you’re mellowing!!!

    Looking forward to more frequent posts here, they’ve been rather sporadic.

    BTW,almost time for the ACA renewal is it not and I still haven’t been shown the secret handshake!

  34. MarkB says

    Funny, i’ve heard the opposite from believers whomclaim that they love god but hate religion, that religion is an unneccessary step between worshippers and their god. What’s de Bouton say to them?

  35. Michael R says

    This has to be the worst representation of Alain De Botton I’ve heard so far. It completely misrepresents Alain and is an embarrassment to rational thought. Wagner is flat out wrong.

    “Once you have discarded truth as an irrelevance, and reason itself as something tedious to put up with”. Epic fail by Wagner. Alain does nothing of the sort. He is not abandoning reason. He, like most mature atheists, is simply bored with talking about the existence of God. We’re comfortable with our non-belief and now we’re graduating to humanism, human-centred values, humanist community, culture, politics and philosophy.

    Actually, Alain’s one “error” is to use the word atheism at all. He is not talking about atheism, he’s talking about humanism.

    • says

      Most atheists, while we may be “bored” of talking about the existence of God to one degree or another, still understand the importance of it, because to the believer, the truth of God’s existence is everything, and informs their actions. Every negative, harmful impact upon human society that religion can be held accountable for is directly attributable to what these people believe about their God and what God wants from them. A lot of woe and strife can be eliminated in the world the more people realize that the being to whom they’re paying homage is imaginary, and that perhaps the things they’re doing to hurt others in his name are wrong.

      So, you know, we’ll keep doing what we can to help the human race hurt a little less, while you and de Botton can chill out and pat yourselves on the back for what advanced and mature humanists you all are, being beyond such trivialities as truth. Narcissism does seem to be all de Botton’s position is good for.

      • Michael R says

        You’re creating an imaginary distinction between combative-atheists and mature-humanists. This “us and them” mentality only exists in your mind. Alain called for Atheism 2.0, not a re-invention of Atheism 1.0 that stops debating religion.

        He did not call for the work of Dawkins and co to be stopped. We he did say is that “the secular world is full of holes”. His talk is about filling those holes. This is how all good ideas are sold: see a need and fill it. Atheism 2.0 and 1.0 are complementary. Some people will be more interersted in one than the other, but both are useful.

        • says

          You’re creating an imaginary distinction between combative-atheists and mature-humanists. This “us and them” mentality only exists in your mind.

          This statement is not merely wrong but flat-out contra-factual, and probably the most brazen example of projection I’ve seen yet. There is somebody creating imagined enemies from within atheism’s ranks, and it isn’t me or de Botton’s other critics. Let’s look at how de Botton idiotically characterizes Dawkins.

          “He has taken a very strange position. He’s unusual, in that he came from an elite British Anglican family with all its privileges and then he had this extraordinary career, and now he stands at the head of what can really be called a cult . . . I think what happened was that he has been frightened by the militancy of religious people he has met on his travels and it has driven him to the other side.

          “It smacks of a sort of psychological collapse in him, a collapse in those resources of maturity that would keep someone on an even keel. There is what psychoanalysts would call a deep rigidity in him.”

          So here we have de Botton buying into the “new Atheists” nonsense whole-cloth and declaring it a “cult” (odd criticism, coming from a man who wants to build temples for atheists) for disagreeing with him, and then prattling on with a stream of inane armchair psychoanalysis. If this isn’t adopting an “us vs. them” attitude, then nothing is.

          He did not call for the work of Dawkins and co to be stopped. We he did say is that “the secular world is full of holes”. His talk is about filling those holes.

          Those “holes” he thinks the secular world is full of comprise pretty much the entirety of human emotional experience, and they just aren’t there.

          This is how all good ideas are sold: see a need and fill it.

          This is de Botton’s central error and the source of his utter failing, that the way he goes about this is straight from religion’s playbook of bad ideas. The “need” — in religion’s case, salvation from “sin”; in “Atheism 2.0,” it’s our supposed inability to appreciate art, beauty, love, morality, or form a sense of community — is false. These are not “holes” in the lives of the secular. And de Botton’s ideas about filling his imagined “need” — temples? really? and he calls us a cult? — are not good ideas, and do not “compliment” anything. Christianity presents believers with a false problem in order to sell them a false solution. de Botton proposes the same thing for atheists and secularists, and acts all shocked and hard-done-by when none of us buys it.

  36. Michael R says

    “virtue arises from the proper application of reason”. Another fail by Wagner. Reason and science are value neutral. Reason is simply a model of the world that we build in our head. Information can be used for good or evil.

    Human-centred values can only come from our emotions/desires/feelings. Ask any neuroscientist or psychologist.

    Balancing our desires to maximise fulfilment has been the subject of philosophy since the ages. This is what de Botton is on about, how to live our lives to the full by learning from religion’s good points.

    Wagner is an embarrassment to the community of rational thinkers.

    • HairyChris says

      The problem with his way of thinking is that as much as atheists may well want to do all of this post-religious niceness, there are a huge number of problems with what’s happening on the other side with, for example, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims with temporal power. It seems like AdB is indulging in far-too-wishful thinking, and at the same time knocking back the people actually involved in fight those issues, hence the vitriol.

      He was always an… unsatisfying read, but after his “atheist temple” idea he’s pole-vaulted the shark completely. As an atheist Brit living in London I’d be mortified if his idea ever went ahead.

    • says

      Actually, the passage you quote is me quoting Aristotle. I’d have thought a philosophy buff might have known that, even if I hadn’t stated it clearly in my original post, using actual English words that read “a fellow called Aristotle figured out, in his Nicomachean Ethics…”

      So if you want to make the argument that Aristotle is full of epic fail, by all means, take it up with some philosophers at your next meeting of the Mature Humanists Club.

      Reason is not “a model of the world we build in our head,” it is the tool we use to build that model. And when you say that feelings and emotions can only give rise to values, you’re talking about the abdication of reason. In point of fact, people are often in a constant tug-of-war between reason and emotion, and must come to terms in order to develop a workable set of values. In instances where we see reason balancing emotion well, then Aristotle’s dictum is borne out. An example would be homophobia. A heterosexual person who applies reason may still find gay sex personally distasteful, but they understand that other people are simply different than they are, that those people’s private sex lives have no bearing on theirs, and that people who are different should not be persecuted and oppressed for their differences. Conversely, a person who strictly goes with their “emotions/desires/feelings” will allow their distaste to take over, and adopt a homophobic stance that sees them supporting laws that disallow gays and lesbians from adopting, marrying, or enjoying other forms of equality.

      As you point out, there is a balance to be drawn. Where you and de Botton fail is in assuming the alleged “good parts” of religion are where we best learn that balance. The Bible’s views on gays are clear. Non-homophobic Christians are not non-homophobic because they’ve embraced the “good parts,” because there are none. Non-homophobic Christians are non-homophobic in spite of, not because of, their Christian values. If you guys cared a little more about truth, you’d figure that out.

      I ask you the same question Hitchens asked. Name one moral value or precept that comes from religion that a secularist could not also adhere to for entirely secular reasons.

      • Michael R says

        My scant philosophy knowledge does not go back past David Hume. But here’s a different interpretation of Aristotle:

        Aristotle’s account of practical reasoning agrees with Hume and with this research in neuroscience in recognizing the primacy of passion or desire in motivating human action. “Thought by itself moves nothing,” Aristotle believes, although reason can guide the desires that do move us. Desire always moves us, but thought never moves us without desire. Deliberate choice by practical reasoning requires a conjunction of desire and reason into “desiring thought” or “thinking desire.”
        Reason and emotion are complementary. You can’t tie your shoes without both. But emotion is always the goal, the end, the driver. Reason is merely a tool employed to find the best path to emotional ends.
        Reason is the tool we use to build that model? You’re nitpicking.

        … you’re talking about the abdication of reason. David Hume: “Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse”.

        … people are often in a constant tug-of-war between reason and emotion. Wrong. Only an emotion can curb another emotion, as Hume and common sense suggest.

        An example would be homophobia. In this example, the impulsive desire to avoid and repress homosexuals gives way to the desire for peaceful coexistence. One desire curbs another. Emotion is subtle. Way too subtle for most atheists, unfortunately.

        Regarding the “good parts” of the Bible, you said “there are none”. Again with the insanely polarised view. Blind Freddy can see that while there is much evil in the Bible, there is much from religion we can borrow as Alain outlined. It is patently obvious that Alain wants nothing to do with evil doctrines, yet your insane aversion to anything remotely connected to religion blinds you to the obvious.

        Name one moral value or precept that comes from religion that a secularist could not also adhere to for entirely secular reasons. Secular morality is a whole new ball game, a new frontier. Moral relativity is not an easy beast to tame. Morality, as with all humanist motivation, comes from desire/emotion/feelings. That’s quite a rabbit hole to explore. We are all new at this. The wisdom of Alain is to borrow from religion to retain some order. Constructing morality from the ground up is tricky business. It’s wise to borrow some training wheels from religion and tradition until we are further down the road.

        • says

          I’m afraid it’s true: there are no good parts in the Bible when it discusses homosexuals. It’s pretty much “They’re abominations, kill them.”

          Of course, I am not averse to everything about religion. The Bible, for instance, has a whole verse I find praiseworthy. My Baptist church when I was growing up also had a pretty kickass racquetball court. It’s just that those of us critical of de Botton are aware that the things he thinks we need to borrow from religion, we don’t.

          Secular morality is not moral relativity, and I have further news for you: even so-called religious morality was an exercise in “building morality from the ground up.” Morality is an emergent social phenomenon, and the only thing religion brought to the table in conceptualizing morality is in giving it a framework of absolute authoritarianism, and an idea that good things are good and bad things are bad because God says so. The reason to be good is to avoid pissing off God and hopefully inspire him to reward you. Perhaps you will try to argue that it’s much more nuanced than that. So what? What really matters is what rank and file Christians actually believe, and having spent a good part of a decade arguing with them on live television, I can tell you they believe exactly that. The best that can be said about religion is that it gives people bad reasons to be good, and this fact is all that secularism has to learn from it.

          Beyond that, all I’ll add is that I’m pretty good at tying my shoelaces without getting all emo about it.

  37. Anteprepro says

    Human-centred values can only come from our emotions/desires/feelings.

    Another fail from Michael. How can a consistent set of morals arise entirely from feelings?

    You still need reason to develop these values from feelings. And you need reason to a far greater degree than you need the feelings (given that emotions quite obviously can lead away from moral, pro-social behavior as well as towards it).

    • Michael R says

      I said values come entirely from emotion. This is true, reason cannot make any statement of values. Reason cannot tell us the worth, importance or significance of anything.

      Yes, reason is an essential tool in satisfying our emotional ends. But it makes no sense to say “you need reason to a far greater degree” because the general nature of emotion and reason is complementary, not in competition. (Apart from emotion’s ability to interfere with accurate reasoning).

      • says

        This is true, reason cannot make any statement of values. Reason cannot tell us the worth, importance or significance of anything.

        If you honestly believe that, I don’t see we can have much further to discuss, as your views are so alien to mine as to be practically incomprehensible. And if you admit that emotion can interfere with accurate reasoning, then this can only be because reason is telling you something about the worth and importance of whatever it is you’re considering, which makes your argument even more bewildering.

        • Michael R says

          Donald Calne, neurologist: Emotions… crave satisfaction. They move us … This central feature of all emotions separates them from reason, which has no craving, no drive, and no demand for satisfaction…

          Stephen Pinker: We have desires, and we pursue them using beliefs… The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain’s highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting.

          Emotion is the trigger. Reason has no drive.

          “reason is telling you something about the worth and importance”? No, enlightened man values reason because of the desire for reliable beliefs, which stems from the desire not to waste our time and energy with false beliefs. It’s subtle.

          I’m pretty good at tying my shoelaces without getting all emo about it. You missed the subtlety again. Why are you tying your shoelaces? Because of the desire to get around without tripping over, which stems from whatever other desire is motivating you to move.

          Have you not heard Antonio Damasio talking about patients with damaged emotion-centres in the brain? They are dysfunctional procrastinators, unable to make even simple decisions.

          your views are so alien to mine as to be practically incomprehensible. This is why many atheists don’t graduate to humanism, because they don’t even grasp the most obvious fact that our values can only come from our emotions.

          • Anteprepro says

            What a fucking moron you are. You are just so fucking insistent on being blind.

            Look, you have only suggested that emotion provides the motivation for forming morals and values. You have in no way even bothered to even suggest that emotions actually form them, instead of simply making us want to have them. You have also proposed no plausible way how this could happen (how raw emotion can form specific principles). The entire idea that something resembling a semi-coherent moral code could be shaped entirely by emotion is baffling and implausible. Reason is necessary here. Reason is needed to select which emotions to act upon in forming common morals, and needed as check on moral systems to determine which ones are most effective at doing their job. You can’t get around the relevance of reason when talking about morals held by communities, and it remains incoherent to speak of morals entirely in terms of emotion at an individual level, because desire itself cannot determine the best behaviors that are consistent for pursuing that desire. And when talking about something as simple as goals and priorities, even removing the details of how to obtain such things, we need to appeal to reason in order to have goals and priorities accepted by a community, instead of just one person. Raw emotion is good for drive and forming goals, but it is not so good for strategizing means to reach goals, attaining community consensus, determining whether goal pursuit is even worth it, and determining whether the strategies for common goals in the community (morality in its vaguest sense) is sufficiently thorough, consistent, and effective. In addition, the ideas of fairness and equality, common values associated with morality, are pretty much entirely based in raw reason, with emotional appeals (espeically empathy) only needed to motivate examining it using a rational eye.

            Your example that the key goal should be maximizing happiness? It’s based on an emotional desire to be happy, but it’s only be reason that one can know what behaviors are associated with increased happiness, and to also accept that we shouldn’t pursue this goal if it causes a decline in happiness to others. Emotion alone is impotent and reason at some level is necessary. In practice, reason is necessary at very many levels. Hence, why I said that it is more important than emotion. Motivation is frankly a side issue, and does nothing to detract from the fact that reason can and does shape morals.

            Try harder.

          • says

            You missed the subtlety again. Why are you tying your shoelaces? Because of the desire to get around without tripping over, which stems from whatever other desire is motivating you to move.

            It’s not an emotional desire though. You continue to use “desire” and “emotion” as if they are always and only ever synonyms. If your elevated humanist world does not include room for rational desires as well as emotional ones, why do you think rationalists would find it appealing?

            What you call “subtlety,” I call inventing a bogus distinction and then defending it very poorly.

  38. jacobfromlost says

    Michael,

    Help us understand your point of view because I still don’t get it, and apparently few here do.

    You claim de Botton and people like him have be come comfortable with nonbelief and have “graduated” to humanism, which you say includes “human-centred values, humanist community, culture, politics and philosophy.”

    How do we tell the difference between what de Botton advocates, and what we already see all around us? (Ignoring for a moment that even religious values are “human centered” in that humans are holding the values that wouldn’t exist without them holding them.) Why do you think Martin, and the rest of us, HAVEN’T graduated to “human-centered” yada-yada-yada? Aren’t we all humans holding values?

    Also, how would you (or de Botton) describe a successful “outome” of these proposals? Would most atheists sign aboard? Or are you saying that they probably won’t, but that they SHOULD?

    It’s the “should” thing that is hanging me up. It seems to me that de Botton is starting with the conclusion that atheists are all lacking something, and that we SHOULD develop something to fill that part that is lacking.

    How do you know we are actually lacking something valuable?
    How do you know we SHOULD do what de Botton is suggesting?
    How do we test this knowledge to see if you are right or not?

    And, most importantly, how do you convince people who don’t agree that they are lacking anything, people who don’t think we SHOULD do what de Botton is suggesting, that they are wrong and join you in actively doing these things?

    FYI: I can easily see some atheists doing all of the stuff de Botton suggests, some doing only some of it, some doing none of it, or some doing something completely different–and it is still perfectly possible for ALL of them to disagree with de Botton that it is what atheists as a whole SHOULD do.

    It’s the “should” part that presupposes many things that fly in the face of evidence.

    • Michael R says

      I still don’t get it, and apparently few here do. That much is true.
      Why do you think Martin, and the rest of us, HAVEN’T graduated…? It’s true that combative atheists like Dawkins and the Atheist Experience do occasionally delve into humanism but, on the whole, they spend most of their time talking about the ills of religion. Alain is a philosopher, so he see an entire domain of knowledge being ignored by atheists.
      … how would you (or de Botton) describe a successful “outome” of these proposals? Now you’re talking. This comes down to where atheists get their values from. The only place is our emotions/desires/feelings. Bertrand Russell: “All human activity is prompted by desire”. Charles Darwin: “A man who has no … belief in … God …, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones”. (my emphasis)
      So, a successful lifestyle is one which maximises satisfaction/fulfilment/happiness. You weigh different lifestyles/philosophies and whichever feels the most fulfilling, that’s the one.
      Would most atheists sign aboard? Eventually most atheists will come around to the emotion-driven model of motivation. But if current politics is anything to go by, we won’t agree on how to maximise happiness: there will be competing views e.g. liberals, conservatives, etc.
      The path to progress is through knowledge and contested ideas. We should encourage free thought on different humanist interpretations, and may the best (most satisfying) approach gain the most support. We all know the dangers of groupthink, so diversity of thought should be encouraged not stifled.
      It’s the “should” thing that is hanging me up. That’s an emotional desire talking. The desire for freedom is a very strong urge. Rightly so. It is a core principle of the West and I’m sure not going to give it up either.
      de Botton is starting with the conclusion that atheists are all lacking something. Yes he says “The secular world is full of holes. We have secularized badly”. It’s open to interpretation whether you agree or not. I agree. Probably the core failure of humanism is the drift from group-oriented behaviour to radical individualism. David Brooks writes:

      During the summer of 2008, the eminent Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America… and the results are depressing. It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues…

      Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism… they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading.

      … their attitudes at the start of their adult lives do reveal something about American culture. For decades, writers from different perspectives have been warning about the erosion of shared moral frameworks and the rise of an easygoing moral individualism.

      Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb warned that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values. Alasdair MacIntyre has written about emotivism, the idea that it’s impossible to secure moral agreement in our culture because all judgments are based on how we feel at the moment.

      … Smith’s interviewees are living, breathing examples of the trends these writers have described.

      In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit.

      Contemporary humanism suffers from the same “extreme moral individualism”. I believe humanism will not flourish until it offers concrete groups into which children can grow up and feel a part of something solid. Individualism and relativism are not a healthy way to raise kids. We evolved in small tribal groups and that’s what we are geared for. Obviously we need to be careful of tribalism and groupthink.

      how do you convince people who don’t agree that they are lacking anything? Same old story: just point and say “the sky is falling”. If people don’t agree then so be it. You can’t convince everyone. And we definitely should not force anyone. Humanism should be a diversity of tribes, including those who want to drop out completely.

    • jacobfromlost says

      Michael: It’s true that combative atheists like Dawkins and the Atheist Experience do occasionally delve into humanism but, on the whole, they spend most of their time talking about the ills of religion.

      Me: But humanism has nothing to do with religion.

      Michael: Alain is a philosopher, so he see an entire domain of knowledge being ignored by atheists.

      Me: Not at all. In fact, I thought de Botton WAS an atheist. Moreover, many atheists simply have a conflicting philosophy of life, a different view of the world. To declare that de Botton has an “entire domain of knowledge” simply because his philosophy differs from those of others is flat wrong. (And it also presupposes that atheists who disagree can’t be philosophers, as well as commits the argument from authority fallacy.)

      Michael: Now you’re talking. This comes down to where atheists get their values from. The only place is our emotions/desires/feelings.

      Me: No. You can’t divorce emotions from reason in the context of morality in reality. In fact, we have discovered that the two are integral to each other with regard to human thinking. Moreover, it is possible to value things that are not valuable, and the way we determine that is by examining actual outcomes in objective reality and reasoning about them.

      Bertrand Russell: “All human activity is prompted by desire”.

      Me: So where does the desire to be reasonable fit in? The desire to value evidence because it works in reality? The desire to be helpful and successful by doing WHAT DEMONSTRABLY WORKS?

      Charles Darwin: “A man who has no … belief in … God …, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones”. (my emphasis)

      Me: If you keep reading Darwin’s passage, you will see he agrees with us, not you nor de Botton. “A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives ; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive ; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.”

      Michael: So, a successful lifestyle is one which maximises satisfaction/fulfilment/happiness.

      Me: Sure. But one doesn’t need to agree with you or de Botton to agree with that, nor does one have to divorce reason from the equation. In fact, one CAN’T divorce reason from the equation.

      Michael: You weigh different lifestyles/philosophies and whichever feels the most fulfilling, that’s the one.

      Me: Not exactly. Your feelings are IN A CONTEXT. You can’t decide that drinking poison is the most fulfilling thing one can do, and live a very long and happy life doing that. Your lifestyles and philosophies do not exist in a vacuum.

      Michael: Would most atheists sign aboard? Eventually most atheists will come around to the emotion-driven model of motivation.

      Me: No, most people will sign aboard to motivations that include evidence and reason, or they will suffer to exactly the degree they ignore evidence and reason.

      Michael: But if current politics is anything to go by, we won’t agree on how to maximise happiness: there will be competing views e.g. liberals, conservatives, etc.

      Me: Competing views, yes. But views are not in charge of reality. Reality will always be the same, and indicated with evidence and reason. Making up a view in your head that is contrary to the evidence will NEVER make you more successful in objective reality than implementing views based on evidence (all things being equal–if the irrational kill you for being rational, I guess you were less successful, but the overall group cannot function better by virtue of killing everyone who is rational).

      Michael: The path to progress is through knowledge and contested ideas. We should encourage free thought on different humanist interpretations, and may the best (most satisfying) approach gain the most support. We all know the dangers of groupthink, so diversity of thought should be encouraged not stifled.

      Me: Is it dangerous to point out an idea is stupid if it actually is stupid?

      Me before: It’s the “should” thing that is hanging me up.

      Michael: That’s an emotional desire talking.

      Me: No. It’s that I don’t think all atheists SHOULD do what de Botton is advocating. Not thinking all atheists SHOULD do this is not the same as saying all atheists SHOULDN’T do this. I’m surprised you didn’t understand what I said.

      Michael: The desire for freedom is a very strong urge. Rightly so. It is a core principle of the West and I’m sure not going to give it up either.

      Me: I think you are missing the point.

      Me before: de Botton is starting with the conclusion that atheists are all lacking something.

      Michael: Yes he says “The secular world is full of holes. We have secularized badly”. It’s open to interpretation whether you agree or not. I agree.

      Me: And we don’t. How do we find out who is correct? All the data available doesn’t indicate what one would expect if de Botton is correct.

      Michael: Probably the core failure of humanism is the drift from group-oriented behaviour to radical individualism.

      Me: I don’t know what that means. We are all individuals.

      Michael: David Brooks writes:

      Me: I read the article when it was first published. The problem wasn’t that the students were immoral, it was in that they had difficulty reasoning about morals. This is a problem of REASONING, not of emotions/desires. The fact that the article goes on and on IMPLYING they were immoral (right after saying they were not) doesn’t make me take it any more seriously. (And the fact that the study was not of ATHEIST STUDENTS is also problematic. It was a study of 230 “young adults from across America.” If this teeny-tiny sample reflects America’s beliefs, then the majority were raised in religions with overt moral messages and lessons–and they STILL could not reason about morality! That suggests you and de Botton are wrong, and not even religion gives children the tools to reason about morality. You know what does? Educating students to reason, something not done at church.)

      Michael: Contemporary humanism suffers from the same “extreme moral individualism”. I believe humanism will not flourish until it offers concrete groups into which children can grow up and feel a part of something solid.

      Me: And I say that those groups are already available, and cannot be formed artificially the way you and de Botton advocate. We already have classrooms, circles of friends, clubs, sports teams, bands, etc, and joining them or not does not correlate to morality and immorality.

      Michael: Individualism and relativism are not a healthy way to raise kids. We evolved in small tribal groups and that’s what we are geared for. Obviously we need to be careful of tribalism and groupthink.

      Me: I don’t think individualism and relativism mean what you think they do. Morality is relative BY DEFINITION (you can’t make a moral statement without it being relative to SOMETHING–a context, a group, a value, etc), and individualism doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you wish without consequences (see the extended Darwin quote above that explains this).

      Me before: how do you convince people who don’t agree that they are lacking anything?

      Michael: Same old story: just point and say “the sky is falling”. If people don’t agree then so be it.

      Me: But the sky is not falling. We have evidence.

      Michael: You can’t convince everyone. And we definitely should not force anyone. Humanism should be a diversity of tribes, including those who want to drop out completely.

      Me: But if the sky is falling, and humanity is at stake, why SHOULDN’T people be forced? If your premises are true, then “radical individualism” and (your misinterpretation of) “relativism” will lead to a secular Judgment Day at best, and extinction at worst. So why not pass laws that force the issue the same way we pass laws for manditory schooling of children, and pass laws against child endangerment? It doesn’t seem to me that you actually BELIEVE what you are saying…because the evidence in reality indicates you are wrong.

      • Michael R says

        j: But humanism has nothing to do with religion.

        me: I never said it did.

        De Botton is a philosopher and an atheist. The subject of philosophy contains many different worldviews, just like atheists do.

        j: You can’t divorce emotions from reason in the context of morality in reality.

        me: True, the two are complementary, which I said before.

        j: it is possible to value things that are not valuable, and the way we determine that is by examining actual outcomes in objective reality and reasoning about them.

        me: no, this sounds like moral realism which, at bottom, reduces to something like utilitariansim (the greatest good for the greatest number). The greatest good is an emotional preference.

        j: So where does the desire to be reasonable fit in? The desire to value evidence …

        me: it is the desire to be efficient i.e. to not waste time on false or harmful beliefs. Primitive man indugled crazy beliefs because (a) someone thought it up and (b) the group felt like following along. Modern man, enlightened man, ought to called efficient man.

        There’s little in Darwin’s quote to support your view. Most of it is about “sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses” which is a choice between desires in the pursuit of “the highest pleasure”.

        j: one doesn’t need to agree with you or de Botton to agree [what maximises happiness]

        me: of course not. Why are you so paranoid and defensive?

        j: nor does one have to divorce reason from the equation.

        me: again, you misread me. Reason and emotion are complementary. They serve different functions. Both are needed.

        j: You can’t decide that drinking poison is the most fulfilling thing one can do, and live a very long and happy life doing that.

        me: you’re doing exactly what I said: weighing different desires.

        j: No, most people will sign aboard to motivations that include evidence and reason

        me: again you misread me. Reason and emotion are complementary.

        j: Competing views, yes. But views are not in charge of reality.

        me: theoretically we should one day be able to develop an optimal lifestyle, using reason to maximise happiness. Sam Harris thinks along these lines. But that’s a long way off.

        j: How do we find out who is correct? All the data available doesn’t indicate what one would expect if de Botton is correct.

        me: fail. Value judgements are feelings. Reason informs us but, at bottom, you feel whether the world is better or worse.

        j: The problem wasn’t that the students were immoral, it was in that they had difficulty reasoning about morals.

        me: no, the problem of extreme moral relativism means that kids cannot preserve their nation/culture in the face of someone who wants to change it, or tear it down. Hence we are seeing morality and Western nations being dissolved before our very eyes. The kids just don’t know how to say ‘no’ in the interests of preserving a distinct culture or nation.

        j: And the fact that the study was not of ATHEIST STUDENTS is also problematic.

        me: extreme moral relativism has infected the church too. But it doesn’t change the fact that humanism is infected and needs to be reigned in.

        j: We already have classrooms, circles of friends, clubs, sports teams, bands, etc,

        me: yeah but they don’t teach much culture, philosophy, and morality – and nor should they. We need separate groups devoted to educating humanists.

        j: But if the sky is falling, and humanity is at stake, why SHOULDN’T people be forced?

        me: you’re sounding like a fascist. I am a Westerner: freedom is a core value. If informed people don’t care to do anything about it, I’m not going to force them.

        j: “relativism” will lead to a secular Judgment Day at best, and extinction at worst.

        me: “the sky is falling” means that the Western world is dissolving and declining because its people don’t know what they stand for anymore. If it continues it will be usurped by nations with a strong identity like China. We will continue to exist, probably, but it won’t be much fun living in a world ruled by China because we lacked the capacity to identify what values are necesary to preserve our nations.

        We’re starting to rehash much, so I will end this debate here.

  39. says

    Michael writes: “Probably the core failure of humanism is the drift from group-oriented behaviour to radical individualism. […] Contemporary humanism suffers from the same ‘extreme moral individualism’.”

    I’m not convinced that “radical individualism” or even (gasp) “extreme moral individualism” are anything to be concerned about at all. Different people value different things. As long as enough people value enough basic things to hold society together – such as valuing living in a society where murder and theft are strongly discouraged – civilization should be fine.

    Michael writes: “This is what de Botton is on about, how to live our lives to the full by learning from religion’s good points.”

    Religion can keep it, thanks.

  40. jacobfromlost says

    Michael: De Botton is a philosopher and an atheist. The subject of philosophy contains many different worldviews, just like atheists do.

    Me: So why did you claim he has “an entire domain of knowledge being ignored by atheists”? One second you claim one thing, and the next you claim the opposite. Either he has an entire domain of knowledge being ignored by atheists, or he does not. “Knowledge” is a defined term.

    Michael: True, the two are complementary [emotions and reason], which I said before.

    Me: No, you didn’t. You kept saying morality comes from desires. You did so several times in this very post. You can’t HAVE desires of any kind without reason. (You can’t think, “I want THAT” if you are not reasoning what THAT is, or even what “I” consists of.)

    Michael: [re determing morality by outcomes in reality] no, this sounds like moral realism which, at bottom, reduces to something like utilitariansim (the greatest good for the greatest number). The greatest good is an emotional preference.

    Me: Again, you jetison reason. Two seconds ago you said they were complimentary. Why are you contradicting yourself?

    Michael: [re the desire to be reasonable] it is the desire to be efficient i.e. to not waste time on false or harmful beliefs. Primitive man indugled crazy beliefs because (a) someone thought it up and (b) the group felt like following along. Modern man, enlightened man, ought to called efficient man.

    Me: Not efficient, EFFECTIVE. I think you missed the point again. Effectiveness can be measured in reality, and you can easily include human emotional elements in that effectiveness. What you can’t do is redefine those human emotional elements to make outlandish claims reasonable. Have you studied psychology? There are effective means, such as cognitive restructuring, that help those with irrational beliefs replace those beliefs with rational ones. And “irrational” and “rational” are not just random labels that the psychologist puts on things he randomly values–the rational beliefs ACTUALLY HAVE FUNCTIONAL OUTCOMES, and the irrational ones do not. That is why cognitive restructuring is not “brain washing”, but basic psychological therapy.

    Michael: There’s little in Darwin’s quote to support your view. Most of it is about “sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses” which is a choice between desires in the pursuit of “the highest pleasure”.

    Me: No. Darwin explains exactly what we are explaining here: that people use REASON to figure out what works better, and that habit over time starts to feel like an instinct…until our reason conflicts with the instincts of those around us, and we have to follow our REASON because it works better. I invite you to read the quote again, as you didn’t seem to understand it. (You also quote mined your original citation of Darwin to insinuate he was saying the opposite of what he was actually saying–very intellectually dishonest.)

    Michael: [re not needing to agree with Michael or de Botton on what maximizes happiness] of course not. Why are you so paranoid and defensive?

    Me: Because your entire THESIS is that de Botton is correct–that atheists SHOULD do all these things because it would maximize our happiness. Did you forget what you were arguing for? If you are NOT arguing that de Botton is correct, and that atheists should do these things to maximize their happiness, THEN YOU ARE NOT SAYING ANYTHING AT ALL. So why argue with me? According to you, none of us have to agree and everything will be exactly the same, no better and no worse. (If you are saying it WILL be worse if we ignore de Botton, they you are saying de Botton is correct, and, hence, we MUST agree with de Botton to maximize our happiness! You can’t have it both ways! See how logic works?)

    Michael: again, you misread me. Reason and emotion are complementary. They serve different functions. Both are needed.

    Me: They don’t serve different functions. I invite you to study neurology. We know quite a bit about this. I suggest “Decartes’ Error” to start. It’s been around for some time. Emotion and reason are not separate, but integral in human thinking–they are the same thing in terms of our ACTUAL thinking demonstrated in reality. (Your use of “reason” and “emotion” seems to come from Star Trek, not neurology.)

    Michael: [re not being able to decide drinking poison will make you happy and live long] you’re doing exactly what I said: weighing different desires.

    Me: You like that word, don’t you? You can’t have desires without reason, so what is your point? If I desire to drink poison to live a long life, I CAN’T DO THAT. Why? Because poison, in reality, objectively kills me. It doesn’t MATTER if I desire it to give me long life and happiness.

    Michael: again you misread me. Reason and emotion are complementary.

    Me: They are not complimentary, they are INTEGRAL in actual human thinking. You can’t have one without the other.

    Michael: theoretically we should one day be able to develop an optimal lifestyle, using reason to maximise happiness. Sam Harris thinks along these lines. But that’s a long way off.

    Me: Sam Harris does not agree with you. Please read The Moral Landscape, or listen to two seconds of him speaking. He says there is a landscape of moral behaviors, some better, some worse, and a variety of DIFFERENT behaviors all along that landscape. There is no “optimal” morality–that would be akin to saying there is a state of “the healthiest” one could be. Sam has made this clear over and over again, which flies in the face of what you are saying.

    Michael: [regarding none of the evidence suggesting de Botton is correct] fail. Value judgements are feelings. Reason informs us but, at bottom, you feel whether the world is better or worse.

    Me: No. Poison ACTUALLY IS BAD FOR ME, no matter how I value it. I can FEEL it is good for me, I can FEEL it will make me live forever, but it does not. All of the available data suggests you are wrong. I will again note that the David Brooks article you cited included 230 “young people”, not atheists, and that if the sample was random, far more than half were raised in religious homes where moral lessons were taught, AND THEY STILL COULD NOT REASON ABOUT MORALS. The very article you cite is evidence against your claims.

    Me before: The problem wasn’t that the students were immoral, it was in that they had difficulty reasoning about morals.

    Michael: no, the problem of extreme moral relativism means that kids cannot preserve their nation/culture in the face of someone who wants to change it, or tear it down.

    Me: It appears YOU cannot reason about morals. Culture changes on its own, all by itself. Again, morals are relative by definition. There is no “extreme” about it.

    Michael: Hence we are seeing morality and Western nations being dissolved before our very eyes. The kids just don’t know how to say ‘no’ in the interests of preserving a distinct culture or nation.

    Me: The data does not show that we are “seeing morality and Western nations being dissolved before our eyes” any more than at any other time in history. Old people die, young people grow up, and things change. What are you afraid of?

    Me before: And the fact that the study was not of ATHEIST STUDENTS is also problematic.

    Michael: extreme moral relativism has infected the church too. But it doesn’t change the fact that humanism is infected and needs to be reigned in.

    Me: Wait, wait, wait, HOLD ON. You and de Botton are claiming there are “good bits” to be taken from religion, and one of them is overt moral teaching. The data (that you supplied!) shows that overt moral teaching even IN RELIGION is not effective in teaching kids how to reason about morals. Yet you throw that out and keep laboring under the notion that humanism should emulate religion for reasons that have already been demonstrated FALSE. Why are you being so irrational?

    Me before: We already have classrooms, circles of friends, clubs, sports teams, bands, etc,

    Michael: yeah but they don’t teach much culture, philosophy, and morality – and nor should they. We need separate groups devoted to educating humanists.

    Me: You’re straying into indoctrination land. You don’t “teach” culture, you live it. And in a free society, free people get to choose what their culture is and how they live! Moreover, they DO teach morality–I’ve been a part of many of them for many years, and I can tell you that you are full of crap. (For those groups to FUNCTION, morality has to be taught on an ongoing basis. Not only that, but I actually taught a lesson on Kohlberg! I’d bet good money you don’t even know who Kohlberg is.) Philosophy is not something that can be understood until the age of about 15–teaching it to kids younger than that can only be indoctrination because they don’t understand it, then just parrot back what the adult says.

    Me before: But if the sky is falling, and humanity is at stake, why SHOULDN’T people be forced?

    Michael: you’re sounding like a fascist.

    Me: No, I’m holding your feet to the fire of your claims. If what you are saying is TRUE, then people should be forced to do this in exactly the same way they are forced to put their kids in school, forced to go to jail of they do illegal drugs, forced to keep their children out of danger, forced not to collaborate with enemies of the state. Is it fascist to pass laws forcing people to do these things? Or is it just standard law to keep society functional in the face of evidence that it won’t function without them? You are claiming society is falling apart, and will collapse, without the help of overt cultural, moral, and philosophical teaching. How is forcing that teaching fascist if the society, and (you claim) the nation, is at stake? I can only think you recognize that your claims are false, which is why you would not advocate forcing this teaching, although I assume you would support forcing people to stop collaborating with enemies of the state by arresting them and jailing them? Or do enemies of the state just have the freedom to do what they like?

    Michael: I am a Westerner: freedom is a core value. If informed people don’t care to do anything about it, I’m not going to force them.

    Me: But you have already demonstrated you reject information. I provided it to you–the correct Darwin quote, and the fact that the Brooks article was deeply flawed–yet you ignored that information and act as if your claims IN REALITY are no big deal. If your claims are true, IT IS A VERY BIG DEAL.

    Me before: “relativism” will lead to a secular Judgment Day at best, and extinction at worst.

    Michael: “the sky is falling” means that the Western world is dissolving and declining because its people don’t know what they stand for anymore.

    Me: Anyone who has studied philosophy and history would know that EVERY generation says that the world is going to hell, and that the good old days were much better. And every generation is wrong.

    Michael: If it continues it will be usurped by nations with a strong identity like China. We will continue to exist, probably, but it won’t be much fun living in a world ruled by China because we lacked the capacity to identify what values are necesary to preserve our nations.

    Me: It’s far more likely that China will be usurped by its own people before it usurps anyone else. There is a domino effect occurring as we speak, from the Arab Spring, to Russia, to China. It may take a couple hundred years, it may take far less, but they will become more like us all on their own because evidence and reason shows us THAT’S WHAT WORKS BEST IN REALITY. People can’t be forced to be free and think for themselves. They have to come to that on their own, when they get sick of all the alternatives.

    Michael: We’re starting to rehash much, so I will end this debate here.

    Me: This is where I will repeat that the David Brooks thing really ticks me off, as it has been used in this context quite often. I again repeat: the 230 students WERE NOT ATHEIST STUDENTS. And I suspect I know why. If you took 230 self described atheist students, and compared their answers about moral reasoning to the 230 random sample (which undoubtedly would include mostly those with religious belief), the results would show atheist students could reason far better about morals (and everything else) than the religious students. But that wasn’t the point trying to be made by Brooks or others quoting him, so they gloss over the reality that religious students could not reason about morals and pretend this study was evidence of something, when in actuality it was evidence of the opposite. (And this is where I suggest that MICHAEL cannot reason well about morals, which is why he doesn’t seem to be able to understand what they are, how they apply, or what others like Sam Harris, Darwin, or even those on this board have to say about them. My hypothesis is that the 230 students could not reason well about morals because they could not reason well about anything. I think the same phenomena applies here.)

  41. Zachariah says

    Snark on, my friend, snark on.

    De Botton is an annoying tool who deserves a sharp reprimand. I’m so sick of this guy and his blathering BS. My vote? Resurrect the old Aztec human sacrifice. Now those were the good old days when a ritual was a ritual and sheep (or neighboring villagers) ran scared!

  42. Peter Drew says

    Interesting article Martin. I’ve been aware of Alain for some time and have read other books of his on various topics including psychology and architecture. I have also attended one of his lectures when he visited Australia a few years ago.

    His thesis seems to invariably be, singling out something that people have supposedly forgotten about and then argue why that missing thing is important. For example, his argument about architecture was that people had forgotten that all past styles were at some time considered ‘new’ and ‘ugly’, but that modern architecture seems to constantly just reuse past styles and no longer innovate. While I’ve not read this new book, I’ve seen his Ted talk and it seems to be the same formula.

    His impact on the realms of psychology and architecture have really been quite minimal. I fully expect the impact on Atheism will also be minimal – so don’t burn too many brain cells over him.

    However, there is a point on which I would agree with him. Looking at modern society rituals and traditions have been abandoned or significantly eroded. It’s a symptom of loss of community. Religions by and large have been one of the few remaining providers of such services (pun not intended). As such I think there is a small issue on which Alain is correct, that is: attending annual communal events (such as say, the reason rally) does have value for society at large and for the individual attending. I think this is not a new point and is well understood within the Atheist ‘Community’ of Austin – but perhaps not well articulated elsewhere.

    It’s a very thin premise on which to base an entire book.

  43. says

    (From your site post) – What does religion do right that we might be able to learn from? – the Friendly Atheist asks while accusing us of ignoring de Botton’s points.

    You’re not getting it either. It’s begging the question that religion is where we’d learn it from. It’s assuming that we don’t already know these things.

    Religion is the most prolific plagiarizer in existence. The point is that anything that we could “learn” from religion was already understood before religion claimed credit for it.

    This includes everything from morality, to tradition (or “Ritual”), to sitting somewhere quietly and thinking about things.

    Everything.

    I’d say the only thing that we can learn from religion is how to make up fantasy stories, but they rarely do that very well either.

  44. says

    If you actually read through the responses here, you’d notice a common theme.

    Those things de Botton says we don’t/can’t have – we do.

    ..and we don’t need to get them from religion – therefore this whole discussion is actually fairly moot of what we can glean from religion.

  45. NuMad says

    They’ll call you names or take your statements far more literally than you intended so that you’re thoroughly humiliated in front of people who will never read your works for themselves.

    I think it would be really difficult to take de Botton more literally that he intends to be about his whole “temple” business. He seems to be literally literal about it. He seems to have made it about the word itself! For every function of a temple, there exists a secular building that fulfills it? No matter, for some reason it’s a big problem that they’re not called temples.

    So lets build something just for the privilege of calling it a temple.

    Never has anyone, other than babies, been so fascinated with empty boxes.

  46. Kazim says

    Correct, it is automatic every time someone links to us. It does have to pass moderation though, as this is another common search engine stealing technique.

  47. davidct says

    Some people have called impressive buildings on our universities, Temples to Learning. Did god build them? No I thought not. They are generally busy places not empty boxes. Sorry Cats !

  48. says

    You are so right.

    Even though we agree that he’s wrong, I really should be concerned about what wisdom I can learn from his wrongness so that my life isn’t so bleak.

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