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.
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.
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.
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.
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.