Nicholas Kristof spots a trend.
A few years ago, God seemed caught in a devil of a fight.
Atheists were firing thunderbolts suggesting that “religion poisons everything,” as Christopher Hitchens put it in the subtitle of his book, “God Is Not Great.” Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins also wrote best sellers that were scathing about God, whom Dawkins denounced as “arguably the most unpleasant character in fiction.”
Yet lately I’ve noticed a very different intellectual tide: grudging admiration for religion as an ethical and cohesive force.
Lately? He hasn’t been paying much attention, has he. It’s not “lately”; it’s been all along; it’s been simultaneously and before that and for the past 30 centuries or so.
I mean honestly, does he think the horseguys were the only people talking? Does he think the admirers of religion shut up or went away during The Time of the Thunderbolts? Does he think overt atheists had things all their own way for awhile? Is he out of his mind?
There were pro-religion books being published before, while, and after Dawkins and Hitchens published theirs. Pro-religion books overwhelmingly outnumber anti-religion books. A ferocious and usually mendacious backlash against overt atheism started the instant Harris’s book hit the shelves, and it’s still going strong. There’s no new “intellectual tide” of grudging admiration for religion; it’s the same boring old tide that’s been surging in and out all along.
The standard-bearer of this line of thinking — and a provocative text for Easter Sunday — is a new book, “Religion for Atheists,” by Alain de Botton. He argues that atheists have a great deal to learn from religion.
“One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Eightfold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring,” de Botton writes.
“The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed,” he adds, and his book displays an attitude toward religion that is sometimes — dare I say — reverential.
Oh you dare say all right: it’s very reverential; a good deal too reverential.
Pantheon sent me a copy the other day, slightly to my surprise, so I’ve been reading it. I dislike it a lot more than I expected to – I figured I would find much of the religion-flattery irritating, but I also figured it would be lively and interesting. Now I’m wondering why I figured that. Reputation, I guess; people seem to think de Botton is good at lively and interesting, so I vaguely assumed they were right.
As it turns out I’m more irritated by the style than the substance. I’m irritated by it because there isn’t any – the writing is smooth and utterly devoid of character. It’s weirdly careful, or cautious – as if he’d drained it of character on purpose. Why? It’s not an academic book, so where was the need to drain it of character?
I think you can see what I mean even in the short extract that Kristof provided. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s like a dead fish. It just lies there. I’ll give you another, longer extract, where the stiffness and deadness is particularly conspicuous. It’s from the chapter called “Kindness,” which is about his claims that religion is good at teaching morality; in this section he is talking about role models, such as saints.
In addition, Catholicism perceives that there is a benefit to being able to see our ideal friends around the house in miniaturized three-dimensional representations. After all, most of us began our lives by having nurturing relationships with bears and other animals, to whom we would talk and be addressed by in turn. Though immobile, these animals were nevertheless skillful at conveying their consoling and inspiring personalities to us. We would talk to them when we were sad and were comforted when we looked across the bedroom and saw them stoically enduring the night on our behalf. Catholicism sees no reason to abandon the mechanics of such relationships and so invites us to buy wood, stone, resin or plastic versions of the saints and place them on shelves or alcoves in our rooms or hallways. At times of domestic chaos, we can look across at a plastic statuette and inwardly ask what St Francis of Assisi would recommend that we say to our furious wife and hysterical children now. The answer may be inside us all along, but it doesn’t usually emerge or become effective until we go through the exercise of formally asking the question of a saintly figurine. [pp 93-5]
See what I mean? That passage really didn’t have to be so bad.
Let’s take a look at what’s wrong with it. For a start, there’s “Catholicism perceives,” which is a trope he uses throughout and which gets more irritating the more you read it. It’s irritating because it’s inaccurate and sloppy, and since he rests a huge proportion of his argument on it, that’s a real problem. It’s meaningless to say “Catholicism perceives” anything, and it’s not really clear what he means by it. Who exactly is it who perceives what he claims Catholicism perceives? All Catholic clerics throughout history? One particular cleric who invented the idea of statuettes of saints? I don’t know. He attributes this kind of agency to “religion” and “Judaism” and “Christianity” and similar large abstractions throughout the book, thus making them all sound very intelligent and sympathetic and human-oriented and caring, which is a way of putting a heavy thumb on the scales.
So there’s that, which is substance as well as style, and then right after that there’s a string of needlessly formal words by way of introducing the subject of soft toys. Then there’s a syntactical train wreck, caused by the needlessly and annoyingly formal “to whom we would talk” – he forgot what he was doing and ended up with “to whom we would talk and be addressed by in turn.” Say what? Oh the messes caused by that idiotic pseudo-rule against ending a sentence or clause with a preposition. Not to mention his claim that stuffed animals answer when we talk to them. They do?
And then there’s the hilarity of “Though immobile, these animals were nevertheless skillful at conveying their consoling and inspiring personalities to us.” “Though immobile” – ha! And then “nevertheless skillful” – again, say what? Does he mean it, or has he lost track of what he’s saying again, or what? It’s hard to tell, but either way, it’s a disaster. And then the bit about stoically enduring the night on our behalf – and what are they doing across the room? If you want the damn bear, take it to bed with you, ffs! Except of course you don’t want to be taking resin or plastic statuettes of Assisi Frank to bed with you, so I suppose he had to leave Pooh across the room. That’s the trouble with a complicated simile that you lose control of which.
And then you get a marital quarrel complete with furious wife and hysterical children, and marital guy looking at a statuette of Assisi Frank for help (which is off, since Frank was fonder of animals than he was of wives and children), and then to make it all complete there’s the assertion that we usually can’t figure these things out “until we go through the exercise of formally asking the question of a saintly figurine.” Oreally?
It’s not all as bad as that, to be fair, but it is all that pointlessly stiff and dull and lifeless. I’m tempted to think that the gnu atheists cornered the market on lively writers.