And the award goes to »« The girl’s screams

A very different intellectual tide. Not.

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.

Comments

  1. Ken Pidcock says

    My only familiarity with de Botton is the Bloggingheads interview with Robert Wright. Other than the obligatory gnu bashing, I found him interesting. He’s got a point that we haven’t found secular alternatives to the kind of socialization that religions provide, nor the focus on moral philosophy.

    I give him credit for not recommending that atheists should, out of respect for what religions provide, refrain from confronting religious superstitions. That seems to be Kristof’s overall message.

  2. says

    My sister handed me this article yesterday, and I had to point out that Kristoff is leaving a lot out. All of this community stuff comes at a cost; tighter ingroup loyalty comes at the price of outgroup antagonism, much of those charitable donations ends up in the hands of people who use the money to buy power and influence (or in the hands of the truly evil, like Helen Upkabio), and much of all that fabulous art and architecture was created not so much for the glory of god, but for the glory of people like the Borgias, who attracted all of that talent because they had deep pockets, filled, again, by charitable donations.

    The community thing, which keeps coming up, is a particularly complex issue, as the mention of Jonathan Haidt makes clear. Haidt’s relativism blinds him to the dark side of his loyalty/purity/respect ethics (“Ein reich! Ein volk! Ein Fuhrer!”). It turns out that oxytocin, the love drug that binds us to family members, also makes us much more willing to adapt aggressive attitudes towards outsiders. European tribalism did not merely take them to the edge of the abyss, it led them to march to the bottom. They had to give up nationalism and religion to escape. In expanding our circle of acceptance, our loyalties seem to cool in a way that people find disappointing. But the cost of small, tight, communities is war. This is a cost we can no longer afford.

  3. jerryjobe says

    “That’s the trouble with a complicated simile that you lose control of which.” Thank you for that. It made me laugh.

  4. Shatterface says

    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.

    Lego is better.

  5. says

    I like how de Botton recommends Catholicism by arguing for idolatry. The passage runs so straightforwardly and stubbornly against the truth that I can’t help but admire it for its boldness.

  6. Juan says

    @Ken: I don’t understand why he thinks that the secularists are lacking in approaches to moral philosophy, or why that’s considered a good point. A cursory knowledge of actual moral philosophy is enough to make you understand that the greatest advancements in moral philosophy in the past few hundred years have been made by essentially secular thinkers, while theology has stagnated, held down by the millstone of “revealed” religion. I don’t see what “we” are lacking that the religious mysteriously have in abundance. What religious thinker today is the equal of a Dennett, a Churchland, a Parfit? That the public are not fully aware of this intellectual wealth is another matter entirely, one that has a lot to do with the obfuscating fog of bullshit religion spreads over everything, and is not an argument I would use to show the benefits of religious ways of thinking.

  7. says

    Kristof’s piece is about what I have come to expect from the mainstream media on the topic of religion.

    Mark Fournier:

    It turns out that oxytocin, the love drug that binds us to family members, also makes us much more willing to adapt aggressive attitudes towards outsiders.

    I wonder what the evo-psych proponents and their fundie admirers, who claim that women are all nurturing ‘n’ emotional ‘n’ shit because of oxytocin, will make of that?

    Nah, who am I kidding. It won’t get beyond “mama bear” stereotypes.

  8. mnb0 says

    “Frank was fonder of animals than he was of wives and children.”
    That’s actually not true and makes it more difficult to make clear why De Botton’s argument sucks. And it sucks in a major way.

    “we can look across at a plastic statuette and inwardly ask”
    Why do I need to look at a plastic statuette to ask myself what Frank of Assisi would think of something? That’s why we have books. Why take over a stupid tradition or ritual?
    And what are we supposed to do after we have inwardly asked FoA for advise? Should our brain stop working and should we blindly follow that imaginary advise?
    It’s fine to have role models and I agree that FoA is one of the best. But that doesn’t release us from the obligation to question critically everything he has said. FoA being human is likely to have been wrong now and then too.

    This is hard enough. Me being Dutch I have been raised in a country with long and strong christian traditions, even if secularization already took off before 1970. It has taken me years to dig up, formulate and question those traditional seemingly self-evident influences. I see it on Ftb too. Selfishness is bad, altruism is good. Oh yeah? Why? Because christian authorities have been telling us so for 2000 years or so?

    This is what I hold against De Botton, even if I haven’t read his book. All the reviews, both pro and con, were clear enough. He wants me to take all that christian stuff for granted again.
    I raise my middle finger to De Botton.

  9. Ken Pidcock says

    That the public are not fully aware of this intellectual wealth is another matter entirely, one that has a lot to do with the obfuscating fog of bullshit religion spreads over everything, and is not an argument I would use to show the benefits of religious ways of thinking.

    Indeed and perhaps.

  10. says

    No, the reason I think selfishness is bad and altruism is good is not because christian authorities have been telling us so for 2000 years or so. I think that for other reasons.

  11. anne says

    De Botton wasn’t being sarcastic in that passage, was he? I’ve never read him, so don’t know if he’s inclined to sarcasm. It is difficult to take that passage seriously. But he projects such a fluffy bunny image himself I fear your reading is correct.

  12. mnb0 says

    @14: That’s a nice subject for another article. I think altruism doesn’t exist – that there is always an element of self-interest.

    But may I assume that you agree with my point:

    “He wants me to take all that christian stuff for granted again.”
    ?

  13. Kevin says

    Oh, so that’s been my problem in life. I never knew before.

    I have never once in my life consulted a statue or statuette for advice.

    Well, that explains why everything around me is crumbling to dust…no statuettes. No advice. Just aimless wandering around.

    No wait. I’m actually doing quite well, thanks. Loads of family and friends, money in the bank (quite a lot of it, actually), work that I find interesting and fulfilling, past-times I thoroughly enjoy, enough time and money to “give back” appropriately, and on and on.

    And all without consulting a single statuette. How did I ever manage?

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