At the end of this video, he suggests that both sides will be out to shoot him. Yes, they will…well, I’m wielding a great heavy two-handed sword, but I’ll accept the general equivalence in intent of pointy sharp nasty weaponry and projectile-flinging guns. In this TED presentation, he advocates just adapting religion to atheism, something he calls Atheism 2.0, but which is actually just Religion 0.0 again.
This is not what the New Atheism is about. It’s the antithesis of what we’re after. We’ve had a few thousand years of the godly shuffle: here’s a temple to Zeus, he’s out so we swap in Jupiter; he’s not exciting, let’s try Isis; now Mithras; Jehovah; Jesus; Mohammed; back to Catholicism; on to Protestantism; oh, you’re atheists, eh, here’s a fine altar, hardly been used, we’ll just rededicate it to your god Athe then. New gods same as the old gods, right?
Wrong. It’s that the whole structure of religious thought is wrong, that we’ve been spending these few thousand years digging the same old pit, deeper and deeper, maybe putting a little more gilt on the shovel and roofing it over with ever fancier architecture, but now we’re saying maybe it’s time to climb out of the hole and do something different. I don’t want a new label, I want whole new modes of thought.
de Botton wants to pick and choose from religion and keep the good parts for atheism, which is a nice idea, but he seems to be totally lacking in sense and discrimination in what the virtues of religion are. And then, unfortunately for him, he picks a few examples of something he thinks religion got right, and one of them is education. Fuck me.
He suggests looking at how churches teach the ‘facts’ of their faith, and is quite enthusiastic about the importance of repetition. Repeat things five times, he says, and then you’ll master it; he just suggests replacing God and Jesus with Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Has de Botton ever been anywhere near a classroom?
Let me give an example from my teaching; I’m familiar with what he proposes. For instance, I teach genetics, and one of the big concepts there is linkage and mapping. I’ve stood up and lectured on Sturtevant’s original mapping experiments; I’ve given the class the numbers from his observations, and had them do the calculations themselves; I’ve then had students come up to the whiteboard and show everyone how it is done; and then I’ve gone through it again on the board, step by step. The students nod and smile, they understand, give ‘em these numbers and they can trot through the calculations without hesitation.
Then on the test I give them the same problem, but I change the names of the alleles, swap in a zebrafish for a fruit fly, and half the class is totally stumped. “But you didn’t teach us how to do that problem,” they whine.
Repetition doesn’t work. It’s great for memorizing dogma, but it’s awful for mastering concepts. Students don’t understand, they just learn to robotically reiterate.
What I do is very different. I give them the Sturtevant data and we work through that problem, sure, but then we try other angles. Here’s data on the recombination frequency between pairs of loci; assemble them into a map. Here’s a triple-point cross, and the phenotypes of the flies we get back; calculate a map. Here’s a problem; work it out in groups. Here’s a problem; teach your partner how to solve it. Here’s a map; work backwards and predict the frequencies of phenotypes of a cross. You invent a problem, give it to me, and let’s see if I can get the right answer. Here’s how the problem is solved in flies, and fish, and nematodes, and humans, and tissue culture. Here’s how we do it with molecular biology techniques rather than genetics. What if the traits are all sex-linked? What if this locus interacts epistatically with that other locus? What if the two alleles at this locus are codominant?
The whole purpose of what we do in the science classroom is to get the students to understand that you can’t master the concept by rote memorization. You have to understand how someone came up with the idea in the first place, and you have to appreciate how understanding the concept gives you the mental toolkit to grasp novel instances of related phenomena. I could just show them a fly gene map and tell them to memorize it, I suppose, and teach them this idea that genes have locations on the chromosome, and leave it at that, but then they haven’t really learned anything deep, and haven’t learned how to integrate new observations into the concept. They’re also going to be totally unprepared for going off to grad school, reading McClintock’s papers, and learning that sometimes genes don’t have fixed locations on the chromosome.
So you can imagine how appalled I was listening to de Botton tell us that one thing society could benefit from adapting from religion is their approach to education. That’s simply insane. If you want to improve people’s understanding, we should model learning more on those secular, progressive, well-honed methods you find in good college classrooms, not church. Church is where you go to learn how to hammer dogma into people’s heads.
That is not what the New Atheism wants. Apparently, it’s what Atheism 2.0 wants, though.
His approach to art is about as horrifying — “religions…have no trouble telling us what art is about, art is about two things in all the major faiths; firstly, it’s trying to remind you of what there is to love, and secondly it’s trying to remind you of what there is to fear and hate…it’s propaganda”. To de Botton, that is a virtue. He suggests that museums ought to adopt the approaches of the churches, and organize their art by themes and tell everyone exactly what it all means. Jebus. Can you imagine a van Gogh hanging on the wall, with a little checklist next to it telling you what it is supposed to mean, and everyone dutifully reading the museum’s imperative and making sure they’ve got exactly the right interpretation? Some excited little girl makes the mistake of looking at the painting not the placard and telling her mother, “Look at the light and color shining through the confusion!” and the guard has to tap his stick on the wall and tell her, “No, it says CONFORM and OBEY or suffer. Can’t you read?”
Worst TED talk ever — well, it’s competitive with that horrible drivel from Elaine Morgan, anyway. de Botton is one of those superficial atheists who hasn’t quite thought things through and has such a blinkered optimistic perspective on religion that he thinks faith provides what reason does not.