Go away, Alain de Botton

Oh, no, another interview with the insipid de Botton. I can’t stand it.

Sean Illing: You’ve said the most boring question we can ask of any religion is whether or not it’s true. Why is that?

Alain de Botton: For me, and I think for many other people as well, the issue of religion actually goes way beyond belief in the supernatural, and yet a lot of the debate around religion started by people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins…

Stop right there. I’m already bored. Christopher Hitchens is dead, and Richard Dawkins is one guy. Why does everyone who is asked to pontificate on modern atheism immediately try to turn it into a cult of personality? There are some atheists who certainly seem to have replaced religion with the worship of their personal favorite godless prophet, but that sure isn’t the central concern of most of us.

But then, de Botton wouldn’t know how to handle an issue that wasn’t reduced to its most simplistic state, and I think he identifies strongly with the whole cult of personality thing himself.

…reduces to familiar questions: Does God exist or not? Do angels exist or not? Is it stupid to believe in angels?

Those are important questions, but only because people still insist on believing in the existence of gods and angels. Most atheists I know are thoroughly satisfied with the answer that no, they don’t exist, and only continue to address them because believers insist on it. I’ve been in debates before; it’s always the other guy who pops up and thinks “Does god exist?” is a respectable debate topic, and I’m the one who says “No, pick something more specific”.

While I understand the kind of emotional resonance around that, I think the real issue is why did people get drawn to religion? Why did we invent religions? What need did they serve? And also what are the aspects around religious life that may be disconnected from belief that nevertheless have great validity and resonance for people outside of faith today?

You know, de Botton, those are the same questions your bugaboos, Hitchens and Dawkins, asked in their books. That they asked in their lectures. That people discuss at atheist conferences now. I know you want to think you’re something special, but you’re not.

Religions are not just a set of claims about the supernatural; they are also machines for living. They aim to guide you from birth to death and to teach you a whole range of things: to create a community, to create codes of behavior, to generate aesthetic experiences. And all of this seems to me incredibly important and, frankly, much more interesting than the question of whether Jesus was or wasn’t the son of God.

Drop in to most of the churches in the United States and stand up and suggest to everyone that this Jesus stuff is irrelevant. See how well that flies. You might be able to get away with it at a UU church, or a Church of Christ, or the liberal branch of a church on a university campus, but elsewhere…whoa. Have your escape route planned ahead of time.

There’s also this absurdly pollyannaish view of religion.

The underlying ambition of religions is impressive to me. They are trying to locate the tenets of a good life, of a wise life, of a kind life. They are interrogating the greatest themes, and so I’m attracted to the aspects of religion that know that human life is quite difficult and that we are going to need a lot of assistance, a lot of guidance. And what religious life is trying to do is to provide us with tools for how to keep being the best version of ourselves.

No, most are not about a good life. They are about servility. They’re about sacrificing part of your life to serve an institution that makes false promises; it’s often about earning a good afterlife, which does not exist.

My experiences with most religions has been that they are about giving you the tools to be the worse version of yourself: intolerant, self-righteous, meddling, and ignorant. There are small religious groups that do try to be the opposite of that, but if you aren’t ready to recognize the difference between Southern Baptists and your own idealized vision of a benevolent religion, you aren’t ready to discuss how to develop a philosophy for living that doesn’t plummet into dogma and solipsism and tribalism.

It’s to distinguish it from the modern incarnation of atheism, which was promulgated by people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens

Shut up, Alain de Botton.

that really made the central aspect of atheism the question of whether one did or didn’t believe. And I suppose I’m interested in the kind of atheism that starts with the assumption that of course God doesn’t exist, we made him up, that’s fine.

While I’m more interested in the kind of atheism that starts with the assumption that the natural world is central and important, and that pursuit of the truth is absolutely essential to understanding that world. Do not let a lie linger unquestioned.

I want to look at the way religions go about things as an inspiring starting point for thinking about what secular culture is lacking and still needs. Because let’s remember that when religion started to decline in the 19th century, in Western Europe…

This is false. The 19th century was not a non-religious era. WWII was driven by religious justifications — “Kinder, Kuche, Kirche“, and the idea that the religious and ethnic other must be cleansed — and the Cold War sent the United States into a self-destructive spiral of conservative religious doctrine that still lingers with us.

But then, de Botton does not consider truth to be an important issue. It’s how you feel about it that matters.

…there was a lot of thinking that was done. People asked how would we fill the gap, the God-shaped hole. And there were lots of theories, and the leading answer, I suppose, was culture.

And that’s religious dogma once again. There is no “God-shaped hole”. When culture was dragooned into believing that culture was in service to a non-existent deity and a self-serving religious institution, it was culture itself that was needed, not the parasitical religious apparatus that was leeching off of it. Kill the parasite, the culture still thrives.

It’s just that the parasite wants you to believe that it is responsible for art and science and music and architecture and poetry, and that if you destroy it you will lose all that beauty. It’s another self-serving lie that de Botton gladly parrots.


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    It is somewhat useful to maintain a characterization of the ideal one is striving for. The mistake is to think that idealization is an actual character and not just ones imagination. Religion is useful ONLY when applied to be self critical.
    Some find it easier to think in terms of imagined parental advise rather than trying to decide whether a proposed action is “good” or “bad” (ie right or wrong)
    Easier to imagine one’s parent telling one which action to take. As a way to avoid responsibility, with the excuse of having been taught it would have been the best action to take. Too bad it wasn’t *shrug*
    Religion is a way to shift blame instead of taking responsibility for ones actions.
    *ding* Maybe that’s why religion is so popular, to shift blame onto an omnipotent, imaginary entity that can’t be reprimanded.

  2. says

    My gosh…now, I recall a couple years back when de Botton was first making the rounds, he was unfamiliar with US religious attitudes and I recall some suspecting he was perhaps more familiar with England’s versions of Christianity which probably are more tame in comparison. Still, I would think he would have to be at least familiar with how misogynistic Islam is since it gets so much attention in Europe.
    Really, with how backwards many highly religious countries are, you’d think he would recognize that as a huge problem for his hypothesis. But, as PZ suggests, perhaps de Botton doesn’t care about the truth. In that case, we need not care about de Botton.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    There is no “God-shaped hole”.

    Speak for yourself. I got one, though it’s mostly closed, and thus not really a hole.

    Once in a while I open it up a little, and let out some methane or a turd.

  4. leerudolph says

    PZ: “My experiences with most religions has been that they are about giving you the tools to be the worse version of yourself: intolerant, self-righteous, meddling, and ignorant.”

    Luckily for us atheists, those tools can now be obtained from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and several other God-and-gluten-free sources (warning: processed in facilities that also process nuts).

  5. says

    I always laugh at these feeble attemps to turn social constructivism on its head, as if it was possible to acknowledge the non-existence of god, but stay religious nevertheless, as if every member of a church could be an unbelievably uncritical sociologist who thinks that religion offers social cohesion, therefore let’s praise the Lord. I imagine Benedict Anderson standing in front of the Germans who shouted “Wir sind das Volk” in 1991 while burning down asylum shelters, and telling them that nations are a social construct that only exist since the 19th century.

    That said, please stop trying to make WWII about religion. The Nazis had a complicated relationship with organised religion (because especially the Catholic Church, no matter its stance, was a potential alternative power in itself), “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” is not a Nazi saying, and mainstream historical literature attibutes the rise of National Socialism to other ideological elements, such as nationalism and antisemitism.

  6. applehead says

    And that’s the sin of not giving 100% to destroy Dawgoebbels. Since atheists have been reluctant to eviscerate him from the moment it became clear he’s a malign, pseudoscience-peddling bigot (aka the first publication of an article written by him) he now has become The Face Of Atheism, doing immeasurable harm.


  7. says

    Great goodness, how much of a simpleton can he be?
    Really, he’s European so he has no excuse to be ignorant about freethinkers’attempts to provide the social aspects of religion, form community, have secular rituals to commemorate important events and such in the fucking 19th and 20th century.
    Dawkins and thingy, eh, Hitchens, they didn’t invent atheism. I’m the 4th generation of atheists and we sure as hell didn’t “lack” anything.

  8. m n says

    Just for the record, WWII and the Cold War are 20th century events, not 19th. De Botton is still wrong, but it’s still useful to get the dates right.

  9. says

    @CaitieCat, #6:
    The racial anti-Semitism that developed in Europe in the 19th Century, while of course having its roots in Christian anti-Judaism, had developed a racist ideology that was much more influenced by nationalist (sometimes secular) writers (although Christian antijudaism continued to exist and mixed with racist ideology), and even people who were then part of mainstream academic science. In the racial form that it took during the Holocaust, it has more to do with nationalist theories of the unity of the Volk, which was considered to be threatened by the Jewish people, who didn’t have a “homeland” and were thus considered a threat to racial purity in European societies.

    It’s just not that simple in history, you can’t just hold up a relatively recent binary opposition, like that between religion and enlightenment/atheism, and then act as if specific historic phenomena could be attributed to either of the two.

  10. Menyambal says

    I got to atheism on my own, thanks, and it was twenty years before I read anything by Dawkins, and that was a science book. None of his atheistic work, and nothing by Hitchens, has ever been in my reading list. PZ’s writing on this blog is about it, and as I sometimes say, he’s only a year older than me, and one degree ahead, so I’m of no mind to revere him.

    My atheism affected my life very much at first, as I was living in a small town in the Bible Belt, and was working for a church organization. I had to figure out what was going on in my world, with all the people doing what I now knew was wrong, and I had to work it out alone. Once I figured out the narrow-mindedness and general assholery that motivated most folks, I adjusted my life, and atheism faded in my priorities, but it is still there.

    My experience tells me that de Botton hasn’t had much experience, and is still narrow-minded, smug, and a general ass. Like most people who have undergone a conversion experience – either into or out of religion – the worst personality traits are still there, and still make the person feel oh-so superior.

  11. Zeppelin says

    “The underlying ambition of religions is impressive to me. They are trying to locate the tenets of a good life, of a wise life, of a kind life. They are interrogating the greatest themes, and so I’m attracted to the aspects of religion that know that human life is quite difficult and that we are going to need a lot of assistance, a lot of guidance. And what religious life is trying to do is to provide us with tools for how to keep being the best version of ourselves.”

    So…religion is attempting a very basic human task (do the right thing and not the wrong thing), and understands a trivial point (life is difficult), and that “ambition” is sufficiently impressive to Mr. de Botton to gloss over the fact that it has failed spectacularly at actually providing those “tools”. Interesting. I don’t think of myself as a particularly ambitious person, but I certainly hold myself to higher standards than that when it comes to patting myself on the shoulder for at least trying.

  12. says

    Why does everyone who is asked to pontificate on modern atheism immediately try to turn it into a cult of personality?

    Because criticizing Hitchens and Dawkins is easier than criticizing atheism.

    “New atheism” hasn’t actually got anything “new” to say about religion. It’s the same arguments that have been eviscerating faith since Epicurus onward. The faithful still keep coughing up retreaded versions of arguments from incredulity or ontological word-games, etc. So all they can do is poke at a few figureheads.

    I always find it telling that very seldom does anyone go after Dennet or A.C. Grayling – it’s always Hitchens (who has the virtue of being unable to defend himself) or Dawkins (who has the virtue of being a pissant who’s easy to tweak into making an error) and occasionally Harris. Attacking Harris is always risky because he (and his fans) are tenacious and tedious and nobody in their right mind will subject themselves to that excruciation. So, it’s Hitchens and Dawkins! You may fire as they bear!

  13. says

    I want to look at the way religions go about things as an inspiring starting point for thinking about what secular culture is lacking and still needs

    He keeps rattling on about that shit. But he continues to neglect that sportsball, bowling leagues, playing the stock market, online gaming, gambling, and economics ALL provide adequate inspiration for ritual, social interaction, and the mysteriousness that culture needs.

    He acts as if religion is still worthwhile because, apparently people need reasons to wear big hats and burn incense. As someone who does both for no reason at all I think ci-devant Botton has utterly missed the point. I rate him as one of those atheists who wishes he could come up with a reason to believe but cannot, so he pines for the “mystery” From a philosopher, that’s bullshit. If he wants a “mystery” to pine for, maybe he should go work on a theory of ensoulment, or explain why having our toes played with is so fucking pleasurable.

  14. says

    #10: Whoa, you’re right. I thought no one could possibly be stupid enough to argue for the previous century being secular (projection on my part), but I guess I hadn’t considered the depths of de Botton. I just assumed he was adopting the usual attitude of blaming the world wars on secularism.

  15. consciousness razor says

    The tribalism is obviously problematic, but I think at their best what religions do is present the stranger in a new light.

    This could not be more vague. What follows could be dismissing tribalism or embracing it, but clearly not treating it as obviously problematic.

    They offer us a kind of universality, a cosmopolitanism of the mind. This is a move that can take place outside of religion.

    No clue what the fuck this means.

    But let me guess, outside of religion, you could just as well treat a “stranger” who enters your sanctum as a member of the tribe, while treating people like shit when they’re not in it. Oh joy, we can still be tribalistic assholes and call ourselves “cosmopolitan” — perhaps only in our own minds, because too many would laugh if it was said out loud.

    This seems to me a very valuable exercise, because secular modernity is anonymous. It’s built on the concept of anonymity and that the family is hugely important and the lover is hugely important, but beyond that other forms of association don’t really exist.

    Yeah, sub-cultures and municipalities and nations and international alliances don’t really exist.

    Actually, they do, but amongst the most boring questions to ask are such diverse elements as whether a claim is true, whether anybody means anything by what they’re saying, whether we should have an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope….

    Broadly speaking, what I think should replace it is culture, so in that sense I’m a very traditional 19th-century secular person.

    He says, without irony, but with heaps of condescension as a pretend Enlightenment radical. Greetings from the 21st century.

    For instance, I wrote this book called How Proust Can Change Your Life, and what was interesting is that Proust, when he wrote his famous book, In Search of Lost Time, thought quite a lot about religion and definitely was in that 19th-century camp of thinking of art as the replacement for religion.

    So, something that is created and has been around since prehistory, art, will be “the replacement” in modern times (or maybe 100-200 years ago) for something else that was created and is probably just as ancient, religion. Why? And you just said it was “culture,” which is not synonymous with art, so what use does this equivocation serve?

    The arts don’t have the ethical, metaphysical, social or institutional functions that are being attributed (with much hand-waving and hand-wringing) to religions. Other elements of culture, specifically philosophical discourse and its practical implementations, have been doing such things for all of recorded history, not the arts. The arts concern the production of things you can experience; their methodologies have not been designed for the task nor are they in any way suited to it.

    Religions also aren’t suited to the task, for distinctly different reasons, namely that they are all false. You may be “bored” by that fact, but it is unavoidable. It’s also perfectly relevant to questions like this, questions about what kind of life we should live. It’s relevant that they are false, whether or not anyone intends to kiss religion’s ass or mimic it because of its alleged “success” or “usefulness.”

    That’s not how we read in the modernist tradition, and yet it is absolutely how many of the greatest works of culture were created. So it’s not so much about needing to create different kinds of culture as needing to be more faithful, I think, to some of the originating impulses behind these works.

    That we fail to do this is a bizarre blind spot in our culture.

    So he concludes by claiming we should engage in historically-informed interpretations of literature? Talk about bizarre. The question was “what should replace religion?” for fuck’s sake.

    I suspect he really is a time traveler, but he’s become unstuck and is coherently answering another person’s question.

  16. cartomancer says

    I suppose what I find most irksome about the De Botton thesis is that it willfully ignores the currents of secular thought and culture that existed before the 19th century. Secular culture is not something we had to invent when traditional medieval and early modern religiosity changed into something approaching what we have now – we’ve had it all along. In fact it pre-dates Christian culture entirely, and Christianity has always had to work with and around it.

    Augustine was one of the first, and certainly the most influential, Christian secularists. We even get the word from his use of the Latin saeculum to mean the world, age and concerns of civil society. Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond people have looked to more than religion to give their lives meaning. For the literate classes that has meant poetry and literature and the cultivation of friendships, for the working classes storytelling and sports and socialising. Medieval England had far more pubs than churches, far more cockfights and football games and dancing than sermons. Elizabethan and Restoration theatre was a largely religion-free zone (none of Shakespeare’s plays are on a religious theme), and for two thousand years Cicero’s dialogues on friendship have been read and understood and rewritten (both Ambrose and Aelred of Rievaulx tried to Christianise them, but the originals still proved more popular).

    In fact, if I were called upon to characterise the longue duree of the history of what people have done to give their lives meaning, I would say that religion has only ever been one of a wide range of options, never the most popular, and to most merely an effuse cultural vocabulary rather than a driving and immediate social engine. Those whose lives are shaped largely or solely by religion stand out because they are so unusual – they are the zealots and the flagellants and fanatics.

  17. chrislawson says

    Bernardo Soames — “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” may have been a German saying before Nazism came to power, but the Nazis adopted it gleefully.

  18. anbheal says

    I was listening to an NPR interview with Salman Rushdie a year or two back, and at one point he said (I paraphrase):

    “Major religions have two primary goals: 1) to explain where we come from; and 2) how to treat each other now that we are here. They fail miserably at both.

    In the first case, no major religion comes anywhere even close to getting it right. Not in the same ballpark, not in the same galaxy, they’re all dead wrong.

    In the second instance, well there are a few nice little ideas, such as do unto others as they’d do unto you, peace on Earth good will toward men. But look at the Ten Commandments. The first five have nothing to do with ethics, but rather blind obedience to nonsensical rules. And there is far more in all of the religions about how to punish your fellow humans and for what trivial theological infractions than about how to treat them well. And woe betide any outside your particular tribe.

    So major religions have never succeeded in explaining how we got here, and they do an absolutely terrible job of suggesting how we behave now that we’re here. Failure across the board, at their two primary objectives.”

    Compare and contrast to de Boton’s fawning faux equivalencies.

  19. wzrd1 says

    As he, in the beginning, ignores the existence of gnosticism, in favor of a pair of modern people in his arguments…
    Well, there is indeed a God shaped hole that I regularly plug.
    With my ass, when I have to take a crap.
    Normal people call that hole a toilet seat.
    Beneath which, every other one of his arguments belong.

    Please do give a courtesy flush.

    Dear Silent Bob above my swimming head, what a bunch of fetid dingo’s kidneys!

    Perhaps this chap should have a proper title?
    Might I suggest vomitus emeritus?

  20. says

    @chrislawson, 21:

    No. Sorry, but it doesn’t seem the saying was even used widely in the Third Reich. Sylvia Paletschek, who has researched the history of the saying, actually shows that it was more widely used in the womens’ emancipation movement as a satirical take on paternalist values in the Kaiserreich than as a self-description of conservatives.
    According to her, it was actually american authors who attributed the saying to Nazis during and after the war, most importantly Dorothy Sayers, who did so in a 1935 novel. National Socialist gender politics mostly continued the conservative, racially tinged emphasis on motherhood from the 1920, while during the Third Reich, more women were employed than before.

    In the 1960, it was again US feminists (Paletschek identifies Betty Friedan as the first) who took up the saying and attributed it to National Socialism, as a criticism of contemporary American society. The funny thing is that German feminists in the 1970s actually seem to have reimported the saying from the US, through their reception of American feminist literature.

    Here’s the relevant research, unfortunately I could only find it in German. It’s a chapter from an edited volume that is the most influential work in Germany on using Pierre Nora’s “lieus de mémoire” concept in German historiography.

  21. John Morales says

    I’ve got a soft spot for him; born rich, but he made his own way with (of all things) philosophy.
    Pretty sure his “Consolations of Philosophy” introduced (in a pop way) some ideas philosophy to the great unwashed, which is fairly remarkable.

    So, bullshitty and derivative, but pretty inoffensive. And not the only atheist with a soft spot for religion.

    (Kinda like James Croft and Greg Epstein, but successful)

  22. John Morales says

    wzrd1 @23, what is the relevance of the lack of mention of gnosticism to Alain de Botton’s claims?

    (He doesn’t refer to Manichaeism, either… so what?)

  23. wzrd1 says

    It’s relevant as to how long people have questioned religion in general (and Abrahamic religions faiths in specific) is far from a novel thing that he seems to state.

  24. Mobius says

    …believers insist on it.

    And more importantly, IMHO, is that they insist on making policies that apply to me based on those beliefs. If they all believed, but kept it to themselves, it wouldn’t be such an issue.

  25. consciousness razor says

    Gnostic religions did not consist of “people who question religion in general.” Claims of having mystical knowledge, as the name suggests, should probably be your first clue. Rejecting the material world, since it was thought to be created by a malevolent spirit, may as well be the second if there were any need.

  26. rietpluim says

    The irony is: some already consider De Botton himself as the next godless prophet. With “some” I mean mostly non-atheists because he makes them feel fine and fuzzy.