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.