About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Plane reading

I read Religion for Atheists on my flight over to the US - this is the new book by Alain de Botton. Verdict? Well, just quickly what I got out of it is that religions are comprehensive, totalitarian systems in which everything (art, architecture, music, the order of everyday life) is integrated and bent to a single purpose, with no room to manoeuvre except what the system itself provides. In other words, religions are even scarier than you thought.

Now, this is not how de Botton puts it of course. He doesn't seem to have any problem with such systems. He seems to think we're all pretty pathetic, don't do well with freedom, and could really do with something like this to give our lives direction. But reading between the lines he shows how dystopian a society dominated by a religion inevitably is for anyone who is inclined to question and not conform.

I think that last thing atheists should be doing, if de Botton's description of religion is more or less right (and it probably is) is to go aping the forms and techniques of religion. Religion is something to oppose, but with asymmetrical methods, not trying to beat it at its own totalitarian game. We should respond with questions, satire, and art and science that are not bound to a system and can go in their own multiple directions. We should be trying to create a world in which grand, comprehensive systems are pretty much unworkable.


ivo said...

Well said!
I've tried to read some of his books (Status Anxiety and The Art of Travel, I think), but could not stand the unreasoned light vacuousness of it all.

setAD7 said...

No prime directive? =(

Thomas Lawson said...

The supposed uniter is revealed to be just another divider. I sense a forthcoming "de Botton's Wager."

Damion said...

I think you might be somewhat unfairly characterising de Botton's programme. If someone want to create beautiful humanistic novels, art, and music (as some surely do) it doesn't contribute to a comprehensive totalitarian system, but rather adds to the diversity already present in those endeavours. Same goes for architecture, although I'm at a loss to think of any buildings one might count as temples to the human spirit.

Maybe I missed something, though. Where did the author call for uniformity and conformity in our artistic efforts?

Legal Eagle said...

Hmm interesting. I haven't read de Botton's book - I leafed through it in Target the other day and decided not to bother.

I have a cousin who is deeply religious - the only one of us in the family apart from my grandmother who is religious. (I suspect he got the religion gene and the rest of us got my grandfather's skeptical genes). He is the kind of person who really likes structure in life; he was also really unhappy before he "found God". I think it is probably true that some people crave authoritarian directives of some sort or another (religious or political), and that they crave to know that what they have done is good. [Actually at one point (when I have time) I plan to do a post on this.]

My personal attitude to religion has changed over time. When I was younger, I felt that it was wholly bad and should be expunged. Now I'm older, I can see that for some people (such as my cousin) it has value - but I do feel very strongly that (a) religious beliefs should be able to be challenged; and (b) religious beliefs should not be forced on others who do not believe or share those beliefs.

Kari said...

I think in so many ways you have missed the point of the book. It's not about aping religion, It asks how we might somehow accommodate the eternal archetypes that animate the right brain with secular but aligned celebratory forms. That atheism can be numinous. Your scholarship has only made you cranky in this instance, because unlike De Botton, you are only compelling to the already converted.

Michael said...

De Botton likes the trappings of religion. Gods are optional.

Anonymous said...

"Religion is something to oppose, but with asymmetrical methods, not trying to beat it at its own totalitarian game. We should respond with questions, satire, and art and science that are not bound to a system and can go in their own multiple directions. We should be trying to create a world in which grand, comprehensive systems are pretty much unworkable."

Put that on a tee shirt.

Mark Jones said...

It's a strange project that de Botton proposes. I've no idea why he thinks the things he likes about religion *require* religion - I presume he expands on this in the book? Not sure what else he would fill the book with otherwise.

He had a little Twitter spat with PZ today, which is worth checking out, if people like their arguments at 140 characters or less.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think I'm being grumpy - the tone of my post isn't angry (more musing/reflective), and the book didn't make me angry.

Given that de Botton never explicitly says, "Religions are stifling comprehensive systems," but just gives us the information from which to draw that conclusion, of course there's nowhere where he tells us in so many words to create stifling comprehensive systems of our own. I didn't suggest that he says that.

Nonetheless, he often does say that we should view some aspect of religion as providing structure and benefit rather viewing it as being stifling, and he has a lot of rather demeaning things to say about us as a species - things that, in his eyes, mean that we need structure, direction, etc.

I think it's a fair inference that if we started doing all the things that religion does, such as reading the same books over and over, constructing buildings to manipulate people's moods, etc., we'd end up with something similar to a religion in its trappings and its manipulation of people. It wouldn't resemble any one existing religion - it would be much more syncretic - but if we were deliberately creating architecture, music, everyday rituals, etc., in a systematic way it would, indeed, end up as a stifling/brainwashing system.

Just how far de Botton wants us to go in that direction may be open to argument, as he never spells it out in detail, but he does talk in a way that suggests large amounts of money going into communal projects to celebrate certain agreed values, valued emotional states, etc. It's not just that individual architects, say, can learn about what features of Notre Dame Cathedral produce awe - something that happens anyway.

However, the point of the post isn't to rubbish the book (it's well written and probably says a lot that's accurate ... and I'd say more about that in a longer review) or to say that de Botton has thought it all through to the extent of proposing a comprehensive, totalitarian system of his own.

My point is more that when you read the book with a bit of scepticism and detachment, but with a willingness to learn from it, what you may see emerging as to what religion is really like isn't especially pretty, and it may be something you want to oppose rather than feeling happier about.

And given what you're up against, which de Botton reveals in an insightful way, your methods of opposing it are probably going to be asymmetrical ones of some kind.

Anonymous said...

I oppose totalitarian politics though I'm not so sure I'm against all "grand, comprehensive systems." Do you not think an institutional framework of humanistic principles might strengthen society and permit greater universal freedom? Or do you prefer moral relativity, where if my system doesn't work with your system, then we go to war and kill each other?

Mimmoth said...

I have to admit I like the idea of designing buildings to influence moods. I have no idea what de Botton had in mind, but I can definitely see ways this could be used for good.

Imagine a place where your house has been designed to make you feel happy and at peace, your library or school or work has been designed to make you feel curious and able to concentrate without distractions, your courthouse has been designed to make you feel ready to listen to all sides and weigh the evidence, and your gym has been designed to make you feel energetic.

I just don't see what any of this has to do with religion, but I suppose that's because I haven't read the book.

Craig said...

"It asks how we might somehow accommodate the eternal archetypes that animate the right brain with secular but aligned celebratory forms."

You aren't helping your argument with that phrase; the whole "left brain is logic, right brain is intuition/creativity/spirituality" meme is largely bullshit.

See Corballis MC (1980) Laterality and myth. American Psychologist 35: 284 for some discussion of this.

Anonymous said...

"grand, comprehensive systems."

lead inevitable to totalitarianism because those systems inherently demand subjugation to work, any criticism might uncovers flaws and have to be eliminated. One reason why I still value Marx's ideas about the economy and the role and structure of capitalism, but will have no truck with any party that makes those ideas a platform for a "grand and comprehensive system".

The best what we can do is to muggle through within a framework of secular governance and what is commonly called democracy but apparently has deteriorated into a plutocracy, or a capitalism that takes on the attributes of feudal systems of bondage and unrestrained privileges of the ruling elites.
I guess it is time for another revolution to relieve the ruling class of some of its burden.. and keep on muggling through to the next stage.

James Croft said...

I rather enjoyed the book. I found it thoughtful, insightful regarding some gaps in secular society, and intriguing in some of the proposals. I agree there is a strong sense De Botton gives of thinking the human species is rather weak and feeble. I wonder where that comes from. But I do not agree that what he is proposing is in any way a "brainwashing system". I find that characterization silly, actually.

Instead I see this as a flawed but valuable attempt to ask "What human needs do religious institutions and practices provide for some which secular society tends not to, and how might we intelligently harness religious wisdom to provide secular alternatives?"

That question is profoundly Humanistic and, I think, timely.

Svlad Cjelli said...


"Or do you prefer moral relativity, where if my system doesn't work with your system, then we go to war and kill each other?"

That happens either way!

We have several thousand years of history to work with even in speculations, you know.

Jewish Humanist said...

I've read and enjoyed Religion for Atheists, and while de Botton is indeed pretty light in terms of serious institutional proposals he does offer positive insights about what secular culture may usefully glean from religious practices honed over millenia.

Russell's critical stance on religions as "comprehensive systems" seems quite reasonable (the label "totalitarian" is unfair and simply inaccurate for many religious communities), but this perhaps misses two central points of de Botton's new book.

1. Religions educate, inspire and guide, provide consolation, forge community and a sense of belonging - secular culture can certainly learn from this without aping religious conformism.

2. Religions do have socially entrenched institutions and loyal followers, so considering religion mainly as "something to oppose" may ignore the richer possibility of discourse towards an inclusive humanist world view, which can be embraced by reasonable people whether they are agnostics, atheists or believers.

I've started exploring precisely this possibility for an "agnostic humanism" in my blog. I think such an approach extends de Botton's approach that God (probably) does not exist so our task is deciding how we should live. Better in my view to borrow the insights from religious belief and practice, which after all are merely cultural artifacts, where they may be helpful to answer this question.

Martin S Pribble said...

Glad I'm not the only one who thinks that De Botton's ideas of a pseudo-religion of atheism is a really bad idea. He seems to "have faith in faith" and that I find irksome to say the least. The worst thing about De Botton is that the youth of today love him, because he is easily digestible, but he really doesn't forward any new and useful ideas, and in my view, is giving those who fly under the banner of "freethinkers" or "atheists" a bad name. He does not speak for me, in fact I'd go so far as to say that I'm yet to see any compelling argument from De Botton about the nature of life as an atheist, and why we need religion at all.

Frankly I was am as insulted now by De Botton's thesis as I was when I first saw his TED talk from last year; the idea that atheists need to fill a gaping void for community, morality, and a sense of belonging is really very narrow minded.