“Religion for Atheists” An Interview with Alain de Botton


“Even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?”

Allan de Botton gave this interview for Talking Philosophy about his new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.

You were brought up as an atheist – could you describe your earlier views on religion and how you came to have a more positive view of religion and religious practices?

Allain de Botton

In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger (note the tentative can) that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour is more easily overlooked – in other words, that evil becomes less incongruous.

Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I simply want to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what may be missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely.

In your book you write: ‘God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inacurracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes. ‘ What are those urgent issues?

I am not very interested in the doctrines of religions. What interests me is their organisational forms, and in particular, their capacity to make ideas powerful.

The secular world tends to trust that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure that we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are: they are attempts to make vivid to us things we already know, but are likely to have forgotten. Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore, we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too: this was always the great genius of Catholicism. If you want to change someone’s ideas, don’t only concentrate on their ideas, concentrate on their whole selves.

The starting point of religion is that we are children, and we need guidance. The secular world often gets offended by this. It assumes that all adults are mature – and therefore, it hates didacticism, it hates the idea of guidance and moral instruction. But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. And yet modern education denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control though to my mind, we are far more desperate than the modern education system recognises.

In a recent review of your book Terry Eagleton wrote that:  “What the book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal. Liberal-capitalist societies, being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularised religion has long been one bogus solution on offer.”

What do you make of this criticism?

My book occupies a curious middle-ground which is easy to shoot at from two sides. The very religious like Eagleton may take offence at the brusque, selective and unsystematic consideration of their creeds. Religions are not buffets, they will protest, from which choice elements can be selected at whim. But I disagree. Why should it not be possible to appreciate the depiction of modesty in Giotto’s frescoes and yet bypass the doctrine of the annunciation, or admire the Buddhist emphasis on compassion and yet shun its theories of the after-life? For someone devoid of religious belief, it is no more of a crime to dip into a number of faiths than it is for a lover of literature to single out a handful of favourite writers from across the canon.

Atheists of the militant kind could also feel outraged, in their case by a book that treats religion as though it deserved to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings. They will point to the furious institutional intolerance of many religions, and to the equally rich, though less illogical and illiberal, stores of consolation and insight available through art and science. They may additionally ask why anyone who professes himself unwilling to accept so many facets of religion – who feels unable to speak up in the name of virgin births, say, or to nod at the claims reverently made in the Jataka tales about the Buddha’s identity as a reincarnated rabbit – should still wish to associate himself with a subject as compromised as faith.

To this the answer is that religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture – a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history. For those interested in the spread and impact of ideas, it is hard not to be mesmerised by examples of the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.

What is your view of the so-called New Atheist critique advanced by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others?

Attempting to prove the non-existence of god can be entertaining. Tough-minded critics of religion have found much pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail, finishing only when they felt they had shown up their enemies as thorough-going simpletons or maniacs.

Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of my book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Fivefold 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. In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognise that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Pyramidion’s editorial policy.

Exposé on Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion


Vanguard

By Douglas Anele

Richard Dawkins

Dawkins admits, for example, that Jesus’ doctrine of “turning the other cheek was” way ahead of his time, and anticipated Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years. Yet the family values Jesus exhibited sometimes were not worthy of emulation: his brusqueness to his mother and prescription that his disciples must abandon their families and everything else and follow him are exemplary in this regard (p. 284).

The author highlights and correctly criticised absurdities in the doctrine of original sin, and described the Christian notion of atonement as “vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent” (p. 287). Dawkins reiterates the point, often deliberately ignored by Christian apologists, that much of the moral consideration for others advocated in The Holy Bible was originally intended to apply only to a narrowly defined group. He acknowledges that there is some improvement in moral values globally, but attributes it not to a single factor such as religion but to the complex interplay of disparate forces.

Chapter 7 ended with the observation that religion has motivated so many brutal wars, whereas atheism, or absence of belief, hasn’t, because a more plausible motive for waging war “is unshakeable faith that one’s own religion is the only true one, reinforced by a holy book that explicitly condemns all heretics and followers of rival religions to death, and explicitly promises that the soldiers of God will go straight to a martyrs’ heaven” (p. 316).

Chapter 8 has the interesting title “What’s wrong with religion? Why be so hostile?” In it, Dawkins defends his anti-religious atheistic stance. He distinguishes between fundamentalism and passion. A genuine fundamentalist believes a proposition not on the basis of evidence but because the proposition in question is contained in a purported holy book. Dawkins attributes his passionate defence of evolution to the fact that religious fundamentalists are missing the impressive, awesome, evidence in favour of the theory because of blind adherence to antiquated ancient literature.

Moreover, anyone who accepts a proposition on the basis of scientific evidence knows what it would take to make him change his mind, and would readily do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming. But a genuine believer can never do that. Hard core fundamentalist religion is antithetical to scientific education of the youth, by teaching children right from the beginning that unquestioning faith is a virtue (p. 323). On the dark side of religious absolutism, Dawkins points out that in Muslim countries conversion to another religion or making statements which religious authorities consider “blasphemous” is punishable by death. He cites the case of Sadiq Abdul Karim Malallah who, in September 3, 1992, was publicly beheaded in Saudi Arabia “after being lawfully convicted of apostasy and blasphemy” (p. 325).

Dawkins also acknowledges the existence of fundamentalist “Taliban mentality” in Christian countries, particularly the United States. He also refers to the fallacious arguments religious bigots marshal against homosexuality and abortion. One of such bad reasoning is the anti-abortionist argument (or Great Beethoven Fallacy) that abortion is wrong because it deprives a baby of the opportunity of a full human life in the future (p. 337).

According to Dawkins, Peter and Jean Medawar have blown the argument out of the water by arguing that, if taken to its logical conclusion, it means that we deprive a human soul of the gift of existence anytime we fail to seize an opportunity for sexual intercourse (p. 339). Dawkins condemned the so-called “moderates” in religion, on the ground that they see nothing wrong in teaching children the dangerous notion that believing certain propositions without question or justification but based solely on faith is good. He maintains, and I agree completely, that inculcating in children unquestioned faith primes them to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads, crusades and suicide bombers.

Having argued trenchantly in chapter 8 that indoctrination and brainwashing of children with dogmatic religious doctrines is a grievous wrong, Dawkins followed it up in chapter 9 with a dissection of religion-motivated child abuse and how the dangers associated with faith can be avoided. He tells the sad story of how, in 1858, a six-year old child of Jewish parents living in Bologna, Italy, named Edgardo Mortara was legally abducted by the papal police in accordance with orders from the Inquisition. The little boy was brutally taken away from his weeping mother and distraught father to the Catechumens in Rome and reared as a Catholic. Apart from occasional brief visits under close watch by priests he was never seen again by his parents (p. 349).

Dawkins highlights the physical and mental abuses children are subjected to in the name of religion, and decries the nonchalant attitude towards, and ignoble defence, by the clergy and some highly-placed individuals of those who committed atrocities against children in the name or religion (pp. 350-379). He criticises the hypocrisy of accommodating extremist religious absurdities and deadly practices such as human sacrifices in the name of “cultural and religious diversity”; he laments the wastage of human and material resources for religious purposes.

Dawkins highlights the dangers inherent in deliberately twisting ideas culled from science to suit preconceived religious beliefs. However, although he was highly critical of the complacency and mis-education of children in scientific knowledge by faith-based educational institutions, he acknowledges the educational benefits of studying comparative religion as a part of literary culture. On pp. 383-385, he lists some useful and handy phrases, idioms and clichés from the King James Authorised Version of The Holy Bible.

Surely, he says, “ignorance of the Bible is bound to impoverish one’s appreciation of English literature.” Thus, he concludes that an atheistic world-view does not justify abolition of The Holy Bible and other sacred books from the educational system. According to Dawkins, “we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage” (p. 387).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Pyramidion’s editorial policy.

How much do you know about religion?


And how do you compare with the average American? Here’s your chance to find out.

Take our short, 15-question quiz, and see how you do in comparison with 3,412 randomly sampled adults who were asked these and other questions in the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. This national poll was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life from May 19 through June 6, 2010, on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish.

When you finish the quiz, you will be able to compare your knowledge of religion with participants in the national telephone poll. You can see how you compare with the overall population as well as with people of various religious traditions, people who attend worship services frequently or less often, men and women, and college graduates as well as those who did not attend college.

For a full analysis of the findings of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, read the full report.

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