I think I can safely talk about Alain de Botton’s new book without having actually read it. I don’t say this dismissively. If de Botton’s people are reading this and want to send me the book I will read it and consider it fairly. But I think that, from reading the interviews, I can summarise his case.
Religion for Atheists argues that people who don’t actually believe in God can nevertheless use the consolations and insights of faith to orientate themselves in what is an uncertain post-religious world. In this alienated hyper-capitalised urban West, it’s nice to think of – well, community, Sunday morning rituals, choral singing, discussion groups, old maids and warm beer, jumpers for goalposts, and all that. De Botton sums it up: ‘Even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?’
There are flaws in de Botton’s argument. Happy people are not big faith heads. They may have some spiritual inclinations but religion is not central to their lives. You never hear a story that begins: ‘When I found God, I was in a really happy place.’ Religious practitioners work in hospitals, prisons, hospices. Generally they will be talking to people who are going through a difficult time. My thinking is that faith is not a way back to life but a substitute for things that people really do need – love, health, companionship – religion will fill the void, but only with a different kind of void. It could be that the son of multimillionaire Rothschild boss Gilbert de Botton has a little more to learn about what makes most people suffer.
Communitarian thought is pretty much a dead end. And there are many aspects of religion (racism, sexual repression, incitement to conquest and murder, etc, etc, the list is endless) that don’t make people happy and that we can easily do without. De Botton told the Guardian that ‘I don’t think I would have written this book if I’d grown up in Saudi Arabia as a woman. It’s a European book in the sense that we’re living in a society where religion is on the back foot.’
And hasn’t this been done? Jim Denham notes that prominent atheists have already spoken in praise of religious works – read Hitchens, for instance, on the King James Bible – and so de Botton’s whole exercise is kind of redundant anyway. The seam has been tapped dry.
Yet I don’t feel too harsh towards the misguided philosopher. I would be a little afraid if de Botton was ever in a position of great authority. As it is he’s just a nice, well-meaning, odd man. Some of his ideas are touching. For example, de Botton thinks that people should be obliged to talk about their emotions with random strangers in restaurants. The world needs more ideas like this, surely. Therefore I was struck by the negative reception to de Botton’s book in the great pro-faith paper of record.
First up is a disdainful piece by Anglican parish priest Richard Coles, who complains about de Botton’s assertion that ‘no religions are true in any God-given sense.’ Coles says that: ‘That he should reach his conclusion so confidently and so early on would, you’d think, spare him the effort of engaging seriously with religion and spare us the effort of reading the rest of the book.’ Well, the title should have prepared you for this, Reverend. Coles also dislikes de Botton’s idea of building secular temples: ‘Christianity does not offer consolation, it offers salvation. That is why people built cathedrals’. Got that, Alain?
The Coles review is an Evensong blessing compared to the verdict of moribund totalitarian-left academic Terry Eagleton. Eagleton was a career Marxist who turned to militant faith as an alternative anti-Western movement after the collapse of the communist slave empires. He compares de Botton to the eighteenth-century philosopher John Toland, who ‘clung to a ‘rational’ religion himself, but thought the rabble should stick with their superstitions.’ ‘What the book does,’ Eagleton rages, ‘is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure’ – an outburst of real hypocrisy from a man who is happy for Muslims to kill and die for idiotic beliefs purely because this will worry Foreign Office mandarins.
The professor also deploys his somewhat overrated technique of comic analogy: ‘De Botton claims that one can be an atheist while still finding religion ‘sporadically useful, interesting and consoling’, which makes it sound rather like knocking up a bookcase when you are feeling a bit low.’ Yeah, that’s probably what he means: and? Eagleton also can’t resist a kick at the old enemy: ‘The late Christopher Hitchens, who some people think is now discovering that his broadside God Is Not Great was slightly off the mark, would have scorned any such project.’ Take away the weasel equivocation ‘some people think’ and this is a Louisiana televangelist who rejoices at the imagination of his opponents burning in hellfire. It’s a nasty line of medieval triumphalism and people who believe Eagleton’s take on religion to be liberal and sophisticated should reflect on that sentence.
What would I write about if it wasn’t for the remarkable John Gray? The philosopher’s take on de Botton contains his usual blizzard of unsupported assertions. ‘The evangelical atheists of the past few years may not be notable for sceptical doubt, but religious practitioners are often quite uncertain in their beliefs.’ Yep. I hear there was a great deal of anxious debate and soul-searching among Taliban commanders before they dynamited the Bamiyan statues.
As ever with Gray’s criticism, the book under review doesn’t feature except as a hook to hang his pre-prepared thesis, already expounded in numerous books, lectures, articles and interviews. Gray writes that ‘Today, faith is more often channelled through science’ and adds that ‘People who believe that the human mind can be uploaded into virtual space and so be immune to death are recycling the fantasies of 19th-century spiritualists, who also argued that their beliefs were based on science.’ There may be researchers out there trying to splice their cerebral cortex into the new Facebook timeline, but Gray doesn’t name them or link to any studies. His view of science has barely moved on from the nineteenth-century caricature of pale men on distant crags, with brains in jars and weird-looking candles.
Craziest of all is the Gray idea that ‘religion is an enduring human need that cannot be denied.’ Really, John? True, man has always lived with religion, but that doesn’t mean we can’t live without it. People used to think slavery was essential. We grew out of that, though. And people do, demonstrably, live full and meaningful lives without religion. Despite war and recession, the secular age has the greatest freedom and highest living standards in the whole of human history. The only reason we can’t say that people are happier than they have ever been through humanity’s lifespan is the absence of any way to quantify human happiness. We are on the curve and cusp of a new world, and it’s scary, sure, because freedom is scary. But it is better than anything that came before.
All this is a long way of demonstrating that poor old Alain de Botton’s hand of friendship has been well and truly slapped down. The pro-faith crowd have been moaning for years that atheists are too aggressive and negative. But see what happens when one of us tries to be nice and reach out a little. It tells you something about the wisdom of trying to come to an accommodation with people who are deeply into God, or support religion for ideological reasons.