Practical Happiness and the Guardian

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.

10 Responses to “Practical Happiness and the Guardian”

  1. paul murdoch Says:

    “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.”

    I took it more as a back-handed compliment, to be honest. I always got the impression Eagleton secretly enjoyed sparring with Hitchens; he knew he couldn’t tie him up in perverse casuistry or deliver one of his rhetorical displays of ‘shock and awe’. I’m not entirely convinced but I don’t feel it was ‘nasty’. I think he saves his nastiness for those he considers beneath him…and whatever else you say about de Botton, ultimately he’s a bit pointless and vapid.

    “Craziest of all is the Gray idea that ‘religion is an enduring human need that cannot be denied.’”…yep, with you on this one, except it is, in essence, his only idea; or at least the kernel of his latest philosophical incarnation. I actually remember as a wannabe radical 68er, before he became Thatcher and Hayek’s favourite. That was long before Straw Dogs. He strikes me as someone who always needs to shock…bit like Zizek and Eagleton…whether it’s for attention, pure contrariness or keeping down with the kids, it’s hard to say.

    On Eagleton though…I’d love him to actually explain what ’emptying religion of its content’ means. He’s never claimed to actually be a believer himself, as far as I know; so its content can’t be any more than its moral certainty…a certainty which for him seems should endure regardless of its non-divine origins. How he ever hopes square this with his alleged Marxist sensibilities is truly bewildering. Apart from anything else it would suggest he’s more in common with Edmund Burke than old beard-face. That said…‘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.’…made me smile.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      My feeling is that Eagleton spent his whole life supporting Marxism and Marxist revolutions. After the Berlin Wall fell he began to run out of socialist regimes to support. Post 9/11 the new anti Western force is religious fundamentalism so he naturally supported it and got sentimental about his Catholic upbringing. It’s a road many on the left have taken. Eagleton’s antipathy to atheism (and Hitchens) comes from his view of enlightenment thought as the philosophical component of empire.

      I suppose Alain de Botton is a bit silly and vapid. I really didn’t feel like being too harsh on him. Perhaps I’m getting soft.

  2. paul murdoch Says:

    “Eagleton’s antipathy to atheism (and Hitchens) comes from his view of enlightenment thought as the philosophical component of empire.”

    I’ve seen this pat explanation offered for many ex Marxists, not least Perry Anderson and the LM crowd. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth in it although I’m not sure it fits in Eagleton’s case…I suspect his arguments with Hitchens possibly predate 1989 by a couple of decades when Hitchens was a vague stripe of Trotskyist in the International Socialists and Eagleton might still have thought of himself as a communist. It’s easy to forget but in the mid to late sixties the Soviet Union did not look an altogether outside bet, and even seemed reformable and redeemable.

    However, by the mid 70s the writing was on the wall, the abuses and horrors common currency and even though they didn’t come out admit their errors and condemn the ongoing madness, I think they knew deep down that they’d taken a big, big wrong turn in their lives. This idea that 1989 disillusioned them all doesn’t really hold water. I can see that they might have had a surplus of revolutionary and anti-Western fervour to redeploy… rather like a gambler placing a new bet once his horse has fallen… but, ultimately, this is a psychological explanation. Obviously ‘groupthink’ and the (underestimated) discipline of some of these sects comes into play, but in the final analysis it’s pathology. They were people in denial; denial of wasted lives; their own and millions of others.

    Eagleton doesn’t come across that way to me…he presents more as the spoiled adolescent who always needs to play the contrarian to shock the grown ups. He’s like Brendan O’Neil but with nuance, subtlety and elegant prose. I’m not sure he believes in anything so much as his ability to rip other ‘lesser’ writers and thinkers to pieces…he couldn’t do that with Hitchens…no doubt he could kick Martin Amis’s arse all day while chewing gum and playing the banjo, and de Botton would need a a rabid pit-bull and a baseball bat just to live in the same street…but I think he knew, at best, he could only ever hope for a stale-mate with Hitchens.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      That’s a very interesting point and I’m sure there were a lot of nuances in the debates of the sixties and seventies that I’m not aware of. You say this is all psychological speculation but there’s a lot of psychology in politics, especially at the extremes. Why do people go on with this ideological shit when as you say the writing was on the wall? Still, not everyone was fooled. The old saw is that everyone had their own personal Kronstadt. The New York intellectual Daniel Bell used to say that ‘Kronstadt was my Kronstadt’

  3. paul murdoch Says:

    “The old saw is that everyone had their own personal Kronstadt.”

    Yeah…granted…although my Grandad was a Marxist, but he’d ripped up his card at the news of the Hitler-Stalin pact and never forgave the likes of Harry Pollitt who, for him was beneath contempt. He was active in UCATT all his life but never really saw it more as a temporary solution; privately regarding unions as a sign of accommodationism and just a temporary expedient. He castigated Stalin and Brehznev mercilessly, had a soft-spot for old Nikita but, till his dying day held out the hope of Soviet reform and just kinda assumed the inevitability of it all. In a way I’m glad he died before the wall came down. That said, he put the blind adherence of those CP members who stayed ‘disciplined’ down to a form of mental illness…he reckoned anyone who didn’t hate fascism enough to walk away in 39, lost the right to claim to be fighting for the common man…and was either a fascist themselves or suffering a reality bypass-both pathologies in his book.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      He sounds like a remarkable man… and yeah, the willingness of people to go along even in ’39 just boggles the mind… but I think you know more about the period than I do

  4. paul murdoch Says:

    “…but I think you know more about the period than I do”

    yeah…maybe…I still find it a fascinating subject, although sometimes I feel about as relevant as a fuckin Betamax tape of an 80s Benny Hill Christmas Special…I talk to my eldest lad about it sometimes…he likes the photos etc but it’s all filed under “the olden days” for him. Strange…kids these days seem to get a wacking dose of Nazi Germany at school in history…but anything peripheral is just a bit ‘lame’ in comparison it seems…like watching a non-league game if you follow a premiership team. It’s sad.

    I couldn’t get over the Michael Foot obituaries when he passed…seemed to play heavily on the “weird old geezer in a donkey-jacket” phase. The guy was a fuckin colossus to me…he knew fascism when he saw it, and knew it needed facing down. Some of these stunt-pulling poseurs you see claiming some kind of left-wing legitimacy need to study the period, realise what appeasement of any brand of crypto-fascism results in and take a good look at themselves.

    I know this all sounds a bit “back in my day…”. Do you reckon an awareness of the fact absolves me…or d’you reckon we’re all just destined to go down that path regardless, consciously or not? Mind you, it’s not I like a give a shit one way or the other…which is probably just another sign. Ageing’s a fascinating business but I swap a Phd in it for just two days being 16 again. Anyway, that’s about it for this topic I think.

    Liked your story btw…reminded me of a trip up Kinder Scout one real dry summer, it’s kinda peaty up the top and when it gets dry enough it turns bouncy…stayed the night up there with a bottle of Vodka, a huge bottle of Benylin linctus-‘people’ used to nick it from the Chemists back then-and a couple of hundred mushrooms; me, my cousin, his girlfriend and my future-and present-missus-then just a kinda acquaintance who had me tagged as a daft cunt…some people certainly stay true to their youthful beliefs.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Mmm, it is all a bit back in the day but then as well as Nazi Germany kids should study the communists and their enablers in the west, it is essential, it is a real education, not just about the period but about human nature. I always did admire Michael Foot. Particularly on the Falklands. Where abouts is Kinder Scout? Heard the name but not sure where it is

  5. paul murdoch Says:

    “Where abouts is Kinder Scout? Heard the name but not sure where it is”

    Peak district…I thought you were from Manchester…never heard of the mass trespass? Your knowledge of 30s working class rebellion is indeed looking somewhat sparse.

    seriously…take a look

    I’m sure there I’ve drunk in a pub-possibly a bar in a club-named after Benny Rothman

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