Updating my religion

February 2, 2012

The secular world is full of holes. We have secularized badly.

These words come near the beginning of Alain de Botton’s recent TED Talk called Atheism 2.0,
and preface what could, I suppose, be categorized as an atheist’s best
attempt to affirm the positives of religion and attempt to incorporate
these positives into a more well-rounded and satisfying secular
worldview.  For de Botton, while it is transparently obvious that
supernatural beliefs are false, it is equally obvious that religion
confers many benefits upon its adherents—benefits which are
inaccessible, or at least less easily attainable, to those who reject

When a friend sent this lecture to me
yesterday, I was expecting to find the usual “religion is useful because
it gives people a sense of meaning and purpose,” or ” it provides some
measure of social control,” etc.  I had come across a few reviews of de
Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists,
and based on what I had read, I didn’t think his talk would have much
that was interesting to offer.  Yet, while these familiar, more general
ideas may have been whirring around in the background of de Botton’s
talk, they did not constitute the bulk of what de Botton found
praiseworthy about religion.

Instead, he talked about how religion
provides “guidance, morality, and consolation”—advice about how to live
well, and assistance in times of distress.  He lamented how once it had
been the task of education to teach people how and why to live in a
certain way, but now universities are houses of cold rationalism,
strictly in the business of transmitting information in the training up
of more cold rationalists.  He talked about how we are creatures who
need repetition and order to learn and grow and develop, and how the
liturgies of religion and their ordering of time do this for us.  He
talked about how we are not just brains but whole people.  Not bad, all

And yet, despite its irenic tone, the
talk left a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth.  I’m not the first to
notice this, of course (Terry Eagleton makes the point well, here),
but de Botton’s is a rather patronizing and condescending project as
whole.  There is something breathtakingly arrogant about saying, in
effect, “you know, in the past people believed all kinds of weird and
crazy stuff about an unseen world and it seemed to have some rather
interesting and useful effects upon how they ordered their lives, the
virtues they promoted, etc, and it seemed to address some rather
significant existential concerns, but we, of course, know that this is
all silly nonsense, but, hey, we can still raid the cupboards of their
clunky old worldviews for the few useful bits that remain—self-help
techniques, personal consolation, organizational strategies, and
community-building ideas, etc.”  And boy, their cathedrals and artwork
sure are nice.

I think there is something remarkably
shortsighted (not to mention historically, philosophically, and
psychologically naive) about failing to ask deep enough questions about
the possible relationship between the methods and practices of religion
and the content that informs them.  Is it really as simple as just
extracting insights about liturgy, rhythm, and how human formation takes
place from the theological convictions—convictions about the nature of
God and evil and human beings—that produced them?  Can tourism
coordinators really “tap into” the psychology of religious pilgrimage
without the deep, theological understanding of time and place and the
nature of God’s work in the world that motivates pilgrims in the first
place?  Can we really embrace religion’s ability to provide consolation
and assistance without bothering to ask the big and difficult
existential questions about why it is that we might need to be consoled?

There is also something remarkably
shortsighted, naive, etc, about failing to ask deep enough questions
about the quote at the top of this post.  Is there a connection to our
“secularizing badly” and the cognitive content that has informed this
process?  Does our inability to live with the implications of a cold
materialism have anything to say to us?  Does secular dissatisfaction
and the numerous attempts in popular discourse to clumsily sacralize a
world without God world point to anything about what it means to be
human?  About the nature of our world?   If so, what might this be?  We
need to ask these questions, and others no doubt, about the connection
between the things we believe and the effects they have “out there” in
the world.

Beliefs and practices are not
free-floating entities that can be simply plucked out of the sky and
redeployed in whatever configuration we might prefer.  There is a
profound historical, psychological, and existential connection between
the two—a connection that we would do well to pay more careful attention
to as we are updating our religions and our irreligions.

Originally posted at Rumblings


deBotton's rhetoric is


Botton's rhetoric is merely an anecdotal manifestation of what I perceive to be
a broad based questioning (rightly so) of religion (Christian and others) and its place in the world.
For them theology/religion is based on archiac ideas and precepts derived from primitive ancient cultures that have been replaced by new truths verified by empirical fact.
Nevertheless, what they rightly observed is that some of the positive actions of
religious people actual work, like community, serving, helping, sacrificing,
and so on. I'd like to suggest that instead of being defensive about and
arguing with de Botton-like comments, faithful people ought to engage more in
loving. Argue we should, but about religious abuses rampant among
us; this would show the world and de Botton-like-minded people, that the religious really
are truth seeking people. Let us justly get rid of all our molesters, haters, and
self-seekers (Yes... arrest them and remove them!) and be passionate about sharing God's love with fervor, intention and integrity. de Botton we will always have with us and they will never be convinced. There are far, far more needs and acts of love that must still be done in the world, in the name of God. This is an existential reality and philosophical
truth rooted and ground in our historic faith with profound psychological ramifications.