Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Atheist on Religion

Given that the conversations here frequently teeter in the space between faith and unbelief, I was interested to hear an interview with Atheist, Alain de Botton, discussing his thoughts on religion.  He is the author of a book entitled Religion for Atheists.    His is also an interesting perspective to examine alongside that of Peter Rollins (see previous post).

See the interview and transcipt, from ABC's 7:30 progam, here!


  1. That was a very worthwhile read. I especially liked the idea of spaces for silence. As an agnostic I have been trying to argue similar ideas.

  2. Goes along with the idea of rest, doesn't it? Mind you, although some of the things he mentions are things I value, too - I'm not a fan of the "religious institution" at all.

    What I did like, was his idea that there are things we can learn from one another. It was also nice to hear an atheist acknowledge that science does not have all the answers, and that religion and the arts embody ways of understanding the world that are also valid and necessary (Something I have heard you say on a few occasions too, Stuart).

    He has a nice "vibe", don't you think? I get the impression that he is a man who values other people :)

  3. I could give you all kinds of an atheist's Who's Who of reviews about de Botton's book that describe why it's silly and outlandish, naive and absurd. But I think Terry Eagleton sums it up rather succinctly here when he writes:

    The book assumes that religious beliefs are a lot of nonsense, but that they remain indispensable to civilized existence. One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn't be knocked.

    That's rather condescending to believers and insulting to atheists, don't you think?

    And yes, de Botton rambles along nicely trying weave a more accommodationist approach to that which he argues on the one hand is not worthy of accommodating but on the other that we should copy in the atheist community. Obviously, he doesn't know much about the atheist community. Our cathedrals are man's accomplishments; we don't need a statue to bend the knee. Mind you, all this waddling away from sharp corners of honest rational debate with atheists helps sell his books to the theologically disenfranchized, you see: a friend to all, allied to none. It's fluff, plain and simple.

  4. Stuart, can you not find your own quiet spaces without needing some publicly funded Temple of Silence?

  5. Lol Tildeb, I don't need a publicly funded Temple of Silence. As I am, I am usually welcome to be silent in any Cathedral or church (which in Australia, ARE privately funded(there being no state, established, tax gobbling church, for constitutional reasons)), and if that is too Christian for me, I may get the hankering to visit a Buddhist Temple or Monastery and be welcome there as well.

    De Botton's approach, makes much more sense to me then your militancy, Tildeb. De Botton's approach is pragmatic, removed from emotion.

    All millitant Gnu atheism does however Tildeb is make believes resolve to believe harder. To fight irrational emotion with irrational emotion.

  6. By the way i stopped reading Terry Eagleton as soon as I finished my honours thesis. I never went back to that area of study. He was I recall, a post modern nutter, whose writing made me want to chuck.

  7. Eagleton is a Marxist. Derrida made me crook. How I confused the French Madman and the Irish Commie, I dont know but its been fortunately 15 years since my honours thesis.

  8. Militancy? What militancy is that, Stuart? Daring to criticize faith-based beliefs? Daring to argue that religious privilege in the public domain threatens freedom of religion?

    You throw words around as if they were true, words meant to show disrespect and insinuate harmful motives. I am not a militant anything. Painting me as such is a misrepresentation. You can do better, Stuart, and be nicer.

    By asking about finding areas of quiet, I do so by re-entering nature. I find it incompatible to enter a man-made sanctuary if by 'quiet' I mean a place to recharge my batteries, to reconnect with the real world, to reassert balance and harmony between me and my environment.

    In this sense, I found it particularly irksome to hear (and read) de Botton suggest that this is what cathedrals do by making us feel small and insignificant. To me, this notion is antithetical to entering a quiet and contemplative place where I belong, where I fit in just as well (or as poorly) as anything there. I challenge anyone to undertake something I'm rather fond of, like kayaking the Gulf Islands or Broken Islands of Vancouver Island teeming with life, and not feel the kind of peace and quiet and rest and balance and harmony of being immersed into an environment... as one part of much greater whole, where one's concerns outside of the immediate can be better understood in context with what living here and now is all about.

    In comparison, de Botton's tripe attempts to copy the supposed benefits he thinks are present in the failed experiment called religion... but without the religious component, of course, because, well, de Botton assures us he doesn't fall for something so silly. I think this shows a certain amount of contempt.

    I used Eagleton's words to reveal this because I think they captured the unspoken contempt that underlies de Botton's opinion and not because I hold Eagleton himself with great esteem. True community means a direct and equal relationship between the part and the whole - a notion used by de Botton and applied to religion that just isn't true; the latest polling data out of Britain reveals just how lacking this sense of community really is in the 'religious' community that de Botton assumes possesses it and is worthwhile copying.

    That's why I called his piece 'fluff' based as it is on knowing little about either the atheist community or the religious.

  9. I hear you very loud and clear with regard to nature Tildeb, and I agree with you most fervently about how good it can make you feel. I haven't been to Canada but I know it is beautiful . I have found similar experiences here.
    Also, the church must be challenged otherwise we,d still be buying indulgences from priests to get our relatives out of purgatory or something similar. Neither should priests or believers be exempt from challenge. We are all as human as each other.

    I do take issue with gnu atheists who write as if all church people are the same, or that all churches are the same.

    1. I lived and went to school in Sydney and later traveled over much of NSW, southern Queensland, and Victoria. I never did manage to get to the north and only visited Perth and Freemantle. There are many astoundingly beautiful and rugged places throughout the East but I found the dry interior a very special place and spent time on a sheep ranch. Very tough people. But to anyone unfamiliar with Saskatchewan, the interior is also a land of Big Sky... but without the waving grasslands and grain elevators!

      Daring to speak on behalf of gnus - a starting point fraught with a huge assumption that one even can do so - Gnus are those atheists who will challenge religious belief in the public domain.

      There many atheists who go one step further and argue its toxic effect in the private... and these folk, too, have a good case to make. In this sense of religious-belief-as-an-idea-worth-respecting, you are absolutely right to think many gnus do write as if all facets of religious belief reflected the same thing worth criticizing, and that 'thing' worth criticizing is a belief in belief itself regardless of the particular religious label.

      Anyone who is willing to respect belief in belief is making a fundamental thinking error, an error of critical importance that undermines respecting what's true in reality with what is believed to be true and confusing what is knowable about the universe from what is believed to be known about causal effects from outside the universe.

      Church goers and churches for what they represent about belief in belief are, in this narrow sense, all part of the same ongoing problem in the eyes of gnus.

      Perhaps that helps clarify why gnus won't just shut up.

  10. If it wasn't for atheists and rationalists like yourself Tilldeb, they'd still be burning witches and heretics like me. So, never think I don't appreciate challenging thinking.

    1. I think we're all called 'secularists' who believe worldly power should come from those who are subject to it. There needs to be no divide between religious and non religious in this but, unfortunately, many religions go out of their way to vilify anyone and anything that interferes with claiming worldly authority must be subordinate to the authority of god, which is too often boxed up in something called 'morality' and tied with a ribbon called 'love' rather than what is: a demand for sectarian obedience.

  11. From CNN's interview with de Botton where Alain says something so stupid that it burns and makes whatever is to follow irrelevant:

    Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

    This is why his thesis is fluff.

  12. I think Jesus and Mo captures this stupidity adequately.

  13. For anyone still interested, a beautifully written explanation why de Botton's position is an insulting piece of fluff by Jason Rosenhouse here.


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