Alain de Botton Is Just Wrong
February 10, 2012 3 Comments
Alain de Botton has had a lot of media coverage recently over his various atheistic ideas ranging from ‘Atheism 2.0’ to his ‘temples for atheists’. The underlying reasoning behind all his theories on how atheists should proceed with living a fulfilling life in the 21st century seem to be based on the presumption that we are missing something invaluable to human happiness and we should borrow aspects of ritualistic religious behaviour to fill this void. I would argue that he is fundamentally wrong on nearly all the ideas I have recently heard him espouse.
I cannot remember what order he puts his points across so I shall choose them in my own arbitrary manner, the first being one of architecture. Granted, some of the most wonderful buildings ever built were done so in the name of one religion or another but my disbelief in the factual existence of any of the divinities to which they are ascribed does nothing to diminish the feeling of awe that I (and I’m sure many other atheists) feel when entering these places of worship. From the Temple of Kukulkan of Chichen Itza in Mexico to the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The world is full of spectacular architectural marvels that could not have been built without the slavish religious devotion so often evident in early civilizations (along with the iron fist of authoritarian, autocratic state power) but there are also many magnificent buildings throughout the world that are and have always been secular. The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Big Ben & the Houses of Parliament are just some of the examples in my own city, London. The Great Wall of China, The Sydney Opera House, The Hermitage in St Petersburg, or the Colosseum of Rome are examples of worldwide secular architecture throughout history, showing that the lavish and the ornate need not only be reserved for religious buildings. Some of the most important buildings built in historical times were religious because religion was important to the people who built them but these techniques were also used for all important buildings of the time.
Modern religious buildings tend to be far smaller, simpler and less imposing than the grand cathedrals of the past whereas large-scale secular architecture grows ever more cutting-edge with swathes of sparkling glass and metal in unconventional shapes, forming the corner-stones of a modern city’s skyline. Tourists are quite literally falling over trying to capture the Gherkin from the right angle, Grandiose secular architecture is very much alive and well Mr de Botton.
Despite the exterior values of the modern shapes we see rising into the sky in cities around the world, many of them are not open to the public or have interior spaces that are restricted by floors and ceilings, not much of a replacement for temples you might say. What then, are Wembley, Lord’s, The O2 Arena and The Royal Albert Hall if not the secular temples where people with a common love for non-religious rituals congregate to celebrate, cheer and applaud that Mr de Botton suggests we need for fulfillment in our modern lives. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country alone gather every weekend to worship their local (or otherwise chosen) team and millions more watch on television as the drama is played out on the pitch and the emotion streams from the stands. Cinemas, theatres even backroom stages in pubs, all are filling the apparent emptiness spoken of by Alain de Botton. You do not have to be an atheist to visit (and enjoy) any of these places, just as you do not need to be a Christian to visit St Paul’s Cathedral and nor should you. The point of them is that they are for everyone. Not being a rugby fan may make me not want to go to Twickenham on a matchday but just like religious buildings it is my choice whether or not I take part in the ritualistic experience, nothing inherent in the building is stopping me.
Another of Alain de Botton’s religious aspects that he would like to see adopted from religion is a sense of community, a feeling of belonging to a group, of being part of a whole, believing you will be supported in your time of need. This point overlaps with my last paragraph about secular temples. Supporters of football (or other sports) often feel a very strong sense of community, coming together at the same time every week, wearing similar colours and having the same heroes and rivals, not unlike many religious congregations. Here the comparative analogy continues, as with all communities, the closer the bonds between its members, the higher the perceived differentiation between the community members and the rest of society, the more a sense of ‘otherness’ can develop. It is this sense of a community’s members being separate from those in other communities that can be damaging, with a sense of superiority leading to bigotry and discrimination. As we have so often seen in the sporting world, a strong bond between group members can often have devastating effects when groups come together in public. This is one of the things our modern society has tried so hard to eliminate from our lives, why would we welcome it back?
Until the modern period, a person’s community was generally defined by geographical location, although trains made mass travel to other parts of a country and even continents possible, the majority of the population spent almost all their lives in a relatively small area unless they migrated to a city where they joined another community of immigrants. A feeling of difference to other communities was not a problem because of the rarity of wholesale interpersonal exchanges between the communities, any negative effects were more than outweighed by the positive effects of solidarity. The effects of cheap travel, immigration and increasing religious, racial and sexual tolerance have meant many different cultures and belief systems living side by side. In the modern world, feelings of difference or exclusion from one’s neighbours can never be regarding as positive contributors to human happiness, well-being or fulfillment.
However, I think the fundamental mistake made by Alain de Botton is his thinking of atheism as a religion. Grouping all the people of the world who have no belief in any god, divinity or spirit together and then assuming that there is any sort of coherent ‘whole’ is oversimplifying human nature. One might as well presume that fascism and communism can be grouped together as they both opposed organised religion and the power it has over populations. Religious congregations stay together because they share much more in their belief system than the existence of god, that’s why there are so many denominations and why the Roman Catholic church cannot tolerate any dissent from papal authority. As an atheist, I don’t want to be considered to be necessarily belonging to any group, or for people to assume that because I don’t believe X, I must believe Y.
‘Religion for Atheists’ is pretty much the perfect definition of an oxymoron, I won’t be upgrading to ‘Atheism 2.0’ because I don’t belive there can be an accepted orthodox version of a system of non belief and I don’t need a temple, I’ll stick with the Kennington Oval.
Thanks for your input Alain but you can count me out of your cult.
Thanks for reading.