I’ve not yet read the full book that Alain de Botton has been promoting recently, but I’ve read a number of interviews and heard him speak, and browsed his website: religionforatheists.com and I wanted to post a couple of first-thoughts about his thesis.
Firstly, he’s being unashamed to say that he is ‘picking and mixing’ from different religions. As he puts here, ‘even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?’
It seems that there is a twin move here. Atheists like de Botton are moving towards religion, to try to colonise the secular space which still values ritual, and many religious people are moving towards an atheist reading of their faith… both agree that ‘God is dead’… but what to do with the carcass?
It seems to me that de Botton and others want to pick over the beautiful, to grab rituals and art and the ‘awe-some.’ One of de Botton’s earlier books, which I like a lot, is The Consolations of Philosophy, and I wonder now if this is simply an upgrade: religion as no more than consolation. We feel lonely, we suffer, we don’t earn enough…so here’s a smash and grab on some religious ideas that seem to have helped console people in the past.
I don’t think this is enough. I think religion as consolation is little more than religion as emotional crutch. It’s low challenge, middle-class angst with stained glass windows, and intellectually and psychologically impoverished.
The religious who are turning to an atheist reading of their faith are doing something different. God is dead, but that means that we have to take up the challenges of that absence… and that’s perhaps a more demanding road. I can’t speak from anything more than a Christian perspective on this, but it seems to me that this is not so much gaining ‘ahhh’ moments from beautiful buildings, but taking a long hard look at the scorched earth once those buildings have been torched, and wondering what is left.
Because an atheist reading of Christianity is not about polite rituals and ‘big society’ moments of collective goo. It is not about human beings rejecting God and becoming atheists. It is about God rejecting God and becoming an atheist himself. The core of Christianity is as radical as that. Jesus beat de Botton to ‘religion for atheists’ by about 2000 years; the problem is, the path he set out was so challenging that it has been almost totally rejected. Why? Because the move from religion to an atheist reading of religion is not about experiencing the sacred in the remains of religious beauty, but about experiencing the abandonment and desolation, the responsibility to the rest of humanity, when we realise the sacred is not found in the stain glass, but in the slum outside the church.
God’s life created fissures within society between the believers and unbelievers. It seems God’s death will be no less divisive… but this time I wonder if the polite ‘crutch’ accusation will be made the other way.