Sunday, May 13, 2012

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Bottton

Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, (Hamish Hamilton/Pantheon, 2012) 320 pages
Verdict?: 4/5 Insightful, eloquent thought-provoking and provocative

If you want to annoy some atheists, go to an atheist online forum and say something nice about religion.  It won't take much.  You don't even have to be very complimentary - just say or even imply that religion is not actually wholly and completely bad, stupid and wrong and that it may even occasionally get some things right or even be useful in some way.  Actually, you don't even have to do that much.  You only need to find where atheists are trying to make historical claims to criticise a religion and note that some of them have got  a few key facts wrong.  Doing any of these things is the online discussion equivalent of sauntering up to a busy hornets nest with a hefty stick and engaging in some vigorous whacking.  The result is about as noisy, angry, aggressive and, I'm sorry to say, usually as brainless.

Actually, I'm being a little unfair to many (not all, by any means) of my fellow atheists.  Sometimes their reactions to religion are far less vociferous.  Mellow even. For example, I recall one discussion where a practitioner of some kind of "Celtic" variety of the modern neo-pagan religion called "Wicca" wandered onto one atheist forum to talk about her religion.  Instead of being met with demands to justify her beliefs, ridicule of her rituals or references to her belief in "woo", she was greeted with a few questions about her faith, how she came to it and so on, and then a general attitude of "well, each to their own".  This was a marked contrast to the way a similar post by a Christian or Muslim was usually received.  And the attitude to her faith was also very different to that toward other modern, constructed religions - like Scientology - even though "Wicca" is only a decade or so older than Hubbard's "church".

And atheists can also recognise the value of at least some religious ideas and practices.  Many Buddhist ideas are well-received by rationalists and meditation, stripped of any of its "woo" or supernatural associations, is recognised as a beneficial practice that non-religious types can and do utilise.  So religion is seen as being able to get some things right occasionally.

But the hornets start to get agitated when the religion in question is Christianity or Islam or (to a lesser extent) Judaism.  Being something of a contrarian and a bit of a stickler for actually being rational rather than just shouting about it, I have on occasion been known to note that Christianity and Christians actually haven't always been absolutely wrong about everything.  And the hornets have been much displeased.

So the British populariser of philosophy, Alain de Botton, seems to have realised that he would need to don a hornet-proof suit when he released his latest best-selling book Religion for Atheists - even the title is a tongue-in-cheek provocation. He seems to have gone into the process of writing it well aware that his objective was going to annoy people, stating early in the book "The strategy outlined in this book will, of course, annoy partisans on both sides of the debate." (p. 17)  He was substantially correct, though he seems to have annoyed one side more than the other.

A fairly typical response by a Christian is that of Rev. Richard Coles, an Anglican vicar (and, oddly, former member of the 1980s pop duo the Communards) who now presents on BBC Radio 4 and writes slightly anodyne newspaper op eds.  In a review for the Guardian, Coles has generally nice things to say about de Botton's book, describing it as a welcome change from New Atheist screeds that "leave their readers with the impression that affiliation to a church is equivalent to, say, participating actively in the Spanish Inquisition".  But he ends with a brief assurance for the faithful that, despite his kind words, real religion is superior to what de Botton proposes as an alternative.  "[B]ut Christianity does not (just) offer consolation, it offers salvation. That is why people built cathedrals, and in other dispensations enormous mosques and complexes of temples: they sought, and seek, salvation, and for this God‑givenness seems to me essential."  Other Christian reviewers were less warm, but few went further than to smugly claim that by embracing any of religion's trappings, de Botton was at least partially admitting that religion is actually "right" (which doesn't follow at all).

The hornets of the New Atheist world, however, were in full buzz when the book emerged.  What got them buzzing particularly vociferously was the idea, trumpeted in the media, of de Botton building a "Temple of Atheism" in central London.  Reporting on other media outlets' reporting, the Huffington Post declared:

Author Alain de Botton announced plans to build an Atheist temple in the U.K., reports DeZeen magazine. A collaboration with Tom Greenall Architects, the structure will be built in the City of London. Dedicated to the idea of perspective, the black tower will scale 46 meters (150 ft), with each centimeter honoring earth's age of 4.6 billion years, notes Wired.
 A "Temple of Atheism"?!  This was enough to give the New Atheist hornets near-terminal conniptions.   Biologist, blogger and New Atheist, Jerry Coyne, promptly declared de Botton "an embarrassment to atheists".  Asked by the Guardian to comment, Richard Dawkins spluttered "Atheists don’t need temples ... I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on."  And across the New Atheist online commentariat, the scorn was whipped to a fever pitch.  A thread on the "Rational Skepticism" forum gives us a flavour of the commentary:

"This guy is clearly a monumental prick .... a (literally) monumentally stupid idea .... what an arse .... this guy is an anti-atheist .... this guy's several sandwiches short of a picnic .... he could be a theist infitrator (sic) ... sent by the Pope .... this dickhead .... this is a fifth column job to make atheists look stupid etc"

You get the idea.  Of course, what almost none of these "rational skeptics" bothered to do was actually check the damn story.  They should have noticed, after all, that despite claiming de Botton had "announced" this plan, none of the news reports bothered to link to or cite precisely where and when de Botton had made this supposed "announcement".  As it turns out, this is because he didn't - the whole story was a media beat-up invented from a press release about the publication of de Botton's book.  In the book he does say that buildings constructed and designed purely as places for contemplation would be a great idea and one worth stealing from religions, but as he explained in the wake of the media fire-storm, he never "announced" a plan to build one at all. And the whole "atheist temple" concept was invented by some journalist.

Carrying off the Gold of the Egyptians

So what exactly does this "arse', "dickhead", "prick", "anti-atheist" and possible Pontifical infiltrator have to say in the book that few to none of the so-called "skeptics" have bothered to read?  Put simply, de Botton makes a highly humanist argument.  Religions, he argues, are fundamentally human institutions.  If we accept that no "God" or gods exist (a proviso he makes perfectly clear on the book's very first page), it remains valuable to look at religions as purely human constructs and see if there is anything about them that has worth when the supernatural underpinnings are removed.  This is very much in the spirit of my favourite humanist motto "Homo sum.  Humani nil a me alienum puto" (I am human, nothing that is human is alien to me.) - a sentiment few of the New Atheists seem ready to embrace, since they seem determined to regard everything religious, even if only by association, as utterly and irrevocably alien to them.  De Botton claims that by jettisoning many of the uses, practices and symbols associated with religion wholesale we have "allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind - and which we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm." (p. 15)

As he notes, religions do this all the time, to each other.  Early Christianity merrily stole from, re-badged or absorbed all kinds of earlier, pre-Christian rituals, festivals and ideas; partly as a way of easing the conversion of a new territory but partly because these things were so closely woven into the fabric of the societies in question because, at a fundamentally psychological, sociological and human level, they worked.

De Botton argues that religions are not sterile exercises in learning and reinforcing abstract ideas of the supernatural or repetitions of and commentaries on theology.  They are made up of communities of human beings and, fundamentally and even primarily, function on that level.  My elderly mother, a devout Catholic all her life, is most certainly a believer and accepts the doctrines and theology of her faith wholeheartedly and to the best of her understanding - she would never claim to be a Biblical scholar or theologian.  But if you talk to her about her life in the Church what you hear about is people and community: who has had a baby, who has died, who is ill, who got married and how the community in her parish has responded to all this (via celebrations, hospital visits, ceremonies, gifts, support etc).  Religions may be focused on God or gods or supernatural ideas, but primarily they are institutions about people and for people in a very fundamental way.  Believe me - you can listen to my Mum talk about her church life for hours and never hear God or Jesus get so much as a mention.

So de Botton argues that given that many religions have been around for a very long time, clearly they must be getting at least some of this "people" stuff right.  Therefore it's worth looking at how religions fulfil human needs and see if these are worth adopting into a non-religious life.

His first section looks at "Community", which as the example of my mother shows, religions can sustain very effectively.  The media is constantly reminding us of how lonely much of modern existence can be.  According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, single-person households are currently the fast growing demographic in Australia; a statistic mirrored in most of the developed world.  Loneliness seems to be something of an epidemic in western societies and our lives seem structured in such a way that a sense of community is hard achieve.  I live in a major city and in a large building of mainly one bedroom apartments.  I usually smile and nod at my neighbours if I see them in the lift or the building's gym, but I only know one of them by name (and that's because he's a fairly famous TV presenter).  I travel to work each day by train and regularly see the same commuters on my line, but I have never considered speaking to any of them, apart from the attractive female ones.  And I'm quite sure that if I turned to one of them between Central Station and Green Square, sincerely said "Peace be with you" and shook their hand or kissed them they would call for Transit Security.

Yet every Sunday, across the world, millions of people turn to perfect strangers and do just that.  It's called "the Sign of Peace" and it marks a key point in the Catholic Mass.  De Botton holds up the Catholic Mass as an example of how religion has developed structures and processes that establish and reinforce community in ways that are often missing in the secular world:

A Catholic Mass is not, to be sure, the ideal habitat for an atheist.  Much of the dialogue is either offensive to reason or simply incomprehensible.  It goes on for a long time and rarely overrides a temptation to fall asleep.  Nevertheless, the ceremony is replete with elements which subtly strengthen congregants' bonds of affection, and which atheists would do well to study and on occasion learn to appropriate for use in the secular realm. (p. 30)

He notes the ways the Mass does this.  Everyone leaves their normal lives and environments and makes an effort to come together in a communal place set aside solely for this purpose.  Churches are designed to make this easy to do, but they are also generally egalitarian in their design - social status, wealth and accomplishments in the world outside generally mean nothing once you are through the doors.  The ritual also emphasises community and oneness.  As de Botton notes "if there are so many references in the Mass to poverty, sadness, failure and loss, it is because the Church views the ill, the frail of mind, the desperate and the elderly as representing aspects of humanity and (even more meaningfully) of ourselves which we are tempted to deny, but which bring us .... closer to our need for one another." (p. 35)  By breaking down our egoism and acknowledging shared fears and afflictions, the Mass by its very structure brings us together in a way that a sports team or hobby group simply can't.

The origins of the Mass lie in early Christian "agape feasts" - communal meals where believers came together to worship and to eat.  There is something hard to beat about the sense of community that comes from sharing a meal, so de Botton paints a picture of a hypothetical "agape restaurant", where anyone can share a meal with strangers, where status and rank are irrelevant, where family and friendship groups are spaced apart so everyone meets new people and where it's expected that we approach and address strangers and that they can do the same.  If that doesn't sound very feasible without the common bond of a religious belief, de Botton's enterprise - the School of Life - is already holding communal meals at restaurants in London where strangers are invited to attend and meet new friends.  Some of these have themes, with dinner speakers followed by conversations at the communal tables.  Others have a "conversation menu" on each table from which the diners can choose.  Not everyone's cup of tea perhaps but by all reports, these have been a great success .  So maybe de Botton is onto something.

Education, Wisdom and learning how to live

The rest of de Botton's book examines other parts of human life and looks at how religious structures, rituals and ideas have supported them and at what we can learn from the for our own lives, religious or otherwise.  I particularly liked his insights into exactly how badly our educational institutions prepare us for life or show us how to live.  Modern educational institutions often trumpet noble sentiments about the purpose and value of education, though they usually do so in the introduction to a university prospectus or a Vice-Chancellor's address to freshmen at the beginning of a new year.  After that, lofty ideas of the university as a home "for the best that has been said and thought in the world" are rapidly forgotten:

Graduation speeches stereotypically identify liberal education with the acquisition of wisdom and self-knowledge, but these goals have little bearing on the day-to-day methods of departmental instruction and examination.  To judge by what they do rather than what they airily declaim, universities are in the business of turning out a majority of tightly focused professionals (lawyers, physicians, engineers) and a minority of culturally well-informed but ethically confused arts graduates aptly panicked about how they might remuneratively occupy the rest of their lives. (p.105)

As de Botton has pointed out in some of his interviews about this book, a student who turned up at university and asked to be shown how to live a good life would be regarded as a bit of a nut, yet this is precisely what a liberal education, as envisaged by J.S. Mill and Matthew Arnold, was supposed to give students.  The getting of wisdom and learning how to live a good life were the central focuses of all education in the ancient world and is the underpinning of the entire western educational tradition.  Plato's academy and Epicurus' garden school didn't produce any lawyers, accountants or marketers, but they didn't do too bad a job of showing people how to live fulfilling lives and of turning out some of the best thinkers in human history.

De Botton contrasts modern secular education with the religious educational ethos, which "believes us to be at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable" (p. 112)  Secular education orders, delineates and passes on discrete blocks of fact - what modernism is, the basis for the law of torts, how to structure a below-the-line direct marketing campaign etc.  Despite its lofty claims, it concentrates virtually not at all on passing on wisdom, let alone guidance on how to live as the complex, emotional, interconnected, confused and often (when at university at least) inexperienced and immature humans we are.  Religious education, by contrast, helps that part of us "which is not precisely intelligence or emotion, not character or personality, but another even more abstract entity loosely connected with all of those and yet differentiated from them by an additional ethical and transcendent dimension" (p. 113)  De Botton would win no friends in the New Atheist hornet's nest by doing so, but he suggests we could refer to this idea by the Christian word - the soul.

Yet he sees merit in the religious idea that we are in our essence not just ignorant, but childlike and confused.  We need lessons, parables and sermons that will not just give us mere information but more importantly give us guidance, wisdom, insight and comfort.  There doesn't have to be anything supernatural about this, but it strikes him as odd that "it would be a shocking affront to university etiquette to ask what Tess of the d'Ubervilles might usefully teach us about love, or to suggest that the novels of Henry James might be read with an eye to discover parables about staying honest in a slippery mercantile world." (p. 117)  But surely education should serve us by teaching us these things rather than merely passing on a vast quantity of facts, information and concepts.  Secular education could learn from religious education's desire to educate our immature "souls" rather than just have us rote-learn a whole lot of ... well, "stuff".

Why modern art can be (literally) crap

Last month I visited my former home state of Tasmania and spent a bit over a week doing everything I could to forget about work and my career and just relax.  Tasmania's combination of scenery, wilderness, fine food and wine (and local single malt whisky!) makes this pretty easy to do, though the part of my trip that made me totally step out of my daily grind was the day I spent at MONA.  This amazing "Museum of Old and New Art" was built by local billionaire eccentric David Walsh to house his personal art collection, indulge his love of radical architecture and give Tasmania a "subversive adult Disneyland".  The result - a vast, labyrinthine, Bond villain-style underground lair that looks like it was designed by M.C. Escher and decorated by David Lynch - is so amazing it has become the state's most popular tourist attraction and features on many "must see" lists for visitors from all over the world.

What I liked about MONA was how far it is from most art museums.  There are no guides, no tours and no little plaques to tell you about the art.  Visitors are given an iPhone-style touch screen console and then set loose to wander the darkened underground maze wherever they want.  Most get lost pretty quickly, but that's part of the idea.  The consoles detect what art works are closest to you and then you can get as much or as little information on the piece as you want via a series of menus (including one entitled "Art Wank" with a graffiti penis as an icon).  The resulting experience is so strange, immersive and so abstracted from the world outside that on emerging back into the sunshine I noticed most of my fellow visitors came out in silence and with a look on their faces best described as "contemplative".

Perhaps de Botton would approve of MONA, at least in some respects, but he clearly does not approve of how modern museums and galleries present art.  "While exposing us to objects of genuine importance, they nevertheless seem incapable of adequately linking these to the needs of our souls". (p. 209)  The rather clinical way that galleries and museums present great art of the past, which are often religious objects taken from their original contexts of ritual, parable, symbolism and significance and stuck in a white-walled room with a plaque carrying dates and bald information about styles and schools, robs them of most of their meaning.  He describes the resulting reactions of most gallery visitors as resembling that of "the disappointed participants in a failed seance". (p. 215)

It gets worse when the art is from our own period and created largely to be presented in clinical white-walled rooms.  Here we are often even more at a loss as to what the hell the art is even meant to mean, let alone what it can tell us about ourselves: "the only certainty is neither the artist nor the museum is going to help us: wall texts are kept to a minimum; catalogues are enigmatically written". (p. 215)  In his TED lecture which encapsulates the thesis of the book (which I highly recommend - it's well worth watching in full) de Botton admits that his main reaction to most modern art galleries is bafflement, a comment which gets a knowing laugh of sheepish agreement from the audience.  The experience at MONA was sometimes baffling, but usually only when it was meant to be.  On the whole, this museum did go out of its way to help me understand the art in question via the touch-screen console, which usually gave me access to audio interviews with the artist.  Though when I stood in front of one piece - the odd and pungent-smelling "Cloaca" by Wim Delvoye, a series of glass vats and tubes that simulates human digestion and produces a daily quantity of shit - I did have to ponder whether at least some modern art is literally crap.

De Botton thinks we could learn from religious art and make it and its museums and galleries remind us of what matters:

It exists to guide us to what we should worship and revile if we wish to be sane, good people in possession of well-ordered souls.  It is a mechanism whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of. (p. 215)

In 1512 Matthias Grünewald was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the monastery of Isenheim.  The resulting Crucifixion is one of the greatest pieces of art ever produced by the Northern Renaissance and an eloquent if horrific study of human cruelty, suffering, sorrow and pain.  There is absolutely no doubt what this painting is about and even someone with no knowledge of the Christian story of Jesus could recognise the human emotions and ideas embodied in it.  What is notable is why it was produced.  Isenheim was a monastery devoted to tending to the sick, especially those afflicted by ergotism - a painful and terrifying disease that causes seizures, wild hallucinations, gangrene and usually madness and death.  It was customary for patients admitted to the monastery's infirmary to first be taken to the chapel to meditate on a painting that said "pain is human" loud and clear.  No bafflement there.

Religious art has generally had this didactic element, made accessible via a shared language of symbols and indicators.  Someone not versed in that didactic language would understand the human emotion of this painting, but would probably not recognise John the Baptist, Mary, Magdalene and John the Apostle as the other figures around the cross.  Many would object to that level of didacticism in secular art but something like de Botton's idea of a gallery arranged according to emotions and ideas, with a "Gallery of Suffering" or a "Gallery of Self-Knowledge" may lead to people emerging from an art museum looking enlightened or at least contemplative rather than baffled and disappointed.  The looks on the faces of my fellow visitors to MONA indicated to me that David Walsh at least is getting it partially right.

Getting Away from it All

As de Botton's previous book The Architecture of Happines argued, the spaces we live in have an effect on how we feel. So it's no surprise he notes the way religious architecture has always functioned to help people to remove themselves from the mundane, look at themselves differently, inspire them to see themselves from a wider, vaster, eternal, more cosmic perspective. In his section on how some buildings can, just by being in them, help us to see our place in things and to literally put things into perspective, he imagined a "Temple to Perspective" - a narrow light well shaft where the visitor enters to look up toward a skylight or opening high above, with each centimetre of its height representing a million years in the age of the universe (p. 262).  A good place to sit and think, I'd say.  It was this rather elegant idea that got caricatured into the "De Botton plans to build a Temple of Atheism" story that bothered the New Atheist hornets so much.

But there's more to getting away from it all than having well-designed spaces for peaceful contemplation.  Religions have been providing structured processes for meditation, self-examination, reassessment, penitence and simple stillness for centuries.  Even my atheist colleagues have to acknowledge the way that Buddhism can and does give us insights into these things.  But religious retreats of all kinds have long given us an opportunity to step away from our lives, re-examine things, relax, think and - probably best of all - shut the hell up for a while.  Holidays at luxury golf resorts or visits to a day spa don't quite do the same thing.  If I reassess my life's priorities while relaxing by a fire in a mountain resort or getting a really good massage, it's by chance, not because my holiday had a structured point where I was invited to do so.

Taking time once a year to go on a personal, non-religious retreat with similar structures and objectives is certainly something non-believers can do.  So is making a time each day for meditation or contemplation and quiet, without any associated references to deities or the supernatural.  Some of de Botton's other suggestions are less practical and several seem to be mainly tongue in cheek, but all of them give food for thought.

And I have to say that this is the first book on atheism I have read in years that has actually done that - made me think.  Dawkins' The God Delusion would perhaps have made me think when I was 16, but is so sophomoric I felt its main purpose is to reinforce some pretty simple ideas, even if they are ones I generally agree with.  Hitchens' God Is Not Great is far more eloquent and a much smarter book, but its main purpose is to highlight certain religious stupidities and to stoke rage against various religious obscenities.  As such, it's another exercise in taking a 12-gauge shotgun to a barrel full of large salmon and calling yourself a fisherman.  But Alain de Botton's book not only made me think, it actually made me reassess several things in my life.  I have now made an effort to seek out more community with those around me.  I'm getting back into the habit of meditating daily (well, mostly).  And I'm seriously considering taking myself off to the Blue Mountains next month for three days of retreat, self-analysis and contemplation.

Meanwhile, New Atheist bloviator and blowhard, PZ Myers, has fired off a string of typically moronic insults at de Botton, while at the same time showing that he hasn't actually bothered to read the book or understand what de Botton is even saying.  He describes de Botton as " the atheist who has been straining to crawl up religion’s asshole and take its place" and brays:

Our culture is currently divided between three groups: Atheists, who think the truth matters, and want our problems addressed with real-world solutions; theists, who want a god or supernatural powers to solve our problems with magic; and fence-sitting parasites like de Botton who see a personal opportunity to pander to the believers for their own gain, who will ride the conflict while pretending to be aloof from it, and win popularity with the masses by trying to tell everyone they’re all right.

  His eloquent response to a mild observation de Botton made about New Atheists like Myers was "fuck you very much".  It's certainly interesting to turn from de Botton's genuinely thought-provoking and stimulating analysis written in elegant and measured prose to Myers' gems with titles like "the League of Nitwits has farted in my general direction".  De Botton's book has done what all good books should do, added to my understanding and shown me the world in a new light.  In fact, it's also made me change the way I live.  No-one will ever say that of PZ Myers.