Alain de Botton is a different kind of atheist. In fact, I’m tempted to call him a post-atheist, or even post-theist (meaning that theism is obsolete). He takes for granted the fact that we squabble about metaphysical “proofs” of god’s existence, and that you don’t need god to be morally good. But, he says, we could learn a thing or two from religion. I fact, quite a lot: that’s the premise of his new book “Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.” In a recent HuffPo article, de Botton summarizes this position:
In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts. The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many sides of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.
de Botton claims he is a “gentle atheist,” and this may appeal to those wavering of the fence of belief in contrast to the more aggresive stance of “neo-atheists” like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late but profound Christopher Hitchens. I enjoy that term, neo-atheist, as I believe 1) it pulls atheism, which shouldn’t be a dirty word, into the spotlight, and 2) signals that fact that atheism has been around, is here to stay, and is an extremely tenable position this day in age. A quick search for the term reveals over 84,000 hits from Politics Daily to Time Magazine.
The book was only released officially on Tuesday, but already enjoys a pretty wide spectrum of praise. The criticism, mainly, comes from religionists who take offense at the idea that we, the secularlists, might “steal” the parts of religion we like. Do they forget that Christianity stole most of its traditions from paganism? Or re-purposed the idea that the sun “rises” because of relative rotation of the earth, and not due to the will of a god? That aside, moral critiques still abound, like this one from Stephen Hough of the Telegraph (referencing the smoking of the “opium of the masses” pipe a la Marx):
And, returning to opium, if atheism’s claim that nothing to nothing is the Universe’s non-plan, then nothing really matters that much in the end – including my smoking of the pipe of delusion and escapism. If I were languishing in solitary confinement until death in a prison cell (whether falsely or justly convicted) atheism could provide me with no reason to live, whereas faith and contemplation could actually bring me unspeakable joy, even in those most desperate circumstances.