The popular philosopher Alain de Botton gave a lecture at a recent TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, on what atheists need to learn from religion.
In the blog of the science journal Nature, Philip Campbell reports on what was said.

“Of course there is no God!” announced de Botton, “But let’s move on – that’s only the beginning. We need atheism 2.0, and for that we need to draw from religion.”

Campbell summarizes de Botton’s talk thus:

“Universities turf you out into the world, as if you need no help. In contrast, all major religions see us humans as only just holding it together. The greatest preacher of all was John Wesley, who emphasized above all, in that spirit, the duty of parenthood. And we need those sermons too – not just lectures full of information, but talks that aim to change our lives. What is more, religions say you need to hear a lesson not once but 10 times a day – theirs is a culture of repetition. All religions have calendars in which, for example on a Saints Day, you encounter a particular Good Life or Worthy Thought on an annual basis… And in the modern secular world, people interested in the spirit tend to be isolated, whereas religions provide institutions of spiritual togetherness.”

Somehow, said de Botton, those who don’t believe in a deity nevertheless need to find ways of incorporating activities that promote spiritual well-being – however we may choose to define ‘spiritual’ – into the structures of our professional or social lives.

The religions, he argued, are the foremost example of institutions fighting for our minds. You may not believe in religions, he said, but they’re so subtle and clever that they’re not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone. “They’re for all of us.”

De Botton is an engaging writer, whose several books bringing philosophy to bear on topics of everyday life (love, anxiety, travel, happiness) serve as a challenge to those Christian theologians whose work is nothing more than commentary on other theologians.

But the latter could well pose a counter-challenge to de Botton. How does a philosopher (of all people) simply assert, without argument, that atheism is true; and then assert, without evidence, that all religions are essentially the same and, further, that it is religious rituals rather than beliefs that matter to peoples’ well-being?

What is equally puzzling is that de Botton must surely be aware of his own nation’s history.

Immediately after the French Revolution, the painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) inaugurated what he termed “A Religion of Mankind.”

This was a secularized religion dedicated to the glory of the new French Republic with the full panoply of neo-pagan shrines, temples, feast days, new calendars, wedding ceremonies, the veneration of saints (such as Voltaire, Rousseau and other heroes of the revolution) and their relics, and propaganda techniques learned from their religious foes.

David’s Religion of Mankind was short-lived. However, it was taken up by another Frenchman, August Comte, the founder of positivist sociology, and later by the circle of naturalists who gathered around T.H. Huxley.

Comte sought to establish a “scientific-humanist” church and, ironically, it was not in Paris but in Calcutta that he found his most ardent followers, among the Bengali intelligentsia.

Calcutta witnessed the first community of Comte’s Religion of Humanity with its paraphernalia of rituals oriented around humans rather than gods.

The group around Huxley in Britain, which included Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton, organized themselves into a Church Scientific, with the avowed intent of attacking and undermining the credibility of the Church of England.

The Church Scientific organized lay “sermons” on scientific subjects, dressed in gowns imitative of the clergy, set up Sunday lecture societies to compete with the Church of England Sunday schools, sang hymns to nature at mass meetings, and distributed pamphlets and tracts that proclaimed scientific naturalism and denounced Christianity as the chief obstacle to scientific progress.

Even buildings set up as monuments to science, such as the Natural History Museum in London, were designed as secular cathedrals.

A whole new “history” of science was written, regarded today as utterly worthless, to show that science and religion had always been bitter enemies, with Mother Nature replacing God, and Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin assuming a heroic status as the knight-saints of the modern world. Thus, a new mythology was created.

Furthermore, religious atheism was vigorously promoted in all the totalitarian states of the 20th century. It is still the state religion of China and North Korea.

The repetitious propaganda/sermonizing and “spiritual togetherness” that de Botton encourages British atheists to cultivate flourished in the Nuremberg rallies of the Hitler Youth, the incessant revolutionary parades of East Germany and Soviet Russia, and Chairman Mao’s cultural revolutionaries, who fervently memorized and disseminated his Little Red Book.

We have been there, Alain, done that – and the results have been disastrous.

A “spirituality” without truth can be as oppressive as unity without justice. When religions are emptied of gods, other gods take over. And the god of the state is prominent among them.

VinothRamachandra is secretary for dialogue and social engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Sri Lanka. A version of this column first appeared on his blog.

Share This