Religion for Atheists

Alain de Botton's new book 'Religion for Atheists'

Many people would have you believe, or lament, the end of what Jean-Francois Lyotard called ‘meta-narratives’. They would say that no significant changes are happening in this world and that the time of the great revolution is over. Yet with gay marriage, climate change, turmoil in Egypt, Greece, the Middle East, Pakistan, the Occupy Movement and so on, there seems to be much to discuss. Like those that declared the death of the book or author, there are those that are claiming there to be a death in just about everything. And, as secularisation is at the highest point it has ever been, the death of god has never been spoken about with as much gusto as present time. Vestiges of him, her or it are seen in tiresome acceptance speeches in American awards shows: ‘I’d like to thank god for this,’ etc.

I consider myself a prolific atheist, especially when so much of the world’s people do what they do in ‘the name of god.’ Contrary to my primary school teachers, I no longer spell god with a capital letter the way I do Theory or Postmodernism. And yet its influence, as philosopher Alain de Botton argues, is still rife and, moreover, should be considered an important tool to borrow from.

Writing about Botton is just as dangerous as writing about god, it seems, for while the latter is vehemently opposed and shut down by avid atheists, myself included at times, writing about Botton when the man is globally decried due to a $400 million trust fund from his father, is just as tricky.

Financial benefits aside, Botton has released a book (of which I have placed an order for), Religion for Atheists, which proposes rather than preaches the ‘values’ of religious texts. It is likely to separate many a Christian and Atheist, for the former will liken it to blasphemy while the latter will violently oppose any reconciliation between the two polar opposites. The title registers as quite a blatant oxymoron; if one is an atheist, pray tell what role can religion possibly play in atheistic practices? A lot, says Botton, who states,

But, of course, the modern world has lots of problems. Some of those problems could be at least alleviated by lessons from religion. I see religion as a storehouse of lots of really good ideas that a secular world should look at, raid and learn from.’

It has been uttered time and again- the Bible is not a ‘how to’ guide, but more of a collection of stories, some good, most pretty dull, that tell stories of ethics, morals, values and virtues, etc. It is not something to necessarily read literally. And let’s look at those ‘lessons’:

‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’

‘Don’t get married and then screw around.’

‘Don’t steal things.’

‘Honour your parents, elders, even if they are morally, emotionally and ethically inferior to you.’

‘Don’t kill people.’

Presently undertaking a Vacation unit at my university for the two extra credit points that will get me into my honours this year, I am steeped deep in an ethics course for a few weeks. One of the many papers I had to read thus far was Nancy K. Freeman’s Morals and Character: The Foundations of Ethics and Professionalism, exploring the relatively recent advent of teaching ethics is school away from religious perspectives. When I was in school, all those years ago (I finished primary school a decade ago), I was taught ethics from a religious standpoint. And while I argue for a more humanist approach to ethics, say, that stresses the autonomy of human behaviour, I cannot deny that the roots of what is taught today is steeped deep in religious or philosophical teachings, the latter of which I personally favour. Freeman states, when considering the teaching of ethics:

Teachers are likely to rely on the writings and teachings of Aristotle, Kant, Hume, Mills or Rawls, as well as Moses, Jesus or Mohammed.’

And yet in one of my postings, I emphasised the problem I saw inherent in religion that is its approach to virtuous behaviour, that is, one of reciprocity. Christianity, at least, preaches the view that if you abide by its ‘teachings’, you will be rewarded with an eternal afterlife. As a child, my mum would not give me pocket money (allowance in America) for doing my household tasks, but as a separate gesture by itself. She told me to do my household tasks because that was what you just had to do, and financial motivation wasn’t the reason for doing it. Likewise with doing good deeds on a basic level and behaving humanely on a more existential level- the reasons and motivations should be inherent, not, as 18th century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant described as ‘a means to an end.’ Something is only truly virtuous if it is an ‘end it itself.’ This is where I am lost on Botton’s argument. I understand perfectly his perception: that if the secular world simply abided by religious lessons that maybe we’d be better off. However, it is not just the secular world that finds this problem, but in the religious ones as well, as many a religious figure have erred or have acted ‘inhumanely’, and the Vatican is hardly my first stop on the ‘ethics tour’. While religion contains fundamental aspects of humane and ethical behaviour, I am more of the reasoning that we do not need to perceive religion as the source of these virtues, much less learn solely from religion on how to make the world ‘a better place.’ It is something that, while problematic and not practiced globally, should be a given, autonomously acted upon in the sake of itself, rather than for any sort of reward.

I will be seeing Alain de Botton next month at the Sydney Opera House. I’ll likely be too far away to ask any questions, but it will still be interesting to go and see, as it will be to read his book. After having read the God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, Botton’s book will at least be a breath of fresh air on the ‘secularisation of god’ debate, yet another interesting oxymoron to amuse ourselves with.


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