Since January, Alain de Botton’s ideas about atheism have been bandied about like a shuttlecock. They're great! They're dreadful! They're brilliant! He's arrogant! He's out of touch! He's just what we need! It seems everyone with Internet access has an opinion these days. You know where this is going.
So, anyway, I became aware of de Botton, a Swiss writer and philosopher, when his TED talk was released (on the Internet) earlier this year and have followed his rise to stardom (on the Internet) with mixed emotions. If I had to break it down, the mix would be roughly equal parts adoration and jealousy cut with a few small, but potent spoonful of frustration.
It’s hard not to admire the guy; his common-sense, centrist philosophies are refreshingly welcome in a nonreligious community sometimes weighted down by the anti-theist ardor of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. De Botton's is clearly a more loving brand of atheism, and that's to be celebrated. If you haven’t seen the TED talk, in which he coined the term Atheism 2.0, listening to just a few minutes (say, from 5:40 to to 9:20) will give you a sense of his personality, point of view and some of his ideas about religion — ideas that are, in his words,“very respectful but completely impious.”
De Botton's most recent book is titled Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, which has been — and herein lies the jealousy part — widely read and thoroughly debated. Damn him all to hell.
Seriously, what I like most about de Botton is his willingness to change the atheist paradigm, rather than fall headfirst into the anti-religion agenda. I especially like his thoughts on therapy and how museums could make a greater impact by organizing artwork the way religion does.
"For too long," his website states, "non-believers have faced a stark choice between either swallowing lots of peculiar doctrines or doing away with a range of consoling and beautiful rituals and ideas. At last, in Religion for Atheists, Alain has fashioned a far more interesting and truly helpful alternative."
My one issue with de Botton, the thing that I think cheapens his otherwise very solid philosophy, is his insistence that atheists erect "temples" where secularists can physically come together to, presumably, share knowledge, wisdom, goals and support. It's still unclear exactly what he has in mind, although he's voiced his hope that temples will spring up throughout the UK and beyond.
Here’s de Botton: “As religions have always known, a beautiful building is an indispensable part of getting your message across. Books alone won’t do it... You can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good. That could mean: a temple to love, friendship, perspective, calm, generosity.”
Yeah, except no. Temples specifically for atheists? That's just... no.
First off, I don't know many nonreligious types who wish they could give up part of their weekends to attend sermons. (In fact, I know a lot of religious types who have long since abandoned that particular ritual themselves). And even if we nonbelievers did feel the need for a church-like setting in our lives — and many do! — why wouldn’t we just join a Universalist Unitarian church? After all, they already exist.
I certainly do appreciate the thought that many atheists possess a desire to "connect" the way religious people do, and would enjoy a physical space to exchange ideas and work to better their relationships with each other and with the world. Nothing weird about that. But what's wrong with museums? Why not membership lecture series? Or secular community centers?
There already are plenty of places where people of only one particular faith can go to think more deeply about the wonder of life. Why would I want to create another? Why would I want to outcast religious people the way religious people sometimes outcast me? Frankly, I'd be far more interested in places where I could go with my religious friends and family members and still come away with a deeper understanding of ourselves and the universe. I'd love to see a Museum of Tolerance in my neighborhood, for instance; but rather than featuring only Jewish people, it would feature us all.
Although “Religion for Atheists” may be a great title and a catchy phrase, Dawkins is right that atheism isn’t a religion and never will be. And while some atheists no doubt love the idea of building a community that would elevate them to something more than “nons,” de Botton's "temple" (in my humble opinion) is far more likely to become an illustration of an idea — a beautiful metaphor, if you will — than an actual, salable prototype.
Or maybe I'm missing something. It is the Internet, after all.
Author’s Note: I apologize for using the term shuttlecock. That was wrong of me, and it will never happen again. (Unless, of course, it's what got you to read my blog, in which case: Shuttlecock.)