Thursday, 26 January 2012

Can't We Enjoy the Best Bits?

Alain de Botton has a handsome new book out called Religion for Atheists, and he has launched  a little website puffing it. I've never been too keen on de Botton's writing, but his heart is often in the right place. This book gets a stinking review from the rather pusillanimous accommodationist Terry Eagleton, who says:
What the book does, in short, is hijack other people's beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal.
From Eagleton's description of the book, I find myself agreeing with him on de Botton's project, which is a pretty sorry state of affairs, given Eagleton's daft opinions on matters of faith. The ad campaign for the book is particularly patronising. Consider these:

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St Botolph's
The straw man de Botton is railing against is that atheists cannot enjoy the cultural aspects of religion because we, I suppose, are blinded by our hatred of all things religious. This doesn't apply to me. I'm quite happy rambling around the countryside visiting old churches; I attend the occasional service without heckling the vicar; I have theist friends; I sing carols and celebrate Christmas. Atheists cannot operate in most countries without participating in many religious events, and inevitably enjoy some of them. It's a bizarre misrepresentation of them that they do not enjoy the 'best bits'. Even arch new atheist Richard Dawkins makes it clear he likes certain manifestations of religious life:
I actually love most of the genuine Christmas carols. I can't bear Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and you might think from that that I was religious, that I can't bear the ones that make no mention of religion. But I just think they are dreadful tunes and even more dreadful words. I like the traditional Christmas carols.
And he seems to have a soft spot for the King James bible too. So de Botton's target is close to non-existent. It appears that de Botton pats the religious on the head and says: 'There, there; you're completely mistaken, but carry on because we have no way of producing awe-inspiring songs, architecture or rituals without believing something that is untrue, so have at it; the more untrue things you believe the more inspired you'll be, and the more I'll have to enjoy!'.

But even if it were true that atheists were humbugging their way through the festive season and studiously ignoring all ecclesiastical architecture, would this make de Botton's case any more sound? His point is that, regardless of an ideology's truth, we can encourage it, or at least condone it, because of the good things it gives us. I really don't think that will wash. For example, would pictures from this ad campaign justify National Socialism?

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Now, just to be clear about this: I'm not comparing religion with Nazism here. I'm simply pointing out that there are more important matters at stake than simply enjoying some of the side effects of a particular phenomenon. In fact, it's crass to reduce such an important world-changing phenomenon to a sideshow of amusements, particularly when that phenomenon is causing the harm it is.


  • Frankus says:
    27 January 2012 at 04:37

    Is this an Amazon review?
    It should be more widely read.

  • Mark Jones says:
    27 January 2012 at 05:21

    Hi Frank! This is just a review of de Botton's ad campaign - I suspect it reflects the book's aims, from Eagleton's review, but it's possible de Botton's book makes a better case than his ads. Well, I hope it does! Thanks anyway.

  • David Carruthers says:
    7 June 2012 at 13:42

    You're pretty far off the mark of what he's saying. That's not the strawman.

    I'd read the book, then write a review if I was you.

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