A Religion for atheists? (Part ii)
I find myself ambivalent to the strategy and content of de Botton’s foray into “religion.” On the one hand, I very much appreciate his treatment of religion as a residual force for good. However, I worry that his particular way of writing is too shallow, in that it does not deal with the opposite conclusions of many atheistic thinkers (the Stoics, Nihilists, and Existentialists). All these groups of atheists argued that there was indeed no ultimate meaning in a universe without God. However, I believe there is something for us to learn from de Botton.
What Should Be Affirmed:
1. Christianity is (actually) good.I am thankful that there is an atheist who can honestly admit the substantial good that has been produced by religion—particularly Christianity. He even admits in his book that religions are “the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.” Incidentally, de Botton dismisses people like Richard Dawkins, calling him “The Wind from North Oxford.”
2. Reductionism is ugly, wherever you find it. Alain de Botton is so popular precisely because he is not guilty of the reductionism of the New Atheists. And, perhaps the evangelical church can learn something here, too. Reductionism in the church makes us both unattractive to the culture and unfaithful to the biblical view of reality—the view that God created a good and beautiful and rational world. This was the unmissable assumption of artists like Rembrandt in The Stone Bridge.
What Should Be Challenged:
1. Secularism is (just as) good. de Botton seems convinced that there is a way to achieve all the benefits of religion without any of the actual content of any religion. To do so is not only impossible (due to the inherent link between faith and practice), but it is also inconsistent. Additionally, though de Botton gave examples of things that should be stolen from religion, he gave almost no explanation of how secularism could produce better education, art, or community.
2. Reductionism is not inherent in secularism. de Botton is, it seems, a naturalist, but he endeavors to disbelieve reductionism (the belief that all things—including human beings—can be reduced to molecules and chance). de Botton is right to admire the beauty of Bach’s sonatas, the transcendence of St. Giles Cathedral, and brightness of Jesus’ moral teaching. But naturalism—the view that there’s only material stuff—is not an intellectual framework which allows de Botton to hold as high a view of these things. If he were consistent, I believe he would be forced to abandon his high view of human beings, creativity, and morality.
A Lesson Learned:
To add a sad layer of irony, the queue into de Botton’s talk actually wrapped around the 900-year-old Church of the Holy Sepulchre—a beautiful display of Christian architecture and the place where I work. People were lining up and walking just past an ancient symbol of Christianity in order to hear an atheist speak on religious values—beauty, humanity, and meaning. This is a physical sign of the fact that the church has in many ways lost its relevance to our culture. And if we have lost our relevance, we have lost our voice to speak into it. The only way to regain our prophetic voice is to begin engaging intellectually, artistically, and personally—to show that Christianity is the only rational and consistent humanism on the market.
Jon Thompson, Apprentice 2011-2012, from Alabama, USA
Jon loves... philosophy
Visit Jon's blog at jonwthompson.wordpress.com
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