Imagine with me.
It is a beautiful and bustling Saturday afternoon in Cambridge, and I stand in a massive queue. It begins at the door of the Cambridge Union, meanders through an alley, and takes a right angle down the street. It is full of scores of people from diverse walks of life, every age range, and all levels of education. This whole host of people is eagerly awaiting entrance to hear the philosopher Alain de Botton. While it is striking in itself to have a philosopher draw such a large crowd of non-academics (try to imagine 12 year-old children showing up to a lecture on Epistemic Warrant), the content of the lecture is even more surprising: “Religion for Atheists.”
To add a sad layer of irony to the scene, the queue into De Botton’s talk actually wraps around the 900-year-old Church of the Holy Sepulchre—a beautiful display of Christian architecture and the place where I work. People are 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. Could it be that this scene is a sign of the times—that the church has become so marginalised and disconnected that the masses go to an atheist to find meaning for their lives?
This scene betrays the tragic reality that the church has in many ways lost its relevance. The only way to regain it is to begin engaging intellectually, artistically, and personally—to show that Christianity is the only rational and consistent humanism on the market.
As a huge fan of De Botton’s earlier writings (you must read The Art of Travel), I was very interested in seeing what he had to say about religion. De Botton is known as a “popularizer of philosophy,” and it is easy to see why his work has drawn such wide appreciation. In an age when academic philosophy has waxed esoteric and disconnected from most people’s real lives, De Botton offers a ray of literary hope. He writes both accessibly and beautifully, and yet his writings often offer substantial explorations of everything from self to society, travel to beauty.
And on 14 April, De Botton gave a talk on his latest book, Religion for Atheists: a non-believers guide to the uses of religion. He summarized his book by focusing on three areas: Education, Art, and Community. He used these three as examples of places where secularism can learn from religion.
Education, De Botton claimed, should be aimed at training up “full human beings.” He insinuated that religious education has aimed at doing just this, and our secular education system should follow suit. Particularly entertaining was his contention that Cambridge University professors could learn something about rhetoric from African American Pentecostal preachers from Tennessee.
In the realm of Art, he claimed that religious art is better because it takes a stand and tries to convince us to act in a certain way. He called art ‘good propaganda’ and said that modern art is bad because of its extreme vagueness. He was quite critical of the modern idea that art should not endeavor to convince us of anything particular.
Finally, De Botton cited Community as a concept at which secularism has particularly failed. This fact is most evident, says De Botton, when you try to remember the last time you sang in the company of a stranger. The ability to make strangers into friends, he contended, has been a unique and admirable capability of religion.
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.
In spite of these hesitancies, I believe there is something for us to learn from De Botton.
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.” He recognizes the insightfulness into human nature of concepts like Original Sin and flatly rejects the idea that religion is only (or even primarily) responsible for evil. De Botton goes as far as dismissing the harsh stance of biologist Richard Dawkins, calling him “The Wind from North Oxford.”
Alain de Botton is so popular precisely because he is not guilty of the reductionism of the New Atheists. Whereas Dawkins and Sam Harris seem to hold to the doctrine that science can tell us everything we should care to know, De Botton accepts a much more holistic view of human life and knowledge. This view borrows largely from the biblical view of man, that he is not only rational but relational—that he has real needs aesthetic, moral, communal, and emotional. Perhaps the evangelical church can learn something here, too. Evangelicals all too often view man as little more than a soul to be saved. This reductionism 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.
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. Although he admires human virtues and disdains vice, De Botton admits himself that humans are the sole “authors of our own moral commandments.” It is clear that if there is no ultimate foundation for morality, then the values of beauty, faithfulness, and love that De Botton esteems are mere products of culture—just like the religions he so readily dismisses.
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 such a high view of these things. If he were consistent, I believe he would abandon his high view of human beings, creativity, and morality. In light of the overwhelming popularity of De Botton’s message, combined with its shallowness, I believe the church has an opportunity to respond confidently. First, Christians must begin engaging intellectually, artistically, and personally with the surrounding culture. Second, we must argue convincingly that Secularism is not as coherent worldview as De Botton and others have argued, that Christianity is the only rational and consistent humanism on the market.
Jon Thompson is one of our four apprentices. They blog on our website, this is a revised version of a blog post, and it’s a fascinating collection of articles. christianheritage.org.uk/blog
Why a Christian Perspective on History is Vital
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Hebrews 13:7 (Author: Peter Greyling)
Longing for 'Home' in The Hunger Games
November 2012 Article (Author: Angeline Liles)
In what sense does the Bible inform our understanding of ‘goodness’? (Author: Simon Aston)
Is our history being re-written as we speak? (Author: Kevin Moss)
Western Autumn After 'Arab Spring'?
A fascinating look at recent events in North Africa and the UK. From our annual newsletter, November 2011. (Author: Vishal Mangalwadi)
The End of the World?
It must be testimony to something that Harold Camping has, in so swift a time become a household name and face. The media have gleefully circulated images of this gentleman that entirely support everyone‘s mental picture of the archetypal fundamentalist. (Author: Kevin Moss)
The King James Bible and The Cambridge Connection
The year 1611 marked the authorisation by King James I of England to produce a new Bible in English. 2011 therefore marks the 400th anniversary of the commissioning. (Author: David Berkley)
The Pietistic Roots of Evangelicalism Today
Contemporary Evangelicalism needs to understand and deal with its pietist roots. January 2010 (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
‘By the open statement of the Truth’
Lausanne and the Polemical Imperative (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
The New Atheism
The term The New Atheism is one that Christians have had to get used to in the last few years, even if the ‘new’ connected to atheism seems something of a misnomer. (Author: Ian Cooper)
Francis Schaeffer: A Mind and Heart for God ed. Bruce Little
A book review of the latest book on Schaeffer. which is our book of the month for June. (Author: Rachel Thorpe)
Staying Young Beyond Our Time?
We have long since discarded Shakespeare’s “seven ages”. Instead, we live in a capitalist system which encourages children to grow up as quickly as possible, and then tells adults to stay young for as long as possible. (Author: Rachel Thorpe)
Voting links (Author: Annie Simmonds)
'I'm being taken over': Popular music and the fear of the impersonal
Popular contemporary song lyrics reveal "The Fear" that lies at the core of our culture. (Author: Rachel Thorpe)
'Why I am not a Christian' : a Christian critique
Considering the 'sacred text' of new atheism (Author: Kevin Moss)
Year Round 2008-2009
Recovering the Past, Challenging the Present, Shaping the Future - A review of the last year. (Author: Christopher Townsend)
Don't settle for cheap alternatives
Much has been said and debated recently about the newest craze to hit cyberspace, Twitter. For the uninitiated, (Author: Dom Vincent)
The Roman Return?
The wise keep their eyes on the merits and demerits of ideas for ideas have consequences (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Our Cultured Admirers
People we would expect to be our cultured despisers turn out to be... (Author: Ian Cooper)
Christians and the Credit Crunch
Our TV screens are saturated with the latest reports of... (Author: Kevin Moss)
Belshazzar and the Crash
“Overwhelming pressures are being brought to bear on people who have no absolutes... (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Rescuing Darwin or Wrecking the Faith?
An article published in Evangelicals Now, November 2008 (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
HIS Story Revealed
In a way Christian Heritage is all about stories, so as we near the end of a busy summer season let me share some of them, past and present, to bring you up to date. (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Agreeing and disagreeing with Dawkins Part 2
Ranald argues that nothing in all history surpasses the brutality of the social systems most consistently modelled upon Dawkins' own atheistic world-view – Nazism and Communism. (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Divinity and Dawkins - Debating Delusions
The Dawkins Letters and Agreeing and Disagreeing with Dawkins Part 1 (Author: Ian Cooper and Ranald Macaulay)
'Education - For God's Sake!!'
A lethal virus has become an epidemic and our children are the victims (Author: Elaine Cooper and Ranald Macaulay)
Dick Keyes on intuition, imagination and knowing God. (Author: Dick Keyes, Photo: karlrpet)
What Can We Learn from Francis Schaeffer?
Ranald Macaulay reflects on the legacy of Francis Schaeffer. (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Truth and Lies
words, truth, and morality (Author: Text: Ranald Macualay, Photo:A@lbi)
Democracy in Iraq?
“Democracy in Iraq? You must be joking!” says the common person today. (Author: Ranald Macaulay, Photo: Chris Christner)
As Implausible as Father Christmas?
Sola Scriptura and Expository Preaching Today (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Humans: Religious by Nature
This claim seems ridiculous to many today who have a sense of the modern secular triumph over superstition, mythology (Author: Dick Keyes)
The UK: Prosperous but Disfunctional?
We are ridiculously prosperous in the UK; (Author: Ian Cooper)
West is East and East is West
On Hinduism and Western Culture (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Wanted: Christian Satirists (GSOH Required)
On Recovering Christian Satire (Author: James Williams)
On Whose Side of the Door is the Handle?
On Whose Side of the Door is the Handle? (Author: Rob Ambler)
Jerry Springer the Opera
Ian Cooper discusses this controversial stage show. (Author: Ian Cooper)
Ideas Have Consequences: Sodom Prophesied and Revisited
The fact that we find ourselves living in Sodom should come as no surprise. (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Paradigms of Tolerance: Cartoons, Compassion and the Cross
Amid the oceans of ink and hours of air-time devoted to the recent ‘cartoons scandal’ (Author: Chris Watkin)
The Dangers of Thin Religion
Francis Schaeffer used to say that what was needed in our time was both revival and reformation. (Author: Dick Keyes)
Religion - A peripheral Issue?
Religion - A peripheral Issue? (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Heaven Knows How We'll Rekindle Our Religion
Heaven Knows How We'll Rekindle Our Religion (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
The Battle of Ideas
The Battle of Ideas (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
The Real Disaster
The Real Disaster (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
The Consequences of Ideas
Yesterday’s paper (1st Dec 2004) carried two fascinating sex-related news items. (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Francis Crick (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Constantine to Charlemagne
Constantine to Charlemagne (Author: Ian Barrs)
Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot'
Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot' (Author: Rob Ambler)
The Secular Context and the Christian Worldview
The Secular Context and the Christian Worldview (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Apologetic Communities (Author: Ranald Macaulay)
Evil and Suffering
Evil and Suffering (Author: Jerram Barrs)
Biblical and Cultural Hermeneutics - Christianity and Culture
Biblical and Cultural Hermeneutics - Christianity and Culture (Author: Jerram Barrs)
Epistemology - Philosophy of Knowledge
Epistemology - Philosophy of Knowledge (Author: Jerram Barrs)
Idolatry (Author: Jerram Barrs)
Horatio Nelson (Author: Ranald Macaulay)