The blind reviewing the bland

February 10, 2012 • 11:47 am

Yes, it’s the inimitable Terry Eagleton, erstwhile critic of The God Delusion, who now fixes his sights on the milder “religious atheist” Alain “I can haz cathedral” de Botton. Eagleton, for whom I have very little use, does have his uses, as in his scathing review of de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists in the January 12 Guardian.  I haven’t read that book, but Eagleton suggests that it’s more than just a guide for how atheists can appropriate the trappings of religion.  It also seems to be a manual of “belief in belief.” As Eagleton says,

There is something deeply disingenuous about this whole tradition. “I don’t believe myself, but it is politically prudent that you should” is the slogan of thinkers supposedly devoted to the integrity of the intellect. . . .

God may be dead, but Alain de Botton‘s Religion for Atheists is a sign that the tradition from Voltaire to Arnold lives on. The book assumes that religious beliefs are a lot of nonsense, but that they remain indispensible to civilised existence. One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked. Perhaps he might have the faintest sense of being patronised.

LOL!  Well said, even if it is by Eagleton.  Smart believers do know when they’re being patronized. The mystery is why there are smart believers in the first place. Eagleton continues the evisceration:

. . . 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. Liberal-capitalist societies, being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularised religion has long been one bogus solution on offer. The late Christopher Hitchens, who some people think is now discovering that his broadside God Is Not Great was slightly off the mark, would have scorned any such project. He did not consider that religion was a convenient fiction. He thought it was disgusting. Now there’s something believers can get their teeth into …

Umm. . . the gratuitious slap at Hitchens, of course, implies that Hitch got it wrong and is now roasting in hell (alternatively, with God’s grace he might be imbibing with the angels). I wonder if Eagleton, who appears to be a Christian but is loath to admit it explicitly, shares that view.

But there is a parallel here between Eagleton and me: both of us dislike “believers in belief” for their hypocrisy and lack of intellectual honesty.  On those counts give me an honest fundamentalist over an accommodationist, just as Eagleton would prefer an honest atheist like Hitchens to a milquetoast accommodationist like de Botton.

48 thoughts on “The blind reviewing the bland

  1. 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.

    I disagree with de Botton, but this complaint reminds me of the recent joke about AGW denial: “What if we clean up the air, the water, reduce pollution, and it turns out the earth isn’t warming?”

    If some non-religious community is using ritual and tradition to create social order and aesthetic pleasure (gasp! horror!), what’s the big deal?

    1. I don’t think there is a big deal, as long as they’re all consensual adults and that’s their thang.

      The problem is when someone says this is what all atheists/unbelievers/nones need. (Except the intellectual elite, of course! They just get ego-boo by lording it over everyone else who needs their rituals…)


      1. Exactly… it seems almost a non-issue to me that if a group of atheists wants to do something, it should just do it. But de Bottom seems to presume that society as a whole *needs* the various things that religion does. Which seems silly, since so much of religious life is something you put up with because you believe in God and think that’s what It wants you to do, not necessarily something you enjoy on its own.

        Its as if society has had a fever, runny nose and a cough, and its presumed to be something needed for a society even after the virus has been removed, because that’s the way it has been for so long.

    2. The big deal is that they will appear to be religious and wil be mistaken for being religious and thereby unintentionally promote religious belief.
      It’s like going to the footy in your opponents colours. Youi will mistaken for your opponent and pummelled to death by your team’s supporters.

  2. I haven’t read the book, but I’d really like to know what would constitute a secular Yom Kippur. Abstaining from eating chives, perhaps and mandatory reading of Moby Dick for 12 hours, the last 90 minutes of which should be done while standing?

    1. That reminds me of when I was trying to imagine a secular Easter. I suppose there might be an Easter Egg hunt, but so much of that holiday involves dressing up for an extra fancy church service. Perhaps other culture make it more impressive… apparently Christmas isn’t as secular and fun in some other cultures (notably the ones where it’s during the summer time).

      1. We do this in my neighborhood. With some of the central people involved being atheists, we call it a “Spring Egg Hunt”. Turns out the kids love it even if the eggs weren’t laid by Xian bunnies.

      2. I’ve had a secular Easter my whole life. It’s mostly a chocolate festival with a family dinner thrown in. We love it. We also have Xmas in the sun and it’s thoroughly secular too, it’s about presents and a huge dinner of lobster and Xmas pudding with the family.

        1. I knew I had a memory of Easter as a festival with Pagan roots: wiki quotes Bede as mentioning Ēostre a goddess, celebrated in Eosturmonath (Eastermonth – April). Northern European pagan folklore, according to Jacob Grimm, the etymologist, associates hares with Ēostre and springtime fecundity; can’t be much of a stretch to eggs. Where chocolate comes into this, I don’t know.

  3. ‘We are invited to contemplate St Joseph in order to learn “how to face the trials of the workplace with a modest and uncomplaining temper”.’

    Holy f**k! (My actual words on reading that, btw 🙂

    Is de Botton’s opus an exercise in keeping the serfs docile or what? I rather think the attempt would cause a riot in my workplace. We may not all be atheists or even sceptics but we’re all deeply cynical about the management. It’s what gets us through the day.

  4. Well I think the “believers in belief” realize that people differ in their ability to make sense of the world.

    Let’s say there are those who simply don’t understand how higher level mathematics work or understand the basic concepts in physics or biology or whatever it is that actually constitute an explanation of something. They just can’t do it or they are past that point in their lives that they can even acquire the mental tools to let them understand these sorts of things. So since the human mind usually demands an explanation for things they can only fall back on magic or half-baked explanations but to them makes some sort of intuitive sense.

    So for those of us deemed “militant” who demand from “smart” believers to purge their minds of this wooly-brained kind of thinking, they simply just can’t!

    1. I’m pretty sure there’s a whole industry of science popularizers who are going to take a bit of umbrage to that. Not everybody has to be a particle physicist, but I’d like to think it isn’t asking too much to at least see John Doe draw a Bohr-model atom. You don’t need to be a cosmologist to say, “yeah, there was a Big Bang, but I don’t have a great grasp on the math it takes to prove that”

      1. Lolz. Yeah why don’t you try and see how effective it is to someone that you’ve taught mechanically how to draw a bohr atom as an explanation to how the universe began! Let’s see how “real” that is to a person who thinks things are going well in their lives because God is looking after them and they don’t want to ever threaten this relationship because ever little thing they think they may do wrong to anger god will bring unforseen suffering in their lives. Lolz. While you’re at it why don’t you also demand intellectual honesty from them.

    2. I’ll take some umbrage too. Past the point of being able to acquire mental tools? Really? How old would that be? Ninety five?

      1. Lolz. I think you both miss my point. I personally have no hope in doing matrix algebra or any of the math of that sort. No matter how many hours in the day i spend at it til the i drop dead. So say there are phenomena explained by the tools of matrix algebra. Now whatever “understanding” i may think i have about it and the explanations i take from it, I’ll just have to deem it satisfactory at that level. It won’t be as deep as an understanding or have the same explanatory power as someone that does understand matrix algebra.

        So it is almost as if it really is magic to me at a practical level. Now my understanding of the scientific method puts me at ease knowing that those in the field check their sums and others also check and verify the work and so even though I cannot see for myself that it really is correct I have assurance that there is no grand collusion or hidden agendas going on.

        Now let’s take those in the general population that don’t know how to use the scientific method at all! Or those that have lived in parts of the world with extreme poverty, how then can they possibly know what the hell you’re talking about!

        I’ve tried explaining to my grandma who is 70 years old how visual transduction works via rhodopsin! I can safely say that it’s not in her to understand!

        So now try and generalize this thing to the population in different magnitudes and you’ll see that for most it’s not in them like how it’s not in me to manipulate matrices.

        So lets please check our intellectua

        1. Just because someone’s not able to really understand the principles of how ionic bonds work or can’t comprehend just how freaking long of a time 4.6 billion years is isn’t an excuse to just resort to goddidit.

    3. The beauty is that you don’t need any maths to have a good layman’s understanding of anything.
      You will, however, need a good grasp of maths if you are to adequately refute the scientific consensus about cosmology or physics.

  5. “alternatively, with God’s grace he might be imbibing with the angels”

    Angels can’t drink alcohol, haven’t you seen Dogma?

  6. Eagleton’s Guardian review was published on 14th January and came a few days before WEIT’s initial posting on de Botton; I know because I wrote an unpublished reply to the letters page.

    Here it is: too long, wrong tone but it might give you a laugh.

    By the way, Eagleton’s residual back-handed respect for Hitchens probably derives from the fact that they were left-wing buddies at Oxford.

    It is sad to see that Terry Eagleton’s quixotic wanderings up the fundament of religiose obscurantism continue, (Beyond Belief 14th January). As time goes by, his pen increasingly and incoherently inks atheists from some ill-defined and illusory theological and moral high ground, accusing them now of plagiarising Christianity, now of ethical banality, now, in his evolving and demeaning penchant for Tertullianist Schadenfreude, of burning in hell, à la Hitchens. In response, I think of Eagleton’s co-religionist Sir William Paley, who commented, “You can not refute a sneer.”
    Firstly, to take the allegation of plagiarism. Eagleton, knows, and if he does not, he should, that this is precisely the allegation which the second century Justin Martyr made, in an audacious, ingenious and baseless demonstration of chutzpah, in his First Apologia to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius; that the pagan world had atavistically credited to its own gods all the miraculous events attributed to the Christ’s life, before they had happened to the Anointed One himself. Rather like the manner in which the monotheisms modestly attempt to ascribe to themselves eternal wisdom for having declared that it is not a good idea to steal; we could as well mention, in this context, the fifth and eighth Catholic Commandments.
    Secondly, Eagleton mocks de Botton for attempting to “hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure.” Two out of these three apply exactly to the violent Christianisation of the Roman Empire under Constantine; the third, social consensus, did not come into it. Perhaps Eagleton’s bile billows from his knowledge that de Botton’s project – simultaneously a steal and trite – inadvertently demonstrates the nakedness of the religious Emperor.
    Thirdly, Eagleton, and this is unforgivable in an intelligent man, defends a Christianity entirely contingent on the accident of his place and time of birth. Why does he fetishise belief? What is so great about it? Eagleton knows that there is very little evidence for “a preacher who was tortured and executed for speaking up for justice, and who warned his comrades that if they followed his example they would meet with the same fate.” This reads like the faith of a credulous, innocently masochistic and embryonically Socialist 12 year-old. He knows that you can not privilege the theological when analysing the moral. Eagleton knows there can be no proved connection between God and any moral statement or action; rather as the link is broken between the rank-and-file paedophiliac clergy of Roman Catholicism and their Monsignorial line managers, who deny the Church’s responsibility for their employees’ criminality.
    Eagleton is becoming rather tiresome in his defence of religion; it appears to derive from nothing more substantial than the happenstance of his background and his uncharacteristic unwillingness to critically examine it.

    1. “unwillingness to critically examine it”

      I know much of Eagleton’s work is pretty dire, but your last sentence immediately reminded me of this, from his “Illusions of Postmodernism:

      “It [postmodernism] is animated by the critical spirit, but rarely brings it to bear upon its own propositions.”

      I haven’t actually read the entire thing myself, but based on the blurb and the reviews on Google Books, I’ve put it on my “should-probably-read-in-the-near-future” list.

  7. ” 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.”

    That’s hilarious – the christian religions have been doing just that for almost 2000 years.

  8. One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked.

    I don’t think this is a particularly compelling argument. “Rights” are human constructs. We like them because of our sense of “fairness,” but we like fairness because of its utility, to wit: it is indispensable to civilised existence. Unlike, say, astrology or Christianity.

  9. Eagleton is easy enough to dismiss. His reasoning and analogies are transparently bad. Free speech rights aren’t even a question of fact. Their existence, boundaries, and properties exist (or not) purely by decree. It is their value that derives from evidence, both reasoned and empirical, not their existence.

    I’m less sure about de Bottom. I don’t see him as an accommodationist. On the contrary, he seems to take it as a given that religious beliefs are silly and should be jetisoned. I see him more as a biomimicry engineer. It’s not rare to find atheists who understand that religions have filled some human need and even provided some useful social functions. Dennett talks about this topic all the time. The history of religious institutions is an interesting study of memetic survival and reproduction. What features survived and thrived, versus what died, demonstrate interesting characteristics of human needs and wants and what social functions they provide in the memetic natural selection processes of human psychology and cultural competition. The fact that religious beliefs hi-jacked and exploited these traits doesn’t mean the traits are themselves bad.

    As far as I can tell, de Bottom merely goes through the steps of actually looking at what those useful traits are, and suggests ways to keep them in a secular manner after ditching the supernatural baggage. His mistake is to tie this to atheism when it is really a matter of secularism. If we need grand architecture, then maybe grand public buildings have value. If a sense of community meets a need, there are plenty of community groups and now the internet provides this service. I think he is simply addressing that there is some religious bathwater we don’t want to throw out with the theistic baby.

    That is hardly accommodating to religious believers, or patronizing for that matter. I think he may be pigeon-holed into a context that doesn’t apply. He isn’t making arguments for or against theism. That’s well taken care of and in good hands. He goes beyond that and says, ok, so now in a world of non-believers, is there anything of value we can lean from the history of religious institutions and adapt to meet our needs in a non-religious context.

    Maybe I’m wrong here. I guess I should read his book.

  10. Eagleton’s finding radicalism in xianity has been done. It is called the English Civil War and slavery. Christopher Hill World Turned upside down, and “let my people go” of the spirituals is precisely about this.

    Politics always uses the most powerful beautiful language where appropriate. The search for authenticity and humanity and co-operation is precisely about this. But there wasn’t a golden age wen the tigers ate strawberries.

    1. As a fellow chocophile, I must ask: why does Lindt keep showing up wherever people list their favorites, while Godiva rarely does? I know Godiva is big and commercial, but their product is still one of the best. Certainly better than Lindt. Lindt has an unattractive waxy texture. Too much paraffin?

  11. On eagleton’s religion, isn’t he catholic?

    “Eagleton grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic family in Salford, England, with roots in County Galway. His mother’s side of the family had strong republican sympathies. He served as an altar boy at a local Carmelite convent where he was responsible for escorting novice nuns taking their vows, a role referred to in the title of his memoir The Gatekeeper”


  12. “What the book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content…”

    Please. They’re already empty of content and they always have been.

  13. I agree with Eric’s comment. I appreciate your zeal in criticizing religious belief; even your criticism of those trying to reconcile science and religion but bullying de Botton by calling him a milquetoast accommodationist is unfair. I haven’t read his book – I am awaiting its release in March but I saw a video of him describing the concepts of it from a School of Life Sunday Sermon. As a nonacademic atheist, interested in seeing the secular movement find coherence and effectively compete against religion for political and cultural clout – I am enthused by de Botton’s perspective of moving beyond the debate about god and looking at the sort of things that religious organizations have done to develop community and culture – two critical things to making the secular movement an actual movement. He calls out some of those things and while stopping short of suggesting a secular church, acknowledges that these practices have been key to the success of various religions. Not once in his talk does he try to rationalize science and religion or even the leave the door open for the justification of religious belief. He just notes that any debate on science vs. religion is a rope a dope because religion can’t compete on the basis of logic or evidence. As capable as you are Jerry – the debates that you and the likes of Hitch have engaged in just aren’t that hard to win. Enabling a secular movement to go beyond academics and intellectuals and turn it into something that competes with and delivers a meaningful replacement for religion requires more leadership than just poking your finger in the eye of guys like de Botton who appear to be trying to move to the next step.

    1. He just notes that any debate on science vs. religion is a rope a dope because religion can’t compete on the basis of logic or evidence. As capable as you are Jerry – the debates that you and the likes of Hitch have engaged in just aren’t that hard to win.

      Let me make sure I have this straight. We don’t need to debate against the god-arguers because it is too easy? Instead we should start mimicking religious practices because maybe that would be harder?

      Why do you guys keep saying we need a “meaningful replacement” for religion? What on earth does that even mean? This particular atheist has no interest at all in “finding coherence” by joining up with a bunch of ersatz religious ritual-doers to not-pray in an atheist temple. I’ll contribute to social change by participating in real-world political activities, even if it entails marching in the snows of February in Wisconsin.

      I don’t need a meaningful replacement for Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the little baby Jesus. I think it is demeaning of “regular” people to suggest that only highfalutin intellectual types can just stop with the make-believe.

      1. Check the data. You are in the minority and will likley stay there until there is a cohesive movement. No presidential candidate could compete in a primary let alone a general election as a professed athiest. That isn’t going to change by you marechng through the snows of Wisconsin …by yourself. My point was that de Botton is simply saying, “great god doesn’t exist, now what?” The “now what” question doesn’t make him a milquetoast accommodatonist.

        1. Not from these parts, I see. I never march around in the snow by myself. Generally I do it with 10-100,000 other pissed-off citizens. But this really isn’t a test of your knowledge of Wisconsin politics.

          “Now what?”, when followed by “Let’s go act like religious people who don’t believe in gods” is a foolish (and offensive) rhetorical question.

          “Now what?” followed by “Convince other non-believers to get out of the closet and speak their minds” is quite a different thing. That is what people like Hitch, Coyne, Dawkins, and others are doing. And if there has been any progress in the last many decades it is because of their efforts.

          Why don’t you answer the question about what “meaningful replacement for religion” even means? So far what we’ve heard is that atheist temples need to be built as if somehow this will bring all those Pentecostalists running to our side. If that was true the Unitarians would be overflowing their pews and Pat Robertson would have nobody watching his dreadful TV show.

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