Rosenhouse on the faithest Alain de Botton

March 9, 2012 • 7:15 am

It took Jason a while to join the party, but as usual he proves a smart and engaging guest.  His latest piece at EvolutionBlog, “What’s interesting about religion?“, comments on an essay by Alain de Botton (of “atheist temple” fame) which I also dealt with a while back. Jason does a good job, and I’ll simply direct you to his piece after giving you a taste:

I wanted to comment on this essay by Alain de Botton. Here’s how it opens:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.” Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.

De Botton hails from that segment of the nonbelieving population that endlessly trumpets its own moderation. Not for them the histrionics of those militant atheist fundamentalists, with their blanket condemnations of religion and utter lack of subtlety and nuance. No, they are the calm, sensible ones, who see the value in religion even while rejecting its factual assertions.

And then you read paragraphs like the ones above, and you realize what a sham that is.

When someone says the truth or falsity of religions are their least interesting aspects, you can be sure you are reading the work of someone who thinks they are false. If there were a strong argument to be made on behalf of the truth claims of Christianity or Islam, say, that would not be boring at all. That would actually be a momentous contribution to humanity’s understanding of the world. No, pooh poohing a discussion of religion’s factual status is what you do when you consider it obvious that religion is false.

This is a major departure from the view taken by countless believers. To them, religion is interesting only because its factual assertions are true. They are not organizing their lives and defining their identities around religion because they find the rituals quaint and enjoy socializing at the receptions after services. They are doing it because they believe what their religion’s tell them about the world. To them, nothing of value would remain if definitive evidence appeared that their religion were false.

Once that is understood, it becomes clear that de Botton’s statement is far more arrogant and condescending than anything coming from the new atheists. Do you think it seems respectful to religious believers to have the central concerns of their lives dismissed as boring by someone who regards their beliefs as obviously false?

Bingo.  Even “liberal” believers are concerned with certain non-negotiable truths about their faith.  For Christians it’s usually Jesus’s divinity and resurrection. I’ll add one quote from page 2 of John Polkinghorne’s Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (2011, Yale University Press, New Haven):

The second mistake is about religion. The question of truth is as central to its concern as it is in science. Religious belief can guide one in life or strengthen one at the approach of death, but unless it is actually true it can do neither of these things and so would amount to no more than an illusionary exercise in comforting fantasy.

30 thoughts on “Rosenhouse on the faithest Alain de Botton

  1. Agreed.

    I wrote something similar on my blog.

    What also concerns me is how de Botton thinks ‘propaganda’ can be used for didactic purposes.

    I don’t know how he found out he had all the moral answers, but I guess he didn’t get there with logic, imagination and observation. Otherwise, he wouldn’t find it necessary to resort to persuasion as a method of education.

  2. I grew up in Seattle, one of the least religious cities in the US, in a family that wasn’t all that devoted to religion. By eleven or twelve, I had pretty much decided my earlier Catholic brainwashing was stupid, and I was effectively an atheist. Consequently, I didn’t really understand the damage religion could do my society – not until Reagan decided to hitch the evangelicals to his wagon on the way to building the Wall Street – religious redneck coalition that is the backbone of the GOP. Until then, I confess that religion mostly bored me. I’m sorry but it is just plain tedious. The rituals are tedious, the clerics are tedious, the “true believers” are tedious. If Alain de Botton is “arrogant and condescending” towards religion, in that at least I’m probably just a guilty as he is.

  3. Not to split hairs, but Jason says, “religion is interesting only because its factual assertions are true,” (my emphasis) and then Jerry went on to say that “Even ‘liberal’ believers are concerned with certain non-negotiable truths about their faith.” The first thing to note is that these two statements aren’t quite the same. I think Jason puts himself in a very precarious position by suggesting that truth is the important factor here. I guess I don’t quite disagree with him, but all it would take is to find one believer who cares more about one aspect or another of their faith (over the issue of it being true) and then Jason’s statement is false. I feel like there are probably quite a few moderate and liberal theists–Anglicans come to mind, for some reason–for whom the truthfulness of their religion is not, perhaps, key. It’s not that they don’t believe it’s true (they do believe it’s true), but more importantly, they just don’t care that much about the issue of it being true. Other aspects of their experience of religion are more important to them. This goes to what Jerry said, as well. I think there really are a decent group of believers (probably all moderate and/or liberal) who are not overwhelmingly concerned with certain non-negotiable truths about their faith. Again, yes, they do believe things, they really do, but they just don’t care about the truthfulness of those things as much as they might care about other aspects of their faith.

    Jason and Jerry’s words both suggest that believers are solely or primarily believers because of truth-claims and statements about the world. I honestly don’t think that’s correct. It seems that most people are believers because they were born to other believers. Or if not, they found some community, something meaningful about being part of a community of believers. In my experience, very few theists have spent much time at all thinking about the truth-claims of their religions. Perhaps only theologians and certain priests have done that. For sure, as many surveys have shown, much to the chagrin of moderate and liberal theists (as well as assimilationist atheists), religious people do believe what they say they believe. However, the factual reality of those beliefs is not, I don’t think, particularly important to many believers. For some, yes, they literally believe what they say they believe, and these beliefs are the most important aspect of their religion. But I think there are many people who identify as theists, who purport to actually believe what they believe, and yet who either haven’t thought much about that issue or don’t care to think much about it, because other aspects of religion are more important or more meaningful to them.

      1. Sorry, but I didn’t say anything about WHY believers become believers: I talked about what it would take for believers to GIVE UP THEIR FAITH (i.e., the demonstration that its truth claims are false). Those are completely different issues.

  4. The Gnu position is, essentially, “Those slimeballs are lying to you so they can steal your money and get you to give them power over your lives, and here’s the evidence. Now will you please stop professing your undying allegience to Santa and finally grow up?”

    De Botton is, instead, trying to usurp the position of the slimeballs while still exposing their lies, but not really. Because he wants to build a huge public monument to his own penis.

    Sorry, bub, but that’s not how the game is played. Better luck next time.



  5. Your quote from Polkinghorne reminded me of one from Russell:

    It seems to me a fundamental dishonesty and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity to hold a belief because you think it’s useful, and not because you think it’s true.

    Many believers, I think, are being dishonest with themselves: They accept things as true, but are unwilling to think about their belief critically because it is “useful” (comforting, &c.).


    PS. I also like Russell’s response to the suggestion that “weak” people need religion.

    1. I’ve had a fundamentalist Westminster Calvinist tell me that my worldview is problematic because “it does not provide a basis for deontology”, and pretty much same argument from a liberal agnostic purveyor of psychic woo who told me that he was “fearful of the prospect of living in a world without God”.

      I prefer Russell’s honesty, even if it isn’t as useful as one might like.

  6. de Botton is in Canada peddling his BS. I listened to him for about 2 minutes on a morning talk show and then changed the channel.

  7. I’ve tried to understand de Botton, I really have. For a moment I thought he might be a provocative, even interesting, faitheist who might add something to the debate. But no – he is just ODD. By the way, I have quoted his line about whether religion is ‘true’ is a boring question to both an atheist and a theist. They both exploded, in different directions as it were, leaving trails of fury and astonishment.

  8. Wonderful commentary, thank you. But surely it is a mistake to assume all believers are into religion for the same reasons. The human brain can simultaneously believe in contradictory things quite easily and we know people are often illogical and inconsistent. The reasons for religiosity are many, and I suspect at least half of church goers are there for social, family and business reasons rather than their faith. A recent poll claimed that if every one who claimed they attended church last Sunday really had attended, churches would have overflowed. Even on special days such as Christmas and Easter less than half the church membership attend. And of the ones who attend, I guess half of them are skeptical or bored about what their leaders say. How do freethinkers win over these doubters? Certainly, not by being antagonistic. A constant appeal to science and reason is more affective in winning the hearts and minds of “convenient Christians and Jews.”

    1. What does it mean “to be antagonistic”?

      A constant appeal to science and religion is precisely the kind of thing that is inherently antagonistic to the faithful and believers-in-belief. “Show me your evidence” is the demand that gnu atheism makes. Which generates the inevitable response: “so shrill, strident, harsh! Show respect!”

    2. One can be antagonistic to the truth claims of religion without being antagonistic to the religious.

      However, one cannot challenge someone who is fomenting the truth claims of religion without — by definition — being antagonistic toward that person.

      It’s in the very definition of the act of challenging. Antagonism: Showing or feeling active opposition toward someone or something.

      You’re asking us to shut up. Nothing more and nothing less.

      Please stop doing so.

  9. “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.” Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.”

    This perfectly captures the difference between the gnus and accomodationist “believers in belief” like Botton. When the latter accuse the gnus of being “fanatics” or “no better than the fundamentalists” (a case of “guilt by association”: Find some common denominator between those you want to discredit and some disfavored person or group in order to create an impression of sameness), what they typically have in mind is precisely that both groups agree that the truth matters. Ironically this might be the only thing that is NOT wrong with the fundamentalists (and one more thing that’s wrong with people like Botton).

  10. I am from England and now live in the US. I also grew up immersed in Methodism, going to a Methodist public (private) school and a Methodist church and am now an atheist. I am beginning to think that there might be quite a divide between what most American christians believe and most British christians believe. The recent poll commissioned by Richard Dawkin’s foundation in Britain appeared to reveal substantially different attitudes to those from the US polls which Sam Harris quotes.

    To me the truth of a religion matters enormously. But when Jason says the following:

    “To them, religion is interesting only because its factual assertions are true. They are not organizing their lives and defining their identities around religion because they find the rituals quaint and enjoy socializing at the receptions after services.”

    I am just not sure he is right. I think there are a lot of people who organize their lives around the social and ritual aspects of religion.

    I no longer pray because I think that there is nobody listening. But from a recent conversation I had with a Methodist minister, I suspect he would continue to pray even if he knew for certain that there was no god.

    1. Sure, people continue to do things out of habit.

      But I suspect that the practice would quickly cease to be an important aspect of someone’s life once it’s made clear that there’s no one listening but oneself.

      Meditation offers the same benefits without the woo.

      1. Kevin, I would go with you if you modified that last sentence a bit… “Meditation offers the same benefits, sometimes without the woo.” There are far too many woo-ish meditation cults out there for the original sentence to hold true as is.

      2. I was born a catholic. As a young teen, I briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a nun. But after college I just kinda dropped out of the church.

        When I married (about 3 years after graduating from college)I had a church wedding (Lutheran) because it somehow seemed more authentic than an appearance before a JP.

        Forty-one years later, when my husband died of cancer I longed to be able to return to church, but just couldn’t make myself do it because it was impossible believe in a god.

        Now, after eight years, I’ve made peace with myself over the lack of a god because I have a wonderful support group of friends. Many of them are practicing christians, but I love them anyway.

        1. I’ve had two marriages. The first, performed by a Baptist minister, failed within a couple of years. The second, performed in a state judge’s chambers at the county courthouse has lasted for 31 years. So much for the magic of religion.

  11. veritas et falsitas
    I see that time’s arrow
    flies neither to nocht
    to form sudden passions
    or blind men to rock

    the passage of time
    is nothing some say
    and back to that nothing
    to keep it that way

    so return to Parmenides
    and Zeno’s escape
    the hare and the tortoise
    won’t end the debate

    since mind is the reason
    and action to be
    because it exits
    is why we can’t see

    it has limitations
    lamenting the curse
    and here in this lifetime
    it only gives verse

    return to the fold then
    dispense with the rules
    maybe we’ll get there
    maybe we’re fools

    – JJ, 2012-02-09 … while sleeping …

  12. @de Botton

    ‘Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”’

    This makes me think that deB is trying to pastiche Oscar Wilde in one of his more languid and dilettanteish moments. You can imagine him appending, ‘my darling’ to the end of the sentence. I wonder, since he appears to have a list, which questions deB finds slightly less boring about religion; perhaps W.S. Gilbert might have retorted,

    The meaning doesn’t matter,
    If it’s only idle chatter,
    Of a transcendental kind.

    1. What on earth is the difference between “true” and true? Is he suggesting there is some kind of true truth about religion that we naïve atheists aren’t asking about, only about this boring, false “truth”?

      If so, what is it?

      1. The true truth is the one that the faithful know about. Only they can understand it. Us atheists can’t possibly know what it is.

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