Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ metaphorical lattes

October 1, 2014 • 6:00 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo pwns both accommodationists like Alain de Botton as well as those Sophisticated Theologians™ who argue that “real” religion doesn’t make truth claims:


Jesus is reading Alain de Botton’s book, Religion for Atheists, while Mo is, of course, perusing the only book that many Muslims see as worth reading.


39 thoughts on “Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ metaphorical lattes

    1. Well, they won’t be reading Satanic Verses in Singapore. I tried to buy a copy recently, and bookshops aren’t allowed to carry it.

      1. Fortunately, tablet versions of every book imaginable will likely render this sort of censorship obsolete in the next decade or two. Can’t find it in the store? Download it from Amazon. Probably takes you less time than standing in line to buy it would’ve taken you.

      2. bookshops aren’t allowed to carry [the Satanic Verses].

        As a matter of interest, aren’t allowed by whom? The government, by the medium of some form or general or specific legislation? Or by the owners of buildings from which the premises are leased (for fear of a petrol bomb through the window)? Or by the managers of bookshop chains, for similar reasons?
        “allowed” is a very loose term which doesn’t really illuminate the situation at all. For example, I’ve never for one second contemplated buying a copy, because the summaries I’ve read of it make it sound like utter dreck. (Which is the same reason that I’ve never read anything by Salman Rushdie.)

  1. A religion without supernatural claims is self-contradicty! It’s like a latte without milk!

    Yup. And the “sophisticated” coffee shop apologists will immediately respond to the complaint that there’s no milk in the latte with elaborate and vague arguments to the effect that there’s no right or wrong way to drink coffee, what matter is that the drinker finds it satisfying — as if the critic was being mean and narrow-minded and arguing otherwise.

    It’s a hopeful strategy, but it seems to me that redefinitions of common words seldom work in the favor of the dissenting minority. What happens instead is that the despised view is seen as softening, as coming over to the other side. Re-defining “religion” into being a life philosophy, or set of values, or response to the good and beautiful only makes atheists look like stealth believers in the supernatural. See — even atheists recognize (or need to recognize) that meaning and joy and love require religion. The atheist world view is bankrupt.

    I sometimes like to illustrate the problem with an analogy using politics instead of religion:

    Imagine that someone comes into a room full of Democrats and announces that they are all Republicans. When they protest, the new arrival explains what she means by the term “Republican:” since the US is a democratic republic, then any and all citizens, regardless of their political affiliation, are “Republicans.” Communists and socialists and democrats and republicans and green party and constitution party — “Republicans.” See?

    If we just use this term to include everyone, then the quarrels and arguments will be tempered. It harmonizes. It unites. We are ALL Republicans. Group hug.

    Yeah. Now imagine that the person making this argument just happens to be the head of the local Republican Party. And the Democrats are the despised minority. Suddenly, it seems awful suspicious, doesn’t it? Sounds like at some point someone is going to use the semantic agreement and then flip back to what they meant all along. This I think is like a “sophisticated” theologian offering the olive branch of redefinition. We are all “religious” when we commit acts of love … okay? Big smile.

    I don’t buy it anymore.

    And when atheists redefine religion it feels to me like a democrat walking into a republican convention and insisting that they too are a republican hoping that the republican platform will therefore change into something more reasonable. Words are just words, sure — but semantic games are still games.

    1. Nice argument, except for one giant flaw: Author isn’t an atheist redefining the term ‘religion.’ He’s basically reproducing the argument used by Sophisticated Theologians (STs). They are the ones redefinining religion, with their “nobody believes in that anthropomorphic stuff! It’s all about a Ground of Being” arguments. And STs do in fact seem to be a minority.

      So if you were right, regular theists would be meeting the STs with suspicion, and treating what they do as semantic games. Well, they are pretty clearly not doing the former. As for the latter…well, it seems to me that many of the ‘regular’ (non-ST) theists seem perfectly happy to support these semantic games, when doing so benefits or lends superficial support for their theology

      1. I’m not sure I understand the giant flaw. “Author” is supposed to be Alain de Boton, who is presented in the comic as an atheist “proposing a religion for atheists — a religion stripped of all supernatural truth claims.”

        Whether Boton’s reproducing the argument or coming up with it himself, the analogy still holds. Because you’re right. The theists love it when atheists equate religion with “good things” — just like republicans would love it if democrats equated being a ‘republican’ with being a good citizen. Or, to use another example, as racists would love it if black people would say that they deserve respect because they’re “white on the inside.”

        It’s not a wise strategy. It feeds into the unearned privilege and will likely backfire.

        1. Gosh. Very first post of Sastra I don’t agree with.

          The broader sense of religion is a very old one and not a recent piece of verbal sleight-of-hand.

          Where the SophTheos go wrong IMO is claiming that only theirs is the “real” religion (and fundamentalism somehow isn’t), but I would allow it is in some sense religion. Where Alain Botton goes wrong is in claiming that !*all*! atheists !*should*! have an appreciation of religion, rather than just explain why in fact !*some do*! (such as himself).

          In 1927 Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous and grandson of Thomas who coined the term agnostic) wrote a book called “Religion Without Revelation”, but he did not claim that this was !*real*! religion and that classical Christianity or fundamentalism was not really religion. Way back in 1793, Kant published “Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason” again without any disclaimer that traditional religion is not religion.

          The broader definition of religion as promoting a generic sense of sacredness and spiritual aspiration has been around much much longer than Botton and is used by respected anthropologists and sociologists (such as Clifford Geertz and Emile Durkheim), as well as the intellectual ancestors of Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong (such as William James)
          and some social historians think it may be the !*original*! definition of the word “religio”, with the word adopting our current common meaning of institutionalized promotion of dogmas shortly after the Protestant Reformation. See this section of the Wikipedia article.

          Here is anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s definition “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

          Here is Van Morrison singing “She Gives Me Religion”

          (Many secularists might legitimately prefer Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, but my point is the broader sense of religion is old and established.)

          1. And historically “science” had a much broader meaning than it does today, meaning any systematic body of knowledge; e.g., in the subtitle of an early twentieth century book I have on my bookshelf, “The Art and Science of Heraldry”. So pointing at historical precedent doesn’t mean a narrower definition is not the more useful today.

            As you might have noticed, I favour a narrow definition of “religion” along the lines of Anthony Grayling’s, one that includes some supernatural agent(s) to be obeyed, rather than “religion (broadly construed)”, as Jerry might put it.

            But even Grayling notes that “[religion] is one of those capricious terms that allow a great variety of definitions”. So, it behooves all writers to define their terms! (I’m sure Jerry will do so carefully in the Albatross!) 😉


            1. In addition to this, one also has to take into account current usage (which I recognize despite my prescriptivist tendencies). When someone says “religion”, how many listeners are realistically going to think “this person could very well be referring to that extremely rare and arcane version of religion that includes nothing supernatural”?

              What points are gained in an argument concerning Supernatural Religion&tm; by pulling these semantic shenanigans? My response would be “so what? In that case, I am arguing about the subset of your broader definition of religion that does include supernatural baloney. Call it whatever you want. My arguments will remain the same and you haven’t gained any ground.”

          2. You forgot John Dewey.

            I’m afraid I don’t disagree with you — there is indeed a very long history of humanists embracing “religion” (and “God” and “faith” and “spirituality”) without the supernatural. It’s not a recent piece of verbal slight-of-hand at all.

            It’s a very old piece of verbal-slight-of-hand.

            And it has not been terribly successful, I think. Despite generations of atheists gamely arguing that religion = life philosophy all that’s really gotten across to the general public is that atheism is a religion — and boy, you need a lot of faith to be an atheist. The supernatural turned out to be too deeply entrenched in the word “religion” as the word is commonly understood. Philosophy already has a strong identity.

            If it had worked, then no problem.

            1. I have to admit John Dewey is more problematic to me, since he espoused his views in a book entitled “A Common Faith”, and for me “faith” is much bigger red-flag word than “religion”.

        2. I think the issue here is you are focusing on the first panel. Panel 2 is much broader than just de Botton and lampoons the sophisticated theologians, too.

          1. My analogy did involved the Sophisticated Theologians — they were the smiling head of the Republican Party correcting the democrats on the true meaning of the term “republican.”

      2. Eric can explain this himself, but it could be that he is using “Author” here to refer to the author of Jesus & Mo, not Alain de Botton. It is commonly accepted at the J&M site that the term “Author” is used this way, since that is how he signs himself.

  2. I haven’t picked up Religion for Atheists, but I’ve read a few reviews. My sense is that de Botton encourages secularists to appropriate what he sees as the valuable social side-effects of faith. (The book’s subtitle is A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.) Does he actually propose a religion without supernatural claims? The idea of stripping religious culture for parts is one thing; the notion of a religion without spirits is quite another.

    1. The secular equivalent of religious service may not be a secular “service”. Maybe it’s a beer hall, or a friendly game of boccie on the back lawn.

    2. I haven’t read it either, but as a swede I wonder if Botton has looked at secular societies!?

      What is popular in the Nordic countries, whether you are atheist, agnostic or religious, is to pick up courses, societies, informal groupings like book reading circles or wandering/canoeing et cetera.

      Of the still registered religious, less than 5 % regularly visit a church. Churches are not for religion, they are for marriages, cheap locales for artists and cultural protected memorabilia. “This church is an ex-church! Bereft of life, …”

  3. I haven’t read de Bottom’s screed, but I really can’t imagine what good religion could possibly do for anybody.

    Sam at least makes an arguable case in favor of meditation and “transcendent” mental states. But what the fuck do I want with some guy in funny clothes up on stage reading bad poetry and telling me how I should live my own life?


    1. A lot of atheists go to conventions to hear lectures by other atheists on a variety of topics — science, ethics, art, politics, personal stories, poetry etc. From what I can tell atheists who want to mimic the “good” part of church basically want to have these talks one at a time, on Sunday morning — with coffee and discussion afterwards. The “funny clothes” might be a bow tie, I guess.

      I don’t think it’s a bad idea. It wouldn’t necessarily appeal only to atheists who miss church — it would probably bring in atheists who would like to go to conventions.

      I do object to calling it “religion” or “church” though. Paul Kurtz tried to introduce the term “Eupraxophy Center.” Didn’t catch on.

      1. “Atheist church” is more a media term than what local atheist get-togethers call themselves.

        Although the UK organization labelled “the atheist church” — the Sunday Assembly — did use that label themselves for PR purposes.

        Now they say, “Q. Why do you use the phrase Atheist Church? A. The phrase ‘atheist church’ was something we used when starting out. It seemed like a good shorthand phrase to explain what it is (and definitely helped us get press attention which has been vital in getting Sunday Assembly off the ground). However, we focus not on Atheism [sic] but on celebrating life.”

        It’s really trying to distance itself from movement atheism! “Q. Can we use Sunday Assembly as a vehicle for discussing or presenting atheist/humanist/godless philosophy? A. Ask yourself why you want to do that. Is it something you could do somewhere else? Will it alienate people? Is the speaker simply presenting some different philosophies or are they trying to explain why they are right and other people are wrong? Again – we really feel there is so much to celebrate in life and a ten minute talk about mindfulness or how you can use a potato to power your house is far more in the keeping of Sunday Assembly than ten minutes of atheist theory.”

        Not the sort of organization I’d want to belong to.


        1. Ah, this underlying philosophy differs from some of the other atheist Sunday get-togethers I’ve heard of. “Is the speaker … trying to explain why they are right and other people are wrong?” “Alienating?”

          While I’d probably have no problem listening to “a ten minute talk about mindfulness or how you can use a potato to power your house,” I’m with you. If I wanted smug self-righteous assumptions that debate and disagreement are divisive and hurtful, I’d join the UU.

      2. That’s the thing. If it’s going to be recognizably called a church, it’s going to be one of those godawful Sunday sermon things. And who needs that? We can do just fine without the church stuff — and that doesn’t at all mean we have to abandon music or poetry or potluck dinners or any of the rest. It’s the forced gathering of it into the authoritative structure of a church that’s the problem….


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