Alain De Botton has decided that the current state of atheism is no good and has instead proposed what he decides to call "Atheism 2.0". But is Atheism 2.0 really any different from Atheism 1.0? Who does Alain De Botton think he is arguing against? Why promote this now?
I think we need a bit of background first of all....
Why Have An "Atheism 2.0"?
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Religion For Atheists?
Alain De Botton is a popularist philosophy writer. There was a point where his book "The Consolations of Philosophy" was on shelves everywhere, though he wasn't really so interested in exploring the ins and outs of classical philosophy as giving a massively simplified and trivial version. Still, as was noted before, sometimes you can't show the entire depth of the argument if you want to appeal to the wider market.
His latest ideas in his book "Religion For Atheists" are explored in a lecture viewable here:
He also gives an impassioned speech about the ideas of "Religion For Atheists" in the audio form and you can listen to that here.
He says that the most boring question about religion is whether or not it is "true" and says that the issue has become a matter obsession for "fanatical atheists". I think what he ignores here is that while it might be "boring", the matter of truth is actually rather important. There are number of reasons to say this because there are plenty of cases where the unquestionable truth and authority of doctrine and/or scripture is used to justify what are sometimes quite influential political positions. Proposals for limiting access to abortion, limiting rights of certain groups in society, insisting on old traditional stances on gender roles, promoting abstinence education and, yes, even ID Theory are all often (though admittedly not every single time for every single one of these examples) tied to the believed doctrinal truth and authority of particular religions.
Essentially De Botton takes the old line that while you might not believe in religions you should still respect them. The question arises once again: What is it about religions which makes them worthy of respect? I don't think De Botton actually has an answer to this though (or at least not a convincing one).
De Botton claims that religion serves two central needs "which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill":
1) "The need to live together in communities in hamony, despite our deeply rooted, selfish, violent impulses."
2) "The need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our own decay and demise."
Or to put it another way:
1) Secularism heralds the breakdown of society.
2) There are no atheists in foxholes.
To be quite frank, the need for secularism would appear to me to arise precisely from the fact that, when people all belong to different faiths, religion doesn't help to promote harmony. Religion is often divisive and sectarian. As such, the idea that setting up non-religious communities must involve learning from the actions of the religious seems like nonsense. Far more often than not, the lessons are more likely to be cautionary tales; examples of what NOT to do when trying to foster a spirit of unity in diversity. Yes, there have already been figures like Martin Luther King and Haille Selassie who have been religious and attacked social injustices in ways that might be inspiring to the non-religious, but these figures can often be seen to be actively subverting the religious ideas they were brought up with. Dr. King, for example, takes the example of "the promised land" but does not imagine it as a contested strip of land or as some kind of post-apocalyptic paradise, but rather as the hope of a united humanity.
On the second point, I'll firstly note that atheists are found in all walks of life and don't appear to see their disbelief in God as a disadvantage. However, I think it's also worth asking, if atheistic modes of tackling these issues are so unskilful, why are there religious groups pretending to offer therapy without the professional background in the subject? Surely if religious methods were superior to secular ones on this front, Churches and places of worship would already be pioneers in the field, with absolutely no need to use fraudulent behaviour like this in order to promote themselves?
Rallying Points For The Failings Of Secularism...
Alain De Botton makes a number of points at this stage on the failings of secularism. But these points about modern society are either patently the result of good common sense or quite clearly false:
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Useful and Effective?
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Yeah sure we can learn a few things from studying religion, but that doesn't mean religion deserves respect or politeness automatically. Religion used to be a much more central part of society than it is today and inevitably a great deal of what is good in society today will be based on the more religion-centered form that came before. But most often, the better way to tackle these kinds of issues is to cut out the religion. In fact even some religions are retreating from the term "religion", themselves recognising that certain religious ideas are simply no good. Some of these figures will want to retreat to some more primordial and "pure" version of their religion, insisting that their shift away from religion makes their ideas even more traditional, while others will be more progressive noting that old religious ideas have also been tied to old political and cultural ideas (noting, for example, that a morality based on honour and shame is clearly present in the Bible, but is rightly alien to our modern sensibility). Even the religious can tell that religion isn't all great and it would be extremely stupid of us not to share the fruits of this important lesson.