Swiss writer/thinker Alain de Botton has been making the rounds with his new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion in which he revisits the French Revolution attempt to create a ‘secular religion.’ Meaning, he rejects the New Atheist tendency to dismiss religion altogether, instead choosing to highlight a few factors that might be worth preserving, post-God, an “Atheism 2.0″ if you will. As he points out in an article for Forbes, he’s not the first to hazard the idea – it’s been a humanist hobby ever since there were humanists (or professional athletes) – but what is relatively distinctive are the religious elements he wishes to cherry-pick. That is, de Botton’s not primarily looking to ‘religion’ for insights about charity or ‘random acts of kindness.’ Instead, he advocates for the peculiar ability of religion to put man into proper perspective and counter-act our predisposition toward hubris, in the process shedding more than a little light on the vacuousness of much of what passes for the ‘secular’ mindset these days when it comes to the human condition and human enterprise. In other words, a little pessimism might do us all a little good, and even allow for a bit of much-needed compassion re: misfortune…
Of course, while he may be on to something, de Botton’s project is ultimately a silly one; religious ideas will always make a poor substitute for a living God. Call me, er, pessimistic, but one can’t help but notice how the scaffolding, no matter how exquisite, always falls down when it becomes the focus, that is, when there’s nothing there to hold it up, ht SY:
We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of our veneration than our brilliant and morally-troubling fellow human beings.
A secular religion would hence begin by putting man into context and would do so through works of art, landscape gardening and architecture. Imagine a network of secular churches, vast high spaces in which to escape from the hubbub of modern society and in which to focus on all that is beyond us.
A third aspect of secular religion would be to offer us lessons in pessimism. The religion would try to counter the optimistic tenor of modern society and return us to the great pessimistic undercurrents found in traditional faiths. It would teach us to see the unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within the magnanimous secular assurance that everyone can discover happiness through work and love. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfillment, only that they almost never do so. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and incompleteness in the human lot, our modern secular ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages and our unexploited ambitions, condemning us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution. A secular religion would build temples and anoint feast days to disappointment.
A secular religion would deeply challenge liberal ideology. Most contemporary governments and even private bodies are devoted to a liberal conception of help, they have no ‘content’, they want to help people to stay alive and yet they make no suggestions about what these people might do with their lives. This is the opposite of what religions have traditionally done, which is to teach people about how to live, about good (or not so good) ways of imagining the human condition and about what to strive for and to esteem. Modern charities and governments seek to provide opportunities but are not very thoughtful about, or excited by what people might do with those opportunities.
There is a long philosophical and cultural history which explains why we’ve reached the condition known as modern secular society. Yet it seems there’s no compelling argument to stay here.
Update 3/7/12: De Botton gave a TED talk in July 2011 which he summed up much of the same material. No less convincing in an ultimate sense, but undeniably charming and refreshing in terms of its anthropology (esp considering the increasingly self-satisfied status quo). And his riff on sermons is a truly delicious bit of irony.