Alain de Botton’s Bizarre Atheism Isn't What Atheists Want

If Alain de Botton's "Atheism 2.0" is where “atheism” is going, I’ll gladly retract the label for myself and settle on “rational materialist.”

Mar 22 2012, 6:55pm

Philosopher and author Alain de Botton, who was recently interviewed here on Motherboard, generally brushes off the "God or no God" aspect of the religion debate, declaring it, essentially, over. While de Botton and I share the same side of this specific debate, I certainly don't believe it is anywhere near concluded.

Most believers, even moderate ones, build their religious foundation on at least a few presumed "facts" of their religion – of, say, the virgin birth or the reincarnation of the soul. It is in discussing the rational plausibility of the miraculous claims of religions that we get to the true heart of the matter. De Botton surely believes in the weakness of any claim that falls apart when faced with the rigor of scientific inquiry, but I believe it's lazy and misguided to consider the entire debate over. It is in the constant arguing, and subsequent dismantling of these presumed "facts," that progress away from ancient superstitions will, and has already, happened.

But de Botton's main interest is the non-superstitious aspects of religion – the art, institutional organization, and sense of community that religions offer. It is these aspects, he argues, that offer "guidance." Guidance to me is a nebulous idea, and presents an important question: Who do I trust to guide me? De Botton says, in his Motherboard interview, that he wrote his book, Religion For Atheists, because our "spiritual needs are still in chaos, with religion ceasing to answer the need." He continues:

But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. Yet the modern education system denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control. We are far more desperate than the modern education system recognizes. All of us are on the edge of panic and terror pretty much all the time – and religions recognize this…So I am deeply interested in the way that religions are in the end institutions, giant machines, organizations, directed to managing our inner life. There is nothing like this in the secular world, and this seems a huge pity.


First off, the claim that we are all "on the edge of panic and terror pretty much all the time" strikes me as sensational and cheap. It is not a satisfying justification for what I consider to be the most unsettling pivot point of de Botton's thesis – the fact that he thinks it is a "huge pity" that modern secular society doesn't have a "giant machine" that is "directed to managing our inner life."

This strikes me as serious blank slate thinking. De Botton believes that one's inner life, which he says is composed of, "… ideas about goodness, about death, family, community etc," is innately lacking, and requires institutional guidance to be properly aligned with a functional secular society. In a few sentences, de Botton, a proud non-believer, has reverently supported perhaps the most problematic aspect of organized religion – the power of the tribe. Tribalism, most thinking atheists contend, is the feature of religion that has caused the most societal problems, hands down. Indeed, religious tribalism divides as many communities as it builds.

The truth is, humans can form communities on their shared interests, or merely the fact that they're neighbors and hope to get along (the latter is the essential basis of arguments about humans' innate sense of morality). We don't need a philosophically stubborn (and factually dubious) set of ideas to bond with one another, and we certainly don't need to believe in the impiety of others to stay tight-knit in our own community. Surely de Botton is not arguing for an atheist tribe that looks down on, or is aggressive toward, religious tribes, or is defined by some kind of atheist bible. Though he is, in a way, the worst kind of cynic; the belief that humans are all “children” and need institutional guidance to do the right thing is, at best, scornful, at worst, eerily fascist.

Is this what atheists want? Are the very things I, and presumably most rational atheists, bristle at – tribalism and arrogant didacticism – practices worth any serious consideration? If this is where "atheism" is going, I'm happy to retract the label for myself and settle on "rational materialist."