alain de botton’s religious atheism

The dream is always the same. I awaken to find I’ve been transformed, not into a hideous insect, but into something much worse: Alain de Botton, my doppelganger.

Like me, de Botton loves Proust. Like me, de Botton likes classical and medieval philosophy, and approaches philosophy as a conversation about the conduct of life. By themselves, those facts aren’t overly remarkable. But now he’s jumped the shark. He’s on tour promoting a book on basically the exact same subject as my dissertation. His new book, Religion for Atheists, asks what a secular society can “import” from religious traditions. For four years now, I’ve been looking at Henry James, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, investigating their projects for rebuilding society. Every one of these artists wanted to rebuild society by applying religious ideas and practices in creative new ways. If there was world enough and time, I would have studied even more figures, from the poet Hilda Doolittle to James’s own brother William.

In other words, the secular appropriation of religion has been underway since the 19th Century. At many points during the 20th Century, it was almost unchallenged as the artistic raison d’etre. During certain periods, “reinventing religion” is what almost every artist and intellectual was trying to do. Still, for the most part, secular religion failed. There were many reasons why, including the fact that most people were, and are, actually religious, and find this whole endeavor either amusing or offensive. The dream isn’t necessarily over, but we’re not at liberty to just shrug off those monumental attempts if we want to change anything at all.

Alain de Botton ignores the history, skipping ahead to present the world with his own eccentric mixture of commonplace advice and wild speculation. He’s getting good publicity because it makes fantastic copy. Wouldn’t it be wild if restaurants were like this? In a short newspaper column, it’s perfectly easy to stop right there. It’s an instant “think piece.” It works for every possible reader. Religious readers will appreciate de Botton’s stern reproofs to atheists who think we can do without religion. Atheists will appreciate that he says “atheist” a lot. He seems bipartisan.

Yet when you stop to consider de Botton’s actual claims and ideas, they crumble at the slightest pressure. Mostly, this is because an equivalent for what de Botton’s proposing already exists, though not always.

Secular Temples
We already have secular temples. They’re called museums, campuses, libraries, parks. I know — this is such an obvious objection that it almost feels like something must be wrong with it, but de Botton’s idea is really that empty. The fact that he’s included drawings of a “secular temple” is the sort of overreach that I’d find slightly endearing — if it wasn’t echoing the complaints of fascists who really did build new temples, enshrining their power.

Agape Restaurants
That is, restaurants where strangers “break bread” together and interact. If de Botton doesn’t think this exists, he hasn’t looked very hard. There are lots of cafeterias and restaurants that seat strangers together. I’ve been to such places in cities all over the world. Most Hare Krishna restaurants operate this way, as do many university eating facilities. There are also restaurants of all sorts, mostly quite normal, but with a slightly “hippie” mentality and thus communal seating. de Botton gets away with asking “Why don’t we eat together?” because he’s writing for middle-class professionals; after a long day of stressful interactions, the last thing they want is to be surrounded by importunate strangers. But that doesn’t mean a few people wouldn’t like a chance to do some hand-wringing about our tragically lonely eating habits. de Botton’s pitching to them.

He claims we don’t sing together. We do. It’s called “karaoke.” We get up in front of huge crowds of strangers and sing our lungs out. If that’s too technological and modern, and de Botton prefers a group of people singing without mikes, in a circle around a guitar player — that happens too. It’s rarer than karaoke, to be sure, but at some point one must ask: who are we to start imposing one condition after another on how people do their communal singing? At an earlier point in history the church organ was a technological wonder, too.

He claims we don’t go on pilgrimages — because he’s thinking of himself. Young people go on pilgrimages constantly. Youth hostels are stuffed with pilgrims. Some of them are on a religious quest. Others are just looking for culture, adventure, and romance. If older people weren’t pinned down by work and family, they would probably turn pilgrim also, much more often they do right now. Still, there are older pilgrims. They eat, pray, and love.

It’s obvious that he hasn’t gone to raves, or to the Burning Man Festival, or to countless other contemporary, thriving experiments in “intentional community.” I’m not naive about the limitations of such events, which are severe, but I also wouldn’t embark on a book about the post-religious in ignorance of them. One of their greatest limitations also goes for “agape restaurants”: they self-select. You get a group of people who are unusually willing to interact with strangers under novel conditions. That is not a representative slice of any industrialized Western society, nor is it the only community to which the participants belong. They go home, and go back to knowing nobody on their street.

There are versions of this book that might, conceivably, be good. I could imagine a good “Communalism, Humility, and Consolation for Dummies” book. It would tell you how to sing karaoke, where to find cafeterias, how to go on a modern pilgrimage, and how to approach conflict in a more humble manner. It wouldn’t be for society; it would be for you. I can also imagine a good book about lessons from underrepresented religions. Let’s hear about Zoroaster. Let’s hear about Quetzalcoatl. Let’s hear from Shinto. If we need a new approach, is it really going to come from Judao-Christianity and Buddhism, the same combination that failed T. S. Eliot? By ignoring even Islam, de Botton guarantees that his book will have very little new to say.

I have no idea why de Botton thinks his book is compatible with his Twitter feed, but it’s not, and the disconnect is instructive. I unfollowed him a while back, but checking in right now, here’s one of his latest thefts from Proust: “We should keep a diary of incidents of envy — from which to deduce what to do next.” Also this: “There are people we’d have forgotten about long ago if they hadn’t started to ignore us.” Every time de Botton posts a tweet, he’s broadcasting to a world full of strangers. The chance to be magnificent comes again, and again, and again. He’s not missing it by accident when he flatters our prickliness or envy. He’s not trying to spread light or warmth. The only reason to buy his book, or take his recycled “thesis” seriously, would be in order to do the same. To do nothing.

It’s like I sang in front of strangers the other night, while they shouted along: Well I’m sorry, but I don’t pray that way.