Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Leading Atheist on What's Wrong with Atheism

Prominent atheist Alain de Botton recently gave an interview to Talking Philosophy regarding his latest book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. The purpose of the book is to look at how religion has functioned for society and, insofar as religion has been successful in its more beneficent efforts, to identify areas in which a purely secular culture may profit from the adoption and adaptation of religious ideas and methods. In fairness then, my admittedly sensationalist title might better read "Leading Atheist on What's Right with Religion." One of the features of the interview, however, that makes it immediately inviting for believers to read is that de Botton is upfront and candid about what he sees as four potential dangers that atheism faces and to which theism is not (or at least less) susceptible. It is critical to note that de Botton rightly sees these as pitfalls to be avoided rather than inescapable defects in atheism. Below are his four dangers of a purely secular worldview, with my own elaboration of each included.

  1. Individualism: When the absolute and transcendent "other" in God is removed from the equation, humanity becomes a level-playing field. More destructively, as the only human who is me, I am faced with the overwhelming temptation to understand and interact with the world as if I am somehow special within it, to behave as if my will is intrinsically more valuable (because it, tautologically, coincides perfectly with what I want). One feature which finds near ubiquitous emphasis in the world's religions, as universalists are quick to point out, is some version of the ethical imperative "Treat one another as you would like to be treated." In a world without religion, such an ethos need not necessarily exist.
  2. Technological Perfectionism: Even among the religious, there seems to be a pervasive belief that technology is marching inevitably toward social utopia. It plays out in every corner of our society. With enough research, we will do away with cancer and heart disease and AIDS. It never occurs to us that there may be new incurable diseases just around the corner. With enough research, green energy will replace oil and give us peace in the Middle East. It never occurs to us that we were making war before we were making cars. Accurately, de Botton critiques the prevailing myth that "it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition." In a world where science is the ultimate arbiter of truth, there is a temptation to create a techno-soteriology that is unrealistic and, to a degree, dangerous.
  3. Contemporary Exceptionalism: A world without God is more prone to lack not only a sacred history but also a normative image of the future and an eschatological vision of an ultimate telos. The result is the mistaken belief that the now is somehow privileged because we live in it. There is a tendency to want to downplay the achievements and importance of past humans who lived in past moments and to ignore the possible achievements and importance of future humans who will live in moments that we will never experience. By virtue of our presence in this place and moment, there is tendency to lose sight of just how transient our time is and how qualified the importance of our achievements is.
  4. Ethical Nihilism: This is not to suggest that one cannot be an atheist and be ethical. I have atheist acquaintances who are at times genuinely upset that I won't embrace the common evangelical tactic of claiming that there are no morals without God. It is impossible to deny, however, that there are internally consistent ethical systems which are entirely atheistic. The fear here is not whether or not someone can be ethical without God but what it is that compels them to be ethical without God. Evil, such as it is, becomes blurred in a system where humans are left to identify it independently. As we struggle to decide what is right and what is wrong, there is not ultimate, incontestable arbiter of whose definition of evil is correct. There is nothing to compel me to accept your ethos, nothing to make you accept mine. Rampant ethical relativism, unchecked, quickly resolves itself into a society incapable of mustering the kind of moral majority necessary to resist corruption by evil. Ethics is possible for atheists, but the issue certainly becomes cloudier with the removal of God.

Of course, none of this commends theism any more than it condemns atheism. It certainly wasn't my purpose to try to do either, nor was it de Botton's. It does, however, represent a necessary exercise for atheists who want to have a rigorous understanding of their own worldview. The impulse among so many New Atheists is to expend all of their available energy finding every conceivable flaw in theism. It is fruitful, therefore, to see de Botton critique this emphasis latter in the interview:

What is your view of the so-called New Atheist critique advanced by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others?

Attempting to prove the non-existence of god can be entertaining...Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of my book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

What de Botton ultimately recommends to his atheist readers is a middle path between belief and militant unbelief. It is a perhaps a more genuinely reasonable path that is not ashamed to disbelieve but that at the same time recognizes the real role that belief has played in society. It recognizes the importance of religion has played in addressing central human questions that are not done away with simply because religions are done away with. It applauds the good, abhors the bad, and, at the end of the day, finishes in a more satisfied and stronger position than the New Atheists.

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