At least half a dozen readers have called my attention to John Gray’s review in The New Statesman of Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. de Botton, you’ll recall, is the guy who wants humanists and atheists to adopt the trappings of religion—weekly meetings, sermons, holidays and the like—to enforce our deep need for social ritual. de Botton also proposed the erection of an atheist temple, though that appears to have fallen by the wayside.
I don’t have much use for de Botton’s ideas, but I feel sorry for his having fallen into the clutches of Gray, who appears to be a nasty piece of work. I haven’t followed his writings, but he’s described as the head book reviewer for The New Statesman. His review of de Botton’s book, which is mixed, turns out to be a review (and a critical one) of atheism. And it’s snide in the way that only a pompous British intellectual can be snide (recall Terry Eagleton):
A few snippets from Gray:
The paradox of an immensely powerful mind mistrusting the intellect is not new. Pascal needed intellectual humility because he had so many reasons to be proud of his intelligence. It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless. Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali – to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions – lacking in intellectual vitality? The question is absurd but the fact it can be asked at all might be thought to pose a difficulty for de Botton.
I don’t think Augustine, Maimonides, and the like were stupid. Who has ever claimed that? And they’re not thoughtless, for they had lots of thoughts. It’s just that those thoughts were misguided, and theologians who follow them are even more misguided, since the history of science has eaten away whatever evidence for God existed for these men. The people who are really misguided—indeed, deluded—are modern theologians who try to find the missing evidence for God and even speculate on God’s nature. They are wasting their time and their intellect. Think of all the ways society would be better if theologians were engaged in more rational pursuits!
I don’t have a problem with Biblical studies, for that’s an empirically based discipline that aims to reconstruct the origins of religion and its scriptures, nor do I have a problem with comparative religion classes. I do have a problem with people getting paid, as they are in my own University, to speculate about the mind of God and make up stuff trying to demonstrate his existence, omnipotence, and general character.
Thomas Jefferson had the right idea when he founded the University of Virginia: he dictated that “a professorship of theology should have no place in our institution.” And indeed, U. Va. has none now. It’s a pity that institutions as august as Harvard and The University of Chicago do.
More from Gray on de Botton:
Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion – communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which very often coexists with faith.
Today’s atheists will insist that these goods can be achieved without religion. In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science. Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity.
Two this I have two responses. Yes, “these goods can be achieved without religion.” They are, regularly, in Europe, particularly in northern Europe.
Second: the comparative value of science and religion. I offer Gray a choice: the choice between living in a world in which religion never arose but science did, or a world in which science never arose but religion did. Which would you choose?