An Atheist Admires the Contributions of Religion

Atheist Alain de Botton believes that atheists and secularists can borrow a lot of good things from religion:

  • Religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with a practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation, ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture –  a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history. (Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, 18)

Truly, there are many reasons why the religious combination of “ethics and metaphysics” is productive. Most basically, monotheistic religions maintain that there are unchanging and transcendent Ideals and Truths (metaphysics) that trump even our immediate welfare.

There are many benefits buried in this understanding. For one thing, this understanding (faith) frees us up from the tyranny of our emotions. We no longer are enslaved to their passing whims and demands, knowing that something greater awaits us in the next life.

This faith – knowing that God is taking care of us – also frees us up to be other-centered. We certainly do not like everyone in our church, but we understand that love shouldn’t depend on our likes and dislikes, but on a higher calling. Interestingly, we find that as we love the unlikable, we might also grow to like them!

This faith also frees us up from self-absorption. There comes into our lives something greater with which to be absorbed. Our performance, popularity, and worldly esteem no longer matter to us as it once did. We know that we are forgiven and beloved and find growing joy in serving our Master.

This, of course, leads us to de Botton’s expectation that the secularist can borrow useful traits and behaviors from the Christian. He recognizes that:

  • We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so (80).

However, looking longingly through the car dealership window at a Ferrari is one thing; making it my own is another. We might admire its fuel-injection system and the energy it imparts. However, we will be very disappointed if we try to swallow it in the hope that we will be similarly energized.

It is precisely the same predicament that the atheist will face by trying to incorporate the things of God without God.

While I am glad that de Botton recognizes the “need [for] exhortations to be sympathetic and just,” the atheist has no adequate reason to heed such exhortations. De Botton correctly argues that such exhortations will produce a better world, but the human being is more interested in what will produce the better life for himself and those in his own household, and why shouldn’t he be!

De Botton bases his case on pragmatism – what will yield positive results. However, if our exhortations are pragmatically based, then pragmatism alone will tend towards self-centeredness and our immediate comforts. These considerations provide maximal benefits.

While it is easy to stage a concert to benefit a worthy cause – and in the short-run, this makes us feel very good about ourselves – it is unsustainable in the long-run. The personal pay-offs dry up as human history ubiquitously testifies. The benefit concert was exciting at first, but over time, it fails to provide high-octane, self-esteem building fuel.

Can the secularist live for the high moral principle itself? This brings us back to the basic flaw of atheism/secularism. There are simply no “higher” moral principles! In the atheistic world, there is nothing higher than his own feelings and opinions – no higher truth to which he will submit or even recognize. Secular Humanist, Max Hocutt, stated the problem this way:

  • “To me [the non-existence of God] means that there is no absolute morality, that moralities are sets of social conventions devised by humans to satisfy their needs…If there were a morality written up in the sky somewhere but no God to enforce it, I see no good reason why anyone should pay it any heed.” (Understanding the Times)

However, the atheist doesn’t even believe that there is a “morality written up in the sky.” Instead, morality is something we merely create. Hence, morality serves us; we don’t serve morality, and there is a monumental difference between the two!

This difference means that our cherished principles lack any unchanging basis. Therefore, they are relative to our changing thoughts, feelings and cultures.

De Botton wishes to borrow Christian principles and behaviors. However, he will find that secularism is even unable to retain the Christian principles that Western Civilization already enjoys. Let’s name a few:

  1. Mutual and Equal Respect. In the counseling world, this has been translated into “Unconditional Positive Regard” (UPR) for all people.
  2. Equal Protection under the Law (The Bill of Rights)

However, these rest upon a transcendent, biblical foundation, as our Declaration of Independence affirms:

  • That all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

However, this affirmation is not within the grasp of secularism/atheism, which is materialistic and naturalistic. In other words, reality is exclusively comprised from the ingredients of this material universe – no transcendent spiritual realities allowed here! But without the transcendent spiritual, there is no basis whatsoever for equal rights, respect and UPR.

Just imagine a secular psychotherapist who values UPR as a necessary psychotherapeutic tool – and it is! One problem – he has no rational basis to regard all his clients with UPR! From a materialistic perspective, some have positive value and some negative. Some are costly to people and society; others make positive contributions. Therefore, they do not merit equal respect, protection under the law or UPR! Why then extend UPR if reality doesn’t warrant it? From a materialistic perspective, some people merit nothing more than contempt.

This understanding might not stop the therapist from extending UPR, even though he ceases to believe in truth of UPR. However, he will soon realize that he is being manipulative and hypocritical. Eventually, this cognitive dissonance will undermine UPR and any concept of equal respect.

As a probation officer, I always treated my probationers with UPR, even while I exercised firmness with them. However, they sensed the respect I had for them, and I think that this made a difference. However, this posture is unsustainable for the atheist.

I pray that de Botton will come to realize that he cannot separate the gift of religion from the gift-Giver.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Daniel Mann

Daniel Mann has been an instructor of theology and apologetics at the New York School of the Bible for 20 years. He is also the author of several books, one published: "Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God's Way." He also gives seminars on marriage, depression and "Reasons to Believe in the Christian Faith."

  • tildeb

    (W)ithout the transcendent spiritual, there is no basis whatsoever for equal rights, respect and (mutual and equal respect).

    Sure there is: highly compelling reasons that have no need for gods or a god.

    You seem to have missed the entire Scottish enlightenment movement that set the very foundation for why individual autonomy is the necessary ingredient for legitimate government. This value basis – the legal autonomy of the individual – has transformed the world from one populated only by people assumed to be subjects of royalty and subjects magically endowed with certain divine rights to one where significant populations have legal rights envied by those still trapped in under various authoritarian governments.

    The principles of secularism in governance is the bedrock upon which these values of equal legal rights in practice (such as freedom of religion) can be empowered by the state. No theocracy has ever been able to achieve anything equivalent to this practice, which is why the central impediment to achieving these values in practice has been, remains, and shall continue to be contrary religious beliefs all too willing to give authority to some god rather than the individual.

    Look, religious belief always comes down to the individual submitting to the authority of some assumed divinity. This value of capitulation stands diametrically opposed to the secular value of individual autonomy from which legitimate consent to be governed comes. (This is why democracy without secularism is simply mob rule and doomed to failure of legal equality for the individual, which is exactly what we see being played out in the demise of the Arab Spring for example). To claim, as you do, that such individual autonomy that informs legal equality derives only from this nebulous notion you propose as “the transcendent spiritual” is incoherent; unless one starts with respect for individual autonomy as the basis – the very source – for legal rights, one cannot claim autonomy as a meaningful term if it is granted, bequeathed, or borrowed from some god (unless the notion is used simply as a rhetorical device like in the Bill of Rights. Note that there is not so much a s whisper about divine authority in the Constitution itself; it is unnecessary).

    The reason why anyone has secular rights recognized in law is because the law itself is empowered only by the individual whose consent to be so governed legitimizes it. Take away an individual’s legal autonomy and substitute some form of divine authority in its place, and you take away the basis of what constitutes legitimate law from people and transfer it to agents who soothe us with platitudes of acting on behalf of some imaginary law giver. This is theocracy and not secular democracy. When you allow this hijacking of your rights and freedoms to derive from some god, you eliminate the very source of legitimate law – the individual. You then seem oblivious to the danger of making all of us legal slaves to this hypothetical law giver. This capitulation to some other authority than each and every one of us is the polar opposite to the value of individual autonomy, the polar opposite to secular empowerment of the individual, the polar opposite to enlightenment values of dignity and respect of the individual to legitimize governance of the people, by the people, for the people. This willing capitulation you assume to be true undermines the very authority of the individual and argues it must be properly placed with some god, making us all subject to it and not ourselves, which is antithetical the foundational value of the US Constitution.

    Alain de Botton finds value in the trappings of religious belief and he tries to argue that it’s the job of atheism to create and implement some kind of similar secular trappings. His opinions carry no weight in the secular community and the main criticism against his ideas is that he does not pay enough attention to, nor adequately addresses, the ongoing danger to the public domain religion itself advocates and the very real harm such respect for it consistently produces. Our secular rights require vigilance and support from all of us to counterbalance those who foolishly utilize their secular freedoms and rights to try to undermine them in the name of piety.

    • Daniel Mann

      Tildeb, While we both value our protections as specified under the Bill of Rights, you believe that these are best safe-guarded by a mere secularism – “individual autonomy” or perhaps even “majority rules.”

      There are many problems with such a hope. If it is government that fundamentally grants them (and not God), then government can just as easily retract them! Besides, there is something inherently incoherent about secular materialism providing such a foundation. From a materialistic perspective, people are very different. Some contribute positively and some negatively to society. Without the transcendent perspective, there is no basis for this counter-intuitive and counter-observational concept of “equality.” It just doesn’t exist in nature. Our performance, intelligence and appearances vastly differ.

      Consequently, secularism cannot give an adequate explanation why our laws should protect humans and not animals or even bacteria. It gives us no basis to critique genocide or cannibalism. It is changeable and arbitrary and bereft of any moral authority. Nor can such a morality stand against the pressures of life.