Thursday, February 2, 2012

Alain de Botton's Atheism 2.0

“And the fox said to the little prince: men have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

Alain de Botton, who is what you might call a pop philosopher, recently gave a TED talk that ties in with his new book, Religion for Atheists. I haven’t read the book yet (it was just released on the 26th) but what he says in the TED talk has some bearing on things I’ve dealt with recently.

The first thing I want to say is that, as has been pointed out by people much smarter than I, people who style themselves freethinkers are very quick to point out flaws and relatively reluctant to praise virtues. Our mental circuitry is trained to detect bullshit, to re-evaluate the status quo; these are necessary skills but occasionally when one of our own comes up with a really good idea that isn’t quite perfect, we tend to congratulate ourselves for fixing the minor details and completely fail at promoting the idea at large.

It is with that in mind that I say this: I like Alain de Botton. I read Consolations of Philosophy a few months ago, and while it wasn’t hugely illuminating to someone who has already studied philosophy elsewhere, it was a brilliant introductory piece and a fantastic and worthy idea for a book, because of the misconception that philosophy is an abstract and arcane art with no practical relevance.

I like the way he looks at life, I like the way he talks, and I like what he’s trying to do here. I must and will give him credit where it’s due throughout this piece, and may even overcompensate because of the aforementioned problem. But (and you knew there was a “but”) I do have some fairly large problems with some of the things he says.

Firstly, just because it irks me that a fellow atheist seems to be buying into the tropes of the religious, this is not really a “new way of being an atheist.” If nothing else, Sam Harris’ attempt at hedonic meta-ethics The Moral Landscape should show that de Botton is not the only atheist attempting to be constructive.

In his assessment of the territory, though, de Botton is absolutely right. We genuinely have secularised badly - we have avenged ourselves from one extreme by flying to the other, as humans are wont to do, and reversed stupidity is not intelligence. In our blanket-rejection of religion many people have lost some valuable things.

Now, the religious tend to either claim the hole left by community is a hole left by God, or commit the Package Deal Fallacy and claim you should believe all the doctrine of religion just so you get the benefit of the community. And believe me when I tell you they have been having a field day with de Botton’s proposals, completely missing his point in the process. But if we think about this properly, we absolutely can have our cake and eat it too - design institutions that give us the benefits of organised religion without the downsides of the doctrine.

De Botton's comments on education are spot-on. What we have now is not really education, a way of growing our minds and giving us the thinking skills to be an effective citizen, but training - a way of preparing you for the workforce. It deserves a blog post of its own, but we really do need to re-evaluate the way we educate children, and he touches on several of the more pressing reasons.

His idea about reviving the sermon is a good one too - the “I have a dream” speech, or an inspirational TED talk, would not be objectionable to a freethinker, and these are essentially sermons (though it might be a bad idea to call them that). While we shouldn’t turn off our critical thinking for an inspirational sermon any more than we should for an informational lecture, we have definitely neglected inspiration in the secular world.

So too his idea about backing up a philosophical idea with a physical action - this kind of ersatz-ritual plays on several psychological quirks (too complicated to go into here) to both act as a mnemonic and imbue us with a sense of accomplishment or closure (or whatever else). I hadn’t even considered such an application so I’m very impressed with this idea, if I’m honest, and will think further on it.

I’m less convinced about what he says about the state of modern art - while I broadly agree with him on what art should do, and while I like his suggestion about how to organise galleries, I don’t think the state of the art is quite as bad as he suggests. I can’t speak for the Guggenheim, but on the walls of local galleries and the bricks of local alleyways, and (tellingly) on the internet, meaningful art is definitely alive and well.

I see his point about the arranging of the calendar to introduce us to ideas, but I think we do that already - ANZAC Day, Thanksgiving, and Movember are secular examples of arranging our calendar to remind us of concepts. While we could definitely stand to alter precisely which concepts we promote, I think the secular world understands this concept quite well.

But it’s around here, with the rituals and the arranging of the calendar, that you begin to see the problem - and when he talks about repetition you really see it. Superficially, he’s right - a bit of critical thinking in high school is not really sufficient for a lifetime, and such lessons (indeed all lessons) must be periodically refreshed if we’re to remember them. That’s not an ideological point, it’s a simple fact about human brains.

The problem is, of course, how one gets this to happen. Do we introduce festivals like the moon festival he describes? Do we ensure, through peer pressure or even more nefarious means, that people attend an atheist temple and hear these inspirational sermons once a week? De Botton is broadly advocating doing things the way religions do and did - to follow their lead as exemplary case studies. I have some misgivings about that.

Because the primary mechanism by which these rituals spread is conformity - by it becoming the "done thing" to perform X ritual in Y situation. And because these things work by mechanisms of habit and social pressure, instead of rational argument and empirical observation, they have a tendency to get out of control; they just don’t have the necessary safeguards to hold them back. Indeed, just calling it a religion for atheists - and thus centralising the idea, rather than democratising the power - invites this problem, because the primary fault of religion is not that it is wrong, it's that its ideas are not grounded in reality. Scientists and philosophers have been wrong in the past too, and are undoubtedly wrong about some of the things they say now - but unlike religion, their ideas are refined as they make new observations.

De Botton, and others who have tossed around similar ideas in the past, seem to think that they are immune to falling for the same problems that religions have - but you may recall the story of Jesus getting rather irate with the money-lenders in the temple. Do you think he would have been happy with some of the more economic-minded decisions the church has made since then? Given the subject matter at hand, I don’t think it’s out of line to remind you where the road paved with good intentions is said to lead, either.

Thinking that it’ll all work itself out assumes that those who failed before were either silly or deliberately evil, when it just plain wasn’t the case. Designing institutions that will do precisely what you want them to do (provide community, foster art and awe, etc) without making the mistakes you’re trying to avoid (entrenched dogma, totalitarianism, conformity, etc) is actually very difficult. Indeed, it is much, much harder than it looks, and simply copying their religious incarnations without properly understanding how they work is a recipe for disaster.

Because while the dominant religions are indeed highly successful memes, you have to consider that sometimes the process is the point. Yes, it is much more effective to teach using the methods religion traditionally has, but when what you’re trying to teach includes the idea that indoctrination is bad, teaching that fact through indoctrination kind of misses the point. Yes, having buildings and artworks that properly imbue us with a sense of awe could help many aspects of life including our willingness to help our fellow creatures, but if we’re spending money on temples that would otherwise be spent on aid, it’s similarly counter-productive.

This is of course not what de Botton is suggesting. He has certainly given me some hope in tweets since the TED talk; for example, he retweeted someone who said “[de Botton] is not suggesting we build monuments to Atheism, but that atheists, too, should build monuments to cherished ideas.” Statements like this make me think he may have considered this in more depth in the book. But he still doesn’t seem to fully comprehend how easily these things can get out of control in the hands of the public.

Like I said, I absolutely agree with a lot of the problems de Botton points out - in our blanket rejection of religion we certainly have thrown out some valuable things. Better recognising what can be adapted and what must be discarded will be an arduous but necessary task. I merely suspect that in his haste, de Botton has swung too far back in the other direction - blindly picking up what we blindly discarded, without full consideration of the consequences.

Designing utopia is not a task for the faint-hearted. Designing utopia from a distance - when you need to effect massive changes in multiple spheres, each of which may have unintended consequences you need to correct for - is a trillion times harder. While Dawkins et al have indeed written on similar issues in the past, de Botton is making one of the most serious attempts to actually work towards it, and he is to be commended for that. We often underestimate what a huge leap it is between noting a problem in passing and actually making a concerted effort to fix it.

So, hell yes! If you’re a teacher or a person in a position to push education reform - do it! If you’re an artist, create art that says something! If you’re an architect - design something that evokes awe! If you’re just some random dude surfing the internet and you find yourself moved by the mind-blowing Hubble Telescope Images - share them with your friends! Donate to charity, write a book, get a group of people together to fight for a cause…we can all do our bit to make the world a more awesome place, and we should not reject the numinous just because of its religious ties.

But as I’ve said before, atheism does not and cannot have doctrine and this effort to make a religion for atheists is therefore somewhat misguided - the things that fill the religious hole must come from decentralised, separate entities. But as we move into the future and design independent, secular institutions; as we look to what we as individuals can do in the world of art and design; as we slowly attempt to build utopia, Alain de Botton is certainly someone we should pay attention to.

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