What do you make of it? Obviously a talk full of chutzpah, and he raises some very interesting points, but I think De Botton has to answer the following questions (and maybe he does in the book, which I haven’t yet read):
He says he wants the ritualistic and communal aspects of religion without the doctrine. That reminds me of Oscar Wilde loving the incense and costume of Catholic mass without caring at all for its values. It is – or could easily become – a form of dandy-ish aestheticism.
It seems an individualistic, lonely project, for all De Botton’s longing for community. If you want the community of religion, then you need to commit, as a group, to a particular set of ethics, beliefs, or ‘doctrines’. The word ‘community’ comes from the same root as ‘commitment’, and I don’t think you can have the one without the other.
If you just want the art of Christianity, you can go to a gallery now, you don’t need a ‘new religion’. If you want the music of Christianity, you can go to a concert now. If that’s not communal enough for you, if you want something deeper, then you need to decide what you believe, find people who share those beliefs, and join together with them to build a community or movement.
Of course you can set up an ethical community which isn’t theistic – but that community would still needs to decide what ethics it follows, what it demands from its followers, and decide what is the end it is striving for. Action for Happiness, for example, is committed to a Utilitarian ethics. I don’t agree with its ethics, but at least it knows what it believes, and in that sense, it’s closer to a religion for atheists than anything De Botton has come up with – although it doesn’t really have the rituals yet, or know what its followers should do once they’ve joined. It’s still an incredibly shallow form of community, in terms of the ties between its members and the ethical commitment demanded from them.
De Botton’s School of Life, by contrast, does not offer people a particular ethics for them to commit to. That’s why it is so far from a church, despite its ‘Sunday sermons’. It is a philosophy shop – people pay to listen to various ideas, without having to commit to any of them. Nothing is demanded from them, apart from the entrance fee. I think it’s a great organisation, a really valuable addition to the cultural map, but I think we can agree it’s a long way from a religion (even if it is now setting up new outposts in other countries).
What De Botton presents in this talk is a set of instrumental techniques taken from religion, unattached now to any particular moral beliefs. He says we should make paintings didactic again, because it’s an effective technique for moral instruction. But what morals should they instruct? Mao used paintings to indoctrinate his people in Maoism. Surely you have to decide what morals your ‘religion for atheists’ is going to implant, rather than focusing entirely on techniques for indoctrination? Otherwise this is not a religion, it’s public relations – techniques for propaganda unattached to any particular moral values.
A genuine ‘religion for atheists’ would have to decide: what does it demand from its members? It would have to go beyond the rather easy market liberalism of the School of Life, and actually ask its members to make ethical sacrifices and commitments. Without that shared ethics and commitment, the community you end up with is inevitably going to be shallow, with much weaker ties than a genuine religion or philosophical movement. Not really a community at all, more a loose collection of strangers.
Emptying religion of ethical commitment and turning it into a set of techniques is like saying ‘I want sex without commitment’. OK, you can learn various techniques for good sex, you can even set up places where strangers go to bonk each other, but it’s not going to be as deep an experience – for that, you need shared values, and a commitment to each other.
To set up a genuine religious or philosophical movement, you have to have beliefs that people are willing to live for and even die for. People gave their life for Marxism, for Stoicism, for Buddhism. But who would be a martyr for the School of Life?
Any ‘religion for atheists’, if it is going to be serious and have a set of beliefs rather than personal techniques for personal happiness (which is just atomised self-help, not religion at all) then needs to decide: who sets these beliefs? Who sets the moral agenda? Who decides what values art should didactically spread? Who decides what moral values should be repeated by the followers throughout life? Who sets the creed? Who are the ‘experts’ or what Coleridge called the ‘clerisy‘? What if a follower disagrees with the prescribed ethics?
Any religious or philosophical community has to decide on its power structure – that’s true even of Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Pythagoreanism, Marxism and so on. If they become more than personal philosophies, if they become communities or movements, they have to grapple with such questions.
I’d like to see De Botton grappling with these difficult questions more. I don’t see him sweating, and I think philosophy should involve a bit of grappling, a bit of sweat. Otherwise you’re not really challenging yourself and your own arguments.
De Botton seems horrified by the thought of committing to particular beliefs, values, doctrines. He wants to move beyond market liberalism, but he’s afraid to, perhaps because he’s afraid it would put off his audience and make him seem Victorian and Thomas Carlyle-esque. He wants to keep his tongue in his cheek and his audience chuckling along. He wants to keep it light. No doctrines here, tra la la.
But I think secretly he really does want to start a religion for atheists, he really does want to move beyond market liberalism to a sort of moral paternalism (have a look at this piece he wrote last year, defending moral paternalism). He is Oscar Wilde, secretly longing to be Thomas Carlyle. But if you really want to be a new Thomas Carlyle, Alain, you need to appreciate the importance of being earnest.
To be fair to De Botton, I think he is grappling with these questions, and the School of Life as an organisation is a big step in the right direction. All of us in the grassroots practical philosophy movement are pondering these questions, and they’re not easy to solve – partly because no one wants to be accused of running a cult. I personally think he just needs to take the plunge, tell us what he believes, and embrace his inner Thomas Carlyle.