Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Naughty neo-atheism versus nice Mr Alain de Botton

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Given his reputation for responding swiftly, and sometimes savagely, to his critics I must confess I'm rather disappointed not to have heard from Alain de Botton, after the interview I did with him for the current issue of New Humanist. He generally responds if he feels he has been misquoted or maligned, so perhaps I was too faithful to his arguments or too nice. Which would be ironic seeing as that is what I said his book Religion for Atheists was - too nice. There are a lot of things in the book which I agree with – especially the diagnosis of what is wrong with the current state of our art and education institutions, and what religion does quite well - nice buildings, lots of festivals. In fact quite a few of the responses I had to the piece were along the lines of - 'it made me see that Alain de Botton's arguments aren't as stupid as I thought'. Fair enough, I wanted to give his arguments fair play, but I hope I didn't give the impression that I bought them in the end. I didn't. Reading the book and meeting him left me in something of a quandary. He was nice, and the book is nice and the whole thing was just so very bloody nice that, in the end, it led me to think that it lacked a really persuasive edge and that, in the end, religion is both better and worse than he (a very strong atheist) thinks. Better because it has more life than his sterile vision of wholesome therapeutic secularism - tons of blood, evil, contradiction and drama. Worse because a lot of people still buy the metaphysical claims of religion, and this means we (that is, the atheists) have a fundamental disagreement with the religious which needs to be argued about and cannot be dissolved by us all being nicer to each other and respecting each others feelings (or fudged with the Non-Overlapping Magisteria argument) .

I am reminded of my disquiet about de Botton's proposals reading Bryan Appleyard's piece in the New Statesman characterising neo-atheism as a cult, with a "project" to replace religion with an "incoherent idea of reason". Appleyard starts and ends his piece at dinner, with humanist-baiter John Gray, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Alain de Botton, where they apparently analyse the shortcomings of the neo-atheist cult over nibbles and guffaw at the inconsistencies of Christopher Hitchens over the cheeses course. For evidence of this cult of intolerance Appleyard says that de Botton has been the victim of an "atheist fatwa", complete with threats of violence. No doubt de Botton, due to his public profile, receives lots of negative comments, as everyone does on the internet, but he got criticism for previous books about architecture and work as well, and no one suggested that this was organised by a cult or amounted to a fatwa. De Botton told me himself that he is 'hated' by much of the intellectual elite, because he is a populist and popular. He also courts the controversy as a good way to sell books, which it is. Its a bit rich for Appleyard to use this as evidence of  a supposed cult of intolerance rather than say evidence of the tendency for all kinds of people – de Botton included – to say stupid and aggressive things online from the safety of their own rooms.

I'm sure Alain de Botton can look after himself anyway, and doesn't need Appleyard or Gray (for whom this line is a leitmotif) to help him by characterising neo-atheism, or new-atheism, or any kind of atheism as a cult with a project. There is no such thing. There are people writing books and speaking at events, some famous, most not, some with strong political views some with none, but no "project" to replace religion (perhaps some aspire to this, some don't), no plan, no cadre or sleeping cell, no fatwa and no track record or interest in using violence. Some of them, just like Alain de Botton and, who knows, Brian Appleyard himself, are nice people. Some of them aren't, like any group of people. The only aim is to start a debate and then win the argument that ensues (and we most of us know this will be provisional). This is exactly what de Botton says he wants to do, so presumably he welcomes the critical responses as part of that debate. Calling those who disagree with you intolerant or a cult is a pretty cheap way to try and win the debate.
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