Richard Dawkins argues that religion is essentially ridiculous. As Alain de Botton says “I think it’s too easy to dismiss the whole of religion that way.” I think he proposes a new, respectful and ultimately more convincing atheism. “I think there is an alternative, being both very respectful and completely impious, of stealing from religion.” The video is worth a watch.
What Is Religion?
This is the best definition I’ve seen. Religion is really a highly sophisticated technology.
Religion is a system of symbols that, when enacted by human beings, establishes powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations that make sense in terms of a general order of existence. (Bellah, xiv)
Think about it. There’s nothing about Gods and curses and gays and all the stuff we associate with ‘bad’ religion. Regarding Dawkins, I’ve argued that this bias is largely against Judeo-Christian religion and is inadequate for describing such a huge, varied and expansive subject as religion. If you want the Wikipedia definition:
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.
The problem with New Atheism is that it focuses on the symbols rather than the symbol system. And thus they largely miss the point.
The New Atheists write mainly from a scientific perspective. Unlike previous writers, many of whom thought that science was indifferent, or even incapable of dealing with the “God” concept, Dawkins argues to the contrary, claiming the “God Hypothesis” is a valid scientific hypothesis, having effects in the physical universe, and like any other hypothesis can be tested and falsified. (New Atheism: Wikipedia)
The symbols, stories and traditions are only part of a whole. It’s like looking at ones and zeroes, concluding that these numbers are random and arbitrary and thus concluding that your web browser doesn’t exist. Religion is a technology composed of sometimes retarded or insane parts that nevertheless computes a drastically altered reality in human brains and civilizations.
Any rebuttal of religion has to at least acknowledge this majesty and grandeur, and wisely co-opt it. You can say that there’s no God and that there is evolution and science, but that’s just the premise. It’s just the beginning. What really matters is the altered state that this knowledge can compute in human brains and cultures. To that end, De Botton accepts the basic premises of the New Atheism, but respectfully and impiously tries to move on.
Of course there’s no God. Of course there are no deities or supernatural spirits or angels etc. Now let’s move on. That’s not the end of the story, that’s the very very beginning (De Botton, the video above)
Answer The Questions
Dawkins recently spoke at the Galle Literary Festival, quite compellingly and to an appreciative crowd. One gentleman asked him what science could say about human sexuality and what a parent could teach their children. I thought it was a good question, but the crowd laughed and Dawkins said it wasn’t science’s business. That’s what’s wrong with his atheism. He gets the first part of what De Botton says and then stops. While he has debunked and explained the creation myth in great detail, there is little attention to the daily issues that religion helps people with. That’s where his antagonistic atheism falls short.
There is far more to religion that creation myths. In fact, there is more to creation myths than the literal stories. As mentioned, beyond the symbols there is a highly sophisticated symbol system that operates on human brains. As De Botton says, “Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore, we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too” (TED).
Religion As Way Of Life
Dawkins was able to accept Buddhism as ways of life, but other religions – including the much pilloried Christianity and Islam – are ways of life as well. If you take time to understand them, they offer great comfort to people and sometimes make for exceptional lives. Rather than criticizing the source code, De Botton proposes a new new atheism that essentially takes the advanced symbolic computational power of religion and connects it to a more modern conception of reality and morality. As he says, this is both impious and respectful.
We are far more desperate than secular modernity recognises. All of us are on the edge of panic and terror pretty much all the time – and religions recognise this. We need to build a similar awareness into secular structures. Religions are fascinating because they are giant machines for making ideas vivid and real in people’s lives: ideas about goodness, about death, family, community etc. (His TED FAQ)
Why This Is Better
Just opposing religion is not a compelling or satisfying argument. It encourages those who are already atheists, but doesn’t really move people in the middle, or people who are religious. It’s also often disrespectful and biased – it ignores what an old, varied and diverse phenomenon human religion is, and the great meaning that it has in decent peoples lives. I remain a Buddhist, but I find De Botton’s Atheism 2.0 far more compelling.
As he says:
I am an atheist, but a gentle one. I don’t feel the need to mock anyone who believes. I really disagree with the hard tone of some atheists who approach religion like a silly fairy tale. I am deeply respectful of religion, but I believe in none of its supernatural aspects. So my position is perhaps unusual: I am at once very respectful and completely impious. (His TED FAQ)
Religion is not a stupid fairy tale. It’s actually a highly evolved symbol system that changes human brains and communities. If atheism wants to advance, atheists should understand and respect that power and then co-opt the technology to their own ends.