Religion for People
Who Don't Believe in God
But Love Christmas Carols
A Sympathetic Response to Alain de Botton
Some Quotations by Alain de Botton
"It’s perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living; it’s perhaps
harder than ever before to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety.”
Watch this talk »
A friend sent me this TED talk the other day. It features a philosopher from England, Alain de Botton, who proposes that atheists need to get over stale debates concerning God's existence and learn from religion, all the while remaining atheists. He is speaking to people who don't believe in God but love Christmas carols.
I like the video very much. It makes a very strong case for Atheism 2.0. This is an open-minded atheism that moves beyond the five toxins of Atheism1.0. Here are the five toxins:
1. An irrational intolerance of all things religious.
This toxin is usually combined with a reduction of religious life to conventional morality, while neglecting the role of awe and wonder, beauty and felt connections, that are important to many religious people.
For many religious people is not primarily about morality, but rather about awe and wonder, community and finding a spiritual center for daily life. And when it comes to morality, many minded religious people are avowedly against conventional morality and avowedly in favor of counter-cultural moralities that reverse social hierarchies and cast their lot in with the poor and powerless of the world. See, for example, Diary of an Arrested Priest: GO.
2. An unwillingness to consider multiple ways of thinking about God.
This usually takes the form of defining "God" as a cosmic dictator while neglecting ways of thinking about God which are important to many religious people, and which focus on love, tenderness, interconnectedness, and solidarity with the poor and marginalized.
Many advocates of Atheism 1.0 are unmindful of the way of thinking about God important to process theologians: panentheism. For an example of this way of thinking, see our column by the Protestant theologian John B. Cobb, Jr: God and the Sendai Earthquake: GO. Or see our column by Rabbi Bradley Artson: Creation through Lovingkindness GO
3. A shallow empiricism that neglects multiple forms of intelligence.
This toxin takes the form of a shallow empiricism which, in the name of evidence-based reasoning, neglects the full range of human experience and the multiple forms of intelligence of which humans are capable: mathematical-logical, verbal-linguistic, musical-rhythmic, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and existential.
In reducing "evidence" to what can be publically verified by means of the first two forms of intelligence, it neglects the fact that, for many people, the reality to which the word "God" refers is often found in other forms of intelligence: e.g. in empathic relations with other people and a sense of wonder.
For an illustration of a wider epistemology, see our column by John B. Cobb, Jr. called Foundations for a New Civilization: GO.
4. An uncharitable heart that divides the world into wise people and stupid people.
This takes the form of resorting to clever turns of phrase in order to dismiss religious people without exploring matters more deeply. Cleverness becomes a way of shutting off further questioning.
An uncharitable heart is usually combined with a stereotyping mind, which lapses into irrational binaries of "right thinking people" and "wrong thinking people," failing to recognize that noone -- theists, nontheists, atheists -- have a monopoly on truth, and that there is something to learn from everybody.
5. A stale secularism that neglects the intrinsic beauty and value of all life.
Stale secularism is a secular outlook on life in which life is reduced to appearance, affluence, and marketable achievement, and in which the earth itself is reduced to a commodity for exchange in the marketplace. It is often accompanied by anthropocentrism. Anthropocentrism a way of looking at the world in which all living beings -- people and plants and animals -- are viewed as objects in a vast machine called nature. On this view there is no horizon according to which the goodness of creation is recognized; there is only the "value" that humans assign to things.
What are the alternatives to this kind of secularism?
One alternative is to conceive the universe as creative and organic, in the spirit of Whiteheadian or process thinkers, and to recognize that there is a trans-human horizon in whose consciousness all lives are appreciated on their own terms and for their own sakes. We might call this the theistic option to Atheism 1.0.
Another alternative is to follow Whitehead in recognizing that the universe is creative and filled with value, but to reject his idea that there is a trans-human horizon in whose consciousness all lives are appreciated. We might call this the non-theistic option or, alternatively, Whitehead without God.
Both perspectives offer a more organic vision of the universe; both invite a recognition that value is not reducible to humanly assigned value; both are plausible ways of looking at the world.
Atheism 2.0 is akin to Whitehead without God. It is a healthy and mature atheism that moves past the irrational intolerance of all things religious, while at the same time remaining committed to its rejection of "supernatural realities" however defined.
Indeed, it has a generous heart. It rightly senses that there is something to learn from religion and that religious people cannot be reduced to shallow stereotypes.
It knows that the purpose of much religious language, even the language of a monarchical God, is to elicit these forms of rich forms knowing, and that the language need not be taken literally in order to be meaningful. It sings Christmas carols.
Make no mistake. Atheism 2.0 also knows the dark side of religion: (1) its occasional or persistent intolerance, (2) its occasional mean-spiritedness, (3) its tendency to divide the world into us versus them, (4) its defensiveness in the face of criticism, (5) its clinging to inherited habits of thought at the expense of being open to progressive thinking on a wide variety of imortant matters: homosexuality, animal rights, women's equality, diversity in thought and spirit.
And make no mistake, Atheism 2.0 rejects the existence of a dictatorial God who intervenes in history by interrupting the laws of physics and chemistry, and whose primary preoccupation is with reward and punishment.
But it is not fundamentalist in its mindset. Atheism 2.0 has a gentle and kindly spirit. It knows that noone, not even the atheists, have a monopoly of truth. It knows that there might be a compassionate arc of love -- a loving God - whose very spirit provides freedom and comfort to the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. It knows that atheists, too, see through a glass darkly.
Still, the exemplar of Atheism 2.0 must be honest. For him or her, belief in God lacks plausibility and stifles something very important: an affirmation of the meaning of this world, and this life, on its own terms, for its own sake, God or no God.
A Kinder, Gentler Atheism
Atheism 2.0 is a kinder, gentler atheism. It adds an important critique of the darker sides of religion and offers a plausible way of looking at the world.
For my part, I find panentheism more plausible than atheism. It has always made more sense to me to think that there's an ultimate consciousness in whose life all lives unfold, than to think the universe evolves in a vaccuum. I find myself praying to God at night and feeling that Someone is listening.
But I am as troubled as my atheist friends with the darker sides of religion. And I find myself enriched by people who see things differently from me and who challenge my own core assumptions. When Christmas comes, I'll be singing those carols, too, trustful that the people next to me -- even if atheistic -- might not see things as I see things, but whose voices makes the whole richer.
In its own way Atheism 2.0 is a religion, too. In its tolerance for diversity, it offers a beacon of hope.