“My dad was a slightly stricter version of Richard Dawkins,” says Alain de Botton. “The worldview was that there are idiots out there who believe in Santa Claus and fairies and magic and elves and we’re not joining that nonsense.” In his new book, Religion for Atheists, he recalls his father reducing his sister Miel to tears by “trying to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive god might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight at the time.” It’s one of few passages in his unremittingly mellifluous and genteel oeuvre that sticks out with something like anger.
…But asking about De Botton’s father is irresistible because Religion for Atheists is, he readily concedes, an oedipal book. “I’m rebelling,” he says. “I’m trying to find my way back to the babies that have been thrown out with the bathwater.” He’s elsewhere described his father as “a cruel tyrant as a domestic figure, hugely overbearing”.
Suddenly the whole business with him wanting to build an atheist temple makes much more sense. And yet, I agree with him that there is a yawning chasm between philosophy for the highly educated and self-help platitudes for the masses, and that it wouldn’t be a terrible thing for someone to try and make the fruits of high culture more accessible to the average person. I would suggest that those old religious structures and customs he wants to reappropriate are haunted and likely to possess and warp the rational intentions of those who inhabit them, but what do I know. A lot of people I know joined a religion precisely because they wanted to salve their existential aches by belonging to a group, and a church happened to be the most available and welcoming one. Maybe there are some people who need something like that as an intermediate step.
But anyway, I find this interesting for a couple reasons. I’ve long suspected, protests about ad hominem fallacies notwithstanding, that much philosophy actually reduces to psychology. The logical consistency of de Botton’s propositions could be quite firm, but they still wouldn’t resonate with someone who doesn’t share the emotional need for an authority figure to provide them with unambiguous answers. Secondly, as the above anecdote demonstrates, unintended consequences seem to constantly interject themselves into our best-laid, logical, progressive plans.