Alain de Botton is the Coldplay of philosophy. Earnest and sensitive, adequately talented if not stunningly original, yet somehow capable of provoking intense rage in his detractors, seemingly all out of proportion to his unimposing, nondescript gentility.
His latest mission to rescue religion from both the faithful and the faithless don’t make no nevermind to me; I think it’s needless if well-intentioned, but I don’t think it does any harm to the cause of atheism, and for all I know, maybe there are enough people who want the kind of structure he’s trying to offer. Take your coffee with extra spoonfuls of ritual and camaraderie if it makes you happy.
But I will comment on an odd little tic of his I noticed:
I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm. In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.
Or from another recent article:
“I once very politely raised the thought that one reason philosophy departments have been cut is the fault of philosophers. The answer always comes back: ‘The point of philosophy is to ask questions, not to give answers.’ I can’t help but think ‘No. It can’t be!’
Oof. I have to say, I feel a bit embarrassed by the irony of his speculation that atheists like Dawkins are the ones who have some sort of psychological trauma at the root of their disbelief. Poor guy’s got his prescriptive all knotted up with his descriptive. Is it possible? Sure, but a lot of things are possible without being actual, so that’s probably going to be cold comfort to you. Must it be possible? Uh, no, and what a weird question. It either is or it isn’t, but more importantly, whom are you making demands on?
How many there are who still conclude: “life could not be endured if there were no God!” (Or, as it is put among the idealists: “life could not be endured if its foundation lacked an ethical significance!”) – therefore there must be a God (or existence must have an ethical significance)! The truth, however, is merely that he who is accustomed to these notions does not desire a life without them: that these notions may therefore be necessary to him and for his preservation – but what presumption it is to decree that whatever is necessary for my preservation must actually exist! As if my preservation were something necessary! How if others felt in the opposite way! If those two articles of faith were precisely the conditions under which they no longer found life worth living! And that is how things are now!
You said it, man.