Alain de Botton is a philosopher. He recently gave a talk at a TED conference where he proposed “Atheism 2.0”, a form of atheism that would reject all deities and supernatural acts but cater to the “ritualistic side” of some atheists.
It sounds like an appalling idea to me. I see that Jerry Coyne, over at Why Evolution is True, finds the idea to be “a facile attempt to appropriate the trappings of religion as something essential to an atheist world”. As Coyne says, “What we need, as sociological studies indicate, is not stained glass, potted lilies, and a gasbag orator, but a society that cares about its citizens”.
In fact, I like some rituals, such as walking the dogs in the woods, or going to the theatre or listening to a concert; but the idea of elevating those ad-hoc activities into prescribed rote and trappings is simply a bad one, and has nothing whatsoever to do with “atheism”.
What really irritated me about de Botton’s performance in this TED talk, is that he opens it with a thinly-veiled sneer at Richard Dawkins, saying that “many [people] who live in North Oxford” simply find religion ridiculous. De Botton then has the effrontery to go on to say that:
I’m interested in the kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines: that thinks, “I can’t believe in any of this stuff, I can’t believe in the doctrines. I don’t think these doctrines are right. But,” a very important but, “I love Christmas Carols, I really like the art of Mantegna. I really like looking at old churches. I really like turning the pages of the Old Testament”.
So de Botton has created another Dawkins strawman by his sneer, because, in fact, Dawkins is in just the kind of constituency that de Botton claims he is interested in. Dawkins is on record as recognising himself as a cultural Christian, who loves listening to Carols, and who, in The God Delusion (p.344 in my hardcover edition), writes:
…an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting the Bible, and other sacred books, out of our education. And of course we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage.
I should note that I’ve read very little of de Botton that I have been able to nod my head in agreement with, or indeed, take seriously. Give me Daniel Dennett any day…
On a side note, is it just me, or has the quality of TED talks gone down the toilet in recent years? There was a time when I enjoyed listening to them, but these days they seem to contain a high percentage of woo-merchants doing their happy-clappy schticks.