Alain de Botton has been engaged for many years now in an intriguing project—to get people to think of philosophy not as an abstruse academic discipline but rather as a guide to living. He has written several books in which he brings the resources of philosophical reflection to bear on topics that matter to everyday people: love, travel, happiness, the buildings in which we live. And now, writing in a new and quite interesting British magazine called Standpoint, de Botton takes up the topic of religion.
His opening move is to declare his boredom with the current conversation on the topic, his sense of its “banality.” The problem, as de Botton sees it, is that one particular issue regarding religion “has hogged the limelight,” and that's the question of “whether or not the whole thing is ‘true.'” Now, one might naturally protest that whether religion, or some religion, is true is precisely the question up for debate, but de Botton is having none of that. No, he says, “We'd be wiser to start with the common-sense observation that, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. There is naturally no holy ghost, spirit, Geist, or divine emanation.” And, helpfully, he adds that “dissenters from this line can comfortably stop reading here.”
Now, this is somewhat puzzling, in that in the first paragraph of his essay de Botton had written that his boredom with the topic of religion encompassed both “a hardcore group of fanatical believers” and “an equally small band of fanatical atheists.” But in saying that “common sense” is enough to determine that religions—all of them, presumably—are “of course” simply and wholly false regarding their primary characteristics, hasn't de Botton wholly identified himself with those atheists? How does his dogmatism on the matter differ from what he calls their “fanaticism”?
Heck if I know. But de Botton wants to portray himself as a mediating figure, and on these grounds: He thinks there are elements of religious practice, though not religious belief, that are important to people's well-being and that atheists should not ignore. He then proposes—and this is the title of his essay—“A Religion for Atheists.” So, what does this religion consist of?
For one thing, cathedrals. De Botton likes cathedrals a lot, and he thinks there should be more of them. “Imagine a network of secular churches, vast high spaces in which to escape from the hubbub of modern society and in which to focus on all that is beyond us. . . . We begin to feel small inside a cathedral and recognize the debt that sanity owes to such a feeling.” Presumably, existing cathedrals—little enough used in de Botton's native Europe—can't be repurposed, as we like to say these days, in service of this project because of their historical associations and the art within them, which so relentlessly emphasizes the transcendent. But is that really a problem? After all, there are many man-made structures available to make us feel small: the Sears Tower, Hoover Dam. De Botton, who lives in London, could just take a train down to the Millennium Dome, which in his scheme could finally find a proper use.
But this would be pointless, because it is not the purpose of cathedrals simply to make people feel small (there is no virtue in feeling small) but rather to help people understand that they are located within the vast orderly architecture of creation. We are indeed small, but a small part of something glorious, in which we can participate, find our place, find our purpose. Cathedrals are celebrations of all that God has made, and they embody in their stone and glass the history of God's dealings with his world and people made in his image. If we want merely to feel small, it is enough—though it is increasingly difficult—to find a place away from cities where we can observe the night sky and its stars.
Aside from generating a sense of smallness, de Botton's secular religion would do two other things: It would “use all the tools of art in order to create an effective kind of propaganda in the name of kindness and virtue,” and it would “try to counter the optimistic tenor of modern society and return us to the great pessimistic undercurrents found in traditional faiths.”
Here we are in more interesting territory, but, to explain why, we need to back up and take note of another comment made by de Botton. “In the early, euphoric days of the French Revolution,” he writes, “the painter Jacques-Louis David unveiled what he termed ‘A Religion of Mankind,' a secularized version of Christianity which aimed to build upon the best aspects of the old, discredited tenets. In this new secular religion, there would be feast days, wedding ceremonies, revered figures (secularized saints), and even atheistic churches and temples. The new religion would rely on art and philosophy but put them to overtly didactic ends: It would use the panoply of techniques known to traditional religions (buildings, great books, seminaries) to try to make us good according to the sanest and most advanced understanding of the word.”
De Botton concludes this section of his essay by admitting, with an evident sigh, that “unfortunately, David's experiment never gathered force and was quietly ditched, but it remains a striking moment in history.” Interestingly, de Botton doesn't choose to point out that David's Religion of Mankind was ditched by the leaders of the revolution because it was insufficiently dedicated to la Patrie. De Botton commends David for imagining “what a religion might look like if it didn't have a god in it,” but that's just what the revolutionaries did too. They went on to create their own secular religion focused on the glory of France, transforming the just-completed church of Sainte-Geneviève into the Panthéon, a temple dedicated to the great men of the country. Voltaire and Rousseau were even disinterred from their burial places and reinterred there— pour encourager les autres, one might say.
David's Religion of Mankind, says de Botton, is “a naive yet intelligent attempt to confront the thought that there are certain needs in us that can never be satisfied by art, family, work, or the state alone.” But history, and not just the history of the French Revolution (think of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, communist China), suggests that, when people imagine a religion without a god, the state simply becomes that god. And from the French Revolution on, these governments expended great energy, time, and money “to try to make us good”—through propaganda, yes, but also through more rigorous means when propaganda didn't do the job.
Though de Botton does not openly acknowledge this point, he knows it, which is why he sandwiches his propaganda program with two strategies of constraint: the intimidating presence of the secular cathedrals and the catechesis in pessimism. De Botton understands that profound optimism about human nature and the exercise of power—what used to be called hubris—led earlier repudiators of God and the Church to build their secular religions in ways that encouraged the most horrific abuses imaginable.
De Botton's caution and constraint in this matter are commendable. I do, however, have one final set of questions for him. Who's going to build these cathedrals? Where's the money going to come from? Who will determine the content of the virtue-building propaganda? Who will establish the proper degree of pessimism, so the visitors to the cathedrals will not be thrown into despair? I sense, as I peer into the distance, yet another bureaucratic unit of the European Union arising, like Venus from the sea.
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College and author, most recently, of Original Sin: A Cultural History.