BOOK FESTIVAL – Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton, ‘What non-believers could learn from faith’,
Sat 18th August, 20.00-21.00, RBS Main Theatre.

They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality. […] We other hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again[. …] Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessarily remains in one’s hands.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols)

Populist.—Hypocrite(?)
By Mark Bolsover

The event with Alain de Botton took place in the Book Festival’s RBS Main Theatre. The venue was full to capacity, and de Botton spoke (performed?) to a predominantly white late-middle-aged, middle-class audience. Despite its inexplicable and corporate décor, the space proved an effective one, de Botton holding forth from an angular and imposing metal lectern-cum pulpit, to one side of the broad stage.

The event was chaired by BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz, an engaging host who, despite his obvious skepticism towards de Botton’s ideas, provided an interesting, useful and objective introduction to the speaker and warmed the audience well. The event took the format of a talk by de Botton, followed a brief interview with Gompertz and finally a question and answer session with the audience. This format worked extremely well given the obvious time constraints on the event.

The aim of the event was, in essence, to promote de Botton’s new book Religion for Atheists and drew its focus from a number of topics which he addresses in the book.

de Botton himself proved an extremely fluent, effective and engaging speaker. During the segue from the talk into the interview Gompertz rather shrewdly teased de Botton that he both ‘looks and sounds like a vicar’ and this is indeed the impression one gets listening to him, the talk somewhere between a lecture and sermon, which is ironic given de Botton’s self-characterisation as an ‘atheist’ and distaste for all things ‘academic’.

de Botton’s project in Religion for Atheists is, by his own admission, to cherry-pick from the ‘buffet’(?) of world religions, extracting key ideas, concepts and practices, in order to provide ‘replacements’ for religion for a ‘secular society’. Drawing on his book, de Botton began his talk by summarizing a few key claims on the nature of education. He argued that ‘atheists’ dismiss religion out of hand as superstitious nonsense and that ‘secular society’ and ‘secular’ education have therefore abandoned traditional forms of the transmission of what, somewhat problematically, characterises as universal human ‘wisdom’. In this regard, de Botton was particularly vociferous in his attacks on academia. Gompertz had begun by introducing de Botton as a ‘populist’, and these attacks could be seen to be evidence of his uneasiness with this status, a certain self-styled demagoguery and inferiority complex with regard to academia.

Whatever the underlying causes, de Botton wants to oppose his ‘neo-religious’ ideas to those he sees at large in ‘secular’ society. In answer to the potential objections that it is either unethical or simply not possible to cherry-pick from religions, he drew a parallel to ‘culture’ (as he conceives of this term) and to reading. If one were reading Austen, he argued, it would be ridiculous for anyone to suggest that one ought not to read, say, Dickens, or Woolf. In the same way, de Botton argued, one can ‘read’ (or extract) from any number of religious texts. His conception is one of ‘culture’ over ‘scripture’. And this is, I believe, reveals the crucial problems with de Botton’s ideas…

de Botton argued against what he argued is ‘our’ conception of art, deriving from the art for art’s sake philosophy of art of the late-nineteenth century. Frankly, de Botton crudely mischaracterised late-nineteenth and Modernist art and literature for his own rhetorical purposes. However, it seemed to me at least that his crude reductivism found its foundation in a genuine misunderstanding of art and a lack of understanding of literature and the art of reading.—Against what he characterised as a false conception of the autonomous artwork and of art as not needing to deliver any ‘moral’ message, de Botton put forth his own conception of art as ‘propaganda’. According to de Botton, art can, and ought, to deliver a ‘moral’ message.

Apart from the obvious and sinister connotations of the term ‘propaganda’, this conception depends on the assumption of a smooth transmission of the (moral) intentions of the author, through the work, to a uncritically receptive readership. If de Botton were to perhaps put aside his distaste for academia and put himself through the soulless ordeal of a literature degree, he might discover some key ideas in literary criticism, such as the ‘intentional fallacy’ or Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’, which clearly set out the problems of any attempt to read back from a work to the intentions of the author (and, indeed, de Botton gave such a reading in his example of not being able to ‘understand’ Rothco’s work until he had heard the artist discuss it).

The crucial problem, however, lies in the notion of art as solely a vehicle for the transmission of ‘moral’ lessons and this is the reason for the epigraph with which I began this review. In the passage I quoted from Twilight of the Idols (an attack on George Eliot and late-nineteenth century Religious Humanism) Nietzsche astutely argues that one cannot be rid of God, cannot be rid of the metaphysical (that is, be an atheist), and hold on to the system of moral values which find their foundation on this metaphysical ground, and yet this is precisely what de Botton, despite his own claim not to believe in ‘what I broadly call the “supernatural”’, very blithely attempts to do.

Despite his claim to ‘atheism’ de Botton clings to a recognisably Judaeo-Christian moral world view, perhaps with some badly appropriated and rather cliché ‘Eastern’ ‘mystical’ notions thrown in for breadth and good measure. In mischaracterising all developments and movements in literature as ‘art for art’s sake’, he fails (not entirely deliberately) to recognise that a great deal of the art which he is thus dismissing, arose precisely in reaction to a loss of faith and a recognition that with any claim to a metaphysical ground for values gone, those values themselves become objects of contention and debate. Hence the lack of moral didacticism and the artistic experimentation he so evidently deplores.

Though some of his ideas are interesting, de Botton is, for this reason, condemned to remain a somewhat shallow and misguided populist. For example, he argued fluently and persuasively for the adoption of the Catholic notion of ‘original sin’ in which all people would be regarded as broken animals in need of redemption and that education should be reconceived as having to have a humanising effect, rather than as a process for the acquisition of vocational ‘skills’. However, this is where (at least in his talk) his point broke off, and this left the impression that he was merely vaguely retaining the notion of sin, despite having dispensed with any notion of extra-mundane justice. If we dispense with a notion of ‘natural’/automatic and inalienable ‘humanity’ (as perhaps, we ought) what are the practical political consequences of this for (debates on) ‘Human Rights’ and indeed, Humanism more generally?—de Botton offers us no clue…

Also telling is de Botton’s uncritical retention of terms such as ‘inner self’ and the ‘soul’, which he used liberally.—Surely anything characterising itself as thoroughgoing atheism must involve a thoroughgoing critique of these terms and the metaphysics they imply?

In the end, de Botton cannot avoid two charges: either he is simply using the term ‘atheist’ far too loosely, or, in his dismissal of the metaphysical and retention of religious values, he is guilty of a form of intellectual hypocrisy.

de Botton is a populist. His pulpit-style demagoguery can come across as pompous, narrow-minded and patronising to anyone who does not already share his convictions, but he works his audience extremely well and is impressively effective at preaching to the choir.

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