Sunday, July 08, 2012

Religion for Atheists

The atheist, armed with the methods of modern science, marches into battle against the forces of faith. That at least is the heroic fantasy of modern rationalism. I have a press kit (circa 1984) from the American Atheists organization, and on the cover is an illustration of atheist bulldog Madalyn Murray O'Hair, as a knight, lance in hand, standing on the corpse of a dragon named Religion.

The image of the heroic atheist is the archetypal opposite that of the religious believer. The believer is a psychological weakling, a child unable to cope with the world of rationality, of merely physical existence, and of other cold "facts" to be faced.

In Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton, an atheist, acknowledges these images as cultural conventions and in doing so tries to lay the foundation for a rapprochement. Little in this book will hearten his fellow atheists, however. Instead, the author chooses to acknowledge, with great sympathy, the needy child in us all.

A triumphant Madalyn Murray O'Hair slays religion.



The result is an essay reminiscent of the writings of James Hillman. That is, the author is writing more as an archetypal psychologist, or anthropologist, than polemicist, the last being the mode or posture favored by the current crop of atheist provocateurs. Here is a passage in which the author distinguishes the baby of religious comfort from the bathwater of theological doctrine.

"Christianity describes the capacity to accept dependence as a mark of moral and spiritual health. Only the proud and vainglorious would attempt to deny their weaknesses, while the devout can declare without awkwardness, as a sign of their faith, that they have spent time in tears at the foot of a statue of a giant wooden mother. The cult of Mary recasts vulnerability as a virtue and thus corrects our habitual tendency to believe in a conclusive division between adult and childhood selves. At the same time, Christianity is appropriately delicate in the way it frames our needs. It allows us to partake of the comfort of the maternal without forcing us to face up to our lingering and inescapable desire for an actual mother. It makes no mention of our mother. It simply offers us the imaginative pleasure of being once again young, babied and cared for by a figure who is mater to the world."

There is more than a touch of Freud underlying such sentiments.

Throughout the book runs the theme of human neediness and the need to face that neediness with humility and to acknowledge the solace that religious customs and institutions provide. The author's thesis is that purely secular customs and institutions could provide the same comforts if secular society were to make the necessary social-engineering investments. But it is an act of faith to believe that, lacking theological foundations, a secular civilization could craft traditions equal in therapeutic efficacy to those crafted by the world's God-inspired religions. Whether God's existence is real or imagined doesn't bear on His capacity to inspire, or to comfort. With neither a real nor imagined God to lean on, secular society might never be able to pull off the author's therapeutic mission.

The author does identify a substantive common ground that serves the psychological needs of both the atheist unbelievers and the believers in things unseen. To the amusement and encouragement of the star larvae hypothesis, the author points to stars as a natural intersection of secular and religious concern:

"If such a process of re-evaluation [of calibrating our lives to cosmic standards] offers any common point of access open to both atheists and believers, it may be via an element in nature which is mentioned in both the Book of Job and Spinoza's Ethics: the stars. It is through their contemplation that the secular are afforded the best chance of experiencing redemptive feelings of awe. [. . . . ] Nightly -- perhaps after the main news bulletin and before the celebrity quiz -- we might observe a moment of silence in order to contemplate the 200 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy, the 100 billion galaxies and the 3 septillion stars in the universe. Whatever their value may be to science, the stars are in the end no less valuable to mankind as solutions to our megalomania, self-pity and anxiety."

To which we reply, piously, Amen. The author's instincts have delivered him to the promised land. We encourage him to cross into it.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Four Quartets: Little Gidding
T. S. Eliot