Friday, April 25, 2014

Atheism 2.0...seriously?

Alain de Botton's 2011 TedTalk script is doing the rounds on atheist community sites:
One of the most common ways of dividing the world is into those who believe and those who don't -- into the religious and the atheists. And for the last decade or so, it's been quite clear what being an atheist means. There have been some very vocal atheists who've pointed out, not just that religion is wrong, but that it's ridiculous. These people, many of whom have lived in North Oxford, have argued -- they've argued that believing in God is akin to believing in fairies and essentially that the whole thing is a childish game.

Now I think it's too easy. I think it's too easy to dismiss the whole of religion that way. And it's as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. And what I'd like to inaugurate today is a new way of being an atheist -- if you like, a new version of atheism we could call Atheism 2.0. Now what is Atheism 2.0? Well it starts from a very basic premise: of course, there's no God. Of course, there are no deities or supernatural spirits or angels, etc. Now let's move on; that's not the end of the story, that's the very, very beginning.
No no. Let's not move on. Let's not turn a conclusion into an irrelevant premise out of some neurotic need to self-identify under a single label.
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." Whatever it may be, you know the kind of thing I'm talking about -- people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic, communal side of religion, but can't bear the doctrine. Until now, these people have faced a rather unpleasant choice. It's almost as though either you accept the doctrine and then you can have all the nice stuff, or you reject the doctrine and you're living in some kind of spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart.
Until now, until de Bottons fifteen minute speech, people were faced with the stark choice between accepting doctrine or living in a spiritual wasteland? Pure nonsense. Most people do not shape their entire identity around a non-belief in a personal God; atheists were always free to pick and choose.

He continues:
So that's a sort of tough choice. I don't think we have to make that choice. I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways -- and I'm being both very respectful and completely impious -- of stealing from religions. If you don't believe in a religion, there's nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion. And for me, atheism 2.0 is about both, as I say, a respectful and an impious way of going through religions and saying, "What here could we use?" The secular world is full of holes. We have secularized badly, I would argue. And a thorough study of religion could give us all sorts of insights into areas of life that are not going too well. And I'd like to run through a few of these today
In the early 19th century, church attendance in Western Europe started sliding down very, very sharply, and people panicked. They asked themselves the following question. They said, where are people going to find the morality, where are they going to find guidance, and where are they going to find sources of consolation? And influential voices came up with one answer. They said culture. It's to culture that we should look for guidance, for consolation, for morality. Let's look to the plays of Shakespeare, the dialogues of Plato, the novels of Jane Austen. In there, we'll find a lot of the truths that we might previously have found in the Gospel of Saint John. Now I think that's a very beautiful idea and a very true idea. They wanted to replace scripture with culture. And that's a very plausible idea. It's also an idea that we have forgotten.
But we already have a field encompassing art, music, philosophy, history, ethics, literature and culture. We even named this study of human culture 'the humanities' to distinguish it from theology. Why does de Botton torture atheism into conformity to his ideals instead of choosing to promote the humanities?
I want to conclude. Really what I want to say is for many of you who are operating in a range of different fields, there is something to learn from the example of religion -- even if you don't believe any of it. If you're involved in anything that's communal, that involves lots of people getting together, there are things for you in religion. If you're involved, say, in a travel industry in any way, look at pilgrimage. Look very closely at pilgrimage. We haven't begun to scratch the surface of what travel could be because we haven't looked at what religions do with travel. If you're in the art world, look at the example of what religions are doing with art. And if you're an educator in any way, again, look at how religions are spreading ideas. You may not agree with the ideas, but my goodness, they're highly effective mechanisms for doing so.   
We also have such a field. It's called marketing.


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