Monday, February 20, 2012

Philosopher Promotes Secular Religion

Modern day philosopher Alain de Botton praises religion in this Wall Street Journal article, while attempting to promote a secular alternative. deBotton writes:

"Religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in harmonious communities, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses; second, the need to cope with the pain that arises from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our own decay and demise.

"Religions are a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts for trying to assuage some of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life. They merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition and for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture—a range of interests whose scope puts to shame the achievements of even the greatest secular movements and innovators."
Describing our current culture, de Botton decries the loss of religious worship in favor of the modern "worship of professional success." This, he says, has robbed us of a sense of community, leaving us strangers even in common settings such as restaurants.

de Botton writes glowingly of the importance of religious ritual in building a sense of community and putting us in touch with the core essence of ourselves and each other. But de Botton imagines that the individual and communal benefits inherent in religious observance may be had absent religious beliefs "about the afterlife or the supernatural origins of [religious] doctrines."

How is this to be achieved? By mimicking religious gatherings and rituals in a setting where "Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach." de Botton imagines communal meals where people of every economic strata and subculture would gather to engage in set ritualistic patterns, even reading from texts developed for this purpose.

Color me skeptical. I'm not saying that secular gatherings of the type described by de Botton wouldn't be beneficial. I'm just not sure that they could be worship free gatherings and still attract adherents. It seems to me that the secular ritual de Botton imagines would necessarily evolve into a religion, even if its founders never meant for such to happen.

Philosophers (especially secular ones) have puzzled for ages as to why humans worship. Some have concluded that the human brain is simply wired to do so. Everyone worships something, even if they claim to have no connection to organized religion, and even if they deny that they worship.

Humans almost universally  give reverence to and seek communion with something greater or higher than themselves, whether that is an omnipotent creator, the combined wisdom of the masses, knowledge, a cause, career, the political state, athletics, etc. The list of possibilities is endless.

And that is one of the problems with de Botton's non-religious ceremonies. Even he admits that worship has become more fragmented and more individualized over time. As famously documented by Robert Putnam, the trend is toward greater fragmentation; not less. Culture continues to evolve into specialization that grants individuals increasingly nuanced ways to spend their time, to interact (or not interact) with others, and even to worship.

While some atheistic houses of worship could be established, the trend toward increased specialization means that they would likely attract too few adherents to provide a sense of community except in a few scattered enclaves. While the increasing trend to socialize at a distance diminishes vital relationship factors that are found only in close physical proximity, it is difficult to imagine a backlash strong enough to bring people together in the way de Botton imagines unless forced by external (perhaps cataclysmic) factors.

I perceive yet another problem with non-religious worship—a problem that I readily admit is greatly colored by my own religiosity. It is difficult for me to believe that completely secular ritual could bring the kind of fulfillment that comes from actual religious worship that is based on one's eternal relationship with deity and one's ultimate eternal disposition.

People have tried to explain to me how this works for secularists, but it has never been explained to my satisfaction (perhaps due to my mental thickness). But it is hard for me to imagine that atheists going to a secular church, as it were, could satisfactorily find the sense of community de Botton finds lacking in modern life. If that were the case, wouldn't such venues already exist? Perhaps they already do in parts of our modern higher education system that seem more like secular cloisters than bastions of free thought.

I wish de Botton and his fellow secularists success in finding their missing sense of community; a void that causes many to long for a bygone era of tribal life, blind to the incredible brutality of that age. But I honestly doubt that they will fill the emptiness they feel without religion and some of the attendant supernatural elements that they presently find so repugnant.

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