Trains for Astronauts

John Shook

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, by Alain de Botton (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012, ISBN 978-0-307-37910-8) 320 pp. Hardcover, $26.95.

Alain de Botton does n’t think God exists, but he regards thinking about God as only one among many things religion is good for. Subtracting God-belief from religion, in fact, removes something dividing us, and what remains has important cultural and personal value. Of course nonbelievers have never been culturally impoverished; they have enjoyed the same secular educations, public museums, and scientific institutions as believers. But de Botton’s heart is uneasy and discontented at the spectacle of so many who have walked away from religion looking contented with their civilized and materialistic lives. To de Botton, cultural flabbiness and shabbiness are making the twenty-first century look much less vibrant and wholesome than preceding centuries. A culprit must be identified and quick. He raises his finger and points . . . at atheism!

In the space of a few opening pages in his book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, de Botton charges atheism with the crime of discarding everything religious in culture. He then equates secularism with a vapid, anticultural atheism and speedily faults this new nihilistic secularism for so much nasty cultural decay. Where is this atheistic self-hatred coming from?

Pausing just a moment to mention how religion does terrible things too, de Botton next accuses atheism of judging religion too harshly. He places on exhibition all the valuable things that atheism-secularism has allegedly ignored to death: community, kindness, education, tolerance, perspective, art, and architecture. All those wonderful things are dying in the thin, dry air of secular society, and the only thing that can save them is a return to religion’s warm atmosphere. Atheists need religion most urgently, according to de Botton, since they are the most deprived of personal and cultural enrichment, and their seditious secularizing is killing society for everyone else besides.

Tearing out de Botton’s root fallacy is going to take some effort. Let’s try a simple rephrasing of his core tenet: religion for atheists is like trains for astronauts. If you are an astronaut, you must like to travel a lot and at high speeds, too. If you want to travel at very high speeds, you really want trains. Can’t do without them, in fact.

What would an “Astronaut’s Guide to the Uses of Trains” look like? From an examination of de Botton’s manual for atheists, we could easily guess. First, assuming all astronauts are quite sociable folks, seeking community and easy communication would naturally be top priorities. And if you want more interconnected community and cheap communication, then you want railroads. I dare say that until railroads came along, only the thinnest of ties stretched between villages, towns, and cities—why, until the railroads, you could hardly say that a genuine nation was possible!

And what a thing to be traveling on those railroads, seeing the incredible sights inaccessible to ordinary folks. After you’ve traveled around visiting different places and meeting the local inhabitants along the way, warm feelings of common humanity well up in your breast. Why, if you let your guard down and soak up the kindness of those strangers, you could sit a spell, tasting a little of their food and hearing a lot of their stories. They are fine stories, too—things you could have never learned if you had stayed back home. If you have a day to spend before getting back on the train, walk around and see the sights. Every town, big or small, enshrines its hopes and dreams in beautiful art and impressive architecture that is entirely novel and native to that particular soil.

Astronauts are human, and like everyone else they need such vital things as community, variety, perspective, and enriching experiences that are only available from traveling around to see the world. If you want all that out of life—and every sensible person does—then no one could possibly do without trains.

Now you see the fallacy: are trains the only way to travel?

Similarly, de Botton is wrong about what atheists really need, and his understanding of what religion is really all about shows us why. He is quite right to treat religion as a cultural phenomenon that has a major role in enhancing other social technologies that provide things that people need. The crucial point is that on this view, religion itself does not directly supply the experiential goods people value. Communal practices and special public spaces, art forms and dances, ceremonial rituals and learned treatises, moral codes and revered elders—these (and many more) are actually the direct “forms of life” through which religiosity flows. Art can be religious or not; ceremonies can be religious or not; ethics and wisdom can be religion-based or not; gazing up at the stars can be a religious experience or not; attitudes toward death can be religious or not; the reason for eating unleavened bread can be religious or not. Even religious concepts especially prominent in Western thinking needn’t be so. For example, suppose I think that something is responsible for the big bang that started off our universe. It needn’t be religion-based—many atheist cosmologists are pondering theories about what triggered the big bang without having any religious notions involved at all. Approaches to studying the laws of nature can be religious or not. Perspectives on life’s incredible diversity can be religious or not.

It all depends: whether something we do or something we think about is genuinely religious depends on how individual people do it and think about it. Cultural anthropologists have long been far more comfortable studying “the religious” as dynamically symbolic than as statically dogmatic. And creeds can be religious or not—well, you see the point, I hope. Religion never was some separate matter alongside all the other kinds of cultural activities that engage humans. Only our modern secularized lenses could perceive religion as a discrete phase or sector of society, reflecting secular hopes that religion could be isolated from central concerns of civic life. But along the way, two different things got conflated. The possibility that religion could be disentangled from some public matters (like education systems or political constitutions) got confused with the notion that religion had always been an add-on, a separate institution supplying distinctively “religious” things, that somehow sprang up long ago. (Hence the misguided search for some extravagant causal factor responsible for religion, like the “god meme” or “terror at lightning” or a hyperactive agency detector.) No single thing, or even combination of things, could have really been responsible for the “invention of the first religion,” as mythical a beast as anything in fairy tales.

The social sciences have never been able to accept that odd theory, and current scientific research into religion concurs: religions always were supplementary-like spices to a cuisine and not an entirely new food group. For example, religion enhances tribal morality and in-group obedience and relieves severe anxieties that result from strains in social life. But morality, obedience, anxiety, and social fractures are not especially religious, nor did they come into existence because of religion. Religion makes people think and act differently when they deal with morality, loyalty, anxiety, and disconnection. Religion can heighten moral devotion, strengthen in-group loyalty, console the inconsolable, and re-forge community. No question about it.

Trains can get you places fast. But the invention of the railroad was not responsible for arousing a desire to travel and commune with distant strangers, learn new things, or feel the exhilaration of fresh sights. And trains are no longer the only way, or often even the best way, to do those valuable things. Similarly, it never was the case that religion was necessary for beauty, morality, community, education, or exhilaration. Religion has been a supplementary social technology, no doubt. But all technologies have their proper place and time, and all technologies evolve and eventually disappear, to be replaced by other technologies across the millennia as humanity bravely ventures further afield. Only a failure of intelligence or surrender to terror could freeze a culture into rigid stupidity.

All-too-human needs and desires were responsible for the invention of the chariot, the sailboat, the train, the automobile, the rocket ship, and who knows what next. Astronauts may enjoy riding trains once in a while, like I do myself, not for anything intrinsic to railroading but just because the experience can thrill the heart. Like myself: many people can enjoy the arts, improve our ethics, and make our societies more livable and just without participating in a religion. Sorry: there’s just no use for religion here, not for us. More important things are happening—for one thing, we are doing these things because they are right to do, not because some tradition or God demands it from us. Telling us that we are quite wrong, that engaging in those important things for emotional and practical benefit is still conducting one’s self religiously, is just factually false. We are not forever stuck with trains, and we are not forever stuck with religion. That we need the arts doesn’t mean we still need religion any more than wanting to travel means that we still need trains.


I will happily let religious humanists judge precisely how de Botton’s urgings fit into that long tradition, but to my independent eyes, it appears that in this book de Botton has composed a revised Religious Humanism 6.311 rather than an original Atheism 2.0. Of greater interest is the question of whether humanists have to take de Botton seriously—beyond his ample evidence borrowed from the social sciences, I should hasten to add. Is the brightly optimistic and oh-so-civilized version of humanism proffered here the right direction for humanism?

I don’t mean to be questioning the arts, education, or all that fine culture—of course we need those things and more of them, please. But humanism was designed to be a social enhancer for better supplying a few vital needs of life, many needs earlier having been attended to by religion. Now, clever intellectuals have been simply redefining “religious” as anything attending to those vital needs, seeking a permanent victory for religion and all its priests. However, that verbal trick wouldn’t fool people for long, just as renaming all rocket ships “sky trains” couldn’t save the jobs of railway conductors. Religious humanism instead (properly) looked to human experiences, labeling as “religious” or “spiritual” those special experiences that possessed that spice of religious quality—experiences arising from our gazing into the depths of nature, the pursuit of cherished ideals, or the struggle for preserving humanity in the face of fear. Existentialists and pragmatists have explored the emotional depths of pathos and despair, along with hope and exultation, from Kierkegaard to Dewey and Tillich. It’s ultimately not about some distant God but only our own humanity, in all its blood, guts, and glory.

I hesitate to place de Botton with that sort of emotional humanism. Not because he isn’t interested in emotion—emotions drip off the pages of every chapter—but because of the emotions he chooses to prioritize and the way he keeps accusing secularity of emotionless aridity. De Botton is so obsessed with crediting religion with sustaining core human values that he can only portray the secular life as devoid of anything serious and meaningful. He seems to continually say that secular society is deficient in high spiritual aspiration and practical moral guidance. He can’t be looking at the same society that I see. From human rights and civil liberties enshrined in secular constitutions around the world, to the secular colleges and universities spreading the light of knowledge, and on to all the (church-free) arts and sciences benefitting humanity in countless ways, I’d say that those worldly institutions and their secular values have elevated human existence during the past four hundred years far more than the last forty thousand years of religious domination. If de Botton can’t agree, I dare him to publicly say so.

Furthermore, I think his high-minded vision for cultured religious humanism is instead a shallow and uninspired version of atheism unable to lead us forward. I’m reminded of William James, the early twentieth-century pragmatist and humanist, and his abhorrence of too much high culture. A cultured man himself, he nevertheless knew that refined, sterilized, and prepackaged culture by itself was a sweet cake that could never sustain the masses. His essay “What Makes a Life Significant” (1899) relates his perspective:

A few summers ago I spent a happy week at the famous Assembly Grounds on the borders of Chautauqua Lake. The moment one treads that sacred enclosure, one feels one’s self in an atmosphere of success. Sobriety and industry, intelligence and goodness, orderliness and ideality, prosperity and cheerfulness, pervade the air. It is a serious and studious picnic on a gigantic scale….

And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: “Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring. This human drama without a villain or a pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man; this city simmering in the tepid lakeside sun; this atrocious harmlessness of all things,—I cannot abide with them. Let me take my chances again in the big outside worldly wilderness with all its sins and sufferings….

In James’s view, any ethical culture worth the name must make room for the entire width and depth of human emotional experience. It must offer staunch moral guidance for directly grappling with the darkest and vilest corners, where vice and evil preys on the human spirit at its weakest.

When we turn our gaze back to de Botton’s bright and cheery museums and temples for upright, clean atheists, they do look like lovely places to visit. But no one could really live there.

What sort of humanism is de Botton advocating? Sociologists chart the inevitable divides enlivening any denomination, divides that typically widen and split churches when the role of the emotional life is disputed. Reformers bringing people back to the raw experiences aroused by religion, reviving deep emotions to run them through the creedal veins and invigorate all the religious “organs” in sympathetic response, always run into ecclesiastical obstacles erected by cooler conservative heads. If a denomination can avoid schism across the centuries and revivalists can be continually domesticated with offers of their own churches, a distinctive “high church” and “low church” compromise can flourish. Preserving grand tradition and intellectual system, the high church is the very model of stability and reliability. It commands respect for its ability to instruct generation after generation in the same answers to the same questions. In contrast, the low-church version is in constant flux, in a state where fresh, charismatic leadership blossoms from unexpected directions, psychologically nimble enough to meet the common folks where they need to be met, arms full of worries and troubles amid chaos and disaster. From this sociological angle, high church/low church gaps can happen to any ideology or “ism”—not just to religious churches—because it is always real people that any movement must recruit.

De Botton, imitating much of Anglo-American religious humanism (and following the example of intellectually liberal Christianity before that), has redrawn the familiar blueprints for high-church humanism. I deeply admire and respect that tradition, and I have learned much from it, as radical freethinkers, rationalists, agnostics, and atheists have before me. I love colleges and museums and regular gatherings, and I’d even pay for admittance to de Botton’s envisioned temples once in a while. But nobody lives in the nineteenth century anymore, and nonbelievers presently look like anyone anywhere in society—we are numerous, and we come from all walks of life. We don’t want exalted religion and we rarely need elevated ideas. Ordinary folks can get everything to instruction on art to basic education straight from the Internet. Yes, it’s nurturing relationships and vibrant sociality that we really need to truly sustain viable communities. But give me low-church humanism, a full-blooded moralistic humanism ready for sharing and sacrifice, eager to help repair the messy and broken lives that real people have to live on a planet itself tearing apart at its seams.

Until that low-church humanism walks abroad the whole land and settles deeply into the fabric of cities and towns everywhere, we shall not have the humanism that all nonbelievers deserve. What are the realistic alternatives, in the long run? A low-church, pop-psychology Christianity sounds more and more humanistic, justifying its spirituality by elevating high hopes for this life. When life gets tough and nonbelievers are tempted to drift back into that cozy embrace, who else is looking after their personal emotional needs? Mere atheism has long been scorned for thin intellectualism and often rightly so; a low-church atheism has emerged to aim emotional energies back at the conservative religions from which many apostates have recently come. Recommending religion for atheists at least places the individual flourishing of nonbelievers at the forefront of concern. Yet it is too late for religion and its surrogates. New times deserve new technologies.

John Shook

John Shook is an associate editor of FREE INQUIRY and director of education and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books, is coeditor of three philosophy journals, and travels for lectures and debates across the United States and around the world.

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, by Alain de Botton (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012, ISBN 978-0-307-37910-8) 320 pp. Hardcover, $26.95. Alain de Botton does n’t think God exists, but he regards thinking about God as only one among many things religion is good for. Subtracting God-belief from religion, in …

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