Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, Humanism and the Role of the Public Intellectual

For me, Alain de Botton’s highly visible career as a public intellectual represents a personal journey as well. He took the path I wish I had pursued, as he did, much earlier in life. Therefore, here, I will not only review his newest book, Religion for Atheists (2012), but also chart the significance of this journey. Alain and I are intellectuals of the same generation, similar formation—in philosophy and literature—and with similar cultural ideals. Alain de Botton is one of the most vocal and prominent defenders of “a philosophy of everyday life”. He upholds the view–and shows by example, in each of his best-selling works–that philosophy and literature are not just for scholars or the intellectual elite. They are for everyone interested in taking some time off their busy schedules to enjoy the canonical works of Western philosophy and literature. If they read Alain de Botton’s books, they will be persuaded that—far from being dated or having a merely historical interest–these canonical works are still relevant to their daily lives. The ideal of engaging with philosophy and literature—let’s say, the wisdom of the ages–may seem perfect for an academic setting but, in my personal experience, I have found that for the most part it is not.

Although there are some reputable scholars in the U.S. who write about important human issues in a way that is relevant to the general public and easy to understand without being simplistic—I’m thinking of Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Arthur Danto, Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, Victor Brombert and a handful of others—for the most part, scholarly writing tends to be too specialized to interest the general public. Furthermore, during the mid to late 1990’s, when I was going to graduate school, the fields of Comparative Literature, English, French and other languages were dominated by exceedingly specialized, arcane theories—loosely called “poststructuralist” or “postmodernist”–that rested upon questionable premises and widened the gap between the general public and scholarly writing in the arts and humanities. For a persuasive debunking of those theories, I’d recommend Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science, 1997.

Of course, there were and still are countless scholars in the Arts and Humanities—the vast majority perhaps–who write clearly about their areas of specialization and make important contributions to their fields. However, in most cases, their target audience is not, as it is for Alain de Botton, a general audience but rather a more restricted group of specialists. In my estimation, the specialized nature of scholarly writing combined with the predominance of arcane, trendy theories risked dooming literary studies to public irrelevance during the 1990’s.

In this academic context, it took a lot of courage and a certain leap of faith for Alain de Botton to leave the academia (when he was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard University) in order to become a public intellectual promoting philosophy and literature. While this goal would have been quite common for European intellectuals during the 1930’s and 40’s, when–to offer just one example out of many–the Existentialist movement had such a vast impact upon culture, this notion has become nearly obsolete nowadays. As difficult as it is to become a public intellectual in an academic setting—due to the two main reasons I mentioned earlier–it’s even more difficult to achieve this status outside the academia. Today the general public has been turned off by scholarship and, generally speaking, has little interest and time for intellectual pursuits.

In an interview, Alain de Botton describes his choice to leave the academia in order to become a public intellectual as seizing the best opportunity: “In another age, I might have been an academic in a university, if the university system had been different. So it’s all about trying to find the best fit between your talents and what the world can offer at that point in time.” To turn this expression around, what De Botton has offered the world is a genuine love of knowledge; a sense of the practical applications of canonical works and a clear; elegant explanations of some of the best-known Western novelists and philosophers. His efforts have been consistently rewarded with resounding success. His first book, Essays In Love (1993) became an instant bestseller. The Romantic Movement (1994), Kiss and Tell (1995) and–my personal favorite–How Proust Can Change your Life (1997) quickly followed suit, becoming equally popular with the public.  Alain de Botton’s success is well earned, not only because of the quality and accessibility of his books, but also because he works hard to maintain his public status and connection to readers. He travels around the world for book launches and talks; connects with fans on Facebook and other public forums; gives lectures at TED conferences and even runs his own production company, called Seneca Productions that makes documentaries about his works. For him, being a public intellectual—let alone being a writer–is more than a full-time job. It’s a life passion.

Despite its provocative title, his newest book, Religion for Atheists (2012), offers neither a polemical defense of religion for nonbelievers nor, conversely, a defense of atheism for believers. Rather, it’s the strongest and most compelling defense for humanist values I have read since Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity (1997).  De Botton  illustrates that religious principles and allegories should play an important role in modern secular society. His main thesis is that “we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.” (Religion for Atheists, 12)

In a way, De Botton expresses the secular contemporary version of “Pascal’s wager”. Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal has famously stated in Pensées (1669) that since the existence of God can’t be proved or disproved, a rational person should bet that God exists and live “as though he had faith.” Then, logically speaking, if God exists he has everything to gain and if he doesn’t he has nothing to lose. Taking this kind of argument a step further, De Botton’s Religion for Atheists argues that even if we bet that God doesn’t exist, we should still adhere to some religious principles as if he did.

What do we have to gain from “De Botton’s wager”, so to speak? First of all, religious principles and rituals—such as mass and other means of congregation—give us a sense of community. Without this, we risk becoming isolated, self-absorbed and alienated individuals. Religion also teaches us about the value of kindness and being other-regarding, which is as necessary for a sense of community as it is for modern marriages and family life. Religious figures and prophets, De Botton further pursues, offer us role models that are worth emulating. This is especially important in a media-driven culture that encourages us to admire athletes and actors, many of whom have questionable conduct and values. World religions also emphasize the role of education: not as a practical steppingstone to a pragmatic job, but as a way of growing emotionally and intellectually as individuals.

Religion also teaches us a sense of modesty and reminds us of our limitations. Nothing brings this point home better than the problem of theodicy, or the question of why the suffering of innocents exists in a world governed by an omniscient and omnipotent divinity. The answer given by Christianity in The Book of Job, by Blaise Pascal, Simone Weil and even by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov comes down to the following thesis encapsulated by De Botton:  “Fragile, limited creatures that [we] are, how can [we] possibly understand the ways of God?” (Religion for Atheists, 198) There are some things beyond human comprehension but our limitations should not be an excuse for hubris or for believing that we’re above morality.

If I place De Botton’s important new book in the longstanding tradition of Western humanism, it’s because it underscores the importance of human ethical and social values that find their best expression through the invention of religion. Although postmodern critics, such as Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard, have described themselves as “anti-humanists,” asserting that humanism posits overarching principles that lead to exclusion and hierarchy, Religion for Atheists demonstrates clearly and thoroughly why that’s not so. On the contrary, De Botton persuades us, we cannot exist harmoniously or happily as a secular society without respect for the religious principles and wisdom passed through the ages. 

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon


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