Thursday, April 5, 2012

de Botton's Unfortunate Reception

Alain de Botton proposed in his book Religion for Atheists that culture should be made the new sacrament. We talked about his proposal a couple of days ago, but in the wake of the publication of his book there's been an interesting, though not surprising, reaction from his fellow atheists.

De Botton, not understanding the mindset of those religious folk educated enough to have been likely to read his book, expected them to react with contumely. That didn't happen, of course. Few intelligent religious people are upset by the arguments of atheists which they usually find unpersuasive, uniformed, and sophomoric. What did happen, however, was that de Botton has been vilified by his fellow atheists.

Here are some excerpts from de Botton's account of his unpleasant encounter with his atheist colleagues:
When I was writing my book, Religion for Atheists, I suspected that I might make enemies at both extremes of the spectrum, among firm believers and firm atheists. My book was doing a slightly unusual thing, being sympathetic to aspects of religion while resolutely denying the existence of God or any supernatural dimensions to existence.

What I couldn’t have predicted was which group of opponents would react most fiercely. But it’s now evident that it’s the atheists have won the race by far. While ostensibly speaking up in the name of plurality, free speech and tolerance, a small group of well-organised atheists have launched a concerted campaign of the kind not seen since John Gray last published a book. It’s not my book itself that bothers them, it’s the entire area that I’m covering.

As in the case of Gray, they simply don’t want anyone to show tolerance to bodies which they feel, in the famous words of Christopher Hitchens, poison “everything”. And despite their distaste for religions, they mirror – with uncanny precision – all the very worst tactics of their opponents: a refusal to engage in calm dialogue, ad hominem attacks, a desire to denigrate reputations at all costs and a lack of civility or forgiveness.

I have received hopes for my early and painful demise and stacks of hate mail of a kind I haven’t had since I appeared on Newsnight in 2006 and spoke up for the right of the existence of a Jewish homeland.
His claim that religious people act the way he alleges they do may be true on the fringes, but it's certainly not true of sophisticated, well-educated believers. It is true, however, of sophisticated, well-educated unbelievers. No one who has had the pleasure of reading New Atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, P.Z. Myers, et al. will be surprised at the reaction de Botton has suffered.
People have repeatedly claimed that it’s unfair to label militant atheists like Richard Dawkins “aggressive”. They are in fact – apparently – just very well meaning tolerant people laying out an argument with the help of reason and science. It’s their opponents who label them destructive in an attempt to denigrate them.

I wish I could believe this was true, I started off believing this, but Dawkins clearly stands at the head of a well-funded, well-disciplined movement that aims systematically to smear its opponents in an attempt to assert its vision of atheism. It seems lamentable just how intolerant contemporary atheism has become towards anything or anyone associated with religion.

It’s one thing not to believe, quite another to think that those who do believe or even show an interest in belief are betraying the cause and must be excommunicated from the fold.
The New Atheists are the jihadis in the contemporary war against religious belief. Their vituperation and offensiveness has been their trademark for at least the last fifteen years. Where has de Botton been?