An Atheist Admires the Contributions of Religion

Atheist Alain de Botton believes that atheists and secularists can borrow a lot of good things from religion:

  • Religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with a practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation, ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture –  a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history. (Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, 18)

Truly, there are many reasons why the religious combination of “ethics and metaphysics” is productive. Most basically, monotheistic religions maintain that there are unchanging and transcendent Ideals and Truths (metaphysics) that trump even our immediate welfare.

There are many benefits buried in this understanding. For one thing, this understanding (faith) frees us up from the tyranny of our emotions. We no longer are enslaved to their passing whims and demands, knowing that something greater awaits us in the next life.

This faith – knowing that God is taking care of us – also frees us up to be other-centered. We certainly do not like everyone in our church, but we understand that love shouldn’t depend on our likes and dislikes, but on a higher calling. Interestingly, we find that as we love the unlikable, we might also grow to like them!

This faith also frees us up from self-absorption. There comes into our lives something greater with which to be absorbed. Our performance, popularity, and worldly esteem no longer matter to us as it once did. We know that we are forgiven and beloved and find growing joy in serving our Master.

This, of course, leads us to de Botton’s expectation that the secularist can borrow useful traits and behaviors from the Christian. He recognizes that:

  • We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so (80).

However, looking longingly through the car dealership window at a Ferrari is one thing; making it my own is another. We might admire its fuel-injection system and the energy it imparts. However, we will be very disappointed if we try to swallow it in the hope that we will be similarly energized.

It is precisely the same predicament that the atheist will face by trying to incorporate the things of God without God.

While I am glad that de Botton recognizes the “need [for] exhortations to be sympathetic and just,” the atheist has no adequate reason to heed such exhortations. De Botton correctly argues that such exhortations will produce a better world, but the human being is more interested in what will produce the better life for himself and those in his own household, and why shouldn’t he be!

De Botton bases his case on pragmatism – what will yield positive results. However, if our exhortations are pragmatically based, then pragmatism alone will tend towards self-centeredness and our immediate comforts. These considerations provide maximal benefits.

While it is easy to stage a concert to benefit a worthy cause – and in the short-run, this makes us feel very good about ourselves – it is unsustainable in the long-run. The personal pay-offs dry up as human history ubiquitously testifies. The benefit concert was exciting at first, but over time, it fails to provide high-octane, self-esteem building fuel.

Can the secularist live for the high moral principle itself? This brings us back to the basic flaw of atheism/secularism. There are simply no “higher” moral principles! In the atheistic world, there is nothing higher than his own feelings and opinions – no higher truth to which he will submit or even recognize. Secular Humanist, Max Hocutt, stated the problem this way:

  • “To me [the non-existence of God] means that there is no absolute morality, that moralities are sets of social conventions devised by humans to satisfy their needs…If there were a morality written up in the sky somewhere but no God to enforce it, I see no good reason why anyone should pay it any heed.” (Understanding the Times)

However, the atheist doesn’t even believe that there is a “morality written up in the sky.” Instead, morality is something we merely create. Hence, morality serves us; we don’t serve morality, and there is a monumental difference between the two!

This difference means that our cherished principles lack any unchanging basis. Therefore, they are relative to our changing thoughts, feelings and cultures.

De Botton wishes to borrow Christian principles and behaviors. However, he will find that secularism is even unable to retain the Christian principles that Western Civilization already enjoys. Let’s name a few:

  1. Mutual and Equal Respect. In the counseling world, this has been translated into “Unconditional Positive Regard” (UPR) for all people.
  2. Equal Protection under the Law (The Bill of Rights)

However, these rest upon a transcendent, biblical foundation, as our Declaration of Independence affirms:

  • That all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

However, this affirmation is not within the grasp of secularism/atheism, which is materialistic and naturalistic. In other words, reality is exclusively comprised from the ingredients of this material universe – no transcendent spiritual realities allowed here! But without the transcendent spiritual, there is no basis whatsoever for equal rights, respect and UPR.

Just imagine a secular psychotherapist who values UPR as a necessary psychotherapeutic tool – and it is! One problem – he has no rational basis to regard all his clients with UPR! From a materialistic perspective, some have positive value and some negative. Some are costly to people and society; others make positive contributions. Therefore, they do not merit equal respect, protection under the law or UPR! Why then extend UPR if reality doesn’t warrant it? From a materialistic perspective, some people merit nothing more than contempt.

This understanding might not stop the therapist from extending UPR, even though he ceases to believe in truth of UPR. However, he will soon realize that he is being manipulative and hypocritical. Eventually, this cognitive dissonance will undermine UPR and any concept of equal respect.

As a probation officer, I always treated my probationers with UPR, even while I exercised firmness with them. However, they sensed the respect I had for them, and I think that this made a difference. However, this posture is unsustainable for the atheist.

I pray that de Botton will come to realize that he cannot separate the gift of religion from the gift-Giver.