“A hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers…My financial position is, however, affected very differently by a hundred real thalers than it is by the mere concept of them (that is of their possibility)” - Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781)
Now, please don’t get me wrong about this: like all right-thinking folk I consider the pop-”philosopher” Alain de Botton to be a complete prat. I especially despise his preposterous plan for a “temple to atheism” and (although I haven’t yet read it), I’m sure I’ll hold his book Religion for Atheists in the same contempt.
You’re either an atheist (or a believer) or you’re not. Which is why the term “agnostic” always strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. And as for appreciating the wonders of nature and existence, the warmth of human companionship, or even the grandeur and profundity of religious writing and religious buildings, plenty of atheists (including the supposedly “destructive” Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) have made it clear that we can appreciate all that stuff. Philip Larkin put it very well in his poem ‘Church Going’:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
Note that the atheist Larkin is writing about a proper (albeit deserted) church, not some neo-Comptean fake-religious travesty. We atheists (especially, but not only, those brought up on Marxism) understand what religion is all about, even as we reject it.
Which is why de Botton’s attempt to appease religion and the religious – to meet them halfway – is so pathetic and insulting to both sides. Much healthier is the straightforward “destructive” atheism of Dawkins, who declared (of de Botton’s plans), “Atheists don’t need temples. I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you’re going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”
Having got all that of my chest, I have to admit that I harbour some sympathy with de Botton when he writes in last week’s New Statesman (not yet on line, so no link) about being “Eagletoned” (his soft-on-religion book had been blow-torched by the so-called “Marxist” Terry Eagleton in the Guardian):
de Botton on Eagleton:
“This kind of sympathetic atheism infuriated Eagleton for reasons that entirely escaped the archetypal Guardian reader. They may remember him fondly (as I do) from the days when he used to explain critical theory to us – and was unrivalled in the clarity with which he popularised otherwise complex thinkers such as Lacan.”
Eagleton’s vituperative review of de Botton’s book is often perceptive (well, you’d expect that of an academic of his background), and I especially like his (Eagleton’s) comment about atheists who think religion is necessary and/or accepatable, for the lower orders:
“There is something deeply disingenuous about this whole tradition. “I don’t believe myself, but it is politically prudent that you should” is the slogan of thinkers supposedly devoted to the integrity of the intellect. If the Almighty goes out of the window, how are social order and moral self-discipline to be maintained? It took the barefaced audacity of Friedrich Nietzsche to point out that if God was dead, then so was Man – or at least the conception of humanity favoured by the guardians of social order. The problem was not so much that God had inconveniently expired; it was that men and women were cravenly pretending that he was still alive, and thus refusing to revolutionise their idea of themselves.”
Now, it’s important to remember (or just know) that Eagleton made his name in the 1970′s as “Marxist” academic and then -quite suddenly - after 9/11, and rational people like Christopher Hitchens had begun a serious attack upon religion, Eagleton began attacking atheism, whilst still allowing himself to be billed as a “Marxist”, and indeed, as a (self-proclaimed) ”atheist” all the better to give “intellectual” credibility to his defence of religion.
Meanwhile, some of us began to question whether Eagleton really was the “atheist” he claimed to be, and was billed as being…
Eagleton’s attack on Dawkins in the London Reveiw of Books was well-received on much of the “left” and liberal-Guardianista-”left”:
One of Eagleton’s complaints, in that article, against Dawkins’s book (‘The God Delusion‘) was that:
“He (Dawkins) can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false. The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddah or Allah are wiped from human history – and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry.”
Yet, now, then self-same Eagleton complains about de Button:
“De Botton does not want people literally to believe, but he remains a latter-day Matthew Arnold, as his high Victorian language makes plain. Religion “teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober”, as well as instructing us in “the charms of community”. It all sounds tediously neat and civilised. This is not quite the gospel of a preacher who was tortured and executed for speaking up for justice, and who warned his comrades that if they followed his example they would meet with the same fate. In De Botton’s well-manicured hands, this bloody business becomes a soothing form of spiritual therapy, able to “promote morality (and) engender a spirit of community”. It is really a version of the Big Society.”
That may well be true, but Eagleton must now tell us where he stands on religion: not as some “objective” commentator, but as someone who is a vigorous participant in the debate and who seems to have a strong personal investment in it. We have a right to know where this person stands, and so far he has noticeably failed to inform us.
And a final (for now) theological point about Eagleton’s ’position’ upon religion; he says, in his much-vaunted ’critique’ of Richard Dawkins:
“Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”:
This is, in fact, no more and no less than the well-known (and ridiculous, banal) “ontological argument” of St Ansulem: “Something than which nothing greater can be conceived”: he then argued that something that exists in reality must be greater than something that exists in the mind only; so God must exist outside as well as in the mind, for if he existed in the mind only and not in reality he would not be “something than which nothing greater can be conceived.” I’d call that a circular argument, not worth the time of day, if anyone asked me.
The idea that someone (even a prominent academic like Eagleton) can come out with such religious nonsense, and still be taken seriously as some sort of left-wing figure, is (sorry about this)… beyond belief.
Eagleton continues, to this day, to present himself as a ‘Marxist’ , whilst concealing the fact that he is, in fact, first and foremost, a Catholic. Nothing wrong with that as an individual human right, of course, but in the context of this debate, it is relevant: religious belief and Marxism, are, of course, incompatible.
But the final reason that it’s important to know where Eagleton is coming from is this: he appears to truly believe that sinners (like Christopher Hitchens) are – or should be – roasting in hell; he writes:
“Liberal-capitalist societies, being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularised religion has long been one bogus solution on offer. The late Christopher Hitchens, who some people think is now discovering that his broadside God Is Not Great was slightly off the mark, would have scorned any such project. He did not consider that religion was a convenient fiction. He thought it was disgusting. Now there’s something believers can get their teeth into …”
Or, as de Botton puts it in the New Statesman:
“You’d almost miss it: Eagleton believes that Hitchens is roasting and regetting having written God is Not Great. In other words, I was up against a reviewer for whom balance was going to be a challenge.”
What I am saying is this: Eagleton has clearly returned to his Catholicism: that does not in itself disqualify him from the debate about religion and related matters. It does, however mean that we must take everything he says in the context of his backward superstition. And also in the light of his dishonest concealment of it for many years.