Friday, February 24, 2012

Atheism 2.0

Four years ago, not long after the start of my retirement, I embarked on the intellectual journey (a really hard slog, to be honest) that led to the creation of my two Abrahamica MSS. See my allied sites, which can be found at the "Complete Profile" (sidebar).

I was reacting, if you will, to two things. The first stemmed from my former self. It was embodied in my 35-year career as an art historian, which was largely concerned with religious art (Christian mainly, but also ancient Egyptian). In this teaching I was prepared to set aside my awareness of the manifold confusions and downright evils set in motion by organized religion, especially as embodied in the Abrahamic family of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The bad side of these religions amounted, in effect, to the repellent grain of sand that engendered the pearl.

After I retired, and was no longer obliged to represent the collective mission of my university, I felt empowered to explore, and possibly reject this rationale.

My second dissatisfaction occurred when I read the books of the New Atheists, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Their dismissal of religion seemed peremptory and, quite honestly, ignorant. They were tone-deaf to the cultural benefits that I had been exploring in my college lectures and books.

So in my new writing I sought to chart a middle course, guided in large measure by the hard-won findings of the historical-critical school in religious studies.

Now I find that, with his concept of Atheism 2.0, the English writer Alain de Botton has adopted a similar intermediate position, though I fear that it is not very new. In fact he goes back to the idea of Matthew Arnold in the 19th century, who held that as the power of religion receded it would be replaced by culture. According to De Botton, modern education is too much concerned with imparting information and not enough with guidance and consolation--how we should live in short. He rightly points to the deficiencies of the art-for-art's-sake approach that is dominant in our museums. From Masaccio and Michelangelo to Rembrandt and Blake much of the art that we most revere is religious. Ditto, most Renaissance and much of Baroque music. De Botton also points to affinities between pilgrimage and modern travel.

Perhaps I am insufficiently receptive because I had thought of most of these points before. Alain de Botton deserves a hearing. In fact, he makes his case quite eloquently in his recent TED talk:



Blogger Burk said...


If only today's defenders of religion were to make their case on the same basis of art and pleasant effects!

The more militant atheism addresses the actual nature of belief today as a social phenomenon, which is mired in willful ignorance, pining for patriarchy, and blind obedience. It deserves a few harsh, peremptory words.

9:38 AM  

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