Thursday, January 19, 2012

Alain de Botton Tries Out a New Atheism

Nicolas Cable, the former President of DePaul Interfaith and currently of the Chicago Theological Seminary, sent me this TED talk by Alain de Botton, the Swiss writer who has made his name rather pompously proscribing a stripped, pop version of philosophy as something that can be useful to all. I am provisionally in favor of advocacy on behalf of the discipline, being a philosopher myself, but he has always done so from a position of great and unchecked privilege that frankly, in my opinion, undermines what could be an important message. So, I already start here as less than a fan of the speaker, but I think the talk raises enough important points that it is worth discussing. His conclusions, however, I find less convincing.

The objective of this talk, Botton states, is to present a new version of atheism against that of those writers who "live in North Oxford" (a reference to Richard Dawkins), who he claims write off religion as a thing of child's play, a fairytale. He believes that there's more to it than that: nonexistence of the supernatural, the topic of many New Atheist books and writings, is just the first step. There are, he says, plenty of people who cannot bear the doctrines of the various organized religions but still miss the ritualistic, moralistic, communal senses that go along with being a member of a congregation. Botton makes the claim that there have been, up to now, only two choices for such people: grin and bear the doctrine, or live in a "spiritual wasteland." The alternative, he says, is "picking and mixing" the best parts of religion, in order to "fill the holes" (meaning the spiritual, communal, etc.) of secular life.

So, he's essentially identified the same problem that the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard tries to address. So what does he think religion does better than secularism? Botton first identifies education. He claims that the secular world, which greatly values education, does not do it very well. Early in the 19th century, he says, church attendance began to drop, and those who left the church turned to culture as a source of morality and guidance: Shakespeare, Plato, Austen, and the like replaced the Gospels. Current institutes of higher learning, in his mind, do not offer advice anymore on how to live, but instead treat us as adults and offer cold, unyielding information. Religions, on the other hand, he freely admits, teach their adherents as children in need of guidance, and thus tell people how to live through sermons, which want to change life. Botton buys this completely: humans need guidance and morality, because we are children, and thus we should go back to the tradition of sermons, rather than lectures.

This is, needless to say, incredibly problematic. Remember at the start of this entry, when I said Botton operates from a place of enormous privilege and pomposity? Here you go. Plain as day. We are children, we know nothing, but instead of offering some guidance and allowing us to discover ourselves and formulate our own versions of morality and our own worldviews, as a skeptical, freethinking person might do, Botton says no. Dogma and absolute truths are the only way to provide morality and guidance, and for that we need sermons. This is such a typically authoritarian, regressive point of view, I can't believe it is actually being proffered in a modern context.

Don't worry, though, because he's not done with education. He attempts to make the case that secular education teaches a student something, for instance the works of Plato, once, then expects them to remember it the rest of their lives. Here, I actually agree with the premise; in the U.S., we have in high school an educational philosophy that memorization is best, because especially in public schools students are taught to take standardized tests that their graduation and the school's reputation/funding hinges on. Once that test is over, the knowledge is not reinforced or built upon, and so students forget it. It's why I couldn't do calculus to save my life now, three years after my last instruction in it, but I can tell you each and every part of Rousseau's philosophy on the state and formation of a social contract, the making of good citizens, and so on. But, Botton's solution to this problem is again very, very poor: religions, he says, force their adherents to constantly learn and repeat so-called "great truths" again and again and again, to "get down on [their] knees and repeat it," and thus they remember. This is, as I just pointed out, exactly the problem with teaching today. As PZ Myers explains very nicely in his takedown of Botton, rote memorization of the type the latter advocates might allow for retention of whatever it is being endlessly repeated, but it does not allow for the development of critical thinking or the mastering of concepts. If we were to follow Botton's prescription, it would be no solution at all, but merely a continuance of the problem.

The next thing he advocates as something religion does well is emphasize oratory as an important skill. Again, I agree with the premise: we are language-based creatures, and the ability to advocate for one's beliefs is one of the most essential things in life. His example to prove religion's skill at this is black Pentecostal churches, and the congregants' responses to preachers. This, I think, goes hand in hand with his proscription of the repetitive learning style: particularly in communities with high religious belief, like black communities (Sikivu Hutchinson is a great source on the effects of long-standing religious indoctrination amongst black people), that dogma that has been pressed into you as the ultimate, most perfect truth every single day of your life will naturally grant the speaker of that scripture a certain allure that will lead to a more enthusiastic response. It's not entirely dependent on that particular orator's skill, but also the audience, and so Botton's example simply does not prove his point.

And finally, arguably the poorest part of his talk, art. Botton claims that we are letting ourselves down when it comes to analyzing how religions use art. In the secular world, by contrast, he says that we hold art in very high esteem; a great amount of our surplus wealth, after all, goes to the "new cathedrals" that are museums and institutions of the fine arts. Religions handle art better, he claims, that they do not treat art as being for art's sake, that it shouldn't explain itself or interact with the world; religious art always, he says, have a "saner attitude" and reminds us of what there is to love and hate. It serves as a "visceral reminder" of the truth of the world around us, and is never ambiguous, whereas with contemporary art, he claims that the feeling of "puzzlement" is structural to its very being. Rembrandt, he says, was a propagandist, and that's not a bad thing: propaganda is for Botton not to be associated with Hitler and Stalin, but is a "matter of being didactic in the honor of something, and if that something is good then there is no problem at all." He advocates for museum directors to organize their institutions so that works are separated according to virtues, and that each room would have explanations of how this artwork is working to push the viewer into a better frame of mind. We would then, he says, "get a lot more out of art."

Now, I work in the museum world. I am a technician at the DePaul Art Museum here in Chicago, where we pride ourselves on doing precisely the opposite of what Botton advocates. Our current exhibition, "Re: Chicago," was put together using a democratized curatorial process, meaning that art world types with connections to Chicago were asked by us to nominate works that they thought were important or should be seen as important, and we built the show from their recommendations. This kind of practice, Botton seems to think, is what contemporary institutions do all the time: as someone in the field, I can tell you that our approach to curatorial practice is about as unorthodox as is possible in the fine arts world. As long as there have been artistic institutions there have been curators and directors offering authoritative viewpoints on art movements, artists, and individual works, with no outside views allowed. That is art history. That is curatorial practice, as it stands today. Stepping outside of that rubric is radical. The art world, as it happens, is actually EXACTLY as Botton wishes it was, with a slowly growing number of exceptions. I honestly have no idea how he has missed this fact. He clearly has not stepped into, or at least critically analyzed, an art exhibition in the last 40 years or so.

Finally, he talks about organized religion's senses of communities. And he argues for it based on the Catholic Church's capitalistic success, and that that success and exploitation is a good thing. And because of this, the individual poets and philosophers have no might, no power. So, he suggests they assimilate so they can be heard. And seems to find nothing wrong with this. After the other aspects of his talk, I have no energy left to yell at the sheer ignorance and lack of critical thinking going on here. It is truly, truly mesmerizing.

In conclusion, I have to say that this is one of the poorest TED talks I have seen. Actually, it's one of the poorest philosophical presentations I have ever seen. In trying to make a case for secular people adopting aspects of religion, Botton has failed miserably. His premises are, in some cases, true: education, particularly at a high school level, is in a pitiful state, and our society is not educating our children in positive, lasting ways, for instance. But, in each and every case he presents, Botton argues for a path that would eliminate critical thinking and free thought and instead push an authoritative, dogmatic view of the world onto people. Botton's proscriptions would only lead to less knowledge and a less dynamic citizenry, not the more rounded or intelligent one he thinks will result.

2 comments:

  1. I agree with you, I just want to figure out what you're trying to say with:

    "...but he has always done so from a position of great and unchecked privilege" I didn't quite catch what position he's speaking from, and i have no clue what "check your privilege" means. Is that simply a recognition that you're in a position of privilege- because, that is not something you always have control over.

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