Accommodating religion doesn’t require adopting its trappings

I tried very hard to read A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Secular Bible. I really did. I started the book three times, and the last two times I skipped the soporific beginning and started to read from a random point somewhere in the middle of the book. I couldn’t do it. The Good Book is just not a very good book.

It’s not that Grayling’s prose is particular bad, although it’s not particularly good. It’s not that many of the things he writes are little more than self-help nostrums, although many of them are certainly that.

The problem is that Grayling’s imitation of the style of the old English bible makes his “new bible” seem more a parody than a transformation. He hasn’t so much updated the old bible as he has backdated his new ideas.

What’s more interesting to me than Grayling’s lack of success as a prophet is how far some of my fellow “accommodationists” — committed atheists who don’t  think that belief and believers are only and always evil — are willing to go to perform their acts of accommodation.

There’s no need to replace the old bible with a new one. Why should we need any sort of sacred book? Wouldn’t the absence of any sacred books come closer to our worldview, to our sense that there are many complexities in life but no definitive users’ manual?

Grayling isn’t the only one playing this game. In one section of After God: What Can Atheists Learn from Believers?, published online by the New Statesman on March 27th, Alain de Botton argues that we should remember that we created religions to fill deep and universal psychological and emotional needs. And, as he correctly points out, abolishing religion doesn’t eradicate those needs.

However, where de Botton goes quite wrong is in his impulse to retain or copy the forms of religion once the magical mysteries have been shed.

De Botton writes of the need to find a “new priest,” perhaps a mass-market psychiatrist, someone officially sanctioned to listen to us when things get tough. I’m reminded of the computer counsellor in George Lucas’s THX-1138 (1971), the one whose soothing female voice tenderly asks, “What’s wrong?” before prescribing an extra dose of mood-lifting drugs. Just as we don’t need a new sacred book, we don’t need a new sacred professional.

De Botton does a little better when he argues that the great artifacts of culture can replace the sacred books of religions. Literature, music, art, architecture, and the like are repositories of great wisdom — and even when they’re not filled with wisdom, they are often sources of important questions and new points of view. Certainly we benefit when we are encouraged to think deeply, to feel deeply.

But de Botton goes on to suggest new churches, advocating in effect that universities become purposeful cultural counselors, that art galleries construct their exhibits in ways that encourage deep thought and emotional insight. What’s wrong with this, of course, is that by making thoughtfulness and self-reflection “official,” we would merely replace one institutional source of truth with another.

It’s worth noting that de Botton doesn’t have anything to say about science as a source of knowledge and understanding. Science doesn’t replace myth with myth, mystery with mystery — but it does represent an entire side of reality with which too many fervent religionists — and too many “new, new atheists” — seldom engage.

2 thoughts on “Accommodating religion doesn’t require adopting its trappings

  1. Hi,
    Thank you for an interesting read.

    I’ve not read either books/authors you mentioned but still, wanted to make a comment about something you said in the last paragraph. I think the problem with science is that it is all about facts. Which is great when facts are needed. But science can’t address the unique issues that come up because we are (complex and social) conscious beings. There is no morality in science, hence the atomic bomb, a whole range of issues with the pharmaceutical industry and Sheldon Cooper’s friendship algorithm (if you want the Big Bang). In other words, science is a specialised kind of knowledge that does not cover relationships, morality and ethics.

    Personally I think the lack of ethical guidance is atheism’s greatest failure and weakness so I am really glad some brave people are giving it a go.

    Find your posts very interesting,
    Thank you

  2. You’re certainly correct that science doesn’t directly address morality. And attempts to construct a “scientific” ethic have had horrific results. But I believe that both evolutionary biology and neuroscience do/can/will inform us more clearly about our true nature, sans the magically mythic, and that should lead us toward more enlightened ways of dealing with each other.

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