I've watched Alain de Botton talk on "Atheism 2.0" from a TED conference last year, and as usual he is persuasive, speaks well, and is entertaining. And it's thought-provoking stuff, so whatever your perspective, do have a listen.
His central point is that the leaders of the New Atheists have it just as wrong as Religious Leaders, who appear to reduce everything down to a form of scientism. It doesn't allow for an enjoyment of Christmas Carols, or the wonder in ancient religious buildings, or appreciation for much of Western art, for example. And most people still want to enjoy these things. So he is clearly in a more realistic and sensible camp than some.

He proposes that there is much of value in the ways that a religion operates, even if (like him) you reject all religious doctrines. He then discusses the ways the major faiths practice Morality, Education, Art, Communities, and Structures, pointing out some examples of how enlightened they are. And suggesting that "Atheism 2.0" atheists should carefully study them, and nick the best bits.

As an advocate of Open Source systems and thinking, I can hardly disagree with this view. After all, our ancient Universities were modelled around monasteries, and much primary education grew out of church-run Christian education.  And of course no-one's going to argue that community should only stem from groups of like-minded believers, or that nothing else should have long-lived supporting organisational structures.  So, some of his message is just obvious.

But unfortunately there were a couple of areas where I had to disagree: on morality and on atheist-religious dialogue. At the start he made the case for keeping morality, but rejected where it comes from. Instead of coming from sacred scriptures, he wanted 'culture' as the source, suggesting Plato, Shakespeare and Jane Austen instead.  I'm not familiar with Plato, but the other two are broadly expressing a Christian morality, and believed in God.  And why not, say, Voltaire or Nietzsche? You think the Church of England is broad — but what about the ideas and work that has ever been regarded as "culture"? And who gets to decide who to follow here? He didn't show his working here, and he needs to, so that this idea can be properly critiqued.

He was briefly questioned at the end by an MC. One question was how we suggests talking with those who remain followers of a religion. His answer of just politely ignoring anything they say, just seems like a cop-out. How does that promote dialogue, or help tackle some of the very real challenges, such as education systems that only teach religion and ignore the sciences and humanities?  

He was also asked about the many who think or sense there is a "higher force out there" — whether religious or not — I think he missed the point.  Yes, staring at the moon is likely to help us regain a sense of perspective, and humility. That by itself doesn't need to be labelled as of "God". But that's hardly the most common case. What about the awe and wonder invoked by the birth of a child, or the sense of the numinous and peace that most people find in a place that's been saturated in prayer?

His comments about preaching were a surprise though, particularly at a time when some in church circles are losing confidence in it. He found that preaching, when done well, is a form of persuasion for how to live. And one that he felt speakers, like those at TED, should take more note of.  So I was surprised he didn't go further and suggest that much of TED is really a preaching forum. Perhaps that's why I like it so much? People with important ideas, passionately put ...

AuthorJonathan Clark