July 28, 2012

The Cream Puff Philosopher

No, it’s not me!, but from the eyebrows up there is a striking resemblance.  Alain de Botton is the “people’s'” philosopher.  His book Status Anxiety tapped into the unease rising in the chests of modern people and their obsession with what others think of them. While “real” philosophers – such as AC Grayling, deride him, Grayling labelling his work “cream puff stuff”, de Botton’s latest book Religion for Atheists, picks the zeitgeist far better than Dawkins and Hitchens et al.

Too late, the New Atheists realised that white hot zealotry, not God, was the problem.  There was genuine bewilderment on Dawkins face during his Q and A appearance when the audience laughed at his assertion that although he didn’t know how the universe began, he knew it wasn’t God. “Fools!”,  he seemed to be thinking.

De Botton’s book, by contrast, has that magical ingredient that brings people onside – humility.  Let’s start with the title.   It’s not about those deluded theists, nor is it shaking a fist in the face of a not-so-great God. It’s not against anything. It’s for atheists!

Secondly, it’s an engaging articulation of what people actually think but often cannot articulate for themselves. In its call for the supernatural to be strained off, and the essence of religion to be mined for all of its ethical, communal and cultural benefits, de Botton is saying nothing new – and nothing that Christians would be surprised by – but he distils the argument clearly.

Thirdly, he understands people’s hearts.  Take this for example:

This book…attempts to burn off religions‘ more dogmatic aspects in order to distil a few aspects of them that could prove timely and consoling to sceptical contemporary minds facing the crises and griefs of finite existence on a troubled planet.  It hopes to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.

Dawkins and Hitchens don’t do consoling – they do scolding. Even the UK bus advertising campaign telling people to enjoy their lives because God probably doesn’t exist felt more like a sneer than a joyous exclamation.  It’s such a turn off.

The key phrase in the quote above is “beautiful, touching and wise”: The key word – “seems“. Together these tap into the basic human hunger for meaning,  a hunger that remains even in this confusing, conflicting hyper-modern age in which the supernatural seems so difficult to believe. Most people I meet are in this camp. de Botton has waited for the dust of conflict to settle then simply walked into town with a “third way”.

So what does this mean for the church? I’ll offer some ideas in my next post, but I  leave with a question: How can a religion become so beautiful, so touching and so wise that it counters the quiet scepticism of the average Westerner, and once again seems true? 

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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