I read Joe Kirby’s excellent blog regularly and find myself nodding happily in agreement with many of the points that he makes. However, his recent post Secular Pantheon: what can schools learn from religions? (following suggestions made by Alain de Botton) made me spit out my muesli in frustration. Richie Gale has also written a thoughtful response to Joe’s post, but was in broad agreement with its theme that schools could learn some useful lessons from religion.
I am not.
My main problem is with the claims made by Alain de Botton:
Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true’. Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists. [ HuffPo 3/2/12]
While de Botton pats himself on the back for being so much more nuanced and accommodating than the “fanatical atheists” he decries, he is actually neither. I believe Jason Rosenhouse puts it nicely:
When someone says the truth or falsity of religions are their least interesting aspects, you can be sure you are reading the work of someone who thinks they are false. If there were a strong argument to be made on behalf of the truth claims of Christianity or Islam, say, that would not be boring at all. That would actually be a momentous contribution to humanity’s understanding of the world. [EvolutionBlog 8/3/12]
To me, de Botton’s world weary pose is comparable to that of an adult pressured by her children into presiding over a funeral service for a hamster.
I think it is more actually more respectful of religion to take their truth claims seriously enough to debate rather than sideline them with a twinkly eyed “Well, really, whether they’re true or not isn’t the point, is it?”
Joe approvingly highlights this sentence from de Botton:
We need institutions to foster and protect those emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but which, without a supporting structure and a system of active reminders, we will be too undisciplined to make time for.
Well, on the plus side, here de Botton at least talks about emotions rather than the empirically unverifiable spirit or soul. Emotions are undoubtedly important, and I’ll even accept the concepts of soul and spirit when used metaphorically.
But I would argue that emotional lives are far healthier when they are based on truth rather than falsehood. It may well be emotionally satisfying to conclude that you have not succeeded because the world is against you and always has been, but it is far healthier to have an emotional reaction based on the most accurate and honest assessment of the state of the world that you are able to produce, rather than retreat into any form of fantasy.
The plea for a “supporting structure and system” to address our chronic indiscipline is a simply a plea to return to the world of the child, to have someone or something in authority over oneself. Being an adult is hard work. Taking responsibility for oneself is hard. I am sure that shaking off that burden is an attractive thought for all of us, on occasion.
Perhaps de Botton is right, and most religious believers retreat into the comfort of their religious structure and system without worrying too much about its truth or falsity. However, I think that the majority of religious believers follow their religion because they genuinely (for good or bad reasons) believe it to be true.
They are not organizing their lives and defining their identities around religion because they find the rituals quaint and enjoy socializing at the receptions after services. They are doing it because they believe what their religion tells them about the world. [EvolutionBlog 8/3/12. Emphasis added.]
And therein, I think, lies the problem.