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Alain de Botton is missing out. Christianity offers truth and goodness as well as beauty

His mission to rescue beauty from religion is arrogant and ignorant

By on Friday, 30 March 2012

Piero della Francesca's The Baptism of Christ

Piero della Francesca's The Baptism of Christ

There was an interesting item about Sister Wendy Beckett, well known to television viewers in the 1990s for her series on Western art, in the Telegraph earlier this week. According to the report, Sister Wendy “regrets the public’s lack of understanding of the Gospel stories, and adds that as a consequence they cannot grasp the meaning of much of the canon of European painting”.

She is quoted as commenting, “In the past everybody knew these stories, although they didn’t necessarily live the spirit of them… This country has been built on the Christian faith – it’s our heritage, whether people believe it or not. They have a right to know what happened and it does sadden me [that they don’t].”

It seems that art historians are now forced to fill in basic gaps, without which many paintings – such as those portraying the annunciation of Christ’s birth to Mary, or Christ washing the disciples’ feet on the eve of his crucifixion – lose the central part of their meaning.

None of us who call ourselves Christians ever lives “the spirit” of the great paintings of Christian theology as well as we should; this goes without saying. But when I wander round the National Gallery, which I try to do whenever I get up to London, I often wonder what impact certain paintings have on the minds and hearts of the crowds trailing round alongside me. Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ is a particular favourite of mine, as is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Adoration of the Kings. Looking at them through Christian eyes is a kind of meditation and thus goes much deeper than mere questions of style, context, chronology and iconography.

This was brought home to me forcibly recently when I happened to read Alain de Botton’s latest book: Religion for Atheists. His point – one might call it a more “nuanced” approach than that of Richard Dawkins et al – is that atheists are missing out on the musical and artistic beauties that religious faith has inspired and that this is a great loss. His solution? That atheists should somehow appropriate the aesthetic fruits of faith – but of course, without being contaminated by the superstitious beliefs that lie behind them.

There is a breathtaking arrogance behind this – but more importantly, there is a pitiable ignorance. De Botton’s opening sentence is “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.” Tell that to Johann Sebastian Bach or to Piero della Francesca. What is sad about de Botton’s stance is that for all his rich and privileged life, full of culture, travel, leisure and the pursuit of higher sensations, he knows nothing of the truth and goodness of Christianity, which are intrinsic components of its artistic heritage. De Botton wants to rescue “some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true”. But it is he who needs rescuing – from his gilded prison that prevents him from seeing the deeper wisdom of the paintings that Sister Wendy has illuminated so well over the years.

Of course atheists can study monuments to Christian faith from the point of view of cultural anthropology; but it is inevitably a distorted and truncated perspective. In researching his book, de Botton attends a Catholic Mass and comes to the conclusion that “it is not the ideal habitat for an atheist. Much of the dialogue is either offensive to reason or simply incomprehensible.” How could it be otherwise for someone who has deliberately chosen to remain on the sidelines, trusting to reason alone?

Sister Wendy mentions art historians. I often read the Telegraph art historian, Andrew Graham-Dixon. Yet, knowledgeable though he is, I sense that he is sometimes unsure and tentative when he is describing a Christian painting – because it is clear he is doing it “from the outside”. The late Lord Clark, a former (and very youthful) director of the National Gallery, who became a Catholic before he died, as his son, Alan Clark, relates in his Diaries, has this to say in his book about Della Francesca: “Two unconscious beliefs direct his imagination: his belief in the continuity of life and in the nearness of God…[His] unquestioning sense of brotherhood, of dignity, or the returning seasons, and of the miraculous, has survived many changes of dogma and organisation and may yet save Western man from the consequences of materialism.”

  • origen

    This article comes across to me as rather patronising towards atheists. Atheists and Christians approach works of religious art from different personal perspectives and interpret them in different ways…but shouldn’t we value that diversity instead of focussing excessively on divisions?

  • ForgivenSinner

    I agree that de Botton exhibits “breathtaking arrogance” in viewing religious works and wanting to “weed out the religion”.

    However, I can’t help suspecting that either he, or at least others who follow him, might get more than they bargained for if they do try to embrace the transcend even if they try to do so only on their own terms.

    Despite their best efforts, they might even encounter God…

  • Maude Denby

    I have read de Botton’s book and this article comes across as incredibly unkind, ungenerous and thoughtless. De Botton goes out of his way to understand our faith – to hold out a hand, and it’s articles like these that make atheists hate people of all faith. There’s really no excuse for such sarcasm or unwarranted nastiness. Also, note the reviewer’s constant references to de Botton being ‘gilded’. He’s a quite ordinary human who mucks in like the rest of us.

  • Barry Lyons

    Someone I once knew thought he was being cheeky when he called me a “Catholic atheist”. True, I was raised by Catholic parents. But I can say that while I know nothing of the Hindu faith in its particulars, you can call me a “Hindu atheist” if you want.

    The “back story” that explains why de Botton rejects religion (any religion, not just Christianity) can be summed up by considering two ideas interlocking as one: a) religions assert things about the world that are not true, and b) religions presume there is a super-natural dimension (deliberate hyphen) to the universe when there is not.

    For example, it is a fact of the universe that certain spoken words and cross-making arm gestures do not change the constituent nature of water and flour. Catholics believe otherwise and call this magic act “Transubstantiation”.

    There is no such thing in the world as “holy” water.

    As for the breathtaking arrogance and pitiable ignorance of Catholicism, well, that’s for another time.


  • aearon43

    “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.”
    It appears that de Botton is as uninterested in basic logic as he is in God.

  • aearon43

    I did not detect any sarcasm in this article. It seems honest and sincere enough. Is it actually WRONG, or just nasty? I didn’t find it to be nasty at all, although my sensibilities may not be as exquisitely refined as yours… The author seems to sincerely wish that de B. appreciated the underlying theology which created the great works of Christian art. (and which further are necessary to appreciate them properly.) I think the ‘missing out’ idea is sincere, somber, and melancholy, rather than vindictive. 

  • Adiutricem

    When atheists parade through downtown Tehran, Riyadh, or Karachi, then I will stand up and applaud their bravery for following their principles. Continuing to attack Christians when more robust targets exist is getting a little tiresome.

  • aearon43

    Have you read any of Mircea Eliade’s work on religion? He defines it not as a belief in the ‘supernatural’ (which is a word that does not appear in the Bible), but rather as a distinction between the sacred and the profane. For him religion is simply the ultimate set of beliefs upon which every other belief is based. So, everyone has a religion. He shows that attempts to get ‘outside’ religion merely result in the creation of alternative religions (e.g. secular humanism or scientism). This is like how one cannot get outside of fashion by deliberately dressing in an unfashionable way, since that kind of ‘anti-fashion’ is itself an (actually quite sophisticated) expression of fashion. Once you understand the rules, there is no way out of the game.

    Therefore, what you appear to be advocating is not an escape from hoary ‘religion’, but simply a different religion. Your religion appears to be materialism, which is not new or innovative. You simply hold basic sensory experience as sacred, in much the same way a Catholic holds the Eucharist as sacred. Like Catholics, your belief rests on faith.

  • Barry Lyons

    You may say that religion is not defined as a belief in the supernatural, but assertions to the same effect are implicit in the very beliefs themselves. Ergo, ipso facto.

    Secular humanism is not a religion or a leap-of-faith belief system. As I wrote last time, saying that atheism (or secular humanism) is a religion is like saying not collecting baseball cards is a hobby.

    To cite a favorite writer, atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when presented with unjustified religious beliefs. Implicit in any religion that has ever existed in the history of the world are claims and assertions that super-natural happenings and events have occurred (again with my deliberate hyphen to underscore my central point). Sorry. There is no super-dooper natural world. There is only the natural world and no other. That is the good news of secular humanism.

    There is no such thing as telepathy.

    A wafer is a wafer is a wafer.

  • theroadmaster

    Secular Humanism has taken on the trappings of a belief system with it’s attendant high priests e.g Richard Dawkins proclaiming that there is nothing more to this world than it’s material sub-atomic parts.  How did this material world come about as in the origins of the Universe?  Are you going to tell me that the cosmos which is run along very complex mathematical lines as discovered by scientists over the centuries, came about unaided some 15 billions years ago?  That would be even more fantastical than stating that the Universe had a Divine Creator behind it.  
    One can even point to Darwin’s theory of evolution which in itself is controversial, as pointing to the Natural Order as designed by a Supernatural Creator.  It is no accident that man has reached the apex of the natural world through the intricate and sophisticated functionality and design of his brain as willed by His Creator.  Otherwise if it was left to blind chance we would have chaos without a logical outcome.

  • Susan

    You mean that in your opinion Christianity asserts things about the world that are not true and presumes that there is a supernatural dimension to the universe. You are entitled to your opinion, but should not present it as fact.

  • Barry Lyons

    No opinion here. Christianity does indeed presume there is a supernatural dimension to the world — and there is zero evidence that there is a supernatural aspect to the world and the universe. The wafer-is-not-a-wafer business is a supernatural claim that definitively proves my point. Like I said earlier, talking to a wafer and making arm gestures in front of it does not change the constituent nature of processed flour. There is only the natural world and no other. There is nothing “super” about it. That’s a fact.

    Same goes for “holy” water. If I have two vials of water and tell you that one of them is “holy” water, what’s the differential diagnosis used to tell the difference between the two? There isn’t any — which means “holy” water is just a fiction of the mind. It’s make-believe.

    And then there’s the “soul” in each of us that supposedly survives the death of our bodies. Is there any evidence for the existence of souls? No, there is not. Again, it’s just make-believe. Question: since souls do not exist, why do billions of people believe they have this apparently ghost-like ethereal entity in their bodies?

  • scary goat

     No such thing as holy water?  That’s odd.  I have a beautiful tropical fish tank, full of lovely fish….at least it was till they got sick and started dying.  My big blue rainbow fish had a terrible ulcer that was getting worse by the day.  I tried medications for several weeks but my fish continued to get worse. In the end in desperation I emptied half a bottle of holy water into the tank. My rainbow fish is now much better, nearly healed.  I’m sure there are those who will say I am superstitious and there is certainly some other logical explanation, but I can’t see any. 

  • Barry Lyons

    Religious believers have this strange conception of the world whereby they think — believe! — that if they don’t know or understand something that they can just foist a sheer belief onto the world and say that it’s true.

    My belief that there are no rodents scurrying around the bottom of the ocean is not a sheer belief — whereas a belief that the wafer is not just a wafer is a sheer belief. My belief that at some point during next January there will be snow on the ground somewhere in Vermont is not a sheer belief — whereas a belief in “holy” water is. See the difference? We secularists believe in a ton of things. It’s just that none of them are sheer beliefs — whereas, to mention one more, saying that when I die I will actually still live on someplace is a sheer (fantasy-fueled) belief.

    I don’t know what caused the Big Bang. Neither does Richard Dawkins. That we don’t know why there is something rather than nothing does not give you or any other believer the intellectual right to just make stuff up (there’s a “Divine Creator”) and then assert that what you’ve made up is true.

    I have no idea what you mean when you say that the theory of evolution by natural selection is “controversial”. It’s just a raw fact about the world that is no more controversial than the fact of the germ theory of disease.

  • Parasum

    “His solution? That atheists should somehow appropriate the aesthetic fruits of faith – but of course, without being contaminated by the superstitious beliefs that lie behind them.”

    ## That sounds like a description of what Julian Huxley tried with St. John of the Cross. It’s hilarious, sad, and patronising all at once. Though not incomprehensible. To take the Saints, while trying to jettison the faith that made them into Saints, is impossible. The fruits of faith, that make it worthwhile, cannot be had without the God Who is Alone the Author of those fruits. One cannot have the supernatural attractiveness they embody, without the Supernatural “Attractant” from Whom these gifts come. One cannot have the advantages, without the conversion to God that goes with it. Take Christ from His gifts, and they wither. And that will happen, sooner or later, if atheists try to have His gifts without Him, for it is His Attractiveness, His Holiness, His Life, that makes His Saints beautiful and glorious & as full of His Grace as each of them can hold.

  • Parasum

    Correction: it is a fact of the universe, *as some perceive it*, “that certain spoken words and cross-making arm gestures do not change the constituent nature of water and flour”. What we see, depends in part on where we stand, & also on what sort of people we are.

    There is no change in the chemistry, or in any other scientifically-accessible properties, of a consecrated host. The Catholic dogma is concerned with change of a very different kind – change (to be exact, conversion) of being. This is a matter, not of physics or chemistry or of anything within the competence of the natural sciences, but of a change of metaphysical identity. It is also a change, not within the natural order, but from the natural to the strictly super-natural order. So it is doubly inaccessible to scientific analysis. Triply so, if science becomes scientism.

  • Jacob Ford


    Atheists don’t realize that they don’t threaten us, we feel sorry for their situation because many of us have been trapped in the same prisons.

    I confess they may believe this about us as well, but they seem to think that we’re deeply threatened by their unbelief when in fact this is rarely the case–some people might be threatened by unbelief, but no serious Christians are. Christians are more traditionally put off by the extreme hatred of many atheists; the same reaction healthy Christians have to hateful Christians.

  • Jacob Ford

     Beautifully put! It doesn’t take much spine to make a sexy stand against the Catholic Church and gain all the secular rewards you were dreaming of for it.

    Excepting the hand full of non Christian/secular countries that do allow freedom of religion, watch a Christian in an Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist country if you want to see spine. (No yoga revolution or Ground Zero Mosque debates to be found!)

  • Jacob Ford

     Yes he could just as well have said “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask about a particular scientific inquiry is whether or not it is true!”

    Einstein, psh, didn’t he realize that the theory of relativity was BORRRRRINNNNGG and what about Galileo and all his hopeless dots in the sky!?! SNOOZE!

  • Barry Lyons

    No, we’re more sad than angry. We atheists feel sorry for religious believers who trap themselves in their bubbles of belief by clinging to their useless and unhelpful make-believe notions about chatty corpses (there’s more than one in That Book), invisible creatures with wings, and, most embarrassing of all (perhaps), their cringe-inducing belief that the mere utterance of words can supposedly change the constituent nature of flour and water. Oh, and another thing: that believers the world over believe in telepathy is also very embarrassing.

    At the same time, yes, it’s true that atheists can be angry. Why? Because religion (not just Christianity) is in the business of saying things about the world that are not true (see above paragraph). We’re also angry about how religion gets in the way of science. Think of the prohibitions on stem-cell research when GWB was president. That’s just one example.

    But at the end of the day, we just want to spread the good news of secular humanism. “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” by Andre Comte-Sponville is a good place to start.

  • Barry Lyons

    Sorry, Parasum. Your comments serve as a classic example of how religious believers live in their heads. To wit (as it were): “One cannot have the supernatural attractiveness they embody, without the Supernatural ‘Attractant’ from Whom these gifts come.” When I read a sentence like that I ask myself, “Is the writer referring to Tolkien or some other fantasy writer?”

    As I’ve said in other comments to this article, a super-natural realm (deliberate hyphen to underscore my point) does not exist — except as a pure abstraction in the minds of believers who want to believe there’s a super-natural aspect to the world. A wafer is a wafer is a wafer. Uttering certain words in front of a cracker (wafer) does not change the constituent nature of flour and water. Sure, attach a gosh-wow word like, oh I don’t know, “Transubstantiation” to this alleged process — and it’s still a nothing but a wafer at the end of the day. That you believe that the constituent nature of flour and water does change by the mere utterance of certain words… well, there’s your problem: you believe that it does. It’s all in your mind — and it’s because Catholics the world over misuse the word “believe” and its variants in pursuit of warped and make-believe ends.

    Notice the difference between “I believe that alligators do not live at the North Pole” (and I’ve never been to the North Pole) and “I believe that a Super-Natural Being created me and that I can communicate with this Supreme Creature with my mind.” True, you may not like my choice of words, but the essence of that last belief is EXACTLY what Catholics believe. Please tell me how that’s not nutty (whereas there’s nothing nutty about believing that alligators don’t live at the North Pole).

    There is only the natural world and no other. A super-dooper-natural world or realm does not exist — except in your head.

  • Barry Lyons

    Wow, you don’t even know the tenets of Catholicism! As those clowns at the Council of Trent declared (using my words), “Transubstantiation” most certainly means that the flour and water changes into the flesh of That Guy even though — and this is where Catholic theology gets even nuttier — our senses don’t detect the change! Love that last escape hatch. It’s wonderful! Or, as Dana Carvey’s Church Lady used to say on “Saturday Night Live”, how CONVENIENT.

    Is it really the case that you don’t have an inkling whatsoever that all this gaseous theological talk is all in your head? It doesn’t mean anything (except as how it serves to validate make-believe). It’s just chatter built on directives issued from on high from that castle in the sky (otherwise called the Vatican). After all, as a favorite writer of mine once wrote, the story of theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion. How true — and how sad.

  • theroadmaster

    When all possible theories are discounted and you are left with the one that sounds the most plausible, then it is advisable to go with that.  When this sage advice is applied to the question surrounding the origins of the universe, a Divine Intelligence fulfills that criteria in stark contrast to implausible blind chance or an uncaused cause.  The intrinsic complexity of the physical laws which guides the behavior of celestial bodies and the very finely tuned conditions which allowed matter to develop within the universe are unlikely to be caused by random chance.  The odds against this are astronomically high.  Thus we can see a design and order within the universe which points to a Creator.
    In relation to Darwin’s theory of evolution that the subject was “controversial” in terms of claims that it proves the survival of animal species was carried out by mechanisms that did not require an external agent.  In fact, this theory does not disprove in any real sense the non-existence of a Creator God, Who through the Natural Order has allowed the maturation of the potential of mankind through thousands of years, in both a physical and spiritual sense, to reach the summit of development.

  • theroadmaster

    Correction to my last comments.  I mean’t to say ”
    In fact, this theory does not prove in any real sense the non-existence of a Creator God”.,

  • Rjashton

     Funny, Barry, how all this complete nonsense run by complete idiots like Pope Benedict, has somehow survived and thrived as it has. All those martyrs, all that art, all that deep human devotion … but your faith conviction, that you are a machine which is sure it is a machine, weighs more strongly that two thousand years of evidence?

  • ultramontane

    Any book that begins with the statement that whether the religion is true or not is a dumb question is not a friend of religion, but rather trying to extract the benefits of religion for therapeutic purposes.  He ofcourse highlights the virtues of religion, that is the point of the whole book, but having respect for religion because its true is completely lacking

  • Rick Childress

    It could be interpreted as patronising, but I think (as other commentors have noted) it’s more of a ‘you’re missing out’ expression. I think we tend to read patronising tones into anything that doesn’t give someone a pat on the back or affirm their position (that’s not a slam on you, Origen, merely social commentary). The fact is, if someone says ‘I want to partake in this wellspring of beauty, but on my own terms’ they certainly can do so; but they are missing out. There can be brotherly love there, and respect and tolerance (in the actual sense of the word), without a milky sort of concession.

  • Rick Childress

    Unfortunately, Barry, Parasum does seem to have a grasp of Catholic theology. The best description of the Sacred Mystery so far – transubstantiation is the theory – makes a metaphysical distinction between accidence and substance. It is the substance, not the accidence, which is changed in consecration; the Body and Blood are under the form of bread and wine. In some miraculous cases – some in recent history – the Elements do change accidentally as well, but having partaken of the Eucharist several times, I have not tasted accidental change myself.

    You are certainly free to disagree with this assessment and reject this metaphysical claim – even rejecting metaphysics as a whole – but for the sake of phenomenology, it would be good to understand what the Catholic faith actually says, instead of pressing an atheist rubric into it and expecting it to deliver.

    This, I notice, is where the gulf stands between religious folk and atheists/agnostics. Atheists/agnostics make epistemological assumptions without realising it – in the words of a Jesuit philosopher, one of the startling phenomena of modernity is its ‘blindness to its own blind-spots’ – and Catholics often appeal to a worldview that has room for different kinds of knowing. This gulf is insurmountable so long as the Catholic theist is poorly educated in the beauty/solidity of his faith, and so long as the atheist (1) demands the Catholic faith speak only in the language of Scientistic materialism, (2) translates the complex and longstanding theories/conversations of knowledge in the Church into minimalist Scientistic materialism, and (3) cannot understand that he is adhering to a dogma of Scientistic, radially minimalist, empirical materialism.

    I say all this in Christian charity, of course, and appreciate your intelligence and relative charity when compared with other atheist/agnostic comments; you at least didn’t try to merely lob grenades and run.