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Virtuous atheism is not enough

Alain de Botton’s intentions are noble, but his quest for 10 Commandments for Atheists is fruitless

By on Friday, 8 February 2013

Ten Commandments Monument

In Tuesday’s Telegraph Judith Woods drew attention to the most recent publication of philosopher and writer, Alain de Botton and his set of Ten Commandments for virtuous atheists. The aim of his manifesto is to “ignite a vital conversation around moral character to increase public interest in becoming more virtuous and connected as a society”.

His list goes: resilience, empathy, patience, sacrifice, politeness, humour, self-awareness, forgiveness, hope and confidence. It comprises an intriguing mixture. There are Christian virtues here: “Hope” is one of the supernatural virtues, along with faith and charity, while “forgiveness” and “sacrifice” are absolutely fundamental to Christian faith. English decency is reflected in resilience, patience, politeness, humour and confidence. And there are two staples of the therapy industry: empathy and self-awareness.

This list of secular commandments is easily understood as the self-help manual of a civilised and cultured atheist such as de Botton. Our national characteristics during the last war, according to the story exemplified by the slogan “Keep calm and carry on” rather than by the TV series Foyles’ War, certainly include humour, patience and resilience. “Self-awareness” is what is taught in psychotherapy: the idea is that if we all understood the roots of our quirky or anti-social behaviour we might become better people. Yet, as my parish priest pointed out the other week, it is possible, by paying qualified gurus a lot of money, to know just about everything about ourselves – but this in itself won’t help us to change (Father was contrasting this with the power of Christ to transform our lives.) “Empathy” is actually quite rare, as is true compassion, and often degenerates into Clintonesque maudlin sentimentality, as in “I feel your pain”.

“Forgiveness” for a Christian means loving your enemies, turning the other cheek to their insults and contempt (especially when they call you a “bigot”.) And “sacrifice” for Christians means rather more than de Botton’s opinion that “We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up the art of sacrifice.” “Sacrifice” could be described as an “art” in a rather Wildean sense, but really it means the death of the ego, dying to self, a lifelong struggle in which we will only emerge the victor with the help of supernatural grace.

I understand why de Botton is preoccupied with the concept of a virtuous atheist and I do not mock him; indeed I take his yearning to counter the supposedly superior claims of Christianity very seriously. It is a noble ideal and society would indeed be happier and more civilised if more irreligious people of the “Me-generation” were to reflect on his ideas. But just as that selfless quiet heroine of the Great War, Nurse Edith Cavell, realised that patriotism was not enough, so a noble and enlightened atheism, however fine its aspirations, is not enough if individuals or society are to be regenerated or renewed. The reason, as Catholic theology teaches us, is sin, original and personal, our own and Adam’s. We are not strong enough by ourselves to be good (as opposed to “nice”) without the grace of God. Politeness and resilience – indeed kindness and niceness – are not virtues in themselves; they are attractive characteristics of some people by nature; the rest of us have to fight against being “horrid”, like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.

It is Pelagianism (and de Botton strikes me as something of a neo-Pelagian) to think we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and achieve virtue on our own. I reviewed de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists a couple of years ago. Brought up an atheist he wrote that he experienced “a crisis of faithlessness” in his mid-20s which set him on a quest to rescue “some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.” During his research he attended a Catholic Mass and commented, “Not the ideal habitat for an atheist. Much of the dialogue is either offensive to reason or simply incomprehensible.”

The readings at Mass for today are inspirational – to a believer: in the letter to the Hebrews, with the opening exhortation “Continue to love each other like brothers, and remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it”, we discover a mode of discourse utterly foreign to the sacred books of atheism. This passionate and intensely personal dialogue continues with the Psalm: “The Lord is my light and my help/whom shall I fear?” The Gospel text is the dramatic, deeply memorable passage in Mark’s Gospel which was to fire the imagination of Oscar Wilde, where the daughter of Herodias dances before Herod and then makes her appalling request.

My advice to de Botton is: leave aside your secular commandments and go back to a Catholic Mass, not for research purposes but as a genuine seeker after truth. Then who knows? You might entertain angels unawares.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dvd.bach Dvd Bach

    But that isn’t what “soon” means.  If I tell you I’m stopping by “soon” to pay you the money I owe you, that doesn’t create the expectation in any reasonable mind that I might mean “within the next 2000 years.”

    Similar, when the NT writers told people that the end was coming “soon,” they were wrong, since 2000 years went by and it still hasn’t happened.

  • Peter

    Look, if you want to interpret Scripture your way, be my guest.

    After all, there are at least 30,000 different interpretations of Scripture already, and still counting, so you’re in good company.

    As for me, I prefer the Catholic interpretation, if you don’t mind.

    Meanwhile, we all expect the second coming of Christ to be imminent.  We are warned to be constantly prepared because it could happen at any time.

    Why would we need to be in a constant state of readiness if the second coming was not deemed to be about to happen?

  • http://www.facebook.com/dvd.bach Dvd Bach

    @2d04dfb6b91e0b6037cf972d4ebe6f7c:disqus: It’s not letting me respond directly to your post, for some reason.  
    Thank you for your commenting supporting my point.  If any of the 30,000 interpretations are mutually exclusive, then they can’t all be correct.  Accordingly, there’s no reason to believe any of them are.

  • whytheworldisending

    “….lying so that he doesn’t lose his driving license (value kindness)???”

    You presume that you would be showing kindness to someone by allowing an incompetent driver to continue driving? Without the wisdom to know what kindness comsists of, how could you put a value on it?

    I was talking about referentially coherent values, not chaotic impulsive and unthinking glib value judgements made off the cuff.

    Unfortunately that is where atheism leads us. By contrast Wisdom reflects a more ordered, thoughtful, and consistent approach.

    You would have to think quite hard – not about hypothetical circumstances – but what YOU yourself ACTUALLY do in order to arrive at anything that could be called a value system.

  • whytheworldisending

    And your use of the phrase “religious conflict” in you rlase sentence, shows that you accept that the label “religious” is misused, and that you want to continue misusing it, in order to blame conflicts between idolators (atheists who worship something other than God) on religion properly so called.

    It is a “false flag” ploy used by the Devil to produce more atheists and idolators, and hence more death destruction and misery.

  • whytheworldisending

    Read your own quote: “” If you reject BELIEF in God, then you impliedly believe in a multiverse.”

    You are trying to move the goalposts – not that it is any help to you. You obviously reject belief in God, and so back to the multiverse. If you have no alternative hypothesis, you effectively believe in multiverses – WITHOUT ANY EVIDENCE.

    If you reject the multiverse, you effectively admit that Science cannot explain what caused creation.

  • whytheworldisending

    You cannot reject belief in God AND simultaneously claim to believe that He created a multiverse.

    The issue was whether REJECTION of belief in God forces one to accept that there is a multiverse.

    Your reply fails to address the issue.

    Saying that the multiverse is only a hypothesis (obviously – or belief wouldn’t come into it) doesn’t add anything to the discussion.

    What is required from you is an alternative hypothesis to explain why there isn’t just nothing.

    And to be clear, “alternative” means one that involves neither God nor a multiverse.

  • whytheworldisending

    Even a sociopath operates according to a primitive value system. It is called looking after number 1 – the pleasure principle. Their lives tend to be disordered because they act on impulse.

    At the other end of the scale, the saints’ lives conform to Christ, who is the perfect Wisdom of God incarnate.

    In between there are of course all sorts of people, but the point is that atheism in all its forms raises up aspiring psycopaths, while Christianity raises up aspiring saints.

    If that seems too much for someone who regard themselves as an atheists (many were raised by christians but have disowned their heritage) consider “Thatcherism.” Many people blame it for the rampant individualism and selfishness in society today. It is just one facet of modern consumerism – based on worship of self and money, and therefore necessarily atheist.

    New Labour took up the baton, and now Cameron has it. He is so individualistic, he can lead a party half of whose members oppose everything he stands for.

    Traditional Conservative VALUES – just like Traditional Labour values – are essentially Christian. Thatcherism and New Labour were corrupt versions.

    That’s why British politics is drifting aimlessly with no sense of direction.

    As Christ said, “Cut off from me you can do nothing.”

  • whytheworldisending

    You are standing on Earth but do not know where it or you comes from or why it or you are here? Natural? Supernatural? You have just gone around in a complete circle.

  • whytheworldisending

    Are you a real conscious person or just a machine? You cannot prove that you are conscious – to me or anyone else. You ask us to BELIEVE in “you.”

    …but you demand that we believe only in you and not in your creator.

  • whytheworldisending

    What does “they are their own people mean?” Isn’t this just simplistic individualism, and a rather soul less dogma to impose on children? Why not wait until they have grown up and let them “choose” a dogma for themselves?

  • whytheworldisending

    What do you think your “natural” soul is made of?

  • whytheworldisending

    Words become extinct when nobody has any use for them. “Marriage” will not go that way, because decent people will always get married. As for “Same sex marriage,” WHAT USE IS THAT?

  • karlf

    I’ve proved nothing of the sort Peter. As I said to Jabbapapa:
    The Church claims that concupiscence originated as the direct result of Adam’s sin, and the original condition of human nature – which was wholly good – was thus corrupted. We now know however, (thanks to scientific progress) that we are evolved apes, and our behavioural instincts evolved in the same way, and with those of other animals, by the process of natural selection.
    To point out that we have evolved to be more intelligent, more self aware, with a greater consciousness and more complex social interactions, does not nullify these facts in any way.

  • Dvd Bach

    I would not be able to carry on this conversation if I were not conscious.  At our present level of technology, humanity cannot produce a machine that is capable of exchanging ideas in the way we are.

    “but you demand that we believe only in you and not in your creator”
    Strawman; I have made no such demand.  The existence of my parents can be demonstrated. 

  • Dvd Bach

    Responding to whytheworldisending:  Your response is a strawman; the origin of the earth has no bearing on the fact that it exists in the natural world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dvd.bach Dvd Bach

    “You cannot prove that you are conscious – to me or anyone else.”
    Clearly I’m conscious, or I wouldn’t be able to carry on this conversation.  At our present state of technology, we’re not able to design machines capable of such an exchange.

    “but you demand that we believe only in you and not in your creator”
    Not at all; my parents do exist.

  • JabbaPapa

    The Church claims that concupiscence originated as the direct result of
    Adam’s sin, and the original condition of human nature – which was
    wholly good – was thus corrupted. We now know however, (thanks to
    scientific progress) that we are evolved apes, and our behavioural
    instincts evolved in the same way, and with those of other animals, by
    the process of natural selection.

    I see that you have, once again, failed to remember the basic objection to your reasoning, made more than once.

    Given that our animal nature is, and has been for Millennia, since before Christianity for that matter, associated with our Original Sin, statements that we have an animal nature, and about the scientific analysis of that animal nature, are NOT, not in ANY way, contradictory of the doctrine of Original Sin.

    If your claim is that the Eden story is meant to be taken 100% literally, then please take that claim to the website of whichever sect of Young Earth Creationist fundamentalist Biblical literalist Evangelicals — as this claim has nothing to do with the teachings of orthodox mainstream Christianity, nor even orthodox mainstream Judaism.

  • JabbaPapa

    It signifies that I deleted my own response to your post immediately after posting it, as I realised that I had actually misread you.

  • karlf

    Jabba, this is not me making things up. The Catholic Church claims  that concupiscence (i.e. aspects of human nature) originated as the direct result of Adam’s sin, and the original condition of human nature – which was wholly good – was thus corrupted.
    Science refutes these claims by showing that what we call ‘concupiscence’ had evolved, and therefore had always been part of human nature.

  • karlf

    “Adam is a metaphorical Everyman, and it is idiotic on your part to claim otherwise” But it doesn’t affect my argument if he is or is not. The Church claims that original character of human nature was wholly good, and without concupiscence.
    And whether or not Christians have always explicitly (really?) compared animal behaviour with sin has no bearing the argument which I have put forward

  • JabbaPapa

    And whether or not Christians have always explicitly (really?) compared
    animal behaviour with sin has no bearing the argument which I have put
    forward

    Of course it does !!! (and : yes, really)

    Original Sin is intrinsically and directly and overtly considered as being an indelible part of our human nature — as it is.

    In what way, exactly, is the fact that our nature is also intrinsically and directly and overtly an animal one somehow “contrary” to this ?

  • karlfx

    You appear confused Jabba. I agree that human nature, with all its evolved behavioural traits, is perfectly compatible with the Catholic notion ofconcupiscence and our tendencies to sin. After all, that is what the term is describing. 
    The problem with the teachings on Original Sin is when the Church tells us that, before the Fall, these tendencies did not exist, and human nature was “wholly good”. Centuries ago this idea may have seemed perfectly reasonable to most people, but with what we now understand about evolution, we know that the belief in a time when human nature lacked concupiscence is a fallacy.

  • JabbaPapa

    A moderator is preventing my wish to describe and motivate my PROFOUND theological and philosophical disagreement with your positions.

    Sin is NOT purely psychological.