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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.

  • Dvd Bach

    Because I have evidence that people are.  For example, you’re interested enough to continue responding to me.

  • Peter

    Yes I’m interested enough to ask whether you believe your allegations apply to Catholicism and, if so, how do you support those allegations?

  • Dvd Bach

    Sure, but I’ll need a bit more information about Catholicism to address the question.  Does Catholicism teach that everything that Paul wrote in his epistles is true and inerrant?

  • whytheworldisending

    Without prejudice to “True Scotsmen,” if a secular society is not value free, it will consist of people with shared values. Since value systems are necessarily hierarchical, such people must share a belief in what is of ultimate value. If that which they believe in is NOT that which is of ultimate value, then they effectively worship an idol. How can a society whose members are all forced (if they worshipped God, they would do so voluntarily, in Spirit and Truth, since God allows people to be free to reject Him) to worship an idol, be ratinally described as secular?

    Western societies based on worship of MONEY as the ultimate value are not secular but atheistic, and – unlike God – money demands both enslaves and demands sacrifice. What’s more, an idol is never satisfied. That is why increasingly, those who believe in the one true living God are being coerced to pay homage to corrupt values that are alien to them. We see this in UK Same Sex Marriage legislative proposals, and in teh US refusal to sacrifice gun rights for the sake of ther lives of innocent children.

    The worship of idols IS the beginning, cause and end of all evils.

    So worship the true God – in a truly secular (free) state.

  • Peter

    Dvd Bach asks:

    “Does Catholicism teach that everything that Paul wrote in his epistles is true and inerrant?”

    How do you know what St Paul wrote in his letters? 
    Which translation are you relying on?
    Which passages in particular are you referring to? 
    What points are you trying to make based on those passages?

  • karlf

    I’m not confusing anything Peter. Our minds have evolved to adapt to our surroundings – requirements for survival, reproduction. That’s why we enjoy fatty, salty and sweet foodstuffs, desire to stay warm and dry, become aggressive when threatened, compete for status, find the opposite sex sexually desirable etc. etc.

    Human minds are different from the other animals as we have become more intelligent and self aware – this has led to superior communication, the questioning and the sharing of ideas, leading to such achievements and the fantasy notions which you mention. But even today, when we observe society around us, we clearly see the same animal instincts still very much at work in influencing our behaviour.

  • karlf

    A proud peacock perhaps? Pride appears as a necessary behavioural trait among animals in the determining and displaying of status among hierarchical groups, for reproduction and leadership purposes.
    But yes, pride, envy, the desire for status are the basis of such widespread, rampant and terrible suffering.

  • JabbaPapa

    Through Revelation and Prayer.

    Again — why is this complicated ???

  • Dvd Bach

    “How do you know what St Paul wrote in his letters? ”
    I’m referring to the epistles of Paul as they are recorded in the New Testament; that is, Romans through Jude.

    “Which translation are you relying on?”
    I didn’t have a particular one in mind.  Are some true and inerrant, where others are not?

    “Which passages in particular are you referring to?”
    All of them as a whole.  Are some passages true and inerrant, while others are not?  Because if that is the case, then they are not true and inerrant as a whole.

    “What points are you trying to make based on those passages?”
    Why does that matter?  Does whether or not they are true and inerrant depend on the point being made about them?  Because if so, then they are not true and inerrant as a whole.

  • Debra Cleaver

    Sorry I took so long to respond: None of that addresses what I actually said, other than the first sentence’s reference to Richard Dawkins’ stance on causality. I think perhaps you misunderstand the concept. Simply put, causality states that the choices we make are not pre-determined so much as determined by percentages of likelihood, and then redirected to the conscious mind and viewed as a ‘choice.’ 

    Both of my children are familiar with that theory, along with the understanding that Hollywood is no more to blame for their setbacks in life than I am responsible for their successes; they are their own people and make their own choices. 

  • JabbaPapa

    Broken record.

  • JabbaPapa

    Pride appears as a necessary behavioural trait among animals in the
    determining and displaying of status among hierarchical groups, for
    reproduction and leadership purposes.

    In slugs ?

    You are arbitrarily assigning human psychological traits to this or that animal — not only is this anthropomorphisation quite dubious, but your whole argument seems to be circular.

  • karlf

    How is my argument circular?
    Do you deny that humans do possess evolved behavioural traits?

  • Jolo5309

    Are you incapable of answering a direct question?

    How do you know?

  • Peter

    The apparent display of status among creatures is not pride, but instinctive reproductive ritual.

    Why are you making things up?

    There is no such thing as pride in the animal world, and therefore there is no such thing as sin. 

    But as you say, pride is very much a common trait in man and is the cause of widespread evil.

  • JabbaPapa

    Can you remember several of us already having pointed out to you that the existence of animal traits in humans is in NO way incoherent with the doctrines of Sin and Original Sin ?

    And that the existence of such traits has been well known for many thousands of years ?

    Your argument is circular because it’s a broken record.

  • Peter

    No-one is denying that in society today mankind exhibits animal traits as you describe.

    But do not be fooled into thinking that the animal traits which mankind all too clearly exhibits constitutes the limits of his behaviour.

    Mankind also exhibits traits which are not present in creatures.  Such a trait is pride.  There is no evidence whatsoever that creatures are proud.  Yes, they may jostle for supremacy in mating rituals but this is not pride, it is instinct.

    What separates man from creatures is pride and its opposite which is humility.

    There is no evidence at all in the animal kingdom that creatures exhibit humility.  Submissiveness yes, but that is an instinctive survival technique.

    Pride and humility are characteristics exclusive only to man, and from them springs all the badness and the goodness which only man is capable of.

  • Peter

    When asked what points you are trying to make you reply “Why does that matter?”

    Yet on an earlier post you say that you are making factual claims which you say you can support.

    What are these claims you are making and how can you support them?

    (BTW the letter of St Jude is not written St Paul)

  • JabbaPapa

    Are you incapable of answering a direct question?


    Direct Question : “How do you know?”

    Direct Answer : “Through Revelation and Prayer.”

    It’s not my fault if you dislike and reject the answer — all that matters is that it’s a truthful and accurate one.

  • Debra Cleaver

    Actually, We do know. Approximately 1/3 of all fertilized eggs are passed naturally. 

  • Jolo5309

    So, your answer to the question “How do you know humans are supernatural beings” is “revelation and prayer”?

    I see…

  • Dvd Bach

    My claim is that the New Testament makes predictions that have been shown to be false.  What I’d like to know is if the belief system you’d like me to answer questions about holds that the New Testament is true and inerrant.  I’ll need to know that in order to tell you know whether the claim I’ve made applies to the belief system you’re asking me about.

  • Peter

    “My claim is that the New Testament makes predictions that have been shown to be false.”

    You are claiming that the New Testament exists.  Which version of the NT do you claim exists?

    You claim that it makes predictions.  Which predictions does it make?

    You claim that they are false.  Why are they false?

    You claim to be able to prove that they are false.  What proof do you have that they are false?

  • Dvd Bach

    “You are claiming that the New Testament exists.  Which version of the NT do you claim

    All of the published versions of the New Testament exist.


    “You claim that it makes predictions.  Which predictions does it make?”

    After the Resurrection has already taken place (according to the Bible
    narrative), the following verses predict either that the author is living in
    the “last times,” or that the end of the world (or the return of
    Jesus) is happening “soon” or “shortly,” or is “at hand:”

    1 Corinthians 7:29

    1 Thessalonians 4:17

    Hebrews 1:2

    1 Peter 1:20

    1 Peter 4:7

    1 John 2:18

    Philippians 4:5

    James 5:8

    Hebrews 10:37

    Revelation 1:1

    Revelation 1:3

    Revelation 3:11, 22:7, 22:12

    Revelation 22:20


    “You claim that they are false. 
    Why are they false?”

    Because it is almost 2000 years later, and the world has not ended, nor
    has Jesus returned.


    “What proof do you have that they are false?”

    The fact that it is almost 2000 years later, and the world has not
    ended, nor has Jesus returned.

  • Dvd Bach

    Strawman.  Natural selection makes no claim about the cosmos.

  • Dvd Bach

    Strawman.  Natural selection makes no claim about the cosmos.

  • JabbaPapa

    Do you need this answer to be given to you a third time ?

  • karlf

    Do you not believe that humans behave in accordance with instinctive reproductive ritual to some extent?

  • karlf

    Submissiveness, subservience, affection, nurturing and empathy have all been observed in animal behaviour. Now, if you add to this a superior intelligence, self awareness, complex communication and social interaction, why would humility not be product of these combined factors? The same can be said of pride.

  • karlf

    I can indeed remember you claiming that people have been aware of a similarity between human and animal behaviour for a very long time, yes. I am not disagreeing with you on this.
    What I’m saying is that our – relatively modern – understanding of the evolution of those behavioural traits completely scuppers the doctrinal claims about the origins of concupiscence, and the original character of human nature.

  • Peter

    Simply because there is NO evidence of either pride or humility in the animal kingdom.

    Despite what spin you put on them,  exhibitions of submissiveness, subservience, affection, nurturing and empathy among creatures are expression of instinctive behaviour, not humility.

    A human can display all of the above characteristics and still be very far from humble.

    You’re getting to the stage where you’re making things up as you go along, and rapidly losing credibility because of it.

  • Peter

    I have already admitted that humans exhibit the same characteristics as animals to some extent.

    However, humans have other characteristics which set them apart such as pride and humility which, unlike animals, lead them to sin and to avoid sin. 

  • JabbaPapa

    karlf : What I’m saying is that our – relatively modern – understanding of the
    evolution of those behavioural traits completely scuppers the doctrinal
    claims about the origins of concupiscence

    What doctrinal claims ?

    You’re probably just inventing stuff again.

    the original character of human nature

    Oh, and it looks like you continue to completely ignore my point about the complete lack of any metalanguage in animals, as well as my point about the self-reflecting nature of human cognition.

    Human beings are consciously aware of the animal nature, regardless of the precise mechanisms of its origins, and are therefore able to exercise conscious influence of the behaviour patterns that this nature tends to provide.

    Lust is an animal trait — the concept of lust exists only in human consciousness.

    Intellectuality exists in no other species on this planet — well, unless you can get your pet dog to participate in this conversation ?

    Ipso facto human nature is qualitatively different to animal nature, contrary to your repetitious claims otherwise.

  • Peter

    Where do you think the rays came from which caused the mutations in the first place?  They are rays from interstellar and intergalactic sources, hence they are called cosmic rays.

    No mutations, no natural selection.

  • karlf

    “humans have other characteristics which set them apart” Yes indeed! A superior intelligence, self awareness, complex communication and social interaction, to name a few (yet again)

  • karlf

    “What doctrinal claims ?”  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, more conscious (?) does not nullify these facts in any way.

  • Dvd Bach


  • karlf

    “exhibitions of submissiveness, subservience, affection, nurturing and empathy among creatures are expression of instinctive behaviour” Quite right! and we are creatures too – although the vanity of humans tends to lead to the claims that we are far too special to be considered as such. “We are supernatural beings!” they cry.

  • Peter

    You appear to have overlooked the authoritative words of Christ himself on the subject in the Gospel:

     “But as for that day and hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, no-one but the Father only”  (Matthew 24:36)

    Your claim that the writers of the above Letters knew when Christ would come again clearly puts them at variance with the words of Christ himself.

    But they are not at variance with Christ because they did not know when Christ would come again, nor were they able to predict the time when he would come again.

    None of the above writers made any prediction specifically that Christ would come again at a particular time, and therefore there is no prediction in their writings which has been proved to be untrue.

    With regard to the second coming of Christ, the New Testament has not made false predictions because it has not made any predictions at all.

  • Peter

    The web is full of sources.

  • Jolo5309

    I would prefer one that is nonsensical but apparently you have nothing.

    It happens, thanks for your time.

  • Dvd Bach

    Then you should no trouble citing one.

  • Dvd Bach

    So when the New Testament writers say that the world is ending soon, they don’t *mean* that the world is ending soon.  Correct?

  • mriehm

    It is clear that several of the NT authors were expecting Christ’s return in their lifetimes. That is not credibly deniable. And of course they were wrong.

  • Scourby

     I agree with you, there are lots of non-religious people that I would consider virtuous and good willed; but having God in your life, does help a lot in the road to virtuosity.

  • Dvd Bach

    Then it should easy for you to cite one.

  • Peter

    Would you kindly provide specific examples, not just references.

  • Peter

    The Catholic position is that Christ’s second coming is always close; it is always near.

    Christ himself tells us to “stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour” (Matthew 25:13)

    We must live at every moment as though the second coming is imminent.

    And the end times are understood to mean the period between Christ’s first coming and second coming, irrespective of length.

    We are living in the end times because  Christ’s second coming is always at hand.

  • Peter

    You have proved my point.

    It is the vanity of humans – their pride – which leads them to consider themselves special.

    They are special because, unlike animals,  they possess the vanity to consider themselves so.

  • Peter

    Christians are told to be alert and expect Christ’s return at any time.

    Christ tells us to “stay awake because you do not know the day your Master is coming”  (Matthew 24: 42).

    To us he says “you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24: 44)

    If we are to expect the second coming of Christ at any moment, it is not unreasonable to expect it within our lifetime since our lifetime is made up of many moments.