Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Age of Atheism, or Alain de Botton's Generation Games

Alain de Botton, who has been busy plugging his new book Religion For Atheists and discussing his plans for building an atheist "temple" in the City of London, has a theory about why atheists of a certain age can be so, so, angry. In an interview with Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian last week, we read:


He connects his father's militant atheism to the affliction that he reckons made [Richard] Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens so caustic in their bestselling attacks on religion. "I've got a generational theory about this. Particularly if you're a man over 55 or so, perhaps something bad happened to you at the hands of religion – you came across a corrupt priest, you were bored at school, your parents forced it down your throat. Few of the younger generation feel that way. By the time I came around – I'm 42 – religion was a joke."

He calls it a theory, but he obviously isn't using the word in a strict scientific sense, rather in the popular sense of "vague, untested notion". And he wouldn't be the first to imagine that a strongly-held view about the world must be the result of some deep personal trauma rather than, say, a rationally arrived at conclusion supported by evidence. De Botton is an atheist, albeit one whose professed aim is to learn from the "good bits" of religion rather than decry the whole thing as ludicrous. But the notion that no-one could possibly reject religion if they hadn't had a bad personal experience of it (for "true" religion is a wonderful thing, something to be cherished) is not infrequently bandied about by the religious when confronted by hardline atheists. It makes for a good security blanket, perhaps.

As it happens, Richard Dawkins' atheism has nothing to do with his bad experiences as a child. As he told Joan Bakewell in a BBC interview in 2004, his early brushes with religion were fairly positive -- except for the fact that, by the age of 16, he had come to the conclusion that God didn't exist. His parents "were orthodox Anglican in the sense that they were both baptised, as was I, but they were not deeply religious.... We used to go to Church every Christmas, but I mean apart from that there wasn't a lot of it about." He was confirmed at school -- a routine procedure. But that doesn't seem to have left him with any lingering resentment.

As for his own religious feelings:

At the age of about 13 when I was being confirmed, I did have a fairly active fantasy life about a relationship with God, and I used to pray and I used to have fantasies about creeping down to the chapel in the middle of the night, and having a sort of blinding vision and things. I don't know really how seriously I took that. It was a fantasy which happened in my head and it's not surprising that it should have happened in my head, because I was at that time being filled with all that sort of stuff in confirmation classes.


While Dawkins has written and talked repeatedly about his distaste for children "being filled with all that sort of stuff" it doesn't seem to have done him any harm.

As for the late Mr Hitchens:

It was not trauma or disillusion that propelled Christopher Hitchens into a life of unbelief. It was Mrs. Jean Watts, who taught nature class at Hitchens' boarding school when he was 9 years old. The pivotal moment, he recalled, occurred when Mrs. Watts explained that God had made the grass and the leaves green as a gift to mankind.

"She says, 'This is an excellent thing and proof of the glory of God, because he could have made vegetation orange or red, something that would clash with our eyes, whereas green is the most restful color for our eyes!' " Hitchens told C-SPAN. "And I sat there in my little corduroy shorts, and I thought, that's absolute nonsense."

Mrs Watts sounds daffy rather than malicious.

And Dawkins certainly doesn't need Alain de Botton's refined postmodernist take on religion to remind him of the beauties of art and architecture. He is a great defender of the King James Bible, for example, writing in The God Delusion that it "includes passages of outstanding literary merit in its own right" and is "a major source book for literary culture." We can, he writes, "retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism and Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage."

Sounding oddly like de Botton himself in that last sentence. In fact, that sentiment is a good epitome of the entire de Botton project. Ironic, that.

If there is a generational point to be made here, it is not de Botton's. For men of Dawkins' and Hitchens' vintage, even if they rejected religion, "cultural" Christianity was part of their psychological make-up. Hitchens could quote the Bible as well as any preacher, and delighted in doing so, while Dawkins is much given to lamenting the decline in religious literacy among the younger generation. This atheism is not about rebelling against culture or upbringing, although it may have just a touch of Grumpy Old Men style whinges against the rottenness of the modern world. Just the merest soupçon.

As for the New Atheism being the province of older men; well it just isn't. Dawkins, AC Grayling, Daniel Dennett and some other prominent figures in the "movement" may have grey hair (or in Dennett's case, white), but today's atheist and skeptic movement is predominantly young. As Frank Skinner complained recently to the Archbishop of Canterbury, these days "it’s incredibly cool to be an atheist." And not just for comedians. There was a time when the membership of organisations like the British Humanist Society was drawn largely from the ranks of older men. These days they have a much younger demographic. Gosh, these days there are even girls with an interest in non-theistic ways of looking at the world, though it may be advisable not to get stuck in a lift with one.


So if you want to explain why "aggressive" atheism has suddenly become fashionable, there are better places to look than English boarding schools (or those troubling Irish establishments run by the Christian Brothers) of the 1960s. 9/11 and its aftermath, surely, has much more to do with it. Whatever religion might have been when Alain de Botton was a child, it certainly isn't "a joke" these days.

De Botton is of the generation that entered adulthood between the collapse of communism and the destruction of the World Trade Center; that remembers the tail-end of the Cold War; that was at school at a time when Christianity was no longer being taught seriously but other world faiths were hardly mentioned at all. It's a generation (I belong to it) for which religion was often, literally, a joke, who grew up when religion on the telly meant Thora Hird on Songs of Praise, or Derek Nimmo-style comedy vicars, or Not The Nine O'Clock News spoofing the Life of Brian "blasphemy" row.

And, of course, we're just that little bit too old to be taken in by political correctness. Which isn't to say that many don't talk the jargon with great fluency and apparent conviction. But we haven't really internalised it, just as we'll never be completely at one with our computer screens.

Many in this cohort never thought much about religion at all when they were younger. They didn't need to. It was, on the one hand, something that older people (or those weird members of the Christian Union) did, something both boring and irrelevant that didn't impinge much on their lives. And these days, for some, going to church is a tedious but necessary part of getting your children into a decent school. But on the other, it evokes feelings of nostalgia, not so much for their own childhood, but for the television that was on in the background. If not a joke, then more like Bagpuss: comforting, saggy and a bit loose around the seams.

Younger people, on the other hand, grew up faced with a much starker choice between belief (or exaggerated "respect") and ridicule or angry unbelief. The stakes are higher now, which is why Alain de Botton's Tower of Perspective just sounds silly, pretentious and irrelevant.

That's my "generational theory", anyway.