Wednesday, 25 January 2012

"Even if religion isn't true..."

Or, why I'll read Alain de Botton's new book but don't like its ad campaign.

Alain de Botton is a fascinating man. On Twitter, he's one of the most consistently thought-provoking people to follow, dispensing 140-character chunks of serene wisdom, many of which are deeply applicable to the state of the human condition in the modern world.

I read Status Anxiety when I was fifteen, and thought it was wonderful (although it's almost certainly in need of a re-read now that I'm no longer fifteen). His new book, Religion for Atheists, looks like it's going to be lots of things I'm very interested in - not least the idea that one can be an atheist and still appreciate the trappings of religion.

I love religious architecture and music, but it irks me that such glorious, transcendental, humbling things have been built and made by man to the glory of God, when so few things built to the glory of mankind and man's achievements are on a similarly mind-blowing scale. We're getting there, especially in terms of art, music and literature (less so architecturally, but still somewhat), and I have no doubt that, as society drifts further towards atheism in the most literal sense, this trend will continue. Humans make beautiful things. We can't help ourselves. And there doesn't need to be a higher power to justify this creation. The range of human experience - the vast, mutable palette of human emotion - are enough to keep us creatively occupied until there are no more of us. Having a constant to continually compare that to, in a world where nothing is constant, is impractical and unnecessary.

My only concern with the release of Religion for Atheists is the advertising campaign which accompanies it. The adverts are a series of gorgeous images of religious structures, with the tagline, "Even if religion isn't true, can't we enjoy the best bits?"

I applaud and support the sentiment; it's the usage of "true" which troubles me. It jarred my ear as soon as I read it. Of the relevant definitions of "true", it's a choice between "conforming to the actual state of reality or fact; factually correct" and "legitimate". And it's clear that the advert isn't using "true" in the sense of legitimate (e.g. referring to the Catholic Church as the "one true Church"). Which leaves us with "conforming to the actual state of reality or fact."

My issue with "even if religion isn't true" is that I don't like the application of "true" to broad, sweeping concepts. "True" suggests a reasonably straightforward true/false dichotomy. Which is not something that "religion", as a noun, presents us with. You could take "government" as a comparable conceptual noun. No one is going to argue that government isn't true. Whether or not it exists is something you could theoretically doubt ("even if government isn't real..."), and you could certainly take it to mean "legitimate" (though modern English does not tend to use "true" to mean "legitimate" except as an identifier, like in "the one true Church"), calling upon the "true government" either as a request for a government to step up to the plate on something or in contrast to a non-legitimate government, but one would not ask the question, "Even if government is not true, can't we still enjoy the best bits?" Nor, even, would one state, "government is not true." Not valid, sure. Not real, maybe. But "true" or "not true" in a strictly true/false, "factually correct" usage (as I believe it is being used in this case)? No.

It's a subtle usage - perhaps not even incorrect, but questionable enough to set off my inner alarm bells. On the surface, the statements implied by the question asked by the advert - "religion is/isn't true" - sound as though they mean functionally the same thing as "I do/don't believe in religion" (as a concept, and as opposed to believing in God). The statement "I do/don't believe in religion" are not useful or functional tools for examining the role of religion within society. And whilst "even if religion isn't true" does not quite mean exactly the same thing semantically, there's not much of a mental leap between "I don't believe in religion" and "religion is/is not true."

The question which the first clause of the advert implies, "is religion true?", is a redundant one, and not useful to the conceptual framework in which the book (I dearly hope) attempts to examine the role of the trappings of religion in the life of the modern atheist. If de Botton's examination will (as I hope it will) open the debate on creating glorious things in the glory of man, not God, then we cannot afford sloppy copy. Atheism, to me, at this time, should need no justification or legitimisation in the eyes of the world, yet still it does. For a long time, we've had some of the best thinkers. Ideas - precious ideas about the infinite potential of the secular life - need to be grounded and clothed in the best possible words we can muster. And "Even if religion isn't true..." doesn't quite cut it.


  1. Interesting, I just read this and then picked up The Telegraph's Seven Magazine to find a review of Religion for Atheists:

    "This book should carry a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-style warning: DON'T PANIC. Don't panic, this is not another contribution to the 'debate' about God, the Eton wall game of contemporary discourse, where no one can see the ball, no one knows what the rules are, and there hasn't been a goal in more than 100 years. Alain de Botton is an atheist, but he has no time for the 'unproductive question' of whether or not religion is true. His concern is the ways in which religions can be useful, even to non-believers."

    Perhaps Rowland Manthorpe hasn't been exposed to the unfortunate advertising campaign? I've also just bought Status Anxiety on your recommendation. I'm looking forward to it.

    1. I hope you enjoy it! Some of the art plates are great.

      And the ad campaign seems to kind of miss the point of the book and kind of get it, which is almost more frustrating than if it had missed it completely...