Atheist Christian Buddhist Vikings

Alain de Botton has a book out called Religion for Atheists  in which he talks about uses of religion for atheists. His view of the problem of religion is interesting enough: the social constructions we call religion have adapted through a range of historical challenges and traumas. They have adapted and evolved and have some features which makes them reproduceable. Culturally speaking, religions, despite their obvious flaws, work. This is also Richard Dawkins' point from The Selfish Gene: the religious memes have a surprising staying power because of their techniques and abilities. De Botton's point is that atheists and should try to adopt these cultural techniques instead of the value system behind them. Since religious sentiment is on the rebound, it's natural and probably not a bad idea that these thoughts crop up.

I've looked a little bit at the book, however, and it doesn't seem all that great. De Botton writes well, but never seems to go deep enough. He is a little bit in love with his own voice and most of the time fails to be the Oscar Wildean bon mot-creator that you see working so hard in his Twitter feed. You can get most of the good stuff from his TED talk below, however. But I still think that his point of view seems to be a fruitful way of approaching religion for atheists who don't subscribe to the Bible-thumping of Dawkins et al.:


Andrew Sullivan, the British/American blogger, on the other hand, has a point of view you should take a closer look at. If nothing else, then for the sheer eccentricity of it: he's a gay, HIV-positive liberal conservative not-so-conservative Catholic Christian. I've been following his blog for years. He's coming from a completely different place than me, and I disagree with most of his values and policy ideas. And yet there is enough common ground that his blog (insanely prolific, engages with readers, a pioneer in the field) becomes relentlessly interesting and challenging: I'll find myself nodding along to Sullivan's condemnation of torture or assault on the defamation of gays and religious minorites and suddenly there'll be some annoyingly well-argued position on drone strikes or personal faith or fiscal policy that jars me. One moment he's going off on the supremacy of Jesus, the next he's talking about his cannabis habit, his meditation practice and the viciousness of Rick Santorum. I enjoy the sheer unpredictability of it (the virtue I am coming to enjoy most in a commentator these days is unpredictability).

Sullivan is almost at his most interesting to me not when he's challenging me, but when he's challenging conservatives. He seems to bring the problems of modern conservatism (especially in the US) into sharper focus for me by critiquing it from a still-rarer Reasonable Conservative position from the inside. He shows how conservatism is a constantly broken promise, the failure to materialise of his own reasonable conservatism. And at the same time he shows me (not always intentionally) the inherent flaws in conservatism. The cognitive dissonance and "epistemic closure" that has come to dominate it, and which seems to me to be an inherent feature of what Corey Robin in his book-I'm-going-to-read-soon calls The Reactionary Mind. Sullivan doesn't always see this himself, but he helps make the case for it.

This Easter, Sullivan published a cover story in Newsweek which was a critique of modern Christianity as a political actor. It's a really interesting piece, both from a political perspective and a more theological one:
Jefferson’s vision of a simpler, purer, apolitical Christianity couldn’t be further from the 21st-century American reality. We inhabit a polity now saturated with religion. On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care. The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word “secular.” It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism. The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.

Meanwhile, organized religion itself is in trouble. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy lost much of its authority over the American flock with the unilateral prohibition of the pill in 1968 by Pope Paul VI. But in the last decade, whatever shred of moral authority that remained has evaporated. The hierarchy was exposed as enabling, and then covering up, an international conspiracy to abuse and rape countless youths and children. I don’t know what greater indictment of a church’s authority there can be—except the refusal, even now, of the entire leadership to face their responsibility and resign. Instead, they obsess about others’ sex lives, about who is entitled to civil marriage, and about who pays for birth control in health insurance. Inequality, poverty, even the torture institutionalized by the government after 9/11: these issues attract far less of their public attention.
As a non-believer, this is exactly the kind of criticism of modern Christianity I want to see coming from inside Christianity.  The disparity between Christian values as expressed in the Bible and most articulations of the Christian movement is jarring, and it keeps getting stronger, and making life a lot harder for the rest of us. If we have to find a way to make religion work in modern society, and we do, Sullivan's perspective needs to be in the conversation that takes place inside every major religion.


At the end, things get interesting. Sullivan fades out into a vision of a strange, pseudo-Buddhist Christianity. A completely personal salvation:
This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.

But the essence of this change has been with us, and defining our own civilization, for two millennia. And one day soon, when politics and doctrine and pride recede, it will rise again.
Well, you know, thanks but no thanks, Andrew, but this could be an interesting direction for Christianity. The quietism voiced by Sullivan here is radical for a religious thinker, despite the fact that it is there in many ways in many of the ancient texts of major religions. There are obvious influences here from Sullivan's mindfulness practice (which he blogs about occasionally). And there is a distinct element of anti-materialist backlash and longing for non-economic values. Sullivan argues for a renounciation of worldly power so complete that he reminds me of the anarchist movement's roots in radical Christian communities. As a socialist, I get that. As an atheist, I don't get the need to go to God for it and see other places he could (probably even should) be looking. But Sullivan gets really close to articulating a religious view I can not only live with as a secular, politically engaged person, but accept beyond mere toleration. If he can really manage to pull of reasoned discourse and religious thought, I'll be first in line to applaud.

I remain skeptical though — pun intended. The obvious danger here being that religion becomes an unarticulated, distorting influence on policy decisions. I'm not sure I can find out how Sullivan answers that based on his article & writings.


Another video, which sort of brings together the themes of religion for atheists, Buddhist influence on secular persons, etc., is this interesting lecture by philosopher Owen Flanagan on "The Boddhisattva Brain". He is trying to use neuroscience and Buddhism to arrive at a secular worldview which incorporates the social and personal techniques, values and mind hacks of Buddhism. It's an interesting attempt, and one I have a lot of sympathy for. Buddhism was always the most appealing of the religions to me, and we can all use a little Buddhism in our lives. Seriously. If nothing else, then for the stress management. Flanagan has written a book on the same subject, if the talk interests you: The Bodhisattva's Brain.


Btw, I should probably mention once more that if you choose to buy Amazon books after clicking my links, I get a ludicrously small percentage.


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