Image courtesy of ‘nyoin': www.nyo-in.com.
Today’s Telegraph is reporting that ‘secular sage’ Alain de Botton “has come up with an ambitious scheme that he calls Temples for Atheists. These will be secular spaces for contemplation, starting with one in London but then spreading across the country”. This is part of de Botton’s wider project of encouraging secular society to “steal religion’s most fruitful ideas” (Guardian), as set out in his latest book, Religion for Atheists, published last week.
I fully expected to dislike Religion for Atheists. It’s the title, you see: Buddhism is, after all, an atheistic religion, and I am quite contentedly living a meaningful spiritual life without any need for, or belief in, God.
And my feathers remained resolutely ruffled by the first sentence of the book: “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.’ There seem to be enough questionable views in this sentence alone to warrant another book in response! Is it so unreasonable to ground our spiritual life on truth, for instance? What is truth anyway? Are the truths of reason and science really so reliable? Is God-given truth the only game in town when it comes to spiritual life? What about the direct meeting with what is reality that can occur in meditation? The list goes on…
By the end of the Religion for Atheists, though, I felt more sympathetic. In fact, I felt quite warmly disposed to de Botton’s attempt to “reclaim atheism from strident anti-religion figures such as Richard Dawkins” (Telegraph). What is needed, though, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is a much stronger expression of the middle way – of the truth that lies between the extremes of scientific, rational, materialism on the one side and fundamentalist theisms of all flavours on the other.
So I’m left feeling that Alain de Botton moves in the right direction but doesn’t go nearly far enough. He seems to be promoting – in the book and in his School of Life – mere psychological wholeness as life’s purpose and goal. Whilst this is, of course, laudable and desirable, and an achievement in itself, it is, from a Buddhist viewpoint, just the beginning, the first stage of the path. On the basis of establishing the happy, healthy humanness that de Botton advocates, and the ‘skilful intentions’ that can be strengthened by meditation practices such as the metta bhavana, we can start to look at what life – and existence itself – is really about. And on the basis of that, we can start to loosen our attachment to a narrow sense of ourselves and the world, and find real freedom. And we do this all without recourse to anything ‘handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets’, without the intervention of ‘prophets and celestial beings’. Now isn’t that something worth building glorious, atheist-religious monuments to? Share
Postscript: Here is a link to a talk I gave recently about truth, as part of a series on Buddhism and Western Philosophy at the London Buddhist Centre. I include it here in response to some of the comments below.