Why Alain de Botton annoys me

By Ian Bushfield

On the About Us page: “The British Columbia Humanist Association has been providing a community and voice for Humanists, atheists, agnostics, and the non-religious of Metro Vancouver and British Columbia since 1982. We support the growth of Humanist communities across BC, provide Humanist ceremonies, and campaign for progressive and secular values.

We are a registered charitable organization. Our mission is:

  • to promote the ideas and philosophy of secular humanism by all available means of education and communication;
  • to serve the educational needs of its members and others of humanistic, scientific and naturalistic outlook, in a democratic, non-dogmatic manner free from authoritarian doctrine;
  • to provide opportunities for fellowship, study and service at all levels of humanistic endeavour, and to advance the values and welfare of humanity in dedication to the continuing enhancement of human life through human effort and understanding;
  • to offer and provide meaningful ceremonies to members and non-members at significant times such as marriage and death; and
  • to elaborate and to express publicly Humanist positions on issues of concern to people, including values, morality and ethics.

Find out more about Humanism or the issues we support.

We are run by a democratically-elected volunteer Board of Directors and a small staff. We are funded entirely by donations from individuals who share our vision for a world based on reason and compassion.”

At a recent Sunday morning meeting we showed Alain de Botton’s TED talk where he argues for an Atheism 2.0, which most of our members quickly identified as the Humanist project.

De Botton has a new article up on Huffington Post arguing for “5 Religious Concepts That Atheists Can Use.” The concepts are familiar to anyone who has seen the TED talk and are innocuous enough: education, mind & body, community, art & museums, and pilgrimages. At our meeting we agreed that building a community and taking trips to natural wonders like the Burgess Shale and local museums are quite worthy pursuits.

What gets me about de Botton though is not just his ignorance of the British Humanist Association’s numerous activities in these areas, it’s his passive aggressive assaults on the success of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. He refers to the New Atheists as “fanatical” and “fundamentalist” while making no effort to understand their position.

Of Dr Myers’ best writings are those that identify the core target of this movement, which ironically is the idea disparaged by de Botton in his very first sentence: that of truth. De Botton writes “Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true’.” This very sentiment offends me deeply, not just as a scientist, but as a humanist. Religions make many truth claims about morality and the universe.

If the claims of the theistic religions are true, then our actions and lives have a very different meaning than what secular humanism proposes. In the former case, a magic super-being created the universe for its own amusement and in many traditions will punish or reward your behaviour depending on your behaviour while alive. In the latter case, this life is all we have and morality is derived from a desire to make it the best of all possible lives for ourselves and our future generations.

This is to say nothing of the implications for Big Bang Cosmology and the entire pursuit of science were the (literally) miraculous claims of religions to be true. Naturalistic science rests on the assumption that nature is consistent, that is the laws of nature are constant. This assumption gets tossed by the wayside in most religious claims where a supernatural entity is able to change the laws of nature to suit their personal ambition.

So rather than working within the growing humanist and atheist movements, de Botton has chosen to chastise those of us who value the truth and community. It seems like he simply wants to stir controversy to sell books. His thesis on the face is seems to be a fairly tame and reasonable contribution to the dialogue within our community. Instead his ego must take centre stage.

Originally published on the British Columbia Humanist Association website on March 2, 2012.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: British Columbia Humanist Association.

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