A week ago I wrote that the best way to live is beautifully. Alain de Botton, without meaning to, has made me think twice about that. His book Religion for Atheists is all about living beautifully with the borrowed plumes of religious life, without the burdens of religious devotion. It opens with the statement that he can’t imagine any question asked of a religion more boring than ‘Is it true?’ Listening to him talk about the book, it strikes me that for him truth is neither here nor there. It’s almost as though it has never occurred to this atheist philosopher to wrestle with the question of God’s existence at all.
His conversation with Krista Tippett of On Being was littered with the language of feeling and sentiment, curiously lacking in intellectual rigour. His argument could be (unkindly) boiled down to a quaint nostalgia for the hymns and cups of tea that come with churchgoing, and a desire to appropriate all the nice bits of church (the architecture, the neighbourliness) without having the tiresome bits (the Incarnation, the Resurrection) thrown in. Put less unkindly, he wants the best, by which he means the most beneficial or beautiful, aspects of religious practice without the obligations of belief. Logically, it’s hard to say that he can’t have them. Of course beautiful art and music, a sense of community, and even the cardinal virtues can be detached from belief in God or an adherence to the Gospel. But what this appropriation leaves out of the account is accountability. It’s the benefits of religion without its demands.
One of the demands made most persistently through the Bible is for the hearts and minds and souls of men and women, not just their religious observance. “These people honour me with their lips,” complains God in Isaiah, “but their hearts are far from me.” Jesus is even more forceful: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside you are full of dead men’s bones.”
Botton argues that religions ask and answer the question of how we should live, which modernism, atheism, secularism seem to ignore. As interested as I am in the question of how we should live, it's a secondary question, not a primary one. In the New Testament at least, ‘how should we then live?’ is a question asked in the shadow of the return of Christ, in the shadow of another world always pressing on this one. The Christian life is lived in the presence of much greater questions than how we should live. For example, what comes after this life? What came before it? How free are we really to act in a universe divinely ordained, divinely unfolding all the time? All of which seem to me essentially philosophical questions - none of which this philosopher seems interested in answering.