I had a courteous combox disagreement at Throne & Altar the other day with commenter The Man Who Was, over whether most liberals “hunger and thirst after [the] transcendence” that their philosophy forbids to them, and were religious in spite of themselves (whether or not they realized it), as I argued, or, as he argued, had pretty much dropped the notion and moved on to completely irreligious life – a life of spiritual autism, as Proph has called it – without appreciable discomfort. If I was right, then it could make sense to try to understand liberal behavior as unconsciously religious, whereas if he was right, such analyses would not be truly informative.
Well! I don’t think for a heartbeat that what follows is dispositive on that question – more on that in a moment – but it certainly is an apposite datum. Allow me now to adduce one of the most pathetic, risible and dunderheaded newspaper items I have ever read, in the Personal section of the Wall Street Journal for Saturday, 2/18/12: Religion for Everyone, an excerpt from Alain de Botton’s new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. De Botton bemoans the loss of community and the rise of ennui, anomie, alienation and social dysfunction consequent to the spread of secularism, and wonders whether the forms of religion – rituals, spaces and times set apart from the rest of life as special, operating under different, special rules of social interaction, and so forth – can be used in purely secular institutions that will provide the social goods of religious life, while maintaining the atheist rejection of the substance of religion.
He proposes, for example, an Agape Restaurant:
With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary [restaurant] dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. [How very Marxian: disintegrate the robust social organisms that, despite everything, still naturally perdure, so as to impose an ersatz replacement] Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.
Though there wouldn’t be religious imagery on the walls, some kind of art that displayed examples of human vulnerability, whether in relation to physical suffering, poverty, anxiety or romantic discord [Now doesn’t that sound relaxing and comfortable? Who wouldn’t like that?], would bring more of who we actually are into the public realm, lending to our connections with others a new and candid tenor.
Taking their seats at an Agape Restaurant, guests would find in front of them guidebooks reminiscent of the Haggadah (the text followed at a Passover Seder) or the Missal, laying out the rules for how to behave at the meal. No one would be left alone to find their way to an interesting conversation with another [We all know how hard that can be!], any more than it would be expected of participants at a Passover meal or in the Eucharist that they might manage independently to alight on the salient aspects of the history of the tribes of Israel or achieve a sense of communion with God [of course, in these days of negative catechesis, that is precisely what is expected of worshippers].
The Book of Agape would direct diners to speak to one another for prescribed lengths of time on predefined topics. Like the famous questions that the youngest child at the table is assigned by the Haggadah to ask during the Passover ceremony (“Why is this night different from all other nights?” “Why do we eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs?” and so on), these talking points would be carefully crafted for a specific purpose, to coax guests away from customary expressions of pride (“What do you do?” “Where do your children go to school?”) and toward a more sincere revelation of themselves (“What do you regret?” “Whom can you not forgive?” “What do you fear?”).
The liturgy would inspire charity in the deepest sense, a capacity to respond with complexity and compassion to the existence of our fellow creatures. One would be privy to accounts of fear, guilt, rage, melancholy, unrequited love and infidelity that would generate an impression of our collective insanity and endearing fragility.
Can you imagine a more uncomfortable, repellent, deeply ugly social experience that does not involve at least the threat of verbal or physical abuse? Would you, indeed, ever in a million years eat at an Agape Restaurant if you had not been pushed do so by such a threat?
It would never work. Of course it would never work; people would revile the Agape Restaurant. Even if you changed a few things, and added back in some God talk that no one had to take seriously, it would never work. How do we know? Well, it’s obvious; for the last 60 years, liberal Christian churches and Reform synagogues have been offering just that sort of society without supernaturalism, sanctimony without sanctity – and they are dropping like flies. They say, “We aren’t really churchy very much at all, except that we are very polite like churchy people! Let’s all get together at church and socialize in a boring but nice way! Oh, and give us some money.” And – duh! – people don’t seem too excited about that.
The only churches that people want to go to, and that are doing well, are those that take the spooky, supernatural, blood and guts, meat and potatoes aspect of religion with deep seriousness. And that’s because those are the only churches that are even trying to satisfy our appetite for God. What on earth is the point of going to something vaguely churchy that isn’t really churchy at all? That would be like paying good money for fake food, or going to a cheese shop that has no cheese to sell.
People do still go to the mainline liberal parishes, because they still have the familiar smell of the hearty fare they once supplied in plenty (the odor of holiness is coming from the old prayer books and hymnals in the stalls), and everyone goes through the motions of eating the solid meat once served under their rafters; and so they remind congregants of the healthy way they used to feel when they enjoyed a good service of nourishing spiritual food. It’s an attenuated feast.
What de Botton is proposing would be even worse. It would be like eating fake food, that had no fat, no sugar, no protein, and not even saccharine. Even in liberal parishes, people don’t go to church because of the coffee hour, they go to the coffee hour because of church. Coffee hour without the slightest bit of church, which is basically what de Botton is proposing, would be totally lame. Who would get out of bed on Sunday morning for the sake of coffee hour?
Despite the fact that they are a necessary, indeed integral part of church life, non-liturgical social events are not the primary business of the church, and are not the procedures that provide what church uniquely provides, anymore than the cafeteria at a school or factory is its primary business operation. The Agape Restaurant is like a proposal that we build a lot of really bad cafeterias in order to get some automobiles or refrigerators or educated kids. To get the social benefits of religion, you have to do the work of religion.
Now, I might argue that the mere fact that de Botton has written this silly book counts in favor of my side of the disagreement with The Man Who Was. I might argue that de Botton’s book is strong evidence that even godless liberals hunger and thirst for what only religion can provide, and that they are willing to go to absurd lengths to try to get it. But no. All it shows is that de Botton himself, and those who buy his book and take it seriously, feel that hunger. The Man Who Was might be perfectly right that most secular moderns these days are simply tone-deaf when it comes to religion, and that that is why they, agreeing with believers, would find the Agape Restaurant stupid and horrible.
But that’s neither here nor there. The Man Who Was may well be right. What I think is really interesting about the mere fact of de Botton’s book is that it is a frank admission that without religion, society doesn’t work. Not because such societies have no coffee hours, but because without religion, society can’t really make sense. Without a religious foundation that provides to people a way of understanding their own humble activities, and in particular their labor, suffering, and sacrifices, as meaningful, valuable and important – not just to their families, or their communities, or their nations or tribes, but ultimately – they have no way to avoid the feeling, eating away constantly at their guts, that all their sufferings, all the privations they endure for the sake of virtue or duty, or even for love, are basically pointless and stupid, sound and fury signifying nothing. And that suspicion cannot but vitiate morale, and undermine courage, at the point of every decision, thus ruining them, all: queering them toward self-indulgence and away from social coordination, so that at the margin, where the course of history is determined, social cohesion begins to fail. If nihilism is true, coordination of one’s own needs with those of others is nonsense. A society of people who preponderantly suspect that nihilism is true is therefore bound to tend toward decoherence.
As ours is now doing.
Secularists are not stupid. They are perfectly aware of the decoherence now under way in the West. Some of them even realize that secularism is its cause. That’s why de Botton has bothered to write this book. What is puzzling to me is that a man of his intelligence has apparently not asked himself whether the fact that his secularism has produced social dissolution might indicate that secularism is poorly fitted to succeed as a foundation for life because it is false.