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Atheism as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic, is not a religious believer, but he has no time for atheists who praise religion for its social utility. Excerpt:

God may be dead, but Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists is a sign that the tradition from Voltaire to Arnold lives on. The book assumes that religious beliefs are a lot of nonsense, but that they remain indispensible to civilised existence. One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked. Perhaps he might have the faintest sense of being patronised. De Botton claims that one can be an atheist while still finding religion “sporadically useful, interesting and consoling”, which makes it sound rather like knocking up a bookcase when you are feeling a bit low. Since Christianity requires one, if need be, to lay down one’s life for a stranger, he must have a strange idea of consolation. Like many an atheist, his theology is rather conservative and old-fashioned.

De Botton does not want people literally to believe, but he remains a latter-day Matthew Arnold, as his high Victorian language makes plain. Religion “teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober”, as well as instructing us in “the charms of community”. It all sounds tediously neat and civilised. This is not quite the gospel of a preacher who was tortured and executed for speaking up for justice, and who warned his comrades that if they followed his example they would meet with the same fate. In De Botton’s well-manicured hands, this bloody business becomes a soothing form of spiritual therapy, able to “promote morality (and) engender a spirit of community”. It is really a version of the Big Society.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend with whom I have congenially sparred about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the past sent me a link to the “Creed of a Savoyard Priest,” excerpted from Rousseau’s “Emile.” He described it as a perfect description of MTD, two centuries ahead of its time. Excerpt from the Rousseau:

The morality of our actions consists entirely in the judgments we ourselves form with regard to them. If good is good, it must be good in the depth of our heart as well as in our actions; and tho first reward of justice is the consciousness that we are acting justly. If moral goodness is in accordance with our nature, man can only be healthy in mind and body when he is good. If it is not so, and if man is by nature evil, he cannot cease to be evil without corrupting his nature, and goodness in him is a crime against nature. If he is made to do harm to his fellow-creatures, as the wolf is made to devour his prey, a humane man would be as depraved a creature as pitiful wolf, and virtue alone would cause remorse.

My young friend, let us look within, let us set aside all personal prejudices and see whither our inclinations lead us. Do we take more pleasure in the sight of the sufferings of others or their joys? Is it pleasanter to do a kind action or an unkind action, and which leaves the more delightful memory behind it? Why do you enjoy the theatre? Do you delight in the crimes you behold? Do you weep over the punishment which overtakes the criminal? They say we are indifferent to everything but self-interest; yet we find our consolation in our sufferings in the charms of friendship and humanity, and even in our pleasures we should be too lonely and miserable if we had no one to share them with us. If there is no such thing as morality in man’s heart, what is the source of his rapturous admiration of noble deeds, his passionate devotion to great merit What connection is there between self-interest and this enthusiasm for virtue? Why should I choose to be Cato dying by his own hand, rather than Caesar in his triumphs? Take from our hearts this love of what is noble and you rob us of the joy of life. The mean-spirited man in whom these delicious feelings have been stifled among vile passions, who by thinking of no one but himself comes at last to love no one but himself, this man feels no raptures, bis cold heart no longer throbs with joy, and his eyes no longer fill with the sweet tears of sympathy, he delights in nothing; the wretch has neither life nor feeling, he is already dead.

It is remarkable to see how Rousseau anticipated MTD so far ahead of its debut. As my friend writes, there is an “inner logic” to the ideas put forth by the Savoyard priest, and the West is living, and has lived, them out. What the Savoyard priest said in “Emile” got the book condemned in its own place and time, but I bet you would struggle to find people today, even devout Christians, who disagreed with much of it.

Anyway, I particularly like this observation of Eagleton’s:

Like Comte, De Botton believes in the need for a host of “consoling, subtle or just charming rituals” to restore a sense of community in a fractured society. He even envisages a new kind of restaurant in which strangers would be forced to sit together and open up their hearts to one another. There would be a Book of Agape on hand, which would instruct diners to speak to each other for prescribed lengths of time on prescribed topics. Quite how this will prevent looting and rioting is not entirely clear. [Emphasis mine — RD]

Only what Rieff called “holy terror” — that is, fear of the Lord — can do that. By “fear of the Lord,” Rieff meant a sense that there is such a thing as a transcendent power and order, and that we will ultimately be held accountable for our actions. See Rusty Reno’s essay on Rieff’s “Charisma.”  Excerpt:

By Rieff’s analysis, the central and defining purpose of culture is to regulate the always-troublesome relation between the No-imposing voice of commandment and the Yes-seeking desires of the individual. According to Rieff, the traditional approach to the felt difficulties of bringing personality into coordination with authority involves internalizing and intensifying cultural norms. Religious at their core, traditional cultures stamp our inner lives with their creeds and, in so doing, deliver the human animal from its slavery to instinct. Charisma, then, describes the gift of what Rieff calls a “high” and “holy terror,” which installs the power of divine command so deeply in the soul that we can bear the thought “of evil in oneself and in the world.” A charismatic gives this gift with special force. He or she is an exemplar and virtuoso of personality fully governed by creedal authority.

UPDATE: My friend (who originally sent me the link to the Savoyard Priest essay), writes:

For me, the most interesting thing about the passage is that Rousseau doesn’t propose it in his own name — it’s the character of the priest who does it, showing, I think, that Rousseau doesn’t really endorse its view of piety. Rather, he sees it (in my interpretation) as one way of trying to grant a measure of wholeness and happiness to modern, overly civilized human beings, whose souls are rent asunder by self- love (amour-propre), which leads them to think of others when they should be thinking of themselves, and to think of themselves when they should be thinking of others. I’m a huge fan of Rousseau as a diagnostician of human unhappiness. Even though his “second-best” proposals for happiness under civilized conditions all fail. (The revolutionary politics of the Social Contract is another failed experiment in recovering happiness.)

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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