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Religion & The Power Of Repetition

In his TED talk titled Atheism 2.0, Alain de Botton (an atheist) calls for a less combative atheism, one that takes the best of what religious belief has to offer, and incorporates it into a non-theistic framework of meaning — and way of life. I don’t think this is really possible, but it’s still a […]

In his TED talk titled Atheism 2.0, Alain de Botton (an atheist) calls for a less combative atheism, one that takes the best of what religious belief has to offer, and incorporates it into a non-theistic framework of meaning — and way of life. I don’t think this is really possible, but it’s still a fascinating talk. This passage struck me:

If you went to a top university — let’s say you went to Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge — and you said, “I’ve come here because I’m in search of morality, guidance and consolation; I want to know how to live,” they would show you the way to the insane asylum. This is simply not what our grandest and best institutes of higher learning are in the business of. Why? They don’t think we need it. They don’t think we are in an urgent need of assistance. They see us as adults, rational adults. What we need is information. We need data, we don’t need help.

Now religions start from a very different place indeed. All religions, all major religions, at various points call us children. And like children, they believe that we are in severe need of assistance. We’re only just holding it together. Perhaps this is just me, maybe you. But anyway, we’re only just holding it together. And we need help. Of course, we need help. And so we need guidance and we need didactic learning.

You know, in the 18th century in the U.K., the greatest preacher, greatest religious preacher, was a man called John Wesley, who went up and down this country delivering sermons, advising people how they could live. He delivered sermons on the duties of parents to their children and children to their parents, the duties of the rich to the poor and the poor to the rich. He was trying to tell people how they should live through the medium of sermons, the classic medium of delivery of religions.

Now we’ve given up with the idea of sermons. If you said to a modern liberal individualist, “Hey, how about a sermon?” they’d go, “No, no. I don’t need one of those. I’m an independent, individual person.” What’s the difference between a sermon and our modern, secular mode of delivery, the lecture? Well a sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition. The tradition of sermonizing is hugely valuable, because we are in need of guidance, morality and consolation — and religions know that.

Another point about education: we tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they’ll remember it. Sit them in a classroom, tell them about Plato at the age of 20, send them out for a career in management consultancy for 40 years, and that lesson will stick with them. Religions go, “Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it.” That’s what all religions tell us: “Get on you knees and repeat it 10 or 20 or 15 times a day.” Otherwise our minds are like sieves.

So religions are cultures of repetition. They circle the great truths again and again and again. We associate repetition with boredom. “Give us the new,” we’re always saying. “The new is better than the old.” If I said to you, “Okay, we’re not going to have new TED. We’re just going to run through all the old ones and watch them five times because they’re so true. We’re going to watch Elizabeth Gilbert five times because what she says is so clever,” you’d feel cheated. Not so if you’re adopting a religious mindset.

I was in a nearby church this evening waiting for the start of a chamber music concert, and I was thinking about, yes, Dante. And I was thinking about sin, and my sins, and how grateful I am for the sacrament of Confession. The idea of ritual Confession unnerves people outside of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but once you’re on the inside, and have practiced it faithfully — sadly, many Catholics and Orthodox do not — you can’t imagine living without it.

What it does is make you focus on what you get wrong, and, if you have a good confessor, provides you with help in getting it right. Of course it also provides the sacramental benefit of absolution, and the grace to go forth empowered to do good and avoid sin. But if I’m looking at Confession from de Botton’s perspective, I’m going to perceive the advantage of a ritual in which you examine your thoughts and behavior with a spiritual coach, discern where you’ve fallen short of moral ideals, say you’re sorry, resolve to leave and work harder to avoid that vice (and to practice virtue), as well as to make amends with those you’ve hurt, and to go forth with the psychological burden of guilt released. And when you screw up again — and you will — you get to come back and do the same thing again.

About repetition: I’ve found over the years that eventually I get tired of bringing the same damn thing to my confessor, and that sense of accountability provides a nudge to try harder not to do the damn thing. Most of us have a tendency to hide from ourselves — to rationalize and to avoid. Once you get into the habit of confession, and the habit of mind that confession creates in you, it becomes a lot harder to hide from yourself. Some of us struggle with scrupulosity — that is, an unbalanced preoccupation with our sins. I can’t say I was ever scrupulous, strictly speaking — I’m far too lazy for that — but when I was a pious young teenager, I would pray often for specific sins to be forgiven, but never really could be sure that I was forgiven. The rite of confession, I learned later in life, gave me a sense of security in knowing that my sins had been forgiven. Somehow, I needed to hear it from a priest: “Go, your sins are forgiven.” There’s life-giving power in that.

I can’t imagine an atheist version of confession. What would it look like? How would it work, if you don’t think there’s any such thing as sin? What standards would you use to measure whether or not one had missed the mark? If you see no man (or woman) with actual spiritual authority over you, or at least as the channel of real supernatural grace, how would the ritual work to relieve the psychological burden? Of course there is a secular version of examination of conscience in the presence of a trained professional; it’s called therapy. But it’s not really the same thing as confession, as Rabbi Rieff explained to us all. Confession is about helping you achieve sanctity; therapy is about easing anxiety about your condition, which might entail changing your behavior, or might not.

Anyway, I’ve been a regular at confession for 20 years now, and I can’t imagine living a Christian life without it. As the prophet said, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” Confession — the repetition of the ritual — makes it a lot harder to hide from yourself. And that’s good.

UPDATE: Back in 2009, when de Botton first started defining his project of coming up with a secular religion to do what standard religions do, but without God, Alan Jacobs gently poked at the folly of the enterprise. Excerpt:

David’s Religion of Mankind, says de Botton, is “a naive yet intelligent attempt to confront the thought that there are certain needs in us that can never be satisfied by art, family, work, or the state alone.” But history, and not just the history of the French Revolution (think of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, communist China), suggests that, when people imagine a religion without a god, the state simply becomes that god. And from the French Revolution on, these governments expended great energy, time, and money “to try to make us good”—through propaganda, yes, but also through more rigorous means when propaganda didn’t do the job.

Though de Botton does not openly acknowledge this point, he knows it, which is why he sandwiches his propaganda program with two strategies of constraint: the intimidating presence of the secular cathedrals and the catechesis in pessimism. De Botton understands that profound optimism about human nature and the exercise of power—what used to be called hubris—led earlier repudiators of God and the Church to build their secular religions in ways that encouraged the most horrific abuses imaginable.

De Botton’s caution and constraint in this matter are commendable. I do, however, have one final set of questions for him. Who’s going to build these cathedrals? Where’s the money going to come from? Who will determine the content of the virtue-building propaganda? Who will establish the proper degree of pessimism, so the visitors to the cathedrals will not be thrown into despair? I sense, as I peer into the distance, yet another bureaucratic unit of the European Union arising, like Venus from the sea.

When I was in France last fall and reading a lot about the French Revolution, the strangest thing of all about the Revolution was the impulse to create this asinine secular religion. It was so obviously ridiculous you couldn’t imagine anybody falling for it.



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