what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Rediscovering civic bonds?

I missed the Romanian Book Fair of November but there is currently a small Christmas book fair for a week in the Peasant Museum nearby - where I picked up a copy of Alain De Botton’s most recent book – Religion for Atheists (2012) - also Orhan Pamuk’s early Silent House; and 2 translations into Romanian (Louis de Bernieres’s Captain’s Corot’s Mandolin; and de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy) (2000)

Critics tend to take a condescending view of de Botton (inasmuch as they bother with him at all) which says a lot about them. I’m half way into his book and find it one of the most interesting non-fiction books I’ve read this year ...And what a charming and well-written book compared with the hard, unforgiving stuff which comes from atheists (I've always counted myself an agnostic). 
Parts of it remind me of Theodor Zeldin’s Intimate History of Humanity (copies of which I used to give to people); and other parts of The CharacterStrengths and Virtues Handbook edited a decade ago by Martin Seligman
The first link to the book gives a positive review which captures the appeal of the book rather nicely -
....throughout the book he identifies areas where he believes secular society fails to provide community or help people cope with challenges in their lives, and points to religious practices and institutions which nonreligious people might wish to appropriate to fill the gap. Indeed, de Botton’s approach to religion seems fueled by a profound disenchantment with modern secular society, which he views as impoverished by the loss of practices and modes of thought that religion colonized.
The challenge facing atheists,” de Botton claims, “is how to reverse the process of religious colonization: how to separate ideas and rituals from the religious institutions which have laid claim to them but don’t truly own them.” Religion offers “well-structured advice on how to lead our lives,” which de Botton contends the secular world often fails to provide. The challenge for modern atheists is to offer such structure (and rituals) in a non-religious way.
De Botton examines ten areas in which valuable insights may be derived from religious practices, and gives numerous creative suggestions as to how the secular world might reclaim them eg
  • Noting how religions use food to bring strangers together in a structured way, he offers the “Agape Restaurant,” in which diners will be encouraged to meet new people and share aspects of their inner lives.
  • He notices that religious values and even consumer products, harnessing the arts and music, are branded and promoted far more passionately and effectively than secular values, which raises powerful questions regarding how well humanists are spreading their ideas.
  • He proposes that university lecturers might be trained to present their ideas as passionately and dramatically as Pentecostal preachers — a proposal that this graduate student (and veteran of countless dreary lectures) finds delightfully provocative (if somewhat absurd).
The very format of the book is an example of the approach De Botton is trying to encourage - at least every fourth page consists of a black and white photograph (here it reminds me of the wonderful A Fortunate Man (1967) by John Berger and Jean Mohr). 
In combination with the clarity and beauty of the text and the double spacing, this makes the book highly accessible!
And this more extended assessment also summarises the argument well -
We are seldom encouraged officially to be nice to one another. It offends our libertarian beliefs and risks paternalism. JS Mill said the only grounds for state interference in people’s lives is to prevent them harming others – not for their own good. Religions however have never held back. Libertarians doubt we can know what virtue is, or how to instil it in others – they have no moral bedrock. The only exception is childrearing, where parents do favour intervention over neutrality in their desire to bring up their children. And yet the results are not good – freedom does not always bring only good things; ‘our deepest wish may be that someone would come along and save us from ourselves.’
Religions however do offer guidance on how to live. They know that to sustain goodness we need an audience – it helps to know someone is watching (most marriages would work better if we thought that!). Clergy may tend to speak as if they alone were in possession of maturity and moral authority – but Christianity acknowledges that we are actually all infantile, incomplete and unfinished – and calls it Original Sin. It creates a moral atmosphere in which people point out their flaws to one another and look for improvement in their behaviour. Fresco painters put up virtues and vices as models and warnings – eg Scrovegni Chapel.
 What would it be like if we had similar images on advertising hoardings – eg advocating Forgiveness?Atheists tend to pity the inhabitants of religiously dominated societies for the extent of the propaganda they have to endure, but this is to overlook secular societies' equally powerful and continuous calls to prayer.
A libertarian state truly worthy of the name would try to redress the balance of messages that reach its citizens away from the merely commercial and towards a holistic conception of flourishing.
True to the ambitions of Giotto's frescoes, these new messages would render vivid to us the many noble ways of behaving that we currently admire so much and so blithely ignore… We don't only need reminders of the advantages of savoury snacks. p88 
This post about the "10 essential virtues" gives a good summary of what "secular" as distinct from "religious" or "commercial" values mean. In my next post I will give excerpts about the book's key chapter on Education... 

No comments:

Post a Comment