The reviewer of Alain de Botton’s books runs a grave risk. For behold what happened to the New York Times critic Caleb Crain in 2009 when he
"http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/books/review/Crain-t.html?pagewanted=1">suggested that AdB’s 2009 book
"http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pleasures-Sorrows-Work-Alain-Botton/dp/0141027916/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328087719&sr=1-1">The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
‘succeeds as entertainment, if not as analysis’. The philosopher replied: ‘I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill in every career move you make’. Not exactly
Marcus Aurelius, is it?
So it was with trepidation that I closed AdB’s new book,
"http://www.amazon.co.uk/Religion-Atheists-non-believers-guide-religion/dp/0241144779/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328087754&sr=1-1">Religion for Atheists, and began to
Religion for Atheists is AdB’s attempt to prove that not all non-believers have to be like Richard Dawkins. AdB, by contrast, is the sort of atheist you could take home to meet your father if he
happened to be the Pope. A nice, respectable atheist. An atheist who is even prepared to recognise that religion — though ‘of course’ being mere superstitious nonsense — may
have something to commend it, if approached carefully by a fair-minded chap like our Alain.
AdB’s self-appointed task is to examine religion and pick out the good bits. He claims to have ‘moved on’ from the ‘sterile’ and ‘boring’ debate over religious truths, which is a slick way of
dodging such a debate. He then ‘steals’ the great works of art that religion has inspired, the sense of fellowship and community it fosters, the good works and charities it inspires,
and the ethical philosophy that enables us to ignore our petty concerns and help others.
It is simplistic, Christmas cracker-motto stuff; and it’s entirely characteristic of AdB in that it completely misses the point. For religion wouldn’t be religion without Faith. Remove that
and you’re left with nothing. AdB’s church architecture, pennies in the poor box and cosy church knitting circles just ain’t enough to fill the God-shaped hole he has excavated.
Reading AdB’s little list of the good things that Faith offers, I am irresistibly reminded of Charlie Brooker’s
"http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/jan/20/alain-de-botton-life-in-writing">description of his previous books: ‘stating the bleeding obvious’. AdB writes of these things with a child’s
wide-eyed wonder, as if he alone has ascended the peaks of superior knowledge, while the rest of us have to play catch-up. But many of his assumptions are lazy. He takes it as read, for instance,
that the ‘supernatural’ claims of received religion — the beliefs that have been the bedrock of every recorded human society since the dawn of time — are ‘of course
Note that insufferably smug ‘of course’. Yet in those two words, we can put our fingers on what is often so irritating about AdB and his oeuvre. Although he left Switzerland when a boy for Oxford’s
Dragon School, where he perfected his English, and although he subsequently attended Harrow and then Cambridge, it’s clear that he has never quite ‘got’ England or the English. The English loathe
pseudo-intellectuals who talk down to them and write books with pretentious titles like "http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Proust-Change-Your-Life/dp/0330354914/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328087807&sr=1-1">How Proust Can Change Your Life. Still more do they
despise someone of such obvious privilege writing a book titled, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Not the least of his faults — along with having no sense of humour — is that
De Botton clearly has no sense of irony.