In an earlier post, I had linked to an essay that argued that ethics can evolve independent of religion. That is, it doesn’t need a religious anchor or framework. Atheistic societies can have high ethical standards and have their own moral compass.
In his book “Religion for Atheists” ( confession : I haven’t read the book, I only read this review in the NYT), Alan de Botton has a slightly different view. As the reviewer David Brooks says:
De Botton looks around and sees a secular society denuded of high spiritual aspiration and practical moral guidance. Centuries ago, religions gave people advice on how to live with others, how to tolerate other people’s faults, how to assuage anger, endure pain and deal with the petty corruptions of a commercial world. These days, he argues, teachers, artists and philosophers no longer even try to offer such practical wisdom.
It wasn’t a loss of faith that brought us to this sorry pass, de Botton argues; it was a loss in understanding about how to transmit wisdom. The religious authorities had a low but realistic view of human nature. We are fragile, sinful and vulnerable — unable to create moral universes on our own. We therefore need self-confident institutions that will unabashedly transmit God’s guidance and love.
Today’s secular institutions, by contrast, have an absurdly high and unrealistic view of human nature. We are each charged with the task of coming up with our own philosophy and moral laws. We are supposed to have the ability, on our own, to remember the key things we learn and to put these ideas into practice.
So, is de Botton arguing for a revival of religion? Not quite. He is “calling on secular institutions to adopt religion’s pedagogy, to mimic the rituals, habits and teaching techniques that churches, mosques and synagogues perfected over centuries. For example, religious people were smart enough to combine spirituality and eating, aware that while dining in a group, people tend to be in a convivial, welcoming mood.”
In short, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Religion had some good methods and tactics. Adopt and fit them them into a secular context to bring about ethical behavior.