Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Charles Murray and Alain de Botton Agree on the Emptiness of Secular Life

5/2/2012—In the midst of various “good without God” campaigns, comes a revealing juxtaposition. Charles Murray, the conservative author of the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve, and original Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton, probably do not agree on much. But in their latest works, they seem to agree that secular institutions are unable to provide spiritual nourishment in our time and that an infusion of religion is needed.

I’m overstating for effect. They don’t entirely agree. In Coming Apart: The State of White America, Murray notes “an elite that is hollow at the core” and a lower class characterized by severe moral deterioration. Apparently he ends the book calling for a quasi-religious awakening (according to Andrew Hacker’s review in the New York Review of Books).

In contrast, Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists, argues for only parts of the religious traditions. But he does note that when religion was more influential, social institutions cared about souls. Now they do not. And that is a great loss.

There is something here to ponder. For all the critiques of religion, a widespread nonbelief has not yet shown that it is spiritually sustainable on its own. The question has never been whether an individual can be good without God. That is obviously so. The question is whether a society that is without God can be good without at least a substitute for religion that contains some aspects traditionally associated with religion. The jury is out on that question.

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