The New New Atheists and Religion 2.0


We’ve all heard about the “new atheism” touted by the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others. But have you heard about the new new atheism being promoted by Alain de Botton?

He is the author of the new book Religion For Atheists, and he’s making waves in the UK by leading a campaign to raise £1m to build a “temple for atheists” in downtown London.

His July 2011 TEDxEdinburgh talk (see below) recently sparked a lot of conversation (130+ comments) on the Emergent Village Community Facebook group. In the talk, de Botton extols the virtues of religion from the perspective of someone who eschews religion in favor of atheism:

Here are some of the things de Botton says atheists can learn from the great religions of the world:

  1. Guidance, Morality, and Consolation — de Botton suggests atheists need to learn how to teach these three things (essentially, how to live one’s life) like religion does, especially through the use of the Christian-style “sermon.”
  2. Repetition — Religion repeats its truths over and over again, which is a very effective way of teaching.
  3. Arrange Time — Religious worldview says we need calendars to make sure we encounter religious ideas throughout the year, year after year after year (see 2).
  4. Rituals — Experiences that force us to contemplate great truths (e.g., Buddhist moon ceremony).
  5. Oratory — Speaking well, using a really convincing way of saying what you think/believe (see 1).
  6. Physical Action — Religion teaches we are not just brains, we are also bodies (e.g., Jewish washing rituals).
  7. Art — Religious art teaches you what to love and what to fear/hate; art is didactic.
  8. Organization — Atheists should follow the pattern of religions to form large, multi-national institutions that leverage scale to “fight for the things of the mind.”

ReligionForAtheistsEmerging church leaders in the UK are engaging de Botton’s work — and he’s engaging back with them. See Kester Brewin‘s recent post, with a reply from de Botton (and Peter Rollins) in the comments. Brewin wonders, “It seems that there is a twin move here. Atheists like de Botton are moving towards religion, to try to colonise the secular space which still values ritual, and many religious people are moving towards an atheist reading of their faith … both agree that ‘God is dead’ … but what to do with the carcass?”

I think we’ll soon see de Botton’s thought be discussed more widely State-side as well. I hope those who do will also read Brewin’s critique/counterpoint to de Botton as a starting point for the conversation.

Here are some of the highlights from the discussion of de Botton from Facebook:

Susan Phillips wrote, “It is fascinating to hear an atheist describe what religion does well! And yet, what religion does well does not seem to be enough at the moment to maintain growing relationships. … If we have these very effective practices, gifts, attitudes, why aren’t they working better for us?”

Mike Leaptrott wrote, “1) Community; 2) Character development; 3) Social critique (i.e., prophecy). Those are the things I would keep for Religion 2.0. Superstition (thinking/believing something is true despite reasonable evidence to the contrary) is the first thing I would expel. Ironically, the most popular forms of Christianity today have expelled those three items and put most of their efforts in bolstering superstition/belief.”

Jonathan Brink critiqued de Botton, saying, “It seems like he’s trying to deduce a way of living, which is informed by a way of thinking (believing), yet at the same time critiquing collective formed beliefs (doctrine). So isn’t he debunking himself?”

Mike Leaptrott added, “If non-violence is better, it should be evident. Spreading the gospel should be the prophetic display of evidence for our different way of living. If the way of Christ is not evidentially better for humanity, then it should be abandoned. Only cults ask people to do what is destined to fail. … Clearly the addiction to violence has not served humanity well. Clearly a new kind of kingdom is needed.”

I really believe this is a natural and important continuation of the conversation around participatory church and the idea of creating “a new way of being religious,” as Eric Weiner has suggested.


Bonus Points:
What group of people are now more reviled than atheists in U.S. public opinion polls? Find out

Mennonite pastor Ryan Dueck has written a thoughtful critique of de Botton for The Christian Century blog network. Read “Updating my religion”

Have any of you read Bruce Sheiman’s An Atheist Defends Religion — and, if so, what do you think that book has to contribute to this conversation?


What do you think about de Botton’s Atheism 2.0, a “temple for atheists,” etc.? Does de Botton get the gifts of religion right or wrong? What are the implications for Religion 2.0? Please post in the comments!



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Posted on 02-06-2012


  1. Adam Gonnerman says:

    February 9th, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Strange how the UUA keeps getting overlooked. That group has been doing something like Atheism 2.0 for decades. Granted, there are some who self-identify as “Christian” and I’ve heard of isolated cases of groups in UUA congregations practicing earth-centered religion, but by-and-large the running joke in their circles has been that “Unitarian Universalists believe in, at most, one god.” You’d think some of these religion-loving new atheists could sync up with their UUA counterparts.

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