Virtuous atheism is not enough

In Tuesday’s Telegraph Judith Woods drew attention to the most recent publication of philosopher and writer, Alain de Botton and his set of Ten Commandments for virtuous atheists. The aim of his manifesto is to “ignite a vital conversation around moral character to increase public interest in becoming more virtuous and connected as a society”.

His list goes: resilience, empathy, patience, sacrifice, politeness, humour, self-awareness, forgiveness, hope and confidence. It comprises an intriguing mixture. There are Christian virtues here: “Hope” is one of the supernatural virtues, along with faith and charity, while “forgiveness” and “sacrifice” are absolutely fundamental to Christian faith. English decency is reflected in resilience, patience, politeness, humour and confidence. And there are two staples of the therapy industry: empathy and self-awareness.

This list of secular commandments is easily understood as the self-help manual of a civilised and cultured atheist such as de Botton. Our national characteristics during the last war, according to the story exemplified by the slogan “Keep calm and carry on” rather than by the TV series Foyles’ War, certainly include humour, patience and resilience. “Self-awareness” is what is taught in psychotherapy: the idea is that if we all understood the roots of our quirky or anti-social behaviour we might become better people. Yet, as my parish priest pointed out the other week, it is possible, by paying qualified gurus a lot of money, to know just about everything about ourselves – but this in itself won’t help us to change (Father was contrasting this with the power of Christ to transform our lives.) “Empathy” is actually quite rare, as is true compassion, and often degenerates into Clintonesque maudlin sentimentality, as in “I feel your pain”.

“Forgiveness” for a Christian means loving your enemies, turning the other cheek to their insults and contempt (especially when they call you a “bigot”.) And “sacrifice” for Christians means rather more than de Botton’s opinion that “We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up the art of sacrifice.” “Sacrifice” could be described as an “art” in a rather Wildean sense, but really it means the death of the ego, dying to self, a lifelong struggle in which we will only emerge the victor with the help of supernatural grace.

I understand why de Botton is preoccupied with the concept of a virtuous atheist and I do not mock him; indeed I take his yearning to counter the supposedly superior claims of Christianity very seriously. It is a noble ideal and society would indeed be happier and more civilised if more irreligious people of the “Me-generation” were to reflect on his ideas. But just as that selfless quiet heroine of the Great War, Nurse Edith Cavell, realised that patriotism was not enough, so a noble and enlightened atheism, however fine its aspirations, is not enough if individuals or society are to be regenerated or renewed. The reason, as Catholic theology teaches us, is sin, original and personal, our own and Adam’s. We are not strong enough by ourselves to be good (as opposed to “nice”) without the grace of God. Politeness and resilience – indeed kindness and niceness – are not virtues in themselves; they are attractive characteristics of some people by nature; the rest of us have to fight against being “horrid”, like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.

It is Pelagianism (and de Botton strikes me as something of a neo-Pelagian) to think we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and achieve virtue on our own. I reviewed de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists a couple of years ago. Brought up an atheist he wrote that he experienced “a crisis of faithlessness” in his mid-20s which set him on a quest to rescue “some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.” During his research he attended a Catholic Mass and commented, “Not the ideal habitat for an atheist. Much of the dialogue is either offensive to reason or simply incomprehensible.”

The readings at Mass for today are inspirational – to a believer: in the letter to the Hebrews, with the opening exhortation “Continue to love each other like brothers, and remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it”, we discover a mode of discourse utterly foreign to the sacred books of atheism. This passionate and intensely personal dialogue continues with the Psalm: “The Lord is my light and my help/whom shall I fear?” The Gospel text is the dramatic, deeply memorable passage in Mark’s Gospel which was to fire the imagination of Oscar Wilde, where the daughter of Herodias dances before Herod and then makes her appalling request.

My advice to de Botton is: leave aside your secular commandments and go back to a Catholic Mass, not for research purposes but as a genuine seeker after truth. Then who knows? You might entertain angels unawares.