Pastors and other Christian leaders regularly worry about the state of fellowship in churches. They worry that visitors don’t feel welcome. They worry that members don’t know one another. They would be amazed to read that, to an atheist, churches look like a model for community that secular society needs to learn from. They would not, however, be comforted by the conclusions an atheist draws from the experience of worship in a Christian church. Alain Botton, writing for the Wall Street Journal, explains in a recent article that “even those who aren’t religious can find religion sporadically useful, interesting and consoling and should consider how we might import certain religious ideas and practices into the secular realm.” In other words, Mr. Botton believes it is possible to achieve the communal experience churches enjoy without the most important element of the community – God.
The quoted statement is the premise of Botton’s entire article based on his new book, Religion for Atheists. His statement reminded me of James Clavell’s famous story, “The Children’s Story.” In that story, the nation had been conquered and a new teacher, provided by the conquerors took over the classroom. The new teacher never disparaged the nation that had been conquered, not in so many words, but little by little, she so thoroughly disparaged the notion of fidelity to that nation that the children became completely confused. In the end, they cut up the flag so everyone could be equal and have a piece of it. Botton cuts up the whole idea of religion and suggests using some little pieces of the idea, reshaped and put together in entirely different ways. He completely excises that problematic element people call “God.” According to him, secular society could use the lessons in community life exhibited by churches to transform secular society. I felt just as battered by this thesis as I felt by “The Children’s Story” when I read it during the Cold War era in America.
Botton proposes a new secular utopia that starts in a restaurant. He is completely mesmerized by the meaning of meals in religious faith. In his mind, changing the way people eat in secular society can transform people from strangers to intimate friends and achieve something no church even suggests can happen – people who don’t know each other will simply reveal their deepest wounds to complete strangers on cue. The cue comes from a book each diner in his utopian “Agape Restaurant” will follow to the letter. “The Book of Agape would direct diners to speak to one another for prescribed lengths of time on predefined topics.” (This quotation appears near the end of the article.) Botton actually believes that when one stranger asks another stranger, “Whom can you not forgive?” the response will be honest and deep truth. He believes that his Agape Restaurant could mandate who eats with whom and mandate their conversational topics, and even the duration of the meal. He actually believes that people would pay to eat there and to follow all those rules.
This proposal misses the whole point of community as we know it in churches. Nobody tells anybody in churches what to say. He thinks the liturgy of the Catholic Church and the Haggadah of a Seder direct the same kind of interaction he is proposing for his restaurant. He does not understand that liturgy and Haggadah are not about getting individuals to divulge secrets to each other. The individuals gathered in community in a church or at a Seder celebrate something much more than the gathering itself; they celebrate what God has done, and what God is doing, and what God will do. The gathering does bond people together in love, but it would be nothing without God. The fellowship shared in worship settings is only one aspect of the fellowship of believers, and the writer correctly infers that the relationships of believers outside the sanctuary have something to do with what goes on inside, but his Agape Restaurant puts a human being in the place God enjoys in Christian faith. The utopia envisioned by Alain Botton actually creates a human dictatorship which sounds completely oppressive rather than copying the free, vibrant fellowship that grows out of shared faith. The Agape Restaurant sounds like a prescription for brainwashing to me.
Some people may see the first few words of Botton’s article and conclude that he might be taking a first step toward faith by trying to learn something from the great religious traditions of the world. He is absolutely not doing that. Read the entire article. He is, in fact, deconstructing the traditions built on a life of faith and attempting to reconstruct something that will reshape the culture in lockstep with legislative and political transformations of civil society. He specifically states that the restaurants would be the first step “to humanize one another in our imaginations,” a step to be followed by “legislative and political solutions to cure society’s ills.” His proposal is not the benign speculation of a philosopher. It is the same proposal Satan made to Jesus during Christ’s temptations.
Here’s how Satan put it:
The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ “ (Matthew 4:8-10)
Satan offered Jesus a deal: You can have your religion and anything else you want, as long as God isn’t in it. Botton is proposing that people worship people. He is proposing the development of a culture that submits to some human being as if that human being were a god. That is implicit in a model that says this person has the right to tell everyone else what to talk about and what to think. This human being is accountable to nobody, as near as I can tell from the proposal in Botton’s article. This is a terrifying proposal, whether or not you are a Christian.
Think about Botton’s thesis. Do you see anyone suggesting ideas that mirror this proposal? Do you think people want to be told what to do and how to think? Are you a Christian? Do you wonder why, despite the presence of so many Christians in society, we have not spread salt and light broadly enough for Botton to be affected by it? That might be the big thought question. We all want our testimony to be true, and we all want to live a testimony the Holy Spirit can use to bless people. Do we need to examine ourselves and examine our testimony? Are we shedding God’s light in a dark world?
God loves Alain Botton, whether Botton knows it or not. I pray that somebody, or more than one somebody, may introduce him to the God who gives life to the fellowship Mr. Botton so fervently desires. He is a deeply lonely man. May Alain Botton soon meet the One who loves Alain enough to die for him.