Common sense is a curious thing. Most of us must possess it (hence the "common") and yet most of us can usually identify large chunks of the population who conspicuously lack it. To make matters worse, in any projected breakdown of global common-sense distribution, we can't even agree on which folk constitute the haves and the have-nots. However, one thing is always certain: I myself possess it. Definitely. Absolutely. No question.
This conundrum of common sense is what makes a writer such as Alain de Botton so attractive and so infuriating. He is a master of the well-heeled, chatty and above all reasonable tone. He tells us about love, travel, even architecture with a seductive ease that reveals what is most consoling about Proust, most rewarding about a train journey or most useful about a well-designed house, and the results are always eminently sensible. But scratch the veneer, and one quickly finds myriad competing common senses screaming to break free.
The moment feels ripe for de Botton's latest offering, Religion for Atheists. The public discourse around religion has been given a fresh if polarizing perspective by its tenacious presence in American political life and the apoplectic dispatches of Hitchens, Dawkins and the "New Atheism." De Botton explores the trappings of religious practice to identify what is most valuable to the reasonable person who accepts that "of course no religions are true in any God-given sense." And, of course, it is within the illusory consensus of this "of course" that the trouble lurks.
The investigation takes us from the choreography of the Catholic Mass through religious directives on social behavior, the creation of sacred places for reflection, the virtues of pessimism and the therapeutic value of art. De Botton fluently identifies how religion traditionally addressed social needs before offering his own secular proposal for meeting them anew. For example, religion has traditionally provided a sense of community that can override divisions of class or income. We might therefore regain this sense of togetherness through rituals that mimic, say, the Eucharistic service. De Botton suggests a restaurant where "our fear of strangers would recede" and "the poor would eat with the rich." And Jerusalem's Wailing Wall might be replaced by electronic billboards "that would anonymously broadcast our inner woes," thereby reminding us that "we are none of us alone in the extent of our troubles and our lamentations."
The problem with this approach is not simply that the solutions are trite or feel crassly commercial. The problem is that it is utterly impossible to get any sort of consensus on what we poor secularists need from religion. The beauty and danger of organized religion has always been its authoritarian aspect: It tells us what is wrong and what is right, what is healthy and what is impure. Apply these edicts to the secular world, and they begin to look suspiciously like indoctrination. Where is the place of criticality here, and exactly whose values get to be promoted? If they are common-sense values, we will soon find a plethora of competing commonsensical values. We should remember how quickly Socrates' ideal republic begins to look like a totalitarian state.
We are perhaps here a long way from de Botton's modest proposal to excavate the remains of religious practice in an effort to save what is most beautiful and valuable within it. But it is possible to argue that culture, or indeed secularization itself, means always already doing this. I, for one, am puzzled by the idea that renouncing religion equates "having to give up on ecclesiastical art and all the beauty and emotion therein." People have not abandoned these works. Accessing them has always been a problem, but its solution calls for a lot more than, as de Botton suggests, a thematic reorganization of art galleries. Religion for Atheists is provocative and well-intentioned. It is perhaps just a little too sure that it knows what is best for us.