Monday, March 26, 2012

Flatland?

In a recent NYT Book Review, conservative NYT columnist David Brooks reviewed Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. I haven't read de Botton's book, so I'll not comment on it. I will say a few words about Brook's review.

Brook's mentions a few of de Botton's ideas with approval, such as that "colleges should definitely teach courses on such practical issues as how to pick a marriage partner, bringing together the resources of literature, psychology and neuroscience." However, says Brooks, "many of [de Botton's] ideas seem silly."

I would say that the course on how to pick a marriage partner is silly.

Well, wait. A good course in literature light help, as long as it weren't prescriptive.

As a senior at the University of Notre Dame in the late 1950s, I was required to sit through a number of lectures on marriage (called a Cana Conference). One lecture was by a married couple who advised us to set aside one evening every week -- a Tuesday, say -- to exchange with our future partner whatever about her we found annoying, and vice versa, of course. Sounded to me like a surefire recipe for divorce. Later, as a young married at Stonehill, my wife and I were invited to address a Cana Conference. We declined. Anyone who thinks they can engineer someone else's happy marriage is whistling Dixie. Can you imagine teaching a course on the subject?

Anyway, David Brook's tries in his usual way to say nice things about de Botton, but in general he dislikes the book. If one is a young person looking to have a rich inner life, stay away from the hollow atheists, he advises. Instead, read C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy or Augustine's Confessions: "You'll find a dramatic education process involving intricate, unexpected stages of resistance, surrender, loathing God, loving God, leaps of faith and the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny."

Well, yes. Lewis and Augustine are worthy reads. But so is the extensive canon of secular literature. To have undergone the search and the struggle, and the rigorous intellectual scrutiny, to end up in the arms of God is not the only authentic outcome. "Many of us would rather live frustrated in the company of believers than fulfilled in this flatland of the atheists," concludes Brooks. So what's our choice? Rick Warren or Primo Levi? Talk about silly.