Book reviews: ‘Free Will,’ ‘Religion for Atheists’

Free Will

Sam Harris

Free Press: 85 pp., $9.99 paper

Religion for Atheists

Alain de Botton

Pantheon: 320 pp., $26.95

Once upon a time I took a degree in philosophy at the University of Cambridge. One of my tutors was Don Cupitt, a philosopher and radical theologian who challenged the doctrine that Jesus was God incarnate; Cupitt, though a priest himself, questioned the entire theistic notion of God. If God isn’t God, one might think, then what’s the point of him? But Cupitt was a brilliant andcompassionate man. I remember telling him that I was having trouble with ethics, and he exploded with an anxious gale of laughter. “In the intellectual rather than the practical sense, I trust,” he said. I was 19 at the time, and I now realize that my struggles with G.E. Moore’s “Principia Ethica” indeed had everything to do with my total lack of a moral compass. I was never much of an intellectual, but Cupitt gave me a lasting taste for Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, dotty arguments about elephants in rooms, and imbued in mean awareness that the intricacies of abstraction, which can seem like so many angels dancing upon the heads of so many pins, might indeed bear importantly upon life’s cruder and crueler edges.

This sense, of the crucial and concrete importance of thought, lies behind two new books: “Free Will” by Sam Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist by training, and “Religion for Atheists” by Alain de Botton, a supremely gifted and elegant literary flâneur who in previous works has explored “The Architecture of Happiness” and “How Proust Can Change Your Life.”

Harris, armed with the newest research in experimental psychology and neuro-imaging, fires a brief and forceful broadside at the conundrum that has nagged at every major thinker from Plato to Slavoj Zizek: Why is it that, though we can do what we decide, we cannot decide what to do? “Human choice,” Harris writes, “is as important as fanciers of free will believe. But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.” The notion of conscious agency is soon lost in causation’s murky labyrinth, and our feelings of free will are proven illusory. “Determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true,” Harris states, a position that won’t endear him to the shade of Horatio Alger or anybody else who makes a fetish of individualism.

De Botton’s opening salvo is, in its cool high-handedness, even more inflammatory: “To save time, and at the risk of losing readers painfully early on in this project, let us bluntly state that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense.” This, while risking switching off about half the human race, is itself a religious statement, or at least a non-rational, emotional one; De Botton, an avowed atheist by education and upbringing, has been nonetheless a lifelong yearner for understanding and reverence. He removes the terrors and wonders of God from the equation (the parts many of us cling to, actually) and examines what might be plucked from the smorgasbord of Christianity, Judaism and Zen in order to fulfill our “soul-related needs.”

“The signal danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation. When God is dead, human beings — much to their detriment — are at danger of taking psychological center-stage. They imagine themselves to be commanders of their own destiny,” De Botton writes.

Here’s a point where Harris and De Botton intersect. For De Botton, no God, no human captaincy, and therefore the urge to keep chaos at bay with qualities that religion traditionally delivers: a sense of community, contemplation, meditation, art, architecture. “It is a failing of historic proportions,” De Botton writes, with typically nimble irony, while making a serious point about what churches do and corporations don’t, “that BMW’s concern for rigour and precision has ended so conclusively at the bumpers of its cars rather than stretching to the founding of a school or of a political party, or that Giorgio Armani’s eponymous corporation has determinedly skirted the possibility of running a therapy unit or liberal arts college.” Funny!

Harris extends his argument into a polemic about the moral underpinnings of the justice system. If free will is an illusion, then punishing people for their actions (rather than restraining them for the protection of others) makes no sense unless we confess that we are catering to the irrational, and very human, desire for vengeance. “Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel. Once again, even if you believe that every human being harbors an immortal soul, the picture does not change. Anyone born with the soul of a psychopath has been profoundly unlucky,” Harris writes.

The debate about free will is another arena where reason does start to shade into theology and it is tempting to think of Harris’ determinedly deterministic position as simply the flip side of Dr. Johnson saying to Boswell: “Sir, we know our will is free, and there’s an end on it.” Our daily experience tries to tell us that our wills are free, even as Harris closely and cogently argues that this feeling is delusional.

Harris reckons we cannot control the deep causes of our desires and intentions. De Botton says religion, whether you believe in one or not, reaches for the most profound human instincts. Cupitt has written, “Life is God,” a statement with which De Botton might agree. Cupitt has also said, “The package deal of life cannot be renegotiated,” a view that might strike a chord with Sam Harris. When De Botton talks about “the ebbing of religion,” I wonder where he’s coming from. North London and Oxbridge, I guess. And when Harris notes, in italics: “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion,” I’m thinking, what? But here are two writers, both self-avowedly secular, addressing the need for individual growth and social betterment, and doing so with compelling argument and style.

A last word from De Botton, whose book, incidentally, is beautifully and wittily illustrated: “Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” We can all go along with that.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age.”