Okay, so, I’ve had my disagreements with “contrarians” but today I’m going to do something so perverse that even the late Christopher Hitchens would have choked on his whisky: defend the intellectual substance of Alain de Botton. Well, okay, I won’t defend all of his books. Or even all even of his recent book. Or, in fact, any of his recent book except this one point. But it is a decent point…

…without God, it is easier to lose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements.

Well, okay, it’s an imperfect point. I don’t think that religions – be they true or false – have led believers to remember that their own times aren’t everything. Consider the history of apocalypticism. Or the habit of Christians at churches that I used to frequent of spying “revival” round every corner.

Yet the need for a humble perspective on our place in history is more crucial than it’s ever been, for the simple reason that we’re among the first generations who’ve gained the power to make their times, if not everything, uniquely consequential. In a matter of years – or, indeed, minutes – we can reshape populations; transform our environment and, of course, massacre eachother in unprecedented quantities. Many of the innovations that provoked such rapid technological, scientific and cultural change is and could be used in the service of bettering human lives. But their potential for harm is often just as great, and they’re so new to the e’er expanding human toolbox that it’s often hard to judge what their results will be. The last hundred years began to demonstrate how perilous this can be. From catastrophic wars to barmy economic policies to simple-minded cultural initiatives, wide-eyed ideologues have barreled down the road to Hell at an unparalleled speed. I don’t know if faith has to have anything to do with it, but concerted thought on the implications of human goals and how ambitious we could and should be is extremely relevant.

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