Genre: Religious Non-Fiction
"His ability to eloquently argue his points elicits a desire in this reader to aspire to similar eloquence in my own thoughts. De Botton, if nothing else, demands clarity of our own thinking, even if our thinking mostly entails a disagreement with his fundamental arguments. For that reason, he remains a literary asset for those looking for introductions into fields of thought."
Joe Winkler, Huff Post
Winsome and thought-provoking, Alain de Botton is the liquorice-all-sort of Philosophy. Since the age of twenty-three, he has written books to get us thinking on everything from love, travel and work, to architecture, life and religion. The range of topics on which he has written, suggests he has a profound understanding of the human condition; our quest for truth via reason, meaning via experience and belonging via relationships and community.
He is leading the charge of Atheism 2.0: The Do-Over, the call to Reformation. His is a gentle voice amidst the abrasive in the Atheistic-call-to-arms of recent years. In his latest book, Religion for Atheists, de Botton effectively suggests we should take hold of Religion and shake it upside down so all talk of theology and doctrine, spirituality and the supernatural fall out, leaving the culturally-appealing bits for secularists to pick and choose from.
I first came across de Botton in his TED talk and mentioned what a refreshing change his approach to the atheist discussion was in this post on teaching religion in schools. I am grateful Alain gave so generously of his time for this interview.
1. What was your impetus for writing Religion for Atheists?
I was deeply frustrated by the anger and intolerance of 'New Atheists' like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. They are atheists, so am I, but their brand of atheism was so aggressive and destructive.
I think probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is ‘true’. Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.
I prefer a different tack. To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. It seems clear that there is no holy ghost, spirit, geist or divine emanation. The real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to, once one concludes that he evidently doesn't. I believe it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.
In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up - we don't need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose 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. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.
Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I am simply wanting to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what is missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely. By all means, we can dismiss him, but with great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought...
2. What do you hope to achieve by the publication of your book?
I want to fundamentally change the debate about what it means to be an atheist. I want to create a Reform Atheism if you like, distinguished from the orthodox atheism of Dawkins. This would be marked by tolerance and curiosity about religion, from an entirely atheistic backdrop.
3. You seem to be on your own in the wave of "new atheists," in saying there are things to be learned from Religion. How has your book been received by fellow atheists?
The militant kind are furious. Their blogs are on fire, writing the most appalling things. Let me give you a peak, so you have a flavour of how these 'reasonable' people proceed:
4. You talk about religion being a cultural construct and that if we can pick and choose aspects of arts and culture we like, why not choose the parts of religion we like, too. What parts of what religions do you like?
Here are five:
Religions are supremely effective at education, because they know that we forget everything. They are based around rehearsal, repetition, oratory and calendars. They create appointments for us to re-encounter the most significant ideas. Every day has a spiritual agenda. In the secular world, we think you can send someone to school or university for a few years and it will then stick with you for forty years. It won't. Our minds are like sieves, yet we unfairly associate repetition with being stifled. The Jewish or Catholic calendars are masterpieces of synchronisation: every day brings us back round to some important idea. You might need to repeat important truths 4 or 8 times a day.
Mind & Body
Religions remember we have bodies and therefore integrate their insights with physical practices. In Zen Buddhism, you don't just hear lectures: you have a tea ceremony where the drinking of a beverage underpins a philosophical lesson. In Judaism, you don't only atone, you do so by plunging yourself into a mikveh bath to 'cleanse yourself'. So religions appear to know that if you want to reach the mind, you have to acknowledge the overwhelming role that the body and emotions have over us.
Religions have shown a surprising degree of sympathy for our impulse to travel. They have accepted that we cannot achieve everything by staying at home. Nevertheless, unlike secularists, the religious have singularly failed to see the business of travelling as in any way straightforward or effortless. They have insisted with alien vigour on the profound gravity of going on a trip and have channelled the raw impulse to take off into a myriad of rituals, whose examination could prompt us to reflect on our own habits and sharply alter where and how we decided to travel next. We all want travel to change us, religions honour this wish properly.
The secular world isn't short of bars and restaurants, but we're singularly bad at any kind of regular way of turning strangers into friends. We know from parties that people don't talk to each other until there's a good host that does the introduction. Religions function as hosts: their buildings and rituals allow us to express a latent sociability which lies beneath our cold exteriors. Moreover, unlike Facebook, they don't introduce us only to people with whom we already have much in common. At their best moments, they confront us with The Other, and help to show that there is humanity in all of us.
5. You have said that society has "secularized badly," can you explain what you mean by that?
Secular society has been unfairly impoverished by the loss of an array of practices and themes which atheists typically find it impossible to live with because they seem too closely associated with, to quote Nietzsche's useful phrase, 'the bad odours of religion'. We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don't go on pilgrimages. We can't build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude. The notion of reading a self-help book has become absurd to the high-minded. We resist mental exercises. Strangers rarely sing together. We are presented with an unpleasant choice between either committing to peculiar concepts about immaterial deities or letting go entirely of a host of consoling, subtle or just charming rituals for which we struggle to find equivalents in secular society.
In giving up on so much, we have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive dominion areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind – and which we should feel unembarrassed about re-appropriating for the secular realm.
6. A long-standing complaint against religions is their proselytising. Would you say the influx of atheist literature over the past six years falls into the category of proselytising?
Yes, it repeats all the mistakes of the worst kind of religious tracts: it is abuse, shrill and utterly unreasonable - a far graver problem given atheists' claims to be reasonable.
7. It is often said that Atheism is not a faith, rather it is an absence of faith. But isn't there an element of reason and faith in every worldview?
Yes, I agree.
8. How did you arrive at your current worldview?
I was brought up in a commitedly atheistic household, as the son of two secular Jews who placed religious belief somewhere on a par with an attachment to Santa Claus. I recall my father reducing my sister to tears in an attempt to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive god might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight years old at the time. If any members of their social circle were discovered to harbour clandestine religious sentiments, my parents would start to regard them with the sort of pity more commonly reserved for those diagnosed with a degenerative disease and could from then on never be persuaded to take them seriously again.
Though I was powerfully swayed by my parents attitudes, by my mid-twenties, I underwent a crisis of faithlessness. My feelings of doubt had their origins in listening to Bach's cantatas, they were further developed in the presence of certain Bellini Madonnas and they became overwhelming with an introduction to Zen architecture. However, it was not until my father had been dead for several years – and buried under a Hebrew headstone in a Jewish cemetery in Willesden, North London, because he had, intriguingly, omitted to make more secular arrangements – that I began to face up to the full scale of my ambivalence regarding the doctrinaire principles with which I had been inculcated in childhood.
I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist. I was simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content – a way, to put it in more abstract terms, to think about Fathers without upsetting my respectful memory of my own father. I recognised that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illuminated manuscripts of the faiths.
9. Do you think people easily part with the worldviews in which they were brought up?
Almost never, 99% of one's positions vis a vis religion is upbringing
Book: Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Film: Wim Wenders, Alice in the Cities
Music: Natalie Merchant, Ophelia
Motto: What need is there to weep over parts of life, the whole of it calls for tears. Seneca
Charity: Psychotherapy for kids.
Whether you agree or disagree with de Botton's conclusion; that we can select aspects of Religion we like and discard the parts we don't, given the pandemic loneliness of our individualistic society, it's hard to disagree with his premise that the world has secularized badly.
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