Alain de Botton, co-founder of London’s School of Life and author of The Consolations of Philosophy, has been kind enough to provide an interview for Talking Philosophy about his new book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. Readers are invited to share their thoughts on Atheism 2.0. and what we might usefully take from religion.
You were brought up as an atheist – could you describe your earlier views on religion and how you came to have a more positive view of religion and religious practices?
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 (note the tentative can) that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour is more easily overlooked – in other words, that evil becomes less incongruous.
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 simply want to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what may be missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely.
In your book you write: ‘God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inacurracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes. ‘ What are those urgent issues?
I am not very interested in the doctrines of religions. What interests me is their organisational forms, and in particular, their capacity to make ideas powerful.
The secular world tends to trust that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure that we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are: they are attempts to make vivid to us things we already know, but are likely to have forgotten. Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore, we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too: this was always the great genius of Catholicism. If you want to change someone’s ideas, don’t only concentrate on their ideas, concentrate on their whole selves.
The starting point of religion is that we are children, and we need guidance. The secular world often gets offended by this. It assumes that all adults are mature – and therefore, it hates didacticism, it hates the idea of guidance and moral instruction. But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. And yet modern education denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control though to my mind, we are far more desperate than the modern education system recognises.
In a recent review of your book Terry Eagleton wrote that: “What the book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal. Liberal-capitalist societies, being by their nature divided, contentious places, are forever in search of a judicious dose of communitarianism to pin themselves together, and a secularised religion has long been one bogus solution on offer.”
What do you make of this criticism?
My book occupies a curious middle-ground which is easy to shoot at from two sides. The very religious like Eagleton may take offence at the brusque, selective and unsystematic consideration of their creeds. Religions are not buffets, they will protest, from which choice elements can be selected at whim. But I disagree. Why should it not be possible to appreciate the depiction of modesty in Giotto’s frescoes and yet bypass the doctrine of the annunciation, or admire the Buddhist emphasis on compassion and yet shun its theories of the after-life? For someone devoid of religious belief, it is no more of a crime to dip into a number of faiths than it is for a lover of literature to single out a handful of favourite writers from across the canon.
Atheists of the militant kind could also feel outraged, in their case by a book that treats religion as though it deserved to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings. They will point to the furious institutional intolerance of many religions, and to the equally rich, though less illogical and illiberal, stores of consolation and insight available through art and science. They may additionally ask why anyone who professes himself unwilling to accept so many facets of religion – who feels unable to speak up in the name of virgin births, say, or to nod at the claims reverently made in the Jataka tales about the Buddha’s identity as a reincarnated rabbit – should still wish to associate himself with a subject as compromised as faith.
To this the answer is that religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture – a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history. For those interested in the spread and impact of ideas, it is hard not to be mesmerised by examples of the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.
What is your view of the so-called New Atheist critique advanced by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others?
Attempting to prove the non-existence of god can be entertaining. Tough-minded critics of religion have found much pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail, finishing only when they felt they had shown up their enemies as thorough-going simpletons or maniacs.
Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of my book is that 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.
One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Fivefold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring. In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.
It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognise that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: firstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.
Update: You can read Alain de Botton’s “Secular Society’s Sacraments” and a response to critics in TPM’s online essays. Responses to those pieces are most welcome here.