Religion for Atheists: An Interview With Alain de Botton

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.

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  1. I thought some of this was really interesting.

    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.

    Agreed. The 20th Century was, of course, the first in which human beings gained the power to reshape their populations, transform their environments and, well, blow eachother up in massive quantities in next to no time, so this a crucial lesson for us.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure religious belief need provide the relevant perspective. Christians and Muslims have been “see[ing] [their] own times as everything” for centuries – look at the history of apocalypticism. It should be remembered that the usefulness of a religion – unless it’s true, of course! – has to be judged on how its believers behave, not on how they’re supposed to.

  2. …and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain [religious] ideas and practices into the secular realm.

    I am reminded of Neal Stephenson’s novel _Anathem_.

  3. Some Atheists recognize the benefits of organized religion in a sociological and moral teaching sense, and propose that this can be accommodated with their atheism. Perhaps. But the point I find with ritual, is that by itself it is meaningless, it is only when you have faith that it is a sacrament does it make sense. In this respect I agree with Eagleton.

    Atheists that recognize the value of Mythos to the makeup of mankind, but refuse to see its source in the Logos, shortchange themselves.

  4. I should also say the Logos has its source in the Mythos – it’s a kind of Dual Aspect Monism to use John Polkinghorne”s expression.

  5. If somebody out there hadn’t invented religion eons ago it would have been necessary for someone else to do it in today’s world… but god will always be a reflection of the shadows in your own mind. 😈

  6. Thanks for a very interesting interview. I’m largely in agreement with Alain. The dilemma we face is how to proceed when we can see that a belief is untrue, but also that it is can motivate people in useful ways.

  7. Thank you Richard and to everybody else for commenting. I’ve never been religious myself but I have always found the phenomenon interesting. And much as I enjoyed hearing Hitchens in debate – his ‘later’ talk to the children at Prestonwood Academy was really quite inspiring (closing remarks here) – I do think there’s much more to be said about religion than what he did say.

    There’s an interesting essay by philosopher and author Stephen Cave in the Financial Times that’s worth a look. It’s based around de Botton’s book, ‘The Importance of Religion: Meaning and Action in our Strange World’, by Gavin Flood and ‘The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions’ by Alex Rosenberg.

    Martin, Eagleton’s review* itself is worth a look – I don’t know if you clicked through to it from the interview but you may especially enjoy it. There are people who seem to have a religious stance of sorts that seem to think the Mythos and ritual is enough (Karen Armstrong being one). But I don’t think that is how religion is for many people of faith. I think the religious person is rather bound to think you can’t ‘get’ much of the benefit without the ‘Logos’. Certainly some of the core comforts of religion do seem to require the holding of beliefs. Still I think the importance of the rituals and practices in people’s lives can be overlooked. And indeed that there may be things that can be learnt by the athiest from religion over and above those things which are best avoided.


  8. @Richard,

    With respect to…

    The dilemma we face is how to proceed when we can see that a belief is untrue, but also that it is can motivate people in useful ways.

    I understand many religions make statements that are irrational and not true, my simplistic attitude is to challenge that in a civil and charitable manner. However, in as much as Atheism is merely the non-belief in God(s), and in terms of the anti-real/real debate this is an anti-real assertion that can not be rendered by rationality as true/false, then surely all that can be said in the context of this post is, “what specific religious traditions and beliefs can we agree on as being useful and not demonstrably false.

    In actuality I think a great deal of some religious traditions and beliefs can be looked at in this manner – there is a common ground of the rationalist and fideist in the anti-real.

    I personally can not get my head around the intellectual integrity of adopting demonstrably false beliefs because of their efficacy in living a “satisfactory” life. Philosophy sure is the love of wisdom, even tough love wisdom.

  9. @Jim,

    Yes, I read the Guardian article and watched a very good presentation of Eagleton’s at the University of Edinburgh’s Gifford Lecture. A masterful performance of it’s type, see…

    Again yes there is benefit to the Mythos or Logos in its separate magisteria so to speak. But I think the union is more enlightening. You have to have faith in reason and a reasonable faith IMO (even as a reasonable atheist – you have faith in reason). As for Armstrong she is making recently a lot of cyberwaves in terms of the universal adoption of the Golden Rule/Categorical Imperative. I support this (with a bit of Virtue Ethics perhaps), and this is very much part of the Logos.


  10. Martin,

    Thank you for the links, I’ll take a look into Eagleton and Armstrong. Who knows, perhaps I’ll contact them at some point too? I think I might continue to focus on trying to solicit opinions from others (my own thinking and writing is pretty lousy these days) and I do like to hear from people of a different perspecive.

    The man of faith will indeed take the Mythos and Logos to more enlightening in unison of course. The relation between faith and reason seems a big topic. I don’t think anybody finds God through argumentation about first causes, or design or what have you. And whilst I think few would claim that the doctrines of their religion can all be reached by reason religious people do indeed try to show that their faith is reasonable, in accordance with science, or that reason can lead, or lend weight, to some religious conclusions.

    ‘You have to have faith in reason’. Even Descartes seemed to exempt the faculty of reasoning from the doubts that he raised – it seems doubt presupposes that there is a way to remove the doubt (Wittgenstein said something along these lines once I think). Faith in reason? In a sense maybe. I suppose I’m inclined to think of the ‘vindication’ defence of induction. The man stuck on the desert island can send a message in a bottle. He has no grounds to think this will definetly or probably help but if anything will work it will be that – there’s nothing else to try. One can raise many doubts about our abilities to reason but thorough skepticism about the power of reason seems to leave you in silence, wiggling your little finger. We do, of course, believe many things not susceptible of any proof. And science and reason cannot get off the ground without some assumptions.

    I think the strongest ‘Tu quoque’ the religionist can press against many atheists is the common belief in objective morality and the truth of moral statements. (I think the religionsist has his own problems to deal with as far as objective morality is concerned but that’s a different matter). It seems to me that moral statements can only be true – in the spirit in which they are actually expressed – if there are queer objectively prescriptive moral facts ‘out there’ but the naturalism to which many atheists subsrcibe, at least methodologically, suggests there are no such things at all.

    Btw Regarding your comment to Richard, obviously he can speak for himself on this but I don’t know that there is much advocacy for people to try and adopt false beliefs on account of it making their lives go better as such. Still there are, I think, issues that arise for a convinced atheist when it comes to dealing with people who do gain comfort from the beliefs the atheist takes to be false.The most strident of us would, one hopes, keep his mouth shut when grieving mothers or terminally ill people express their firm belief in an afterlife. Some might extend this principle further. Dawkins, of course, would take this all to be very patronising (perhaps some religious people might too) but sometimes one might take there to be values other than the promulgation of (what one takes to be) the truth.

  11. @Jim,

    Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. Wittgenstein might indeed be silent over what can not be expressed reasonably, i.e., the ending message of his early TLP work.

    But his later PI work can be seen as dropping that logical atomist/positivist hard edge, and accepting we can engage with the arational (neither rational or irrational) by language games. Not so much “games” as being false, but as in the necessary games that children play before maturing to adults with a fuller understanding (an understanding that can not be articulated until it arrives – echoing St Paul’s 1 Corinthians 13. See… ).

    The Atheist can look at the Theist and see games being played, games that are useful, indeed vital to the Theist. To belittle them is not just bad behavior, it is potentially to be confirmation bias blind to the games the Atheist might be seen to play with, e.g., objectivism or physical reductionism, and the axiomatic assumptions they are based on. They are the Mythos that is underpinned by the Logos we can not express rationally, but is nevertheless part of our humanity – and is not provable to be false.

  12. Martin,

    You have to have faith in reason.

    If you just mean that we’d be in trouble without some confidence in our ability to reason, then sure. But if you’re suggesting that there’s some epistemological equivalence between using reason and believing in God (or some other religious belief) then I disagree. We cannot sensibly argue for or against the use of reason in general, since to argue is to use reason. But we can sensibly argue for or against the existence of God.

    In principle it’s possible that reasoning doesn’t work and is giving us false beliefs. But as soon as I have that thought I’m reasoning, and so I’m thrown back on the question of whether I can trust my reasoning. We cannot sensibly reason about whether reasoning works, so we might as well forget it and move on. (But we can use some sorts of reasoning to scrutinise other sorts of reasoning.)

    I think we tend to get into this sort of pickle because we misunderstand the role of reasoning (making arguments) in forming our beliefs. Reasoning is a relatively recent development (in evolutionary terms) and sits on top of more basic and subconscious cognitive processes. Since reasoning is the cognitive process we’re conscious of, we have a tendency to overestimate its importance, and to see a belief as defective to the extent that it’s not argued for. That’s why we think we’ve discovered something significant when we realise we can’t give an argument for reasoning (or induction).

    But the reality is that most of the time we do a pretty good job of forming beliefs without reasoning (making arguments). It’s generally only on difficult or controversial matters that we start making arguments, and even then it’s often only to add weight to something we believed already. Arguments are useful, but they’re not essential to rational belief. Our unargued beliefs can be the result of very effective and well-functioning subconscious cognitive processes. Much of our everyday belief is of this sort, such as beliefs about the events we directly experience.

    But even reasoning involves subsconsious processes too. Most of our arguments are necessarily inductive, not deductive. They cannot take us all the way from premises to conclusions. Subconscious cognitive processes must get us across the gaps. Even our best scientific inductive arguments have unargued gaps. And even deductive arguments must at some level be produced and checked by fallible subconscious processes. So all our beliefs are ultimately based on fallible subconscious cognitive processes. No argument can give us an absolute guarantee that any belief is true. I think it’s much clearer to say that than to talk about “having faith”. Whatever we call it, all our beliefs are in the same boat in this respect. It has no special relevance to belief in God.

  13. @Richard,

    Again thanks for your thoughtful remarks. They bring to my mind two issues…

    a) I am sure you are familiar with Alvin Plantinga’s argument against naturalism (EAAN). Taking a point of view of the evolution of reason, and claiming that we must assume reason to be not subject to doubt (because to make a reasonable doubt invokes reason as being valid) puts us in a position of either doubting evolution or naturalism. If we agree that evolution is both analytically and empirically well supported as the best scientific theory for the diversity of the species and their faculties (as I do), then we must doubt naturalism. Thus Atheists that reason that all of the world’s phenomena can be fully explained by natural explanations, and need not invoke a supernatural God, are compromised/defeated. I have heard/read counter arguments that though we can not doubt reason, we must accept that it is fallible, and thus hold onto evolution and naturalism – but to me this is not reasonable (since the argument that reason is fallible is made by reason).

    b) I think there can be common ground between Atheists and Theists if they can come to a base level conception of God as the Logos – the source of reason, and the creative principle in the universe. We can argue that we can not argue against reason being valid (thus it is an absolute form), we can argue that the Universe (and/or Multiverse) could be a creation. I do not say it is a real and demonstrable creation, since to me it is an anti-real proposition, we can not get to a real true/false answer if it is, or it is not, a creation, i.e., we can not reasonably rule it out. Thus with such a possibility of agreeing that the Logos can be an acceptable definition of God. We can then deal with the Mythos, the traditions and theology of what this God implies to our lives, and how it may have acted in history.

    In the context of this blog, I think Atheists CAN adopt some of the positive benefits of Theists beliefs, AND maintain philosophical integrity, but IFF they can accept some common ground.

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  15. De Botton seems to me to conflate the concept of religion (rule-governing precepts, non-negotiable creeds, a systemised lifestyle) with spiritual or aesthetic uplift, aspiration, inspiration or insight unrelated to a guiding structure or higher power.

    Not having read De Botton’s book, but assimilated his comments in this and other interviews, it is obvious that he is drawn to religion in its strict sense of either conscientious adherence to a set of beliefs regarded as sacred, or “organisational forms” or rituals that keep minds focused on ideas beyond the self. It is in this sense that we describe any addiction to a particular rule-governed activity as a person’s ‘religion’. Without going into the psychology of dependence this exhibits, it is clear that there is something quite different going on from freely experienced uplift, or appreciation of a good idea.

    This is why, for me and other atheists who allow their spirits to ascend and aspire, religion must remain an alien word. De Botton names no religious concept (in the interview above) which merits “reverence”: those he lists as “sheer conceptual ambition” are simply human inventions and advances. The dangers he lists as possible consequences of living “without God” are indeed enshrined in the hearts of believers, and often voiced. But there is no evidence that rejecting mind-shackeling institutional belief is a necessary or sufficient cause of immorality or stunted spiritual awareness. (Can’t we find another word for spiritual?)

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  17. Hi there,
    I have just read the synopsis for the book, and I have to disagree. Your book says that religion allows people to show compassion to their fellow man, no matter what creed, colour, etc.. And yet some of the most brutal men known to man have been devout people who claimed to be fighting for their god. Look at the knights templars, they were betrayed by the catholic church after they built an empire that would in the end require the pope and the vatican to repay the money that they “borrowed” from them, so what did he do. He had them burned for supposedly worshipping daemonic dieties such as Baphomet.
    Saladin and his muslim hoard are another example. He was brutal in his battles and rarely left any christian survivers during the crusades, because he believed he was fighting for Allah. Hitler and his Aryan race, he believed in a pure race developed from a god, and he nearly achieved the mass genocide of the Jewish people. Modern day terrorists believe that they are killing infidels in the name of god, whilst the quran states that violence is a sin.
    Religion is madness that only develops anger and murder. We state that we fight for our god’s when in actuality we fight for greed, money and power. In the end the only people who win are the religious leaders.

  18. Hi Daniel,

    Which synopsis did you read? Can you quote from it?

    You say the book says that “religion allows people to show compassion to their fellow man, no matter what creed, colour, etc”

    Does it say religion can sometimes inspire compassion in this way or that religion always causes compassion?

    Do you think de Botton, unlike the rest of mankind, is unaware of the wars and atrocities carried out in the name of religion?

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