Religion for atheists?

Alain de Botton: Organized religion fulfills important role, but it’s important to get mumbo-jumbo out of the way.

Alain de Botton 370 (photo credit: Vincent Starr)
Alain de Botton 370
(photo credit: Vincent Starr)
Alain de Botton’s greatest asset as a public intellectual figure – and quite possibly his greatest vulnerability in an age in which people have become skilled at the art of saying nothing at great length – is his ability to express himself clearly. Take the first page of his most recent book, Religion for Atheists, for example. “Attempting to prove the non-existence of God can be an entertaining activity for atheists,” he writes. “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.”
But clearly there must be something in the social function and structure of organized religion that he finds… well, let’s say inspiring. After all, he has devoted a book to the subject. From the beginning of our telephone conversation, de Botton makes it clear that he has no personal capacity for belief in a supreme being, benevolent or otherwise.
“That is not possible for me,” he says simply. But Religion for Atheists hints at the possibility of, if not rapprochement, then certainly the sense that the practice of organized religion should not be dismissed wholesale.
In his book, he argues that even if God is bunk – to put it bluntly – there is much that society at large can take from the practice of organized religion. Organized religion fulfills an important social and cultural function; this is something to be emulated rather than dismissed. But it’s important to get the mumbo-jumbo out of the way first.
“Most people come to belief not through rational means but a mixture of history and prejudice and accident. One grows into a religious disposition,” de Botton proposes. “Nevertheless, as an atheist, I have grown more and more curious as to the practice of religion and I’m interested in importing some of these, separating them from the natural doctrines and importing them into the secular world.”
Religion for Atheists is not a book about religion per se; it is much more concerned with secularism – specifically, the vigorous, at times militant secularism that defines the modern age, leading proponents of which include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. De Botton does share ground with these writers and thinkers, but differs when it comes to the certainty of their position. “I think basically that they think that secularism is fine, that there is nothing missing from the secular world and that science has all the answers,” he observes.
One of the hallmarks of modern secularism, de Botton observes in his book, is the belief that science is the panacea to all the woes of our age, that the answers are there if one simply looks hard enough.
This optimism, he feels, is mistaken.
“I am less confident. I see loneliness, I see conflict, I see ethical debate, and I see that we are not doing so very well,” he says. Science and secularity don’t seem equipped to answer all the big questions. “I suppose the fundamentals of life are dark… we’re mortal, we’re going to watch people we love die, we don’t always get along with one another.
There is a lot of area for fulfillment, and that is my question: where does that go in a secular world?”
It is in this, de Botton thinks, that religion can play a useful function. “There is a strain in all the major faiths – Catholic pessimism, Jewish pessimism, Buddhist pessimism – that is very appealing in its clear-eyed view of the kind of mess that human beings get themselves into,” he says. “It is something that is slightly missing from the secular world.”
Religion for Atheists is sharp and precise in its diagnosis. Secular institutions – the repositories of our intellectual and social capital – are failing the people in that they no longer seem able to prepare and guide us for the road ahead. Universities and museums are preoccupied with the form rather than the substance; cold and unresponsive, they no longer serve as a place for contemplation of the human condition or inspiration on how best to live our lives.
“While universities have achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual information about culture, they remain wholly uninterested in training students to use it as a repertoire of wisdom,” he writes. The irony is that these institutions – the supposed custodians of our culture – rose precisely because the religious institutions that once fulfilled this function had begun to fail in this task. And to become relevant once more, secular institutions could do much worse than to think about the role that religion once played in human discourse and to learn from where it got it right – and where it got it wrong. Religion for Atheists is at its strongest when it explores the anthropological underpinnings of religion – community, knowledge, reassurance, wisdom – and why secular institutions must seek to emulate these.
De Botton stands out among his intellectual peers in the United Kingdom in that he, quite deliberately, sets out in his work to bridge the gap between intellectual ideas and everyday life. He has in the past written best-sellers on Proust, status anxiety, architecture and happiness, and the relevance of philosophy in everyday life. More recently – and in line with the thinking espoused in Religion for Atheists – de Botton co-founded the School of Life, a cultural enterprise based in central London intended to “offer instruction in how to live a fulfilled life.”
“What the School of Life does – in line with what religions do – is offer wisdom. Wisdom is a kind of curious quality because as a society, we don’t transmit wisdom,” de Botton suggests.
“The notion of how one should live is held to be a private one that at best can only be found in a self-help book. And the assumption, the dominant assumption, is that only stupid people read self-help books and that most of us should be able to get through life without guidance.”
And perhaps this is where de Botton runs into trouble. Proposals for thought can be mistaken for prescriptions for thinking; a fluid communicator, his easy manner – both in speech and in writing – can sometimes be mistaken for intellectual arrogance. Indeed, one senses that the author is frustrated that people do not see things as clearly as he does.
I wonder aloud whether, perhaps, people are happy to muddle through life without having questions asked or solutions prescribed on their behalf.
De Botton sighs. “Look, I think it is a lovely dream to be able to say, ‘Let’s not ask any questions.’ I’m not talking about the grand questions that professors of philosophy ask themselves that survey the landscape of all human knowledge. I’m thinking about the questions that you can’t get away from: How do I make a relationship work, how do I bring up children, how do I deal with money, how do I face up to death?”
These are the building blocks of life, he believes; it is through these questions that we can hope to live more fulfilled lives. “The question is not, ‘Can I avoid these questions,’ but ‘Can I answer them better or worse?’ And I guess the presumption is that with some practice, with some thought, with some support, we might be able to get a little bit better at answering some of them. This is the modest presumption,” he assesses.
De Botton has acknowledged in the past an occasionally prickly relationship with his father, Gilbert de Botton, an Egyptian-Jewish émigré who transcended humble beginnings to found a successful asset management firm. He mentions his father occasionally in Religion for Atheists, and at times the treatise reads like a finely calibrated argument against his father’s muscular form of secularism.
“I think many atheists, my father included, tend to assume that religious people are simply stupid, whereas I’d prefer to think [of this] as a kind of vulnerability,” he says.
“What takes us to religion is a sense of being unable to cope, a powerlessness, and surrendering to higher forces; this seemed to be missing from the analysis of my father...” He pauses for a moment, “…And also Richard Dawkins. They’re rather interchangeable, in intellectual positions.”
De Botton has two sons. I’m curious about how he addresses the question of religion with them.
“The way we talk about it is in a very naturalistic sense,” he says. “Where religion came from, the primitive origins of man, man’s first attempt to work out how to live together, how to explain the world. And I explain religion to them as man’s attempt to deal with these fears and to deal with the challenge of living together in communities.
I think that’s how I teach religion to my children.”
And how do they respond to this? “They dutifully follow what I am suggesting to them,” de Botton replies dryly. “They’re only five and seven, so they may very well come to their own different point of view in time. And that’s absolutely fine.”