Alain de Botton is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a 'philosophy of everyday life.' He’s written bestselling books on love, travel, architecture and literature and also started Run-Riot favourite,The School of Life, dedicated to a new vision of education. Here he chats to us about Alain's latest book, Religion for Atheists.
KA: Your new book talks about 'religion for atheists' - did you have a religious upbringing? If so, when did you stop 'believing'?
AB: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.
KA:Do you think there are things we miss out on now we live in such a secular society?What can we learn from religions?
AB: 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.
KA: You founded The school of Life which hosts 'sermons' on everything from stress to relationships to money- do you think this has filled a gap in people's lives where they would once have sought advice from their priest or local religious leader?Has this responsibility now been passed on to intellectuals and academics?Is it safe in their hands?
AB:I believe that Culture can replace Scripture - that philosophy, art, photography, psychoanalysis, literature, history (the humanities in short) can do a lot of what religion does. However, at the moment, the way Culture is presented to us doesn't do the trick. For example, I am interested in the modern claim that we have now found a way to replace religion: with art. You sometimes hear people say, 'Museums are our new churches'. It's a nice idea, but it's not true, and it's principally not true because of the way that museums are laid out and present art. They prevent anyone from having an emotional relationship with the works on display. They encourage an academic interest, but prevent a more didactic and therapeutic kind of contact. I recommend in my book that even if we don't believe, we learn to use art (even secular art) as a resource for comfort, identification, guidance and edification, very much what religions do with art.
KA: Where do you think secular society draws its ethics and morals from?
AB: Much of modern moral thought has been transfixed by the idea that a collapse in belief must have irreparably damaged our capacity to build a convincing ethical framework for ourselves. But this argument, while apparently atheistic in nature, owes a strange, unwarranted debt to a religious mindset – for only if we truly believed at some level that God did exist, and that the foundations of morality were therefore in their essence supernatural, would the recognition of his nonexistence have any power to shake our moral principles. However, if we assume from the start that we of course made God up, then the argument rapidly breaks down into a tautology – for why would we bother to feel burdened by ethical doubt if we knew that the many rules ascribed to supernatural beings were actually only the work of our all-too human ancestors? The origins of religious ethics lie in the pragmatic need of our earliest communities to control their members' tendencies towards violence, and to foster in them contrary habits of harmony and forgiveness. Religious codes began as cautionary precepts, which were then projected into the sky and reflected back to earth in disembodied and majestic forms. Injunctions to be sympathetic or patient stemmed from an awareness that these were the qualities which could draw societies back from fragmentation and self-destruction. So vital were these rules to our survival that for thousands of years we did not dare to admit that we ourselves had formulated them, lest this expose them to critical scrutiny and irreverent handling. We had to pretend that morality came from the heavens in order to insulate it from our own prevarications and frailties. But if we can now own up to spiritualising our ethical laws, we have no cause to do away with the laws themselves. We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so. We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of Hell or the promise of Paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves – that is, the most mature and reasonable parts of us (seldom present in the midst of our crises and obsessions) – who want to lead the sort of lives which we once imagined supernatural beings demanded of us. An adequate evolution of morality from superstition to reason should mean recognising ourselves as the authors of our own moral commandments.
KA: Writers like Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman still manage to stir up a lot of controversy and ill feeling from religious communities towards atheists-is it time we had a poster boy for atheism who is more positive about some aspects of religion?Is that you?!
It is time. That is me...