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Welcome to the religious buffet

by
18 January 2012

In his new book, the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton argues that atheists should stop mocking religions and start stealing their best ideas. Martin Wroe asks him why

Shape-shifter: Alain de Botton wants to change atheists’ response to religion PHIL FISK

Shape-shifter: Alain de Botton wants to change atheists’ response to religion PHIL FISK

“THE most boring and unpro­ductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true,” Alain de Botton writes on the open­ing page of his new book Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion.

To save time, he suggests, “let us bluntly state that of course no religions are true in any God-given sense. This is a book for people who are unable to believe in miracles, spirits or tales of burning shrub­bery.” The real issue is “not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t”.

De Botton does not want to take the argument down the well-worn path taken by many contemporary atheists — looking for a dust-up with the believers, eager to disprove their faith with a knockout blow.

“There’s a tradition in England of authors’ pointing out how stupid religion is, often in quite rude terms,” he says. “But I always think, ‘Who’s this for?’ If you’re really religious, you’re not going to read that and have your faith disabused — your faith is going to be tougher than that — so you’re really preaching to the converted, and having a chuckle at those stupid people who happen to be religious. This really offends me. Even though I’m not religious, I can’t bear that sort of mockery.”

Sitting in the book-lined living room of the apartment in Belsize Park, north London, where he writes, de Botton says that this kind of “virulent atheism” is a genera­tional phenomenon. “It’s mostly men of perhaps the last generation in the UK to have experienced religion as a threat to their aspirations and way of life, who might have en­countered the most oppressive side of religion and whose most urgent need now is to say the whole thing is rubbish.”

Younger people — de Botton is 42 — do not have that attitude: “Either you believe or you don’t, but don’t squash people who do: let’s move away from that.”

It is this audience that he is after in Religion for Atheists — people who are open to adopting the wisdom of the religious traditions in search of a richer, more satisfying life, but conveniently strip out any embar­rassing hint of the “supernatural”.

FAR from attacking religion, atheists should be plundering it, he says. They should stop lamenting the ways in which it is scientifically implaus­ible, and start celebrating the ways in which it is psychologically helpful. Faith traditions are ripe with re­sources for living and organising society — bursting with insight into how to build community, strengthen relationships, appreciate art, over­come our feelings of inadequacy, and develop a rewarding narrative in the everyday blur.

Early Christianity helped itself to all the pagan practices it wanted; so latter-day atheism should return the compliment, he says. In short, people do not need to choose between swallowing strange doctrines or find­­ing consolation in beautiful rituals and ideas. Some people of faith will agree, but many more will find his argument profoundly in­furiat­ing.

“I agree, I agree,” he says, laughing. “This is going to be the number-one complaint, and it will come from both sides of the debate. The reli­gious will say: ‘Hang on a minute: you’re just picking at the buffet here; you’re hunting for the choicest cuts of meat, and you can’t do this.’

“And there’s not really an answer to it. If a Christian comes to this book and says: ‘Sign on the dotted line here and you’re a Christian or get off our patch,’ there’s not much for me to say. I don’t actually think it’s necessary, but I can see where they’re coming from.’’

He is expecting worse flak from atheists: “They’ll say, ‘Look, if you’re an atheist, stop messing around with this religion stuff: the whole thing is revolting. Be a rational human being.’”

BUT religion, his argument goes, is too important to be left to the religious. The discoveries of the faith traditions must be unhitched from their supernatural moorings, so that everyone else can use them to stay afloat on life’s choppy waters. “The wisdom of the faiths”, he writes, “be­longs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest en­emies.”

There is little that is more ir­ritating to specialist narrowcasters — say, in architecture, travel, or philo­sophy — than generalist broad­casters such as de Botton who leap with populist ease from one field to another. But if Religion for Atheists might irk those whose Mastermind specialist subject is their own faith, others will find it surprisingly illum­inating.

In a lucid and friendly outsider’s perspective on the personal and corporate wiles of the religious, de Botton underlines multiple ex­amples of how the way people of faith live is good for both their soul and their society.

It is not in predictable ways only that religious practice and ritual show us how to promote kindness, or strengthen community. There are less likely instances, from informing the design of hotels and spas to reorganising museums, learning more effectively, and recognising the power of institutions.

In the sphere of education, for example, he contrasts a dry podium-lecture in a university humanities department with the vibrant call-and-response oratorical tradition of African-American preachers. “How much more expansive the scope of meaning in Montaigne’s essays would seem if a 100-strong and transported chorus were to voice its approval after every sentence.”

OF THE human need for “per­spective”, he says that daily prayer or weekly festivals offer “regular sou­venirs of the transcendent”, while secular society fails imaginatively to harness scientific understanding. But it could.

“What if, after the main news bulletin and before the celebrity quiz, we might observe a moment of silence in order to contemplate the 200 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy?” he writes. “Whatever their value may be to science, the stars are in the end no less valuable to man­kind as solutions to our megalo­mania, self-pity and anxiety.”

When it comes to architecture, he asks why we should let the small matter of no longer believing in a Supreme Being get in the way of creating new kinds of temples. If the grandeur and beauty of church buildings can “induce us to sur­render our egoism without in any way humiliating us”, why can’t non-religious sacred buildings harness science “for its therapeutic, perspective-giving capacity rather than its factual value”?

The mass, he points out, was a meal before it was a service: “Christians understood that it is when we satiate our bodily hunger that we are often readiest to direct our minds to the needs of others.”

In contrast, while modern secular society venerates food and dining, our restaurants are rarely “venues which help us transform strangers into friends. . . The focus is on the food and the décor, never on oppor­tunities for extending and deepening affections.”

Secular society should steal reli­gion’s secret, and imagine an ideal “Agape Restaurant”, where, for a modest fee, the seating arrangements intentionally break up social and ethnic groups, and “guests would — as in a church — be signalling their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.”

AT TIMES, de Botton is so caught up in his holy vision of a secular paradise that he is possessed by evangelistic fervour. “In the lonely canyons of the modern city,” he preaches in the book, “there is no more honoured emotion than love. However this is not the love of which religions speak, not the expansive universal brotherhood of mankind. . . . it is a romantic love which sends us on a maniacal quest for a single person . . . who will spare us any need for people in general.”

But if some of his dreams and visions seem less spirit-filled and more hallucinogenic — Piccadilly Circus lit up by electronic billboards that remind us of our capacity for “COMPASSION”, for instance — no one can accuse him of idle specula­tion. In 2008, he co-founded the School of Life, and addressed a post-God audience from a small London shop with “good ideas for everyday living”, from philosophy and liter­ature to psychology and the arts.

The monthly “Sunday Sermon” attracts 400 post-church 30- and 40-somethings where the “service” can feature communal singing of an uplifting pop classic, the Devil himself showing you to your seat, and the breaking of home-made cake. The formal launch of his book takes the form of a School of Life Sunday Sermon, this Sunday (al­ready sold out).

The experience hints at the “reli­gion of humanity”, a term coined by the 19th-century French sociologist Auguste Comte, who envisaged an order of 100,000 secular priests working in the com­munity, in the way that psychotherapists do today.

“I’m inspired that [Comte] had a go,” de Botton says, but denies that he is trying to imitate him. He recalls Matthew Arnold from the same era, imagining the sea of faith disappear­ing over the horizon for the last time, and proposing that culture replace religion to satisfy our existential needs.

“It’s a good answer, but it’s been forgotten,” de Botton says. “Now, if you say, ‘I’m reading literature to save my life,’ people will think you’re insane. If you say, ‘I’m not reading Jane Austen to have fun but to learn how to live,’ people will say, ‘Wow! That’s a bit heavy,’ but that’s the way it should be done, and precisely the way that the School of Life tries to do. It is a vision that culture could replace scripture.”

ALL of this can suggest a pretty functional approach to aesthetics, the kind of art-as-propaganda model for which people of faith have long been derided.

“I love that function,” he counters. “What’s wrong with that function? Some people attack it on the basis that this means the art is bad, to which my answer is, ‘What about Titian?’

“In other words, you can have a very simple function for art — to make you good, to remind you of Jesus, to make you kind — almost like a slogan, but the art can be really complicated, and really technically accomplished. It doesn’t demean the art to have quite simple purposes for it, whereas if you go to the Tate, something is good and serious if it is opaque, if it is mysterious. I don’t buy that.”

Our modern disdain for any kind of guidance helps to explain why art and literature are treated non-didactically, he says. “We say you don’t read Shakespeare for answers, but I like religion which says: ‘No, all of us are desperate: we are reaching out for something.’ Now, I may not agree with the solution, but I like the model of desperation and the need for guidance.”

The trouble is, he admits, “if you don’t believe in religion, you tend to be left with art, and today that tends to be consumed very privately — me and my volume of poetry.” In con­trast, religion is usually “communal and organisational”.

But doesn’t the practice of religion develop with its beliefs, the spirit with the machine? Can you rip the ritual from the mystery and still expect to find the magic? He says, for example, that religions are like good hosts at a party, introducing strangers to each other, and that society needs such hosts to be healthy. But doesn’t that depend on the idea of a divine call to reach out to the other?

“Some people might say that is dependent on an idea of God, but I don’t think that’s true. I think you can do it even without God. You just need an excuse in order to bring out that social responsibility.”

HE ADMIRES the way in which religions invite adherents to model themselves on others — but is that because, for example, Christians think that imitating Christ is imitat­ing the divine?

“It is fascinating to look at Christianity and see that, as a Christian, you should be modelling your life on Christ. Now this is very impious, but, without a particular interest in Christ, I love the idea of modelling your life on someone — a fantastic idea. Why not? We all need models; so pick a good one, and your life will improve.”

Coming from a resolutely secular Jewish family, how are his findings helping him to practise an atheist religion himself? He mentions a recent holiday in Tenerife, informed by a fresh understanding of the way in which, as religion tells us, “jour­neys can cement change.” Studying reli­gion has made him realise that “I need community quite badly. I need guidance quite badly.”

He has deep conversations with “a couple of friends who are theo­logians”. Religious people have “the right categories in their mind. Religion has ploughed the right furrows; so they will understand a concept like transcendence.”

But, at the end of the evening, although there is a great deal on which he and his friends agree, “there’s a moment when we realise they are going down this route, and I am going down a different one. I suppose I’m insulted on Christians’ behalf. I say, ‘Listen, guys: we’ve had a great evening, but I’m out of here, because this is not really where I belong.’”

His studious manner and mis­sion­ary vocation suggest that there is a touch of the Anglican priest about de Botton. Surely he can see himself ending up as a clergyman? When the School or Life mounts a reverse takeover of the Church of England, perhaps? He thinks not. For all their useful beliefs and practices, ultim­ately even Anglicans believe too many impossible things before break­fast.

“Christianity is a religion with a particular set of doctrines,” he says. “A community which can make friends with all sorts of people, but, while I’m sympathetic, and concur with all sorts of things, I’d be sur­prised if I ever belonged in the Church.”

Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99 (CT Bookshop £17.09); 978-0-241-14477-0).

www.theschooloflife.com

www.theschooloflife.com

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