Hay 2012: Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists

‘I’ve been looking for wisdom,’ says Alain de Botton to a packed Barclays Pavilion – Hay-on-Wye’s equivalent of Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage. In all of de Botton’s work, there is this seeking impulse that mirrors that of religion; his central question is ‘How should we live?’ And yet, says de Botton, it ‘felt unnatural to seek wisdom in religion, because I’m an atheist.’

Nevertheless, this is his latest project. Religion for Atheists aims to ‘build bridges’ between the religious and secular worlds that de Botton feels have been polarised by what he calls, more than once and with more than a little air of disparagement, ‘the noise emanating from north Oxford’. For a thinker who has himself been accused of dilettantism and – by today’s audience – a rather ‘middle class liberal’ worldview, de Botton’s seeming denouncement of Richard Dawkins idea that somehow religion is ‘dangerous’ or ‘childish’ is about as abrasive as he gets.

There is a gentleness of style about de Botton in person that matches the undulating tone of his prose. His lecture addresses some monumental issues, but there is a lightness of touch that some might perceive as a lack of depth. Nevertheless, in sidestepping what he describes as a ‘boring question’ – ‘Does God exist?’ – de Botton opens up fruitful new territory. Even, perhaps especially, if you disagree with him, de Botton’s central exploration – ‘How do we live in a society comprised mainly of non-believers?’ – is a useful one.

Like Richard Holloway earlier in the week, de Botton is often captivated by the ‘beauty’ of some of what he calls religions’ ‘secondary stuff’. He has been accused of a ‘cafeteria’ or ‘buffet’ approach to religion – picking and choosing the bits he likes. But this is where he says, ‘the critics are absolutely right.’ This is exactly the approach he advocates: ‘Buddhism is very good on desire, Catholicism is very good on guilt.’ He pauses for people to laugh; one could choose to be unsure of how serious he is. But that’s the point about de Botton. He is earnest; he is serious. There are lots of hands up at the end, people itching to disagree; proof he has been engaging.

The speaker makes the analogy with culture in general, citing the parallels made by the likes of Matthew Arnold at the end of the nineteenth century. In literature, the arts and music, we adopt a pick and mix approach. We don’t only read Jane Austen; that would be preposterous. Why, argues de Botton, can we not take the same approach toward religion?

Like his own personal atheism – which de Botton admits is ‘as much down to how I feel in my heart as to anything else, like a believer’ – he leaves the negative aspects of religion at the door. Not because they do not exist – but instead precisely because we are all only too aware of them. Instead, he structures the lecture around the positive – and, he feels, neglected – aspects of religion, in the hope that secularists can learn something for their lives.

The primary touchstone is education, which in its loftier moments is claimed – even by workaday politicians – to be ‘bound up in the process of becoming fully human.’ He imagines the ‘coolness’ of academia being infused with the intensity of religion, the dispassionate lecture becoming akin to the impassioned oratory of the sermon, a flight of fancy that ends with de Botton imagining ‘our profs being taken down to Tennessee’ and thankful students muttering praise to the likes of Plato and Shakespeare at moments of high emotion in the teaching and learning process. ‘The difference between the religious and secular worlds,’ maintains de Botton, ‘is the level of urgency.’

Another thing religion is good at – what it reinforces in we humans – is memory. According to de Botton, our weakness of will is addressed by the way religions invade our calendars with their festivals and saint’s days, the way they govern our time. He cites a Buddhist preoccupation with the moon, and the way its vastness and mystery can calm our egos and preoccupations by revealing the ultimate triviality of our fears. Rituals in religion forge – or remind us of – a relationship between community and our private, inner selves; a connection de Botton believes is not made, or emphasised enough, in a secular world that leaves the self as a private sphere, none of anybody else’s business.

These kind of dichotomies are made effortlessly throughout, with the odd concession. The secular virtues of ‘a long, hot bath’ are brought into parallel with the universal fixation on water that is common to the world’s major faiths. Museums are in many ways ‘the new cathedrals’; we ascribe to them ‘redemptive consoling qualities… we speak in hushed tones… they are boring but perhaps a good kind of boring.’ Perhaps de Botton knows he is stretching a point when he says ‘We sometimes go on Sundays.’

His own hobby horses of art and architecture are touched upon too (de Botton wants to build a cathedral of atheism in London). Material beauty is a physical manifestation of goodness in religious thought, and there is certainly something in de Botton’s argument that ugly environments produce ugly human behaviours. ‘Only if the visual environment is right,’ he argues, ‘can we become better people. At the very least, his is an argument for aesthetics to be taken seriously.

De Botton then turns his attention to reclaiming religion’s stranglehold on the concept of the soul and co-opts both its organised nature – the parallel he draws here is with multinational corporations – and its inherent rootedness in the idea of community before concluding that ‘Religion in its best moments is far too useful and beautiful and profound and wise to be abandoned solely to those who actually believe in it.’ The short Q and A session that followed was lively and could easily have run and run. I certainly had questions – about the way religions were all lumped together as one (as if all ‘believers’, of whatever stripe, agree with one another!) and the glaring omission of Islam from the de Bottonian buffet. But then I suppose that’s the point. The debate about the role religion has to play in a secular society has moved on.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis