Alain de Botton
A School of Life for Atheists
September 29, 2016
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: “Religion for atheists” — that’s Alain de Botton’s prescription for people who don’t believe but may respect and miss experiences of faith. This cradle-atheist is dissatisfied with popular dismissals of religion, and he’s giving voice to a new way. He says that the most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true. But how to live, how to die, what is good, and what is bad — these are questions religion has sophisticated ways of addressing. And he feels that secular society has emptied public spaces of religious messaging, only to fill them with commercial proselytizing that may impoverish us morally. And so Alain de Botton has created something called The School of Life, where people young and old explore ritual, community, beauty, and wisdom.
MR. ALAIN DE BOTTON: I fervently believe that in the next 100-200 years, we will start to evolve ways of living a life where we don’t believe that is much more sophisticated that the non-believing life we currently have on offer at the moment.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: Alain de Botton is well-known on both sides of the Atlantic for his previous books, How Proust can Change your Life, Status Anxiety, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. A Swiss citizen at home in the U.K., he’s also something of a renaissance man — a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He published his first novel, On Love, when he was only 23 in 1993. I interviewed him in 2012. Alain de Botton was born in Zurich of a wealthy banking family.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s interesting to read you were raised, as you often say, in a devoutly atheist family. Is it right that your father was from an immigrant Jewish community in Egypt?
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right, exactly. He was. But my parents — we grew up in a very secular atmosphere, of a kind that very few people in history have enjoyed or had childhoods as secular as mine. It’s a very modern phenomenon. I never went to a religious school. I didn’t come across any religious education. There was no religion at home. Religion was happening very far away; it was just not within my sphere of reference.
And I think they were rejecting what they saw as the traumas of religion that had led the Jewish people to enormous suffering in the 20th century. And I think they were people who looked to a kind of secular modernity based around science and progress. They were, in a sense, very kind of mid-20th century people who wanted an end to the bloodshed, the pain, the suffering that they saw religion as having caused and wanted to move away from it all.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And then you’ve written that in your mid-20s, you had what you called a crisis of faithlessness. [laughs] Tell me about that.
MR. DE BOTTON: Well, as I say, I grew up with this idea that religion was not only wrong, but also stupid, silly, ridiculous, something for other people. And then as I left home and started making my way in the world, I started discovering — and this was slightly a worrying discovery — that there were lots of things tangentially associated with religion that were quite nice. I rather liked religious architecture, something very beautiful about religious music. Many great works of art were religious in tone, and yet, that didn’t seem to stop me getting a lot from them.
So that’s where my, as I say, crisis of faithlessness came about. I began to realize that religion, for all its flaws, and for all its faults, and all its excesses, had some high points that were incredibly interesting, fascinating, beautiful, inspiring. And it took me a while to square this with my atheism, the fact that I’m not a believer.
MS. TIPPETT: So, the very first line of Religion for Atheists, I think, is a really important framing statement and an unusual statement in the West, even though it’s very simple, that “the most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true.”
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right. You see, because it seems to me that most debates on religion currently center around the existence or nonexistence of God. And I’ve sat in on many of these debates, and they are, frankly, boring, not because they’re not touching on a very important issue; it is important. They’re boring because no one ever makes any headway because the atheists look at the religious and think that they’re stupid, and the religious look at the atheists and think they’re damned. And both sides are fiercely entrenched. The argument about whether God does or doesn’t exist is, I think, ultimately one where most individuals are not rationally aware of their reasons for believing in what they believe.
MS. TIPPETT: On both sides of the issue?
MR. DE BOTTON: On both sides, on both sides. I think we grow into a position on religion. It’s a little bit like our views of attraction. We discover that we’re attracted to certain people, certain gender, certain times. We don’t sit down and think, “Well…”
MS. TIPPETT: It’s beyond rationality.
MR. DE BOTTON:: Exactly. It’s slightly beyond rationality. And yet, both sides insist that it is something they can convince through argument another person about, and I think this is simply not true.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, another important observation that you made as you then began to — it seems to me — ponder and take seriously what you appreciated that religion had brought into the world. And it was art and architecture but also concerns, practical skills for life, vocabulary. You also became aware or are aware that Christianity, in particular, was just this dominant force in Western Europe and in the United States, had no qualms at its origins about co-opting the best of pagan society when it was creating its cultures.
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right. There’s a paradox that often people who don’t particularly believe will sometimes be drawn to ideas, or emotions, or activities, and then they might say, “Oh, that seems a bit too religious,” and they might draw back from it. Particularly, for example, the teaching of ethics, or a moral code, or even certain kinds of ritual. These things can seem, to people who don’t believe, a little bit too religious. And then what’s fascinating is, if you look at the history of religions, religions, of course, hoover up. They suck in all kinds of concepts and ideas…
MS. TIPPETT: From the culture around them.
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right — from the culture around them. And religions have always done this. And so I suppose what I’m arguing for is a kind of reverse colonization.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]
MR. DE BOTTON: In the same way that Christianity colonized the pagan world absorbing its best elements, so I’m arguing that non-believers today can do a little bit of this with religion just as religion did it with them. Because a lot of what we find in Christianity comes, of course, from Greek philosophy. Even the concept of monasticism was taken from the Epicurean philosophical communities that existed in the Mediterranean world. So an awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments, are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. So let’s talk specifically about some of these aspects of religious tradition, religious communities, that you feel are repositories of wisdom for, as you say, all of humanity, including non-believers. And you used the word “moral” just a second ago, and the phrase you used is a “moral atmosphere,” “intentional moral atmospheres.” You’ve said atheists overlook secular society’s powerful and continuous calls to prayer.
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes. I suppose what I’m arguing for is something quite simple which is the importance of trying to be good and trying to be kind. Now let me stress right away that I don’t think religions have a monopoly on this at all, and it’s entirely possible to be good and kind and believe in nothing. I know this is a point that is extremely fraught in the United States, where atheists are regularly accused of being immoral, and I think that is absolutely wrong. There’s no reason why a nonbeliever…
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t even know if the discussion gets that far, usually. It may be an assumption. I don’t think it’s a very examined assumption.
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes, yes. Anyway, what religions do which is rather interesting is they recognize that we need to have constant public reminders of all this stuff about being good and kind that all of us probably sign up to in theory but forget about in practice. And this is a real contrast to the secular world, which basically says public space must be neutral. There must be no messages reaching people because that might be an infringement of freedom, to which I say, OK, that’s all very well, but the point is, firstly, public space is not neutral because it’s dominated…
MS. TIPPETT: There are all kinds of messages reaching us all the time.
MR. DE BOTTON: It’s dominated by messages, most of which are commercial messages. So we don’t live in the kind of completely neutral public space that’s often fantasized about by secular defenders of a kind of neutral liberalism. We are actually assaulted by commercial messages. So religions want to assault us with other messages, messages to be kind and to be good and to forgive and all these things. And they know that having a feeling of being observed, having a public space that is colored by moral atmosphere, all of this can help. I don’t know. This intrigues and attracts me.
MS. TIPPETT: And the idea that we are rational creatures or could become rational creatures living in a rationally-run world was really a fundamental assumption that emerged in — well, certainly in the course of the 20th century. A lot of evidence to the contrary, but those of us, I think, who grew up in the latter part of the 20th century, there was this aspiration. I mean, that is kind of a bedrock of secular society as we inherited it.
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes, and I think along with that, what’s wrong with that? I think it’s simply too mature. It’s too reasonable. We’re all a little bit crazier than that. I think it’s kind of cruel to deny this aspect. You find this a lot in education. The modern secular education system is based on the idea that life is essentially a kind of fairly easy process to get through, so you need to teach people certain skills for the modern economy like accountancy and microbiology and all this sort of stuff. But what you don’t need to teach them is how to live because how to live is fairly obvious. All you need to do is separate yourself from your parents, and bring up some children maybe, and find a job you like, deal with mortality…
MS. TIPPETT: All those really easy things. [laughs]
MR. DE BOTTON: All those really easy things — and then confront your own death, and it’s just really simple. You don’t need guidance.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.
MR. DE BOTTON: So you’re supposed to know this stuff. And my question is, “How?” I don’t know this stuff. And the fascinating starting point of religions, all religions, is they start from the idea that we don’t know how to live, and so that’s why they need to teach us wisdom.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, you use words like religion’s clear-eyed and unsentimental assessment of the human condition. I have to say, as somebody who’s studied theology, I think this is an undervalued aspect of theology in Western culture in general, even among religious people, that there is this long tradition of deep thinking and wrestling with the complexity of the human condition as much as in there about the nature of God.
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right. I mean, religions are sometimes mistaken for being very optimistic, almost naive, childlike in their belief in our next world, and everything being fine, and God’s providence, and so on. But actually, you’re absolutely right. If you look at religious tradition in history, there’s many, many thinkers who are deeply clear-eyed, if not very pessimistic, about human nature in a way that strikes secular ears as a bit surprising, but I think, actually, a real relief because sometimes the modern world is really optimistic. The view is everything can be perfected by science and technology, and we’re soon going to be perfect creatures.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I have to read these lines from Religion for Atheists. You talked about secular society and said, “With no evident awareness of the contradictions, they may, in the same breath, gruffly dismiss a belief in angels while sincerely trusting in the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley, and democratic politics could together cure the ills of mankind.” [laughs]
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right. [laughs] That’s right. Whereas religions know — I mean, take the Catholic idea — and I speak as a convinced atheist — the Catholic idea of original sin, fascinating idea, beautiful idea, starts from the notion that the human animal is crooked. We are slightly wrong and imperfectable. The only perfectible creature out there is divine. That is the source of perfection. The human animal is a mixture of the divine and the not divine. And so, in other words, perfectibility is not in our nature, and we shouldn’t aim for it. Now this could seem a bit dark and pessimistic, but imagine trying to have a relationship with someone who thinks that perfectibility is within their grasp, someone young, good-looking.
MS. TIPPETT: Exhausting. [laughs]
MR. DE BOTTON: Very optimistic, who thinks, “I’m going to get together with another similarly perfect being, and we can have a fantastic, terrific time.” I mean, watch out for the divorce lawyers and the alarm bells. That’s not going to work. Whereas if two people come together and go, “Look, I’m a little nuts, and you’re probably a little nuts too ’cause you’re human. But we’re going to try and make a go of it against the deep backdrop of human fallibility,” I’d give that relationship much more of a vote because it’s going to be based on reality.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, even to bring this to another level, I couldn’t help thinking as I was reading you about the economic crisis we’re in, both in Europe and the United States, where we had lived with this vision of eternal progress, this upward arc that would never end — but what economists are now — this supposedly rational discipline — we turned it into a rational discipline — what they hadn’t factored in and are now factoring in is fickleness and flaws and weakness of human nature.
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right, that’s right. And so a little kind of stoic realism can be very, very helpful. Also, talking about economic crisis, the other thing that religions have done fascinatingly throughout their history is to make a distinction between earthly power and virtue. In other words, you could be very rich and very powerful, but your heart may not be good.
MS. TIPPETT: That those are two different strivings and pieces of work.
MR. DE BOTTON: Absolutely. We have an echo of it when we ask of people — if somebody says so-and-so is really rich and successful, the second question we might ask is, “But are they nice?” Now, that’s a Christian question in its origins in the West, I would argue. In other words, there is a distinction between power and goodness. And the fact that we have such a distinction still in our culture is down to religion. Now, you don’t have to believe in heaven to know that that’s a very good distinction to have in your culture. It gives people a capacity to be so-called successful on different registers, and that provides huge mental breathing space, especially at times like these.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, and there are different scales for defining a life of dignity.
MR. DE BOTTON: Exactly, exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: And I mean, it’s interesting. A couple of other things that you — very religious features of traditions that you also say that atheists and secular society could learn from — something like the Day of Atonement in Judaism or the tradition of saints in Roman Catholicism.
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, taking those two, the Day of Atonement, a fascinating moment in the calendar in Judaism where people essentially say sorry to each other. And they say sorry against the backdrop of a God who doesn’t make mistakes, but humans who do. You are given license, encouragement, structure to do something which would be mightily hard if you were left to do it on your own, like, as I say, saying sorry. It’s much easier to say sorry if everybody is doing it on a particular day because then there’s a sort of cycle of mutual apology and forgiveness which makes the whole thing much more normal.
We’re very suspicious of ritual in the non-believing world. We think that there shouldn’t really be rituals, that private life should have its own rhythms, and that no one should come in from the outside and say, “Today we’re going to say sorry, and next week we’re going to worship spring, and the day after we’re going to think about the qualities of humility in a saint,” or something. The idea is you should do all this on your own in private. And I’m coming around to the view that that’s nice in theory, but the problem is we’ll never get around to it.
[music: “Warm Spell” by Maple Mountain Sunburst Triolian Orchestra]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, Religion for Atheists. Alain de Botton has written a book with that title, and he founded The School of Life in 2008. It’s part community, part educational center. People of all ages sign up and pay to experience courses, workshops, and talks on meaning and wisdom for modern lives. The school now has over 10 branches internationally and a YouTube channel with more than a million subscribers.
[music: “Warm Spell” by Maple Mountain Sunburst Triolian Orchestra]
MS. TIPPETT: So, interestingly, you have created an organization, a community, I think you would say, The School of Life?
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: Right? Where you are actually putting some of this into effect. I don’t know that much about how it works. I mean, I’ve looked at the website, so I’d like to hear about what happens there. Who comes, and how does it function?
MR. DE BOTTON: Well, this thing called The School of Life does pick up on a number of ideas that I had. First of all, it picks up on the idea that we need guidance, that learning how to live is not something we just do spontaneously. Where do we turn to? There are actually surprisingly not that many places. So the idea came to me to start an institution.
And every evening, we’ve got classes in the great challenges of life: mortality, children, divorce, marriage, money, poverty, success. All the things that are likely to trouble people, we discuss in communal settings. It’s both academically rigorous but very human. And people meet each other. We introduce people to each other. So that’s what the school does. We introduce people, and we talk about these great problems.
One of the things that this is about is organizing one’s self because religions are, we say, organized. They are organized religions. In other words, the groups of people who get together and go, “Look, we’re not going to be able to do it all on our own. We’re going to get into a team, and that way, what we have to say will get a little bit more traction.“
MS. TIPPETT: So I’ve read a journalist account of coming to The School of Life, and it was really interesting. They described it as a place of play and whimsy and big talk, that it’s warm and stylish and serious. I mean, I have to say, I watched a bit online and I watched a sermon that you gave — and that is a word you use, that some of these talks are called “sermons.” The video I watched — there were a lot of people there that looked like people of all ages and a lot of young people, and they were singing “Jerusalem,” this great classic hymn which is at once deeply Christian and deeply British.
[audio of chorus singing “Jerusalem” at The School of Life]
MR. DE BOTTON: One could say, “What on earth is going on?”
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Exactly.
MR. DE BOTTON: But of course, when you talk to people who don’t believe, one of the things they often say is, “Such a pity because the music’s fantastic, and the singing is great, and I love to have a cup of tea at the end and chat to neighbors, and all the rest of it.” That’s what people love often more than the actual liturgy, to which my response is, “OK, well, look, if you like all this stuff, let’s have some of this stuff in our lives.”
So we’ve had terrific success by hosting what we’re calling secular sermons. Why are we calling them sermons? It’s to try and suggest that listening to them is not simply going to be an intellectual exercise, fascinating little bit of knowledge, a way to show off to friends about new stuff you’ve learned. It’s actually going to be something that will hope to steer how you live. So it’s didactic. It’s explicitly moralistic, not in a kind of starched, Victorian way, but in the best possible sense. It exhorts you to a kind of better, fuller life. And why not? Why should these really quite nice maneuvers only be the preserve of religion? As I say, they really are for all of us.
MS. TIPPETT: In your writing, you also often pull out pieces of liturgy, words that are explicitly religious. And The Book of Common Prayer in Britain is also a beautiful example of taking religious ideas and turning them into beautiful language. You wrote, “Strangers gaze up at the vaulted, star-studded ceiling, rehearse in union the words ’Lord, come, live in your people and strengthen them by your grace.’” So, I mean, even words like that — do you feel that those have a meaning for a secular people, and that you feel that you retain your intellectual integrity by offering them?
MR. DE BOTTON: Sure, sure. Because I proceed as a kind of an anthropologist or psychologist, and my immediate thought is, “OK, what’s going on here? Why is this quite nice? Why is this kind of sonorous ancient language rather nice?” I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment. We get so stressed. We get so confused. We get so overwhelmed by the kind of people around us, what’s in our diaries, what’s going on right now.
And then once a week or more or less, you can go to a religious institution, be it a mosque, a synagogue, a church, and you can step outside of the ordinary, and you can be brought into contact with very, very old things or very vast things, things that are much greater, deeper, more mysterious than ordinary life. And suddenly, that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to be made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.
MS. TIPPETT: You’re part of something larger than yourself.
MR. DE BOTTON: Exactly. And that’s why the average cathedral works really well, even if you don’t believe in any of the liturgy. Because what’s happening in that space is that your eyes rise up to the ceiling, and you think, “Oh, I’m a tiny thing in this vast, rather beautiful, rather fascinating, mysterious universe.” And suddenly the argument you were having with X or Y seems no longer so significant.
MS. TIPPETT: You, as you said, have an unusually pure trajectory as somebody who was raised with no religion, and you’ve never been a traditionally religious person even for a little while. So you’ve never had the precise experience that a religious person has in that kind of community and worship. I do suspect that some would argue that, even with all these component parts that we’ve identified in others that make religion work and powerful, that still, believers would feel that there is this transcendent, cohesive force that is larger than the sum of all of those qualities. How do you respond to that? Or how do you think about that?
MR. DE BOTTON: Absolutely. Well, some people have said, “Look, it’s all very well. You’re looking at all these different sides of religion. You’re picking a bit from here and a bit from there. But the point is, if you are a religious person, you can’t simply do this because it’s all secondary to something much larger, which is a belief in a particular God and in a particular vision of divinity.”
To which I can only say, “Look, I am an atheist. In other words, I’ve not had this feeling. I don’t know what this feeling is. It’s not working for me. I can’t see it, can’t feel it. All I can report is that many of these bits of religion do impact me greatly. I don’t know what it would be like to be part of a community and actually believe or to look at religious art and actually believe in it,” et cetera. All I can report is that, as a nonbeliever, these things are pretty powerful as well, which has upset certain religious people who will say things like, “How can you say that you really like the frescoes of Giotto, but you’re leaving the Resurrection aside, or that you love St. Augustine’s vision of the city of God, but you’re going to leave aside the Trinity?”
MS. TIPPETT: God. Right.
MR. DE BOTTON: Yeah, you’re going to leave aside the Trinity or something, to which I would say I think it is possible. I can understand that it would seem insulting to a believer. I don’t mean to be insulting in any way. But, look, if I was different, I would be a believer, is all I can say. I can only speak from a non-believing position.
[music: “Ether” by Dekko]
MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share my conversation with Alain de Botton at onbeing.org. Here’s a way he applied his cultural and philosophical lens at the Google-run Zeitgeist conference in London. The problem of modern love is one of his favorite topics, and it’s the theme of his novel The Course of Love.
MR. DE BOTTON: Romanticism tells us that all of us have a soulmate out there, and it’s our task to identify the soulmate. When we meet the soulmate, we will feel a very special feeling and a kind of instinctive attraction to them, and we will know they are our destiny. We might be in a bar, in a nightclub, in a train. We will have that special feeling. And then we’ll call up our friends, we’ll go, “I’ve had that special feeling at last.” “That’s terrific.” And so everyone around us will have that special feeling, and then they’ll get married and have children.
And if you don’t have the special feeling, you get very worried. You go on Tinder, Match.com, you’re always ready for the special feeling to come along until the soulmate comes along. And the good thing about finding a soulmate, when we eventually find the soulmate, we will never be lonely again. All of us, everything that we are, will be perfectly understood by another human being. It will mean the definitive end of any sense of alienation or loneliness. All our feelings, our hopes, will be confirmed by another person. So it’s really terrific news.
When the soulmate comes along, we will have no more secrets. They will understand us totally, and we will understand them. And there’s that lovely early days when everything that you can possibly think of, of feeling ashamed or vulnerable, you can reveal this to another person, and they will confirm you and bolster you. And that’s terrific. The other thing about romanticism — generally the people who invented romanticism didn’t have jobs, or they only worked a little bit. So romanticism is very tied up with long summer balmy afternoons, walks in nature, a lot of emphasis on waterfalls, and large watery expanses.
And also that moment dusk is very important for romantics. That moment when the sun’s beams light up the undersides of the clouds, turning them a pinky hue — very special kind of feelings for romantics. As you will have gathered from my tone, I’m not an unalloyed fan of romanticism. I believe that it has caused us immense trouble. In fact, I believe that romanticism is the single greatest enemy we face for love. And that if we are to learn how to love better in the future, we must give up a lot of the feelings that got us into the sort of relationships that romanticism points us towards.
[music: “Ether” by Dekko]
MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, Alain de Botton’s hopes for the future evolution of atheism. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Ether” by Dekko]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, Religion for Atheists. That’s the title of a book by my guest, the philosophical writer Alain de Botton. He created The School of Life — headquartered in London and now with branches all over the globe, where people young and old explore ritual, community, beauty, and wisdom. Alain de Botton says that keeping these things is what religion has done best, but they should be part of the common richness of humanity, not just for believers.
MS. TIPPETT: So, I remember a conversation I had years ago with an amazing — one of the greatest 20th century religious historians Jaroslav Pelikan at Yale. And in his 80s, he completed his last project, which was a survey of Christian creeds across time, across the world. And he believed very strongly — I’ll just say it the way he — the blunt way he said was that the only alternative to tradition is bad tradition.
And he pointed out that when people reject the creeds but want to believe something and do believe something, that they still end up then ultimately creating new creeds, and that that’s always something that’s going to happen. I mean, do you think about this? If you had The School of Life long enough, would you eventually end up with something like doctrines and creeds?
MR. DE BOTTON: Look, I think doctrines are evolving all the time. We almost don’t see it, but these things are changing and being enriched, and they’re subject to evolution. And I do believe that the Earth is still young. Humanity is still very, very young. We sort of think sometimes, “Oh, we’ve been around for ages. We’ve tried everything. We’re at the end of time.” No, we’re still very much at the beginning. We’re still working out how to live. We’ve only taken our first steps, almost.
And I think we’re at a particular point in history where we can see that a lot more is going to come in the future. I fervently believe that, in the next 100, 200 years, we will start to evolve ways of living a life where we don’t believe, a non-believing life, that is much more sophisticated than the non-believing life we currently have on offer at the moment. At the moment, we’re offering people either the choice of — “Look, either you sign up to one of these religions with all their doctrines and all their sometimes rather arduous demands on us, or you’re outside.” And outside is really outside.
It takes something like dying and marrying. In a secular world, we’re having great difficulty knowing how to be married and how to die outside of religions. When people get married or die, they overwhelmingly flock back to religion because these religions know how to do it.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And it’s still often a point on the trajectory, but just a very tiny point.
MR. DE BOTTON: Yeah, very brief one, but it’s significant. My view is this is just that we haven’t sorted this problem out yet. It doesn’t have to be the case. It’s very possible that non-believers will learn how to do dying slightly better. We’ve done amazingly at the medical front, but on the more human front, we’re beginners. We don’t really know how to do this, similarly, with relationships. We praise romantic love and relationships to the skies, but do we really know how to make these things work? Not really. So a lot lies before us. And oddly, I think it’s the study of the creativity of religions in addressing human needs that should be inspiring us not just to look backwards, but also to look forwards for how much still needs to be done.
MS. TIPPETT: So, I often make a statement which I think is somewhat controversial — that atheists have spiritual lives too. Then it ends up depending on how you’re defining “spiritual,” but would you say it that way? Do atheists have spiritual lives?
MR. DE BOTTON: Of course, I mean…
MS. TIPPETT: Do you have a spiritual life?
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, it’s like the word “soul.” Do atheists have souls? In the strict religious sense, no. But in the loose sense, yes. We all know what we mean. If you meet somebody and you say, “That person, he was quite interesting, but he seemed to lack soul,” or, “She doesn’t seem to have much soul.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right. We have secular ways of using this word.
MR. DE BOTTON: Right. But I think when we use it that way, we’re onto something rather useful. It means an allusion to the deeper sides of a human being, the side that’s going to confront death, the side that’s there at moments of love, the side that is interested in questions of kind of ultimate meaning and direction, the serious stuff, the side of us that we confront at 3 a.m. when we’re awoken and suddenly the world seems a challenging place to deal with in the way that sometimes we might not notice in the busyness of the day. I think that’s the soul bit. And of course, it exists in nonbelievers as much as in believers.
Similarly, atheists have amazing moments under the stars as well when atheists look up and see the galaxies and contemplate the sheer nothingness, puniness of humans in the cosmos. It’s just how we choose to interpret it. We don’t leap to a supernatural conclusion. So when I look at the cosmos, I’m not forced to then make the next step, which is to say there must be something out there. But look, there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars, we may differ about what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.
MS. TIPPETT: And your book is doing well. I mean, you are a very popular writer. You have a big following. But a book like this, Religion for Atheists, does not make a splash in the way a book called The God Delusion makes a splash or, on the other end, some very religious books make a splash. I think you’re onto something in terms of there being a kind of renaissance searching for depth and meaning and thinking. But how do you explain this, the fact that you’re touching the pulse of something, and yet, in some of these ways we measure what’s important, what is in fact hitting chords, there’s a disconnect? How do you think about that?
MR. DE BOTTON: Well, I don’t know. I mean, it was an enormous phenomenon in the U.K., and in Australia, and indeed in Canada too, in the U.S., slightly less. In the U.K., the debate was, “Oh, look, here’s an atheist who doesn’t think religion is absolutely ridiculous — headline.”
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] OK. All right.
MR. DE BOTTON: I mean, that was an extraordinary thing. That’s a sign of how peculiar — and of course, the media aligned me with Richard Dawkins and tried to make sure we have some kind of a fight. Look, I think we are in very divided times. And if you come out with a book like mine, you get shot at from both sides.
The religious people say, “Hang on a minute, he’s impious.” And the non-believers — I’ve had emails from atheists saying things like, “You’ve betrayed atheism.” And I email back going, “Well, I’m not sure what that means.” They say, “Well, you’ve been far too kind to religion.” I say, “I didn’t know that’s what atheism was supposed to be about, being mean to religion.” And you get this odd kind of dialogue. So, yeah, divided times.
MS. TIPPETT: You said something like this a minute ago, that we’ve had much too narrow an understanding of what it means to be nonreligious, and that the words, I think, “atheist” and “agnostic” in some ways are boxes, just like a lot of religious labels have been boxes. And people are breaking out of those. But isn’t atheism as an absolute conviction as intellectually presumptuous and unprovable as faith as an absolute conviction? I mean, are you ever tempted to convert to agnosticism?
MR. DE BOTTON: I think the moment that I feel like it, I would. In other words, I’m not clenched to this position at all. It’s just that I really don’t feel a belief in a divine being is something that rings bells with me. So look, I’m happy to be in the atheist box, but it’s a much broader box than we might have allowed for. I think there’s an image of the fierce atheist who has faith in science and ridicules all religious moments and religious impulses. I couldn’t be further from that point of view.
Look, it’s ultimately — I think we do need to stretch categories. One of the people I discuss in my book is this rather crazy French sociologist called Auguste Comte, who, in the 19th century, analyzed modern society and argued that if we simply create a society that’s based around financial accumulation and success on the one hand, and private life, family, relationships, on the other, we’re going to have an outbreak of mental illness. He diagnoses, I think, rather provocatively and accurately in many ways, that humans need to live for something more than just themselves, and religion has been a way of channeling that. Comte’s response to that was to create what he called a secular religion, an atheist’s religion. He called it the Religion for Humanity, and it was basically a stripped-down secular version of Catholicism with his girlfriend, Mathilde, in the position of the Virgin Mary. Kind of nuts…
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]
MR. DE BOTTON: …but sort of interesting in all its looniness. So he was very eccentric. But there’s something there about stretching what it means to be an atheist, recognizing that modern society hasn’t got all the answers, being creative in relation to the needs of the inner being, the spiritual being, the soul. There’s food for thought there.
MS. TIPPETT: So, I think that this diagnosis you make of belief uncoupled from virtues as something that hasn’t served secular society, hasn’t served nonreligious people. It’s also a gap that’s been there in religious people. I mean, I’ve watched religion re-enter politics in the United States in a new way in the last few decades, but it was all about beliefs and opinions and not necessarily about how one treated enemies, for example, which would be a primary virtue of Christianity. You know?
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes, absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: So I think the way you’re thinking about this, this critique could also be very useful for religious people.
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes, of course, absolutely. I mean, many religious people — nominally religious people have slightly forgotten what good religion is supposed to be about. And in fact, many of the readers of my book who’ve been most sort of appreciative of it have said to me, “Oh, thank you for reminding me as a believer what the best bits of our religions are.” Because, of course, as you rightly point out, there’s so many ways to be religious. And many of the most public ways of being religious that we’re seeing at the moment are perhaps not optimal particularly in their intolerance.
Of course, tolerance is right at the heart of many religions, and tolerance does not mean agreeing with people. Sometimes it’s a mistake, and sometimes we believe that the tolerant person learns to agree or to see the other person’s point of view. No, what tolerance really means is even though you don’t get what the other person’s saying at all, even though you may not even like them, you make an effort to tolerate, in other words, to make space for them and don’t try and squash their opinions. What we need to learn is, how can we live together with people whose views we don’t actually like very much? That’s the far greater challenge, without attempting to convert them, or dismissing them, and denying their right to exist parallel to us.
It’s really about the stranger. Christianity has had a lot of time for the stranger, the stranger that you welcome into the home, even though their beliefs may not be yours. Because they too, wherever they come from, they too were made by God. Now, even if you don’t believe that they were made by God, there’s some very important lesson in there. It’s basically saying we have a shared humanity, even with people who don’t seem to tick the boxes that we have put in place in terms of recognizing what a good human is.
[music: “Home” by Will Hanson]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, Religion for Atheists, with author, philosopher, and The School of Life founder, Alain de Botton.
[music: “Home” by Will Hanson]
Ms. Tippett: Do you ever think about what your father would think, the devout atheist, would think about this line of thinking, The School of Life…
MR. DE BOTTON: He’d think his poor son had gone very soft in the head.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Really?
MR. DE BOTTON: Yeah, he’d think it was all — yes. “Buck up, young man.” And yeah — “This is all soft stuff. It’s with the fairies, really.” So look, I respected him and that was his point of view. But every generation can work things out on their own.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I do feel that another religious and particularly Christian impulse that you are taking up as an atheist is that of being evangelical, which is about spreading the good news that you’ve discovered.
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s interesting. Well, of course, what Christianity, all religions to some extent, are very interested in is rhetoric, convincing people through oratory, through speaking, through trying to discuss things. And we slightly lost that. I mean, certainly the field that I come from intellectually, philosophy, now mumbles its truths to the world and therefore doesn’t really have an audience. Even though I often don’t agree with the content of what the sermonizing tradition is saying in religions, the fact that they’re out there speaking well, mobilizing people, of course, this is a fascinating project. I do believe in trying to reach people, reach an audience. One of the ways in which I try to do this is to try and be very clear, lay my ideas out sort of succinctly and…
MS. TIPPETT: It’s not just your ideas, though. It’s your passion too.
MR. DE BOTTON: Yeah, yeah. I think if you believe in stuff, you want to tell people about it. I hope I remain open to other people and other ideas. And I think it should always be a two-way process. By all means, get out there and spread your news, but be aware that others might have other interesting views and be open to that.
MS. TIPPETT: I just want to say you’re in an interesting position to be having this message, to be carrying these ideas, as someone who’s British where you have a state church, which everyone belongs to but few actively believe in these days. And yet, I think it’s possible to argue that some of the virtues of religion, of care for the stranger and the poor, got taken up in laws and in social norms even as the culture became more secular.
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, it’s true that the U.K. is incredibly secular. I mean, it’s much more secular than the U.S. I think I partly wrote this book because the Church of England, the dominant Christian domination, is so on its knees. They’re very gentle souls who generally will have anyone who believes anything. I mean, church attendance is so low, they’re sort of figures of fun. This is Monty Python or the Life of Brian country, where religion really is a kind of comedic thing in a way that might be hard for Americans to understand. But you also rightly point out that many religious attitudes are kind of imbedded in day-to-day life and in structures like the National Health Service, which is basically a Christian institution. No one ever mentions it, but the National Provision of Healthcare has deeply, deeply religious roots in ways that the secular world doesn’t dare mention. But of course, it does.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And as you create this School of Life, that’s the landscape in which you are still saying these virtues do need to mean something in lives. And people living today want these things to be part of their lives, but we need structures and rituals, and we need to help each other in that and take a cue from how religion has known to do that.
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right. I think too often when we decide or when we feel, “I don’t believe,” that can often mean complete withdrawal from participation in, interest in, even knowledge of, religion. I think this is a tremendous mistake and impoverishes us intellectually, if you like, spiritually, practically, because there’s so much there that we can be inspired by, guided by. We understand ourselves better even as atheists by understanding what religious people have felt the need to address in their lives.
The secular world still has many, many needs, but we sometimes think we’ve invented everything. We haven’t. There’s as much invention to do in the kind of soul space as there is in the technological space, and we need to be creative. One of the ways in which we’re going to be creative is by being fully aware of the constant creativity that religions have shown in addressing these very strange, slightly hard-to-discuss needs that we might call the needs of the soul, but that are there. And they greet us at 3 a.m., or in relationships when we hit difficulties or when we’re facing mortality, or just when we’re out and about under the stars. We feel these needs, and we need to address them. We need to find a structure for them.
MS. TIPPETT: And soul space. What I also see you doing is carving out what has been traditionally, religiously called “sacred space” in secular culture. And you talk about that even literally in terms of architecture as well as these spaces of gathering and reflection.
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right, that’s right. There’s the things that have been demarcated by that term “sacred space” are — again, belong to everybody, not just believers. They’re the common richness of all of us and even religious buildings, the wonders of religious architecture. How come we’ve forgotten all of that? How come modern architects don’t know that good architecture is part of being a good human being?
MS. TIPPETT: Well, and the impulse that we are formed by the spaces we’re in, right?
MR. DE BOTTON: That’s right. And, similarly, evil — one root through which evil reaches us is through ugliness — and a fascinating, provocative kind of idea. Imagine putting that to the average property developer. It’s just yet another example of how religions continuously provoke and challenge routine assumptions of the modern world. Look, I mean, I think what I really care about and have cared across my career as a writer is getting what you might broadly — and I don’t mean this pretentiously, but let’s use that word anyway — wisdom higher up on the agenda, the art of living, how to cope with life in all its complexities. That’s really what drives me. And yeah, it’s a kind of life’s mission.
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MS. TIPPETT: Alain de Botton is the founder and chairman of The School of Life. His books include Religion for Atheists and How Proust Can Change Your Life. His new book is a novel, The Course of Love.
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STAFF: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Brendan Stermer, and Ross Feehan.
[music: “Live In Vanilla” by Boy Robot]
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