September 6, 2012
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.
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 nonbelieving life we currently have on offer at the moment.
Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media. 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 UK, 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 wrote his first novel, On Love, when he was only 23, in 1992. Alain de Botton was born in Zurich of a wealthy banking family.
Ms. Tippett: It's interesting to, you know, 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, you know, we grew up in a very secular atmosphere, of a kind that, you know, 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, you know, religious education, there was no religion at home. You know, 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, you know, 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 [laugh]. 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. 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. It took me a while to square this with, you know, 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. 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, you know, the atheists look at the religious and think that they're stupid and the religious look at the atheist 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: 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. It was art and architecture, but also concerns, practical skills for life, vocabulary. You also became aware or, you know, 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, hover 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. In the same way that Christianity colonized the pagan world absorbing its best elements, so I'm arguing that nonbelievers today can do a little bit of this with religion just as religion did it with them, because, you know, 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 nonbelievers. You know, you use the word moral just a second ago and the phrase you used is moral atmosphere, intentional moral atmospheres. You've said atheists overlook secular society's powerful and continuous calls to prayer.
MR. DE BOTTON:Yes. I supposed 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. This is a real contrast to the secular world, which basically says public space must be neutral and 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:Right, most of which are commercial messages. So, you know, 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: 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, you know, 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. You know, 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. You know, 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, you know, 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 [laugh].
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: 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: But 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, you know, 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 that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley, and democratic politics could together cure the ills of mankind."
MR. DE BOTTON: That's right [laugh] — that's right, where as 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 perfectable 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, perfectability 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 perfectability is within their grasp, someone young, good-looking.
MS. TIPPETT: Exhausting [laugh].
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 know, you're human, but we're going to try and make a go of it, you know, 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 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 now, this supposedly rational discipline, right? We turned it into a rational discipline. What they hadn't factored in 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, you know, talking about economic crisis, the other thing that religions have done fascinatingly throughout the 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 …
MR. DE BOTTON: Absolutely. You know, we have an echo of it when we ask of people, you know, 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, but 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. 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 — features of — very religious features of traditions that you also say that atheists and secular society could learn from, 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 nonbelieving world. You know, we think that there shouldn't really be rituals, that the private life should have its own rhythms and that no one should come in from the outside and say, you know, 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. I'm coming around to the view that that's nice in theory, but the problem is we'll never get 'round to it.
MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. 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 be part of weekday and Sunday meetings, complete with music and secular sermons on meaning and wisdom for modern lives.
MS. TIPPETT: So, interestingly, you have created an organization, a community, I think you would say, this 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. It's very little, but it's having some strangely big impact even though it's quite tiny.
MS. TIPPETT: It's in London?
MR. DE BOTTON: It's in London, center of London. Anyone who comes by London can just drop in any time. 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.
MR. DE BOTTON: So, you know, I've read a journalist account of coming to The School of Life and it's 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.
(Sound bite of singing "Jerusalem" hymn)
MR. DE BOTTON: We could say what on earth is going on?
MS. TIPPETT: Exactly.
MR. DE BOTTON: But, of course, you know, 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, you know, 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, you know, 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, you know, 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 pretty 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, you know, 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 got so confused. We got 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 or 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. 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. That's why, you know, 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, you know, the argument you were having with X or Y seems no longer so significant.
MS. TIPPETT: You, as you said, have an unusually, um, 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, um, believers would feel that there is this transcendent, cohesive force that is larger than the sum of all of those — of all of those qualities. How do you respond to that or how do you think about that?
MR. DE BOTTON: Absolutely. Well, you know, some people have said, look, it's all very well, you're looking at all these different sides of religion, you're picking 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, you know, 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, etcetera. 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. You know, 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 nonbelieving position.
MS. TIPPETT: Here's neuroscientist David Eagleman speaking about consciousness and decision-making at Alain de Botton's School of Life in London.
DAVID EAGLEMAN: And I think the thing for all of us to think about, all the time, is how are we lashing ourselves to the mast. We all have weaknesses and things that we want to do better. And as we come to understand more about ourselves, there's this issue what can we do to — to combat this? How can we really think hard about structuring things in our lives so we don't do the wrong things? And I think this gives us traction, you know, understanding what's going on under the hood gives us traction on old philosophical problems and ways to think about things. Just think about the concept of virtue. I think that virtue has to do with the battles between these populations. If you've got a real drive to do something you want it so badly and yet you override that with more long-term decision making, with the parts of your brain that care about the deferred gratification verses the parts that care about, I want it right now. If you have that battle and you're successful, I think that's what we mean by a virtuous person. I think virtue comes at people's point of struggle, right when the parliament is sort of evenly balanced and they have real decision to make there about which way it tips.
MS. TIPPETT: Watch more "secular sermons" on our website; or download an MP3 of this show and share it with others, all that at onbeing.org.
Coming up, Alain de Botton's hopes for the future evolution of atheism. I'm Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
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, philosophical writer Alain de Botton. He created The School of Life in London, where people young and old explore ritual, community, beauty, and wisdom. He 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 a — an amazing — one of the greatest 20th-century religious historians, Jaroslav Pelikan at Yale. In his 80s, he completed his last project, which was a survey of Christian creeds across time, across the world. He believed very strongly — I'll just say it, you know, 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'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. Yeah, 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. 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 nonbelieving life that is much more sophisticated than the nonbelieving 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, you know, 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: 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. You know, 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 nonbelievers will learn how to do dying slightly better. You know, 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, if you — it's like the word soul, you know. Do atheists have souls? In the strict religious sense, no, but in the loose sense, yes. You'll know what we mean. If you meet somebody and you say, you know, 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 illusion 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 kind of we confront at 3:00 a.m. when we're awoken and suddenly the world seems a challenging place to deal with the in the way that sometimes we might not notice in the kind of 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. 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, you know, 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, headlined. I mean, that was an extraordinary thing. I mean, 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 nonbelievers, I've had emails from atheists saying things like, you've betrayed atheism. 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. You know, 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 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. I mean — but isn't atheism as an absolute conviction as intellectually presumptuous and unprovable as safe as an absolute conviction? I mean, are you ever tempted to convert to agnosticism?
MR. DE BOTTON: Um, 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. You know, 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, 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, you know, 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, you know. 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. Do 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, I mean, 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, 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, you know, right to exist parallel to us. It's really about the stranger. You know, 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 take the boxes that we have put in place in terms of recognizing what a good human is.
MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett with On Being — Today: "Religion for Atheists," with author, philosopher and The School of Life founder Alain de Botton.
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: Really [laugh]?
MR. DE BOTTON: Yeah, he'd think it was all, you know, yes, yes, buck up, young man, and, yeah, this is all soft stuff. It's with the fairies really. So, you know, look, I respected him and that was his point of view, but every generation can work things out on their own.
MS. TIPPETT: 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, you know, 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. 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. You know, 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, you know. This is Monty Python or the Life of Brian, 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: And, um, you know, 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 got 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 3:00 a.m. or in relationships and 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 you know, 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, you know, 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.
MS. TIPPETT: Alain de Botton's books include Religion for Atheists, and How Proust Can Change Your Life. He's also founder and chairman of The School of Life in London.
And there's a convening we're excited about this month in New York: the "Locating the Sacred" Festival. It's sponsored by the Asian American Arts Alliance and aims to reconnect New Yorkers with the sacred and bring their communities closer. We'll be blogging about the events, which include Texan musicians playing Sufi music in a church and a flash mob of dancers in Washington Square Park. Wherever you are, you can follow along on our blog at onbeing.org.
On Being, on air and online, is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, and Stefni Bell.
Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I'm Krista Tippett.