Jim Fleming: You might call Alain de Botton the people’s philosopher. He has written a series of best-selling books that play with big ideas, which he makes both fun and thought-provoking, so it’s not surprising he finally got around to one of the biggest ideas of them all, religion. The twist is that de Botton is an atheist, but he thinks non-believers have plenty to learn from religious traditions. He calls his new book “Religion for Atheists.” de Botton tells Anne Strainchamps that he had to overcome his own hostility to religion.
Alain de Botton: I realize that it simply couldn’t be a simple essaying that everything to do with religion was nonsense, which was how I had been brought up, and I came to make a distinction, a basic distinction, but it took me awhile to get there, between non-belief, in other words thinking that the doctrines of religion, supernatural doctrines of religion might not be true, and an interest in religion as a sociological, organizational and aesthetic phenomenon. I realized that it was possible to be interested in religion, engaged with religion, to borrow many concepts and attitudes and structures and rituals, without necessarily subscribing to any supernatural tenants.
Anne Strainchamps: What does that mean to you exactly, to be involved with religion’s sociological and aesthetic dimensions with ascribing to its tenants?
de Botton: Sure, let me give you a very basic example. You can go and sing Christmas carols and enjoy Christmas carols without necessarily believing that Jesus was the son of God and ascended into Heaven. Now for a Christian, that’s deeply offensive and the thought is, ˜well come on, you can’t enjoy the carols and the community and the singing and the art and the church and the candles, unless you also believe in the resurrection,’ but in fact, it’s completely possible.
Strainchamps: So I’m getting the sense that you found yourself longing for some of the sociological dimensions, the aesthetic dimensions of religion. Well, for example, the opening essay in this new book is an analysis of, I guess what you could call the psychology of the Catholic mass which, first of all, mass is kind of an odd habitat for an atheist. How many have you attended?
de Botton: Oh, quite a few by now. My method was to say, ˜what are some of the things in religion that would appeal to an atheist, that would appeal to me,’ and I just went around deliberately picking and mixing from a variety of religions in order to ask a very basic question which is, ˜What can we learn from here? What can we, if you like, steal from here that might be of use in a secular life,’ so I went along to some Catholic masses and was impressed really by the atmosphere of community that is created by the church on a Sunday via the mass, which seems so at odds with the anonymity of so much of modern world where you just don’t talk to strangers, you don’t meet other people. You certainly are never brought into contact with people at such a sort of profound spiritual level. I mean, what the church does, it demarcates a space and says, ˜Everybody can meet everyone. Everyone is safe to talk to,’ and it’s a very simple gesture. It doesn’t really require a belief in the supernatural, but it requires somebody to do it.
Strainchamps: So as a result, you proposed a kind of secular alternative, a communal meal experience that, I mean a fictional, that you call the Agape Restaurant. Can you tell us about it?
de Botton: Yes, well I tried to imagine what might an atheist take away from this? How can we put something of this back into the secular world, and it struck me that all organized religions have a tradition of eating together, communal eating, and in fact, holy communion before it was a church service, was a shared meal, what was called an Agape Feast where Christians in early Christian communities would gather together to break bread and invite strangers into their midst. It’s a charming idea. Where do we have anything like that today? Nowhere, you know, the average modern restaurant or diner or bar, it’s an anonymous place. There are people but it’s an anonymous place, so I imagined being inspired by this tradition of religious communal eating and the atheists too, might learn to eat together, might learn to structure their encounters with one another around the table without just saying, ˜what do you do,’ but to get to some of the same vulnerable material as religious communities know how to address.
Strainchamps: It sounds like part of what you think religion does well has to do with the psychology of a community. You also write about Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which you describe is one of the most psychologically effective mechanisms ever devised for resolving social conflict. What do you mean?
de Botton: That’s right. I mean religions seem to know both what we want from communities and also what makes living in a community difficult, and one of the things that makes other people difficult is that we’re full of resentments against them and we get into fights with them, and then we don’t know how to get out of those fights, we don’t know how to forgive, we don’t know how to heal divisions between people, and young people, the day of atonement is a fascinating ritual where the entire Jewish community essentially says “sorry”to oneanother and accepts the apologies of others under the guidance of God, and it’s a sort of miraculous day that does that very important thing which is to enable people to move on from disputes. As I say, that’s something that generally we feel rather at a loss as to know how to do that without some help. You see, a lot of what religions do, a lot of what religious rituals are, is communal forms of behavior that help you to do something that’s very hard to do just on your own. You could look at a lot of what religions do is lending structure to important psychological events.
Strainchamps: So what else would you like to steal from religion for atheism? We’ve been talking about the kind of rituals and communal values. What about art, music?
de Botton: Yes, well I think one of the things that religions know is, if you’re trying to influence somebody, if you’re trying to have an impact on somebody’s life, if you do it simply through intellectual discussion and argument, you’re not going to get very far, so all religions employ other means. They touch us through our senses, they give us songs to sing, they tell us so sit in certain ways, they put pictures in front of our eyes, they build buildings. In other words, they use our senses to pull us in certain, what I think of, as optimal directions. You see, religions tell us things like, ˜you’ve got to love one another, you’ve got to forgive one another,’ but that can sound awfully trite and boring, but if you come across a great work of art, a great film, a great piece of music, you can listen to a Bach cantata and say, ˜oh goodness, that’s what forgiveness is. You know, I had forgotten it. It had gone a bit stale in my imagination, but it’s now come back to life.’
Strainchamps: What would atheist art look like or atheist-inspired art or great art in the service of atheism?
de Botton: Well atheists have lots of art. It’s not that we don’t need more art. I think it’s just about the way you frame art. Let me give you an example of the American artist, Mark Rothko. See, Rothko wanted to change the world. Rothko wanted to see his paintings in his own words, ˜ as an echo chamber of humanity’s grief.’ So in other words, this was a form of kind of public consolation, if you like. Now you would never pick that up from the captions in a museum. You just think Rothko is a terribly intimidating, terribly ambiguous and strange, very famous American artist, but a museum, the way I’d like to do a museum, would actually bring that out. It would tease that didactic side of Rothko, or indeed, any artist. Most artists want to change the world in some way. It’s just you wouldn’t really know it from the average museum presentation. Museums are, on the whole, very neutral, they’re white, they’re bland, and compare that with the way that religions use art. Religions use art in these very direct, emotional ways. You might cry in front of a picture. You might change your life because of a picture.
Strainchamps: Can you imagine a kind of secular temple in which Rothko’s paintings maybe were centerpieces? How would you approach them instead?
de Botton: Well you know, of course, that there is such a thing in Texas. There is precisely the Rothko chapel and it’s most wonderful space. It’s precisely that, it’s a non-denominational contemplative, rather melancholy but amazing place, where people will go and take time out from their busy lives, and get in touch with their deeper selves, not in order to commune with God as you might in a traditional chapel, but in order to commune with those more elusive, shy but important sides of ourselves, what you might call the deep self, you know, that isn’t there at the dinner table and gets squashed at the office, but has a chance to come out, and we are still at the dawn of learning how to live well without religion, one of the first few generations to do that. Religions have always known that putting people in a certain space can heavily influence what goes on in their minds. You can have calm spaces that will bring calm. You can have spaces that are huge and will bring a feeling of perspective, so all of these things religious buildings can do and there’s no fundamental reason why non-believers shouldn’t benefit from some of these wonderful maneuvers of religious architecture down the centuries. You know, people say, ˜what about the library, or what about the observatory.’ I mean, we’ve got these buildings already, and I would say well, it’s slightly different from the genuinely spiritual if you like, psychological focus of religious buildings.
Fleming: Alain de Botton talked with Anne Strainchamps. His book is called “Religion for Atheists, a Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion.”