No fire, no brimstone: An interview with Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton thinks atheists should take the best ideas from religion, and leave the bad stuff behind. Caspar Melville goes in search of enlightenment
“Even if religion isn’t true can’t we enjoy the best bits?” So asks the glossy advertising campaign for Alain de Botton’s new book Religion for Atheists. His answer, if you’ll excuse the spoiler, is yes. The book is packed full of proposals for how this secular asset-stripping of religion might be achieved. One of which, at least, you will no doubt already have heard. De Botton’s canny wheeze of building a 46-metre atheist “temple to perspective” in the City of London got a big splash in the media, complete with quotes denouncing it from Richard Dawkins and the British Humanist Association’s Andrew Copson – atheists already have all the temples we need was the message – and welcoming noises from some quarters of the Church of England, glad that the godless were finally coming around to the need for spiritual symbolism.
But does he really mean it? In the days following the announcement of his godless tower, de Botton fired emails out to those who had criticised the idea, including Copson and the prominent sceptic Richard Wiseman, denying that he actually intended to build the temple and suggesting that the Guardian had concocted the story that he had already raised half the £1million it was going to cost. He had, he claims, no specific plans for a temple, he merely wanted to stimulate architects to copy what was best about religious architecture.
He’s done this before, reacting instantly, and sometime intemperately, to criticism. He famously told the author of a critical New York Times review “I will hate you till the day I die” – something he has publically regretted since – and got into a graceless spat with the blogger Nina Power when she criticised his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. He is consequently often depicted as thin-skinned, and certainly seems prone to temper tantrums. But looked at more kindly this is all part of his unique persona as a public philosopher, someone whose aim is to push ideas, both theoretical and practical, out into the world to stimulate debate and even (that thoroughly unphilosophical thing) action. “It’s okay for people to disagree,” he told me, when I met him in his writerly North London apartment, “to say, ‘This idea’s good but that one’s crap.’ I’d be very happy with that. I want the debate.”
The new book offers plenty to debate, and, as with his previous books about Proust, work and architecture (he’s working on one about sex), offers it in the form of somewhat self-helpy proposals. De Botton is an unabashed fan of psychotherapy and he sets himself, as few philosophers have dared to, the task of trying to make us all better, happier people and the world a nicer place. This instrumental, neo-therapeutic public philosophising has its origin in a crisis of conscience he suffered as a Cambridge graduate student, contemplating, without relish, a life as an academic philosopher. “My own intellectual trajectory had been a very elite education, in elite institutions. Then in my mid-20s I felt I wasn’t being honest. I was going to live a lie, faking interest, faking complexity, faking meaningfulness.” He turned away from the arcane language and technical concerns of academic philosophy toward “the vulgar” in an attempt “to speak to everyone in a language they could understand”.
He describes the series of books that started with Essays in Love (1993) as “doing public psychoanalysis on myself”, using his own problems – a bad love affair, status anxiety – as prisms through which to diagnose societal ills, and to promote practical solutions. “Of course,” he admits wryly, “now I’ve got half of Britain’s elite calling me an idiot, so the sacrifice has been big.” A sacrifice possibly cushioned by the fact that his books have sold briskly, and he has been able to launch two concrete initiatives: the School of Life, the Bloomsbury talking-shop that offers secular “Sunday Sermons” and a variety of lectures and courses – “How To Find a Job You Love”, “How to Have Better Conversations”, “Why We Lie” – to the well-heeled in search of meaning, and Living Architecture, which offers posh holiday rentals in exquisite contemporary buildings, a partnership with the German appliance manufacturer Miele. The School of Life’s courses are oversubscribed and hundreds attend de Botton’s lectures. There is clearly a market for what he does, and an appetite for intellectual self-improvement.
De Botton certainly has a knack for clarity, and making ideas seem simple. This is not especially hard when the ideas are as simple as those in Religion for Atheists. The first line of this piece pretty much sums it up. De Botton is an atheist, lifelong and committed. He never believed the supernatural claims of religion – his father was a staunch and, by his account, rather cruel non-believer, deriding his young sister’s spiritual yearnings. Faith, per se, doesn’t interest him. “The real issue,” he writes, “is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t.”
He thinks atheists have been too timid, fearing any contact with religion will leave them contaminated with unreason. This may have made sense when religion was a big beast, capable of inflicting huge harm. But for us in the UK “religion is a joke”, and we should feel no shame in mining it for useful ideas. He writes that the form of religion, with “its dogmatic aspects burned off”, can be repurposed in the service of our modern secular way of life, and we can separate what is “beautiful, touching and wise” from what “no longer seems true”. In a clever twist he calls this “re-appropriation”, reminding us how many of the apparent innovations of religion – Christmas, monasticism, sacred sites – were taken over from previous cultures by the rampant colonisers of the monotheistic religions. It’s time, he says, for us to take them back.
Hence the atheist temple, but also art with a moral message, education with a purpose, communal meals and regular rituals, including the odd orgy. “We should,” he writes, “be allowed to talk gibberish, fasten woollen penises to our coats and get out into the night to party and copulate randomly and joyfully with strangers, and then return the next morning to our partners, who will themselves have been off doing something similar.” We are prevented from realising this ideal, he argues, because our secular world offers too much freedom, is too individualistic and isolated, everything a matter of personal choice. So if you want to go carousing you have to do it on your own initiative and take the consequences yourself. If we take a leaf out of the religious book, he argues, and stick it in the calendar, schedule it like a bank holiday or a board meeting, then we can enjoy it guilt-free.
Other proposals include that we recognise, as religions always have, that art and our education have a purpose – art for art’s sake has been misunderstood, he says: it wasn’t about art having no moral message, but about freeing the artist from the yoke of the patron. We can keep the same books and pictures, but should reorganise the university around life themes, with Departments of Relationships or Centres for Dying. Art galleries would be similarly reshuffled into useful categories that would resonate with our life challenges and help guide us: “there would be galleries devoted to the beauty of simplicity, the curative powers of nature, the dignity of the outsider”, to make our experience more “life-enhancing”. If this all sounds a little moralistic, de Botton is unashamed: “Most great western artists have been moral, and that moral can be expressed very simply – it’s to make us good and frighten us with evil.” He thinks that artists need to step up in a world increasingly dominated by the instrumental message of consumer capitalism. “The world is full of messages telling us what to do, buy, think. Artists need to enter into the game of making moral meaning.”
Does it all feel a little patronising? That’s because you have fallen for the modern secular myth of the autonomous rational being with free will, which a Buddhist or Freudian approach – two of de Botton’s favourites – reveals to be illusory: “In the modern world there is an assumption that once you are an adult you do not need guidance. So if you are offered help you are being treated like a child. Whereas my starting point is that we are all children, our maturity is incredibly fragile and vulnerable, so it doesn’t hurt to have some guidance around.” And de Botton wants it all around. He thinks we should colonise advertising hoardings to promote kindness and legislate that any television set visible to the public should broadcast awesome images of the stars to give us a sense of perspective. We need “agape restaurants” where we should sup with strangers, and we should nominate secular saints who embody the virtues to which we aspire: “Courage, Patience, Fidelity, Scepticism”.
Underpinning all these practical interventions would be the ultimate heist: he wants to steal back the notions of the soul and original sin. The first is merely a question of pragmatism: “I think that the effectiveness of words is associated with its common currency. Soul has good common currency and is not strictly associated with the supernatural. Ever since the Romantics it’s been stripped of its religious overtones.” But can the same be said for original sin? Surely that’s one the Catholic Church could claim intellectual property rights over? “I think it’s a tremendously helpful concept. Most human dilemmas and arguments are because people think they are right and the other person doesn’t have access to the truth. That’s why it’s so hard to apologise, to stand down from positions adopted. It leads to self-righteousness. What original sin is saying is: we are all nuts, we’re all flawed, we’re all crazy. It’s got nothing to do with religion; it’s just a useful metaphysical starting point.” But what of the damage done, to children especially, in the service of this concept? “Properly understood, the way I understand it, it’s a way of making the child feel that its own sense of being a naughty horrid child is not unique, because Daddy is a bit horrid too, and so is Mummy and we’re all quite horrid but in a quite nice way.”
De Botton is fond of the concept of original sin because it helps guard against what he feel is the underlying optimistic cast of contemporary secular society: “A lot of the problems in the world,” he asserts, “can be traced back to a kind of obsessive technological perfectionism. We are living in a very optimistic age; for all the problems, we believe that science and technology and capitalism will crack it. Even though I don’t agree with the grounds for Christian pessimism I find it fascinating when they say life is fundamentally imperfect, not incidentally because you broke your iPhone or there is a war on, but fundamentally because of human nature, there is always a serpent in the garden.” Though those who have suffered at the hands of cane-happy nuns and monstrous monsignors might find this complacent, de Botton is not the first secularist to want to reclaim a pessimistic view of life.
There is a continuing tension in secular thought between the optimistic humanist faith in human creativity, ingenuity and goodness, and the rather grimmer perspective suggested by the rationalist Darwinian idea that we are merely higher animals, children of nature as red in tooth and claw as any other, and do not occupy some kind of blessed niche in a random universe which will undoubtedly outlive us. Here de Botton is quite close to the neo-nihilism of philosophers like John Gray, and reveals his debt to his hero, the gloomy German secular pessimist Schopenhauer. However, as the book reveals, he is more sanguine than either that we can ameliorate our human condition.
Of course De Botton’s attempt to squat religion’s house without taking on the mortgage will outrage believers, who would deny absolutely that religion makes any sense without the belief in God, in fact God himself, at the centre. You can feel this outrage in Terry Eagleton’s splenetic dismissal of Religion for Atheists in the Guardian, where he called it the book “banal”, and de Botton “impudent”. An interesting choice of words, as it suggests that de Botton, like a naughty school boy scrumping apples from the vicarage orchard, wants to have the benefits of religion without making any of the sacrifices. He wants, Eagleton implies, grace on the cheap. He has a point. De Botton’s emphasis throughout is in taking what is useful, good and fun from religion without much emphasis on what requires hard work or sacrifice. His version of religion is all carrot – guilt-free sex, improving art, community – no stick.
In place, for example, of Christianity’s focus on the poor and the needy, and of the responsibility to care for the stranger and the small chance of heavenly reward for the rich (notwithstanding the blithe hypocrisy the Christian churches generally display about these precepts), we get a level of relaxation about riches that would make even Lord Mandelson blush: “Religion is the ultimate advertisement for the unity between worldy and spiritual power. The modern left view is that the guy in the castle is a monster and if I shake his hand or have lunch with him I will be contaminated. But Christianity has the idea that the knight in the castle is not evil, but his soul is lost, and I will knock on his door and get him to contribute to the church to save his soul.”
He expresses admiration for the Jesuits, those soul-stealers of the Vatican, and admits to being fascinated by their ambition to place a priest with every rich and powerful family in Europe, so they could dine with the parents and evangelise their children. At one point he compares his own public profile with that of an old-style academic philosopher who might be able to write a book about the need for more elegant public buildings “but they are not going to meet Stuart Lipton, the chairman of Chelsfield property developers who might be able to make it happen.”
De Botton has every reason to be relaxed about wealth, of course. He is himself a wealthy man (in another of his trigger-happy rebukes to a critic who accused him of bankrolling his writing career with the £200 million left to him by his father, he responded that he had nothing of the sort and, in fact, he was checking his bank account right then and it registered not even £8 million, and much of this had come from book sales). Not that being rich invalidates your arguments, but it might have the tendency to orient your thinking toward issues like how to find a job you love or improving dinner party conversation, or building temples to perspective, which might be considered marginal by people whose own perspective is that they can’t afford dinner and can’t find a job.
This combination of Jesuitical zeal, the 19th-century do-goodery implied by his emphasis on morality and self-improvement, his belief that secularism needs to be institutionalised and scheduled and his pally-ness with money men conjures a vision of a kind of global secular conglomerate – GodlessGloboCorp, a counter-Catholic Church, overseen by a hybrid of Dr Pangloss and Rupert Murdoch. I didn’t just pluck this name out of the air. On 22 January Murdoch sent the following message to his Twitter followers: “Just read Religion for Atheists. Great writing, thoughtful, disturbing. Highly recommend.”
Alain de Botton is not a dislikeable man. He is charming and has good manners. His clothes are clean, as is his apartment (so clean in fact, with no sign of the usual detritus associated with small children – he has two – that it leads you to suspect that it is a spacious office, masquerading as a flat). His book is not dislikeable either. It’s full of good ideas, clearly expressed. Certainly universities and art galleries could do with a shake-up and his emphasis on a hopeful pessimism as a starting point is a useful corrective to techno utopian boosterism.
If I were to sum it up I’d say it was a quintessentially humanist book. Many of these ideas are familiar from the ongoing debate within humanism about what can be taken from religious traditions, for example in the work of Richard Norman and Julian Baggini. In this respect, despite the attention-grabbing tower and orgy proposals, there is nothing very new here.
Where he gets it wrong, in my view, is that he both overestimates and underestimates religion. In terms of building community, encouraging contemplation, shared mealtimes and useful hints for living life he concedes too much ground to religion, and overlooks all the ways these things happen every day, in schools and universities, museums and community centres, online and down the pub. He seems to take as read the ancient canard that atheist life lacks meaning, community or joy. Likewise our secular shelves are groaning with “guidance”, only it’s wrapped up in the sugar coating of plot and character and excitement, and disguised as a novel or a film or a book of poetry. For those who like their life lessons complex and find them in art that is rich and ambivalent and disturbing, the literalism of Religion for Atheists will be welcomed with as much enthusiasm as any other self-help manual promising to heal your life, find your soul mate or help you drop two dress sizes.
Where de Botton underestimates religion is in its power as narrative. Religions have almost unlimited resources of drama; the Holy Books are a huge repository of conflict and nastiness – a vengeful, capricious God, hubristic kings, duplicitous apostles, poor, innocent, suffering Job. They’ve got the devil, hell and apocalypse. De Botton thinks these all function as simple lessons, in how to be good and avoid evil, but they are far more subtle and variegated and fascinating than that. The idea of divinity itself, while we may reject it as a fact, is a hugely rich area for exploring what it is to be mortal. Which is to say that the philosophical ideas of religion are powerful – they continue to hold sway over a majority of the world’s population, after all – and we cannot strip them so easily from the material forms in which religion has manifested itself.
Nor should we want to. To try and remake religion with the bad bits taken out is like trying to remake Star Wars with no Darth Vader and Tom Hanks as Emperor Palatine. And, anyway, hasn’t that already been tried by the Church of England? The world of de Botton’s Religion for Atheists is a very polite, ordered, wholesome sort of world but it’s a bloodless book, muesli for the mind. He wants a kind of Health and Safety heathenism that transcends conflict. But religion represents something bigger, darker, with which those of us who are non-believers need to struggle. It’s a dialectic, and a necessary and productive disagreement.
Interestingly, the book makes no mention at all of Islam. De Botton justifies this by saying that it was such a political hot potato that he left it out. “There has been a lot of intolerance from Islam and then a lot of intolerance from people attacking it. I thought the best response was to ignore it.” But to try and reach a grand synthesis of religious form and secular content by ignoring where they clash, surely, is no way to heal the world.
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton is published by Hamish Hamilton
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