I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists.
De Botton’s big idea is that the least interesting thing about religion is whether its claims about God are true. We should be more interested in the fact that religions have had a couple of thousand years of experience of understanding and guiding human nature through art, ceremony, and moral codes and through the social interactions that come from sitting together for a couple of hours every Sunday. Religions also make a big deal of celebrating life’s important events and the passage of the seasons.
It’s true that we don’t actually need religion for any of those things. Secular art can be beautiful; we can get our social interactions at a football match on a Saturday afternoon or at quiz night at the pub every Tuesday and there are plenty of non-religious ways to celebrate the seasons. The trouble is: we don’t though. Not really.
Secular artists broke free of the shackles of religion in the 19th century but when was the last time you were truly inspired by a painting? Was it painted in the last 50 years? I didn’t think so. In theory, there is plenty of secular inspiration to be had—De Botton cites Jane Austin and Shakespeare—but they don’t really bring us together the way the Bible or the Ramayana used to.
Earlier this month, I stumbled across an interview with Alain de Botton on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast where he expands on some of these ideas.
De Botton observes that much of what we think of as typically Christian was originally pilfered from pagan culture—not just Christmas trees and Saturnalia; philosophy and ethics too—and it’s about time we took some of it back.
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 non-believers 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.
Alain de Botton founded The School of Life to lead this recolonisation effort.
The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm, and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.
From On Being.
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 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 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.
At The School of Life’s non-church, they hear sermons, sing hymns and enjoy a nice cup of tea afterwards.
MS. TIPPETT: 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.
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.”
I have to confess that Jerusalem is one of my favourite songs and I can barely make it through the third verse because I get choked up at the bit about bows of burning gold and arrows of desire. It’s an amazing song.
I think it’s important to sing the original words to sacred hymns like Jerusalem and to not bowdlerise away the religious bits. How profound to wonder, as Blake did, “Was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen?”. And how inspiring to pledge to build a new Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land? Would Odysseus’s adventure be as compelling without the mythical creatures? Would Frodo’s tale be so memorable without the immortality of the Elves? Christian mythology has some great stories too. Let’s keep them and learn from them.
The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings are both moral tales but we don’t really talk about morality in public any more and the hole left by the absence of morality has been filled by commercialism. De Botton would have us reclaim that space too.
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.
For de Botton, morality is about how we interact with other people and how we deal with the difficult challenges that life confronts us with. We should make more of an effort to learn about life’s lessons together.
MR. DE BOTTON: 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.
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.
Much of the dissonance between religion and secular life comes about because religion has hijacked many of the words that we use to talk about morality and meaning. Words like soul, spirit and sin are rarely used in a secular setting. But the words are important and should still be significant even if put aside their supernatural meanings.
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.