One of the premises of your book is that living without God is dangerous, can you explain why?

In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to lose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.

Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I simply want to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what is missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely. By all means, we can dismiss him, but with great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought.

 

Is it possible to be a good person without religion?

The problem of the man without religion is that he forgets. We all know in theory what we should do to be good. The problem is that in practice, we forget. And we forget because the modern secular world always thinks that it is enough to tell someone something once (be good, remember the poor etc.) But all religions disagree here: they insist that if anyone is to stand a chance of remembering anything, they need reminders on a daily, perhaps even hourly basis.

 

What do you think of the aggressive atheism we have seen in the past few years?

I am an atheist, but a gentle one. I don’t feel the need to mock anyone who believes. I really disagree with the hard tone of some atheists who approach religion like a silly fairy tale. I am deeply respectful of religion, but I believe none of its supernatural aspects. So my position is perhaps unusual: I am at once very respectful and completely impious.

 

What is it you’re most interested in with regards to religion?

The secular world believes that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them just when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure that we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are: they are attempts to make vivid to us things we already know, but are likely to have forgotten. Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore, we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too: this was always the great genius of Catholicism. If you want to change someone’s ideas, don’t only concentrate on their ideas, concentrate on their whole selves.

 

Is it really possible to distinguish, as you do, between faith and the “technicalities” of religion? To reject faith and to save something similar to pray, church, religious rituals?

I absolutely believe that this is possible. I am writing for the sort of reader who thinks, ‘I really can’t believe in anything supernatural, the supernatural side of religion is impossible for me BUT I love so much here: the ritual, the architecture, the music, the connection with the past…’ Why should we be forced to make such a brutal choice? Why is it ‘either you have to believe in all kinds of implausible things, but then you get some great architecture etc.’ OR, you believe in nothing supernatural, and you are then cast out into a world dominated by IKEA and CNN… The choice doesn’t have to be so brutal.

 

You also propose to reform schools and universities to teach humans how to deal with, not knowledge, but the most important existential problems, loneliness, pain and death for example. You even propose to abolish the teaching of history and literature, two basic humanities. Why? Is knowledge so unimportant? Can existential lessons be taught at school?

The starting point of religion is that we are children, and we need guidance. The secular world often gets offended by this. It assumes that all adults are mature — and therefore, it hates didacticism, it hates the idea of guidance and moral instruction. But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. And yet the modern education system denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control. We are far more desperate than the modern education system recognises. All of us are on the edge of panic and terror pretty much all the time – and religions recognise this. We need to build a similar awareness into secular structures.

 

Are you nostalgic for the deeply religious past?

Like many people, of course, I feel nostalgic. How is it possible not to feel nostalgic when you look at 15th frescoes or the rituals of an ancient carnival? However, we have to ask: how should I respond to my nostalgia? My thought is that we can use it creatively, as the basis for a rebirth, for the creation of new things, for the creation of things that later generations will feel nostalgic about… So it frustrates me when people say things like, “Well, they knew how to build in the 15th century, now it is impossible…” Why? Anything is possible. We should not sigh nostalgically over religions, we should learn from them. We should steal from them.

 

How do religions teach us?

Religions are fascinating because they are giant machines for making ideas vivid and real in people’s lives: ideas about goodness, about death, family, community etc. Nowadays, we tend to believe that the people who make ideas vivid are artists and cultural figures, but this is such a small, individual response to a massive set of problems. So I am deeply interested in the way that religions are, in the end, institutions, giant machines and organisations directed to managing our inner life. There is nothing like this in the secular world, and this seems a huge pity.

 

You say that our society lacks of collective rituals, a network of secular churches, of vast high spaces in which to escape from the hubbub of modern society and to focus on all that is beyond us. But what about the fact that whichever society tried to create an effective kind of propaganda in the name of virtue was, after the French revolution, a totalitarian regime in which the state itself became god?

We are too easily frightened here. So often, any time that someone proposes a valid idea in this area, people say, “But what about Hitler, or Stalin…?” This is not the choice. We can have public morality without fascism, we can even have certain kinds of censorship (for example, of pornography) without dictatorship, we can have great civic architecture which isn’t done by governments for their own glory. It is right that people have been scared by certain tendencies in the 20th century, but we shouldn’t always be so unambitious about what we can do. We don’t need to abandon ourselves to free market capitalism under the spiritual leadership of cable television.

Much of modern moral thought has been transfixed by the idea that a collapse in belief must have irreparably damaged our capacity to build a convincing ethical framework for ourselves. But this argument, while apparently atheistic in nature, owes a strange, unwarranted debt to a religious mindset – for only if we truly believed at some level that God did exist, and that the foundations of morality were therefore in their essence supernatural, would the recognition of his nonexistence have any power to shake our moral principles.

However, if we assume from the start that we of course made God up, then the argument rapidly breaks down into a tautology – for why would we bother to feel burdened by ethical doubt if we knew that the many rules ascribed to supernatural beings were actually only the work of our all-too human ancestors?

The origins of religious ethics lie in the pragmatic need of our earliest communities to control their members’ tendencies towards violence, and to foster in them contrary habits of harmony and forgiveness. Religious codes began as cautionary precepts, which were then projected into the sky and reflected back to earth in disembodied and majestic forms. Injunctions to be sympathetic or patient stemmed from an awareness that these were the qualities which could draw societies back from fragmentation and self-destruction. So vital were these rules to our survival that for thousands of years we did not dare to admit that we ourselves had formulated them, lest this expose them to critical scrutiny and irreverent handling. We had to pretend that morality came from the heavens in order to insulate it from our own prevarications and frailties.

But if we can now own up to spiritualising our ethical laws, we have no cause to do away with the laws themselves. We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so. We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of Hell or the promise of Paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves – that is, the most mature and reasonable parts of us (seldom present in the midst of our crises and obsessions) – who want to lead the sort of lives which we once imagined supernatural beings demanded of us. An adequate evolution of morality from superstition to reason should mean recognising ourselves as the authors of our own moral commandments.

 

If we were to replace religion with a secular equivalent, who would be our gurus? 

We don’t need a central structure. We are beyond the age of gurus and inspirational leaders. We are in the age of the Wiki structure. This means that it is up to all of us to look at religion and see what bits we can steal and place into the modern world. We might all contribute to the construction of new temples, not the government, but the concerned, interested individual. The salvation of the individual soul remains a serious problem – even when we dismiss the idea of God. In the 20th century, capitalism has really solved (in the rich West) the material problems of a significant portion of mankind. But the spiritual needs are still in chaos, with religion ceasing to answer the need. This is why I wrote my book, to show that there remains a new way: a way of filling the modern world with so many important lessons from religion, and yet not needing to return to any kind of occult spirituality.

 

Don’t you think that, in order to truly appreciate religious music and art, you have to be a believer – or, at least, don’t you think that non-believers miss something important in the experience?

I am interested in the modern claim that we have now found a way to replace religion: with art. You often hear people say, ‘Museums are our new churches’. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not true, and it’s principally not true because of the way that museums are laid out and present art. They prevent anyone from having an emotional relationship with the works on display. They encourage an academic interest, but prevent a more didactic and therapeutic kind of contact. I recommend in my book that even if we don’t believe, we learn to use art (even secular art) as a resource for comfort, identification, guidance and edification, very much what religions do with art.

 

____________________

 

ALAIN De BOTTON is the author of essays on themes ranging from love and travel to architecture and philosophy. His most recent work, Religion for Atheists, came out in March on 2012. His best-selling books include How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Art of Travel and The Architecture of Happiness. He lives in London, where he is the founder and chairman of The School of Life  and the creative director of Living Architecture. Visit him at: www.alaindebotton.com.

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TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others.  Our editorial team includes:  SETH FISCHER is the Nonfiction Editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere, and he was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus. His nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has been awarded fellowships by Jentel, the Ucross Foundation, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. He is also a developmental editor of nonfiction and fiction, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

12 responses to “Alain de Botton: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. I’ve always consider atheism as a faith in itself. (I’m going to state for the record that I, too, am an atheist.) It seems to me that as one could never disprove the existence of any of humanity’s gods (in the same way that you could not disprove the existence of nearly anything) that to assert that there is no god is a leap in faith, much like the leap in faith required to believe in something. If I were an “aggressive atheist” then I’d probably end up calling myself an agnostic because to be truly logical and rational (as these people claim to be; whilst dismissing anyone with any belief as the opposite) you couldn’t make the assertion that a god doesn’t exist. You could only point out that it’s highly unlikely.

  2. Chris Farmer says:

    This is a really good piece. I particularly like the part where De Botton talks about assuming from the start that we of course made God up. I am personally less interested in the ethical aspect of religion or spirituality than I am in the aesthetic or sublime qualities, but often think that the sense that life or being should be elevated to a state holiness is more important than the actual material existence of God, that a sense of divinity as an interpretation of life is an essential element of happiness and serenity.

    I must say though that I am disappointed that the interviewer didn’t press De Botton for further justification of his proposal that teaching of history and literature should be abolished. That seems to me quite preposterous.

  3. Kevin says:

    “At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything.”

    I’ve always believed religion has always placed humanity at the center of the universe, while the lack of it (which I have), allows one to realize that they’re just one small cog in the giant machine of the universe. When you don’t believe that there’s a particular god with a specific purpose in mind for you, you realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you.

  4. Sid Schwab says:

    To say atheism is a form of religion is like saying not-swimming is a form of swimming. (That’s a parenthetical comment). As an atheist, for some reason I find it sort of insulting; but I’ll admit I’m not sure why.

    Anyhow, my main point is that I find Mr de Botton’s work a sort of sophistry. It boils down to acknowledging that humans are really frail creatures, who need to make up fantastical explanations for what they see of the world, rather than face the reality of it. His is an argument that if you take away their fantasies, they’ll feel really bad. Which is demonstrably true, of course; but it’s either saying something nearly tautologically meaningless, or something about which, short of waiting for a thousand more generations to evolve, nothing can be done but describe it.

    Until recently, I’d not felt the need to point out to people the contradictory and illogical nature of their beliefs. Belief is, by definition, illogical; so what’s the point of pointing it out? But lately, in the US anyway, the march toward theocracy is beginning to have ill effects: it’s removing science from schoolhouses; it’s affecting critical national policy, whether in the arena of human rights or of addressing climate change. It’s making us a fourth-rate nation, unable to compete in the world. So I part company with those that, like de Botton, argue that atheists should just chill, and let believers have their beliefs. As a surgeon, who’s seen the benefit of religion (both to myself and to patients and families) when facing devastating illness, I say that with mixed feelings. If religion were to stay where it belongs — namely, in one’s heart — and to do what it’s designed (yes, designed) to do — namely, to help us feel better when faced with reality — I’d have no problem with it, or with those telling atheists to cool it. But it seems to me the stakes are high enough, politically, that it’s worth speaking out.

    I don’t claim that the so-called “new” atheism is having any sort of effect in preventing the evidently inevitable takeover of our democracy by theocrats; but I don’t think they should stop pointing out what’s happening. On the other hand, given the human frailties to which Mr de Botton would have us defer, and which aren’t going away anytime soon, as the world gets more and more complex and increasingly threatening, it’s a losing battle. Denialism will win, because of who we are.

  5. Ben says:

    Most religious people seem to think they’re on a cosmic stage or are part of a grand plan. Contrary to the author’s contention, most religions are very anthrocentric. Without religion, there’s a realization that our world and everything in it (including us) is a random spec in a vast, complex, and chaotic universe. Not sure how that’s placing mankind or individuals on “the center stage of everything”.

  6. Andrew Glasgow says:

    Seems to me like religious people forget how to be good far more often than nonreligious people. Check the prisons — atheists are vastly underrepresented there. Believing in god didn’t help the roman catholic priests remember not to rape children. It doesn’t help the religiously-oriented terrorist organizations the world-over to remember not to kill people; in fact, it helps them remember just how important killing people is to God. Because God loves him some killin’. That’s pretty obvious from the Bible.

    Atheism isn’t a worldview or an overall system of faith. It’s just lack of belief. Secular Humanism, however, is such a system of belief and its beliefs include: Humans are just a vastly improbable outcome of a contingent, stochastic process that happened on one world in a vast universe, so we shouldn’t expect the universe to change itself on our accord. Religion, by contrast, is responsible for beliefs such as that God created all the stars, all the galaxies and superclusters and supercluster-clusters, so that we could have a pretty night sky to look at. Pretty foolish.

    One could certainly be excused for believing that science cannot solve all our problems. After all, ever since science, separate from religion, began actually solving people’s problems, religion has been loudly insisting this, so people raised with religion tend to be indoctrinated in this belief from a young age. It can be very hard to let go what you’ve long believed. But if science (or more generally – rationalist thought based on evidence and logic, rather than emotion and wishful thinking) cannot solve our problems, then our problems are unsolvable. Religion cannot solve anything, has never solved anything, and will never solve anything.

  7. Joel Wheeler says:

    “For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything.”

    I hope that the author does not mean to suggest that religious narratives do not carry this danger as well. If a story in which the Creator of the Universe loves the human being so much that He sacrifices Himself to save him, and everything hinges on human salvation, doesn’t “place the human being at the center of everything”, then I fail to see how a Godless narrative that acknowledges the smallness of human life does.

  8. M. says:

    All of these words, so pretty. And yet… we look at the world, and do we see these dangers? Are atheists behaving worse than believers in God? Are they “forgetting” important things more often than believers forget them?

    The answer – the objective answer, measurable, quantifiable – is a resounding “no.”

    So what we end up with is yet another self-described atheist who is sad that he does not have the capacity to believe in something that does not exist; and who thinks, contrary to all evidence, that such beliefs improve human beings in any capacity.

    For those who value truth, failure to believe in something true is no worse than believing in something untrue.

  9. John__C says:

    My view is that atheism isn’t a religion, but rather an indifference to religious constructs of the universe. As such, calling atheism a “religion” is a paradox: how can you subscribe to that which you are indifferent to?

    “Thirdly, without God, it is easier to lose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements…

    I simply cannot agree with this statement. After all, it was religion that was hostile to astronomical discoveries that the Earth was not the center of the universe. It is religion which perpetuates the belief that human beings were deliberately placed on the earth in present form to control it and use it to the advantage of humanity. And it is religious fanatics who regularly claim that the Book of Revelations was written with the present day in mind.

    When scientists point out that the earth is but a small corner of an inconceivably large universe, where human beings evolved through chance over millions of years, and where the earth will eventually be swallowed up by the sun billions of years from now, they are frequently derided in American life as “secular humanists.”

  10. A Hermit says:

    “For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything.”

    I would argue that placing something else, like religious belief or political ideology, at the centre stage is far more dangerous. If we make humanity our centre we are less likely to behave inhumanely…making something else central makes humanity expendable.

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