Alain de Botton is on a Crusade to Make Atheism Smarter: An Interview

Steal the ideas of Buddhism's reincarnation, Catholism's confessions, and Islam's pilgrimage to Mecca, and combine them however you want to create your own jumbled yet customized guidelines for navigating in today's modern world. That's basically the...

Feb 22 2012, 7:00pm

Steal the ideas of Buddhism’s reincarnation, Catholism’s confessions, and Islam’s pilgrimage to Mecca, and combine them however you want to create your own jumbled yet customized guidelines for navigating in today’s modern world. That’s basically the advice the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton offers in his new book Religion for Atheists.

Today’s conversation around atheism is marked by a fierceness that tends to rival the celestial ideology of nutcase extremists. Usually the discussion centers around the arguments of Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, known for their vociferous criticism of religion and confrontational approach. Enter de Botton, a gentler kind of god skeptic whose latest book exposes the gaps in religion without throwing it away, and sheds light on atheism’s shades of grey, describing it as a kind of wiki-based bricolage of our favorite ideas from various faiths.

But De Botton, who since Proust Can Save Your Life and The Architecture of Happiness and various film projects, has become the modern age’s best-selling philosopher, recently stirred up his own controversy by announcing provisional plans to build a temple for atheists in the center of London. (He since backed off the idea.) I emailed him to talk about what the hell is wrong with how we talk about atheism, why religion’s good, and what modern art can learn from stained glass windows.

Motherboard: What do you think is wrong with the conversation around atheism today, the conversation that’s already been popularized by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

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.

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.

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.

The Cologne Dome window, by Gerhard Richter (Credit: Designboom)

How do you reconcile those two impulses in your book?

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 am simply wanting 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.

What’s that religious nostalgia about?

Like many people, of course I feel nostalgic. How is it possible not to feel nostalgic when you look at 15th century 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 religion, we should learn from them. We should steal from them.

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, organisations, directed to managing our inner life. There is nothing like this in the secular world, and this seems a huge pity.

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. 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.

I’m reminded of that Margaret Thatcher quote about the danger of standing in the middle of the road — "You get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.” How does your book offer a comfort zone for those who are neither hard-headed atheists nor devout believers?

I love those dangerous middles. I love advancing rather unusual but in fact essential ideas.

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. 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.

Does religion have something to teach us about how to deal with this odd future we live in?

The real reminder of religion in terms of technology is our need to be free of distraction for certain periods. Hence the invention of monasteries. We’re rediscovering the benefits of silence and our need for it.

To what extent does the Internet facilitate or impede your productivity as a writer?

It is a massive distraction. I wish it had never been invented.

How much time did you spend on the web today? And what did you do?

About an hour, mostly on Twitter and Facebook, where I have lively communities.

In your book, you explain how religion cements our communities. But how do these technologies provide us with a real sense of community?

There is a feeling of community but it’s not as real as a church, say, because churches don’t gather people by interests, they do so by geography. They turn the unknown stranger into a friend. The web tends to connect you only by shared dispositions.

You and I met randomly on Twitter over a common love for museums. Do you see museums functioning the way places of worship once did?

You often hear it said that ‘musems of art are our new churches.’ In other words, in a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion. It’s an intriguing idea, part of the broader ambition that culture should replace scripture, but in practice art museums often abdicate much of their potential to function as new churches (places of consolation, meaning, sanctuary, redemption) through the way they handle the collections entrusted to them. While exposing us to objects of genuine importance, they nevertheless seem unable to frame them in a way that links them powerfully to our inner needs.

The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because Modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture. To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as ‘reductive’. We have too easily swallowed the Modernist idea that art which aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be ‘bad art’ (Soviet art is routinely trotted out here as an example) and that only art which wants nothing too clearly of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean?

Why should this veneration of ambiguity continue? Why should confusion be a central aesthetic emotion? Is an emptiness of intent on the part of an artwork really a sign of its importance?

If museums were churches, they’d be structured like this.

So then how does religion remind us of the purpose of art?

Christianity, by contrast, never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. Such art is extremely simple at the level of its purpose, however complex and subtle it is at the level of its execution (i.e. Titian). Christian art amounts to a range of geniuses saying such incredibly basic but extremely vital things as: ‘Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like.’ ‘Look at that painting of the cross if you want a lesson in courage’. ‘Look at that Last Supper to train yourself not to be a coward and a liar’. The crucial point is that the simplicity of the message implies nothing whatsoever about the quality of the work itself as a piece of art. Instead of refuting instrumentalism by citing the case of Soviet art, we could more convincingly defend it with reference to Mantegna and Bellini.

This leads to a suggestion: what if modern museums of art kept in mind the example of the didactic function of Christian art, in order once in a while to reframe how they presented their collections? Would it ruin a Rothko to highlight for an audience the function that Rothko himself declared that he hoped his art would have — that of allowing the viewer a moment of communion around an echo of the suffering of our species?

Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose — to make us a bit more sane, or slightly good once in a while, or a little wiser and kinder — and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so? Perhaps art shouldn’t be ‘for art’s sake,’ one of the most misunderstood, unambitious and sterile of all aesthetic slogans. Why couldn’t art be, as it was in religious eras, more explicitly for something?

What advice do you have for museum curators and designers, if they want to better nourish our wellbeing?

Modern art museums typically lead us into galleries set out under headings such as ‘The Nineteenth Century’ and ‘The Northern Italian School’, which reflect the academic traditions in which their curators have been educated. A more fertile indexing system might group together artworks from across genres and eras according to our inner needs. A walk through a museum of art should amount to a structured encounter with a few of the things which are easiest for us to forget and most essential and life-enhancing to remember.

The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology. Curators should attempt to put aside their deep-seated fears of instrumentalism and once in a while co-opt works of art to an ambition of helping us to get through life. Only then would museums be able to claim that they had properly fulfilled the excellent but as yet elusive ambition of in part becoming substitutes for churches in a rapidly secularising society.

One last thing: How does it feel to be, arguably, the world’s most famous modern philosopher?

There are plenty of far better candidates than me for that weighty job.

We’re giving away a copy of Religion for Atheists on Twitter. Spread this story on Twitter and we’ll pick a winner at random on Friday._

Aaronson is the founder of the website Babes At The Museum