Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists

First aired on Q (7/3/12)

woman-praying-175.jpgAlain de Botton has written on subjects ranging from architecture and travel to love and happiness. With his new book, Religion for Atheists, the bestselling author and thinker sets himself in the middle of one of the most heated issues of our time: the debate between religious believers and atheists.

As a self-proclaimed atheist, de Botton isn't interested in debating God's existence. But he thinks that nonbelievers should value and in fact adopt some aspects of religious practices. He discussed his controversial views, and the response to Religion for Atheists, in a recent interview on Q.

"My starting point is people like me, who can't believe but nevertheless are attracted to aspects of religions, the ethical side, the guidance side, the art, the architecture, the rituals," de Botton told host Jian Ghomeshi.

"Up till now, the choice has always seemed to be either you believe, and that means swallowing all sorts of doctrinal issues that you might not get along with and then you get all the sort of nice secondary bits, or you can't believe and then you're cut off from a whole lot of things that actually I think human beings need: a sense of community, a sense of guidance, of meaning, an ethical framework, et cetera," de Botton explained.

De Botton compares his approach to religion to browsing at a buffet where you can "pick the best bits." He admits that religious people will object to this , saying you can't treat faith that way. But for nonbelievers, de Botton pointed out, "it's no more or less a buffet than most of literature or art or any kind of human structure. You know, we all create playlists when it comes to music or books. What I'm arguing is that we should be able to do the same thing when it comes to the history of religions ... There's lots of stuff you wouldn't want to touch, but there's lots of good stuff too."

In his book, de Botton argues that secular society has been impoverished by a rejection of religion. "Modern society's got problems with creating community, we've got a problem with ethical guidance, we've got an overall problem with the notion that life is something that we might need interventions to know how to deal with," he said.

De Botton sees particular value in the ethical framework that religions offer. "Qualities like goodness and forgiveness and kindness are things that we all sign up to in theory, but in practice we forget," he said. "One way to look at religion is as a series of reminders about ethical behaviour."

De Botton has drawn fierce criticism from believers and nonbelievers for the views espoused in his book, but it doesn't faze him. "Most people believe because of a vulnerability, a feeling of vulnerability. And I think we all feel that vulnerability," he explained. "My question to atheists is, okay, so you don't believe, but what are you doing with your vulnerability? And from my vulnerability, I'm asking questions."

De Botton said that he's been made curious about how religious practices deal with what he calls "soul-related needs." He thinks there is worth in examining "the very structured, disciplined, time-worn way in which they've addressed these human needs. And those needs haven't gone away."

He elaborated: "My suggestion is that we need to infuse atheistic, secular life with many more practices and rituals...we should be learning how to live and die properly, without the help of religion, but paradoxically, as I say, it's the proper study of religion that will help to get us there."

religion for atheists.jpg

Religion for Atheists

by Alain de Botton

Buy this book at:

Save on Music, Books and Dvds at Indigo

From the publisher:

" From the author of The Architecture of Happiness, a deeply moving meditation on how we can still benefit, without believing, from the wisdom, the beauty, and the consolatory power that religion has to offer.

Alain de Botton was brought up in a committedly atheistic household, and though he was powerfully swayed by his parents' views, he underwent, in his mid-twenties, a crisis of faithlessness. His feelings of doubt about atheism had their origins in listening to Bach's cantatas, were further developed in the presence of certain Bellini Madonnas, and became overwhelming with an introduction to Zen architecture. However, it was not until his father's death -- buried under a Hebrew headstone in a Jewish cemetery because he had intriguingly omitted to make more secular arrangements -- that Alain began to face the full degree of his ambivalence regarding the views of religion that he had dutifully accepted..."