When religion and atheisim collide, at least in the columns of most newspapers and magazines, the arguments usually boil down to the essentials of faith vs reason; to whether religious belief has a place in secular society; to the supposed intolerance of the ‘new atheism’ or to whether atheism is in itself merely a sophisticated cult. These arguments have been treated in depth elsewhere – for example by Sam Harris or Benedict XVI. Alain de Botton’s latest book, Religion for Atheists, bypasses these arguments suggesting that there are more interesting, or less scrutinised themes to discuss in this field. Drawing back the veil of organised religion, de Botton, an atheist himself, suggests that leaving aside the issue of the supernatural, there are many important tools for a healthy and humane secular society that can be salvaged from the world’s great religions.
De Botton was kind enough to accept an interview (his second for TMO), via email, to discuss the book.
It seems that a cornerstone presumption of the book is that we are living in a ‘secular age’ – is this true though? Is it imaginable, for example, that an open atheist could be elected President of the United States? Religious observance may be down in many countries, but scratch the surface (in terms of educational and social policy, for example) and secularism is often highly contested. Does that impact on the message of the book?
My feeling is that despite a quirk of US electoral politics that requires a president to profess belief, the world is moving in a secular direction. By this I mean that our explanations for why things have happened and should happen have less and less to do with religious or supernatural explanations. The world is becoming ‘disenchanted’. Of course, people still believe, they may even believe in greater numbers – but our account of the functioning of the world is coming under an ever greater secular rationale.
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…
In a similar vein, how fair is it to ascribe the societal failings that you point out in the book to atheism? Perhaps one of the problems is how we define atheism, so let’s talk a moment about atheism – how do you define it?
I define atheism as an absence of belief in any thing supernatural. I don’t believe that atheism has in itself done too much harm – but I believe that secular society has generally forgotten all kinds of important lessons that reside in religion.
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 loose 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…
Religion by its nature is complex and often contradictory. While writing the book did you find any of your attitudes/beliefs changing? Do you feel the same about it as you did before you started or has the process of writing the book affected your position in any way?
My ideas on religion and ethics have become bolder. I now believe that ethical instruction needs to follow a more religious model – even for non-believers. We are too easily frightened here. So often, anytime that someone proposes a valid idea in the area of ethical instruction, 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 shouldnt’ always be so unambitious about what we can do.
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.
Religion and its place in post-Enlightenment society has enjoyed and suffered much criticism – not least of which comes from the likes of Richard Dawkins. How do you feel about his work- especially since you seem to be arguing for almost the opposite?
My feeling is that Dawkins and others forget the wisdom that is contained in the structure of religion. Religions are perhaps at their weakest at the level of ideas, but strongest at the level of organisation and ritual. 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 agree 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.