Three Monkeys Online

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Religion for Atheists – Alain de Botton Interview

Most established religions strictly forbid the picking and choosing of elements to adhere to from within their theology. Essentially Religion for Atheists suggests precisly that, to take the best elements from religion and include them in secular life. Are their dangers, though, in that selectivity – could the religious be correct in stressing that the values, rituals, and institutional structures work best for society only when taken together as a whole?

I don’t see the dangers. Once you are a non-believer, it’s no more of a risk to select from among religions than it is to pick from above novels. Just as one can pick Jane Austen and Thomas Pynchon and Anne Rice, so one should be able to look at desire in Zen, guilt in Catholicism and atonement in Judaism. There is no need to commit to one creed, any more than there is to commit to one artist or philosopher.

On the same theme, talking about institutions and scale, comparing the scope of churches vs corporations, you write ‘it is a failing of historic proportions, for instance, that BMW’s concern for rigour and precision has ended so conclusively at the bumpers of its cars rather than stretching to the founding of a school or of a political party’ Is it a historic failing though? Doesn’t combining industrial production with moral and ethical instruction flirt dangerously with fascism?

I dont’ see the connection – what I am pointing to is that 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.

If you were to create a list of the most inspiring and influential people for you, using both religious and secular people (to use a crude distinction), which side of the list would be heavier do you think?

Probably the religious, simply because for most of human history, people have been religious. But it isn’t necessarily the religious bit of them I care about. I love Montaigne, but not because of his faith.

In the context of religious architecture, which you discuss in the book, what do you think of the New York 9/11 memorial designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker?

I don’t know this work, but I do believe a great many religious buildings are powerful works of architecture: even committed atheists like myself recognise that many cathedrals, mosques, temples and churches are extremely successful and beguiling as buildings. The religious explanation for this power has often invoked God in the creative process. Medieval Cathedral builders quite literally believed that the hand of God was guiding them in their extraordinary creations.

As an atheist, I can’t believe in the supernatural explanations for the greatness of religious architecture. I analyse the power in terms of such features as mass, scale, material, sound, air quality and so on.

My suggestion is that contemporary architecture look more closely at the examples of religious architecture, in order to give their buildings some of the qualities that are most appealling in religious buildings; to put it bluntly, in order that these effects not reside only in the cul-de-sac of religious architecture. I want secular buildings that also create feelings of awe, gratitude, wonder, mystery and silence. Very few of them currently do, some of course, but few.

The architects I have come across who have already been at work on this, and very brilliantly, are Louis Kahn, Tadao Ando and Peter Zumthor. In the world of art, James Turrell has explored similar ground – as did Mark Rothko, with his astonishing Rothko Chapel in Texas.

What unites Kahn, Ando, Zumthor and Turrell is that they know how to create abstracted sonorous spaces that take us out of the everyday and encourage contemplation, perspective and (at times) a pleasing terror. Especially in the work of Turrell, science is not far from the surface as a tool for generating such effects. It’s about playing with scale, and confronting us with a new perspective on ourselves. The dividing line between museum, observatory and meditation chamber are blurred in fascinating ways.

Amongst the many topics you explore in the book is marriage, and you give a reasoned and favourable light to the context that religious traditions place on it. I’m curious then, to hear what you think of the ongoing debate about whether homosexuals should have the right to marry?

I think that sexual orientation isn’t the issue and homosexuals should be able to marry – the point is accepting that all relationships are deeply flawed and will be sorely tested by life. A realism about love is found in many religions, and yet not often in the secular world. I like that religions give us angels to worship – but lovers to tolerate.

If you could unread any book- for any reason, which one would it be?

I have no deep regrets in this area!

Reading through the index, and scanning through the book (with the marvels of e-reading) there are two words that I would love to have found – ‘feminism’ and ‘patriarchy’. When talking about adapting or adopting religious rituals/structures, particularly from the three great mono-theistic religions, isn’t it important to take into account patriarchy, and how many of these rituals/traditions have deliberately excluded or demoted the role of women?

My book doesn’t generally discuss the failings of religion – not because I’m not aware of them, but because the book is a study of what there is to steal from in religion. We definitely shouldn’t be tempted to be inspired by religions’ attitudes to women – this is a serious weak point for all of them. The failings of religion are so many and so well known: the challenge for me, as an atheist is: where are the good things, what is there to learn from?

The book is very much about what atheists can take from religion. Is there scope for another book, atheism for religious believers?

Absolutely, but this wouldn’t be one I would write. I couldn’t write it.

Let’s imagine, with God-like power, that you can take one – but only one – religious element and import it into a secular setting. What would you choose and why?

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’s Religion for Atheists is published by Hamish Hamilton

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