Alain De Botton: What Can Atheism Learn From Religion?

Aug 23, 2019
Originally published on September 5, 2019 6:49 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Believers and Doubters.

About Alain de Botton's TEDTalk

What aspects of religion should atheists adopt? Alain de Botton suggests a "religion for atheists" that incorporates religious forms and traditions to satisfy our human need for connection, ritual, and transcendence.

About Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton's writing has been described as "philosophy of everyday life." He is the author of several books, including How Proust Can Change Your Life and most recently, Art As Therapy.

In 2008, de Botton started The School of Life in London, a social enterprise determined to make learning and therapy relevant in today's uptight culture.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And today's show - Believers and Doubters - who believes, who doesn't and why.

What do you believe in?

ALAIN DE BOTTON: I believe that life is very short. Our responsibility is to be good to ourselves and those around us. I believe in civilization, wisdom. I'm very susceptible to beauty.

RAZ: This is the writer Alain de Botton. And if you noticed, he did not mention anything about God because he doesn't believe in God. But Alain wants just a little bit more out of atheism. Here's how he starts his TED talk.


DE BOTTON: One of the most common ways of dividing the world is into those who believe and those who don't - into the religious and the atheists. And for the last decade or so, it's been quite clear what being an atheist means. There've been some very vocal atheists who've pointed out not just that religion is wrong but that it's ridiculous. They've argued that believing in God is akin to believing in fairies. Now, I think it's too easy to dismiss the whole of religion that way. What I'd like to inaugurate today is a new way of being an atheist - if you like, a new version of atheism we could call atheism 2.0.


DE BOTTON: Now, what is atheism 2.0? Well, it starts from a very basic premise. Of course, there's no God. Of course, there are no deities or supernatural spirits or angels, etc. Now let's move on. I'm interested in a kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines. I can't believe in the doctrines. I don't think these doctrines are right. But - very important but - I love Christmas carols.


DE BOTTON: I really like the art of Mantegna. I really like looking at old churches. I really like turning the pages of the Old Testament, whatever it may be. You know the kind of thing I'm talking about - people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic, communal side of religion but can't bear the doctrine. Now, I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways - and I'm being both very respectful and completely impious - of stealing from religions. If you don't believe in a religion, there's nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion.

Take a cathedral. Why are cathedrals impressive, OK? Is it God? No. It's architecture, OK? Yes, it was inspired by God, but ultimately, it's an architectural phenomenon where if you are very small in a vast space, that is both slightly frightening and also very uplifting. We all get this beneath the evening sky. You know, you go out on a clear summer's night under the evening sky. And suddenly, you are paralleled with something so vast that your own smallness is seen not as a crushing and humiliating thing but as a redemptive thing.

That is, I think, the core of the religious sense. The core of the religious sense is feeling small within the vastness. It is something that predates belief, goes beyond belief. You can have it as a nonbeliever, and I have it all the time. It's just that religions have been onto this feeling, and they've made the most of it.

RAZ: And that is what Alain wants atheists to do - to figure out how to address some of our deepest and most basic needs the way religion has done it for centuries.


DE BOTTON: In the early 19th century, church attendance in Western Europe started sliding down very sharply, and people panicked. They asked themselves the following question. They said, where are people going to find morality? Where are they going to find guidance? And where are they going to find sources of consolation? And influential voices came up with one answer - it's to culture that we should look for guidance, for consolation, for morality. Let's look to the plays of Shakespeare, the dialogues of Plato, the novels of Jane Austen. In there, we'll find a lot of the truths that we might previously have found in the Gospel of St. John. Now, I think that's a very beautiful idea and a very true idea. It's also an idea that we have forgotten. Let's say you went to Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge, and you said, you know, I've come here because I'm in search of morality, guidance and consolation. I want to know how to live. They would show you the way to the insane asylum.


DE BOTTON: This is simply not what our grandest and best institutes of higher learning are in the business of. Why? They don't think we need it. They don't think we are in urgent need of assistance. They see us as adults, rational adults. We don't need help. Now, religions start from a very different place indeed. All major religions at various points call us children. They believe that we are in severe need of assistance. We're only just holding it together. And perhaps it's just me, maybe you. But anyway...


DE BOTTON: We're only just holding it together, and we need help. Of course, we need help. And so we need guidance, and we need didactic learning. We tend to believe in the modern, secular world that if you tell someone something once, they'll remember it. Sit them in a classroom, tell them about Plato at the age of 20, send them out into a career in management consultancy for 40 years, and that lesson will stick with them. Religions go, nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it 10 or 20 or 15 times a day. Otherwise, our minds are like sieves.

RAZ: Do you ever find yourself - I don't know - feeling like you're missing out? Like, do you ever just want to go to a church or synagogue and - I don't know - just, like, feel it?

DE BOTTON: Look. I think, like many secular people, I'm - I look on with a certain kind of mixture of envy and dissatisfaction and interest at the religious festivals of my believing friends. And I tell myself, you know, Yom Kippur is a - you know, that's very interesting. You look back over sins you might have committed. You ask for forgiveness. You renew social ties. And then, you know, I find myself in a Yom Kippur service, and I think there's something I like here, but I'm not sure.

Look; I think that the modern secular world is very new. It's only really been in the last, say, hundred years, the blink of an eyelid, that a substantial number of people in the developed world have been nonbelievers. And I think we are still trying to work out what a good non-believing life might look like. We've got a lot to invent still.

RAZ: I can't help but think that it's almost like you're calling for, like, a new kind of religion.

DE BOTTON: I am. I am calling for new religion. But what does that mean, OK? So if you do away with religion, that's not the end of the story. If you simply announce OK, I don't believe in God. The creation story is a myth, et cetera, fine. Good for you, fine.

What happens now? Where are you going to go with all those needs which religion formerly attended to? Now some people take a very bluff approach at that point. And they go look, I don't mind. I've got some poetry to read in the evening. I go to the local library if I want to meet anyone. And if I need some transcendental feelings, well, you know I'll put myself on a trip to the Grand Canyon. Thanks very much, end of story.

I don't think that is the end of the story. I think there is an enormous amount that needs to be invented, and there's an opportunity for all of us thinking secular people to respect religions for what they achieved and to look forward to a future where, you know, we can get creative.

RAZ: Is there any part of you, like, even a teeny-tiny part of you, that sometimes doubts your doubts?

DE BOTTON: Genuinely no, but there is quite a big part of me that would love religion to be true, and it's particularly at moments of crisis where I think my goodness, I would love to believe that this could be made better or that there was something beyond or that I could control the fate of a loved one. Life is going to pit all of us in extremely dramatic situations that certainly explain to me psychologically why God was not some luxury or piece of myth. I experience God as a psychological necessity for the intolerable anxiety and fear of being human. I can't believe in God. But boy, oh, boy, do I know why people do believe.

RAZ: That's Alain de Botton. He's the author of "Religion For Atheists." And his latest book is called "Art As Therapy." Check out both of his talks at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.