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Religion without God: Alain de Botton on "atheism 2.0."

Why "is God real?" is the most boring question you can ask.

Amanda Northrop

Alain de Botton is an author, philosopher, and founder of the School of Life, a London-based institute “devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture.”

De Botton, the author of several best-sellers, including How Proust Can Change your Life and Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion, has made a career of concretizing big ideas for general audiences. His books and lectures are broad in scope but always return to the original question of philosophy: “How do we live well?”

His views on religion are especially compelling. As an atheist, de Botton isn’t interested in defending religion so much as understanding it. He acknowledges that there are things religions do uniquely well, and his goal is to discover ways to replicate those benefits in a secular context.

I spoke with de Botton about his work at the School of Life and his criticisms of fellow atheists who he says fail to ask the right questions about the religions they’re refuting.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

You’ve said the most boring question we can ask of any religion is whether or not it’s true. Why is that?

Alain de Botton

For me, and I think for many other people as well, the issue of religion actually goes way beyond belief in the supernatural, and yet a lot of the debate around religion started by people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins reduces to familiar questions: Does God exist or not? Do angels exist or not? Is it stupid to believe in angels?

While I understand the kind of emotional resonance around that, I think the real issue is why did people get drawn to religion? Why did we invent religions? What need did they serve? And also what are the aspects around religious life that may be disconnected from belief that nevertheless have great validity and resonance for people outside of faith today?

Religions are not just a set of claims about the supernatural; they are also machines for living. They aim to guide you from birth to death and to teach you a whole range of things: to create a community, to create codes of behavior, to generate aesthetic experiences. And all of this seems to me incredibly important and, frankly, much more interesting than the question of whether Jesus was or wasn’t the son of God.

Sean Illing

What do you think religions do best?

Alain de Botton

The underlying ambition of religions is impressive to me. They are trying to locate the tenets of a good life, of a wise life, of a kind life. They are interrogating the greatest themes, and so I'm attracted to the aspects of religion that know that human life is quite difficult and that we are going to need a lot of assistance, a lot of guidance. And what religious life is trying to do is to provide us with tools for how to keep being the best version of ourselves.

As I often say, I disagree with almost every vision of what the best self is, according to religions, but I admire the ambition and the structure that religions place upon this ambition.

Sean Illing

You’ve coined the phrase “atheism 2.0.” What does that mean?

Alain de Botton

It’s to distinguish it from the modern incarnation of atheism, which was promulgated by people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that really made the central aspect of atheism the question of whether one did or didn’t believe. And I suppose I'm interested in the kind of atheism that starts with the assumption that of course God doesn’t exist, we made him up, that’s fine.

Now let’s move the conversation forward and look at questions like: What can religions teach us and provoke us with today? This is an atheism that knows how to engage with some of the ambitions of religion but has nothing to do with the supernatural.

Sean Illing

So you want to preserve what is good about religion and dispense with the metaphysical baggage?

Alain de Botton

I'm not interested in directly preserving anything, because I don’t believe that you can go to church if you don’t believe in it.

I want to look at the way religions go about things as an inspiring starting point for thinking about what secular culture is lacking and still needs. Because let’s remember that when religion started to decline in the 19th century, in Western Europe, there was a lot of thinking that was done. People asked how would we fill the gap, the God-shaped hole. And there were lots of theories, and the leading answer, I suppose, was culture.

And we know that this is the case because you only have to look at the architecture of libraries and theaters and universities that were built in the age of declining religion to understand that our ancestors sought to fill the gap by creating temples of art, temples of culture, temples of learning, where we would congregate as we had previously done in the temples of religion.

I think it’s a very interesting ambition. It’s also an ambition that has failed. If you showed up at Harvard or the Museum of Modern Art and you fell on your knees and you questioned the meaning of life and you looked for direction, you would quickly be ushered into a mental asylum. This is simply not what culture nowadays sees itself as doing.

The famous library in Oxford, England. Architect: James Gibbs.
Getty Images

Sean Illing

What is the constituency for this new brand of atheism? Who are you targeting?

Alain de Botton

I'm targeting a sort of person who thinks believing in religion has never really been an option and who isn’t particularly interested in attacking religion, declaring it stupid, seeing its errors and flaws and cruelties. All of which, to my mind, clearly exist, but this person isn’t exercised by this.

They are more interested in saying, where might I turn in order to look at questions of higher meaning and higher purpose? In terms of ethics, they’re asking, what does a good life look like? What are my responsibilities to others? What is the community? The sorts of questions you don’t find discussed on late-night TV and that are not really part of the kind of general atmosphere of secular culture.

Sean Illing

It does feel like our modern technocratic culture has purged these sorts of inquiries from public life. Is the School of Life your attempt to address the ultimate questions — how to live, how to die, what is good, what is evil — in an explicitly secular context?

Alain de Botton

There are lots of people thinking about these questions, and they’ve been doing this for a long time. So what’s distinctive about the School of Life is not that there are people there who think about these things. I think what’s slightly distinctive is that it’s an institution; it’s not merely one person writing a book. And let’s remember that the model of an intellectual writing a book about big questions is the way in which secular culture has approached these higher themes for the last 150 years.

What the School of Life has tried to do is to say let’s start a collective movement here around these things. What, after all, is the difference between one writer writing a book and an institution?

First of all, it’s the number of people. Secondly, it’s the idea of a physical space where people gather to forge a personal connection with one another. It’s also about longevity, the continuity of a project over time. We want to create a hub, a stable home for these things.

Getty / David Levenson

Sean Illing

I know you’ve taken fire from both sides: The religious people say you’re impious, and the atheists say you’ve betrayed the cause. How do you respond to each camp?

Alain de Botton

Honestly, I'm not particularly exercised by this, because there will always be vocal critics. I would say that generally in a European context the religious voices have been the friendlier ones, because they’ve had to reconcile themselves with mass atheism.

It’s quite different in the United States. It was only relatively recently that I understood fully the extremely negative connotations that exist around the word atheism in America, which don’t exist at all in Europe. And American atheists are frequently forced to defend themselves against charges of amorality, or immorality, which is not something that one would ever be asked to do on this side of the Atlantic. So that’s an interesting distinction to be alive to.

Sean Illing

This seems like a good place to circle back to what you said earlier about Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I’m not a believer, but I’ve been critical of some of the so-called New Atheists in the past. My complaint is that often they don’t think seriously about the psychology of religion or the communal aspects; it’s just an epistemological question for them.

Alain de Botton

I am with you totally. I had that conversation with him in person. I think one of the most interesting things about religious belief is that clearly it comes from a place of vulnerability. If you don’t believe, then the answer is simple — it comes because it’s the truth.

If you're not in that camp, then you have to start with a notion of vulnerability. It is coming from a place of pain and vulnerability. That pain and vulnerability does not disappear once you decide the belief is no longer true. So you're still left with this huge question, and I think it’s the vulnerability that fascinates me.

This is where we still have a lot of work to do. Your secular society presents really two answers to existence. The first is romantic love, with which I have serious problems. The second is a career, a profession. These are the things that are advocated to us as the sources of earthly happiness, and both of them are incredibly problematic in ways that I think we're not fully alive to at a societal level.

Sean Illing

In some ways, atheists and believers are just playing different language games, which is frustrating if you’re interested in persuading people. If the goal is to convince people that the sense of transcendence and community achieved through religion can be had without it, what kinds of questions should atheists be asking or what sorts of arguments should they be making?

Alain de Botton

I think we need to pay particular attention to the human needs being met through religion. Community, for example, is an extraordinary powerful theme within religion. It’s really the idea of how to connect with others in a sacred space.

This goes right to the heart of how we associate. What a nation is, what a community is, what a group is, what it means to live within a group — these are essential questions, and I think religion’s trying to come up with fascinating answers to them.

Then there is the moral domain. What does it mean to be good? What are the different claims on us? What do we owe and to whom? How do we keep our worst impulses in check, and how do we foster our best impulses?

You mentioned transcendence. How do we transcend our lower selves? How do we accede to a more generous, forgiving, timeless zone of our consciousness? Religions have engaged these questions for a very long time, particularly the religions of the east.

Sean Illing

Do you think religions have a better grip on our emotional architecture than modern science does?

Alain de Botton

Too much of a generalization to say “always” and “at all points,” but religions certainly show vivid understanding. For example, religions are very alive to the need for repetition, which is something that secular culture is quite deaf to. They’re very alive to what the Greeks call a weakness of will, which is really the phenomenon where there’s lots of things that we theoretically believe but that are dead in our hearts and our minds day to day, because we have not been vividly reminded of them.

There’s a difference between theoretical and active knowledge, and religions are alive to that distinction and are very keen to make certain bits of knowledge active. And this is why they are constantly repeating things, constantly getting us to do things in order to bring these theoretical ideas to life.

Much of what constitutes religious life is ritualized life. And that’s a massive distinction with secular culture, which leaves it to the individual to feel things according to their own calendar and their own inner impulses.

Sean Illing

Do you think there’s a way to replicate the communal aspect of religion without also taking on this inherently tribalistic component?

Alain de Botton

Well, I think we have to remember what some of the best features of religion are, and recognize that there can be secular alternatives. Religions, for example, remind us of our common humanity, a humanity shared across races and geographical boundaries. There are hints of this within Christianity, and there are hints of this in Buddhism and Islam.

The tribalism is obviously problematic, but I think at their best what religions do is present the stranger in a new light. They offer us a kind of universality, a cosmopolitanism of the mind. This is a move that can take place outside of religion.

Churches and synagogues and mosques are seen as safe places where once you are in them, things can happen that wouldn’t happen outside of the precincts of this space. So they’ve become spaces where the stranger is welcomed, where all kinds of things that might be frowned upon outside are acceptable within, and in that sense, religion acts as a kind of host introducing humans to one another, humanizing them in each other’s eyes.

This seems to me a very valuable exercise, because secular modernity is anonymous. It’s built on the concept of anonymity and that the family is hugely important and the lover is hugely important, but beyond that other forms of association don’t really exist.

Sean Illing

You seem resigned to the fact that something beyond science will have to replace religion in a godless world. What will that alternative look like?

Alain de Botton

Broadly speaking, what I think should replace it is culture, so in that sense I'm a very traditional 19th-century secular person. I simply think that the way in which we present culture, frame culture, needs to be altered.

Reframing how we go about looking at cultural works is something I’ve done playfully and more seriously in different ways. For instance, I wrote this book called How Proust Can Change Your Life, and what was interesting is that Proust, when he wrote his famous book, In Search of Lost Time, thought quite a lot about religion and definitely was in that 19th-century camp of thinking of art as the replacement for religion. He was very explicit about that, and so that’s how I understood him.

But we are not encouraged to read Proust that way. And I came under heavy fire from many professional Proust scholars, not for anything I wrote specifically but for the nature of the project. People simply could not believe that I’d take a canonical writer and see him as a source of the meaning of life.

That’s not how we read in the modernist tradition, and yet it is absolutely how many of the greatest works of culture were created. So it’s not so much about needing to create different kinds of culture as needing to be more faithful, I think, to some of the originating impulses behind these works.

That we fail to do this is a bizarre blind spot in our culture.