Alain de Botton on the Benefits of Religion Without God

In his controversial new book, Alain de Botton argues that we can move beyond the debate between believers and nonbelievers by seeing the benefits of religion.

You were brought up as an atheist—could you describe your earlier views on religion and how you came to have a more positive view of religion and religious practices?

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 of everything. Second, 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. Third, without God it is easier to lose 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 minuscule nature of our own achievements. And last, without God there can be a danger (note the tentative can) that the need for empathy and ethical behavior is more easily overlooked—in other words, that evil becomes less incongruous.

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 simply want to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what may be missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely.

In your book you write: "God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes." What are those urgent issues?

I am not very interested in the doctrines of religions. What interests me is their organizational forms and, in particular, their capacity to make ideas powerful.

The secular world tends to trust that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them when it matters. Religions don't agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us that will make sure 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.

In a recent review of your book, Terry Eagleton wrote: "What this book does is hijack other people's beliefs and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure." What do you make of this view?

My book occupies a curious middle ground that is easy to shoot at from two sides. The very religious, like Eagleton, may take offense at the brusque, selective, and unsystematic consideration of their creeds. Religions are not buffets, they will protest, from which choice elements can be selected at whim. But I disagree. Why should it not be possible to appreciate the depiction of modesty in Giotto’s frescoes and yet bypass the doctrine of the Annunciation, or admire the Buddhist emphasis on compassion and yet shun its theories of the afterlife? For someone devoid of religious belief, it is no more of a crime to dip into a number of faiths than it is for a lover of literature to single out a handful of favorite writers from across the canon.

Atheists of the militant kind could also feel outraged, in their case by a book that treats religion as though it deserved to be a continuing touchstone for our yearnings. They will point to the furious institutional intolerance of many religions, and to the equally rich, though less illogical and illiberal, stores of consolation and insight available through art and science. They may additionally ask why anyone who professes himself unwilling to accept so many facets of religion—who feels unable to speak up in the name of virgin births, say, or to nod at the claims reverently made in the Jataka tales about the Buddha's identity as a reincarnated rabbit—should still wish to associate himself with a subject as compromised as faith.

To this the answer is that religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art, and architecture—a range of interests that puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history. For those interested in the spread and impact of ideas, it is hard not to be mesmerized by examples of the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.

What is your view of the so-called New Atheist critique advanced by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others?

Attempting to prove the nonexistence of God can be entertaining. Tough-minded critics of religion have found much pleasure in laying bare the idiocy of believers in remorseless detail, finishing only when they felt they had shown up their enemies as thoroughgoing simpletons or maniacs.

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Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether God exists or not but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn't. The premise of my book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting, and consoling—and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.

One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Fivefold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds, and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring. In a world beset by fundamentalists of believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.

It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs that continue to this day and that secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill. First, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain that arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones, and to our decay and demise.

You also propose to reform schools and universities to teach humans how to deal with, not knowledge, but the most important existential problems: loneliness, pain, and death, for example. You even propose to abolish the teaching of history and literature, two basic humanities. Why? Is knowledge so unimportant? Can existential lessons be taught at school?

The starting point of religion is that we are children and we need guidance. The secular world often gets offended by this. It assumes that all adults are mature—and therefore it hates didacticism, it hates the idea of guidance and moral instruction. But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. And yet the modern education system denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control. We are far more desperate than the modern education system recognizes. All of us are on the edge of panic and terror pretty much all the time—and religions recognize this. We need to build a similar awareness into secular structures.

How do religions teach us?

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, organizations, directed to managing our inner life. There is nothing like this in the secular world, and this seems a huge pity.

You say that our society lacks collective rituals, a network of secular churches, of vast high spaces in which to escape from the hubbub of modern society and to focus on all that is beyond us. But what about the fact that whichever society tried to create an effective kind of propaganda in the name of virtue was, after the French Revolution, a totalitarian regime in which the state itself became God?

We are too easily frightened here. So often, anytime that someone proposes a valid idea in this area, 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 shouldn’t always be so unambitious about what we can do. We don't need to abandon ourselves to free-market capitalism under the spiritual leadership of cable television.

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 toward 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 spiritualizing 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 we once imagined supernatural beings demanded of us. An adequate evolution of morality from superstition to reason should mean recognizing ourselves as the authors of our own moral commandments.