"The Atheist and the Believer" is a tale as old as time, and a controversy as relevant this election year as ever. But author, philosopher, and entrepreneur Alain De Bottom proposes a middle ground and asks questions that blur the distinction between the two sides. What if we reject the notion of a deity, but personalize a kind of playlist of religious ideas that suit us best? Are we still atheists if we have religious-like philosophies in our life? De Botton address these questions in his latest work, Religion for Atheists, explaining that even if an atheist rejects religion, religion can still serve as a platform for good morals and ethics as well as a better life. We chatted with De Botton, who appears Thursday at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, to talk about his own beliefs, visiting San Francisco, misinterpretations of his book, and discovering the balance between atheism and religion.
The philosophy you share in Religion for Atheists, is it something you've practiced for a while? When did this idea come into your life, and how?
I was brought up an atheist and taught to think that all religion was nonsense from start to finish. Gradually I've lost that sarcastic attitude toward religion, and while I still don't believe, I've grown more curious and sympathetic toward certain religious attitudes and behaviors. While fully aware of the pain and bloodshed religions have been responsible for, I've also become more impressed by their high points, especially their attitudes to ethics, to aesthetics, and to ritual.
Now I feel that probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether the whole thing is "true." Unfortunately, recent public discussions on religion have focused obsessively on precisely this issue, with a hardcore group of fanatical believers pitting themselves against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.
I prefer a different tack. To my mind, of course, no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given. The real issue is not whether God exists, but rather where a person takes the argument once he or she concludes that God doesn't exist. I believe 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.
What do you hope to convey in Religion for Atheists?
I am arguing that 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. The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many sides of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.
In the book you write about using morals presented in religion and applying them to life without actually participating in religion. Can you elaborate more on this idea?
Throughout the book, I look at things we atheists might borrow or steal from religion -- without necessarily signing up to one faith. It's a deliberately pick-and-mix approach, for which I make no apologies. If one ceases to believe that religion is given to us by a deity, one becomes free to create playlists of favorite attitudes and rituals.
For example, I feel that religions are supremely effective at education, because they know that we forget everything. They are based around rehearsal, repetition, oratory, and calendars. They create appointments for us to re-encounter the most significant ideas. Every day has a spiritual agenda. In the secular world, we think you can send someone to school or university for a few years and it will then stick with you for 40 years. It won't. Our minds are like sieves, yet we unfairly associate repetition with being stifled. The Jewish or Catholic calendars are masterpieces of synchronization: every day brings us back round to some important idea. You might need to repeat important truths four or eight times a day.
For a reader who has yet to pick up your book, could you share an example to help illustrate this idea?
For example, religions remember we have bodies and therefore integrate their insights with physical practices. In Zen Buddhism, you don't just hear lectures: You have a tea ceremony where the drinking of a beverage underpins a philosophical lesson. In Judaism, you don't only atone, you do so by plunging yourself into a mikveh bath to "cleanse yourself." So religions appear to know that if you want to reach the mind, you have to acknowledge the overwhelming role that the body and emotions have over us.
Or take the issue of community: The secular world isn't short of bars and restaurants, but we're singularly bad at any kind of regular way of turning strangers into friends. We know from parties that people don't talk to each other until there's a good host that does the introduction. Religions function as hosts: Their buildings and rituals allow us to express a latent sociability that lies beneath our cold exteriors. Moreover, unlike Facebook, they don't introduce us only to people with whom we already have much in common. At their best moments, they confront us with The Other, and help to show that there is humanity in all of us.
This is a controversial subject. What are some of the misinterpretations people might have about your book?
I think religious people fear I will be offensive -- which I am never. And atheists think I may be becoming religious, which I am not. Ultimately, atheists need to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching, and wise from all that no longer seems true. Many of the organizational solutions to the ills of the soul put forward by religions are open to being shorn of the supernatural structure in which they first emerged and still retain their value and interest. The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and it deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural's greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective, and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.
San Francisco has the reputation for being progressive and liberal. What do you hope to teach the audience when you come to talk?
I feel San Francisco is an ideal place for my book: Like me, many people here are searching for how to integrate the best sides of religion into a secular life. This is also a place that believes that the Old World hasn't got all the answers, that we can invent, and the future may be brighter than the past. In relation to religion, this is definitely what I feel. We're one of the first generations to be thinking about how not simply to reject the supernatural, but how to live a good life outside of a supernatural superstructure -- yet with respect for certain of its insights.
How do you think the audience from your talk in, say, Kansas City, will differ from the San Francisco audience?
I think there will be more jokes in San Francisco.
Alain De Botton appears at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 15, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California (at Presidio), S.F. Admission is $20-$25.