First published on 21 Feb 2012. Updated on 11 Apr 2012.
“Religions,” says Swiss-born, London-based philosopher Alain de Botton, “are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” Hence, his newest tome is dedicated to the moral lessons and beauty to be found in religion, that even the most devout atheist might enjoy.
“Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheism has become a destructive force,” he hypothesises; one of many ideas (see also: his Temple for Atheists, which he proposes should be erected in central London) that has the British broadsheets all indignant. One blogger accuses him of “trolling” the papers and of presenting himself as the “cuddly alternative” to Dawkins.
Alain, putting aside various Guardian critics and the reaction of Richard Dawkins to the Temple concept, has anyone added any further ideas to yours that you've found really interesting?
I always knew that I was going to have a spot of local difficulty publishing a book called Religion For Atheists. You get shot at from the more determined wings of both sides. The religious will say, "How dare this guy learn anything from us without believing?" And the atheists will say, "How dare this guy learn anything from the religious when he's meant to be an atheist?" And that's what happened a little, but I have to stress that it's a minority reaction and by far the largest number of people have been supportive and the book is now riding high in the bestseller lists.
Did you worry you might be setting yourself up for Comte-style rejection of your ideas, or is the debate something to be relished?
I hate causing a fuss, but I think we've reached a moment when certain arguments have to be made. I am suggesting 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 stage of everything. Secondly, 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. Thirdly, 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 miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.
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 am simply wanting to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what is missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely. By all means, we can dismiss him, but with great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought...
You put forward the idea of a branded chain of psychotherapists with “coherent retail identities”. Are you being playful there? There's nothing wrong with the "bric-a-brac furnishings", as you put it, of today's psychotherapists!
I was struck when writing my book by how much all religions lean on a priesthood. I looked into the idea of a priest. As an atheist, my question immediately was: "Who is doing that job now?" And the most ready answer is, "Psychotherapists". But it seems to me that going to see a therapist is, in the UK at least, still tantamount to saying you're crazy. It's not a very normal thing to do. So I imagined a world in which therapy has the kind of ready acceptability that the priesthood once had, where it's visible, coherent and branded.
"The challenge is to rewrite the agendas of our museums so that art can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, it has served the needs of theology." With regards to your idea that museums and art galleries could become the new churches, have you posited this idea (and your sketch of a new layout) to the Tate Modern in London?
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. I've yet to run that one past the Tate. Perhaps one for a little show at the National Gallery of Victoria...?
“It would be a shocking affront to university etiquette to ask what Tess of the d’Urbervilles might usefully teach us about love.” Have any universities been particularly open to your concepts of exploring enlightenment and asking deeper questions about reading materials?
Claims that culture could stand in for scripture – that Tess could take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms, or the essays of Schopenhauer satisfy needs once catered to by Saint Augustine's City of God – still have a way of sounding eccentric or insane in their combination of impiety and ambition.
Nevertheless, perhaps the proposition is not so much absurd as it is unfamiliar. The very qualities that the religious locate in their holy texts can often just as well be discovered in works of culture. Novels and historical narratives can adeptly impart moral instruction and edification. Great paintings do make suggestions about our requirements for happiness. Philosophy can usefully probe our anxieties and offer consolations. Literature can change our lives. Equivalents to the ethical lessons of religion do lie scattered across the cultural canon.
What are your thoughts on the Prince of Wales and his views on the beauty of religion and architecture. He's not an atheist, but is there any alignment between your philosophies?
I'm a huge fan of contemporary architecture, so the Prince of Wales and I don't really see eye to eye. It's great he cares about buildings, but what a missed opportunity given the power he has – and the buildings he likes...!
You make the observation that we don’t dare ask for explanation or meaning in galleries showing contemporary art, whereas religious art is emotive and instructional. Do you have a favourite religious artwork?
I love early northern Renaissance art, especially Memling. The figures are haunted, ghostly yet beautiful.
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