Culture TEDTalks

“I am an atheist, but a gentle one”: Alain de Botton on “religion for atheists”

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May


As a companion to today’s TEDTalk from Alain de Botton, he sent us this FAQ, a brief introduction to the thinking behind Atheism 2.0:

What do you think of the aggressive atheism we have seen in the past few years?
I am an atheist, but a gentle one. I don’t feel the need to mock anyone who believes. I really disagree with the hard tone of some atheists who approach religion like a silly fairy tale. I am deeply respectful of religion, but I believe in none of its supernatural aspects. So my position is perhaps unusual: I am at once very respectful and completely impious.

What is it you’re most interested in in religion?
The secular world believes that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them just when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us, that will make sure that 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.

You propose to reform schools and universities to teach humans how to deal with the most important existential problems; loneliness, pain and death for example. Why? 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 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 secular modernity recognises. All of us are on the edge of panic and terror pretty much all the time – and religions recognise this. We need to build a similar awareness into secular structures.
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, organisations, directed to managing our inner life. There is nothing like this in the secular world, and this seems a huge pity.

Don’t you think that, in order to truly appreciate religious music and art, you have to be a believer – or, at least, don’t you think that non-believers miss something important in the experience?
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 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.