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

Posted by: TED Guest Author


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.

Comments (11)

  • Keith Pinster commented on Jan 13 2013

    I understand the “non-confrontational” attitude that some people like Alaine take, but have to say that they do not see the bigger picture. Most atheists that I have ever talked to (including me) do not give a rip about what others believe. The reason that atheists have spoken up more and more over the last several years is because theists continue to be more and more aggressive with trying to shove their religion down everyone’s throats through legislation. I believe that each form of rebellion has it’s purpose. There is value in simply pointing out that you don’t buy into their delusion, but there is also value in pointing out exactly what that delusion is. However, I think it’s more important to stick with the facts and avoid name-calling or emotional lashing or allow theists to redirect the conversation. Usually this infuriates the religious. Remember, it is HIGHLY unlikely we’ll show the theist how to “see the light”, but we are trying to show the viewers of the conversation how we are rational compared to theists that always end up with emotional pleas and irrational suppositions and speculations.

  • commented on May 1 2012

    Reblogged this on american secularist.

  • Earl Newton commented on Apr 10 2012

    @ Matthew Simko – Respectfully, I appreciate your position. However, don’t you feel that, by taking that stance, you aren’t improving the situation, you’re just hardening the lines between atheism / theism?

    I think you’d agree that the reverse situation would be unthinkable: “I am a religious person and I’m not going to listen to atheism’s nonsense another moment, and I will ridicule it in total.”

    And of course, we’ve all seen that position in theists before, but it doesn’t make it right. :)

  • commented on Mar 16 2012

    Reblogged this on My Life / Eric Gray and commented:
    I am an Atheist 2.0

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  • Matthew Simko commented on Jan 22 2012

    Santa Claus. :-)

  • Matthew Simko commented on Jan 22 2012

    Look, if you feel it is better relating to believers in a gentle form, kudos to you. But for just about ever, religion has had its boot on the throat of humans. I will not suffer their fairy tales anymore and I will ridicule it in total. Time to start dealing with facts. Facts will set us all free and the scared children you believe we are will be forced to grow up. Life did not end when we learned that Santa Clase was not real.

    • Stephanie Juste commented on Aug 6 2012

      No one disagrees that the most excessive hehavior associated with all religions should be condemned. With that said, there’s no way to extricate our human history from religion.At one point rule, religion, farming, science, everthing developed INTO religion.it got rotten later because of man’s tendency to corrupt.Just think, if you reject everything about religion you can never truly learn about your history.you can never enjoy the beauty of church music, you can never understand the work of Michelangelo.You can never enjoy the tribal dances of Africa.Your type of atheist can take no nourishment from life.

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