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Interview with Alain de Botton

CPX Fellow Brian Rosner conducted a fascinating email interview with popular philosopher Alain de Botton on his latest book Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion.   

In it, Rosner canvasses a range of topics, asking de Botton about his own journey to atheism, and how he accounts for our human longing to believe in something greater than ourselves, and whether the fruits of religion can survive if they are, so to speak, cut off from the tree. 

de Botton, in turn, responds that while he is moved by aspects of the Christian story, he doesn’t believe that we need to be ‘true believers’ to enjoy its benefits, and he remains firmly convinced that we can train our hearts and minds to our individual and social benefit without an appeal to the divine.

BR: Thanks Alain for your willingness to answer some questions about your new book, Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion. As a Christian it’s a nice change to be seen as having something positive to contribute as opposed to being accused of “poisoning everything” (to allude to another atheist author’s book title)!

You write that “the most boring question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it’s true.” Clearly it is a valuable exercise to set it to one side and consider the existential value of religion. To kick off, and at the risk of being “boring,” have you engaged with some of the Christian responses to the so-called new atheists, such as John Lennox or Alistair McGrath, or your fellow philosopher, David Bentley Hart? What settled you in your position as a non-believer?

ADB: I declared this issue boring simply because it is so hard to make any progress on it. Most of us come to our position with our mind well made up for us, by forces that are out of our control. The religious would say, because of the Grace of God. Atheists might say, by our nurture, by our psychological upbringing. I cannot be sure why I am a non-believer exactly. Surely much does have to do with the way I was raised in a family of non-believers, and a rational outlook very much at the fore. So the key question for me isn’t whether one should believe or not, but where one goes to – as an atheist – once the non-existence of God is clear. At this point many atheists simply dismiss all talk of religion, whereas I am attempting to engage with the subject selectively.

BR: You argue that there is much to learn from religion, taking the examples of Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism, even though “the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false.” It is fascinating that the apostle Paul in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15:19) argues the reverse. There he says that if the central supernatural claim of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Christ, is false, then “we are of all people most to be pitied,” rather than envied. What are the limits to your admiration of religion? Do you think some of the benefits depend on a religion being true?

ABD: It depends on what you mean by ‘true’. If by true you mean, revealed by God or proveable by science, then most of religions is patently ‘false’. But I’m not interested in such criteria of truth. For me, religion is as true as a novel like Ana Karenina. We don’t go around asking if Ana is ‘true’ because we accept both that she is made up and that her fictional status is connected to very important psychological notions which are true at a humanistic level. It’s in this sort of way that I believe religions to be true. They carry with them psychological insights which seem very right to me, even though this rightness has nothing to do with revelation or science. Take the doctrine of Original Sin. The idea that we are broken and incomplete isn’t something you could run a laboratory test on, it’s a piece of artistic/philosophical speculation – and is very appealing as such. My admiration for religion rests on many different moments when psychologically important principles seem to be touched.

BR: The idea of education as moral formation rather than ‘skilling’ people for tasks is central to your book. But you seem to acknowledge that this process necessarily involves a certain paternalistic discipline. There is obvious scope for this paternalism to become oppressive and abusive. Particularly in the Abrahamic religions, the dangers of paternalism are arguably held in check with strong accounts of individual responsibility and accountability, both to other individuals and to God. Will moral formation in the atheistic mode be left prey to paternalism? What will prevent it becoming oppressive, as it did for example in Communist ‘education’?

ADB: I think there is a good and a bad version of paternalism. Paternalism is not authoritarianism. We all need some kind guidance at different points of life, and so long as it is offered with kindness and tolerance, I don’t see a problem.

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 towards 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 spiritualising 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 which we once imagined supernatural beings demanded of us. An adequate evolution of morality from superstition to reason should mean recognising ourselves as the authors of our own moral commandments.

BR: The kinds of religious practices that you recommend borrowing from religion sound like they are things that would generally enhance the well being of anyone, regardless of belief or non-belief. Might not the theme of your book simply have been ‘how to live well’? Why all the religious history and background to what could have been a straightforward self-help book about the value of habituation, reflection, embodiment, community, etc? Aren’t you perhaps tacitly admitting that there is something more powerful about these practices when done as ‘religious’ practices?

ADB: You’re right that many of the practices I praise can be found in some form or other outside religion, but it’s within religion that they assume their clearest and more coherent form. It would be absurd not to borrow them from their real source.

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 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 (note the tentative can) that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour 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.

BR: I wonder whether remembering such “vital lessons” and putting them into practice over the long haul is actually possible. It seems to me that the core beliefs of Christian faith produce those benefits. Living out such lessons, without God, might be like trying to keep a bicycle upright without peddling.

It reminds me of positive psychology’s recommendation that each of us count our blessings and nurture an attitude of thankfulness, which is thought to be a practical way of avoiding the dangers of individualism, losing perspective and so on. But “giving thanks” is a transitive verb requiring a direct object. To whom am I supposed to be grateful?

In other words, can the fruit from religion actually survive when it has been cut off from the tree?

ADB: I can quite see why to answer 'yes' here would offend a believer. It's the natural suggestion of the believer that the tree is a whole and that no part can exist independently of any other. So one can't say that one likes the music of Bach but reject the story of the resurrection, or admire Chartres Cathedral but ignore the doctrines that lie at its foundations. And yet, as an atheist, simply from empirical evidence, it seems that actually one can. I am very moved by aspects of Christianity even though 'the tree' as a whole is not part of my life. This may seem strange and even eerie to a believer, but I have to report that it is true for me.

BR: As a Christian I was intrigued by your account of human vulnerability and frailty. As you acknowledge, this is precisely what seems to be missing from most militantly atheistic accounts of the human condition. In Christianity this understanding of human frailty is matched with an understanding of divine sufficiency and grace. We are equipped to live in hope with our frailty rather than educating, breeding, or engineering it away. More importantly, we are equipped to live graciously toward the frailty of others. Do you think Atheism has the conceptual resources to balance an account of human frailty with something like grace?

ADB: Atheism cannot accept a notion of grace, that is really a place it cannot go to and remain atheistic. Yet it can surely accept the idea of vulnerability. The most evolved place for discussions of this in the secular world is psychoanalysis. In the writings of psychoanalysts, we find constant references to ourselves as broken, childlike and incomplete – notions close to Christianity and Buddhism. There is nothing pejorative in these descriptions, either in analysis or religion -and this is something the wider secular world should take on board. Accepting our infantile sides is part of a true maturity.

BR: You write very honestly and emotively about universal human longings and needs. Might not these longings be suggestive of humans being hard-wired to seek the transcendent, the spiritual God, because these things reflect something of reality?

ADB: We may be hardwired to seek transcendence, to seek comfort, to seek unity, to seek closeness, to seek peace… BUT that doesn’t mean that all the things we long for are true. All of us long to be immortal, and yet I don’t see evidence that we are. In my eyes, religions commit the error of turning an ought into an is. So the longing of the religious is very clear to me, I feel it too. It is the relief of the religious that is foreign.

BR: Appeal to our “hardwiring” reminds me of a line of Christian apologetics going back to Blaise Pascal in the seventeenth century and his classic book, Pensées. While not discounting rational arguments for the existence of God, Pascal adds that “the heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing: we know in countless ways.” Pascal finds in the human heart a gap that only God can fill.

Speaking personally, my heart seeks transcendence, is impressed by antiquity, searches for wisdom, yearns for justice, needs hope, loves beauty, senses my darkness, is appalled by evil, is repulsed by death and aches for the reassurance of a satisfying story to make sense of my existence. In my experience believing in God and the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ coheres impressively with the palpable longings of the human heart.

It’s interesting that you use the term “hardwiring.” Can an atheist talk about humans being hardwired to seek transcendence, and so on? It is hard to imagine how the adaptations of natural selection have led to these outcomes. I may be taking your reference to “hardwiring” too literally, but it does imply something for which evolution alone seems an inadequate explanation. Can a materialistic worldview really account for such longings?

ADB: I am not a neuroscientist or an evolutionary biologists, so do take my remarks simply in the weakest lay sense. Nevertheless, I do feel there's something fundamental in us that seeks transcendence BUT that this can be explained in rational, scientific terms, without an appeal to the divine. You are really asking, in different words, why I don't believe, a question that is as hard for me to answer as it might be for a believer to say why they believe. The heart has its reasons, as Pascal said so beautifully…

BR: You compliment religions for bringing people together in communities, especially people who don’t normally belong together and who might even struggle to get on in other circumstances. And you recommend such practices. But the basis for such reaching out to others for Christians goes deep. We welcome others because of God’s generous welcome to us. We aim to forgive others, having been forgiven. We seek not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, after the example of Christ who came to serve, not to be served. And so on. Can Christian fellowship be mimicked without these foundations?

ADB: I strongly believe it can. The urge to be kind and humble is hardwired in us. Christianity did not create it, it built upon it. Therefore anything that a Christian can be, all of us – even atheists – can be – so long as we train our minds and our hearts. Goodness and virtue are eternal human possibilities. We can all find causes greater than ourselves which will urge us to step beyond our egoism.

Brian Rosner, a fellow of CPX teaches at Moore College and from July will be Principal of Ridley Melbourne.