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The gentle atheist
Is it possible to conceive of a new kind of atheism which has rituals and a godless temple/church? Can there be a code of atheistic living that does not scoff at religion but steals from it the ideas of goodness and discipline? Yes, says British writer Alain de Botton, described often as a philosopher of everyday life. In his new book, 'Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion', de Botton advocates a radical kind of atheism - one that borrows freely from religion.
What pushed you to conceive of a new kind of atheism that borrows from elements of religion?
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. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the centre 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 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 simply want 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 have spoken out against the kind of extreme atheism advocated by thinkers like Richard Dawkins.
I am an atheist, but a gentle one. I don't feel the need to mock anyone who believes. I am deeply respectful of religion, but I believe none of its supernatural aspects. I am at once very respectful and completely impious.
As an atheist what is it about religion that impresses you the most?
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: this was always the great genius of Catholicism.
But is it possible to take the temples and churches and the rituals and not have the religion? Doesn't it all come as a package deal?
I absolutely believe this is possible. I am writing for the sort of reader who thinks, 'I really can't believe in anything supernatural, but I love so much here: the ritual, the architecture, music, the connection with the past. . . ' Why should we be forced to make such a brutal choice?
If we were to replace religion with a secular equivalent, who would be our gurus?
We don't need a central structure. We are beyond the age of gurus and inspirational leaders. We are in the age of Wiki structure. This means it is up to all of us to look at religion and see what bits we can steal and place into the modern world. We might all contribute to the construction of new temples, not the government, but the concerned, interested individual. The salvation of the individual soul remains a serious problem - even when we dismiss the idea of God. In the 20th century, capitalism has solved (in the rich West) the material problems of a significant portion of mankind. But spiritual needs are still in chaos, with religion ceasing to answer the need. It's why I wrote my book, to show there remains a new way: a way of filling the modern world with many important lessons from religion, and yet not needing to return to any kind of occult spirituality.
You have listed ten commandments for atheists, one of which is humour. Is it lacking in our lives today?
Humour matters because it is a response to pain that acknowledges man's impotence, fragility and nothingness. It seems to me the ideal response to our troubles, combining both wisdom and consolation. There are all sorts of forms of humour, but the ideal is a rich dark humour that doesn't shy away from the darkest facts, but somehow reconciles us to them, it's the sort of humour the Germans call 'Galgenhumor', or 'Gallows humour', the jokes you make on the way to the execution, to which we're all headed, one way or another.
You also propose to reform schools and universities to teach humans how to deal with, not knowledge, but the most important existential problems - loneliness, pain and death for example.
The starting point of religion is we are children and need guidance. The secular world gets offended by this. It assumes all adults are mature - and therefore hates didacticism, the idea of guidance and moral instruction. But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. We are more desperate than the modern education system recognises. All of us are on the edge of panic and terror pretty much all the time. Religions recognise this. We need to build a similar awareness into secular structures.
Do you think that in order to truly appreciate religious music and art, you have to be a believer?
I am interested in the modern claim that we have now found a way to replace religion: with art. You hear people say, 'Museums are our new churches'. It's a nice idea, but not true, principally because of the way 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.
THOU SHALL BE FUNNY AND POLITE
The 10 commandments for atheists are:
Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.
We won't ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don't keep up with the art of sacrifice.
Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can't avoid.
Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it's disappointment optimally channelled.
To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one's troubles and moods;to have a sense of what's going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
It's recognising that living with others isn't possible without excusing errors.
Pessimism isn't necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
Confidence isn't arrogance, it's based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.
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