Suppose you’re an atheist.You’ve decided you’re not worried about getting on with disapproving God, or stamping out religion in its various forms. You just want to be happy, and get on with having a decent life. Fantastic! Off you go. And a few weeks later, as you smoke cigarettes at 4am and try to relax, you find yourself thinking ‘What am I doing with my life?’ What now?
This is a normal, human feeling. At least, I hope it is, because otherwise I’ve got far more problems than I thought I did. Let’s assume it is. I’ll assume that sleep-destroying, relationship-wrecking, miserable, paralytic anxiety is something of a default state for humanity. Bleak. What the hell? People live like this?
Except, people didn’t always live like this. The base-state of anxiety was the same, but when you felt confused you had something to hold on to – organised religion. They say it helps to keep suicidally depressed people busy – arrange cinema trips, so that their future is partially mapped out, partially contingently existing, as well as including some positive things. And 100 years ago, organised religion could provide something similar – some structure, some stability.
But you’re an atheist. So you can’t participate in any of these regular meetings of strangers, and these occasions that draw family members together from across the country to exchange gifts, any of these rituals of reflection on life itself. You can’t enjoy any religious literature, any religious architecture, draw on thousands of years of moral thought. So what do you do?
Alain de Botton has an answer, which he presented to a full house at the Oxford Literary Festival, in my interview with him, and in his new book, Religion for Atheists. That answer is simple – crib / borrow / steal the features of religion that can be separated from doctrine, and put them into practice in your own life. To de Botton, religions are ‘buffets’. He explained, “Some of my critics have accused me of practicing the buffet style of philosophy.. and here they’re absolutely right. I see religion before me as a buffet and I take my plate and I eat the nicest bits.”
To de Botton religions are not without flaws – he is firm and precise in saying that religion is no excuse for intolerance. But he argues that it is the intolerance that is bad in those cases, rather than simply all of religion. And in the same way that there are parts of certain religions we might want to remove from society, there are also parts that could be worth saving.
One response would be to call this approach condescending – what gives anyone the right to tell anyone else how to live? Why do we even need to be told what to do? De Botton responds with scepticism to the idea that we all feel that we’re in control of our lives, a view you don’t normally hear in the public sphere. Waxing on the concept of a soul, he told me, “I like the concept of original sin. Original sin is a really helpful idea. It insists that the human being is broken, that humans are insufficient and incapable of perfection.
‘That’s the starting point of original sin. And that’s a really good way to start, let’s say, a relationship. Imagine you have two young, beautiful, perfect people – they’re going to have a terrible relationship. If you get together going ‘Look, I’m completely broken’ and ‘Oh good, well I am too’ you’ll be much happier.”
I feel like this is a sentiment that is almost never expressed. Again, that could just be because no one really feels like that, and I really should be paying someone to help me work through such feelings. But as de Botton points out, working through such insecurities has been one of the goals of religion, and working through these insecurities should in fact be a goal for all of us. And even if they take a path that starts at supernatural doctrine and follow it all the way to intolerance, there are parts of that journey which any right-thinking secular individual will surely see as useful and separable from the unwanted features.
In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains his prospect theory, an alternative to economic theories that assume ideal rationality on the part of an agent. Humans are not ideally rational – we can strive to be, but we can be influenced by biases about what’s valuable, what we say is important. These biases are created outside of the decisions themselves. It may be that if we want to change our behaviour, we ought to shape our biases, rather than pursue rationally ideal decision making. How de Botton talks about the use of religion for atheists suggests ways that we can shape our biases using the tropes of religion.
The point is not where our views come from, but their own worth. He accepts it as true that anything you can pick out from religion you can also get from Wordsworth. However, de Botton argues, “It’s true, Wordsworth says a lot of this – he’s all about the fecundity of the earth and the cycle of the seasons and all the rest of it. There’s one major problem that the secular world forgets about Wordsworth and others and that point is that, not to be rude, none of us read Wordsworth.
‘The reason that we don’t read Wordsworth is that we mean to but we never get around to it. We read a little bit at University but we’re very busy. Religions know that about us: that’s why they think that we need that diary, we need a chronology of spiritually important things, and I think, from a secular point of view, that that’s fascinating and thought-provoking.”
Religions are for de Botton prototypes of secular moral institutions. They are structured, they are ordered, they are clear, and they are supportive. They are of course not ‘right’ – although who knows what that would actually mean in the context of a moral decision. But there is no reason an atheist might think of a religion as ‘wrong’, as well as accepting that its believers have their personal lives far more together than they could manage on their own.
De Botton ultimately wants us to bring morality back. ‘We are too easily frightened. So often, anytime that someone proposes a valid idea in this area, people say, but what about Hitler, or Stalin. This is not the choice. We can have public morality without fascism, we can even have certain kinds of censorship without dictatorship, we can have great civic architecture which isn’t done by governments for their own glory.
For de Botton, Atheism doesn’t have to mean nihilism, and he tell me, ‘We don’t need to abandon ourselves to freemarket capitalism under the spiritual leadership of cable television.’