Religion is wrong for all the right reasons. So says Alain de Botton, a schismatic atheist who has caused a stir among militant non-believers by insisting that they have a lot to learn from the world's great faiths.
In his controversial new book, Religion for Atheists, the 42-year-old Swiss-born Englishman – whose atheist father founded Global Asset Management – castigates the mocking tone deployed by celebrity atheists to attack the supernatural side of faith. Instead of debating dogma, he thinks it is smarter to steal organized religion's best ideas: the art and architecture, spirit of community and humbling perspective on humanity that have kept belief systems going strong for centuries. Mr. de Botton recently spoke with The Globe's John Allemang.
It's the idea that to be an atheist, you have to resist everything to do with religion – including music, architecture, the sense of being a community. Atheists are so keen to prove God doesn't exist that they don't stop to ask what needs religion is catering for. They keep attacking religion through reason as if by launching a devastating argument they could make the whole thing collapse. But religion is for the most part a work of the emotion, so it's foolish to attack it as if it were an intellectual exercise.
What should atheists learn from religion – what's worth stealing?
Religion understands we need guidance, that we can't get through this life without help in challenging moments. The vulnerability and fragility of being human are right at the centre of religious analysis. Obviously there's a supernatural component as well, the reassurance about the next life. But there's also interesting stuff going on about community, holding people together in a group, breaking through the feeling of loneliness. There's reassurance about marriage, relationships and children. And throughout religious practice, there's an emphasis on wisdom: A lot of religion is about finding peace in a noisy world, about being alone in silence, about collecting one's thoughts and finding a focus. And you find that religion uses rather unorthodox methods to teach people stuff: architecture, art, music, food, certain clothing. Atheists often think that religions are just about a book, so we must write a book to make the whole edifice fall apart. But religion is only secondarily about a book.
You seem particularly taken with the rituals and organizational power of Catholicism. Isn't that a particularly problematic religion for an infidel?
If you listen to militant atheists, you'd think that what we had on our hands was something combining the intolerance of the Spanish Inquisition, the force of the Crusades and the intellectual muscle of the Jesuits. But it's totally unfair to compare any institution with its incarnation 400 years ago. The rituals of the Catholic Church remain the same, but otherwise it's hugely modernized – Catholics don't burn anyone at the stake any more. The Enlightenment has happened, but you wouldn't know it by reading the new atheists. They think the enemy they're facing is the same institution Galileo was up against. It strikes me as intellectually bankrupt to go on about parish tea parties and try to accuse them of being the second Crusade.
In the first line of your book, you say it is boring and unproductive to look for truth in religion. Why doesn't truth matter?
It doesn't matter because it's not available. The question is impossible – any discussion is going to be caught in a stalemate where the atheist declares the religious person to be an idiot, and the religious person declares the atheist to be damned. So you waste a lot of time.
You've become an advocate for atheist temples, which seems to have made you a lot of adversaries, both believers and non-believers. What were you thinking?
Many religions take architecture seriously and see having the right space as part of living a good life. So I playfully suggested the idea of temples for atheists, which was misinterpreted as a belief that atheists should worship reason and the concept of a non-god. This was shocking to religious people, and completely wrong. There's a design for an atheists' temple in my book, but I've got no plans to build it. That said, I'm very interested in non-denominational contemplative spaces, something like the Mark Rothko chapel in Texas.
But do atheists really need a room of their own?
I go to a Paris cathedral, listen to organ recitals and feel good in spite of my non-belief. What's wrong with that? Many cathedrals quite generously let in everybody, but there comes a time when you feel, as a non-believer, I'm at somebody else's party. Surely we can be creative too and not always be piggybacking.
Is there a danger that by focusing on the attractive bits of religion, you've neglected its core values and missed the point?
People often say that once religion disappears, we don't have anything to believe in, which strikes me as bizarre. If you gather a group of 500 Canadians and say, “Do you guys have any shared values?” you'll come up with a solid list of 40 things everybody believes, from fairness and kindness to being nice to children and respecting the environment. We're not devoid of values in the secular world. What we're devoid of are mechanisms to make those values effective, and this is what religion does.
Secularists assume that an intellectual argument can improve the world. Religion teaches us that things don't change unless there is an involvement with everyday practice. Religions historically have been filled with practical people who use music, art, architecture, clothing, travel – the experience of a pilgrimage – to make ideas stick.
You're very big on the religious concept of humility. What's the point of feeling insignificant?
It's an important emotion. Feeling very small in the face of something large, powerful and beyond one's control is the uniting theme of religion. And I think that sensation is available to atheists through science and nature. In the modern world, people are unhappy because they've been promised a sense of control, that doesn't deliver. They've been promised that their relationships will go well, that money leads to happiness, that work will be fulfilling. And yet for many of us, these promises don't work out. So there's tremendous relief in the reminders of why that might be: Though we can put men on the moon, we're quite powerless in other areas.
Yes, it's true that religions often promise us a lot in the afterlife. But they're also pretty realistic about what we get in this life, more realistic than many secularist ideologies. As atheists, we can learn something from this welcome pessimism, while ditching the rosy optimism about the next world.
Is it possible that your argument for stealing organized religion's best ideas has already been pre-empted? I look at the average corporation and I see a mission statement filled with optimism and certainty, a cubicle workplace that features a series of monastic cells , and a hierarchical management scheme that would put the Vatican authorities to shame .
Yes, there are strong similarities between religion and big corporations. The difference is what each organization is aiming at. Religion wants to save your soul and change the world at a psychological level. The corporation aims to make money in fulfilment of more basic human needs. In the modern world, the people now interested in saving your soul are outside corporate structures on the whole – psychotherapists, poets, guitarists, novelist, all running cottage industries. What's interesting about religions is how highly organized and systematic they are. Which leads to the thought that if you want to change the world at the level of the soul, you probably have to get organized, get out of your bedroom and get into a cubicle with other people.
John Allemang is a Globe and Mail feature writer.
This interview has been condensed and edited.