Seattle’s book readings can attract famously large, literate crowds, but it was still impressive to see Alain de Botton crossing the expanse of stage at Meany Hall like T.E. Lawrence did God’s Anvil, or at least as O’ Toole did in David Lean’s film. You almost wanted more ways to pass the time during his walk to the Seattle Arts & Lectures podium–check Twitter, scroll through Facebook, any emails? Ah, he’s almost there!
A Zurich-born Harvard-PhD dropout, de Botton belongs to the set of popular-thought authors that also includes Malcolm Gladwell: People who are known less for originating ideas than for the facility they have for disseminating them. This drives the fustier, mustier, tweed-elbowed set mad. With his new book, Religion for Atheists, de Botton has every chance of adding to his envy-addled detractors, as he has transferred his “just the good bits,” buffet approach to philosophy to religion, as well.
Thanks to his time at Cambridge and King’s College, the thin, balding, soberly dressed de Botton can make this approach sound eminently reasonable, even sophisticated. Not giving an inch to the Very-Serious-or-Religious, he wonders whether they would like to apply their categorical absolutism to literature: Would they be horrified at the way you “pick and mix” between Jane Austen and Will Self? Henry James and Martin Amis? (Austen was his, for the rest, I’m ad libbing.)
Canny, that set-up, because of course any devoutly religious person’s mindset likely precludes treating revelation as literature; it just serves to remind everyone at book readings how much they broad-mindedly enjoy literature. And de Botton is quite clear at the outset that he’s not there to argue the existence of God, that he belongs in the camp of the post-religious for whom belief in a deity seems a bit ridiculous, and there is no fruitful argument to be had. “Sorry you’re damned” and “Sorry you’re stupid” is how he characterizes the pro and con positions.
For himself, he says, the question is, How do you have a good life without God? And it turns out that, belief in deities aside, “lots of things about religion are fascinating to me.” He lists Christmas carols, churches, holidays–the “quite nice secondary bits.”
But in fact he has bigger Jesus fishes to fry. Contrasting the secular approach to education, where the student is a receptacle for career skills, de Botton discusses the religious school’s drive to help students become more fully human. We have an intense desire for meaning, he says, thwarted by an educational system that really fails to equip us for the fact that life has to be lived. Oh no, he says, it’s nothing much (rattling off a long list of major life transitions) and then you get into the coffin, shut the lid, and you’re done with it.
Religion understands, he says, changing tack, that we’re all barely holding it together, that we need ongoing assistance in life. And because religion is frequently persuaded beforehand of humanity’s flawed origins, it has less faith in the epiphanic power of truth to set us right. Secular education lectures, dispassionately, and often with no great regard for your interest. Religious education is a sermon, a parable, something meant to engage you emotionally as well as intellectually, and it is repeated again and again, because knowledge is more likely to wear off than stick.
Religion creates an outer structure for an inner life. Zen Buddhists have appointments with the full moon. It’s not that the secular world doesn’t have this, de Botton adds: “It’s a lot of what Wordsworth is on about. The problem is, none of us read Wordsworth.” Ritual makes us get around to doing those things we keep meaning to do. Religion can also–not always, Calvinists!–take special care with the aesthetics of wisdom, to try to reach people through their senses. Even austere Buddhists may hold a tea ceremony.
De Botton is a founder of London’s School of Life, which seeks to provide life wisdom (he defines wisdom as “helpful truth”) without the trappings of esoteric academia. It’s a bias that appears in his discussion of religious (versus secular) art, where he praises the didactic nature of religious art, the way it seeks to instruct clearly, rather than mystify you with the complexity of modern life. He quotes Hegel saying art is the sensory presentation of ideas, and somehow this leads to a riff on “Hey, Jude,” which, again, sounded sensible and right-thinking at the time. (My notes also indicate that you’re to take a look at Rembrandt’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” “Courage” is underlined.)
But the secular world doesn’t care, often, for art that has a definite point of view. When you wonder what a painting is about, de Botton says, you’re likely to lean in and read the curator’s breakdown of the kinds of paint used, and what the canvas is made of.
Further, he argues, artists in the modern world are almost always lone actors, as against the organized force of religion. “Witty and sarcastic books,” he points out, “won’t bring religion down.” (By the way, leaflets were being handed out as you entered that promoted a Bellevue visit by Richard Dawkins.)
So, to sum up: Religions are “fantastic resources,” with “lots of stuff to steal.” They are “too wise, powerful, and beautiful to be abandoned to the people who happen to believe in them.” In the Q&A section, de Botton delivered what sounded like another practiced formulation: “We’re not short of values, we’re short of ways of making them stick.”