Interview: Alain de Botton, writer and philosopher

Philosopher Alain de Botton’s new work attempts to separate the beautiful from the belief in religion

IMAGINE, for a moment, Alain de Botton’s perfect world. This is a place where our saints are William Shakespeare and Paul Smith instead of St Peter and St Paul. Our universities have centres for self-knowledge and departments for relationships. Our museums have been rearranged into galleries of love and suffering. There are temples to perspective (very, very tall to make us feel very, very small) and agape restaurants (agape, in the Christian faith, means divine love), where strangers dine side by side and guidebooks coax them towards sincerity and tolerance.

Travel agents would become psychotherapists, suggesting curative, soulful journeys instead of flogging package holidays to the Algarve. Billboards would advertise forgiveness instead of fast food. And at the annual Feast of Fools, stressed workers would come together to let off steam, fasten woollen penises to their coats, and talk gibberish.

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God may be dead in this Bottonian universe but his spirit lives on in all sorts of nooks and crannies (and restaurants). “Many moments in religion seem attractive to me even though I can’t believe in any of it,” explains De Botton, a lifelong atheist. The writer-philosopher plots this world in his new book, Religion For Atheists, stating in the introduction that his mission (in the religious sense, ironically) is to rescue what is “beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true”.

“As someone who deals with ideas,” he says, “I couldn’t help but notice that religions are the most successful mechanisms ever invented for transmitting ideas. I thought, how did they do it? It seems to me that atheists have the right ideas but they don’t have the right mechanisms for diffusing them. There are lots of holes in secular society, things that we have lost.”

For De Botton, who focuses on Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism, the problem is that we secularise badly. “We’ve lost the sense that an adult human being needs a lot of guidance, whereas all religions hold the view that humans are really quite fragile, terrified of death, facing loss, and falling apart. And so they need guidance. That’s an unfashionable start that insults the modern view of ourselves but as I become more of an adult – I’m 42 now – I realise how hard it is to be one. We’re all still falling apart. Everyone is having a nervous breakdown but religions say ‘of course you are, you’re human’. Even though the cure they propose isn’t one I would go along with, and in fact many of the doctrines of religion repel me, I like the diagnosis.”

But how can he pick ’n’ mix ideas from religion when he rejects the bedrock upon which they’re founded: the fundamentals of faith? “I think the Hitchens/Dawkins generation of atheists involved having to say constantly that religion is bad, awful and illogical,” he replies. “This is what it came to mean to be an atheist. But you can bat the whole issue of whether God exists away by saying of course he doesn’t, but we still invented him. So now what?”

It’s a tricky position to negotiate, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying. Simon Critchley, a philosophy professor, has a book out this year called The Faith of the Faithless. Voltaire, Matthew Arnold, Philip Larkin, Roger Scruton, all have wrestled with a profound nostalgia for a religion in which they can’t believe. De Botton himself anticipates the reaction from both sides in his book. While atheists will find a yearning for aspects of religion offensive, he notes, believers will protest that religions are not buffets. This has already proved to be the case with critic (and Catholic) Terry Eagleton denouncing Religion For Atheists as “an astonishingly impudent enterprise”.

“I can see where they’re coming from,” De Botton says. “My answer is that I’m coming from a different place. Look, I don’t think I could have written this book if I was a woman in Saudi Arabia. I think it’s the product of having lived in an incredibly secular and tolerant society. And I genuinely am an atheist. I’m not tempted by the doctrines of religion at all.

“I understand that you want me to sign on the line and accept the whole thing or leave it well alone,” he continues, addressing the imaginary believer in the room. “I can see how it would be seen as offensive to say ‘I can’t be doing with the Resurrection but this is a great painting’. But that painting is still meaningful to me even though I don’t believe in God. It just is. And imagine if someone said ‘you can’t enjoy this play unless you read everything else by the playwright, sign on the line, and become a follower of this person’? In culture, we pick and choose. So why not have a buffet [with religion]? Determination and steadfastness are important in all sorts of areas of life, but not here.”

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We meet in De Botton’s writing apartment in Belsize Park, north London. It’s a suitably monastic space, all white walls, dustless bookcases, strategically placed chairs, and stripy carpets (in worship of St Paul Smith, no doubt). On the wall there is a blown- up photo of the vaulted Gothic ceiling of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, hard evidence of his spiritual yearnings, and a bottle of San Pellegrino and two glasses laid ceremonially on the table.

And the man himself? Small, tidy, and unnervingly polite, he takes all my issues on board (“interesting...” is his default response to questions), answers thoughtfully and rigorously, yet somehow manages to remain entirely remote.

De Botton is a writer who gets people exercised. For some he is “dazzling” (John Updike) in his ability to bring the likes of Proust and Nietzsche to the masses with his elegant philosophy of everyday life. For others, he has made a career out of stating the bleeding obvious. People can be really nasty about De Botton. One journalist called him “an absolute pair-of-aching balls of a man”, which seems unduly harsh.

Some responded to his last major book, The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work, by pretty much saying what could he possible know about work? This is because De Botton comes from serious money. His father was an extremely cultured and extremely rich banker who, when he died (De Botton was 30 at the time), left a fortune of more than £420 million. (De Botton claims he lives off his books, however.) He was a famed art collector, painted by Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, and along with De Botton’s mother – like her husband a secular Jew – a committed atheist. Those who believed were mocked and Christmas was ignored, which meant that De Botton was 25 before he sat down to turkey with all the trimmings at a friend’s house.

“I grew up thinking that what made our family special was that we were ruthlessly scientific and logical,” he explains.

“That was the corporate identity of the family. It was very intolerant in a way. My parents were actually quite rude in private, as in those people believe in God – they’re freaks. When I see someone like Richard Dawkins, I see my father. I grew up with that. I’m basically the child of Richard Dawkins.” He laughs.

In his mid-twenties, De Botton underwent what he terms a crisis of faithlessness. “I remember going to Japan and visiting a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. There was a monk raking the gravel and it turned out it was a spiritual pursuit. I thought it was interesting that this moment of human endeavour and creativity, like drinking tea, could be elevated. It was kind of beautiful.”

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Yet he felt disloyal to his father. “It’s a sort of calculated disloyalty,” he says with a wry laugh. What would his father have made of Religion For Atheists? “Soft-headed,” De Botton replies without hesitation. “Going over to the other side... He would be worried.”

Broadly speaking, De Botton’s solution is, like Matthew Arnold’s in the nineteenth century, culture. But what about the problem of elitism? If it’s culture, not religion, that will guide us, what about all those who can’t access it?

Or those who don’t find solace in books and the songs of Leonard Cohen? “But again, religion is a good model,” he replies. “All religions have a way of speaking to different classes. There are elite texts written by guys in universities and there are woodcuts of the Nativity handed around at the village fair. Culture, despite the efforts of the Arts Councils, remains an elite thing. The guardians of culture don’t want it to be useful. They have let society down by refusing to come out of their ivory tower for fear of seeming stupid.”

According to De Botton, we’re anxious souls on a troubled planet for a finite time. And we need help. Some of the rituals of religion can offer us solace and wisdom, whether that means “diarising” times to think about compassion, singing together, or making use of electronic “wailing walls”. A mere book can’t do much in comparison, he writes, which is a bit weird considering the book’s mission. “Five years ago I basically had a real crisis about writing books at all,” he confesses. “I felt that they don’t change anything. In my own confused and clumsy way I’m trying to wrestle with that intellectually.”

De Botton is doing this by taking his ideas off the page and into the world. He has set up the School of Life in London, which puts some of these ideas into practice, and Living Architecture, a modernist version of the Landmark Trust that later this year opens a secular retreat in South Devon. Like atheism, it seems, the books are no longer enough. “Religion For Atheists arose out of all these feelings,” De Botton acknowledges. “I think I saw that religion had a kind of answer. Religions are basically communal organisations based on spiritual goals. In the secular world we face our spiritual goals privately and the organisation has become the corporation. Religion brings the two together, and that continues to fascinate, intrigue, and haunt me.” «

• Religion For Atheists, Hamish Hamilton, £18.99 hardback