Philosopher Alain de Botton discusses his new book, "Religion for Atheists"
Alain de Botton has a lot going for him. His books sell; his events sell out; he is invited onto talk shows; other people often pick up his bills. The same cannot be said of a great many public thinkers. Why, then, is the philosopher he most resembles not Descartes or Russell but, rather, Eeyore the donkey from the “Winnie the Pooh” stories?
In his latest work, “Religion for Atheists,” de Botton seems to be experiencing a crisis of confidence. This, for example: “We simply will not care for very long about the higher values when all we are given to convince us of their worth is an occasional reminder in a modestly selling, largely ignored book of essays by a so-called philosopher.”
In person, talking about his book, de Botton comes across as Mr. Happy. He related cheerfulness to gloominess, because, “that’s when laughter becomes richer and more interesting,” he said.
His work is an antidote to pop culture’s fairy tales.
“On the plane coming over I was looking in the section headed ‘Romantic Films,’ and all those films about love were about finding the right person to love, not dealing with the reality that once you find the right person it’s still quite difficult to love them. Our society is not thinking about the complexity of love. We are not thinking about the complexities of the workplace. There is this assumption that everyone will have a glorious destiny. Actually, it’s a cruel game of musical chairs, where there are not enough chairs and you realize by the time you get to 50 [he’s 42] that not everyone is going to have a nice chair, and that’s very, very tough.”
Yet, he continues, we live in a relentlessly upbeat world.
“There is this huge problem of mental illness, especially depression, a lot of which is because we don’t allow the shadow side—the darkness, the sadness—into the mainstream. So it has to live this nocturnal existence, and religions are quite good at bringing it out and saying, look, the facts of life are pretty bleak.”
Deciding what’s useful about religion, and what’s disposable, is de Botton’s latest concern.
“The journey was from complete atheism, more than atheism, it was a sense that religion was not for me. How could it be? I was not a believer. But then there’s recognition that you can be a nonbeliever and culturally be very interested and knowledgeable about religion. And there isn’t really a category for someone who says ‘Well, I don’t believe in anything, but I’m really quite involved with religious concepts, ideas, histories, manifestations. There’s not really a word for that. We have ‘agnostic,’ but that’s something else.”
He revisited the Bible, but it didn’t win him over. “That was interesting. There were moments in my research when I would shut the book and think ‘This is baloney—this is just not for me.’ There are real limits to my enthusiasm for religions, but, then again, there are genuine limits to my enthusiasm for philosophy.”
But his work did enable him to use “McDonald’s” and “Catholic Church” in the same sentence, which could be a world first. Both strive, he writes, “to ensure a regularity of service across a vast and scattered labor force.” Asked to expand, he says: “They operate in similar ways, in the sense that they are multinationals, they believe in disciplining a work force to deliver a consistent product, and it so happens that one is a hamburger and one is spiritual salvation.”
There is much to ponder there, especially for a professional ponderer. In conversation he says, “I think a lot.” Of course he does. There is much to think about. For instance, “I wrote a little book on sex, which will come out in May.” Farewell, Mr. Gloomy. Hello, Mr. Happy.
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