Ted talk: What aspects of religion should atheists (respectfully) adopt?

Alain de Botton, FRSL is a Swiss-born British philosopher and author. His books discuss various contemporary subjects and themes, emphasizing philosophy’s relevance to everyday life. He published Essays in Love, which went on to sell two million copies. The Muslim Times has the best collection for uniting forces of the Abrahamic faiths and beyond

Transcript of the Ted talk

00:03

One of the most common ways of dividing the world is into those who believe and those who don’t — into the religious and the atheists. And for the last decade or so, it’s been quite clear what being an atheist means. There have been some very vocal atheists who’ve pointed out, not just that religion is wrong, but that it’s ridiculous. These people, many of whom have lived in North Oxford, have argued — they’ve argued that believing in God is akin to believing in fairies and essentially that the whole thing is a childish game. 00:42

Now I think it’s too easy. I think it’s too easy to dismiss the whole of religion that way. And it’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. And what I’d like to inaugurate today is a new way of being an atheist — if you like, a new version of atheism we could call Atheism 2.0. Now what is Atheism 2.0? Well it starts from a very basic premise: of course, there’s no God. Of course, there are no deities or supernatural spirits or angels, etc. Now let’s move on; that’s not the end of the story, that’s the very, very beginning. 01:19

I’m interested in the kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines: that thinks, “I can’t believe in any of this stuff. I can’t believe in the doctrines. I don’t think these doctrines are right. But,” a very important but, “I love Christmas carols. I really like the art of Mantegna. I really like looking at old churches. I really like turning the pages of the Old Testament.” Whatever it may be, you know the kind of thing I’m talking about — people who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic, communal side of religion, but can’t bear the doctrine. Until now, these people have faced a rather unpleasant choice. It’s almost as though either you accept the doctrine and then you can have all the nice stuff, or you reject the doctrine and you’re living in some kind of spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart. 02:08

So that’s a sort of tough choice. I don’t think we have to make that choice. I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways — and I’m being both very respectful and completely impious — of stealing from religions. If you don’t believe in a religion, there’s nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion. And for me, atheism 2.0 is about both, as I say, a respectful and an impious way of going through religions and saying, “What here could we use?” The secular world is full of holes. We have secularized badly, I would argue. And a thorough study of religion could give us all sorts of insights into areas of life that are not going too well. And I’d like to run through a few of these today. 02:54

I’d like to kick off by looking at education. Now education is a field the secular world really believes in. When we think about how we’re going to make the world a better place, we think education; that’s where we put a lot of money. Education is going to give us, not only commercial skills, industrial skills, it’s also going to make us better people. You know the kind of thing a commencement address is, and graduation ceremonies, those lyrical claims that education, the process of education — particularly higher education — will make us into nobler and better human beings. That’s a lovely idea. Interesting where it came from. 03:26

In the early 19th century, church attendance in Western Europe started sliding down very, very sharply, and people panicked. They asked themselves the following question. They said, where are people going to find the morality, where are they going to find guidance, and where are they going to find sources of consolation? And influential voices came up with one answer. They said culture. It’s to culture that we should look for guidance, for consolation, for morality. Let’s look to the plays of Shakespeare, the dialogues of Plato, the novels of Jane Austen. In there, we’ll find a lot of the truths that we might previously have found in the Gospel of Saint John. Now I think that’s a very beautiful idea and a very true idea. They wanted to replace scripture with culture. And that’s a very plausible idea. It’s also an idea that we have forgotten. 04:13

If you went to a top university — let’s say you went to Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge — and you said, “I’ve come here because I’m in search of morality, guidance and consolation; I want to know how to live,” they would show you the way to the insane asylum. This is simply not what our grandest and best institutes of higher learning are in the business of. Why? They don’t think we need it. They don’t think we are in an urgent need of assistance. They see us as adults, rational adults. What we need is information. We need data, we don’t need help. 04:42

Now religions start from a very different place indeed. All religions, all major religions, at various points call us children. And like children, they believe that we are in severe need of assistance. We’re only just holding it together. Perhaps this is just me, maybe you. But anyway, we’re only just holding it together. And we need help. Of course, we need help. And so we need guidance and we need didactic learning. 05:06

You know, in the 18th century in the U.K., the greatest preacher, greatest religious preacher, was a man called John Wesley, who went up and down this country delivering sermons, advising people how they could live. He delivered sermons on the duties of parents to their children and children to their parents, the duties of the rich to the poor and the poor to the rich. He was trying to tell people how they should live through the medium of sermons, the classic medium of delivery of religions. 05:29

Now we’ve given up with the idea of sermons. If you said to a modern liberal individualist, “Hey, how about a sermon?” they’d go, “No, no. I don’t need one of those. I’m an independent, individual person.” What’s the difference between a sermon and our modern, secular mode of delivery, the lecture? Well a sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition. The tradition of sermonizing is hugely valuable, because we are in need of guidance, morality and consolation — and religions know that. 06:01

Another point about education: we tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they’ll remember it. Sit them in a classroom, tell them about Plato at the age of 20, send them out for a career in management consultancy for 40 years, and that lesson will stick with them. Religions go, “Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it.” That’s what all religions tell us: “Get on you knees and repeat it 10 or 20 or 15 times a day.” Otherwise our minds are like sieves. 06:29

So religions are cultures of repetition. They circle the great truths again and again and again. We associate repetition with boredom. “Give us the new,” we’re always saying. “The new is better than the old.” If I said to you, “Okay, we’re not going to have new TED. We’re just going to run through all the old ones and watch them five times because they’re so true. We’re going to watch Elizabeth Gilbert five times because what she says is so clever,” you’d feel cheated. Not so if you’re adopting a religious mindset. 06:53

The other things that religions do is to arrange time. All the major religions give us calendars. What is a calendar? A calendar is a way of making sure that across the year you will bump into certain very important ideas. In the Catholic chronology, Catholic calendar, at the end of March you will think about St. Jerome and his qualities of humility and goodness and his generosity to the poor. You won’t do that by accident; you will do that because you are guided to do that. Now we don’t think that way. In the secular world we think, “If an idea is important, I’ll bump into it. I’ll just come across it.” Nonsense, says the religious world view. Religious view says we need calendars, we need to structure time, we need to synchronize encounters. This comes across also in the way in which religions set up rituals around important feelings. 07:38

Take the Moon. It’s really important to look at the Moon. You know, when you look at the Moon, you think, “I’m really small. What are my problems?” It sets things into perspective, etc., etc. We should all look at the Moon a bit more often. We don’t. Why don’t we? Well there’s nothing to tell us, “Look at the Moon.” But if you’re a Zen Buddhist in the middle of September, you will be ordered out of your home, made to stand on a canonical platform and made to celebrate the festival of Tsukimi, where you will be given poems to read in honor of the Moon and the passage of time and the frailty of life that it should remind us of. You’ll be handed rice cakes. And the Moon and the reflection on the Moon will have a secure place in your heart. That’s very good. 08:14

The other thing that religions are really aware of is: speak well — I’m not doing a very good job of this here — but oratory, oratory is absolutely key to religions. In the secular world, you can come through the university system and be a lousy speaker and still have a great career. But the religious world doesn’t think that way. What you’re saying needs to be backed up by a really convincing way of saying it. 08:34

So if you go to an African-American Pentecostalist church in the American South and you listen to how they talk, my goodness, they talk well. After every convincing point, people will go, “Amen, amen, amen.” At the end of a really rousing paragraph, they’ll all stand up, and they’ll go, “Thank you Jesus, thank you Christ, thank you Savior.” If we were doing it like they do it — let’s not do it, but if we were to do it — I would tell you something like, “Culture should replace scripture.” And you would go, “Amen, amen, amen.” And at the end of my talk, you would all stand up and you would go, “Thank you Plato, thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen.” And we’d know that we had a real rhythm going. All right, all right. We’re getting there. We’re getting there. 09:08

(Applause) 09:10

The other thing that religions know is we’re not just brains, we are also bodies. And when they teach us a lesson, they do it via the body. So for example, take the Jewish idea of forgiveness. Jews are very interested in forgiveness and how we should start anew and start afresh. They don’t just deliver us sermons on this. They don’t just give us books or words about this. They tell us to have a bath. So in Orthodox Jewish communities, every Friday you go to a Mikveh. You immerse yourself in the water, and a physical action backs up a philosophical idea. We don’t tend to do that. Our ideas are in one area and our behavior with our bodies is in another. Religions are fascinating in the way they try and combine the two. 09:47

Let’s look at art now. Now art is something that in the secular world, we think very highly of. We think art is really, really important. A lot of our surplus wealth goes to museums, etc. We sometimes hear it said that museums are our new cathedrals, or our new churches. You’ve heard that saying. Now I think that the potential is there, but we’ve completely let ourselves down. And the reason we’ve let ourselves down is that we’re not properly studying how religions handle art. 

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