Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0

An excellent TED talk by philosopher and atheist Alain de Botton on how atheism, being somewhat vacuous and individualistic in nature, can learn from religion in building a more substantial culture and community. I haven't found a transcript but an intro and related article are below.

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... Now, I think it's too easy to dismiss the whole of religion that way ... and what I'd like to inaugurate today is a new way of being an atheist ... a new version of atheism we could call Atheism 2.0 ... It starts from a very basic premise: of course there's no god ... now let's move on, that's not the end of the story, that's the very, very beginning. I'm interested in a kind of constituancy that thinks ... I can't believe in any of this stuff, I can't believe in the doctrines, but ... 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 either you accept the doctrine and you can have all the nice stuff, or you reject the doctrine and then you're living in a sort of spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart ... I don't think we have to make that choice, I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways ... 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.

Atheism 2.0 is about ... going through religions and say "what here could we use?". The secular world is full of holes, we have secularised badly ... and a thorough study of religion can 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 ...
FAQ with Alain de Botton on ‘religion for atheists’
What is it you’re most interested in in religion?

The secular world believes that if we have good ideas, we will be reminded of them just when it matters. Religions don’t agree. They are all about structure; they want to build calendars for us, that will make sure that we regularly encounter reminders of significant concepts. That is what rituals are: they are attempts to make vivid to us things we already know, but are likely to have forgotten. Religions are also keen to see us as more than just rational minds, we are emotional and physical creatures, and therefore, we need to be seduced via our bodies and our senses too.

You propose to reform schools and universities to teach humans how to deal with the most important existential problems; loneliness, pain and death for example. Why? Can existential lessons be taught at school?

The starting point of religion is that we are children, and we need guidance. The secular world often gets offended by this. It assumes that all adults are mature – and therefore, it hates didacticism, it hates the idea of moral instruction. But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. And yet the modern education system denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control. We are far more desperate than secular modernity recognises. All of us are on the edge of panic and terror pretty much all the time – and religions recognise this. We need to build a similar awareness into secular structures.

Religions are fascinating because they are giant machines for making ideas vivid and real in people’s lives: ideas about goodness, about death, family, community etc. Nowadays, we tend to believe that the people who make ideas vivid are artists and cultural figures, but this is such a small, individual response to a massive set of problems. So I am deeply interested in the way that religions are in the end institutions, giant machines, organisations, directed to managing our inner life. There is nothing like this in the secular world, and this seems a huge pity.
File under: teach the children well.

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