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For the best of our secular angels

By Helen Hayward - posted Friday, 11 January 2013


The tide, Alain de Botton suggests in Religion for Atheists, is turning. More and more people are drawn to values that lie closer to the heart of religion, than to cultural liberalism, or the democratic process. Recently Helen Mirren said in the press that although she doesn't believe in God, she does believe in Christian values that transcend politics, culture and institutionalised knowledge. This strikes a chord in the hearts of many.

For all its boldness, Helen Mirren's comment may strike some as naïve. And yet often it's this fear of sounding naive that, de Botton points out, prevents us from asking the most pressing human questions. And the most pressing of all, the one he sets out to answer in Religion for Atheists, is this. How best should we live?

The art of living has, de Botton suggests, been left for too long in the hands of the established church, on the one hand, and university humanities departments on the other. De Botton is refreshingly open in his admiration of the church. In his view they get many things right – services that weave music and beauty and touch the soul, sermons that makes human truths digestible for our quickly forgetful minds, the shaking of hands designed to overcome our instinctive defenses against strangers. And yet for all these virtues, regular church-going assumes a set of beliefs that, for de Botton and most others, make weekly attendance untenable.

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University humanities departments haven't done much better, in de Botton's opinion. They have failed at their central mission of keeping central cultural values - like a belief in community and kindness towards others – alive, both in the public mind and our individual souls. Set up at the time of the decline of the church, inspired by reformers Matthew Arnold and JS Mill, modern humanities departments no longer convey 'the best that has been said and thought in the world'. Instead, de Botton hints, they busy themselves with research assessments, internal bickering and jockeying for power.

Most modern humanities departments have lost interest in the liberal mission that led to their being set up in the first place. They no longer pursue, as JS Mill described it, the 'noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it'. An open defender of Arnold and Mill, de Botton maintains a tone of calm appraisal throughout this discussion. But now and again his sharp fluency comes together to hit his target – the 'guardians of culture' within universities.

When confronted by those who demand of culture that it should be relevant and useful, that it should offer up advice on how to choose a career or survive the end of a marriage, how to contain sexual impulses or cope with the news of a medical death sentence, the guardians of culture become disdainful. Their ideal audiences are students who are uninclined to drama and self-involvement, who are mature, independent, temperamentally able to live with questions rather than answers and ready to put aside their own needs for the sake of years of disinterested study of agricultural yields in eighteenth-century Normandy or the presence of the infinite in Kant's noumenal realm. p.112

De Botton's sarcasm is clear. Relevance, utility and emotional needs are paramount, and should never be subordinated to make way for years of disinterested study in anything.

Black and white photographs sprinkle the text of Religion for Atheists. In the 'Education' chapter, the book's pivot, an Oxford student in Medieval Literature lies asleep with his head on his opened books – the sun streaming through the stained glass window of the Bodleian Library behind.

It's not, de Botton quickly points out, that Medieval Literature is boring. He doesn't want the subject morphed into a vocational course on thatched roofing or feudal farming. It's rather, he suggests, that a subject like Medieval Literature might be taught differently. Instead of studying the use of vellum for sacred manuscripts, or positing abstruse metaphysical questions, enlightened lecturers might use medieval texts to raise questions relating to the art of living, using the past to illuminate the present.

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There is, de Botton suggests, no problem with the Western cultural canon – pretty well everything we need to know to live well lies within it. Taught in the right spirit, this canon might even be called 'into service to replace the holy texts.' He treads softly yet determinedly here. 'We are', he writes, 'unwilling to consider secular culture religiously enough, in other words, as a source of guidance. So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives.' p.111

Alain de Botton's project is large – larger than the compass of this book. He would reform the whole of society, and not just churches and universities. He would have us listen to sermons that encourage us to relate warmly to our neighbours and chat attentively to our children. He would have us eat at communal tables in restaurants, separated from our kin, with the aim of getting to know the joys and troubles that lie beneath the surface of others. And he would have us be kinder to the stranger in ourselves, and to release him or her in yearly bursts of ritualised folly.

For all our liberal values and democratic freedoms, de Botton believes that, deep within, most of us are but children who quite like being told how best to act. And, not least, how to think. Instead of scaling the heights of intellectual endeavour, de Botton would bring us all back down to base camp in order to learn how to think better first. He would have us become as spiritually fit as we are physically fit – through spiritual exercises, or whatever method that temperamentally suits us. In order that we might become less monkey mind, and more capable of refined awareness.

None of this need be difficult, de Botton urges. What is difficult is persuading enough people that these reforms are worth making. Because, as he somewhat forlornly points out, just like the student of Medieval Literature asleep on his desk, it's part of human nature to forget our most valuable lessons and to resist awkward emotional truths. As he keeps reminding the reader - in what becomes a familiar chant - it's not more knowledge that we need, but more wisdom and courage so that we can act on it.

The revolutionary would change the world from without, storming the Bastille with a thrusting bayonet. The rebel would change it - just as deftly but less aggressively - from within. Alain de Botton has chosen the latter path, and is keen to reform just about everything - from the way corporations work, the way public art is chosen, to the way we relate socially – from the ground up.

If de Botton had his way there would be secular angels devoted to the care of our souls. These angels would be appointed, not from on high – he's an ardent unbeliever – but from deep within ourselves. And their primary role would be to help us in the art of living. They would sing in chorus - like the African-American Pentacostal preachers he so admires - in the tongue of collective wisdom. Not as an end in itself, but so that we might 'coalesce the scattered efforts of individuals interested in the care of souls and organise them under the aegis of institutions'.

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This is a review of Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton 2012)



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About the Author

Helen Hayward is a former academic and writer with a PhD, currently living in Hobart with her husband John Armstrong and family. She blogs at Helen Hayward.

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