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Finding the meaning in life
Alain de Botton is a writer who tends to divide opinion.
Some can’t stand him, while others can’t heap enough praise on him. He has been called both “dazzling” and “an absolute pair-ofaching- balls of a man”.
It’s somewhat ironic, given his personal tendency for moderation. Even on religion, a topic with the power to send the majority of people scrabbling for their positions, de Botton prefers to balance precariously on the fence.
He’s given the subject considerable thought in the course of writing his latest book, which looks at the application of religion for the non-religious. Isn’t it a shame, he asks, that atheists are denied the opportunity of the songs, the rituals, the meals and the nice buildings which the religious benefit from? Couldn’t we pilfer some of these ideas for our own?
He had become weary of the increasingly militant arguments from high-profile atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, who he says were in danger of becoming as intolerant as some of their religious opponents.
De Botton would rather we all just got along.
His distaste for Dawkins’ stance has its roots in his childhood. De Botton was brought up by two secular Jews in a “committedly atheistic”
household, where religious belief was placed “somewhere on a par with an attachment to Santa Claus”.
He recalls his domineering father reducing his sister to tears when, aged eight, she tentatively expressed a view that a god might exist somewhere in the universe. He spent much of his early life sharing his parents’ views before having a “crisis of faithlessness’ in his mid-20s, when he began to face up to his rather more ambivalent feelings towards religion.
He thinks this is more common than we’re led to believe. “Things get very polarised between the people who don’t believe and those who very much do and it ignores what’s actually the case, which is that most people are somewhere in the middle – they can’t quite believe in the more dramatic claims of religion but they’re not implacably opposed to them either.” He describes himself as a gentle atheist, “one of those people who can’t deal with any of the beliefs of religion but loves a lot of the rituals and rites that go with it.”
In Religion For Atheists, he suggests ways the godless can cherrypick from Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism (not Islam, interestingly) to learn more about community, family and relationships.
He proposes we might try secular versions of sacred events such as the Catholic Mass and the Jewish Day of Atonement, might build temples to secular values such as perspective and reflection, might even create a restaurant where strangers sat together and shared kind feelings – a spin on the religious tradition of agape love.
Not surprisingly, this “pick and mix”
approach has met with some opposition.
The Guardian decreed the book “a banal and impudent argument for the uses of religion”
while others have echoed parish priest Richard Coles’ view that it’s an admirable notion, but ultimately hollow.
De Botton is unrepentant – he’s just trying to suggest ways in which the secular world might innovate, he says. “We still don’t really know how to marry or bury people outside of religion and I hope the book might excite people into thinking of ways to give the secular world some nice things too.
It doesn’t only have to be faith schools that teach morality, it’s not only in churches people fall to their knees and start weeping in front of a work of art. This sort of stuff can happen outside the religious sphere as well. I don’t think religion is the only source of wisdom or insight into modern life, but I think that to say it’s not at all valid is also wrong.”
Born in Switzerland and educated at Harrow and Cambridge, de Botton was first published when he was 23 (he’s now 42) but became a household name in 1997 when his book How Proust Can Change Your Life became a bestseller. His books have explored love, happiness and status, among other things.
he says, “I’m interested in what makes life difficult, what complicates things, how we make ourselves unhappy in all sorts of ways, the struggle for fulfilment and contentment.” He shies away from the term philosophy, preferring to frame his interests as “the examined life, the thoughtful life”.
“I’m struck by how much we’re left on our own in the secular world to work out how to live when I don’t think a lot of us know how to do that.”
His books aim to offer a little guidance, he says – for himself as much as anyone else. “It’s very much selftherapy.
I’m not ashamed to admit that. That’s my vision of what reading is – a form of therapy and knowledge linked to healing and more effective living. We have a hard time as a society trying to explain what books are for and why they’re good.
Everyone says they are, but why? I think books should be related to inner needs and making us a bit less confused and more effective.”
He recognises they are not enough on their own, however – hence him founding the School of Life, the London cultural enterprise that’s become a global franchise. They have recently opened schools in Australia and Brazil, and are soon to open one in Korea. The core of their lectures focuses on love and work – the things de Botton wishes he had received more guidance on when growing up.
“I had a pretty good education but in many ways it left huge gaps and this is the sort of education I would have wanted not instead but alongside the one I had. No one would think that every generation had to find out on their own the great truths of physics or geography, we naturally transmit these, but when it comes to the relationship or life-based questions there’s a curious reluctance to pass knowledge down the generations.
“My general mission is to spread wisdom around a bit – not my own but that in the common treasury of mankind – and that’s what I hope I do, some of it through my books and some in other ways.”
What quality does he most hope to pass on to his two young sons, I wonder? “Oh… to live life to the fullest, I suppose, and to use their talents and possibilities. I try to suggest that the world, for all its troubles, is an exciting place and they should persevere with it and be courageous in the face of its adversities. It’s a brief thing life, and I want them to be joyful.”
The latter is an aspiration, it would seem. De Botton admits joy is a state that rather eludes him as it does many writers and thinkers. He says he would be devastated if his sons decided to follow in his footsteps.
“There’s a ban on writing!”
he says. “Not really, but I would be gutted if they became philosophers or writers. I want them to become very practical people, able to deal with the world. I’d like one of them to become an engineer, if possible.
“I think it’s a very difficult life, it’s very hard to be happy,hard to make a living, to be a success, keep on being a success. It promotes a sort of introspective gloomy temper.
I wouldn’t wish the writing life on my worst enemy, let alone my children.”
* Alain de Botton appears in the New Writing South Lecture – Uses Of Religion For Non Believers at the Corn Exchange, Church Street, Brighton, at 3pm today (Saturday, May 5), as part of this year’s Brighton Festival.
* The event has now sold out.
For returns, call 01273 709709.