Last night, I was extremely fortunate to have the chance to join a small group of people in an intimate setting, to hear a few choice words from the very clever (and apparently jet-lagged) Alain de Botton.
The event run by Penguin Books Australia, was the most incredible opportunity to meet and greet with the author, complimented nicely by lovely wine and great company.
It was an evening of some quite intriguing ideas.
To me, philosophy always seems a little like a riddle; riddling around the why, when and how of our complicated lives. Philosophers, in turn, seem to both pose the riddle, and help us to answer it.
Alain de Botton seems in his new book, Religion for Atheists to be placing firmly on the table, the giant riddle of meaning – our need for it – and the gaps it leaves if we don’t feel that we have an adequate sense of meaning in our lives. It is his premise that although our belief in religion has diminished, the drivers that led us to create the various religious infrastructures are still very present in society – our craving for community, the need for guidance as to how to live well, and our appreciation of the importance of beauty, art and education. These needs are not always, in a secular context, being met. Alain does not purport that religion has the answers to this, but rather than secular society might do well to borrow some elements from religions – some rehearsals, some structures, some aesthetics and traditions, so help us learn, understand and connect with the world and each other.
Alain kindly shared some of his thinking on the premise of this book, some of the key arguments and a little on the research that he had done in order to put this work together. As always, it was a delight to hear such well structured, well researched propositions – it is what takes this kind of discussion away from being simple opinion, and makes it so very useful.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t completely agree with de Botton’s position in regards to religion for atheists. I think there are very good reasons for why people have moved away from organised religion, that go beyond the simple changes in understanding of mythology and the supernatural. I think this is why, as Alain mentions, religiosity is unpopular with many people. For this reason, I don’t think it is always going to be practical or appropriate to re-approriate religious mechanisms to enhance secular life. But, I do see great value in his position regarding the importance of reminders to ourselves to stop, reflect and enjoy, traditionally a feature of religious calendars around the world. His points regarding the role of art, architecture and talented oration also help to lend weight to their importance in a society that has become very focused on the practical, the vocational, the immediate. As someone who has had to answer the question; “What will that degree/subject/hobby ever get you?” I appreciate all the advice that I can get on this front.
In short, it was an incredible evening and I’m very much looking forward to reading Religion for Atheists. Likewise, I’m looking forward to attending Alain de Botton’s presentation for the Wheeler Centre tomorrow evening. I’ll be all philosophy-ed out by the end of the week, but hopefully I’ll also be a little bit smarter.
Religion for Atheists will be added to the TBYL Bookshelf in the near future. If you’d like me to let you know when copies have arrived, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be in touch.