Few thinkers have succeeded in bringing the world of ideas beyond the ivory tower with such clarity and grace as Alain de Botton. In an event that extends one of the Wheeler Centre chief themes for the year, de Botton brings his light touch and intellectual pirouettes to religion. In his only Melbourne appearance, he discusses the provocative ideas in his latest book, Religion for Atheists, arguing why atheists and agnostics should stop mocking religions and steal from them instead.
De Botton begins his presentation by framing the central purpose of his argument – which is to address how one can live a good life having eschewed the structures and values of religion. It’s a question that he contends most secular societies are still grappling with.
He explains his belief that atheists can treat religions like a buffet of ideas to be picked and chosen from, before taking his audience on a tour of this buffet. De Botton then, in sequence, considers education, the arrangement of time, rituals (‘an outer event that is aiming to facilitate an inner change’), oration and aesthetics.
De Botton contemplates secular notions of what art should be and compares it to religious art, which stylises and delivers messages. In doing so, he notes the conflicted understanding of art in contemporary society, wherein it is considered important without a clear sense of the basis of that importance.
He declares no problem with propaganda – as long as it’s used to say ‘nice things’ – before adding to his plate religions' approaches to architecture, organisation and collectivity and the functions of gathering.
Joined by facilitator Michael Williams for audience questions, de Botton shares his views on paganism and indigenous cultures and how to deal with the failures of religion as seen frequently in newspaper headlines around the world.
By de Botton’s account, atheism is as prone to factions and fundamentalism as religions can be, as he recalls being told he can ‘no longer be an atheist’ due to what he characterises as his ‘soft’ atheistic beliefs.
Continuing, de Botton answers further questions about sport fanaticism, how to pursue a love of excellence in culture whilst remaining egalitarian, various religious personality types and his thoughts on rock music and lyrics. (The philosopher is apparently unfamiliar with the Christian Rock genre.)
He closes the hour by explaining that religion, rather than his central concern, is but one ‘resource’ of many; each and all ripe for exploration in his search for ways to assist ‘the individual who lives and suffers and dies’.
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