Portrait of Alain de Botton by John Reynolds
“Even if religion isn’t true can’t we enjoy the best bits?” So asks the glossy advertising campaign for Alain de Botton’s new book Religion for Atheists. His answer, if you’ll excuse the spoiler, is yes. The book is packed full of proposals for how this secular asset-stripping of religion might be achieved. One of which, at least, you will no doubt already have heard. De Botton’s canny wheeze of building a 46-metre atheist “temple to perspective” in the City of London got a big splash in the media, complete with quotes denouncing it from Richard Dawkins and the British Humanist Association’s Andrew Copson – atheists already have all the temples we need was the message – and welcoming noises from some quarters of the Church of England, glad that the godless were finally coming around to the need for spiritual symbolism.
But does he really mean it? In the days following the announcement of his godless tower, de Botton fired emails out to those who had criticised the idea, including Copson and the prominent sceptic Richard Wiseman, denying that he actually intended to build the temple and suggesting that the Guardian had concocted the story that he had already raised half the £1million it was going to cost. He had, he claims, no specific plans for a temple, he merely wanted to stimulate architects to copy what was best about religious architecture.
He’s done this before, reacting instantly, and sometime intemperately, to criticism. He famously told the author of a critical New York Times review “I will hate you till the day I die” – something he has publically regretted since – and got into a graceless spat with the blogger Nina Power when she criticised his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. He is consequently often depicted as thin-skinned, and certainly seems prone to temper tantrums. But looked at more kindly this is all part of his unique persona as a public philosopher, someone whose aim is to push ideas, both theoretical and practical, out into the world to stimulate debate and even (that thoroughly unphilosophical thing) action. “It’s okay for people to disagree,” he told me, when I met him in his writerly North London apartment, “to say, ‘This idea’s good but that one’s crap.’ I’d be very happy with that. I want the debate.”
The new book offers plenty to debate, and, as with his previous books about Proust, work and architecture (he’s working on one about sex), offers it in the form of somewhat self-helpy proposals. De Botton is an unabashed fan of psychotherapy and he sets himself, as few philosophers have dared to, the task of trying to make us all better, happier people and the world a nicer place. This instrumental, neo-therapeutic public philosophising has its origin in a crisis of conscience he suffered as a Cambridge graduate student, contemplating, without relish, a life as an academic philosopher. “My own intellectual trajectory had been a very elite education, in elite institutions. Then in my mid-20s I felt I wasn’t being honest. I was going to live a lie, faking interest, faking complexity, faking meaningfulness.” He turned away from the arcane language and technical concerns of academic philosophy toward “the vulgar” in an attempt “to speak to everyone in a language they could understand”.
de Bottoning Out
…& as we’re on religion, here’s a follow-up that has nothing to do with Karl or Jesus. It is a critical take on Alain de Botton’s proposal for a “temple for atheists” in his latest book Religion for Atheists by Caspar Melville writing in the New Humanist. Christopher Hitchens, where are you now that we need you! Opening paras below: