Religion for Atheists Part 2 : a question for Alain de Botton

First, apologies for the huge delay in posting ‘part 2’. I am now on study leave so have time for pondering and writing instead of the doing and organising which seems to take up so much of my working life.

So back to the question for Alain de Botton. I asked started with an introduction. ‘I am a Christian, an Anglican priest and I work as a  university chaplain. Some of the most interesting conversations about religion and faith are with those students, both religious and atheist, who can step outside their own tribe and build good links with people  whose views are very different from their own. But this is not an easy thing to do and not many people can do it. So when you talk positively about the dialogue between religion and atheism what resources from your own tradition are you drawing upon which help you relate to those whose views are so very different to your own?’ Well that is how I remember it after all these months!

His reply was that he drew on 17th century ideas of people meeting as citizens. That after the European wars of religion that followed the Reformation people came to see that unity could not be based upon shared religious ideas. It was the differences in religion that had led to violence and division. So the idea of being able to meet as citizens and individuals provided a new way of connecting people.

He went on to say that he was inspired by the Christian idea of hospitality to the stranger – offered to meet the needs of the other person and not subject to being in ideological agreement with the stranger.

It was a neat reply – criticising the violence and division of post-Reformation Christianity and then highlighting a positive strand in the Christian tradition. But with just a little implicit hint, I sensed, that this idea of generous hospitality could be practised rather more often than is the case. On that we can both agree.

I think Diarmud McCulloch has a different view on the history however – that it was the response of Christians to the violence of the Civil War in England that led to great tolerance of religious diversity. More research needed on this.

Religion for Atheists

Yesterday evening I went with my colleague Rikke to hear Alain de Botton talk about his new book ‘Religion for Atheists’. The title sounds like he wants to create a new religion for atheists and the media and commentators have been quick to ridicule this. Actually he is exploring the positive things that secular humanists could learn from religions. The examples he gives of things humanist might see of value in religion include  a commitment to offering education, the benefits of being organised, the communal dimension to experience, the acknowledgement that people are sensing beings and not just the holders of rational beliefs, and an unashamed sense of purpose in the use of art. It was a bigger list than I was anticipating.

It was at times uncomfortable to listen to someone who can catalogue so clearly the damage caused when religion goes bad. At times he has a quite idealised view of the religious life. I suspect that his broad brush strokes about so many subjects would not stand up too well to close historical scrutiny. However, it was good to hear an atheist who has some understanding of religion and spirituality as it is actually lived. There is a hope of positive dialogue between religion and atheism out of this. Makes a change from the usual atheist practice of setting up of  a false picture of religion and then demolishing it.

We had great seats in the middle of the front row of the upper circle.  During the Q and A the chair noticed that there was one clergyman in the audience and  he called on me to ask a question. Which I did but … now I am out of time, so the question will be in the next post.

Some of de Botton's 'followers' queue for an audience ( and to get thier books signed)