September 29, 2016
Alain de Botton —
A School of Life for Atheists

Alain de Botton is a philosopher who likes the best of religion, but doesn’t believe in God. He says that the most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true. But how to live, how to die, what is good, and what is bad — these are questions religion has sophisticated ways of addressing. So he’s created The School of Life — where people young and old explore ritual, community, beauty, and wisdom. He explains why these ideas shouldn’t be reserved just for believers.

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is the founder and chairman of The School of Life. His books include Religion for Atheists and How Proust Can Change Your Life. His new book is a novel, The Course of Love.

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A woman grimaces after tasting a bitter concoction at Luke Johnson's Sunday Sermon on risk at The School of Life, London.

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Meanwhile, believers are leaving religion because of its parochialism!

Believers are leaving 'religion' not because of its parochialism, but because religion does not at all offer the 'salvation' that it said it was formulated to accomplish for its adherents. Smoke and mirrors are still just smoke and mirrors, after the haze of untruth is blown away by the truth.

Find Your Truth by finding The Truth.
In consequence, all truth will become accessible to you.

'On Being' continues to surprise. It has only been in the last five to ten years that it's been possible to hear a real conversation about religion on any radio program. Except for Bill Moyers there was virtually nothing on TV that didn't have some kind of agenda. For Americans to see our religious landscape through eyes of a European is very useful. And to see that Atheists may actually made up of individuals is 'shocking'. Thank you for this conversation.

Enjoying this show a lot. His non-church in London sounds in some respects like Unitarians. Sensibly, though, they apparently just go ahead and sing the old hymns as written, while Unitarians adopt new ones and change the words of the old ones to align with their beliefs – so unsatisfactory.

In fact the coopted hymns at the UU church is one reason I couldn't stay. I kept hearing the original words in my head.

That the SOL coopted the hymns of the Unitarian Universalists is not the main reason you didn't stay. That the SOL non-church still did not resonate with the Truth as you understand it is the main reason. And you would be correct. That SOL understands a good deal more about the reality of existence on the face of this planet does not at all mean that the SOL is any better at discerning the reality of life on the face of this planet than the religions it vilifies. Primarily, SOL still 'relies' on an external 'salvation', which is completely incorrect.

Find Your Truth by seeking The Truth
In consequence, the Whole Truth becomes accessible to you.

In logic, there is Thesis -Antithesis - Synthesis. The third element in the logical reasoning sequence is not Compromise. Why does seemingly every human alive today expect that the third element to a logical analysis of the atheism-theism schism is 'compromise'. A compromise is always a lessening of the sum of two parts. Synthesis is an increasing of the sum of two parts.

Same here. I currently belong to a small Quaker group. No hymns just silence then food and conversation. But if they get bigger and choose to include them I will have to leave. I do hope we grow but continue to not have structure.

I have attended a Unitarian-Universalist Congregation for about 40 years.
Regarding singing of hymns both traditional and new. Traditional hymns were once
new. Changing the words is unsatisfactory to you. Yet is satisfactory to others.
Often the melody, music, speaks a language that reaches the soul of Atheists as
well as Believers even when the words do not.. Seems to me there should be room for both ways. What do you think?

Me too. I see no good reason why new words can't work and satisfy, at least some of us. Not singing some good songs because the words don't resonate seems like a waste of good music. We need ways to communicate and ways to be different as well as similar. Fellowship is such a wonderful concept !!!

Well, I do think, and while there is indeed room for both ways, both ways are as incorrect as each other accuses each other of being.
Both 'believers' in a god or gods, and 'believers' in an atheistic not-god, still 'believe in an external 'savior' to 'magically appear' and assuage all the 'believers' doubts and fears. That is not how reality works, but then, the world has been inundated with the clutter of half-truths and outright untruths, of both the theistic 'believers', and the atheistic 'believers' , that the Truth can hardly get a word in edgewise.

Find Your Truth by seeking The Truth.
In consequence, the Whole Truth becomes accessible to you, should you so choose.

Inspirational songs suitable for a non-theistic community already abound, but they're mostly not written with a formal congregation in mind. Examples: "What's That I Hear?" by Phil Ochs, "Imagine" by John Lennon, and "Let It Be Me" by Emily Saliers.

I disagree on the new words (not so 'old' anymore) in UU hymnals. I'd far rather sing "Source of all to thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise."* The old words are "LORD of all to thee we raise...). When I was in a protestant theological school, one professor had written on how we don't have feudalism anymore, no more Lords, Kings, etc. So why should we retain that hoary old language. Beyond that, it's hugely sexist. "Source of all" is mystical and inclusive for anyone of any faith or no faith.

*the old hymn "For the Beauty of the Earth"

Source of all 'faith' is a flat out incorrect way to look at the reality of life, as is the more sexist 'Lord'.
Throughout all of human history, there has never been a verifiable, repeatable experience of mysticism, by any human being extant on the face of the planet. Mysticism is only extant between the ears of 'believers' in mysticism, which does not at all make it a real phenomenon, it makes it a delusion, albeit a culturally accepted-as-real delusion, nonetheless a delusion.

Individuals sincerely interested in unendarkening themselves from the half-truths and outright lies they accepted as 'truth' during their youthful and formative years would do better to rely on their own personal sense of what is the reality of their life.

Find Your Truth by seeking The Truth.
In consequence, The Whole Truth becomes accessible to you, should you so choose.

That Unitarians still 'believe' that there is a 'savior' in the sky somewhere which is maybe not called a god or gods, does not at all mean that they understand why they cling to the rituals of religion. They still have not made the decision which dissolves into insignificance that last 'increment' of doubt. As close as they are, and they are closer than most, the Unitarians are still a long way from understanding the Truth.

Find Your Truth by seeking The Truth
In consequence, the Whole Truth will become accessible to you, should you so choose.

After seeing Alain's TED video (Atheism 2.0) and buying his book "Religion for Atheists" several months ago, I started a brief correspondence with him. Beyond expressing appreciation for his work, my main purpose was to learn if he knew anything about Unitarian Universalism - a non-creedal liberal religion with a world-wide presence. To my surprise, he had never heard of it (even though, as I informed him, the Unitarian faith in America was largely due to the inspiration of Joseph Priestly, the renowned scientist/theologian who migrated here from England in the early 1800s). Then, in several further exchanges, I sent him links to information sources on the UU movement; my hope is that he will then incorporate knowledge of a vibrant religious option to pure secularism - or to the dogmatic faith traditions that he (and I) find irrelvant in a reality-based life.

Bob, thanks for introducing Alain to UU's, I am very surprised he was unaware of us. Every time he brought up a new point in the interview, I couldn't help but think "he must be a UU". Did he get back to you with his thoughts on UU's?

I so wanted to listen to this show. In fact, I often want to listen to Krista's guests. Krista, however, is a serious distraction. Today while interviewing her guest I heard you interject how she (Krista) was trained in theology! How interesting. Krista - I was here to listen to the fellow across from you. Don't really care to hear about you or to hear those small assenting noises you make to indicate you are actively listening. A great show with great potential - unfortunately it isn't hosted with more skill.

I find Krista a bit too "precious" at times as well. But I'm grateful for the show.

Don't be a hater. Conversations are between two people and the host of this excellent show has every right to be present with her guests. If you do not like listening to people talk, read a book.

She is bringing her experience to the conversation, enriching it with her experience and knowledge.
I personally don't have a problem with her questions, acknowledgments and own points.

I find her skill amazing in how she brings out her guests in whatever the topic is, so carry on Krista!

Oh, how we mis the point. this is what I thought the conversation was partial about. (tolerance or intoleranc)

I couldn't disagree more.

This is the silliest thing to cry about. Krista is amazing.

Whatever her background, Krista does an excellent job of keeping a vibrant, highly enriching conversation going during any show I've caught. I think one telling measure of her facilitative skills is the frequency with which her guests pause reflectively before responding to her prompts. Between them, new facets seem to continually surface for our examination. Precious? Depends on your meaning of the word.

When you are listening to a program like Krista's, you are listening in on a conversation. Sure, it's OK to have tensely-formatted programs, and heaven knows we have many of them. But, on this show, I find it usually engaging and frequently compelling to sit in on conversations between two human humans.
There are probably plenty of programs whose format is more to your liking. Fine. Many of us like this program's format -- just the way it is.

Krista listens to her guests. Really listens. She brings her own experiences and knowledge to the conversation. This only adds to the concepts and understandings and clarifications - for both her and often for the guest as well. I listen to the unedited version because of the very things you seem to dislike, Mike. I hope the transcript is useful to your preferences.

Very glad to have found this program. It's easy when searching to feel isolated by religious and atheist communities when sort of searching for "truth". I have found it difficult to find acceptance when asking questions from an objective standpoint. It's refreshing to hear discussion like this is finally taking place.

I am a Quaker belonging to what we call an 'unprogrammed Meeting' with no minister, no formal structured service and no creed. Many of us are not Theists but would not consider ourselves Atheists. I think The School of Life is, in some ways, similar to what joins my fellow Quakers to our Meeting each Sunday: community.

I know some Quakers who consider themselves atheists which seems odd since they are members of the RELIGIOUS Society of Friends," as the official name of Quakers is (cap.s added). I would say that I, a current and lifelong Friend, or Quaker, do not believe in a "supreme being" or many other things people define God as. I believe in God as anything and everything that is beautiful, awesome, life-giving, life enriching, and/or life promoting, such as kindness, patience, beauty, science, art, and of course love. Early Quakers did make the mistake of rejecting such things as music and art seeing them just as distractions from divine truth. As Alain de Botton has found beautiful, artful things a useful source of inspiration, so have Quakers, with a little time.
As The School of Life finds lessons and helpful truths in many places, so does anyone truly in search of and open to finding God. It is unfortunate that anyone thinks the choice is a narrow one between believing in God as very specifically and narrowly defined by a single tribe or organization or rejecting God entirely. Help is where you find it, and to the extent that we all find sources of comfort, strength, and guidance in many places God is real, whether you call it God or not.
However, it is not an easy thing to be a human or to find the strength and direction we need, and it helps to work at this with others, in community, using or at least trying out some well-tested practices and reminders of what really makes life good. That is what organized religion should be about. Unfortunately, things like greed, lust, arrogance, wrath, etc. too often cause people to misuse power, so organizations which give certain individuals more power than others, as religious organizations have tended to do, run the risk of falling into imbalance and corruption. Quakers have avoided creating positions of power, recognizing all individuals' access to a continuously revealed divine truth-- but it ain't easy being a Quaker. So what are people really looking for?

You're a pantheist. I have read that Einstein and Sagan was as well. Although I respect it, I'm not.

Great show. This kind of intelligent and revealing discussion beyond the trival binary arguments that define "religion" versus "atheism." I learned quite a bit, saw this issue in a very different light, and I am left in a deliciously reflective state. Thank you.

What de Botton describes sounds just like my Unitarian Universalist congregation.

I love "On Being," and particularly enjoyed this episode. I am an atheist in the mold of Mr. de Botton's father, in that I often reflexively overlook the positive sides of organized religion that the author acknowledges and celebrates.

I was raised in the Jewish faith and grew into atheism, and now teach at a Jesuit institution that supports and respects diversity of religious, cultural, and other natures. Mr. de Botton's "School of Life" is a wonderful bridge between believers and non-believers.

Much kudos to Krista Tippett for another wonderfully engaging, thought-provoking interview. Despite my generally unreligious nature, I always find Ms. Tippett's show enlightening and objective.

Thank you very much for providing such a discussion!

Among the advantages of a religion is the ready-made community waiting to welcome you when you move elsewhere. This allowed my wife to follow me around the United States, leaving cherished friends regretfully behind but being welcomed anywhere in the church of her choice. As an atheist I could find community in secular organisations, but less easily.

Alain de Botton made the comment that ugliness was what promoted evil and beauty goodness. Well, I grew up thinking that until I lived in Germany and saw the beautiful landscape where Nazism grew. To this day I cannot understand how a place of such tremendous beauty could foster so much hate. So I still struggle with what is ugly and what is beautiful. I've come to the conclusion it is nothing more than a judgment call, and humans are not great at making such calls! And so for me that is where God comes in and all becomes beautiful in the light of eternity.

- An especially interesting show this week! I can't help but see multiple parallels between Alain de Botton's thinking and the current thinking in my academic discipline of Holistic Health & Wellness and my "side" profession as a life coach.

When considering the whole person, wellness educators and many whole life coaches acknowledge that, in addition to physical, intellectual, affective, sexual, and social dimensions, human beings have a spiritual dimension. It is a fundamental part of human nature. The brain is wired for it. In general, every human culture in every age has also acknowledged it in one way or another. The spiritual dimension is that part of our aspect which is our existential will, which seeks meaning and purpose, attempts to understand our place in the larger universe, yearns for life-affirming relational connections, and explores the interface between our known physical world and the unseen energy world. This is not a "religious" dimension. Religion is seen as a cultural construct which has been and continues to be a vehicle - a means to understand and experience the spiritual realm. Like different modes of transportation, different organized religions have different "structural designs" or sets of beliefs. A "faith" or believe system generally includes a narrative that explains "reality" in terms of both human knowledge/experience and also the subtle, mysterious unknowable human puzzlings. Also like different modes of transportation, different organized religions develop differing sets of "operating procedures" - an "art of living" (as your guest put it) based on the belief system of "the way the universe works". Religion is a means, not an inherent human quality. So, one can be spiritual and not "religious" ... and one can be spiritual and "religious" ..., but one cannot be a-spiritual and "religious".

Another understanding of the wellness community is that the "prime directive" of any living system is to survive and thrive - to unfold and evolve into its best self - to reach it's highest potential. Wellness is the optimal level of health where the person or community is dynamically functioning at the highest capacity of which it is capable within the environmental matrix in which it is embedded. In order for this to occur, the whole system must be in optimal operation and balance. For an individual, this means all facets of human nature must be supported and nurtured, including the spirit.

I think those material items, beliefs, affects, behaviors, and environmental characteristics we identify as "good" and/or "ethical" and/or "moral" are really those things which promote not only our survival but also our capacity to thrive - our wellness. - both as individuals and as communities of living systems. That Alain de Botton found himself attracted to religious music, rituals, and architecture is, I think, the human spirit being drawn to some of those things which it needs to grow toward wellness. "In-spiring" music, rituals, architecture are not, as Mr. de Botton observes, the inventions of religion only. They come from other cultural institutions as well, but often as unexpected delights. I think one reason religious music, rituals, and architecture can so readily stir the spirit of followers and non-followers alike is because they are purposefully and consistently created to do so. The issue for many like de Botton is when the underpinning belief system is too incongruent with their individual paradigms of belief about "the way things are". Religions throughout the ages have not been shy about eclectically incorporating and adapting new cultural concepts and practices to fit their paradigms of beliefs. I agree with de Botton and others doing similar things, ... why not the other way around? There's no culturally-recognized patent on the use of ritual as a contemplative practice - no general copyright on a certain style of music being used in only one context. Flying buttresses, domes, columns, arches, and decorative mosaic inlays are not exclusive to places of religious worship.
I am intrigued by de Botton's School of Life. When students walk through the doors of my college classrooms, I often tell them they are coming into a course about life - their life. I can relate to Alain de Botton's realization that there is a pervasive underlying assumption that "the art of living" is just something we're supposed to know. The most common comment I've heard over the years from students entering a required "Personal Wellness" course is, "Why do we have to take this class?. It's just common sense stuff!" and the corollary - which they don't say out loud but which is a common expectation - "This course should be easy!" But as de Botton remarked about the art of living, "It's complicated!" Especially when we are addressing the whole person (and not just the physical stuff like diet and exercise)!

One difference I note is that the operating procedures of de Botton's "School" seem modeled after religious tradition, even while the "school" to tries to differentiate itself and it's beliefs from it. (I suppose the use of "School" in the name is a purposeful way to distance the endeavor from what might otherwise look like "religion".) I work in public academia (a "secular" venue) where, when it comes to spiritual wellness, I have to be inclusive of all belief systems - religious and non-religious (atheism, agnosticism, humanism, "nothingism", ...) - without advocating (or even appearing to lean toward) any one point of view.

It seems to me that many of these "-ism" and "nondenominational" movements - especially in the West - are defined by religion. That is, their beliefs grow out of what they don't believe from the various major world religions. The starting point is organized religion (perhaps because it does involve a majority of people in most cultures) and then there's a moving away from it. Yet the gathering format doesn't seem to be abandoned. There still seems to be an unquenched need to reform and re-invent another community of meaning-and-guidance seekers taking up similar practices informed by a different set of beliefs. Is this a case where the baby (i.e. acknowledgement of our spiritual nature) is being thrown out with the bath water? .... And then those who threw out the bath water having a nagging feeling that something is missing but they can't quite bring it to consciousness? ... (And then developing a new passion for being foster parents or collecting baby dolls?!)

In wellness, we begin with the premise - a theory based in research - (a "belief", I suppose some would triumphantly point out!) that there is a spiritual facet which is integral to our human nature. Like all the other health dimensions, there are characteristics and qualities that it manifests and contributes to the whole and there are behaviors and practices that we can incorporate into our life-style to support and nurture it. (And of course, as with the other human dimensions, there are behaviors and practices that can diminish and sicken the spirit as well.) So we start in a "secular" (academic, scientific) place and allow the possibility of moving toward religion. We look at those practices which engage the spiritual dimension (mindfulness; volunteerism; meditation/prayer; philanthropy; "emptying" practices such as fasting, seculsion, abstention, etc.) which research shows contribute to good health. We consider why/how they do so. Many of these lifestyle behaviors are encouraged by many of the major world religions so it is not surprising that regular attendance at religious gatherings is correlated with longevity & good health. But it's important to remember that this research does not support a causal relationship between a particular belief system, an exclusively religious practice, or even religion in general. The impact of religious affiliation and practice on an individual is highly idiosyncratic. Many people seem to benefit . Others do not. Thus, using a particular religion as a means to nurture and sustain a well spirit (or other dimensions of wellness; e.g. social) is seen as but one tool among many. Pathways for enhancing spiritual wellness are unique for each individual and each community of spirituality-seekers.

I'm pleased to learn of Alain de Botton's noble, trail-blazing path and and appreciate his manner of sharing his insights ("evangelizing"? :-) ) But if you can't go to London to participate in the "School of Life" there, you might want to check out the field of holistic wellness and the emerging profession of life coaching (not to be confused with the latest specialization trend of "health" coaching which is being used by health insurance companies and employers to drive down health care costs). True holistic wellness educators and/or one-on-one life coaches teach and facilitate the processes of self-discovery and "thrivancy" - to help the student/client clarify his/her own wants/needs/values/motivations, increase awareness of possibilities, guide exploration of the impacts and consequences of their current and potential beliefs/attitudes/behaviors, and encourage the student/client in creative choice-making that results in his/her own unique unfolding toward their own optimal self. And the only prerequisite is that you are human. :-)

I was very interested in hearing about this show with Alain de Botton. His reflections on living a life that celebrates ritual, wisdom, ethics, goodness, truth and beauty, but does not necessarily endorse a belief in God reminded me of my own upbringing in a Unitarian-Universalist church in southern California. Most of the members of the congregation were atheist. We celebrated just about everything EXCEPT Jesus and God. I learned a lot about tolerating other points of view and being a respectful listener, but alas, at the age of seventeen, I had an unexpected encounter with the living Christ, so I left the Unitarian-Universalist church and struck out on my own to determine for myself how I might relate to this God who seemed to be interested in me. Since that time I have wandered through many traditions, but find my home in the Christ who befriended me and loved me before I even knew how to love myself. This experience was not an acceptance of belief. I did not reason it out. It happened to me. I often wonder why it seems to happen to some people and not to others. Anyway, I loved the show! Thanks!
Francyl Gawryn

Good question ("I often wonder why it seems to happen to some people and not to others.") To me, the only reasonable conclusion is that it's all in our minds, and everyone's mind is different. I suppose another possibility is that God plays favorites, but that doesn't fit with "all loving". Glad it works for you.

Your experience may be an example of what Julian Jaynes called "archaic authorization" in his famous book _The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind_. He posited, with various forms of supporting evidence, that prior to a quite recent dawn of subjective consciousness (no earlier than 1200 BCE), it was the norm for people to hear the the internalized voice of authority, copying those of parents or other authority figures, as an auditory hallucination, so that non-belief in gods was out of the question. He proposed that religion as it emerged subsequently, as well as many other human institutions, amounts to a nostalgic effort to re-create this formerly ever-present sense of absolute authority. In the best cases, we can channel this urge into building a scientific and humanistic community in which the collective, collaboratively seeking consensus about what is true and what is desirable, can take the place of the unconscious and automatic authority of the old hallucinated gods.

Program on Alain de Botton gave much to ponder. Thanks!

What is Mr de Botton's idea of ugly? And why does or should it remind him of "evil" And is the reverse also true that something considered"beautiful" would then be considered "good"?
There, in reality, is nothing that is evil or beautiful, but for our prejudiced view of them. Everything just IS. (My view, of course)
By the way, I think bull dogs are really beautiful creatures!!

As Mr. De Botton described the classes at his school, the use of sacred music, and sermons I thought, "He is describing my Unitarian Universalist congregation. We have UUs that identify as Christians, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics, Taoist, and pagans in our pews. It reminds me of a scene from the original movie TRON. After the final battle, all the communication towers are back online and, instead of a single beam heading up to the sky, there are hundreds. Some beam towards a god and some don't.

As a former Episcopalian, I got chills hearing Je­ru­sa­lem sung during the show. I do find greater depths of meaning with new words added to the hymns of my youth. Sometimes in our hymnal we have a choice of words. In Amazing Grace I can sing either "..saved a wretch like me." or "...saved a soul like me." Some days I feel like a wretch, some days like a soul.

As several other posts mention, I too find Alain's stance to match up closely with Unitarian Universalism. I am surprised Krista didn't mention UU in the interview. Glad to see that Bob Hatfield has made Alain aware of UU's, it would be very interesting to hear his take on our small but growing group. Alain's "life mission" of learning "how to cope with life" goes hand in hand with many of the UU Principles. Thanks for the show!

With much respect for the courage of Alain de Botton - to refuse the extremes and so become target for the two, I wonder if you can truly dissect the form from the content, especially if much of the content is the form itself. It would be like, though admittedly not the same, trying to reproduce Beethoven's Ode to Joy without the melody, when the melody, the content, is also the form. In seeking to adopt the good of religious practice, there is also the recognition of transcendence, even if it is explained in secular terminology. The change of expression does not completely remove the outlines of the divine.

Perhaps take a look at Amy Hungerford's book, Postmodern Belief: American Literature and Religion Since 1960. There she documents the same phenomenon of contentless "belief" in the our post war literary writers.

during your broadcast i was appalled at how someone such as yourself , who hosts a show on religious beliefs and theology, does not even understand the definition of atheism. you said to your guest, "your atheism is a conviction though..." Wrong! it is simply a response to a claim made that is not supported by any evidence whatsoever. same thing for unicorns, i don't have any convictions one way or the other towards unicorns , i simply don t believe they exist, exactly the same way atheism refers to claims that a supernatural being created the universe. I am not surprised by your bias, scott simon the host of another show on npr that is boycotted by many due to his program's biased religious content, also disgustingly imposes his views into his commentary on public radio. Quite disgraceful indeed, and furthermore it was reprehensible the way he defamed the name of Christopher Hitchens during his segment on Elizabeth Edwards passing due to cancer. Utterly vile. I know npr gets funding from relgious organizations but to have these donations influence the content of public radio is an outrage and bankrupt of any shred of integrity.

It's handy to have someone who can speak for all the atheists. I'm a believer in perception, myself. Blind faith in perception is where it all starts for me.

I'm going to watch for the book. But I couldn't help wondering as I listened if de Botton is aware of Unitarian churches or if they are much different in Britain than Unitarian-Universalist churches in the US.

Rather late comment as I download these podcasts late...but I am always a bit unnerved by the western hemispheres obstinacy to ringfence each and every theological belief bucket. In all religions, I reckon, certianly in mine, a Hinduism, there are deliberations on matter of the thought, soul, idenity, life's purpose, detachment and ego. These are holistic concepts, accessible to all, call oneself athiest or not, the ritual being a form to express the concepts making them accessible to common man. I do admire Alain Botton's efforts but need not be trapped within the Dawkinsian atheist/religious divide.

Amen! Teach!
You are my brother. I say this as members of a church do an in light of the scientific validation of the global interconnectedness of humans!

There where a lot of topics that they covered that really made me think. I really do not know much about Atheists besides for the fact that they do not believe in God. So when he started talking about liking certain aspects of religion I was confused. The more I listen to the show the better grasp I was able to obtain on what and how he viewed Atheists. Botton stated that people tend to flock back to religion when dealing with death and marrying. At first when I heard this statement I didn't really believe it. Why would he think that people only find faith in these situations, but then I really thought about it. I applied it to my own life. There has been several situations that I can remember with my friends or family members praying when someone dies close to them or when dealing with their own relationships in love. Some of these people are not very religious at all. As a matter of fact I can say that some I have never even heard mention religion before except when they are going through something or really want something positive to happen to them. Botton believes that people tend to flock back to religion during this time because they are the ones that know how to do it. This is a reason why he created that school to help teach these things that we do not already know and so that you do not have to feel the pressure of religion. Overall, I think that this is a good concept. I'm sure that there are several people who do need help with certain situations, but do not necessary want to commit to a certain faith. Options like this would not make them choose, but still help them out with the knowledge needed for what they are dealing with.

What I did not fully understand was that statement that Botton made about Atheists understanding themselves better by understanding religious people and what they need to address. I think he means that if Atheists took the time to learn about what religious people believe that they could find that some of it will be useful to them. Therefore, helping them better understand their own beliefs. If so, I'm not sure I understand. If Atheists do not believe in a higher power then wouldn't they just be closed minded to everything dealing with religion and a higher power. Because Botton is an exception to most Atheists and others who share his beliefs believe that what he is doing is wrong too. So as they are learning about these other religions where would they go? I don't think that having them going around groups of believers would be a good idea. I would think that this is super risky and a lot of people would get offended if the situation was not treated with care. I say this because if they are going into the situation closed minded then they are most likely not caring about what and how they say things to others. I can fully understand asking questions, but for some reason I just picture the entire experience as being negative and both sides trying to tell the other that what they believe is wrong.

There certainly are many theists and atheists who are like that. But if, like many atheists, you believe in the capacity of humans to understand the Universe by applying our powers of observation and reason, then it follows you believe we can understand our own species, which is part of the Universe, the same way. Observing and studying religious people can help us understand those aspects of human nature that make religion attractive to them, and which we may share even though we're not believers. By understanding these aspects of ourselves, we put ourselves in a better position to find alternative ways of meeting these needs that don't involve supernatural belief.

I ended up finding an On Being that hit a little closer to home than I had hoped to find. One of the keys discussions brought up fairly early in the interview was this statement, in context of an framing statement of atheism, "The most boring and unpreductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true." Its boring and unpreductive because the answer can't go any further than it has already gone. Atheist think that the other side of the debate is closed minded and idoitic while the other side thinks of athiests as closed minded sinners that are going to hell.

Then he goes into a better subject of being good and kind. Being a atheist myself, i get this impression from most religious people around me, and Botton says it in the interview, that atheist are seen as immoral and damned. Atheists don't worship the christian devil and are not evil. I can't speak for everyone, but i truly believe in the goodness of the heart and being kind to everyone that deserves it. When someone tells me that im wrong that i don't believe in a god and that they are going to pray for me, to try and save my soul, i tell then please do, because i believe that when they pray, it makes them feel like they are being a good christian, but it doesn't change me in the slightest.

The last major subject that really sang to me was about tolerance. Tolerance doesn't mean that you are accepting that im right or wrong, but to "make space" for my thoughts and ideas. I think, to an extent, tolerance, like compassion, will make us be able to live with each other more cohesively.

Mark 16:15 "He{jesus} said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." Not force feed it to them.

I would like to turn things around a bit. The existence of a supernatural being is irrelevant to me, but I am not a non-believer. As a humanist, specifically a Humanistic Jew, I believe in the power of humans to direct our own lives and to make decisions for ourselves independent of any supernatural power. I believe in saying what I believe and believing in what I say. I believe that people can make ethical decisions -- can be good -- simply out of a wish to interact in a positive way with other people. It is our responsibility to make the world a better place. For me, this is in no way non-belief.

Listening to this episode, I found I could agree with a number of Alain De Botton’s beliefs. I completely agree with his point that atheists, too often, feel as if the world is getting closer and closer to being perfect. I also appreciated his belief that religion can’t be just considered a source of pain and suffering. I appreciate the fact that Botton doesn’t take extreme views, as many atheists that I know do.

However, I generally disagreed with what he said. I felt that his use of religious songs was insulting. People have already tried to make Christmas and Easter more secular holidays; we don’t need people doing the same thing to religious songs. If they want to make their own songs and sing them that is fine, but don’t take religious songs and change the purpose of them.

I also don’t agree with his point that people who don’t believe in God can be “moral”. I can’t help but wonder, what exactly is his moral standard based upon? The existence of a God means the existence of absolute truth, and therefore absolute morality. Without the existence of God there is no absolute truth. So on what basis could Botton call himself moral? I’m aware of the common statement made by some atheists: “Isn’t pathetic that your morality is based on what “God” says, and you can’t do what is morally right on your own.” As opposed to basing your morality on how you feel? Is morality based on our internal “conscience” really better? Botton can believe that there is no God if he so chooses but he must also accept the realities of such a belief. If there is no God, there is no absolutely true morality, and without actions that are right or wrong, life is meaningless as well. He can try to build up walls of morality based on his relative “truth” but if such walls can be torn down when convenient, then they are ultimately worthless.

Morality doesn't come from belief in God. It's something that has evolved in humans because it helps us function together in a society. Reality itself is absolute; if our knowledge isn't that's simply because we as finite beings can't apprehend all of it. This goes equally for moral beliefs and beliefs of other sorts, such as laws of nature.

We can't alter our morality simply based on convenience any more than we can alter our other beliefs. They have become deeply ingrained in us based on how we've been conditioned by our experience. That's why no correlation has been observed between whether someone believes in God and how how moral (by conventional standards) they are. The morality attributed to God comes from human morality, not the other way around.

I teach in a Religions and Cultures department at a University in Northern Ontario, Canada. I love this podcast and listen to On Being everyday while I drive into work. I always end up inspired by something I've heard and so I share with my students. This year I decided to give my students a "podcast assignment" for my history of Christian Thought course (Reformation to the present day): they had to write a report on an On Being podcast that deals with Christianity and modern culture. The assignments were wonderful and inspiring. And this particular podcast on A School of Life for Atheists was the most popular choice! The students loved it. What struck me the most is how well the students did on these assignments...their grades were higher, they were more engaged with the material than I'd witnessed in their essays where they were working with written texts. While I'm not one who readily embraces technology in the classroom, this experience gave me pause. Listening, and hearing the ideas seemed to affect the students differently. All of them have said that they will listen to more of these podcasts. Now I'm considering how I might integrate podcasts into my honours seminar next year. I must say, I love the prospect of my summer research including listening to On Being!

Trent Gilliss's picture

Susan, this is great to read. I'd love to see some of the work they presented if possible.

At 38:30 Botton says these are "divided times". His mind is truely divided and I can only pray that his eyes will be opened to the truth that there is a God that loves him. As for the interview, this is one that could have been left in the vaults. There are so many interesting and inspiring people to learn from. On Being has been a wonderful platform for introducing people that are impacting the word in a positive way. Introducing people that inspire us to live better lives. There is nothing in this interview but emptiness. No hope, nothing that creates that sense of wonder and desire to want to share a wonderful story with a friend.

They way he describes his school reminds me of reading _The Prophet_.

Deeply resonated with me, I listen with fairly rapt attention. I wanted to share it with my two older sisters. We share very little, communicating only on perfunctory occasions; birthdays, Christmas, New Years etc. They both aspire to religion, but I suspect more for fellowship than deeply held beliefs. I going to ask them to listen or read about Alain De Botton's philosophy to see what they think. Thank you. P.S. To be honest, I almost always turn off or tune out On Being's broadcasts, this topic may have changed that.

What our atheist friend misses is that the complete volunteerism of his school of life robs it of being true community. One cannot be part of something larger than self if it all it requires is the assent of self. That is the theological mistake of many evangelicals. As a Reformed Christian, I believe that we are called into community that often includes people we don't like very much. Learning to live in love with people we don't necessarily like and can't run from is fundamental to the ethic of reconciliation and love of enemies. Reformed Christianity is much more than a philosophy and it is not fundamentally focused on being saved for the future afterlife. We believe that as one is awakened to faith, eternal life is realized right now and we are inextricably bound to all others. We gladly accept those who are searching and have not yet reached conclusions. De Botton's rejection of doubt is the height of arrogance and pride. That self-centeredness is how we understand original sin.

Thank you. I hope that you and Mr De Botton are aware of Secular Humanistic Judaism -- Judaism without God, God language, or prayer. I grew up without any kind of religious experience and raised my son that way. In my early 60's I discovered Secular Humanistic Judaism, which was only founded in 1963, and was happy to find that I could embrace my Jewish heritage and culture without feeling compelled to do or say things in which I could never believe. What a joy!

Once I again, I sit here feeling happily "fed", with new ideas and perspectives to gnaw over the coming days. Often, I come to On Being when I need the reminder that we can speak of any topic with respect and intelligence and curiosity. The questions and conversations you bring to this show affirm humanity and leave me buoyant and ready for another week. Thank you, thank you, thank you for creating this sacred space.

The Catholic dogma of original sin is correct, we are indeed broken, still good but damaged and with tendencies to evil. But about perfectability: we can't be perfect in this world. Yet Jesus told us: "Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect." How can this be? We can't make this world perfect, the world to come is perfect. We can be perfect because we can live with God, and He will perfect us.

Day of Atonement: they say 'sorry' to God mainly, next to each other.

No, many people love the liturgy first.

Not bad, but your view of religion is skewed. Jesus said to Peter 'You are rock, and on this rock I will build my church'. Jesus said the He would build it, i.e. the Catholic faith (and other faiths to the extent that they are true) are not clever things men have put together, but are things people have helped put together by their obedience, obedience to God who is building the Church himself. Religion is not a creation of man but man's response to God.

Jesus said that if you give up everything you will have all these things a hundred fold, and eternal life in the world to come. So you are pointing out the good things God showers on his beloved. You like these things, which is wonderful, and maybe one day you will come to know God.

You're not insulting to believers, you are complimenting the beauty of the life of faith as best you can. Let's pray that one day you will encounter God, which it seems you are preparing yourself for.

Pelikan was a great man. Yes, atheists have a creed, an atheistic creed. Let's hope they remain open to God.

Here you are incorrect: atheism is a dead-end. It won't develop. It has no answer to death or life's problems, and no power to solve them. You are certainly welcome to the wisdom of religion in these areas to address them.

God loves atheists too. Atheists do have souls because every human being has a soul, like it or not. It's not 'the deeper sides' but is the immaterial part - the intellect, free will, memory, etc.

When the soldiers came to John the Baptist and asked what they should do, he told them to be content with their pay, avoid serious moral evil, etc. To an atheist one would say the same: just live a moral life, and even without belief you can be acceptable to God, and perhaps be given the gift of faith.

It doesn't make a spash because it's not an attack on God, which the God delusion was, as ridiculous as it is.

You're right about one thing: atheism has no answer's to life's problems, because it's a negative, the absence of a belief rather than a belief. The non-theistic answer to these problems is humanism, which of course is compatible with atheism but doesn't require it.

You didn't know that atheism was about attacking religion, now you know. You seem to be an honest atheist. More hope for you.

One would wonder: if you see the beauty of the Vatican, and the goodness of the Church's work around the world, one might conclude that this is only possible because what it believes is true. It reminds me of Malcolm Muggeridge: he wanted to believe in God, and saw the goodness, but couldn't. Then he met Mother Teresa.

I would suggest, if you're interested in wisdom, that you read the encyclicals of the popes- Pope Benedict, Pope Francis, Pope John Paul. If you want to find wisdom to apply to life, you will find a lot there, and it's available to all.

Uh, De Botton never said that about atheists. It's simply what's true of some highly visible, but not necessarily numerous, atheists. De Botton himself demonstrates that that isn't what atheism is about.

This is very appealing. Who wants to start something in Boston?

I thought that this was a fantastic show, thank you very much.

I listened to the interview with Mr. Botton with interest, but with growing irritation. He began by saying that the most boring think you can ask about any religion is whether or not it is, "true", a position I wholeheartedly agree with, because it exposes what I take to be the basic category error of confusing inner and outer "truths". But then he spent the rest of the talk dividing everything he described between "belief" and "non-belief". So, to me he stopped short of applying the logic of his initial premise fully, which would actually eradicate those categories (belief and non-belief) altogether. If there is no point in asking religion whether it is "true", what sense does it make to speak of belief and non-belief? To me that further move makes all the difference, or at least it makes the difference between breathing new life into existing traditions that are thousands of years old, conserving their accumulated wisdom but ridding them of the mistake of applying a materialistic standard or question of truth to them, thereby rendering them open to the truly liberal and spiritual way forward, and on the other hand the necessity of creating new "secular" religious traditions by picking and choosing what he likes from existing religions, a path which leads more or less to narcissistic self-indulgence, as characterized by his own example of Comte. If only he would follow out the logic of his own conclusions. This discussion seemed not to take into account the enormous integrative work of Ken Wilber on this topic, or the writings of Don Cupitt. They have already shown a more comprehensive way forward. This conversation ultimately disappointed me. Thanks.

How interesting it is to listen to someone who doesn't believe in "God" intensively searching for the experience and good of God.

Thank you for this story on the School of Life. I was listening while driving to work and had one of those moments where I thought I'm going to quit my job and pursue building a School of Life in my town. Thankfully, I quickly realized that I like paychecks and health insurance but it made me think. In many ways listening to On Being is my own little School of Life. It's filling the need I have to learn about living and thinking about being human in spiritual ways that may or may not involve a particular religious background. Thank you for that.

If you want a community in which you collaborate with others in helping each other think more clearly and rationally -- typically, although not necessarily, in the framework of humanistic values -- you may want to check out Less Wrong. It's a community blog but also has RL meetups in various locales.

I don't see the need for a "secular temple". If I want to sing with others, I can join a choir. I can go to a cafe or pub or friend if I want to drink & chat. I can turn to my CD collection if I want to listen to Bach. There's nothing stopping me entering a cathedral, or museum, or castle, if I want to encounter great architecture. There are sermons everywhere. This radio programme is partly a sermon, so are de Botton's books.

Great, the emergence and outing of atheists is long overdue.
Where can I find it in London?

very interesting

I wish I could convince you that God exist or maybe I can...?!

Thank you for another wonderful talk is seems to be just what needs to be talked about in today's world.

As a formerly religious person who is relatively new to secular thinking, I enjoyed this conversation very much. I find myself constantly craving to hear from others who are living secular lives and are, as is put so well here, appreciating the common treasures of humanity. After listening today, I feel as if I've drawn a deep breath of fresh air. Thank you.

I think when we talk about "Christian" values, we need to include the modifier "Judeo". It's good to be sensitive to inclusivity.

I LOVE onbeig. Thank you

the prefix "Judeo" subsumes Judaism into Christianity as a kind of photo-religion that we can give a sop, too. When we have groups like Jews for Jesus saying the Messiah has come and his name is Jesus, you undercut the particularity and the existence of Judaism as its own faith, one that preceded and included Jesus (Jesus was born, lived, and died as a Jew and never meant to start a new faith. That came from Paul who turned the faint stirrings of a potential into something that became a separate religion but not for 70 years).

Thank you for this wonderful conversation. However, I was struck by the fact that both of you spoke about religion as a system of belief and an esthetic, while ignoring (except for a hint in the reference to drinking tea) what is really the essence of all "organized" religion -- that it provides a community.

Come to my synagogue tomorrow and you will find people of many different beliefs, and many different esthetic sensibilities. What brings them all to this one place is community.

I find so much of what he says meaningful. As a practitioner of Earth-based or Nature-centered religion (e.g. Pagan), I'm just on the other side of the divide between atheists and theists. So many of my fellow people in this community acknowledge the divine in impersonal terms (e.g. life force energy) as well as personified, and are fully accepting of modern science as a foundation of beliefs about the world. We have rituals and counseling for the pastoral needs of a human community. I am ordained as a minister in one such community and fill those needs for care of the soul, education and building community. The growth of humanist chaplain underscores the bridge that is being built between spirituality and secularism.

I was introduced this morning via PBS programming. During these few minutes of the interview with Alain, I came to understand in some small ways who my father was. We could relate to in ways fathers and sons do yet he held a very complex set of personal convictions which I wish I was mature enough, inquisitive enough to attempt to understand. He was an entomologist and collected, had a world-class collection of pipe organ recordings and played (marginally), began a Unitarian fellowship in our small town. He was unabashedly a secularist. He met and married my mother, from a large Roman Catholic family which created unsettling dynamics. While I knew him on fairly shallow father-son terms, I really didn't have much of an understanding of who he truly was; how and why he did what he did, knew what he knew. At 76, I am going to attempt to understand what I can retrospectively.

I look forward to reading this book. I was born Mennonite, raised Hutterite, became novice at age 13 in the Bruderhof but I've not joined any church because once one has experienced a culture which attempts to "love your neighbor as yourself", it is difficult to think about religion or spirituality without comparing it to an idealized utopian society. I am leaving shortly for the annual CSA (communal studies association) in Salt Lake City. The latest New Yorker has an article by Akash Kapur, on these idealized communes in America. Thank you Krista for your interview.

In the immortal words of Tim Minchin, "Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords but the lyrics are dodgy." Beware belief-creep.

Thank you so much for your interview with Alain de Botton. Never have I felt that I had so much in common with a person. I've always felt like how can I love the architecture and beauty of churches and still have hymns come back to me from when I was a child and be this non-believer--hard for me to say "atheist" as I've told my daughter-- it sounds so harsh! I was taken to church as a child but some part of me always resisted. I plan to find his book(s) today!

Loved show
This very much affirms what I believe about the purpose of religion in society. I'm a educated person however -and have always wondered why the blatantly obvious is ignored. It is true, that I studied photography & science.

Creation tripped me up from the time I was able to conceive and think out the idea, about 4th grade. I did not have a religious household but we did stuff like Easter dresses and celebrate Christmas without visits to a church. I turn 55 this month. I think churches serve a great service for the members as far as the community support and especially during difficult times but it is perforated with the God's will crap (and of course lack of science) that I will never accept. When I was young I wanted to believe because my friends did, but I never bought it, and my two teenage daughters don't either. I look forward to learning more about this, a very dear friend, who is Greek Orthodox sent this to me, she is like me, liberal and open to various opinions and accepting of our individual influences.

While not a person of religious faith, I think I understand the feeling of faith because living a (long) life of great love shares that transcendent feeling. I agree with our speaker that a definition of love that says there is a right person who will understand our every thought without our expressing it will lead to disappointment. But one can feel a transcendent love without that requirement. In fact one can feel such a transcendent love even if the beloved has no capacity to reciprocate. I have and do.

I concur fully with our speaker that communities benefit from secular places of assembly face to face that provide opportunities to create lives of meaning and purpose- that there is no reason such communities need to be faith-affiliated.

Thank you again, Krista Tippett for answering the questions I didn't even know I was asking. I have been searching for just such a community, just such a perspective.

Interesting, but I'm not clear on how this is different from some movements that already exist, particularly Ethical Culture. De Botton almost seems to be attributing to secularism itself, characteristics that are merely typical of modern secular society. I'm pretty sure the earliest human societies had many of the features he desired even before supernatural belief arose, let alone religion as a distinct institution. The alienation of present society is a symptom of class division, especially in its capitalist form, and not of the lack of religion.

Mr. Botton is intelligent and a brilliant man! Does the existence of God depends on whether Botton or anyone else belief? Just the thought of a supreme being or divine being is proof that God exist. There is no other creature in the world that believes or even think about God, except human beings. And only human beings have a desire to worship a being higher than themselves. Because humans are created in the image of God. Deepak Chopra is a medical doctor, a public speaker, a spiritual adviser, a New York Times best-selling author asks; Does God exist? Listen to what the Scripture says; "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly see, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. Who [man] changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped the creatures more than the creator who is blessed for ever" (Romans 1:19-20, 25). How can intelligent men like Botton, Dawkins, Sagan, Gould and others deny the existence of God. Even though God hath shown it to them in the above quote. Listen to what God said to any man who denies His existence; "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God" (Psalm 14:1). Every man has an appointment with death! As I look at the wisdom of man, the more I believe and trust the Wisdom of God. Because the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. "And it is appointment unto men once to die, but after this the judgement" (Heb. 9:27). There is no man that can escape this!

school of life -- explore anything without the pre-mental conditioning of your religion
J krishnamurti - philospher's ideas might help to act as our own mirror, as to where we stand as a human being in this chaotic world.

Jesus tells us that those who give up everything to follow him would have more even in this world.
So I like it that this man appreciates the good things that follow those who follow God.
And he wants good things. (It's not religion that caused the bloodshed, but the hatred of religion.)
I pray that this man may encounter God. That way he would be the head of this atheist organization, but would know God.

No - whether or not it's true is the critical question.
Those who believe in God do so because we have met God.
Christianity always keeps what is good in a culture, and raises it up.
So you are working for a new paganism. Let's hope you meet God before you get too far.
What is in Christianity does rest on the Greek and Latin ancient culture, but that's why God inspired those cultures, for themselves, but also so they could be used in his religion. (cf St. Thomas.)
The secular education system is the ancient Greek philosophy, the pursuit of form and beauty.

Theology is the queen of the sciences - everything is of interest to the theologian.
Theologians are pessimistic about the human condition, but ultimately, because they know God, are optimistic ultimately.

At nearly 60 years old, I am embarking on a new life. One of the exercises of this new life is to resolve resentments. Perhaps you are familiar with this program. The other day I was informed that one could have resentments against groups as well as individuals. As an atheist, I realized that I had resentments against religion. Not exactly a group, but still a resentment. After listening to this podcast, I realized that my resentments against religion didn't really have a basis. Thank you for this new point of view.

Excellent, thought-provoking conversation. As an atheist member of a Jewish congregation, it really resonated with me.

What is that picture above about? It looks like that woman has just drunk paint thinner.

What I see in global travels is a world so beautiful, and so incredibly diverse in its living presence as to make it impossible to imagine all of it is real without a maker... or a "God". The practice of saying thank you, hoping things will get better, and finding a community to sing and be humble with, is not nearly as hard as many think... there are so many minds out there..and his is a great one..

I understand why some people are atheists and agnostics, but I don't agree with it. I also have issues with some of the misguided actions of religions, e.g, I'm a Catholic, semi-devout. I don't necessarily attend Mass, but I haven't outright rejected my faith either. However, due to the things that have been done in the name of religion: wars, the Reformation, Counter Reformation, Inquisition, and others, it might lead people to not believe. That doesn't mean that God isn't true, or that the core idea of doing what is right isn't good. One will only find out at the end of everything. I'm glad that Mr. De Botton , at least, doesn't reject all religious ideals, e.g., charity to others, kindness, forgiveness, even if he doesn't acknowledge God. That's his opinion. At least, he doesn't call God a "Delusion", like Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens. Whether one believes or not, we all, hopefully, try to treat each other fairly and when all is said and done will have peace. Thanks.

This is a fascinating episode that I have listened to a couple times and probably will again. Thank you for this.

This was such a moving episode. I've been working in my own little corner of the universe in establishing my Christian Atheism and explaining it to others via my writing and practice. I really enjoy Alain. Thank you.