October 10, 2013
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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Alain de Botton 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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How and why did we choose this "secular sermon" for our podcast. A bit of behind-the-scenes insight that answers these questions — and a chance to watch the full sermon from The School of Life.

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A woman reads a rotating placard in the window of The School of Life in London.

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Meanwhile, believers are leaving religion because of its parochialism!

'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.

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 !!!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. tgilliss@onbeing.org

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 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.

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.

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.