TED | Alain deBotton: Atheism 2.0 – Notes & Review

Posted on January 22, 2012


One of the most fascinating talks on religion and secularism, a programme of bringing both forward. My notes and review below.


I would like to inaugurate a new way of being an atheist.

PREMISE: Of course, there is no God. Of course, there are no deities or supernatural spirits or angels, etc. Now let’s move on; that’s not the end of the story, that’s the very, very beginning.

MAIN POINT: …atheism 2.0 is about both, as I say, a respectful and impious way of going through religions and saying, “What here could we use?” The secular world is full of holes. We have secularized badly, I would argue. And a thorough study of religion could give us all sorts of insights into areas of life that are not going too well.

Example 1: The Sermon vs. The Lecture. A sermon wants to change your life and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information. And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition. The tradition of sermonizing is hugely valuable, because we are in need of guidance, morality and consolation — and religions know that.

Example 2: Repetition. Religions are cultures of repetition. They circle the great truths again and again. We associate repetition with boredom.

Example 3: Religions arrange time. A calendar is a way of making sure that across the year you will bump into certain very important ideas. Religious view says we need calendars, we need to structure time, we need to synchronize encounters. This comes across also in the way in which religions set up rituals around important feelings.

Example 4: Speak well. Oratory is absolutely key to religions. What you’re saying needs to be backed up by a really convincing way of saying it.

Example 5: We’re not just brains, we are also bodies. And when they [religions] teach us a lesson, they do it via the body. We don’t tend to do that. Our ideas are in one area and our behavior with our bodies is in another. Religions are fascinating in the way they try and combine the two.

Example 6: Art. The two really bad ideas that are hovering in the modern world that inhibit our capacity to draw strength from art: The first idea is that art should be for art’s sake — a ridiculous idea — an idea that art should live in a hermetic bubble and should not try to do anything with this troubled world. I couldn’t disagree more. The other thing that we believe is that art shouldn’t explain itself, that artists shouldn’t say what they’re up to, because if they said it, it might destroy the spell and we might find it too easy. Religions have a much saner attitude to art. They have no trouble telling us what art is about. Art is about two things in all the major faiths. Firstly, it’s trying to remind you of what there is to love. And secondly, it’s trying to remind you of what there is to fear and hate. Art is a visceral encounter with the most important ideas of your faith. Essentially it’s propaganda. Propaganda is a manner of being didactic in honor of something. And if that thing is good, there’s no problem with it at all. Art should be didactic.

So religions are the foremost example of an institution that is fighting for the things of the mind. Now we may not agree with what religions are trying to teach us, but we can admire the institutional way in which they’re doing it.

Really what I want to say is for many of you who are operating in a range of different field, there is something to learn from the example of religion — even if you don’t believe any of it. Look at how religions are spreading ideas. You may not agree with the ideas, but my goodness, they’re highly effective mechanisms for doing so.

You may not agree with religion, but at the end of the day, religions are so subtle, so complicated, so intelligent in many ways, that they’re not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone. They’re for all of us.


Chris Anderson: Now this is actually a courageous talk, because you’re kind of setting up yourself in some ways to be ridiculed in some quarters.

AB: You can get shot by both sides. You can get shot by the hard-headed atheists, and you can get shot by those who fully believe.

CA: Incoming missiles from North Oxford at any moment.

AB: Indeed.

CA: But you left out one aspect of religion that a lot of people might say your agenda could borrow from, which is this sense — that’s actually probably the most important thing to anyone who’s religious — of spiritual experience, of some kind of connection with something that’s bigger than you are. Is there any room for that experience in Atheism 2.0?

AB: Absolutely. I, like many of you, meet people who say things like, “But isn’t there something bigger than us, something else?” And I say, “Of course.” And they say, “So aren’t you sort of religious?” And I go, “No.” Why does that sense of mystery, that sense of the dizzying scale of the universe, need to be accompanied by a mystical feeling? Science and just observation gives us that feeling without it, so I don’t feel the need. The universe is large and we are tiny, without the need for further religious superstructure. So one can have so-called spiritual moments without belief in the spirit.

CA: Actually, let me just ask a question. How many people here would say that religion is important to them? Is there an equivalent process by which there’s a sort of bridge between what you’re talking about and what you would say to them?

AB: I would say that there are many, many gaps in secular life and these can be plugged. It’s not as though, as I try to suggest, it’s not as though either you have religion and then you have to accept all sorts of things, or you don’t have religion and then you’re cut off from all these very good things. It’s so sad that we constantly say, “I don’t believe so I can’t have community, so I’m cut off from morality, so I can’t go on a pilgrimage.” One wants to say, “Nonsense. Why not?” And that’s really the spirit of my talk. There’s so much we can absorb. Atheism shouldn’t cut itself off from the rich sources of religion.

CA: It seems to me that there’s plenty of people in the TED community who are atheists. But probably most people in the community certainly don’t think that religion is going away any time soon and want to find the language to have a constructive dialogue and to feel like we can actually talk to each other and at least share some things in common. Are we foolish to be optimistic about the possibility of a world where, instead of religion being the great rallying cry of divide and war, that there could be bridging?

AB: No, we need to be polite about differences. Politeness is a much-overlooked virtue. It’s seen as hypocrisy. But we need to get to a stage when you’re an atheist and someone says, “Well you know, I did pray the other day,” you politely ignore it. You move on. Because you’ve agreed on 90 percent of things, because you have a shared view on so many things, and you politely differ. And I think that’s what the religious wars of late have ignored. They’ve ignored the possibility of harmonious disagreement.

CA: And finally, does this new thing that you’re proposing that’s not a religion but something else, does it need a leader, and are you volunteering to be the pope?


AB: Well, one thing that we’re all very suspicious of is individual leaders. It doesn’t need it. What I’ve tried to lay out is a framework and I’m hoping that people can just fill it in. I’ve sketched a sort of broad framework. But wherever you are, as I say, if you’re in the travel industry, do that travel bit. If you’re in the communal industry, look at religion and do the communal bit. So it’s a wiki project.


CA: Alain, thank you for sparking many conversations later.


— VIA —

I appreciate greatly the harmonious tone, and the virtue of politeness that is platformed here, a virtue that a priori disregarded in the discussion where polarization has been the dominant foundation. In fact, what deBotton here is doing, is not just suggesting a new way of being atheist, but I would suggest that he is subversively and subtly suggesting a new way of being religious. If atheists and secularists are to learn from religions, religions must therefore also contend with the reality that there is more shared common ground, an idea that will be difficult to embrace by both sides as is understood from the “missiles” comment above in the interview. Perhaps this Atheism 2.0 is really not about “atheism” alone, but about the evolution of all ideas, secularist and religious. (Now, must I dodge missiles too?)

There are some inherent weaknesses in his talk, however, that must be pointed out.

First, his approach to this harmony and learning is solely utilitarian. Utility, however, is only an expression of religion, not the core essence of it. Religion goes much deeper, and should there be true harmony, there must be an engagement with the commonalities that reach to the human soul and experience, a point that was duly addressed by Anderson in the interview.

Second, he makes a statement about “replacing scripture with culture,” which I would argue is a fallacious argument; a false dichotomy. Now, I think I understand the gist of what he is trying to communicate — that religious texts with divine authority ought not have pride of place for dictatorial demands and information on how to life — but fundamentally, Shakespeare, Plato, novels, etc., are scriptures in and of themselves, especially by the definitions he is using and the ethic that he is proposing. In other words, the written word is culture, just as much as art, language, traditions, social constructs, etc. I think it more honest to say that he really is not wanting to replace scripture with culture, but one kind of writing for another kind of writing, both kinds contributing positively to the culture. Now, from a religious standpoint, religious people would do well in learning from this. What is subtly suggested by deBotton may be exactly what the writers of “the Scriptures” would want us to embrace; that their writings ought not be conflated with ethereal and esoteric doctrines of divine imposition (inerrancy, infallibility, etc.), but rather be seen for the kinds of writings they were written to be (epistles, poems, gospels, etc.). We must see all writings, religious or secular, (or both) on their own terms. This approach allows for the secularist to embrace the “holy scriptures” rather than dismiss them (as deBotton suggests), and challenges religious people to see the texts for what they truly are without some sort of doctrinal or denominational mandate. I think this would go further in “harmonization” than what deBotton suggests.

Lastly — and this is a bit unfair as deBotton doesn’t dive into the philosophical ramifications of his talk — this talk, taken even at face value, ought to challenge secularists and atheists to reconsider the actual validity and truth claims religions make. Once again, mystery, experience (phenomenology), awe, a connection with something bigger, and other phenomena that we lack language for, is often summed up in the word “spiritual.” That phenomenology ought to inform philosophy, epistemology, cosmology, etc., and it is too easily dismissed, here, and in secularist camps. If reason and rationale dominate the ethic of secularism and atheism, then it is reasonable to close the door very slowly on the truth of spirituality.

On that last point, regarding “morality,” secularists and atheist continually tout that we don’t “need” religion to gain morality for it is something we can all attain to. deBotton goes a step further in this talk saying that we all “need” morality, a point that is virtually universally accepted. I would argue, however, that this is not a dismissal of the ridiculousness of religion or its anti-necessity, it is an argument for the premises of religion THAT morality is important.