Yesterday I heard a fantastic interview with Alain de Botton, who was discussing his book Religion for Atheists on Krista Tippett’s show.
Here’s the intro to the show:
“Religion for Atheists” — that’s Alain de Botton’s prescription for people who don’t believe, but may respect and miss experiences of faith. This cradle-atheist is dissatisfied with popular dismissals of religion, and he’s giving voice to a new way. 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. And he feels that secular society has emptied public spaces of religious messaging, only to fill them with commercial proselytizing that may impoverish us morally. And so, Alain de Botton has created something called The School of Life, where people young and old explore ritual, community, beauty and wisdom.
They talked in the interview about religious people who have dismissed de Botton’s work as somehow missing the point, or accused him of co-opting something that he has disavowed. I myself praise him for his tone and his humility and his approach to religion in general. He comes from a place of reverence—a virtue that can be sadly lacking in our culture these days.
There were many quotable moments but this one captured my notice:
Ms. Tippett: It’s interesting, a couple of other things that you — features of — very religious features of traditions that you also say that atheists and secular society could learn from, like the Day of Atonement in Judaism or the tradition of saints in Roman Catholicism.
Mr. de Botton: Yes. I mean, taking those two, the Day of Atonement, a fascinating moment in the calendar in Judaism where people essentially say sorry to each other and they say sorry against the backdrop of a God who doesn’t make mistakes, but humans who do. You are given license, encouragement, structure to do something which would be mightily hard if you were left to do it on your own like, as I say, saying sorry. It’s much easier to say sorry if everybody is doing it on a particular day because then there’s a sort of cycle of mutual apology and forgiveness which makes the whole thing much more normal. We’re very suspicious of ritual in the nonbelieving world. You know, we think that there shouldn’t really be rituals, that the private life should have its own rhythms and that no one should come in from the outside and say, you know, today we’re going to say sorry and next week we’re going to worship spring and the day after we’re going to think about the qualities of humility in a saint or something. The idea is you should do all this on your own in private. I’m coming around to the view that that’s nice in theory, but the problem is we’ll never get ’round to it.
People sometimes ask me, why don’t you take Sabbath whenever you want? Why does it need to be the same day? Why does it need to be weekly? I think de Botton hints at the danger of just letting Sabbath happen within your own “rhythms of private life”—it won’t.
(Full disclosure: Saturday was our default sabbath day, but we did in fact reschedule it for Sunday sometimes. So we did change things up a little as necessary… but it always felt a little tenuous when we did so, as if we might lose our grip on Sabbath altogether by moving it.)
And I hope that the book speaks to people outside of Christianity, and maybe outside of religion altogether—although I’m too close to the topic to know whether I pulled that off. I do talk a good bit about the biblical narratives and how they inform a practice of Sabbath, but those narratives aren’t intended to be universal expressions of truth, but rather, where I start from.
What do you think about the role of ritual in our lives? What’s helpful about ritual and what is not?