Why everyone should read some Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton @ TEDLet’s face it, we’re a pretty hypocritical country: we watch porn in record amounts but shun abortion; we drive Toyota Priuses but keep our lights on when we leave the house; we spend billions on diet books and fitness fads then stop by Wendy’s on the way home. It can overwhelm, at times.

I believe it’s partially driven by religion, or the lack thereof. Religious folk struggle to maintain their values in our sex-soaked, technology-obsessed culture; nonreligious folk (call them what you like: atheists, agnostics, the “spiritual but not religious”) struggle to find a sense of purpose, a greater good. We’re conflicted, caught between who we are and who we want to be (and believe). And hypocrisy – Greek for “acting of a theatrical part” – is the result.

That’s why I love reading Alain de Botton, and why I recommend his work. He’s chicken soup for the modern soul.

de Botton believes we’ve secularized, but have done so badly. In our abrupt, aggressive departure from religion, we’ve run away from home but are still wandering the streets without safety or shelter.

Instead of shunning religion, we should learn from it. We should, in the greatest sense of the word, steal pieces of it — for example, a belief in giving back, or love for neighbor and stranger — and make those pieces a part of our lives.

And the best part? It’s not just for nonbelievers: Christians can learn from Hindus, Buddhists can learn from Muslims, and so on.

His solution makes immediate, visceral sense. If humankind aspires to a true global village, this is the culture it must create.

de Botton is better-known in Europe than the States. They’re more secular, for one. His provocative titles, like “Religion for Atheists” or “Atheism 2.0”, would be dismissed forthwith here. Europe is also more removed, if by a small margin, from some of his critiques of what polisci students would call “American soft power.” Even his name is hard to pronounce (try saying “Botton” five times without hearing “bottom”).

But he’s prolific, he’s persuasive, and he’s profound. Start with his Twitter feed, a stream of seemingly simple self-help soundbites. Yes, he might be the intellectual man’s Tony Robbins, but there’s more substance, and nuance.

The bottom line: Alain de Botton has changed how I see the world and what I’d like to accomplish before I die.

The other author I’ve frequently praised on this blog is Haruki Murakami. There’s no obvious overlap with de Botton, not in style, format, or demographic, but they both peel back the layers of humankind, to place the emotional and logical pieces of our species into a broader tableau. Murakami’s tableau is a sensory, magical one; de Botton’s is an orderly, harmonious one.

Below, I’ve compiled a selection of my notes from his work, a sort of buffet-style entry to his arguments:

On status anxiety

  • It’s a problem today because 1) we don’t approve of people who receive their status by birth and 2) we believe status can be earned/achieved and therefore it is limitless
  • There are 2 types of self-help books: 1) the Tony Robbins kind, “become a billionaire by Sunday” and 2) how to deal with low self-esteem; they’re connected because if you’re not a billionaire by Saturday, you have self-esteem problems
  • Tocqueville, on his trip around the world, noted that envy would be the #1 emotion that Americans would suffer (as with most democratic, egalitarian societies)
  • In a “just” society like ours, the rich deserve their success, but the poor also deserve their failure (which makes it harder to tolerate our own mediocrity or lack of success)
  • Hundreds of years ago, if you saw a rich person, you would assume he/she was born into it or did something bad to get it; and in ancient Rome, your good fortune was due to the Gods, when something good happened to you, you’d thank God and bless him and sacrifice to him

On why pessimism is healthy

  • Problem with society is that, with the engines of science, technology, and commerce, mankind has taken such great strides that we forget pessimism’s usefulness in individuals, and in the day-to-day
  • The secular are least suited to cope because they believe we can achieve heaven on earth through things like Silicon Valley, Fortune 500s, university research
  • Religions provide angels – forever young and beautiful – to worship, and our lovers are instead meant to be tolerated (whereas secular people are always complaining, “why can’t you be more perfect?”)

On atheism and religion:

  • There’s much to admire about organized religion – the music, architecture, texts, rules, communities
  • Education has two goals – to learn important/technical skills, and to make better human beings
  • We are immensely forgetful beings, which is why religions on average remind people of things five times per day (whereas secular education rarely if ever reviews important lessons)
  • Secular world has religious equivalents, like museums, but they lack power and purpose
  • In 2011, the Catholic Church made $97B. Why is it so successful? Because it’s involved directly in many aspects of peoples’ lives, whereas the academic/intellectual world is more distant, preferring instead to publish books and lecture from afar
  • Religions are like good hosts at a party – bring people together, facilitate intros, help people make things happen

Some videos:

Some tweets:

Some quotes from Religion for Atheists (see here for a longer list):

We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

I recognized that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illuminated manuscripts of the faiths.

In a restaurant no less than in a home, when the meal itself – the texture of the escalopes or the moistness of the courgettes – has become the main attraction, we can be sure that something has gone awry.

Religions teach us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober, but they also know that if they do not allow us to be or do otherwise every once in a while, they will break our spirit.

The one generalization we might venture to draw from the Judaeo-Christian approach to good behaviour is that we would be advised to focus our attention on relatively small-scale, undramatic kinds of misconduct. Pride, a superficially unobtrusive attitude of mind, was deemed worthy of notice by Christianity, just as Judaism saw nothing frivolous in making recommendations about how often married couples should have sex.

Why, then, does the notion of replacing religion with culture, of living according to the lessons of literature and art as believers will according to the lessons of faith, continue to sound so peculiar to us? Why are atheists not able to draw on culture with the same spontaneity and rigour which the religious apply to their holy texts?

The difference between Christian and secular education reveals itself with particular clarity in their respective characteristic modes of instruction: secular education delivers lectures, Christianity sermons. Expressed in terms of intent, we might say that one is concerned with imparting information, the other with changing our lives.

We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.

The benefits of a philosophy of neo-religious pessimism are nowhere more apparent than in relation to marriage, one of modern society’s most grief-stricken arrangements, which has been rendered unnecessarily hellish by the astonishing secular supposition that it should be entered into principally for the sake of happiness.

The modern world is not, of course, devoid of institutions. It is filled with commercial corporations of unparalleled size which have an intriguing number of organizational traits in common with religions. But these corporations focus only on our outer, physical needs, on selling us cars and shoes, pizzas and telephones. Religion’s great distinction is that while it has a collective power comparable to that of modern corporations pushing the sale of soap and mashed potatoes, it addresses precisely those inner needs which the secular world leaves to disorganized and vulnerable individuals.

Thanks everyone. That was a long post but hope you found it useful. I’d love to hear what authors and thinkers inspire you. Also here is a much longer list of stuff I’m reading and highlighting if you’re into that sort of thing.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.