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Alain de Botton was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1969 and now lives in London. He is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a 'philosophy of[…]

Are shared human values possible and sustainable without religion? This is the subject of life philosopher Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists.

Question:  What can religion teach non-believers about kindness?  

AlaindeBotton: I think there’s a great fear that once religion disappears or loses its hold on people, there can be no agreement around belief and values, that there’s then a post-modern chaos where all values are relative, no one agrees on anything and everything splinters.  I simply don’t think that’s true to experience.  Of course there are areas of real ideological debate, but I would say that they are on the outer fringes of the spectrum, that there is an enormous amount that contemporary America, Europe, a contemporary world agrees on, that if you gathered a group of a hundred Americans into a room and you said to them, “Okay, are there things we can rally around?  Are there things we can believe in?”  You would get immense agreement around fairness, justice, kindness, love, value of children, value of education, the environment.  You would get at least 10 or 20 commandments, if I can use ironically that word, but I mean that seriously in a sense of a set of values that we can rally around.  

So, we’re not short of things we can believe in.  What we’re short of is methods for making those beliefs stick.  We are catastrophically bad at actually activating, bringing into action, theories that we all assent to in, you know, in the quiet of our minds.  So in the quiet of our minds we believe in kindness and generosity and tolerance and all the rest of it.  Go outside to the rest of the world, are the values actually active?  No.  In many places they’re not.  And so that’s what interests me.  How can we make the things we do agree on get a grip on our minds at those key moments when we’re actually acting in the world? 

Religion starts with the view that we are torn between good and evil.  There is definitely a good core, but it’s permanently tempted.  And so what the individual needs is a structure which will constantly try and tug a person back towards the best of themselves.  Religions do not see that effort of tugging that person as an infringement of liberty.  In the modern world, in the secular world, we think, “If anyone tells me something that I should do, that person is taking away my freedom.”  That freedom means being able to do anything.  The religious view is, freedom means being able to do those things which are most in line with the highest vision of ourselves.  So in other words, to stop someone injecting heroine and destroying themselves is not a limit to freedom.  

Now, in the secular world, we’re really cut up and slightly confused about this.  We sort of think that it might be an infringement of liberty to do this.  But as I say, the religious world view does not believe this.  Freedom is about realizing our highest possibilities.  And anything that helps us to do that is not a limit to freedom.  

So what do we think about being kind?  What religions want to do is remind us of how kind we want to be.  When people get married, for example, on the first day of their marriage, they want to be kind.  By the 20th year of their marriage, they’re snapping at each other, they’re not being particularly kind.  Why?  All sorts of things, residual anger, frustration, etc.  Religions remind that couple that they wanted to be kind, not to limit their freedom but to remind them of their best selves.  

Directed / Produced by

Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd