Here is the transcript and summary of Alain de Botton’s TED Talk titled “Atheism 2.0”.
Listen to the audio version here:
Alain de Botton – Author and Philosopher
One of the most common ways of dividing the world is into those who believe and those who don’t. Into the religious and the atheists. And for the last decade or so it’s been quite clear what being an atheist means. There have been some very vocal atheists who’ve pointed out not just that religion is wrong but that it’s ridiculous. These people, many of whom have lived in North Oxford, have argued — they’ve argued that believing in God is akin to believing in fairies and essentially that the whole thing is a childish game.
Now I think it’s too easy. I think it’s too easy to dismiss the whole of religion that way and it’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. And what I’d like to inaugurate today is a new way of being an atheist. If you like a new version of atheism we could call Atheism 2.0.
Now what is Atheism 2.0? Well it starts from a very basic premise. Of course there’s 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. I’m interested in a kind of constituency that thinks something along these lines. That thinks, I can’t believe in any of this stuff. I can’t believe in the doctrines. I don’t think these doctrines are right but, very important but, I love Christmas carols. I really like the art of Mantegna. I really like looking at old churches. I really like turning the pages of the Old Testament.
Whatever it may be, you know the kind of thing I’m talking about. People who are attracted to the ritualistic side, the moralistic, communal side of religion that can’t bear the doctrine.
Now, until now, these people have faced rather an unpleasant choice. It’s almost as though either you accept the doctrine and then you can have all the nice stuff or you reject the doctrine and you’re living in a sort of spiritual wasteland under the guidance of CNN and Walmart.
So that’s a sort of tough choice. I don’t think we have to make that choice. I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways, and I’m being both very respectful and completely impious, of stealing from religions. If you don’t believe in a religion, there’s nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion.
And for me, Atheism 2. 0 is about, in both, as I say, a respectful and an impious way, 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 can give us all sorts of insights into areas of life that are not going too well.
And I’d like to run through a few of these today. I’d like to kick off by looking at EDUCATION. Now, education is a field that the secular world really believes in. You know, when we think about how we’re going to make the world a better place, we think education. That’s where we put a lot of money. Education is going to give us not only commercial skills, industrial skills, it’s also going to make us better people. You know the kind of thing of commencement addresses and graduation ceremonies, those lyrical claims that education, the process of education, particularly higher education, will make us into nobler and better human beings. That’s a lovely idea.
It’s interesting where it came from. You know, in the early 19th century, church attendance in Western Europe started sliding down very, very sharply, and people panicked. They asked themselves the following question. They said, “Where are people going to find morality? Where are they going to find guidance? And where are they going to find sources of consolation?”
And influential voices came up with one answer. They said culture. It’s the culture that we should look for guidance, for consolation, for morality. Let’s look to the plays of Shakespeare, the dialogues of Plato, the novels of Jane Austen. In there, we’ll find a lot of the truths that we might previously have found in the Gospel of Saint John.
Now, I think that’s a very beautiful idea and a very true idea. They wanted to replace scripture with culture, and that’s a very plausible idea. It’s also an idea that we have forgotten. You know, if you went to a top university, let’s say you went to Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge, and you said, you know, I’ve come here because I’m in search of morality, guidance, and consolation. I want to know how to live. They would show you the way to the insane asylum. This is simply not what our grandest and best institutes of higher learning are in the business of.
Why? They don’t think we need it. They don’t think we are in urgent need of assistance. They see us as adults, rational adults. What we need is information. We need data. We don’t need help.
Now, religions start from a very different place indeed. All religions, all major religions at various points call us children. And like children, they believe that we are in severe need of assistance. We’re only just holding it together. Perhaps this is just me, maybe you. But anyway, we’re only just holding it together. And we need help. Of course we need help. And so we need guidance and we need didactic learning.
You know, in the 18th century in the UK, the greatest preacher, greatest religious preacher was a man called John Wesley who went up and down this country delivering sermons, advising people how they could live. He delivered sermons on the duties of parents to their children and children to their parents, the duties of the rich to the poor and the poor to the rich. He was trying to tell people how they should live through the medium of sermons, the classic medium of delivery of religion.