Alain de Botton

Religion for AtheistsOne would expect a certain amount of philosophical thinking to accompany a night as an audience member of one of the world’s foremost modern-day philosophers. Just perhaps not about what said philosophising ended up being about.

Open-minded atheist Alain de Botton was here to talk about his latest bestselling book, the delightfully confusingly entitled Religion for Atheists. Me? I spent a lot of time pondering how a fairly nerdy (I think he’d be ok with that description), slightly balding (I hope he’d be ok with that description too) writer can be so incredibly, distractingly attractive.

You see it too, right? Methinks he could be named the undisputed king of Hot Guys Reading Books.

I had planned to blog philosophical gems of unrivalled awesomeness that I’d gleaned from his talk, but my abominable handwriting has defeated me again. Well, that coupled with my own internal battle trying to reconcile the differences between this man, who reads voraciously, compared with my previously documented ex-boyfriend, who doesn’t read at all.

Basically, de Botton stated up front that he didn’t believe that God existed and that that was, frankly, not the point of the night. The point was that, regardless of our beliefs (or complete, staunchly defended absence of them), religion has some good offerings for us all.

What’s made de Botton so vastly popular worldwide (and so the grumping envy of academics and the like) is both his ability to think outside the box but also to put it in an accessible, relatable, pretension-free, and often fun manner. Say, for example, how he used the analogy of a ‘pick-n-mix buffet’ to illustrate his selection of elements of religions that he can apply to his own life. It might sound flippant in print, but it was anything but in person.

He also embraces the greyness of our world. He’s not saying all religions are good; nor is he saying they’re bad. He’s saying that religions have worked a few things out—perhaps better so than other institutions in our modern world.

Pleasures and Sorrows of WorkThese include that they assume we’re only human and we’re going to forget things. While schools, universities, and work places show us something once and expect us to remember it for our entire lives, religions work in a cyclical manner to refresh and reiterate key messages annually.

They include recognising the fact that there are going to be times when we can’t form a logical explanation for something, can’t cope, and need advice, comfort, and someone or something to share the load. Times such as when a close family member passes away. Religion and community, we know, step to the fore in these moments.

They also include that the breaking of bread and the sharing of drink has been shown (via independent scientific research, of course) to help ‘cement’ ideas and moments in our memories. Hence the fact that sharing food and drink are fairly central to key moments in our lives, both religious and otherwise. Huh. Quite clever when you think about it.

‘Clever’ is not strong enough a word to describe de Botton, whose intellect seems out of this world. I sometimes couldn’t take in everything he was saying over the course of the 90 minutes because it was so smart and was delivered slightly too fast for my lesser intellect to digest.

That would perhaps be my only criticism of de Botton’s presentation: These concepts are ones he’s ruminated on and polished through years of thought, writing, and public speaking. For me, many were the first time I’d heard them.

Status AnxietyDe Botton’s himself said at one stage that ours was the last stop on his Australian tour. I got the sense he’d given the speech a few times too many for even his own liking. That said, it was still incredible and I may have been slightly distracted by my musings on how intellect, wit, and wisdom can make a slightly nerdy, balding man so very attractive.

Thankfully, Radio National’s Big Ideas recorded the podcast and de Botton also spent an hour in conversation with Richard Fidler. I’ll be seeking out and listening to both podcasts, stat. And buying his back catalogue of books, of course.