The Bat Segundo Show: Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #444. He is most recently the author of Religion for Atheists.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Seeking pragmatic forms of belief.

Author: Alain de Botton

Subjects Discussed: The difficulties of turning other people onto enthusiastic concepts, why religion draws extremists on all sides of the debate, attempting to fight capitalism through a new belief system, the Agape Restaurant, Susan Cain’s Quiet, including introverts within community-based ideas, the Day of Atonement, mandatory voting in Australia, attempts to reach people who are not inclined to forgive, voluntary mediators, a temple for atheism, the need to feel small, feeling small through extra human forces, the power of awe, aesthetic uses of science, being awed by the city and knowledge, the mass appeal of Proust and Tarkovsky, South Park, competing notions of awe and boredom applied to the same idea, religion as a populist medium, the upside of vulgarity, high and low culture, Tarkovsky as a joke high culture figure, superbia, egotistical notions in getting to know someone through prosaic conversational questions, social status as a way of fending off other people, dependence, religious distinction through coherent brand identities, role models, reductionism and marketing, responding to architecture, touching people through their senses, São Paulo’s prohibition of advertising, religion’s reliance upon advertising, making a public claim for certain states of the soul, the Kony 2012 campaign, the pros and cons of shame, how humans can be more interesting than a smartphone, how technology forces humans to relearn essential concepts, and how human life is in permanent competition with superficial biases.


Correspondent: Your books very often have this moment where you describe a very funny yet sometimes socially awkward encounter where you attempt to impart some concept or some amazing idea in your head that you are excited about and that the person who is receiving this intelligence often expresses some dismay. I think of, for example, your long speech at the Mojave Airport Graveyard in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work or your attempt to pitch yourself as a writer-in-flight to the British Airways head honcho Willie Walsh. Obviously, I think, based off of this, you are aware that some of your excitement is being misperceived. So in light of trying to consider a scenario along the lines of what you’re preaching in Religion for Atheists — where you’re trying to have certain concepts stick in other people’s heads and religion is more fraught, more sensitive than the norm — how do you get through to these people? I mean, if you’re aware of these things, you’re probably going to have moments even more extreme than the two I’ve cited. So what of this predicament? How do you go ahead and convert these people over to your side?

De Botton: Well, I suppose, when it comes to religion, you’ve got extremists on both sides of the debate. You’ve got religious believers who are very fervent in their belief and think that anything else, anything besides full conversion to their creed is not acceptable. And at the same time, you have very fierce atheists who think that any involvement with religion is evil and to be resisted. And I’ve tried to write a book that’s somewhere in the middle of those two. It’s a book that tries to say that, as an atheist, you can nevertheless engage with aspects of religion. And indeed those aspects may be very enriching for your understanding of secular society. So it’s a weird book. Because it really is fairly in the middle of something that most people would consider to be incompatible, which is atheism and religion. It’s arguing that atheism should engage in, and can engage, with aspects of religion. And it can be shot at from both sides. But I also think there is a silent majority that is actually in sympathy with the approach I’m taking. But that is a silent majority that don’t have the pulpits.

Correspondent: But if the movers and shakers, such as the man at the graveyard, require twenty dollar bills to advance things, I’m wondering how you can instill these ideas into a new belief system if everything is centered around commerce, centered around capitalism, centered around the need to get ahead, centered around some unusual man asking to see the airplanes and so forth. I mean, this, I think, is one of the interesting takeaways I get from your book. So how do you solve this?

De Botton: Well, I think that the proposals that I make are aiming to get secular capitalist people in secular capitalist societies to rethink their positions on things. I’m arguing that there are certain things missing from modern society. Though we’ve been fantastically good at delivering material improvements and supplying material needs in the developed world, there are some other needs, which you might call spiritual — and I use that word without any supernatural implications. But spiritual, psychological needs have been left slightly unattended. I’m thinking here of things like our need for community, our need for moral structure, our need for certain guidance through the challenges of life. These things have not been so well done by the secular world and I’m arguing that one of the ways which we can plug some of the gaps in the secular world is to look back at the lessons of religion. And my book is full of examples, of concepts, of practices, of rituals that one might rescue or at least learn from as atheists in a secular world.

Correspondent: Well, there’s one idea — the Agape Restaurant — where you have different types of people sitting at the same table, sharing their stories and so forth. But I’m wondering what safeguards you have in place for people who are shy or who are introverted. There’s a new book by Susan Cain called Quiet that gets into the amount of social energy one has to exert if one is introverted or even ambiverted. And so this also leads me to ask — well, if I go into a situation and I’m asked to share my most intimate secrets with a stranger, I’m not certain if I would want to do that. Because maybe someone there might want to steal my identity or so forth. We would enter such a social arrangement with understandable suspicion. And if you’re an introvert, you may be very scared or it may actually be a little intimidating to be asked to engage in this extroverted activity. So what of these kinds of problems here? What are your solutions? What are your workarounds?

De Botton: I guess my starting point is that the modern world is not so good at community building. There’s a lot of loneliness. Because much of who we are doesn’t get an expression in social life. And this is surprising. Because with Facebook and other social media, we were supposed to have cracked this. But I think people will still complain that in many areas, we don’t have good communities. And religion’s unparalleled at building communities. Now how do religions build communities? One of the things they do is they gather people around a table every now and then and get them to break bread together and get them to talk. That’s how early Christianity started. It started as a series of meals between the followers of Jesus who remembered his lessons and got together to eat. And, as I say, you find this in all faiths. That somehow the stranger is invited to the table and is welcome to the table and a stranger is turned into a friend. It’s a beautiful idea. A simple idea. And I couldn’t help but contrast this with the modern world, where we’re obsessed with eating. And newspapers and media are full of places to eat. The restaurant world is high on the agenda. But what’s never really spoken of is the meal as a source of a social engagement. As a source of discovery of another person. And that is really what interested me. And so with the example of religion in mind, one of the things I do in my book is to suggest how we might learn from the tradition of communal dining of religions, and precisely set up meals between strangers. Now, of course, some of them may feel uncomfortable. And some people like to eat on their own. So it wouldn’t be for everybody. But I think in many of us, there is a desire to shed the armor which we normally have to wear in daily life and to eat with others and to discuss our shared and common humanity.

Correspondent: But what I’m saying is that the introvert who is very fond of, say, one-on-one exchanges, as opposed to mass group exchanges — I mean, how does such a communal dining experience account for that? They may feel very uncomfortable. There may be a lot of social energy. You’re saying that they should go ahead and answer very deep questions about what they fear. And so how do you account for them?

De Botton: Well, look, it’s not for everyone. As I say, if someone wants a one-on-one meal, if someone’s not interested in community, then it might not be for them.

Correspondent: Well, how do you get them involved in the community? If the ideal here is to get everybody on the same page, how…

De Botton: Well, it doesn’t have to be everybody. But it has to be those among us who hunger for community, as many of us do.

Correspondent: But introverts do hunger for community. They just go about it in a different way.

De Botton: Yeah. Well, I couldn’t speak for them.

Correspondent: Okay. Early in the book, you bring up the Day of Atonement — the moment on the Hebrew calendar where Jews must identify all those who they have hurt or behaved unjustly towards. Now those who are part of the Day of Atonement are inclined to forgive any offenders for annoying them or causing them grief. But it is an undeniable truth that very often when you apologize to someone in the secular world, well, they’re not exactly going to have the same degree of understanding sometimes. In fact, your apology may aggravate the other person further. So I’m wondering. To get something along the lines of a Day of Atonement for a secular or non-religious group, I’m wondering: Does it take a specific secular rite? For example, in Australia, if you go and vote, 95% of the people turn out. Because if you don’t vote, then you’ll actually get fined. So I’m wondering if a Day of Atonement along the lines of what you’re talking about would require something like a government mandate for everybody to apologize to everybody. What of this dilemma?

De Botton: Well, I don’t know. I mean, what strikes me as a secular person is how intelligent religious communities are at realizing that community is a very nice thing in many ways. But it’s also very challenging. And you find, throughout the history of religion, mechanisms to ease social tensions. And it struck me that the Jewish Day of Atonement was particularly clever and insightful in recognizing that what holds communities back is grudges. Things that are undigested in the past. And what it encourages people to do is to both accept that another person may have a grudge to bring up, but also that it behooves you not to drag out that grudge. So there’s a kind of mutual responsibility on both sides not to drag out an argument and to move towards forgiveness. And the underlying assumption is that God is the only perfect being. And anyone else is going to be flawed. And so we have to forgive on the basis of our fragility and flawed natures. And I think that’s a very beautiful idea. Look, the specifics of how an atheist might do this can yet be worked out. But it’s food for thought. I think, for me, what’s interesting here is that the psychological mechanism of forgiveness based on a recognition of imperfection. And this is something that the modern world struggles with.

Correspondent: How do you reach, though, someone who is not inclined to forgive? Or who may not in fact be on the same page? I mean, I’m all for you. I would love to see everybody forgive everybody for their sins or their errors or their sleights or what not. But the fact is that a lot of people are just not going to. So what does it take to really bring people around? Does it take constant promotion of idealism along the lines of what you’re saying or what?

De Botton: Well, in the Jewish Day of Atonement, what gets people motivated is a sense that it is normal both to forgive and to have a grudge that you need to bring up. And I think that too often when people annoy the mood for discussing issues, of discussing grudges, it’s because they feel that they’re not going to get a proper hearing, that it might be embarrassing to do this, and that dialogue with another is impossible. So it’s a kind of pessimistic position. And sometimes we may need a bit of help. We may need a third person.

Correspondent: Mediators.

De Botton: Mediators.

Correspondent: Voluntary mediators.

De Botton: And that, in a sense, was the role that God was playing in the Jewish community at that point. He is a mediator.

Correspondent: Yeah. So in addition to having a temple for atheism, we also need to get a mediator army of volunteers. Would this also help to spread further good will and bonhomie?

De Botton: I think you’re focusing a little bit unfairly on the practical aspects of this. I’m really writing as a psychologist. I’m interested in psychology of religion and the psychology of the dynamics that are being explored. So how exactly this might apply, how a secular person might absorb this into their life is capable of many different interpretations?

Correspondent: But aren’t pragmatics important when considering the psychological possibilities of what human beings are capable of?

De Botton: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely But we don’t have to decide today.

Correspondent: I’m just picking your brain here.

De Botton: Sure. Of course.

The Bat Segundo Show #444: Alain de Botton (Download MP3)

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The Myth of Karma

One is tempted to look upon an array of serendipitous factors, particularly those that are strange and unfavorable, and find some cosmic justification for karmic retribution. Some are tempted to attribute this casual anarchy to a deity, but I prefer to embrace the innate timbre of chaos and exist within these wild whorls as naturally as possible, while likewise respecting the rights of those who require an explanation to be taken up among similarly bewildered but ultimately good-natured people on a weekly basis. Just don’t proselytize. That’s all I ask.

karma.gifMy morning started with a knock on the door. While I usually sleep like a log, I am particularly sensitive to unusual sounds. I was wispy-eyed, wearing a Jack Daniels shirt and boxers. The JD tee had been slipped on last night because it was clean, loose-fitting, and therefore comfortable. Had I known that the person knocking at the door was the property manager of the apartment building, I might have put on something different. But there was barely any time to think and the voice didn’t sound like a salesman. I was disoriented. The apartment was a mess, because I had been extremely busy trying to meet deadlines, which further embarrassed me. The purpose of the property manager’s visit involved investigating a leak from my radiator that was plaguing the neighbor downstairs. To add insult to injury, I pointed out to the property manager, with a surprising vocal lucidity, that a leak was coming from the apartment above me that I had neglected to report. It’s quite possible that this property manager had encountered other tenants who were dressed worse (or perhaps not at all), had their apartments in worse shape, and had permitted some plaster cavity to linger much longer than I had. But as far as I was concerned, this property manager was taking mental notes about my diseased character and the slipshod condition of my apartment, which he would then factor into some elaborate ledger about the curious and possibly mildly negligent people who dwelt in the units he managed. By my own exacting standards, I was a terrible tenant. Never mind that I have always paid my rent on time. But I’ve always had a minor sense of terror about the relationship between tenant and landlord, and this wasn’t helped when I moved out to New York and learned that, unlike California, one must renegotiate the lease every year, as opposed to permitting it to continue on month-to-month once the one year term has been satisfied.

The visit encouraged me to clean the apartment. At least partially.

I then attempted to find out why a good deal of checks owed to me had not been cut and had learned in nearly every instance that someone had been sick and that this surprisingly recurrent factor had caused many wrenches to clog up various hillocks of machinery. That not one of these checks would come through was, of course, quite unfortunate. It meant that the next few weeks of my life were likely to involve a considerably more penurious existence than I had anticipated. I then began scrounging around the apartment for pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, which I laid out in several stacks on my desk and later used to buy a bagel.

I then learned that I had been screwed over by the MTA. They had charged me twice for my monthly Metrocard. Forty minutes of my time was lost attempting to rectify this. My bank was exceedingly unhelpful. The MTA was slightly less unhelpful. But it was resolved after I was forced to adopt a bulldog temperament — not something I’m altogether proud of — to make things happen. One small victory after a few existential calamities.

Despite all this, I remain calm and hopeful. There is someone on this planet who had a worse day than I did. It isn’t schaudenfraude that makes me think this way; just a relative sense of where I stand and how fortunate I am. It’s much better to maintain some hard but by no means humorless fortitude in order to empathize. Even though I maintain an existence without religion, there is a small part of me that wishes to draw a correlation here that I know is quite false. I want to think that the same factors which spawned this morning’s motley madness likewise resulted in the unwonted earthquake in the United Kingdom or William Buckley’s death (the latter, in turn, made me think of Sam Tanenhaus, who must surely be regretting his decision not to finish his Buckley bio). This is entirely unreasonable, I know. But there remains a considerably visceral part of me that causes me to contemplate such associations of existence and to occasionally endorse them — particularly if I’ve had a few drinks.

But I don’t think I really believe in karma. I observe good people who are screwed over. I observe incorrigible people who are rewarded for being assholes. The correct thing to do in life is to try and be as good as possible. But it’s also important to be as true to who you are as possible. And often this truth gets in the way of being good. There is, I must confess, a great delight I frequently experience in being bad. Of course, my sense of bad is rooted in a baroque set of ethics that would take too much time to explain. But I try not to go out of my way to hurt people. And if I do hurt people, which is often unintentionally, I try to atone with positive actions to others.

The standard understanding of karma is this: what goes around comes around. I find this to be less true in practice than it is in principle. I suppose I believe that if you are ultimately true to who you are, you will encourage other people to be true to who they are. And if karma is rooted upon this sense of personal truth, then I approve of this. (And this seems to be more philosophical than religious.) But this karmic idea is more rooted in action, as opposed to some cosmic overseer who lays down the law for the universe.

If karma is rooted on coincidence, however, I cannot subscribe to it. And I don’t see how any reasonable person can fully put their faith in this. In fact, the sooner that other people understand this, the sooner we can put the self-help industry out of business. Really, they’ve made too much money exploiting human suffering.

The universe is based on one simple Newtonian precept: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. While this rule applies to gravity, I think it likewise applies to life. But since human beings decide how or when or if they wish to respond, one simply can’t anticipate when that “equal and opposite reaction” will occur. (And sometimes, it occurs from the unlikeliest of sources.) Hence, the giddy vales of chaos. Which is a lot more fun than sitting around worrying about when something will happen.

So I look at this morning’s unpleasant events and I figure that it’s something I can write off as a reaction to something bad I’ve done somewhere along the line. And I look at the good things that happened today, such as taking notes on some really good stories in Marshall Klimasewiski’s Tyrants (who I’ll be interviewing in person tomorrow at 7PM at McNally Robinson; details here), listening to the pleasant rustle of the plastic sheet beneath my bagel as the door to my neighborhood cafe was opened and a great gust came in through the aperture, and making a glum-looking boy, who was throwing paper detritus at me in the cafe, laugh.

There’s certainly an ignoble self-justification of my own character flaws here, but nobody’s perfect. (I’m certainly not a saint.) Certainly the universe isn’t. But if it were, then life wouldn’t be nearly so interesting.

Rep. Randy Forbes: Revisionist Historian

House Resolution 888 (presumably 666 was unavailable) aims to celebrate and glorify a little bit of that ol’ time religion in a very big way. The resolution, introduced by Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia and signed on and unquestioned by 31 co-sponsors, wishes to “rejec[t], in the strongest possible terms, any effort to remove, obscure or purposely omit such history from our Nation’s public buildings and educational resources.” It also wishes to set up an “American Religious History Week” each year “for the appreciation of and education on America’s history of religious faith,” although the resolution’s litanies are curiously Judeo-Christian in priority. (Where other civilized nations remain capable of walking and chewing bubble gum on this topic, it appears that, when it comes to religion, the United States can only concentrate on one religion at a time. There was no greater example of this deficiency in national character than last Sunday’s “Islam Issue” of the New York Times Book Review.)

bushreligion.jpgI’m fine with the appreciation and education of American history. I’m not so fine on politicians seeing deities and religious influence in every corner and demanding that the country be “educated” about it. In examining Forbes’s endless “Whereases,” I’ve found more than a few historical humdingers and at least one egregious prevarication.

Whereas the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed this self-evident fact in a unanimous ruling declaring `This is a religious people … From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation’;

The specific case being quoted here is the 1892 case, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (143 U.S. 457). But it was Justice David Josiah Brewer who stated this in the opinion, which was not based upon upholding religion, but concerned whether an Act “to prohibit the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor in the United States” applied between an alien and a religious society. And while Brewer’s words do regrettably speak for the Supreme Court, it is highly disingenuous to suggest that the ruling, which dwelt upon an entirely separate decision, had to do explicitly with religion.

Whereas political scientists have documented that the most frequently-cited source in the political period known as The Founding Era was the Bible;

Since the bill fails to cite any specific political scientists, I must conclude that they are referring to the claims made by two University of Houston researchers, where it was demonstrated that of the purported 94% of all Founding Father Biblical citations (or conclusions based on the Bible), 60% of these citations were from the latter and the sources were unclear. Much, it would seem, as Forbes prefers to conjure up the ghosts of “political scientists” as he goes along.

Whereas the first act of America’s first Congress in 1774 was to ask a minister to open with prayer and to lead Congress in the reading of 4 chapters of the Bible;

If we are presumably talking about the First Continental Congress who met at Carpenter’s Hall starting on September 5, 1774, is this truly “America’s first Congress?” The First Continental Congress met up two years before the Declaration of Independence was agreed upon, thus technically making it more of a British colonial congress (or a response to oppressive conditions) rather than a United States congress proper.

Whereas Congress regularly attended church and Divine service together en masse;

How do outside religious activities pertain to what Congress does within its halls? If Congress attends a stag party en masse, we don’t ask for a “Scotch and Hookers History Week?” (Or since we’re talking about Rep. Forbes, why not an “Abramoff Corruption History Week?”)

Whereas upon approving the Declaration of Independence, John Adams declared that the Fourth of July `ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty’;

johnadams.JPGWell now, let’s take a look at that letter Adams wrote to his wife Abigail on July 2, 1776. First off, Adams was tickled pink that the Continental Congress had that very day unanimously approved the Declaration of Independence. Which is no different from yelling “Holy shit!” when some particularly great news has poured into one’s ears. The fecal matter in question is not necessarily holy, but the speaker is certainly excited. Nevertheless, here’s the full paragraph that Adams wrote:

But the day is past. The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this country to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.

Clearly, deities weren’t the only thing on Adams’s mind. This was an excitable moment in which Adams was rattling off many of the ideas to his wife in Braintree. Adams was lonely in Philly, a bit busy contemplating nothing less a major revolution (inarguably a political achievement far more profound than anything Forbes has planned in his life). So I think, under the circumstances, he should probably be cut some slack. Besides, what of these other ideas that Adams had in mind? What of “guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations?” It’s a pity that the only people who seem to get together to educate themselves on these topics are libertarians.

Whereas 4 days after approving the Declaration, the Liberty Bell was rung;

Whereas the Liberty Bell was named for the Biblical inscription from Leviticus 25:10 emblazoned around it: `Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof’;

To take these two items at once, while it is true that the Liberty Bell’s inscription was taken from Leviticus 25:10, the Bell was commissioned not to celebrate religion, but to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges. Penn was a big God-loving man himself, but he, nevertheless, had this forward-thinking idea:

That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World; and profess him or themselves obliged to live quietly under the Civil Government, shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or super any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.

Well, gee, that sounds like a guy who was pretty hands-off when it came to enforced church going. Funny. When you start examining the specific reasons why certain symbols were established, the origins appear decidedly more tolerant than Bible-thumping pettifoggers like Forbes concocting 21st century malarkey.

Whereas in 1777, Congress, facing a National shortage of `Bibles for our schools, and families, and for the public worship of God in our churches,’ announced that they `desired to have a Bible printed under their care & by their encouragement’ and therefore ordered 20,000 copies of the Bible to be imported `into the different ports of the States of the Union’;

The Daily Kos would prefer to declare this a lie without bothering to look this up. And that’s a very bad precedent for any thinking individual. The specific claim was promulgated in William Joseph Federer’s America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations (p. 146, if you can access it through Google Books). Federer claimed that, on September 11, 1777, the Chaplain of Congress, Patrick Allison, brought this matter to Congress’s attention and that the Committee of Commerce was ordered to import 20,000 copies of the Bible from Holland. Except that, according to the Library of Congress, this did indeed happen.

randyforbes.jpgThe bullshit actually comes from Forbes, who puts phrases into Rev. Allison’s mouth that, as we can see and unless I can be proven wrong, simply don’t exist on the official record available to the public. Allison got Congress to move the Bibles not because Congress “desired to have a Bible printed under their care & by their encouragement,” but because, as the record states:

The committee appointed to consider the memorial of the Rev. Dr. Allison and others, report, “That they have conferred fully with the printers, &c. in this city,and are of opinion, that the proper types for printing the Bible are not to be had in this country, and that the paper cannot be procured, but with such difficulties and subject to such casualties, as render any dependence on it altogether improper: that to import types for the purpose of setting up an entire edition of the bible, and to strike off 30,000 copies, with paper, binding, &c. will cost £10,272 10, which must be advanced by Congress, to be reimbursed by the sale of the books: (Emphasis added)

It was a general paper shortage that caused the Rev. Dr. Allison and others to figure out how books in general could be printed under the circumstances.

* * *

I’ve Googled around after typing all this, and discovered that Chris Rodda has also done some debunking.

Rep. Forbes’s bill is clearly that of a man quite willing to twist history to serve his religious purposes. It seems that Randy Forbes either does not know his history or he wishes to malign it by not citing events and context properly. On this basis alone, the bill should be rejected by any thinking representative. And if it is not, if a few Democratic cowards actually vote for this flummery because they fear that their constituency will view them as not “religious” enough, then it is time for them to be shamed. Just as that corporate buffoon Hillary Clinton got her ass handed to her in Iowa. The American people are not nearly so foolish.

And That Resurrection Thing? Never Happened…

New York Times: “An early Christian manuscript, including the only known text of the Gospel of Judas, has surfaced after 1,700 years, and it portrays Judas Iscariot not as a betrayer of Jesus but as his favored disciple and willing collaborator….Here Jesus is said to entrust Judas with special knowledge and ask him to betray him to the Roman authorities. By doing so, he tells Judas, ‘you will exceed’ the other disciples.”