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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  1. Throughout the interview, it seems that the host is not genuinely attempting to understand what De Botton is trying to communicate, and at times is willfully misinterpreting or exaggerating much of what he says. (e.g., his question about the introverted person at the community table needing to “share their most intimate secrets” with strangers, something which De Botton never suggests; and his question about “why do we need to reduce something as complex as emotions to…expressions on a reductionist level,” which is precisely the opposite of what De Botton is talking about.) If the host were simply playing devil’s advocate for a skeptical audience that would be one thing, but that’s not what’s going on here, and I must say I’m surprised that someone this combative and unimaginative could host a talk show. Kudos to De Botton for maintaining his cordial demeanor while talking to someone who, for most of the interview, appears uninterested in actual dialogue.

  2. Mike: Thanks for the comment. When De Botton writes, “Sitting down at a table with a group of strangers has the incomparable and odd benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity,” this is a notion comparable to Dumbo’s magic feather that demands clarification. Especially when it comes with the notion that our fear of strangers instantly recedes in the Agape Restaurant. As I said in the interview, I like the idea of utopia. (Who doesn’t?) But in practice, it doesn’t always work out. Surely you comprehend that every Thanksgiving, even among the most seemingly civilized families, a family is shouting over the dinner table somewhere in America. De Botton wants the meal to humanize other people. And I think this idea is noble and worth considering, possibly a starting place for a more realistic place to improve humanity. Kudos on De Botton for getting us talking. But it isn’t necessarily pragmatic.

    And if you seriously believe that asking questions of someone is “combative,” that asking a thinker to flesh out his ideas is unimaginative, then I urge you to acquaint yourself with the Socratic method.

  3. Thanks for your response, Edward. I didn’t realize that this site is run by the host himself and that Edward is Bat(but I’m fond of the use of pseudonyms, and Bat Segundo is an amazing one).

    Your Thanksgiving family dinner example is, in my view, not a very apt analogy for what De Botton is getting at, since your example includes just what his scenario precludes, namely, deep familiarity with those sitting around you. As we know, both people who are familiar with each other and people who are strangers to each other can hate one another; but De Botton’s point seems to be that, since someone often hates a complete stranger only by abstracting away from their humanity and individuality and turning them into an empty concept (signified, for example, by words like ‘commie,’ ‘homo,’ etc.), if people would do a very basic human thing together such as eating a common meal, then they will find it more difficult (although of course not impossible) to turn each other into such empty, dehumanized concepts. So I think his point is that eating together can help lessen hatred/resentment of the ‘stranger’ sort, not of the ‘family’ sort.

    How might these sort of encounters between strangers be brought about? Like De Botton said, he’s not trying to think through every practical detail, but is trying to get the conceptual ball rolling so that the details can be worked out as we progress in our thinking. (And in my view, this is *always* how genuine social progress happens, with the necessary first step being that someone proposes a general idea that’s new and foreign [e.g. in the 18th c., gender equality by Mary Wollstonecraft, and a UN-type organization by Kant], and then and only then can others work out the details to bring the idea to fruition.) For example, I can imagine a big-city-employed architect reading De Botton’s book and then working to design certain public spaces/seating/dining arrangements in such a way that the people working or living in the surrounding buildings are ‘spatially encouraged’ to be more social, as opposed to more isolated (e.g., by having fewer 2 person tables and more 8 person tables, but tables that were wide enough that you didn’t feel like you were right on top of the stranger sitting across from you, and thus could engage or disengage at your discretion, etc.)

    In my previous post I made no connection between the mere asking of questions and being combative; having spent many hundreds of hours reading the Socratic dialogues, my view is that Socrates’ continual questioning is almost never combative. Rather, what I found combative in the interview was its specific form of questioning, one which tended to follow a format something like this: a less-than-generous (or even straw-man) re-articulation of one of De Botton’s points in his book (such as the “sharing intimate secrets” example in my last post), followed by, “But I find this curious” [which, based on the tone, often seemed to be code for “I find this completely implausible”], followed by an often-nuanced response by De Botton, which was then followed not by an acknowledgement of some understanding or a deeper engagement of the issue but instead immediately by yet another less-than-generous articulation of a different point from his book, followed by another “But I find this curious….” Another reason why I found the interview to be combative was that nearly every question was about something you disagreed with; and while disagreements are of course completely legitimate in an interview (provided we’re disagreeing with what the other person is actually asserting), questions in the form of “I found this idea helpful, can you say more about this?” or “I found this part to be interesting but not entirely clear, can you clarify what you meant there?” also seem to be worthwhile in a 30 minute conversation. I will say that the interview became more of a genuine dialogue toward its end, but that was not how I heard the interview as a whole.

    Having said all this, I must say that I’m very glad that you had Mr. De Botton on your show and exposed myself and others to his ideas, so I shouldn’t present myself as coming off in such an entirely critical fashion. As I’m sure you know, most radio shows wouldn’t give someone like him the time of day, so I’m grateful to you for doing so!

  4. Mike: Thanks for writing back. This is a fun discussion. As I have said, getting a number of strangers to sit together may work very well for Alcoholics Anonymous — especially when there is an express confidentiality agreed by all parties. But that’s more of a support/recovery group environment rather than a communal/spiritual dinner. And what works for one environment may not necessarily work for another.

    I get what de Botton is saying about not viewing a stranger as a cipher, but the issue here is whether we should offer our deepest thoughts to anyone without a moment’s pause. People are wonderful. But they also behave very badly and do terrible things. Whole industries (including many religious ones) have sprouted up over the years to exploit and prey upon the goodwill and loneliness of others. They need to be considered in any discussion on how to improve basic living. How can we assume that a stranger won’t hate us after we share something intimate about ourselves, or seek revenge or humiliation on us by spreading it in some sullied or outright false form elsewhere. (I speak from experience. But, hey, if certain people want to believe these stories and they don’t want to ask me about what happened, then who am I to disabuse them of that notion?)

    Obviously, you have to take risks in life. You take a risk when you seek anybody out: for a raise, for a date, for an acquaintanceship, for a gig, for shooting the shit. You have to give people a chance. Because ultimately it all pays off. But if you’re going to take a risk, you need to consider as many angles as you can. Which means thinking every practical angle. (Obviously, this isn’t always possible, which is why we fall flat on our faces and make mistakes, or sometimes land in rather interesting places seemingly by accident. Welcome to the marvelous vicissitudes of life!) But trust is something that needs to be earned over time. Hashing out life’s complexities with a stranger shouldn’t be a speed dating session. You can’t know the totality of anybody in 15 minutes. Not if you really WANT to know people.

    I feel that these were all nuances that de Botton didn’t want to consider in his book, nor with me in this interview. (And I actually LIKE many of De Botton’s ideas!) And just to be clear, the purpose of these conversations is to get an author to unpack issues, to expand upon them further, and to look at them from numerous angles. I don’t view my efforts as combative, nor am I especially interested in defending my style. But I am coming from a place of passion, which is a little different form other people who do this sort of thing.

    We disagree on a few points, but I appreciate you coming here to share your thoughts.

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