Alain de Botton on Religion and Society

In the Saturday essay for The Wall Street Journal, Alain de Botton considers how religion influences society. After contemplating specific examples (such as Catholic Mass), he comes to the following conclusions:

Religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in harmonious communities, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses; second, the need to cope with the pain that arises from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our own decay and demise.

Religions are a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts for trying to assuage some of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life. They merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition and for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture—a range of interests whose scope puts to shame the achievements of even the greatest secular movements and innovators.

It feels especially relevant to talk of meals, because our modern lack of a proper sense of community is importantly reflected in the way we eat. The contemporary world is not, of course, lacking in places where we can dine well in company—cities typically pride themselves on the sheer number and quality of their restaurants—but what’s significant is that there are almost no venues that can help us to transform strangers into friends.

He brings up an excellent point: if I go to a restaurant alone and order a sit-down meal, is it my intention to be left alone? Perhaps I want to be entertained. Perhaps I want to hear others’ stories.

The large number of people who patronize restaurants suggests that they are refuges from anonymity and coldness, but in fact they have no systematic mechanism for introducing patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which they segregate themselves or to get them to open up their hearts and share their vulnerabilities with others. At a modern restaurant, the focus is on the food and the décor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections.

Patrons tend to leave restaurants much as they entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions. Like so many institutions in the modern city (libraries, nightclubs, coffee shops), restaurants know full well how to bring people into the same space, but they lack any means of encouraging them to make meaningful contact with one another once they are there.

Which leads to de Botton to propose the following:

With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

Therein, guests would be able to ask each other introspective questions–What do you regret? Whom can you not forgive? What do you fear?”–and over time, our fears of strangers would subside. This sounds like a marvelous idea.

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Note: this essay is part of Alain de Botton’s newest book, Religion for Atheists, to be published in March 2012.

2 thoughts on “Alain de Botton on Religion and Society

  1. De Botton seems to me to write from a deep fund of self
    admiration. Unable to share his enthusiasm for Alain de Botton, I have
    not read any of his books since How Proust Can Change Your
    Life
    . This essay does not tempt me to pick up his book.

    “The building in which it is performed is almost always sumptuous.”
    American church architecture is at its best seldom more than
    inoffensive. If de Botton means that there is usually stained glass,
    then I agree.

    “As the congregants start to sing ‘Gloria in Excelsis,’ we are likely
    to feel that the crowd is nothing like the one that we encounter at
    the shopping mall or the bus stop.” Sorry, this is simply practising
    on the naivete of the reader. For one thing, only at a Novus Ordo
    Latin Mass will you ordinarily find the congregation singing the Gloria in
    Latin. In the Archdiocese of Washington, this means one Mass every
    Sunday at the cathedral, and one every month in Laurel. For another
    thing, Catholic congregational singing is in general not that good. If
    you want to hear a congregation sing well, you’re better off with the Lutherans.

    “We gaze up at the vaulted, star-studded ceiling and rehearse in
    unison the words ‘Lord, come, live in your people and strengthen them
    by your grace.'” I am not acquainted with this bit of liturgy, unless
    de Botton is giving a free rendering of “Veni Creator Spiritus”.

    “Though there wouldn’t be religious imagery on the walls, some kind of
    art that displayed examples of human vulnerability, whether in
    relation to physical suffering, poverty, anxiety or romantic
    discord…” Why? Remember that there is some great religious art,
    there is a lot that is mediocre or worse. A bad St. Sebastian has its
    place in a church, but makes little sense purely as art.

    The project seems to me to partake of the silliness of Robespierre’s
    cult of the supreme being.

    If one wishes to consider the role of the parish in society, a few
    dozen pages of J.F. Powers will serve better. If one wishes to
    consider the faults of American gathering places, there is a
    suggestive essay in George Kennan’s Sketches from a Life.

  2. A bit of context, which I omitted above. The Archdiocese of Washington comprises the District of Columbia and five counties of Maryland. It has approximately 130 parishes. Assuming an average of around three Masses per weekend per parish (which is probably quite low), roughly one in 400 Masses on a given Saturday or Sunday will be Novus Ordo Latin–except for the first Sunday of the month, when it’s two.

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