Posted by: jbwuk | December 14, 2011

JBW interviews: Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton opens the festivities with a pre-JBW event at Kings Place on Monday 30 January with the launch of his new book, Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion. His talks are always sheer intelligent pleasure.
De Botton’s idea is very simple and clear. Atheists go too far in their hatred of all things religious and their anger prevents them from seeing what’s good and should be retained if one does not believe in God. In other words, let’s throw the baby but keep the bath water.
His book looks at community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions, all things where religion plays a major and -according to Alain de Botton- essential role which can be preserved without the doctrine. He particularly concentrates on Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism.

“This book does not endeavour to do justice to particular religions; they have their own apologists. It tries, instead, to examine aspects of religious life which contain concepts that could fruitfully be applied to the problems of secular society. It attempts to burn off religions’ more dogmatic aspects in order to distil a few aspects of them that could prove timely and consoling to sceptical contemporary minds facing the crises and griefs of finite existence on a troubled planet. It hopes to rescue some of what is beautiful, touching and wise from all that no longer seems true.”

I suspect many JBW audience members would agree with him. A few years ago, we conducted a survey and not surprisingly a great number of people, when asked for their religion, replied “atheist Jew” or as many people would say culturally Jewish. I suppose this is very much Alain de Botton’s situation.
Here are his answers to our interview.

          If you could escape to another world, what would there be that is missing here?

It would be a world, of course, without pain and death. Perhaps this would mean that things were less intense, we’d be innocent and spoilt, but that would perhaps be no bad thing.

          What is the book you “inherited” from a parent or teacher that made a profound impression on you?

I much enjoyed reading Montaigne’s Essays, which was passed on to me by my father at an impressionable age.

          What is the book you would like to pass on to the future generation?

My children are very young, 5 and 7 and at the moment, the book they are most fascinated by is a large atlas of the world, which inspires all kinds of imaginary journeys.

          What is the most Jewish thing you have ever done?

Worried a lot – about everything.

          What is the most important Jewish book of the last 60 years?

Saul Bellow’s Herzog.

          When did you know you would become a writer?

I’m still not entirely sure I am one. I have to keep reminding myself on a daily basis. 

          If you were not a writer, what would you be?

I would love to be an architect.

          What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

The best choice is the one that leaves you with the least regrets.

          What would your superpower be?

To rewind time – and make less mistakes.

          Who (living or dead) would you invite to your ideal Friday night dinner?

Sigmund Freud.

          On the very distant day when you will make it to the other side, what would you like God (assuming there is one) to say to you?

You’ve done OK, despite everything…


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