I was brought up by a father who made Richard Dawkins look open-minded on the matter of there perhaps being a supreme being. I recall him reducing my sister to tears in an attempt to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive god might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight years old at the time. If any members of their social circle were discovered to harbour clandestine religious sentiments, my parents would start to regard them with the sort of pity more commonly reserved for those diagnosed with a degenerative disease, and could from then on never be persuaded to take them seriously again.
Christmas was a particular test bed of loyalties. At its approach, my parents would go into overdrive, stressing the absurdity of all its rituals, art, songs and traditions. My parents weren’t so cruel as to deny their children presents – but to make the point, they insisted on giving them to us in the middle of August. This wasn’t a problem. It was rather special, even elect. I went through childhood feeling rather sorry for people vulgar enough to have Christmas trees and advent calendars: hadn’t they understood?
In my mid-20s, I underwent a crisis of faithlessness. My feelings of doubt had their origins in listening to Bach’s cantatas; they were further developed in the presence of certain Bellini Madonnas, and they became overwhelming with an introduction to Zen architecture.
I never wavered in my certainty that God did not exist. I was simply liberated by the thought that there might be a way to engage with religion without having to subscribe to its supernatural content. I recognised that my continuing resistance to theories of an afterlife or of heavenly residents was no justification for giving up on Christianity or indeed on the music, buildings, prayers, rituals, feasts, shrines, pilgrimages, communal meals and illuminated manuscripts of all the faiths.
I simply can’t imagine joining a faith that is very foreign to me in terms of my background. I would feel it to be a betrayal of my family. By accepting The Father, I’d be going against my father.
The closest I have come to an evangelical Christian is my good friend Luke Bretherton, a wonderful theologian and author of Hospitality As Holiness. He has been a terrific advert for Christianity, not only because of his intellectual energy but also because of his generosity and good humour. He was the first person ever to invite me for a proper Christmas service and lunch at his home afterwards, an experience for which I’ll be forever grateful.
I recently attended Mass at Westminster Cathedral and loved it. I was paying particular attention to the issue of status. Here no one asks what anyone else ‘does’. It no longer matters who is the bond dealer and who the cleaner. It is the inner values of love and charity rather than the outer attributes of power and money that are venerated. Among Christianity’s greatest achievements has been its capacity, without the use of any coercion beyond the gentlest of theological arguments, to persuade monarchs and magnates to kneel down and abase themselves before the statue of a carpenter, and to wash the feet of peasants, street sweepers and dispatch drivers.
I have never prayed, and I don’t believe in anything supernatural, yet I believe that once faith goes from a society, there are particular dangers that open up. We don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them.
For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the centre stage of everything. Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism: of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to lose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the miniscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.
Alain de Botton was born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1969 and now lives in London. He is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life’, and have been best-sellers in 30 countries. Alain also started and helps to run a school in London called The School of Life. His latest book, Religion for Atheists, is out now. He was talking to Sarah Lothian.