“The Atheist and the Believer” is a tale as old as time, and a controversy as relevant this election year as ever. But author, philosopher, and entrepreneur Alain De Bottom proposes a middle ground and asks questions that blur the distinction between the two sides. What if we reject the notion of a deity, but personalize a kind of playlist of religious ideas that suit us best? Are we still atheists if we have religious-like philosophies in our life? De Botton address these questions in his latest work, Religion for Atheists, explaining that even if an atheist rejects religion, religion can still serve as a platform for good morals and ethics as well as a better life. We chatted with De Botton, who appears Thursday at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, to talk about his own beliefs, visiting San Francisco, misinterpretations of his book, and discovering the balance between atheism and religion.
The philosophy you share in Religion for Atheists, is it something you've practiced for a while? When did this idea come into your life, and how?
I was brought up an atheist and taught to think that all religion was nonsense from start to finish. Gradually I've lost that sarcastic attitude toward religion, and while I still don't believe, I've grown more curious and sympathetic toward certain religious attitudes and behaviors. While fully aware of the pain and bloodshed religions have been responsible for, I've also become more impressed by their high points, especially their attitudes to ethics, to aesthetics, and to ritual.