The Guardian: “My dad was a slightly stricter version of Richard Dawkins,” says Alain de Botton. “The worldview was that there are idiots out there who believe in Santa Claus and fairies and magic and elves and we’re not joining that nonsense.” In his new book, Religion for Atheists, he recalls his father reducing his sister Miel to tears by “trying to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive god might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight at the time.” It’s one of few passages in his unremittingly mellifluous and genteel oeuvre that sticks out with something like anger.
Before the interview, his publicists warned that De Botton didn’t want to talk about Gilbert de Botton, Egyptian-born secular Jew and multimillionaire banker. He was especially keen not to discuss his father’s business dealings and the repeated suggestion that his literary career was bankrolled with daddy’s money.
But asking about De Botton’s father is irresistible because Religion for Atheists is, he readily concedes, an oedipal book. “I’m rebelling,” he says. “I’m trying to find my way back to the babies that have been thrown out with the bathwater.” He’s elsewhere described his father as “a cruel tyrant as a domestic figure, hugely overbearing”. He was also surely crushingly impressive – the former head of Rothschild Bank who established Global Asset Management in 1983 with £1m capital and sold it to UBS in 1999 for £420m, a collector of late Picassos, the austere figure depicted in portraits by both Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon and an atheist who thrived without religion’s crutch.
“He was extreme. I think it was a generational thing.” And yet Gilbert, who died in 2000, now lies beneath a Hebrew headstone in a Jewish cemetery in Willesden, north-west London because, as his son writes pointedly, “he had, intriguingly, omitted to make more secular arrangements”. Disappointingly, Alain doesn’t explore in book or interview what intrigued him about that omission.
Instead, he connects his father’s militant atheism to the affliction that he reckons made Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens so caustic in their bestselling attacks on religion. “I’ve got a generational theory about this. Particularly if you’re a man over 55 or so, perhaps something bad happened to you at the hands of religion – you came across a corrupt priest, you were bored at school, your parents forced it down your throat. Few of the younger generation feel that way. By the time I came around – I’m 42 – religion was a joke.
“I don’t think I would have written this book if I’d grown up in Saudi Arabia as a woman. It’s a European book in the sense that we’re living in a society where religion is on the back foot. It rarely intruded on my life.”
This isn’t quite true. In his mid 20s, De Botton had a crisis of faithlessness when exposed to Bach’s cantatas, Bellini’s Madonnas and Zen architecture. What was the crisis about? “It was guilt about my father. I was disturbed by the intensity of the feeling. Bach was moving, but not just because of music but because this guy was talking in a tremulous voice about death. Secular culture tells us to respect Bach, but it doesn’t tell us that we’re going to be moved. I felt like I might go to the other side.”
He didn’t. Rather, in Religion for Atheists, he writes as a non-believer cherry-picking the world’s religions. “I guess my insight was: ‘What is there here that’s useful, that we can steal?'” He admires 18th-century Jesuits. “They wanted to put a Jesuit priest into every aristocratic family in Europe because they’d get to eat with the family and teach the children. That’s a fantastic idea.” It’s tempting to think of De Botton as a latter-day Jesuit seeking to install his books in every home in order to make us, even if faithless, good. “Secular thinkers have a separation between thinking and doing. They don’t have a grasp of the balance sheet. The doers are selling us potted plants and pizzas while the thinkers are a little bit unworldly. Religions both think and do.”