Religions’ insights for modern world
By Chung Ah-young
Sometimes religions cause conflicts and feuds among different believers and even threaten world peace at historical points, resulting in antagonism rather than philanthropy. For many atheists and agnostics, religions seem to do more harm than good.
Nonetheless, Alain de Botton, a London-based Swiss author, argues that religions still important have things to teach the modern secular world.
His new book titled “Religion for Atheists” suggests that the secular world should steal from religions as they have insight and inspiration to mend human relations and contribute to education and even art.
“The book is an attempt to ask how religion can be interesting even to people who don’t believe in anything supernatural,” he said in a recent press conference in Seoul.
The book, which hasn’t been published in English yet, has been first released in Korea. He is visiting Seoul to promote the publication of the book and give lectures to young Korean students. He will leave Korea Sunday.
The author said that in the West for the last few years, there has been an aggressive kind of atheism. People say that religion is evil, only bad, very corrupt and no intelligent person could possibly have any time ― not even a minute ― for religious ideas.
“But my book is for a different kind of readers ― someone who doesn’t believe in anything supernatural but he is nevertheless attracted to certain things. Maybe, it can be the atmosphere of the temple, maybe it’s the ritual celebrations of the New Year and new moon. Maybe it’s for people who are aware of how nice (it is) to have a religious funeral and in other words, people who think there are things missing in the modern secular world but at the same time who can’t simply call themselves religious,” he said.
The writer called himself an atheist. He was born to a secular Jewish family that was largely sarcastic about religion. But as he grew up, he strongly came to believe in attractive virtues of religions through love, trust, tolerance and temperance.
‘Truth of old ideas’
One of the things that can be borrowed from many religions is education. In a secular world, although people go to school, what you learn can’t last through an entire life.
“We are very forgetful creatures and so lots of religions are based on the idea of repetition. It’s always a structured institution of repetition. In a modern world, we always think a new idea is a good idea. But religions remember the truth of old ideas,”he said.
Also, religions can enhance the ideas of the mind through music, art and architecture. “Religions remember we are not just brains but also bodies. They use the bodies in order to enhance and strengthen the ideas of the mind in a very fascinating way. So religions use music, art and architecture. They use the beauty. In the modern world, you have beauty in one corner and intelligence in another. But religions are wiser. Religions use beauty. It (beauty) helps intelligence. It helps intelligence more seductive,” he said.
The author took an example of Zen Buddhists’ tea ceremony, which is an attempt to use the body and use the drinking of the tea to enhance a philosophical lesson about the meaning of the life.
“When it comes to art, modern secular worlds are all interested in art. For religions, art exists only for one reason — It exists to support and enhance the idea of religions,” he said.
The author said that there are many areas in the modern world where you can borrow interesting things from religions. Religion is far too interesting to be something we should leave only for religious people even if you are not religious, there is so much insight in religions.
“If you work at museums, look at how religions handle art and if you were in school or university, look at how religions teach people and look at how they make better ideas. If you have a travel business, look at how religions send people traveling to pilgrimage. If you are involved in any activities that uses community, if you have a hotel or restaurants anywhere people meet, look at how religions bring people together and able to create to feel it.”
Before visiting Korea, he twitted about shyness and embarrassment of Koreans which he says play a privileged role in Korean society.
“I think this is an interesting phenomenon. I think shyness and embarrassment are common in society where there is a feeling of behaviors of expectation of politeness and then continuous fear ― maybe it means that you are not able to follow other people’s expectations. There is a gap between yourself and expectations of others in your society. I think it’s the beginning of morality. The capacity of self-consciousness and embarrassment is a moral sense. I highly regard it,” he said.
The author also read celebrated Korean author Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom” which is a world-wide bestseller, saying “it’s a lovely book.” He said he came to understand modern Korean society and culture through the book.