In his very provocative TED talk, British self-help guru Alain de Botton posits that “there is something to learn from religion even if you don’t believe in anything.” He calls this “stealing the best from religion” Atheism 2.0.
Here is his formulation.
While the secular mindset believes that we are logical, independent adults who can figure life out on our own, the religious mindset assumes that “we are in severe need of assistance” and creates structures to offer that assistance. What are these tools for “living a life” that religion can offer the non-believer? De Botton identifies eight:
- Didactic guidance, or what he calls “the sermon tradition.” There are benefits to teaching directly about what is important and what we believe
- A culture of repetition that circles the great truths again and again. A religious world view does not associate repetition with boredom but with gaining deeper insight.
- Arranging the calendar such that we encounter important ideas not by accident but by intention. Religious calendars require followers to break from their daily lives to contemplate ultimate truths.
- Rituals organized around important feelings, such as grief, love, and forgiveness
- The art of oratory. What we say must be backed up by a compelling way of saying it.
- Uniting our minds (what we believe) with our bodies (what we do). Religions know that we are not jut brains but bodies, not only books and words, but action.
- Art as a way to viscerally encounter the most important ideas of our faith.
- Creating communal life and institutions that bring us together on behalf of a larger good. Religions bring us out of isolation to accomplish together that which we cannot accomplish alone.
De Botton speaks to a profound search for meaning on the part of “non-believers,” a search that acknowledges that reason alone cannot feed the soul. But de Botton’s formulation also has implications for how Episcopal schools articulate what they are—and what they are not.
In the end, Episcopal schools are not secular institutions that have merely “stolen” or adapted the “best” of religion. While Episcopal schools may have many of the characteristics de Botton identifies, our schools embody very specific and quite definitely religious tenets that are grounded in Christian theology and the practices of the Episcopal Church. Episcopal schools are, in fact, religious institutions.
Whether our school community is populated by people of deep religious conviction, those who are seeking, those who subscribe to a secular humanism, or some combination thereof, our ability to articulate the school’s religious identity is as important as ever. In some Episcopal schools, parents and teachers want the school increasingly to embody de Botton’s “best of religion” and leave God (and Jesus) out of the conversation. In others, the school is being pressed to be “more religious” or “more Christian” as a counterpoint to a sense of creeping secularism and religious wishy-washiness.
We live in a time of great religious fervor, great religious difference, and great religious doubt and skepticism. I believe that these tensions, captured in part by de Botton, will be increasingly played out in American society and in Episcopal schools. How can and should we respond?