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Annotated captions of Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0 in English

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One of the most common ways of dividing the world

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is into those who believe

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and those who don't --

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into the religious and the atheists.

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And for the last decade or so,

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it's been quite clear

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what being an atheist means.

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There have been some very vocal atheists

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who've pointed out,

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not just that religion is wrong,

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but that it's ridiculous.

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These people, many of whom have lived in North Oxford,

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have argued --

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they've argued that believing in God

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is akin to believing in fairies

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and essentially that the whole thing

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is a childish game.

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Now I think it's too easy.

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I think it's too easy

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to dismiss the whole of religion that way.

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And it's as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.

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And what I'd like to inaugurate today

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is a new way of being an atheist --

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if you like, a new version of atheism

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we could call Atheism 2.0.

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Now what is Atheism 2.0?

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Well it starts from a very basic premise:

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of course, there's no God.

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Of course, there are no deities or supernatural spirits

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or angels, etc.

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Now let's move on; that's not the end of the story,

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that's the very, very beginning.

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I'm interested in the kind of constituency

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that thinks something along these lines:

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that thinks, "I can't believe in any of this stuff.

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I can't believe in the doctrines.

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I don't think these doctrines are right.

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But," a very important but, "I love Christmas carols.

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I really like the art of Mantegna.

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I really like looking at old churches.

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I really like turning the pages of the Old Testament."

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Whatever it may be,

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you know the kind of thing I'm talking about --

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people who are attracted to the ritualistic side,

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the moralistic, communal side of religion,

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but can't bear the doctrine.

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Until now, these people have faced a rather unpleasant choice.

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It's almost as though either you accept the doctrine

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and then you can have all the nice stuff,

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or you reject the doctrine and

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you're living in some kind of spiritual wasteland

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under the guidance of CNN and Walmart.

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So that's a sort of tough choice.

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I don't think we have to make that choice.

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I think there is an alternative.

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I think there are ways --

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and I'm being both very respectful and completely impious --

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of stealing from religions.

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If you don't believe in a religion,

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there's nothing wrong with picking and mixing,

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with taking out the best sides of religion.

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And for me, atheism 2.0

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is about both, as I say,

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a respectful and an impious way

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of going through religions and saying, "What here could we use?"

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The secular world is full of holes.

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We have secularized badly, I would argue.

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And a thorough study of religion

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could give us all sorts of insights

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into areas of life that are not going too well.

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And I'd like to run through a few of these today.

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I'd like to kick off by looking at education.

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Now education is a field

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the secular world really believes in.

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When we think about how we're going to make the world a better place,

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we think education; that's where we put a lot of money.

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Education is going to give us, not only commercial skills, industrial skills,

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it's also going to make us better people.

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You know the kind of thing a commencement address is, and graduation ceremonies,

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those lyrical claims

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that education, the process of education -- particularly higher education --

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will make us into nobler and better human beings.

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That's a lovely idea.

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Interesting where it came from.

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In the early 19th century,

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church attendance in Western Europe

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started sliding down very, very sharply, and people panicked.

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They asked themselves the following question.

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They said, where are people going to find the morality,

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where are they going to find guidance,

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and where are they going to find sources of consolation?

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And influential voices came up with one answer.

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They said culture.

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It's to culture that we should look

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for guidance, for consolation, for morality.

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Let's look to the plays of Shakespeare,

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the dialogues of Plato, the novels of Jane Austen.

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In there, we'll find a lot of the truths

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that we might previously have found in the Gospel of Saint John.

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Now I think that's a very beautiful idea and a very true idea.

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They wanted to replace scripture with culture.

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And that's a very plausible idea.

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It's also an idea that we have forgotten.

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If you went to a top university --

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let's say you went to Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge --

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and you said, "I've come here

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because I'm in search of morality, guidance and consolation;

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I want to know how to live,"

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they would show you the way to the insane asylum.

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This is simply not what our grandest and best institutes of higher learning

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are in the business of.

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Why? They don't think we need it.

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They don't think we are in an urgent need of assistance.

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They see us as adults, rational adults.

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What we need is information.

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We need data, we don't need help.

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Now religions start from a very different place indeed.

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All religions, all major religions,

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at various points call us children.

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And like children,

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they believe that we are in severe need of assistance.

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We're only just holding it together.

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Perhaps this is just me, maybe you.

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But anyway, we're only just holding it together.

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And we need help. Of course, we need help.

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And so we need guidance and we need didactic learning.

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You know, in the 18th century in the U.K.,

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the greatest preacher, greatest religious preacher, was a man called John Wesley,

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who went up and down this country delivering sermons,

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advising people how they could live.

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He delivered sermons on the duties of parents to their children

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and children to their parents,

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the duties of the rich to the poor and the poor to the rich.

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He was trying to tell people how they should live

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through the medium of sermons,

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the classic medium of delivery of religions.

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Now we've given up with the idea of sermons.

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If you said to a modern liberal individualist,

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"Hey, how about a sermon?"

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they'd go, "No, no. I don't need one of those.

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I'm an independent, individual person."

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What's the difference between a sermon

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and our modern, secular mode of delivery, the lecture?

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Well a sermon wants to change your life

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and a lecture wants to give you a bit of information.

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And I think we need to get back to that sermon tradition.

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The tradition of sermonizing is hugely valuable,

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because we are in need of guidance,

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morality and consolation --

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and religions know that.

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Another point about education:

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we tend to believe in the modern secular world

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that if you tell someone something once, they'll remember it.

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Sit them in a classroom, tell them about Plato

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at the age of 20, send them out for a career in management consultancy for 40 years,

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and that lesson will stick with them.

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Religions go, "Nonsense.

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You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day.

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So get on your knees and repeat it."

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That's what all religions tell us:

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"Get on you knees and repeat it 10 or 20 or 15 times a day."

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Otherwise our minds are like sieves.

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So religions are cultures of repetition.

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They circle the great truths again and again and again.

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We associate repetition with boredom.

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"Give us the new," we're always saying.

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"The new is better than the old."

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If I said to you, "Okay, we're not going to have new TED.

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We're just going to run through all the old ones

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and watch them five times because they're so true.

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We're going to watch Elizabeth Gilbert five times

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because what she says is so clever," you'd feel cheated.

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Not so if you're adopting a religious mindset.

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The other things that religions do

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is to arrange time.

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All the major religions give us calendars.

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What is a calendar?

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A calendar is a way of making sure that across the year

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you will bump into certain very important ideas.

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In the Catholic chronology, Catholic calendar,

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at the end of March you will think about St. Jerome

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and his qualities of humility and goodness

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and his generosity to the poor.

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You won't do that by accident; you will do that because you are guided to do that.

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Now we don't think that way.

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In the secular world we think, "If an idea is important, I'll bump into it.

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I'll just come across it."

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Nonsense, says the religious world view.

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Religious view says we need calendars, we need to structure time,

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we need to synchronize encounters.

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This comes across also

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in the way in which religions set up rituals

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around important feelings.

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Take the Moon. It's really important to look at the Moon.

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You know, when you look at the Moon,

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you think, "I'm really small. What are my problems?"

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It sets things into perspective, etc., etc.

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We should all look at the Moon a bit more often. We don't.

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Why don't we? Well there's nothing to tell us, "Look at the Moon."

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But if you're a Zen Buddhist in the middle of September,

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you will be ordered out of your home, made to stand on a canonical platform

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and made to celebrate the festival of Tsukimi,

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where you will be given poems to read

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in honor of the Moon and the passage of time

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and the frailty of life that it should remind us of.

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You'll be handed rice cakes.

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And the Moon and the reflection on the Moon

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will have a secure place in your heart.

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That's very good.

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The other thing that religions are really aware of

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is: speak well --

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I'm not doing a very good job of this here --

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but oratory, oratory is absolutely key to religions.

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In the secular world, you can come through the university system and be a lousy speaker

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and still have a great career.

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But the religious world doesn't think that way.

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What you're saying needs to be backed up

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by a really convincing way of saying it.

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So if you go to an African American Pentecostalist church

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in the American South

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and you listen to how they talk,

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my goodness, they talk well.

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After every convincing point, people will go, "Amen, amen, amen."

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At the end of a really rousing paragraph, they'll all stand up,

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and they'll go, "Thank you Jesus, thank you Christ, thank you Savior."

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If we were doing it like they do it --

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let's not do it, but if we were to do it --

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I would tell you something like, "Culture should replace scripture."

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And you would go, "Amen, amen, amen."

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And at the end of my talk, you would all stand up

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and you would go, "Thank you Plato, thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen."

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And we'd know that we had a real rhythm going.

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All right, all right. We're getting there. We're getting there.

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(Applause)

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The other thing that religions know is we're not just brains,

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we are also bodies.

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And when they teach us a lesson,

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they do it via the body.

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So for example,

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take the Jewish idea of forgiveness.

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Jews are very interested in forgiveness

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and how we should start anew and start afresh.

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They don't just deliver us sermons on this.

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They don't just give us books or words about this.

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They tell us to have a bath.

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So in Orthodox Jewish communities, every Friday you go to a Mikveh.

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You immerse yourself in the water,

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and a physical action backs up a philosophical idea.

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We don't tend to do that.

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Our ideas are in one area and our behavior with our bodies is in another.

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Religions are fascinating in the way they try and combine the two.

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Let's look at art now.

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Now art is something that in the secular world,

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we think very highly of. We think art is really, really important.

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A lot of our surplus wealth goes to museums, etc.

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We sometimes hear it said

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that museums are our new cathedrals, or our new churches.

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You've heard that saying.

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Now I think that the potential is there,

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but we've completely let ourselves down.

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And the reason we've let ourselves down

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is that we're not properly studying

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how religions handle art.

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The two really bad ideas that are hovering in the modern world

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that inhibit our capacity to draw strength from art:

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The first idea is that art should be for art's sake --

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a ridiculous idea --

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an idea that art should live in a hermetic bubble

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and should not try to do anything with this troubled world.

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I couldn't disagree more.

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The other thing that we believe is that art shouldn't explain itself,

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that artists shouldn't say what they're up to,

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because if they said it, it might destroy the spell

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and we might find it too easy.

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That's why a very common feeling when you're in a museum --

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let's admit it --

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is, "I don't know what this is about."

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But if we're serious people, we don't admit to that.

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But that feeling of puzzlement is structural

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to contemporary art.

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Now religions have a much saner attitude to art.

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They have no trouble telling us what art is about.

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Art is about two things in all the major faiths.

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Firstly, it's trying to remind you

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of what there is to love.

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And secondly, it's trying to remind you

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of what there is to fear and to hate.

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And that's what art is.

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Art is a visceral encounter with the most important ideas of your faith.

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So as you walk around a church,

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or a mosque or a cathedral,

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what you're trying to imbibe, what you're imbibing is,

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through your eyes, through your senses,

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truths that have otherwise come to you through your mind.

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Essentially it's propaganda.

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Rembrandt is a propagandist

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in the Christian view.

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Now the word "propaganda" sets off alarm bells.

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We think of Hitler, we think of Stalin. Don't, necessarily.

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Propaganda is a manner of being didactic in honor of something.

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And if that thing is good, there's no problem with it at all.

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My view is that museums should take a leaf out of the book of religions.

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And they should make sure that when you walk into a museum --

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if I was a museum curator,

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I would make a room for love, a room for generosity.

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All works of art are talking to us about things.

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And if we were able to arrange spaces

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where we could come across works

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where we would be told, use these works of art

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to cement these ideas in your mind,

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we would get a lot more out of art.

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Art would pick up the duty that it used to have

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and that we've neglected because of certain mis-founded ideas.

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Art should be one of the tools

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by which we improve our society.

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Art should be didactic.

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Let's think of something else.

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The people in the modern world, in the secular world,

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who are interested in matters of the spirit,

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in matters of the mind,

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in higher soul-like concerns,

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tend to be isolated individuals.

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They're poets, they're philosophers, they're photographers, they're filmmakers.

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And they tend to be on their own.

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They're our cottage industries. They are vulnerable, single people.

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And they get depressed and they get sad on their own.

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And they don't really change much.

tedtalks 12:41
12:43

Now think about religions, think about organized religions.

tedtalks 12:43
12:45

What do organized religions do?

tedtalks 12:45
12:48

They group together, they form institutions.

tedtalks 12:48
12:50

And that has all sorts of advantages.

tedtalks 12:50
12:53

First of all, scale, might.

tedtalks 12:53
12:56

The Catholic Church pulled in 97 billion dollars last year

tedtalks 12:56
12:58

according to the Wall Street Journal.

tedtalks 12:58
13:00

These are massive machines.

tedtalks 13:00
13:03

They're collaborative, they're branded, they're multinational,

tedtalks 13:03
13:05

and they're highly disciplined.

tedtalks 13:05
13:07

These are all very good qualities.

tedtalks 13:07
13:09

We recognize them in relation to corporations.

tedtalks 13:09
13:11

And corporations are very like religions in many ways,

tedtalks 13:11
13:13

except they're right down at the bottom of the pyramid of needs.

tedtalks 13:13
13:15

They're selling us shoes and cars.

tedtalks 13:15
13:17

Whereas the people who are selling us the higher stuff --

tedtalks 13:17
13:19

the therapists, the poets --

tedtalks 13:19
13:21

are on their own and they have no power,

tedtalks 13:21
13:23

they have no might.

tedtalks 13:23
13:26

So religions are the foremost example

tedtalks 13:26
13:29

of an institution that is fighting for the things of the mind.

tedtalks 13:29
13:32

Now we may not agree with what religions are trying to teach us,

tedtalks 13:32
13:34

but we can admire the institutional way

tedtalks 13:34
13:36

in which they're doing it.

tedtalks 13:36
13:39

Books alone, books written by lone individuals,

tedtalks 13:39
13:41

are not going to change anything.

tedtalks 13:41
13:43

We need to group together.

tedtalks 13:43
13:46

If you want to change the world, you have to group together, you have to be collaborative.

tedtalks 13:46
13:48

And that's what religions do.

tedtalks 13:48
13:50

They are multinational, as I say,

tedtalks 13:50
13:53

they are branded, they have a clear identity,

tedtalks 13:53
13:55

so they don't get lost in a busy world.

tedtalks 13:55
13:57

That's something we can learn from.

tedtalks 13:57
13:59

I want to conclude.

tedtalks 13:59
14:01

Really what I want to say

tedtalks 14:01
14:04

is for many of you who are operating in a range of different fields,

tedtalks 14:04
14:07

there is something to learn from the example of religion --

tedtalks 14:07
14:10

even if you don't believe any of it.

tedtalks 14:10
14:12

If you're involved in anything that's communal,

tedtalks 14:12
14:14

that involves lots of people getting together,

tedtalks 14:14
14:16

there are things for you in religion.

tedtalks 14:16
14:19

If you're involved, say, in a travel industry in any way,

tedtalks 14:19
14:21

look at pilgrimage.

tedtalks 14:21
14:23

Look very closely at pilgrimage.

tedtalks 14:23
14:25

We haven't begun to scratch the surface

tedtalks 14:25
14:27

of what travel could be

tedtalks 14:27
14:29

because we haven't looked at what religions do with travel.

tedtalks 14:29
14:31

If you're in the art world,

tedtalks 14:31
14:33

look at the example of what religions are doing with art.

tedtalks 14:33
14:36

And if you're an educator in any way,

tedtalks 14:36
14:39

again, look at how religions are spreading ideas.

tedtalks 14:39
14:41

You may not agree with the ideas,

tedtalks 14:41
14:44

but my goodness, they're highly effective mechanisms for doing so.

tedtalks 14:44
14:46

So really my concluding point

tedtalks 14:46
14:48

is you may not agree with religion,

tedtalks 14:48
14:50

but at the end of the day,

tedtalks 14:50
14:52

religions are so subtle, so complicated,

tedtalks 14:52
14:54

so intelligent in many ways

tedtalks 14:54
14:57

that they're not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone;

tedtalks 14:57
14:59

they're for all of us.

tedtalks 14:59
15:01

Thank you very much.

tedtalks 15:01
15:18

(Applause)

tedtalks 15:18
15:20

Chris Anderson: Now this is actually a courageous talk,

tedtalks 15:20
15:22

because you're kind of setting up yourself in some ways

tedtalks 15:22
15:24

to be ridiculed in some quarters.

tedtalks 15:24
15:26

AB: You can get shot by both sides.

tedtalks 15:26
15:28

You can get shot by the hard-headed atheists,

tedtalks 15:28
15:31

and you can get shot by those who fully believe.

tedtalks 15:31
15:33

CA: Incoming missiles from North Oxford at any moment.

tedtalks 15:33
15:35

AB: Indeed.

tedtalks 15:35
15:38

CA: But you left out one aspect of religion

tedtalks 15:38
15:40

that a lot of people might say

tedtalks 15:40
15:42

your agenda could borrow from,

tedtalks 15:42
15:44

which is this sense --

tedtalks 15:44
15:46

that's actually probably the most important thing to anyone who's religious --

tedtalks 15:46
15:48

of spiritual experience,

tedtalks 15:48
15:50

of some kind of connection

tedtalks 15:50
15:52

with something that's bigger than you are.

tedtalks 15:52
15:55

Is there any room for that experience in Atheism 2.0?

tedtalks 15:55
15:58

AB: Absolutely. I, like many of you, meet people

tedtalks 15:58
16:01

who say things like, "But isn't there something bigger than us,

tedtalks 16:01
16:03

something else?"

tedtalks 16:03
16:06

And I say, "Of course." And they say, "So aren't you sort of religious?"

tedtalks 16:06
16:09

And I go, "No." Why does that sense of mystery,

tedtalks 16:09
16:12

that sense of the dizzying scale of the universe,

tedtalks 16:12
16:15

need to be accompanied by a mystical feeling?

tedtalks 16:15
16:17

Science and just observation

tedtalks 16:17
16:19

gives us that feeling without it,

tedtalks 16:19
16:21

so I don't feel the need.

tedtalks 16:21
16:23

The universe is large and we are tiny,

tedtalks 16:23
16:27

without the need for further religious superstructure.

tedtalks 16:27
16:29

So one can have so-called spiritual moments

tedtalks 16:29
16:31

without belief in the spirit.

tedtalks 16:31
16:33

CA: Actually, let me just ask a question.

tedtalks 16:33
16:35

How many people here would say

tedtalks 16:35
16:37

that religion is important to them?

tedtalks 16:39
16:42

Is there an equivalent process

tedtalks 16:42
16:44

by which there's a sort of bridge

tedtalks 16:44
16:47

between what you're talking about and what you would say to them?

tedtalks 16:47
16:49

AB: I would say that there are many, many gaps in secular life

tedtalks 16:49
16:51

and these can be plugged.

tedtalks 16:51
16:53

It's not as though, as I try to suggest,

tedtalks 16:53
16:55

it's not as though either you have religion

tedtalks 16:55
16:57

and then you have to accept all sorts of things,

tedtalks 16:57
16:59

or you don't have religion

tedtalks 16:59
17:02

and then you're cut off from all these very good things.

tedtalks 17:02
17:05

It's so sad that we constantly say,

tedtalks 17:05
17:07

"I don't believe so I can't have community,

tedtalks 17:07
17:09

so I'm cut off from morality,

tedtalks 17:09
17:11

so I can't go on a pilgrimage."

tedtalks 17:11
17:13

One wants to say, "Nonsense. Why not?"

tedtalks 17:13
17:15

And that's really the spirit of my talk.

tedtalks 17:15
17:17

There's so much we can absorb.

tedtalks 17:17
17:20

Atheism shouldn't cut itself off from the rich sources of religion.

tedtalks 17:20
17:23

CA: It seems to me that there's plenty of people in the TED community

tedtalks 17:23
17:25

who are atheists.

tedtalks 17:25
17:27

But probably most people in the community

tedtalks 17:27
17:30

certainly don't think that religion is going away any time soon

tedtalks 17:30
17:32

and want to find the language

tedtalks 17:32
17:35

to have a constructive dialogue

tedtalks 17:35
17:37

and to feel like we can actually talk to each other

tedtalks 17:37
17:39

and at least share some things in common.

tedtalks 17:39
17:41

Are we foolish to be optimistic

tedtalks 17:41
17:43

about the possibility of a world

tedtalks 17:43
17:46

where, instead of religion being the great rallying cry

tedtalks 17:46
17:48

of divide and war,

tedtalks 17:48
17:50

that there could be bridging?

tedtalks 17:50
17:53

AB: No, we need to be polite about differences.

tedtalks 17:53
17:55

Politeness is a much-overlooked virtue.

tedtalks 17:55
17:57

It's seen as hypocrisy.

tedtalks 17:57
17:59

But we need to get to a stage when you're an atheist

tedtalks 17:59
18:02

and someone says, "Well you know, I did pray the other day,"

tedtalks 18:02
18:04

you politely ignore it.

tedtalks 18:04
18:06

You move on.

tedtalks 18:06
18:09

Because you've agreed on 90 percent of things,

tedtalks 18:09
18:11

because you have a shared view on so many things,

tedtalks 18:11
18:13

and you politely differ.

tedtalks 18:13
18:17

And I think that's what the religious wars of late have ignored.

tedtalks 18:17
18:20

They've ignored the possibility of harmonious disagreement.

tedtalks 18:21
18:23

CA: And finally, does this new thing that you're proposing

tedtalks 18:23
18:25

that's not a religion but something else,

tedtalks 18:25
18:27

does it need a leader,

tedtalks 18:27
18:29

and are you volunteering to be the pope?

tedtalks 18:29
18:31

(Laughter)

tedtalks 18:31
18:33

AB: Well, one thing that we're all very suspicious of

tedtalks 18:33
18:35

is individual leaders.

tedtalks 18:35
18:37

It doesn't need it.

tedtalks 18:37
18:39

What I've tried to lay out is a framework

tedtalks 18:39
18:42

and I'm hoping that people can just fill it in.

tedtalks 18:42
18:44

I've sketched a sort of broad framework.

tedtalks 18:44
18:47

But wherever you are, as I say, if you're in the travel industry, do that travel bit.

tedtalks 18:47
18:50

If you're in the communal industry, look at religion and do the communal bit.

tedtalks 18:50
18:52

So it's a wiki project.

tedtalks 18:52
18:54

(Laughter)

tedtalks 18:54
18:57

CA: Alain, thank you for sparking many conversations later.

tedtalks 18:57
19:00

(Applause)