De Botton brings voice of reason to a virulently intolerant debate

The woes of the modern world were top of the agenda yesterday at The Independent-sponsored literary festival in Bath, writes John Walsh

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Religion and riots, holiness and hoaxes, Dickens and Dawkins occupied the first day of events at the Independent Bath Festival of Literature.

Alain de Botton complained about the "sterile stand-off between religious people who think atheists are going to hell, and atheists who think religious people are stupid." Into the debate he introduced himself as a non-believer ("I don't think God exists. There. You can leave now if you want.") who could see that religion brought good and useful and enlightening thing to mankind. He said religions could be regarded as works of culture and drawn from selectively, as we draw on different writers for enlightenment or entertainment.

He explained how religion dealt in things high culture ignored – how to live, how to die, how to have a good life. In short, he said, religions were not just about ideas, but dealt in "a total integration of the needs of the human body".

All well and good, but the audience wanted more. They wanted De Botton to admit he was secretly – he must surely be – more of a believer than he was letting on. And they wanted to know what he thought of Richard Dawkins. Finally he obliged: "Dawkins has a done a great job, but he's become intolerant and so have his supporters... The subtitle to Christopher Hitchens' book is 'Why religion poisons everything'. I find that level of intolerance distressing and unnecessary."

Elsewhere, in an Independent Voices session, Paul Mason, Newsnight's resident doom-monger, took a pell-mell canter through a range of linked terrains – the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the London riots, the impact of social networking. It turns out we could be "at the start of a long-term, technology-driven upsurge of society".

Gently guided by the veteran BBC foreign correspondent Alan Little, Mason outlined how new forms of social unrest were triggered when – four years ago – the old economic model fell apart. From Detroit to London, to Athens and Cairo, the young "have switched off the idea of getting good jobs and getting on the property escalator". And that was dangerous. In 18th-century France, he said, the most determined revolutionaries "weren't the poor. They were the lawyers without clients".

Bakewell attacks 'trashy' teen mags

Broadcaster Joan Bakewell has attacked teen magazines for fuelling the sexualisation of young girls. Speaking at the Bath Literature Festival yesterday, she said that teenage girls were being offered "coarsening trash on a huge scale". Ms Bakewell was chairing a session at the nine-day festival that posed the question: Has sexual freedom ruined our children?

How Boyd's uncle had a shock in store for him

Novelists generally use relatives as raw material for characters, but sometimes they come in handy for other things. On Saturday night, William Boyd told how he struggled with a torture scene in his new novel, Waiting for Sunrise. His hero, Lysander, has to extract information from a man tied up in a chair. Boyd contacted his Scottish uncle, a dentist, who enthusiastically described how his hero might attach electrodes to administer a shock....

From the fringes: Fresh musical backing for silent-film opener

The Festival kicked off with the screening of a lost Buster Keaton silent movie, Class, in which a student tries to become a jock to impress the girl of his dreams.

What gave the event special piquancy was the musical backing – not a plinking piano, but a mini-orchestra of talented musos called Not So Silent Movies under the direction of cellist Philip Sheppard. They provided the aural correlative for every confrontation and raised eyebrow with harp, violin, cello, clarinet, recorder, French horn, electric bass and drums.

To ensure freshness in their accompaniment, the players agreed not to see the film in advance. Incredibly, the bandhave played together for only five months.

You can catch them next Sunday in King's Place, Bath, at 3pm.

What's on: today's highlights

11.15am Fiona MacCarthy on Edward Burne-Jones. The author and Arts & Crafts expert examines the life and romantic torments of Burne-Jones, painter of sturdy angels and androgynous beauties, in her book The Last Pre-Raphaelite.

1.00pm Is the NHS sacred? Colin Leys and Allyson Pollock join David Aaronovitch to ask: can the NHS and the private sector work together?

6.15pm Bel Mooney, the novelist, broadcaster and journalist, entertainingly recalls her experiences as an agony aunt on The Times and the Daily Mail.

8.00pm Sandi Toksvig, the star of Radio 4's The News Quiz, gives an audience to her adoring fans.