Religion in literary clash with atheism

Charles Dickens locks horns with Richard Dawkins during 'The Independent' Bath Festival of Literature. By John Walsh

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The Independent Online

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 things 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. – it offered reminders, in festivals and feast days, that we think seriously about them, it deals in heightened oratory, heightened sensory awareness (bells, smells) and art that can be understood because it mostly reminds the viewer what's good and what is to be avoided.

In short, he said, religions were not just about ideas, but also 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 that he was secretly – he must surely be – more of a believer than he was letting on. And they also wanted to know what he thought of Richard Dawkins.

Finally he obliged: "Dawkins has done a great job, but he's become intolerant and so have his supporters... There are organisations on the internet which will attack any atheists who seem to believe in anything. The subtitle to Christopher Hitchens' book is 'Why religion poisons everything'. I find that level of intolerance distressing and unnecessary."

In an Independent Voices session, Paul Mason, Newsnight's resident economic 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 – that was stimulating, terrifying and was also surprisingly sanguine.

It turns out he feels we could be "at the start of a long-term, technology-driven upsurge of society". He's more worried about the US than the UK. There's lots of pain to come, of course (to banish the spectre of depression, we'll have to give the world its loans back and behave "competitively"). But we have plenty of opportunities to avoid either "financial repression" (inflating away our debt) or the solution mooted at Davos – cutting the minimum wage, further breaking the power of the unions.

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 a very dangerous situation. In 18th-century France, Mason explained, the most determined revolutionaries "weren't the poor. They were the lawyers without clients".