This week's questions: Is Christianity in the UK in decline? Is marriage a good thing? Should politicians take risks?

This week's questions are answered by writer and philosopher, Alain de Botton


Stafford Hospital staff have said they felt under pressure. But is that any excuse for behaving badly?

Confronted by an abuse like that at Stafford Hospital, the temptation of the newspapers is, of course, to be outraged and to whip up readers into a frenzy. It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture oneself old, desperately thirsty and unable to call for the nurse, who doesn’t care anyway. It’s a vision of hell. Yet the challenge is not to find faults, but to solve them; anger is something for the victims’ families to feel. What we need to devote our energies towards is understanding the psychology of malfunctioning institutions, so as to prevent one or two more disasters in the future.

Are politicians always going to be risk-takers?

Everyone takes risks. The problem is that the news machine presents as “risks” behaviours and attitudes which should be considered entirely normal. So the news pretends to be appalled and surprised that someone might have a colourful love life, a complicated internal world and harbour a number of conflicting, even contradictory allegiances. Solving our huge problems isn’t going to be possible without allowing politicians to emerge who are inherently intelligent risk-takers.

What does the Chris Huhne case tell us about ambition, human weakness – and marriage?

The story is a tragedy, defined by Aristotle as a tale of a high-born person who, through a fault that is neither particularly unusual nor spectacular, meets a horrific end. We should feel pity for Mr Huhne and afraid for ourselves. All of us walk daily on the edge of a volcano. Our relationship with our children and spouses is extremely fragile. It can take one or two slips for everything we’ve worked for to come crashing down. I feel one should be able to say both that Mr Huhne seems rather unpleasant to have had as a colleague – and that one feels very sorry for him, his son, his ex-wife and his partner.

Was it right that newspapers published the texts between Huhne and his son?

It’s wrong that no newspaper went beyond using the publication as an occasion to talk more about the relationship between fathers and sons. The thought of most fathers reading these texts (I have two little boys) was: “How could one avoid such a thing happening to me?” Though it’s tempting to think of the son as heroic, one worries about his degree of certainty and brittleness, the very traits that – in another context – led his father into trouble. It doesn’t have to be nosy to read about other people’s business, so long as one uses it as a way into topics we all need to reflect on a little more; so long as other people’s pains help us to avoid some of our own.

Are there two sides to every story?

Amazing though this can seem within the annals of British journalism, yes. The task of the news should be to help us to form complex judgements about human nature, but in reality, too often, we’re hurried to a simple conclusion: he is bad, she is good. It feels so much neater. Then, with a little bit more rooting around, we see that the bad is more evenly divided. Every time something isn’t grey, an alarm bell should be ringing very loudly. There are very few complete innocents and the terms evil, sicko and weirdo are just shorthand for not having thought enough.

After same-sex marriage legislation, how equal is UK society?

We’re a puzzling mixture of deep inequality and theoretical equality: we are very equal in front of the law, but very unequal in terms of the treatment we receive and the dignity that is available. The widespread desire to be “famous” is a symptom that being “ordinary” is not delivering the necessary quotient of kindness and respect. Total equality will never be possible, but the real political goal has to be a minimum standard: a good enough lowest level.

Is marriage automatically a good thing for society?

The ability to have a happy relationship is seen as almost a birthright. But, in fact, it’s as rare as knowing how to play the violin beautifully – and no less requiring of hard work. So a society that continues to believe that people should get married, yet that wildly underestimates how arduous marriage is, is setting itself up for trouble. Those who don’t get married, for fear that they’d mess things up if they did at huge cost to themselves and their loved ones, should be given gold medals.

Is Christianity in the UK in inexorable decline?

Yes, the doctrines are simply too implausible in a scientific age. That said, more and more of us are becoming aware that religion wasn’t simply a set of revealed truths about God; it was also a social club, a place to go for a singalong, a community centre, an education hub, an art gallery, a gateway to a feeling of transcendence (pleasurable smallness)... So the question is: where do all the needs that used to accompany religious belief go once the supernatural aspects of religion cease to be plausible? That’s the question I addressed in my new book, Religion for Atheists.

In your atheist manifesto, you say you want to “ignite a vital conversation around moral character to increase public interest in becoming more virtuous”. But could society still function if everyone was virtuous?

There’s an outmoded idea out there that argues that capitalism depends on nastiness and would be impossible without cruelty. But in truth, most of capitalism’s sins arise from vices rather than an excess of virtue: rash exploitation of the Earth, short-term thinking, cultures of fear, foolhardy risk-taking – all are down to our sick sides and end up having a cost in moral and financial terms. If we were a “better” society, we would – among many other things – also be a richer one.

Alain de Botton’s new book, ‘Religion for Atheists’, is out in paperback, Penguin £8.99

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