Saturday, 3 March 2012

Religion, Atheism, and More Dickens

This year's Bath Lit. Fest. opened yesterday, and I had tickets for two of today's events.
The first was a talk by Alain de Botton whose most recent book, 'Religion for Atheists' has just come out. He is an excellent and engaging speaker. His theme was the many positive things which religions offer, and what these can still offer a secular society.

He began by disclosing that he is not, himself, a believer (to give anyone who might be offended the opportunity to leave), and went on to explain how he felt this allowed him, and other atheists to take a 'pick'n'mix' approach to religion and it's trappings, starting from a view of religions as part of our cultural heritage, in a similar way that art, literature and music are.

It seems a far more positive and constructive attitude than the more typical religion/atheist divide. (and such a refreshing change from the intolerance often seen from the extremes on both sides of the divide)

He suggests that religions have a lot in common with big business - big groups working towards a common objective, multi-national organisation,  logos, uniform, brand messages, they aren't just collections of ideas, and so seeking to convince people by making arguments over those specific doesn't, generally work - the organisations are so much better at propaganda. Secular culture has, in contrast, remained more of a cottage industry; writers, artists and musicians all working independently.

In effect, de Botton's thesis is that rather than arguing with religions or the religious, atheists should steal or borrow the 'best bits' - the good ideas, the community building, the accessible art, the effective education.

He is a fluent, passionate and entertaining speaker, and he left me wanting to read his book! Following the lecture, there was time for a few questions, unfortunately the first of these was that scourge of the Q&A, the person who cannot, or will not ask a question, but instead starts their own mini-lecture, on this occasion, to 'prove' that there's always a fundamental  choice between right and wrong (AKA you must believe in some external force really, you just won't admit it) which was a little wearying.

Over all, however, I found de Botton's approach refreshingly different, and was inspired to buy his book, despite my intention to come for the talk alone!

The second event which I had booked was to hear Claire Tomalin interviewed about Charles Dickens, the subject of her most recent biography, but I first had several hours to kill, so took myself to the Wild Cafe for brunch - pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, after which I found the lure of the bookshops too great, and my resolution to buy no books today a further beating.
Back at the Guildhall, I settled in to listen to Claire Tomalin, interviewed by John Walsh.

I found this less gripping than either Alain de Botton, or Simon Callow's Dickens talk last week - partly, I think, this was down to presentation; Walsh had clearly prepared for the interview, but was reading from notes, which did  mean that the interview didn't flow as well as it might have done, and it was very much geared to the Dickens aficionado.

Tomalin clearly knows her stuff, but I didn't feel that her enthusiasm for the subject quite came over to the audience - I wasn't left feeling either that I'd learned anything new about Dickens (which as I'm by no means a Dickens expert, is saying something) or that I wanted to go on to buy the book and read more.  I think I shall continue to read Mr Callow, and Mr Dickens himself, instead.

Tomorrow, I shall be back in Bath for further events. Watch this space.

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