Alain de Botton’s recent piece on religion for everyone starts off with a reasonable discussion of what we’ve lost — namely, a sense of community — as society has moved away from religion and then proposes a not-so-credible secular substitute:
Everyone stands to learn something from the ways in which religion delivers sermons, promotes morality, engenders a spirit of community, inspires travel, trains minds and encourages gratitude at the beauty of life. In a world beset by fundamentalists of both the believing and the secular variety, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.
Religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in harmonious communities, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses; second, the need to cope with the pain that arises from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our own decay and demise.
Religions are a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts for trying to assuage some of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life. They merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition and for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture—a range of interests whose scope puts to shame the achievements of even the greatest secular movements and innovators.
It feels especially relevant to talk of meals, because our modern lack of a proper sense of community is importantly reflected in the way we eat. The contemporary world is not, of course, lacking in places where we can dine well in company—cities typically pride themselves on the sheer number and quality of their restaurants—but what’s significant is that there are almost no venues that can help us to transform strangers into friends.
The large number of people who patronize restaurants suggests that they are refuges from anonymity and coldness, but in fact they have no systematic mechanism for introducing patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which they segregate themselves or to get them to open up their hearts and share their vulnerabilities with others. At a modern restaurant, the focus is on the food and the décor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections.
Patrons tend to leave restaurants much as they entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions. Like so many institutions in the modern city (libraries, nightclubs, coffee shops), restaurants know full well how to bring people into the same space, but they lack any means of encouraging them to make meaningful contact with one another once they are there.
With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.
Though there wouldn’t be religious imagery on the walls, some kind of art that displayed examples of human vulnerability, whether in relation to physical suffering, poverty, anxiety or romantic discord, would bring more of who we actually are into the public realm, lending to our connections with others a new and candid tenor.