Books / Faith / Pluralistic World

Virtues by an atheist

Alain de Botton, philosopher and author of The Architecture of Happiness (which I recommend) has launched a project through The School of Life ( focusing on virtue as a result of interest generated by his Religion for Atheists (which I also recommend). The response to the book gave de Botton “a growing sense that being virtuous has become ‘a strange and depressing notion,’ while wickedness and evil bask in a ‘peculiar kind of glamour.’ De Botton’s ultimate aim for the project is that it ignites a vital conversation around moral character to increase public interest in becoming more virtuous and connected as a society.

De Botton is often considered one of the New Atheists, along with Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens but he stands out from them in several important ways. He does not write or lecture in ways designed to provoke but to stimulate thoughtful discussion and reflection. While the others can be accurately described as atheistic fundamentalists, thumping for their own take on reality, de Botton seems more concerned to connect with his audience and help ordinary people grow so as to live better lives. Through The School of Life he works to forge an intimate connection between philosophy and daily life, bringing the discipline out of the dusty halls of academe into the give and take of life in our world of advanced modernity.

As a Christian I agree with his assessment that virtue and evil have, in the popular mind and media at least, achieved an unfortunate reversal so that the entirely wrong one has become perversely attractive. I wish the Christian community was leading this effort, but I suspect any attempt on our part to do so would be met by jeers. Part of the reason is that we have lost the respect of our culture and the culture warring of Christian conservatives has helped generate hostility to the gospel. As well, so many of the pundits, mega-church leaders, and politicians who self-identify as evangelicals have shown themselves to be hypocritical, arrogant and shallow that no one truly expects us capable of leading a serious national conversation on virtue. So, I pray that de Botton’s plans flourish, and that the young secularists that are attracted to him and The School of Life not only reflect deeply on virtue but hopefully also reflect on whether secularism provides sufficient answers to the deepest questions of human life, death, and existence.

In my review of Religion for Atheists (available on I raised serious doubts as to whether secularism is capable as a world and life view to provide a sufficient or compelling foundation for virtuous society. Certainly no society in history has done so, and though there are probably plenty of good-hearted secularists who might be attracted to the idea, more will be needed if this effort is to achieve real change in our world. Still, I wish de Botton well. Seeking to generate a thoughtful conversation about virtue is a worthy goal.

It is such a worthy goal that I would like to do my small part in stimulating that conversation. Here are “Alain de Botton’s Ten Virtues for the Modern Age”:

1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark; accepting that reversals are normal; remembering that human nature is, in the end, tough. Not frightening others with your fears.

2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person. The courage to become someone else and look back at yourself with honesty.

3. Patience. We lose our temper because we believe that things should be perfect. We’ve grown so good in some areas (putting men on the moon etc.), we’re ever less able to deal with things that still insist on going wrong; like traffic, government, other people… We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.

4. Sacrifice. We’re hardwired to seek our own advantage but also have a miraculous ability, very occasionally, to forego our own satisfactions in the name of someone or something else. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.

5. Politeness. Politeness has a bad name. We often assume it’s about being ‘fake’ (which is meant to be bad) as opposed to ‘really ourselves’ (which is meant to be good). However, given what we’re really like deep down, we should spare others too much exposure to our deeper selves. We need to learn manners, which aren’t evil—they are the necessary internal rules of civilisation. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.

6. Humour. Seeing the funny sides of situations and of oneself doesn’t sound very serious, but it is integral to wisdom, because it’s a sign that one is able to put a benevolent finger on the gap between what we want to happen and what life can actually provide; what we dream of being and what we actually are, what we hope other people will be like and what they are actually like. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channeled. It’s one of the best things we can do with our sadness.

7. Self-awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.

8. Forgiveness. Forgiveness means a long memory of all the times when we wouldn’t have got through life without someone cutting us some slack. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.

9. Hope. The way the world is now is only a pale shadow of what it could one day be. We’re still only at the beginning of history. As you get older, despair becomes far easier, almost reflex (whereas in adolescence, it was still cool and adventurous). Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

10. Confidence. The greatest projects and schemes die for no grander reasons than that we don’t dare. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

Visit The School of Life website for more information. Then find natural ways to generate discussion on his list of virtues, perhaps over lunch in your workplace, or over dessert with neighbors, or with a few friends who would be willing to reflect on virtue and it’s significance in our lives and society. And in order to help you as you start a conversation about these things, here some questions that discerning Christians might find helpful.


1. What, if anything is surprising about de Botton’s list of ten virtues? Why is it surprising to you?

2. What, if anything, would you add or subtract to de Botton’s list? Why?

3. What reasons would you give for proposing an ongoing conversation among friends, colleagues and neighbors about virtue?

4. Who is the most attractively virtuous person you ever knew personally? What made them so? How did they become virtuous?

5. In what way does the consumerism of our society militate against virtue? Where can this be seen most easily? In what way do social media militate against virtue, or the busy pace of life, or the ubiquitous presence and pressure of technology? What other aspects of our world of advanced modernity do you think militates against virtue?

6. In what ways do you actively and intentionally seek to grow in virtue, especially in those that are most foreign or unnatural to you?

7. For Christians, an important list of virtuous characteristics is found in what St Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23), in other words, how God’s Spirit would manifest his presence in a believer’s life when indwelling that person: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Revised Standard Version). Eugene Peterson translated this text this way in The Message: “But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” Compare and contract this list of the Spirit’s fruit with de Botton’s list of ten virtues.

8. In classic Christian thought, the virtues are divided into two groups. The four cardinal (or pivotal) virtues are those that are necessary for all human civilization: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The three theological virtues are those specifically named in apostolic teaching as essential for the follower of Christ: faith, hope, and charity (love). Do some simple research and define each of the seven. (Note that some of the words have changed meaning over time so that we use them differently from originally intended.) Compare and contrast with de Botton’s list.

9. Which of these virtues—in all of the lists—comes most naturally and easily to you? With which do you have the most difficulty?