The popular English philosopher Alain de Botton has gotten a mountain of press over his book Religion for Atheists, and not all of it glowing. I’ve commented on it more generally here. But what he says about the table is worth a separate mention.
In one of his early chapters, de Botton argues that embracing the stranger is a distinctive of genuine community. With its demise in daily life, he wonders if our disregard of the stranger picked up speed as we ‘ceased communally to honour our gods.’
History teaches us, he says, that as people unite in belief, worship and a common confession of dependence, other differences of class, race, economic or social standing recede. De Botton then looks at the religious ritual of the mass and the role it plays in drawing disparate people together, creating an expression of community rare in secular society. Where are the tables like this one, he asks, apart from religious belief?
According to de Botton, while there is no shortage of venues where we eat together, there is a distinct lack of such places that actively encourage the turning of strangers into friends. Indeed, most common eating rituals demand no level of transformation at all: ‘Patrons will tend to leave restaurants much as they had entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions.’
In a restaurant no less than in a home, when the meal itself — the texture of the escalopes or the moistness of the courgettes — has become the main attraction, we can be sure that something has gone awry.
Sitting down at a table with a group of strangers has the incomparable and odd benefit of making it a little more difficult to hate them with impunity. Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction.
With this critique in mind, de Botton imagines a table in secular society (he calls it the Agape restaurant) where our fear of strangers recedes, a place where ‘the poor would eat with the rich, the black with the white, the orthodox with the secular, the bipolar with the balanced, workers with managers, scientists with artists. The claustrophobic pressure to derive all of our satisfactions from our existing relationships would cease, as would our desire to gain status by accessing the so-called elite circles.’
Having imagined such a non-religious place, de Botton concludes by affirming the role religious communities like mine still play through our distinctive rituals of the shared table:
Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism have all made significant contributions to mainstream politics, but their relevance to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they depart from the modern political script and remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together or in ceremoniously washing a stranger’s feet or in sitting at a table with neighbours and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together.
While I certainly have doubts about the real possibility of de Botton’s imaginary table, I am also conscious of how far our religious tables can be from the same possibility. Despite their radical nature, all too often we have made these tables tools of separation and exclusion rather than places of open welcome and hospitality. In this, de Botton’s words are challenging.