Alain de Botton has an interesting suggestion in the Wall Street Journal: create restaurants that are communal and that are designed to foster social interaction with an almost religious quality. This follows fairly closely on the heels of Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley’s suggestion that maybe a good religious substitute can be found in mass sports events.
Why is a secular substitute for religion needed? It’s not completely clear. Each author argues that there is something fundamentally missing from our modern, cosmopolitan lives. What is missing is a sense of wonder, a sense of transcendence, a sense of community involvement, a sense of egoless participation, a universe of interactions based on something other than commercial interests, non-creepy greetings (de Botton)…something.
But they both neglect one of the crowning achievements of the modern world. Organized sports are largely passive events for the spectators. Restaurants are far too much about eating and not about ideas. What we do have, however, are university systems that are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and are accessible (with all the caveats of price) to almost all of the population. Only in university systems are people organized around a commitment to knowledge, science, and art. Economic status is less important than intellectual capacity. Ideas reign and social interaction is driven by common cause.
What we need is more ivory towers. After all, even the phrase may have been sourced from the Song of Solomon:
Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus