de Botton’s Atheist Temple

Posted by on January 28, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 15 comments

Alain De Botton has a new book out, so what better time to be in the news making controversial statements? The negative press he has received over the idea of an “atheist temple” is deserved I think, because having a place to reflect quietly on all things secular, the beauty of the universe, and the incredible unlikelihood of our existences already exists, and we call them “museums” and “art galleries”. Call me cynical, or skeptical or whatever you like, I wonder whether this bad press isn’t something he wished for, because it all acts as press for his new book. And as they say there’s no press like bad press. I’d like to just explore the idea of an “atheist temple”, and what criticism or praises I have of the idea.

Based on his ideas expressed in his TED talk from July last year, which he has called “Atheism 2.0“, he claims that “new atheism” is lacking in the things that make us human, things like art and music, an appreciation of reverence, an awe at the humanity and the universe. He talks about “new atheists” who don’t believe in God, can’t stand the dogma and doctrine of religious institutions, but love the Christmas carols, communal aspects of the church, and the architecture which was apparently inspired by the presence of divinity. We can all stand in a church and go “Wow!”, we can all sing with our friends about Rudolph and Santa, and we can all benefit from the things a community offers to us as social animals. He claims to be offering up an alternative to the so called “destructive” elements of “new atheism” as presented by the likes of Hitchens and Dawkins, destructive ideas like reason, rationality and reality.

The idea of reverence and appreciation of beauty is nothing new, and it certainly does not live exclusively within the religious communities. Certainly some of the most awe inspiring buildings around us come in the guise of churches and mosques, but this is because one of the most powerful elements of religion is the feeling of being overcome. The design of these buildings is purposefully done in such a way as to make the congregation feel insignificant in the presence of the almighty. It is no mistake that these spaces cause awe in us, it is done in such a way as to humble people into submission to the authority of the church. The simple act of putting a priest up an a dais, the pope on a throne, or the imam at a lectern, immediately speaks of power and knowledge over the people below. Add to this the use of light and sound, coloured glass pouring light through pictures of Christ, beams of sunlight casting over the authority figure, all acting as props for the blessed interpreter of divine words. The spaces echo with sound, making the words spoken seem otherworldly and heavenly. We all react to this. It speaks volumes about the power of religion, and the way it can manipulate our senses.

The idea of appreciating something greater than yourself is something I agree with completely. The universe is huge, the volumes of time preceding us to bring us to this point, astounding. The mass of molecules and cells that make up a single human being, incomprehensible. We are tiny, and the complexity around us is beyond our natural understanding. The words of Carl Sagan illustrate this beautifully:

“Once we overcome our fear of being tiny, we find ourselves on the threshold of a vast and awesome Universe that utterly dwarfs — in time, in space, and in potential — the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors. We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star. We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth. We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects. We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death. We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions. We communicate at the speed of light, and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half. We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars. We are right to rejoice in our accomplishments, to be proud that our species has been able to see so far, and to judge our merit in part by the very science that has so deflated our pretensions.” – Pale Blue Dot, page 50.

To appreciate this, do we need a place to go to reflect? We already have museums and galleries which act as a testament of humanity’s greatest achievements. We have created great houses of learning in the form of libraries and schools, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. We have the natural world, the forests and deserts. The sky above us with boundless stars and galaxies humble us in their vastness and extreme beauty. Is a monument to man’s history really the way to move forward?

The crux of the matter is this. It seems to me that de Botton is not only using language and ideas from religion (something he freely admits to in his TED talk), but is doing so not to make “new atheism” a better idea than it is, but to appeal to the religious people of the world. He is trying to formalise atheism into something that the religious can understand, a religion in its own right, the religion of the unbeliever. This is something that I and many others find distressing. I have tried to explain to people why atheism is not a religion, and have been reasonably successful, but this makes the whole thing so much more difficult. I can already hear the religious folks saying “See I told you atheism is nothing but a new religion.” Having a formalised structure, even in the form of a secular place of reflection, is one step away from having doctrinal tenets of atheism.

Having said that, I’m all for building a place where we can sit in reverence of the natural universe, and would donate money to have one built. We already have these structures, they are called “observatories”. Would the money be better spent on helping people in need, or building a school, or curing cancer? This is the kind of testament to humanity we sorely need. If the building must be built, call it art, call it a monument to humanity, call it a secular tribute to the universe. Don’t call it an “atheist temple”. Words are important, they create ways to understand ideas, and to use the language of religion and worship to back an idea which, by its very nature is opposed to these things, to me, is a folly.

To me the philosophy behind de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0″ and his calls for the need of an “atheist temple” all seem to come from a longing for something that he thinks religion has which the rest of the world lacks. It’s an overly sentimental viewpoint which backs the proposition that the exclusivity religion has claimed to have all along is a fact, and that the rest of society is sorely in need of the organised tenets that religion has to offer humanity. It’s stuck in the feedback loop that has plagued humanity since the first god was invented so long ago.

Instead of using the language and trappings of religion for humanity to move forward, should we not instead be trying to create a better planet by offering up solutions to our problems? Rather than creating a monument to humanism and rational thought, should we not instead be working toward a sustainable and inclusive future for all of the planet’s creatures? In my opinion, it’s a thought worth pursuing, rather than revisiting ideas that have proven to cause so many problems historically.

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15 Comments

  1. we really could do well without all the pleasant sounding, awe inspiring, but delusion enforcing practices and structures of religion. Social interaction, debate, rational discussion yes, but temples no. Well written article.

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  2. I fully agree with everything you have said.

    Rejection of religion is just that’, and there’s no need to “soften” atheism by trying to encorporate “good” parts of religion…..there are NONE and lines shouldn’t be blurred in this way.

    Fantastic article, sir :)

    AA

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  3. When I first read about this I thought, I thought it was interesting, but I agree: this would just make atheism more like a religion than people believe Dawkins is already making it like. This money should be spent on a museum, which is more awe-inspiring than any religious icon could ever be.

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    • Sorry, I was distracted while typing this and didn’t check it over. Ignore the second “I thought”.

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  4. When I first read about this, I’ll admit to feeling a bit nauseous. If atheists want to invest time and money into building an edifice to encourage the appreciation of beauty and the natural universe, BUILD SCHOOLS! If you can’t build a school, consider your brain – and your children’s and student’s brains – as ‘secular temples’ and fill them with knowledge and reason. Don’t mimic the religious and pray – DO SOMETHING! Don’t sing hymns. Instead, speak out against injustice, racism, homophobia, sexism, misinformation and propaganda wherever and whenever you can. Don’t be a sunbeam for Jesus, be a squeaky wheel for Reason. And you can start by telling de Botton to take a running leap.

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  5. I asked him whether or not the negative response from atheists (particularly on Twitter) surprised him, to which he replied “It’s understandable, as the temple thing was a provocation/concept, not a real plan (which it’s mysteriously morphed into)”, even though he seems to be heavily involved in the planning of it. I agree that it appears to be more about advertising his book than anything else. If it does go ahead, it will be a massive waste of resources that could be put to much better use elsewhere.

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    • oh now it’s just a ‘concept’? what a true evidence that this is just shameless marketing for his book. I wonder if to build such temple he’d pay from his own rich philosopher pocket or he’d ask for donations too. This story stinks like L Ron Hubbard craeting scientology.

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  6. Nice article, Marty. Most rational people take the “good parts” of religion and leave the rest anyway. The good parts are evolutionarily advantageous to our survival. The Golden Rule has been around for 5,000 years, because it WORKS. Saying that we could form a religion out of all the good parts is a subversive attack on people’s individual choice to not participate in religion in the first place, tying down humanism, objectivism, nihilism, agnostic atheism and many more under one label of “Atheism as Religion”. It’s a naive, dull suggestion at best, with pernicious undertones.

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  7. I couldn’t agree more. If you want a temple or whatever, go back to being religious. If you think the only place we can find communal bonding is a church, you’re a moron. I’ve found more community in a book club than I ever did at church.

    Alain calls himself an atheist, but seems to have a theists attitude toward atheism: that it is somehow sterile.

    Guess what, Alain, life is what you bring to it. You think religion can’t be sterile? You’re not looking very hard. Check out the various super ascetic sects of any of a number religions.

    Oh, and while I’m criticizing, thanks for added fuel to those who like to claim that atheism is just another religion. Just what they wanted, someone with too much money and time to build an atheist temple.

    The extent to which he didn’t think this endeavor through would make a Tea Partier proud.

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  8. I’m with you 100% Marty. The idea of an atheist temple is obnoxious. Botton needs some serious help with his so called ‘thinking’. His arguments to build the temple are weak. If he really thinks it’s a problem that an atheist admires the architecture of churches, then he should shred his philosoper diploma in thousands of tiny pieces. A church is just a building, like a mall or a supermarket. We don’t need to know the purpose of a bulding to admire its beauty. We can just like it. And hey, if the building was made with a religious purpose, still, it s science – math – that made the bulding come true – not the collective prayers of the people or the power of god.

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  9. Atheists need temples about as much as academia needs a pope.

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  10. Nice post, Martin. The idea that someone would even use the word “temple” in attempting to foster an idea for atheists is ridiculous. The word temple itself signifies ground that has been consecrated, and buildings made specifically for worship. Such ideas are the antithesis of what most atheists strive toward.

    I agree with you. We already have places to enjoy the beauty that humans create; museums, galleries, concert halls, etc. Even our city streets are often home to wonderfully inspired works of art. How does any “temple” improve on what we already have?

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  11. I think you miss the point. Museums and art galleries are indeed wonderful testaments to the creativity of humanity. The point is to look outside of ourselves; to understand our place in nature and the universe; to understand our own mortality.
    The lack of a deity or a theology makes your claim to atheism as a new religion frankly not credible.
    Why you think that an atheist would in some way be compelled into submission to authority by using such a space as an atheist temple, I fail to see. A lifelong atheist, I spend many hours in contemplation in churches and cathedrals and I can assure you there is no-one less likely to submit to the authority of an almighty than I. I would welcome the opportunity to use such a space without the religious trappings.
    I would suggest that it is precisely by taking a rather less anthropocentric view than you seem to advocate, by understanding our true place in the universe, that we will begin to lessen the problems of humanity.
    I also feel that your article and indeed the responses that I have read so far are where the dogma seems to lie. There is a very strong element of it’s our way or no way!

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  12. I guess my question is why does something have to be made conspicuous, garish, or institutionalized to be valuable? Of course this all too typical in the west: turning anything possessive of merit or beauty in its natural state and making it obscene. Institutionalized religion coopted a great many meritorious elements of social life but there is no good reason to suggest that the best way to satisfy all of these elements is through some other monolithic all encompassing contrivance. For most of human history culture was far more integrated and things we can now same as separate institutions (spiritual, legal, educational etc.) were not so. At least in the case of the spiritual dimension (whatever that means) freedom from the institutional edifice allows each to follow her/his unique spirit whither it leads, and we certainly ought not surrender it to the whims of an ersatz priesthood.

    I experience awe in museums, I get my “church” alone out on the trails, or lost in my favorite music, and I get community in others ways. What atheism is to me is freedom from ALL dogmas and constraints on finding my own way. As you mentioned Marty, we are already fighting the propaganda that atheists universally have designs of totalitarianism, and we don’t need to feed that lie.

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