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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