Philosopher Alain de Botton is proposing to build a £1 million “temple for atheists” in the City of London, to be called “The Temple of Perspective.” A good thing for the non-believers, you might think – but prominent atheist and hell-raiser Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, thinks it’s a silly idea.
De Botton is currently promoting his new book, Religion for Atheists, which argues that atheists can use all the best bits of religion, particularly the sense of awe inspired by architecture. De Botton wants his tower to be 151 feet high, and to celebrate a “new atheism”, as opposed to what he sees as Dawkins’ destructive approach. The tower will represent 300 million years of life on earth, and the outside will be engraved with the human genome sequence. There will be a band of gold to show how long humans have been here. Dawkins however says that there are much better things to spend the money on, such as secular education. De Botton says he’s raised half the moolah already, and is looking for money from a public appeal. He could start building his project by 2013.
Commentators are split between thinking he’s being, well, a bit religious about the whole thing; and those who think that any monument to humanity is a good idea.
“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good. That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions,” said de Botton, quoted on The Guardian.
Humanists don’t need to ape religions. “The things religious people get from religion – awe, wonder, meaning and perspective – non-religious people get them from other places like art, nature, human relationships and the narratives we give our lives in other ways,” said Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Society, quoted on The Guardian.
It won’t work. De Botton’s message, said Nelson Jones on The New Statesman, is that we can take all the best bits of religion, without all that horrid dogma. His scheme for the tower is “not without precedent.” Auguste Comte, the 19th century positivist, tried to build a religion of humanity: “It didn’t work.” And de Botton’s idea won’t work either. Our secular world is simply “too big, too diverse, too self-critical.”
“Alain de Botton wants to build an atheist temple. Unbelievable,” tweeted blogger Gordon Darroch.
What about the Westfield centre? Steve Rose on The Guardian said that it’s unlikely any of de Botton’s suggestions – a Temple of Perspective, a Temple to Love, a Shrine to Care – would make people cross over from Christianity or Islam. “Architecture and godliness don’t necessarily go hand in hand.” Besides, atheists already have their own “versions of great churches and cathedrals”: What about the British Library, the Large Hadron Collider, the Tate Modern, the O2 Centre? Or even the Westfield Shopping centre? “Perhaps non-believers should decide for themselves what a temple of atheism should be.”
Praise be! De Botton also received support from a somewhat unlikely quarter: The Rev. George Pitcher, a priest at St Bride’s, was overjoyed. “Building a monument acknowledges that we are more than dust. Whether we come at that through secular means or a religious narrative, it is the same game,” he said, quoted on The Guardian.