What’s the Point of Atheist Temples?
Alain de Botton wants to build an “atheist temple” in London. This has a connection with some of the issues I dealt with recently around whether you could have ritual without religion, and whether similar or even identical forms and structures could be used without the religious element. I think it’s possible and reasonable, but despite that, and although I have a lot of sympathy with his preference for a positive, uplifting message, I can’t see any sense in de Botton’s proposal.
I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the building would be – de Botton explicitly calls it an atheist temple, and wants to show the positive side of atheism, but all the detail of the plans – the specifically designed height, the fossils, the human genome sequence – makes it sound more like a freeform science museum, containing nothing, as far as I can see, that would actually mark it out as atheist.
It’s as if he’s falling into the same basic error as various religious leaders, and confusing atheism and secularism. An absence of religion and religious imagery doesn’t make a building atheistic, it just means it isn’t theistic. Unless he’s going to have displays on “why religion is wrong”, or “Biblical errors” or similar (the sort of “aggressive and destructive” approach he decries in others), there’s nothing specifically atheist about the idea at all.
There’s also the problem that there isn’t any sort of atheist creed to base the temple on – a lack of belief in deities isn’t exactly a credal statement. A belief in Darwinism and the scientific method are common features among atheists, but they’re neither necessary nor sufficient. Plenty of people who don’t identify as atheists would assent to both of those beliefs, so attempting to co-opt them as atheist qualities would be both inaccurate and divisive, when it would surely be more productive (and more in keeping with de Botton’s general philosophy) to throw the doors wide and welcome all-comers to celebrate the wonders of the world we live in.
The building could serve as a secular “temple to science and the universe”, which would avoid the problems of exclusivity and the lack of a distinctive, unique atheist belief, but we’ve effectively got those already, in the form of London’s excellent museums, and I don’t see any great demand for an additional one, so this would add very little beyond a bit of presentation and branding.
De Botton also says he wants to create inspiring architecture to generate a sense of awe, comparing it to the “feeling you get when you tip your head back in Ely cathedral”, but I don’t see why any new building with this aim needs to be aligned with a theological statement in order to be inspiring, or why anyone who wants inspiring architecture can’t appreciate it on its own terms wherever they find it. You might as well attempt to compose an atheist choral work as an alternative to Bach’s Mass in B minor.
He says he wants to give people a better perspective on life – I’d say the best perspective would be to acknowledge beauty wherever it arises and whatever its inspiration, and to put the money to a more practical use. I’m prepared to be convinced, but on the details I’ve heard so far, this sounds like a bizarre and unnecessary project.
Update 31/1/12: Alain de Botton has explained what he means in greater depth at Richard Wiseman’s blog. I can sort of see what he’s getting at, but it doesn’t seem to be saying anything very different from how I read him in the first place. Still unconvinced.