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.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

8 responses to “What’s the Point of Atheist Temples?”

  1. Chris says :

    Something I have recently discovered that is akin to an atheist temple already exists in London: http://www.conwayhall.org.uk/

  2. Adam Benton says :

    There is an “atheist church” in America, if my memory serves me, but their function is simply to be a community group for atheists, replicating the social functions of a “real” church. I think there is some merit to such an organisation, although the word “church” (or in this case “temple”) might not be the best term for such a group. I suspect it’s more to try and turn heads to gain attention. Whether or not engaging in such sensationalisation is good is…debatable.

  3. Wendy Scott says :

    “Atheist temples” already exist and have for a very long time — they are called “Community Centres” and “Commons”.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Very interesting points, thanks. Maybe there’s a pond difference here, and I think there’s an interesting question about definitions – what constitutes a temple, for example.

      I’ll have to look further into some of these atheist bodies, because I confess, I know nothing about them.

  4. Lorena says :

    Well, yeah, why create another tribe?

    I say that better places for atheists are those where Christians don’t go because they’re too busy worshipping: a secular choir, a dancing club, a tennis club, the opera, the play house, the movie theatre.

    Personally, I have enough to do–like plenty of books to read. I do not need an atheist temple.

  5. Chris says :

    Reblogged this on Religion And More… and commented:
    Pretty much my thoughts exactly…

  6. The Skeptical Magician says :

    I think the entire thing is just a ploy to sell more copies of his book.

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