A temple to atheism, for crying out loud

January 27, 2012 • 4:06 am

UPDATE: As alert reader Stan Pak notes in the comments, the Guardian has a poll on the temple in which you can vote in favor or against. As of a few minutes ago, sentiment was 84% against. You have two days to weigh in.


Alain de Botton, whom we’ve encountered before, is rapidly becoming an embarrassment to atheism.  First he wants us to adopt many of the ritualistic trappings of religion, and now he wants to erect a £ 1,000,000 pound tower to atheism in London.  Apparently he’s already raised half the money for this project. The Guardian reports:

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins’s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “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.”

What a stupid waste of money!  Richard has responded:

Dawkins criticised the project on Thursday, indicating the money was being misspent and that a temple of atheism was a contradiction in terms.

“Atheists don’t need temples,” the author of The God Delusion said. “I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”

In the article, various people weigh in on the boondoggle, with some humanists predictably objecting to a memorial to what is, after all, an absence of belief. Curiously, at least one wooly-brained priest is in favor of the tower:

Another Anglican, the Rev George Pitcher, a priest at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, and a former adviser to the archbishop of Canterbury, “rejoiced” in the idea. “He is referring to a sense of human transcendence, that there is something more than our visceral existence,” Pitcher said.

“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.

“This is a more constructive atheism than Dawkins, who is about the destruction of ideas rather than contributing new ones.”

It’s just like a priest to try to claim an atheist monument for God!  And really, more constructive than Dawkins?  Dawkins has converted dozens of believers to rationality and naturalism, and I see that as quite constructive.  After all, as Steve Gould always said, the destruction of bad ideas (he was referring to science) is a contribution just as real as the vetting of new ideas.  And Dawkins has certainly made far more of a contribution to understanding nature than any priest—much less the Anglican faith as a whole—has done.  One would have to be a moron to think that an atheist temple could convert anyone to disbelief.

The design of the temple is trite beyond belief:

Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

Given that humans aren’t the apex of evolution, I favor the Natural-History-Museum solution of Steve Rose, who shows, in another Guardian piece, how silly the atheist tower is

What De Botton seems to be preaching is his own rather narrow definition of atheism, with its own unified philosophy, set of rules and even architectural brand identity. It feels rather like, er, a religion.

To answer De Botton’s original question, atheists do have their own versions of great churches and cathedrals. If the antithesis of religion is scientific rationalism, then surely its temples are the British Library, the Millau Viaduct and the Large Hadron Collider? If it’s about glorifying creation, then why not the Natural History Museum or the Eden Project? What about the Tate Modern? Or Wembley Stadium? Or the O2? Or the Westfield shopping centre? Perhaps non-believers should decide for themselves what a temple of atheism should be.

222 thoughts on “A temple to atheism, for crying out loud

  1. Actually while rejecting the name I quite like the design. Would it be acceptable if it was called the “Makes You Think Dunnit” tower?

  2. He was interviewed in last Saturday’s Grauniad about this and came over incredibly badly. One vaguely sensible point and a load of waffle. He seems to be taking a hatchet to his own reputation, albeit in a different way to Johann Hari or Orlando Figes.

    Plus, as many people have pointed out, we can enjoy religious monuments etc already. You don’t need to be an Xian to enjoy St Paul’s.

  3. Steve Rose nails it. We have our transcendental monuments already, they’re in the name of human culture and experience rather than in the name of atheism.

    1. I prefer this: Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite National Park


      And this is one of my favorites, too. Devil’s Postpile National Monument:


      And Rainbow Falls:


      To any old stuffy building…

      To think I used to live in an easy drive from all of that… I miss living in California…

  4. It is a shame that Alain de Bottom has ruined what could have been a grand idea–the building of places of reason. I actually think such inspiring buildings and public meeting places in the name of reason would be a great idea. But a place to feel devalued and diminished by architecture? Definitely not.

      1. The idea would also work for a museum. If anyone has seen the Museum of Man in San Diego, it has a really wonderful design that reminded me of a medieval cathedral. Doing something like de Bottom proposed would be pretty cool for part of a museum of natural history.

        1. The Museum of Man does have an impressive building, but aren’t all El Prado museums in what were originally government buildings? So, it’s just fortunate that it became available…


  5. What the blazes is this “Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force” garbage? What has atheism destroyed? Idols? Wooly thinking? I feel the destructive urge rising in me – “the destructive urge is also the creative urge”.

    1. It infuriates me every time I hear fellow atheists/rationalists disparaging Prof. Dawkins as ‘destructive’. Destructive against what!? To atheists’ reputation? As if it would improve if the New Atheists cease being so outspoken.

      If there are atheist’ Uncle Tom’s, this clown is certainly one.

  6. Has it got to be a tower? I suggest two hemispheres slightly flattened on opposite sides and pressed close together. We could call it the de Botton bottom. Perhaps it could parp to mark each quarter hour?

  7. I absolutely agree with Rose, in particular about the Natural History Museum, which is a splendid building rivalry the best of sacred architecture.

    What’s more, the NHM has far more going for it that just the edifice! Why not use the £500,000 (or £500,000 pounds as Jerry might put it! 😉 ) that de Botton has towards the NHM itself?


    1. I’ve been reading that the UK has problems funding their public libraries. A million pounds could go a long way to an endowment fund to help fund their public libraries.

      And having a place where people can go to actually read and make up their own minds about things is a damn sight better model for atheism than a temple, where people have historically gone to get told what they were supposed to be thinking.

  8. Embarrassing. I would rather contribute to the upkeep of an old church as an historic building, for both its architecture and as an historic reminder of how crazy we once were (oh yeah, still are). They may have been nuts but those old Christians sure new about fancy buildings.

    1. Well, I think it was the architects, masons, etc. who knew about fancy buildings — the Christians just knew how to pay for them… 

      I’m reminded about a school assembly (many, many moons ago!), where the teacher cited the fact that the masons sculpted the backs of the figures high up on the walls of a cathedral, detail that would never be seen by any of the congregation, as evidence of divine inspiration. My thought was, no, that’s just an artist wanting to do the best job he can — ars gratia artis. That attitude seems common: One of my friends is a computer animator, and he creates the best images he can, knowing that when his work is converted to DVD format much of the detail will be lost (Blu-Ray is more forgiving, of course!).


      1. Following your first point, why don’t atheists/rationalists, etc, simply claim actual temples and cathedrals as temples to reason? After all, if it wasn’t for the rationally derived principles of masonry, construction, architecture and engineering, those temples wouldn’t be standing.

        1. Or, to pit one irritating sub culture against another, claim that no mere humans could have designed such impressive edifices, and thus had to have been directed by aliens.

  9. I had to stop reading the Grauniad piece – between cringeing at the utter tritness of it all and shaking with fury at the ‘destructiveness of Hitchins and Dawkins’ jibe I may have thrown my back out

  10. I am inclined to abandon atheism and take up true belief in order that I might pray to my chosen deity to smite the monument once it is erected. What an embarrassment to rational thinkers and skeptics.

  11. The only good thing about this plan is that it will irritate the religious no end. Otherwise I can’t see the point. Every museum and huge office tower is a monument to atheism, we really don’t need any more.

  12. It seems to me that de Botton is trying to start his own cult. Bottonism…?

    Y’know what *might* be more appropriate? A ‘temple’ built by an atheist to something manifestly stupid – like Russell’s Celestial Teapot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    That way it would at least stand as a monument to satire…

  13. The building as it is sounds like a dumb idea. If he wants to build a monument to reason, why doesn’t he build a library? Maybe even a science library specifically.

    As to actual cathedrals and the like, I’m quite fond of the aesthetics of St. Basil’s in Moscow.

    Oh, and here’s a good heuristic: if a priest thinks you’re doing atheism the right way, you must be doing atheism the wrong way.

  14. Yet another London property scam.
    That said, I’m all for it: the fêtes de la Raison during the French Revolution were occasions for popular debauchery in many places. Reason herself was portrayed by a scantily clad young woman. Which appropriately deshabillé mannequin masquerading as Reason against the backdrop of his phallic tower does Alain de B. have in mind this time around?
    If rationalist atheists could be seen to belong to the dim-witted, corrupt, bibulous, male chauvinist mainstream — why, even Jesus and Mo would attend.

    De Botton really hit de bottom.

    1. Too right. The very idea that any rational being would assemble for no other reason than disbelief defies logic. Mind you,it could be a master plan to get us all together in one place so that extremists could put an end to us and our dissent from God.
      Can you imagine it? “Dearly beloved, we gathered here today in disbelief so now let us not pray’. To err is human to forgive is humane. I can see me getting very inspired.
      Enjoyed your comment.

  15. UK comedian/writer/journalist/tv-chappie Charlie Brooker on de Botton:

    “In case you don’t know who De Botton is, let me explain: he’s an absolute pair-of-aching-balls of a man – a slapheaded, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who’s forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious in a series of poncey, lighter-than-air books aimed at smug Sunday supplement pseuds looking for something clever-looking to read on the plane – yet if you pick up one of his books and read it cover to cover, you’ll come away with less insight into the human condition than if you’d worked your way through a copy of Mr Tickle instead.”


  16. At the risk of sounding like an idiot:

    Today, if you want to visit a beautiful, cavernous hall that is quiet, dark and open, your only option in most cities is a building dedicated to one or another dangerous myth. The builders of the great cathedrals didn’t have their reality right, but they knew how to make inspiring spaces, and it’s a shame that darkening the doors of such a place implies one’s acceptance of the attendant superstition. I find these buildings uplifting on their own merit, and would love to see something similar built, or appropriated, that delivers their architecture, art and serenity without the nonsense. I don’t know anything about Alain de Botton’s design or theology, but the concept itself I find thrilling, a building that delivers the aura of the great faith structures without the faith. In a college history class long ago, were were told of an atheist (Voltaire?) who loved sitting in church for the atmosphere, even while he dismissed the religion. Libraries, office buildings and the Hadron collider all serve their purposes, but to propose them as an acceptable architectural surrogate to the beauty of a cathedral dismisses structural conventions I’m not sure we want to part with.

    Unitarian Universalist churches might come closest to the concept, but UUism is a smallish organization and doesn’t anywhere as far as I know maintain structures comparable to cathedrals.

    1. “Unitarian Universalist churches might come closest to the concept, but UUism is a smallish organization and doesn’t anywhere as far as I know maintain structures comparable to cathedrals.”

      Well, neither will a £1m stick in an area of London where the best £1m will get you is a modest, 2-bed flat.

      “In a college history class long ago, were were told of an atheist (Voltaire?) who loved sitting in church for the atmosphere, even while he dismissed the religion.”

      Comparable things have been said by Hitchens (in God is Not Great) and many others.

      The problems seem to be that:

      a) It’s a pretty pointless endeavour – you can always go to a church for the atmosphere if you like it so much. You don’t *need* to build some gargantuan, smug folly.
      b) The money could be spent on much more worthwhile things.
      c) This is not the first time de Botton has tried cr*p like this. He seems to be trying to start his own cult.
      d) Libraries, museums and other buildings already seem to fill the niche.
      e) de Botton seems to be playing out some sort of rebellion against daddy in the public square.
      f) This Atheism 2.0 nonsense is all pretty embarrassing. See, for example, his cringe-worthy and rather repulsive TED talk in which he tries to rehabilitate state propaganda, tells the audience they should be *told* what to think, and proclaims we should prostrate ourselves at the foot of an effigy Jane Austin 5 times a day…

      1. “you can always go to a church for the atmosphere if you like it so much”

        Except that the atmosphere of the average church often includes images and life-size statues of a half-naked man being tortured to death.

        “The money could be spent on much more worthwhile things.”

        Such as art, collections of great literature, etc? These also might be called useless because they are only beautiful and inspiring.

        Really, I’m not defending de Botton or his plans specifically, just proposing that there might be some merit to the concept of a cathedral-like building that is free of the trappings of superstition.

        1. I find those images and life-size statues of a half-naked man being tortured to death offensive! I demand that they be taken down and destroyed!! 😉

          Yes, there is some merit to the concept of a cathedral-like building that is free of the trappings of superstition, but as has already been pointed out, we already have those (at least for some values of “cathedral-like”).


        2. Have you not been to the Louvre? Or the British Museum?

          Europe is full of buildings as big as cathedrals without any superstition attached to them; and they are already open to everyone and anyone, regardless of their personal beliefs.

          Atheists do not need a Special Building where they can go and think Special Thoughts and practice special Botton-Approved Rituals.

        3. >>>“you can always go to a church for the atmosphere if you like it so much”

          >>”Except that the atmosphere of the average church often includes images and life-size statues of a half-naked man being tortured to death.”

          As George Carlin said, “I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a man nailed to two pieces of wood.”

          It’s precisely for this reason that I don’t tend to go into them. I also find their ostentatious use of golden adornment and grandeur in somewhat stark contrast to the preachments against materialism, and the injunction to follow Christ and give up all one’s wealth.

          I don’t tend to find I like the atmosphere in churches. Then again, if someone does they’re more than welcome to go there.

          >>>“The money could be spent on much more worthwhile things.”

          >>”Such as art, collections of great literature, etc? These also might be called useless because they are only beautiful and inspiring.”

          That wasn’t really what I had in mind. I was thinking maybe give it to a health charity; perhaps use it to fund a secular education project; endow a research fellowship at a university, etc…

          1. George Carlin’s great comment brings to mind another by Lenny Bruce: “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”

            1. That’s a great line from Lenny, but it’s actually rather likely that the cross came first as an astrological symbol (of the seasons) and the torturous execution came later (as a story representing the sun / son being hung on the cross of the passage of the seasons). That sort of symbolism is common in other solar death-and-transfiguration cults of the time, as is the practice of making up real-world stories to represent celestial happenings. Dionysus travels to the underworld (the sun dips under the horizon at winter), conquers death, and returns with Semele and / or Ariadne (rebirth of spring) and thereby saves all humanity. Orpheus did the same on a smaller scale with Euridyce….



              1. Crucifixion really was a common method of execution used by the Romans for centuries before then. The slaves captured at the end of the Third Servile War (the one led by Spartacus) really were crucified along the length of the Appian Way. That’s six thousand people in one incident alone, 70 years before Christ was supposed to even have been born.

                In another incident around the same time, Julius Caesar, who was a young man at the time, crucified a band of pirates that had captured him and held him for ransom.

                That’s just off the top of my head. Crucifixion goes back a long, long way, long before Christ.

              2. Oh, I know that the Romans really liked crucifying people. There’s not any doubt about that.

                My point is that the Crucifixion of Jesus makes sense as astrological allegory, and that Mediterranean mystery cults started with the “spiritual” and then built literal stories on that framework.

                To pick from the other end of the story, it wasn’t the case that a virgin, Mary, gave birth to Jesus, causing people to figure out that he was a demigod; rather, that’s the way that demigods of a certain variety enter into the mortal coil from their abode in the heavens, and the maternal virginity is representative of a certain set of socio-religious characteristics essential to that flavor of demigod.



    2. At the risk of sounding like a jerk, if you want to go sit in a cathedral, why don’t you just go sit in a cathedral? The rest of us grant you permission to sit anywhere you like.

  17. I’m trying to figure out how de Botton escaped being included in the previous post; you know: the one about egregious stupidity.

    1. Does rather.

      Then again, so does the Republican Senator from Oklahoma introducing a Bill to prohibit the use of aborted human foetuses in food products.

      Except that *is* funny.

      Although, perhaps not quite so funny to the Oklahomans who will have to cough-up the money for this waste of Senate time…

      (BTW, are people from Oklahoma known as ‘Oklahomans’? I’m a goddamn Limey…)

        1. Though it is spelled “Okie”. I oughtta know since I are one. During the Dust Bowl it was mainly applied to those that had left the state and intended as an insult. Though the residents of Oklahoma accept the name now. (Thankfully I’m an escapee from that asylum.)

  18. Mr. de Button’s calculus is the following: in an attempt to lift himself before the world, for 15 minutes, out of irrelevance he erects an ill (also as in Kim Jong) monument to… irrelevant thought. For which he expects and deserves to win the Templeton prize meaning a 50% return on investment. Where do you get that these days in a post derivatives world? Bonus – doing his daddy, banker and cofounder of Global Asset Management, proud.

  19. It’s weird, this obsession some supposedly atheist people have with “Oh noes, what ever will atheists replace religion with?”
    Frankly, in the UK & Europe, its not as if religion has played much of a role in a great many people’s lives anyway. They don’t miss it because they haven’t really ever had it – and de Botton must know this. They get their community from the pub, or football or museums or whatever.

    Someone – and I can’t remember who, alas, has said before (I’m paraphrasing): “If one were to be cured of diabetes, you wouldn’t even consider how you were going to replace it in your lifestyle”. That’s how I feel. There is no looming void begging to be filled in my life.

    1. The thing that bugs me about that ‘what will replace religion’ argument is that, for its purpose, it presumes that all churches are the best possible church community. And there is really a huge variety both within and between religions. What religion allows you to do is have a locked in membership that *must* attend, but the number and quality of the people that do is just as varied as they are anywhere.

      It reminds me of how in my life, I went to two high schools, one big, impersonal, and filled with bullies, fights, and few people I liked, and a small magnet school filled with like minded friends. If I only went to the latter, I could easily imagine coming out with the idea that high school is the best time of one’s life, but really it was that group of people that made it special. Likewise if you have a church filled with really good people, it can be irreplaceable, but if, like myself, it was largely filled with grumbling old people who loved deviled eggs and weak sweet tea, you don’t miss it in the slightest.

        1. Just never cared for them. And that isn’t really a problem, except when every single person doing pot luck brings deviled eggs and only deviled eggs. Or awful chicken salad sandwiches. It was all pretty much just grandma food, all the time. Blerg.

  20. OK, De Botton had some good observations and ideas in that TED video but this makes me ashamed to ever have defended him.

    De Botton, you can just piss off now.

  21. “Rather than attack religion, De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.”

    Read more than one F**king book if you want a better sense of perspective on life.

  22. I think it’s a little soon to start calling DeBotton an embarrassment to atheism. His points are much more nuanced then the recent posts on this blog have made you believe. Actually read the entire case he is making and it’s pretty mild for an atheist. I do object however to the jibes he’s taken towards Dawkins mainly because I think he is just wrong about Dawkins being “aggressive”.

    Anyways his idea is basically something every atheist should be okay with which is. Let’s start the conversation assuming god doesn’t exist and now let’s look at human culture and see how it provides for the well being of humans, at this point what Alain is saying is that there things for the new secular world to preserve, borrow, adapt, steal from the the old mythologies. What are those things? well these are things that should be no surprise to atheists who have been involved in the movement for longer than a second. things like community/ethics/self improvement. It’s too easy to say if you’re a rational atheist you will just get that from philosophy/science forgetting that it’s by no means straight forward to just start reading philosophy and start understanding science and end up with a worldview that motivates you, that gives you meaning, sense of purpose. Personally I found it quite tricky of thing to do. In a nutshell this is what De Botton is acknowledging that people shouldn’t be left on their own(unless they want to of course) to stitch together a worldview/philosophy/meaning to their lives.

    1. Sorry, but I think this is nonsense. It presupposes that loss of belief in supernatural fantasies leaves you unmoored and lost, with a void waiting to be filled. There is simply no evidence for that. When a kid figures out that Santa Claus isn’t real they aren’t left hopeless and adrift. They are simply a bit more mature.

      1. loss of belief in supernatural doesn’t leave you unmoored and lost, except when it DOES. This is irrelevant to my post and to De Botton’s point he specifically starts the conversation taking it as read that there’s is no supernatural/god nonsense. the question is what now?

        1. Edit: I mistyped my comment above I don’t mean “what now?” as in what do we do now that there is no god but “what now?” as in how do we build secular ways to address people’s needs that formerly were addressed by religion

        2. No. Because all of these things of value you suggest need to be “retained” from religion we ALREADY have. And DeBotton’s suggestion that we need to build an atheist cathedral is a perfect example of how shallow this idea is. We have libraries. We have museums. We have parks. We have universities.

          What EXACTLY are these precious features that are lost when a person gives up fantasies of superstition? I haven’t been a believer for a very long time. I’d like you to tell me what this precious essence is that I am missing in my life. I’d like you to tell me how having an atheist cathedral in my town is going to make my life better.

          1. the point is not what is lost when you stop believing in God the point is what is lost when you leave the religion. You don’t seem to understand that religion is MORE than just belief in the supernatural, there’s a whole package deal with some good things and mixed in there all the nonsense this is basically how modern religion survives since they have been largely tamed by secular society. they provide counseling, community, events, social interaction, feel good sermons, rituals, even dating and child care.

            I don’t know what it is like to lose faith or lose god I was brought up without any faith or superstition and even my extended family no one was religious or talked about it. It wasn’t until I grew older that I studied science and philosophy that I concocted my own sort of science/rationalist worldview. So when you ask: “What EXACTLY are these precious features that are lost when a person gives up fantasies of superstition?” I couldn’t tell you.

            De Botton is not exactly saying we should build atheist cathedral in fact I can quote from this tweet 15 hours ago “No suggestion we build temples ‘to atheism’. But responses religious buildings prompt in us should be explored by secular architecture too.”

            Watch more/read more about his ideas on architecture and you will find he has for many years now been exploring/making the case that architecture has an important role in society that we should be mindful about what our building stand for because they do have a powerful effect on people. Personally I am not too hot on cathedrals but I would love to see magnificent building built in reverence of science, reason, rationalism. In my opinion this might go some ways towards impacting the average person on the street with some damn reverence and respect for science. I am sick of the sort of dimwits that ask questions like “what’s the point of going to space? what’s the point of building the LHC” These people just plain lack the proper respect for what is the greatest achievement of humankind BY FAR.

            1. OK, if it will make it easier for you to answer I am happy to replace “loss of believe” with “leave a religion”.

              What EXACTLY are these precious features that are lost when a person gives up membership in a group with communal beliefs in supernatural fantasies?

              I’d STILL like you to tell me how having an atheist cathedral (different is some way from a cathedral to atheism) in my town is going to make my life better.

              I think you are evading the question.

              1. In response to GB James, I think the answer to your question lies in the adjective you use; the precious feature which the lay religionist gives up is the communality of her church.

                Dennett et al have demonstrated the real fear of the American pastors who apostasise; that they will lose their place in their neighbourhood, friends will shun them, etc. I see no reason why the laity should not feel much the same.

                Eagleton touches upon it, from the opposite point of view, in his approbation of and argument for the utilitarianism of the religious community. Not so much a ‘belief in belief’ position as the ‘communal usefulness of ostensible belief’ idea.

                What is on offer to the apostate must appear to her as better than what she has now, and leading to her greater well-being or happiness.

                Marx’s next line after the ‘opium of the people’ is, ‘The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.’

              2. @Dermot: But that does not really address the matter.

                Dan Dennett’s work demonstrates how trapped non-believing clergy are. They are trapped primarily by a lack of economic options if they leave their chosen trade. They are also fearful of loss of family (Dan Barker’s life/book provides an excellent example of this.) NEITHER of these are addressed by offering some atheist “church” experience. They will still need a job and family members will either go along (as Barker’s parents did) or abandon the apostate (as Barker’s wife did).

                As it happens it is possible to find work outside the pulpit, although being an expert in preaching nonsense may require some retraining. And it also turns out that entire families can be found outside the world of the church. I’ve seen some myself!

                I remain entirely unconvinced that there is some ineffable set of valuable features that atheists must spend time copying from church-life. I await someone’s list making them plain.

                As far as I can tell, anything of value in the faith community already exists outside. We don’t need an atheist chapel.

              3. I agree, GB, on the question of apostasy, community and the Church.

                By saying, “But that does not really address the matter”, you are, I assume, saying that this has little relevance to atheism copying religious architecture. Again, I agree.

                De Botton twitters, “But responses religious buildings prompt in us should be explored by secular architecture too.” I have no idea what these secular-friendly responses could be; they certainly can’t be religious awe, the inspiration of a sense of kenotic servility and humility. Hitchens used to rhapsodise on the wonder he felt at the Parthenon; the Pantheon in Rome and the foyer of the Natural History Museum do it for me.

                But de Botton appears to be titillating himself and irritating the rest of us with a pose of iconoclastic contrariness.

              4. Dermot: I think there is a implicit false equivalence roaming the range: “religious architecture” is NOT “good architecture”. There are countless hideous religious buildings littering the US. (Perhaps you are in the UK where the religious buildings that litter the landscape tend to be quite lovely old stone buildings. I love them!)

                De Botton’s twittering, (responses religious buildings prompt in us should be explored by secular architecture) leave me wondering “Why?” My response to the local Kingdom Hall is that a bulldozer is required.

                If he were saying that lessons of great architecture should be learned, then I’d say “great!” (although it seems to be crashing through an open door). But instead, as you say, he’s just titillating himself.

              5. Yup,

                I’m in England. I have a mate who was honestly spooked by old, beautiful English churches and refused to enter them; he’s over that now. I like sitting in silence in old churches and I bet a lot of non-religious types do; what I don’t like is sitting in them when there is a service on. That seems sacrilegious to me (ho, ho).

              6. I just returned from ten days in England and enjoyed once again visiting old churches, cathedrals, hill forts, stone circles, etc. I’m in it for the history/prehistory/archaeology and am totally envious of your landscape.

  23. Jesus Christ!

    Have you any idea how many American schoolteachers you could hire for £1M? And this dude wants to blow it all on an oversized sculpture of his own wang? And he thinks this is somehow rational?

    Damn. As a friend of mine would say, you can’t make this shit up.


  24. I’d love to see the day where there were a 1000th as many atheist temples as churches in America. What I picture are lectures on science, particularly evolution and big bang.

    They’d be tax exempt, collect donations, and use those donations to send poor kids to science camp.

    It would be awesome!

  25. There’s a fundamental problem with comments like “Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force” and “a temple to atheism”.

    Atheism, “a belief in no god or gods” (or any roughly congruent definition), isn’t something that can be either constructive or destructive or that can be revered in a temple or anywhere else.

    Atheists arrive at their atheism via different paths and for different reasons. There is no other belief, conviction or value that is common to all atheists. Thus, atheists have different ideas about what’s positive and good. Some atheists believe in other supernatural stuff, for goodness’ sake! (I wonder if they just have to satisfy their need to fill their God-shaped holes with other woo?)

    Anything that Dawkins, Hitchens, or the rest of us say or do contra religion doesn’t come from our atheism qua atheism, but likely comes from the same place (worldview, values) as our atheism.


  26. The Arch Bishop of Canterbury’s beard – now there’s a cathedral through which much religious bollocks passes, but it is rather grand.

    P.S. by ‘bollocks’ I meant nonsense. I wouldn’t want to suggest any literal meaning, as that sort funny business it not allowed for bishops.

    1. There is a legend that a woman called Joan was elected pope in the ninth century, and that for some centuries after that there was a cardinal whose duty it was to feel a new pope’s testicles so that the same mistake could not occur again.

  27. Saw this on my Blackberry earlier this morning. At first I was annoyed about another Atheist Gone Wackaloon – it compounded my irritation with the TED talk last week.

    Then I realized: he has a new book to hock, right? I think that’s why he’s getting all the attention. I’m sure we’ve all noticed that when some actress is featured on the cover of Glamour or Cosmopolitan, it’s not because the mag just finds them interesting – it happens to coincide with the new movie they have coming out. It’s a two way street, the appearance in the mag benefits the movie and the fact that the cover girl is in a popular-at-the-time movie will sell more magazines to people who want some “personal insight” into the actress they just saw in the flick they liked.

    My point: Although it’s a shame that TED talks and the Guardian are pandering, in their own way, to this commercial side of popular intellectualism, I think de Botton will fade into ignominy soon enough. Then we’ll be rid of his INSIPID religion coddling BS.

    1. Until, in three years’ time, he’s decided to have something else published, at which point he’ll do another TED talk and appoint himself “Atheo-Pope” and start selling Indulgences.

  28. My SO and I were discussing this idea and what might go on inside. We were thinking a collection of scientific instruments that the public are free to use. And a priest (preferably a retired teaching sister, but really any crotchety person will do), whose job is to 1. protect the instruments from misuse and harm. and 2. to instill guilt. As in: Robert Bunsen worked long and hard on that design and you couldn’t even be bothered to prepare for your experiment? Newton slaved over the laws of thermodynamics and this is the thanks he gets? That you would attempt to misuse his rules to prop up your shaky hypothesis?

  29. “And Dawkins has certainly made far more of a contribution to understanding nature than any priest—much less the Anglican faith as a whole—has done.”

    Jerry, not sure how you’re quantifying a “contribution” but reading this caused an immediate reflection upon the accomplishments of Mendel and Lemaitre. Just saying!

      1. I’m not trying to claim their accomplishments for religion. I’m just saying that the sentence irked me because he attributed a value to Dawkins and the scaled used to measure it is unclear.

        Not sure how that was his point?

  30. lol. yeah he doesn’t understand that what makes religious buildings or religious texts so important to faith-heads is that they’re old! The’ve been sanctified by time. To them it’s what adds to the mystery and mystical properties of this fantasy they subscribe to. So erecting new buildings is not gonna have this effect on the faith-heads let alone on atheists! Even with time passing, religious buildings will still be older than the temples he’s proposing on constructing! lol.

  31. has no one noticed that this is straight from the fountainhead? might as well use an architect named roark and adorn the place with a statue of a naked female objectivist. has de botton decide to sokal the ted talks?

        1. Who else then? Who are the “embarrassing” atheists, the ones that are held up by some as positive examples but make the rest of us cringe?

          (I suppose to someone like de Botton, Dawkins and Hitchens would go on their list! 😉 )


      1. De Botton is Swiss in the same way that Ian Hislop (born in the Mumbles) is Welsh! De B comes from an atheist Sephardic Jewish background (origins in Boton in Spain); dad was an Egyptian Jew.

  32. This guy is just too much, and can I tell you how much I love Dawkins’ reply?

    And I agree with a couple of the commenters above, the “temples” to our capacity as human beings are our universities, museums, libraries, etc. We don’t need (or want) a “Temple to Perspective.”

  33. I don’t know, it sure seems like there’s a reluctance to criticize Dawkins or to step outside the principles of Atheism on this blog. Maybe idol worship is a problem in some cases?

    1. I’d be interested to know what “the principles of Atheism” are.

      I’d also be interested to know why atheism requires a capital letter.

      1. Capitalization of the word is just a lazy habit. I don’t want to offend anyone by trivializing the philosophy (and in my opinion, it is one).

        I think the principles of atheism are whatever Dawkins says. Has anyone here ever voiced disagreement with his ideas?

        1. I think the principles of atheism are whatever Dawkins says.

          What on Earth would make you think that Richard is the Atheist Pope, He Who Decides What The Principles Of Atheism are?

          And, while you’re at it, would you care to enlighten the rest of us as to what “the principles of atheism” are according to him?

          (For the record, atheism is nothing more nor less than godlessness. If you have one or more gods, you’re a theist; if you have none, you’re an atheist. You’ll find atheists all over the sociopolitical map, too — the Gnus tend towards European-style liberalism, but there’s also a very vocal crowd that worships at the altar of Ayn Rand, for example.)

          Has anyone here ever voiced disagreement with his ideas?

          Oh, most assuredly. Look up Elevatorgate, but do please not discuss it — it’s still something of a sore wound, and there’s naught to be gained from poking at it right now.

          And the National Center for Science Education has crossed swords with him, as well. The NCSE, you may recall, is the American institution that did the heavy lifting in the Dover drial.

          Those’re just the two that pop to the top of my head. Buy me a beer and I might be able to come up with more.



          1. Beer sounds great right about now. I’m in the mood for German. Not sure why. 🙂

            Really is interesting to see atheist conflicts with folks like Baggini. I’m sure I sound somewhat disrespectful but I really just have a different mindset (see my response to Dr. Lawsson) I do think that if atheism were a mere word in the dictionary, we would not be able to group gnu atheists apart from say some other “type”.

            But I am happy to admit, being that I am not an atheist, I have much to learn.

            1. I do think that if atheism were a mere word in the dictionary, we would not be able to group gnu atheists apart from say some other “type”.

              Why not? We can distinguish teetotalers who abstain from religious reasons from those who abstain for fear of addiction from those who abstain because they don’t like the taste. All those, and any others who don’t drink alcohol, are teetotalers nonetheless.

              Similarly, people are godless for all sorts of reasons. Some see no reason to believe (but would certainly change their minds if presented with good reason); others find the notion incoherent; still others, childish. There are probably those who think it’s a good way to pick up chicks. Most have multiple reasons for not being convinced by the claims of theists. Some simply haven’t given it much if any thought.

              But the reasons a particular person doesn’t have any gods have no bearing on whether or not that person is an atheist; all those without gods are atheists, just as all those who don’t imbibe are teetotalers.

              But I am happy to admit, being that I am not an atheist, I have much to learn.

              Out of idle curiosity, then, which gods are yours?



              1. Gods are quite simply not something that interests me. I have no religion. That is my label.

                If anything I consider myself a Buddhist. Buddhism has no gods. But if you told a Buddhist monk to his or her face that they must call themselves atheists, I am sure they would find that distasteful.

                Atheists, unlike teetotalers, are unified by strong support of an entire field (science) and a front against teaching Creatiinism in schools. To me it is a unified philosophy, not just a word in the dictionary.

              2. Buddhism has no gods.

                Arguable. “an absolute creator god is absent in most [i.e., not all! – @] forms of Buddhism” [God in Buddhism]

                But if you told a Buddhist monk to his or her face that they must call themselves atheists, I am sure they would find that distasteful.

                Well, many of us would find it distastedul to be told what we must do (viz. our response to de Botton!). But that wouldn’t make atheistic Buddhists any less atheists.

                Atheists … are unified by strong support of an entire field (science) and a front against teaching Creatiinism [sic] in schools.

                Absolutely not!

                As I mentioned earlier: “There is no other belief, conviction or value [than godlessness] that is common to all atheists. Thus, atheists have different ideas about what’s positive and good. Some atheists believe in other supernatural stuff, for goodness’ sake!”

                Your description fits gnu atheists, more or less (and maybe some other atheists who wouldn’t self-identify as gnus) but as I’ve noted several times before, “gnu atheist” is a label for a variety of people who are atheistic (weak or strong, agnostic or ignostic, &c., &c.) because of a broadly common naturalistic (maybe “scientistic” in a positive sense) worldview and who have broadly common attitudes to religion beyond atheism qua atheism.

                That is, there may be a vaguely unified philosophy (some would deprecate that term!) among gnu atheists, but their (our) atheism is really an outcome of that rather than the root cause.


            2. amelie said: Gods are quite simply not something that interests me. I have no religion. That is my label.

              This strikes me as obfuscation. Either one believes in supernatural beings or one doesn’t. Whether you are “interested” in them (whatever that means) is kind of irrelevant. I’m not interested in NASCAR races but I am pretty sure that they exist.

              There is, of course, an orthogonal dimension in which one admits the belief/unbelief to oneself and to others.

              1. You missed my point altogether, GB. Unlike teetotalers, atheists are unified for several causes. Therefore it is a philosophy. It is a philosophy I do not choose to be part of. Therefore I am not an atheist. Get it now?

              2. Well, Amelie, I think it’s a rather large leap from averring that atheists are unified by several causes to declaring atheism a philosophy. It just isn’t. A philosophy is a way of looking at the world. Atheism, and I know that people have written this to you before, is merely the absence of a belief in God; it may be the corollary of a philosophy, but the love of wisdom it ain’t.

                You appear very reluctant to join the ‘atheist cause’ and of course that is your prerogative, but I’m not even sure that it can be described as a coherent movement; perhaps you can characterise it as a tendency towards a certain mode of thought and style in public discourse (I am thinking here of ‘gnu atheism’) but it lacks even the coherence of a political party. Struck by your pronounced individualism, I see you as eliding the definition of atheism with your disapprobation of the quasi-pressure group called ‘gnu atheism’ and beyond that, with political parties (which absolutely do represent a unification of several causes).

              3. Amelie, you repeatedly make the mistake of conflating “atheism” with “gnu atheism”. See my response above. Atheists as a whole are most assuredly not unified! (As de Botton, for one, kindly illustrates.)

                Get it now? 😉


        2. Wow, amelie! Now I know I’ve got psychic powers! I was an atheist before I had even heard of Dawkins. I first heard of him when I had a girlfriend who was a zoologist and I think was a student of his, at any rate she knew him personally. But even then I didn’t associate him with atheism, although it would not have come much of a surprise if someone told me he was. However I was blissfully unaware that he was the Anointed Prophet of the Universal Non-God.

          More recently I have heard him speak but have never read any of his books (Oh how I have sinned!) so I guess the Principles of Atheism must have been communicated to me telepathically without my knowing it, in a dream, perhaps.

          Incidentally when I head him speak I didn’t agree with everything he said. Fortunately the talk is on YouTube so now I know what The True Principles of Atheism are I will listen to the talk again and make sure my views are in accord with the One Eternal Truth. That way I can ensure that when I die my non-existent eternal soul will live forever in Atheist Heaven.

            1. Good try, Amelie, but I don’t think so. Naturally, I can’t speak for Bernard and AdeB but I, as an atheist have no problem with discussing God or gods in the classroom. They do it over here in the UK in the rather cutely named PEARS lessons; Philosophical, Ethical and Religious Studies for 11-16 year-olds.

              Yes, keep God out of science lessons, and there is a real problem in the ‘faith schools’ set up by Tony Blair – basically a charter for Muslim schools, semi-independent of the state system.

              I can’t speak about the Chinese education policy under Mao, but I suspect that God came into the curriculum, in that traditionally Godless culture, in their equivalent of Citizenship lessons, seeing as Mao thought he was God.

              1. My fault, I intended to mean science classrooms. Obviously a theological course I’d a fine place to discuss God. I enjoyed very much my History do the Bible class I took although I don’t remember a bloody thing about it.

                I doubt any atheist would be happy to see ID taught in high schools, sci classroom or not, furthermore the defense of science and medicine against quackery goes far beyond the contention that you all just don’t believe in God.

            2. Amelie, personally I have no problems with people being taught about religion at school but I do have a problem with it being taught as fact. In the UK religion is taken a lot less seriously than in the USA. Here it is quite common for people to see things like school prayers a kind of team building ritual – a bit like the cub’s grand howl (do they do that over there?) People tend not to assume you must believe in God if you do things like go to church at Christmas and sing carols.

              You wouldn’t expect an atheist to want the Christian creation myth taught as a fact in school, but it’s not actually logically inconsistent for an atheist not to mind and stranger things have happened. If that person did not believe in a God they would still be an atheist.

    2. You don’t come around here much, do you?

      Dawkins is no prophet. He’s not even a saint. He’s been roundly criticized for recent events where he showed himself to be a bit too privileged/ paternalistic, and blindly unaware of that fact.

      Do you have an actual point to make? Or just hit-and-run trolling?

      1. To be fair, Amelie isn’t a troll, She has been consistent, if misguided (!), in her opinions of “Atheism” and “Atheists”.

        Even though see she doesn’t believe in any god, she doesn’t self-identify as an atheist, largely, I think, because of what she sees as the in-groupiness of gnu atheists (irrespective that there’s infighting within this in-group), their/our agenda, tactics, &c., with which atheism qua atheism is tarred (as per de Botton’s comments). Thus, she seems reluctant to accept that the only principle of atheism is its defining characteristic (per #39).

        And, yes, agreed, even gnu atheists don’t idolise Dawkins, although many do lionise him (fewer after that disagreement). But — as Bernard observes – being an atheist celebrity certainly doesn’t exempt him from criticism (as that disagreement amply demonstrated).


          1. Dermot, (I ran out of reply boxes) I can understand an atheist insisting that their only commonality is the non belief in gods. That’s fine, but my friends Ben and Ant insist that not calling myself an atheist is akin to denying that I am a woman. I disagree. I am obviously female, but telling me I am an atheist is kind of freakishly controlling.

            1. No… — and you seem to have forgotten our earlier conversations — I’m not insisting that you call yourself an atheist, which would be freakishly controlling, but I am saying that you are mistaken to say that you are not an atheist (at least in the broad/weak sense).

              A better parallel would be “spinster”, not a label that a young unmarried woman would necessarily be comfortable with, but she would be one nonetheless (as — and I apologise for the example — would be evident if banns were read: “… a spinster of this parish…”).


              1. So now I’m confused. You’re giving me permission to not call myself an atheist but you all will simply decide for me that I am one? Please clarify.

              2. Hmm… I thought I had with the spinster example.

                Atheist: You can call yourself whatever you like and reject any labels you like. But unless you believe in a god or gods you are an atheist by definition.

                Spinster: You can call yourself whatever you like and reject any labels you like. But unless you are or have been married (and are a woman!) you are a spinster by definition.


            2. If I call myself a frog am I a frog? If I say I am not typing this message am I not typing this message? amelie, you can call yourself a frog if you like. You will remain _not_ a frog. If we use a common dictionary, not your idiosyncratic one, you are an atheist since you profess not to believe in gods (assuming that “not interested in them” can be read as non-belief). Only in your own mind will you not be an atheist. Your right to call yourself a frog is not in question.

        1. Well that is appreciated, Ant. I know you get it. I have issues with atheism, at the same time I fully expect people here to behave like adults by having a calm and rational discussion about my opinion. That is why I bother to come here, because I have respect for this forum.

          That is not to say it’s a free for all. It is Dr. Coyne’s blog, not mine. he is free to kick my sorry behind off here and people are free to ignore my comments, obviously.

          I am happy to admit I know little about atheism; as you also know, I am of the opinion that it is NOT just a word, and I do not count myself as an atheist by any stretch.

          Cheers for the rational conversation.

        2. @Ant (improvising reply boxes again) I doubt I would meet any atheist, gnu or otherwise, who would not rush to the common cause of keeping intelligent design out of the classroom or bogus science such as prayer as a healing tool for sick children out of hospitals.

          Now, maybe that only makes you as unified as scientists. But as I told Dermot, you seem to insist that I must call myself an atheist as much as I call myself a biologist or a woman. That is freakishly controlling. I am
          not an atheist.

          On a lighter note, what do you think autocorrect was saying there? Is Creiitinism some new religion born at a sci if convention?

          1. And I addressed your second point in my reply to your reply to Dermot. (Confused yet?)

            But you’re just wrong on the first point. Even if a majority of atheists would take that stance – and I’m not sure that it would be a majority — there would still be very many that would just shrug their shoulders. I’d really like to see a breakdown of this – surveys don’t tend to be so granular – but I suspect that at least a significant minority of atheists in the UK and elsewhere in Europe are apnostic or laissez-faire atheists and don’t have strong opinions about what is or isn’t taught in science classes. I concede that the situation may be different in the U.S., but globally you just cannot assume a united front against ID.

            “Creatiinism” seems to be a blend of “creationism” and “cretinism” …


            1. @Ant I would turn to a dictionary but Wikipedia has a few cultural distinctions regarding the word “spinster”, including the point that it is considered a derogatory and generally very insulting term.


              I’d just love to see you walk up to Harvard Physicist Lisa Randall and tell her to her face that she is, by defenition, a spinster.

              Serious cojones , Ant, and serious disrespect.

              1. Oh, please arrange that meeting so that we can test this empirically! 😀

                So, I checked my dictionary [NOAD] and, indeed, the usages notes say, “In modern everyday English, however, spinster cannot be used to mean simply ‘unmarried woman’; it is now always a derogatory term …” Hmm… 🙁 I regret that I wasn’t fully sensitive to that, just vaguely aware that it wasn’t, um, felicitous. I can only say that I’ve hardly ever heard the word used except in contexts like the banns I cited above, where it is neutral.

                Change gender, then: But unless you are or have been married (and are a man!) you are a bachelor by definition. Hmm?


            2. I want to comment on Ant Allan’s address to Amelie’s second point in answer to Ant Allan’s response to Amelie’s reply to me, but I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.

              1. Amelie,

                I ran out of reply boxes. Yes, I am being silly, but I prefer to self-identify as mildly satirical.

                If we follow Wittgenstein, we must ask ourselves what evidence we can have for an individual being atheist. And the usual response is that they will behave in an atheist way and feel, like they can feel, say, love, trust, any emotion that you care to mention. The sole evidence for it, and the only thing the individual can know about it, is how that person behaves and her own admission of how she feels; it doesn’t matter whether this is love, compassion, fear, altruism, whatever you choose.

                Now if, as I’m sure you have stated, you do not believe in God, then the only thing that I can know about you, is that you do not believe in God. And if I knew you personally, then I would be able to judge from your behaviour your lack of faith. And I assume that at times you demonstrate it in your everyday life. And if I saw you, it would be perfectly reasonable thing for me to conclude that you are an atheist, judging from your behaviour, just as I would judge from your behaviour when you felt fear, compassion etc.

                The point I am making is that we judge people’s emotions and even beliefs from their behaviour and what we experience of them; that is all that we can do with near certainty. And, as I am fairly certain that you have said that you believe in no god, I conclude that you have no faith. And that your behaviour corresponds with what we call ‘atheism’.

                As regards the social aspects of atheism and gnu atheism, I think Ant Allan’s analysis rigorously logical and coherent.

              1. In that case, is creatiinism kinase the enzyme which mediates the stultification of creationism through phosphorylation?

    3. Taking your points in reverse order:

      I certainly find idol worship a problem, its main problematic feature being that no one seems to want to worship me.

      I would be grateful if you would send me a copy of “The Principles of Atheism” or tell me where to find one. I was unaware I was forbidden to step outside its precepts. Mea culpa, I shall try not to be so naughty in future.

      Personally I will criticize anyone if I feel they deserve it. However I will also step on anyone I feel is criticizing anyone unfairly, whether the criticizer and/or criticisee are atheist or not.

      I hope you find this reply uesful.

      1. @Bernard well I worship anyone with chocolate cake, if that helps. 🙂

        I’m sure I’m seen as a disrespectful little worm (without the cred of Padian or Baggini, no less) but I am glad to be among intelligent folk with similar talent for snark.

    4. There can be no secondary principles of atheism, it is a state only characterized by a lack of theism.

      People reach that state by many pathways, making a mockery of principles and birthing the well known observation that “you can’t herd atheists”.

      If you want to know more about atheism, I recommend to hang out on this blog. For example, you can frequently find find Coyne criticizing Dawkins:

      “I must say that I was startled to read this recent post by my friend and terrific blogger Miffedy Plaster, who pointed out something interesting:

      “I was perusing the oeuvre of one Richard Dawkins the other day, and it wasn’t long before I noticed that all of his books were written by men. […]”

      Now while I’ve never actually read any of Dawkins’s books (I’ve heard some people praise The Selfish Gene), I did check Amazon and found, indeed, that Miffedy is on to something. We clearly have some work to do.”

      So much for “idol worship”. =D

      1. Dr. Larson,

        Thank you for the link! It’s an interesting observation; although I don’t think I own any books by a black author. Although I think it’s a shame, I don’t think it means much.

        What I would say the idea of an “evolutionary arms race” as put forth by Dawkins, combined by his revulsion for the Gaia hypothesis, does sem a bit macho and outdated. And linear. Now that you mention it, the backlash over the Margulis post was kind of extreme.

        And I admit I’m still a bit miffed that no one answered my feral cat questions. Consider that a bias. 🙂

        1. Dr. LARSSON. The iPad WAS to blame for that mistake. Frikking Apple. (Thus is like Siri refusing to respond to users requests for feminine products. I swear it’s a conspiracy). 😉

    5. Amelie, believe me, you’re embarrassing yourself. Posters here, esp. Ant & Ben, have shown uncharacteristic forbearance and patience in going over the same material again and again, while you refuse to consider anything they’ve said.

      You sound like someone who’s new to the discussion, arriving with preconceived ideas and yet insisting that you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Why don’t you do some wider reading in the subject before you hold forth so adamantly? And do begin with a dictionary!

  34. From the article:

    “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.

    OK, sure. But buildings ARE art. At least some of them are. de Bottom’s building will be exactly as good or bad as it is good or bad art. And as for spending the money on education instead, as Dawkins suggests, that strikes me as a dull grey way to think about the world. We don’t lack for schools or education, not in the West. In any case, the building sounds mildly educational to me, and if built will probably have more actual impact on people than ten dozen Dawkin’s lectures.

    My favorite building I’ve ever been in is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel in Houston. Now, my mind is perhaps stimulated more by a visit to the Museum of Natural Science a few blocks over, but the Byzantine Fresco Chapel is a wonderful work of architectural art and it gives me a great feeling to sit in it (I’d say it’s inspiring, but I don’t know what I mean by that exactly). On a brief visit to Houston, I think I’d prefer the chapel to the museum. I can read about nature any time, and walk right outside and see it. The chapel, on the other hand, is a unique space. It is a glass replica of the ancient stone chapel the fresco came from, and the restored stone fresco forms the dome of the glass chapel. The whole thing is itself inside a huge concrete box, mostly dark except for the lights that shine through the glass walls of this building-within-a-building. It’s a working Orthodox chapel, though the church had no role in it’s building (because the art was bought on the black market, it was decided after the fact to “give it back” to the church). I love this space. I love going there. I love sitting in the moody atmosphere, meditating (by which I mean sitting still for a moment and trying to feel less mentally busy), thinking, reflecting. How much more would I love it, though, if instead of the focus being a Byzantine artwork showing The Apostles, about which I care nothing, it were about the true history of the Earth? To say that such buildings shouldn’t be built strikes me as a tad nihilistic, puritanical , or maybe just reactionary. Being the kind of animal we are means that, as a point of fact, many of us enjoy such buildings.

    So I’m happy for someone to try build some kind of secular architectural space (maybe it’s misguided to call it a temple, but hey). My big worry, though, is that they will do a poor job, that it will suck and be kind of sad object of ridicule as a result. This risk is magnified by how much pretension and hooplah one attaches to the endeavor. Part of what makes the Byzantine Fresco Chapel work is it’s lack of pretension…it’s hard to find, no one knows about it, from the outside it hardly looks like someplace you’re meant to go inside. It is a surprise when you walk in and discover what it is. It was designed by the architect Minnel and who knows where the money came from, but there was no public spectacle to it’s building.

    But if someone can manage to create a great secular architectural space/tower/temple/building that people like to be in, if it works as art, if it gets people to pause for a moment and absorb a tiny bit of education or encourages reflection on our place in the world, more power to him, even if he is an irritating person.

    1. Well said, Gluon, I tried to make the same case generally, but your specifics make the argument much more convincingly.

      Interestingly, the Greek Orthodox in my city have just built a new church and decorated the central dome with animals — believed (by them) to be the first religious iconography in Orthodoxy to celebrate nature in that way.

  35. Well, SOME buildings are art. A great many are ugly. Some religious buildings are examples of great art. A great many are examples of architectural dreck.

    Why are we confusing good architecture with religious architecture?

    1. Am I confusing good architecture with religious architecture? I don’t think I am. I don’t claim that most, or even many, religious buildings are great spaces. Most buildings, regardless of intended purpose, are awful. It is precisely because of this that I applaud any conscious attempt to make inspiring/beautiful/architectural buildings/spaces/towers and scarcely care what other purpose the space might have. I think art is one of the best things humans have going, or at least it’s one of the things I get the most out of myself, and if someone wants to take a stab at making more, I’m glad for it. I just hope they do a good job.

      I guess there is some confusion sometimes, with religious and good architecture. Partly that comes from the weight of prior investment. There are simply a lot of religious buildings, and so the total number that don’t suck is large even though the success rate is low. I think religious buildings also benefit from the fact that giving people a certain feeling when they are inside is central to their purpose. They fail at this often, but it is just more likely that someone building a religious building will spend serious time and effort trying to figure out how to give people certain feelings as they sit in that space than, say, a commercial or scientific building. There is a practical purpose to those buildings that precludes too much focus on effect. Even museums have a practical purpose of displaying and protecting their treasures, natural or artistic, that is often (but not always) at odds with making the space itself a good space to simply be in. Often the affect of museums is “don’t touch” and “move along, there are people behind you waiting to see this thing too”. It is a separate pet peeve of mine that museums so often are like this: paintings in a hard square room on blank white walls with a single hard rectangular bench big enough only for two or three that says, plainly, look but don’t linger. I love going to museums, probably as much as any activity I can think of, but many of them have a lot of work to do before they are good *spaces* to linger in. The advantage of making a building to be a “temple” is that at least one is consciously working on the space itself. It’ll probably fail miserably, I wager he’ll never raise the money, and that it will bog down with pretense if he does. But in my mind I can imagine many such spaces I’d love to spend time in, and I hope someone somewhere builds them. I hope the end of religion doesn’t mean that architectural spaces for effect has to die too. That would be sad, and needless.

      1. We may be violently agreeing that good architecture is good and bad architecture is not. As long as we agree that old architecture, surviving today, is likely to be “good” because old dreck is much more likely to have been torn down. And that “back in the day”, religious institutions had lots of money to spend on nice buildings. (As did nobility who had some mighty fine secular castles and manor houses designed.)

        My objection is to the idea (if you are making the argument) that a modern buildings made for religious purposes are more likely to be “good” (in whatever terms) than modern buildings designed for secular purposes. This is not the case. Sure, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Greek Orthodox Church is a fine bit of architecture (as is his Unity Temple). But so are his secular buildings. There is no reason to credit religion for good architecture.

  36. Oy. Is it too late for another “Moron of the Month” Jerry?

    Or should de Botton have his own category? I’d suggest “condescending, point-missing foppish dilletante”.

  37. http://longnow.org/clock/

    The Clock of the Long Now is a good example of something that I’d describe as a sort of “secular temple”. It has only symbolic purpose. If it is pulled off, it is technically impressive, artistically rendered, and is a space designed from start to finish to have a particular effect on people who encounter it. I don’t know if it’ll work, either artistically or technically, much less educationally, but I’m happy people are trying to do things like this.

  38. To echo Steve Rose’s comment, I’d nominate St Pancras Railway Station (in London) as my ‘cathedral’ – complete with the largest arched roof of its (victorian) day. A monument to Victorian rationality.

    Atheism doesn’t need a cathedral. It doesn’t need an organisation or ceremony, come to that, the moment someone like Bottom says to me “you must do this” is the moment I walk off. Rituals make me scream inside. I can unbelieve quite happily all by myself, thanks.

    I do find (the better) old religious architecture inspiring. I firmly believe Christchurch Cathedral (in New Zealand) should be rebuilt to the same external design, albeit with a discreet earthquake-resistant reinforced concrete frame concealed inside – it was the centrepiece of the whole Cathedral Square area. It’s a historic flavour rather than religious. (How ironic that G*d chose to zap a city with that name, even if there were concentrations of lasciviously dressed young tourists in the area).

      1. I first saw St. Pancras in 1979 and loved it. It was decrepit, the vast, empty Gothic hotel above it slowly crumbling like a medieval castle in the metropolis. The site was dirty, smelly and reeking of Dickensian decay; so inspiring.

        Now the modernisers have cleaned it up and ruined the ruin. I’m serious.

      2. I must admit I last saw it (St Pancras) pre-Eurostar. So I could be out of date there. Nothing lasts forever, I guess.

  39. In other news: Andrew Brown sinks to new low in utterly deranged article ostensibly on altruism.


    Thought process goes:

    1. Why are people friendly? Dawkins had an idea years ago. I don’t like it (because I hate Richard Dawkins and have to say something about him every week). I won’t explain the reasons why I don’t like his theory though, nor supply any refutations of it.

    2. Nature printed a study about some hunter-gatherers and their social interactions – I didn’t understand it, but I’ll talk about it very superficially for a minute and then fail to draw any conclusions.

    3. That’s a bit like religion really (what is?!). Every religion has its founding myth. Atheism is a religion because atheists don’t believe in Roman Catholicism because they’re actually Protestants and there was the Reformation and stuff.

    4. And that’s why ‘original sin’ is true. The end.

    Breathtaking stuff.

  40. Another problem I don’t think has been brought up with re: an “atheist” temple: the upkeep.

    Consider the crap vandalism that various synagogues (or Jewish cemeteries) have to put up with, or Mosques in the USA. Now consider plunking down a million on a public space purposefully identified as somehow symbolic of a particular philosophical position whose adherents are THE most reviled group (at least in the USA).

    Who would take care of such a thing?

    Nope – it’s a non-starter. Build a library – a museum, whatever. You’ll be fine. Call it an atheist museum, and you will be tearing your hair out non-stop with mountains of idiot opposition. It would make sense to do ONLY if your goal was to attract negative attention, or perhaps to force the concept of “freedom of religion” to apply to no religion as well. It’d be a PR stunt. Not necessarily a place of contemplation, or whatever was envisioned. It would quickly become an object of contention.

      1. Perhaps, though pragmatic. I suppose it all depends on what the goal is. If you want to build a really cool place for reflection, thought, study – that’s one thing. If you want a non-stop pissing contest, put an “A” on it.

        I’m merely pointing out another facet of the disconnect here. It just seems incongruous to me… the concept of an atheist temple, or atheist museum for that matter. Unless it was precisely for the reason of making some larger statement, i.e. being a thorn in the backside of your city council.

        Come to think of it, that might be reason enough in some places. It still seems like a terrible waste, especially as the resulting nonstop sandblasting is so easy to predict.

  41. religious or any superstitious belief should just be laughed at out of the public square. that probably should be the principle of atheism.

    just gotta laugh and make fun of their silly ideas and make it at the same level as if grown ass adults going around professing their unequivocal belief in the tooth fairy.

  42. This comment at the Guardian by Ernekid sums it up nicely:

    “what exactly do i need a temple for? I already have a place for me to express my nihilism and to feel superior to my religious friends. It’s called the pub”

    1. Lot of excellent comments on that page. Its standard of comments is about as good as this site. A welcome change from the usual Internet rabble.

  43. Is it possible that this purported temple to next generation atheism: voluntary remission to religion without the actual belief, but with extra bullshit to compensate, is actually a front – and a rather transparent one at that – for erecting a monument to de Botton himself?

    I mean he already seems to regard himself as some sort of a prophet, the founder of bottonism, so it would be fitting if in the absence of a flock worth mentioning or ideas worth thinking about, the great man does have a pile of concrete in one of the world’s great cities to show for his formidable legacy.

  44. UPDATE, Jan 30, 2012:
    The Guardian today carries a Botton plug, viz., an editorial:
    In praise of … Alain de Botton

    Ritual and ceremony are useful ways of giving structure to our moral commitments.
    De Botton’s project may well be a glorious flop in the making, but there is certainly space for a more creative conversation about the purpose of religion.

    Jerry is going to blow a gasket 🙂

    Fortunately, the Guardian’s readers, as of this writing, are giving this nonsense a fearful pasting in their comments.

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