Humans have mounted temples to God for thousands of years, giving concrete form to the confluence of faith and public life. But secularism is both growing in the United States and enjoying unprecedented visibility elsewhere in the West thanks, in large part, to a string of deft bus ads and the enduring skepticism of garrulous intellectuals like Stephen Hawking and the late Christopher Hitchens. As writer and architecture patron Alain de Botton tells it, the moment’s ripe for atheists to build their own shrines.
"Why should religious people have the most beautiful buildings in the land?" he says. "It’s time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals."
So de Botton has announced plans to build a network of Temples for Atheists around the U.K. Yup. Houses of God for people who don’t believe in God.
To get around that pesky little paradox (for which de Botton has been mightily ridiculed, with the Guardian going so far as to suggest that the whole thing is just a publicity stunt to help push his new book Religion for Atheists), de Botton argues that, "You can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good. That could mean: a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective."
The first proposed temple to Anything Positive and Good would be a skinny pigmented concrete tower that rises 46 meters (150 feet) over central London—that’s 1 centimeter for every million years of the earth’s existence. "One metre from the ground, a tiny band of gold no more than a millimetre thick would be inscribed into the interior of the tower," architect Tom Greenall tells Co.Design in an email. "This would represent the short extent of human life on earth. Everything below this point is the future."
The concrete would be poured slowly over a period of years, instead of months, creating subtle variations in the appearance of the interior walls that mimic the earth’s stratification. An oculus at the top would usher natural light and air inside. As for the exterior: It’d be polished and etched with a representation of the human genome sequence.
The point is to encourage visitors to contemplate the extraordinary history of the planet and humans’ relatively brief existence thereon. "The tower is intended as a temple to perspective not a tower to atheism," Greenall insists. "I would agree that atheists do not need temples. However, many of us could benefit from a bit of perspective in our lives. This might be given to some people through buildings such as churches or cathedrals. Our tower was a simple design for an alternative, secular version."
Sure, the secular world already has plenty of its own monuments—the assorted libraries and labs and museums where people worship at the altar of evidence-based research. These are atheist temples in the purest sense. What Greenall’s design adds is an artistic, meditative touch. It is also a not-so-subtle middle finger to assailants of scientific rationalism. In 46 meters of concrete, it celebrates as vigorously as the young-earth Creationists obfuscate the triumph of science over science fiction. To which we can only say, amen.
[Images courtesy of Tom Greenall]