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No Joke: Alain de Botton Wants To Build Temples To Atheism

Let us now pray to... nothing!

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]

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  • Ethan

    Apologies for the huge run-on. Imagine a couple of line breaks in there if you would :P - I put them in but for some reason they didn't show up...

  • Ethan

    We already have temples to rational thought - they're called Libraries and Museums! The Smithsonian is the sort of the secular equivalent of a Vatican, wouldn't you agree?
    What this guy is talking about are monuments, which are less compelling to me personally but are probably equally important in terms of humanity's legacy in the millennia to come (assuming we're around that long). I mean, a monument to the evolution of our planet and species, like the one he proposes (though I would do it the other way so that the -top- represents the future, and can therefore be extended a little every year in a little ceremony), might actually remain relevant to future generations who have outgrown the crutch of mythology and religious dogma (even if they do maintain a spiritual outlook on the things they cannot yet explain or explore).As opposed to all the purely religious monuments mankind has spent so much blood and treasure creating, which will be viewed by those same future generations (as they already are by many of us today) as beautiful reminders of a dark age dominated by the twin vices of fear and ignorance - symbols and warning signs of the power the former can have over the human condition if left to fester in the dark dungeon of the latter.

  • Tim Anderson

    Personally I find this idea a bit obnoxious and really can't get on board with it.

    For what it is worth, I'm a two-card carrying scientist (or was until I started my own business) so on the one hand I kind of can see where he is coming from. However, on the other hand I would be absolutely floored if a significant number of my scientific colleagues would support this.

    This neo-atheist evangelism does a good job of riling people up. While I think it served a purpose at one point, it is now just annoying (for lack of a better word).

    If he really truly wanted to do something useful to help people gain a perspective on life, the universe and everything, de Botton should donate money and resources to crash-strapped museums. 

  • downpour

    Surely you would want a temple to 'nature' or 'reality'... Atheism is just the observation that gods are a man made concept. 

    Nature doesn't have a mind like a human being... we think that's pretty obvious and we want more people to realise it. It's also obvious 'why' people came up with the idea that a 'person' is in charge in the first place, because we are 'people' and we have a bad habit of only seeing things from our own point of view.A temple to an observation is a little silly and it goes against the central principle of atheism... "If Atheism is a religion, then 'not' collecting stamps is a hobby."

  • MBP

    They Should build it.  It will show people what life is like without God.  Standing in a dark hole while dreaming of a glimmer of light beyond your reach. [2]

  • Asdf

    They Should build it.  It will show people what life is like without God.  Standing in a dark hole while dreaming of a glimmer of light beyond your reach.  

  • downpour

    Yeah, convincing yourself the vast and beautiful universe was all planned and designed specifically for the benefit of human beings, by a human-like invisible psychopathic father figure with a torture obsession... Must be far more satisfying to your ego. 

  • hme

    I'm quite happy living in reality and have no desire for delusion to cloud my thinking.

    In regards to the building/"temple", I cannot see why people are so hung up on a secular place of reflection, which is all it seems to be. The meaning/symbolism behind the design sounds great, cos hey, it's based on reality! what a novel concept. 

  • James Briano

    Loved The Architecture of Happiness and look forward to reading his latest. Good post.

  • Cameron

    Cool concept. Ironically, it would further validate contemporary Aethism as a movement that is also religious in nature.

  • hme

    How so Cameron? Can I not have a building to inspire me, or to use for contemplation, relaxation etc without it being linked somehow to mythology or pseudo-science? I don't think the idea is that people will worship the temple or make it "sacred" or any such nonsense. In essence it seems it would just be another piece of secular public art/architecture, albeit, specifically inspired by rational, evidence based facts, history and science etc.

  • Glen Isip

    Interesting idea, but we already have words for projects like these: "public art."

    de Botton is drumming up publicity and/or has some very low opinions of all the humans who put work every day into creating new and interesting structures, INCLUDING churches, temples, mosques, and the like. Instead of accepting the beauty of structures all around, he's proposing that we can't enjoy beautiful things unless we're told that it's OK to do so. There's no reason to make a distinction, especially about a null position.