I am usually with Alain de Botton on things. Not this time.
Tom Greenall Architects' rendering of Alain de Botton's "Temple for Atheists"
Tom Greenall Architects' visualisation of Alain de Botton's "Temple for Atheists"

Alain de Botton’s Temple for Atheists idea is laid out in his new book “Religion for Atheists“. His premise is that some of the world’s greatest buildings are devoted to religion, and even the most staunch atheists find these buildings attractive. Why shouldn’t atheists therefore have their own monuments to atheism – he asks – buildings that celebrate peace and perspective, for example?

On the face of it, it sounds like a good enough thought – why not indeed? Better to have monuments to humane qualities and rational thought than to the worship of the metaphysical or imagined “Gods”. However, a central flaw of de Botton’s argument is the need to have something to monumentalise, something greater to and external to one’s self, something that by its very existence assumes more power than of one’s will and ability, and rational thought – all of which, I believe is the fundamental basis of religion itself.

Monuments to religion have been central to innumerable wars and acts of murder and plunder over the centuries. Wave upon wave of religious fanatic rulers have destroyed and built upon what they deemed to be a challenege to their belief system, their religion. Isn’t atheism just a belief system as much as religion? Isn’t the idea of creating monuments to say, Perspective, as is de Botton’s first project in this series, equivalent to building a temple to just one of Hinduism’s thousands of deities? Is Perspective just a name for another excuse to gain intellectual and moral power  – for isn’t my perspective different from yours? Whose Perspective will this monument be to? Isn’t the existence of God a perspective of choice for the pious? Won’t this temple then, be another triumph for the religious?

Alain de Botton has forgotten that atheists rely on the power of their own minds and selves, their own abilities. The central notion behind atheism is that the atheist is in control of his/her own destiny and actions, that no power beyond the realm of human understanding and action determines their life’s outcomes – whether that be moral, intellectual or metaphysical. The need for religion itself contradicts that sense of self belief and ownership.

And therein lies the contradiction.

Then again, if atheists come from a point of view that religion is the cause of most strife in the world, isn’t the very challenge to centuries of physical manifestation of religion an act of agression that echoes the aggression of religious supremacists through the centuries? The idea that “my belief system is superior to yours, and I will assert that notion by building a larger, more grandiose monument to it”. And, more pettily, “if you can have your monuments, so can I.”

I’m afraid the rather self-indulgent idea doesn’t stack up. Much like the 46 metre high tower that Botton proposes, each centimetre equating to a million years…and costing £1 million, in a near-recession.

The only thing this lends mileage to is perhaps Alain de Botton’s controversy-quotient (which can only be a good thing around the timing of a new book launch), and to the architect who’s visualised the project for de Botton.

But then again, if it’s Alain de Botton there’s a good likelihood that it will make interesting reading.

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