Proposed temple for atheists, London

Religion for atheists sounds like an oxymoron to me, but that’s the title of Alain de Botton’s new book. Now he’s promoting a “temple for atheists” in London. According to Thursday’s issue of The Guardian:

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.

Alain de Botton wants to soften the voice of “aggressive” atheism. I must say I get annoyed by the many people who criticise Dawkins for being antagonistic, as if the issues he raises are too trivial to warrant him even raising his voice or making a sarcastic comment; as if the true believers he attacks don’t have a long history themselves, from the Crusades to door-knockers, of haranguing the unfortunate, the unclean and the unsaved.

Be that as it may, The Urbanist’s prime interest is in the “temple for atheists” proposed by young London designers Tom Greenall and Jordan Hodgson. This is the Temple to Perspective (see exhibit):

It’s a long, black, hollow stone structure that stands 46 metres tall, where each centimeter is equal to one million years of life. At one meter high a line of gold one millimeter thick represents humanity, putting us puny humans in perspective with the entirety of existence

I like this variation on Carl Sagan’s “if all of existence were condensed to one day” concept, but as a physical symbol of atheism, that tower looks awfully dark and foreboding to me. It looks like a dystopian vision of a future London (perhaps under the heel of that “aggressive” Dawkins fellow?).

Dawkins himself doesn’t like the idea of a temple. He says:

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.

Andrew Copson from the British Humanist Society doesn’t like the idea of atheists building quasi-religious buildings either:

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.

However if there is a desire for a physical symbol, someone suggested the Hadron Collider would better signify the triumph of science and rationality over superstition. There’s also a long list of natural wonders that could be called on to give service (Atheists’ Rock?), or maybe a “decadent” place like Ibiza would be an ironic symbol of Godlessness.

Still, I’m interested in design. It might be a silly idea and it might be entirely unnecessary, but if we suppose for arguments sake that there were to be a monument to atheism in London – that is, a purpose built structure – I’d hope it wouldn’t look anything like the Temple to Perspective Alain de Botton is promoting.

For a start it shouldn’t be defined negatively by using a term like ‘temple’ that’s closely associated with religious buildings. It should be thought of as a symbol of atheism. And if it were to be any sort of tower – perhaps intended as a beacon of light and reason – it would have to handled very carefully for fear it would be interpreted as “reaching for the Heavens”.

Unlike the proposed Temple, which could barely fit 50 people standing, I think it should be filled with people celebrating freedom and the power to make their own destiny. And I envisage a light and airy structure, not one that’s heavy, stolid and brooding, like some severe seventeenth century fundamentalist.

Time will tell if it’s a serious proposal, or if it’s the type of PR stunt that only someone like Sam Finkler would pull.