A temple to atheism, for crying out loud

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.


  1. Kevin
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Seems like you closed nominations for “Moron of the Month” a day too soon.

  2. Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    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”.

  3. Posted January 27, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure if you’ve seen his pretty daft ad campaign for his new book. Check out the posters:


  4. Gremlin
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I propose that we rename him Alain de-Kiss-My-Bottom…

  5. Gluon
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink


    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.

  6. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    T’is a scraping from de botton of de barrel. I hope.

  7. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    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).

    • Posted January 27, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Even since its Eurostarization?


      • Dermot C
        Posted January 27, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

        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.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted January 28, 2012 at 12:32 am | Permalink

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 So I could be out of date there.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

  8. Mr Claw
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    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.

  9. sasqwatch
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    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.

    • Dermot C
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      Maybe so, sasqwatch, but a bit defeatist, don’t you think?

      • sasqwatch
        Posted January 27, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

        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.

  10. Posted January 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Now this is an atheist (well, secular) temple! (N.B. But certainly not a temple to atheism!)


  11. dunstar
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    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.

  12. bsk
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    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”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      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.

  13. Kharamatha
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Let’s build it on Orthanc.

    • Posted January 28, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      Yes, let’s build a temple to the cunning mind! :-D


  14. Kharamatha
    Posted January 28, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Though Botton’s brain could use some lembas.

  15. Dave
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    He’s like an atheist version of a poe, cept none of the atheists are buyin’ it.

  16. Albert Bakker
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    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.

  17. Wyocowboy
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I listened to a talk he gave on Ted.com and I thought he was way to lunch…

  18. Occam
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    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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