de Botton backs off the atheist temple, and a flashback to his freakout

Remember, Alain de Botton’s grandiose plans to build an Atheist Temple in London?  Well, according to Richard Wiseman’s website, Botton claims he was “misinterpreted”.  Basically, Botton now claims that he was merely asking architects to build on the achievements of the past. In an emailed “correction” to Wiseman, Botton said this:

Evidently the term ‘temple for atheists’ has set up uncomfortable associations. People have imagined I might be interested in worshipping an absent deity, or perhaps setting up a cult. Nothing as dramatic or as insane is on the cards. I’m simply arguing that contemporary architecture analyse the high points of religious architecture throughout history – and that we should allow a new generation of architects to tread in the footsteps of great secular creatives indebted to the ecclesiastical, people like Kahn, Ando and Zumthor.”

Yes, yes, but who’s preventing architects from doing that? But frankly, there’s a lot of great modern architecture—much of it here in Chicago—that doesn’t have a lot of resonance with ecclesiastical buildings.  Take the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, or even the Sydney Opera House: both could be considered monuments to secularism.  We don’t always have to ape Notre Dame to create beautiful buildings in which wonderful things can be seen or heard.

Botton’s long mea culpa represents a failure of accommodationism: atheists don’t need the trappings of religion to have a fulfulling life.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain: one of my favorite modern buildings

Oh, and an alert reader reminded me of something I had forgotten, but speaks to de Botton’s self-styled comity.  In 2009 Caleb Crain gave a pretty negative review to de Botton’s book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, and then posted about it on his (Crain’s) website.  de Botton went ballistic (many of you might remember this):

Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon – so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that’s two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as ‘nice’ in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It’s only fair for your readers (nice people like Joe Linker and trusting souls like PAB) to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

53 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    A ridiculous idea devolves to the merely trivial. Alain de Botton thinks architects should design great buildings.

    • Kharamatha
      Posted February 5, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      This was also my response. The clarification did nothing to bolster him, and rather reeks of dishonest backpedalling.

  2. BilBy
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen the Museum in Bilbao. I’ve also seen the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. In neither place did I feel either atheist or religious. I felt like someone admiring architecture. de Botton really is a bit of an arse.

  3. Chris Granger
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

    Well, that was simultaneously juvenile and a little bit creepy.

    If de Botton wants to be the pope of atheism, Caleb Crain can be his diabolical archnemesis, who actually has the power to kill books. Both of them will require nifty costumes and some gimmicks to make things more exciting.

    Sigh.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 4, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know –de Botton’s “freakout” reaction here actually made me a tad more sympathetic to him. Ah, Alain, this is why we don’t drink and write at the same time. This is why we hesitate before we hit that “send” button.

      Bet he felt sorry afterwards. And bet every writer who ever felt they got an unfair review feels just a little stab of recognition and empathy. Yeah, I was smart enough not to write that out and put it online for everyone else in the world to see. Or maybe … lucky enough.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted February 5, 2012 at 2:09 am | Permalink

      who actually has the power to kill books

      of course. doesn’t everyone carry around a pack full of basilisk teeth?

      • Kharamatha
        Posted February 5, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

        It makes me smile, that I didn’t need the link.

  4. sasqwatch
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I was curious, and had to check out some of the Amazon reviews of “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”. [distribution of stars 5(16);4(14);3(6);2(5);1(1)]
    An amazing range of opinion – with some reviewers comparing him to Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. Some people offering devastating criticisms, yet still rating the thing 4 stars.
    From a 4-star review: “Boy, can this guy write! …with respect to tuna killing: ‘There is a dull sound, that of densely packed brain and experience, shattering inside a tight bony cage, triggering the thought that we too are never more than one hard slam away from a definitive end to our carefully arranged ideas and copious involvement with ourselves.’ Good, right?” Another 4-star review uses that same passage as an example.
    From a 2-star review, which describes his writing as florid and pretentious: “But when my new friends took the joystick, their eyes appeared to be somewhere else entirely, perhaps imagining the aircraft at Mach 2, over the Pamir Mountains heading down along the Fedchenko Glacier, after unloading on their enemy a battery of Storm Shadow air-to-ground missiles, thereby putting behind them the humiliations of former conflicts, with freezing nights in caves and the smell of camels’ breath in the dewy dawn.”
    I guess there just is no accounting for taste.

    • sasqwatch
      Posted February 4, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      And from the single one-star review: “he simply offers observations about specific jobs. also tells us that he was eating cheese sandwiches at the time.” 🙂

      • daveau
        Posted February 4, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        If he was eating cheese sammiches, then he deserves a 1. Just sayin’.

    • dunstar
      Posted February 4, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      lolz. Yeah I don’t think he’s Mark Twain.

  5. dunstar
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    lolz. Oh the rage! So would that then be considered as strident?

    Well if someone wrote a bad review of his book, he didn’t need to go apesh!t! lolz. He could have written a rebuttal to address the issues brought up by the review! Unless his book really did suck and he had nothing to rebutt with!

    • sasqwatch
      Posted February 4, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      From what I’ve read so far, his work is difficult to characterize — it defies categories and refuses to be so easily pigeon-holed. I suppose I’m saying that it sucks AND blows simultaneously.

      • Kharamatha
        Posted February 5, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        “I didn’t think it was physically possible, but this both sucks and blows.”

        • sasqwatch
          Posted February 5, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

          I had to Google it. Apparently a Bart Simpson quote. And I was taking my cue from the old “why is it so windy in Oklahoma?” joke.

          Goes to show how difficult writing is.

  6. chance
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always fancied the idea of creating a secular “church” and calling it “The First Church of Good.” Get it? Ho ho ho.

    If anyone does such a thing in the future you heard it here first 😉

    • Kharamatha
      Posted February 5, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      *Thumbs up.*

  7. Cody Porter
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I read Botton’s The Art of Travel last year in a humanities course and really enjoyed it (I’d even recommend it). That being said, the more I learn about the man, the more disappointed I am.

  8. Occam
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    The 2012 Ron Ziegler Award goes to…
    …Alain de Botton!

    The dedication is inscribed:

    This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.

  9. Posted February 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    At first I thought bringing up de Botton’s screed was rather pointless and petty, but it’s actually a very nice counterexample to the recent accomodationist article pairing his grinning visage with a scowling Dawkins. Sure de Botton may look friendly, but good luck finding anything this vicious written by Dawkins.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted February 4, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      There were Dawkins’s words on the Midge in the new preface to ‘The Selfish Gene’ – ‘somebody named MM’ (if I remember rightly); she managed to get under his skin somehow.

      • Posted February 4, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        Well, Midgley has created a one-woman cottage industry based upon her complete misinterpretation of TSG, so RD’s frustration there is completely understandable.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted February 4, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I know.

      • Julien Rousseau
        Posted February 5, 2012 at 2:45 am | Permalink

        Sure, but he only went as far as calling her paper “intemperate and vicious” and quoting Medawar about those “who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought”, thus implying that she is that herself.

        Not quite the same level of vitriol as hating somebody until you die and hoping them ill in all their professional endeavour. Nor is his criticism couched in as low brow a fashion as de Botton’s is.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted February 5, 2012 at 5:04 am | Permalink

          Yes, I know. I was merely pointing out that RD has critics who (quite unsurprisingly)irritate him and whose attacks he has gone out of his way to address (and why not?). As for de Botton’s ‘vitriol’ it so childishly innocuous as to be laughable.

  10. jonjermey
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Let’s not forget, too, that people who have to actually work or otherwise spend a lot of time in buildings which are ‘great architecture’ often find them poorly-thought-out, irritating or just plain dangerous. The Sydney Opera House, for instance, failed to meet any of its original criteria as a performance space.

    Perhaps we should let our ‘great architects’ loose in virtual space only, and have real buildings constructed by engineers who know what they are doing; failing that, every architect should be obliged to live and work for a year in any avant-garde building they design.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 5, 2012 at 12:02 am | Permalink

      Sydney Opera House is also a structural fraud; the architect visualised a lightweight shell structure, but nobody could find a way to make it stable. It’s actually a grid of heavy precast concrete beams with concrete cladding – about as light and airy as a bomb shelter.

      I think your point is well taken – architects seem to love producing bold design concepts with no thought to the idea that somebody’s got to build the thing.

  11. Posted February 4, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I made Alain his very own Rage Comic! 🙂

  12. Papalinton
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    Photos of Sydney opera House

    http://www.pleasetakemeto.com/australia/sydney-opera-house/photos

  13. Papalinton
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Damn!
    Should have checked out Jerry’s portfolio before clicking the button. Far more comprehensive. Still, they are nice pics.

  14. Dave Ricks
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Robert Booth at the Guardian reported de Botton “has raised almost half the [£1m] funds for the project from a group of property developers who want to remain anonymous. He hopes to find the rest of the money with a public appeal, and construction could start by the end of 2013 if permission is granted by the Corporation of London.”

    Kylie Sturgess at FTB quoted de Botton: “The story in the Guardian about a temple for atheists was nonsense; I’m doing no such thing, rest assured… it would have been very silly.”

    Well, which is it?

    Remember the time [your dog] ate my goldfish? And you lied to me and said I never had any goldfish? Then why did I have the bowl, Bart? Why did I have the bowl?! — Milhouse Van Houten

  15. Stuart_David
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Oh no jerry coyne. You had a spotless record with me but your persecution of De Botton just tarnished my esteem for you. You just fundamentally miss De Botton point when you reiterate yourself “atheists don’t need the trappings of religion to have a fulfulling life.”

    De botton deliberately is advocating the pillaging, modification, plagiarizing and adapting of whatever is good in religion for our secular purposes. In other words taking the trappings and undoing them or turning them to our advantage.

    All you have to do is accept 2 simple proposition that:

    1) there may be more to religion than supernatural bullshit

    2) some of that may be good for us to retain, modify, copy the format of or etc.

    If you can be open minded enough for that there’s nothing else to dislike in De Botton on this topic. Personally I’d like if he didn’t take jibes at Dawkins but even those were very on the mild side. Certainly okay if we wish to have a robust atheist community with a diversity of views.

    De botton is an ally of us and a valuable thinker and he deserves better treatment than what you’ve given him.

    Oh btw the last part of this post… it’s just irrelevant and petty. His honest “vitriol” is completely consistent with his ongoing effort to have people more honestly express how they feel, he has this beautiful style of being disarmingly honest about human emotions. Read his books/watch his documentaries/subscribe to his twitter feed you would see this.

    • Posted February 4, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      Telling someone to ‘grow up’ etc is not being ‘disarmingly honest about human emotions’ – it is mere insult.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted February 5, 2012 at 1:54 am | Permalink

      Oh no jerry coyne. You had a spotless record with me but your persecution of De Botton just tarnished my esteem for you

      oh noes!

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 5, 2012 at 3:26 am | Permalink

        😀

    • Ichthyic
      Posted February 5, 2012 at 2:00 am | Permalink

      1) there may be more to religion than supernatural bullshit

      We’ve looked. Not really. In fact, there’s really nothing there but secular ritual combined with inane dogma.

      secular ritual can be found at a football game, so we don’t need to look to religion for that.

      inane dogma, well, who needs that at all?

      2) some of that may be good for us to retain, modify, copy the format of or etc.

      relative to WHAT?

      Religion is like manure, it stinks, there are very few things useable in it, and there are far better options for the things that even are useable in it.

      • Kharamatha
        Posted February 5, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        And none of the good uses for humans involve wallowing in it.

    • Posted February 5, 2012 at 2:12 am | Permalink

      You might be right.

      I reject both 1 and 2, and I find Bolton insufferably vacuous.

    • satan augustine
      Posted February 5, 2012 at 4:39 am | Permalink

      On the contrary, there’s plenty to dislike about De Botton on this topic. Just read his answer to Kylie Sturgess’ first question in her interview of him:

      “In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything.

      Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the minuscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.

      Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I am simply wanting to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what is missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely. By all means, we can dismiss him, but with great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought…”

      Aside from the first sentence, this complete and utter close-minded bollocks. This is exactly the sort of nonsense we hear from Christians who attack atheism:

      – Without god we’re in danger of becoming unethical, unempathetic.

      – We’re in danger of placing the human being at the center of everything, which I interpret to mean that without god we run the rick of becoming self centered. However, I see placing human beings at the center of everything as a partial description of humanism.

      -Without god there’s the danger of believing that science and technology as an eventual panacea. I’ve never heard any “New Atheist” (or any other atheist) express this opinion.

      -If we dismiss god we must do so with great sympathy, nostalgia, care, and thought. Why? Why would we need to do this for a nonexistent being. And I have no sense of nostalgia or sympathy for the religion I left behind, and who is De Botton to tell me how I should feel.

      He makes multiple assertions, but provides no evidence for them. They are his opinions and they opinions not shared by a large majority of atheists. Furthermore, De Botton may be an atheist, but he is certainly not a skeptic since he doesn’t seem to value empirical evidence whatsoever.

      He comes across as a fraud trying to start a cult of personality. Perhaps he’s projecting his personal concerns about himself onto all atheists.

      • Stuart_David
        Posted February 5, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        Sorry but I have to respectfully disagree. I think what he is trying to get at is a very real and actual concern. It is extremely common for people who believe in God to just scream nihilism ad nausea if we are to accept there is no god. They do have a point though. Unfortunately there is no overarching ethical framework that binds secularists. Of course it’s completely possible to study philosophy, science, law and build moral/ethical framework but this is by no means straightforward and easy.

        The secular/rationalist worldview takes some intelligence and effort to grasp. much more than religion. What I am getting at is that if you take an average religious person, in America specially, just stripping down their christian worldview( which most likely is just a benign vanilla type christianity) shouldn’t be the extent of our efforts as secularists/rationalists. we should want to provide whatever it is they got when they were in the religion minus the supernatural nonsense.

        His points are all real concerns when you strip someones worldview to “brusquely” as he puts it. So i will try give you my take on the points De Botton is making:

        -Individualism

        There is a danger of too much individualism, just look at the number of libertarians in the atheist community it’s fucking embarrassing. Does religion make people automatically less selfish… well of course it depends on the version… A lot of the disgusting evangelicals are just cesspools of selfishness that preach me me me and individualism. But there are still many religious doctrines that do focus almost exclusively on community and charity specially in europe where De Botton is. that probably biases his views

        “-danger of technological perfectionism”

        I happen to disagree here, I am a transhumanist I believe in technology and science pretty much fixing everything one day. However I think there is a legitimate debate to be had about ethics and morals about what we want technology for? Unfortunately science doesn’t yet answer the question What do we do science for? what’s the point? I happen to think science will one day actually be able to tell us what we each actually value. This is a fine discussion to have about what it is to be human, transhumanism, morals and future technology. If we disagree so be it.

        “Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the minuscule nature of our own achievements.”

        I think nothing can make you appreciate the brevity of our time more than astrophysics. But it’s perfectly plausible to me that someone who stops believing in god might think, “well this is the only life I got so fuck it I will just do the most I can for now and that’s it”. I have no clue how often this happens but the point is it’s worth addressing if it is a problem. De bottom’s seems to think it is.

        “there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.”

        Again I don’t want to repeat myself but this point is about nihilism. I think a lot of people are kept in churches and believing in god because they simply believe if you lose god you lose morals… De bottom is saying this is a danger. this does happen. It obviously doesn’t have to though, there are plenty of secular alternatives.

        For example I’ve been to unitarian church sermon which was almost entirely made up of atheists… the sermon was about morals/ethics, how to live a good life etc. People would more readily give up god if they knew they could retain this kind of stuff.

        De botton is very big in trying to take philosophy and make it useful for our lives. He started the “The school of Life” in london and look at the kind of courses they offer:

        How To Live in a Wired World
        How To Be Confident
        How Necessary Is A Relationship
        How To Balance Work With Life
        How To Be A Better Friend
        How To Be Cool
        How To Enjoy Your Family
        How To Face Death
        How To Fill The God-shaped Hole
        How To Find A Job You Love
        How To Have Better Conversations
        How To Make a Difference
        How to Make Love Last
        How To Realise Your Potential
        How To Spend Time Alone
        How To Stay Calm
        How To Worry Less About Money
        Summer School

        And look at the sermon topics they have it ranges from everything to physics, morals, psychology…

        I just don’t see what you seem to see in him a fame grubbing guy trying to be a cult leader.

        He is not a scientist and does not claim to be one. He operates at the philosophical level which does lack evidence. Again I happen to think that philosophy should basically be crushed under evidence and have evidence based assertions inserted wherever possible. I accept however that some areas of are still fairly impenetrable to science at the present and it’s the job of philosophers to explore these.

        I hope I am not coming across as just a hopeless apologists for De Botton because I am not I am pretty sure I would turn on him in a moment if I thought he was harmful. I just don’t think he is and I think he is being misunderstood based on the comments and post about him on this topic, I’ve read his books, watched his documentaries and follow him closely I’ve even exchanged a few emails with him. He is just much more benign, well meaning, docile than he is being made out to be. His insights and points more or less directed at your internal motivations, your values, morals. In the secular community we plainly lack this kind of thinker.

        • GBJames
          Posted February 5, 2012 at 11:27 am | Permalink

          Stuart_David,

          Your comment is too long to go at point-by-point, but if I have a handle on it the summary is wrong. Speaking for myself, I don’t see De Botton as harmful as much as misleading, of himself as well as others.

          Unfortunately there is no overarching ethical framework that binds secularists. So what? There is no overarching ethical framework that binds religionists either.

          There is a danger of too much individualism, just look at the number of libertarians in the atheist community it’s fucking embarrassing. Again, so what? In the US these libertarian yokels (I, too, am embarrassed by them) are mostly aligned with (or themselves) Republican theists (e.g. Ron Paul). This is not a sensible reason to go building atheist temples.

          I think a lot of people are kept in churches and believing in god because they simply believe if you lose god you lose morals… De bottom is saying this is a danger. This might be so, but so what. These people are mistaken. And so is De Botton. They will continue to be mistaken after he builds his temple.

          The fact that he is not a scientist does not excuse him from needing evidence. I’m not a scientist either, but I require evidence all the time. Without something to back up his ideas right here in the real world, why would we be willing to chip in to help him build a temple?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted February 5, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        What is this “with(out) God”? Surely not atheism, surely not secular societies.

  16. Ichthyic
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

    Church Lady:

    Well then, isn’t that special?

  17. Posted February 5, 2012 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    Thank you for an excellent update on that silly idea for an atheist temple. Atheists do not need a monument to disbelief in any shape or form. However, we do need to speak up and meet the challenges of superstition at all times.

  18. Diane G.
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    But frankly, there’s a lot of great modern architecture—much of it here in Chicago—that doesn’t have a lot of resonance with ecclesiastical buildings.

    A small corollary of a larger point…there’s a lot of human endeavor in general that has no resonance with anything ecclesiastical.

    Which is especially true of charitable activities. With good reason, nothing is done “in the name of” atheism. But a-religious initiatives have resulted in all the social safety net programs that make life in first world democracies endurable.

    The vast majority of music and other arts are a-religious, nonsectarian, etc.

    Science…well, science goes without saying.

    While the non-religious, rational, humanist motivations behind these initiatives are seldom emphasized or even noticed, one SO needs to keep them in mind when the religious get on their high horse about the lack of “atheist” charities, artistic contributions, etc.

  19. CarlosT
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 3:50 am | Permalink

    Gehry: meh. Instantly recognizable for sure, but not in a good way.

    If I go and get coffee at work I can see the Experience Music Project, which he designed, and it looks like something that was surgically removed from a giant and dropped at the bottom of the Space Needle. The Bilbao Guggenheim is at least not garish, that silver color isn’t bad.

  20. Mary
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

    Really? How old is de Botton?

  21. Leon
    Posted February 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    “(so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc)”

    Did I read that right, that he accused Caleb of zoophilia? Or was he just being careless with his commas?

  22. Dominic
    Posted February 9, 2012 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    Come to this late – amazed at de Botton’s vitriol there from someone who gives off the impression he is a stoic & who reveres Seneca!


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