Friday, 27 January 2012

At the altar of non-belief: philosopher Alain de Botton proposes a temple for atheists

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An artist's impression of Alain de Botton's "Temple to Perspective
Alain de Botton has been accused of many things – of being superficial, self-absorbed and most recently (by Terry Eagleton) "banal" – but no one would call him stupid. The PR campaign for his latest book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, is a case in point. To accompany the book’s publication he has launched a campaign to build a “£1 million atheist temple” in the City of London, dedicated to the wonders of the evolution. It sounds rather nice – a 46 metre narrowing tower (De Botton himself refers to it as "A Temple to Perspective") with a roof open to the sky, with layers of fossil-studded rock representing the different eras of the earth’s life, ending at the ground with a wafer-thin strip of gold depicting the infinitesimally short span of human life on the planet.

De Botton, who has some previous motivating property developers to invest, claims he has already raised half the money, but, more importantly for the sale of his new book, he has raised the ire of Richard Dawkins and the interest of the media. According to today’s Guardian, Dawkins is appalled at the idea, and would prefer to see the money sunk into his (not entirely uncontroversial) idea of secular schooling. It was also dismissed by Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, who said humanists can get their sense of awe and wonder from art, theatre and long walks in the country, thanks very much.

Some on the other side are not happy either: Rev Katharine Rumens, rector of St Giles' Cripplegate church, in Barbican, near where the temple is likely to be located, suggested that it would lack the sense of community of a church and wouldn't really speak to the human condition. However, media vicar George Pitcher welcomed the move as offering a more positive form of atheism than that represented by Dawkins.

All in all a perfect strategy. Reject God and piss of Dawkins? Check. Have a groovy picture and a slick website? Check. A million quid to chuck in the headline? Check. Stoking the embers of the debate over modern architecture, and available for comment at short notice? Check and check. Which is probably why every newspaper appears to have run with the story, no doubt the TV news shows will follow suit, and Hamish Hamilton will be licking their chops.

I interviewed De Botton at length last week for the next issue of new Humanist (out Feb 16). No spoilers, but I’ll say this: he’s a smart guy.
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