27 January 2012

Bad idea, Alain. Bad idea.

I’m a little distressed. An atheist writer who I admire, whose books have played a formative role in my intellectual development, has made a rather silly proposal. Philosopher Alain de Botton wants to build a temple dedicated to atheism. This temple will also serve as a monument to “love, friendship, calm or perspective.”

Face, meet palm.

There are so many things wrong with this idea. Where to even begin? How about with the observation that atheism, by definition, requires no specific place of worship. Or that the money (all one million pounds of it) would be better spent on secular education and science advocacy. Or that buildings dedicated to reason, critical thinking and knowledge already exist (they’re called universities, libraries and laboratories), while places celebrating the natural world and human culture are likewise presently available to inspire the non-religious (they’re called museums, nature reserves, art galleries).

De Botton has written a new book, Religion for Atheists, and gave a TED talk on the central argument of his book: atheists need to borrow a few ideas from religion if they want to make atheism more palatable. De Botton thinks that atheism could benefit from adopting distinctly religious paraphernalia like rituals (including ritual baths!), sermons, and the use of art as a didactic tool.

Jerry Coyne rips apart De Botton’s proposition over at Why Evolution Is True, while the Guardian’s Steve Rose points out the contradiction inherent in the idea of institutionalising atheism:

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.

Oh Alain, what were you thinking?


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