A few days ago, I wrote about Alain de Botton’s proposal for an “Atheism 2.0”, in which he suggested that some of religions rituals, teaching methods, etc., could theoretically be adopted by a non-religious society for a more effective way of teaching some of its values. I’ve come to hear a pretty wide range of opinions on the topic, but I’ll still maintain that some aspects of secular moral philosophy could use some regular, non-religious – but also non-ritualized – reinforcement. Seems reasonable enough to throw around in conversation, I guess; I think more often of charity and those less fortunate every time Christmas comes around, and that’s not the result of anything supernatural …
Anyway, I just got wind of this, from the same guy:
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.
Boy, that was a good one-two, wasn’t it? First, the celebration of a position of non-belief, and second, a dig at a reputable biologist and fellow atheist. Of course, there’s nothing to say that every atheist has to agree on everything; just look at some videos with Sam Harris, Chris Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, and you’ll see plenty of disagreement to go around. The problem I have with something like this is that there doesn’t need to be ANY kind of celebration of atheism. It kind of defeats the purpose. Do we celebrate not believeing in Santa Claus? Or not believing in Zeus? Well, before I go any further, let’s get a description of the tower:
De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life … [he] revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. 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.
OK, I’d go and see it if I were ever in London. It actually does sound really interesting and I’d take plenty of photos. But that’s not a temple in support of atheism or secularism; it’s a monument to the existence of life on earth, and our virtually miniscule – yet selfishly precious – place in it. My opinion is to just let it stand on its own merit. If people want to see God in it, let them. Instead of saying anything about atheism, though, we should demonstrate to people that it’s the marriage of both scientific inquiry and artistic expression that brought us to the level of understanding that is reflected in such a beautiful monument.
“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.”
… and then there’s the dig on ol’ Rich n’ Hitch. Now, obviously, Dawkins can take care of himself and he’s heard far worse, but he still took issue with the whole temple idea on the basis that it seemed a waste of money:
“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.”
Atheists certainly don’t need temples, since such things were and are designed for worship of something we imagine to be larger than ourselves. BUT … if someone were to feel compelled to independently create a piece of art (building, painting, sculpture, etc) that filled the averge viewer with enough of a sense of awe about the natural world that they’d feel inspired to learn more – with actual science and reason as their guide – then I’d be willing to support that as a worthy cause.
Given the circumstances, though, the best thing we can possiby do with any kind of additional money we have is to funnel it into our schools so we’re no longer the laughing stock of the developed world. We desperately need to get our priorities straight. The first step would be to permanently ban the teaching of creationism in our public school science classrooms. Then, focus on rigorous science and math education, supplemented with music and a mandatory foreign language program … but I digress.
The last point is about Alain’s view regarding Dawkins, Hitchens, and company. I know they may be loud, they may be controversial, but I hardly see them as “destructive” … especially since the very thing they oppose is the very real, measurable destructive nature of religion on science and even rational thought as a whole. As an American citizen, I see firsthand the effects of fundamentalist dogma on our education system. Just look at the Texas Schoolboard … or Indiana … or Rhode Island. Hell, even my old school – which was far from any kind of religious haven – had a poster in the back that had the beginning of the world at 4000 BC, with “giants roaming the earth” shortly thereafter. Ideas like that have a place, but it’s not in a history class, and it sure as hell isn’t in a science class.
They may oppose religion and want to reduce its influence in the secular world, but even they admit to being moved by some of the works of poetry, architecture, and music that have come about over the centuries as a result. I feel the same way about religion, but I’m not going to try to convert someone who believes something that I don’t, or complain about their views … provided they don’t attempt to legislate it or call it science. I don’t see either point of view as “destructive”, considering what it is that we want “destroyed”.
One last bit from the Guardian, which I found after the fact … same ideas, though:
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.
In short, I think this guy needs to stop approaching atheism like another religion. We may be able to learn something from the religious world, but a little bit goes a long way and we have plenty of things that fit the bill already.