A Tower for What, Now?

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.

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6 Responses to A Tower for What, Now?

  1. Richard says:

    Been meaning to follow up on a couple of your posts for a while, but organization keeps slipping away from me. Two things in response here.

    First, while I wouldn’t say the Hitchens+Dawkins+Harris trinity is “dangerous” as such, I do wonder sometimes if their aggressive rationalism isn’t missing (at least part of) the point. Of course we need to actively defend the scientific and technological progress rationalism has made, and we shouldn’t shy away from advocating for what we believe is the truth. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that most (if not all, really) of the opposition rationalism faces is because people perceive it as a threat to their traditional social values. (And in many cases, it is indeed a threat, because we see the world differently.) Dogma and ritual may be a way of making sense of the world, but they are also (and, I think, primarily) ties that help you define a community of people who care about the same things and who stick together; the fact of tradition is probably more important than the dogma. Traditions provide social cohesion and a sense of identity that is constantly under threat from people telling them they’re wrong or backwards. I think HDH and others like them either miss that, preferring to be carried solely on the basis of being right about the natural world, or scorn it, likening churchgoers to sheep — or to an angry mob — without providing an alternative.

    Second, I think de Botton is right that rationalism doesn’t have a good answer to that. And to the extent that people believe “thinking for yourself” means being willing to cut yourself off from a community of like-minded people with whom you disagree, I doubt any traction will appear. It’s not just that pluralism is hard. Alienation is one of the enduring themes of the modern era, a social ill which hasn’t been much addressed in the bulk and for which each of us is forced to find our own solution. Some atheists see that as a source of pride; I don’t. But I also don’t think that de Botton can manufacture reverence: so much of our knowledge of the natural world, while awe-inspiring, is still too new and is necessarily in flux. I haven’t yet found post-modern rituals that really tie me down to anything solid, permanent, or reliable. Apart from the totally spontaneous act of lying down on a hilltop on a clear night and staring upwards, the most devotion and higher calling I’ve felt in recent years has been from the Zen-like (if secular) practice of aikido, which is deeply traditional, or the contemplation of readings from Buddhist texts. And indeed, Buddhism takes a particular response to flux, impermanence, and alienation, and makes it universal, wherein, I would bet, lies much of its appeal for the sincere.

    Reminds me of a friend’s post on animism’s place in modern syncretic religious impulses:
    which discusses a lot of the same stuff, both in the body of the post and in the comments.

    • As always, you give me a lot to think about :). I’ll tackle the first paragraph for now and then revisit the other later, since I’m on pain meds from getting two crowns done today. As a result, this may ramble a bit. Stupid molars.

      While not destructive, by de Botton’s assessment, I can agree that HDH(D) (now with more Daniel Dennett, whose name I forgot the first time around) are certainly aggressive. My personal opinion is that this is a good thing, mainly because of the level of aggression – and arrogance – on the part of those who would see their religion crammed into public schools, at least in the US. I also agree with you that people very likely perceive that atheists present a threat to people’s traditional way of life. It’s strange that even now, when I say the word “atheist” in my head, I feel a knee jerk negative reaction as a result of everything I was exposed to growing up: they’re bad … they have no values … they want to change the way you live and force their way of life on you … why don’t they just shut the hell up and stop causing trouble?? That’s the impression I get when even I say the word, and I’m one of them.

      I think the perception that atheists want some kind of fundamental change to traditional social values is correct. I don’t necessarily think the desire for such change is wrong, depending on what kind of values we’re talking about. Charity, community, cooperation, compassion, non-violence … these are all admirable traits, and I have no quarrel with anyone holding such values dear, regardless of their religious convictions. However, I obviously don’t think such values are contingent upon a belief in a higher power – and I strongly suspect that most people who practice them would do so anyway, not because it’s forced upon them by way of some divine mandate, but because they’re genuinely good people.

      On the other hand, there are other traditional social values (you and) I want to eliminate forever. The treatment of homosexuals as second class citizens, the subjugation of women (jobs, marriage, reproductive rights, etc.), biblical inerrancy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Christian “Science” that allows children to die rather than take them to a hospital, and so on. These aren’t based on any rational ideas and do nothing but harm others, so there is no valid reason why they should still be part of our society or our belief structure. For some people to view atheism as “bad” because their way of life is going away – when it is, in fact, wrong and backwards – is just fine with me. We just need to be very careful on what we call “wrong and backwards”.

      To that end, I think we need to acknowledge that not all traditions are inherently evil. For example, I don’t necessarily have any problem with rituals. To have regular events – solstice celebrations, harvest feasts, etc., in which a celebration is carried out in a certain fashion the same exact way our ancestors did before us – is harmless enough and, as you said, could provide a society with a time of contemplation, a sense of cohesion, and a shared history … even if they don’t necessarily have anything else in common.

      • Richard says:

        Ouchies. Heal up soon, man.

        Also, I dunno when you changed your handle to “Senator Jason”, but I’ve always suspected you were the Mother Superior’s illegitimate son secretly raised by the monks. 🙂

        You touched on a lot of stuff I was thinking but didn’t say. I agree that we have made tremendous social progress, particularly in the area of human rights broadly construed (women’s, gay, racial minorities et al.). But a lot of the momentum of this progress has been fueled by Enlightenment rationalist thought. In other words, one’s thinking about the universe necessarily informs decisions made about values, as much as one would like to pay lip service to Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria”. Beliefs about the universe aren’t the only variable in that equation, but they must be a very important one.

        As an example along the lines you mentioned (and as C. S. Lewis himself used once), we no longer burn witches at the stake in large part because we don’t believe witches exist anymore. If we did, and sincerely believed they did grievous harm to ourselves and our communities, why wouldn’t we apply the death penalty?

        Of course I’m not defending such practices even in a devil’s-advocate kind of way. But, and I would love to be proved wrong here, I think that few people have the mental sophistication to logically separate ideas about the world from their consequences. So, people who oppose evolution will try to come up with logical arguments for their position in the guise of “intelligent design” (irreducible complexity and so forth), but there’s no hope of convincing them because the real stakes are not understanding of the world but protection of the social status quo. They oppose evolution not chiefly because they think it’s wrong, but because they feel it’s dangerous. It simply doesn’t matter how right you actually are because that’s not the point of the discussion.

        So my point was that if people are serious, as HDHD claim to be, about promoting Enlightenment rationalism, they can’t ignore this deep-seated emotional opposition and pretend the debate is occurring solely on the intellectual merits of the ideas. They have to somehow address this primal fear in their audience, and for that they need to cultivate at least a little bit of empathy for them.

        You know, now that I’ve gotten to the end of writing all this I’m starting to wonder if it’s really true. I feel like I should go look at conversion stories — from any set of religious beliefs to any other — to see how people’s opinions really are changed. Perhaps empathy has less to do with it than I thought. I’d better sign off before I get into more serious trouble.

        • I think my swinging from the chandeliers was a dead giveaway 🙂 But then, I’m jumping the gun …

          They oppose evolution not chiefly because they think it’s wrong, but because they feel it’s dangerous. It simply doesn’t matter how right you actually are because that’s not the point of the discussion.

          It’s both, in my opinion. They feel evolution, big bang cosmology, TEH GAYZ are all dangerous because they’re what they’ve come to accept as biblically “wrong”, and yet they are being promoted and encouraged by our evil, liberal, secular schools / media / what have you. As you said before, their way of life is slowly going away, and it scares them. To that, I generally think, “so what?” … but I understand that the kind of response that comes out of that fear means we’re fighting a woefully asymmetrical battle, and there’s no way to win (specifically against them) with reason.

          It’s also very likely that you wouldn’t go to HDHD for sympathy in that department, either.

          But what should be done, then? My thoughts immediately go to making sure we teach kids how to be curious, think critically, examine their preconceived notions, and constantly interrogate the world around them. Flood money into the sciences, math, logic, music … EDUCATE them. The problem is, any attempt to do that is perceived by the fundamentalist crowd as “taking god out of the schools”, and they fight tooth and nail to force creationism into the science classroom and demand that we call big bang cosmology “only a theory”. Showing empathy to their situation will not make them give any more in your direction; they’ll just push for you to give up even more until you see it their way.

          In other words, they’re fighting reason with fear BECAUSE IT WORKS. But not the other way around. Reason will give way to fear, but fear will not listen to reason. So we’re stuck. How are we supposed to handle a fight against reason and rationality itself? The only thing I can think of would be to pretend to do the same thing they are … except with Islam. They’re hated just as much as atheists, so if you have a group of Muslims who push to get THEIR creation story taught as science … THEIR morality legislated … THEIR way of life getting special treatment … it night be just the thing to get them to realize what they’re doing is stupid and childish too.

          Or it would just cause more hate crimes against Muslims. Actually I’m pretty sure that’s all it would do. Assuming any rational thought as a result of fighting fear with fear is hopelessly delusional.

    • OK, this is a response to the second part, which I’m finally getting to. I have to do a lot of writing in the next few days, starting with this and then coming up with some posts for Friday and Saturday. Sneak preview: next week is movie week since I’m going away on business! (I also hope this all makes sense … it’s pretty late.)

      I think it comes down to the fact that religion and rationalism sell two different – though not mutually exclusive – products.

      Religion sells strict, rigid structure and order, often on pain of death or eternal punishment. This is the way things are because God(s) told us and that’s the final word. It doesn’t need to explore the universe for answers because we have them already and they are taught by way of relentless repetition. Rituals, dogma, chants, prayers, ceremonies … its end product is comfort wrapped in absolute certainty*, reinforced to the point of reflex and muscle memory. You don’t have to think anymore because religion has both done it for you and programmed it into you. What is the nature of the universe? What is the meaning of life? Where do we go when we die? You’ll be chanting the answer before you realize it because that’s what you’ve been doing ever since you can remember.

      Does rationalism – or, more specifically, the scientific method / methodological naturalism – have an answer to these questions? Does it provide comfort or hope? No? Well, then it must be faulty somehow. Never mind the fact that it was designed to produce a fundamentally different product, with no absolute certainty guaranteed, implied, or even mentioned unless it’s to tell you there is none. What it provides in the end, as we well know, is a way to describe, model, and predict the world we observe, with the understanding that it’s very likely incomplete, imperfect, but guaranteed to improve as our understanding grows.

      The former desperately clings to certainty and immutability for its existence; the latter warmly embraces uncertainty and flux as simply the nature of reality. Living in a modern society with science pushing forward into the void with the rituals of religion providing some constancy within it all sounds like it effectively fills both psychological needs.

      And indeed, Buddhism takes a particular response to flux, impermanence, and alienation, and makes it universal, wherein, I would bet, lies much of its appeal for the sincere.

      The adoption of Zen Buddhism by more people in our society would be a welcome thing, in my opinion. A more collective acknowledgment of impermanence as a perpetual condition of the universe – to the point where it started putting down “roots” in our societal identity – would mark a fundamental shift in the way we deal with reality and be far more friendly to science and rationality than what we have now.

      * I think I just likened religion to a hot pocket.

  2. Richard says:

    Ok, this thread is getting hugemunchious so I won’t keep battering you over the head. I’d just like to clarify a few things on my side:

    Let me emphasize that *empathy* (identifying with the other’s viewpoint to understand it more completely) and *sympathy* (agreeing with it) aren’t necessarily the same, although colloquially the words are often used in the same way. I’m trying to work out as I type what this would translate into action-wise, certainly not fighting fear with fear. Probably, rather, an *explicit* argument not only that evolution and Big Bang cosmology describe the universe in which we live, but also that people who believe this can still be good people (using some appropriately universal definition of “good”) and that civilization won’t come to a grinding halt because of it. These are logically distinct things for rationalists (though not for religious conservatives, according to my hypothesis). We can each think for ourselves, and still come to the same conclusions on certain important matters.

    That’s what I *was* trying to say; I’m no longer sure it’s right but it may be worth looking into. Rationalism e.g. in science education is an essential ingredient, but equally important is an emphasis on universal ethical values. For my part, I couldn’t accept the viewpoint of Campus Crusade back in college because of my rationalistic worldview, but I didn’t stop feeling *bad* about it until I realized that according to what I thought were fairly commonly held views about what was decent behavior, they weren’t significantly better human beings overall, and indeed many of them were jerks. So we might take it on ourselves (it’s not the state’s job) to argue that such universal values as you described in your part 1 response above (charity, human dignity etc.) should *supersede* the narrower values being espoused by the fundamentalists (subordination of women, homophobia etc.) — not just that these latter aren’t values ordained by God (even some Christians point that out, per your link), but that basic charity and human dignity are more fundamental things that demand a different response — e.g. that if God exists, He can’t be homophobic. Even staunchly religious social progressives have used such arguments before (e.g. Christian advocates for the abolition of slavery).

    Haven’t got much else to say on tradition vs. impermanence except that I think there’s a question of the time constant society needs to adjust to new things — I wonder if it is now measurably shorter than the rate at which social change is taking place and new traditions being developed. That would make even reasonable people feel unmoored. And as my other friend pointed out, even the familiar strains of Buddhism (including Zen) are themselves mash-ups with other cultural trends. Do you know if anyone’s looked at the rate of evolution of new religious thought as a function of the rate of technological change? That’s gotta be worth a book.

    This starts to get farther afield into different things entirely, so I’ll stop here but I think that’s what I was getting at. If you’ve got any more thoughts on universalist vs. traditional ethics I might like to see a whole post devoted to it, when you’ve got time. Heck, if you don’t I might write one. Enjoy your trip!

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