The Genteel
October 27, 2020


Wembley Stadium is a temple of sport, where people come together to experience a collective outpouring of human emotion. Source:

A city is defined by its skyline. Although financial districts parade their steel and glass structures in a show of wealth and power, it is the monuments that give insight into the essence of a city. Rio de Janeiro is enveloped by the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer, absolving the sins of exuberant Carioca. The Statue of Liberty declares the independence and free spirit of America. The London skyline mixes the sacred with the profane, from the Sir Christopher Wren-designed dome of St Paul's Cathedral to the tourist magnet ferris wheel known as the London Eye. But what happens when a monument challenges the ingrained assumptions of its society?

Alain de Botton sees no disparity between his non-
belief and his appreciation of religious architecture
 and its uses. Photograph by Craig Abraham.

Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton has put the cat amongst the pigeons with a proposal to construct a temple for atheists in the heart of London. It would stand as a tower of non-belief admist the medieval church spires and steepling edifices of international banks. A monument of reason to act as counterpoint to the city's entwining of religiosity and worship of Mammon.

This temple of reason will be a focal point for a "new atheism," which de Botton describes as a more conciliatory approach in questioning the existence of a supreme being in a country where the Church still holds a powerful role as an instrument of the state. Taking aim at the slash-and-burn tactics of fellow atheist Richard Dawkins, de Botton outlines the need for a less aggressive and destructive mode of communication. De Botton calls for a way of reaching out and engaging with people by using a familiar, inspiring construct in a unfamiliar context, a topic on which he expands in his new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion.

Imposed austerity and a growing disconnect between the people and the authorities call for a new form of communion that bypasses organised religion, tribal loyalties and shopping sprees...

"Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that's positive and good," he said in an interview with The Guardian. "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 a lot of people who don't believe but aren't aggressive towards religions."

The proposed tower will stand 46-metres (151-feet) tall. It aims to give visitors a sense of the earth's longevity measured against humankind's twelfth hour arrival on the scene. The interior will be designed so that each centimetre will represent a million years of the planet's existence. Fossils and geological rock will be embedded in its concrete walls, and a thin sliver of gold near the top will illustrate the brief compendium of human history. A single door will give access to the tapering temple that will possess a roof open to the elements. Binary code of the human genome will be inscribed into its exterior walls.

Simultaneously inspiring, thoughtful and provocative, the idea has elicited detractors from across the board. Dawkins has responded to his challenger by deriding the proposal as a contradiction and a waste of resources that would be better spent on secular education. Much has been made of this in-house spat, but expecting Atheists to agree on the form of argument can be just as complex as getting Muslims and Christians to decide on the true nature of God.

More interesting, perhaps, are the media commentators who say that de Botton is missing the point of secularism. By using religious-coated trappings such as awe and transcedence, he is, they say, replicating religion's tendency to intimidate and compel people into a form of idolatory. These commentators argue that London's historic palaces, austere governmental buildings and gothic inspired churches already do a fine job of conveying a sense of powerlessness in ordinary people. Museums, football stadia and shopping malls are monuments that now fulfill the emotional and communal needs of a modern secular society.

The proposal to build an atheist tower in the City of
London has started a debate regarding the role
religion plays in a secular society. Image courtesy of 
Thomas Greenall and Jordan Hodgson.

A good argument, but a flawed one. Imposed austerity and a growing disconnect between the people and the authorities call for a new form of communion that bypasses organised religion, tribal loyalties and shopping sprees; a space to contemplate what it is to be human at this time and in this particular place without distraction.

Alistair Campbell, communications chief to former prime minister Tony Blair, once said that, "we don't do God." He was referring to British reluctance to allow religion to interfere with political decision-making. Unlike their American cousins, Brits are suspicious of politicians who wear their religion like a badge and invoke morality in the political arena.

Nonetheless, a leading member of the Conservative coalition government recently made a speech during a visit to the Vatican condemning the rise of "militant secularisation," and calling for "Christian values" to be reaffirmed in Europe. Baroness Warsi, who is, coincidentally, Muslim, was speaking on behalf of a government that proclaims the failure of multiculturalism and the need to bring back core British values, whatever they may be. All the while, the proliferation of divisive faith school education goes unchecked. Religion is being egded back into the limelight like a washed-up B-list actor coaxed out of retirement for the latest 3D blockbuster.

This is a dangerous game to play in a nation that remains overwhelmingly secular. It must be remembered that religion and secularism are not mutually exclusive and can co-exist successfully. America and Turkey are both secular countries in which religion thrives, as are France and India. The Church of England still maintains a powerful presence in the House of Lords, close to the levers of legislative power. Baroness Warsi's defensive comments illustrate its continuing influence and control over a society that would rather think for itself, free from the baggage of moral posturing.

Image courtesy of Thomas Greenall
and Jordan Hodgson.

Although funding has not been fully secured for the project and an opening date has yet to be announced, de Botton has already started work on the project in partnership with Tom Greenall Architects and Jordan Hodgson Designs. The only stumbling block that remains is that the Corporation of [the City of] London cannot be seen to endorse atheism in any way, says the project's architect Tom Greenall. For this reason, it may withhold planning permission for such a construction. Regardless, the proposal for an atheist temple has commenced a debate that asks what kind of values best represent the UK's postmodern capital city.

The old Bankside Power Station, which now houses the Tate Modern Gallery, was once a symbol of British industry. Its steeple tower provides a symmetrical counterpoint to St Paul's Cathedral, located directly across the River Thames. As times change, London has witnessed the rise of art and culture while industry has diminished. Alain de Botton's temple will probably not usurp St Paul's or the banking sectors' shimmering monoliths, but it could offer London an interesting piece of architecture and a much-needed opportunity for reflection.



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