A recent Good.is article by Tom Greenall (an architect at DSDHA and studio tutor at the Royal College of Art) details how he and several colleagues teamed up with Alain De Botton, who was writing Religion for Atheists, to explore what atheists and secularists might learn from traditional theist practices. Together, they worked “to develop designs for a series of ‘temples to atheists,’ which would feature in his book.”
During their research and design for these secular temples, De Botton identified “that one of his primary concerns was with secular society’s need to be awed. This desire is something that we feel whether or not we subscribe to a faith.”
That’s true. There is a universal desire to experience awe through beauty. People seek it in religious expression and experience, the majesty of nature, grand man-made spaces, the arts, and so on. Believers already have dedicated spaces for religious-based awe, but atheists do not. De Botton and his team want to provide non-religious spaces (or “atheistic temples”) where atheists might go to encounter awe.
But will such spaces satisfy the desire? Professor and author C.S. Lewis didn’t think so. In his work The Weight of Glory, Lewis said that searching for awe apart from God will leave the seeker empty:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
The things of this world — even the beautiful, awe-inspiring things — do not permanently satisfy the desire. We take in beauty in all its glory, experiencing great joy and pleasure. But these experiences only awaken and multiply the longing.
What we want from awe is transcendence, and no beauty on earth can promise us that. Awe is meant to lead us to the source that satisfies the root desire of our hearts. Christianity says the source is Jesus. Our awe-some encounters are meant to lead us to Him.
Will atheists find God in their secular temples? These magnificent places have the potential. Once the desire for transcendence is stirred, it just may lead them to look for more.