Token Skeptic Interview With Alain de Botton – On Religion For Atheists

There’s been a recent spate of blogposts here on Freethought blogs (some in verse, by The Digital Cuttlefish - The Grandest One Of All and An Atheist Monument? Or, On Herding Cats), which address the claim that Alain de Botton has been proposing an “atheist monument” or “temples for atheists”.

Today I got a response to my questions to the author – he will be touring Australia in February:

There’s a growing number of books that bring a greater understanding (or at least awareness) of atheism to the general public – what do you hope Religion for Atheists will bring to the table?

In my book, I argue that believing in God is, for me as for many others, simply not possible. At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them. For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything.

Secondly, there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition. Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the minuscule nature of our own achievements. And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.

Now, it is important to stress that it is quite possible to believe in nothing and remember all these vital lessons (just as one can be a deep believer and a monster). I am simply wanting to draw attention to some of the gaps, some of what is missing, when we dismiss God too brusquely. By all means, we can dismiss him, but with great sympathy, nostalgia, care and thought…

It’s been posted online that you’ve been misrepresented by the media (and by a number of commentators) about your book – and there’s a statement by you online, saying that the The story in the Guardian about a temple for atheists was nonsense… it would have been very silly.” How difficult has it been challenging this assumption about the story and what outcome would you prefer?

I am conscious that the phrase ‘temple for atheists’ has had the power to annoy a great many good and clever people – and because my idea is as I conceive it inherently non-contentious, it’s clear that I must have explained it extremely badly, for which I’m sorry. Let me start again.

My starting point is that a great many religious buildings are powerful works of architecture: even committed atheists like myself recognise that many cathedrals, mosques, temples and churches are extremely successful and beguiling as buildings. The religious explanation for this power has often invoked God in the creative process. Medieval Cathedral builders quite literally believed that the hand of God was guiding them in their extraordinary creations.

As an atheist, I can’t believe in the supernatural explanations for the greatness of religious architecture. I analyse the power in terms of such features as mass, scale, material, sound, air quality and so on.

My suggestion is that contemporary architecture look more closely at the examples of religious architecture, in order to give their buildings some of the qualities that are most appealing in religious buildings; to put it bluntly, in order that these effects not reside heretofore only in the cul-de-sac of religious architecture.

The architects I have come across who have already been at work on this, and very brilliantly, are Louis Kahn, Tadao Ando and Peter Zumthor. In the world of art, James Turrell has explored similar ground – as did Mark Rothko, with his astonishing Rothko Chapel in Texas.

What unites Kahn, Ando, Zumthor and Turrell is that they know how to create abstracted sonorous spaces that take us out of the everyday and encourage contemplation, perspective and (at times) a pleasing terror. Especially in the work of Turrell, science is not far from the surface as a tool for generating such effects. It’s about playing with scale, and confronting us with a new perspective on ourselves. The dividing line between museum, observatory and meditation chamber are blurred in fascinating ways.

My suggestion is that places like the Rothko chapel or Turrell’s Skyspace are valuable exercises. I wouldn’t mind if there were a few more of them in the world.

This idea has been greeted with complaints that these places already exist: there already are science museums and observatories and even religious buildings. Why do anything more? Why create anything new?

The answer has to be personal, it has to do with one’s appetite for taking on something unusual. As someone heavily involved professionally in the world of architecture, I look forward to a new generation continuing to build on the achievements of the past. I don’t have a set plan for what might be built. I am not an architect, but I find it fascinating to see what architects might design. It’s a struggle to get any building off the ground, and Thomas Greenall’s idea began life as a piece of paper architecture to illustrate a point in a book. I’m not sure it will ever take off quite as it is, perhaps it will, but I feel that things like it should – even though I’m not personally entirely sure how.

Evidently the term ‘temple for atheists’ has set up uncomfortable associations. People have imagined I might be interested in worshipping an absent deity, or perhaps setting up a cult. Nothing as dramatic or as insane is on the cards. The term was meant playfully, but has been interpreted literally – for which I’m very sorry. I don’t care what such places might be called. I’m simply arguing that contemporary architecture analyse the high points of religious architecture throughout history – and that we should allow a new generation of architects to tread in the footsteps of great secular creatives indebted to the ecclesiastical, people like Kahn, Ando and Zumthor.

Has there been any reaction by religious groups to your book, possibly regarding “co-opting” of religious elements by atheists?

Most have been very gracious and warm-hearted. A few have said: Why are you being so selective in what you like about us? To which my answer is: because I’m not be a believer…

One argument is that there are hundreds of options that serve the functions of religion – sports clubs, political groups and the like – why should atheism, which has no organising center, need to join these secular groups?

I agree, this isn’t my point. I’m just arguing that there are needs in secular society which can be illuminated rather fascinatingly by looking at what religious get up to. The needs I refer to are principally the need for community, an ethical framework, an escape from material values and consolations from art. Of course the secular world is exploring these issues all the time, but as an atheist, I wanted to take a look at what religions were doing in these areas.

Is there a risk of atheism becoming “just another faith” (and do you think this is necessarily a bad thing)?

There’s no real risk, but some people do worry. They worry that atheism might become ‘a cult’. But almost all atheists I know are non-believers precisely because they abhor group mentality that ignores reason.

I found your book very accessible, although rather optimistic about bridging disparities between class, race, gender and so forth, let alone religion – have you attempted, say, running “Agape restaurants” before or something similar – and what was the outcome?

Yes, I have run a number of communal events via www.theschooloflife.com. We once set up a massive supper for 500 strangers, bringing fractured lonely communities together for an evening.

Do you have any advice regarding raising children as an atheist? What have been some of the biggest hurdles and how have you dealt with them? Do you hope to do more work in future with educational outreach projects, perhaps with the younger years?

There are no particular hurdles. What children need, of course, above all, is love. Yes, I already do a huge amount of work like this and will continue to do this. I hope to get a book series going specifically around the needs of young children.

Finally, you’re presenting at a number of venues in Australia in February. What can people expect from your tour?

A fun evening, stimulating conversation, ideas and laughter.

*******

On Religion For Atheists at Embiggen Books - http://embiggenbooks.com/religion-for-atheists-a-non-believer-s-guide-to-the-uses-of-religion.html

Alain de Botton’s Australian tour:
21st February – Melbourne Town Hall, lecture
23rd February – Sydney Opera House talk
24th February – Brisbane lecture

About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • RowanVT

    Odd. I was never aware of those “dangers” before, and I didn’t fall into them. All I have to do is go to the nearby redwood groves and look up to gain humility and perspective.

    I dismiss God brusquely, rudely, for all the incredible harm it did to my childhood.

  • you_monster

    I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up

    there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything.

    there is the danger of technological perfectionism; of believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems, that it is just a matter of time before scientists have cured us of the human condition.

    Thirdly, without God, it is easier to loose perspective: to see our own times as everything, to forget the brevity of the present moment and to cease to appreciate (in a good way) the minuscule nature of our own achievements.

    And lastly, without God, there can be a danger that the need for empathy and ethical behaviour can be overlooked.

    This is bald conjecture. Care to give any reasons to accept these claims? What evidence do you have that convincing people that their beliefs in a sky-daddy are mistaken leeds to a view of “technological perfectionism”, a failure to appreciate achievement, or an overlooking of empathy an ethics?

    If you want me to take these dangers seriously, you need to support them and provide some evidence from your assertions.

  • you_monster

    leads*

  • http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism Guck_mal

    I posit that Alain de Botton’s view is inherently flawed. His entire premise rests upon the truth that humans that reject the existence of god(s) are in danger of suffering from three things (individualism, technological perfectionism and loss of perspective).

    The reason why I reject Mr Botton’s claim is that if anything, the belief in god (or at least the God of Abraham) individualism is significantly more likely. No matter what you do, who you hurt, how or to what extent, simply reaffirming ones faith in the “divine creator” all of those deeds are forgiven. I see that as a significantly more dangerous social problem than non-believers, who after all know that this is their one and only life. While it may shift their view towards a more individual outlook, that does not mean that such an outlook is detrimental – quite the contrary.

    On his second point I flat out reject his notion that a trust in technology is harmful or detrimental to the individual or society. Believing that science and technology can overcome all human problems has removed the most dangerous deceases from the face of the earth and allowed the control of most of the rest. We have landed on the moon, explored the depths of the ocean, revealed the workings of the very fabric of the universe. There is no time in our past where the human race has had it better than we do now, we have never been safer, healthier, smarter or more productive – yet he somehow labels the reliance on science and technology as a danger, that frankly disgusts me.

    His last premise is the loss of perspective. Once again he has it completely backwards, without god(s) we are free to see the universe for what it is, was and will be, that our time here is just a second in the grand scheme of things, yet our actions in the here and now has consequences for the generations that will follow us and for the planet that nurtures us. The religious on the other hand Christians in particular live by a holy book which tells them to care nothing for the morrow, to give away their earthly possession and simply follow the word of Jesus, because his kingdom is about to come. The last survey I saw on this subject concluded that 43% of Americans believe that the earth will come to an end WITHIN THEIR LIFETIME. This is the worlds only superpower with an arsenal of weapons capable of destroying all life on earth 10 times over – and they truly believe that the bible is the inerrant word of God, which says that the Rapture is imminent. How can you claim that atheists are in danger of loose perspective when the facts clearly show that the inverse is true.

  • SpaceGhoti

    > At the same time, I want to suggest that if you remove this belief, there are particular dangers that open up – we don’t need to fall into these dangers, but they are there and we should be aware of them.

    Wow. The mind boggles at this. People could fall into these dangers, therefore they need their gods? NO THEY DON’T. That’s precisely the sort of sloppy thinking that encourages people to defend religious belief rather than challenge the fundamental assumptions behind it. There are plenty of philosophies, moral codes and even scientific studies to help us avoid the dangers he lists. We don’t need some sort of quasi-religious observance to avoid them.

    > My suggestion is that contemporary architecture look more closely at the examples of religious architecture, in order to give their buildings some of the qualities that are most appealing in religious buildings; to put it bluntly, in order that these effects not reside heretofore only in the cul-de-sac of religious architecture.

    Really? He can’t find any secular examples of these grandiose works of art, like for example the very secular buildings throughout Washington DC? Is he aware of the vaulting spires of Capitol Hill and the classic architectural features enabling someone whispering on one end of Congress to be heard clearly on the other side?

    > I’m just arguing that there are needs in secular society which can be illuminated rather fascinatingly by looking at what religious get up to. The needs I refer to are principally the need for community, an ethical framework, an escape from material values and consolations from art. Of course the secular world is exploring these issues all the time, but as an atheist, I wanted to take a look at what religions were doing in these areas.

    And he can’t find any secular examples of this either? He really doesn’t look very hard.

    I don’t find this Q&A to improve my opinion of his proposals in the least.

  • davidct

    De Botton is so immersed in the culture of religion he cannot conceive of humanity without it. As a person who takes views the world from a skeptical point of view – asking for evidence to help me learn what is true from what is not, I find these unconfirmed assumptions about a need for a religious framework galling. I have been non-religious all my life and feel no need for a belief system to feel, joy, empathy or awe. This is the same sort of argument that we get for how we have to respect religion because it is good for us. Bull-feathers !!

    Modern secular societies have done just fine making a better society without providing a religion substitute. They are not perfect since limited humans are involved, but they are better than those in which religion plays a major role.

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  • sailor1031

    Well maybe I’ll read the whole thing later – maybe! But this got my attention:

    “For a start, there is the danger of individualism: of placing the human being at the center stage of everything.”

    Exactly wrong! It is religion that places the human being at the center of everything; that gives the human being far too large a place in the universe, claiming humans as a special creation and in a special relationship with nature and doG. Atheism places human beings within nature as a natural part related and connected to all other parts by virtue of common ancestry.

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