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 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 -

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 former 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 regularly presents a news and current affairs show on RTRFM's The Mag (tune in on Tuesdays!).
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. She files her nails while they drag the lake.