Do Atheists Really Need a Temple?


It sounds naff at first glance.  But the British philosopher Alain de Botton has decided to go into the mimicry of religion, into its replication.  Cunningly, he hopes to accommodate religious impulses while remaining an atheist.  With plans to build a £1m pound ‘temple for atheists’ in the City of London, he has succumbed, at first glance, to some sort of Edifice complex.  For one thing, why on earth do atheists need temples?  Richard Dawkins, the most militant of them, suggests that, ‘Atheists don’t need temples.’  Such money could be spent more appropriately. ‘If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical and critical thinking’ (Guardian, Jan 26).

Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Society, suggests that De Botton has confused his priorities. Buildings were not required for the atheist to dissect and inquire into life itself. ‘The things religious people get from religion – awe, wonder, meaning and perspective – non-religious people get them from other places like art, nature, human relationships and the narratives we give our lives in other ways.’

De Botton sees it differently.  ‘Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good.’  The list is endless: love, friendship, calm, perspective.

Perhaps Dawkins is ignoring a fundamental tendency.  Religion, or at the very least faith, has a habit of intruding, making its presence felt, in any secular context.  It might even be true that secularism as an idea is something of a nonsense, given that political ideologies and systems require faith and followers to operate.  A ‘secular government’ is hardly one to begin with.  Periods of rule and control are marked by credos and belief-systems, mantras and platforms.  Democracy, after all, is one of the greatest faiths imaginable, precisely because it is an imperfect instrument of the will, evidence in something that is never entirely realisable.  Even the free marketeers are believers, seeing a variant of God’s workings, as Michael Novak did, in the market.

Nor is De Botton’s idea at all novel.  In fact, there is much to be said that he is doing what the Austrian-French writer Manès Sperber cautioned against: making a religion of a movement from within, while professing non-belief from without.  Not that he can be blamed for that.  Currently, the Conway Hall in London is run by the South Place Ethical Society, a humanist organisation that counts as a temple of sorts, at least to ‘reason’.

Historically, every movement that counts itself the enemy of God or religion ends up engaging in a grandiose exercise of substitution and imitation.  The French Revolution encouraged the formations of ‘temples of reason’.  The historian Michael Burleigh, in his work Earthly Powers (2005) does a fabulous job of charting the links between such movements that retained more than just a tincture of religious zeal.  From the French Revolution to the First World War, Burleigh documents a ‘history of secularisation’ that suggests evasion and reconstitution rather than a genuine exercise in change.   What happens is simply a more ‘earthly’ focus on faith and enemies.

The French Revolution was peppered with the language of the pious devotee. What happened was that the terminology of the church became the terminology of the Revolution – ‘catechism, fanatical, gospel, martyr, missionary, propaganda, sacrament, sermon, zealot’.  Faith was directed at nationalist projects – Talleyrand celebrating mass on the Altar of the Fatherland on the Champs de Mars.  The Divine moved into the orbit of the nation state.

Believers will look at De Botton’s building project with a mixture of feelings.  With atheists, certainly with Dawkins, you know what you are getting.  With an individual who believes that churches can be made for anything, as long as it is ‘good’ (that term itself is notoriously hard to pin down), one is encountering an age-old exercise of embracing a faith without claiming it. 

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

November 26, 2015
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