Do Atheists Really Need a Temple?

by BINOY KAMPMARK

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


Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 03, 2015
Sal Rodriguez
How California Prison Hunger Strikes Sparked Solitary Confinement Reforms
Lawrence Ware
Leave Michael Vick Alone: the Racism and Misogyny of Football Fans
Dave Lindorff
Is Obama the Worst President Ever?
Vijay Prashad
The Return of Social Democracy?
Ellen Brown
Quantitative Easing for People: Jeremy Corbyn’s Radical Proposal
Paul Craig Roberts
The Rise of the Inhumanes: Barron, Bybee, Yoo and Bradford
Binoy Kampmark
Inside Emailgate: Hillary’s Latest Problem
Lynn Holland
For the Love of Water: El Salvador’s Mining Ban
Geoff Dutton
Time for Some Anger Management
Jack Rasmus
The New Colonialism: Greece and Ukraine
Norman Pollack
American Jews and the Iran Accord: The Politics of Fear
John Grant
Sorting Through the Bullshit in America
David Macaray
The Unbearable Lightness of Treaties
Chad Nelson
Lessig Uses a Scalpel Where a Machete is Needed
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalencies on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Stephen Lendman
Gaza: a Socioeconomic Dead Zone
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Offshore Drilling
Binoy Kampmark
Australian Border Force Gore
Ruth Fowler
Ask Not: Lost in the Crowd with Amanda Palmer
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy