FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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


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

February 10, 2016
Eoin Higgins
Clinton and the Democratic Establishment: the Ties That Bind
Fred Nagel
The Role of Legitimacy in Social Change
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Aleppo Gamble Pays Off
Chris Martenson
The Return of Crisis: Everywhere Banks are in Deep Trouble
Ramzy Baroud
Next Onslaught in Gaza: Why the Status Quo Is a Precursor for War
Jeffrey St. Clair
Why Bernie Still Won’t Win
Sheldon Richman
End, Don’t Extend, Draft Registration
Benjamin Willis
Obama in Havana
Jack Smith
Obama Intensifies Wars and Threats of War
Rob Hager
How Hillary Clinton Co-opted the Term “Progressive”
Mark Boothroyd
Syria: Peace Talks Collapse, Aleppo Encircled, Disaster Looms
Lawrence Ware
If You Hate Cam Newton, It’s Probably Because He’s Black
Jesse Jackson
Starving Government Creates Disasters Like Flint
Bill Laurance
A Last Chance for the World’s Forests?
Gary Corseri
ABC’s of the US Empire
Frances Madeson
The Pain of the Earth: an Interview With Duane “Chili” Yazzie
Binoy Kampmark
The New Hampshire Distortion: The Primaries Begin
Andrew Raposa
Portugal: Europe’s Weak Link?
Wahid Azal
Dugin’s Occult Fascism and the Hijacking of Left Anti-Imperialism and Muslim Anti-Salafism
February 09, 2016
Andrew Levine
Hillary Says the Darndest Things
Paul Street
Kill King Capital
Ben Burgis
Lesser Evil Voting and Hillary Clinton’s War on the Poor
Paul Craig Roberts
Are the Payroll Jobs Reports Merely Propaganda Statements?
Fran Quigley
How Corporations Killed Medicine
Ted Rall
How Bernie Can Pay for His Agenda: Slash the Military
Neve Gordon
Israeli Labor Party Adopts the Apartheid Mantra
Kristin Kolb
The “Great” Bear Rainforest Agreement? A Love Affair, Deferred
Joseph Natoli
Politics and Techno-Consciousness
Hrishikesh Joshi
Selective Attention to Diversity: the Case of Cruz and Rubio
Stavros Mavroudeas
Why Syriza is Sinking in Greece
David Macaray
Attention Peyton Manning: Leave Football and Concentrate on Pizza
Arvin Paranjpe
Opening Your Heart
Kathleen Wallace
Boys, Hell, and the Politics of Vagina Voting
Brian Foley
Interview With a Bernie Broad: We Need to Start Focusing on Positions and Stop Relying on Sexism
February 08, 2016
Paul Craig Roberts – Michael Hudson
Privatization: the Atlanticist Tactic to Attack Russia
Mumia Abu-Jamal
Water War Against the Poor: Flint and the Crimes of Capital
John V. Walsh
Did Hillary’s Machine Rig Iowa? The Highly Improbable Iowa Coin Tosses
Vincent Emanuele
The Curse and Failure of Identity Politics
Eliza A. Webb
Hillary Clinton’s Populist Charade
Uri Avnery
Optimism of the Will
Roy Eidelson Trudy Bond, Stephen Soldz, Steven Reisner, Jean Maria Arrigo, Brad Olson, and Bryant Welch
Preserve Do-No-Harm for Military Psychologists: Coalition Responds to Department of Defense Letter to the APA
Patrick Cockburn
Oil Prices and ISIS Ruin Kurdish Dreams of Riches
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange, the UN and Meanings of Arbitrary Detention
Shamus Cooke
The Labor Movement’s Pearl Harbor Moment
W. T. Whitney
Cuba, War and Ana Belen Montes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail