Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. A generous donor is matching all donations of $100 or more! So please donate now to double your punch!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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


More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
October 19, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jason Hirthler
The Pieties of the Liberal Class
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Day in My Life at CounterPunch
Paul Street
“Male Energy,” Authoritarian Whiteness and Creeping Fascism in the Age of Trump
Nick Pemberton
Reflections on Chomsky’s Voting Strategy: Why The Democratic Party Can’t Be Saved
John Davis
The Last History of the United States
Yigal Bronner
The Road to Khan al-Akhmar
Robert Hunziker
The Negan Syndrome
Andrew Levine
Democrats Ahead: Progressives Beware
Rannie Amiri
There is No “Proxy War” in Yemen
David Rosen
America’s Lost Souls: the 21st Century Lumpen-Proletariat?
Joseph Natoli
The Age of Misrepresentations
Ron Jacobs
History Is Not Kind
John Laforge
White House Radiation: Weakened Regulations Would Save Industry Billions
Ramzy Baroud
The UN ‘Sheriff’: Nikki Haley Elevated Israel, Damaged US Standing
Robert Fantina
Trump, Human Rights and the Middle East
Anthony Pahnke – Jim Goodman
NAFTA 2.0 Will Help Corporations More Than Farmers
Jill Richardson
Identity Crisis: Elizabeth Warren’s Claims Cherokee Heritage
Sam Husseini
The Most Strategic Midterm Race: Elder Challenges Hoyer
Maria Foscarinis – John Tharp
The Criminalization of Homelessness
Robert Fisk
The Story of the Armenian Legion: a Dark Tale of Anger and Revenge
Jacques R. Pauwels
Dinner With Marx in the House of the Swan
Dave Lindorff
US ‘Outrage’ over Slaying of US Residents Depends on the Nation Responsible
Ricardo Vaz
How Many Yemenis is a DC Pundit Worth?
Elliot Sperber
Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars
Chris Gilbert
In the Wake of Nepal’s Incomplete Revolution: Dispatch by a Far-Flung Bolivarian 
Muhammad Othman
Let Us Bray
Gerry Brown
Are Chinese Municipal $6 Trillion (40 Trillion Yuan) Hidden Debts Posing Titanic Risks?
Rev. William Alberts
Judge Kavanaugh’s Defenders Doth Protest Too Much
Ralph Nader
Unmasking Phony Values Campaigns by the Corporatists
Victor Grossman
A Big Rally and a Bavarian Vote
James Bovard
Groped at the Airport: Congress Must End TSA’s Sexual Assaults on Women
Jeff Roby
Florida After Hurricane Michael: the Sad State of the Unheeded Planner
Wim Laven
Intentional or Incompetence—Voter Suppression Where We Live
Bradley Kaye
The Policy of Policing
Wim Laven
The Catholic Church Fails Sexual Abuse Victims
Kevin Cashman
One Year After Hurricane Maria: Employment in Puerto Rico is Down by 26,000
Dr. Hakim Young
Nonviolent Afghans Bring a Breath of Fresh Air
Karl Grossman
Irving Like vs. Big Nuke
Dan Corjescu
The New Politics of Climate Change
John Carter
The Plight of the Pyrenees: the Abandoned Guard Dogs of the West
Ted Rall
Brett Kavanaugh and the Politics of Emotion-Shaming
Graham Peebles
Sharing is Key to a New Economic and Democratic Order
Ed Rampell
The Advocates
Louis Proyect
The Education Business
David Yearsley
Shock-and-Awe Inside Oracle Arena
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail