Building temples for atheists? Reflections on a new building type

Alain de Botton’s latest book “Religion for Atheists” was published this week alongside a big media campaign with graphically stunning posters and the seemingly simple question ‘Even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?

One of the posters for De Botton's latest book: Religion for Atheists

What I find interesting is the connection of a philosophical and maybe political question to an architectural statement. Clearly, cathedrals are marvellous buildings and you don’t have to be religious to appreciate their wonders. But do we really need ‘temples for atheists’, as suggested by Alain de Botton?

Not-knowing what a temple for atheists would look like, his first concrete idea is to erect a tower in the centre of London to celebrate ‘life on earth’. According to De Botton as discussed in the Guardian, this temple should in its height depict the age of the earth and show the time humans have occupied it, should be covered with a print of the binary code of the human genome sequence, and should be in the located in London’s “financial centre because he [De Botton] believes it is where people have most seriously lost perspective on life’s priorities.” Le sigh! Could anything in the world be more generalised, prejudiced and more cliche than this, full of strange and unnecessary symbolism?

I haven’t read the book yet and I increasingly get the feeling that I won’t ever do so, but I do find the discussion of the atheist temple as a new building type fascinating. Others clearly do, too. The most common response to the idea of the atheist temple, for instance tweeted by Richard Wiseman is that there are plenty of buildings around already that could serve this purpose, for instance libraries and science museums. Richard Dawkins, maybe one of the most famous and outspoken atheists of our era, has criticised De Botton’s plans as well and has suggested that money spent for the cause of atheism should best be invested into secular schools that teach rational and critical thinking.

What comes to my mind when I think about this from the perspective of architecture and its usage, is that we do indeed have buildings already that serve this purpose. But I would take a slightly different angle than Richard Wiseman. I don’t think a library or a science museum are good examples of the typology and function of a ‘temple for atheists’.

What a building does socially is to construct an interface between categories of people. A school is a school and a church is a church, because of what people do in there – as I’ve argued in an earlier blog post here. A library therefore serves the purpose of allowing people access to books, and a science museum engages the public in the appreciation of science. I think a ‘temple for atheists’ would need to allow people to get together, to feel part of a community and to participate in rituals. Quite simply, any community centre, or cafe, or book club, or society meeting venue would do. Now that I think of it, how about a conference centre? Isn’t that possibly a temple for atheists, too? Or a university?

However, I do take De Botton’s point that beautiful buildings can play an important part in our lives, and often those ordinary spaces (community centres, universities, cafes) that serve the function of a ‘temple for atheists’ don’t excite us aesthetically.

In my eyes, the ideal temple for atheists then would be the Royal Festival Hall in London. Called ‘The People’s Palace’ (how appropriate!), it is open for everyone and after its recent refurbishment is architecturally pleasing in my view – at least from the inside. Socially it is a good temple, too, since it attracts a huge diversity of users, allows for encounters and get togethers of people, it invites the most interesting and bizzare uses (teenage girls rehearsing a dance routine, people reading, eating, sleeping, yummy mummies with their children, dancing teas, etc.). Plus it doesn’t need to be rebuilt – just appreciated, appropriated, filling with life and used. And then De Botton’s money for the temple could indeed be invested in secular schools and enhancing critical thinking of young people, as Dawkins suggested.

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