Alain de Botton has gone mad…

29 Jan

or, was he always mad? his twitter is fairly mad. what’s the consensus on Botton these days?

ANYWAY, I am prompted to say this because of this Guardian article that describes Botton’s plans “to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins’s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.”

I have to quote some more of the article so you can get a better idea of what the whole project is about:

De Botton has insisted atheists have as much right to enjoy inspiring architecture as religious believers.

“The dominant feeling you should get will be awe – the same feeling you get when you tip your head back in Ely cathedral,” he said. “You should feel small but not in an intimidated way.”

Another Anglican, the Rev George Pitcher, a priest at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, and a former adviser to the archbishop of Canterbury, “rejoiced” in the idea. “He is referring to a sense of human transcendence, that there is something more than our visceral existence,” Pitcher said.

“This is a more constructive atheism than Dawkins, who is about the destruction of ideas rather than contributing new ones.”

Okay, so now you have a good idea. The ‘Temple to Perspective’ is going to be an incredibly elaborate affair, Botton wants it to be built in the City, and he’s already raised half the funds from a group of property developers who wish to remain anonymous. 

I have two main problems with this whole concept, which are:

  • Atheists aren’t robots. We have the capacity to feel awe and wonder when in a cathedral, or mosque, or synagogue (at least I do). Beautiful architecture is beautiful architecture. It’s totally unnecessary to segregate ourselves.
  • And: think what you like about Dawkins (that he’s belligerent, patronising etc) BUT he is never, EVER destructive. His whole point, and what seems to drive him, is that nature (and consequently, the science of nature) is deserving of our awe and wonder. My question is, why do we need to build another building, specifically for atheists, in order to experience ‘human transcendence’? When, you’d think, that atheists are capable of experiencing that in everyday life, observing the world for what it is and appreciating everything it has to offer. Dawkins says it better than me – 

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?

Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998)

Update: An hour after this was posted I got a string of direct messages from Alain de Botton himself on twitter! He said that I had misunderstood the project, that I should read his new book and if I don’t like it he’ll send me a cheque, and that the Guardian is unreliable. I said alright, I’d take him up on his offer, but that it’s not just the Guardian reporting it that way (the Daily Mail article on it, for example, is headlined Battle of the Atheists!, and the copy is almost entirely the same as the Guardian article). So… I guess I have to read his new book then! I’ll get back to you…

9 Responses to “Alain de Botton has gone mad…”

  1. morezennow January 30, 2012 at 1:51 am #

    “We have the capacity to feel awe and wonder when in a cathedral, or mosque, or synagogue (at least I do). Beautiful architecture is beautiful architecture. It’s totally unnecessary to segregate ourselves.” -brilliantly said.
    I already know I’m a speck in the universe. I feel my smallness as I look up to the sky in awe every day and imagine the cosmos I am a part of and always will be, in some energy form. That should be enough for all.

  2. nic January 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    I like it – cultural diversity for the 21c and in the relatively traditional and conservative City. I wouldn’t mind what it is, or who builds it – so long as it’s constructive and inclusive and preferably disruptive of unhelpful conservative norms. And yes – I like other churches too (but not paying to see them, lol)

  3. hannamade January 30, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

    So, Alain de Botton sent me an email today (this keeps getting stranger and stranger) with this statement about the ‘temple for atheists’, which he wanted me to post, so here it is:

    I am conscious that the phrase ‘temple for atheists’ has had the power to annoy a great many good and clever people – and because my idea is as I conceive it inherently non-contentious, it’s clear that I must have explained it extremely badly, for which I’m sorry. Let me start again.

    My starting point is that a great many religious buildings are powerful works of architecture: even committed atheists like myself recognise that many cathedrals, mosques, temples and churches are extremely successful and beguiling as buildings. The religious explanation for this power has often invoked God in the creative process. Medieval Cathedral builders quite literally believed that the hand of God was guiding them in their extraordinary creations.

    As an atheist, I can’t believe in the supernatural explanations for the greatness of religious architecture. I analyse the power in terms of such features as mass, scale, material, sound, air quality and so on.

    My suggestion is that contemporary architecture look more closely at the examples of religious architecture, in order to give their buildings some of the qualities that are most appealling in religious buildings; to put it bluntly, in order that these effects not reside heretofore only in the cul-de-sac of religious architecture.

    The architects I have come across who have already been at work on this, and very brilliantly, are Louis Kahn, Tadao Ando and Peter Zumthor. In the world of art, James Turrell has explored similar ground – as did Mark Rothko, with his astonishing Rothko Chapel in Texas.

    What unites Kahn, Ando, Zumthor and Turrell is that they know how to create abstracted sonorous spaces that take us out of the everyday and encourage contemplation, perspective and (at times) a pleasing terror. Especially in the work of Turrell, science is not far from the surface as a tool for generating such effects. It’s about playing with scale, and confronting us with a new perspective on ourselves. The dividing line between museum, observatory and meditation chamber are blurred in fascinating ways.

    My suggestion is that places like the Rothko chapel or Turrell’s Skyspace are valuable exercises. I wouldn’t mind if there were a few more of them in the world.

    This idea has been greeted with complaints that these places already exist: there already are science museums and observatories and even religious buildings. Why do anything more? Why create anything new?

    The answer has to be personal, it has to do with one’s appetite for taking on something unusual. As someone heavily involved professionally in the world of architecture, I look forward to a new generation continuing to build on the achievements of the past. I don’t have a set plan for what might be built. I am not an architect, but I find it fascinating to see what architects might design. It’s a struggle to get any building off the ground, and Thomas Greenall’s idea began life as a piece of paper architecture to illustrate a point in a book. I’m not sure it will ever take off quite as it is, perhaps it will, but I feel that things like it should – even though I’m not personally entirely sure how.

    Evidently the term ‘temple for atheists’ has set up uncomfortable associations. People have imagined I might be interested in worshipping an absent deity, or perhaps setting up a cult. Nothing as dramatic or as insane is on the cards. The term was meant playfully, but has been interpreted literally – for which I’m very sorry. I don’t care what such places might be called. I’m simply arguing that contemporary architecture analyse the high points of religious architecture throughout history – and that we should allow a new generation of architects to tread in the footsteps of great secular creatives indebted to the ecclesiastical, people like Kahn, Ando and Zumthor.

  4. cterkuile January 31, 2012 at 2:18 am #

    Hmm, I think I’m a real fan of the idea tbh. I feel the need often to step into a space that gives me the opportunity to reflect etc, and often that ends up being a church – where I’m never fully comfortable.

    The details of this particular structure may not be perfect – but I’m really supportive of creating spaces for reflection that aren’t seeping in all sorts of problematic imagery and stories..

  5. Sarah Emily Duff January 31, 2012 at 7:16 am #

    ‘I’m simply arguing that contemporary architecture analyse the high points of religious architecture throughout history – and that we should allow a new generation of architects to tread in the footsteps of great secular creatives indebted to the ecclesiastical, people like Kahn, Ando and Zumthor.’

    Surely architects are doing this already? I think of the new Central St Martins Building, the renovated St Pancras, the great court at the British Museum, and even T5 at Heathrow (not my favourite space, but it’s clear that is has a resonance with earlier forms of architecture).

    I’m still not sure what De Botton’s point is, if he’s making such an innocuous suggestion.

    • hannamade January 31, 2012 at 9:10 am #

      Sarah – yeah exactly! That’s what I’m thinking.

  6. Mary Sane January 31, 2012 at 6:57 pm #

    I wouldn’t say I’m an atheist but I don’t believe in god and I think religions suck. I really feel like I miss a place to go, like christians have their church. I’d love to be able to go to a calm, beautiful building but without the “strings attached”. It would be nice to have a place where people can get married or have funeral ceremonies in. As it is now (at least in Sweden where I live) there’s only churches or boring public buildings to choose from. So I would love to have a non-religious place to go to, but that’s just my opinion. I don’t know if other non-religious people around me have the same need.

  7. Guppi Bola (@guppikb) May 23, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

    Read the book ? what do you think of it/him now ?


  1. A ‘temple to atheism’ - January 31, 2012

    […] idea that atheism needs a “temple”. An emailed statement from de Botton can be read at Hanna Thomas’ blog, where he states thatcontemporary architecture [should] look more closely at the examples of […]

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