Alain de Botton has made a splash in Britain with his new book Religion for Atheists. The “high priest of pop philosophy”, as ArtInfo calls him, has at the top of his list of “practical proposals” the establishment of a network of atheist temples.
The first such structure, as described on the whizzy website that goes with the book, is to be a “temple to perspective”, based in London’s financial sector and “representing the age of the earth, with each centimetre of height equating to one millions years. Measuring 46 metres in all, the tower would feature, at its base, a tiny band of gold a mere millimetre thick, standing for mankind’s time on earth.”
Pie in the sky it is not, by the way. More than half the money has reportedly already been raised.
The Daily Telegraph’s Sameer Rahim assesses the ambitious proposal:
De Botton wants to reclaim atheism from strident anti-religion figures such as Richard Dawkins. While this is a laudable aim, I can’t help thinking there is something misconceived about the project.
What we find beautiful is inevitably bound up with the values of the people who made it: a Protestant may recoil from a rococo Italian church or a Muslim find a synagogue too plain for his tastes not because of an abstract aesthetic sense but because it seems foreign to the way they worship.
The strict beliefs that de Botton shies away from are exactly what thrill and terrify visitors to a sacred space: the thought that it was built in the name of truth.
An angrier critique comes in the Daily Mail, where Alexander Boot attacks a “deranged project”. Mind you, it’s hard to take seriously someone who asserts: “One can be either an atheist or a philosopher, not both.”
The idea hasn’t gone down that well with Dawkins, either. “Atheists don’t need temples,” he told the Guardian, arguing that the money would be better spent on secular education.
And it will surprise no one to learn that Terry Eagleton has served up a scathing review in the Guardian:
What the book does, in short, is hijack other people’s beliefs, empty them of content and redeploy them in the name of moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure. It is an astonishingly impudent enterprise. It is also strikingly unoriginal.
Just as well, perhaps, that Eagleton is not an internet kind of chap. After a New York Times critic called an earlier de Botton book superficial and snobby, the normally soft-spoken author lashed out in a comment on the critic’s personal blog. “I will hate you till the day I die,” wrote De Botton, “and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”