Alain de Botton plans temples
for atheists

| 68 comments


Dezeen Wire:
writer Alain de Botton has announced plans to build a series of temples for atheists in the UK. The first will be a 46 metre-tall black tower designed by architects Tom Greenall and Jordan Hodgson, constructed in London to represent the idea of perspective. 

The move follows the publication of de Botton's latest book, Religion for Atheists, and his Living Architecture social enterprise to construct holiday homes by the likes of MVRDV, Peter Zumthor and NORD Architecture.

Read more about Living Architecture on Dezeen here.

Here are some more details from Alain de Botton:


Alain de Botton - A Temple for Atheists

Author Alain de Botton has announced a bold new plan for a series of Temples for Atheists to be built around the UK.

'Why should religious people have the most beautiful buildings in the land?' he asks. 'It's time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals'.

Alain de Botton has laid out his plans in a new book, Religion for Atheists, which argues that atheists should copy the major religions and put up a network of new architectural masterpieces in the form of temples.

'As religions have always known, a beautiful building is an indispensable part of getting your message across. Books alone won't do it.'

De Botton argues that you definitely don't need a god or gods to justify a temple. ‘You can build a temple to anything that's positive and good. That could mean: a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective.'

De Botton has begun working on the first Temple for Atheists. Designed by Tom Greenall Architects, this will be a huge black tower nestled among the office buildings in the City of London. Measuring 46 meters in all, the tower represents the age of the earth, with each centimetre equating to 1 million years and with, at the tower's base, a tiny band of gold a mere millimetre thick standing for mankind's time on earth. The Temple is dedicated to the idea of perspective, which is something we're prone to lose in the midst of our busy modern lives.

De Botton suggests that atheists like Richard Dawkins won’t ever convince people that atheism is an attractive way of looking at life until they provide them with the sort of rituals, buildings, communities and works of art and architecture that religions have always used.

'Even the most convinced atheists tend to speak nicely about religious buildings. They may even feel sad that nothing like them gets built nowadays. But there’s no need to feel nostalgic. Why not just learn from religions and build similarly beautiful and interesting things right now?'

  • http://www.petervanderveer.com Peter van der Veer

    Congratulations to Alain for constructing tangible commonsense.

    From the point of view of a lifelong atheist, some of the most exhilarating spiritual feelings have been experienced in "religious" buildings.
    In my opinion, all "religious" buildings are the result of the human spirit which is something really worth worshipping.
    If established religions desist denouncing mankind and instead simply play their beautiful music without doctrines, the world can become a much better place.
    Allowed to think for themselves, and perceive beyond imposed perimeters, we may then see increasingly more people gradually realise the spirituality in all things with their instincts developing accordingly.

    • South African

      As a God fearing follower of Jesus Christ, I agree with your sentiment that religious buildings are the result of the human spirit – man, well, most of us who believe in the God of Creation in one way or another are continually looking for ways to be in right with Him – unfortunately most people miss the proverbial Ark and things pretty buildings appease God. Just so by the way – my faith in God is based on intelligent decision…without coercion or fear of being smote – whether you believe it or not makes no difference.

      • http://twitter.com/ynthrepic @ynthrepic

        But you said you were God "fearing"?

    • http://twitter.com/ynthrepic @ynthrepic

      In what form does this worship of 'the human spirit' take? It's not hard to see how the concept of worship is antithetical to non-belief. I think I know where you are coming from, but the choice of words could be better. Much like how calling a monument and 'temple' is a poor choice of words.

    • Adrian McDaniel

      Peter, I hear what you are saying, but I believe that this only proves that the human spirit will reach out and try to connect with it’s Creator. The temples are being built because even atheist deep down can not explain how non living matter can magically turn into living matter which has to immediately have living matter to feed on. Take a box put every element on the periodical table, the minerals, gases etc. then shake from now to eternity and you will never get life. Sorry it can’t happen. Many people have tried to create a god to worship and have come up with false gods to show their affections. This is why they keep searching. If this tower is ever built and you were to jump off the top, I would think that you would figure out who to pray to before you reached the ground. Just a hunch it would be Christ Jesus because he is the only one that can save you. This universe, this earth and every living thing on it is a creation of the Lord God Almighty. We have always searched for our Creator and we always will. Some of us just take a path that can not produce the answer to our questions. I have found that the bible will answer all your questions you just have to be willing to read it. I am not responding to aggitate you just to make you think from a different direction.

  • agata

    'smart' marketing strategy…

  • kathw

    As an atheist I find temples for no religion perplexing.

    In principle I quite like the idea – But you have to feel passionate about something – your faith – to build something for the glory of whosoever.
    Generally atheists are not passionate about not believing.

    It seems false to create something to what? – Bring the community of non believers together for a ritual meeting? Or to say to people of faith ' Look at us – We can make the new Cathedrals to no one'
    Atheists have museums, galleries, shops, halls, theatres, cinemas, community centres, houses, tower blocks. In fact everything else, both good and bad, outside of religious buildings.

    Additionally to make a soaring tower in the form of building of 'Mammon' is very alienating.
    A building to celebrate atheism should have community at his heart and an honesty. This feeds into buildings of gross capitalism – The Shard, Canary Wharf etc.
    Sure, places of faith are beautiful and I enjoy them as museums but that's largely because they are old and made from stone and wood.

    • http://www.granitetransformations.com/blog Alex

      great comment Kath. as I ponder the problem of building a monument to a lack of belief in something I wonder if the world wouldn't be a better place if people did proselytize atheism

    • Greenish

      Kathw – athiests may not be passionate about not believing, but they can be passionate about what they may believe, such as the magic of life, science and the natural world… be careful of assumptions.

      I agree with you that such a building should have community at heart though. That is what I find so endearing about churches, particularly small village churches – the communities of old still leave their traces within.

    • douglas montgomery

      "Atheists have museums, galleries, shops, halls, theatres, cinemas, community centres, houses, tower blocks."

      yes, because we all know believers can't appreciate those things; museums, galleries – all exclusively designed for the sole use of atheists.

    • Maxime

      The mistake here is to build a place for "atheism".
      As you say, atheism is by definition the absence of something, not something in itself.

      However, De Botton is right that there is something in religion that is currently only available through religion (see his Ted Talk about that). This "something" could be link to the sens of wonder in life, or the feeling of belonging to a large human brotherhood (indeed it's easier to feel as brothers when there is a Father :D), the feeling to be a small part of a meaningful whole picture…

      I think De Botton is trying to take this "something" out of religion so that it can be available for non believers too. When being religious and feeling anxious about the meaning of life and death, or about your place in this universe, you go to church. When being an atheist and feeling the same anxiety, where do you go? De Bottom wants to answer to that. Books help in this respect, but they usually provide only a person-to-dead-author relationship, and fail to provide the emotion of greatness needed to fill the hole.

      This must not be a temple for atheists, this must be a temple for philosophy, humanism, mankind, rationalism and all things that can build meaning without God. In short, places to celebrate mankind as a whole, to say loudly to all visitors : "No, you are not alone."

      Symbols and monuments are powerful to carry on ideas, they must not be reserved to religions.

  • http://adlarchitetto.blogspot.com adl.architetto

    It's difficult discussing De Botton's idea without having some sort of philosophical stance (thus risking potential polemics) of what an atheist is and stands for. I'm not entirely sure I'm qualified (can't relate to the mindset of an atheist) to speak on behalf of my atheist friends – despite the long discussions and studies on the issue of atheism – but I'd have a hard time accepting some universal theory of what an atheist should celebrate or value. It seems to me that people find some sort of liberation in being able to think for themselves and judge for themselves, to form their own ideas of good, bad and neither, or even the very existence of values. From a semantic point of view, it is certainly reductive to say that an ideal temple for an atheist would be a temple for Love or Perspective, since although they are perfectly acceptable and positive ideas an atheist (or anybody else) might endorse, they do not seem to capture the full flavor or variety of atheism as it is seen today. Perhaps De Botton's suggestion that all these temple themes are acceptable is his attempt to resolve this issue; there's a temple for every kind of atheist. If you're the romantic type and you value love before everything else then you'd be inclined to go to the temple of Love and congregate in whatever sort of way with other similarly minded atheists. if you're the architect and value geometry above everything else, you go to the temple of Perspective and congregate in whatever sort of way with fellow architects, geometers and enthusiasts.
    A good friend of mine once said – when discussing the possibility of a sacred space of atheist – that for her the best would be plain nature. The whole world can be a temple for an atheist. I find that idea more progressive than trying to emulate other religions. Imagine for a second that the interpretation of "live the moment" and "nothing has value at a fundamental level" (excuse my oversimplification of Nietzsche) is to make the world in which we live as beautiful as possible, whatever that might mean.
    I'd like to know what you guys think. Thnx

    • http://twitter.com/ynthrepic @ynthrepic

      Agreed. Are you sure you're not an atheist?

    • Greenish

      Lovely comment, I like this more than the article :)

    • blackmark

      many self-calling "atheists" believe in SOMETHING that is some non-dominant culture's definition of the divine.

      so the "temple of love"? that is what the Divine is from several perspectives. so there are different versions of Atheism. two different atheists might not agree on the same "ain't no such thing as that"…

  • Benjamin

    This plan seems confused. Surely one of the functions of large religious buildings was to evoke awe in their congregation and thereby dupe them into the concept of a higher omnipotent being? I don't know what atheists would do with similar buildings. Obviously all atheists are different but I would like to think that a humanist approach to architecture would be one interested in the provision of good affordable housing for all and community spaces.

  • Brennan

    As an athiest, I'd rather spend society's money on useful thing like parks or recreation centers. Building a monument for the sake of having a monument seems like a waste of time, space and resources.

    • Justyn

      A temple is something that people DO. I don't think it is to just go and look at.

    • dan fregin

      I like this idea. Parks are nature / evolution as a monument in themselves. Maybe an organization like A.H.A. (humanists) could get someone to put together a project to create one as a demonstration project for other non-theists to follow.

  • enonomi

    As a former Catholic and now Atheist I totally get this. There is a feeling you get sitting in a beautiful cathedral that is rarely found elsewhere – not that it can't be. An Architect can invoke feelings that people arn't consciously aware of. I was first made aware of this in Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, his architecture compelled you to move out from the foyer into the living space. A cathedral – a building of a certain size and beauty – can invoke a feeling of quiet medatative calm, and I do feel sad and nostalgic that we don't have something like that for us. __So, can we get one in Kentucky please?

    • Justyn

      I completely agree with you! The idea is to capture the part of the human experience, and it is naive to think that religions are ALL wrong in every way. They got some things very right. And even though I don't believe in the claims that they make much of the time, I still realize that the human experience can be very rich, atheist or not

  • WWilson

    Man is incurably religious.

    • http://nonreligiousgreetings.co.uk caty

      The religious disease may be incurable, but not all of us have the disease!

  • Free@Smooze

    Without working "polemic" into a sentence to prove how smart I am, as an agnostic there is something kinda pathetic about the desire to mimic religiosity. If your feelings of isolationism as a modern agnostic are so strong that you need a church, then you should probably step back and re-evaluate some things.

  • Sheerie Knoll

    Atheists~what you (those who have posted & the architect who wishes to build this "temple") do not understand is ~ it is not the building. It is the spirit, that dwells within the heart of those who come together to worship. That is not to say cathedrals are not beautiful, they are quite beautiful. But, those who come together to worship will feel the spirit in the smallest and most humble of churches. Cathedrals were not built to "dupe" anyone into believing in an omnipotent being. They already believe.

    • South African

      A true believer doesnt really need a church building to do this, though. You can worship God whenever, wherever…in your car on your way to work, or on the bus, while you are in a shop getting food…just sing a song of worship…

    • blackmark

      the more ancient cathedral style was NOT created to dupe people.
      THAT sort of modern cathedral came much later and examples are available all over the world, where shining glass and steel structures command huge amounts of upkeep monies…while casting shadows on some of the most impoverished regions. this is true in all the richest cities in the world.

      it is that sort of ostentatious hypocrisy that has caused so many to abandon the search for attainable Truth in any religion. so yeah, maybe this is good.

      because of course it would be stupid to pretend that all atheists were saintly, wise humanists with a compassionate perspective — as stupid as it would be not to remind ourselves that religious people have imposed wars and brutal prejudices on society for as long as history tells us about their existentialism Fnord

  • Piazzagrrl

    I look forward to your leper hospitals. Any. Day. Now.

    • Max

      We just call those hospitals.

  • quintetdward

    A temple to a-theism is a contradiction in terms. Temples are for worship. Man, the rational animal needs temples to honor and worship eudaimonia, the Greek term for pride in achieving the status of man qua man. The greatest such temple was designed by Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. I can say it's the greatest because the philosophy upon which it is built starts with reality, reason and the nature of man is original to Rand. Her philosophy, Objectivism, solves the "problem of universals" and offers, for the first time in history a fully integrated defense of reason and of man. She shows that man, and man alone can be worthy of temples.

  • TRO

    Sorry, but this only reinforces my belief that atheism is a religion now. Much like global warming. Deny it all you want but when you start building temples to a belief system, which atheism is becoming, then it's a religion,.

    BTW, have fun with funding all those temples.

    • South African

      Amen to that :)..and Pope De Botton will be passing around the collection plate for the temple building fund any day now…LOL

      • Justyn

        As long as he doesnt start telling me about the big invisible guy in the sky I think I prefer this

  • Jenny

    I consider libraries and other public buildings secular and a tribute to reason over religion.

    • eszter

      I believe you're quite right… the best "temple" to atheism would be a well-designed library. All that knowledge gathered in a building with beautiful lighting and big spaces (and books. and shelves. man I love libraries).

      • douglas

        "I consider libraries and other public buildings secular and a tribute to reason over religion"

        The first architects were religious (as were the first writers) – I don't think it hampered the creative process much. Just look at the cathedrals built by our ancestors; they managed to combine their intelligence with their belief, without getting too confused.

        I'm a believer, so of course, have never been to one of those… what is it you call them? … l-i-b-r-a-r-i-e-s ?

  • chesterton

    Check out Lord of This World by Robert Hugh Benson to see where this is all headed

  • http://adlarchitetto.blogspot.com adl.architetto

    I think de Botton deserves to be better understood, even if we might disagree. I invite you to see this TED talk of his: http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_

  • Snail

    I feel this is a bit sketchy. Not necessarily the buildings themselves, or providing a place to join together as a community, but the idea of an atheist "temple" dedicated to something like Perspective with a capital P… I dunno, it just reminds me of atheists I've met who think every non-atheist in the world is broken, stupid or literally mentally ill, and only atheists are capable of having things like perspective. That's not a good attitude to encourage.

    (Agnostic, in case anyone cares.)

  • usuhname

    Sounds like a nice idea, though unfortunately as soon as the word atheism is thrown into the equation you're in trouble. But more cultural spaces which aren't about Him or $$$ are definitely muvh needed.

  • Sandra

    I only understand this as opposing the attitude that atheists "don't believe" – as atheists DO "_believe_ that there is no God" and therefore this is a temple to that firm belief. On the other hand, it is also a shrewd promotional tool for Botton's book Religion for Atheists. I, personally, am against this entire concept, since it institutionalizes atheism; and institutionalized faith is a big reason why I haven't yet found myself in any religion.

  • aarontobey

    I take umbrage with Mr. de Bottens claim that books aren't enough to get ideas across, and even more so that we (atheists) even should be "getting our ideas across." I say this because one of my major issues with organized religion is proselytization and conversion. I understand the necessity of fighting for evolution or global warming science against religious ignorance of facts but I do not feel that trying to convince someone that abandoning religion is the only correct way to live. To do so would be to fly in the face of the free thinking spirit at the heart of atheism. Furthermore adopting the same symbol systems and structural ideas as organized religion doesn't subvert them to the degree Mr. de Botten thinks it does because it simultaneously co-opts atheism into the realm of religion as a number of commenters have pointed out. Again I question the desire for subversion in the first place.

    Either way, an interesting idea but fundamentally flawed. Build more schools and libraries that are true temples to learning.

  • Marie

    Who would donate to this project? What an outlandish waste of money. Donate to something that makes a difference to the world, something that benefits malnourished children, abused animals, education, pick something worthwhile!

  • http://dailygrail.com/ Red Pill Junkie

    A black tower??

    Why am I picturing Richard Dawkins dressed in white robes, addressing his minions and yelling "TO WAR!!" :P

  • Robert Mack

    A glade on an estate near Paris (Parc de Champs, Champs-sur-Marne) is called le salon des philosophes. I was there on a gorgeous day last spring and I shot a minute or so of video of the clouds and trees and birds. http://youtu.be/2M6nPkwRthU That's my idea of a Humanist temple!

  • pax

    “Our hunger for the infinite is never quieted; even those disillusioned by excess of pleasures have always kept in their imagination a hope of somewhere finding a truer source of satisfaction than any they have tried. Our search for the never-ending love is never ended-no one could really love anything unless he thought of it as eternal. Not everyone gives a name to this infinity toward which he tends and for which he yearns, but it is what the rest of us call God.” Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

  • hclasalle

    I don't think atheism is enough of an idea. I think HUMANISM is, the idea of spreading human values (which would need to be defined more clearly). OR, PHILOSOPHY, particularly where the building would be a place to rediscover philosophies that are non theist, such as Epicureanism.

    Greek philosopher Epicurus had a Garden in antiquity where he discussed philosophy with women and slaves and all kinds of people, which was unheard of and VERY progressive for his day. He believed in the existence of the atom and favored the empirical and scientific methods to discover reality. He is the highest expression of a non theist philosopher in history (along with, maybe, Buddha). Perhaps a non-theistic temple to Buddha can also be erected.

    But I do think the idea has merit: it just needs to be better developed and articulated. Should stand FOR something, not AGAINST something.

  • http://susanshelleydesign.com Suzy

    I get this. A place for reflection, which is non religious. Calling it "temple for atheists" has provoked controversy and attracted attention, but it's not a dedicated building for non religion. It's a beautiful space, a flexible temple where you can philosophize without being in a religious setting. It's great to put into perspective the amount of time humans have been on this earth in relation to the age of the earth, but having pre human time depicted in black and our time gold I feel is more controversial than it being "a temple for atheists".

  • xtiaan

    I always considered art galleries, museums and libraries to be secular temples that show the triumph of reason over religion and superstition.

    As for ‘Why should religious people have the most beautiful buildings in the land?’
    well this isnt the 15th century anymore, so they dont.

    Of all the stunning architecture shown on this site alone, how many of those buildings are churches? The church lost its stranglehold of political and financial power centuries ago….

  • Wolfie Rankin

    It's nonsense, some believers think atheism is a religion, this only seems to confirm that idea. Art is quite nice, I don't mind that… but then I'd rather funds go towards schools or hospitals.

  • http://twitter.com/TheLCW @TheLCW

    There is something about creating a black monolith that does not feel welcoming. Although I love the idea of an atheist / humanist meeting point.

  • Wendsong

    I agree with the funding comments. Religious people of like mind come together and then decide to build a place of worship. Bottom seems to have the idea that "If you build it, they will come." What then? He should be calling it a Center for Reason. "Temple" seems a little over the top, since atheism is not a religion, which is based on faith, but develops as a result of and in search reason.

    • onvn

      aren't all philosophical belief systems based on reason? remember that "logic" and "reason" are two different things.

      if it's a Temple for Logic, it wouldn't be accurate either since most, if not all, of other belief systems (e.g. agnosticism, pantheism, etc. and even some schools of theism) are also based logic.

      these buildings seem to me more of a folly than a temple.. perhaps if it is called Follies for Atheists it wont be so controversial?

  • unbowed

    Athiests already have temples all over the world. BANKS!

  • Justyn

    Building beautiful buildings is something PEOPLE do, and I think Alain is demonstrating a very wonderful point. It doesn't take a religion or a God to inspire beauty. There are inspiring and valuable experiences that can be and are shared by all. I think it is naive to think that it is at all strange to see atheists do things to bring us closer to the good or even mysterious.
    ALAIN – I hope this catches on in the States.

  • http://stevenpaulleivasthisnthat.blogspot.com/ Steven Paul Leiva

    Religions need the "spiritual" emotions of great buildings to mask the irrationality of their ideas. Atheists, humanists, secularists, have no such need. Their ideas can stand on their own.

  • bdd_1970

    So Atheism is a religion…..got it.

  • xoxo

    atheism is now heading towards the same path as all the other religion. it is becoming an organization like a corporation. if there’s one thing i believe in it’s putting my religion into action.

    at the end of the day love is the answer.

  • Blake

    Here's a Perspective, you're trying too hard…yawn

  • undrgrndgirl

    hahahahahahhahahahaha.

    athiests need god, probably more than the believers do (i don’t mean they need to be saved, i mean without god where would atheists be? without god they have no basis for existence, either)

    will the temples have shrines to saint darwin?

  • rob

    the word 'atheism' means roughly 'no-god-ism', leaving open what else we're going to worship then instead. so Alain, you want to erect a temple for the sake of atheism, but then again the word 'temple' has strong connotations with the house of worship of whatever religion: it almost sounds like putting up a house of god for non-believers, like 'you believers got your temples so we want one as well'. Alain, I think you have to develop a more original way of proclaiming the cause of atheism and definitely not use elements that could refer back to religion again.

  • Mickey

    I’m an atheist and an architectural student. I congratulate De Botton for his adventurous thinking. Instead of this ‘temple’ I would love atheists to unite together to create more non-religious schools. I live in Brisbane Australia and among the 30 plus private high schools only 1 has no connection to a religious institution ( you need to register at birth to be successful on their waiting list) The lack of choice continues to feed religious education…

  • Rick

    Regardless of becoming somewhat solidified in literature and the media in recent decades, atheism is not, and cannot be a religion, despite the propensity of some individuals to draw such parallels.

    Religions are bound by doctrine and broadly rigid in their understanding of the world and humanity's place in it. The big difference between someone who is religious, and an atheist is that upon verifiable and repeatable scientific evidence of the existence (or even probability) of something, an atheist will cease to be atheistic to it. Generally that cannot be said of religions.

    This is to say nothing of De Botton's ideas on test here. While I would welcome the construction of an object to represent humanity's time on earth as a precedent for a new kind of public building, I find its link with atheism misguided. There are innumerable religious people who accept that the world is circa 4 billion years old, and are equally humbled by the gravity of the blink of an eye existence we all share. Thus, the label of secularism to these monuments would also be misleading.

    The strength of atheism is its decentralization, and as public thinkers are seen to unite as atheists, I do not find it difficult to understand why it is increasingly misinterpreted as having religious qualities. Being organized should not be confused with religiosity.

    A central building is not only superfluous, but would draw atheism further into a popular misrepresentation of its somehow being a 'new' religion. I cannot resist the temptation at this point to reiterate that every person of faith is a non-believer in something.

    However one chooses to describe it, the 'temple for atheists' and 'religion for atheists' are just plain unhelpful ways of naming the debate. Neither affect the definition of atheism, ones rights as an atheist, ones experience of non-belief, and I would argue are a step backward in the pursuit of human progress.

  • http://wolfbag.blogspot.com j-sho

    It is important to me as an atheist (note: lowercase 'a') that my atheism isn't mistaken for a religion in it's own right. It is not a belief in non-beleaving, it is not a void left by the lack of religious belief that must be filled. From this standpoint, everything around us, from buildings to our planet to the whole universe, not to mention the better points of humanity, are a magnificent testament to themselves, no temple is required. The beauty of a cathedral isn't diminished by it's purpose, it remains as a testament the the magnificence of those who built it.

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1062361913 Iris Fingerhut

    is the architect an atheist? if he is not , this idea is reprehensible. if he is, maybe he should reconsider his core beliefs. as a lifetime atheist, i find the whole idea,
    just WRONG!

  • https://www.facebook.com/farburolab Felix Arburola B

    Templo para ateos?!! Inconcebible!!!

  • MicronicleDust

    Wow atheists must really have a self confidence problem if your for this. What a waste of money if you build it for no purpose whatsoever. Be a nice atheist and spend that money on people that actually need the help. Shameless self indulgence very very proud, foolish and egoistic. All in the name of nothing.

    • juz

      I’m not in favour of this and agree that the money could be better spent but ‘Shameless self indulgence very very proud, foolish and egoistic’ could also be used to describe any cathedral or other large or ostentatious place of worship.

      Given all the above comments that you can ‘worship god anyhere’ why is a place for aetheists to gather any more a waste of money than a church ?

      As for ‘be a nice atheist and spend that money on people that actually need the help’ couldn’t you say the same of any religion?

      Religions have taken, and continue to take, a vast amount of wealth from society (more often than not from the poorest and most in need) spending the majority of it on their own self indulgence.