Keeping up with the St. Joneses: Places of Atheist Worship

atheist sunriseAlain de Botton is no stranger to controversy. His opinions on a myriad of subjects have stirred discussion in various philosophical communities. As a writer, television presenter, and entrepreneur, Alain can be said to be a man of many talents. But it was recently in a series of discussions pertaining to ‘Atheist safe spaces’ and his thoughts about an ‘Atheist Place of Worship’ in central London, that Alain irritated more than his fair share of peers in the Atheistic community.

Exploring The Concept Of An Atheist Place Of Worship

His premise was simple enough: People of Faith have places where they feel their faith is safe. In a world of rising secularism, the walls of the local Church, Mosque, or Synagogue perhaps feel like the last mighty walls against the tide of a civilization which desperately seeks to leave the dogmatic principles of Theism behind. Alain however pointed out that no such place exists for Atheists.

By merely commenting on this lack of ‘Home of the Faithless’, Alain raises the point, though not intentionally, that Atheism is developing its own culture. Human beings are inherently tribal, and as much as we don’t want to admit that we’re fond of ‘Othering’, we unfortunately tend to do it a lot. Now, othering is a source of much misery in the world, othering leads to racism, and leads people to classify each other as ‘Less Human’ than themselves, thus creating a relative position wherein they can justify acts which would otherwise be considered to be distasteful.

However, othering also leads to the creation of groups and clubs which give people a sense of belonging. Ultimately, ‘Othering’ is a phenomenon of human society, and it’s not likely to go away any time soon. As such, Atheists find themselves quite collectively ‘othered’ by all Theistic groups. Atheists may have discussion groups, but they lack a centralized gathering area where their primary motivation for coming together is their lack of Faith.

The very concept itself is surreal and strangely ironic considering that the quest for an ‘Atheist place of Worship’ is more or less a collection of human beings seeking to find the communal church-like experience, minus the reverence of a God at the center. Alain proposes that we replace the image of God at the center of the room with the image of Humanity, more specifically humanities collective achievements.

The ultimate goal of Alain de Botton’s ‘Atheist Temple’ would be a celebration of the reality of the Universe, as far as we understand it; and a collective place of meeting for those who are without Faith.

As one might imagine, members of the Atheist community were divided strongly on the subject of an ‘Atheist Temple’, having been freed from the tedium of attending the Sunday lip service to one Idol, many Atheists are not so comfortable with the idea of paying lip service to another. Of course that most likely wouldn’t happen, but the conceptual similarities cannot be ignored.

The Voice Of Richard Dawkins

Professor Richard Dawkins, author of ‘The Selfish Gene’, and ‘The God Delusion’, was quick to voice his opinion in protest at the absurdity of the idea. Noting that Atheists already have their places of ‘Worship’; Libraries, Quiet Pubs, and Scientific Societies. And whilst I empathize with Professor Dawkins’ point, and by extension the point of those who agree with him – regardless of whether or not you agree with Alain de Botton’s view of an Atheist Temple; you must at least concede that there are few dedicated Atheist safe spaces, beyond small discussion groups which conduct their discourse hidden away in nearly cabal-like secrecy. In fact, for centuries Freethinkers had to conduct their meetings in those aforementioned circumstances.

The reality, in my opinion, is that whilst we may have worked tirelessly to be free of our faith, we are in turn not free of the social structures, and inter-personal motivations that exist around us. Many of us wish to continue to live our lives with the same regularity, and the same awe of creation that those of us with Faith already do.

This brings us to a strange subset of Atheists who I’d imagine make up a significant percentage of all self-identified Atheists: The Spiritual Atheists. The spiritual Atheist is a strange beast, stunned and awe-filled by the nature of reality itself, and gifted with an almost religious-like sense of wonder at absolutely everything.

Spirituality In Atheism?

Spiritual Atheism correlates the insignificance of human life, with the paradoxical significance of the mere fact that to be conscious, and by extension to be sentient is to quite literally be the Cosmos witnessing itself. The Spiritual Atheist knows that we are the Universe made to know itself. I find the concept truly inspiring, and as stunning as or perhaps more stunning than the idea of a ‘God’.

I can safely say I identify with this group of Atheists, who refuse to accept the media-portrayed view of the scientific world as a cold place of sterile white light, numbers, and mindless calculative action. Richard Feynman was said to have been stunned by a friend who was an Painter, who dared to tell Feynman that he as an artist saw a flower far more beautifully than Feynman ever could; And Feynmen reacted by telling him that the mathematical, biological, and elemental forces which allowed for the creation of a flower were no less beautiful than a perfectly painted image of the same likeness. And in truth – Feynman was right.

I have a feeling that the subject of ‘Atheist safe spaces’ isn’t one that’s going to go away any time soon, in fact contrarily it’s likely to become even more pertinent a subject of discussion as we continue to move away from the subjective darkness of faith, and into the objective glow of actual, falsifiable Universal truth.

To hear from Alain de Botton himself, here’s a TED talk he’s delivered.

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5 thoughts on “Keeping up with the St. Joneses: Places of Atheist Worship”

  1. There is no real experience to be had in meditation or mindfullness. When the ego is dropped and each thought is recognised for what it is, your mind is free. There is no need for labels, explanations or approval of any kind.

    • “There is no real experience to be had in meditation or mindfullness.” I agree with you Dean, save for that sentence. I’m not sure what you mean by there’s no experience to be had in meditation or mindfulness. If you reach a state through these methods of ego-death, there is nothing but experience, a spacious awareness where you are not bound to thought activity, though it may arise and pass like clouds across a vast landscape. To have no experience would be to be completely unconscious, and in meditation or mindfulness, the point is to cultivate more – or a higher level of – consciousness. What do you reckon?

  2. I agree with you, more or less entirely.

    I haven’t come across to many instances wherein an individual has sought to endlessly define my perception of the world in order to correlate it with their own relative position, but I’m sure it happens.

    Our individual connections to the Cosmos, on whatever level, are very much a subjective experience. What would be a spiritual event for one, may not necessarily be a spiritual event for the other. These subjective interpretations are extremely significant when it comes to our perception of whatever subject, concept, or entity it is we attempt to grasp – And I’d imagine they’re largely a function of the human condition.

    But if someone was to ask me for a series of words that they need to internally cross-reference in order to paint a picture of my relative perception of the world, I’d probably decline them their advancement. It’d be easier for me to describe what ‘Spiritual Atheism’ means to me, relatively, rather than attempt to use pre-conceived concepts laid down by various philosophers, and theologians in ages past.

  3. Great article Ross. The funny thing is if you are a ‘spiritual atheist’, then you might take umbrage with having to even bother with identifying with a label. But for the purposes of conversation people are often more comfortable with labels. If they ask ‘what are you’, in reference to your faith, or lack there of, they expect some semblance of a direct answer, even if it’s a label that you nuance through explaining it. The problem with this is if you say you’re ‘beyond labels’ you sound pretentious, and if you give a label, you are offering the person a chance to box you into a preconceived notion of what that means. We have to be careful in doing that to others too, our minds will often naturally move in that direction if left unchecked,

    I’m not certain I have any need of the word worship myself. If I had to label myself, I would use the term spiritual atheist – but then it requires a whole conversation about how that could possibly be, or what that entails – unless you’re speaking to someone of a similar mindset, and then they may guess immediately near enough to the mark of what you mean. My spirituality is absent of any requirement to hold a belief, or to believe my subjective experiences in meditation are analogous to the ultimate truth of the Universe, or constitute something that should be taken, on its own, as scientific evidence to describe the world we live in. What the practice of meditating, from a spiritual atheist’s perspective, so far as I identify with the label, enables one is to change their state of consciousness to one less prone to reacting to every thought that comes careening, uninvited into your mind. The more you release your habitual return to the analytical mind the more spacious your field of awareness becomes, and there is a stillness that is otherwise inaccessible, unable to pierce through the perpetual noise our minds are producing.

    If you do have any insights arising in this stillness, or a spiritual experience – which can encompass a ridiculous amounts of states of minds and subjective interpretations of various experiences – once you begin to conceptualize the experience, the further away from the core of the experience you get. The best you can do is to capture it with the vocabulary and ability to articulate your experience, which when read or heard by another is surely pale in comparison to the experience itself. And of course once that moment is past, is a memory, the state of mind no longer has existence, and a recollection of a state of mind is but a shadow.

    Essentially I guess the word worship gets in the way of an honest dialog regarding my perspective on spiritual atheism. As Ross wrote above, a spiritual atheist may see reality as the Universe evolving consciousness through forms to ultimately be able to recognize itself, and to understand it in various ways, even with precise math. Worship seems to be divisive at the core of the word – it infers that there’s two, you and another that is superior. The state of consciousness achieved through dedicated practice of focused attention – simply meditation – is not divided, that’s the job of the ego to infer the ‘other’. A spiritual state, as I experience it, means you’re somewhere on the scale between a state of absolute still awareness – an archer with bent bow, the release based on intuitive physics though the math be unknown – and perpetual noise, a prison of the mind. More precisely, a measurement on that scale that was before not accessible to you, a bit less noise – you might call the experience spiritual – though someone with a more naturally quiet mind might find that experience quite mundane, and therefore find no cause to realize there’s anything worth appreciating. Thanks for inspiring the response with your article.

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