Alain 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.