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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Atheism, Architecture and Adoration




I’ve never spoken much about atheism as anything religious, since it certainly isn’t a religion. But this isn’t to say there isn’t a religious quality to atheism in the same way there is for theism, both being a position on the existence of something supernatural. A London author, Alain de Botton, who wrote “Religion for Atheists” suggests that atheists should be able to utilize things that the religious use for other purposes that are spiritual, but nonetheless secular. This is similar in a sense to a position of Andre Comte Sponville, who wrote “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality,” wherein he claims that atheism can have a spiritual aspect to it in understanding the spiritual to be something we all experience as beings that are able to make judgments and interpretations about the world around us. Botton takes it a step further and affirms that atheism should be able to make a temple in the nominal sense, to represent and give presence to an ideal, such as perspective. Historians of atheism and France might bristle a bit at this idea, since there was something like a religion of reason in France back in the late 18th century. Called the Cult of Reason, it was intended to replace Christianity, but within 2 years of its existence, it was thoroughly repudiated and they were executed, presumably for blasphemy or treason. Botton doesn’t appear to want to create a temple for an atheistic religion, but simply for values that atheists hold dear, almost sacred to the extent that you would want a building to make it very clear. I’m not entirely in support of this, if only for public relations issues, but considering the French context, there is some possible reasoning behind this and something for atheists across the world to consider about what they can utilize from religion in order to make themselves more noticed in the world at large, beyond writings and people.

The main basis of Botton’s plan at the moment is to build a series of so called “temples” in the United Kingdom. Not temples in the sense of worshipping anything, but a place of contemplation. Ironically, this is somewhat the intent of Buddhist temples, contrary to our initial ideas of idolatry or such involving the statues of Buddha that are usually quite prominent. It is not Buddha that Buddhists worship, but Buddha is a prominent figure and an exemplar in the tradition that all adherents aspire to be like. Inside the atheist temple is still a mystery, but the overall design on the outside is supposed to represent the age of the earth, 46 meters tall, each meter symbolizing a million years. The virtue embodied in this structure is that of perspective, something Buddhists have a parallel of sorts with mindfulness. If you do not realize that humans have been on earth for a minute fraction of the time we have evidence of the planet sustaining life for, let alone its physical existence which goes back over a billion years, then perhaps you are focused too much on human achievements without conceding that we are still a young phenomenon in the grand scheme of nature and the universe. This is not to deny the importance of humanity. If humanism is in any sense a result of atheism, then it necessarily follows that we should recognize humanity as something intrinsically valuable, even sacred in a metaphorical sense.

Religious architecture is something many atheists, especially British born ones, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, can appreciate even if they disagree with the sentiments and beliefs that inspired their design. Atheists don’t have to sit by and do nothing; they can build monuments to ideals that all religions and philosophies can find value and agreement on, perspective being one of them. Humanity could be another one in the future. This plan of building atheist “temples” might go differently in America, possibly because of how building permits and taxes are associated with structures designed for worship as opposed to those sponsored for other reasons that don’t fall under the exceptions churches get for tax breaks. Not to mention when you invoke religion without the devotion, people become understandably suspicious. In the U.K. it might be progressing towards a separation from religion and piety, but the two are still connected a great deal in the U.S., so it would be difficult for the American public to conceive of it as anything other than a representation of so called secularist “religion”. There may be a cultural bifurcation between monuments serving a dual religious and secular purpose and houses of worship with a primarily religious purpose, though with Botton’s idea, it is a merging of architecture and art, as done in many churches already, especially with stained glass. It doesn’t need to be called an atheist temple, but perhaps a secular temple, which has a paradoxical ring to it. Secular means of the world in the non sacred sense; profane, which in its oldest sense literally meant outside the temple.

In America, this sort of project might not be well received even by the atheist community, the main justification being that in America, focusing on education through general means instead of lowering yourself to the level of the religious is the preferred method. If you suggest that you need these sorts of objects and practices to justify your skepticism and value of reason as a virtue, you’ve betrayed the separation you maintain from your native religion. Returning to Sponville, a Frenchman like Botton, there is a possibility that even David Silverman, a fairly outspoken and strict atheist himself, would admit there is a personal spiritual side to atheism, though not in the traditional understanding of the term that involves the supernatural. But even Sponville grants that atheism should not be seen as a religion primarily because it does not have rituals, tenets or anything that someone identifying as an atheist is automatically expected to do or believe by other people sharing that label. It’s so unlike Christianity or even Buddhism when you get down to brass tacks, both of which have at least some expectations that would render me something of an anomaly in Buddhist temples anywhere, since outright atheism is somewhat discouraged against as I understand it. Something more like agnosticism seems to be at least the norm, not to mention the potential misunderstandings that can come to Westerners who investigate and participate in the sheer diversity of Buddhist meditation practices, from India to China and Japan especially.

In the long run, the difficulty of advancing the cause of skepticism, secularism and even the destigmatization of the word atheism and its derivatives, is potentially hurt by this project in London; but if done in a particular way by the American atheist population, it might actually present similar ideals, but in a way accessible to a more religious populace. The term temple creates ambiguities, so another term would need to be developed or utilize a pre existing one that reflects the virtue behind this practice of valuing perspective and other secular values without involving worship. More questions than answers yet again with this topic. Until next time, Namaste and aloha

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