Welcome to Atheist Towers

Hmm, I don’t know. It’s very sweet of Alain de Botton, but I don’t know. A temple to atheism…

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins’s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.

One, De Botton is not a philosopher. (He writes poppy books that mention philosophers here and there. That doesn’t make him a philosopher.) Two, as we all know to the point of mind-numbing tedium, Dawkins’s approach is not destructive (destructive of what? what’s he destroyed?) and it’s usually not all that aggressive. Forthright, yes; sometimes acerbic, yes; but aggressive, no, not really.

So we don’t really need an “antidote” to Dawkins’s approach. If we did it’s not clear that we would need De Botton to do it. If it were and we did, why would we want a tower, anyway?

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions.”

Sigh. Same old shit. He makes the mostly-false smear true merely by repeating it. Atheism “has become known as a destructive force” because people keep recycling the boring and mostly wrong claims that it is. You would think De Botton could avoid such an obvious banality.

De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

Well that sounds quite appealing, De Botton’s silliness aside. It sounds like the theme song for The Big Bang Theory.

Humanists said it was misplaced for non-believers to build quasi-religious buildings, because atheists did not need temples to probe the meaning of life.

“The things religious people get from religion – awe, wonder, meaning and perspective – non-religious people get them from other places like art, nature, human relationships and the narratives we give our lives in other ways,” said Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Society.

De Botton has insisted atheists have as much right to enjoy inspiring architecture as religious believers.

Well of course we do, but then we already do that – including churches and cathedrals, not to mention mosques. Inspiring architecture?


 George Pitcher, on the other hand, thinks it’s a great idea.

“Building a monument acknowledges that we are more than dust. Whether we come at that through secular means or a religious narrative, it is the same game.

“This is a more constructive atheism than Dawkins, who is about the destruction of ideas rather than contributing new ones.”

See? Destruction. Dawkins is all about destruction. People keep saying so, so it must be true.


  1. Brownian says

    Oh, wonderful. And at these temples we can pray, and tithe, and have bake sales, and professional atheists who serve as untrained counsellors and can hear confession, and then when theists say we’ve got god-shaped holes in our hearts we’ll look at old de Bottom’s tower and say, “Yeah, it would appear you’re right.”

    So, is anybody planning to build a gigantic water tower for skepticism 2.0, to show the homeopaths that we can be constructive too? If not, I can take the lead (I know the names of some philosophers too). We’ll toss in a fake Nessie for good measure.

  2. says

    If you’re interested in ideas, why not scrap the tower idea and set up a scholarship fund instead? Maybe create libraries and educational opportunities in underserved areas? How about a hundred other possible ideas that are about fostering thinking… and not creating a monument to Bottom’s overwhelming self-regard?

  3. Chris says


    This has bothered me from the beginning. How does this help ANYTHING. If it does a single thing to affect believers, it will be to further the stereotype of the “religion of atheism,” and to lump us in with contrarian loons like the Church of Satan.

    And as you say, the money could be going to something that far better furthers the ideals of atheism… i.e., knowledge and critical thinking

  4. Riptide says

    Damned right, atheism is destructive. It eradicates one of the most persistent sources of cruelty and subjugation in history, and that scares the bejezus out of milquetoasts like de Botton and Be Scofield (and presumably Cee Lo Green and the rest of the “Alphabet Soup” apologists. Who’s next? Ae Schylus?).

    But what these vapor-wasting pantywaists don’t seem to get is that sometimes destruction is *necessary* in order to relay foundations. If you find your baseboards infested with termites, you don’t throw Spackle on the holes and build another story, you dig deep to remove the infestation. Sometimes that means burning the structure down to start anew.

    Defanging atheism is like depriving a construction company of a jackhammer. Without the Dawkinses and Hitchenses and Christinas and Bensons budding Ahlquists of the movement, the greatest city of ideas the world has ever known would have no tool to reassess and renew its crumbling infrastructure. If the gatekeepers of the Enlightenment are too afraid of offending the holders of bad ideas, that thought-city is doomed to a slow decay, if not a cataclysmic catastrophe.

    We’ll see how long de Botton’s tower holds with the barbarians at the gates, screaming that its very core message offends their religious sensibilities. We’ll see how many people he can convince to stand with him when he’s shown he stands for nothing at all.

  5. Kiwi Dave says

    Oh great! If we have a tower, we’ll acknowledge we’re more than dust. Who’da thunk it?

    I look forward to George Pitcher’s thoughts on the Tower of Babel.

  6. Beth says

    Dawkins has made it quite clear he is actively seeking to destroy religion to whatever extent it lies in his power to achieve that.

    Gnu atheism seems to me to be about tearing away the myths that religious people use to interpret the world. I see that as a destructive approach. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing though. Shiva has a place in the pantheon for a reason.

  7. says

    I suspect I know what’s going on here: De Botton with his atheist temples and rituals, Hoffman with his complaint that atheism used to be a big idea, all these rants about how the gnus are simplistic and mean and destructive.

    These people want to charge admission. “I am the way and the light. No one can reach atheism but through me.” When in fact, atheism really is a very little idea. It’s the Null hypothesis: no belief without evidence. That’s it, that’s all, there ain’t no more. But how do you charge for that? When really, people should have to pay us for advanced degrees in theology before they’re allowed to hear the punch line. It’s like Scientology–you don’t get to hear about Xenu for years, and until you’ve paid thousands of dollars. And these damn gnus are just giving it away for, like, free!

    How dare they!

  8. says

    Yeah, I’m with everyone else here:

    These folks like the idea of religion because they like the idea of religious hierarchy, with themselves situated at the very top. For all that people play up the famous atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, we never get any marching orders from those folks. Sometimes suggestions of cool charities to support, stuff like that. These other folks, like the “interfaith” goons and accommodationists and “let’s borrow from religion” crowd really hate Gnu Atheism because it isn’t geared towards the sort of top-down organizing that they are comfortable with, especially since they hold no special place of privilege.

    Botton wants to build a tower, because he’s already got decorating plans for his office on the top floor.

  9. mordacious1 says

    The christian scientists have reading rooms practically everywhere (1200 worldwide). My town of 11,000 has one which I find odd, but there it is in the center of town on the main street. It’s nice inside too, although the literature is frankly scary (power of healing through prayer stuff).

    Now, if the atheists are to copy anything from religion, this might be just the thing. Imagine atheist reading rooms popping up around the country where inquiring minds could read hard-to-find atheist texts. I know I’d use it. I happen to have an extensive library of atheist literature, but it’s expensive to maintain and takes up a lot of space in my small house. I’d gladly donate most of the books to a reading room for others to enjoy and learn from.

    Cathedrals and towers on the other hand…

  10. Bruce Gorton says

    Something that has been percolating in my mind for a while: New Atheism, what is the actual philosophical difference?

    And I think I have hit upon the big one: We seek to end the authority aspect of religion.

    Old atheism tends to view religion as a necessary policing and motivating force. We don’t. We prefer people to think for themselves.

    Old atheists, when they aren’t propping up religion are trying to propose replacements. North Korea’s state philosophy or the Party in the USSR and China are attempts along these lines. New atheists propose that there be no replacement for that element of society.

    And that is what this tower represents to me – the sort of old atheism we oppose when we talk about accommodationism.

    We would much rather see the money spent on building secular and well run science schools in Africa, than have an atheist temple. We would rather see a museum than a temple, we would rather have libraries than a temple.

  11. says

    Brownian says:
    “…meopaths that we can be constructive too? If not, I can take the lead…”

    I’m gonna stick to gettin’ it off church roofs.


  12. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    De Botton isn’t suggesting a temple to atheism, he wants a monument to his monumental ego.

  13. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Bruce Gorton #15

    [New Atheists] seek to end the authority aspect of religion.

    I think you’re right. We don’t have a problem with Aunt Tilly in Des Moines who goes to church on Sunday, says grace before meals, and otherwise lives a quiet life, not bothering anyone. We have major problems with the Mormon Church’s efforts to keep same-sex marriage illegal or creationists trying to have mythology taught in schools in place of science.

  14. says

    Urrgh! I feel sick.

    Thas’ the guy who wrote Status anxiety ffs.

    Did he write it because it takes one to know one or what.

    It’s not that bad a book, not quite AC Grayling, but with some fairly good cures in it, and a satisfying read overall. Has the guy suffered some kind of brain injury?

    And it’s where he wants to put it as well, parked right in the midst of fukin mammon-town, and bejeweled with gold leaf and shit as well. Jeezus wept. That paragraph made me think it was the onion, and this was all some gently ribbing piss-take.

    Why the hell can’t he spread it about a bit at best in the form everybody’s said here, or at the least add a bit to a university and use the ego bit to embellish it with some Puginesque neo-goth or summat.


    Not that happy with your pick for #1 architectural delight either Ophelia, deco’s kinda nice n’all, but just about everything in that place just gets ever uglier the higher up it gets. I took a holiday there in 2000 and came away paranoid and more shit-scared of post ReaganThatcher world than I’d ever been. It was like pure naked Darwinism.

  15. says

    #15, Bruce,
    I like that question.
    I’m uneasy though about some kind of claim that the ‘royal we’ hasn’t had a lot of benefit from the lessons of history, or the information powers, that Marx or whomsoever couldn’t. (Not claiming Marx an an old-atheism luminary mind!)

    Is it really true that the Humes, Twains, Ingersolls and Russells took such patriarchal, or “It’s ok for the lower orders” kind of lines. No not that obviously, What’s the ‘old’ your thinking of?

    It’s the French Revolution that I’m very largely ignorant of, is this ‘wiping away the old order, & strangling last priests with entrails’ the definite thing your pointing t’ward? Diderot, Rousseau, perhaps yeah, ok

    Thing is though, I really can’t picture how NK & China fit any narrative line.

    The thing I wanna dispute a lot though is a seeming try to tar the accomodationista with some broad brush stroke straight outta the Stalinhitler bollox from the common enemy.

    I think I’m more of a conflict-averse sort who wants to reach across the aisle and search for some way to enlarge the central sector of the Venn diagam.- accomodation of the accomodationista!

  16. Matt Penfold says

    As an atheist I already have a temple. To the unbeliever it looks just like a pub, and like pubs it sells beer. However when I am sat in front of the open log fire, with a pint of beer in my hand, I am in fact taking part in a non-religious service.

    If I am looking for temples to reason, then what is wrong with science museums ? The Natural History Museum in London is cathedral like in scale and architecture. It has the added benefit of not being full of self-satisfied arseholes like de Botton.

  17. David Hart says

    “hard-to-find atheist texts”

    If there are any, surely the thing to do is just to put them up on the internet?

  18. Bruce Gorton says


    “Old”, as in the basic public philosophy of those who bash the “New” atheists.

    I mean in terms of actual arguments, “New” atheism utilises philosophy going back to ancient India, so it isn’t really age that separates the two approaches.

    But there is a separation, and I think that is in how we see the role religion plays in society.

    That role is for example to set common myths and “truths” to act as social guides, and setting individual identities.

    New atheists tend to feel that myths are based upon fictions, and that while a fiction can be illustrative if everyone involved understands it to be a fiction, basing action of false data can cause incredible harm.

    In other words we are profoundly suspicious of common “truths” and feel that such things should not be set by agencies such as religion, but rather explored by individuals to the best of their abilities. Even the preceding statement.

    Thus new atheists tend to also be passionate on issues such as censorship, while finding concepts such as “Islamophobia” troubling.

    We also do not believe that someone’s identity should be set by anyone except themselves, which I shall deal with later in this comment.

    I am of course speaking in generalities, and it is a sign of the basic health of the community that plenty should disagree with me on this.

    Now with the old atheism, or atheisms so far as I can see, they see that role of setting identities and common “truths” as being useful.

    Thus you have the Soviet Union’s bid to enforce state atheism, as well as its historic views on evolution. You have North Korea setting out its state philosophy. You have the French Revolutionaries (Okay, they were Deists but still) setting out their reign of terror.

    You also have the issue of identity politics – where the “old” atheist of today will argue for multi-culturalism and the rights of smaller communities. New atheists tend to take the approach that communities don’t have rights, people do. The old atheist approach however appears to be that a communal sense of offense is sufficient grounds for censorship.

    To the old atheism, religion may not be true but it is useful, to the new atheism the fact that religion isn’t true is what makes it non-useful.

    Now what gained the two approaches their labels, new and old, is that the new atheism appears to be in a more recent upswing in populism because of what appears to be a greater impact of honest argument with improved communications.

  19. Egbert says

    I actually think a public place for reason is a good idea, but think Alain de Bottom’s idea is a horrible one.

    I also agree with the above comments that new atheism is a shift toward a war against the authority of religion, rather than rationally engaging with it.

  20. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Matt Penfold #22

    As an atheist I already have a temple. To the unbeliever it looks just like a pub, and like pubs it sells beer. However when I am sat in front of the open log fire, with a pint of beer in my hand, I am in fact taking part in a non-religious service.

    Let’s go down to the Atheists Arms and not worship together. I’ll buy the first round.

  21. Greg Tingey says

    We already have a great temple to knowledge and the natural sciences in London.
    I think it is both the oldest and largest of its’ kind in the world.
    It is called:
    The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
    a.k.a. The Graden of Earthly Delights.

  22. Brigadista says

    Yes, AdB obviously has something to sell at the moment as he was a guest on yesterday’s Saturday Live, a BBC Radio 4 chat show hosted by former Communard, and now Reverend, Richard Coles. Though I was aware of AdB’s reputation as a bit of a pop philosopher, I was nevertheless hoping to hear at least some “yes-there-is / no-there-isn’t” debate between him and the host. Silly me. All we got was a monumental accommodationist love-in, and some of the usual claptrap about churches providing a space for the community. Of course, in all his wistful nostalgia for the good old days when you could leave your front door unlocked and the Smiths at number 9 would always look after your cat if you had to go to Bridlington to visit a sick aunt, he entirely ignored the fact that the only kind of “community” that the church has ever been interested in creating is one that is bigger than the one next door, so that you can go and bop your heretical/blasphemous/heathen etc. neighbours on the head when they’ve got something you want.

  23. says

    Not one of de Botton’s finest ideas, even if I broadly think he has something of value to contribute to the discussion around how nonreligious people might consider adapting valuable elements of religious communities and practices. I agree with Andrew Copson here: there are far better ways to spend this money.

  24. Egbert says

    Sailor1031, to answer your question–you can’t. A public place for reason would be somewhere I could go to escape the irrational, or somewhere where like-minded freethinkers could meet and exchange ideas and build a community. At the moment, there is no such inspiring public space to gather.

  25. says

    Oh, and Egbert – public community spaces which celebrate reason and build freethinking community are exactly what we hope to create at HumanistCommunityProject.org

  26. says

    I know. You are SO lucky, James. Kew really is a kind of secular temple – in a good way, in that it’s not literally a temple at all. It’s one of my favorite places in the world.

  27. says

    I feel very lucky. It was a really fantastic place to grow up. I must admit I never truly appreciated it as a kid, but as I got older I stared to go more often. The Chihuly exhibit which placed his glass all through the gardens was one of the most stunning things I have EVER seen, and the summer jazz concerts there are some of the happiest moments of my life. Secular temple, indeed!

    And thanks Egbert! The resources we are providing are, I hope, internationally valid, so if anyone wants to try to expand their humanist discussion group into a community center they can use all our materials!

  28. says

    Oh I know! I didn’t see the exhibition but I saw a tv show about it (Chihuly is the pride of Seattle…) and had a gorgeous photo of bell-shaped things surrounding a door in the Temperate House as my desktop for ages. Talk about secular temple…

  29. FresnoBob says

    Imagine the shit de Botton would be throwing if Dawkins had suggested we build a tower to atheism.

    By sticking the knife into Dawkins he guarantees support from lots of other godless gob-shites for his otherwise totally cockeyed and self serving fantasy.

  30. Greg Tingey says

    Ophelia @ 25
    Thanks, so it is – Temperate House?
    Complete with resident Robins and fish population – mind the geckoes in the Palm House too!

  31. says


    I like the description of the monument (it doesn’t even sound like a temple to me, and I dislike the use of religious language regardless), and while the perspective aspect may bother Rev. Katharine Rumens

    But according to the Rev Katharine Rumens, rector of St Giles’ Cripplegate church, in the Barbican, where the temple is likely to be located: “Awe is not enough.”

    She said: “You need a welcome, a sense of belonging and of wanting to return. It might make you feel so insignificant you wouldn’t know how to start. What would this say to somebody who is mentally frail or nearing the end of their life? How does that really speak to the human condition?”

    I actually like the thought of people being reminded of our realistic place in the universe. That is a part of our condition, after all.

    What I really really don’t like are the slurs presented by de Botton and others in the article toward the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. Even if one thinks that challenging traditional ideas is a form of destruction, not all destruction is a bad thing. The presentation may have tainted this idea too much. I’m not sure.

    As for the money thing, well, yes there are things that it could be spent on that might be better. But couldn’t that be said about almost any monument, or any architecture that isn’t purely utilitarian in design? Including the maintenance of the places pictured, or the 9/11 memorial, or a university library that’s designed for aesthetic appeal as well as holding books and some study rooms, or a museum that’s given a taste of Gothic design?

    I guess I’m torn. I find the idea of an “atheist temple” ridiculous on the face of it, but I find the idea of a monument that reminds us of humanity’s place in the universe (tiny and insignificant as it is) to be appealing. And this one sounds downright artistic (potentially; the actual design could fall short).

  32. Chris says


    I think that if it were simply phrased as a sculpture or an art installation, people wouldn’t be as bothered. Some would love it, some would hate it, sure, but that’s standard disagreement on art.

    The problem (at least for me) lies entirely within the representation of it as an “atheist temple,” and the furthering of “atheism is just another religion” propaganda.

  33. dirigible says

    Why would those who do not worship need a place of worship?

    He’s scraping de Botton of the barrel with this one.

  34. Kylie Sturgess says

    Hi – I interviewed Alain – it’s now featured on the Token Skeptic blog here on Freethought blogs.

  35. rukymoss says

    As a native Pittsburgher and a Pitt graduate, I’d like to point out the Cathedral of Learning on the main Pitt campus. It is a glorious gothic-inspired skyscraper full of classrooms (including the beautiful nationality rooms), offices, student union. It’s already dedicated to learning–no new “atheist temple” needed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Learning

  36. Jason says

    Yeah de Botton has a new book out at the moment, “Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion”:

    Two reviews


    I’ve been waiting for a good ol’ fisking of de Botton since this article in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine told me how hard I would find Christmas as an atheist:

    Money quote:
    ” I can never forget a carol service I attended at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge a few years ago: it was the closest I ever came to conversion. Until atheists learn to use architecture as well as religions, they will be missing a vital point about what seduces human minds. Books alone aren’t convincing objects, compared with a choir singing a Bach cantata in a gothic building.”

  37. says

    Ha – funny thing – I’ve just done a mild Fisking of a review of 3 books one of which is De Botton’s.

    I think he’s right about the seduction though…but then I don’t know any atheists who disagree. I suppose we all differ on what to do with the thought, but on the thought itself?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *