Funny thing, perspective. The same comment can be seen as good or bad, support or refutation, because of all the often-unsaid baggage that the speaker or writer attaches to that comment.
In our discussions of de Botton’s proposed tower (btw, de Botton sounds far more reasonable in Kylie’s new interview than he has been portrayed in the media), one quote kept getting mentioned (in three different languages, actually): “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.” Atheists apparently see more beauty in the real world than in any temple we might construct. Or that’s how we viewed that quote, anyway. This morning, though, I saw another point of view (after the jump):
In a Daily Mail (UK) column, Alexander Boot sees the same quote very differently:
The Latin inscription on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s says, ‘Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.’ I suggest Mr de Botton do the same just about anywhere in the West — he’ll find temples to atheism aplenty. They are the eyesores that disfigure our cities’ skylines, the pickled animals in our art museums, the nasty warrens of our council estates, the gangs of empty-eyed youths harassing our neighbourhoods.
These are the churches in which one can worship the moral and aesthetic achievements of atheist modernity. These are the reflections of the fact, seen as such by anyone not blinded by atheist rage, that the choice of cultures available to the West isn’t Christian or atheist. It’s Christian or none.
Boot’s picture of the real world is a grim one. I wonder why it is that the allegedly nihilistic atheists are the ones pointing to the Hubble images, or rocky coastlines, or lush gardens, or the world inside a drop of pond water, or the perfect toes of a newborn infant, or the creased face of a grandmother, and seeing a world worth living in, and worth working for. Take God out of Boot’s world and it is Hell. Leave God out of ours and it is still beautiful. Yes, and terrible, too; there is starvation and disease and decay–from our privileged human viewpoint we’d prefer a few more years over feeding bacteria today. But seeing the world as it truly is is the best first step in cultivating beauty, health, wisdom, and love–for each other and for our world.
Do read Boot’s whole column. It’s fun to see how well he knows atheists (“some of [his] closest friends are atheists…”, begins one backhanded compliment). Meanwhile, I’ll go back to looking around at the world, instead of into just one book:
I’ve seen fossils of the ammonites, in lovely curving spirals,
I’ve seen children saved from certain death by modern antivirals,
I’ve seen salmon swim up waterfalls, to find their tiny brook–
And you’re asking me to trade it for the contents of one book?
I’ve seen galaxies, and nebulas of brilliant glowing gases
I’ve seen Painted Desert valleys; I’ve seen Rocky Mountain passes
I was at the Gulf of Corinth when the earth beneath me shook–
Do you really think I’d trade it for some stuff that’s in a book?
I’ve seen elephants and rhinos; I’ve seen buffalo and deer
I’ve seen humpback whales I almost could have touched, they came so near;
I’ve seen giant redwood forests, where I craned my neck to look;
Is there anything so awesome in your tiny little book?
I’ve seen microscopic beasties of a thousand different forms
I’ve seen hurricanes, tornadoes, snow and hail and thunderstorms
I’ve seen babies reach adulthood—Oh, how little time it took!
And I would not trade one heartbeat for that obsolescent book!
I’ve seen beauty that you couldn’t buy, no matter what the price;
I have tasted of life’s bounty, each ingredient and spice–
I would throw it all together in a pot, and let it cook…
And I guarantee it’s better than the contents of your book;
Yes, I’d sooner starve, than swallow all the poison in your book.