An Atheist Monument? (Or, On Herding Cats)

A leader’s role is heady brew,
But difficult to swallow;
Please, name yourself the King of cats—
I do not think they’ll follow.

You want to build a monument
And point it at the sky
Assuming that they notice, cats
Will only ask you, “Why?”

Feel free to tell the feline folk
It’s there on their behalf
Assuming that they notice, cats
Will only point and laugh.

Point out its deep symbology,
Its praises, proudly sing!
Assuming that they notice, cats
Would rather play with string.

You’ve snatched religious trappings,
Without falling in their trap—
Assuming that they notice, cats
Would rather take a nap.

It isn’t meant for worshipping—
It isn’t meant for prayer;
Assuming that they notice, cats
Will probably not care.

A leader’s role is heady brew,
But difficult to swallow;
Please, name yourself the King of cats—
I do not think they’ll follow.

Thoughts, after the jump:

I’ve seen posts about this monument, news stories about it, polls about it… but I have yet to hear from an atheist who thinks it is a good idea. This may say more about the circles I travel in than about the monument, but that’s my experience. I know that de Botton is far better known than, say, I am. But this week is the first I have heard of him, with his TED talk and his London Freudian Phallic Symbol.

If I were to create an atheist monument, it would, I think, be an exercise in negative space. The atheists who won the lottery and the rights to the Santa Monica Christmas displays, and chose to leave many of them empty, are more in agreement with me than de Botton. He wants to borrow from religion; I wonder why. If we want to see cathedrals, we don’t need to make our own; there are beautiful cathedrals we can view, erected by the religious orders who find a very different meaning in them then I might. The tiny but beautiful Boyana Church in Sophia, Bulgaria is a stunning example of religious imagery, far ahead of its time; I can (and do) appreciate the art whether or not I share the beliefs of the artists.

I see no need for borrowing from the believers. I do see beauty in some of the art and architecture that religious belief has inspired. de Botton wants atheists to make their own–but, why? I can appreciate the art of “the last supper” without believing it–my favorite books as a child were about the Greek and Norse mythologies, which were not beautiful because I believed them, but because they were so damned cool.

I do not pretend to speak for all atheists. Hell, I do not pretend to speak for any atheists but myself. That’s the beautiful thing about atheists–all that we share is that we are not something else. de Botton does not speak for me. Dawkins does not speak for me. Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, none of them speak for me.

But… as for me… an atheist monument? I’d have more fun with a piece of string.


  1. Luna_the_cat says

    This particular cat quite thoroughly approves of this poem, and the thoughts it represents.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go take a nap.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    What’s the striated little weirdity to the right of the photo image of the proposed Big Black Pigeon Roost?

  3. says

    I could get behind an Atheist monument, if that monument was also a school or something.

    But just “Big Pretty Thing” seems to be a waste of space, especially considering that we already have a lot of big pretty things.

  4. Cuttlefish says


    As I understand it (correct me, please!) it is the memorial, which displays a binary representation of the human genome. Whose, I do not know. Not mine. Nor yours, I suspect.

  5. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    The Black Monoliths aren’t cathedrals to atheism, they’re monuments to de Botton’s monumental ego.

  6. davidct says


    I agree with you entirely that there are all sorts of social groups to be involved with. Rejecting religion does not require creation of a religion equivalent. It just means that the time and energy spent on supporting a church can be spent on something else, be that knitting or whatever you enjoy. The idea that lack of religion leaves a void belongs to believers with little imagination.

  7. Cuttlefish says


    Take sports, for another example–much of what de Botton wants us to take from religion, organized sports already has. The shared community, the tradition, connections to the past and to other people across the world (depending on which sport and which teams you follow). The architecture of some of the Olympic venues, or of stadiums, make them essentially secular cathedrals (local ballparks may be more like simple chapels). There are chants, cheers, and songs, there are clothes and hats that advertise one’s tribal identity. There are the equivalent of pilgrimages, to stadiums, halls of fame, or perhaps the original Olympic stadium.

    Everything de Botton wants is already there, in a naturally occurring form, without any need to artificially force it.

  8. jacobfromlost says

    Cuttlefish: Everything de Botton wants is already there, in a naturally occurring form, without any need to artificially force it.

    Me: I think so too. In his TED talk, he seemed to imply that atheists have to (or do) reject art, literature, social circles involving rituals/music etc. I really don’t know why he thinks that, and I also don’t know how he thinks he can replace existing secular culture with a new one (or how he thinks his version would be sufficiently BETTER than the ones people are choosing on their own so that they would parttake of his version).

    I also didn’t quite understand why he thinks atheists can’t sing Christmas Carols, etc. I sing them every year. It doesn’t mean I believe them as literally true any more than I believe in Vampires when I dress up as one on Halloween. (Which reminds me, he mentioned holidays, but we have a lot of holidays that are not religious that “bump up against” those big ideas. Moreover, we can take part in religious holidays and not take the religion seriously in EXACTLY the same way we celebrate Halloween or Earth Day.)

    Also, I may be going out on a limb here, but one can even read religious texts as simply BOOKS to be read that have historical and literary significance. For myself, that is the only way I CAN read them, although I understand other people take them seriously in a religious context. So for me, in some loose sense, all culture is secular in that I don’t think there is any reality at the core of any religious teachings. I don’t think the JC of Jesus Christ in the Bible is any more real than the JC of John Connor in “The Terminator”.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Cuttlefish @ # 4: As I understand it … it is the memorial, which displays a binary representation of the human genome.

    On closer examination, the little blip at the bottom suggests a human figure, in which case we’re supposedly seeing a cross-section of the whole monument. This would be the highest claustrophobia-inducer in the world, if built, though the acoustics might be fun to play with for a few minutes. (All together, now: “Wooooo…”)

    Whose, I do not know. Not mine. Nor yours, I suspect.

    Whomever it memorializes, I suppose (read: whoever pays for it).

  10. sailor1031 says

    I was an atheist before Alain de Boton was born (1969). It is quite irritating that this jumped up pseudo-intellectual thinks that he is actually leading something. I didn’t get here by following jackasses like him and I don’t plan to start now. Atheists don’t need leaders or silly monuments or churches.

  11. sceptinurse says

    Love the poem. Having two cats in my house it really resonates with me. The analogy of atheists to cats is spot on.

  12. Glix says

    The purpose of this monument baffles me. We create monument of historical figures or to commemorate a historical event. Various religions create monuments to their deities or symbols of their beliefs.

    But to whom or what is this monument dedicated? Arthur C. Clark perhaps?

  13. Crudely Wrott says

    Build a cathedral? Build a cathedral?!

    Shit, de Bottom, we are born inside the grandest one of all!

    Look about you.

    We don’ need no stinkin’ interpretive scale models!

  14. jacobfromlost says

    “But to whom or what is this monument dedicated? Arthur C. Clark perhaps?”

    That would actually be pretty cool…but it wouldn’t have anything to do with atheism. Of course, I don’t see what the thing in the picture has to do with atheism either.

    I remember in 2001–I think on January 1st, if my memory serves–some people placed some “monoliths” around Seattle in the middle of the night, monoliths which were left in their various locations the whole day, and removed just as quietly in the middle of the next night. That was awesome.

    But it still didn’t have anything to do with atheism.

    (Well, it looks like I was somewhat right: )

  15. Mimmoth says

    The sun shines in the windowpane
    And warms the rug beneath.
    The priest of cats cries “follow me!”
    My yawn displays my teeth.

  16. j says

    I choose to believe in God, Eternity is a long time without Him and just look at the intrinsic beauty of the creator the beautiful seasons and flowers God brings, the amazing human body and how it works.
    A blank piece of paper is a piece of paper but when I draw a picture on the blank page it takes a creator one who is creative, just as God has put His remarkable creatorship on this paper called life…I love God and am happy that He is there to remind me that I was thought of and made to enjoy this life on earth and do the best I can to help others see that He truly does exist and I will be priveleged to spend eternity with Him because He came to me and helped me see Himself.

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