Alain de Botton, the high priest of pop philosophy, is calling for a network of "atheist temples" to be built around Britain. The best-selling author of such self-enlightenment tomes as "The Consolations of Philosophy" has laid out his plans in his latest book, "Religion for Atheists," in which he claims that some of religion's human values and community-forging rituals could be put to good use by contemporary liberal society. "I guess my insight was: 'What is there here that's useful, that we can steal?'" he told the Guardian last weekend.
For de Botton, temples don't need religions to be built. "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. Why should religious people have the most beautiful buildings in the land?" The idealists of the French Revolution had something similar in mind when they created Paris's famed Temple of Reason in a former church.
Although no funding has been secured and an opening date is yet to be announced, de Botton has already started to work on the first "temple for atheists" with Tom Greenall Architects and Jordan Hodgson Designs. The 46-meter-high black tower would be located within the city of London and meant to represent the age of Earth: each centimeter of its height equates to one million years of the planet's life, with a thin golden line representing the duration of human presence on earth. De Botton's inaugural temple is to be dedicated to the idea of "perspective" — something rather scarce in London (a good dollop of Bottonian love, friendship, and calm might not hurt the fat cats either).
De Botton is a big believer in culture with a purpose. In 2010, he launched Living Architecture, an organization that defines itself as a "social enterprise" commissioning holiday houses from some of the world's leading architects. Four buildings — designed by the likes of Dutch firm MVRDV, Scottish practice NORD, and Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects from Norway — have been completed so far in Suffolk, Kent, and Norfolk. Living Architecture is also behind "A Room for London," the Joseph Conrad-inspired boatlike structure dreamt up by David Kohn Architects in collaboration with Fiona Banner, currently moored on the roof of the Southbank Centre.
Most recently, Living Architecture has commissioned a secular retreat in Devon from Swiss starchitect Peter Zumthor. De Botton's temples, however, are not conceived as places to retreat from the world, rather they are an attempt to restore some of the social links once nurtured by group celebrations. "Religion puts you with people who have nothing in common except that you're human," said de Botton. "I think that's what we need at a societal level — hosts who are able to produce the benevolence, charity, curiosity, and goodwill that are in all of us but we can't let out."