Oh God, What Is Alain De Botton Banging On About Now?
Alain de Botton has a new book to plug which means he has been trolling the newspapers with eye-catchingly stupid ideas. This time round it is an atheist temple, a concept so stupid it is painful to even type. Before taking the piss out of de Botton and talking a bit about atheism though, I’d like to address the practicalities of the proposal.
The idea is to build a 46 metre tower for £1m in the City of London. Currently de Botton has raised less than £500,000 from a group of property developers and hopes to raise the rest from public donations. Even if he reaches his target, that seems a pretty low figure. If we think about another ludicrous folly that’s just been erected in London, the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the construction costs were £19m and the land was thrown in for free. Admittedly that was a bigger and more complicated (and uglier) project but still.
The nice computer generated image on de Botton’s website shows the tower plonked down right next to the Bank of England. I think we can safely say it won’t be located there since there is no space for it and, if there was, no one would give the land to him for free. Press reports suggest instead that it is “likely to be located” in the Barbican. Again, I’d like to know where this land is. Such a location would also rather undercut the majestic soaring tower shown in the illustrations since it would be surrounded by the UK’s three largest residential buildings which at 123 metres would be two and a half times as tall.
Then there is the fact that whilst much is made of the buildings height, nothing is mentioned of its width. The illustration suggests this is about four metres, making this awe-inspiring temple about the same size as my front room. If you are going to build a tiny tourist attraction for reflection, why not build unlimited urban wood for a fraction of the cost and inconvenience? If you want a practical space for the discussion of humanist ideas then build something less ostentatious and more useful like Conway Hall?
So that’s why I don’t think this tower will ever get built and why if it did, it wouldn’t actually fulfill its intended purpose. Now onto the snark. Here is the project’s statement of intent:
As religions have always known, a beautiful building is an indispensable part of getting your message across. Books alone won’t do it.
This is a pretty unorthodox historical analysis. Consider Fountains Abbey, one of the UK’s greatest religious buildings. Back in 1132, were medieval peasants sitting around their hovels, flipping through their bibles and going “hmm, this narrative isn’t very compelling, if only there was some impressive architecture to swing it for me”? No, they weren’t since, for all intents and purposes, books didn’t bloody exist. Even after the invention of moveable type three hundred years later, your average serf on the street wasn’t likely to have a nice little library of Penguin Classic. Or even be able to read. The idea that churches and cathedrals existed to supplement books is ridiculous, they existed to glorify god and spread the good word because congregating physically was the only way of doing so. This is no longer the case. In fact, the decline in church attendance has mirrored both the rise in other forms of communications and the increased education and leisure time to access them. de Botton simply ignores this, looking backwards to a time when everyone was illiterate as his solution to a perceived 21st Century problem.
But does this problem actually exist? Putting aside the nonsense about buildings being an “indispensable part of getting your message across”, why do atheists need to get the message across at all? I am an atheist. This is for the simple reason that I don’t believe in god. As long as I am not discriminated against, however, I don’t care what anyone else believes. Despite positioning himself as the cuddly alternative to Richard Dawkins, he is guilty of exactly the same crime: proselytising. I’m sure I speak for a lot of atheists when I say I wish they would both just fuck off. I’ll give the final word to Chris Bertram though:
Any spat between Alain de Botton and Richard Dawkins is one where I’m kind of rooting for both of them to lose. On the other hand, Dawkins has some genuine achievements to his name and has written some pretty decent books, so there’s some compensation when he acts like an arse, whereas in de Botton’s case…