Temples to atheism

It’s not hard to imagine what the average Christian will think when they learn that a Swiss-born British writer wants to construct a tower in London as a monument to atheism. For most Christians, the initial response will be shock, followed soon by outrage. Why, these militant atheists just don’t quit, do they?

But hold on a minute. The writer behind this idea, Alain de Botton, has written some of the most interesting books of the past several years on work, architecture and other topics. And despite our flinching reaction, de Botton does not intend his proposal as a poke in the eye to Christians. Rather, he intends to counteract the intense negativity generated by atheist intellectuals like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and the late Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great). De Botton’s planned “temple to atheism” really means to be a positive statement about unbelief, rather than a critique of Christianity or other religions.

After a few minutes of processing, though, I wondered why de Botton feels a need to construct a monument to atheism, when in reality we are already churning them out at a brisk pace.

For about the last 6,000 years of human history, civilizations constructed religious buildings to symbolize the centrality of their faith, whether in pagan gods or the Biblical God. The history of architecture is mostly the history of churches and temples. About 150 years ago (the age of Freud, Marx and Darwin), the church as civic monument began to lose steam. The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., begun in 1907, is perhaps the last attempt to create a space for worship that dares to compete with Washington’s other monuments. By the middle of the 20th century, church architecture had become a withered and paltry thing, with “form following function” down a pragmatic path to sanctified hotel ballrooms.

But we didn’t stop building great buildings, did we? Remember the Sydney Opera House, opened in 1973? This building represents a turning point, when our aspirations as a culture shifted entirely from houses of worship to houses of art.

In my own city of Kansas City, Mo., we have opened two such temples in the last few years: the Bloch Building addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, designed by Stephen Holl, and just last fall the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Moshe Safdie. Both Holl and Safdie are elite, globe-trotting, world-renowned architects, and these buildings both featured stupendous budgets.

My assertion is that these buildings, which now occupy the hearts, minds and wallets of our city’s most engaged citizens, have replaced religious buildings as the physical expression of our desire for transcendence. Having, as a culture, shrugged off religion in the last century and a half, we satisfy our need to build temples by building temples to art. And art is not even a small-g god.

Thus my conclusion about de Botton’s proposed tower: while I understand his desire to make a positive statement about unbelief in our time, temples to atheism can already be found in nearly every city in the developed world. I think de Botton’s scheme is less than insulting: it’s unnecessary.

For Discussion

  • What structures do you notice that have taken the place of the great cathedrals in contemporary society?
  • Where do megachurches fit in this landscape?
  • What is your reaction to the idea of a "temple to atheism?"
  • How should Christians respond to such projects if they are built?


Comments (5)

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I disagree. All these buildings you list are temples of humanism, not atheism. They celebrate human achievement and greatness, not human unbelief.

A temple to atheism, however, seems to be a natural extension of a worldview that is becoming increasingly “religious” in its manifestation.

Thanks for your comment, mgeertsma. I take your point. But have you considered that a monument to “human achievement and greatness” is itself a statement of unbelief in something that transcends humanity?

Just a thought…

Honestly, I’m not sure. Somehow a monument to human achievement seems more self-serving and selfish than a temple to atheism, which still places its focus on something other than ourselves (even if that something is nothing).

This is really just my own emotional reaction to the idea—a temple to atheism strikes me as idealistic and whimsical (in the same sense as a religious temple or cathedral) in a way that a house of art, a house celebrating human greatness, is not.

You’re right, though, that a monument to human achievement is, on some level, a statement—but perhaps more a statement that we ourselves are gods, rather than a statement about the existence (or non existence) of a higher power.


This is an interesting article and I follow your argument (though having lived with great comfort in a Holl building, I’m perhaps more sympathetic to him); but if the time I’ve spent in Italy has taught me one thing about the historic churches, it’s that they were as much temples to art and culture as to God and that they often were funded by and celebrated work created by apostates, agnostics, and atheists. It’s very difficult to disentangle these things when they are embedded in structures created in the context of a religious and political oligarchy.


Regardless of how you feel about de Botton’s project, he does raise an interesting question about how we think about church/temple architecture:  If Christianity was established as an organized religion last week, and we wanted to send a message with our temples, monuments, and churches, what sort of beliefs and values would we want them to embody?  Do today’s houses of worship embody those beliefs and values?

I agree that the fine art galleries and concert halls have captured the prominence once enjoyed by churches and cathedrals, but we should be careful not to ignore the importance of art (not just fine art) in Christian life.  Part of what made the churches and cathedrals of yesteryear so great was that they served as the centers of community life and culture; houses of worship in the broadest and best sense.  We don’t worship God solely by contemplating his greatness surrounded by our friends and family, we worship him by using the gifts God gave us: by creating beautiful paintings, discussing good books with friends, making well-balanced soups, teaching children how to ride a bike…  Our worship has many forms, and our houses of worship should reflect that.

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