In these recessionary times, it seems that it takes the scion of a Swiss banker to show us that transcendent values – no matter how gloomy the economic outlook – are priceless. Alain de Botton, author of the richly-acclaimed pop philosophy classic Status Anxiety (2006), has posited the construction of a 46 metre-high tower which is designed to engender reflection of 300 million years of life on Earth. The location of the planned tower is the Corporation of London, an area of the United Kingdom’s capital where many major national and international financial institutions are headquartered.
However, perhaps the most intriguing modality of de Botton’s tower is that its primary function is to serve as a ‘temple for atheists’, a setting in which to experience awe. And it is this aspect of the building that has opened a fissure between the leading lights of the UK’s atheist community. De Botton has explicitly cited biologist Richard Dawkins and the late writer Christopher Hitchens as being ‘agressive’, ‘destructive’ and basically unrepresentative of a large number of people who might not believe in God, but are not hostile to those who do or religion in general. Perhaps predictably, Dawkins has ridiculed the notion of a spiritual space for atheists as an ‘unnecessary’ contradiction in terms.
This provocative project has set the Mediolana CSO ruminating:
1. A Makeover for Atheism? De Botton’s evaluation of Dawkins and Hitchens has confirmed that there are those even within the atheist fraternity who are all too aware that such figures lack appeal to a large section of the public: to many, they come across as fanatical, angry and irrational. To those who mistrust atheism – because of the consistently lamentable record, historically and geographically, of atheist states in protecting the most basic human rights, for example – being confronted with these kind of spokespeople is only likely to entrench them further in their opinions. A new approach is needed.
2. A Makeover for Religion? While the likes of Richard Dawkins may continue to needlessly antagonise and alienate vast swathes of the general public for years to come, they at least are not claiming any divine guidance; the same cannot be said of the world’s great religions, which with the exception of ‘Yellow Hat‘ Tibetan Buddhism – charismatically led by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama – have suffered from a bizarre communication deficit in recent times. At the risk of being excommunicated, is Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger really the best figurehead the Roman Catholic Church can muster? And though Islam does not have a church as such, the prominence given by both the Western and parts of the Middle Eastern media to fringe figures with no scholarly or spiritual validation to speak of never fails to amaze us.