(Photo: Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Famed atheist Alain de Botton, also a best-selling Swiss author and philosopher known for challenging Richard Dawkins and what he calls his "destructive" atheistic theology, has in a recent interview highlighted many ways in which religion is useful even for secularists.
De Botton and Dawkins most recently clashed over plans to build a 151-foot atheist temple in London. De Botton is helping fund the project, which will he says will symbolize more than 300 million years of life on Earth and be a place for "love, friendship, calm and perspective."
Dawkins, on the other hand, the author of The God Delusion, described plans for the temple as being "misplaced for non-believers to build quasi-religious buildings, because atheists did not need temples to probe the meaning of life."
"I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, skeptical critical thinking," Dawkins explained.
De Botton, however, argues in his new book Religion for Atheists that places of contemplation and community, such as temples, are one of the many positive aspects about religion that secular people need to adapt in their daily lives. In an interview with the Australian broadcaster ABC, the philosopher insisted that religious practice and secular ethics do not need to be so separate, and atheism can learn a lot from religion.
"This is, you know... I think religions are far too useful, complex, intelligent to be abandoned simply to those who happen to believe in them. They're for all of us, especially nonbelievers," he insisted.
"The assumption is if you don't believe in anything, you will be completely uninterested in the whole spectra of religion. But my argument is that, actually, religion is full of useful, interesting, consoling ideas that could be of appeal even to someone who has absolutely no interest in being a believer," de Botton explained.
He further broke down his reasoning behind building the atheist temple in London, describing how religion builds community and unity by reminding people there are things greater and bigger than ourselves.
"What most religions do is they take people – at certain time of the year, calendar, week – and they put them in a place, and they say, "You are very small in the larger perspective – in the cosmos, in the eyes of God," whatever it is. Religion relativizes us, make us small," the philosopher, who grew up in an atheistic household, elaborated.
"Being made to feel small by something amazing – religious people would call that God, but you could call that the universe or nature or the ocean – it has a really calming effect on us, and we don't do it enough. We tend to live in cities, where the achievements of other humans dominate, and where we slowly lose our minds to envy and anxiety until something can just pull us out and reintroduce a wider timeframe and a wider sense of space," he explained.
The philospher affirmed, however, that he is quite rooted in his atheism and is not necessarily looking for God or for a spirit to bring people together – but still wants the secular community to find ways of adopting into their lives religious methods of looking for the answers to life's big questions.
"I'm genuinely an Atheist, and [am] not questing for God or a replacement or a spirit or anything like that, but I think the secular world has not worked out all the answers – and particularly when it comes to organizing the inner life," de Botton said. "I'm really interested in guidance. How do we cope with the fracturing of society?"