Philosopher and atheist Alain de Botton, who recently clashed with Richard Dawkins over plans to build a 151-foot atheist temple in London, has spoken out in an interview about his plans to create a public eating space mirrored after the Roman Catholic Mass.
The best-selling Swiss author 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. De Botton is known for rejecting the militant attitude of other famed atheists, such as Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, and recognizes many ways in which religion practices serve and benefit society.
De Botton is helping fund the temple project, which he says will symbolize more than 300 million years of life on Earth and be a place for "love, friendship, calm and perspective." Dawkins, however, argued: "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."
De Botton, on the other hand, sees much that atheism can take from religion, including the communal aspect of strangers coming together to eat, which is one such facet that the philosopher discusses in a recent interview in London with the Guardian, which has even given him the idea of building a new restaurant modeled after earlier forms of Christian Mass.
Before it was a service, Mass was traditionally a place where strangers gathered to share a meal, de Botton says.
"In the early church, these were known as 'agape (from the Greek for 'love') feasts.'" In the modern city, he writes, there are any number of places to eat well, but there's "an almost universal lack of venues that help us to transform strangers into friends."
De Botton also explained that such a restaurant would be a good place to bring together neighbors from different backgrounds and encourage them to be more trusting and accepting of one another. Sharing from his personal experiences, de Botton revealed that he is not a fussy eater, and that the point of eating together should not really be about the food itself, but opening up about our daily lives and the struggles we face, which builds a sense of solidarity and friendship.
"This normally happens after a few bottles of wine," he says. "That's when people start to go, 'It is all (expletive) and my marriage is terrible and I hate my job, I can't bear my parents…' or whatever it is, and suddenly there is a feeling that friendships can be forged out of that darkness. In Britain it normally takes about 15 bottles of wine before that happens. And it would just be good if you could do it without that."
"A city like London is sociable in a sense that there are people gathering in bars and restaurants, concerts and lectures. Yet you can partake of all these experiences and never say hello to anyone new. And one of the things that all religions do is take groups of strangers into a space and say it is OK to talk to each other," he added, highlighting again the community building he sees that religions do so well from which society at large can benefit greatly.
Although he has not set dates on when he expects the atheist temple or restaurant to be built, de Botton made it clear in an earlier interview with ABC that secular society needs to continue borrowing 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 said.