Tag Archives: spaces


As it’s Easter Sunday and friends and family are at Church, I dug out a piece on the idea of an atheist temple I wrote it for Comment Is Free belief a few months back (but got bumped by coverage of women Bishops). The photos are of the Occupy Camp by St Pauls before it was disbanded earlier this year.

Several eyes rolled at Alain de Botton’s suggestion of a ‘temple to atheism’. For me, it was the Rev Katharine Rumens, rector of a church near where the temple might be built, who put her finger on the problem. Rumens worries that the sense of awe de Botton wants to invoke is not enough. Indeed, it might alienate people, make them feel insignificant even. A temple needs to be welcoming.

This is a concern we can apply to de Botton’s temple, but could be extended to anything trying to invoke a bit of awe: be it a popular science book, painting, train station or shopping centre. The politics depend on what you are asked to be in awe of. A God or a Bishop is different from a galaxy, a glacier, a spaceship or a giant tree. Awe of scientists, engineers or explorers who make and uncover our world is different again. There is always a politics though. Awe can make people feel slightly rubbish in comparison, and I don’t think that’s a nice thing to do to someone.

London’s Natural History Museum – an iconic “Cathedral to Nature” established in 1881 – provides a neat case study. Being in awe of nature itself is, perhaps, no bad thing. Perhaps we should feel an emotional connection with nature. Especially in the context of climate change, maybe we should appreciate nature’s beauty more and feel increasingly scared by it too. But the NHM doesn’t just showcase nature; it is a celebration of human understanding too, from statues of dead scientists to the fishbowl-like Darwin Centre, where glass walled laboratories mean you can watch live ones going about their work. These people, what they know and continue to reveal about our world, impress me. But I don’t want to be cowed by them.

There’s a difference between a temple that invites you to gasp open-mouthed, and one that invites you in for a cup of tea. I was talking to a friend recently about how the Occupy camp has changed the way we feel about St Paul’s. It used to be just another posh building on the skyline. Now it feels newly iconic in a way we feel a connection to. It’s not just for people in history books, or those with the religion or cash we lack. Now we feel we can drop by the space around the Cathedral, if not the site itself, for a chat. The first time I ever understood why people construct large religious buildings was a schooltrip to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. It’s a space of such grand, eye-watering beauty it’s hard not to feel humbled. It is also, importantly, a very welcoming and human space, perhaps because it was built by the local community and a sense of personal connection is so clear.

At its best, the NHM asks the public not just to be entranced and educated, but join in. It invites us to gawp at our world and gain perspective by tracing both the Earth’s history and our scientific understanding of it, but it also invites us to join an ongoing social activity of learning more. The NHM, for all its impressive halls and awesome dinosaurs, can also be humble and listen. Projects like Open Air Laboratories offer science to be part of.

If de Botton wants to build a temple to atheism, good luck to him. I just hope it’s a place where a diversity of people feel able to work together to discuss options for a shared future, not simply sit in awe of a world they’ve been given. At their best, religious sites provide this. I’d hope any atheist one would too.