The atheist ‘philosopher’ Alain de Botton has undertaken a (literally) monumental project: he wants to create in the City a 150-foot-high temple to ‘new atheism’. This is to distinguish it from old, aggressive atheism, as preached by Richard Dawkins. The two chaps seem to disagree on tactics, for one struggles to find any difference of substance.
‘Why should religious people have the most beautiful buildings in the land?’ Botton asks. ‘It’s time atheists had their own version of the great churches and cathedrals’.
Before I comment on this deranged project, or answer this ignorant question, I must say that some of my closest friends are atheists, and they are among the cleverest people I’ve ever known. In fact, they are so wise that they usually steer clear of matters philosophical, concentrating instead on things like politics, art, law or social commentary.
Perhaps they tacitly agree with me, though they’ll never admit this, that ‘atheist philosopher’ is an oxymoron. One can be either an atheist or a philosopher, not both. For anyone trying to understand the complexity of life at ground level only will inevitably travel a maze of blind alleys, eventually finding himself at an intellectual dead end.
I know you can give me a long list of famous atheist philosophers, making me transgress against logic by stating that I don’t regard them as real philosophers. My argument would be circular and thus rhetorically unsound — until I’ve gone over atheist philosophers one by one, showing where I find them wanting. With some, such an undertaking would have to be of book length (I’ve written one like that, on Tolstoy). But with Alain de Botton, the task is risibly easy.
The Latin inscription on Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s says, ‘Reader, if you seek his monument, look around.’ I suggest Mr de Botton do the same just about anywhere in the West — he’ll find temples to atheism aplenty. They are the eyesores that disfigure our cities’ skylines, the pickled animals in our art museums, the nasty warrens of our council estates, the gangs of empty-eyed youths harassing our neighbourhoods.
These are the churches in which one can worship the moral and aesthetic achievements of atheist modernity. These are the reminders of the fact, seen as such by anyone not blinded by atheist rage, that the choice of cultures available to the West isn’t Christian or atheist. It’s Christian or none.
Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals are the most beautiful and awe-inspiring buildings in the West, Mr Botton, precisely because they were animated by the most beautiful and awe-inspiring idea. Remove this inspiration, and you can still coast on the original propelling force — provided you gratefully acknowledge its nature. An artist or an architect doesn’t have to be a practising Christian to create a masterpiece — as long as he realises that every Western masterpiece is at least residually Christian.
The choice between beauty and ugliness in aesthetics exactly parallels the one between good and evil in morality. The soulless brutalism of 20th-century architecture parallels the soulless brutality of that century, in which more people were killed than in all other centuries of recorded history combined. The concrete ugliness of the South Bank or Barbican is the aesthetic equivalent of Lubianka cellars and Auschwitz ovens. They are all reminders of the abyss awating those who worship at the altar of secular gods.
All those physical disasters spring from the disastrous metaphysical idea that man sits at the centre of his own universe, rather than at the periphery of God’s. Looking for God only inside himself, man finds only himself there. Usually, he is terrified by what he sees, and this terror colours and distorts everything he creates. Ugly becomes new beautiful, virtual new real, vulgar new profound.
That’s why all my atheist friends I mentioned earlier regret their atheism. They realise that society not held together by the adhesive of a moral ideal infinitely superior to man will fall apart. They know that a drastic departure from Christian culture will create nothing but nothingness. They sense that a generation from now people will look at modern architecture not in awe but in horror.
Alain de Botton doesn’t understand any of this. That’s why his project will be an aesthetic and spiritual failure, even though I’m sure it’ll succeed on its own puny terms. The ‘philosopher’ has already raised half the money needed, and there’s no reason to believe the Corporation of London will deny planning permission: they have form in encouraging architectural perversions.
Construction can begin next year, and the City of London is bracing itself. De Botton thinks this is the appropriate site because the City is where people have lost sight of life’s priorities. Ignoring that someone who inherited £200 million is in a weak position to despise money, one may still wonder what he thinks life’s priorities should be. If it’s not the pleasures and comforts that can be bought with money, then what else, Mr de Botton? It has to be something physical, for, according to you and your putative adversary Dawkins, nothing else exists.
How much easier life would be for de Botton if he followed the example of my atheist friends and stayed away from problems for which there are no materialist answers. He’d then be spared uncomfortable questions coming from the likes of me.