Alain de Botton is a philosopher and an atheist who seems to be elbowing his way into the so-called “four horsemen” of Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchins after the untimely passing of Christopher Hitchins in Decmeber. De Botton advocates an approach to atheism which is radically different from his fellow countrymen Dawkins and Hitchins, who have been described by critics as “militant atheists”.
De Botton’s “softline” approach can be clearly discerned in the title of his book “Religion for Atheists“, which contracts starkly with those of Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Hitchins (God is Not Great).
De Botton’s latest foray into the world of soft-peddled atheism is his grand idea for a “temple to atheism” in the centre of London, joined by a series of “churches” dotted around Britain and Ireland, where the unfaithful can be awed by the grandeur of an imposing building dedicated to their own belief system. He argues, “why should religious people have the most beautiful buildings in the land? It’s time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals“.
But do atheists need a “temple”?
I think it’s very easy to get hung up on the word “temple”. The word implies worship and blind faith, but what better “temple to atheism” could there be than the Natural History Museum? It is a building where, when you walk through the majestic Victorian entrance, a gigantic dinosaur looms above you, left and right are fossils of animals showing every stage of their evolution, then you look up and see an enormous statue of Darwin sitting like an emperor at the top of the stairs. But is it enough?
I think another museum dedicated to science & nature would not go amiss. However, it would definitely have to contrast sharply with the Natural History Museum by focusing, not on the history of nature itself, but on the story of the science of nature, rather than merely passively showing us nature in its glory. It should demonstrate to us how we arrived at certain conclusions though the application of principles of logic and reason, and how we still aplly those precepts today to arrive at new scientific conclusions. My proposed museum would be one where people unavoidably have to think, work out logical conclusions for themselves. The new museum should ask practical and accessible questions which are linked to people’s personal experience, and connected even to the problems and issues we see daily in the news.
Here are some of the questions I think it would be useful to ask:
- Is hearsay a solid basis for belief?
- Are our personal feelings a solid basis for belief?
- How can we ‘know’ about things we don’t witness? (Give examples, such as radio isotope dating, redshift etc.)
- What is a scientific “theory”?
- How does it contrast with the layman’s definition of “theory”?
- How does a scientific theory contrast with a “hypothesis”?
- What is the scientific method and does it work?
- How do tree-rings (dendrology) work?
- What are the layers of the earth and how old are they?
- How does carbon dating work?
- How did we get so many dog species from the wolf?
- How did we get cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflowers and kale from the wild cabbage?
- What does a wild banana look and taste like?
- How did we get the banana to its present tatsy form?
- Why do rock pigeons only live in built-up cities these days?
- Were these animals, fruits and vegetables there before humans came or were they formed by humans?
- Is evolution by natural selection a random process?
- What do these contiguous fossils show? (Show contiguous fossils of elephants, horses, girraffes, whales, tiktaalik)
- What lesson can we learn from ring speces? (Display abuot Californian newts and arctic seagulls).
- Where are the gaps in this row of fossils between chimp-like apes and modern humans? (A large circular hall showing the tiny differences between neighbouring skulls and the huge difference of the two ends).
- Why does the T-Rex look like a giant chicken with no feathers?
- Is half an eye really useless?
- What is the definition of an ape?
- Are humans apes by that definition?
- Do we share certain features with the other apes that no other animal has? (Opposable thumbs, sexual dimorphism, no tail, sometimes stand upright, large brain-body ratio, same blood-types, similar diseases, chromosome-2 explanation).
- Why is eggwhite a similar chemical composition to the “waters” which break when a woman is about to have a baby?
- What do marsupials have in common with both egg-laying animals and placental (live birth / belly-button) animals?
- What is a monotreme and what is special about the way they lay eggs? (Monotremes like platypuses are mammals that lay eggs but they keep the egg inside their body).
- Why do the continents fit together like a jigsaw?
- Why do the rock types in western South America line up exactly with those in eastern Africa?
- Why are marsupials and monotremems confined to Australia?
- Why are there mammals which lay eggs, but no reptiles which give birth?
- Why do snakes and whales have internal bones which look like legs? Why do our recurrent laryngeal nerves curl around our hearts?
- Why do babies close their hands when touched?
- Why do we get goosebumbs when we’re cold?
- Why are some chickens born with teeth and humans with tails?
- Why shouldn’t we take antibiotics too often?
- Why was it so easy to eradicate smallpox, but it is so dfficult to find a cure for HIV?
- Why is MRSA a public heath problem in many hospitals?
- Why do people have different coloured skin and different shaped faces and bodies?
- Does this mean we are different species or races?
- Why does incest often produce disabled or mutated offspring?
- Why do many members of royal families often have haemophilia?
These are all questions relevant to the issue of evolution, natural selection and common descent, and they are questions which are difficult or impossible to answer without recourse to the much vilified and misunderstood theory.
A temple to atheism, would be an interesting project, but a museum of reason in my opinion would be much more helpful, positive, inclusive and convincing.