Culture Religion

A ‘temple to atheism’

Alain de Botton’s “atheism 2.0” comes with a temple in London – or at least it will, if his plans come to fruition. According to an article in the Guardian, de Botton has already raised half of the £1m this project is likely to cost, with the rest of the money to come from public donations (if things go according to plan). Regardless of the fact that £1m could fund all sorts of unarguably worthwhile things – schools, hospitals, vaccinations – instead of one arguably worthless thing, I’m not going to complain if private citizens want to waste their money. They’re entitled to do so, even if we might sometimes like to hope some public good can accrue.

But of course, de Botton thinks that this project is in the public good. The Guardian reports that he sees this as an example of those “awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life”. As many critics have already pointed out, though, a sense of perspective – whatever that might mean to you – can be attained from various sources other than temples. Andrew Copson (chief executive of the British Humanist Society) is quoted as saying, “the things religious people get from religion – awe, wonder, meaning and perspective – non-religious people get them from other places like art, nature, human relationships and the narratives we give our lives in other ways”.

Richard Dawkins (whose “destructive” atheism de Botton envisages atheism 2.0 as combating) has also spoken of finding awe and wonder in the natural world – see, for examples, his wonderful book Unweaving the Rainbow. (As an aside, with the exception of some passages in The God Delusion, it seems to me entirely false that Dawkins fits this “destructive” caricature that de Botton, Eagleton and others like to present.)

But de Botton has responded to some of the concerns regarding this building, and in particular the idea that atheism needs a “temple”. An emailed statement from de Botton can be read at Hanna Thomas’ blog, where he states that

contemporary architecture [should] look more closely at the examples of religious architecture, in order to give their buildings some of the qualities that are most appealling in religious buildings; to put it bluntly, in order that these effects not reside heretofore only in the cul-de-sac of religious architecture.

As is sometimes the case with jokes – where explaining them tends to deepen embarrassment, or further highlight the weakness of the joke – this statement (you should read the whole thing) doesn’t make the idea of atheist temples any more sensible, or any less facile. Architects are surely already aware of the majesty of many cathedrals and religious buildings, and are already borrowing the elements they find worthwhile. This process doesn’t need formalisation, or a new name, or to be roped into the service of presenting atheism as a unifying creed/society/club of any sort.

Atheists are connected, or similar, in not being theistic. Beyond that, we’re just like everyone else. For some, cathedrals remain awe-inspiring, as do beautiful parts of the natural landscape. If I was inclined to gaze at things while pondering meaning or mortality, there’s no shortage of impressive things to look at while doing so. The fact that some of them were built in the service of religion makes no difference to me, except for the fact that I’ll tend to not enter them when people are praying, singing hymns or delivering sermons (as examples from one set of traditions).

Then there are some who don’t care much for architecture or natural beauty. I’m more in this camp than in the former one, but this doesn’t mean that I lack triggers or reasons for being taken “out of the everyday”, “encourag[ing] contemplation, perspective and (at times) a pleasing terror”. Books and films do that, as do people, the tribal loyalties of being a football fan, and so forth.

For some, shopping malls could do it too – who knows. But if it’s buildings as works of art, or fulcrums of inspiration that you’re after, it’s not only the case that (as I mention above) I’d be very surprised if architects aren’t already aware that features from religious buildings do the trick. Second, there’s no shortage of ostensibly “secular buildings” that are pretty darn awe-inspiring in their own right. Consider, for example, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, or the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao.

As with the very idea of atheism 2.0, de Botton is dressing up the obvious as if it’s insightful. And his further explanation of how he thinks these are good ideas don’t make them appear any more so.

[EDIT]: de Botton’s statement was also sent to Richard Wiseman (and others), and is attracting some good comments on Wiseman’s blog.

Culture External World

Tori Amos at GrandWest Arena

Since the visit of that Irish preacherman to our shores for the U2 360° Tour, a few notable musicians have been to Cape Town, but last night’s Tori Amos gig was the first to lure the Doctor and me back into the crowd. And worthwhile it was. Ms Amos puts on a fine show – full of energy and passion – and if you like her tunes too, there would be little to complain about regarding this stop on her ‘Night of Hunters’ tour. A few brief notes on the evening:

Facilities: The bars only served bad beer, sweet white wine (ie. also bad) and bad red wine. The latter was also in short supply, and the two bars we queued at ran out just as we reached the head of the queue. Alternately, we were the victim of some prejudice or other, given this suspicious timing. Seeing as there were plenty of empty seats in the arena, this does not bode well for how they would cope with a sold-out event. (Perhaps some of you who went to the Kylie Minogue show can comment?).

Opening act: Yoav, Israeli born but bred in Cape Town. This man and his guitar combine to create some lovely sounds – he does electronica-style beats with his hands on the guitar, which combine with a strong and evocative voice to create some quite compelling tunes. Check his interesting biography here, and if you get a chance to hear him live, it should be worth your while.

Tori: She is utterly nuts – she’s got the Earth Mother thing going, combined with a manic intensity that sometimes led you to think she was about to swallow a microphone or pound a keyboard to bits. But also bloody good at what she does. In terms of performers looking and acting like they give a damn about putting on a good show, she’s up there with the best I’ve seen. Because this was an unplugged-style concert (just her and two pianos), many of the tracks had different arrangements to the ones you’d have heard on the albums, and I’d say that all of them worked very well (with the possible exception of “Concertina”, which I thought lacked the driving rhythm of the recorded version). The best of the night for me was either “Hey Jupiter” or her cover of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” (a quite regular cover, along with The Cure’s Lovesong, which we unfortunately didn’t get to hear this time). “Me and a Gun” worked well live, thanks to both the intensity of the lyrics and that voice of hers – the arena was utterly silent for this, and I’d imagine it would have been the highlight of the evening for some.

The only general regret I have – and it’s not a complaint, as the show was memorable and very worthwhile – was that for an artist who has such a large catalogue, it’s unfortunate that 7 of the 17 tracks were off “Little Earthquakes”. In the 20 years since that (debut) album was released, there have been 11 others, so we only got to hear a small selection of her music. This might of course have been to the taste of many present, who at least knew the words and could therefore sing along. And this was a problem. As I said above, many of the songs had new arrangements, so the enthusiastic backup singers in the crowd around us had little choice but to fumble along as best they could, matching the tempo of what they were hearing to what they remembered in real-time. And this no doubt sounded better in their heads than it did in ours. Or at least, I’d think so – because if it did sound as bad to them as to us, I imagine that they would have stopped trying.

The sound was great, unlike at the U2 concert. My only technical complaint is regarding the lighting. We were in the 5th row, below the stage, and would quite regularly be temporarily blinded by one or more lights pointed straight at us at eye-level. But this is a minor quibble, and one could always watch one of the two big screens instead of the stage when this happened.

And finally, a special mention to the Queen of the Nile, who gave me a 900% return on investment after I apparently pushed her buttons in the right sequence. Thanks and praise be to the law of averages, along with confirmation bias.

Culture External World General

Start saving for Norway

Not necessarily because you want to come here. It’s just that, if you do, you’d need to have started saving for it quite a while in advance. The pint of Heineken sitting alongside me, for example, cost around R80. The cheapest food at this pub is a margarita pizza for R170, and even your most basic Burger King combo meal will set you back around R110. Anyway – I’m here, and thus my complaints would most likely sound hollow. So just FYI, start saving.


  • The mad rush for duty-free as the sardines exited customs at the airport was a certain clue that you don’t want to buy booze or cigarettes in the city, unless you can help it. The queue there involved a far longer wait than customs itself, and the rationality of spending time in this queue was confirmed while browsing a wine shop. Not just a wine shop, mind you, but a “Wine Monopoly”. That is in fact its name. All wine and spirits are sold exclusively by the state, with prices partly determined by alcohol content, in a clear attempt to legislate morality. Which is of course fine if you’re a rich banker or lawyer, but not so good for the average geezer sunning himself in the park at 8pm. (These long summer nights are rather pleasant.)
  • Chatting to a local on the night I arrived, I was told something odd about schooling here. Basically, children are not evaluated in any substantive way before the age of 14 (or maybe 16 – he was plying me with drink). This is of course in service of their manic egalitarianism, which dictates that kids shouldn’t be made to feel special, or inferior, before adults believe they can deal with it. So instead of exams, tests and report cards, teachers can only offer nebulous advice such as “maybe you should take a look at that maths textbook sometime? I hear it has lots of cool pictures.” Or something – I haven’t spoken to a teacher to see how this plays out.
  • You need to be an active member of a church to become a gravedigger.
  • The most commonly-found food is the polser, which is a hot dog, and raisin buns (whose Scandiwegian name I cannot recall). The polser will set you back around R35, as will the buns, with 3 of them in a portion. But if it’s polser you’re after, rather go to Denmark, where they serve them with crispy fried onions and rémoulade. These Norwegian ones (at least the ones I’ve found), have neither, and are thus crap. Denmark wins, and I have no biases to disclose.

  • They are into peace, especially in the vicinity of the Nobel Center. I’m here for a humanist conference, and – recent events in Norway notwithstanding – it’s quite striking how the content and tone of dialogue with locals converges on trying to reconcile misunderstandings and resolve tensions. There is far less ego, or at least a different sort of ego. This congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union is being hosted at a reception by the Crown Prince tomorrow night, and the Mayor is also making an appearance at the conference dinner on Saturday. There are flags advertising our conference in the streets. Basically, they take this stuff seriously.

And then, outside of observations on Norway, there’s an embarrassing and (hopefully) humorous anecdote, which involved the Irish. But before I get to that: South African readers, if you think you have a drinking problem, you probably don’t. Because you’re not Irish. The one Irish delegate (implicated in the story I’m getting to) told me about how she and her friends drank vodka all day at school at the age of 16, from their ‘water’ bottles. And this was a head girl, from a middle-upper class background.

Anyway, I was chatting to Annie and her partner Aaron about God, Roy Keane (is that tautologous?) and assorted matters. Aaron wandered off to scrounge for coins to buy another beer. And then, while talking to Annie, I’m pretty darn sure I saw her raise her hand to the side of her face, wiggle her fingers and say “I’m up here”. That sequence of gestures is difficult to interpret as something else, one would think, and also difficult to misinterpret – it usually means “stop objectifying me by staring at my cleavage, you sexist boor”. Except I wasn’t, and hadn’t been.

This freaked me out. If you’ve watched Curb your Enthusiasm (the new series is great, by the way), you might have a sense of how utterly strange, and socially awkward, the next half-hour or so was. Because Aaron had returned, and it was another half-hour before he left, and I finally had the opportunity to resolve whether I was going to live with this misunderstanding, or “put it out there”.

I chose the latter path, and asked her whether she had wiggled her fingers, saying “I’m up here”. She looked at me as if I was alien, insane or both. I repeated the question, mimicking the gesture. Now she seemed convinced I was insane, which I might have exacerbated by saying “look, I realise I probably sound creepy now, but this is quite awkward and needs clarifying”. But she had no idea what I was talking about. And now there was this enormous elephant in the room, and I felt compelled to explain, again, what I thought I had seen – and of course what I perceived it to mean (the thing I may or may not have seen).

But bless the Irish – her quite straightforward response was “Ah, no. If you’d been doing that, I would just have slapped you or stormed off.” So then we got on with talking about Roy Keane, potatoes and so forth, with the discomfort slowly dissipating.

And now it’s Thursday, and the first phase of the visit (leadership training for secular humanist groups, at the IHEU) is over, with the conference proper starting tomorrow. I’ll be sending occasional updates on proceedings through the FSI Twitter account, and the usual motley collection of links and provocations via my account. Be careful out there.

Culture Politics

3 signs of the end-times

My mother always claimed that bad events arrived in clusters of 3. Or maybe it was good things. Either way, the principle – however silly (my logician-brain immediately notes the self-sustaining nature of this hypothesis, in that a careful selection of beginning and end-points to a cluster would make the claim unfalsifiable), came to mind just now when catching up on some local news.

Culture Headspace

A fresh perspective on gender

For those who are still not following A&L Daily, here’s something interesting you may have missed: Baumeister asking “Is There Anything Good About Men?



from xkcd – well worth an occasional visit.
Facebook uses

Culture Headspace

Human happiness

Last night, the bourbon at a local bar led to S and I pondering human development and happiness, and the issue has remained with me since. To what extent is development correlated with happiness, and is that correlation even positive, as many of us assume? An easy way to sidestep the issue would be to say that, if happiness is a subjective mental state, any index you choose to measure it is going to be essentially arbitrary. And as a contrapositive, you could prove either that we are less happy or more happy by picking a convenient index to substantiate your claim.


Vonnegut, RIP

Those of you who have read any Vonnegut will no doubt have been saddened to hear of his death, yesterday…


What is a twerp in the strictest sense, in the original sense?


It’s a person who inserts a set of false teeth between the cheeks of his ass.


I see.


I beg your pardon; between the cheeks of his or her ass. I’m always offending feminists that way.


I don’t quite understand why someone would do that with false teeth.


In order to bite the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs. That’s the only reason twerps do it. It’s all that turns them on.

If you haven’t read any, I’d recommend Sirens of Titan or Breakfast of Champions.

Culture Headspace

His people are strange

An email received this morning, which in tone brings to mind a recommendation to try a new shampoo or somesuch (if one ignores the patronising conclusion of the email, of course). It’s sad to imagine how this person’s life will destruct if his complacency has cause to be unsettled one day…

Hope you well. This may come as quite a surprise to you and in fact i did not think of it until this morning, but after praying about it, then seeing you this morning I knew I needed to. And before we get any further yes I am a christian so you dont have to be scared of me coming at you from some hidden angle or agenda which probably happens and you getting bible bashed. Christians are so often saying oh those philosophers talk nonsense, but that is not my heart. I really enjoyed [coursename] lectures and wanted you to know what i thought. I dont actually know where you stand in terms of belief, but really felt i just needed to say that you should check out this whole christian thing.

I believe it, and from personal experience know it to be true, you dont have to at all, but why not give it a shot, maybe read John or something. You may read it and say well that is a load of rubbish and want nothing to do with it and that is fine, completely your choice. But why not give it a try? You may just find it changes your life, and gives you a purpose you have never felt before. And if you have been hurt by some church/family member/christian before, that is not Gods intention, He wants to know you.

Have a great day and feel free shoot anything back at me.

Culture Headspace

Whisky as ritual

Say what you will about wine, beer or any cocktail; there are times when whisky – and only whisky – is right. For starters, whisky has always been good for conversation. Mignon McLaughlin (in The Neurotic’s Notebook, 1960) said “we come late, if at all, to wine and philosophy: whiskey and action are easier”, but he was wrong. Perhaps it has something to do with him not being a Scotch-drinker (whiskey with the “e” generally indicating American or Irish, rather than Scotch), or perhaps he just couldn’t do philosophy. Because when you get together with an old friend, or when the pressing issues in life bear down particularly heavily, whisky and reflection are easy bedfellows.

Enjoying a fine whisky in deserving company starts with that particular sound of a whisky cap being unscrewed, followed by the careful metering of a drop of water into your glass. You can then recline, and (sometimes, depending on the whisky and/or your pedigree) allow the ice to serve as metronome, keeping your thoughts and dialogue in time. Without the ice, swirling the whisky in your glass serves nearly as well, if you pay attention to the tenacity with which the liquid resists settling, preferring to cling to the sides of the glass. This also works when alone, once everyone has departed or as meditation before their arrival.

Meditation is an activity always enhanced by whisky. When drinking single malt, we are acutely aware of place and time – especially of time, not only in the age of the dram but in the ages of geology and geography that are so essential to the particulars of the whisky. History lives in whisky, through place, time and also through the art of distillers and blenders, who carry the obligation to maintain standards set decades or even centuries ago. And it is for this reason that drinking a fine whisky sometimes takes the form of ritual, for in drinking it we celebrate a possible immortality that we, as individuals, can never fully know.