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Duelling Atheists at fifty paces

Media commentary about Alain de Botton’s announcement of plans for a ‘temple to atheism’ in London have focused just as much on the fact that Richard Dawkins doesn’t like the idea as on the idea of the temple itself.

Nothing like a good disagreement between prominent intellectuals, let alone one that has the religious rubbing their hands in the hope that ‘New Atheism’ is finally eating its own young.

While de Botton and Dawkins both are prominent atheists, they have very different views about what the public face of atheism should look like. De Botton describes his temple as an antidote to Dawkins ‘destructive’ and ‘aggressive’ brand  of atheism and his new book, Religion for Atheists, is all about salvaging  the best elements of religions to help us in our daily lives.

Hard-core atheists from Dawkins down find this dangerously close to making a religion of atheism itself, and want no truck with it. Reason is its own reward and does not require veneration or worship, let alone the appropriation of religious trappings.

De Botton’s view, that you can have the beautiful buildings and music, the sense of community and so on without the supernatural elements is bound to be appealing to those who have grown up with religious traditions. But it raises all sorts of questions for me about how culture really develops, and whether it is in fact possible to pick and choose from the historical lessons of religions and hope that a disparate collection of humanistic values can take root in places where the extremes of individualistic capitalism and fundamentalist religions are so well established.

While we can’t bring you de Botton and Dawkins on the same stage, Dawkins will have the last word on April 16 and I am sure both speakers will have  polished and eloquent answers to these and many more of our questions.

BOOK TICKETS to see Richard Dawkins in conversation with Lawrence Krauss on 16 April.

WATCH Alain de Botton discuss his new book Religion for Atheists at Sydney Opera House.