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The doomed temple of the unbelievers

Wednesday, 15 February, 2012

dovecote of the future

The theories of the French philosopher Auguste Comte were central to the development of humanist and secular humanist organizations in the 19th century. Indeed, Comte was so influential that he was honoured with the construction of atheist temples in France in Brazil. No one worships at their ruins anymore, however. Today’s Comte, the Anglo-Swiss philosopher, Alain de Botton, is now toying with the idea of atheistic temples, but John Gray is having none of it. Writing in the Guardian, Gray gave de Botton’s proposal short shrift: “When he proposes building a temple for unbelievers, de Botton is reinventing a wheel that never really turned. The fad for atheist temples lasted for perhaps 60 years, while places of worship dedicated to something bigger than humanity have been around for many millennia. There is a nice irony here. For all his loony notions, Comte was more intelligent than most of the atheists who came after him. He saw clearly that religion is an enduring human need that cannot be denied.”

But it is being denied, as Baroness Warsi has pointed out and the denial threatens the very fabric of society: “For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes — denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.”

What will become of the secularist temples? Tom Greenall’s proposed design resembles a giant dovecote. Echoes of those 19th-century Comtean ruins, perhaps.

Language note: The verb form of shrift, as in “short shrift”, is shrive. A shrift was a penance given by a priest in a confession to provide absolution, often when the confessor was near to death. In 16th-century England, for example, the condemned were sent to the scaffold immediately after sentencing and only had time for a “short shrift” before being hanged. The first recorded use of the expression is found in the work of Shakespeare.

Ratcliff: “Dispatch, my lord; the duke would be at dinner: Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.” Richard III


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