LONDON — This just in, from the Department of “Can you imagine this happening in the United States?” Two prominent atheists – popular philosopher Alain de Botton and popular science author Richard Dawkins – are sparring over the wisdom of erecting a “temple for atheists” in London.


Celebrants attend the White Dinner event in front of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in June 2011. (GONZALO FUENTES/REUTERS)

No, but seriously folks.

In his latest book, Religion For Atheists, De Botton argues that even atheists have a soft-spot for the sort of grandiose architecture commonly associated with churches, mosques and temples. He has thus raised some 500,000 British pounds (approximately $786,000) to construct what he refers to as a “secular space for contemplation” in the heart of the city’s financial district. Although many in the West have little time for organized religion, they still feel nostalgic for its “consoling, subtle or just charming rituals,” as he put it in an interview with a columnist at the Daily Telegraph.

In part, de Botton is motivated by a desire to counter what he sees as the “destructive beliefs” about atheism put forward by scholars such as Dawkins and the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, whom he sees as criticizing religion without offering anything more inspirational in its place. De Botton wants, instead, to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective.

As such, the 150-foot-tall black tower would be designed to commemorate more than 300 million years of mankind’s existence. Each centimeter of the tower’s interior is meant to symbolize a million years, with a narrow band of gold portraying the relatively brief amount of time humans have walked the earth. The exterior of the building would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence, and the walls would feature fossils and geologically interesting rocks.

De Botton has already raised half of the financing from a group of anonymous donors, and is hoping that the Corporation for the City of London will come up with the other half. The idea is that the London space will serve as the first of many “temples for atheists” around the country.

Dawkins, for his part, has been dismissive in his criticism, rejecting the idea of mimicking religious rituals of worship and suggesting that the money could be put to better use in support of causes such as secular education. “Atheists don’t need temples,” he was quoted as saying in the Guardian.

Atheist groups in the U.K. have been quite successful in recent years in championing the interests of non-believers. They’ve launched summer camps, bus campaigns (“God probably doesn’t exist so stop worrying and enjoy life,”) and my own personal favorite, a holiday book released two years ago titled “The Atheist’s Guide To Christmas.”

More recently, nonbelievers have also made inroads in affecting public policy debates. Last year, they raised a ruckus over the inclusion of a question on the 2011 census here in the U.K. which asked, “What religion are you?” The British Humanist Association countered that such a question was misleading and inappropriate in a country where their own polls showed only 29 percent of the population self-identifying as religious (including, not incidentally, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg himself).

While they lost that fight, atheist groups led by Dawkins were successful this past autumn in making sure any school – charter or otherwise – that did not teach evolution in its science classes would lose state funding.

I’m not an atheist, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. In an era in which GOP candidates are duking it out over who can out-Christian whom in the current presidential debates (not to mention not-so-subtle asides on whether Mormons “count” as Christians and if the president himself is secretly a Muslim), I love the idea of two intelligent people seriously debating the appropriateness of a shrine to atheism.

All that said, in the end I must say I side with Dawkins. The U.K. is undergoing its harshest recession in 60-odd years, one where politicians are asking themselves hard questions about who deserves to receive welfare benefits and how much.

So there have got to be far better uses for 500,000 scarce pounds from the City of London government right now than erecting a monument to contemplating beauty, awe and the natural world.

Can’t the nonbelievers all go check out the Leonardo da Vinci paintings currently on exhibit at the National Gallery and call it a day?

Delia Lloyd is a London-based journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Financial Times, and the Guardian. Previously, she was a correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter at @RealDelia.