The Importance of Buildings: An Agnostic’s Reflection on Church

I am not religious. Despite this, I often find myself in many Catholic churches due to the socio-cultural legacy of my family. And were it not for the fact that I always feel a profound reverence and sense of awe upon entering a church, I would probably feel bothered or inconvenienced.

This is magnified even more during a service when I get to see an entire community of people interacting in a unified spiritual manner with the religion at hand. This is, I guess, one of the few redeeming factors of organized religion—the communal energy of a people under one roof. Is it weird that I enjoy these random church outings for this reason? As a humanist agnostic, am I “allowed” to feel awe and wonder upon being in these beautiful buildings? Some may have the ornate, Baroque architecture of the past or the more common, functional simplicity of modern building and yet, there’s a certain quality to them that goes beyond the aesthetic.

thomas_jefferson_memorial

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial

Whereas all of the major religions in our world have a place of worship, should a philosophy and world-view based on humanism also deserve a space of this type? Humans are social animals and in our relations and even constructions of self, we define ourselves through and derive our collective consciousness through social relations. Why then, is the space for humanism excluded from a place of communal interactions?

I must, understandably, concede that the reason for the lack of humanist spaces can be attributed to the fact that there are so many others spaces of intellectual engagement where people can interact. There are also museums, libraries, coffee shops, book stores, monuments, parks, and even rooftop decks where people can interact and appreciate the human-created beauty that surrounds them. In fact, in daily life there are constant reminders of our humanity and the triumph of its will—whether it be in the in the Thomas Jefferson Memorial’s dome or in the gentle interaction between two humans conscious of their place in the world.

Nonetheless, all these spaces are not singularly focused and often address poly-faceted purposes, which negates their being as potential centers for humanist thought and communion.

Alain de Botton had a plan for a “temple” for atheists in the works which was fiercely critiqued by Richard Dawkins and his militant ideology. Understandably, people who are very adamant on being atheists have the potential to see an idea such as this as akin to an indoctrination, not dissimilar to many other religions which are often seen as harmful dogmas. This is a position that is completely justified and bears some consideration when thinking of a potential “temple” for humanism. However, it is disingenuous to claim that an idea based on bringing people together to interact and discuss humanity and meaning in a place of mutual understanding and support could be seen as a religious indoctrination. In fact, the entire idea is based on a secular ideal of bringing people together for the sake of unity as a people and as a chance to provide a forum for honest exchanges. Additionally, for someone who may be questioning their religion or in other dire straits in their life, this kind of space would provide an affirmation of their humanity, inherent value, and potential. Is this not preferable to letting them fall prey to the slave morality of a greater evil?

It may be wrong to attach such a high value to a piece of real estate, even beyond its aesthetic features, but what of our social-spatial relations? Do they not need to be addressed? Or maybe they already are being tackled in book stores, museums, or coffee shops?

Maybe I’ve underestimated the value of the human spirit to unite and to cooperate. Maybe people don’t need to build an edifice to attach meaning to something. Maybe a kind word is enough, or an understanding look, or the glimmer of the summer sun on a window pane. Maybe the microscopic dust that explodes upon opening a book is enough to spark the same idea. I don’t know.

I may be wrong but I know there must be some value in coming together under one non-religious roof for the express purpose of interacting in some kind of shared sense of wonder and learning. But for now, I’ll be at the corner coffee shop enjoying the experience of living on this earth. Come and say hello.

Coffee-Shop

 

Harold Alexander Mesa (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Harold Alexander MesaHarold Mesa is a Rutgers University alumnus who received his B.A. in 2013 in History. He was born in Medellín, Colombia and lived the second half of his childhood in New Jersey. His interests include post-colonialism, linguistics, Marxian political thought, feminism, and Buddhism—amongst other things.  He enjoys playing and discussing soccer.

36 responses to “The Importance of Buildings: An Agnostic’s Reflection on Church

  1. You express my sentiments exactly. I love churches too, but for the architecture. Perhaps they are sometimes built with mockery, but they were commissioned and financed with love or pride, or both, and it shows. I was not raised with any religion, so from my vantage point, all religions have similar teaching (if one is not caught up in the particulars). Thank you for the pictures and reflection.

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  2. Hey, I feel the same way, and I’d go one step further and call myself an atheist. Everyone always tries to argue one out of that word, but well, atheist is it. 🙂

    And one of my favorite places on Earth is Tyddewi in Wales, St. David’s cathedral. Most gorgeous place on Earth ever, and there is a definite sense of very old, very communal significance there just from the way that, for nearly 1,000 years, people have come together and decided that this place is of great importance to them. They’ve worked together here on this very spot, building and rebuilding, adding and adding again, to the stones piled right here. It’s wonderful.

    Atheist I may be, but I can still sense the energy of a collective of people when it’s been invested in one spot on the map for many, many years. It’s pretty cool.

    And yes, like you, I get the same sense in the world’s secular monuments. I’m from Philadelphia, and I get the same feeling when I’m in the Academy of Music. I like those kinds of buildings even more since people of any gender, color, creed, ethnicity, national origin, etc. etc. etc. all come together there to work toward a common goal, and they really do welcome anyone. JPL felt much the same when I visited there as well, and far more connected to the universe.

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    • I’m glad that you feel the same way. It’s really an amazing thing that humans have been able to create such magnificent structures and their existence somehow legitimises our inherent value, in my mind at least. Thanks for the kind words and for contributing to the dialogue!

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  3. I think many have associated the building with the religion; consequently, focusing on the structure of a particular church and not on the needs of the surrounding communities. Though I may fully agree with your post, I appreciate your content and the flow of your presentation. All the best to you!

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  4. I could see why someone who is strongly against the idea of “religious indoctrination” could have an issue with the idea of a structure, but at the same time, it seems like they might be doing the same thing they accuse others of- being closed minded.

    The closest thing I can think of to what you are envisioning would be organizations and ministries that focus on uplifting humanity, for example, the organization To Write Love On Her Arms. http://twloha.com/

    It may not have an awe inspiring building, but there are people there to listen and support their fellow person. I don’t think it’s weird that you are in awe of places of worship. They were created out of inspired creativity, so I would think that anyone could feel a reverence in them. In addition, one could be sensing a spiritual presence, I have a co-worker who claims to be an atheist, but he feels the same way about certain buildings, particularly Catholic. Plus, as you mentioned, seeing people work together is profoundly moving considering how many differences we all have,

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      • Not necessarily, but we haven’t talked in depth about it. He grew up in the church I just joined, and I guess his familiarity and the way we were able to talk about God and our issues made it feel like he had some belief but because of experiences, etc. chose not to, or at least not to deal with it. Just a feeling I guess, nothing major. I’m still trying to understand the breadth of atheism as well.

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  5. Architecture as humanist monument? I disagree, respectfully. The Jefferson Memorial does have a certain grandiosity, but, to me, it’s more of a governmental/historical monument. I find art to be a better humanist monument and, for that, even religious art fits the definition as an act, regardless of motivation, performed by a human with a human supply of skill, vision, limitations. It’s a monument to human possibility. Of course, with that definition, I guess even religious architecture qualifies as a humanist monument.

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  6. Great article! It would be magnificent to shape a communal space free from commerce (corporate profit) and free from dogma. The internet carries this role to some extent, except that it is obviously impersonal and lacks an elevating quality (akin to a Catholic church and its ceremonies). We’re gradually cultivating bike lanes within our cities, where are our Greek / Socratic forums (not sponsored by Citibank)?

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    • Thanks for the response! I’m glad you mention that we should keep the space free from corporate influence. Though how will poor Citibank survive? haha.

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  7. The space matters. Can we survive without it? Absolutely. But it’s the difference between the coffee shop you want to live in and the cold one you can’t wait to get out of. The bookshop that makes it easy to absorb all the new thoughts contained in every tome and the one that’s impersonal.

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  8. I absolutely love this. As an atheist with a passion for art, history, architecture, and vaulted ceilings I totally dig this. I spent decades in Church, and my favorite times were when I would sing, read and pray by myself in a choir room, an enormous foyer or in the sanctuary of a beautiful church. This didn’t happen often, but when it did it was sweet. It wasn’t good for me though because I found the whole idea of church itself to be like romance without love.

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  9. An incredible post. Enough people couldn’t read this. We all definitely need to open our minds to each other and come together. Beautifully said and so thank you for sharing.

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  10. Christianity incorporates an idea that God is present in the believer, so wherever I go, my “temple” is there as I live out my faith. Perhaps there’s a benign parallel for the spiritual humanist (for lack of a better word) who can look around the museum or coffee shop and see a sort of temple enshrining individual value and community interaction?

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  11. There was a place to do what you’re speaking about in ancient Greece. All the philosophers gathered at the Areopagus to talk about new ideas. I don’t know that it was actually in a building though.

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  12. You’ve raised an interesting point about whether religious buildings were build as a form and means of worship or as a parade of money, splendor and power…..I guess it’s down to those who built it.

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  13. For me the space of worship for science and philosophy is the human brain. It is the one that allows us to contemplate and admire everything in the universe, natural or human made things like temples.

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  14. While it is not a perfect solution because it is not simply humanist, the Unitarian Universalist church does embody some of what you described. I was raised UU and most of the people I knew there were atheists, agnostics, and humanists. Or there were people who were questioning their religious upbringing but did not want to lose the sense of community. It is essentially a place to discuss and learn about the spiritual side of life as well as humanist topics. We had a forum at my church where members discussed social issues. There were also classes for adults and the religious education focused on learning about different religions and later discussing religious and social issues. UUism is small, not well known, but it’s there. http://www.uua.org/index.shtml

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  15. It’s interesting that so much of the reasons/benefits you discuss for the need and purpose for humanists gathering in and or as community are the same faith communities identify. Thanks for the insight.

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  16. The ocean evokes much awe and wonder within me, but anywhere two or more are gathered in reverence is sacred indeed. Or so Kelp says.

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  17. As a practicing Bible believing Christian I have come to view that religions erect structures as a framework in an attempt to frame a place or space in which one meets and interacts with God. As I have grown in my appreciation of God’s divine guidance in my life, I now know that God does not need the structure it is we that need to touch the physical representation of his presence. So sitting in silence in cathedrals or more modest churches and looking around at what the architects had envisioned makes me feel in complete unison with man’s desire to transcend the physical and experience communion with the divine.

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  18. Very nicely done, and thank you for pointing this out. As most of the rest of your readers have said they relate as do I. I love the old buildings for what they are. I have traveled a great deal throughout America and had the pleasure of visiting many Masonic Lodges. Each being different from the other offers something special to behold. Even though Freemasonry is not a religion many who are masons are religious. Upon entering a lodge one experiences what you described as that special feeling because of the building or structure. I think the energy there is the best. Nice job, and thanks for sharing.

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  19. Manchester Central Library, the new Library of Birmingham, the Panthéon in Paris, the British Museum in London. There are others and with luck will be more. No lover of humanity should stand under the little cupola at Runnymede where the World’s first bill of right was signed (Magna Carta in 1215) without being moved.

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  20. If you look at Architecture over history; the first, earliest great structures were dedicated or involved with religions; from the Pyramids, to the Taj Mahal, to the Cathedrals – their magnificence added to the awe and wonder of the spirit behind them. Considering the odds against these early construction workers and the frequent accidents and deaths they suffered, devotion to their erection must have been intense.

    Then, about 100 years ago, The Eiffel tower, the UN building, the Statue of Liberty and many great early non-religious “sky-scrapers” started the devotion to magnificence based on technology and science. Safety rapidly improved these past 100 years; but in the early stages there were sacrificial devotees to the science and technology of these amazing buildings as well.

    These timeless structures; most of which will remain long after we’re gone, signal the decline of religion and the rise of secular, non-religious humanism. This sea-change in philosophy will be recognized by people millions of years from now.

    We shouldn’t shun visiting our great religious structures; our ancestors built what they did based on the knowledge they had. Just keep their relative awareness in mind…and you’ll appreciate both types.

    The religious need a place to gather to sing, chant, and pray in unison – whereas the non-religious don’t need a place to gather; as you suggest, Mark, we meet in Libraries and Museums – in themselves a “temple” for the agnostic and atheist “scientists” in all of us. So don’t fret about a non-meeting place for A’s and A’s….we’re fine watching our salutes to science rise to the sky from almost any vantage point.

    And will these “agnostic and atheistic” architects and builders “go to heaven”? In a sense, the designers and builders, their names etched in the commemoration plates at their bases, will “live on” in the voices and minds of countless generations who read these plaques and appreciate their work.

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