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.
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.
Harold Alexander Mesa (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Harold 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.