Alice Jones: Atheists already have temples – they're called galleries and museums


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The Independent Online

Religion. It's all about big buildings, isn't it? This week Liam Neeson, below, declared that he was considering converting to Islam – because the mosques are really nice. The actor, who was raised a Catholic, has been filming in Istanbul, an experience which has led him to commune with his inner Muslim.

"The call to prayer happens five times a day, and for the first week, it drives you crazy, and then it just gets into your spirit, and it's the most beautiful, beautiful thing," he told The Sun in an interview to promote his new film. "There are 4,000 mosques in the city. Some are just stunning, and it really makes me think about becoming a Muslim." Just like that. It's not clear whether he read the Koran to check if he agrees with the fundamentals of the faith first.

Now take Alain de Botton, who has just announced his plan to build a series of "Temples for Atheists" around the UK, starting with a £1m, 150ft black tower in the City of the London. "Why should religious people have the most beautiful buildings in the land?" asked the writer/philosopher, who has a new book out. "It's time atheists had their own versions of the great cathedrals."

In fact, quite apart from the fact that organising atheism along the lines of a religion is wrong-headed, non-believers already have plenty of beautiful, secular, buildings – galleries, museums, universities, parliaments – to thrill their souls. And while it is true that religions have always used art – awe-inspiring architecture, rousing song, compelling stories – to transmit ideas and invoke a sense of the divine, to focus purely on aesthetics like De Botton and Neeson is to take a shallow pick'n'mix approach to faith. They want to keep the best bits of religion without bothering to engage with its trickier depths. In fact, the only belief to which both seem to subscribe is that nothing sells a new book or film like a trite, superficially controversial apercu about religion.

* The narrative arc is the same every single time. I'm not talking about Richard Curtis films but about Oscar nominations. Year in, year out, the starchy announcement of the shortlists is greeted by Braveheart-style roars of outrage on behalf of those who have been "snubbed". It's even worse in the age of Twitter, when everyone can take instantly to their keyboards to moan that their favourite has been overlooked. It's the Oscars, guys. If there was an Oscar for Best Overlooking, it would go to the Oscars.

Amid the carping, there was one shining light in my newsfeed this week – Patton Oswalt, who had been tipped to get a nomination for his performance in Young Adult. When he found himself left out in the cold, he took to Twitter and treated his followers to a series of updates from an imaginary party for Oscar Snub-ees. "Might be out of booze – Serkis has Pogues on the jukebox & Fassbender just showed up in a pirate hat." "Dude, GET DOWN HERE. Gosling is doing keg stands and Olsen & Dunst LITERALLY just emerged from a shower of rose petals." etc. So much more fun than the usual gracious loser shtick – someone give the man an award.

* Television contests live by their catchphrases. They can be excitable – "Gladiators ... Rrready!" – or stern – "You are the weakest link, goodbye" – or downright desperate – "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!". Have they ever, though, been eschatological?

It's a pertinent question now that Andrew Lloyd Webber has embarked on auditions for his latest talent show, which this time aims to find a leading man for a West End revival of Jesus Christ Superstar.

In each of the previous series, nervous contestants have been cheered through to the next week's show with the words: "You could be Joseph/ Maria/ Nancy/ Dorothy". So it follows that the new show's catchphrase will be the cautiously apocalyptic: "You could be Jesus."

As if reality television contestants needed the ego boost.