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Susan McCarthy: What happens when scientific data is dressed up in religious clothing

by Susan McCarthy
Posted: January 9, 2009.

Guardian.co.uk

The Atheon is a temple of science. It’s a shrine to rational wonder. It’s conceptual art. To be coldly reductionist, it’s four “stained glass” windows in a building you can’t enter, and a “canon” unlikely to induce humming or foot-tapping. In December, it held a minuscule synod.

The Atheon’s creator, Jonathon Keats, is a conceptual artist with a longstanding interest in exploring science and religion as artistic elements, and a flair for publicity. He says the inspiration for creating the Atheon came at a 2006 conference called “Beyond Belief”, at which luminary scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carolyn Porco, and Richard Dawkins extolled the sense of wonder and uplift derived from science as a replacement for religious awe.

Keats mused on the idea of science replacing religion. “What would it look like, what would it feel like, what would it sound like?” He concluded that “there perhaps ought to be some sort of temple to science.” He has also said, “The essence of religion is stained glass and song.” (Keats, who says he is not religious, had a rather secular Jewish upbringing which included exposure to music he calls enormously beautiful and stained glass he calls “horrible ... truly ugly ... beyond words.”)

His opportunity came with a Californian museum’s call for art proposals. The Judah L Magnes Museum had bought an old building, a once-grandiose secretarial school, which they intend to renovate over a few years. The public can’t go in until remodelling is done, so the Magnes sought proposals for art work on the outside of the building. Keats, spotting the 14-foot-high cathedral windows in the building’s auditorium, asked to make them Atheon windows.

With grants from the museum and a UC Berkeley community fund, Keats had huge sheets of vinyl printed with pictures from NASA, glorious false-color images of the cosmic microwave background radiation – echoes of the universe’s beginnings. These were stretched across the window (not actually gummed to the historic windows themselves) and at night are lit from within so passers-by can see them. “The windows are illuminated outwards”, said chief curator Alla Efimova. “They provide light to the neighborhood. We feel it’s kind of symbolic of the way a museum tries to share its experience.” The windows are lovely by night, although there’s something melancholy about beautiful views into a locked building.

There is also a piece of music, which Keats characterizes as a canon, titled “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?” I would not call it song. It is based on acoustic files created by astronomer Mark Whittle extrapolating what sound oscillations might have existed right after the Big Bang, when space was briefly full of gas. Whittle has described it as an ascending scream, going to a deep raspy roar, and ending in a deafening hiss. I suppose you could dance to it, if you had the right leotard, but it’s not a leap-to-your-feet sort of number. I don’t envision a choir belting it out.

Keats has been doing conceptual art with considerable energy for about a decade. His works include a “Petri dish God” (accompanied by the intriguing claim that God is most closely related to the cyanobacteria), pornography for plants, and a silent ringtone based on John Cage’s 4’33”. The ringtone was his most controversial work, he says. Why? “I have no idea! It’s the first time I’ve been called ‘a retard’ since second grade.”

He emphasises that the Atheon is not a satire. He calls it a thought experiment, an open source project. “The Atheon by no means is in the business of eliminating other religions,” he says. “The Atheon as it now exists is a shell, a model, or even a scaffold.” He proclaims that since the Atheon can be accessed online, it “can be encountered as a desktop shrine”, but also says “This rather unimaginative artist’s attempt at creating all of this is, in a sense, just a suggestion or a gesture or a set of gestures in a Potemkin sort of way.”

I asked about the gesture of the windows. “How do the windows make me feel? I can certainly see how the windows can inspire a state of awe,” Keats said cautiously. “The visual impact is strong because it is coloured light at a large scale.” He wants it to pose the question that occurred to him at the “Beyond Belief” conference, “What happens when scientific data is put in religious trappings, in religious clothing?”

“I think that the Atheon can manifest in other places. I hope that the project will mutate,” Keats said. “It’s out of my control entirely.” (He seemed undismayed by my suggestion that it could easily accommodate a torturing-the-infidel component.) “As an artist I am interested in exploring large ideas that are at play in our society, and science and religion are a large part of that.”

“To me, what’s most interesting personally, is the way in which science might, by virtue of laying claim to the religious, by accentuating the miraculous – that science might undermine its own authority,” he said. “Science may end up transforming itself into something akin to religion in the process of trying to co-opt religion.”

I remarked to the artist that religion has many aspects aside from wonder and awe, and that a successful Atheon might acquire some of these, including such mundane things as Sunday schools, bingo night, and collection plates. Had he thought about tithes?

“I have collected no tithes. I have yet to figure out a way to make money making art,” said Keats drily. “I wish I had thought of that. I wish you had talked to me before.”

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