Our cathedrals

ImageAn architect takes a tilt at the new religion, "the new age of faith", in which belief is everything, and outlies some of the implications of the way the world follows this phenomenon.










The twenty-first century will be remembered as one of the most deeply religious periods of all time. Not only have whole populations of individual countries become ardent believers but also most countries in the world have been united by a common faith and a common love of their god. This has become an age of belief founded on faith.

One result is that all over the world there has been a massive upsurge of religious architecture, such as has not been seen since medieval times. In the Age of Enlightenment faith had given way to reason, with buildings which may have had logic and been fodder for academics but lacked soul. Now there is a new age of faith. Belief is everything. Even truth has become known as non-fiction. Believing in sustainability has become far more important than doing anything about it. Architects are believers.

A few people wonder about the wisdom of a total commitment of the scarce resources of the world to religious architecture but they are laughed at. Architectural books and magazines are devoted to glossy religious architecture, awards are granted, and the only challenge seems to be for the next building to be more magnificent than the last. Medieval buildings were lost in love. Now winning is everything. Humility reeks of apostasy.

After years of confusion about saving the Amazon rainforests or Auckland’s volcanoes the real meaning of sustainability has finally become crystal clear. It means sustaining the faith. The peasants are filled with wonder and feel that no sacrifice is too great to achieve such astonishing architecture, just as they had been in medieval times or in ancient Egypt. Everyone knows that in thousands of years, when civilisation has passed away, the buildings will remain giving glory to god. They will continue to be admired as having given form to the new religion.

Future students of architectural history will admire these symbolic buildings, just as they admire the Parthenon or the pyramids, without fully comprehending that having great designers is never enough.  Only faith can underpin such achievements.

Just as no one questions the environmental cost of religious architecture so no one questions the faith itself. A few non-believers do raise their voices from time to time but they are swiftly dealt with by the police, assisted by the army and the navy. Our modern-day inquisition metes out injustice as necessary to prevent the possibility of revolt.

Over the years there have been some theological debates, but no schisms. We laugh at other cultures steeped in superstition, prejudice, and uncertainty. We have risen above all that to find the one, true god.

At first the new religion was simply an established state religion, but before long religious leaders moved into government and the traditional role of government became forgotten. Now the role of government is to manage and support the new religion.

This new religion is, of course, called the economy and the god of believers in the economy is money.

Even National Radio devotes a great deal of time to reporting on religious news and three times a day there are prayer sessions, with adherents facing the stock exchange in adoration as they listen to the litany of Private Wealth giving the figures.

Sport has been replaced by religious spectacle as franchise plays against franchise to allow believers to cheer on their favourite franchise. God supports elite sport because actually playing could make believers restless.

Throughout history institutionalised religions have always, we know, run into problems. Megalomaniacs rise to the top on the shoulders of believers convinced that only a lotto ticket comes between present hell and future heaven. Giving loans to people who are not yet winners is bound to lead to trouble. Fortunately we are constantly recovering from the recession so that provided the people at the bottom tighten their belts the people at the top who benefit will keep belief alive.

The good news, if there is any, is that the 92,000 stalwarts in the college of cardinals who control everything are a jolly lot. Not unlike the Greek gods, and not really so different from the rest of us. Plenty of debauchery, licentiousness, double-dealing, corruption and infighting, as well as a tendency to pinch other cardinal’s wives.

The real, unrecognised vulnerability of the new religion is that the world comes free, and the only chance of stopping people from just enjoying it is to create a built environment which shuts nature out and charges people to get in.

Architects more than anyone else understand that if you can charge people for something which is free you can go on having fun building. The party venue is the Wynyard Quarter. Come on down. Why enjoy what you have when you could buy something else?

Tony Watkins





First published in Tui Motu February 2013, in an issue devoted to the "Year of Faith 2013", as "Cathedrals for our time".








Image These thoughts were my response to the Round Table which concluded the Seminar celebrating ten years of the School of Theology at the University of Auckland. The topic was concerned with the growth or decline religion in Auckland. The discussion, and the opinions offered, seemed to me to assume a set of boxes to tick which may have been valid a hundred year ago, but which failed to reflect the reality of Auckland in 2012. None of the boxes I wanted to tick were there because "religion" was perceived by the panel to be the same as "institutional church". It seemed to me that if theology is to be relevant we need to accept that Moses may be on the mountain talking to God but meanwhile the people are worshipping a golden calf. Our God may not be the same as everyone else's god. The distribution of power, the consumption of finite resources, and even architecture are all theological questions.

Some have commented that my musings are pure satire. I wish I could feel so confident. I fear they are simple statements of fact.