Local Artist Explores Worship of Science

Photo: Jonathon Keats, an artist and writer, has pioneered the idea of having a godless brand of religion with the Atheon in Downtown Berkeley, a temple built for the worship of science.
Skyler Reid/Staff
Jonathon Keats, an artist and writer, has pioneered the idea of having a godless brand of religion with the Atheon in Downtown Berkeley, a temple built for the worship of science.

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Jonathon Keats-a bespectacled intellectual often clad in a tweed suit and a bow tie-has been called a brilliant conceptual artist, a provocateur and a charlatan. Now with funding from UC Berkeley, Keats hopes to pioneer a godless brand of religion with a local temple of science.

On Sunday, the 36-year-old writer and artist will christen a building in Downtown Berkeley the Atheon, which he calls a temple dedicated to the worship of science. The installation, which will last until February, is the newest in a long line of what Keats calls his "thought experiments."

Keats said the Atheon, soon to open at 2222 Harold Way, will feature "the trappings of a religious temple," with stained glass windows resembling moments after the Big Bang and a hymn that will feature sounds from multiple universes. But the temple will exclude any reference to a God, worshipping science instead, he said.

"Stained glass tends to be used narratively to tell an origin story. I looked to the origin of the universe," said Keats, a San Francisco native. "Cosmic microwave background radiation is the first image we have of the universe. I was taking that and putting it into the windows, using NASA's visualization of it."

Keats graduated from Amherst College in 1994 with a degree in philosophy. An art critic for San Francisco Magazine, his previous endeavors include working with UC Berkeley geneticists to attempt to grow God in a Petri dish in 2004, proposing in 2002 that the logical law of "A=A" be written into Berkeley's law books and filming plant pornography.

The Atheon is receiving "a modest portion" of UC Berkeley's annual Chancellor's Community Partnership Fund, which awarded $14,000 to the museum sponsoring Keats's project, said Irene Hegarty, director of community relations for UC Berkeley. The fund aims to improve the quality of life of Berkeley residents, including their access to artistic and cultural projects, she said.

"We provided a grant to the ... museum for this art installation on the theme of the intersection of science and religion ... and the interesting subject of the art," Hegarty said.

When asked why UC Berkeley partly funded his temple and allowed him to work with campus geneticists to attempt to engineer God in a Petri dish, Keats said, "I think UC Berkeley is a university in the truest sense. It's one of those few places where curiosity is the paramount quality."

Keats said the project stemmed from a growing interest in the scientific community to replace religion, inspired by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who said, "We are in the universe, and the universe is in us."

"I create strange little worlds, and people can enter into it and interact with it, and reflect back on our own world in their own way," Keats said. "By building a set of circumstances, the Atheon, I was hoping to spark discussion and get people out of the rut of a point of view they have inherited or taken for granted."

Alla Efimova, chief curator for the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, which is housing the project, said the Atheon will bring together theologians, astrophysicists, evolutionary anthropologists and philosophers to ask how science and religion can interact.

"It kind of uses the context of art to create interdisciplinary discussions," she said. "The discussions become about religion, science and God."

Keats said he hopes the Atheon will spread across the nation. But he acknowledged that it may raise questions that even he can't answer.

"It's entirely possible that the Atheon is a paradox in physical form that cannot be resolved," he said.

Despite UC Berkeley's willingness to accept Keats as an artist, Keats admitted his mother has her doubts.

"I try to persuade my mother that what I'm doing is art," he said. "She's certainly not convinced."


Contact Matthew Peters at [email protected]

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