Tuesday, May 8, 2007


Atheists, in my experience, are colossal bores.

What else could they be, stomping around as they do, passionately trying to prove a negative?

But sometimes atheists are on the side of the angels. I think the current boom in atheism is a response to the crap spread across the land by the born-agains and their campaign to run the world on the principle of erotophobia. Like their counterparts in the Islamic world, the man sitting up in the pilot seat of this juggernaut may talk loftily about the will of God, but where the rubber meets the road it tends to flatten the good, the true, the imaginative, and the just plain terribly interesting. Religion, as it has come to be understood of late, is an ugly thing. It’s not surprising the atheists should now be riding high. Newton’s Third Law of Motion, don’t you know: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

Some weeks ago I attended a conference which brought a number of Germans over to talk about religion in America. Totally fascinating couple of days. I tend to think of Europe as pretty much beyond religion, but these guys set me straight. The keynote speaker was Karsten Voigt, a leader of the German Social Democrat Party, Coordinator for German-American Relations in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and self-identified Christian. Knows America like de Toqueville knew America.

Voigt made some interesting comparisons. Unlike in France, where a strongly assertive laïcité (secularism) is official policy, Germans have no trouble mixing church and state. On the contrary, they long ago gave the church to the state to run. The result is establishment religion in Germany (and there’s not much of the other kind) is terribly bourgeois. It’s all about being nice. Makes me think of the Lutheran church where I grew up. Nice clean red carpet running down the middle, beautiful polished oak pews, fresh white painted walls and fresh cut flowers. And Bach. Glorious Bach. How could one ever think of going to a church which didn’t feature Bach?

But I digress. Religion, says Voigt, is to Germans, more than anything else, the source of their ethics. It’s about helping people in need, about doing your best to educate your children and care for the sick. It has little or nothing to do with keeping women from having abortions or gay people from forming lifelong unions with the full support of the community. With religion like this, there is nothing to fear, and even people who don’t believe in God are willing to pay their church taxes. You can even have prayer breakfasts. Did you know German political leaders did that?

To German eyes, says Voigt, this demand that religion be kept out of the schools that France calls sacred and America fights endlessly over, is hard to fathom. Cool it, folks. No big deal, the Germans tend to say. Crucifix on the wall in Bavaria? “Just two of us Jews at school,” says Michael Brenner, professor of Jewish history at the University of Munich, “Me and the guy hanging on the cross.”

Ah, yes. So easy to say. In 1968, 64% of American teenagers believed in angels. In 1994 that figure was 76%. One assumes anyone buying into angels is buying into a larger package and it doesn’t take long to realize when George Bush says God guides his actions there are a lot of folk who might want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Is it any wonder the atheists are coming out of the woodwork?

Start with Richard Dawkins. He’s the best one to listen to. Talks like your classic British intellectual. Witty and sharp. I heard him address a small private women’s college in Lynchburg, Virginia (on one of those New York TV stations that bring you gems like this, now on YouTube). A whole bunch of folk from Jerry Falwell’s so-called Liberty University were there to refute his ideas. It was a bloodbath, revealing how unready such poor lambs are to talk with people who have sharpened their skills in a lifetime of debate and critical thinking.

“I have never been so insulted…” says one poor Falwell innocent. “I don’t understand why you should feel insulted,” says Dawkins. “I didn’t insult you. I insulted God.”

America’s most articulate atheist, I think, is probably Sam Harris. He’s got two great reads: The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.

And then there’s Daniel C. Dennett. His latest is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

There’s also this guy David Mills, who has been described as America’s leading atheist. I had not heard of him until recently. Author of the best selling book on atheism in 2005 and 2006, apparently — outselling Dawkins and Dennett and the others. Or so I understand. Can’t imagine why. Mills comes across as a jerk in an hour-long video I watched yesterday of him addressing a group of atheists at Ohio State in Columbus. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett do it with the power of ideas; Mills does it with a baseball bat. You have to pick your atheists carefully.

Bill Moyers, bless his Baptist heart, had his first regular new old program on PBS the other night. (Time to start watching television; Bill Moyers is back!) Three fantastic stories including one interview with Jonathan Miller, who produced A History of Disbelief. It’s not scheduled yet for KQED, but they say it’s coming. The fundies are out in force trying to keep it off, of course.

Miller is my kind of atheist, which is to say not an atheist at all. Unlike so many of us, he was spared religious instruction as a child. (As a shrink told me some years ago, I might have gotten rid of the golden calf of religion, but the mold it came in is still rooted in my soul.) For him it’s more the intellectual question: why do so many people need religion? Which opens the door to all the psychological studies, from Freud’s explanation that religion is an endless father-seeking activity to religion from an evolutionary perspective, such as Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained.

Christopher Hutchins is on one of his seemingly endless book-pushing trips, this time for God is Not Great, which came out just a week ago. I’ve got tickets to hear him debate the dean of Grace Cathedral on the 23rd.

There’s this French philosopher, Michel Onfray, who has apparently got a huge following. Onfray, I understand (haven’t read his Atheist Manifesto yet) is making the argument it’s time to get out of the “God is dead” rut and bring him back to life, so that we might offer a more perfect atheism, one better grounded in reason, “solid and militant.”

OK by me. Whatever gets you through the night. And lest you think I’m making it up that atheism is the fashion of the day, Onfray’s book (it also carries the British title In Defense of Atheism) was chosen "Book of the Year" by the Times Literary Supplement.

This doesn’t begin to tick off all the atheist manifestos popping up everywhere. And I’ve said nothing about some of the more classic ones such as Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. And at the moment I’m working my way through Harold Bloom’s Jesus and Yahweh, not so much an atheist pitch as a literary reading of Jewish and Christian writing, with all the brilliance Bloom can muster.

Stephen Prothero, as I mentioned in the last blog, is making the rounds trying to pitch the idea we bring the study of religion back into the schools, if only to keep fresh our cultural references to the Bible stories we once knew. Poor fellow. Just asking for the “where do you get the ‘we,’ white man?" charge.

I asked him what he thought he could accomplish by doing this? Wouldn’t it do more harm than good? He insists it’s already working and that the state can monitor it so that it doesn’t become proselytizing. I’m not worried about that so much. I’d absolutely love to sit in a classroom and engage in religious debate. I just don’t think the religious people can take it. Keep it private and we’ll all make nice. Rub our noses in your walking on water nonsense and it’s chocolate Jesuses till the cows come home.

We were once like the Germans. Our parents taught us it wasn’t nice to say unkind things about other people’s religions. In order to make this work, we all limited religion to the private sphere. With this latest attempt to take America over for the Christian right, religion has entered the public sphere bigtime. It’s no surprise that all these sleeping atheistic dogs have awakened.

Watch it, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson. The atheists are coming to bite your ass.

Americans believe in angels: http://books.google.com/books?id=C525wN5demIC&pg=PA47&lpg=PA47&dq=number+of+people+who+believe+in+angels&source=web&ots=M6lMh-667i&sig=MY0WW7bw6MMAC3Qv98PdbTVr81U#PPA47,M1

David Mills’ 10 Reasons America is Approaching a Golden Age of Atheism http://www.davidmills.net/

Dawkins’ address at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe7yf9GJUfU&mode=related&search= (Part I - the presentation) and
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qR_z85O0P2M&source=rss (Part II - Q&A)

To get a sense of who Dawkins is, if you’re not up to two hours of him on the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College presentation, try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_2xGIwQfik&mode=related&search= I


jchai said...

I haven't met many atheists "stomping around . . . passionately trying to prove a negative," but I'm glad atheism is getting some attention. I've had enough of the modern Crusaders trying to shove their morality and laws into our orifices. I love the phrase, "having been spared religious instruction as a child." Fortunately, I was too - which freed me to imbibe "The Ethics of the Fathers" for what they are: a way to be and live in the world. Whether God exists is irrelevant. Anyone who wants to believe is free to do so. And please leave the rest of us alone. And stop requiring that we pledge allegiance to a nation "under God," and stop killing in our name and in the name of your God.

Alan McCornick said...

Not all atheist stomp. But some do. Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wdo98GAvmA&NR=1