It is Good Friday as I write, but I am not attending church again this year. The symbols and rituals just don’t mean anything to me anymore. And my decades-long scrutiny of the (underlying? superimposed?) theological doctrines has made them seem altogether irrational and contrived (not simply unsubstantiated, which one might almost be able to forgive). The whole thing has done so much harm (even while it has given so much comfort and inspired so much goodness). Yet I do not “pray” (wish), as many atheists seem to do, that religion should perish from the earth. I do not wish religion had never begun. If, a la George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, religion had never been born, I am quite sure something just as bad (and good) would have appeared to fill the same niche. It is not as if religion were some imposition from without, whether by ancient space aliens or fallen angels. Human nature cast it up and would again.
There is a 1970s Adam Warlock comic series in which the world falls under the dominion of a fascistic religious cult. The hero contrives to go back in time to prevent its rise. He succeeds, but when he returns to his own time he finds the insignia of a nearly identical new cult festooned everywhere. In fact, that is just what happened in the twentieth century when Communism displaced and replaced Christianity in Russia. Just goes to show everybody but certain of my fellow atheists that religion is not the problem; zealotry is. And iron-fisted zealotry can be and has been secular as easily as religious. Certain prominent atheists contend that the problem with secular totalitarianism is that it is “acting religious.” That is so stupid that it must be disingenuous.
My disagreement with religion and religious people is, I hope, a gentleman’s disagreement. As a humanist, I cannot despise the cultural fruits of religion, including the art, literature, music, and even the fascinating theology it has given rise to. That doesn’t mean I can’t condemn the atrocities it has also spawned. But I cannot share, and dare not share, the loathing that many of my atheist compatriots harbor toward religion and religious folks. One reason is that, insofar as atheists adopt such disdain and hostility, they are mirroring and mimicking the very things they so hate about religion. As a humanist I have to approach all things human as an anthropologist does, as a sympathetic observer seeking to understand human nature and motivation, and to appreciate the products thereof. In fact, “anthropologist” is almost a synonym for “humanist” in my lexicon.
A few weeks ago I was interviewed for Ahmadiyya Muslim Television. My gracious hosts were, of course, members of the sect. Do you think I should have taken the opportunity to “witness” to them about atheism? To try to disabuse them of their beliefs? The notion is grotesque. I just wanted to learn about these friendly emissaries from a different “cognitive universe.” And that’s the way I feel about Mormons, Moonies, Satanists, Communists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and others who cherish beliefs different from mine. I don’t especially want them all to be like me. Sure, I think I’m right and they’re wrong, and I am happy to engage in friendly debate in the right forum. But I don’t want to be an atheist evangelist, an atheist imperialist. Are you over religion? Then be over religion.
This is why I cringe every time I hear about the latest attempts of the Freedom from Religion Foundation to scour every expression of faith from the public square. Just today I dropped by Town Hall to pay my utility bill, under the wire, I might add, and I was disappointed to find the place closed in observance of Good Friday. But my instinct was not to get on the phone with the ACLU and to start legal proceedings. I believe that the FFRF and like-minded zealots are operating from a basic confusion. They see as a church-state issue what I believe is better understood as a culture-state issue. For local government to allow a manger scene on public property or to allow crosses to adorn veterans’ graves is in no way tantamount to a legal establishment of religion, though making churches tax-exempt probably is. Posting “Thou shalt have no other gods besides me” in public schools is.
But not everything is. To forbid Easter egg hunts or Christmas carols in public schools for fear the Buddhist or Manichean kiddies would be “offended” is like canceling “Italian day” in the cafeteria for fear that Poles and Jews would feel discriminated against. (And why not have latkes or knishes some other day of the week?) We want to affirm cultural diversity, not suppress it, don’t we? Atheists of all people ought to see that religion is no more than someone’s culture. But the atheists I am talking about seem to share the belief of the religious that religion is something metaphysically more than that. Only for them it is demonic, not divine. Are not these atheists then being superstitious, like the fundamentalist Christian who believes in the devil?
Don’t you see what’s really going on here? To contend that so much as a mention of one faith amounts to discrimination against members of other faiths is a formula for the suppression of all faiths, and that is the goal. Who is “offended” at the expression of, even the friggin’ mention of, religion? Why, of course, only thin-skinned religion haters. And this is all done in the name of “sensitivity”?
Which brings me to the recent reports of some idiot professor at a Florida university who commanded his students to write the name of Jesus on a sheet of paper, put it on the floor, and stomp on it. The fool reportedly was trying to show the kids that there is no power in a “mere” name or word. There isn’t? You mean like “African-American”? Like “Progressive”? Like “Pro-Choice”? Of course all these words are full of meaning and radiate meaning. Not inherently; there’s nothing magical in the shape of the letters. But what is the whole point of words? We fill them with meaning, and all communication presupposes a common fund of agreed-upon meanings. Obviously, this professor wanted his students to grind the name of Jesus into the linoleum precisely because it has a commonly acknowledged meaning and power.
And lawsuits over the coins? Personally, I don’t care what is stamped on the coins. They could put “What, Me Worry?” on ‘em for all I care. To get upset over “In God We Trust” seems obsessive, neurotic, like Dracula cringing from the cross. “God” on the coins does not constitute a theocracy. It is not even a first step toward a theocracy. It is ludicrous fanaticism to get worked up about it. Do you as an atheist ridicule the scruples of first-century Jews who would not allow Roman coinage to be used in the temple? Well, you’re just as picky. Look, if you don’t want all those theophoric coins and bills, I’ll be happy to take them off your too-pure hands.
Stunts like this remind me of what neo-evangelical E.J. Carnell wrote about fundamentalism as “orthodoxy gone cultic.” When a fundamentalist makes a nuisance of himself trying to convert his neighbors or classmates, he is essentially just accumulating status points in the eyes of his fellow cultists who will praise him as a “soul-winner.” I can’t help thinking that the “victories” in the nuisance suits brought by the ACLU and the FFRF function the same way. They are much celebrated at atheist conventions and clubs (“Score one for our side!”), but they just irritate everyone else. This is atheism gone cultic.
I am not only an atheist; in my role as a New Testament scholar I do not even believe there was a historical Jesus. I certainly do not mind causing a bit of discomfort among those too comfortable with their assumptions. Accordingly, I applaud the various billboards posted by American Atheists, FFRF and other secularist groups proclaiming “You know it’s all a myth” or “There’s probably no God,” etc. I’m all in favor of the Zen slap to wake people up. An unexamined faith is not worth believing. You’re doing the pew potatoes a favor. But, though I hate to say it, I think conservative Catholic TV host Eric Bolling is right to compare the litigious atheists with the Westboro Baptists. They are making themselves appear as horrific, bullying nuisances.
The part of this whole mess that upsets me, given the sort of stuff I write, is that the kind of scorched-earth “sensitivity” censorship which these secularists practice will sooner or later be turned against them (and me!) when, for sensitivity’s sake, the public criticism of religion will be banned and/or bullied as “hate speech.” In fact, we are inviting it insofar as we make ourselves look like hate-spewers, “Westboro Atheists.”
So says Zarathustra.