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From One Atheist to Another: Chill

So a nonbeliever defeats 'under God' in the courtroom. How intolerant. How ironic.

June 28, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I'm struggling with my atheism.

I don't mean that I'm losing my belief in a random universe. I mean it's getting harder to remain in a congregation in which the membership--at least that part that grabs the headlines--skews toward the sullen, cantankerous and litigious.

This week's court ruling that the Pledge of Allegiance violates the Constitution for its use of the phrase "under God" will no doubt have many true believers crying, there "they" go again. The "they" is, of course, me, in that I'd be a card-carrying atheist if "they" bothered to issue one. But also not me in the sense that many of us of no faith have the same reaction as most with faith to cases like these: Lighten up; we live in a country in which a large majority identifies itself as Christian.

I can live with that.

Contrary to the God-fearing public's view of us as a monolith, atheists belong to many denominations. The branch that has been lawsuit-happy now for decades is from what I call the evangelical atheists.

They are intolerant, pushy and self-righteous. If it didn't interfere with their busy schedule of dark moods and constant brooding, they'd probably be handing out pamphlets and ringing doorbells. In short, they embody all the qualities that sparked this country's movement for religious tolerance and freedom in the first place.

Tolerance is something the lawsuit's plaintiff, Michael A. Newdow, could use a mighty dose of. He told reporters he doesn't believe in God for the same reason he doesn't believe in Santa Claus.

Evangelical atheists like Newdow delight in the Santa Claus analogy. It's memorable, sounds clever and is incredibly insulting. I've even heard the same assertion made with the Easter Bunny. In part, the evangelicals make such callous remarks because they see themselves as bringers of "Truth." And if a few feelings get hurt along the way, they reason, that's the price for the liberating light they bring.

But I would never make such a comparison, nor would many atheists I know. We wouldn't because it not only is bad manners and shows a lack of intellectual humility, it's also grossly unfair. It's empirically verifiable that there is no Santa Claus. The same cannot be said of God.

If you stuck a gun to my head (and, thankfully, I live in a country where that would happen only to rid me of my wallet rather than my religious beliefs), I would classify myself as an atheist. It was not a decision I made quickly or lightly. My reasons can probably be best summed up by paraphrasing the old Woody Allen joke: If there is a God, he's a tremendous underachiever.

But I cannot say with 100% certainty there is no God, and neither can anyone else. The proposition that the world just spontaneously came into being is preposterous. But so is the idea that a deity created the universe and now sits in judgment of what we humans do all day. Of course, if I'm wrong, I'm going to hell, as many evangelical Christians have told me. But I believe what I believe. Even we atheists must have faith.

The other problem with evangelicals like Newdow is that while he's so disrespectful about the beliefs of others, he insists his own be treated with the utmost reverence. Don't even mention the word "God" around him or he'll go to pieces. Society must accommodate him, not the other way around.

One of the many magnificent things about this country is that it does strive to accommodate the individual, but in this case, it's gone too far. There are no absolute rights, even with free speech. (Try shouting "fire" in a crowded movie theater.)

Thus, the question becomes what is reasonable. Is it reasonable in a nation where the dominant culture believes in God to recite the words "under God" in a classroom for a nonmandatory morning pledge?

I think so. I grew up in the Bible Belt and said the pledge every morning of elementary school and don't recall my delicate sensibilities being trampled upon or my belief system altered by the ritual. It's a harmless nod to the majority.

Now with the Justice Department seeking a rehearing by the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, it seems likely Newdow's lawsuit will be overturned, as it should be. But, in the meantime, guys like him will continue to shape public perceptions of atheists.

I'm a newspaperman and I know how the business works, but one headline I'd love to see out of this affair is: "Well-Adjusted Atheist Doesn't Object to 'God.' "

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