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800 Words

Atheist Chic

December 17, 2006|Dan Neil

For atheists, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. Holy Rudolph, the star of Wal-Mart, the iPod in the manger--yes! Never are the divine mysteries of Advent more mysterious than when they come in a large bag carried by a fat man who is, let's face it, an elf-slaver.

This is an especially exciting time to be a heathen. In the space of two short years and one rather drawn-out midterm election, conservative Christian hegemony has been rolled back, Intelligent Design has been slapped down in court (the Dover case), and the evangelical movement itself is wobbling, unseated by its overreach on issues such as stem cell research, vaccines that prevent cervical cancer, abstinence-based education, the War on Christmas, tombstone-like monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses . . . oh, right, only 800 words. Even some of the faithful have grown restive with God's apparent fixation on below-the-belt morality. Late last month, the president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, resigned after the group resisted his efforts to broaden the group's agenda to include issues such as poverty and global warming.

As for the Rev. Ted Haggard, let's not go there. It's Christmas.

And I wonder why I'm covered in boils.

The revenge of the godless nerds is well underway at your local Barnes & Noble. I'm in the middle of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' latest work, with the poke-in-the-eye title "The God Delusion." As proof that there is, if not life, then literary receipts after death, Carl Sagan has a new book out, "The Varieties of Scientific Experience," a collection of his 1985 Gifford Lectures that returns to the whetstone he used in "The Demon-Haunted World." Meanwhile, a half-dozen learned ripostes to Creationism occupy the science shelves, a la Leonard Susskind's recent "The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design."

True story: I was in the aisles of the bookstore looking over Dawkins' book when a man came up to me and recommended the Susskind book, and between us passed a look of fellow travelers. He's an atheist too! Had we been early Christians we would have drawn the sign of the fish on the ground with our sandals.

What Wired magazine last month called the "new atheism"--I prefer to think of it as "atheist chic"--has a tripartite thrust: First, what might be thought of as the argument by cosmology of Sagan and Susskind. Second, the argument of evolutionary psychology--faith is a naturally selected faculty and neurophysiological phenomenon arising because it was, in pre-modern societies, advantageous; this hard-wired argument is advanced in Daniel C. Dennett's recent book "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon." Third, rationalist and textual refutations of the old cases familiar to anybody who took philosophy in college, such as Thomas Aquinas' dusty proofs. These refutations have taken on special urgency because, according to neuroscientist Sam Harris in his new book "Letter to a Christian Nation," religious fundamentalists tend to be crazy and dangerous and a lot of them would be very happy to blow up the world. I'm paraphrasing, but accurately.

Despite the recent gains among free thinkers, atheism is still hugely unpopular. There are no atheists in foxholes or in Congress, even though a Muslim managed to get elected as a congressman and a Socialist as a senator. There are few publicly confessed atheists--the illusionists/debunkers Penn and Teller come to mind. Comedian Bill Maher, though not strictly an atheist, is, let's say, without benefit of clergy. The cadre of the damned --Sagan, Susskind, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, et al.--won't sell a fraction of the books culture warrior Bill O'Reilly will sell this Christmas, which kind of makes sense. Merry Christmas! Your God is a fraud!

I am a white Anglo-Saxon male born in late-20th century America--in other words, one of the most privileged beings to walk the earth. And yet insofar as my godlessness is concerned, I am a member of a despised minority. It's like being gay.

I do appreciate the company, and the ammunition in these books, and the occasional exchanged glance of solidarity in the bookstore. But I'm just slightly alarmed. The new atheism is pretty hard-core, militantly insisting we challenge religiosity wherever we meet it, or else enable its darker extremist tendencies. In other words, the new atheism is on a quest for conversion. Having insisted on tolerance of our non-faith, Dawkins and Harris' take-no-prisoners orthodoxy would have us be intolerant of others' faith. Oh boy, just when I was beginning to enjoy being an atheist.

I can't bring myself to confront others on the truth-data of their religious beliefs, even if they do involve some strange convoluted myth of Old Testament prophesy and Hellenistic blood cults. I was brought up better than that. Believe what you like, insofar as it does not interfere with my lack of belief. Believe in Thor's mighty hammer, for all I care. Tell me Merry Christmas when I'm coming out of Wal-Mart. And happy holidays right back at ya.

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