THERE IS SOMETHING incongruously amusing about listening in on several hundred atheists who have gathered to wallow in the exaggerated sense of grievance and persecution that is the hallmark of identity politics. Atheists, after all, think of themselves as superior beings, as rationalists who have succeeded in rising above the superstition and prejudice that so blight the lives of their fellow citizens. Shouldnít such virtue be its own reward?
Apparently not. Take, for example, Ellen Johnson, the president of American Atheists, speaking to her fellow members at the opening of last weekendís national convention in Boston. Johnson ó described in the organizationís literature as "a second-generation Atheist" and "soccer mom" ó spoke of the rage atheists felt after the September 11 attacks. From George W. Bush to the lowliest local official, she charged, governmentís response was drenched in religion.
"Atheists felt marginalized and angered," Johnson said, standing in front of a banner that announced AMERICAN ATHEISTS: LEADING THE WAY FOR ATHEISTSí CIVIL RIGHTS. "Itís religion that caused the attack on our country," she added, "and itís religion that divides America."
Johnson seethed as she denounced such postĖSeptember 11 idiocies as the Ten Commandments Defense Act, which would give states the right to decide whether to display the Ten Commandments on public property, and a decision by school officials in Palestine, Texas, to allow a minister to lead students in prayer.
"We are also grieving Americans, and we wonít shut up and be quiet while others break the law," she thundered ó that is, if thundered is the right word for someone who comes across more as a carefully groomed, well-spoken K Street lobbyist than as the fire-breathing heir of that most infamous atheist of them all, the late Madalyn Murray OíHair.
To the untrained ear ó to someone unaccustomed to hearing of "atheist rights" in the same context as gay-and-lesbian rights or racial equality ó Johnsonís remarks at times seemed to border on parody. "If you are not being thrown in jail today for not praying, thank an atheist," she said at one point. She also announced the formation of an atheistsí political-action committee. (Donít laugh ó according to Johnson, a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate from Colorado has already made inquiries.) And she told the crowd about a "March on Washington for Godless America" being planned for next September 21. The message: "We are free, proud, godless, and on the move."
As I said, incongruously amusing.
But once you get past the rhetoric, there remains the content of what Johnson and others at the convention were saying. If it sounds crazy, maybe itís because weíve been so browbeaten into accepting, even embracing, religiosity in the public sphere that itís shocking to hear anyone depart from orthodoxy. That hasnít always been the case.
As the social critic Wendy Kaminer, herself an atheist, observed in the New Republic some years back, Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken railed against religion, with Mencken calling it "so absurd that it comes close to imbecility." People donít write or talk that way anymore, Kaminer said, noting, "Atheists generate about as much sympathy as pedophiles."
The atheistic impulse is not alien to me. Years ago, I was a staunchly secular agnostic. These days Iím what I guess you could call a religious liberal ó a member of a Unitarian Universalist church and someone who has no particular beliefs beyond the vague notion that spirituality is good. So when I found out that the atheists were coming to town, I wanted to learn more. For me, as for many liberals, poking fun at fundamentalist Christians, fanatical Islamists, and the like is easy ó too easy. The atheists, I suspected, posed a more formidable intellectual challenge.
I WAS TALKING with a desk clerk at the Hyatt Harborside Hotel, at Logan Airport, trying to figure out how I could leave and come back without incurring another parking fee, when she smiled and asked, "Are you with the atheists?"
"No!" I replied immediately. "Iím a reporter." I paused before mumbling, "Iím just covering them."
I felt a little guilty about my disavowal. I may have more in common with Ellen Johnson than I do with Pat Robertson, but that didnít mean I was eager to identify myself with the godless. Wendy Kaminer was right.
So maybe what surprised me more than anything about the atheists I met during the weekend was not that they donít believe in God (well, duh), but that they are so upfront and in-your-face about it. After all, what percentage is there in giving offense to the righteous? During the convention, I heard atheists complain not just about prayer in the schools and public invocations of the Ten Commandments, but about crèches on government property, about prayers at public gatherings, even about the inscription IN GOD WE TRUST on money.
My attitude tends to be: "Who cares?" I know my views are not mainstream, and I donít expect to see them reflected in the majority culture; all I ask is that the majorityís views not be imposed on me. The idea that nearly 300 people would travel across the country to spend a weekend complaining about such trivial insults ó if, indeed, they can even be considered insults ó struck me as weird.
At lunch on Friday, Lydia Rice tried to set me straight. A manufacturing engineer from Silicon Valley (and the proprietor of a Web site called godlessgeeks.com), Rice described herself as a refugee from a conservative religious childhood in which women were treated as "slaves." Having overcome such an upbringing, she said, the impulse to activism comes naturally. She was the prime mover behind a non-religious memorial to the victims of September 11 at Golden Gate State Park, in San Francisco. And she is quick to point out what she sees as the damaging effects of religion on everyday life.
"There are so many religious images that are really ugly," Rice told me. As an example, she cited the crucifix. "Itís a picture of a guy being tortured to death," she said. "Do you really want your kids looking at that? Itís an ugly, ugly vision." Again, itís a matter of perspective. If youíre a believing Christian, no doubt youíll find Riceís words sacrilegious. Personally, I hadnít given it much thought. But yeah, sheís got a point.
Riceís friend Mark Thomas, a software engineer also from Silicon Valley, called religion a form of "mind control," adding that coming out publicly as an atheist can be an important step in getting over that control. Religion, he said, erects an "electric fence to keep people from leaving" ó to "keep them from thinking thoughts that they donít want to be thought." To which Rice followed up, "Maybe there isnít a God ó oh! I canít think that; Iím going to hell!"
If being an atheist in Silicon Valley is hard, imagine what it must be like in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. James Ramsey, the American Atheistsí state director for Virginia, lives near a small city called Harrisonburg. He looks like the sort of person you might run into at a science-fiction convention: young, bearded, bespectacled, and with a long ponytail, offset by a well-tailored suit and an unusually sober demeanor.
Ramsey, whose family finds his atheism so upsetting that his brother is able to refer to it only as "the A-word," says becoming an active, outspoken atheist was part of his "leaving the closet ó gays and atheists both have closets." His license plate reads atheism. He recalls the time that his supervisor at the warehouse where he works as a clerk saw him on television, protesting at City Hall against the National Day of Prayer. He counts himself lucky that he wasnít fired.
Occasionally, Ramsey says, heíll encounter someone who is put off by his outspokenness and who tells him something like, "You need to remember what kind of community youíre in." Ramseyís response: "Listen, this is my community, too."