Can Atheists Make Us All Sing “Kumbaya”?

To the average Irish person, it might come as a surprise that William III of England, whose invasion of Ireland and victory at the Boyne paved the way for Protestant hegemony throughout the country, acted with tacit Papal blessing. The Catholic King James II, William’s rival, was an ally of Louis XIV; the Papal States, under Pope Alexander VIII, belonged to the Grand Alliance that had formed with the aim of thwarting Louis’ ambitions on the Continent. At least by association, the Holy Father was an Orangeman, even if he never wore the sash to prove it.

There’s nothing unusual in this. If politics makes strange bedfellows, religious factions have been known to hook up as promiscuously as guests at an orgy. Louis XIV — that randy dog again! — took advantage of Ottoman pressure on Vienna to annex Luxembourg and Alsace. With the Jews liking Druze and the Druze liking Jews, the patterns of alliance in the Lebanon War could have inspired Dr. Seuss, if Dr. Seuss had had the soul of Jean Froissart.

All this being true, I am less surprised than Slate’s William Saletan to see Pat Robertson making common cause with Sikhs. True, historically, the Southern Baptist Robertson has been no great admirer of Indian religions. He’s called Hinduism “demonic,” for one. But when he condemned the murder of six Sikhs by Wade Michael Page, he afforded them equal dignity alongside Baptists and Catholics, and for a telling reason. Members of all those groups are believers, whereas Page, in Robertson’s view, was an atheist.

In fact, Robertson could be wrong here. Page’s religious beliefs have yet to be established. Without too much hypocrisy, he could have belonged, for example, to a Christian Identity or militant Ásatrú sect. But the fact that the atheist menace looms large enough in Robertson’s mind that he saw fit to project it onto this latest massacre means something: it means atheists are coming up in the world.

You’ll have seen the numbers — atheists aren’t dying, they’re multiplying. And organizing. And undertaking works of charity. And serving as mouthpieces for morality. And embarassing other atheists by swinging too far Right, politically. And writing their own grief manuals. Most important of all, they’re prosyletizing, and in a thumb-in-your-eye way that, on reflection, seems awfully familiar. Between the Christmas season billboards and the pamphlets (Jack Chick beware!), I live in fear of being accosted outside the Gap by a guy-girl team, their eyes bright with zeal, who demand to know whether I’ve lost Jesus yet.

At last March’s Reason Rally, God Delusion author Richard Dawkins demonstrated that atheists have their own paternalistic bent. Quoting Independent columnist Johan Hari, he said he wished to impress on religious people the message: “I have so much respect for you, that I cannot respect your ridiculous ideas.” At best, this puts him in the same ballpark with Christians who ask, “May I share my faith with you?” — the question, normally, being a mere formality. At worst, it sounds like an intervention, almost calculated to provoke a response along the lines of “Get between me and my opiate, smart guy, and I’ll carve you up like a whale’s tooth and sell you to a Bar Harbor gift shop.”

Not too long ago, I saw an atheist bring peace to Patheos — unwittingly, by deflecting all the inter-religious animosity toward himself. To share a bit of gossip, we Patheos writers have a special Facebook forum where we post our work, more or less for peer review. Normally, things stay good and chummy, but occasionally someone says something, and someone else says something back, and quicker than you can say “St. Bartholomew’s Day,” there’s a riot going on. Anyway, for reasons I’ve already forgotten, Catholic-pagan relations were approaching a boil. But then, a household miracle: Someone posted a link to this twerpish piece, where Reason Rally co-organizer Hemant Mehta counsels Msgr. Charles Pope: “Fuck you.” For at least a few hours, tensions eased. We all posted our disapproval, while silently returning Mehta’s words to sender. (I added: “Right in the ear”; I like to think the Pagans added: “Threefold.”)

I won’t lie — it was nice, as close to an Assisi summit as anyone could have thrown together on short notice. It was also a relief to see Robertson think outside the box where any unexpected insult to life and property amounts God’s own dunning notice. But I just can’t believe it’s worth it. Atheists just don’t deserve to be sin offerings for the rest of us.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville praised religion, not so much for its own sake, but as a force that keeps people focused on something outside their immediate material concerns. The atheists who care enough to heckle might not have their eyes on the prize of heaven, but they have their eyes on the prize of sticking it to us. And that, as we’ve seen, has spurred the growth of an organizational infrastructure and a culture that means to parallel ours even as it rivals ours. And if we hang in as long as we tell each other we’re going to, that output will have all the incentive and time for improvement that it needs.

Yeah, sure, you must be thinking. The communists and Nazis had their own parallel infrastructre and culture, too. Evoke the Terrible Two all you like, but the fact remains that statism in America has flourished thanks chiefly to the support of people other than atheists. It was Bible Belt crackers and rosary-clicking Eastern ethnics who voted in FDR and the New Deal. (While a guest on Firing Line, North Carolina newspaper publisher Harry Golden observed that farmers in his neck of the woods took a break from hating the federal government whenever their Soil Bank checks arrived.) Meanwhile, one of the fiercest polemicists against the expanding state was agnostic and religion-basher H.L. Mencken. For all today’s atheists rely on the courts, love of government intrusion is no feature of their ideological DNA.

Atheists are aces at calling out religious extremists. Though the sorely missed Christopher Hitchens did not coin the term “Islamofascism,” anyone who’s read his jeremiads on radical militant Islam can understand why many believe he did. If Alternet’s Ian Murphy is right, that atheists Sam Harris and Ayan Hrisi Ali bother too little about distinguishing radical, militant Muslims from any other kind, that puts them, at worst, in the same boat with believers Michele Bachmann and Pamela Geller.

So, no, atheists don’t deserve to be scapegoats and bogeymen for the rest of us. But as the guy in the Clint Eastwood movie points out, deserve’s got nothing to do with it. If they are the coming thing, if organized religion is going out of style across the board, if they do happen to field the most charismatic and compelling media personalities in the global village, then they’d better get used to being picked on. I don’t mean being picked on in a generic kind of way; I mean targeted sneering after every misstatement and flawed prediction. As we religious types are now coming to realize, that gets old.

As long as atheism is on the rise and feeling feisty, I guess I can look forward to singing a lot of “Kumbaya” with pagans. That much is clear. What’s less clear is whether the threat of atheism, real or phantom, will teach fundies to tell us apart.

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