If someone told me a story about an old industrial town that defended its beautiful creche from a group of tasteless, and mean-spirited atheists,…
and if that story included a judgment that allowed the town to keep its cherished creche on condition that the atheists could put up a display of their own,…
and if the story ended with the atheists erecting a plywood standee painted white with a sign that read: “Keep America Secular!”,…
I would feel like an injustice had been done to atheism.
Such a ham-fisted tale could be nothing more than pious propaganda.
And yet, I’ve seen it. I see it every year in Rockville, Connecticut; because that is what happened there.
The Residents of Rockville
Rockville is an old mill town with lots of charm. I’ve owned property in it for years. I’ve had dozens of tenants there. I have family there. I’ve even lived there briefly myself, in one of my rental properties.
I think I know the place pretty well. I like the people. They are blue collar and guileless. It’s a town of landscapers, metal fabricators, auto mechanics, and day care employees. Most of them love Christmas and defend it heartily, not because they are particularly pious, although some of them are, but because its a day for family gatherings, giving gifts to children, and a just a little wonder. These are the people you see in depicted in, It’s a Wonderful Life. You couldn’t ask for a better sample of salt of the earth Americana.
Cue the Snidely Whiplash theme music.
Enter the Connecticut Valley Atheists. They hate Christmas and if they can’t enjoy it, apparently the town shouldn’t recognize that the holiday even exists. Like the Grinch, if they can’t stop the town from doing that, they’ll do their best to ruin the day.
Perhaps that’s unfair, but if their sign says anything, it says that.
I’m wondering: is atheism capable of inspiring beauty?
I’m not calling into question the ability of many atheists to make beautiful things. I know that many of them can. I’ve seen some of them do it. Conversely, I’ve seen Christians, and other religious people, produce insipid and kitschy stuff. But it seems to me in the case of atheists, when they make beautiful things they are transcending the limitations of their philosophy, while in the case of the religious they are falling short of their highest ideals.
Atheism doesn’t have much to say. “No God” sums it up. It is a negation, a bleaching, a blank page.
Atheism is not humanism. I grant that some atheists claim to be humanists, but their tribe looks to be shrinking. Now we have post-humanists, and transhumanists, and “just about anything is better than being human, humanists”. And I think that was inevitable, because a godless universe is a meaningless one. And that means meaning has no higher basis than human will. And you have your will and I have mine, and beauty is just in the eye of the beholder, and who’s to say that what we call ugly couldn’t be be called beautiful so long as we can manage to make brain chemistry say so, and so on.
Some atheists long for more. Alain de Botton does. He says so plainly in his book, Religion for Atheists. I’ve reviewed it elsewhere. He thinks it is possible to dissect religions and remove their more salutary features while leaving all the hokum behind. But he fails, sometimes laughably so, because religion is more than sociobiology and meaningless, nonetheless useful, rituals. The hokum is the whole point, and you lose the best things in religions without it.
You can always fall back on irony.
That’s what Steve Martin does. He does it in his little ditty, Atheists Don’t Have No Songs. Martin is an atheist, of course. So the title of my little essay ironically comes from him. But irony is generally something only the affluent can afford. So most of the people in Rockville don’t get it. And for me, that’s a clue that there really is something worth singing about. But atheists can’t see that the joke is on them.