“There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” With these words in December 2008, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) declared the war on Christmas that Bill O’Reilly and other conservatives had warned us about for years.
The Olympia capital rotunda was once the merry home of a nondenominational "holiday tree." Then a few activist Catholics and Rep. John Ahern (R-Tacoma) protested, and the state was forced to admit that yes, decorated trees in late December probably are Christmas trees, and yes, that probably does constitute an endorsement of Christianity, so we probably need to let other groups show their holiday iconography as well. A Jewish group installed a menorah, which paved the way for real estate agent Ron Wesselius to arrange a Christian Nativity scene. That opened the door for the FFRF, a group based in Wisconsin, to post the atheist display that had O’Reilly up in arms. Atheism had arrived, at least on The O’Reilly Factor.
"Christmas honors the birth of Jesus," O’Reilly opined. "Here's [the kind of Christmas display] the governor of the state, Christine Gregoire, feels is appropriate....Now, this is political correctness gone mad....The buck stops with Governor Gregoire....She is a weak, confused leader who is allowing a small fanatical group parity in Christmas displays. I mean, how crazy is this?... Governor Gregoire's phone number is (360)… [He completed the phone number and displayed it on screen.] We don't celebrate Ramadan in this country because our traditions are Judeo-Christian, not Muslim! Not agnostic... Washington State is Ground Zero for just about every nutty secular cause on Earth, but this time the state has embarrassed itself and the nation....The governor of Washington is a coward." The “myth and superstition” sign was stolen from the Legislative Building, then found a few hours later in a ditch.
The FFRF display wasn’t merely an attack on Santa, it was the first time many Olympians, even nonbelievers, noticed a new school of atheism. The godless, who once kept their skepticism private, were now aggressively seeking converts. A group called “The United Coalition of Reason” now posts billboards reading, “Don’t believe in God? Join the club” across the nation. These signs are meant as a welcoming gesture to people leaving religion, but they anger some Christians. “It’s kind of like they’re poking a finger in your eye,” groused one Oklahoma pastor.
If these outspoken skeptics have an MVP, it’s undoubtedly Richard Dawkins (aka “Darwin’s Rottweiler”), an evolutionary biologist at Oxford. His 2006 tome The God Delusion was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost a full year. Conservative English curmudgeon Christopher Hitchens’s 2007 work, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, sold second only to the final Harry Potter novel on Amazon. A year later, Bill Maher’s documentary-cum-tirade Religulous earned $13 million on less than 600 screens. These so-called New Atheists promote an all-guns-blazing, frontal assault. They declare themselves “Brights” and wear “scarlet A” pins on their lapels. And they see all religion—yes, even yours—as toxic, actively pushing for its demise.
Those who claim “America is a Christian nation” aren’t far wrong, of course, as the vast majority of us still believe in a personal God, specifically the God of the Bible. Yet that number is decreasing at a previously unthinkable rate. In 2008, a Pew Foundation poll found the percentage of atheists in America had risen from 3.2 to 4 percent in only a few years, and a whopping 44 percent of Americans abandoned the denominations of their childhood. Only the percentage of Catholics (23.9) outnumbered the percentage of “unchurched” (16.1). A year later, almost a full quarter of Americans surveyed by the American Religious Identification Survey professed no belief in a personal God.
Washington is hardly the most fervently churchgoing state in the union. Even in 2001, before the rise of New Atheism, a full quarter of Washingtonians polled claimed no religious affiliation whatsoever, the highest fraction anywhere in the country. Yet the FFRF’s Christmas display and its subsequent notoriety made it clear that even here in the Pacific Northwest, New Atheists are widely seen as arrogant spoilsports. That view is shared, oddly enough, by many local disbelievers. We spoke to Amanda (last name withheld), a member of Tacoma Atheists (tacomaatheists.com). She advocates a more welcoming form of disbelief and sees Tacoma Atheists, in part, as “a landing pad” for atheists who’ve been ostracized from their religious families. “We don’t have a board, per se,” she says. “It’s very informal…It’s a social organization that exists to bring members of the non-religious community together…. In some cases, members have actually housed people who’ve been kicked out of the house.”
Amanda categorically rejects the idea that atheists need to proselytize believers. “It is not only wrong and unethical,” she says, “it also doesn’t work. I don’t like it when people try to convert me, so I don’t do it to them.” She objected to the FFRF Christmas display, then and now. She sees it as “a coarse and insensitive solution to the problem of religion encroaching onto government. [The FFRF] goes to state capitols around the country with the same sign with the express intention of inciting controversy…It's effective, but difficult for everyone involved, and [it] brought out some real ugliness…[T]he resulting animosity just set nonbelievers two steps back in our communities.” She prefers the sign she helped write for the Capitol grounds in 2009. It read, in part, “[K]indness, charity, and goodwill transcend belief, creed, or religion. Happy holidays.”
“I don’t think I have the right to care whether people are religious or not,” she muses. “I think people can believe whatever they believe. And honestly, I think if people think about it more, they probably will end up being at least agnostic.”
Unlike Amanda, whose parents “weren’t especially religious,” Tacoma Atheist Dan Mauch went from Catholicism to the Pentecostal Church before abandoning Christian faith altogether. “When you come out as an atheist, you have to accept that you’re going to lose some friends, and there’s a possibility of losing some family as well.” He believes the difficulties he experienced keep some people in organized religion despite internal skepticism.
I asked him what he thinks of New Atheist tactics. He thinks it’s important for atheism to embrace all approaches to disbelief, from the relative ambivalence of deism to social and support groups like Tacoma Atheists to the more zealously “anti-religious” crusaders. “We’re natural allies.”
Dawkins refers to faith as a “virus” and says, “It's time to question the abuse of childhood innocence with superstitious ideas of hellfire and damnation." He feels we should no more refer to a “Baptist child” than we would a “Republican child.” Hitchens views recent molestation scandals as the all but inevitable result of Catholic sexual repression. I asked Mauch if he feels Dawkins is right to claim the religious indoctrination of children is a form of child abuse.
“I think he’s overstating his case,” he replies. “He’s more of a firebrand than most atheists in America.” Mauch does, however, believe religion has no place in public policy. “If you’re going to live in a democracy, then you have to explain why certain beliefs are best for the country, and if you can’t do that without resorting to ‘God said so,’ then it’s not a valid argument.”
The theory of evolution wasn’t new when Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, but the concept of natural selection and subsequent fossil discoveries offered a reply to the so-called “watchmaker” argument posed by philosopher William Paley and many others. If we found a watch in the desert, Paley asked, would we assume it appeared spontaneously, or that someone designed and built it? Evolutionists were finally able to retort, ‘Ah, but what if you found layer upon layer of primitive watches below it, passing gradually through sundials to a sharp vertical rock? Then what would the evidence suggest?’
As science became more codified in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the scientific method insisted on repeatable, falsifiable experimentation, and the influence of clerics and philosophical apologists dwindled.
In A History of God, Karen Armstrong wrote, “In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word ‘atheist’ was still reserved exclusively for polemic…The term ‘atheist’ was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist.” Indeed, the majesty of the universe allowed no viable option but creationism, at least until Darwin proposed natural selection as the engine of evolution. But even then, the question of how life began in the first place left a huge gap only an omnipotent Creator seemed capable of filling.
Annoyed by reasonable refutation of fundamentalist doctrine, some believers retreated to safer refuge, namely, the deist concept of a physicist God who kick-started the universe, then stood back invisibly to watch it do its thing. They posit a God so imperceptible and amorphous that no one could ever disprove His/Her/Its existence. Even that was too much for some atheists. In 1952, philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested that if sacred texts taught there were a small teapot orbiting between Earth and Mars, those who questioned that dogma would be regarded as kooks—despite the unlikelihood of any miraculous space teapot existing in the first place. In 2005, Oregon State physics graduate Bobby Henderson expanded on this idea by founding the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, later dubbed “Pastafarianism.” The Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) was conceived as an omniscient, undetectable deity composed of ethereal spaghetti and meatballs—a being every bit as possible as the deist Creator.
Inspired by 9/11, an attack he saw as representative of the destructive power of fundamentalism, Sam Harris wrote The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in 2004. (Atheism is still against the law in several Islamic countries.) That book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for months and was followed by Harris’s equally successful Letter to a Christian Nation, which he wrote “to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms.” His work was followed by that of Dawkins, a writer whose best known work had been a relatively easygoing pop science book, The Selfish Gene. The term “New Atheism” first appeared in Wired magazine in 2006 and was embraced by both key practitioners and detractors. It marked a sea change from the passive, even closeted atheism of centuries past.
Now even agnostics, those who believe the existence of a Creator can neither be proven nor disproven, are under fire. Activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair believed “the agnostic is gutless and prefers to keep one safe foot in the god camp.” Stephen Colbert put it more succinctly: “Agnostics are just atheists without balls.” The irony of atheistic zealotry isn’t lost on anyone—well, almost anyone. “Called the new atheists, they are not content to keep their views to themselves. Rather, they are on a crusade.” That warning appears in, of all places, the November 2010 issue of Awake! magazine—which is written and published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, a group hardly known for concealing its own views.
The New Atheists treat the Abrahamic faiths as a “God hypothesis.” Creationist theism, which was once considered exempt from scientific experiment, is now seen by these authors as either verifiable or, in their view, refuted. In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes, “[T]he designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer…It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.” Particle physicist William J. Stenger takes it even farther in his 2007 book, God: The Failed Hypothesis. “We now have considerable empirical data…that bear on the question of God’s existence,” he asserts. “If we have no evidence or other reason for believing in God, then we can be pretty sure that God does not exist.”
Only a few short decades ago, Stephen Jay Gould, one of the best known evolutionists, maintained science and religion were “non-overlapping magisteria” through which science studied nature using empirical methods, and religion pondered meaning and morality. New Atheists insist such religious claims as the Adam and Eve account, global deluge, virgin birth, resurrection, and the necessity of a soul to explain human consciousness are, in fact, scientific theories subject to experimentation and, quite possibly, obsolescence. They have little patience with Intelligent Design creationism, and they adamantly oppose the introduction of ID philosophy into high school science curricula.
Firebrands on either side of the issue attract the most press, and apocalyptic fundamentalists like Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins of the Left Behind series sell plenty of their own books. That leaves congenial believers and disbelievers (that is, most of us) with something in common. Mainstream Christians worry they’ll be lumped in with fanatics like Pastor Terry Jones or the terrorists who bomb abortion clinics, while mainstream atheists dread the fallout from New Atheism’s assault on Christianity. But even if such publicly combative disbelievers as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens make it easier for skeptics to desert religion, this could still be the appropriate time to throttle back. After all, the more abrasive and less compromising these self-appointed spokesmen become, the easier it is for religious apologists to accuse them of adopting a worldview based primarily on faith (in godless naturalism) and self-aggrandizement. And really, wasn’t that the problem with fundamentalist religion in the first place?
Pastor Philip Nesvig of the First Lutheran Church of Tacoma believes the New Atheists’ attacks on the science of Genesis are “a red herring…It’s Who, now how. We’re not debating the how of creation. [Genesis] is the voice of an ancient theologian more than an ancient scientist. The focus is, ‘In the beginning, God.’...God is the Creator and calls human beings to be stewards of creation.” I asked Pastor Nesvig whether he thinks there’s room for cooperation between science and religion. “There’s certainly a healthy conversation going on,” he replied. “Faith and science are in tension, not in contradiction. They have different purposes…The purpose of science is to tell how, and the purpose of religion is to tell why….It’s a continual walking side by side with questions of meaning and questions of origin. Questions of how ask for origins. Questions of why ask for meaning.”