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Let's Hope It's A Lasting Vogue

Reposted from the Washington Posts' On Faith:

Athorism is enjoying a certain vogue right now. Can there be a productive conversation between Valhallans and athorists? Naïve literalists apart, sophisticated thoreologians long ago ceased believing in the material substance of Thor's mighty hammer. But the spiritual essence of hammeriness remains a thunderingly enlightened relevation, and hammerological faith retains its special place in the eschatology of neo-Valhallism, while enjoying a productive conversation with the scientific theory of thunder in its non-overlapping magisterium. Militant athorists are their own worst enemy. Ignorant of the finer points of thoreology, they really should desist from their strident and intolerant strawmandering, and treat Thor-faith with the uniquely protected respect it has always received in the past. In any case, they are doomed to failure. People need Thor, and nothing will ever remove him from the culture. What are you going to put in his place?

Atheism means non-belief in the particular cult that happens to pervade the society under discussion. In America that means the cult of Yahweh, the God of the Jews commandeered by the Christians, Muslims and Mormons. Today, everyone takes it for granted that we are all atheists with respect to Thor and Wotan, Zeus and Poseidon, Mithras and Ammon Ra. If asked why you don't believe in Thor's hammer, you would probably say something like "Why is the onus on me to justify my nonbelief in Thor, given that there is not the smallest positive reason for belief?" You might go further and add that thunder, which was at one time attributed to Thor's hammer, now has a better explanation in terms of electric charges in the clouds. While technically agnostic about all those ancient gods, and about fairies and leprechauns too (you can't disprove them either), in practice we don't believe in any of them, and we feel no onus to explain why.

Today, while almost literally everybody is an athorist, nonbelief in the God of Abraham is the most reviled opinion in America. Professor Anthony M Stevens-Arroyo, one of the On Faith regular panellists, begins his answer to the current question as follows: "I never met an atheist I could like. Surely, somewhere on this planet, there is a friendly atheist, but I haven't bumped into one yet. The atheists who have crossed my path are obnoxious . . ." As an experiment, try substituting the word 'Jew' or 'woman' for 'atheist', and imagine whether a university professor who said those three sentences would keep his job. Yet in present day America, a professor (of "Latino Studies") can publish such odious remarks about atheists and get away with it.

Of those scientists distinguished enough to be elected to the National Academy, more than 90% do not believe in any kind of supernatural God. Needless to say, many of them are likeable, friendly and far from obnoxious, as well as being intelligent, well-educated, happy and productive citizens. An equally high proportion of atheists has recently been disclosed among the Fellows of the Royal Society, and it is plausible that distinguished Academicians in philosophy, history, economics, literature and other disciplines, coming from the same educated and intelligent echelons of society, would yield similar data. One must hope that a respectable proportion of the Congress is drawn from that same educational and intellectual elite, so it is a strong statistical expectation that many of them must be atheists too. Yet I believe I am correct that not a single one of the 535 members of Congress will admit to the fact. A good many have got to be lying, and who can blame them? If they came clean they would be unelectable, as polls have repeatedly confirmed. Atheists are widely assumed to have no morals or values, to have no purpose in life, and to be incapable of love, or of appreciating beauty in art or nature. Who would vote for one of those?

The premise of this week's question is that atheism is enjoying a certain vogue. I hope and believe it is not a flash in the pan. The symptoms of which I am aware are indeed encouraging. Dan Dennett's Breaking the Spell and Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation sold exhilaratingly well through 2006, and my own The God Delusion remains high in the bestseller lists into 2007. Similar success is to be expected during 2007 for Christopher Hitchens's forthcoming God is Not Great, and Victor Stenger's God: the Failed Hypothesis. Such buoyant sales of books advocating out-and-out atheism would have been inconceivable until surprisingly recently. When, six years ago, I first proposed The God Delusion to my literary agent he was blunt: "Don't even think about it." Yet now, after six years of incipient Chrisitian theocracy . . .

On my recent book promotion tour of the USA, the standing ovations I consistently received from packed audiences around the country, (including in Kansas, and Lynchburg, Virginia as well as, more predictably, the so-called 'blue' states) owed nothing to any eloquence or writing skills of mine, and everything, I believe, to a pent-up frustration among reviled freethinkers. Time after time, in the long book signing queues, young Americans (encouragingly young) confided to me, "Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying the things that I have wanted to say, but never felt I could" (see Sam Harris and Dan Dennett report similar experiences from equally large audiences. There is widespread hope that we are seeing the beginnings of a long-overdue shift in the tectonic plates of our culture. Polls suggest that atheists are far more numerous in America than they themselves realize. They well outnumber the Jews, whose political lobby packs a legendarily powerful clout. It is time for America's atheists to take courage from this, and from the books I have mentioned, come out of the closet, stand up, recognize each other, and work together to exert their rightfully proportionate influence on this great democracy. If those books are, as is often dismissively said, preaching to the choir, do not underestimate its size or ability. This is a very large and very talented choir, and the time has come for its music to be heard.



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