Not your grandfather’s atheists

Timothy Philen Freelance writer
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Don’t you miss those nerdy science types with the crooked glasses and skinny ties, stumbling through their monotone manifestos on the public access channel?

Today’s atheists certainly don’t.

The acolytes who gathered on the National Mall this past March for the “Reason Rally” are veritable Nietzsches of nonbelief — a thinking man’s Tea Party of the best and brightest white people, drawn by the intellectual vigor of the New Atheists and their messianic mission: to save civilization by stamping out the harmful delusions of religion once and for all.

And earlier this month they followed up their annual tribal dance with a lobbying assault on Capitol Hill, hoping to further their legitimacy with a button-down Airing of the Grievances against such ominous perils as the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Day of Prayer. It was a surreal “Festivus” moment that would have made Seinfeld’s Frank Costanza blush.

I admit it. I’m annoyed by these people. Not simply because of their fervent lack of faith, or blinding sense of self-importance, but because of their lack of a sense of humor. After all, you would expect an Elie Wiesel or an Aung San Suu Kyi to be serially somber in the pursuit of their causes, but you wouldn’t expect the same from Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer. It’s easy to understand why these folks needed Bill Maher and Penn Jillette to send in videos to the March rally (not that 20,000 people standing in the rain for six hours celebrating “reason” wasn’t funny enough).

But Woodstock it wasn’t. And despite all the talk about a new atheist spring of peace and love — if only the corrosive and divisive superstition of religious belief were replaced by a belief in human progress made possible by reason and science — I wouldn’t count on it.

Remember, the vast majority of university professors in Nazi Germany supported Hitler’s Third Reich on rational grounds. No need, of course, to recount all that Dr. Josef Mengele did in the name of science. And who can forget the horrors that those two famous atheists — Stalin and Mao — carried out under the banner of human progress?

Evidently, these people can.

It reveals an astonishingly illogical faith in human nature or, perhaps, an insatiable ambition.

After all, in an atheist utopia built on “In Darwin We Trust,” no one can ultimately be trusted. Without an absolute and sacred moral touchstone, free from the perversions of reason by men and the state, power will naturally coalesce into the hands of the most gifted, educated and Machiavellian — in other words, the “fittest” leaders of any movement. Those, like Singer, sufficiently devoid of sentimentality to be able to make the “hard choices” will in the end triumph — and ruthlessly if necessary — in the absence of religion’s restraining influence.

Even if one doesn’t believe that the common tenets of world religions are objectively true, their utility in undergirding the social contract can’t be denied.

And the occasional overreach of religion into the secular square, and even the tragedies of the 12th-century Crusades and the ungodly acts done in the name of Allah today, would be catapulted from any scale by the counterweight of the noble, edifying and sacrificial deeds done daily throughout human history by those who adhered to the dictates of their religious faiths.

But the New Atheists will have none of this. They are sick and tired of feeling obligated to acknowledge the contributions of religion and the benevolences of religious people. Dawkins has called for a new militant atheism, encouraging his followers to go beyond intellectual challenge and “ridicule and show contempt” for the Catholic Eucharist and other emblems of the Christian faith.

Christopher Hitchens, before he died, insisted on using the word “anti-theist,” instead of “atheist,” to make this new emphasis plain. And now, Dawkins is seeking “victim” status for his cohorts, claiming that they are another important minority that endures routine discrimination, especially in evangelical enclaves like the United States.

I recall my gregarious grandfather having friendly conversations with agnostics and atheists and people of other faiths. Although steadfast in his point of view, he was always respectful of them and, to my knowledge, they were respectful of him.

I can only pray that if I attend next year’s “Reason Rally,” these libertine lions will show this Christian some of the same respect that they so passionately crave.

Timothy Philen is an author and songwriter. He is currently at work on a latter-day “Walden,” a tightly knit collection of essays on modern American culture that uses his own horticultural experiences as both a backdrop and a wellspring of inspiration.