When Richard Dawkins blessed the atheist buses rolling out of London's central depot, the word "probably" didn't faze him at all. "There probably is no God," announced those buses via placards pasted to their sides, "Now get on and enjoy life" He defended the clunky wording here. "If we say 'there's definitely no God'...you can't say that," he waffled. Actually, it's British Truth in Advertising law that wouldn't permit the more straightforward statement, and he, Dawkins, law-abiding to the core, I'm sure, acquiesced.
But I write from America, a land whose people are a curious mix of gunslinger and crybaby. And....let us not mince words here....our atheists are better than their atheists. You're not going to catch our atheists going weak at the knees - sniveling up to us with a namby-pamby "probably." No! When our atheists posted a sign on the Illinois State Capitol grounds, it was to proclaim:
"At the time of the winter solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is just myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
Any wimpy "probably?" Not on your life! British atheists should be ashamed of themselves. A bunch of wusses - make no mistake!
The American atheist sign was smack dab next to a Christmas tree and uncomfortably close to a Nativity Scene - you know, Jesus in a manger and the three wise men bearing gifts. It made local politician William Kelly hopping mad, and he tried to tear down the sign (with the cameras running?), but Capitol police chased him off. Free speech, you know.
Now....what is it about this atheist billboard that rankles? It's not a matter of accuracy. Other than its conclusion, which is opinion, not fact, its tenets are more accurate than those of the Nativity scene.
After all, religion certainly can affect people in the way the sign says - it comes in many brands and flavors. Moreover, December 21st is the winter solstice, whereas December 25th is not Christ's birthday. Shepherds are not going to be sleeping outdoors with their flocks that time of year, as the Bible says they were. Moreover, Herod is not going to require his rebellious Jewish subjects to travel to the towns of their birth in the dead of winter. These matters are common knowledge. Jesus may have been born in early autumn, but he certainly was not born Dec 25. It was some slick Roman politician, trying to merge then-apostate Christianity with conventional Roman life who got the bright idea that the birthday of the sun, the Dec 25th Saturnalia, should also be the birthday of the Son! Cool!! Talk about clever marketing!
By the time the Nativity Scene's "wise men" (magi) showed up with presents, the child was two, long out of the stable. They were supposed to report Jesus' whereabouts to Herod, who intended to have the child killed, since the last thing he wanted was a newborn "King of the Jews" amidst his surly subjects. But the wise men fled the other way and Herod, furious, had all the 2-year olds in Bethlehem put to death, figuring one of them, surely, would be this toddler king. Jesus parents were a step ahead of him, though....they'd fled into Egypt. *
No, its not the supporting details that rankle about that atheist sign. What is it? Could it be that, in advancing "reason" as a cure-all, those atheists presume to have a monopoly on it? Partly.
Am I wrong in thinking that when people say they want reason to prevail, they really just want everyone to come around to their own opinion - an opinion which to them, invariably, is reason personified? Consider the role "reason" might play in the latest diplomatic spat between Britain and China. The Chinese have just executed a British citizen for drug trafficking in their country, the first such execution since the 1950's. But the Brits had wanted him spared, owing to his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. They'd lobbied hard for that outcome.
When they didn't get it, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown cried: "I condemn the execution of Akmal Shaikh in the strongest terms, and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted......I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken." But China would have none of it. "Nobody has the right to speak ill of China's judicial sovereignty," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. "We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition over the groundless British accusations. We urge the British side to mend its errors and avoid damaging China-British relations."
What we are dealing with are different cultural attitudes towards social policy, criminal conduct, mental illness, personal responsibility, individual rights, and drug use. These are values. I defy you to tell me what "reason" dictates with regard to the interplay between them. For the most part, the two citizenries lined up with the viewpoints of their respective governments. Is "reason" only to be found among one or the other population? If so, which one? Actually, it was China that played the "reason" card first. "We hope that the British side can view this matter rationally," Jiang said. Why didn't the Brits think of enshrouding their plea in rationality? Too late now. China beat them to it, and now the Brits are, by default, irrational.
Yet, even that isn't it in its entirety. In fact, I think it is no more than a contributing point. No, that winter solstice sign rankles for other reasons, as well.
Maybe its the crassness of plunking it right next to the Nativity Scene, as if it, too, represented a message of hope. For the Nativity Scene, even if poorly understood, even if misportrayed, even if represented by charletans, still represents hope to countless millions of people that this life, so full of hardship, is not all there is. Now, if there was to be an Atheist Scene, and not just a sign, would it not have to be a fellow in his coffin? You are telling the impoverished and disadvantaged, forever punted about and trod upon by human agencies, that not only is this life rough - it is also all they are ever going to get. Atheism may be attractive and trendy to the young and monied, but it sure is a downer to those poor and hungry and abused. They're to get the warm and fuzzies over "reason prevailing?" I don't think so.
Yeah. that's it. That's what rankles most.
Look, if you believe it, you believe it. It's not holding the notion that annoys me. It's heralding it as if were some sort of great news, worthy of the Births column, and not the Obituaries.
[Edit: update...now this is the reason]
*In the meanwhile, here's what those Nativity Scenes don't tell you with regard to Jesus and the Wise Men, as found at Matt 2:1-23: (NIV)
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:
" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel."
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more."
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child's life are dead."
So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."