This holiday season, the bell-ringer on the corner who’s beckoning you to drop a donation in the kettle could be a devoted atheist
rather than a member of the Salvation Army.
That’s a stretch, perhaps, but don’t be surprised if missionaries from the growing ranks of non-believers hail you in the weeks before Christmas with a chorus of “O Come All Ye Faithless.”
Four national groups of religion deniers are ramping up membership drives. Tired of seeing the village atheist treated shabbily, the god-forsakers are going on the offensive with an array of billboards, cable spots and posters to coax Americans into their godless tent.
It’s worth noting that the groups — American Atheists, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the American Humanist Association and the United Community of Reason – aren’t working together. They seem to have as little faith in each other as they do in religion.
Recent shifts in the cultural climate appear to have stiffened unbeliever resolve.
A big factor has been the spate of books attacking divinity by high-profile authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking and Daniel Dennett. They have pounded the claims of traditional faith as pure humbug.
Then came the findings from the American Religious Identification Survey that the number of religion-less Americans has doubled in the past decade to 15 percent – and appeared to be growing.
For these and other reasons, it’s become safer, even marginally acceptable to be against religious tradition, reversing an old pattern of hostility. Voicing one’s atheism was once unthinkable. Now it can be done casually.
The other day, for instance, the local television news ran a segment about an accident where a car had struck and injured a child. The mother recounted her fear while she waited for the ambulance. A man had told her to pray to God, but she replied, “I don’t even believe in God.”
Growing public tolerance of most kinds of faith, with the shameful exception of Islam, has also played a part in the upsurge of non-belief. Fact is, despite some very noisy exceptions to the rule, most Americans care less than ever what their neighbors believe or if they do.
Many Christians, in particular, have invited the rivalry by walling off religion from the rest of life. Two-thirds of Americas belong to some religious group. But for many faith doesn’t seem to have much impact on life beyond the sanctuary or the fox hole.
My hunch is that many modern-day believers actually spend most of their waking hours as agnostics. That is, they lead daily lives without a conscious need for divine guidance. Religion may be for crises or for special occasions but the rest of existence operates as if there were no god. Or if there is one, it’s something like success and money.
Such superficial, wishy-washy faith raises doubts about the need for religion.
The blatantly Not-Faithful, therefore, often expose fence-sitting for what it is. They offer a clear alternative to those whose religion is a thin veneer.
Their godless pitch, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. It banks on an appeal to reason. Reason is the allegedly solid, reliable foundation of our way of life. So it is to a point. But it’s easy to forget either how slippery and fallible reason can be.
Reason did spur the wonders of science and rid the world of diseases. But its economic applications ushered in the 2008 financial disaster, delivering misery rather than salvation. Decades earlier, “rational” policy makers gave us a nuclear arms race that instilled crippling fear.
The faith debunkers’ Achilles heel, in a country of frantic marketing, may be their lack of catchy spiels. Comic Steve Martin and his Steep Canyon Rangers pinpoint that flaw in their song, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs”:
Christians have their hymns and pages
Haga Nagila’ for the Jews
Baptists have their rock of ages
Atheists just sing the blues
In my boyhood, atheism was proclaimed evil on grounds that it was attached to communism. During that time, a test question was what we’d say if invading communists pointed a gun at us and asked if we were Christians. We bravely declared our fidelity.
That atheistic threat no longer is a litmus test by which faith can be defined. In its wake, we have a nation of spiritual drifters whose faith is largely in worldly things. That’s why the non-believers are ramping up to urge the avocational believers to quit pretending and come all the way over to their side.
Kenneth Briggs is an adjunct professor at Lafayette College. He covered religion for the New York Times for a decade, and has written religious-themed books such as Holy Siege, The Power of Forgiveness and Double-Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of America’s Nuns.