My girlfriend and I were walking around our West Village neighborhood the other night when we spotted a nativity scene erected outside a local church. The baby Jesus was missing from the display and I wondered aloud if it might have been stolen. (So often are these holiday tableaux stripped or vandalized around the country that many infant Nazarenes now apparently come swaddled in GPS tracking systems.) “No, you idiot,” my beloved, a lapsed Methodist, responded. “He hasn’t been born yet.”
My error was less the result of a calendar mix-up than a lifelong disregard for religious ritual and iconography — an attitude more humdrum than humbug. The product of a mixed marriage between a Catholic and a Jew (both agnostics), yet exposed to the odd Christmas tree or menorah, I’ve happily entered adulthood without baptism or bar mitzvah. John Stuart Mill wrote that he never really abandoned religion but rather grew up, thanks to his skeptical father, in a “negative state” to it — a condition that more or less describes my own experience, although I should admit that my negativity has only increased in this demoralizing decade.
I consider myself an ally of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I attribute not the slightest merit to the argument that these “new atheists” (really old atheists with new royalties) are themselves inverted religious extremists. Both Hitchens and Dawkins have indulged in boyhood nostalgia for the elegance of Protestant evensong; Harris has profited from Buddhist meditation; and Hirsi Ali, whom the historian Ian Buruma shamefully denigrated as an “Enlightenment fundamentalist,” can bring herself, in her memoir Infidel, to appreciate the beauty and awe of the Golden Mosque of Saudi Arabia. The equivalent of such “fundamentalist” generosity would be Osama bin Laden’s concession that the fossil record has its charms, too.
I bring this up both to affirm my secular bona fides and to pick a fight with my fellow atheists on aesthetic and strategic grounds.
There is a campaign currently underway in New York City to promote secularism through advertisements on buses and subway platforms. The daily commuter is thus treated not to any witty or satiric indictment of the supernatural or Yuletide “spirit” but to a pedantic and hectoring question, set against a celestial background, which asks, “A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?” According to the Big Apple Coalition of Reason, the umbrella organization sponsoring this $25,000 campaign, the local humanist subsidiaries who thought it a good idea “share common ground — promoting wider acceptance of a more rational and realistic view of the universe,” which sounds, and is, very rational and realistic. But while the coalition’s statistic may be correct — atheists, according to the American Religious Identification Survey, are the only demographic to grow in every U.S. state over the past 18 years, and Gotham, with a population of 8.3 million, likely falls on the extreme end of the distribution — its message is unseemly and self-defeating.