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.
The point of skepticism and scientific inquiry, after all, is to exalt intellectual modesty over presumption. The failure to do so was what really made the recent disclosures about fudged climate data at the University of East Anglia so scandalous. We know more and more about what we don’t know and the biggest puzzler of all remains why there’s something instead of nothing. (As the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser once put it, “And if there was nothing? You’d still be complaining!”) Atheists proceed from evidence and falsifiability and needn’t rely on demagogic appeals to join some well-behaved in-crowd as if pledging a college fraternity.
The “Good without God” ad is also embarrassingly defensive. True, an ugly tactic of the aggressively pious is to suggest that a person cannot be moral or decent without the teachings of monotheism. But apart from pointing out the stark historical illiteracy of such an assertion, atheists need only ask why so many wicked polemicists and scientists and philosophers are even worth arguing with in the first place. Surely the hellbound on the New York Times bestseller list don’t require the kind of furious fight they’ve been given by clerics and churchgoers in recent years; they require only time. Atheism is in a strong enough starting position, in other words, that it can do without its adherents’ pathetically pleading their own benevolence. (And, allowances made for the hyperbole of Madison Avenue, just because a person is one of a million nonbelievers in New York City doesn’t mean necessarily that he is “good.”) The burden of proof is on religion to show that, as a contribution to civilization, it ennobles rather than deforms the human character. “Good without God” unintentionally concedes too much to faith by working from the reverse assumption and treating atheism as if it were the worldview with something to prove.
A more generous reading of the poster has been offered by my friend Austin Dacey, author of the excellent book The Secular Conscience: Why Religion Belongs in the Public Sphere. Blogging at Psychology Today with Michael De Dora, Jr., the executive director for the New York branch for the Center for Inquiry and the head of the New York “Good without God” campaign, Dacey concluded that the subtext “reveals a more universal message: people can be good regardless of their beliefs about God. From this perspective, the ad was not about atheism, but about the nature of morality.” But that the average straphanger may miss this subtle ecumenical relay is a failure of both the medium and the message. A million angels dance on the head of a pin, but can the evolutionary psychology of conscience be contained in a catchphrase?
The New York effort, preceded by similar ones in a host of American cities, took its cue from Britain’s wildly successful Atheist Bus Campaign. Concocted by the comedy writer Ariane Sherine, this forerunner media blitz of godlessness was fashioned in response to an obnoxious Christian ad that ran on the side of red double-deckers in London and featured a benign Biblical quote along with the URL of a website that, once clicked on, consigned all nonbelievers to perdition. “There’s probably no God,” read, somewhat fecklessly, Sherine’s proposed counter-slogan, “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This unimaginative commandment — Deepak Chopra for materialists — was intended to raise $8,000 for placement on London buses. But after being endorsed by Dawkins (who objected to the word “probably”), A.C. Grayling, and the British Humanist Association, it drew in over $200,000 and 800 buses carried the ad throughout Britain. A trend was inaugurated, and soon buses in Washington, D.C., started turning up with their own drive-by axioms: “Why believe in a god?” asked one ad in the Capitol over a picture of a guy in a Santa suit. “Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Silly and tautologous even without the promise of Karl Popper toting presents down a chimney.
In one way, the success of atheist advertising is encouraging. It shows that today the godless exist in record number and are easily mobilized (“We’re here, here is all there is, get used to it.”) But can’t we do without the triumphalism and mawkishness? A few years ago, Dawkins and Daniel Dennett contrived to rebrand atheists as something more — what’s the phrase? — “market-positive,” much the way “gay” had been adopted as a euphemism for homosexual. They arrived at the term “bright,” a term that implies equally that all atheists are intelligent and that all faithful are stupid. If this is so then, again, why bother arguing with one’s adversaries? Such crudity injects kitsch and self-parody into a good cause. Atheism deserves better.