Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Emerging from the Atheist Closet

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Scientists are beginning to discover religion is hardwired into the human brain. I'm not surprised. In Paris, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a cathedral. Their steeples punctuate the red tiled roofs. A couple of times a day bells fill the air.

As for America, the whole story of our "founding" is about religious dissidents looking for a home. Every couple of generations vast evangelical movements and spiritual awakenings sweep the country. We sprout a sect a minute. When we remember Native Americans, it's usually to mug them for their eagle feathers and prayer pipes and sweat lodges.

It's a wonder we ended up with a democracy at all, and not a succession of bloody theocracies.

Given all that, it's interesting to watch atheists begin to emerge from the closet. September 11th was the last straw. Sick equally of Muslims and Christians, groups of nonbelievers have sprung up all over, and have a growing presence on the internet with chat rooms and blogs, all determined to fight the surge in religion.

Their books are selling like hotcakes. "God Is Not Great" by the Brit Christopher Hitchens is number twelve on the New York Times Bestseller List for nonfiction. "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins sneaks in at thirty-four, just after the Pope's "Jesus of Nazareth."

Still, atheists have an uphill battle, especially in the ultrareligious U.S. A poll a couple of weeks ago by Pew Research Center showed that only Muslims and atheists were longer shots than Mormons in terms of electability. But while forty-five percent said they had reservations about a Muslim contender for president, a whopping sixty-one percent of the participants said an atheist was pretty much out of the running for them.

A 2006 Minnesota study said Americans even preferred homos to atheists when it came to questions of trust. All queers do is have dirty disgusting sex. The godless are capable of anything.

Atheists are punished not just with political banishment, but violence. Put a "heathen" bumper sticker on your car, you risk a bashed windshield. Write a letter to the editor, expect a cross burnt on your lawn, at least in Alabama.

I spent a couple of days trying to imagine a world run by atheists. I found it more peaceful and safe--for me, anyway. There was less fuel for misogynists, less hate against queers. No "God is on my side" argument for wars and politics. No suicide bombers with virgins waiting in the wings. Without the excuse of God, greed, fury, ambition and hate have to stand naked. Like charity, kindness, generosity and love.

The problem is, as somebody who not only grew up Southern Baptist, but embraced the sect, my subconscious is crawling with religion. When I sit down to write, I often end up with a page full of religious imagery. Hell, I dream in it, while I work to erase religion from our political lives.

In Paris, I've even taken to haunting churches. The buildings are open all day and if you're out for a long walk, they offer a quiet place to sit and rest. Many of them are gorgeous, and besides, you're more likely to hear a string quartet than a mass. Religious services are held in discrete corners. The rest of the place is given over to art shows and concerts, and tourists who are asked to contribute a euro or two to keep them from falling to dust.

One of the cathedrals I like best is Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois, newly famous for the nuptials of Eva Longoria and Tony Parker. Kings used to get married there. Then there's the small matter of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572.

The bells of the church were rung as signal to kick off the slaughter of a few thousand protestant Huguenots in town for a wedding. That's religion for you. Add in the priests that ran roughshod over French citizens for centuries, you get a perfect explanation of the anticlerical revolution that saw furious citizens pillage every church in the country.

I wonder sometimes why they didn't bring them down stone by stone like the Taliban did with the great stone Buddhas of Afghanistan. Was it residual religious respect? An appreciation for their beauty and history? Or just legendary French thrift? During the revolution, Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois was used for storage, and later as a police station. Now it is what it is. A beautiful, slightly ravaged building next to city offices. A kind of momento mori.

I think that air of decay is what appeals to me. While we can't erase religion, maybe we can find a way in America to shrink it. We can start by shifting it from politics to culture, and we should teach it modesty, let it beg for every penny, like the beautiful crumbling churches of France.

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