The Rapture of the Atheists

November 12, 2009 - 5:52 PM
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Bruce Chapman

By Bruce Chapman 

"This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper."
           --T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
 
The level of maturity of the New Atheism movement was on florid display at the national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation this past weekend in Seattle. A high point apparently was a "non-prayer breakfast," where six hundred attendees were reminded of the oppressive civic functions where people often are asked to bow their heads for a moment of silence. Instead, the atheists were encouraged to exhibit a moment of "bedlam", shouting, clinking glasses and who knows what? How liberating!
 
A top draw attraction at the convention was Ron Reagan, a middle-aged "unabashed atheist" who is best known for....well, for being a son of President Ronald Reagan, who was a favorite target of people like the conventioneers. President Reagan often ended his speeches with the benediction, "May God bless America." Ron derives whatever significance he enjoys from repudiating his father's worldview. It's not much of a gig, is it? And it also is not much of a threat.
 
The other good news for non-atheists is that the chief philanthropy of  the New Atheism--its most heartfelt project, in fact--seems to be....bus signs. Richard Dawkins is using profits from his books for the signs. Lesser-known, latter-day Clarence Darrows and H. L. Menckens likewise are using their savings to invest in bus cards that sally forth in cities from London to Seattle. The seasonal placards now up in Seattle announce that, "Yes, Virginia, there is no God."
 
We also are to be treated to bus messages from Thomas Jefferson that "Religions are all alike--founded on fables and mythologies." And from Benjamin Franklin: "The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason."
 
It is hard to gauge who might be the audience for these bus cards, however. For example, how does one make anything of the sign that says, "Yes, Virginia, there is no God," unless he knows a little American history?  (The New York Sun in 1897 ran an editorial that answered a letter to the editor from a little girl asking if Santa Claus exists).  You are not going to know what the "no God" bus signs are satirizing if you don't know the history. Thanks largely to the ACLU, hardly any young people today know any history with religious content, let alone the charming, "Yes, Virginia story." That means that the average person seeing the bus signs about Virginia will have no idea what is going on (or care).
 
As for Jefferson and Franklin, the bus card quotations are out of context and give the false impression that the two men in question--ranking near the top of the pantheon of American founders--were atheists. They weren't. They were not conventional Christians, but they were Diests who believed in God.
 
At the Constitutional Convention it was Franklin who proposed "a three-day adjournment to cool tempers," supplemented by the hiring of a chaplain, who would "introduce the business of each day by an address to the Creator of the universe, and the Governor of all nations, beseeching Him to preside in our council, enlighten our minds with a portion of heavenly wisdom, influence our hearts with a love of truth and justice, and crown our labors with complete and abundant success!’'
 
And it was Franklin who stated,
 
“'If Men are so wicked as we now see them with Religion what would they be if without it?'”
 
Then there is Thomas Jefferson.  In his first inaugural address he said that Americans were "(E)nlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?”
 
Also, this:
 
'''And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity."
 
Some atheist.
 
It is probably too much to expect the New Atheists and their foundations to put the real, considered and settled religious views of people like Jefferson and Franklin on their bus cards. Pity.
 
But, on the other hand, if such is how they want to spend their money, may they spend it all that way!
 
This is the way their world ends,
Not with a Big Bang, but wimpy bus signs.

Bruce Chapman is a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. ambassador. He is the president of the Discovery Institute, www.discovery.org.