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MAY 28, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
To change the subjectthere are more subjects than one in the world of religion, though one might not know it this seasonlet's turn our sights to the world of non-religion, or anti-religion, or at least a-theism and anti-theism. That is what writer Andrew Stuttaford does in National Review (June 3). He reports on his visit to the recent convention of the American Atheists in Boston.
To be an a-theist one need only disbelieve in God, be that God personal, a force, or an idea. Well over 90% of the American people claim somehow to believe in some sort of God, so the cohort on which formal atheism draws is rather small. Americans who disbelieve in formal religion (or most forms of "spirituality") choose to make their way through a-gnosticismnot "knowing," because the evidence is weakor indifference. That cohort is very large, hard to define, and its borders are hard to discern.
What I am calling the company of formal atheism is tiny. Sightings uses microscopes, not telescopes. Stuttaford found only 250 atheists at this national convention; you could lose them in a corner of a transept of First Baptist Church anywhere. Admittedly, this 5,000 member organization (think Madalyn Murray O'Hair) does not have an atheist monopoly. But most Americans who write against how "secular humanism" is ruining the country would be hard pressed to find other organizations such as this to attack.
Stuttaford treats the whole event as a gathering of the forlorn, the woebegone, the "left-behind" in culture. But one of his sentences led me to think how like religions, one is tempted to say like "the other religions," the atheists are. "Oppressed by their sense of oppression, they also show signs of succumbing to the temptation of that most pernicious of contemporary cults, the cult of the victim." They tell stories of social anxiety, embarrassment, snubs, and trivial slights. One reads this and has reason to think: how Baptist, how Catholic, how fundamentalist, how Pentecostal, how Orthodox Jewish, how mainline Protestant!
Stuttaford cannot resist being snide about follies at the Boston meeting, and the conventioneers gave him plenty of fodder. But he also turns creatively serious. "There is a need for a more frank discussion about those areas where the dictates of religion and the requirements of science come into conflict, but such a happy moment seems a long way off." In a time of what Stuttaford sees as spiritual sillinesses, "a theoretically rational philosophical method could play a part in restoring notions of reason and objectivity to a society that regards both with suspicion." The best speech the writer heard there on such subjects was by a Catholic, Michael Cuneo, who teaches at Fordham.