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Would you believe?
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Would you believe?

If I led an atheists’ group and were seeking converts, I think the last place I would look is in religious neighborhoods. I’d go after the low-hanging fruit, in godless enclaves like Vermont, Berkeley, and the entire island of Manhattan.

Instead, a group called American Atheists has erected billboards near a mosque in Paterson and in fervently Orthodox Brooklyn, just beyond the Williamsburg Bridge. The billboards feature this tagline: “You know it’s a myth…and you have a choice.” Helpful Arabic and Hebrew translations are provided.

To top it off, the Muslim version features the name of Allah in Arabic script, while the Jewish version includes the unmentionable Tetragrammaton.

The president of American Atheists says, “We are not trying to inflame anything.” And I’m sympathetic — who would possibly think that denigrating religions and using the hallowed names of their deities would inflame anything?

The Paterson billboard seems particularly ill-timed, considering local anger over the NYPD’s mosque surveillance program. If you saw the anti-Islam billboard in an Arab neighborhood and didn’t realize it was sponsored by an atheists’ group, and you didn’t know they were also going after Jews, wouldn’t you assume it was put there by the usual Muslim bashers?

The controversy raises a profound theological question: Is there a way to be an atheist without being a jerk about it?

Actually, there is.

I’ve read most of the “New Atheist” manifestos, by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. Each is a terrific polemicist, and their work should be read by believers. You may be offended, but by pointing out the worst aspects of religious behavior their books can inspire the faithful to defend and rediscover what’s wonderful about religious community and ritual.

Where the books, like the billboards, fail is in dwelling obsessively on the corrupting and irrational aspects of religious belief without offering a (literally) rational alternative.

By contrast, the writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has a terrific TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk called “Atheism 2.0” describing the kinds of things atheists could actually learn from religions. He cedes no ground on the existence of a higher power, but suggests that non-believers understand and absorb what religion provides believers. Otherwise, atheism will never represent that positive alternative.

First and foremost, the secular world could learn from the didacticism of religion. In their schools, in their art, and in their houses of worship, religions are not shy about “fighting for the things of the mind,” says de Botton. Religious schools, unlike secular universities, are not afraid to offer “morality, guidance, and consolation.”

Religious art is proudly propagandistic — and not just in the scary totalitarian sense. “Propaganda is a manner of being didactic in honor of something,” he says. “And if that thing is good, there’s no problem with it at all.” He imagines secular museums that offer a gallery for love, another for generosity, and others that remind you what there is to fear and hate.

Religions don’t just talk about ideas; they reinforce them through the calendar and their attempts to combine mind and body. “A calendar,” he writes, “is a way of making sure that across the year you will bump into certain very important ideas.” As for physical rituals, de Botton describes the mikva, and the way an immersion in the ritual bath literally embodies Jewish lessons on forgiveness and renewal.

Finally, religions are good at forming institutions. “They’re collaborative, they’re branded, they’re multinational, and they’re highly disciplined,” says de Botton. By implication, atheists are currently none of those things.

His is not a comprehensive vision of a secular “religion.” He doesn’t talk about spiritual transcendence, and he doesn’t mention the ways religions foster communities and webs of mutual obligation.

Nor does he provide what Neil Postman, in The End of Education, calls the “meaningful narratives” that give people a reason for living. Every religion has a unifying narrative — whether it is the idea that we were put here to fix a broken place, or that good deeds and pious living can break a cycle of suffering.

For any narrative to be taken seriously, writes Postman, it must offer “moral guidance, a sense of continuity, explanations of the past, clarity to the present, [and] hope for the future.”

An atheism that denigrates religion without providing a similarly meaningful narrative of its own is doomed to the margins. I think it was Rabbi John Mellencamp who said, “You’ve got to stand for something/ Or you’re gonna fall for anything.”

The irony of the American Atheists’ campaign is that it arrives at a moment when a number of believers are doing a pretty good job of discrediting themselves. Rush Limbaugh defending “religious liberty” by calling a law student a “prostitute” and a “slut.” Rick Santorum invoking his faith to disparage higher education. Mormons insulting Jews by “posthumously baptizing” their dead ancestors. Go back a few weeks and you find fervently religious Jews assaulting an eight-year-old girl for “immodesty.”

But it’s always easy to find instances of religiously inspired malfeasance. What’s harder is creating the ideas, institutions, and communities that offer the ends and means of being fully human.

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