Friday, November 28, 2008


Imagine No Religion

Group plans to sue city over removal of controversial billboard - San Bernardino County Sun

RANCHO CUCAMONGA - A Wisconsin group advocating the separation of church and state plans to sue the city for playing a role in the demise of a billboard on Archibald Avenue and Foothill Boulevard. A billboard with the message 'Imagine No Religion' by the Freedom From Religion Foundation was taken down by sign company General Outdoor less than a week after it went up. The move came after the city told the sign company it received 90 calls of complaint against the sign. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the organization that bills itself as an association of atheists and agnostics, said a complaint might be filed today.

I don't have to imagine no-religion: I was brought up with it so it's hard for me to understand why the New Atheists and their followers are so keen to promote it. What do they imagine a No-Religion world would look, and feel, like?

I can easily imagine it--a world of unrelieved sterility and vulgarity, where quack therapies and secular sentimentalities occupy the role of religion, shopping malls replace cathedrals, commercial festivals from Super Bowl Sunday to a religiously detoxified Christmas Shopping Season mark the liturgical year and centuries of sacred art that were once accessible to the general public are relegated to museums and concert halls. Why on earth do they want this?

We're more than half way there so you'd think they'd know better. One of my more enterprising neighbors has already put up his Christmas display, featuring illuminated candy canes and reindeer, including Rudolph with his glowing red nose. The centerpiece is a six-foot-tall inflatable snowman. I can't understand why this is preferable to a creche with shepherds and angels. Maybe in a century or two the myths of Santa and his helpers, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph will mellow out and inspire high art. Somehow I rather doubt it.

I suppose I'm being unfair to atheists here. Most have no problems with religious art and support the preservation of church buildings as museums of culture and secular temples to civic virtue--like the Paris Pantheon (above), which operated briefly as the Church of St. Genvieve before it was reconstituted as a patriotic monument and mausoleum.

I had great hopes for France before my first visit to the Continent last winter. I could, after all, conjugate the verbs and had a wonderful time brushing up on my French at our local branch of the Alliance Francaise. And the Pantheon was an interesting piece of architecture--in a frigid, self-conscious, monomaniacal way. After seeing it though I never wanted to go anywhere near France again.

The Pantheon reminded me of my mother, who admired Napoleon, was a great fan of the metric system, and thought it would be a good idea to number the days of the week instead of naming them. She detested what she regarded as impractical, childish nonsense, including holidays, presents, family meals, vacations, ceremonies of any sort and every kind of religion. We were organisms and that was that. This may be true, but I don't see why believing it should make us better off.

In the Pantheon there was a Foucault Pendulum swinging from the dome. There were video machines with educational tape loops in French and English about Foucault's life and work explaining how Foucault, "whose only faith was in Science," had used his Pendulum to demonstrate that the earth rotated on its axis--presumably refuting benighted Christians who thought otherwise. They showed the Pendulum being hung and described how it was attached to beams above the interior dome through a hole made by poking out the eye of God represented on it. Mother, and I suspect the New Atheists, would have loved it.

It's a losing battle, and I realize that. The churchy world I always fantacized, with churches and shrines, where people stopped to light candles and mumble the quick prayer, processions in the streets and a thousand lovely legends, ceremonies and customs current, never really existed. The little bit of that fantasy that we've got is almost gone. I still don't understand why people don't want it, why they think poking out the eye of God in the name of Science contributes to human wellbeing or why they imagine that the frigid sterility of the Pantheon should be a source of joy and liberation.

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