Atheism Is Stuck in the Darkest Closet

In the first hours of Aug. 10, I am standing in a bar in Paris, France, listening to an Englishman who won't give peace a chance. He is speaking about tolerance. He says he is an atheist and claims

Aug 31, 2000 at 2:06 pm

In the first hours of Aug. 10, I am standing in a bar in Paris, France, listening to an Englishman who won't give peace a chance.

He is speaking about tolerance. He says he is an atheist and claims that, while religion clearly helps some people, it's also responsible for more deaths than any other cause. I caution it's difficult to know how many deaths disease, poverty, natural disasters and wars of territory and politics have caused; but I agree religious rivalry and persecution certainly have taken a grisly toll.

Then, amazingly, the man's conversation morphs into an anti-Jewish diatribe.

"I'm sorry," he says, "but it's well established that they are an expansionist people and they're pulling the strings in all walks of our lives."

He claims Jews run the governments of the major countries of the world, including his and mine.

I suggest Judaism generally isn't a proselytizing religion and that, for the most part, Jews have been on the reducing end of others' expansionism, from ancient times through the early crusades, Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust.

I say I know of just one British prime minister who was Jewish (Disraeli) and no Jewish American presidents or vice presidents. I say I think Defense Secretary William Cohen is Jewish.

I say Secretary of State Madeline Albright recently learned she was Jewish, but she was raised as a Christian to protect her life during the Holocaust, so I don't think you could really count her part of the World Jewish Conspiracy.

I know that there have been other Jews at the cabinet level, but I want to hear him make his case. He can't, of course.

"I watch the History Channel and read a lot," he says, "and, I'm sorry, but it's a fact that the Jews are running the world."

By the time he's repeated this assertion three or four times, I am thoroughly perturbed.

"Say that again," I warn, "and you actually will be sorry."

I feel myself crossing a line, surprised at doing so.

"Now that's not on," he says, pointing at me. "Threats are not on. We can have a gentlemen's difference of opinion, but threatening me is bad form. I've been around the block a few times, mate, and I'll give as good as I get."

Our hosts have been tolerating our discussion largely in silence. One offers that he agrees with the Englishman that the discussion should stay gentlemanly; the other doesn't weigh in.

But I cannot abide the spewing of racist mythology from a man who claims to extol mutual tolerance. The man is repeating the same sort of trash that enabled the Nazis to exterminate half the Jewish population of the planet. We're bound to hear more of this as people's underlying prejudices are revealed in the wake of Al Gore's choice of running mate.

I remember what U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had to say about hateful expression: the solution to bad speech is not banned speech, but increased speech. I trot out Oscar Wilde's critical summation of British and French values — the French have cuisine, while the British have table manners. I'd rather eat wonderful food with my fingers than have crap with the correct fork. Good form or even good behavior means considerably less when the substance of the communication is so repugnant.

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Flying home, I read about Mexico's new President publicly taking communion and making repeated proclamations about his faith in God. The Catholic Church, long walled out of a public role in the government and the Mexican media, is now back on the ascendancy and reconnecting to the ruling power.

I also read a bit about Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who undoubtedly will be used to morally one-up the Republicans, able to be presented as more devout than either man on the opposing ticket. He'll also be used to distance the Democratic ticket from the religious but morally contaminated Clintons.

We'll probably hear a lot more about God in this election than even in the years when the religious right was laying siege to the Republican Party. The wall of separation will continue to crumble, as America becomes more religiously demonstrative, notwithstanding the right's warnings of a dangerous lack of religious belief and a consequent moral decay. Polls show nearly 95 percent of Americans profess belief in God, and 76 percent imagine him a heavenly father attentive to their prayers. Almost half believe the biblical account of creation; and more than one-third consider themselves "born again."

All of this gives the lie to the religious right's charges of religious victimization and persecution at the hands of secularism and rampant anti-religiousness. The principal victim of religious persecution in America today is the legacy of the Enlightenment — rationalism and the secular ideal in government and society. The situation would be almost inconceivable to the nations' founders, predominantly freethinkers and deists.

Even the supposedly anti-religious liberal press is intimidated. An op-ed piece on popular spirituality, contributed to The New York Times by social commentator Wendy Kaminer, "was carefully cleansed by my editors of any irreverence toward established religion (although I was invited to mock New Age)," she says. "I was not allowed to observe that, while Hillary Clinton was criticized for conversing with a deceased Eleanor Roosevelt, millions of Americans regularly talk to Jesus, long deceased, and that many people believe God talks to them, unbidden. Nor was I permitted to point out that, to an atheist, the sacraments are as silly as a seance. These remarks and others were excised because they were deemed 'offensive.' "

But opinions unfavorable to religion aren't among those Americans are willing to protect. Even before the 1990s' religious revivalism, surveys showed more than 70 percent of Americans supported freedom of religion, no matter how extreme the beliefs, while virtually the same percentage believed atheists shouldn't be permitted to "preach against God and religion" and should be denied use of civic auditoriums.

Indeed, atheism is less tolerated in America than homosexual expression. Gays are out of the closet throughout the country. Homosexuality is accepted and even celebrated to an unprecedented degree, including in the media and in politics (at least in most cities).

But a television sitcom with atheist characters or even talk shows about atheist topics still seem remote possibilities in these times of TV programming revering angels and extraterrestrials. Are there children's books about atheist parents, as there are about gay and lesbian parenting partners?

I think there's far greater personal fear of revealing individual non-belief to one's co-workers than of revealing sexual orientation; I'm certain it happens less often. The door to the closet of non-belief is closed.

We need to learn that freedom of religion includes the right of freedom from religion, the right to not believe — even when an atheist turns out to be a religious bigot.