Uncourtly Crusaders: The Atheist War on Religion

Friar Edwin Kagin, Offering Debaptism

First you need some charismatic prophets, same as the Jews, Christians, and Muslims had. No one who quite fits the bill? Then get four angry magpies, train them to write books, wait to see what happens.

What happens first is the New Atheism. What happens next is a small army of craven unbelievers sworn to unseat the Powers of Fear and Superstition. Religion.

These are hard times for God, no doubt about it. His staunchest defenders are either inordinately stupid, like the Creationist klatch, or so liberally engaged and politically distracted by The Church that he is treated like a demented grandparent who can’t be trusted to run the business without misplacing the payroll.

Once upon a time there were hundreds of clever theologians to plead his case and keep the Unbelievers at bay or off guard. But today’s theology is navel gazing, not cosmic or philosophical: it’s all about priests, altar boys, canon vs. civil law, and of course whether women should be ordained. (Just a thought: why would they want to? Isn’t it a bit like signing on to the crew of the Titanic after the iceberg has been struck?)

Since Holy Religion seems unable to argue in its own defense, let me have a go.

ABC News reports that “At the annual American Atheists Convention, one of atheism’s premier provocateurs, Edwin Kagin, faced the crowd and raised high a hairdryer labeled “Reason and Truth.” The gesture was intended to offer newly minted Unbelievers a chance to renounce their baptismal vows, the dryer being a symbol of the purifying wind that cleanses the polluting water. Some attendees participating in the De-baptizing ceremony claimed that since they were subjected to the sacrament without their consent, baptism itself might be accounted a form of child abuse.

Well why not: everything these days is a form of abuse, isn’t it? Asking your teenage daughter to limit the sludge from her room to the hallway. Asking students (ever so politely) to find out for themselves (and not by email) whether they “missed anything in class today.” Telling the indifferent stewardess on the US Airways flight that you cannot endure a journey all the way to Los Angeles when the passenger next to you, at a weight of 275 pounds, is taking up more space than he paid for. Totus est probum. If you were baptized, dear reader, your civil rights were violated. Simple as that.

But this calculation is not why Edwin Kagin, “dressed in brown monk’s robe” (Franciscan unbaptism specifically?) is a silly old fart and why his message will only resonate with people as silly as he is. He is foolish because he is making atheism a sideshow, something not to be taken seriously by thoughtful women and men.

Fade to ABC: “Kagin, author of “Baubles of Blasphemy,” has a history of behaving in ways that elicit a rise from God-fearing people. He’s known to have asked female atheists to dress in burqas and perform a song, ‘Back in their Burquas Again,’ he’s referred to Mary Magdalene as a deranged hooker and he’s called the Holy Eucharist ‘Swallow the Leader.'”

Vanity published in 2005 and topping the Amazon charts today at number 2,457,000, give or take a million, Kagin’s literary work is a splendid harmony of woefully bad writing, false wit and wrongness suitable only for the sort of people who laugh at baptism. It comes from the same creative impulse as the mutterances of pirates out to make a lady blush or a proper officer wince.

My complaint? Bad religion needs better satire. Unbelief needs better spokesmen. The cultic aspects of the New Atheism become more evident every day. Because only in cults does everyone laugh at the same jokes, applaud at the same cues, gasp at the same surprising revelation. Last time I looked, cultic unanimity was the opposite of freethought.

Some of us remember a point in the history of radical feminism where some very shrill advocates of extreme positions (e.g., all heterosexual sex is violent (or rape), Dworkin/McKinnon) accused men of inventing the shrillness. Men may well be jerks–maybe 75% in the last poll quoted by my daughter–but shrillness there was. Women are both reaping the benefits of the Women’s Movement and recovering from the extremism of the feminist sideshows attached to it.

The New Atheism by the same token has become both shrill, angry and ignorant of its target. It is uncourtly, a crusade without a call. As someone not known for his warm embrace of religious dogma, I am constantly embarrassed by the Kagins and PZ Myers and Hitchens’s–embarrassed not only by their militaristic attempts to squeeze all religious expression under the big top but especially at their shortsightedness in choosing objectives and strategies. In any case, atheism has had Shrill, Loud and Dumb before: Who remembers Madalyn Murray O’Hair (rip)? It didn’t work then.


The atheist crusaders may have the best of reasons for organizing their atheism as a campaign to belittle, insult and demean religion (they seem to be under the mistaken impression that atheism, as opposed to heresy, has suffered immeasurably at the hands of the Church for its failure to blossom), but they are driving reasonable men and women–wishers, seekers, explorers, and the merely confused–away in droves.

Worst of all, they have been willing to give atheism a bad name, as an extreme rather than a reasonable position based on a thoughtful discussion about God and religion. They have rejected dialogue: Kagin sees atheism and belief as the kindling for “a new American Civil War.” They have forgone educating themselves about religion and the history of ethics–probably because, when you get right down to it, men like Kagin are really rejectionists, victims of priests or some iteration of Calvinism themselves, rather than real thinkers. They’re really not into information. They’re into developing a following.

Whatever the outcome of this risible crusade, let’s hear it for Baptism. I am proud of mine, though I had nothing to say about it at all. If I screamed like a banshee when the water hit me (as a certain Cambridge Boxterman, a Kagin acolyte claims to have done in her Debaptism testimony) it is not because I was instinctively responding to the sacrament but because I am always grumpy when wakened out of a sound sleep, or when my nappy is dirty. Same effect. The Catholicism into which I was involuntarily cast was benign and helpful. And even though it was, alas!, not that way for everyone I shudder, given my deep South surroundings, to consider what the secular alternative might have been.

There is a final reason to be suspicious of this fool’s crusade against the devil Religion: It will backfire. Kagin culties and their allies will scare the bejeebers out of kindly and smart Catholics, Jews and Episcopalians, and send wavering Muslims right back to Friday Prayer.

And why not? Why should I feel at home among people who claim to be “over it” and regard those who aren’t as defective? In a weird kind of apposition, I have been told by converts to Catholicism that they liked everything about their decision until they attended their first pro-life rally and were handed a rosary.

Imagine being an “inquiring” atheist at friar Kagin’s church. Do they send Welcome Teams to your house with pies? Or given the nugatory nature of the cult, just empty pie plates? Do they play Ognib on Friday nights? Unfry fish? Enlightened as they are, they should at least offer unsubscribers a towel instead of the Conair–to reduce their carbon footprint.

Why trust a silly old fart dressed up like a monk, waving a hairdryer aloft more than the God who does not answer my prayers? Especially when he can’t do un-Circumcisions.