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December 25, 2008
In The Village
Atheists 'celebrate' Christmas
by Orson Scott Card

It began with a menorah for Hanukkah near the capitol in Washington State in 2006. A Christian group then sued and won the right to put up a nativity scene for Christmas in 2007 and again this year.

It seems almost inevitable that an activist atheist group would put up a counter-display -- a sign attacking religious faith placed near the nativity.

Sort of like the Doo Dah Parade that "answers" the Rose Parade in Pasadena. Only meaner in its intention, and attacking something much more serious than a parade.

I can imagine all kinds of back-and-forth arguments. The nativity scene was an affirmation of a faith, not an attack on a rival faith, while the atheist sign was nothing but an attack, and was put up on someone else's holy day instead of their own.

(Though, given the history of Christian/Jewish relations over the years, I can understand why the Jewish group stopped displaying its menorah this year. One man's affirmation is another man's attack.)

I, for one, can't see why there was a need for a nativity scene or a menorah at the state capitol. But I also can't see why the atheists were so intolerant and dishonest as to put up a sign saying, "Religion is but a myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

(As a matter of historical fact and present observation, this statement is false, since religions have no monopoly on hard hearts and enslaved minds, and religions have fostered many kind hearts and open minds as well. I'm still waiting for the atheist St. Francis or Albert Schweitzer or Mother Theresa.)

No doubt the "Freedom From Religion Foundation" sees themselves as very much like the Quakers and puritans who got themselves in a lot of trouble by speaking uncomfortable truths at extremely awkward moments. Certainly that mean-spirited sign won them a vast amount of publicity.

Of course, nowadays nobody gets burned at the stake, so I don't see any comparable courage on the part of these atheists.

I do, however, see in these atheists, as in the puritans, an intolerant insistence that anyone who thinks differently from them is not only wrong, but evil, so their doctrines must be eradicated.

It's oddly self-contradictory that they count themselves as a church when it comes to wanting a right reserved to churches (like a display at Christmas time), but count themselves as not a church whenever churches are under restraint of law.

But let's set aside all the issues of when and where, and look only at the message. What are the relative merits of the beliefs and practices of atheists on the one hand, and Christians on the other -- in particular, Latter-day Saints? (It's not our job to support the views of other Christians where they differ from ours.)

The atheist sign asserted, without evidence, that "there are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world."

You cannot prove that there is no God. Atheists are quick to say that belief in God is not "necessary" because science explains everything. But science does not explain everything, and any serious scientist will tell you that.

Instead, atheists merely have faith that the methods of science will, given enough time and good enough instruments and theories, explain everything.

But this is still faith and hope -- without charity.

Most of the great questions which religions attempt to answer remain completely outside the purview of science. Norms and values are notoriously hard for science to address, because the definition of what is good seems to recede in infinitely circular arguments.

Apparently the FFRF thought it was good or desirable or beneficial in some way for them to put up a sign attacking other people's beliefs. On what basis did they decide that this action was "good"?

Science is agnostic on the subject of what is good. Certainly that is not where these atheists got the idea that there was some public benefit from their attack.

Even if every word they said happened to be true, why do they assume that society or individuals would somehow be better, or better off, if their favorite doctrines were universally held? Why shouldn't atheists assume that people ignorant enough to believe in gods, devils, angels, heaven, and hell are actually happier and should be left alone?

Why are they proselytizing?

They raise the false claim that religions have caused all kinds of evil in the world. But this merely shows that they are willing to speak without physical evidence, because history shows, not that religion causes wars and persecutions, but rather that humans are prone to war and persecution, and then invoke whatever excuse their belief system provides them to justify their actions.

After all, the most monstrous actions of cruelty and mass murder in human history arguably took place in the 20th century, and were mostly perpetrated by atheists claiming science as their justification. From Hitler to Stalin, Mao to Pol Pot, the death toll from atheists beggars any claim by faith-driven monsters of the past.

In fact, one could, with far more merit, argue that religious faith tempers the actions of believers, and that the evils done by nominally Christian societies were done only by those who deviated from the norms and teachings of their faith.

What would have happened to native Americans if the conquistadores had not been burdened with all those pesky priests who kept exposing their crimes and excesses to the Christian rulers, who, as best they could, acted to protect native population?

These atheists claim to know what is good for everyone. They claim to know "truth" to a level that far exceeds their ability to supply proof. In other words, they are behaving exactly like the religious fanatics they supposedly deplore.

The follow the standard pattern of those who have changed allegiances from one belief-group to another.

Having "outgrown" or "graduated from" the faith of the community they grew up in, they feel a hunger to assert the superiority of their new beliefs, in the way that adolescents often must repudiate their families in order to assert their independence.

Or they may be seen to demonstrate the zeal of the new convert, eager to spread the word that made them feel the pleasure of enlightenment. With such an altruistic motive, they easily become angry at anyone who argues against them and keeps them from "enlightening" or "liberating" others. Contrary evidence is simply swept away.

Or we may chalk some of these actions up to solidarity with their new faith community. A group of fervent believers can often egg each other on to new heights of absurdity in beliefs and behaviors; alas that groupthink so easily makes the tiny step over the line into witchhunts.

Intolerant, rigid, closed-minded atheism offers no visible improvements over intolerant, rigid, closed-minded religion.

Oddly enough, though, there is a principle which, if applied, would lead to far more tolerance by believers of every stripe. Just repeat this mantra over and over, substituting the appropriate words:

"We believe that (God/science) will yet reveal many great and important things."

Hopeful as this statement is, and filled with faith, it should also keep us humble, because it implies that at this moment there are many great and important things we do not know.

We Mormons are proselytizers. We send out missionaries because we believe that we have information that is vital to long-lasting happiness, and it would be wrong for us to keep it to ourselves.

Let zealous atheists behave as we do. Send out your missionaries to teach any who are willing to listen. But don't deliberately seek occasions to offend others when nothing is at stake; and willingly admit whatever good things others believe in and do.

When you have the truth, you don't have to silence your opposition. You need only to tell your own story, and let people decide for themselves.

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