Easter With Atheists

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I spent part of my Easter Sunday with members of what may be the most persecuted and reviled religious minority in America: The annual convention of the American Atheists.

I don't mean that description as ironic. People who are certain there is no God are operating, ultimately, as much on faith as any other religious system. Prove a negative? And with the possible exception of Muslims, I can think of no faith-related group that paddles so upstream in America as the aggressive nonbelievers who belong to this particular organization.

Even in a nation where "none of the above" has become the second most common religious self-identification, atheists remain a relatively small splinter a few percent of the population. And these folks are a splinter of that splinter, the self-described "bad cops" of their movement, the organizational descendants of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who founded the group in the 1960s.

These are the in-your-face atheists. They always hold their convention on Easter weekend.

Persecuted? Compare atheists to other faiths. The blather of a "war on Christianity" in this country is almost always about a particular sort of Christian complaining that his or her form of proselytizing is not being privileged by a business or by an unconstitutional government recognition. (See the weekend's dumb complaints that Google honored Cesar Chavez on Sunday.) In other nations, Christians are literally dying for their faith. You think that might instill some humility in Americans.

But imagine walking into a party or standing around the water cooler and mentioning you're Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist. Not much chance of provoking instant hostility. Buddhist? You might get a question about the Dalia Lama. Hindu? A question about Yoga. Mormon? Maybe a query about that guy who ran for president last year.

Muslim? You may well have a problem or two. But many people of faith at least recognize a certain kindred spirit in someone else who takes religion seriously.

Even a doubting agnostic is likely to get no worse than a shrug. After all, even most people of any particular faith go through their moments of doubt.

But an atheist? That's a living attack on the notion of religion. Repeated surveys indicate that atheists are less trusted than people professing any religion. There are large swatches of this nation where it's surely safer for someone of that opinion to keep it hidden. So the 950 people who assembled in Austin reveled in being able to be out and proud.

At times, the event sounded like a pep rally. A speaker got wild applause for a chart showing growth in the number of young adults willing to doubt the existence of God. We all like to think that we're part of a growing point of view, yes?

That's not the only way the atheists convention felt like many other religious meetings I've attended. These folks, not surprisingly, were hungry for meaning, for ritual, for a sense of congregation. And the event attracted smaller groups and vendors as inevitably as a shark attracts remora.

The Military Freedom Foundation represents people in the armed forces who say they have been pressured there by aggressive Christians. An author wandered the room hawking an "Atheists' Survival Guide." A stand sold anti-religious tchotchkes: Jewelry in the form of an "atheist atom." The fellow at the Secular Student Alliance booth proudly described the growth in the number of chapters at colleges and high schools.

A couple of tables were filled by black atheists representing their groups. One woman explained she was black, an atheist and gay. Which is surely the American cultural equivalent of rolling snake eyes. She was thrilled to be amongst her peers.

The Foundation Beyond Belief is an attempt to create a non-believers' social service organization. The money it collects is used to support the same kinds of do-gooder causes that you'd find supported by, say Catholic Charities. The group is even planning a "mission trip" to Cambodia.

The keynote speaker on Sunday was A.C. Grayling. If you're an atheist, he's a rock star -- part of the pantheon with folks like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. His Day Job is as a philosophy professor in England and his speech covered references surely unfamiliar to most of his audience.

My favorite obscure passage: He spent several minutes summarizing an ancient Greek play. The Orestia, by Aeschylus, is a re-telling of some of the events surrounding the Trojan war and its aftermath. You should not be shocked that it's filled with sex and violence. My summary will be much shorter than Grayling's:

A king is murdered by his wife who, in turn, is killed by their son to exact vengeance. People who kill their parents in these Greek sagas are routinely tortured by the Furies, who quickly get on the case. Another goddess intervenes and convenes a jury of the murderer's peers. And gains an acquittal on a technicality.

The Furies, Grayling explains, complain that this upsets the old order by setting human debate and discussion above divine justice. It's the first step of a culture pulling away from the supernatural.

"This is the moment where we see the beginnings of Western Civilization," Grayling said.

I'm not sure there are many scholars who would peg that particular point. But it was interesting.

He also, literally, offered an answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?"

I was really hoping for "42." But no:

"The meaning of life," he said, "is what you make it."

Which I suppose is not much less satisfying than, say, the answers in the Book of Job.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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