In the 1970’s, one hardly ever heard the word atheist. One had the impression that the impassive majority never considered the subject long enough to have made the term a part of their active vocabulary; while the typical exception would proffer, with an upraised finger and a coy smirk, something along the lines of “let’s just say that I’m an agnostic.” Even to these mainstream exceptions, the word sounded unexciting and irredeemably anachronistic, like a radical feminist describing herself as a diehard suffragette.
Ever since then it has struck me as curious that when a man describes himself as a believer, this invites inquiry and explanation, but when he describes himself as an atheist, all it does is kill conversation: “An atheist, eh? Can you just pass the biscuits, please?” Remarkably, this is quite different from most other popular dichotomies. If a man says, “I admire Stalin,” he could easily have interesting things to say on the subject, as could the man who says, “I do not admire Stalin.” When it comes to religious belief, however, the contrary position is hopelessly stagnant.
In January, 800 of London’s buses became vehicles for a promotional campaign that reads: “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The slogan for the “Atheist Bus Campaign,” which features “quotes from famous atheist thinkers,” was written by Ariane Sherine, a highly unattractive, though apparently quite slim, young woman of vaguely Asian descent, eerily reminiscent of the bejeaned womanhood of the 1970’s. With Freudian slipperiness, Miss Sherine reveals that she became “the creator” of the campaign “after seeing evangelical Christian advertisements on red London buses featuring Bible quotes” and an evangelical website that told her she “was going to spend all eternity in torment in hell, burning in a lake of fire.” The ads on the evangelical site were “apocalyptic.”
Miss Sherine countered with an article entitled “Atheists—gimme five,” suggesting that “all atheists reading it donate £5 to fund a positive, rational counter-advert.” Upon reading the article, “Richard Dawkins offered to match the first £5,500 donated.” Subsequently, “the British Humanist Association offered to support the campaign,” and, instead of the modest sum Miss Sherine had sought, “we ended up raising £141,000—inspiring countries including the United States, Spain and Italy to launch their own atheist bus campaigns.”
Professor Dawkins is most aptly described, with regard to overall genetic achievement and capacity for original utterance, as an ape, complete with a Planet of the Apes knack for mobilizing the masses. What is striking, however, about an Oxford don’s enthusiasm for deploying public conveyances to root out latent apocalyptic fears in the bicentenary year of Darwin’s birth is the extent to which the ape is blind.
A glance at the day’s news would leave no doubt in the mind of the most pitiless of scientific rationalists that, even if the apocalyptic may not be the spirit of the times, something about the epoch is so badly awry that it quite defeats human reason. “I’ve always felt exasperated at the idea of hell,” preens Miss Sherine, insensate, like her simian mastermind, to the foretaste of it that she is being offered on earth.
“Let there be cold grey light,” runs a headline in a newspaper, opened to a random page on a cold winter morning. The ordinary tungsten bulb, Edison’s iconic trope for the final triumph of the Enlightenment during the last century, has been made illegal in Europe. It will be replaced with mercury “energy-saving bulbs that give out the same sort of flat, cold light as fluorescent strip lighting.” Sellers of conventional bulbs will be prosecuted.
Elsewhere in the newspaper, one notes that, “on Christmas Eve, Hamas legalized crucifixion as a punishment for those who ‘weaken the spirit of the people.’” Back in Britain, meanwhile, a vicar has taken down the crucifix in his church with the explanation that it may put off parishioners, “especially children, from attending the services.” In some very odd way—a way, moreover, that is integral to the epoch—the two stories are congruent, exhibiting the kind of seamless conjunction one remembers from childhood nightmares. Even though the first is of savagery and the second of meekness, it is as though the giant wings of an apocalyptic beast are overshadowing both, spanning their common absurdity.
The absurdity is rationalism, which the blind ape and his brood suppose is just the philosophical salve the modern world needs, and one they intend to push on the residually religious for as long as their £141,000 will last them. Yet the old, irrational world, whose quaint, unscientific ways they are doing their blasphemous best to uproot, did not prosecute those who would cling to the taper once Edison’s lightbulb had become commonplace. And even an avowed rationalist like Stalin—unwittingly, still a part of that old world, if only for having aspired to the priesthood in his youth—would not have openly condoned crucifixion as a means of inflicting torture on those who “weaken the spirit of the people” by disobeying him.
The mercury lamp buzzes faintly, spreading a meager fluorescence over the sheet of newsprint. The hell on earth now dawning for all mankind is a place as supremely rational as a hospital morgue.