My colleague Jocelyn Bell looked alarmed when I asked if she would be interested in spending a weekend on a retired ocean liner in southern California with several hundred atheists.
It didn’t promise to be a barrel of laughs for the managing editor of a church magazine. And that is precisely why I felt it was important for her to go.
Atheists have been around for centuries in one form or another. Some of history’s greatest thinkers have been atheists. Some of the best minds in our own society reject the idea of God. That’s their right, just as it is the right of people of faith to believe in God or Allah or the Hindu deities. For most of the last century, atheists and believers have kept out of each other’s way. But lately, atheism has taken on a new stridency. Biologist and author Richard Dawkins calls God a delusion. Christopher Hitchens asserts that religion “poisons everything.” Their books, and others by writers such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, take up seemingly permanent residence on the bestseller lists.
Atheism’s new militancy is doubtless a reaction to religious extremism. It is morphing from a philosophical movement to an anti-religion crusade: religion is not simply a different way of seeing things; it is the enemy. Listen to contemporary atheists and you hear much of the same language of provocation used by the Christian Right as it drew battle lines in the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. On the surface of it, atheists today seem almost as fundamentalist in tone and outlook as the religious extremists they condemn.
So Jocelyn’s uneasiness about this assignment was reasonable. But she is a good, inquisitive journalist with an eye for counter-intuitive stories, and knows that understanding the beast occasionally means you have to spend some time in its belly. So she arrived at the annual convention of the Atheist Alliance International in Long Beach, wondering how a boatload full of determined non-believers would react to a liberal Canadian Christian in their midst, and seeking answers to a couple of questions all thinking people of faith should ask: Are rank-and-file atheists as cranky as their leaders? Is it possible to gain a middle ground where atheists and people of faith might co-exist respectfully?
You will see that her cover story (“True unbelievers”) turned out to be more than a trip to an atheism convention in California. It became a journey of self-discovery — or rather, rediscovery.
• In our print edition, we introduce a new columnist. In fact, Brian Platt of Vancouver is one of three new columnists who will join Larry Krotz of Toronto as the rotating authors of a new column called Generations. As the name suggests, the column is a place for the writers to explore faith-related issues important to their particular age-group. Platt, a student at the University of British Columbia who is active in United Church youth work, weighs in from the perspective of youth and young adults. Karen Stiller, a frequent contributor from Port Perry, Ont., will draw on her experience balancing motherhood, church and career. Krotz has been writing about midlife issues in this magazine for the past two years and will continue to do so. And longtime Observer contributor Patricia Clarke of Toronto will bring an elder’s wisdom to the lineup. We hope the new column speaks to you, whatever your age.