Happy Atheist -- I mean Independence -- Day

After taking in the fireworks last night, I spent some time sifting through Google Reader and surfing Google News for religion-related Fourth of July stories. Not a lot of interesting articles out there. Mainly, I saw a lot of old fare. But this piece from the Washington Post jumped out at me. It's about how even though atheists have no songs, they have in Independence Day a holiday they can believe in.

So here we are in Lorton, at the year's largest social assembly of Washington area atheist groups, the fourth annual Independence Day Celebration -- or, as the e-mailed news release read, "Ungodly Leaders to Gather at Potomac Picnic." ...

On the food table, there is a get-well card for "God Is Not Great" author Christopher Hitchens -- who recently learned he has cancer -- which the picnickers are encouraged to sign.

"Does everyone have their raffle tickets?" one man asks, rattling a red ticket box.

And the door prizes of an atheist raffle are . . . Richard Dawkins DVDs!

I like the premise, and the story is a good read.

It looks like this article by Monica Hesse ran in the Post's style section, which means readers can expect the writing to have a little more, well, style. The reporting, accordingly, is typically a little less detached or, when it comes to religion, reverent.

And I can appreciate comments like this from Shelley Mountjoy, the head of the Secular Student Alliance at nearby George Mason University:

"I get a lot of assumptions because of my disability," says Mountjoy, who is in a wheelchair. People tell her that's why she must not believe in a god. "But I was an atheist before I was in a wheelchair," she says exasperatedly.

Indeed, atheists do deal with a lot of negative assumptions. (That they eat babies, for instance.) But whether it's straight news or a style piece, there isn't a lot of justification for letting quotes like this one hang in the air:

"Especially now, when atheists are vilified for not being patriotic enough," Maggie Ardiente says, balancing her paper plate of cookout food, "this is a really important holiday."

Vilified as being unpatriotic -- funny, I hadn't heard that one. I know that studies have found Americans more willing to vote for a gay presidential candidate or a Muslim (no, not Obama) than for an atheist. But those studies are a bit dated, and in the time I have spent following developments in the American atheist community, I hadn't heard that atheists are anti-American. Despite the axiom, there really are atheists in some foxholes.

This quote also has some 'splainin' to do:

If you're an atheist, then you don't attend a house of worship, Mountjoy explains. This means that atheists -- who are about 5 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life -- generally miss out on at least one form of communal experience because most atheist organizations don't have space to host gatherings. Events like this one give them a chance to congregate, see who else is out there, compare stories of persecution.

What's wrong with that comment? That atheists don't have houses of worship seems pretty intuitive, right? It sure does -- but it's not quite true.

While atheists may find it difficult to congregate together -- and I'm not really sure what they would worship if they did; this article doesn't go there -- there are plenty of them who must find themselves in churches and synagogues and mosques and other houses of worship on occasion. Maybe even frequently.

Why? To start, agnostics, who aren't convinced of God's existence but also aren't sold on his non-existence, are generally included under the "atheist" umbrella. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported two years ago that 55 percent of American agnostics -- more than half -- believed in God.

I'm still not really sure how that works, but it's easier to comprehend than the 21 percent of atheists, who by definition believe there is no God, who believe that God DOES exist.

And thus we see the downside to a style article: the reporting, while beautifully descriptive, is often only skin deep. She might look good, but fat chance having much of a conversation with (or based on) it.

PHOTO: From Zazzle.

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