Christians have long been criticized for their disunity, for splitting up over theological differences and for disagreeing about the nature of their faith. Now atheists are having their own theological disputes and are trying to excommunicate each other over differences as to the nature of godlessness.
The catalyst for this schism is the Godless Americans March on Washington. This event, scheduled for Nov. 2, is designed to emulate other aggrieved groups-from liberal civil-rights advocates to pro-lifers-in putting together a huge crowd to march on the nation's capital to publicize their cause. Godless Americans, inspired by the ruckus raised by the Pledge of Allegiance controversy, will be protesting everything from "In God We Trust" on the nation's coins to their feeling of being discriminated against in the public square.
But who is sufficiently Godless to get to appear in the march? The organizers, the New Jersey-based organization American Atheists, has invited "all groups and individuals who sincerely declare themselves to be 'Godless Americans.'"
But some marchers are challenging two groups that signed up, the Order of Perdition and the United Satanic Convenire, over their theological liberalism. Since these groups are Satanists, argues the Council for Secular Humanism, they are not sufficiently godless.
New York Times columnist Peter Steinfels quotes Tom Flynn, editor of the humanist publication Free Inquiry: "Satanism is a religion, with supernatural beliefs and a belief in the occult. They should not qualify as endorsers of an event for Godless Americans."
The Satanists responded by insisting that they do too reject belief "in the existence of a metaphysical being called 'God.'" The statement on their website explained that many Satanists have "a deistic view of Satan."
Deism is the belief that there is a God who created the world, but then lets it run on its own, looking down from Heaven but never intervening in human life. Satanic deism must mean that there is a Devil who brought sin into the world, but then lets it run its course, watching people sin of their own volition, as he looks up from Hell.
Organizers of the march disagree with the Secular Humanists and plan on letting the Satanists be part of the fellowship. After all, there is already great diversity in the Godless community. Other participating groups include the Apathetic Agnostic Church, the Association Against Ashcroft, the Celtic Spirit, the Clone Rights United Front, EvolveFISH.com, the Institute for Unicorn Research, the Maggot Punks, Queers for Racial and Economic Justice, and the Space Coast Objectivism Explorers and Promoters.
While orthodox atheism consists of three theological traditions-that of rationalists, freethinkers, and humanists-there are also many sects and disagreements about the nature of the God they do not believe in. There is the Ayn Rand school of atheism, which worships the free market, upholds the ethic of selfishness, and in its libertarian politics is often allied with American conservatism. There are also left-wing atheists, from old-school dialectical-materialist socialists to liberal progressives. There are New Age atheists, doctrinaire Darwinists, and anarchists who are just in it for a good time.
Atheists, like the rest of us, should be encouraged to embrace diversity and to practice the politics of inclusion. I myself am personally offended that representatives from the Christian community were not invited to take part in the Godless Americans March. A number of feminist theologians, seminary professors, and Episcopalian bishops hold views that are far closer to those of the Council of Secular Humanists than any recognizably Christian theology.
But since established religious institutions hold the power and since the Godless, as they say, are marginalized, perhaps churches should take the lead. Now that the ecumenical movement, designed to unify Christian churches under a lowest-common-denominator liberalism, has given way to the interfaith movement, designed to unify all religions, it is only just to invite atheists and other Godless Americans into the Big Tent of religious relativism.
One of the complaints that precipitated the Godless Americans March on Washington is, in the words of the website, that "'Godless Americans' have been marginalized and excluded in everything from electoral politics to the public events commemorating the tragedy of September 11, 2001. No other group would tolerate such bigotry and exclusion!" This is true. This is a serious violation of the tenet that all religious beliefs are equally valid.
The next time terrorists attack America, organizers of commemorative services should make a point of including atheists. After the Muslim imam invokes Allah and reads from the Koran, and after the Hindu priest gives his offering to Vishnu, and right before the Catholic priest, the mainline Protestant female minister, and the evangelical pastor say their prayers, an atheist should be given the pulpit. He couldn't pray, of course, but he could read some inspirational words from The Origin of Species or The Virtue of Selfishness.