Atheists are an interesting bunch. Some simply encounter religion, and religious faith, turn around, walk away, and never look back. They look upon the faithful with puzzlement, like, who needs all that? And, why make life more complicated than it already is? As far as they are concerned, life as they know it – the observable, the here and now – is sufficient. Not only that, but it's either self-explanatory or in no need of explanation. In that sense, atheists are the ultimate existentialists; “we're here because we're here”, and no need to wonder why or search for explanations. They look out across the Universe and see only randomness and chaos; there is no higher order. Life only has the purpose that each individual assigns to it, and no more. And as for human “destiny” -- such is the stuff of fantasy and wishful thinking. They see the solution of the search for meaning (assuming that such a search is even necessary) as residing within the individual, or with the social group, but not with any external, unseen source.
And as for ethics (or what some of us prefer to call “morality”), well, that's just a matter of common sense, and the Golden Rule, and not hurting others, and so on. I mean, everyone knows right from wrong – or ought to, right? Isn't it obvious? Don't we always know “evil” when we see it, much less experience it? Who needs this elaborate superstructure – some “sky god” telling us (either directly or through people who fancy themselves holy men) what we should do on a day-to-day basis, when anyone with a grain of sense can figure it out? Not only that, but we have the greatest tool with which mankind is endowed, namely “reason”, which typically translates to “science”, which translates to “overt and observable” as opposed to “superstition”, which is a denial of objective cause and effect in favor of unseen forces.
Atheists of this sort will treat the faithful (of any faith more or less equally) with indulgence... perhaps even charity. They will be tolerant, if not understanding. Sympathetic, even. But they will not be overtly hostile, because, after all, even if religion and faith are a kind of delusion, can you really blame someone for being mentally ill? Or if not mentally ill, then at least burdened with some psychological remnant of more primitive times? Education will eventually overcome all of this, but in the meantime the most important thing is to see to it that no one who is hobbled by faith or religion acquires any significant political power, because not only would that be a stroke against reason, but it would be unfair to non-believers. (And if this sounds like a big piece of the liberal political agenda, that's because it is.)
This is what I call “benign” or “silent atheism” -- silent because its adherents generally mind their own business and expect others to mind theirs. It's a live-and-let-live attitude, and frankly I prefer it to religious fanaticism of the violent sort. Not that I don't worry about atheists – because what if they're wrong? (See Pascal's Wager) And yes, they constitute a challenge that won't go away – a challenge to the faithful to defend not only their own faith but faith in general, and religion – not as some sort of mutation in the human genome, but as something every bit as natural as any other human trait – not only natural, but necessary.
But I'm only talking about some atheists here. There is another type, and I call them militant atheists. They are the ones who don't simply turn and walk away, but stay around to attack, and harangue, and “debunk”. And this, curiously enough, if their favorite time of year – the time leading up to Easter. Because this is the time they can bring out the same arguments they use every year – the arguments against Christ, against Christianity, and against religion in general. It's often disguised in language such as “the search for the real Jesus”, but it's debunking all the same. The mainstream news magazines are especially adept at this; it just wouldn't be Easter without Time and Newsweek publishing their annual debunking cover stories. (And by the way, who even reads those sorry rags any more? I can't even find them in my doctor's waiting room.)
Lent... Holy Week... Easter... this is when the gloves come off and the battle is joined. And you'll notice that they don't respond in a similar manner to Jewish or Moslem holidays; for some reason they don't see those as much of a threat. But Good Friday in particular, when Christ said “It is finished”, drives them into paroxysms of rage and – dare I say it? -- hate. (I've always observed that one sees a lot more really bad and aggressive driving from Good Friday through Easter – maybe my imagination but I don't think so. I noticed the bad driving first, then made the connection.) Basically, Easter is to nonbelievers what garlic and mirrors (and the crucifix) are to vampires.
It's not unlike the situation with the pope and the Catholic Church. On any given day, you can hear or read some secularist asserting that the Church is hopelessly out of date... it's run by a bunch of silly old white guys (most of whom are perverts)... it's racist, sexist, homophobic (ironically)... and we should just ignore it and get on with our lives. And then the next day they get all fired up and say the same thing all over again, and so on. This is not “ignoring” the Church, folks! For a straw man, it must pack quite a punch. And as for the pope – why, he's as out of touch as a human being can possibly be... the head of a dying (at long last) institution... and so we should ignore him too. This is why the media pounce on everything he says and treat everything he does as news. The media, and their secularist/materialist audience, are obsessed with the pope (whoever he happens to be at the time) and with the Church. They hate it, they can't stand it, but they won't leave it alone. It's a thorn in their side, and always has to be dealt with somehow.
In an even broader sense, we are supposedly living in a post-Christian society, yet the media keep obsessing about Christianity and its “corrosive” effect on politics, economics, foreign affairs, etc. In this, of course, they are no more capable of seeing the divisions within Christianity than most Americans are of seeing the divisions within Islam. To them, Christianity is a monolith (even though Catholicism is the worst kind), and, again, it must be stopped, even though it is hopelessly out of date, irrelevant, blah blah. To them, Christians in general, and Catholics in particular, are not only mentally ill, but downright dangerous. And what's worse, they might succeed in infecting still another generation with superstitious gobbledygook. So Job One is keeping them out of the schools (mission accomplished!), after which comes isolating them into media enclaves (“Christian radio” and “Christian TV” and “Christian publishing”), marginalizing them politically, declaring them persona non grata in the halls of academe and in “respectable journals”, and so on.
Now that the secularists have completed their long march through the institutions, all that remains is to police up the battlefield – round up a few stragglers – and consolidate power. This is why secularization always has a “ratchet effect” -- each victory is locked into place and there is no going back. If this were an unconscious, random process it might be otherwise, but it is anything but. Not only is it a program, but it has become a government program, especially since the 1960s, but with precursors going back much further. (I can still remember my 5th grade teacher (in public school) – a Catholic, no less, who would openly talk about God in class. Can you imagine? She would be out on her ear these days, and the teachers' unions wouldn't rush to her defense either.) (And yes, we had a Christmas pageant, with the Holy Family, shepherds, and wise men, and the Jewish kids took part. Ah yes, such simple, naïve times, compared to the PC paranoia, hypersensitivity, and overall chaos of the present day.)
So the militant atheists, as I call them, are perpetually tearing their hair and declaring war on a nonexistent god, and on those who worship this nonexistent god. They write one book after another, and go on TV and the Internet, to further their campaign against – nothing, basically. They spout all sorts of blasphemies and criticisms against this god who does not exist. You've heard and read them more than once, I'm sure. And the fact that so many of the more prominent militant atheists of our time are British, with those highbrow (or at least middlebrow) accents – well! If that doesn't win you over, what will? They sit there all nice and smug and well-fed in their tweed jackets and, basically, call you a pathetic idiot (if you're a person of faith – any faith). And what do they have faith in? Nothing, basically. But if they did it would be “reason” -- that marvelous floating amorphous cure-all that would solve every problem and meet every human need if only the peasantry would yield to their superiors. (This has been tried at least once, at the time of the French Revolution, which is honored to this day as the high water mark of secular “reason”. And let's not get too hung up on the Reign of Terror, the guillotine, and the fact that, after killing the king, they wound up with an emperor not long afterward.)
This is what I find most puzzling, I suppose, about atheists – of either type. They really are completely satisfied with the world as it is – at least in the metaphysical sense. No sense talking about the “argument from design” (or its scientific cousin, Intelligent Design) as evidence for a creator – they have Evolution, and randomness, and bubble universes on their side. And if religion is so “unnatural”, why does virtually every human group, both historically and in the present day, show a religious impulse and spiritual yearnings? Well, that's a mutation, you see – an unfortunate bump in the road on the way to perfect reason and enlightenment. But if there is no God, how can you have morality? Ah, but we have “ethics”, and common sense, and – again – reason, which cureth all ills.
And the amazing thing (to either side) is that people can live their entire lives with a given world view; there is never a point at which they fall on their knees blinded by the light (of faith, or of reason). (Or, best of all, by a combination of the two, as perfected by Thomas Aquinas.) So there is no arguing – nor should there be. People of faith should be “reasoned” in their faith just as nonbelievers have faith in “reason”. You really can sit down over coffee and talk about these things; no weapons of mass destruction required. But to gain converts (in either direction)? Good luck with that. We are talking about drastically different world views here – different figure, different ground. Different metaphysics, different epistemology. And yet, is it not the same world that is before all of our eyes? This in itself is a mystery. But let the conversation continue (off school property, of course).