The jobs don't pay a lot, and you take most of your pay in self-esteem, but somebody is always trying out for village idiot or village atheist. Often they're one and the same.
Lately we've seen fresh pursuit of these positions, fueled by a rash of books about atheism, or more accurately, irrational screeds mocking those who have the faith the authors clearly envy. Atheists are organizing. They have their registered lobbyist now on Capitol Hill, and they're planning a revival meeting in Arlington in September.
No tents, no hymns, and there won't be sawdust on the trail, but big names in the godless firmament are nevertheless promised, including Prof. Richard Dawkins, the recognized Elmer Gantry of the movement; Christopher Hitchens, the author of witty books about his latest visions, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, famously abused by Islamist thugs. Madelyn Murray O'Hair, the lodestar of the movement, however, is still dead. But there will be a screening of "The Life of Brian," the Monty Python tale that has become "The Passion of the Christ" for hip heathen; caricature artists "captur[ing] convention moments of your choice" (at $15 per moment), workshops on "secular parenting," and sessions on "how to organize, develop and maintain an Atheist Meet-up," which is presumably where skeptical singles meet, greet and gaze dreamily into each other's not-so-heavenly eyes.
Merely driving by a church to shake a fist at the steeple on a Sunday morning is no longer enough to make an atheist tingle. They're taking tips from the televangelists they affect to despise. Prof. Dawkins, the Oxford don turned shill for the thrill of believing in nothing, has an Internet site that Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker would have envied, with a button to click to contribute money to support proselytizing for the cult of unbelief. The professor, who sits in something called the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford when he is not jetting hither and yon to search for opportunities at Atheist Meet-ups, is trying to get his co-religionists to call themselves "Brights," as opposed to what one of his admirers call the "knuckle-dragging morons" whose lives have been touched by divine fire.
One of the most fervent evangelists is Christopher Hitchens, whose book "god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" is currently for atheists what Chairman Mao's Little Red Book was for the Chinese millions only yesterday. (Note that God gets only a small-g in the title; Hitch is an overflowing font of cleverness.) Hitch particularly despises the legacy of Mother Teresa, whom he calls "the ghoul of Calcutta," and when the Vatican opened proceedings to make her a saint he was invited to testify as a devil's advocate. Since such witnesses for the prosecution are no longer called "devil's advocates," Hitch volunteered to "represent the devil pro-bono."
The death the other day of the Rev. Jerry Falwell put another log on the fire of atheist orthodoxy. Not for the atheists the Roman admonition -- "nil nisi bonum" -- to speak only good of the dead. Hitch has said some of the meanest things about the founder of the Moral Majority, but not all. An editorialist in Arkansas, of all unlikely places, couldn't wait to throw a few rocks. Paul Greenberg, who displays his piety and unction daily in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, went on the attack before Mr. Falwell was even in the cold, cold ground of southwest Virginia. Declaring himself "a survivor of 2,000 years of Christian charity," the sage of Little Rock's Fourche Bayou bottoms likened the reverend to Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky, and noting that Mr. Falwell "once participated in a civil dialog with spokesmen for homosexual Americans," sneered: "I can't recall him ever falling into decency again."
The atheists reckon they don't have much time. Prof. Dawkins warns that America, with its law, literature and customs rooted in Judeo-Christian religion, is slipping into nothing less than a new Dark Age, with only worthies like himself -- or maybe only himself -- standing between civilization and the abyss. The professor enjoys the reputation of a man who doesn't suffer fools gladly, suffering himself being a full-time job, but the wares of an apostle of despair are not easy to sell. When a debate opponent greeted him not long ago with hand extended for a friendly shake, the professor kept his hands at his side. "You, sir," he said, "are an ignorant bigot." It was a sally worthy of the freshman at the sophomore smoker.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.