If you want to annoy an anarchist, say something like this: “Anarchist organization? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” And then scoff dismissively.

Certainly puts a twitch in my bomb-throwing arm. But the recent movement of atheist churches has provoked thoughts similar to that anti-anarchist canard. Isn’t an atheist religion kinda, I dunno, a contradiction in terms?

Given the past 8 years, which were really a topper to the past 30 years of ascending fundamentalist Christian political power, I understand why my fellow atheists would start to band together.

More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

Check out that note of surprise: “even here.” More like “definitely here.” Atheists feel surrounded — besieged — in The Bible Belt, so it’s only natural they would seek each other out for comfort and security. And I really appreciate the likening to the queer rights movement:

“It’s not about carrying banners or protesting,” said Herb Silverman, a math professor at the College of Charleston who founded the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, which has about 150 members on the coast of the Carolinas. “The most important thing is coming out of the closet.”

Emphasis mine. All well and good. Getting politically organized and active in defense of true religious freedom — including the freedom from religion (pace Mitt Romney) — via groups like the Secular Coalition for America or the United Coalition for Reason is long overdue. The ACLU can’t do all the heavy-lifting.

My reservations kick in when I start thinking about joining such a group. Granted, I am not much of a joiner (a condition common to cartoonists and, um, cranks alike.) Occasionally I like to hang out with a fellow atheist and gripe about creationism or fundamentalism or The Pope. Yet I like myths, gods and rituals. The problem with creationism is not the creation story itself, but the insistence that it replace science in explaining origins of the universe. Yet myths have a cultural, symbolic explanatory power that can be useful. The question is, to what use is a powerful myth being put? Or in whose interests? I am much more in sympathy with raging liberation theologian and Marxian critic Terry Eagleton, who insists on viewing Jesus as a revolutionary against exploitation and for the poor, than, say, Christopher Hitchens, who is an asshole.

The challenge for atheists is not an argument of absolute truth or the infallibility of science. Everyone loses the first and only an idiot believes in the second. The challenge is storytelling. What is the atheist myth of creation? Of righteous living? Of a “purpose-driven life” (to borrow a popular homophobe’s phrase)? If that can get sorted out, another challenge lies down the road: How do you prevent that from ossifying into dogma? For any new movement, I cannot recommend enough periodic viewings of Monty Python’s great film on religious and political organization, The Life of Brian.


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