[6 November 2007]

By Monte Williams

“If God did not exist, we would have to invent him.”

“Dear God, if you were alive, you know we’d kill you.”
—Marilyn Manson

For all the soft-core aspirations of your average cable TV program, superstition and prudery still permeate American culture to a comically horrifying degree, much as they did when I was but a wee lad. The only difference between the ‘80s, the ‘90s, and now is that I have quit caring about the far Right sect of Christianity and its tiresome, histrionic responses to modern art or heavy metal or Nipplegate or Harry Potter or whatever.

By my 30th birthday, I had long-since outgrown the bitter, provocative, reactionary model of atheism I boasted as a teen. However, it came to pass that within a given month this summer, I moved to startlingly religious Twin Falls, Idaho… and Netflixed Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp.  And now, watching this, I feel like I’m 13 again (indeed, at 13 I had planned to get “Atheist” tattooed across my bicep; I soon discovered – pre-tattoo—that I’d been spelling it wrong, and therefore wisely took a permanent stance against tattoos); I’ve lost sleep over the years ‘cause of everything from Freddy and Jason to The Sixth Sense and The Others, but I can say with nary a trace of hyperbole that Jesus Camp is the scariest film I have ever seen.

Cleverly opting to not bog down their movie with subjective narration, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady choose instead to let the viewer choose for him or herself what to make of footage of desperately religious men and women indoctrinating their own children and the children of others with defensive, exclusionary, occasionally even overtly hateful, far Right Christian dogma. These adults and children spend their screen time talking of a cultural “war” between believers and non-believers, and to make the point as clear as possible, the children are made to wear face-paint and conduct a war-dance.

Obviously, any cultural persecution against which these determined far Right Christians are rallying is itself a direct retaliation to years of oppressive, bullying recruitment efforts and smug superiority complexes on the part of the saved. However, I’m not here to mock God and his fanatical fan club, but rather to sit back and let much more clever men and women mock them for me.

If ever an awards show offers a statue in recognition of years of service to atheism (and critical thinking in general), the top contender would have to be The Simpsons. A highlight from the theatrical preview of last summer’s long-awaited (and sorely disappointing) big-screen Simpsons adventure showed a frantic Homer flipping desperately through a bible, only to announce, “This book has no answers!” This was but the longest in a series of such religious jabs dating back to the show’s first seasons in the early ‘90s. I will never forget the awed admiration I felt for the writers of what was once the finest show on television, when a raging Superintendent Chalmers scolded substitute Springfield Elementary Principal Ned Flanders for conducting a prayer in a public school: “God has no place within these walls, just like facts have no place within organized religion!”

Additionally, Bart has sold his soul to his best friend for five bucks, argued that all the cool rock bands are “affiliated with Satan”, and replaced the hymns at his local church with the lyrics to Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”.  Meanwhile, his dysfunctional dad has mistakenly called the holy son “Jeebus”, offered Ganesh a peanut and, in one of the show’s funniest bits, responded to wife Marge’s angry claim that “The Lord only asks for one hour a week” with, “In that case, he should have made the week an hour longer. Lousy God.”

More importantly, and long before it was considered cool or even acceptable to do so, The Simpsons was devoting much of its scripts to exposing the foolishness and hypocrisy of religious authority figures. Unreasonably wholesome Ned Flanders and tired, cynical Reverend Lovejoy are among the show’s most oft-visited targets; one of my favorite moments from the entire run of more than 400 episodes is when Flanders attempts to baptize the Simpson children; Homer’s slow-motion “Noooooo!” is a thing of beauty.

Another of TV’s atheist heroes is Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. Whedon is a self-professed “hard-line atheist”, and so it is little surprise that in the opening moments of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiere, Buffy’s Watcher Giles dismissed Christianity as “popular mythology”. Six years later, the series concluded with an arc wherein Buffy killed her chief antagonist: a preacher.

Religion is a neurological disorder.
  —Bill Maher

It would stand to reason that anyone seeking staunch atheism could expect heavy metal music to provide a lifetime supply, but aside from rare gems like Danzig’s “Godless” and
Alice in Chains’ “Get Born Again”, metal has little to contribute to the atheism archives. Even supposedly Satanic bands seldom have the courage to express so much as an atheist thought. Black Sabbath’s “After Forever” comes to mind (“I’ve seen the truth, yes I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways/ And I’ll be prepared when you’re lonely and scared at the end of our days”), along with suck tracks as Iron Maiden’s “Revelations” and Ozzy Osbourne’s… well… “Revelations”.

These songs and many like them seem to be little more than frustrating and calculated attempts to deflect conservative Christian attacks; How can I be a Satan-worshipper if I sing a song like this? It wasn’t until the arrival of Marilyn Manson, cheesy and uneven as his lyrics can be, that we were presented a proper atheist anthem in the form of “Fight Song”, with its simple but stirring chorus: “I’m not a slave to a god that doesn’t exist”.

Of course, an atheist song need not be angry, defiant, or hateful. Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms”, being a ballad from the perspective of an atheist (or perhaps an agnostic) in love with a believer, is among the most touching love songs of the past century: “I don’t believe in an interventionist god, but I know, darlin’, that you do. But if I did, I would kneel down and ask him not to intervene when it came to you/ Not to touch a hair on your head, to leave you as you are/ If he felt he had to direct you, than direct you into my arms.”) The irony is that Nick Cave, a believer, wrote arguably the greatest atheist song of all time.

Anyone seeking more choice quotes, insights and witticisms paying tribute godlessness would do well to type “atheist” into YouTube and “atheist quotes” into Google. In the meantime, we are apparently at war. I say, let’s give ‘em hell.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/godless/