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The Modern Village Atheist

No matter how thick a book is or how well you might like it, isn't it true that you only remember a few scenes? Why that scene and not some other?

Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry brushed off the village atheist one day. That book was written in 1927. I wondered if people even use that term any more. Village atheist, town drunk, slut, gossip, or do-gooder -- how do they matter to an America that doesn't live in villages anymore? America is a hollowed-out country, a coast-to-coast archipelago of monstrous conurbations. People sat out on porches and kept an eye on each other on Lewis's Main Street. Today we experience our neighbor in the 'burbs only in seeing his garage door open up, a car with tinted windows emerges, it heads off to work or to a fast food drive-through, and then the garage door closes.

The Village Atheist used to be portrayed unsympathetically. If he was jolly enough, he might have been tolerated as the licensed lunatic, but usually he was seen as sour, arrogant, and maladjusted.

Camping with someone in Mormon country once, I recommended that he see some of the Mormon movies that Utah's small film-industry was putting out. They were good. The camper asked if these films proselytized. Actually they did, but you might not notice it at first. Typically the movie would have young guys on their missionary gig. The leading character was a likable young man who had his share of angst over being an ineffective missionary, or being lousy at meeting girls, or uncertain about how to make a living. He was usually paired up with a guy who was more vocal about his doubts in the Faith; this second guy was smart-assed and cynical. The message was that this second guy's doubts aren't worth discussing in a serious way because they really were nothing more than manifestations of a negative personality.

Of course in the modern world, politics has replaced theology as the center of the universe. There is no physical church that worships government, but there is a type of conventional piety. The devout guard the purity of their minds by only getting news from NPR or the BBC.

If you were to point out the fundamental conflict-of-interest in government running a news source, conventional piety of the modern type might think you're joking or being distastefully cynical. If they personally like you, you will be given a condescending and sympathetic smile. After all, there is no point in taking your arguments at face value and getting miffed about them: they know you have a few personality quirks and are just projecting those onto the issue.


Anonymous said…
We seem to migrate to sources that enforce our beliefs. Unfortunately that doesn't leave much room for growth or progress as a group. Perhaps you are giving us a peek at your biases?

Tom in Orlando
Thanks for taking time to write, Tom. Yes, I have plenty of biases and opinions. I try to look for exceptions to my own general slants so there are cross-currents in an essay.

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