Pulling the plug on higher power 

Suppose you woke up tomorrow and found that U.S. currency now read "In Buddha we trust," Christmas had faded off the government calendar but the banks were closed on Yom Kippur, and prayer had been brought back into schools: all classes were required to start the day by facing east and bowing to Mecca. Suppose the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus were accepted as real and viable, and even the language was imbued with nods to the foreign or paranormal ("Krishna Bless You!" "Thank the Grays!").

The Christian right would be crying like a woman with PMS over other religions having privileges they claim are theirs alone, and you'd probably feel a little left out in a culture where what you see as fiction is treated as fact, or at least accorded polite respect.

After spending two days at the American Atheist Convention, you get an idea that that's probably how they feel much of the time in a culture that adores spirituality and the outer limits in all its forms. Atheists, simply put, don't believe in God. Any God. They're content with the natural world and aren't interested in whether somebody up there likes them. They don't think there's anybody up there.

Heaven can wait

"We can't be wasting time on ‘what-ifs' when there's so much to know about what is," said Ronald Barrier, the group's director of media communications in a convention debate with Christian author Ray Comfort titled "Does God Exist?" It's an argument that no one probably expected to solve in 90 minutes at an airport Marriott, but this Cerebral-ty Death Match is more fun to watch than monster trucks. Comfort, a lively Australian with a pocketful of dinner-speaker jokes, uses the Bible to support the Bible's validity, as sound a debate tactic as "Cuz I said so." It's like watching two people analyze a movie when only one person has seen it.

This debate was open to the public, and some zealous young Christians showed up and found themselves squabbling politely with a few atheists afterwards. A beautiful girl of about 17 asked a nonbeliever to promise that he would, on his own, honestly ask God to reveal Himself to him. He said he would if she promised to honestly write a letter to Santa and ask for presents.

Other speakers included William B. Davis, who plays Cigarette Smoking Man on "The X-Files" and who neither smokes nor believes in the supernatural. He had a crisis of conscience, he said, about being a nonbeliever and possibly validating the paranormal to viewers, but he realized the audience could recognize fiction and went about being part of TV history. He now does segments for "Discovery Science," debunking things like magnet therapy and homeopathy. Unlike Fox Mulder, it seems, he does not want to believe.

In a talk subtitled "Putting Religiosity and Hyper-Moral-ism Above Sound Public Health Policies," William Smith, director of public policy for the Sexu-ality Information and Education Council of the United States, questioned the idea of abstinence as the only form of sex education that should be taught in some public school classrooms. Such government-funded programs were taught by only 2 percent of teachers in 1988 but had expanded to 23 percent by 1999. These programs skip over birth control and tell students that abstinence is the only way to prevent STDs and pregnancy, despite the fact that 50 percent of high-school students are having sex and half of new HIV cases are found in people younger than 25, he said. There's not enough evidence to support that abstinence-only programs work, but teaching about abstinence as well as contraception does. An Associated Press story recently reported that teen pregnancy is down, but demographer Stephanie Ventura says in that story that it's probably due to teens using contraception and that "every state has a teen pregnancy prevention program." Spending tax dollars to not teach vulnerable, curious teen-agers anything is an anti-logic it's hard to understand.

The gods? Must be crazy

The mood was a little lighter in a presentation by Arlo Pignotti, a collector of "religious kitsch." Pignotti had a "ticket to Hell" given out to people who stood in line to see "The Last Temptation of Christ," some Heaven and Hell dollars found in an Asian market (you buy them for your dead pals depending on where you think they ended up so they'll have something to spend once they get there), and a prayer rock, which you're supposed to put on your pillow: when it slips off and whacks you on the head it reminds to say your prayers. Pignotti also said he was wearing WWJD pants with that now-famous acronym emblazoned on the zipper so, he said, whenever you open your fly you could wonder, What Would Jesus Do?

The Atheists had some good schwag of their own, mainly books, but also some bumper stickers, such as "Atheism ... it's not what you believe," "Save you? God can't cure acne," and one that would likely be a hit, "WWJD -- Who Wants Jelly Donuts?"

If only their marketing were as aggressive as some other people's.

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