I am disappointed in my friends, the atheists. God, I am disappointed. The cause: The recent news that the American Atheists are threatening to sue the Princeton municipality if it goes ahead with plans to create a 9/11 memorial using a World Trade Center I-beam that includes a cross-like symbol, presumably cut into it by workers clearing the debris from the attack that occurred 12 years ago today.
So why the hell am I so disappointed? First of all because I think you should take your piece of history as it is presented. The cross cut into the I-beam might be a symbol of hope expressed by a God-fearing Christian rescue worker. Or it could be an angry fist in the face of the non-Christians who guided those planes into the Trade Center. The Princeton World Trade Center memorial could raise some questions about who attacked us and how we reacted. Would they want us to learn about the Crusades in history class without mentioning the church?
I’m also disappointed in my atheist friends because for a few years now I have been meaning to write a column about atheists, and how good they have been at turning the other cheek, so to speak, in all sorts of circumstances where they could be raising Cain instead.
Understand first that being an atheist is no church picnic. When the Gallup Poll asks flat out if Americans believe in God, more than 90 percent say yes. While people admitting to not having any formal religious affiliation has increased slightly in recent years, the number of Americans calling themselves atheist is less than 2 percent.
It’s a God-fearing country, after all. You pledge allegiance to the flag: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” As an atheist you might wonder: Does anyone realize the “under God” phrase was stuck in there in 1954, as a rallying cry against all those godless communists?
The president is sworn into office: “I do solemnly swear” and so on, leading to that resolute ending, “so help me God.” And you might wonder: Does anyone realize that those last four words are not part of the presidential oath at all? In fact they have been tacked on to the oath defined by the Constitution. Historians are unsure of when this practice began but all presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt have used the phrase.
All of our recent presidents profess to have God on their side. The president addresses the nation and he concludes with “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” As an atheist you might wonder: If there is a God why would He, She, or It bless the United States, of all countries?
But an avowed atheist (if that term can be used) running for president wouldn’t have a prayer. The Gallup Poll asked the question in 1958 and found that a mere 18 percent would want a non-believer to be president. Just recently atheists broke a barrier: In 2012 Gallup found that 54 percent would vote for a “well qualified” atheist for president. Not bad, until you discover that atheists are trailing gays (68 percent would vote for one of them) and Muslims (58 percent).
Not that atheists deserve any better. In fact, I don’t mean to suggest that they are any better than their God-fearing cousins. Nor would I argue that the faithful are diminished in any way by their beliefs. If you read the column titled “What Is the Purpose of Your Life?” by the Rev. Peter Stimpson of Trinity Church in the September 4 issue of U.S. 1, you might realize you do not need to believe in God to subscribe to every piece of advice offered by that clergyman.
Even Pope Francis has acknowledged the common values that the religious can share with the atheists. While Catholic scholars quickly quibbled over the exact meaning of his words, the pontiff said “we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment is a beautiful path towards peace . . . We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: We will meet one another there.”
In 1990 a guy named Herb Silverman ran for governor of South Carolina to protest a state law that banned atheists from holding public office. Though he lost by a huge margin, the state did repeal the law and Silverman took away a lesson: Atheists need to follow the lead of gays and “come out” about their beliefs, or lack thereof. “The more role models we have the better things will be,” he said.
It’s one thing to denigrate a hypothetical atheist; it’s another to knock the guy who sits across from you at work. Some of you who have bothered to read up to this point may wonder if it’s my time to “come out.”
I say better to save it for the Judgment Day. If I don’t die but instead pass on in a glorious burst of light, transcend to the pearly gates, and meet my maker, what then will I say? Dear readers, close your eyes, bow your heads, and maybe you can see it as I do: Just beyond the gates is Phil Rizzuto and a gaggle of my other fallen Yankee heroes — Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle, et al — sitting around and eating cannolis exactly as Yogi Berra had predicted at Phil’s Yankee Stadium memorial service in 2007.
Off to the other side is my mother, giving me an “I told you so” look.
And when the Big Guy asks me to explain myself, I meekly shrug my shoulders and quietly declare, as I have in so many instances when I have been wrong on earth: “Well, I’ll be damned.”