ESSAY- Secret Santa: Why don't athiests peddle <i>their</i> junk?
Every year at this time, as visions of non-denominational sugar plums dance in our heads, Christmas derives great spiritual power from candy-cane bagels, reggae versions of "Silent Night," and Kwanzaa stockings hung by the chimney with care. Christians and heretics alike may decry the commercialization of the holidays, but when gift exchanges confer grace and delicious turkey dinners are the gateway to piety, it's easy to have faith. Almost everyone wants in on the action.
Everyone but Richard Dawkins, the patron saint of faithlessness. According to an article in the New York Times last December, the author of The God Delusion celebrates Christmas for "family reasons" but apparently has even less reverence for Cindy Lou Who than he does for Baby Jesus.
"I detest 'Jingle Bells,' 'White Christmas,' 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,' and the obscene spending bonanza that nowadays seems to occupy not just December, but November and much of October, too," he told the Times.
Is there any more concise illustration of why most Americans would sooner send a gay Hindu divorcée to the White House than a nonbeliever? It's one thing to reject the Lord God Almighty, but Secret Santa too? Even in the bluest blue state, that qualifies as blasphemy.
Atheists have been enjoying a revival during the last few years. Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have hit the bestseller lists with Bible-trumping tomes. All around the country, in an effort to counter the political and cultural clout of those who believe that every stem cell is God's own child and brontosauruses rode Noah's ark, nonbelievers are ramping up their advocacy and recruitment efforts.
The New York City Atheists produce three weekly public-access TV shows. The Rational Response Squad encourages atheists to make their nonbelief public by posting "blasphemous" videos on YouTube. Camp Quest [see local Camp Quest story "Atheist camp: Teachers buck School Board policy," June 14, 2007 –ed.] provides a setting where kids from nonreligious families can roast marshmallows in a rational, freethinking manner in six locations in the United States and Canada. Even old Ebenezer Dawkins has a website that sells buttons, t-shirts, and lapel pins emblazoned with an edgy scarlet A.
So why not just take the next seeker-friendly step and fully embrace the celebration of inclusive humanism and the purchase-driven life that Yuletime has mutated into? Currently, alas, it's much harder to shop for the evangelical nonbelievers on your Christmas list than it is to shop for the devout.
Many Christians will dispute this claim. After all, they started manufacturing faith-based breath mints and holy teddy bears because they were drowning in a secular sea of Bratz dolls, morally corrosive video games, and pagan golf balls. But there's a difference between pop culture with no overt religious component and atheist pop culture, and the difference is striking. Christian organizations like the American Family Association and Concerned Women for America believe gangsta rap is almost as much a threat to society as gay marriage, but when was the last time you heard 50 Cent give a shout-out to that faux-deity of so many atheist in-jokes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster? God and Jesus, on the other hand, are hip-hop icons, praised more often than Grandmaster Flash and Hennessy cognac.
The same goes for Hollywood. While anti-bias truffle pigs like Brent Bozell, William Donohue, and Michael Medved insist the entertainment industry is out to crucify faith and traditional values, it somehow manages to produce a new crop of straight-to-Hallmark-Channel holiday weepies each year, and not one of them has ever featured Dolly Parton as an unlikely evolutionary biologist who reunites an estranged family by infusing them with that old-fashioned Darwinist spirit. Such powers, it seems, are reserved solely for angels.
Similarly, if you go looking for a Madalyn Murray O'Hair action figure at Wal-Mart, you'll have to settle for a 13-inch Samson doll from the faith-based toymaker One2believe. Christian entrepreneurs are better at providing earthly rewards than the folks who believe earthly rewards are our only salvation. In fact, the Lord has called so many believers to spread the Good News via faith-based salt scrubs and godly poker chips during the last few decades that the annual U.S. market for Christian-themed products, often dismissed as "Jesus junk," is now $4.6 billion.
Toss in megachurches that offer the fanfare and bustle of the mall in holiday mode, and prosperity preachers who position God as Oprah Claus, and every day of the year has become a secularized, commercial Christmas for today's Christians. Last August the Church by the Glades, a spiritual Sam's Club in Castle Springs, Florida, started offering first-time guests a $15 iTunes gift card if they came and listened to a sermon. The topic? "How to avoid living in a self-absorbed world."
Of course, many Christians decry the effects such entrepreneurship has on their faith. Jesus, they remind us, is more than just the hardest-working pitchman this side of Jared the Subway Guy. When Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, turns the Good Book into the Good Power-Point Slide for his easily distracted flock, something gets lost in the transition.
But something is gained too. Namely, millions of believers who aren't too crazy about inconvenient concepts like sin and judgment but are completely devoted to products like Virtuous Woman perfume– designed, according to its manufacturer, for women "who are interested in incorporating a passion for sharing their faith with a beauty product that makes them feel and smell really good."
Look for atheist perfume, and you'll be looking for eternity. Try to find the works of Bertrand Russell packaged like the latest issue of Self or Cosmo, as the publishing company Thomas Nelson does with the Bible. ("Becoming is the complete New Testament in magazine format, but it wouldn't be a culture 'zine if it didn't address men, beauty, fitness and food!") Search for the atheist equivalent to Christian yo-yos and Christian neckties, and you'll come up as empty-handed as Mother Teresa passing the plate at Christopher Hitchens' dinner table.
To many freethinkers, the idea of atheist lip balm or atheist jelly beans may be even less appealing than Christian lip balm and Christian jelly beans. One virtue of non-belief is that not every aspect of your life has to be yoked to some clingy deity who feels totally left out if you don't include Him in everything you do. And then there's the logical disconnect: What does candy have to do with atheism? Why not stick with books, arguments, reason?
If today's Christian entrepreneurs thought like that, atheists might not have to be concerned about their own current marginalization. Instead of fretting about "obscene spending bonanzas" or admitting that jelly beans are mentioned in the Bible exactly as often as Homo habilis is, Christian entrepreneurs embrace pop culture. They recognize what the consumer puritans behind efforts like Buy Nothing Day never quite grasp: that the stuff we buy, from lipstick to Star Wars figures, helps to fashion identities, to build communities, to infuse our lives with purpose and meaning.
At last year's International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta, hundreds of vendors displayed a vast, rich Eden of Christian pop culture products that were just as slickly produced, just as fashionable and entertaining as anything secular pop culture has to offer.
Atheists, meanwhile, are still in the pop Dark Ages. Their t-shirts aren't as visually appealing, their tchotchkes aren't as diverse, and their rock bands aren't spreading a 110-decibel message of rational humanism. It's time to evolve past the Darwin Fish and fill nonbelievers' stockings with atheist junk that's as gloriously profane as the junk blessed by Jesus.
Greg Beato writes regularly about pop culture for many publications including Reason, where this essay first appeared.