Photographs by Albert Yee
Santa is pissed. He’s roaring abuse at the Christmas-stealing atheist grinches who’ve erected a “tree of knowledge” between the nativity scene and the Old Glory statue on the Chester County Courthouse lawn.
It’s a comical sight. Pissed Santas always are. But it’s more than that. It’s symbolic. It’s about Lyra from The Golden Compass with her gypsy and polar bear chums fighting against those God tells to bomb abortion clinics and fly planes into skyscrapers.
Unless you sympathize with those folks, of course. In which case it’s about the ongoing campaign to rip America from God’s bosom.
You might have noticed that America’s atheists have suddenly gone from being a despised, cowed and all but silent minority to a being royal pain in the ass. How exactly did that happen?
Earlier this month, when Mitt Romney dismissed atheists as un-American–“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom”–seven shades of sensibilist shitfire rained down on his head from across the political spectrum.
Something has changed. In the last few years American atheism has grown from a furtive, eccentric fringe phenomenon into a civil rights movement with teeth. Perhaps unsurprisingly Philadelphia–birthplace of freedom (and the First Amendment), home of that first great American Christian-baiter Thomas Paine, and a city that prides itself on free thinking, bullshit detecting and straight talking–is at the center of the gathering atheist storm.
Philadelphia’s atheist story has a cast of characters that wouldn’t look out of place in a Robert Rodriguez movie scripted by a resurrected Tennessee Williams. We will meet a large-breasted exotic dancer and atheist intellectual who loves watching the Christians she debates try to maintain eye contact. And a little girl who, while the adults upstairs are holding a seance, bangs on the basement ceiling with a broom and flashes the lights on and off by removing and replacing the fuses. We’ll meet right-wing libertarians and left-wing liberals, woolly agnostics and hardcore “nontheists,” students, professors of philosophy, moms and dads and YouTubing, blasphemous T-shirt-wearing punk rock troublemakers. The only things they’ve all got in common are: a) they don’t believe in God (or Santa or the Flying Spaghetti Monster) and b) they’re your neighbors.
Motorists driving by as Philadelphia’s atheists erect their tree in West Chester are beeping their horns and giving the thumbs up. One woman shouts: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” But pissed Santa is having none of it.
“You people are being hypocritical!” he snarls through his gray beard, the white bobble on his red hat bobbing up and down in anger.