Christ out of Christmas article: Philadelphia Weekly

Taking the Christ out of Christmas


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.

Courting controversy: The Freethought Society's tree of knowledge accompanies a nativity scene and an actual fake Christmas tree at the Chester County seat.

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.

We're at the Chester County Courthouse, scene of a recent ding-dong battle between the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Christians over the Ten Commandments posted on the outside wall right alongside the front door. The plaque went up in 1920, back when Chester County boasted hundreds of Ku Klux Klan members, and packed revival meetings met under banners proclaiming: “Christ for West Chester: West Chester for Christ.”

Though it was covered up for 14months after a 2002 ruling that it violated the separation of church and state, the plaque is back in full view. But now it has the tree of knowledge—festooned with gold-sprayed pinecones and laminated color copies of book covers—for company. Some of the authors and titles are predictable: Richard Dawkins, Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, Christopher Hitchens. Others not so much, like the Bible and the Koran—both essential reading for anyone who wants to see how daft religion is, says Freethought Society president Margaret Downey.

If all goes according to plan, next year's tree will go up in the free-speech zone on Philadelphia's Market Street, next to the nativity scene, where it would've been this year if not for the fact it would've been dwarfed by a giant menorah, says Downey. Next year she'll leave the Freethought Society to head up a national organization, the Atheist Alliance International.

Branching out: Atheists feel freer to promote their beliefs these days.

Downey's the go-to atheist when Fox News, sick of seeing intellectually challenged God-botherers like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly get chewed to shreds by the combative cigarette- and whiskey-breathed Brit Christopher Hitchens (author of 2007's atheist bestseller God Is Not Great), decide they need a well-spoken American lady to represent the forces of godless evil instead.

After the erection of the West Chester tree, Fox paired Downey with an eager young priest. Glammed up to the nines, the politely smiling Downey ran rings round the boy.

“I regularly lecture students at Penn,” she says. “One student told me, ‘When we heard you were an atheist, I thought you were going to look like a gypsy or something—and then in walks Mary Tyler Moore.'”

Don't be fooled. Downey is hardcore. The battle-scarred veteran of a thousand fights against intolerance, she flat out told her own kids that the story most central to the American Christmas experience is almost certainly bunkum. Which was cool … until her kid went to school and told other kids.

“The other parents went crazy—‘My kids are asking me if it's true that Santa isn't real. Will you shut your child up?'

“Christians don't own Christmas,” says Downey. “If they did, you'd have Jesus grottos in department stores. You'd have kids sitting in the Virgin Mary's lap.”

Back in West Chester, such subtleties are lost on Santa. “You're being hypocritical!” he shouts. “That's a Christmas tree. I'm a Christian. Jesus is the reason for the season!”

Santa storms off angrily before the startled atheists can point out that dressing as an old pagan fertility god (who was co-opted by the churches and was then co-opted again by the retail industry), and then heckling others for “stealing” Christmas, verges on the surreal.




Downey, 57, was brought up by her Puerto Rican mom in a dirt-poor quarter of Baton Rouge, La., and later Los Angeles. Her Irish dad left home when she was 3. She got angry about injustice and intolerance early on—“I could never figure out why my mother was belittled for her accent and why my half-sister Martha, a person of color, had to sit at the back of the bus.” And she stayed angry.

Downey developed a contempt for superstition at an early age. She watched her relatives endlessly pray for divine intervention while she worked her 9-year-old ass off sewing “so the kids at school wouldn't recognize the hand-me-down Goodwill clothes I wore,” and so her mom wouldn't have to again beg neighbors for handouts.

The precocious young Downey questioned everything. When given a talking doll, she immediately broke it open to find out how it worked. And yes, she's the little girl providing the upstairs seance with the banging and the flashing lights.

She adopted Uncle Floyd, a Japanese-American friend, as a father figure, and bombarded him with questions. He told her to look the answers up, and gave her a set of encyclopedias, which proved great for Downey's education but bad news for her immortal soul.

An imperfect 10: Freethought Society president Margaret Downey isn't big on the Commandments, which still dominate the Chester County Courthouse facade.

“I came across the religious stuff, and I just thought, ‘This is silly!' I told Floyd, and he said, ‘Margaret, I think you must be an atheist, just like I am.' I said, ‘Atheist, what's that? He told me to look it up.”

Uncle Floyd died when Downey was 15. Years later, as Downey herself lay nearly choking to death in a hospital recovery room, she says she saw Uncle Floyd again.

“It was the full near-death experience,” she says. “The white light, the tunnel—and there at the end of the tunnel was Uncle Floyd, smiling and holding a book.”

So did Downey take this as definitive proof of an afterlife, repent her ungodly, blasphemous and sinful ways, and accept Jesus Christ as her personal savior?

No. She went and found out all she could about near-death experiences. From books.

“Turns out it's pretty common,” she says over breakfast at the Center City Ritz-Carlton, “probably caused by a chemical released by the brain.”

Over the years Downey has thrown herself into various causes—antismoking, antiracism, feminism. And then in 1990 the Boy Scouts of Pennsylvania made a big mistake. They rejected Downey's son Matt—a scout in good standing for seven years in New Jersey—for being an atheist.

The Scouts didn't know it at the time, but they'd just pissed off the atheist equivalent of a mama grizzly bear. The ongoing battle to get the Scouts to accept nonbelievers (and gays) turned Downey into a world-renowned fighter for atheist rights.

The Boy Scouts in Philadelphia have lost their lease after failing to amend their nondiscrimination policy. They refused to pay up to $200,000 a year “fair market value” rent for the city property for which they formerly paid $1 a year.




Back in West Chester, the erection of the tree of knowledge has turned this patch of grass into a sort of symbolist theme park. Old Testament morality jostles patriotism, piety and the Teutonic/Victorian reinvention of the pagan yule symbol that is the “traditional” Christmas tree.

There's one around the corner. Unlike the tree of knowledge, it's artificial, festooned in all manner of glitter and tinsel and other seasonal tat. And—again unlike the tree of knowledge—it makes no mention of Jesus.

Later in the evening—as the temperature drops savagely—there's a ceremony. A middle-class couple lead their pretty, expensively dressed and well-behaved daughter to the nativity scene and talk in loud voices about its significance, ignoring the speech-making atheists not 2 yards away.

Rudolph Bär, an immigrant from Amsterdam, turns up to show his support. Rudolph's too late for Santa, which is a pity. But he's just in time for self-described “redneck American patriot” and grandmother-of-11 Audrey Van Loan from nearby Malvern. She stands across the busy street, holding up a Bible.

The tree of knowledge is “a travesty and a sin” and “one more step down the slippery slope,” says Van Loan, who recently stopped attending the Good Samaritan Episcopal church in Malvern “because it got too liberal.”

Van Loan sees America's atheists, war protesters and liberals as symptoms of a decadent “multicultural and diverse” society that's moving away from “Judeo-Christian values.”

“You know that story of the frog that's boiled slowly so it won't hop out of the pan? Well the majority of Judeo-Christians in America are asleep. They're like that frog. Being boiled alive slowly.”

“God will take his hand off America,” she warns. “We will suffer violence and sickness and death.”

Over the road Margaret Downey looks at Van Loan's Bible and thinks about shouting: “Have you actually read that?” But she bites her tongue.

In the coming weeks the tree of knowledge will be repeatedly vandalized. One creative soul will remove all the restraining ropes on one side, presumably so the tree will topple into the nativity scene in the first high wind.




That America is undergoing an atheist … “revival” is misleading. And it's not quite an “explosion” yet. “Awakening” sounds about right. Or is that too religious?

Books like Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great are bestsellers. The religion-bashing kids' flick The Golden Compass is showing in mainstream theaters. Atheist meetings, lectures and book readings are packed. Atheist organizations are popping up like mushrooms after the rain.

And then there are the nonjoiners, like 33-year-old Mathilda, a Philadelphian who won't give her real name. She sees no reason to leave Christmas to the Christians.

“To me Christmas means eggnog lattes and gingerbread cake at Starbucks and hanging out with my Jewish family at the movies,” she says. “I also just got an awesome winter wonderland snow globe at Target. Sure, it plays that sucky ‘Santa's coming to town' song, but it's cool.”

Mathilda says she's “a reasonable and tolerant person.”

“My problem is that sentiment isn't returned—like the boycott of The Golden Compass. That pisses me off. Pledging allegiance to one nation ‘under God' pisses me off. That my right to choose an abortion is constantly being questioned and threatened pisses me off. That when I travel outside of the country, everyone I meet assumes I'm a fucking moron God-fearing, self-righteous American pig pisses me off. Nancy Grace, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Arlen Specter piss me off. Christian bumper stickers piss me off. I could go on.”

There have probably always been thousands of Mathildas in Philadelphia, and for generations most of them have suffered in silence. All that's really changed, thanks to the rise of the new atheism, is that now they can speak out without fear of losing their job or being shouted down. Or murdered.

All those things still happen, though. Margaret Downey has files full of discrimination stories. Sometimes it's an executive sidelined for having a nonreligious relative. And sometimes it's more serious.Like the atheist soldiers in Iraq who've received death threats and were told they were a disgrace to America by a senior officer. Like in June 2004 when Christian Eagle Scout Arthur Shelton killed his roommate Larry Hooper because he didn't believe in God.




In Margaret Downey's Chester County home two Freethought Society veterans with awesomely biblical names—Bill Wisdom and Mike Judge—help make decorations for the tree of knowledge.

The ground is shaking, says the 55-year-old Judge: “A few years ago the Atheists Alliance International conference in Tampa was attended by 250 people. This year in Washington we got 500—with 600 on the waiting list.”

Seventy-three-year-old retired Temple philosophy professor Bill Wisdom—a former born-again Christian who's been an atheist for 50 years—says he's never seen anything like it.

“We've had one author with the public's ear before. Two or three even. But four or five like now? Is it a blip? No. I think we've reached critical mass.”

In Philadelphia alone there's the Freethought Society, the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia, the Ethical Society, the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, the 100-member First Church of Atheism and a bunch of internationally known troublemakers who call themselves the Rational Response Squad (RRS).

Just don't assume they all get along. Hang out with atheists long enough, and you'll hear agnostics referred to as “idiot atheists” and “chickenshit fence-sitters.”

Last year when Richard Dawkins spoke to an enormous spillover crowd at the Free Library, T-shirts with right-wing libertarian slogans were abundant. At other Philly area atheist events, most of the cars in the parking lots seem to sport Kerry/Edwards stickers.

It was Dawkins who wrote that organizing atheists is “like herding cats.” (“I wish people would stop saying that,” tuts Downey, atheist cat-wrangler extraordinaire.)


The atheists of the Philadelphia Atheists Meetup Group, meeting in the Cosí on 12th and Walnut in late November, might be mistaken at first glance for anarchists or some other species of modern urban troublemaker. They have a look of healthily dissatisfied, computer-savvy malevolence about them. They look like they probably don't spend too long coordinating their wardrobes.

One woman stands out. She has short red hair, elfin features, a tight low-cut top and large breasts. This is Kelly O'Connor. She works as a dancer when she's not bashing out passionate and witty articles about the pope for the hugely popular website of Philadelphia's notorious Rational Response Squad.

Last December the RRS issued its Blasphemy Challenge. Claiming that the one absolutely unforgivable sin in Christian theology is to deny the Holy Ghost, they challenged the world's atheists to do just that by posting their denials on YouTube.

Thousands did, provoking a backlash from angry and disgusted Christians—and a perfect storm of publicity.

“We got a lot of death threats,” says Brian Sapient, O'Connor's intense, energetic companion. “We called in the FBI.”

Sapient, impatient with listeners who can't keep up, hammers out statistics, statements and questions. He describes himself as “a self-educated socratic philosopher” and “OCD/ADHD.” You'd never mistake him for the always smiling, always polite Margaret Downey.

The RRS is something new. Some of the urgent, angry youthful energy that in the '60s and '70s might have found expression in the antiwar movement, civil rights or punk seems to be finding voice in the spikier end of the new atheism, alarming grownups and moderates on both sides of the religious divide.

But Downey doesn't have a bad word to say about the RRS, nor they about her. Both are too aware just how powerful and capable of real harm their mutual enemy still is to waste time squabbling over turf or tactics.

Throughout American history atheists have been discriminated against and persecuted. It's been that way since the beginning. The hardcore of the founding fathers were deists. They believed in a creator God, but thought the Bible and other holy texts were childish nonsense.

George Washington—first president of a republic swarming with followers of every bickering, bigoted, nit-picking sect the Christian mind could come up with—wisely kept his antireligious opinions quiet, and ended up being worshipped as something of a god himself.

Philadelphia's Thomas Paine—the revolution's great propagandist—wrote Common Sense, a blistering attack on the absurdity of regarding the Bible as anything other than bad history on great drugs. For this sin of intellectual honesty he was physically and verbally assaulted, libeled, slandered and, but for the efforts of America's atheists and freethinkers, would've been written out of American history entirely. To this day, thanks to Christian opposition, there's no statue of Paine in Philadelphia.

Last March Congressman Pete Stark from California came out as an “nontheist,” stating he had no “God belief.” He's the first open atheist member of Congress. The Secular Coalition for America estimates there are at least 50 other congresspeople still in the closet.

That could change.

“At the moment the Republicans and the Democrats are mired in the fight for the religious vote and ignoring the secular vote,” says Barry Greenstein, a 22-year-old bioanthropology major and the interim vice president of the 35-member Temple University Secular Society.

“And there are a lot of us, a lot more than people think. A lot more. Most of us are still keeping quiet about it.”

And that could change too.

“We've got a lot to offer, and we've been banging on the door for too long,” says Margaret Downey. “All we're asking for is a place at the table.” 

Steven Wells ([email protected]) is PW's arts and entertainment editor.

Photographs by Albert Yee