Bernard McGarty: What if La Crosse had been an atheist settlement?
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Bernard McGarty: What if La Crosse had been an atheist settlement?

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McGarty Bernard

McGarty Bernard

As I drove slowly through Rotary Lights at Riverside Park and tuned my radio to the carols, I experienced joy.

Beauty has that effect on me. At this year’s La Crosse Symphony Orchestra Christmas concert, the magnificent sounds were another transcendent experience. A menorah and “Happy Hanukkah” greeting touched my soul. Jewish friends soon will celebrate Purim. Members of Islam will depart for Mecca and the Hajj.

I thought of atheist friends, wishing they might experience similar joy and transcendence. Then the thought occurred to me: What if La Crosse had been settled exclusively by atheists? What would La Crosse be like today?

I am not thinking of Native Americans, who related to Great Manitou, and whose land we occupied. I am thinking of ancestors who began settling here in the 1800s. What if all were atheists, until today?

All of the outdoor lighting of private homes in the city and countryside would be dark, compounding the cold of winter. The symphony would not have a theater with perfect acoustics, such as the house provided by the Franciscan Sisters. If the symphony were to play in a less august space, any of the religious music of Mendelssohn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Bizet and Verdi would be offensive to atheist ears. Dave Brubeck died recently. His jazz Mass would be anathema. No Muslim sound would call followers to pray five times a day. An a cappella Orthodox chant would not be heard at St. Elias Church.

If all citizens were atheist, there would be no Christmas presents: a fiscal earthquake, beyond a fiscal cliff. No three kings following an Epiphany star, elevating our eyes out of January blues and bills.

Longing for spring, there would be no Ash Wednesday, no Yom Kippur, no fasting at Ramadan, to atone for human error and sin. At Passover, Holy Week and then Easter, no hearing Handel’s “Messiah,” celebrating resurrection. The “Messiah” lifts me off my feet. I soar as I hear it. Does atheism produce any comparable composition celebrating nothingness? By their fruits you shall know them.

By my calculation, there would be no Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center, no Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare in

La Crosse if all citizens were atheist. Two hospitals without religious sponsorship did not survive in La Crosse. A hospital in town is a nice convenience.

The Chamber of Commerce could not advertise La Crosse as “God’s Country.” There would be no Viterbo University, no St. Rose Convent and its incomparable chapel. No Luther High School, no Aquinas High School would exist, offering alternative private education to any youth. There would be no Salvation Army or First Baptist for the Homeless. No Place of Grace, or Our Savior’s Lutheran for a free meal. No Lutheran or Catholic Social Service to help the troubled and unemployed. There would be no YWCA, no YMCA providing a swimming pool, gymnasium, weight room and other programs. Are atheists getting a free ride on we believers?

Life on planet Earth can be tough, hard and cruel. We need some levity for survival. There is the Feast of Booths, Reformation Sunday Thanksgiving Day, St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween prior to All Saints Day. Do atheists send or receive valentines? Do they sing songs, tell a joke or buy a drink on Paddy’s Day? At Mardi Gras, do they dance? Are atheist children allowed to trick-or-treat or dress in funny costumes? Do they believe in fun? Do they laugh at themselves as Garrison Keillor does of Lutherans and Norwegians? Are “free thinkers” getting a free ride on our feasts? Is Groundhog Day their feast day?

If atheists were to control the public library and public education, they would not want John Milton’s “Paradise Lost and Paradise Gained” or Dante’s classics or the Bible or Koran or Gita or “Lives of the Saints” or Bunyan’s “Pilgrims Progress” Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” or O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” or “The Other Wise Man” by Van Dyke. For theater, no production of “Fiddler on the Roof or “Sound of Music” or “Joseph and His Technicolor Coat” or “Joan of Arc.”

In art class, forget Byzantine Orthodox mosaic, African Madonna and Child or any of Raphael, El Greco, Caravaggio, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Titian or Giotto.

In La Crosse County, there are 110 congregations: temples, mosque, church, synagogue, meeting house. Architecture styles representing historic periods add elegance to a city: I see Le Corbusier (French), Greek Revival, English Gothic, German 19th century Gothic, Art Deco, Romanesque, A-frame, Victorian Gothic, Colonial, Cologne Modern Gothic, Bauhaus, contemporary and more.

Do atheists close their eyes when passing such structures? Do they ever sneak a look at the wonder of stained glass? Like Ulysses, do they put wax in their ears to avoid the siren song of “Joy to the World?”

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