Friday, December 12, 2008

How the Grinch Stole Atheism

When it comes to separation of church and state, I am 100% in favor. The intrusion of religion into law is deeply dangerous for a free society; religious belief should not be legislated any more than it should be outlawed.

But should it be illegal to celebrate?

To me, Christmas lights in public parks, Passover seders in town halls, and Ramadan specials in grocery stores (note: I do not know of a grocery store that does this) show evidence of a dynamic, diverse America wherein different cultures can exist side-by-side. None of these religious holidays exists for the purpose of condemning anyone; instead, their intention is to uplift. There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to express joy, as long as the celebration is inclusive, not exclusive.

And that's where I've got a problem with the sign that the Freedom from Religion Foundation erected in the capitol building in Olympia, Washington, which declares that "Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." While the local government gamely agreed to plunk the sign down next to their Christmas tree, believing that they were legally required to accommodate all viewpoints in a government building, the sign does not belong, because the sign is irrelevant. It does not exist in celebration of any holiday. It doesn't even support any particular belief, except the belief that it's wrong to believe anything. Even worse: it's just mean. It flies in the face of the goodwill gesture that is displaying nativity sets and menorahs. I'm sure the Freedom from Religion Foundation is delighting in the controversy they've deliberately stirred up, which allows them to play the victim card that's usually in the hands of conservative Christians. But it's a hollow victory, attained by a low blow. Separation of church and state is a worthy cause; why forgo the fight for the childish satisfaction of giving all people of faith the finger?

Ironically, the back side of the sign (shown in the second image) contains this poem by Eleanor Wheeler Wilcox:
The World's Need

So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind.
When just the art of being kind
Is all this sad world needs.

Call it atheism, humanism or common sense, but "The World's Need" (unlike the diatribe on the front of the sign) would actually fit in rather well between a nativity scene and a menorah.


Wilder Konschak said...

Think of it this way, perhaps: this sign is making a lot of silently atheist people feel a lot less alone and hopeless during the holiday season, and that's the kind of warmth the holiday is all about.

In any case, I feel sympathy for the organization, because of stuff like this:

Matt said...

The point being made was that any one religion shouldn't have preferential promotion in a public space.
Publically-funded Christmas displays are a clear message to non-Christians that their beliefs are not considered as worthy by their government (to whom, it should be noted, they also pay taxes).
Private spaces are a different matter of course (Christmas lights on houses or as you say, Ramadan specials in grocery stores) and they're all perfectly fine.
But for the government, who manages our public spaces, it's a very different matter.
It was the right decision to allow the Winter Solstice sign to be erected next to the nativity scene.
But an even better decision would have been to remove them both.