It is Christmas time, and as become increasingly frequent in past years, we have atheists who are quite upset about the whole Christmas gig. This time, they have posted a sign next to a nativity scene erected at the state capitol in Olympia, Washington, which states in part:
“There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens our hearts and enslaves our minds.”
Now, nobody is going to deny them the right to say this, and I particularly think that it is valuable that this sort of thing will spark public discussion. At least, I hope it will. But I wonder at the prudence of doing this when I read the rationale behind posting this sign:
Well, because that state Capitol — and by the way, that’s the second one we have had up in a state Capitol is a public forum. If there is going to be a nativity scene that’s pro-Christian, which basically insults those of us who are not Christian, by telling us we’re going to go to hell unless we bow down before that Baby Jesus, then we want an equal time, too. We want a place at the table. We want to show America that we, atheists and agnostics, are here, too.
The assumptions here, of course, is that because the nativity scene is put by at the state capitol building, then it must mean not just that the state permits the Christian message inherent in the nativity, but also that the state approves Christianity, believes Christianity to be true, and is making an aggressive statement to those who don’t believe in Christianity. I accept the rationale that, since it is a public forum, then different viewpoints have a right to be represented, but I do take exception to the belief that the nativity scene is an insult to non-Christians.
For someone who is non-Christian, how to handle the Christmas bustle basically falls into two broad categories. In the first, one can take affront at the visible expression of belief that the majority of people hold. One can even take it as a personal insult, a sign of persecution, and whatever else the mind can imagine. In the second, though, one can simply accept the festivities as the product of the majority, even enjoy the holiday, even if one does not believe that Jesus is the Son of God. That is ultimately a personal choice.
To put it bluntly: one can be bitter or cranky, or one can make the best of the situation. One can read insult and injury into the season, but that is a personal choice. Or one can take pleasure in the celebration and good will that crops up at this time of year (especially since good will sometimes seems surprisingly lacking at other times of the year), and that is also a personal choice. An analogy can be made to the boy who wanted to go to the movies, but his friends all voted to go the water park instead. He can either chose to go along and have fun at the water park, or he can sulk the entire time because most of the others wanted to do something else.
I can understand that atheists probably tire of hearing people proclaim that they’re going to Hell for their disbelief, especially since such denunciations are unjust and maybe even, to an extent, hypocritical (especially in light of the “judge not” clause Jesus gave us). I myself find it nonconstructive and unhelpful to state that others are going to Hell. Charity at least demands we examine a person and find out his reasons for his atheism before deciding whether his immortal soul is in danger. Furthermore, while the threat of fire and brimstone is a terrifying notion, if one is genuinely concerned about another, one should not simply wield the threat of Hell as a cudgel. The Christian faith is rooted in the love of God, not so much the fear of Hell.
On the other hand, I fail to see how this little sign the atheists want to post is constructive. If I walked into someone’s party and told them they were all believers in lies and hard-hearted bigots, I would not expect to receive a warm welcome. I would not expect people to listen charitably to my message and then make calm, insightful rebuttals. Instead, I would expect someone to say “Them’s fightin’ words”, and proceed to roll up sleeves and crack knuckles.
Of course, whenever one critcizes, one should make an effort to offer a solution. I note that in the interview, Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, states:
Well, that was just part of the wording. Now, the sign actually starts with a recognition that this time of year is the winter solstice, may reason prevail. This time of year is a natural holiday. All people, religious or not, in America, in the United States, millions of good people celebrate this time of year with gifts and love, and family and fun and fellowship.
So in truth, the sign reads more than what I quoted above, and gives a description of the origins of the Christmas festivities in the celebration of the victory of the sun. In fact, talking about Christmas time as a natural holiday is a very positive message and gives people of all religious beliefs a reason to celebrate when the Christians start setting up Nativities and sing “Silent Night” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. So why, then, add in the sourpuss message that I quoted above? I would have recommended just leaving the sign as a historical lesson and a statement that this is naturally a time of celebration. I would have maybe invited all to celebrate and not feel as though celebrating somehow gives credence to Christianity.
I fail to see how the mean-spirited message is a product of anything but a hardened heart and enslaved mind. The sad thing is that the Freedom From Relgion Foundation could have approached this so positively, and instead chose to make it so negative. They could have simply chosen to leave Christ in Christmas, and asserted that their reason for celebration stems from the natural holiday they talked about, instead of the birth of the founder of Christianity. They had that choice, and they decided, Scrooge-like, to be cranky and cantankerous instead.