A Very Merry Atheist Christmas

Now that’s how you do it:

This banner will soon be going up at the Loudoun County, Virginia courthouse, courtesy of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Rather than remove a nativity scene from the courthouse lawn, the county board of supervisors voted to keep it, requiring the creation of a limited public forum where other groups also had the opportunity to put up seasonal displays. And as the FFRF cheerily points out:

In addition to the Foundation’s banner, there will be one from the American Humanists (“No God – No Problem. Just be good for goodness’ sake”) one from Washington Area Secular Humanists and one from a local group reading: “Greetings from your friendly neighborhood atheists and humanists. Solstice is the Reason for the Season. Religion is the business of churches, not government. This is not a church. American Atheists – Freedom From Religion Foundation – American Association Assn. – Washington Area – Beltway Atheists.”

The same thing is happening at the Arkansas state capitol, where the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers is putting up a seasonal display of its own, with plenty of useful information about the society and atheism and freethought in general. Unsurprisingly, although a creche had been there in years prior, the state government refused the freethinkers’ request for a permit for their own display – so they went to court, and of course won in a walk.

And again, in Westchester, Pennsylvania, the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia has put up their annual Tree of Knowledge on the Chester County courthouse lawn, despite the passage of new red-tape laws obviously intended to discourage them. You can judge for yourself how effective this campaign is by reading some of the incredible whining from would-be theocrats who can’t sufficiently express their outrage that people other than themselves get to speak out on occasion.

And yet another win in Pennsylvania! Brent Walker of the Associated Baptist Press tells us the story:

Recently the Borough Council of Chambersburg, Pa., voted not to allow a local garden club to place a Nativity scene on the town’s historic square, which has a war memorial. Why? Because the city did not want to give an atheist group permission to put a sign on the square showing a rising sun over the words “Celebrating Solstice. Honoring Atheist War Veterans.”

Atheist and secular groups have waged protracted, expensive legal battles to get nativity scenes and other religious paraphernalia off government property around the holidays. But this new strategy, which seems to be taking hold across the nation, is much better. Rather than demand the removal of all religious displays, we should welcome them – and then point out that, if any private displays are allowed, then it must be a limited public forum and that means we have the right to put up our displays as well!

This approach has several points to commend it. First of all, it enables us to more easily frame the debate to our benefit: rather than “Evil atheists are trying to stop everyone from celebrating Christmas!”, it becomes “Since Christians get to put up their displays, we atheists want to put up ours.” The obvious fairness of this request makes it more appealing and much more difficult to misrepresent.

Second, it simplifies the legal battles. We don’t have to argue ad nauseam over whether a nativity scene violates the separation of church and state – we just say that if other private displays are allowed, we want in as well. This is a more straightforward argument and leads to easier and quicker victories when we go to court (as the Arkansas case shows, we’ll still have to go to court on occasion). And if the state removes all displays rather than permit ours, that’s a victory too.

Third, it means more visibility and more publicity for us. I think I can safely say that no one was ever converted to Christianity by a creche at the DMV. Our society is god-soaked, and anyone who wants to become a Christian has had innumerable opportunities already. But we still have room to grow; we haven’t yet picked all the low-hanging fruit, haven’t yet reached all the people who would be responsive to our message. Therefore, every opportunity for atheists and freethinkers to get our message out, we should jump at – and getting to advertise on government property, with all the attendant media coverage and controversy, is as good an opportunity as you get. So, if you see a nativity scene on your local courthouse lawn, smile – and then contact the FFRF and be sure to wish everyone in your community a very merry atheist Christmas!

UPDATE: Yet another atheist holiday display I missed when I first wrote this: Friendly Atheist has the scoop on a superb display in Raleigh, North Carolina, courtesy of the Triangle Freethought Society. The best part is the display’s explanation of why the birth of Jesus (and other harvest gods) is traditionally scheduled to coincide with the winter solstice.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    Yes, a much better strategy indeed! I’m from Arkansas, and despite the victory, the comments from the legislature have been stunningly disappointing.

  • http://twitter.com/Arduinnae Arduinnae

    Love the sentiment, but I really don’t like the little poem underneath – I didn’t like it when they used it in WA either. It seems unnecessarily aggressive. There is a time to tell people that they are wrong and deluded, but celebrating the Winter Solstice is not it. Could they say something positive instead? They could even say the same message, but instead of the “you are wrong” tone, making it about how great it is to be an Atheist.

    For example, they could talk about how wonderful it is that there is no god, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. They could talk about how beautiful and amazing the natural world is. They could even, if they wanted to wax poetic, talk about how the Winter Solstice is symbolic of the rise of reason – we’ve been through the Dark Ages and now there’s starting to be light. It’s all offensive too, of course (because the fact that Atheists exist at all is offensive), but at least it isn’t deliberately so.

  • 2-D Man

    Ehh, one quibble: christwire.org seems to be a poe. Every once in a while they go a bit over the top.

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  • Kevin Morgan

    Ho…ho…ho… You’ll put your eye out kid! Happy solstice everyone.

  • http://nssphoenix.wordpress.com Dave

    “May the passing of the Winter Solstice bring new light and new life to you, your family and all humanity.”

    Just my greeting to all from the humanist community.

  • Bri

    Thanks for a great post.

    I agree that the best solution is to allow everyone to put up displays representing their beliefs. But the problem I’ve seen arises when groups claim the right to erect, for example, a festivus pole. Some states struggle to keep their courthouses from falling into chaos because of every group’s desire to advertise their beliefs.

    In addition, once freethought groups put up their signs, religious organizations express such contempt that a “war on Christmas” actually starts.

    So I support groups’ abilities to put up their own signs, but once the courthouse’s ability to function becomes hindered, then steps need to be taken to either (1) mitigate the confrontation between the groups or (2) eliminate the problem, thus removing all displays.

    Nevertheless, putting up a freethought sign in my local courthouse might do some good.

    Happy solstice!

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    But this new strategy, which seems to be taking hold across the nation, is much better. Rather than demand the removal of all religious displays, we should welcome them – and then point out that, if any private displays are allowed, then it must be a limited public forum and that means we have the right to put up our displays as well!

    I disagree. Yes, if governments want to put up displays, we should definitely join in the fray, but we shouldn’t welcome it. It’s still a violation of the Constitution for governments to be advertizing for religious groups, and really no better to advertize for us. All the advertizements need to stop. I’m all for using the forum if it is up, but we should always recognize that we should be against that forum being there in the first place.

  • Nathan

    I love this approach to the endless deluge of Christian symbology one is battered with every December. Rather than being the whiny complainers, we can join in the fun – and who knows? Perhaps some poor wondering mind will notice the exit to the religious labyrinth of confusion.

    And I particularly love recasting the Christians as the intolerant bigoted obsessed religious would-be theocrats that they are!

    Brilliant. Fun. My only objection is that I didn’t think of it first.

    Cheers,
    Nathan

  • Scotlyn

    Yes, I agree. If you believe in the freedom of speech, then the only answer to speech that we disagree with is more speech.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Argh, I’ve been Poe’d! Thanks to 2-D Man (#3) for pointing out that Christwire.org is satire. They pulled it off so well that they tricked me, so score a point for them. I should have clicked through to the home page, which makes the intent behind the site much more obvious.

    I also found another example of an atheist holiday display thanks to Friendly Atheist, so I’ve updated the post.

    Love the sentiment, but I really don’t like the little poem underneath – I didn’t like it when they used it in WA either. It seems unnecessarily aggressive. There is a time to tell people that they are wrong and deluded, but celebrating the Winter Solstice is not it.

    I don’t necessarily agree, Arduinnae. That is, I do agree that this banner is confrontational, but it’s intentionally confrontational. As with the FFRF’s similar sign in Washington’s state capitol last year, it’s designed to demonstrate to theists why the separation of church and state is important, by putting up a message on government property that they’d likely find offensive (just as we find it offensive when Christian fundamentalists force their religious displays onto public property as a way of showing us heathens that they run this country). And if they decide to ban all private displays on public land as a way of keeping our banners off, so much the better.

  • mikespeir

    Good post. Merry Christmas anyway.

  • Caiphen

    Senational post. I wish New Atheism was as active here in Australia as it is in America. Have a wonderful holiday season.

  • http://paulsoth.livejournal.com Paul Soth

    Second, it simplifies the legal battles. We don’t have to argue ad nauseam over whether a nativity scene violates the separation of church and state – we just say that if other private displays are allowed, we want in as well. This is a more straightforward argument and leads to easier and quicker victories when we go to court (as the Arkansas case shows, we’ll still have to go to court on occasion). And if the state removes all displays rather than permit ours, that’s a victory too.

    Keep in mind that this can work both ways. I remember here in Columbus some years back when the KKK kept insisting on having their display at the statehouse grounds every holiday season. Of course, someone always kept knocking it down when security was looking the other way…

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    As I like to say, either everybody gets to use the public square, or no one does. I’m fine with either outcome, to be perfectly honest, and very often pushing for open access to all results in governments just saying “screw it, no one gets to!” That’s what happened in Washington this year after last year’s screaming and crying by the Poor Oppressed Christians.

  • Archimedez

    I agree with Arduinnae. The top ad by the FFRF is too negative and dogmatic. I would add that it confirms the stereotype of the “angry atheist” grinch. This is counterproductive, playing straight into the hands of those who continue to benefit by portraying atheists in this way. (On the other hand, the person(s) who wrote it may in fact be angry and grinch-like, so, if that’s true, I can’t fault them for honesty and forthrightness. I would, however, fault them in that, I believe, they are not representing the views and priority concerns of most atheists).

    “At this season of the winter solstice, let reason prevail.”

    This may be shocking admission, but I find myself unmoved. What percentage of the population actually cares about the winter solstice? We should be trying to reach, and move persuasively, large numbers of people. And what does the winter solstice have to do with reason prevailing? Is it somehow more reasonable to celebrate or acknowledge the winter solstice? Who cares about the winter solstice?

    “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth & superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

    Even the staunchest critics of religion have to admit that it is not entirely “myth and superstition,” and that not all aspects of it “harden hearts and [enslave] minds.” If it is easy for me, as an atheist, to immediately think of counterexamples (in the two religions about which I am most critical), such as charity in Islam and compassion in Christianity, how easy must it be for the well-rehearsed, smooth-talking apologists to come up with many more when they refute the above ad? Surely, most of the educated public today knows that religion is at least in part a matter of interpretation, and most Americans who read the above ad are going to know many religious people, as friends and family members, who do not have “hardened hearts” or “enslaved minds.” (Most Americans are at least nominally religious; they comprise the majority of the audience who’ll see this ad).

    To say “There is only our natural world” is to introduce a philosophical assertion into the ad that really doesn’t need to be there. Do large numbers of people prefer monism over dualism, and if not, why the attempt to appeal to people on this issue? Who cares? Again, the ad needs to focus on issues that the general (religious and non-religious) public cares about. The purpose of an ad is to reach out and move people, moving them in a specific direction or toward a specific view. This ad should have been viewed as a public-relations opportunity for atheists and humanists. However, this opportunity has been squandered with simplistic summary denunciations of all religion, expressions of dogmatic certainty, and appeals to issues and subjects that don’t interest most of the people who’ll see the ad.

  • santa

    I think the link to the “incredible whining” comment goes to a spoof site. I can’t really tell, but christwire.org just HAS to be a joke.

  • Thuampalumpcus

    I personally think the best ad of all is maintaining friendships with believers of all stripes, making plain your atheism, and trying to be exemplary.

  • Jim McCarter

    You know what you atheists, stop trying to destroy Christmas. We’ll see how funny all this is come judgment day, when you have to answer to GOD for what you’re trying to do in disrespecting the day we celebrate the birth of the one who give you, me and everyone else the gift of redemption. And let me tell you, you better take advantage of it or you’re going to be toasty for all eternity.

  • Sarah Braasch

    I love that Jim McCarter wrote this. Especially on Christmas Day. There’s so much Christ love in this message of good will towards all.

    Implicit in the Christian Christmas message, in all of those nativity scenes, is the threat of hellfire and eternal damnation and torment.

    Love baby Jesus or else. Or else he is going to burn you alive forever without respite.

    Now that’s confrontational. That’s offensive.

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  • Thumpalumpacus

    I’m reading ole Jimmy’s post with a dollop of sardonic.

  • http://christwire.org/author/stephenson-billings/ Stephenson

    “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there” and it will move.” — Matthew 17:20

  • Peter N

    Stephenson,

    Tell you what. Try it, and if it works, get back to us.