Every now and then, we come across a situation where it’s not entirely clear how atheists should respond.
Is every public mention of a god by a politician deserving of a lawsuit?
Are there times when a religious issue may be controversial but worth fighting for, regardless of the PR ramifications?
Are there ever times when it’s a smarter move to keep our mouths shut on an issue?
Of course, the answers to all these questions depend on the particular situations. Reader Claudia suggested we create a scale — a “threat level” chart, if you will. Now, using many of her suggestions, I’d like to propose one.
(Special thanks to Tanya Higgins at Daisies and Shit Productions for drawing the wonderful images.)
Level 1: Don’t even bother.
It’s either too small an issue to make a big fuss over (e.g. Obama saying “God bless America” at the end of a speech) or because the PR will be too toxic (e.g. Threatening a lawsuit over the “Seven in Heaven” street sign honoring 9/11 first responders who died). These are the kinds of issues that all of us notice because we happen to be atheists, but they’re just non-issues for everybody else. If we can’t win over those people with no vested interest in the matter, our fierce advocacy on these issues will backfire. By raising the issue at all, we’re moving hardly anyone over to our side but we’re alienating a lot of potential allies we might need for bigger issues.
Level 2: Proceed with caution.
A measured response will do just fine. These are the cases where the other side didn’t even realize they were doing anything wrong. (e.g. A city council brings in a Christian band for a concert.) There’s no sign of ill intent or religious proselytizing; in fact, the action may have even been for a good cause. That doesn’t make it right, though. A letter of polite complaint or a phone call is warranted, recognizing that the intentions may have been good, but the offenders should be reminded of what the law says.
Level 3: Time to get angry.
These violations are far more cut and dry. The offenders know full well they’re violating church/state separation. They don’t care. They’re using taxpayer money to endorse the Christian faith. They’re sending the message that no other belief system matters. These are things like putting a nativity scene outside City Hall, opening a City Council meeting with a Christian prayer, or using your title as Governor to plan a Prayer Rally. Responses include public complaints, letters-to-the-editor, letters of warning from groups like FFRF/AU/ACLU, and possibly even legal action.
This isn’t just a government endorsement of a particular faith. This is reserved for those people who want to enshrine their religious beliefs into law, when our school systems are under attack from religious conservatives who want to bring Creationism/Intelligent Design into science classrooms, when atheist soldiers are discriminated against, when young non-believers are banned from starting secular student groups at their schools, etc. At this point, you throw everything plus the kitchen sink at the offenders. Send angry letters to anyone who will listen, get local and national media involved, get national organizations to weigh in, call the lawyers. Make them rue the day…
That’s the proposed system. What do you think?
Feel free to use the images when writing about various issues. Ideally, they’ll allow us to discuss the best responses to a variety of situations. Sure, there may be debates over whether a certain issue is a 2 or a 3 (or whatever) or whether 1 should even be an option in the first place… but I see this as a conversation-starter, not the last word.
If you’d like to use the images, just copy/paste the following code in your blog entries (you may need to resize!):