An Atheist Alternative to a Nativity Scene Goes Up in Milwaukee County Courthouse

There’s a Nativity Scene in the Milwaukee County (Wisconsin) courthouse. While the Freedom From Religion Foundation has challenged it (to no avail so far), they’ve also put up a sign of their own just to provide an alternative perspective:

The sign reads:

“At this season of the Winter Solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Giant Nativity Scene. Small sign. Take a guess which one will be the recipient of the most complaints.

FFRF has justification for its sign, though:

“Fifteen percent of Milwaukee County is nonreligious. This is their courthouse, too, supported with their tax dollars, and if religion is going to be there, there has to be ‘room at the inn’ for the nonreligious perspective,” commented FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

Last week, the FFRF put up a similar sign (and Natural Nativity Scene) in the Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Baal

    I wonder if we could get say just 1 pro-FSM establishmentarian legislator per State body and have them offfer the same (but only 1) bill per session to establish pastafarianism.  In theory, we’d just need a secular member and not an open atheist (it’s the same point on establishment). 

  • Jason Sullivan

    Total lack of imagination. I was hoping something more colorful.  Maybe Sam Harris in the manger  being visited by Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens as the wise men.

  • Russian Alex

    I agree, they should put up a giant Pastafarian creation scene, complete with the midget, beer volcano, and the stripper factory. Ridiculous? Outrageous? Why, yes, thank you. The whole idea of FSM was created precisely for this purpose. And if you think that a beer volcano is silly, then it perfectly illustrates the point.

    • Blacksheep

      Why make a “point”? Why not actually celebrate something beautiful and meaningful, whatever ones faith or non-faith? 

      • Russian Alex

        You don’t seem to get it. Nobody has a problem with celebrations of whatever religious or non-religious holiday you choose. We as atheists do celebrate: some celebrate Christmas, some Solstice, some Hannukkah, and some just celebrate New Year a week later. The problem is that a religious holiday has no business being promoted by the government, a point that has been repeated numerous times. In this case, it’s all or nothing: you either allow all displays, including Christian, Jewish, Atheist, or Pastafarian, opening up doors for a giant shit storm, or don’t allow any — which, arguably, leaves a possibility of an equally rancid shit storm; in both cases, it will be over-privileged Christian majority whining about someone daring to question their traditions and perceived cultural superiority.

        Either that, or you are simply trolling, which is fine by me.

      • WoodyTanaka

        The separation of church and state is something beautiful and meaningful.  Insisting on that separation by promoting Pastafarianism is a beautiful and meaninful way of doing that. 

        • Blacksheep

          I don’t disagree. Satire is a good way to make a point. The printed sign (above) is not – unless the point is to be irritating, in which case it’s a huge success. 

          • WoodyTanaka

            I think that there is a necessary element of irritation to this. let the religious know that we are going to muck up their efforts until the stop.

  • Bill Haines

    Oy.

    If the purpose is to keep state and church separate, then threaten to sue and/or actually sue, and be done with it. If the purpose is to celebrate a particular time of year together as a community, while respecting diverse views of this time of year, then add a secular display that actually does so. 

    Displays like the one pictured above, deliberately intended to insult and incite religious people, serve only to promote the stereotype of the angry atheist and thus further harden attitudes against us. 

    The FFRF does some great work in other ways, but in this they’re absolutely counterproductive, retarding efforts toward acceptance and respect of atheism in American society and politics.

    That’s my $0.02.

    • Marco Conti

      I agree. I appreciate the work the FFRF does and I send them money every time I can. But these displays are counterproductive. it gives the religious an excuse to discount our whole argument and since there are more of them than us when it comes to making noise they can overwhelm us.

      I am sure there are many atheist artists that would love the chance for one of their pieces to be displayed at a Capitol rotunda and get some local or national press.

      Why not ask them to produce art appropriate for the season and the location that celebrates humanist philosophy? 

      What the FFRF is displaying is not only contentious, which I may or may not support on a case by case basis, but it is butt ugly and inappropriate for the festivities and it does not represent the way many of us feel about it.

      As far as I can tell, a majority of atheists and humanists enjoy Christmas and the hoidays as much as anyone else. Some of us may even put up a nativity scene if it’s part of a family tradition, without having to actually believe in it or approve of it being displayed in a government building.

      Heck, even just a poster of Carl Sagan ”Blue Dot” with a quote from his essay would be much more powerful and much less controversial while still probably grabbing eyeballs from the news outlets.

      But going back to my original idea, we should strive to place there something beautiful that we can all identify with rather than something spit out of a large format inkjet printer with absolutely no thought to aesthetics.

      • WoodyTanaka

        You do understand that the idea isn’t just to “me too” this, it’s to show that the bs nativity crap is the problem, right? 

        • Deven Kale

           It’s only a problem if the people in charge of said government property refuse to put up displays/signs referencing beliefs other than the Christian one. If they’ll allow others, then there’s no problem. But if they don’t allow others, then there’s a problem and the FFRF or whatever group can rightfully threaten a lawsuit.

          • WoodyTanaka

            It’s a problem if they put up any religious items.  That problem is lessened if they permit other stuff, but it’s not eliminated.
            I think the goal should be an elimination of all displays and signs.  That’s not the government’s role at all.

    • Coyotenose

       Their point is directed at those who want nativity scenes up, and it is this: If you insist on flouting the First Amendment, this is what you have to look at while you do it. All you have to do to end this is the Right Thing.

      • Coyotenose

         Mind you, that does not delve into my opinion on the sign. I just see what they’re doing there.

      • Deven Kale

         The problem though is that they’re not going against the First Amendment at all. Historically the Supreme Court has ruled in an “all or nothing” sense. So to be within the constitutional bounds either they allow all types of religious displays on government property, or no religious displays at all. By allowing the signs from the FFRF they’re in accordance with the law, and it just makes the FFRF and, by extension, all atheists look like jerks.

  • Blacksheep

    This is not an Atheist / humanist display, it’s an anti – Christmas display. It’s critical, negative, and mean spirited. 

    If this represents the Atheist spirit of this season, then I am even more firmly in the Christmas camp. 

    Why not just do a beautiful winter scene with people holding hands (or whatever) and say “Happy Solstice” (Or something similar)? 

    • Coyotenose

       Please don’t pretend you were ever not fully in the Unconstitutional camp.

      Do you really not get that the point of these aggressive signs is to make it clear that NONE of them belong on government property? To drag the ignorant, kicking and screaming, into the understanding that they should want every religion-oriented display gone? I know it’s been explained here numerous times, and probably on a lot of other Patheos and related forums.

      • Blacksheep

        Sometimes in life it’s the spirit of things that are more important than the law, especially if one wants to bring about change.

        • WoodyTanaka

          The only “spirit” that is important here IS the law: separation of church and state. 

          • Blacksheep

            If you look back at history and at constitutional law you’ll see that spirit is everything, especially when you look at instances when laws were changed and the constitution amended to fit in with the spirit of what The Peaople wanted. 

            • WoodyTanaka

              The point is that we don’t need to change the spirit of anything.  We simply need to make these lawbreakers stop breaking the law.  I don’t give a damn if, in their heart of hearts, they ever agree with me.  I don’t.  I just want them to stop breaking the law.  So, no, the “spirit” is irrelevant nonsense.

      • Karen

         I get that point; the thing is, I’m not sure your average Christian will get it.  I think they will just come away with the idea that atheists are anti-Christmas.

        • Blacksheep

          Atheists who want no Christmas displays are not anti Christmas, nor are those who want to do satire to make a point. But the author of the sign in the photo above is decidedly anti Christian and anti Christmas.

          The only positive statement thay make is “May reason prevail.” The rest is a list of negatives.

          • WoodyTanaka

            Who cares whether they are anti-Christian or anti-Christmas. Christianity and Christmas has no special meaning under our constitution. That is the point.

    • Edmond

      The fact that the Nativity scene is on courthouse grounds, makes it anti-everyone-that-isn’t-Christian.  Your previous post asked, “Why not actually celebrate something beautiful and meaningful…”?

      We atheists are only asking: Can Christians not celebrate these things on their OWN property?  You have personal spaces such as homes or apartments.  There is certainly no shortage of churches, and we couldn’t care less what happens at the mall, or the movie theaters, etc.

      I think that even the people WITHIN the courthouse should be able to decorate their desks, cubicles and offices however they wish.

      BUT, the courthouse itself is there to represent ALL citizens.  It should not be putting up displays which essentially announce “This is the the State Religion.  This is how the State celebrates”.  This is exclusionary and wrong.

      We happen to think that separation of church and state is “beautiful and meaningful”, and we aim to celebrate THAT, by keeping government representation neutral.

    • WoodyTanaka

      Putting the Jesus crap up there, that’s critical, negative and mean-spirited. 

      “Why not just do a beautiful winter scene with people holding hands (or whatever) and say “Happy Solstice” (Or something similar)?”

      Because the problem being addressed isn’t the lack of hand holding or the inattention to Solstice, it’s the supremacism displayed by the Jesus worshipers and their insistance on breaking the law.

      • Blacksheep

        I hear you, but a sign like that makes people lose objectivity and dig in. It’s human nature.

        • WoodyTanaka

          That does not bother me. I don’t really care to change the minds of these people. I just want them to stop breaking the law. In my opinion, it will be like with racists. You can’t change their opinion, you can only wait for them to die And hope that the younger crowd are not twisted.

    • Deven Kale

       I think this is the first time I’ve ever been in agreement with Blacksheep.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    Ah shoot! Once again a small but well organized minority with in the Atheist [sic] movement, is being criticized for their misrepresentation.  The irony here is that their message hits close to what most of us secretly feel is right. It is harsh, to the point and volatile. I have no doubt that it will create unnecessary drama while shedding a poor light upon us all.

    BUT, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO TO CHANGE THAT!?

    NOTHING

    WHEN ARE WE GOING TO CHANGE THAT?

    NEVER!

    HOW EASY IS IT TO HERD A BUNCH OF WILD CATS?

    IT’S NOT

    Now everyone here collectively stick your heads into the nearest toilet bowl and repeat my last lines outloud then flush because we are all suffering from a bad case of intellectual diarrhea. 

    • Bubba Tarandfeathered

       If I were to write a sign this is possibly how it would read:

      IN THIS SEASON OF

      THE ANNUAL PERIHELON

      MAY JUSTICE, EQUALITY, FREEDOM AND PEACE
      FOR ALL HUMANITY PREVAIL

      WE OF THE FFRF WISH YOU ALL A HAPPY

      Advent, Saint Nicholas’ Day, Bodhi Day,
      Saint Lucy’s Day, Soyal,
      Yalda, Mōdraniht, Saturnalia,
      Pancha Ganapati, Christmas Eve,
      Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Christmas,
      Twelve Days of Christmas,
      Yule, Anastasia of Sirmium,
      Malkh, Boxing Day, Kwanzaa,
      Saint Stephen’s Day, Saint John the Evangelist’s Day,
      Holy Innocents’ Day, Saint Sylvester’s Day,
      Watch Night, New Year’s Eve, Hogmanay

      AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT

      • Bubba Tarandfeathered

        CUT AND PASTED COPY OF AN EMAIL i JUST SENT TO THE FFRF

        IN THIS SEASON OF

        THE ANNUAL PERIHELON

        MAY JUSTICE, EQUALITY, FREEDOM AND PEACE
        FOR ALL HUMANITY PREVAIL

        WE OF THE FFRF WISH YOU ALL A HAPPY

        Advent, Saint Nicholas’ Day, Bodhi Day,
        Saint Lucy’s Day, Soyal,
        Yalda, Mōdraniht, Saturnalia,
        Pancha Ganapati, Christmas Eve,
        Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Christmas,
        Twelve Days of Christmas,
        Yule, Anastasia of Sirmium,
        Malkh, Boxing Day, Kwanzaa,
        Saint Stephen’s Day, Saint John the Evangelist’s Day,
        Holy Innocents’ Day, Saint Sylvester’s Day,
        Watch Night, New Year’s Eve, Hogmanay

        AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT

        It is often professed by Atheists that we possess a high degree of intellectual prowess but too often we act out like school yard bullies. Reducing our credibility amongst the often silent intelligentsia that we all aspire to.
         
        The suggestion to the reader, of your signs, that there might be other holiday rituals could create doubt with-in that readers mind. Becoming the cause of skepticism to their own position.

        Your use of the bully pulpit does not plant seeds of doubt and skepticism it only enrages the emotions of the the very people we wish to enlighten and hardens there hearts against us. Subtly and stealth are key. Challenge the readers to think, make their brains hurt from the confusion they are experiencing and then plant a subconscious message into their mind. Though you may not awaken the minds of all the religious you will most likely unlock the skeptical genetic coding of the closeted atheist.

        Of course I am fully aware that this letter will most likely be ignored, possibly not even opened. For there is one undeniable fact amongst the religious and non religious and that is, the higher ones feels their status is, amongst a movement, the greater they feel their unique cause is justified. Atheist righteousness is no different than christian righteousness, they both lack humility.

        AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT

  • SeekerLancer

    I would have been happier with this if it was only the “Keep Church and State seperate” sign with maybe a happy holidays or something thrown in. The “these are all myths” part that’s put up all the time comes off as purposely insulting.

    I understand the “poisoning the well” mentality of putting up displays like this to have all displays taken down but it’s just making us look like assholes and its the reason why a lot of people who (aren’t atheist but) are usually proponents of the first amendment to say that we proved our point and we should take our ball and go home because we’re making Christmas miserable.

    If we can be more civil with our displays then people might freak out about them a little less.

  • 09richardk

    I have an idea. Let’s get a team of sociologists to conduct a study designed to determine the effectiveness of displays like the above. We’ll listen to what the professionals have to say and change our opinions pending peer review. If they determine displays like the above do more harm than good, we should go back to the drawing board and find a better way of advancing the separation of church and state. If the above proves to be effective, then whether or not one deems it to be “negative” is inconsequential.


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