No, Salon, Atheists Are Not ‘Just as Obnoxious as Christians’

Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing for Salon, thinks that atheists are “just as obnoxious as Christians.” She lowers us to their level because atheists recently fought to be treated like Christians in a Florida school district.

The backstory is that the World Changers of Florida, Inc. held Bible distributions at a number of public high schools in Orange County, Florida this past January:

The Central Florida Freethought Community, rightfully demanding that they be given equal treatment, planned their own giveaway of atheist literature.

The problem was that many of their books were censored. The school district said they could pass out some things, but not all of them:

Williams argues that the atheists went too far in asking for equal treatment:

Just because you’re in the right doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk about it…

[The atheists] asked for permission to distribute some materials of their own, including books and pamphlets with titles including “An X-Rated Book,” “Jesus Is Dead” and “Why I Am Not a Muslim.” Which if I’m not mistaken is a douche move.

Why is it a douche move?

Yes, the titles are provocative, but the content is hardly hateful or pornographic. “An X-Rated Book,” for example, really just consists of direct quotations from the Bible. So if it was okay for the Christians to hand out, why not the atheists?

Jesus is Dead is a scholarly examination of whether or not the historical Jesus ever existed. It’s by no means a book of hate.

Why I Am Not a Muslim is self-explanatory, but needless to say, it’s not an attack on students who are Muslim.

And as anyone who has read it can tell you, Sam HarrisLetter to a Christian Nation is a calmly reasoned response to the letters Harris got after the publication of his first book.

Williams is judging every book by its cover and title and not its content.

In short, this wasn’t a “douche move” on the part of the atheists. If they handed out anything objectionable, the objectionable parts came straight out of the Bible.

Williams goes on even though her tank is already running on empty:

But idiocy isn’t fixed with more idiocy. A petulant strategy of “You let them do this and if we can’t do that we’re going to sue” is absurd and immature. The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s threat that the “plaintiffs intend to repeat the distribution every school year, unless the school prohibits all such distributions, including bibles” doesn’t sound like a blow for freedom of expression; it just sounds whiny. And when you say you’re “committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church” and you’re fighting to distribute anti-religious materials in state-run facilities, you’re not separating church and state either. You’re promoting an explicit agenda.

She doesn’t get it.

When school districts and governments promote Christianity, no one thinks anything of it. That’s Christian privilege at work, and it’s very hard to challenge “tradition” like that unless you try to get them to treat non-Christian groups the same way.

In Williams’ mind, Bible distributions and Nativity scenes at City Hall might be a problem but a simple request to take them down should do the trick! She lives in some fantasy world where Christians play by the rules.

We’ve tried it her way. It rarely works. Christians don’t do the right thing unless we force them to do it.

The far more effective strategy has been to get government officials to put up Flying Spaghetti Monster scenes next to Nativity scenes, or to put up signs proclaiming “Axial tilt is the reason for the season” next to “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

Only when faced with promoting atheism do government officials and school administrators realize they would be better off not promoting any religion in the first place. It would be great if they knew that to begin with, but they don’t, so we have to make them feel uncomfortable. We have to show them that they’re not doing something harmless when they promote even a universal “God”; they’re actually excluding all non-Christians in the process.

Similarly, when it comes to Bible distributions in public schools, Williams right admits, “This should never have happened in the first place,” but asking nicely doesn’t get the point across like asking the school for permission to distribute literature that’s unpopular.

Students still have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. We haven’t been able to stop the recitation and very few Christians understand why it’s a problem. But imagine if you told Christians students to pledge allegiance to “one nation, under no god”? They would be up in arms trying to get the “atheist Pledge of Allegiance” out of the classroom.

We still have city councils that pray to Jesus at meetings and say they’ll allow other groups to deliver invocations, too. But when an atheist tries to recite a secular invocation? Chaos.

“In God We Trust” is on our money and most people think nothing of it. But maybe if “In God We Don’t Trust” were on there instead, Christians would come around and agree with us that our currency shouldn’t be taking sides on whether or not God exists.

Atheists aren’t being “obnoxious” when we force government officials to treat us like they do Christians — we’re being strategic under the rules of the law. And it works.

We can’t keep playing defense and expect to win. Sometimes, we just have to take a page from the Christian Playbook and beat them at their own game.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.