A Discussion About the Best Way to End Government-Sponsored Promotion of Religion

When it comes to religion in government, there are a couple of ways we’ve seen a lot of city and county officials try to merge the two worlds over the past few years: They allow invocations at meetings (knowing most of them are Christian) and they allow displays on government property (most of which promote Christianity).

For the most part, these are both legal — as long as everyone is given the opportunity to participate. In other words, Muslims and atheists and Hindus and other non-Christians must be able to sign up for those invocations slots, just as they must be permitted to put up their own displays. It’s when only Christians get this opportunity that lawsuits are filed by church/state separation groups.

But assuming the law is being followed, we know how secular groups have responded. We’ll sign up to deliver invocation speeches, and we’ll fill out paperwork to put up banners at City Hall, and we’ll try to get a Flying Spaghetti Monster display up next to a courthouse Nativity scene. It’s all in the spirit of inclusivity and fairness — and the invocations are often really beautiful.

I love seeing these atheist groups fight fire with fire and I’ve covered many of these stories on this site.

But there’s an argument to be made that “playing nice” in this case is the wrong way to go. Instead, we shouldn’t be saying invocations at government meetings at all. Courthouses shouldn’t be sites for religious or non-religious banners.

You know what? That’s a fair point. It’s all or nothing, and some people would rather choose nothing.

But since government officials aren’t going to end invocations on their own, for example, the only way to force their hand is by giving on that’s so obscene and over-the-top that they decide to end the practice entirely just to prevent it from happening again. Sometimes the mere threat of delivering such an invocation can get them to change their ways.

This is the path that Chaz Stevens has taken. And he’s been fairly successful with it.

For a while, he was best known for putting up Festivus poles in state capitols, but he’s since turned it up several notches.

Last fall, he told the Coral Springs City Commission in Florida that he wanted to give an invocation that would involve “‘twerking’ and/or bringing a mariachi band to perform.” The Commission responded by canceling invocations completely. Victory: Chaz.

A month later, the Dania Beach City Commission, also in Florida, went from having invocations to having a moment of silence. Why? Because Stevens wanted to speak there and the commissioners, well aware of his reputation, didn’t want him to. One even said, “If we let Satan guy come up here, I can’t control what [he’s] going to do.” Another victory for Chaz.

When the leader of a Christian group in Florida said she would no longer put up a Nativity scene in the Capitol building, the Satanic Temple and the Freedom From Religion Foundation both announced they would not put up displays either since there was nothing to “respond” to… but Stevens said he would still put up a rainbow-colored Festivus pole. That’s because he wasn’t interested in equal treatment; he wanted a blanket ban on displays in the Capitol.

It’s only gotten more intense over the past couple of months.

Stevens has no desire to play nice with any local government. He’s been asking a number of Florida cities that allow religious displays on government property if they will allow him to put up a (purposely offensive) Satanic display that’s really just an upside-down cross with a butt plug attached.

Again: his goal isn’t really to put up his display. It’s to end the practice of allowing such displays altogether.

As I’ve said to Stevens repeatedly (both in private and in public), I think he usually does far more harm than good. His actions give Christians motivation to put up more displays in more places. He makes atheists look bad (not to mention petty and profane). He provides easy ammo to critics who are always on the lookout for ways to denigrate us.

Whenever I share this with him, his response is the same: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. He doesn’t care about the public image of atheists or what other people think. He’s trying to make a point.

And by the way, if you think a butt plug and a Satanic display is offensive, then you should be just as upset over a Christian display that implies you’re going to burn in Hell for eternity for not believing the “right” things. If you don’t want to hear a Satanic invocation, well, he doesn’t want to hear a Christian one. He’s going to keep doing his thing, and you’re free to criticize him.

Is it trolling? Absolutely. But, Stevens says, so is the Satanic Temple when they try to put a Baphomet monument on the Oklahoma Capitol grounds. They take their “faith” no more seriously than he does his own.

I bring this all up because atheist Thomas Essel thinks that, because I post about Stevens’ antics, I’m somehow not holding him accountable for his actions. That’s not the case at all. I don’t like what he does and I wish he would stop. But I can’t deny he sometimes gets results. And as someone who posts about these issues, his name comes up in the news a lot.

Essel writes:

Mehta consistently treats Stevens like an amusement, saying this latest act of stupidity occurred “Because America. That’s why.”

No, that’s just me being snarky. I had the same reaction to Jeb Bush tweeting a picture of a gun. (I didn’t approve of that, either.)

Essel’s really upset, though, at me saying that Stevens’ actions are no more nonsensical that the religious invocations of sincere believers.

In addition, Mehta mocking the religious beliefs of other invocators as “nonsense” is also disingenuous, since they don’t believe their religious claims are nonsense, whereas Stevens clearly does. Mehta even quotes Stevens as saying, “When you encounter such bold acts of stupidity, you have to think of an even bolder act of stupidity,” but somehow entirely misses the point about sincerity. No Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc., invocator is sitting around thinking, “what’s a ridiculous way I can represent my religion?” Time and time again, Mehta has failed to consider the sincerity of Stevens’s claims, thereby failing his readers.

By that logic, we should all just accept when a Christian pastor delivers a “sincere” invocation all about how non-Christians work for the Devil or how LGBT people don’t deserve equal rights. Is the guy suggesting a fake Satanic prayer really more offensive that a pastor whose outright bigotry comes from the heart? I don’t think so.

What’s sincere to one person is nonsense (or offensive) to someone else. The question is how we should respond to it. Stevens’ answer is to counter religious bigotry — which is accepted if not cheered at many city council meetings — with something that won’t be condoned by anybody.

It’s true that most pastors aren’t giving fire-and-brimstone invocations, but plenty of them are, and it’s perfectly acceptable (and legal) in this country. We can counter that with happy Humanist invocations — which I prefer, even though they won’t stop the invocation practices — or by offering a prayer so outrageous that the city council members will be forced to reconsider their policies.

We can put up a pleasant atheist banner at Christmas and “play the game,” or we can call religion a myth and let government officials decide whether or not they want to allow the local courthouse (or public transportation or City Hall) to be a battleground for theological debate.

I’m well aware Stevens is looking for publicity. I’m aware he doesn’t mean what he says. But I also don’t think any of that is relevant when it comes to his goals. His approach isn’t the one I’d choose for myself. And I really hope no one else tries to imitate it. But it gets results.

When I asked him about Essel’s article, his response was long and blunt, but here’s a relevant excerpt:

I am engaged in a battle, and the publicity I intentionally seek provides me with asymmetrical warfare. I’m not going to apologize for understanding how the media works, and using that knowledge to my advantage. If I suck all the oxygen out of the room, either grab a scuba tank or leave.

If you don’t like his approach, here’s a question I would pose to move the conversation forward: What’s the best way to get local governments to end invocations and put a stop to religious displays on government property?

Stevens’ response is to turn his personal brand of religion up to 11 and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t like that answer, but I also don’t have a better one right now.

(Image via YouTube)

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.


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