A victory has been won in Santa Monica by those seeking freedom from religion in public. (http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/judge-denies-bid-park-nativity-displays-17762364#.ULIajIX5gnY.)
While it is perfectly understandable that some (Christian and atheist) may prefer the considerable beauty of the Palisades Park to be unmarred by any type of display, this may by a pyrrhic victory for atheism.
For about 60 years different Christian groups have mounted life-size nativity scenes on public land in the Palisades Park. Beginning in 2009 atheists asked for spaces for displays, so the city council held a lottery for parcels of land. Damon Vix got one such display space. The AP report tell us that “His first display quoted Thomas Jefferson: ‘Religions are all alike — founded on fables and mythologies.”
The AP reports that “In 2011, Vix recruited 10 others to inundate the city with applications for tongue-in-cheek displays such as an homage to the “Pastafarian religion,” which would include an artistic representation of the great Flying Spaghetti Monster. . . .The atheists used half the spaces they won, displaying signs such as one that showed pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus and the devil and said: ’37 million Americans know myths when they see them. What myths do you see?'”
In 2012 the city, faced with multiple complaints and rising tension banned all displays. It maintained that the lottery system for allocating them was too costly. A group wishing to maintain the customary displays sued. The court ruling mentioned in the article above upheld the city ruling shutting down the display space altogether, and the atheists have effectively purified the park of religion. And interestingly have purified it of of their message as well.
Three years of effort to mock and eventually remove the public display about the birth of Jesus didn’t leave anything positive behind, which seems to be an irony the atheist leader fails to appreciate.
“For his part, Vix said he was pleased with Monday’s ruling, but was also saddened by the anger being directed against atheists since he hung his first anti-God sign in 2009.
“So many people don’t understand atheists,” he said. “If you read the signs we put up, one said, ‘Love is all around you.’ That’s really a better understanding of who most atheists are.””
One assumes a better understanding of atheism than his own heckling of religion in the displays he both put up and encouraged.
In any case Vix and his allies now have no opportunity to freely display their beliefs and correct any misconceptions about atheism raised over the last few years.
The irony is that in Santa Monica has at least a couple of dozen Christian churches, some quite substantial. Their buildings, signs, and congregational life will continue to bear witness to their faith and beliefs. And that doesn’t even mention the thousands of consumption oriented commercial messages about Christmas that inundate Santa Monica as they do every American city. But with religion and its critics removed from the Palisades Park where will the atheists go? Where will they have a voice?
I have argued in other blogs that there is no non-religious public space. Some ethos, some dominant belief system, will fill the vacuum. Take the birth of Christ out of Christmas (or even the beliefs of those who think it all a sham) and the space is filled with commercial interests promoting materialist fantasies far more destructive than any religious myth.
Understanding, whether it is understanding of conventional religion or of atheism, simply isn’t served by driving religion from public spaces. Both Christians and atheists need to learn that you only have freedom for religious discourse and indeed anti-religious discourse when religion has a place in the public space.