December fracas

Every December in the US, we get to read news about conflicts over religious displays in public spaces.

Some local governments negotiate the conflict by disallowing all religious displays on public grounds. After all, that just invites lawsuits. But that kind of decision itself can come under fire, particularly if the decision was in response to a nonbelievers’ complaint about a government endorsement of religion.

There may be a point to religious believers being put off about an empty public square. After all, it seems that nonbelievers are getting exactly what they want. A nonbeliever’s version of a public event wouldn’t start out with a denunciation of the gods. (What would be the point?) It wouldn’t begin with a prayer either—it would just get to the business on hand. A public area landscaped like nonbelievers envision it would not have monuments to the absurdity of faith. (Why obsess about that?) It wouldn’t have crosses and mangers either—it would just have trees and flowers or whatever. But if so, avoiding religious expression in a public context seems to give nonbelievers exactly what they would have wanted anyway. Many religious people will perceive this not as scrupulous neutrality, but favoritism toward nonbelievers.

So maybe a better alternative is to allow everybody to put up whatever display they want, and to start public meetings with a prayer or invocation by representatives of multiple religions and philosophies taking turns. Put up a cross and a menorah and a crescent and whatever else you can come up with.

Aside from the potential for chaos, however, one problem with this policy is that different religions and philosophies are not bland flavors of diversity that enrich the community without interfering with each other. They compete, conflict, and often define themselves in contrast to one another. Conservative Muslims may insist that Christians are going to hell, and devout Christians may be offended by any acknowledgment of the presence of the godless. Sometimes local governments adopt a policy of avoiding religious expression just in order to prevent atheist groups thereby becoming visible. And sometimes, especially when displays make the mutual antagonism of different groups explicit, you can get a serious furor developing.

It’s a curious situation, really. I see very little clarity about what the various policies are actually trying to achieve. I suspect it’s quite impossible to have a stance of complete neutrality, in the sense of no one’s ox being gored. We end up with various political compromises that vary with the local community, that more or less succeed in keeping the peace. And sometimes they fail: even when trying to avoid conflict, the local policy becomes an instrument in the competition between different religions and philosophies.

I suspect that’s just how it goes: there is no clean approach to such questions that would be acceptable to all reasonable people. Politically, we just have to wing it, and occasionally watch things blow up in our faces.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    "I suspect it's quite impossible to have a stance of complete neutrality, in the sense of no one's ox being gored … there is no clean approach to such questions that would be acceptable to all reasonable people. "

    I totally disagree. Its very simple. Silence is neutrality. Anyone who does not adopt the position that silence is neutrality is NOT being reasonable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Explicit Atheist: "Silence is neutrality."

    Well, it is pretty well-recognized that the liberal notion of "neutrality" does, in fact, put conservative religious people at a disadvantage. I suppose we might declare them to be unreasonable, but that seems drastic.

    Let's set that aside, though. Does it not bother you that silence is exactly what we would end up with if the overwhelming majority of a population was non-religious? Isn't it a bit too convenient to say that what is reasonable is to do things exactly as we would do it if we nonbelievers had control?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    Are religionists more likely to think that an absence of expression of their religious belief is biased against their religious belief than atheists are to think that an absence of expression of atheism is biased against atheism? Yes (probably yes). Does this (probable) statistical difference of perspective demonstrate that silence really does favor atheism over religion belief? No. It is an objective fact that silence is neutral between competing beliefs. What this (probable) statistical difference of perspective demonstrates is that atheists are more likely overall to be reasonable and accurate in distinguishing bias regarding these sets of beliefs than are religionists overall.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    Look, I operate on the assumption that we are all adults. If some identifiable subset of adults have a stronger tendency to be mistaken about something than are other people then I don't therefore feel that I am being unbalanced or unreasonable or unfair towards that subgroup by operating from the perspective that they are mistaken.

    Furthermore, the issue of neutrality is about our legal status as citizens, and in this context I think it becomes a mistake to be accepting of other people's insistence of imposing their own bias into the definition of what is neutral.