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.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University