Since I’ve been all over national – and international – news the last week or two because of my insidious hatred for Charlie Brown and my determination not to let kids have any holiday fun at all, I’ve gotten some hate mail.
The email below came from a woman I have known personally for several years. I have served with her on a national board, and she and I shared a flight back from a meeting in Washington DC a couple of years ago. We enjoyed each other’s company. She didn’t realize that she was having pleasant conversation with the poster girl for the Atheist Taliban, and when Faux News informed her of such, she became somewhat irate. She sent me an email that most people would not send except to a stranger. I couldn’t let this one go. I haven’t responded to any of the other nasty emails, but I know this woman. I have enjoyed her company.
And the tone of her email lets me know in a critically wounding way that I have not gotten the message out that I need to get out. I need to explain why the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, on behalf of – and at the request of – our members who have children at that school, object to a public school taking young elementary children out of class to bus them to an evangelical Christian church to see a Christmas play, the main point of which is to tell them that if their families aren’t celebrating Christmas because of the Sweet Little Baby Jesus, they are not doing it right. So, verbatim, here’s what she wrote and here is my answer:
I am “outraged” that atheists are denying children the right to see “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in Little Rock. Let 6 and 7 yr. olds be “Freethinkers.” Let them decide. Unbeliever’s children are not allowing freethinking. Ironic..Atheists are deciding for their children AND for the Christian children. It is “awkward” and “unacceptable” to deny Christians the field trip. Good Grief!! Unbelievers’ children can sit in another classroom. Their parents are out of step.
Atheists have their own holiday April 1st when they celebrate April Fool’s Day. I am sad to have read this national news being made by a fellow [member of our organization].
You may be The Grinch who TRIED to steal Christmas. But, Christmas is celebrated in our hearts. So atheists continue to lose.
Are you on [the board]’s Education Committee??
No one is denying children the “right” to see anything. These children are certainly free to go with their parents or friends to see the play, which is being offered at other times outside of school hours. If their parents want them to see the play, we think it would be a fun family outing. We would encourage them to go – just not as a public school field trip.
We hope that Agape Church has a great crowd for their play and we wish them well. We have no problem with the church offering this play to the community. Our concern is that a public school should not waste its limited resources on a field trip to a church where the children will learn that there is only one “right” way to celebrate this holiday season, regardless of their family’s religion.
The problem is not that Christian children shouldn’t see the play. The problem is that the public school is part of the government, and the government is prohibited by law from supporting any particular religion. Public schools may not take children away from instructional time to transport them to a church to see a play with a religious message. It’s illegal.
This particular play bemoans the commercialization of Christmas. It climaxes when a character recites a lengthy passage from the Bible, then declares that the biblical passage is the “real” reason for Christmas. That scene is the whole point of the story. That makes the play one with not only a religious theme, but a sectarian one. By taking the children to see this play, the public school is telling them that any other reason for celebrating this holiday – as well as not celebrating the holiday at all – is wrong.
There are students in that school who are Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. There are Buddhist children and Hindu children there. There are also children with no religious affiliation. People of many faiths celebrate for different reasons during the winter holiday season. People with no religious affiliation also celebrate. For instance, my atheist household celebrates Christmas eve and Christmas day as a time of love, of family closeness, of sharing, and of joyful and compassionate giving to each other and service to our community. We celebrate the things of the holiday that are important to us. We also celebrate with our Christian family members and friends, but perhaps not for the same reason that they do.
Children in elementary school are not in a position to decide about religion for themselves. They are indoctrinated into the religion of their parents. A public school may not legally instruct a child as to what religion or religious customs the child should observe. It is illegal for a public school to tell a child that his or his family’s way of celebrating a holiday is wrong. “Your family does it wrong” is the emphatic message that this field trip will send to non-Christian children as well as to Christian children (like those whose families are Jehovah’s Witness) who celebrate Christmas differently or not at all.
Because children in our school district are limited to only two or three field trips a year, we think that those field trips should be educational for all of the children, not religious reinforcement for the Christian children, and not religious marginalization of non-Christian children. This would not have been an issue had this field trip been to see the Nutcracker, which is seasonal story without religious themes, and which has the additional qualities of exposing its audience to classical music and ballet in a theatrical setting.
Bullying is rampant is public schools. A child who is singled out as “different” is always going to be at higher risk for bullying. Atheist children are already bullied in public schools. By reinforcing the mindset that there is only one “right” way to celebrate the holidays, children who are singled out as having families that do things differently will be at higher risk of being bullied. It is not acceptable for the school to put these high-risk children at an even greater risk.
I have received a lot of angry and hateful emails like yours – some of which have included actual threats – as a result of the media coverage of this incident. They underscore why the parents of this child did not want to identify themselves and their child publicly. It would be dangerous for them to do so. Simply because I spoke out for them, and simply because my organization ensures that the law of separation between church and state is enforced, my group and I have been characterized as having declared war on Christmas.
I like Christmas. I don’t want it to go away. But I don’t think our public schools have any business sending kids a message that their families aren’t doing Christmas right.
So, that’s what I wrote back to Louise. I should have said more to her.
I should have said that, yes, I was on the education committee at one time, and that because I care about education, I care that indoctrination is not a part of it. I strongly believe that even young children should be taught critical thinking skills. Unless they have been taught critical thinking skills, a six or seven year old who is naturally skeptical enough to see the mythology of the Christmas story is rare, indeed. We know that. Children of this age are told that if they do not behave well then Santa won’t visit them, and their parents tend to be rewarded with better behavior. Children this age believe in a tooth fairy that leaves money under their pillows for those first lost teeth. Children this age are sure that an Easter bunny leaves them eggs and candy. In other words, children this age are usually not capable of the critical thinking processes that distinguish fact from fiction.
I should have pointed out that not even all Christians celebrate Christmas, and those who do celebrate it an lots of different ways. I should have reminded the people I’ve been talking with that Christmas traditions were co-opted by Christianity from many other, non-Christian traditions.
I should have borrowed Hemant Mehta’s words. (Hemant, if you read this, thank you for your support.) Hemant reminded me that not only does this play expose children to Christianity, it promotes it. He emphasized the dilemma facing the parents we are attempting to help: “It’s tough to speak up against something like this because you’re going up against the majority as well as a tradition. It’s even tougher when you’re putting your child at risk of being ostracized instead of just yourself…Christians just assume everyone agrees with them and it’s downright dangerous in some areas to disagree. You risk losing friends, social status, and respect.” He is dead right, and that’s exactly why the parents came to the Freethinkers, and why they are definitely not willing to be unmasked now that the uproar has become a national outcry. These parents want to protect their own family’s beliefs, and the school has absolutely no business treading on religious ground.
I should have pointed out that atheists don’t see ourselves as losers at all. We are, in fact, much more free than someone shackled to an outdated religious code of conduct. We are not burdened with the guilt or fear imposed by dire promises a vengeful god, and we are moral and law-abiding because that’s what we think we ought to be – not because someone threatens to make us miserable for an eternity if we aren’t. We know that this life is the only one we have, so we make the most of it, as best we can. We are compassionate and charitable not because some Bronze Age book of fairy tales tells us to be, but because being compassionate and charitable makes us feel good, and makes our world a better place and our relationships deeper and fuller.
I should have said that a play promoted by a memo to parents that admits candidly, “This production does expose your child to Christianity through some of the songs and scenes” is a play to which no school should take children. The fact that the school had to put a label on the letter home that said, in effect, “Warning: Religious Content” should have been a huge red flag to the school that they had no business planning this field trip. How is it fair, or reasonable, to warehouse first and second graders in an unfamiliar classroom to protect them from someone else’s idea of religion?
A lot of objections have come to my attention. Even other non-theists have questioned whether this is a battle we really want to fight. I firmly believe that it is. Children have a right not to be ostracized at school for not practicing their teacher’s religion. It is our understanding that these children might not have been invited to the church but for the fact that their teacher was in the play. Talk about coercive pressure! I want to thank Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times, too. He reminded me that I should have said that this field trip to see a teacher in a religiously-themed play is nothing less than proselytizing. The situation is completely insensitive to the potential feelings of these young children and their families. The tyranny of the majority marginalizes a known minority population within the school, and apparently the school administrators do not care. They should be ashamed.
I wish I had said outright what JT said when he reported on this situation initially: that younger atheist kids in elementary school are closeted for a number of reasons, and sometimes on the strict instruction of their parents: for fear of bullying, ostracism, and of being singled out for any reason. And there are lots of times when I wish I had the nerve to say publicly what I have no problem saying privately: that people who think it’s okay to violate someone’s constitutional rights are full of… well, they’re just wrong. (I still can’t bring myself to say it publicly.)
I should have thought to say what my friend Lainey said: “I would be pissed if I were one of the parents. Not so much because of my child being exposed to the religious content in Charlie Brown as much as the fact that the school administrators clearly don’t take keeping religion out of the classroom, which is part of their jobs, as seriously as they should. It’s really not about Charlie Brown! It’s about separation of church and state which is very important to non-Christians because we’re in the minority, and they’re demonstrating that they don’t care about even showing us that consideration. It’s very important to speak out and stand up for your rights the very moment they start getting infringed upon. Protecting separation of church and state is far more important than the needs/desires of these children to see this performance. And simply saying it’s not mandatory isn’t fair to the kids — why not simply take them to an event that ALL of the kids can enjoy?”
“Now, come on, really. What’s the harm?” I’ve been asked. The expression on my face probably mirrors Dave Silverman’s, when he was on Bill O’Reilly’s show, being told that the tides come in, the tides go out…
I appreciate the statement that another supporter, Randy, added to the conversation: “I can remember how being different in school is like throwing a bleeding person overboard into shark infested waters. Children can be very cruel. Every time I hear of another child or teenager committing suicide, I wonder what the cause was. The religious community continues its attack on the wall of separation between church and state, and we need to patch these breaches when we find them.” So many of the comments I have received tell me that I am exaggerating how atheist kids can be bullied. Since I’ve been bullied plenty for my atheism, even by members of my own family, I call bullshit on those comments.
“This is the dominant culture of this country!” I’ve been told. “Children should know it, and know it well!” Again, I have that Dave Silverman expression of incredulity. Do they really think that children aren’t going to know the Christmas myth if they don’t get to see Charlie Brown? Really? Why not actually expose children something they might not otherwise be exposed to? The Nutcracker is a beautiful fantasy story that happens to take place on Christmas, but it has no religious theme at all. It exposes children to the beauty of ballet and the glorious music of a full classical orchestra. There are a lot of children who will never see live ballet or hear a live orchestra in their lives. Wouldn’t that be more appropriate than a rehash of a cartoon they can see any number of times for a solid month each year?
Like my friend Lisa, who is a public school teacher herself, I am annoyed as a taxpayer in this school district that the school is not using the fuel, money and time on a bona fide learning adventure. Instead, the school wants to a rehash of a cartoon that is shown yearly on network television.
“Humbling” does not even begin to describe how I feel, sitting in the crosshairs of those who would hunt down the “Atheist Taliban.” (Yes, someone said that – although, fortunately, he was kidding.) I worry that the message I need send is not getting delivered.
What really stings, though, is that I am being personally attacked because I stood up for a child.
Got a legal question? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m a lawyer, but there’s only a 2% chance I’m licensed in your state. Whether I answer your question or not, sending me an email or reading this blog post does not create an attorney-client relationship between us. You can see my regular blog at www.aramink.com, where I write book reviews, ruminate on Life, the Universe, and Everything, and occasionally – frequently – rant about Stuff.