The atheist Grinches who succeeded in stealing Christmas have unknowingly left behind a valuable gift for all Americans of faith.
For fifty-seven years, Santa Monica churches set up fourteen nativity scenes in Palisades Park, a short distance from where the lower forty-eight end at the Pacific. There was something in it for everyone. Religious Christians found inspiration in the colorful depiction of a story that holds out for them the promise of universal love and peace one day. Less spiritually-oriented merchants could appreciate the smiles on the faces of tourists, which would translate into more shopping dollars in their registers. Jews (who were happy with their menorah display in the same location) could pass the displays and thank G-d that they lived among tolerant friends and neighbors whose religious convictions gave them a platform from which to teach their children about the sanctity of all human life, the importance of responsibility, and the value of family life.
Not this year. There were so many competitors for the available spots that the city leaders made them available through a lottery. The competitors were atheists. Winners could claim up to nine spots. Two atheists were among the winners; each claimed nine spots. Three were then left for Christians and Jews.
The atheists submitted applications to celebrate that other, great December holiday: Winter Solstice. The atheists are not really pushing sun worship. Rather, they have set up a presentation advocating freedom from religion and promoting the idea that all religions are myths.
So far, they have used only three of their eighteen positions, leading some to conclude that the atheists were more interested in blocking and denigrating the celebration of others than in their own religious observance. "Our point is that these religious displays are offensive," said one of those allied to the atheist cause.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" shows that 92 percent of Americans believe in G-d in some measure. Those who believe in Him with near certainty amount to 71 percent of the country. How important is religion in the lives of Americans? Some 56 percent said very important; an additional 26 percent said somewhat important. Both believers and atheists can agree that this adds up to a whopping 82 percent of our citizens.
So who is offended? Who is trying to impose their creed upon others—Christians, or the Santa Monica atheists? Who would prefer empty space to something that brings a bit of cheer to passersby? Who is so certain of their faith that a small number sees itself as appointed by a non-god to bring the benighted masses out of ignorance to enlightenment? (Remember that atheists are not people who have doubts, or who struggle with belief. They are those who have determined with complete certainty that G-d does not exist. They are members of a faith-community of non-belief.)
This is what Christians, Jews, and Muslims ought to do when they stroll in the park on Ocean Avenue: stop in front of one of the atheist displays, and reflect on the gift of not being an atheist.Think of the gifts of belief—of knowing that there is meaning and purpose, of learning the value of respect and charity and compassion, of being able to talk to a G-d who listens. Think of your flaws, and how much worse they would be if you didn't have to answer to a G-d who demands that you correct them. Think of humility—how much more you would like to have, and how much less you would have if you kept company with those Santa Monica atheists who exude arrogance and think nothing of it.
In short, allow their displays to deepen your faith. Pray for an atheist—and thank him for making your holiday season more spiritually significant.