by mr dan
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Holy cow — the atheists are proselytizing! Surely you’ve caught the kerfuffle over American Atheists’ billboard outside the Lincoln Tunnel proclaiming “You Know it’s a Myth — This Season, Celebrate Reason!” I’m glad to see that people are publicly challenging the privileged status Christianity receives in America, especially because we in Connecticut Valley Atheists are well familiar with this sort of battle.
For years, the town of Vernon, CT, has allowed a crèche — that is, a nativity scene depicting a notably old and considerably Aryan baby Jesus in a manger with his mother and, ahem, father — on the town green.
Vernon resident and State Director of American Atheists Dennis Paul Himes complained in 2007 that the presence of the nativity scene violated the Constitution. The government essentially gives a thumbs-up to Christianity and its traditions, and uses tax money to advertise the religion, while disregarding all of Vernon’s non-Christian residents and stating that Vernon is a Christian city. The mayor at the time, Ellen Marmer, reportedly agreed with Himes, but as one of the town’s non-Christian residents herself, she feared that her Republican opponents in the upcoming election would smear her as anti-Christian if she did not allow the crèche. So she reached somewhat of a compromise; any group who applied and paid a $25 fee could erect an appropriate display in 10 foot by 10 foot square during the month of December.
This compromise was still unfair because it allowed further violations of the separation of church and state rather than putting a stop to the ones that already existed. Any encroachment of religion into government or government into religion (except where the public good is concerned) threatens the everyone’s liberty. So potentially allowing Jews, Muslims, Satanists, Scientologists and even atheists to violate the Constitution in the same way the Christians had been doing was far from ideal. Government should never be in the business of endorsing religion or nonreligion. There really should be no religious displays at all on town, state or federal property, but if we could use the opportunity show people that such a violation is wrong, then it would be wise not to pass it up. Despite the compromise, Marmer lost her bid for reelection, and when Republican Jason McCoy took office, one of his first headaches was this: “Imagine No Religion,” erected by Connecticut Valley Atheists, a group that Himes had formed and become president of earlier in the year.
Some degree of outrage ensued, with citizens, organizations and the media calling it “offensive,” “intolerant,” “insulting,” “hateful,” and a whole slew of other unwholesome adjectives. Some said that our message was too “political”, but Himes replied that “The original question was whether Vernon would have a nativity scene on church property or town property. The difference between those two is a political difference.”
The Christian crèche is political too because it seeks through government action to convert people and to imply that belief is more American than nonbelief, especially when Christians defend their use of public property to proselytize by saying that America is a Christian nation (it isn’t) built on Christian values (it really isn’t).
Others were supportive, and many atheists and believers alike wrote to us to say that we were right to fight the violation. Many said they’d never known there were atheists in their town — a revelation that pleased some and angered others. Reportedly several people and groups sought legal action to have the display removed. While we would have welcomed that irony and the legal battle to follow, none of these attempts apparently got off the ground. However, the mayor reacted in a laughably immature fashion. Even though there already was a town-decorated Christmas tree in the park as well as a nativity scene, he ordered a second tree to be placed on the green — right in front of our display — and apparently didn’t provide them with a ladder. And when told by a reporter that it obscured our message, he replied, “Oh, really? That’s unfortunate.”
The outrage continued the next two years, even as our messages got even less offensive. “May Reason Prevail — Support Separation of Church and State” is, I would say, fairly innocuous. I mean, it’s only promoting the logical and legal application of the US Constitution, a document far more sacred and worthy than any holy book. I guess it wouldn’t matter if we had said “Merry Christmas from Connecticut Valley Atheists” or “Christianity is Super but Atheism’s Rather Neat Too.” The point isn’t what we say, it’s that we exist to say it. Even the mayor himself was reportedly personally offended by last year’s sign: “30 Million Americans Are Good Without God. Are You?” Merely the suggestion that you don’t need religion to be a good person is an attack on their faith.
Every year our message has served to promote something positive about atheism: that Humanist beliefs do not motivate people to fly planes into buildings, that secular societies are better and more free than theocracies, and that millions of Americans have no problem being moral without dogma. I can’t wait to see the townspeople go absolutely bananas as we unveil this year’s design: “Be Good For Goodness’ Sake.”
The message is that you shouldn’t need religion to tell you how to be moral. Goodness is itself a virtue. It’s always struck me as odd that the Christmas classic “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” encourages children to behave themselves because they are constantly being watched, and yet contains the line “be good for goodness’ sake.” Haven Gillespie, who wrote the lyrics to the song, most likely added it as an alliterative play on the expression “for goodness’ sake” without considering the mixed message it sends. But if the children behave themselves just to get lots of presents from Santa, are they really being good? Have they really learned the difference between right and wrong, morality and corruption? Or are they just trying not to annoy their parents and Santa simply to get fun toys?
If you want to read between the lines — something Christians are fantastic at when looking for something to be offended about — the statement also equates God with the myth of Santa Claus. One is a magical bearded man who lives on top of the world, watches everybody at once, and uses his supernatural powers to reward the good and punish the bad, and the other is Santa Claus. Think about it.
This season we hope you’re all being good because, well, because it’s good to be good. I have my principles and my morals, arrived at through logical analysis, and I stick to them because I think I’ll be a better person if I do. Of course we can never be completely selfless; I try to treat people with respect because I hope they’ll return the favor to me and to others, but that makes the world a more enjoyable place for everyone to live. It has nothing to do with what’s written in an ancient book or what I’m afraid will happen to me when I die. And if I do end up in Hell or with coal in my stocking, at least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that I tried to be a decent person, and that I never followed any arbitrary nonsensical codes just to earn a heavenly reward. At this and all seasons, think about what you can do to be good and to make the world a better place, and ask yourself whether charitable acts, kindness, respect and support to those who need it will have more effect on the world than prayers, psalms, and statues of freakish Aryan babies on government property.
mr dan is vice president of CVA. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.