Reason's Greetings?


I think the sign posted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation at the Legislative Building in Olympia, Washington crossed the line. The sign projects several offensive claims. It says, "At this season of the winter solstice may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

I have no problem with the contents of this message myself, and believe it to be entirely accurate. The FFRF also have several other signs that I have been in support of, and even others in this holiday season that seem compelling without being overtly offensive, such as "Reason's Greetings".

What I take issue with here is the audacity of this sign posted where the Nativity is displayed. The mission of the FFRF is to keep the state and religion separate. Wonderful! So, in the holiday season there two options: 1) Nix nativity scenes, or 2) allow them as long as you also get to voice every other opinion. Option 2 seems to be the stance from the Washington Governor, which allows for an infinite number of displays.

What FFRF did, however, was not done in a spirit of peace and good will. An atheistic sign in such a spirit could have said "Happy winter's solstice" and had a subscript saying that the sign was sponsored by the FFRF. It could have been slightly more daring with something like "What is the reason for your winter's solstice celebration this season?" It could have even been something with the message "Oh, and remember the atheists this season who have no icons to display."

Instead, it was offensive because it stated in absolute terms that there is no God, no angels, and no reason for sacred hoopla. It was pompous and ignorant -- two characteristics I learned to loathe during the Bush administration. It is elitist to state outright that your opinion is better than anyone else's. The best we can do in claiming that there is no God is to say that there is no evidence, but we can't show that the supernatural is not there, much as they can't show that it is there. It comes down to opinion on both sides. It's hurtful to ridicule someone else's religious and cultural heritage in such a manner.

Dan Barker of FFRF says (from here) "It's not that we are trying to coerce anyone; in a way our sign is a signal of protest," Barker said. "If there can be a Nativity scene saying that we are all going to hell if we don't bow down to Jesus, we should be at the table to share our views....On that Nativity scene, there is this threat of internal violence if we don't submit to that master. Hate speech goes both ways."

With such a statement, Barker admits to using hateful tactics. He counters his hateful interpretation of the Nativity with a hateful poster. C'mon! When has denigrating religious symbols ever been productive?

You can argue that the Nativity is a part of Christianity, and that many Christians believe non-Christians are going to hell, but it's a plastic baby Jesus and posterboard of a manger displayed next to animatronic'ed Santa and Rudolph, next to a Frosty the Snowman balloon. If you want to say that the scene is asking us to bow before Jesus or go to hell, then the scene is also asking us to be sure and leave cookies out for Santa and to believe that Frosty's cap is magic.

Nativity scenes are not asking for non-believers to bow down. They are expressions of religious faith where the believers ask for tolerance from non-believers. Indeed, they have a lot of gall to presume that their expressions simply are tolerated and are in no way offensive. They tend to follow Bart Simpson's thoughts of Christmas -- "Christmas is a time when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ." However, to fight that mentality through condescension and mockery is not going to do us atheists any favors.

16 comments:

Stephen Douglas said...

Tom,

Your fair-mindedness knows no bounds. As you noted, it's an example of atheism-of-the-gaps, the folly of which you have done well to acknowledge.

Although I'd welcome any sign in fair taste (thank God for freedom), this is simply bad PR for atheists.

HumanistDad said...

Bill Donohue said that the sign was trying to "neuter our message". It's clear that the scene was specifically designed to promote Christianity. This isn't an homage to the christian religion, it's a blatant attempt to 'sell' it to the public. The FFRF sign was not hateful to people, it makes a bold statement to refute the idea of religion. All the statements on the sign are true - there are no gods, devils, angels, etc. When evidence shows otherwise, the statement will change but the overwhelming lack of such evidence makes their claim correct.

By far, this campaign is a boost to atheism. The coverage is making the religious angry (what doesn't?) but it is also raising awareness to the enlightened. Ideas deserve to be attacked (not people) and religions no longer get the privilege of advertising their nonsense with the backing of a secular society.

Tom said...

HumanistDad, thanks for the comment. You have valid and interesting perspectives on the issue at your blog as well. (I'll repost that Prop 8 Musical video I discovered on your site here, too!)

Does religion need criticism? Do atheist and humanist perspectives need to be made more public? Most definitely.

However, I think the sign was hateful. It could have presented its message in such a way to intrigue people to consider religious alternatives. By saying, "See that scene over there, it's nonsense and people that believe in it are hateful and stupid", while gaining media attention and furor, it cast humanism as pompous and hateful itself, with no room for debate and discussion. While the media attention may have made more people realize that there are a lot more atheists out there, the sign did nothing except play the fear card of religion's irrationality to entice people to want to jump ship from religion. It's got to be more positive than that.

AMW said...

"If there can be a Nativity scene saying that we are all going to hell if we don't bow down to Jesus, we should be at the table to share our views...."

Since the doctrine of Hell is nowhere implied in the stories of the Incarnation, (and many Christians don't actually accept the doctrine of Hell) I'm not sure what Mr. Barker is referring to. Did this particular scene have some supplemental written material or imagery?

If not, it's rather like a theist looking at the "Reason's Greetings" sign and saying in a huff that it is aggressively asserting that there's no such thing as morality. You could get there from the sign's sentiment, and some atheists do. But plenty of atheists (most?) don't, and that's what the sign is actually saying.

Tom said...

The "Reason's Greetings" sign above is NOT the sign that was posted next to the Nativity. The sign that was posted there was simple text -- the text in the first paragraph of my post. The group puts out other signs and billboards such as "Reason's Greetings". Sorry for the confusion.

Nicolas said...

Tom said: "C'mon! When has denigrating religious symbols ever been productive?"
I would reverse the question and ask: "When has being overly respectful of irrational beliefs ever been productive?"
I agree that this sign could have been better phrased in order to elicit discussion rather that emotional rejection, but it should be said that the message is critical of an idea (religion) and not of people. Therefore I think it is morally perfectly fine; We should be able to criticize the idea of God as much as we are able to criticize other ideas (political, philosophical, scientific and so on). By sticking to political correctness when talking about religion, we perpetuate this special status of religious belief and we legitimate the use of this special status as a trump card to end discussion. I think it is extremely important to have the public (especially in the US) exposed to the idea that there is no evidence whatsoever for any supernatural being or phenomenon, and that the main and overwhelming determinants of religious belief are the circumstances of birth. You cannot expect people to spontaneously reject what they’ve been told and taught all their life, nor can you expect them discover by themselves the danger of an idea that is constantly presented as respectable. We need (courteous) debate and ideological confrontation because we cannot afford a society organized around the respect of each individual’s idiosyncratic irrational beliefs.

Tom said...

Nicolas,

Regarding the reversal, that's an interesting perspective. Generally speaking, I fall into Dennett's way of thinking that the overall sum of religion has been detrimental, and we'll go more negative the longer it is around. That being said, ridding the world of it through mockery is not the way to go about it, even if it is an effective device.

I think you are onto something when you say "overly respectful".

What is under discussion here is tolerance. If atheists allow for a Nativity, are they being tolerant to a fault, passively letting the Christians get their way? I don't think so if atheists also get a voice in the same public arena, and that was the attempt here by the governor.

So here is a situation where both sides are given a chance to tolerate each other, and the atheists took the stance that if we can't take Christ out of Christmas, then we'll mock you. The atheists feel like they are not being tolerated by Christians (simply because a Nativity exists) and the Christians do not feel like they are being tolerated by the atheists (because their sign says so).

It is exciting to see atheism come into the public square and for atheists to "come out". I am frustrated at the special status religion gets, and I appreciate the efforts of Dawkins et al that put religion on the same footing as other topics of discussion. I just don't think atheists can demand tolerance from religious folks when they do not exercise it themselves.

HumanistDad said...

I decided to look at what 'offensive' means on my blog today. I think what is troubling about the atheist sign is that it attacks the 'sacredness of religion'. A few days ago, I probably would have said this is fine but I would still be a bit bothered by it. I think the problem is that the statement is offensive for two reasons:

1. It is wrong to assert there are no gods, angels, etc. when we can't prove this.

2. It was known that the statement would offend and thus should not be placed in a public place. Posting it on the lawn of an FFRF supporter is perfectly fine. Even a corporation can post the sign but they'd also need to recognize the consequences.

So, I guess I'm generally agreeing with your initial post. It is wrong to allow religions to proselytize their message in public both because they have no basis in truth and government must not allow the promotion of what is, basically, an advertisement for a product.

I guess I've altered my stance somewhat that the FFRF should have limited their sign to information about the solstice and a general message of good cheer. Unfortunately the nativity scene is so blatantly inappropriate I think this is an example of 'fight fire with fire'. Maybe next year governments will recognize this and only allow informational postings and get rid of religious (and atheist!) proselytizing.

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

Once again, the fairness of your approach to these issues is evident. As I read your OP, several comments came to my mind ... and as I continued to read, you made them all for me!

HumanistDad writes, ... the nativity scene is so blatantly inappropriate ...

Really? Christmas is about Jesus, isn't it? Nativity scenes are just visual re-enactments of the birth story of one of the most significant persons (historical or fictitious) in all history. The story the nativity tells need not be understood as religious dogma; it is a dramatic birth story passed down from the ancients. Is there nothing in the life and teachings of Jesus that an atheist could celebrate? Can animosity toward a religious system so cloud the mind that one is incapable of recognizing the positive contributions Jesus made to mankind? Even if his story is entirely myth, is it really so "blatantly inappropriate" to symbolically mark his birth (even if it is not historical, and Christmas not historically accurate)?

We are a multi-cultural society. I am not offended by public displays of Menorahs, Buddhist Temples, Sikh headdresses, Muslim Crescents, nor by signs proclaiming that atheists celebrate Winter Solstice. The rhetoric of loathing for the nativity I hear coming from some skeptic corners sounds reactionary, and sometimes even petulant.

Both sides of these issues would do well to tone down their claims, and their abhorrence of alternate views.

AMW said...

Christmas is about Jesus, isn't it?

It is for you and me, Cliff. But popular slogans to the contrary, Jesus is not the reason for the season. The earliest Christians didn't celebrate Christ's birth, so much. It was his resurrection they were focused on.

It was pagans who celebrated the Winter Solstice, and it looked like it was a lot of fun, so the Church eventually co-opted that time of year and used it as an occasion to celebrate the Advent.

It's a lot like Hannuka in the U.S. today. Observing the Festival of Lights is not commanded in the OT, and it's a relative newcommer on the Jewish scene. But all the Christian kids get to open presents in late December, so giving gifts in remembrance of the Maccabean Revolt is a way for the Jewish community to get in on the action without compromising their religious views.

Nicolas said...

Tom,
Tolerance is indeed the issue here. Tolerance is the idea that people should be allowed to do, say or think whatever they want as long as it doesn't hurt anybody (and I’m not talking about hurting their feelings). Being tolerant means allowing any idea to be expressed, but it does not mean that these ideas should be respected. As a matter of fact, one could almost consider criticism as a necessary correlate of freedom of speech: Society grants you the right to express your views while granting others the right to criticize these views.
The statement “There is no god” is in no way an offensive statement, even placed in the vicinity of a nativity scene (Saying “You are stupid for believing in God” would be offensive). I also happen to think that it is a correct statement: According to all the standards of reason, God is imaginary. Every day we deal with tons of hypothesis we cannot disprove. I can’t disprove Leprechauns or unicorns, and I can’t even prove that the people I interact with are not just figments of my imagination! But I can still come to the conclusion that leprechauns do not exist because they is no evidence for them (no replicable observations, no measurable traces) and, perhaps more importantly, because the attributes of leprechauns are not conceivable by science: We have never observed anything (or anyone) becoming invisible and we have never observed spontaneous generation of pots of gold. We have no theoretical framework that makes leprechauns even possible. Being able to imagine something does not make it a valid hypothesis.
So the atheist message is quite clear and unambiguous, and it should be stated clearly and unambiguously. It is not offensive to speak you mind, and it is not offensive to criticize an opinion, especially in such a passive manner. It’s belief that is attacked, not believers, not religious practice. If I have acquired the conviction, through the scientific method, that 1)religion is dangerous 2)people may not know about it, I have a moral duty tell them (even I often lack the courage to do so).

Tom said...

Cliff and AMW, thanks for your thoughts and historical perspective.

Nicolas, it is the historical and cultural perspective that is somewhat lost by the tone FFRF used. Yes, we can argue the historicity of Jesus himself -- whether or not he even existed -- and that Christmas used to be about Winter's Solstice and the Christians stole it. But the sign was not an attempt to restore the seasonal celebration to its original context.

Tolerance, like all things, is subjective. The statement "There is no God" is something that many people can tolerate, but there will always be some that cannot. To call the sign "intolerant" is my subjective view that I can imagine too many people being offended by it, and in such a way that the sides will be more pitted against each other than had the sign not existed. I could be wrong. It could be that even if the initial hit is hard to grapple with and people are bothered, that the overall sum could be the message that "I did not realize that there are a lot of atheists out there, who are organizing themselves, and I don't like them, but I have to let them have their voice and learn how to deal with them." You can never please everybody all the time, especially when it comes to religious views! If it were my sign, I would have toned it down, but then again, I'm certainly not known for my marketing skills and this certainly got a lot of media attention.

Tom said...

Now it looks like all the kooks are coming out.

http://www.theolympian.com/377/story/694825.html

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/12/it_just_gets_better_and_better.php

Cliff Martin said...

It would be funny if it weren't so very sad.

Pete said...

Speaking as a Christian (though with a ton of doubt), I don't have a problem with the sign's message, those are valid questions, valid assertions, and things I am struggling with already. [indeed, I don't really believe anymore in angels and demons, or maybe they are they but I consider it appears they are hiding so well it is functionally equivalent to assume they don't exist]. And I agree that if a nativity scene is set up on public property, and I do think this is some small endorsement to the truthfullness of our religion, then atheists should be allowed to post their sign as well.

BUT I have to agree with Tom, I don't think the sign is a good one to serve the purpose of making people more aware of or tolerant of atheists or make people more likely to consider this alternative with an open mind. And why? Because of the emotional reaction, especially seeing it placed so prominently and purposely near their nativity. It will just fire up the whole "war on Christmas" feelings and people who are threatened react most agressivly. Barker might disagree that I would pussy foot around the issue but if I were promoting atheism or even as a Christian who is trying to at least present what non-believers are really like to my close minded fundie friends, I think there would be more constructive ways. Talk to people without making them defensive so you can't actually talk to them.

I wouldn't support a "Winter-solstice" sign though, as Christians associate that with druids and/or witches. It seems a strange thing to grow up and realize some people actually believe there are women out there with evil supernatural powers. Anyway, that was a tangent.

Tom said...

Thanks for the visit, Pete! Email me if you ever want to chat offline or have suggestions for posts -- questions you have and might be curious about how I've answered (or am answering) them. In the meanwhile, enjoy your Christmas!