'Tis the Season!

'Tis the season! Which means religious groups around the nation are getting irate with uppity atheists and other non-religious folk. The point of contention is the display of religious symbols on public grounds. I should preface this post by noting two things:

  1. I absolutely agree with the principle of separation of church and state, and;
  2. I sympathize with those people who are upset when their traditional displays are removed or blocked.

Few people out there appreciate the holiday season as much as I do. I was raised in an openly agnostic family, but that never prevented me from experiencing a month of Christmas cheer between Thanksgiving and New Years Day. There is a nativity scene on my mantle as I write, with a bedecked Christmas tree (with all five strands of lights and four hundred ornaments) sitting directly across the room. Snowmen, nutcrackers and wreaths are scattered around the house, and I look forward to spending Christmas morning with my family. We'll open gifts and bask in the once-in-a-year moment of nationwide calm and quiet.

Despite all of this, I am absolutely against public displays of traditional religious icons and symbols. My reasoning is quite simple. First, every religious group around the world is a minority in comparison to the group of people who do not share those beliefs. I'll address the United States in particular shortly, so keep this point in mind until then. Second, this nation is one protected by the separation of church and state. Thus, to prevent any one religious group from unfairly dominating other groups, this separation must remain absolute. As this is the case, what would give one group the right to dominate publicly funded places with their particular religious iconography?

It is true that our nation has had a predominantly Christian heritage, but this is because Western Europe has had a Christian heritage. You are shaped by where you come from, so it should be of no surprise that this former English colony has a Protestant Christian background. Does that mean that the United States is inherently Protestant? No. The separation of church and state is a fundamental element of our governmental history and it has served us well for over 200 years. I believe the issue is that the majority is now feeling the exertion of the rights of everyone else.

It would have been nigh unthinkable for someone to protest a manger scene 50 years ago, but times have changed as our demographics have evolved. What business does a town hall have in spending taxpayer resources on a decidedly Christian tribute? In this nation, no aspect of government has any right to promote, directly or indirectly, the rights of a particular religious group, so the town hall should not display those Christian symbols. To approach it from a different angle, let's say someone donated a manger scene to a town hall and set it up themselves. Is it right that this donated item, not paid for by the taxpayer, should be displayed? For the same reason as when the town hall paid for the manger itself, the answer is no.

I see two ways to solve this potential problem of religious favoritism in public spaces:

  1. Let everyone set up and show their particular religious icons, or;
  2. Let no one display religious symbols in public spaces.

I believe that (1) is untenable because of the antagonism inherent to religious rivalry. These are groups that usually claim to have the Truth, so everyone who claims otherwise is necessarily wrong. It's not that religiously motivated conflict must occur, but it seems unnecessary to invite it into a space that is supposed to be free from religious influence. Given the uproar over the building of mosques over the last few years, I can only imagine the furor if someone demanded that a statue of the Koran be put on display at the local courthouse, perhaps below the 10 Commandments (that similarly shouldn't be there in the first place). Can you imagine a beautifully ornate copy of the Koran on display next to a manger scene? Perhaps with a menorah on the opposite side, cheerfully lighting the face of the seated Buddha nearby? Surely this is inviting anger by those groups who do not wish to see those other people's religious symbols mucking up their public spaces. In light of these complications, I believe that option (2) is the obvious and only way to go.

Of course, this rationality does nothing for those who like and wish to keep these public religious displays. Who likes having their traditions pushed aside or otherwise quashed? I might find the Christian mythos laughable as a rational thinker, but that doesn't prevent me from admiring the beauty of the manger story or from spending Christmas eve driving around, looking at all of the lovely Christmas displays around town. I truly sympathize with those who are offended when a manger scene that has existed every year for 70 years is removed, but I believe the argument against the display of religious symbols on public grounds is too strong to overcome my empathetic impulse. The traditions associated with this time of year are woven into who I am. I understand the importance of these traditions, as well as the fact that these displays that are being contested are a part of many people's annual rituals.

I would feel saddened if I never witnessed these displays again, but the beauty of the separation of church and state is that I will never have to worry about that. This separation cuts both ways, which I feel is often ignored or overlooked. While you have no right to put your religion in a publicly owned and maintained place, the public sphere has no right to deny you your religion in the private sphere. I would be just as outspoken to defend your right to maintain a religious display on private property as I am outspoken to prevent that same display on public property. Don't think of the efforts of those outside your religious tradition as an attack on you. Think of it as the ultimate defense of your freedom to practice as you choose. As an atheist, there are better ways to win you over to our side. In the meantime, we simply aim to keep the public sphere an open and inviting space for everyone, religious and otherwise.


Follow me on Twitter and check back weekly for new articles and podcasts. You can also follow [37G] on Twitter, Google+, or YouTube.