December 7, 2011

Leave the Nativity Scenes Alone: Objections From Atheists

Nativity SceneMost atheists understand why it is inappropriate for public school officials to lead children in prayer during school hours. Most atheists understand why it is inappropriate for local or state government officials to erect a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of a courthouse. And so, I have to admit being somewhat surprised by the number of atheists I've heard from who do not seem to understand why it is problematic for local or state government officials to allow religious Christmas decorations in public buildings this time of year.

I realize that most atheists celebrate Christmas, but I have been a bit surprised to hear from many who do not see the problem with local government officials placing religious displays on government property this time of year. I suspect that the issue is not one of failing to understand why this is a problem but more a matter of simply not caring.

Here are a few of the reasons I've heard for dismissing the problem and efforts to solve it:
  1. We need to pick our battles, and this one is trivial.
  2. I like Christmas, and so I'm willing to look the other way on religious decorations on government property.
  3. Opposing anything associated with Christmas hurts the image of atheists in the eyes of the public.
Picking our Battles

I'm all for picking our battles, as I recognize that we have several important ones. But most of us are capable of working on more than one issue at a time. Is getting nativity scenes off government property the most important thing we could be doing? Of course not! But I fail to see why it cannot be on our to-do list. It is a question of church-state separation. And while I agree that it may seem more trivial than some of our efforts, it is certainly not the most trivial pursuit of which I have seen atheists engaged.

Enjoying Christmas

You have every right to enjoy Christmas. Just because I don't understand your sentiment does not detract from your joy one bit. But look at the reasoning you are employing: it is okay for someone to mix church and state if someone happens to like it. I think it is great that you enjoy the holiday, but I cannot join you in that particular line of reasoning.

Public Relations

In case you haven't noticed, atheists are a despised minority. It is not like us embracing Christmas is going to change that one bit. Do you think we are despised because we ask our elected officials to obey the law? I find this argument both unpersuasive and ethically troubling once one considers its broader implications. Should we just stay silent and take the bigotry that comes our way if doing so would help our image too? The problem faced by atheists is not one of PR; it is one of bigotry.

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