April 15, 2012

Doing Something About State Promotion of Religion

English: It represents the 1905 law on secular...
English: It represents the 1905 law on secularity in France, and more info is found there about its legal state. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am an atheist. I think it would be great if there were more atheists, but I really don't care a great deal about trying to persuade anybody to give up their superstitions. Many believers have told me that they need their religious beliefs and cannot imagine life without them. I tend to think that they are quite a bit stronger than they realize, but I'll take them at their word.

Atheism does not have to be for everybody. I'm fine with that. What I'm not fine with are the widespread efforts by many religious believers to have the state promote their religious beliefs.

We are all familiar with the overt efforts by religious conservatives to enter our bedrooms and impose their antiquated morality on us. They seek to restrict reproductive freedom while simultaneously opposing contraception and sex education. They want to tell adults who they can and cannot marry. They advocate censorship and would love to punish blasphemy. They even have the nerve to prohibit us from buying or selling alcohol on Sundays. Most atheists and many religious moderates recognize these as overreaches of the sort that turn many people off to religion. Why? Because they involve restricting someone's freedom on questionable grounds.

What only atheists and a small number of religious liberals seem to recognize are the far more frequent and much subtler ways the state promotes religion. Here in the bible belt, one can find Christian flags in government buildings, nativity scenes in capitol buildings, sectarian prayers offered at virtually any government function. I have personally witnessed prayers referencing Jesus multiple times at the commencement ceremonies of a state university. I have been in meetings with high-ranking university administrators that were opened with sectarian prayers. I have heard reports of sectarian prayers during mandatory jury selection, fierce religious bullying at public schools (sometimes including teachers), and religiously-motivated vandalism (indicated by notes left at the scene).

I understand that some atheists regard some of these examples as trivial, advising me to "pick your battles." In my youth, I would have eagerly heeded this advice out of a combination of fear and a desire to fit in. These days, not so much. I'm tired of holding my tongue. I realize that through my silence, I have become part of the problem.

As I have started to find my voice, I've learned something extremely valuable: some of my complaints have been effective. That's right, some of my complaints have actually resulted in positive change. Imagine that! And nearly every time, the initial response has been the same, "Oh, I had no idea. Nobody has ever complained before." So before we complain, maybe we should try…complaining.

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