December 23, 2016

Looking the Other Way on Church-State Violations at Christmas

The Atheist's Guide to ChristmasAfter posting this recent story about the "war on Christmas" coming to a small town in Indiana, it occurred to me that I usually encounter some objections when I say that I support the people who bring lawsuits against their local or state governments for violating separation of church and state. While I recognize that this will surprise no one, I mention this because the objections I receive usually come from atheists. And in my experience, such objections from atheists are especially likely when it comes to church-state violations involving Christmas decorations. Some atheists, it seems, would prefer it if we would collectively agree to ignore separation of church and state when it comes to Christmas decorations.

I wrote a post addressing this back in December of 2011, "Leave the Nativity Scenes Alone: Objections From Atheists." I mentioned three reasons I had been given by atheists who thought that other atheists should ignore the erection of nativity scenes on public property: the need to pick our battles, the enjoyment of Christmas, and public relations. I addressed each of them briefly. As I look back over the post now, it occurs to me that I was likely wrong in my unstated assumption about the prevalence of these reasons and their relative importance.

When I wrote that post, I assumed that the notion that church-state activists should pick our battles and that squabbles over Christmas decorations was one of the most trivial things we could do was the most common objection against efforts to keep religious displays off of government property. I also assumed that concerns over how such efforts would make atheists look (i.e., public relations) was a close second. These two reasons likely blurred together to some degree. That is, arguing over Christmas decorations is viewed as trivial and as something that harms our public image when we do it. My mistake, I now believe, was that I did not think that the enjoyment of Christmas was much of a factor at all. I almost didn't even include it. I now suspect that it might be as important - if not more important - than the other two reasons.

Why the change of mind? It has been clear to me for some time that many atheists, probably even a majority of atheists, enjoy Christmas and most of what comes with it. I say this because I can count on hearing from them each and every time I share my own thoughts and feelings on the subject of Christmas (I'm not a fan). As I have written here several times, there is nothing wrong with atheists enjoying Christmas. But as I wrote in that 2011 post, I do not believe that one's enjoyment of Christmas ought to mean that we just look the other way when church-state violations occur via Christmas decorations. And yet, I now suspect that this is exactly what it does mean for many of the atheists who object to complaining about religious decorations on public property this time of year.

More and more, this is the reason I have been hearing from atheists. Some almost seem ashamed to admit it, but many do admit it. "But I like Christmas too." Not only that, but my travels on social media have convinced me that what I will refer to as "others should look the other way when it is in my interest that they do so" mindset is pervasive. Clinton supporters want to highlight all the ways that Trump appears to be running afoul of the law while overlooking evidence of Clinton's violations; Trump supporters do the same, overlooking his violations while obsessing over Clinton's. Watch a football game with someone and notice how mad he or she gets when the other team gets away with something and there is no flag. But of course, it is perfectly okay when his or her team does the same.

Personally, I think that one's love of Christmas is a poor reason to look the other way on church-state violations. It strikes me as hypocritical in much the same way that "it's okay when we do it" seems hypocritical. But I also think that it is a far more common reason why some atheists would prefer that we'd all ignore church-state violations this time of year than I previously realized.
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