April 27, 2012

In Defense of Making Mountains of Molehills

Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) brings us the story of a church-state violation at a dinner held by city officials in Saskatoon to honor volunteers. It seems that one official offered a sectarian prayer during the dinner. This prompted a complaint from Ashu Solo, an atheist who was among those invited to the dinner to receive an award. Hemant believes that Solo overreacted and that his response "makes him (and us) look crazy." On one hand, I agree with much of what Hemant wrote in his post. On the other, this is precisely the sort of thing I was talking about here.

Hemant is absolutely right that Solo was not the victim of religious bigotry or discrimination, as he claimed. This was about Christian privilege, and Hemant recognized it correctly. Hemant is also right when he points out the exclusionary nature of prayers at government functions and suggests that Solo was right to point this out.

Where Hemant loses me a bit is when he writes:
The blessing wouldn’t even register in the post-party summary. That doesn’t make it right; I just doubt it was a big deal to most people. I doubt I would’ve cared all that much.
It certainly would have registered with me. But really, this isn't about Hemant or I and what we might have felt; it is about Solo and what he felt. He clearly felt that this was a big enough deal to prompt a complaint. Hemant goes on to say that if he had been in Solo's place he would have asked the event organizers about the prayer. This seems to conflict with what he previously said about him not caring much about the prayer, but it is nice to hear that he probably would have complained too.

Hemant's primary objection appears to be with the specific content of Solo's complaint, and he's right about Solo's claims regarding bigotry and discrimination, neither of which was evident here. But Solo certainly got the mayor's attention, didn't he? Maybe there is room in the atheist movement for approaches different from those Hemant advocates.

Hemant also objects to Solo's response to the mayor's suggestion that the situation could be resolved by rotating prayers from different religious practitioners, including a prayer-free dinner for atheists. Solo was absolutely right to reject this as an absurd suggestion. The point is that there should not be prayers of any kind at public meetings. But what Hemant really objects to is Solo's apparent threat of "a human rights complaint." I'm really not sure what this phrase meant in this Canadian context. Maybe it was a bit over-the-top, but that doesn't necessarily make it ineffective.

When most of us are desperately trying to encourage atheists to speak up, stand up for our rights, and reject Christian privilege, I am glad that people like Solo are doing just that. To be sure, his wording could have been better calibrated to the situation. But I'd far rather have him do what he did than remain silent.