Of the various Christmas sightseeing destinations offered a child in 1960s Los Angeles, the Santa Monica crèches—a series of small stage sets erected on the bluffs above the Pacific Coast Highway–were particularly alluring. The life-sized mannequins that populated the chicken-wire enclosures had an obvious ancient provenance in the nearby J.C. Penney’s, with their heavy mascara, California tans, and stiff smiles under their Bedouin robes, yet the magic of mimesis—of reproducing human life in artificial form—worked its usual magnetic appeal.
This year, only three of the series’ fourteen Christmas scenes have appeared in Palisades Park after a local atheist complained about the monopoly on this prime piece of real estate enjoyed by religion. Complainant Damon Vix and some fellow non-believers applied for space in the park to broadcast their own message; Santa Monica decided to allocate the territory by lottery and the non-believers won the vast majority of spaces. Vix says that he never intended to dominate the area, but rather simply to receive an equal opportunity to make a pitch for reason. Many of the atheists’ spaces have deliberately remained blank, so as not to antagonize viewers, Vix told the New York Times; a photo in the Times shows a now pathetically empty chicken wire cage hung with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “Religions are all alike—founded upon fables and mythologies.”
My first reaction to this controversy is: What a ridiculous battle to pick. My second is: Does every public dissent from faith, my own included, inevitably come off as equally unpleasant? (Quick answer to the latter question: No, see Christopher Hitchens.) Vix has merely reinforced the view of millions of believers that non-believers are—for starters–killjoy blights on the polity who are only out to destroy joy and good cheer, and who would leave a vacuum in the human spirit as ugly as the atheists’ empty cages. Equally distressing is the tone-deafness of another skeptic, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who tells the Times that the Santa Monica situation was “one of the cutest success stories of the season.” The Wisconsin-based group erected its own manger this year in the Wisconsin State Capitol, featuring Einstein, Darwin, and—I cringe to write it–Emma Goldman. Way to further associate religious skepticism with Godless communism, guys! (And skeptics should avoid Seventh Day Adventist-type mimicry: If you’re going to be a vegetarian, don’t ape the meat eaters with mock salmon loaf.)
I am not even sure that non-believers should be picking battles at all, as opposed to simply asking the questions that logically follow from religious belief—such as why anyone thinks that God cares about his prayers for relief from mortgage debt or arteriosclerosis when God tolerates the daily slaughter of innocents by natural disaster and every kind of disease under the sun.
For me, the crèche episode raises troubling questions about how skepticism can best challenge or talk back to the ever-weakening domain of faith, without coming off as crude, thin-skinned, or anti-social. I confess that most contemporary atheist crusades—such as Rationalist slogans on buses–strike me as lame at best. (Is Secular Right any different? I hope so, but I cannot be sure.) And yet though I would not draw the line at the Santa Monica crèches, there are other public and government sponsored displays of religion that I, too, find deeply annoying and, if I controlled things, unacceptable, such as the prayer from Congress’s resident chaplain that opens every day’s legislative session, prayer in schools, Presidential prayer breakfasts, and Texas’s official gubernatorial prayers for rain (still inexplicably unanswered). (Vix would undoubtedly say, with likely justice, that he is not proceeding out of any personal annoyance but rather to uphold a fundamental Constitutional principle.) Every separation of Church and state that today we take for granted, such as the disestablishment of the official state churches in the early days of the Republic, undoubtedly struck many believers at the time as equally gratuitous and juvenile–not to mention deeply dangerous.
The issue here is not just how to dissent from religion; any challenge to a widely-accepted practice will be perceived by the majority as the action of cranks who should just keep their mouths shut. And while Christianity in the West today can play the victim of an intolerant elite culture, it was of course unapologetic about suppressing heterodoxy before the Enlightenment and the market began chipping away at its hegemony over the public sphere.
I have no hard and fast rule for arriving at a socially acceptable etiquette for expressing disbelief. Challenging Christian traditions, especially ones as innocuous and child-friendly as Christmas displays, is particularly fraught since Christianity has become so tame and is so thoroughly integrated into our culture. (My heavily Jewish, Hollywood-dominated grammar school in West Los Angeles held an annual Christmas carol ceremony without anyone objecting.) Perhaps the most that one can say is that anti-majoritarian principles should be applied with discretion—knowing that everyone will interpret that mandate differently. Here, though, I would leave the crèches alone.