Atheists behaving churlishly

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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Atheists behaving churlishly

  1. David Hume says:

    with age i tend toward the same skepticism of these objections toward crèches around this season. there are really abuses of the anti-establishment principle which warrant far closer attention. as it is, this is more media-friendly, and becomes the face of skepticism.

  2. For years our neighborhood mall had a “holiday” display of some magnitude in its center. It was well done and quite lovel. They had one stain glass panel (really plexiglass) depicting the nativity, one the Menorah, one Santa, one was Kwanza themed, and one was solstice themed. It covered everyone except the secular humanists. But it was designed as a Winter Holiday display and secular humanists and atheists don’t have a winter holiday.

    We’re talking a small mall w/a Macy’s and JC Penney in NYC. So, we’re used to living w/diversity. I have no idea why it was taken down. But I for one miss it. It was beaufully crafted.

    So my thoughts are if atheists are prepared to put up a winter holiday display, let them. If not, sorry. No go.

  3. Nice piece and my opinion is that religion can be aesthetically pleasing so long as it doesn’t impose on anyone or anything..

    I hate the idea of imposition (and public funds being used, keep it to a minimum) beyond that why not celebrate cultural, religious and spiritually diversity.

    For me the story of the “blank spaces” kind of demonstrates the hollowness of aggressive atheism. People want hope and belief the narrative has to be a positive one rather than a negative one (that’s why the Golden Compass series was really very good was a departure and provided a novel idea on the weakness of traditional religious doctrine).

    Anyway thanks alot it was a great read..

  4. Well said, Heather but – come on! The bus thing was pretty amusing, don’t you think?

  5. Kevin S. says:

    The only thing I see as churlish about the Santa Monica atheists’ actions is the Jefferson quote, which strikes me as inappropriately combative for a holiday display. I mean, there are atheist groups that are making signs wishing people a safe holiday season and making other positive statements. It’s not their fault that the city decided to use a random system to assign the spaces.

  6. gary says:

    Funny, there’s this “wall of seperation between church and state” yet you wonder why sessions of Congress are opened, as they have been since the beginning, by prayer. Yet you don’t find the fortitude to question whether your ideas of this supposed “wall” have not been distorted by a small number of macontents over the years. As a believer, everything I see, everywhere, that does not celebrate or show fourth God’s presence, is an affront. Yet you non believer’s get your panties in a wad over one or two of our Holiday’s each year. Small and pathetic, is my opinion.

  7. Terry says:

    Freedom From Religion Foundation. A group that apparently goes insane with even the mention of religion. I’m not a religious person but I don’t feel any need to denigrate those that are as many atheists seem to need do. I can’t think of a single thing that Christians have done in the modern age that concerns me. Muslims on the other hand are a different story yet I have seen almost no protests from the atheist population over the denigration of women and the injustice of sharia law. Curious

  8. guest says:

    Kevin S. – it is perfectly fitting that a random system lead to emptiness instead of what should have been joy.

  9. Jack says:

    \\ and Texas’s official gubernatorial prayers for rain\\

    Does an elected official lose his first amendment right to freedom of religious belief and exercise while in office?

    I don’t think so.

  10. Julie says:

    From one who has distanced myself from any religious affiliation:
    I ask this question in earnest.
    Would we boycott a Muslim holiday tradition? A Jewish one? A Buddhist one?
    I’m a non-believer. A non-Christian. I think this atheist push is meant to punish those who do believe and is disrespectful and in bad taste.

  11. scott says:

    Such unhappy people. Try living your life instead of constantly being befuddled by it.

  12. Mitch M. says:

    I really do not want to have *any* conversation with believers, but I have to admit that their anger just shows what I have come to believe: not many of them *really* believe, either, and they don’t like to be reminded of that fact.

    I find it more useful to simply ask them if they want to see identical “public space” religious displays for Eid or Kwanzaa.

  13. gary m says:

    You must not live in Texas or you would know the prayers have been answered.

  14. WSG says:

    As A Christian Constitutional Conservative my tolerance for the militant atheist’s attacks on Judeo-Christian social structure and this Republic is reaching an abrupt end.
    “Tolerance” widely preached by the secularists ONLY applies to those who espouse the erosion or outright destruction of the social and/or moral foundations of this nation.
    Freedom can not survive in a society where parents, individual responsibility and morality are supplanted by a social worker and a endless government checks. Please see Kliebold and Harris and post Katrina New Orleans ….. .
    The “religion” of the secularists is too often worship of the State, self or Mother Earth as god(s), usually in some combination.
    The history of the last 100 plus years is littered with the corpses of more than a hundred million souls as a factual demonstration that those approaches to centrally planned – state ordered – utopian “solutions” are NOT SUSTAINABLE.
    “Hope and Change” as proffered by the Radical that sits as POTUS is no more viable than the failed Soviet Union because it is based on the same factually wrong utopian – socialist-, willfully detached from reality view of human nature.

  15. Bob M. says:

    Just to clarify, regarding your “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…”:

    The establishment clause’s intent was to keep the government out of religion, not the other way around. The founders cared not which religion a person affiliated themselves with, indeed if they did so at all. What they wanted was to ensure that the state stayed out of religious matters to the extent that government would not be in the position of favoring any one over others.

  16. James Barron says:

    I would hope that the skepticism toward religion has more to do with the doubt of Christ’s divinity as opposed to his philosophy.

    The Christian belief system that is integrated into our political documents are pretty much accepted by most Americans, non-believers and athiests included. These documents are fundamental to America’s strength and allure as a nation.

    Besides, Heather is so great at articulating anti-statist views on most issues, I hope she recognizes the greatest anti-statist of all was Jesus Christ.

  17. Mike M. says:

    From the NY Times article:

    One of Mr. Vix’s favorite signs sits right in the middle of the park, but few passers-by stopped one recent afternoon to read the quote from Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century writer and orator:

    “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

    Someone obviously left the irony ON…

  18. Salharmonic says:

    Isn’t a true non believer just someone who shuts his mouth and moves on without praising God or subscribing to any belief. This behavior by Vix seems to be irrational, becasause in essence he and his fellws are showing that they do believe in something – being a nuisance to others.

  19. Mrs D says:

    As a Christian believer, I found your article interesting. I don’t mind atheists being atheists, but many promote atheism with the same zest and fervor of true believers. Pot meet kettle. I find in your article some interesting insights and similarities in the “fight” against mainstream liberalism. There is a time to be harsh and strident, but mostly those types of arguments will be rejected out of hand.

  20. Brendan says:

    Once when I was taking off for a flight, my colleague asked why I was making the sign of the cross. Like Heather, she thought that I was praying that the plane wouldn’t crash. I laughed, and told her that I wasn’t trying to influence God to influence the plane’s environment. I was merely asking that he not send me to hell if we do crash.

    I regularly ask God to give me strength to be a better man, to be a better father, to be a better husband, and to forgive me my sins. Like many educated folks, pummeled with “proof” that God doesn’t exist (the Universe is too big, the Universe is too old, there is no reason to have a God that creates it…) I must struggle against that, and deal with the nastiness of the most outspoken atheists.

    Yet I try to keep my faith by looking at those items that support it. The creation cycle of genesis is a simplified parable to how the universe was created (fyi, it would be much harder to believe if the creation mythos was one of a giant turtle holding up the earth). I have other nuggets that keep me strong, but my point is that most intelligent people who believe already know what the atheists are trying to point out. Most of us have chosen.

  21. hamilcarb says:

    Nicely put. Anecdotally, I agree with 90% of the objections conservatives voice under the “war on Christmas” rubric. I don’t see how it does any good to get in people’s faces all the time. Ms. MacDonald has it right – when dealing with a receptive audience, “simply [ask] the questions that logically follow from religious belief.” Avoid being a jerk – it can be done (and although I am sure there are plenty of reasonable, nice atheist adverts, they are inevitably drowned out by nasty and/or dumb ones).

  22. RandyB says:

    I must admit, it’s hard not to want to judge these things on artistic merit, instead of Constitutional principles. When a small town erects a really good manger scene in its city square, I think isn’t it great to put that there for everyone’s enjoyment. But if they just write “Visit your house of worship this holiday season” on the city hall billboard, I’m more likely to wonder what business that is of government’s.

  23. thesecond says:

    @Kevin Surely it is their fault the city decided to use a random system to assign the places, as they applied for the maximum number of spaces with a large out of town group.

    I did the maths for the lottery. There were probably only 16 Christians applying for places. When the seven of Vix’s group sent out 98 applications they were gaming the system hard. They could have easily just applied for 10 or 11 out of 21 places and got a reasonable number of displays out.

    It is really rather annoying when people decide to abuse public resources for their own benefit. Everyone else pays for your mistakes.

  24. D says:

    I view things like this kind of like Act Up in 80s and early 90s. They are necessary to move the debate forward, but the people making the argument are usually insufferable. At some point they will recede into the background.

  25. Shane B. says:

    I’m surprised to read that Heather Mac Donald is an atheist, but I love her writing on cultural and political issues all the same. Religion, like anything else, can inspire good and ill, though I think it tends to improve people and the world we live in. Mac Donald’s quip that we need to fear Christianity because it remains “unapologetic about suppressing heterodoxy before the Enlightenment and the market began chipping away at its hegemony over the public sphere.” is absurd, though. Christianity today is more than tame – it’s ridiculed and perverted, prostituted and dismissed. It will never again have the power to force her into ignorance. We have political correctness to do that today.

    That doesn’t make the thugs she writes about attacking religion today heroic, it makes them ingrates and likely candidates for mental evaluation. If seeing a religious display makes you start sobbing about feeling like a second class citizen – you’ve got deeper problems than tearing down crosses on a hill can solve. Time to see the psychiatrist…

  26. LizardLips says:

    This is not unlike the man who believes his will be damaged if the child is forced to endure the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ in school and sues. With reasoning of this nature, we soon would be subject to the whims of, say, somebody doesn’t like your hair-style or the color of your car and you’re forced to comply. “Bell-bottoms are so retro, take them off.” A society as diverse as ours can only survive if we’re occasionally willing to wear blinders and or simply look the other way. This is not to say we should be blind to real dangers to the body politic, but for the sake of the fairness one side always seems to be carping about, stop whining about every little thing you perceive as a threat to your personal dignity.

  27. jd says:

    I am convinced that these “militant” atheists are in fact not atheists at all.
    When you listen to their venom toward believers, and the glee with which they crow about victories in courts (wherin they ‘limit the free exercise thereof’ in the name of not establishing) over public expression, it becomes very obvious where they actually reside.
    These so called atheists do not disbelieve the existance of God, these so called atheists, in fact, HATE God!
    I submit that it is impossible to Hate that which you deny the existance of, therefore, they cannot possibly disbelieve the existance of God.
    The true category for them is AntiTheist, not Atheist.

  28. cynthia curran says:

    Well, Santa Monica was attractive to the left non-beleiver because of Tom Hayden in the 1970’s. In fact, back in the 1960’s probably religous beliefs or politics were not that much different than other places. Even white conservatives would prefer Santa Monica over heavily hispanic towns that are a little less liberal like Anahiem or Santa Ana or Los Angeles itself. Santa Monica even left is still more white than the other three towns.

  29. Wonder how Thomas Jefferson would feel about having a made-up quote attributed to him and included in this hate-filled attack. Probably not too good.

    You see, Thomas Jefferson never said: ““Religions are all alike—founded upon fables and mythologies.” Easily proved simply by examining his writings.

    The Jefferson Library itself has declared it to be made up, much like many of the alleged Lincoln quotes.

  30. mark e. says:

    Well said, Heather. Too many campaigners for secularism are on the autistic spectrum, I’d say, and do the cause more harm than good. They don’t see how they or their actions are perceived by the mainstream. That ill-conceived attempt to refer to atheists as ‘brights’ is a case in point. Judgement and aesthetic factors count.

    It should also be borne in mind that many supposed Christians don’t really believe the absurdities of Christian doctrine anyway.

  31. JamesG says:

    Some of the most religion-obsessed people on the planet are atheists.

  32. MikeInVA says:

    Nice article, Heather, however, I would like to know what how Christopher Hitchens’ involvement in the public discourse on religion was NOT unpleasant and vitriolic. His books “God Is Not Great” and “The Missionary Position” certainly are blatantly contemptuous of both religion and people of faith. Sorry, but using the name of sexual position as the title a book about Mother Teresa (to cite just one example) is the epitome of bad taste.

  33. Polichinello says:

    Like the King James Bible, the Christmas story is a part of our culture. You don’t have to be a believer to find comfort and solace in the mythology. Attempts to abolish it from the public sphere are nothing more than the work of cultural vandals. There’s no need to live up the full description of Ebenezer Scrooge.

  34. djf says:

    Heather refers to “prayer in schools” as an instance of government-sponsored religion she would like to get rid of. Presumably, it has slipped her mind that the Supreme Court declared prayer in public schools unconstituional about 50 years ago.

  35. No not every one.

    Put it this way… atheists are turned off by Bible thumpers telling them they are evil and going to Hell. (Regardless of the theology — that’s bad form if nothing else — rudeness on steroids).

    I don’t need a D-bag like Damon Vix telling me I believe in fairy tales with a dubious Thomas Jefferson quote (and I thought atheists would be against appeals to Authority anyway). Richard Dawkins is the atheist version of the big-haired Pentecostals on TBN. He’s bombastic, logically dubious, and not in line with the best of his tradition. Give me Voltaire any day of the week — at least the man could fight with panache.

    So you don’t beat me over the head with Dawkins and I won’t beat you over the head with the Gospels. Deal? We can still drink beer, eat nachos, and enjoy the football game (no Broncos OK?)

  36. Jeeves says:

    Nice work, Heather. Surprised that a commenter here didn’t know you are an atheist, yet claims to be familiar with your writing.

    The general quality and tenor of the comments should relieve you of any misgivings about Secular Right being a refuge for sloganeering nonbelievers.

    Christopher Hitchens not “unpleasant” about faith?? Maybe not unpleasing to you or me, Heather, but if he didn’t outrage at least some large segment of the superstitious, he would have considered himself a failure.

    @dif: The constitutionality of school prayer may have been decided five decades ago, but First Amendment jurisprudence has never rested on its laurels, and school prayer (in whatever guise)has been litigated ever since.

    And speaking of prayer, I join Heather in being annoyed (and only that) by congressional chaplains. Not because I’m supporting Rear Adm. Bary Black to the tune of $155K (plus staff budget) annually, but because when you want to cite the uselessness of peititonary prayer, it’s not occurring in Texas but in the U.S. Senate.

  37. Oh Jeeves… Madeleine Murray O’Hare made more lawyers more money than maybe any one person in the 20th century. Dare I say it? Constitutional law practitioners should thank God for her.

    And you are 100% correct about Senate prayers. The decline from Peter Marshall to today is steep.

  38. kns says:

    The guarantee of the constitution and amendments is the freedom from a forced belief if anybody cares to actually read it all and the history of it. It is not a guarantee of not seeing others beliefs. If you read it as it is written without bias, the elimination of the nativity or other displays is actually what is illegal under the law. It is discrimination. Most outspoken anti-religious groups expect others beliefs to be removed from display without ever realizing that the very act promotes their cause, thus government supporting a consciousness or religion.
    Oddly, an atheist friend and colleague celebrates with a Christmas Tree (and calls it that) and explains to his child that the U.S. tradition is based in Christian belief. And it is — there has been no majority pagan cult in the U.S. since its inception and Mithra had a wonderful but short-lived role in Roman culture compared to Christianity. So for the U.S., Christmas is traditionally a Christian holiday, regardless of what it has become or what your faith or lack there of wants to call it.

  39. Eric says:

    I’ve said this and I’ll say it again. I am an atheist and if anyone around me, in a private or even public sphere, wants to pray or show some symbolism of their faith I am not offended. After all, it’s not like someone is pointing a gun to my head and forcing me to pray to or worship a non-existent god. That isn’t to say that I wouldn’t have certain thoughts of that person because of it. However, common decency dictates that I keep those thoughts to myself. Religion just isn’t worth fighting over, or ruining personal or professional relationships with others.

  40. Kitteh says:

    What a pleasure to read a civil and thoughtful post, and matching comments! I wish there were more of them to be found on the Net. Thank you and a happy new year to you all from an Australian more-or-less deist. 🙂

  41. SFG says:

    Yeah, a lot of the militant atheists don’t seem to realize how counterproductive they are. It’s probably more of a mild-Asperger’s thing in the case of guys like Dawkins, who’s actually a very bright evolutionary biologist who’s picked a subject he’s not so clever about. Guys like Hitchens just like to get into a row. Same with O’Hare, though of course in her case it’d be a fight. 😉

  42. J. says:

    Some of us find the manger scenes– ..or Griswold-family lights– offensive, whether public, or on every yard in Hooterville. That doesn’t mean ditto’ing everything Dawkins & Co ever wrote. And IIRC Jefferson himself was not overly supportive of religious holidays in principle.

    For that matter, the Ellay atheist-tweaking of the xmas story was sort of bo-ring. Now, Mary, like venice-beach style–topless, tanned, fit……..

Comments are closed.