Monday, December 8, 2008

Take A Gander At The Goose

In the teapot of my state's capitol there brews a tempest. Among the seasonal holiday displays in the capitol building, which include a Christmas tree, a Nativity scene, a Menorah, there is for the first time an atheist entry. With the passing of each hour, the outrage grows. Posted by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the sign has been stolen, found, and replaced at least once.

"It's offensive to my beliefs!!" say the offended. "Freedom of speech is one thing," says another, "but when it insults my religion, that crosses a line." (That one was on a TV news report.) "What is troubling is that by placing such a tablet on government property Washington state is contradicting the roots of the nation’s founding," says this guy.

I'm trying not to laugh.

In response to the insistence of religionists that Nativity scenes be allowed on public property, the courts have been very clear: government entities that choose to do so must make space equally available to other views. Bill O'Reilly's feigned (and altogether fatuous [see, he's the leader of the pack railing against the term "holiday" in place of "Christmas"]) outrage notwithstanding, the state of Washington and its governor are doing nothing but following the law. It's not enough for you to have your Christmas celebrated all over the nation in homes, churches, shops and malls? Fine. You wanna agitate to have it at your capitol, too? Okay. But then you have to accept the entirely democratic and constitutional consequence: other voices may be heard as well. Even offensive ones.

I find the shocked responses highly ironic: welcome to my world. As a non-Christian, I've always been mildly to moderately annoyed at these annual rites of rigidity. I love the decorated houses, the simple and elaborate displays everywhere. It's all but impossible for me to understand how the religious fail to see how insisting that their side gets onto the courthouse lawn is annoying to and/or disrespectful of and/or actually threatening to those of differing beliefs.

Now, one infers from those pained responses, at least a few people understand. Or would, if they had any sense of empathy. Or irony.

Which, clearly, they don't.


MargaretWV said...

Someone needs to bring the Catalonian tradition of defecating Nativity figurines to your state capitol!,0,4111239.story

(I'm sure you've seen this at Pharyngula.)

Timmyson said...

Is the reproduction in your third link the entirety of the sign? It doesn't help matters when everyone's quoting the sign differently.

Is the fact that religion hardens hearts and stupefies minds critical to atheism? While I agree with the statement, I would still be an atheist even if I did not believe religion had a net negative impact on the world (or even if it had a positive effect on the world, but that's the scientist in me, I guess).

While religious people are frequently deserving of criticism for their beliefs, it seems somewhat outside the spirit of the other symbols (statements in favour of their own belief, rather than criticisms of others') on display.

More appropriate would have been: "Maybe, instead of buying toys and luxeries for yourselves in honour of a Christian permutation of a Pagan spirit, you could pay down your debts or help the less fortunate, since there is no everlasting paradise where they will be rewarded for settling for their lives of poverty." The season is a ridiculous drain on everyone's purses. That's a sign I'd be happy to put on a courthouse lawn.

Sid Schwab said...

timmyson: the quote is what I found in looking. There was also this:

For now, the atheist sign is a stand-in. The metal plaque meant for display was delayed by a shipping error, Barker said.

It will be two-sided, with a lengthy message on the main side, and "Keep State/Church Separate" on the back. Barker said that step is necessary because critics have sometimes spun around the group's other statehouse display, in Wisconsin, in hopes of hiding its message."

And whereas yours might have been better, that's beside the point: the sign is what it is, and has a right to be there. I assume whatever the nativity scene looks like, others would have done it differently. As the comment above yours shows quite convincingly.

Frank Drackman said...

might not want to watch the Innauguration, I here there's gonna be a Bible. Seriously, I love Atheists, they never hit you up for donations or try to Save you, and if there is an afterlife, they won't be there boring you to death with photos of their grandkids.

Baysage said...

I really hate getting involved in this discussion, but I find it just a bit disingenuous for people who deny the efficacy of belief in a deity, much less its particularization in the practice of a religion, to get so exercised about creches. These are people who consider anyone who disagrees with them about religion to be fools at best and all manner of criminals at worst. Why the uproar, then, over the foolish practices of Christians and their meaningless displays? Only one reason, as ancient as human discourse: I'm right, you're wrong.

The relentless posturing of atheists about their own correctness is precisely what so outrages them in the practitioners of religion, and it's every bit as obnoxious. In my humble, and I emphasize the word, opinion, militant atheists are just as intolerant and potentially lethal as militants in any religion. It's the humans that are screwed up. God or not-God has nothing to do with it.

Sid Schwab said...

baysage: in this we disagree greatly (my post today does reflect some of your final sentence, however.

I object to the use of the words "militant atheist," at least to the extent that it's so over-used. In what way (assuming you refer to him) is the one who put up the sign in question any more "militant" than those who put up the creche or the menorah? Are Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris "militant?" Both are soft-spoken and well-reasoned. If they occasionally fall to hyperbole, how is that more offensive than people like Robertson, et al, to whom the word "militant" is rarely if ever applied? I think the person who put up the sign in the WA capitol was, at least in part, saying, "If you take offense at this, then why am I not allowed to take offense at that?"

Who's getting more exercised over the creche? Those who insist it belongs on public property, or those who find it offensive or threatening or, simply, unlawful?

Clearly there's a double standard. There's little or no ability -- and this is the point of my post -- on the part of those who insist on creches to see it from the other side. They take enormous offense when people object to their public displays, see it as free speech and freedom of religion; but when the atheist has a say, they see it as a threat to theirs, and demand it be removed.

We do agree that at some level it's silly. I did, after all, refer to it as a tempest in a teapot. But at the heart of it are serious issues: do those who insist on the public displays of their favored religious symbols believe in free expression or not? So I find the matter quite enlightening, and an object lesson, were the religionists able to see it.

The militancy (such as it is) of atheists is, in my view, a very timely reaction to the increasingly dangerous imposition of religion into public life. In the US in particular, where it affects our politics, our thinking, our ability to deal with reality, in unhealthy ways.

Carlos said...


I am right with you on this one. As a fellow citizen of Washington, I am quite proud of the fair and dispassionate (so far) way Governor Gregoire is handling this issue, despite my opinion that NO displays with overt or explicit religious associations should be allowed on public property. The decision was made to allow religious themed displays, and now those who fought for the right to express their religious beliefs in the Capitol Building have their panties in a bunch, having realized they unintentionally fought for everyone's right to express their religious beliefs in the Capitol Building.

I don't, however, think the FFRF's sign needed to be as directly confrontational as it was, since we have seen how O'Reilly and his ilk react to even mild proclamations of nonbelief. But I surely don't have any problem with how it was written. As it's been said before, nobody has a right to not be offended.

Timmyson said...

Sid said: "the sign is what it is, and has a right to be there."

I agree that it has the right to be there, I just think that it's not tactful and poorly representative of the value of atheism. As Baysage ineloquently demonstrated, there's a perception that atheism is all about one's high horse. The point I was trying to make (poorly, because I thought I was being funny with my sign proposal) was that atheism (or my version of atheism) has real ramifications for how the world ought to be run. I think that religion is a huge waste and a drain on society for tangible and pragmatic reasons (beyond the inherent value of truth, and the harms of telling lies to try to control society).

I realize now with your second comment that you were really trying to focus on the hypocrisy of the issue rather than the particular issue which happened to be hypocritical. I can see how in that case my first comment was irrelevant to the point at which you were driving. Sorry 'bout that.

Sid Schwab said...

You raise a good point, with which I agree: there are values that atheism has to offer. If that means it's important to have it be part of the conversation, the question becomes how best to do so. I don't know the answer. But given the numbers, and the recalcitrance of "the opposition," it might be that quiet discourse alone may not break through. I doubt the display in question changed any minds.

There's a sort of paradox, I'd say: minds that might be open enough to change don't need changing.

Anonymous said...

Baysage: "I find it just a bit disingenuous for people who deny the efficacy of belief in a deity, much less its particularization in the practice of a religion, to get so exercised about creches. These are people who consider anyone who disagrees with them about religion to be fools at best and all manner of criminals at worst. Why the uproar, then, over the foolish practices of Christians and their meaningless displays?"

Try and imagine how you would feel if government buildings were decorated with tarot symbols. That is precisely how many atheists feel about government buildings bearing Christian symbols. Moreover it is disrespectful to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc to exclude them.

I don't know anyone who believes that individuals should not be able to display creches or tarot symbols or whatever.

That's what freedom of religion is. You are free to worship Christ in exactly the same measure that your neighbor is to worship the Hindu gods or that I am not to worship at all. Enjoy and treasure your religion as you wish, but quit trying to make the rest of us treat it preferentially.

--Sam Spade

Baysage said...

Whoa! Didn't know so many of you were paying attention.


>> "militant," according to Webster is "ready and willing to fight; esp., vigorous or aggressive in support or promotion of a cause." Obviously, I don't mean to apply this term to all my atheistic or religious brethren, but it applies to s certain faction of both. These factions on both sides are idiots.

>>"those who insist" on either side are militants, and therefore idiots.

>>I don't like the imposition of religion into public life any more than you do. I've made that clear before.


>>I'm with you. No displays on public property, period.

>>Precisely so on your assessment of the "confrontational" nature of FFRF's sign. These people clearly wanted a fight. See "militant," above.

>>At the risk of shaking Timmyson's scientific tree with my inelegance: there are assholes, and then there are people like Bill O'Reilly. He and others like him are perfect examples of pervasive ignorance and intolerance, and most unfortunately, barometers for what Mencken--bless his atheistic heart--called the boobosie. We all suffer for it.


>>I don't disagree with you that there is a value to atheism that has implications for the way the world should be run.

>>I certainly apologize from any imprecision in my language that would lead you or anyone else to conclude that "gotcha" is all I think that's driving this debate. But to deny that there is infuriating snobbery and smug condensation on both sides of this question is to deny stark fact. I should have been more clear.

Anonymous Sam

>>Down, boy. I know very well what freedom of religion is, and I'm =not= asking for any preferences from anyoen.

Sid Schwab said...

Baysage: I know we are in essential agreement, as we usually are. There are people on both sides that are counterproductive, for sure. I just got back from seeing "Milk." I was in training in SF during that time, had just left when he was assassinated. Maybe it's not exactly the same (gays were and are much more abused than atheists); but the fight in each case is very one-sided, with the small minority needing to get over big hurdles. In some cases, I'd argue, that requires making extra noise.

There are times when I fantasize about running for political office (or applying for a job in the Obama administration.) My religious comments here, and on my other blog, would most surely take me out of contention, no?

gay CME guy said...

Sid, you'd have my vote.

Anonymous said...


I realize that you were deluged with responses, and I sympathize. Also I agree that there are atheists who take an unwholesome pleasure in telling believers that they are wrong.

However you addressed me as a dog ("Down, boy"). Moreover my comment was neutral in tone, so I don't know where you get off telling me, in effect, to be less exuberant.

"I know very well what freedom of religion is."

Ostensibly you argument impugned the motives of atheists, but in effect you are saying we should shut up.

As a practical matter, consider that since "Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950's the Bill O'Reillys of the the world have used it endlessly to prove that this is a Christian nation.

As a matter of fact many active atheists have purer motives. They are motivated by the fact that teachers want to close students' minds, and by the fact that zealots fly airplanes into buildings and so forth.

"I'm =not= asking for any preferences from anyoen."

Sure you are. You're saying atheists should overlook governmental religious symbolism. Failure to do so is due to our bombastic nature.

Along with most religious folk you display a naivete about atheism. Frankly, yes, it is disturbing to us that some believe a horned man lives within the earth. But you employ this same type of skepticism towards the Hinduism, whose adherents believe just as fervently in their deities. Atheists merely say that all beliefs should be subject to evidence and reason, so we're not as different as you may think.

--Sam Spade

Baysage said...


I'd certainly hope that in the Obama administration, which we're all expecting to be enlightened and progressive, there would not be a religious litmus test. You're a sensitive, intelligent, and committed person. What's not to like about you for working the administration.

Alas, I think you'd have tough going in a run for office.

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