When I worked for Starbucks, each holiday season I seemed to have the same conversation with customers or coworkers, which I’ll paraphrase below:
“Brrr! It’s getting cold out, Dan!”
“But I love this time of year. And it’s so fun to see the nativity displays go up…
“… and the obligatory Menorah for the, like, two Jewish people in town.”
The last part is punctuated by an eye roll, a knowing chuckle or both.
This bothers me for two reasons.
First, the number of Jews on the Plateau seems grossly underestimated. None of us practice, but my mother, sisters and I are technically Jewish through the Talmudic law of matriarchal descent. There’s at least four of “us.” If there’s two more around, I haven’t met them; it’s not like we have meetings.
Secondly, why do small numbers factor into the equation? Jews are only 2.2 percent of the U.S. population, according to a 2006 census by the American Jewish Committee, but that doesn’t stop pundits from referring to “American Judeo-Christian values.” And small numbers usually don’t prevent Hanukkah displays from being displayed alongside nativity scenes in public holiday displays, mostly thanks to our wonderful First Amendment, and partially, I think, because religion deals with questions of the infinite. Most western monotheistic religions take an absolute position on their idea of God and the afterworld. When you have many such religions, you pick one and realistically you’re either right or wrong based on one or many distinctions of the denomination.
Let’s apply the same ideas to atheism and atheist displays.
Last year, the Capitol building in Olympia hosted a public holiday display. Nestled with the nativity scene and menorah was a sign placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation stating, “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”
Religious Washingtonians were shocked by the display, which I can understand because of how dearly many people hold their beliefs. But more shocking was the way they responded to it.
Simply put, the FFRF sign was stolen and took what amounted to a statewide road trip of humiliation. The sign was taken two hours upstate to the Seattle studios of country station The Wolf, where it was ridiculed on air before being recovered and returned by a police officer.
People who followed the case seem to sit in two camps: Either they believe the sign was an attack on religion that had no place in a holiday display, or they abhor the treatment of the sign.
I am in the latter camp. Even if I believed the sign was an attack on religion, it only explicitly states a difference of belief already common among most religions. I would argue the Christian nativity scene is an implicit statement that the Jewish belief in a not-yet-arrived Messiah is wrong.
Other arguments I’ve heard, which are closely related, are that “our country was founded on religious principles,” or the old Elizabeth Dole chestnut, “It’s freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion.”
Neither argument really has any evidence, but I’ll deal with Dole’s first because it is easiest. It is not “freedom of religion” OR “freedom from religion” because neither wording is found in the First Amendment. The wording is “Congress shall make no law” which is a clear hands-off approach and allows for believers and non-believers alike.
In truth, our country was founded on principles radically secular for that time. Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, though publicly deist (belief in a hands-off God), wrote views of the church in their private letters that seemed quite atheist. The writings of Benjamin Franklin, which are oft quoted by proponents of American theocracy, must be taken with a grain of salt. After all, this is a man who used his printing press to interject new passages to the Bible.
All these men signed off on a Constitution including the First Amendment because they opposed tyranny, of which religious tyranny is just one part.
As our Supreme Court understands the First Amendment today, the only answer to “bad” speech is more speech. But what the thieves of the FFRF sign did last year constituted a stifling of speech. They silenced a voice they didn’t like and in so doing desecrated the principles of our founding fathers.
Officials in Olympia are have decided to bar the indoor display this year. FFRF copresident Annie Laurie Gaylor has hailed this as a victory.
An outdor display may still be an option, and I would encourage all who disagree with the message of the sign to voice their views peacefully.
Some might believe an atheist display should not be a part of a collection of religious holiday displays. But free speech doesn’t take a holiday. Once any religion is displayed on public property it constitutes a public conversation. The possibility of no religion is a necessary part of such a conversation, and those who don’t agree would do well to reply, not with slings and arrows, but with a firm and civil response.