Monday, December 6, 2010

The War on Christmas -- I Can See the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Speaking of people who Just Don't Get It, Mary Elizabeth Williams, a Christian writer for, recently wrote an attack on atheists who attack religious faith, in particular those who put up a billboard attacking Christmas:
And as a practicing, questioning Christian, I'm in strong agreement with the belief that church and state should firmly be separated, and with the concept of civil rights for all Americans, regardless of their points of view. Because shoving your beliefs on other people is just plain rude. Do you see where I’m going with this? Whether one unshakably believes in a perfectly swaddled little baby Jesus who arrives precisely on Dec. 25 surrounded by cute donkeys and starstruck shepherds is hardly the point. It's that snotty, oh-just-face-it-you-idiots attitude, that utter certainty, that's just as belligerent coming from an atheist as it from an evangelical.
"Because shoving your beliefs on other people is just plain rude" -- am I alone in seeing the delicious, totally clueless irony in that statement? If this billboard constitutes "shoving your beliefs on other people", then all the pro-"faith" billboards and churches with roadside marquees and Gideon Bibles in motel rooms and Christmas carols on the radio and all the Christian paraphrenalia that permeates our culture is "shoving your beliefs on other people." To say nothing of all the religious advocates, ranging from the Roman Catholic Church to Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner, who are hollering for more god-talk in the public arena, as if it weren't already saturated with it. By any measure, these atheist billboards amount to less than a drop in the bucket by comparison.

And "belligerent"? The whole tone of Williams's post is belligerent, though no doubt she'd say she was provoked. Fair enough, but to allow oneself to be provoked into belligerence goes against two thousand years of Christian theory, though in fairness it conforms perfectly with two thousand years of Christian practice, starting with the frequently intemperate rhetoric of Jesus himself. I guess it's okay for Christians to be righteously belligerent, but not for nonbelievers. Christendom was built on the belief that it's not only legitimate but a moral duty to attack the beliefs of others; Williams should try investigating early Christian history.

For that matter, American Atheists are aware that they're being belligerent, and quite properly unapologetic about it.

Silverman: Here's That War on Christmas You Ordered The Times reports that "Mr. Silverman said the billboard served two purposes. The first was to get the many people who do not actually believe in God but practice religious rituals to 'come out,' in his words ... The billboard also stands up to what Mr. Silverman described as a reactionary assault on atheists driven mainly by the religious right. 'Every year, atheists get blamed for having a war on Christmas, even if we don't do anything,' he said. 'This year, we decided to give the religious right a taste of what war on Christmas looks like.'"
I'd only object that these billboards are hardly even a taste of "what war on Christmas looks like." But baby steps, baby steps.

From the same source, we get some reports of concern trolling:

I Can See This Backfiring, writes Kathryn Jean Lopez at National Review. "Ironically, in his desire to out Christians who are just going through seasonal retail motions, [Silverman's] billboard may serve to remind believing Christians of the real reason for the season."
I'm sure Ms. Lopez would just hate to see anything like that happen. Oh, and What About Teh Children?

Does It Have to Be So Confrontational? wonders Fox anchor Megyn Kelly. In a mostly amiable interview with Silverman, Kelly asks, "Why impose your belief on a big billboard when the little kids drive by? It's in a place that gets a ton of visibility." Silverman replies, "We're allowed to express our views, just like all the churches are allowed to express their views on billboards."
I wouldn't expect any less from Fox News, the network that fought in court for its right to lie to you, but isn't it surprising that so many people have trouble grasping what freedom of expression (to say nothing of freedom of religion) means? Well, no, I guess not.

On the other hand, "reason" doesn't have much to do with any of this. How do you "celebrate Reason," and what's reasonable about that? For that matter, why not put up billboards debunking the myth of Santa Claus? (That might get American Atheists in trouble with the business community, a more fearsome opponent than the community of faith.) I also remember seeing one atheist blogger denouncing the erection of billboards touting belief, but that was before these atheist groups started doing the same thing, so I guess it was different, and anyway that was ancient times; we have to look to the future!

My objection to the fetishization of Reason by so many atheists and self-declared skeptics is that they are generally unaware of how much unreason and mythology they themselves subscribe to, and don't do actual reasoning very well. Take this interesting paragraph from a mostly pretty good rebuttal to a Christian from the Toronto National Post:
It’s not atheists who use ancient books to lecture and sometimes legislate people on how to live. It’s not atheists who fight over a divided Jerusalem nor who taught my French Canadian mother-in-law that the more miserable a life she lived the more she would be rewarded in death. It’s not atheists who can rally a crowd to stone a woman for being a rape victim. And while non believers likely try to pass critical thinking on to their children they don’t send them to weekly lectures about atheism and tell them they are bad if they don’t learn to parrot their parents’ beliefs.
Oh, really? Atheists are a varied lot, but some of us do use ancient books (Plato and others) to lecture and sometimes legislate people on how to live. As for fighting over a divided Jerusalem, let us not forget that the Zionists who built the modern state of Israel, in full knowledge that they were displacing the people who already lived there, were mostly fiercely secular and often Socialist Jews; blaming the Palestinian resistance to their dispossession on religion is fundamentally dishonest. Given the history of scientific racism, it's also disingenuous to blame social injustice solely on religion: scientific rationalists have been all too happy to take up the task of keeping the lowly in their place, if not for God then for Natural Selection and the good of the Race. Women and homosexuals have not always found Science to be our friend, nor Religion always to be our enemy. (Not surprising, since neither Science nor Religion has any inherent moral content.)
As for "pass[ing] critical thinking on to their children," you have to know how to do it before you can pass it on to anyone else. And most atheists are not, as far as I can tell, any better at critical thinking than most religious believers; I sometimes think they're worse, since so many assume that not believing in gods automatically makes you rational, and that's the kind of belief that makes people stupid. Waving "reason" around as a buzzword is not importantly different from waving "faith" around. Better than celebrating reason is trying to practice it well, and that's a lot harder to do.