Atheists, Christians, and Christmas
It is the time of year when I find it most frustrating to be an atheist. I lost count of the number of tweets and comments made elsewhere that I have heard in the last week regarding “the war on Christmas” and all of the minor battles that encompass this “war”. I wanted to write a post discussing a few of the errors that I most frequently come across.
Error #1: One of the most common errors I see states that atheists are trying to limit the “freedom of religion” and “free speech” of Christians by bringing lawsuits against nativity scenes in public places. We also have a new case this year from Arkansas about a public school bringing kids to see a rendition of the Charlie Brown Christmas special at a church.
I wrote posts about the First Amendment fairly frequently this past spring. You can read some of those articles if you wish here, here, and here. Here is a basic framework of the First Amendment’s treatment of religion. The exact wording of the Amendment is, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” In the cases of nativity scenes it has been consistently ruled that having one on public property would be a “respect of an establishment of religion”. This is why they always lose. It is not all that complicated. There is a loophole that would allow nativity scenes to exist on public property. That loophole would be if all groups were allowed to display something in that space at the same time. This happens in some places and there is little issue. This scenario becomes a problem when Christian groups want to exclude other groups, notably atheists. This is in effect seeking religious privilege, which violates the “establishment clause” and they lose the case. If they could just learn to share, there really wouldn’t be a problem.
Christians will often counter with the notion that barring them from displaying these nativity displays violates their “free exercise”. It does not. The Constitution gives you the right to exercise your religion in any way you choose, that does not a) violate the establishment clause and b)infringe on the religious beliefs of others. Nativity scenes do both. Again, learn to share and there would be no problem.
I also often hear that Nativity scenes are akin to speech. This argument tends to come from people who realize they are fighting a hopeless battle in the two above scenarios, still don’t want to share, and are trying to grasp at something. The first problem with this argument is that no court has ever ruled that Nativity scenes are “speech”. This is nothing more than wishful thinking by the Christian. Second, “free speech” is also not a guarantee to say whatever you want. If you disagree with this, yell something that causes a panic in a crowded auditorium and see how things go for you. Further, if it is ever ruled that Nativity scenes are in fact speech and can be allowed on public grounds it must necessarily follow that the atheist display next to it, must also be allowed—which brings us back to the original problem and the need for Christians being willing to share.
I do find it ironic that this entire controversy basically boils down to worshipers of Jesus not wanting to share space. I can’t help but wonder what he would think of that.
The Charlie Brown fiasco is even easier to deal with. A public school cannot take kids to see a play with religious overtones being shown in a church using public tax dollars. The idea that little atheist kids should “just stay home” doesn’t solve the problem of tax dollars being used to show a play with a Christian message. If you don’t understand this, please refer back to the arguments for Nativity scenes. I would also ask if you would be okay if your local public school, used tax payer money, to bring kids to a local coffee shop, where I could read to them from one of Richard Dawkins’ books. If your answer is “No”, then you are not thinking clearly. The second scenario wouldn’t be against any law and you could just choose to leave your kid home. I would also add, if you answered “no” one of the reasons atheist parents are upset should be easily apparent to you.
Error #2 Many Christians seem to think that they own the holiday of Christmas, simply because they renamed it “Christ’s Mass”. They do not. December 25 has been a holiday for a long time. It is not unique to Christians in any way other than their addition of Jesus. In fact, they may be the very last group to adopt this holiday AND its traditions of the tree, garland, hanging stockings, getting together, being thankful, etc. All of those things were celebrated in one culture or another before Christians adopted the day. This is not up for debate. If you disagree, do some research.
Christians will often argue, “ in today’s society it is a celebration of Jesus’ birthday”. And they would be correct—if applying that logic to their and only their view. In today’s society, Christmas means many different to many different people. I will not presume to know what it means to other atheists, as it will differ greatly. Here is what it means to me. It is a time to spend with friends and family. It is a time to be thankful for those friends and family. It is a time to exchange gifts because I love and care for those friends and family. Period. The end.
I have no interest in ruining your Christmas, nor does any other atheist that I happen to know. Have a great time, and please do not ruin ours.
Error #3 Many Christians seem to think that atheists have a “war on Christmas”. This is false. As I noted above, many of us celebrate it too, yet, when we listen to some Christians, they will constantly complain about atheists and others “secularizing” Christmas. I would be lying if I stated I did not notice a secularization of Christmas occurring. This has been happening in the areas in which I have lived. However, atheists and other secular Americans are not to blame, at least not solely. Let me explain.
The secularization that I see is one of greed. We see people far more concerned about the giving and receiving of gifts than we do about the birth of Jesus. We have retailers trying to make as much money as they possibly can (which is fine by me). But who is to blame for this? I would argue that it would be retailers and their advertising. We had Christmas decorations in the local mall by Mid-October this year. This is not the fault of atheists unless the owners of these stores and malls are atheists. The vast majority of these stores and malls are not owned by atheists, but by Christians. If there is a secularization of Christmas occurring, it is largely at the hands of Christian business owners. I don’t think anyone, including the most fundamental Christian, would or could argue that atheists (a minority in this country) own the majority of retail outlets. So if Bill O’Reilly and his ilk want to continue talking about the “war on Christmas” and the “secularization of Christmas”—they should start looking at predominantly Christian business owners trying to make as much money as possible this time of year. Certainly, the small percentage of atheist owned retail shops is not driving this movement.
Please feel free to link this post to Christians making these errors if you agree.
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