Atheists' petty turf war: Dueling holiday displays

Conflict heats up near the nativity and menorah -- and the Freedom From Religion Foundation might be the next PETA

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 5, 2013 7:10PM (EST)

   (<a href=''>Alexander Hoffmann</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Alexander Hoffmann via Shutterstock)

In case your holiday season was looking a little light on ostentatious displays: Chicago's Daley Plaza has this year added a new player to its traditional seasonal tableaux – an 8-foot-tall illuminated letter "A" for atheism and agnosticism, right between the old favorites the nativity and a menorah. The display comes courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the same group that earlier this year fought to distribute "Jesus Is Dead" and "Why I Am Not a Muslim" tracts to schoolchildren in Florida’s Orange County.

The big "A" isn't the only splashy secular statement this year – in Florida, after a private group erected a nativity scene at the state capitol earlier this week, the Freedom From Religion Foundation won the right to hang a banner it promises will feature "Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the Statue of Liberty adoring the Bill of Rights placed in a crib typically used to depict Jesus and the Nativity scene." And in New York City, American Atheists are running a digital billboard in Times Square asking, "Who needs Christ during Christmas?"

Just as surely as the weeks before New Year's Eve have in recent years become an excuse for frenzied trampling through big box chain stores, they've also, increasingly, become an opportunity for a whole lot of self-righteous shouting over religion. Isn't this time of year exhausting and overstimulating enough already? I admit that as a Christian, I have a different perspective on the holiday season. Its ubiquitous imagery is part of my life -- my family traditions and my religious practices. But like plenty of other people who celebrate Christmas, I also respect other beliefs and non-beliefs. Not all of us are baby Jesus-pushing Fox News hosts. So what I have trouble understanding is why groups like Freedom From Religion spend so much of their time and effort engaged in enterprises that appear, rather than freeing from religion, doggedly determined to co-opt it?

Atheist groups say they have no choice. Explaining its Florida holiday banner, Freedom From Religion's co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor says, "We don't think there should be religion or irreligion in any state Capitol, but if they're going to start allowing religion and call it a public forum then certainly the non-religious point of view should be there, too." And of the Chicago display, she says, "We think that there should be no religion in government places, but if it’s going to be there, we will talk about the new atheism."

It's an attention-getting -- if baffling-to-obnoxious – strategy. Faced with insistent religious imagery in the public sphere, atheist groups have moved from simply trying to remove them to demanding their right to equal representation. It's a bluff-calling that grabs headlines, but it also frequently comes off as petulant, passive-aggressive stunt-pulling. How many times can these groups insist they really don't want to have to do this, but they just have no choice? How many times can they say, "We don't like what you religious groups do, so we'll do it too"? That's not a call to reason, that's just being reactionary. And with its determined flair for grand gestures of outrage, Freedom From Religion is rapidly becoming the PETA of secularism.

I want healthy, uncondescending dialogue between people across a wide spectrum of beliefs. I want newscasters to remember that not everybody "thanks the Lord" and talk show hosts to not disagree with atheists' definitions of their own atheism. I want kids to not be forced to pledge allegiance to a nation "under God." You think a nativity is inappropriate in a government building or public plaza? Me too. But "freedom" means fighting for what's right without forcing your agenda at every turn, without forever insisting "Me too!" Rational conversation shouldn't be a petty turf war. It's about being a grown-up instead of hiding behind the excuse that you have to pull stunts to effect positive change. It's about distinguishing between what's a legitimate infringement and what is simply people of differing belief systems going about the business of celebrating their traditions – and picking your battles accordingly. It's about striving for less rancor and less noise, not more.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Atheism Freedom From Religion War On Christmas