Thursday, December 21, 2017

Atheists share diverse views about religious holiday displays in the State House

When we learned this month that Rep. James Lyons had successfully arranged once again to install a Christian nativity scene in the Massachusetts State House -- for four hours total or so -- we began a conversation in the Boston Atheists community:
As atheists, how does the placement of this religious display on governmental property make us feel? 
Well, there's no one answer for that. Over the course of dozens of messages in our community mailing list, numerous points of views were expressed, exploring issues of inclusion, freedom, expression, constitutionality, neighborliness, and other aspects of church-state relations. Since we want never to contribute to the view that atheism is a monolithic position, we are publishing the following list of some of those responses, ranging from mild approval, to indifference, to irritation, to outright disapprobation.

These responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
  • a response of equanimity: "Honestly, this doesn't really bother me. So long as the Menorah [for example] is given the same consideration as the Nativity, I'm happy to celebrate all holidays of this season."
  • a call for equal access: "While such a display obviously threatens the separation of church and state, I wouldn't mind too much if it were obvious that a Muslim, Jewish, or atheist display could have equal access.  If so, other groups should make a point of posting some message of their own, either simultaneous or during some holiday of their own."
  • dragging in some stats: "I think it's worth pointing out that, according to Pew, only 33% of Massachusetts residents regard themselves as 'highly religious,' and only one-in-five attend services weekly. Also, 9% of the residents of the state are members of minority religions, and almost half of our residents say they are unsure about the existence of God. So I feel that, at the very least, the State House grounds should be open to nonreligious displays and those of other faiths. The stereotype that Boston is a predominantly Catholic town is outdated--the majority of residents are not religious at all."
  • between all or none, he wants none: "Interestingly I belong to a synagogue here in metro west and our rabbi is opposed to the menorah in the center of our town.  Her take is that all religious symbols ultimately have no place in governmental or public places as they are inherently exclusive even if in the case of the menorah they are attempting to be inclusive. What about Diwali or Kwanzaa? There is no realistic way to recognize every religion so it is best to just leave it alone."
  • cheering on the trees: "How does this make me feel?  Fearful, angry, and astonished. I strongly object to a Nativity Scene (or Menorah for that matter) in the MA State House.  Decorate with twinkly lights, red bows and conifers all you like, these are not religious symbols and have a mixed heritage. It seems blatantly unconstitutional, never mind completely insensitive to do this in the State House."
  • displays belong outside: "Irritated is about the maximum amount of emotional energy I'm going to spend on this one one. Rep. Lyons is an elected official, and the State House is the seat of the Commonwealth's government; the First Amendment is really clear on this matter.  It's nice that other religions get some space so that the state isn't promoting one religion over another, but menorahs and nativity scenes are promotions of *a* religion, and don't belong in a governmental building.  I'm irritated that we have to keep having this conversation.  I once had a friend tell me that she wishes 'atheists weren't so in my face about it',  yet deists get a pass, apparently. Out on the Common, a public open space is a far better space for this type of display, and I actually enjoying seeing them there."
  • another vote for no: "I have a Jewish heritage, but say no even to a menorah. All of these things are billboards for a belief system. I think all such should be kept off of public property."
  • make room for more deities: "Religious symbols should have no place in a public space. The only place for a religious symbol is a private home or a place of worship, and there are a plenty of those around us. But if people are really okay with Nativity scene or a Menorah in a public space, I want a statue of a three-eyed ten-handed goddess piercing a half-human-half-buffalo with her trident."
  • decrying privilege: "What bothers me is that Rep. Lyons seems to believe that his religion deserves special recognition by being put inside the State House while everyone else's are regulated to their spots on the Boston Common. This should offend every person who resides in Massachusetts, atheist or not."
  • if any are allowed, all must be allowed: "It's inappropriate unless all or mostly all religious and non-religious viewpoints are represented. Democracy trumps theocracy."
  • this isn't democracy: "This leaves me feeling fearful and angry.  I’m not astonished, though, as the separation of church and state, upon which this country was passionately and smartly founded, is constantly being tested by the majority of people in this country who do not understand that democracy does not work by pushing religious agendas. The folks 'running' this country right now have no idea what democracy even means. Putting a nativity scene in the MA State House only serves to confuse our purpose as a nation."
  • frankly, outrage: "The display of the nativity scene by Rep. Lyons is an obvious and blatant disregard of the separation of religion and state. I don’t mind the many secular decorations that are associated with Christmas and the holidays but nativity scenes don’t belong in front of government institutions. The display is an endorsement of Christian religion."
  • rejecting tall tales: "I'm upset not just with the one in the State House, but manger scenes anywhere I see them. I'm tired of the lies being pushed on me."
  • let churches deal with this, so we can focus: "Every church has the full right to post as much religious propaganda as they want, but the State House does not have any religious affiliation at all, and that means I don’t want to see ANY religious decorations on it at all. In fact if they could stop sitting around wondering if snowflakes or crosses are appropriate to hang up, and just deal with the clusterf**k that is our government, I would be very happy. This debate over the right holiday aesthetic for the State House is literally the last priority right now. 
  • an accusation of hypocrisy: "If Rep. Lyons were a real Christian and a real political leader, he would DONATE the nativity scene to a church or family who can’t afford their own."
  • appreciating the decorations: "I'm okay with the display, personally; admittedly because I grew up where similar sights were common. Mind you, times change, and it is important to represent all belief systems in the public setting. Meaning, if you have this scene, you better include a menorah, and something for Ramadan, etc."
  • a note on terminology: "I'm okay with calling a Christmas tree a Christmas tree.  If we agreed with the logic of renaming it a 'holiday tree', would Jews (like me) need to concede the menorah, and start calling it a 'holiday candle Holder'?"
Members of the press interesting in speaking with representatives of the Boston Atheists, or with any of the members of the community quoted here, are encouraged to contact the BA organizers by email.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Why Trinity Lutheran v. Comer means we have work to do

Today I put on my hat as chair of the Boston Atheists steering committee. Here follows my ninety seconds of soapboxing on the subject of today's SCOTUS decision.

If the government can't be trusted to recognized and defend the separation of church and state, secular communities, organizations and individuals are going to have to focus and redouble our efforts to make that separation relevant. We have to make the case that such a separation is in the interest of all persons living in our society; and we have to show people that political secularism is the necessary counterpart to social pluralism. Roll up those sleeves, folks; there's work to do.

A good analogy can be made to the displays on the courthouse lawn. SOCAS indicates that the government either allows ALL organizations representing a worldview stance -- for whatsoever flavor of theism or nontheism you can imagine -- to plant their sectarian displays on the lawn, or it refers all of them to private land, leaving the public space open, uncluttered by the symbols of doctrinal vanity and competition.

If SCOTUS rules that SOCAS means "ALL are accommodated" (rather than "NONE" or "ALL or NONE"), then as secularists we better make damn sure that:

  1. The secular symbols we put on the lawn are the most awesome, vainglorious, stupendous and eye-catching possible; and that 
  2. Symbols of ALL sectarian positions, so that no worldview, by dint of its majority status or gamesmanship, chokes them out. That puts atheists on the side of all religious minorities in this fight.
In terms of inclusion, atheists have to be on the side of radical inclusiveness (until the government comes around to defending SOCAS in a robust fashion.) In terms of operation, however, atheists should be motivated to win.

While we work to legally neutralize these threats to SOCAS, we are going to have to try to outcompete theistic orgs in terms of operational prowess. 

If there's a government grant that a religious organization is eligible for, there's no excuse for secular people not to step up and make sure our orgs are not just eligible to receive that funding, but are by far the most qualified. 

We could even view this situation in a positive light. If we're called to step up and provide community and social services on par with those provided by theistic orgs, and we can out-compete those orgs for government funding, we'd be pulling off an interesting trick: for we'd be denying money to groups whose doctrines help to the dangerous ideas of supernaturalism, Hey, maybe we should thank Gorsuch for lighting a fire under our backsides!

Furthermore, we'd be directing money through channels that are welcoming of ALL -- no dogmatic requirements to receive help; no profession of faith needed; no litmus tests of belief. I've heard too many stories about soup-for-sermons at soup kitchens, of LGBTQ homeless persons turned away from religious shelters because of anti-gay prejudice, and so on.

To close out this post, let's go back quickly to the courthouse lawn. On the other hand, if SCOTUS rules that the preferred interpretation of SOCAS is "NONE" (or "ALL OR NONE"), then... great! Celebration time! We can enjoy our public spaces, without the cacophany of sectarian messaging, and keep our wits about us for some future time when religious privilege once more tries to claim an advantage for itself.

Given today's ruling, however, we'd be smart to begin gearing up for an ALL fight.