11 December 2008
I swore I was going to ignore this...
It's rare these days that I get to sit and flip around cable of an afternoon. My life has been chaotic. But there I was, cycling through the twenty-four-hour news channels, sampling the ideologues, when what to my wondering ears should appear but the word "Olympia" spewing from the sneering mouth of Bill O'Reilly. He had my attention. I love Olympia. Let me state my bias right up front: I love my city. When I lived in Ada, I loved Adans, and still do. There are Olympians I quite love as well, but my love for Olympia itself is true civic pride. I love how tolerant it is, how free its citizens are to be whomever and whatever they want. I love its Democrats and Republicans, its believers and naysayers, its youth and time-refined beauty. So when Bill O. has something to say about Olympia, well, by gum, he's saying it straight to my face.
"Christmas honors the birth of Jesus," O'Reilly boomed. (It doesn't, by the way. It honors the winter solstice. There's no way Jesus's birthday was in late December--none. This pagan holiday was co-opted by Catholicism to encourage heathens to switch religious sides...but I digress.) "Here's [the kind of Christmas display] the governor of the state, Christine Gregoire, feels is appropriate....Now, this is political correctness gone mad....The buck stops with Governor Gregoire....She is a weak, confused leader who is allowing a small fanatical group parity in Christmas displays. I mean, how crazy is this?...Governor Gregoire's phone number is (360) [he completed the phone number and displayed it on screen]....We don't celebrate Ramadan in this country because our traditions are Judeo-Christian, not Muslim! Not agnostic...Washington state is Ground Zero for just about every nutty secular cause on Earth [because secularism is always nutty, right?], but this time the state has embarrassed itself and the nation....The governor of Washington is a coward. She's a coward....Let's get into why the governor of the state of Washington would allow this in her office building. She's there. [She wasn't, by the way, she was in Philadelphia.] So what's wrong with this Gregoire? What's wrong with this woman?...I'm trying to think of any other state this could happen in, and I just can't think of any governor loony enough to allow it to happen....Our constitution was based on a lot of [Jesus's] teachings. [It wasn't. It was written by a Deist who probably wasn't sure Jesus had special, metaphysical powers.]...This is so offensive, and so stupid." Then, and I wish I could find the exact quote, O'Reilly said something like, 'Gregoire says she's a Catholic. Well--I don't want to question her religion.' Except, of course, he just did, exactly one sentence before that. Smooth move, O'Reilly. Very Christian of you.
So anyway, that's how I first heard about the holiday displays in my city's rotunda, a place Amanda and I first visited together a few months ago. As this story explains, the rotunda was once the merry home of a "holiday tree." Then a few activist Christians protested, and the state was forced to admit that yes, decorated trees in late December probably are Christmas trees, and yes, that probably does constitute an endorsement of Christianity, so yes, we probably do need to let other groups install their holiday iconography as well. That's when Olympia's thriving community of Jews--of which, by the way, I was completely unaware until now--installed a menorah. The menorah paved the way for a Christian Nativity scene. This was no war on holidays, it was a friendly skirmish between holidays. That was three years ago.
Then a group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in, of all places, Wisconsin, decided the Olympia Capitol rotunda would be a great place for a "festive" denial of Christian conventions. The simple text display, about the size of a dorm room poster, reads, "At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. 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."
Because doesn't that just play into all of Christians' very worst ideas about atheists? It's rude, isn't it? It's like heckling the other side's political rally or shouting peace slogans at the funeral of a soldier killed in action. It does nothing to win hearts or minds; in fact, it tends to unify all opposing forces into one offended chorus. If it was designed to get attention, mission accomplished, but at what price? I went and gazed upon the sign the other day, and while I marveled that such a simple gesture could earn the wrath of thousands of people, I was also embarrassed by the actions of my co-disbelievers.
Look, here's the thing. If you were to agree to sit down for thirty minutes and allow me to make my case--and if I, in fact, saw any reason to have that conversation--I'm pretty sure I could talk you into being an atheist. After all, you already are one: Like me, you refuse to believe in such once-popular gods as Zeus, Odin, Baal, Osiris, and Pele. I would imagine you don't believe everything that's said these days about the "One True God." You don't, for example, call him Allah or accept that he hates all Jews. You don't call him Yahweh and accept that he prefers Jews to any other race. The notion of a racist God offends you, just as it does me. Yet people once felt such ideas "in their hearts," and belief in such ideas of God was once was the very definition of theism. You're not that kind of theist, so in the eyes of many other people around the world, you, Gentle Reader, are an atheist. Welcome to it! As Stephen Roberts famously and succinctly put it, "I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." Which is not to say I'm convinced there is no God. I believe there very well could be. In my eyes, that makes me an agnostic. But I know that to fundamentalists, "God" has a very specific definition, and a specific personality (or two, if you count each Testament separately), and a specific religious denomination after His own heart. But I don't believe in that God, so I accept that in their view I am, in fact, a flat-out atheist. I can live with that. I have, and believe me, it hasn't always been a bed of roses.
But one of the few comforting things about being an "agnostic slash atheist" is that I'm under no obligation to talk you into my point of view. I do think it's important to stand up for evolution, which is proven fact and should not be held at arm's length in high school science courses. I also believe very strongly that equal rights for gay Americans are a civil rights issue, and religious opposition to gay marriage and other civil liberties will look foolish in decades to come, no matter what the Bible says. After all, the Bible endorses slavery, but we ignore the passages that make this clear. The Bible views women as little more than half-witted housemaids, but most Christian sects have changed their views about this over the last few centuries. They didn't want to, they had to, just as they begrudgingly endorsed mixed-race marriages or our belated American fondness for Jews. Morality changes over time, and in my humble opinion, the light grows ever brighter. Morality, in other words, evolves, often for the better. But do I feel any need to convince you death is the end? Do I gripe every time I see "in God we trust" printed on my currency? No! Do I heckle the Salvation Army, or put up signs saying "Prayers won't save Daddy from cancer?" Of course not! That would be, in the vernacular of the modern progressive agnostic, a "dick move."
I was asked by several people what I thought about the fracas. I thought basically what I've said above, but I put off blogging about it because I'm trying to curb my big online mouth. Trouble is, the story won't go away! (And boy, talk about a debate in my wheelhouse...) So instead I'll simply choose my words carefully. My beloved's parents are sincere Christians, as are many of my friends. I hope they understand I would never do anything as insulting as putting up a sign to mock their holiday displays. I don't need to, I don't want to, and it wouldn't do any good if I did. I'd like to think I'm both kinder and smarter than that. Most years over the last decade or so, I've posted holiday greetings in this blog, and most were of a quasi-spiritual nature. My book takes a cooperative stance toward Oklahoma Baptists and Christians in general. The only statement of opinion on my car is a little magnet that displays the Darwin fish and Christian fish kissing. I want to make my world better, freer, smarter, and more loving, as do most Christians. The other Christians...Well, I'll tell you what: I won't hold guys like Pat Robertson against you if you don't hold the Freedom From Religion Foundation against me. Fair enough?
Look, I know I'm on shaky ground here. I was once effectively kicked out of a party for telling my Christian friend Amy that while I did respect her and her right to have any opinion she wants, I didn't respect her Christian opinions. They're unfounded, I explained, and illogical, and nowhere near as moral as she thought they were. Dick move, Carv. That was years ago. I've since learned people don't understand how separable they can be from their own opinions; that even, say, a racist can do good deeds that help us all, or a preacher who shrieks at God to damn America can help rescue parishioners from drugs and despair, or an atheist can help Christians by donating blood or money or time. Good people once believed very strongly in slavery, just as good people now sometimes deny other people's right to marry the people they love. Amy is a wonderful person, and she deserves respect, and I can't swear my opinions are always right or respectable, either. But that's why we have freedom of expression in this country. That's why it's neither illegal nor unconstitutional to hurt another person's feelings. We have freedom of speech in this country--and there's an idea worth thanking God for--specifically so unpopular minority opinions can be stated out loud. You see, sometimes those unpopular minority opinions...turn out to be right. It has happened. Galileo Galilei didn't exactly make friends in the Church when he announced his discovery that the Earth was not the orbital pivot of the Cosmos. Sigmund Freud wasn't the best-loved guy in Europe when he explained every human has a sexual nature. Martin Luther didn't make the cover of People when he announced selling God's forgiveness to the highest bidder was probably a bad thing. Darwin still hasn't received universal acclaim. And one day very soon, as Bishop Spong assures us, Christianity will "change or die." Ideas considered progressive or downright "loony" will someday be the norm in the Christian church. No honest Christian can contend it hasn't been that way all along.
I guess my point is, what if the atheists are right? What if there is no God, nor a heaven, nor a hell, nor any angels, nor any devils? After all, if you had proof of God's existence, you couldn't very well say you had faith, i.e., "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1, New International Version). Proof negates faith, renders it moot. So you Christians could be right, but you could also, and I'm saying this based on the evidence or lack thereof, be wrong. It's important that we open the dialogue to people who point out how wrong you might be, just as it's important for lefty ol' me to listen to conservative blowhards like Bill O'Reilly. (Well, okay, maybe not O'Reilly specifically.) After all, if you Christians are wrong, then maybe Dubya was wrong when he insisted God told him to wage war in Iraq. (He felt the message, you'll recall, "in his heart.") Maybe the Church was wrong when it fought surgery or abolition or suffrage or heliocentrism or evolution. Maybe Christianity is wrong now when it fights to keep gay people from ratifying their love for each other. These contrarian, offensive ideas need to be expressible in the public forum, in a place where people might be offended. I believe this offense should be kept to a reasonable minimum, of course, which is why I'm uncomfortable with the rotunda display. (Not that Chris Gregoire had anything to do with it. She can't exactly line-item veto the First Amendment. Certain pain-in-the-butt Christians, namely the opponents of the so-called "holiday tree," brought this on themselves, and O'Reilly is a jerk for putting it all on our governor. She's reportedly "annoyed" by the annoying atheist display just as he is.) But this brouhaha does beg the question: Where would the right place be to say there might be no God? What exactly would be the right time? What would be the right way? What would hurt Christians' feelings the least, so we might all be in the right frame of mind to discuss it as warmly and reasonably as possible? I leave the solution to this thorny quandary, as the math books might have it, as an exercise for the reader.
Merry Christmas, everybody--even you, agnostics. And may peace come to all those who strive to be men or, for that matter, women of goodwill. Happy 2009.