Friday, December 26, 2008

"Assualt" on Christmas? - Not Really

First things first: A very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my fellow bloggers! I hope it was special for everyone.

Which brings me to something I wanted to muse about momentarily. There seems to have been much news and commentary lately regarding a so-called "assault on Christmas." I read a news item referring to a woman being fired for saying "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays" to customers at her place of business. At first blush this seems an outrage. Five minutes with an employment or First Amendment attorney, however, and one might begin to see things differently.

Let me say from the outset that nothing about Christmas is worthy of assault. What to many religious people appears to be an assault on their faith is really a subtle shift in the cultural zeitgeist. By this I mean to suggest that the cultural dominance of Christianity in America is slowly and inexorably diminishing. The challenge may lie in convincing Christians that this is a good thing and in their best interest. The very preservation of Christianity in our culture depends not upon its dominance but rather on the recognition and preservation of other world views - religious and non-religious alike.

The truth is religious people, especially Christians, have had their way with American cultural influence for a very long time. But as our country evolves toward a more representative and inclusive brand of multi-cultural society, it is important that minority religions, as well as the religiously skeptical, be allowed the freedom to express their ideas without being made to feel inferior or less relevant and with the protections of pertinent law.

As Barack Obama said in 2006, "Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers." See Barack Obama On Religion and Politics. This concept is simply difficult for many Christians to accept; and espousing this kind of thinking does not constitute an assault on Christianity.

It makes perfect sense that nativity scenes be displayed on the lawns of churches and museums and not on the lawns of town halls. Adherence to the principle of church-state separation is critical to the protection of free religious expression. Government can not be seen as promoting or preferring one religion over another precisely because as guarantors of free expression such an imprimatur would subvert the very freedoms it seeks to guarantee.

Christmas will survive - even thrive - in a culture of religious plurality and government neutrality. Such is the way with things as special as Christmas.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Tree of Knowledge: A Fitting Symbol of Free Thought?

It's been said that getting atheists and free-thinkers to combine forces and form a cohesive political/social unit is like herding cats - not easy to do. I came across a terrific short film that was posted at The Friendly Atheist blog site. It is a film by Gregory Walsh in which he interviews several people while a Tree of Knowledge is planted at the Free Speech Zone in Philadelphia.

The Tree of Knowledge may be finding a new purpose as the symbol atheists and free thinkers have been searching for. On the plus side, free thinkers could use a powerful icon to symbolize their cause. It has the potential to do for free thinkers what the Menorah does for Jewish people and the nativity scene does for Christians - give them a symbol to rally around during the traditional American holiday season.

Such a move is not without controversy. Many religious people believe it would be distasteful to celebrate atheism at a time that has been traditionally recognized for celebrating the birth of Christ or the Hanukkah miracles. Atheists make the point that such a collusion has outlived its time claiming the holiday season should not be devoted to uniquely Christian or Jewish concerns. There is also the added pressure from church-state separation advocates to make certain public property doesn't promote or favor one religion over another. (In this broad sense, atheism is commonly construed to possess the benefits of a "religion.")

Personally, I like the idea of finding a sort of humanist trademark to identify our philosophical brand. I do have mixed feelings, however, about such a symbol being plucked from a widely recognized biblical source. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is, after all, the very thing God allegedly commanded Adam and Eve not to partake of (if you believe that sort of thing). It is not totally unreasonable to understand why some might find offense in this. Yet for the same reasons some might take offense, it may be a particularly appropriate symbol to use - atheists do in fact stand in direct opposition to core beliefs of the religious.

I am of the mind, however, that this need not be a problem. True diversity demands that in some ways we make allowances for one another. It does seems important that atheists be accommodated not for what they stand in opposition to - belief in god - but rather for that which they steadfastly support, e.g., the Affirmations of Humanism. Better to celebrate an affirmative ideal as opposed to a negativity.

There will no doubt always be those who vehemently oppose any normalization of atheism, free thought or humanism, but it seems clear that such normalizing would only serve to elevate the best of what our country stands for, and by the way, guarantees - freedom of expression. Not at all a bad ideal to celebrate.