Saturday, February 26, 2011 Login

Tis the Season for…Atheist Grinches?

At least that is how Mary Grabar’s article, The Atheists Who Try and Steal Christmas, begins. Google alerted me of this article this morning. The fact that it appears on, a conservative political website, did not give me much hope for something well reasoned and well thought out. And, indeed, it is not. There is no way I could bring myself to try and respond to every word in this, shall I say, mostly pathetic screed. I will, however, present you with some lowlights.

Here is the opening jab:

Tis the season. . .  for atheist Grinches to display their hatred of Christmas by trying to stomp out one of the most visible displays of Christianity in a country founded, and still operating on, Judeo-Christian principles.

St. Clement's Island cross
Image by via Flickr

Mary doesn’t go on to explain just which, exactly, of those Judeo-Christian principles the United States was founded upon. Indeed, the very foundations of America – democracy, liberty, natural rights – cannot be found anywhere in the Bible or more generally in the Church’s long and storied history. Render unto caesar? Rather, they were born in the Englightenment. I suppose that Mary, like many other conservative Christians, think that if they repeat this myth long enough and loud enough it will eventually be true. 

As for our alleged “hatred” of Christmas…here she is referring more specifically to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s installation of a sign with a anti-religious message in the State of Washington’s capitol building next to a display of the nativity. Mary grossly distorts what this move was all about. It was not about hating Christmas. It was not about stomping out a very religious and very Christian display in a public building. It was about fairness and separation of Church and State. If Christians wish to put a religious display, like a manger with baby Jesus, in a government office, then neutrality demands that people of other faiths – or no faith at all – should be granted the same courtesy. Fortunately, Washington was enlightened enough to agree. Personally, I feel that no such displays should be put in government buildings. But, of course, it was Christians who insisted on putting their nativity display there in the first place. And, of course, it is Christians like Mary who can’t stand the consequences of that action. 

Let’s move one:

[Atheist's] attempt to subvert Christmas with a claim that it is simply a superstitious appropriation of the solstice resembles other attempts to diminish and ultimately wipe out Christianity.

Christmas is not “simply” a superstitious appropriation of the solstice. It IS an appropriation of the solstice. Mary doesn’t try and deny this, but she doesn’t exactly acknowledge it, either. Again, the Bible does not say on which day Jesus was born and Jesus never instructs his disciples to celebrate his birthday year in and year out. It is no coincidence that December 25th was, in the first few centuries CE, the date upon which the winter solstice fell in the Northern Hemisphere – the hemisphere in which Rome sits. And it is no coicidence that December 25th was a popular religious festival all across Rome before and after it converted to Christianity – the ‘birthday’ of the unconquerable sun. But I disgress…see my previous post on this subject.

The educationists have maligned Christianity, but even secularists, if they are intellectually honest, have to acknowledge that our form of democracy has its roots in Christianity.  Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America wrote, “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.” 

No we do not! Mary seems to think that just because a majority of the United States population is and has been Christian that means that our democracy has its roots in Christianity. Baloney. You can read the New Testament over and over again until the pages disintegrate and you will never find Jesus, Paul, or any of the other apostles preaching the merits of a democratic government. The Papacy adopted a top-down, monarchical structure modelled after the Roman Empire, not a democracy. The Bible contains no democratic principles. The majority of early colonists that settled in America were protestants of various denominations searching for religious freedom from the Kings and Queens of Europe. The roots of democracy lie in the religious persecutions of faithful, European Christians – not in Christianity itself.

The usual suspects will complain that Tocqueville was writing about a “free nation” that hypocritically practiced slavery.  The atheists will point to the stories of rape, pillage, and murder in the Old Testament.  What about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command? they predictably retort.

What they forget, or don’t know (thanks, public schools), is that child-sacrifice was common among polytheistic, “pagan” religions.  (Think about that as you worship magical Nature during the solstice.)  The Old Testament story serves as illustration of God’s mercy and a foretelling of the coming of the Savior.  And, one more time, the American abolitionist movement was a fundamentally Christian movement, as are many movements today to end slavery still being practiced in non-Western countries.

Well, I guess I am not usual suspect. The Old Testament story might be, in some way, an illustration of God’s mercy, but it is most definitely also an illustration of God’s maniacal-ness. After all, if God is all-knowing, then he would have already known that Abraham would be willing to obey His every command and would have had no need to “test” his faith. The fact that God did and somehow thinks that the willingless of a father to murder his own son just because God tells him to is actually a good quality makes God a monster. Forget the emotional scars that Isaac would have endured. The real message in this disturbing little story is that if you actually believe that God is telling you to sacrifice someone else’s life then it is a  noble thing to carry out those commands. Anyone who follows the news in some depth already knows that some people actually do follow through with it. 

As for the abolitionist movement, Mary should know better. What she doesn’t mention is that the anti-abolitionist movement was also fundamentally a Christian movement – and even more so. Led by southern, white protestants, anti-abolitionists could at least plainly and honestly use the Bible to support keeping slavery around. Really, though, this is just one example of the general morality of our society progressing beyond the morality of the authors of the Bible. That some Christians were able to move beyond the immoral principles sanctioned in their own holy book means that they, as individual and progressive thinkers, deserve a gold star – not Christianity itself.

Freedom From Religion should remember that we have freedom of religion, not from religion.  The founding fathers understood the importance of religious belief, especially that which values human reason and free will.  They understood that those without a higher authority are vulnerable to earthly tyranny.  They understood the value of such displays in the public square.  

The founding fathers lived in a different time. They are not to be taken as absolute authorities on everything. Nevertheless, they did intentionally found a secular society rather than an explicitly Christian one. And for good reason. They were acutely aware of the abuses mixing church and state resulted in on the other side of the pond. Therefore, they remain a firm basis on which to understand the basic principles of this government. Would they have agreed that a freedom of religion also includes freedom from religion? While never explicitly stating it in this way, they probably would. After all, many of them were deists and rejected much in terms of traditional religion. This can all readily be learned if you take the time to do it.

If Mary is correct, however, that means we have the freedom to choose a religion but not the freedom to reject all religions. Nonsense. And so it goes with the rest of this paragraph.

The main thrust of Mary’s argument in this essay, however, is that the Freedom From Religion Foundation is only targeting Christians and not targeting other religious groups, like Muslims. For example, she cites an attempt in New York to open a publicly funded Muslim school and then claims that the FFRF is not complaining about it. I found it somewhat ironic, however, after reading the above citation, that the Thomas More Law Center was all over opposing the school. The Thomas More Law Center is a conservative Christian legal firm most famous for defending the Dover Area School District in the 2005 ‘Intelligent Design’ trial.

Now, I cannot speak for the FFRF, but I am equally opposed to publically funded Muslim schools as I am publically Christian schools. The public school in question is the Khalil Gibran International Academy. As far as I can tell from the Wikipedia entry, the school is not a sectarian Islamic school. Rather, the school focuses on teaching Arabic language, culture, and history in much the same way as our Euro-centric public schools teach English language, culture, and history. That, in principle, I have no objection with because it is not indoctrination. Mary, who holds a Ph.D according to the blurb at the bottom of her essay, should know better than to conflate ’school that emphasizes arabic language, culture, and history’ with ‘muslim religious school’.

But I suppose that would be hoping for too much…

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