What, exactly, do religious believers want from atheists?
If you follow the atheism debates in op-ed pieces and whatnot, you’ll see that critiques of the so-called New Atheist movement are often aimed at our tone. Among the pundits and opinion-makers, atheist writers and activists are typically called out for being offensive, intolerant, disrespectful, extremist, hostile, confrontational, and just generally asshats. The question of whether atheists are, you know, right, typically gets sidestepped in favor of what is apparently the much more compelling question of whether atheists are jerks. And if these op-ed pieces and whatnot were all you knew about the atheist movement and the critiques of it, you might think that atheists were simply being asked to be reasonable, civil, and polite.
But if you follow atheism in the news, you begin to see a very different story.
You begin to see that atheists are regularly criticized — vilified, even — simply for existing.
Or, to be more accurate, for existing in the open. For declining to hide our atheism. For coming out.
Case in point: In Bryan/ College Station, Texas, the Brazos Valley Vuvuzela Atheist Marching Band recently marched in the annual Christmas parade. Now, let’s be very clear about this: The 18-person marching band didn’t march with signs saying "Fuck Your Religion," or "You Know It’s A Myth," or even "There’s Probably No God — Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life." They wished people a merry Christmas, and a happy Hanukkah, and a merry Kwanzaa. They played "Jingle Bells" on vuvuzelas. And they carried a banner saying they were atheists.
Which was enough, apparently, to send many Christians into fits. The atheist presence in the Christmas parade created a substantial controversy in the area. One resident interviewed by the local news, Tina Corgey, said, "I spent many years teaching my children to love and respect other people and to love the fact that they were children of God and I don’t feel that they should be influenced in any other way especially not at a Christmas parade." She added, "If you have younger children they weren’t going to understand but I have older children, a teenager, 8-year-old and they were curious and they asked questions and it was hard for them to believe and understand that there are actually people out there that don’t believe in God."
And she was hardly alone. Her sentiments were echoed in many comments on the local news story. Including:
"There was one entry that should not have been in the parade. It was against Christmas."
"We let people make a mockery out of us!!!!! My family and I have participated or watched the parade for the last 25 years, however, this was our last and hopefully other people feel the same way. Why on Earth would we allow Atheist to be in the Parade????"
"You have no idea what this holiday means for those of use who believe in a greater being. You offend me and everyone else."
"They were there to be provocative, plain and simple. No different from a white supremacist group marching in a Juneteenth parade. This group had no business marching at that event. They are a hate group and they should be ashamed."
"It is like the KKK going to a black church saying they are there to bring peace."
"Last I checked, the event was called a CHRISTmas parade. Not a Happy Holidays, not a Merry Hanukkah, or a Jolly Kwanza. If you want a parade to celebrate non-Christian religious beliefs then lobby B/CS for your OWN parade."
"If atheist are allowed to march in the parade, then maybe next year we can add some strippers advertising the silk stocking or how about some petafiles advertising their love for the kiddos! Those wouldn’t be wrong, since we are wanting to be welcoming of everyone!"
"A CHRISTMAS Parade is NOT the place for the Athiest band and they know it. They did not belong in the parade. They shouted howdy to our area of the parade and not Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays as indicated in the written article. They were mocking all the other bands and drill teams in the parade. They have a right to their beliefs or non-beliefs but flaunting it in a CHRISTMAS parade, I think not."
"By quoting the first amendment you just proved you were there to start trouble."
Just to name a few.
To be fair, these sentiments weren’t the only ones being expressed. Many people clearly stated their appreciation for the atheist marching band; others said they didn’t like them but respected their right to be there; still others said Christians should embrace the atheists, and hopefully turn them to Jesus.
But this "no atheists in the Christmas parade" sentiment was widely expressed. And more to the point: Many people weren’t content to simply say, "I don’t like this." They were saying that it should not have been allowed. They were saying that atheists, quite literally, should not have been permitted to march.
Just a reminder before we go on: We’re talking about playing "Jingle Bells" in a Christmas parade. You can’t get any less controversial than this. It’s like a freaking Norman Rockwell painting. How much more sweet and agreeable could you be? Okay, yes, they were playing "Jingle Bells" on vuvuzelas. But that doesn’t seem to be the point. The point seems to be that atheists, simply by existing, and being public about our existence, are offensive, mocking, provocative, hateful troublemakers.
So the next time you hear atheists called offensive, mocking, provocative, hateful troublemakers, remember this: We get called that for playing "Jingle Bells" in a marching band. We get called these things simply for being open about who we are.
If you think this is an isolated incident — think again. Look at the atheist billboard and bus ad campaigns — and the reactions to them all over the country and all over the world, atheist organizations have been putting up bus ads and billboards: sometimes with content that deliberately challenges religious beliefs, but usually not. Usually, the atheist bus ads and billboards say things like, "Millions are good without God." Or, "In Good We Trust." Or, "Don’t believe in God? You are not alone."
And when they do, there’s almost always an angry, intensely offended reaction from religious believers. There are protests, boycotts, demands that the ads be taken down, even vandalism. Sometimes the ads actually do get stopped: transit companies will sometimes stop accepting religious or controversial ads entirely, rather than let those vile atheists defile their sacred buses and trains. With our message about, you know, existing.
In other words: When all atheists do is say, "Atheists exist," it gets treated as an assault.
It’s hard not to see this as theocracy being threatened.
How else are we supposed to interpret it? When people say that atheists have no right to march in a public parade, and ought to be prevented from doing so? When people are deeply troubled by their curious children asking questions about different religious views, and think these children ought not to be influenced by any view other than Christianity? What is that but attempting to promote your religious views by silencing all the others?
But there’s another, more insidious way that taking offense at atheists’ existence is an attempt to establish theocracy, and to perpetuate the degree of theocracy that we already have.
Look at it this way. Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. clearly want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want everyone in the country to celebrate their holy days. Witness the annual freak-out over the supposed War on Christmas, in which Bill O’Reilly and company get their collective panties in a twist about stores saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."
But they don’t just want everyone to celebrate Christmas. They want everyone to celebrate it religiously. They don’t want non-Christians to adapt this holy day to their own uses. Loki forbid the atheists should march in the Christmas parade, or put up billboards in December with atheists in Santa hats saying "Don’t believe in God? Just be good for goodness’ sake."
They still want Christmas to be a religious holiday, special to the Christian faith. Yet at the same time, they want it to be a government-recognized Federal holiday that everyone has to observe.
In other words: They want theocracy.
See, you don’t get have it both ways. You don’t get to have Christmas be a secular holiday, universal to the culture, recognized by government agencies and celebrated by people of all faiths and of no faith at all… and still have it be a religious holiday of the Christian faith. Not if you respect people’s basic right to worship, or not, in their own way. Pick one. If Christmas is a universal secular holiday, quit whining about it being secularized. If it’s a distinct religious holiday, quit trying to ram it down everyone else’s throats.
Now, if the Christian Right wants to argue that everyone should be Christian, they absolutely have the right to do that. Heck, I argue that everyone should be atheist. I think that atheism is correct and religious belief is mistaken, and I’m working hard trying to persuade people of that. If the Christian Right thinks Christianity is correct and all other positions on religion are mistaken, by all means, they should make that case.
But there’s a huge difference between making a case for why your religious views are correct… and getting offended, insulted, and martyred over the mere fact that some people disagree with you. Making a case for your position is one thing. Trying to stop other people from making their case is quite another.
The former is simply the marketplace of ideas: bumpy, fractious, sometimes obnoxious, even at times grotesque, but a cornerstone of a free society. The latter is entitlement. The latter is hegemony: systems by which those in power perpetuate and expand their power. And, when it gets enshrined into government policy — like teaching religious beliefs in public school science classes, or funding religious organizations with tax money, or opening government meetings with prayers, or displaying the Ten Commandments on government property, or promoting one religion over another in a public school — the latter is theocracy.
And when the Christian right demands that atheists not be allowed to march in a public Christmas parade, or to advertise on public buses and trains… that’s exactly what they’re demanding.
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