Green Room

But Some Are More Equal Than Others

posted at 4:59 pm on December 26, 2009 by

The Freedom from Religion Foundation says it simply wants all religions to be treated equally, including the religion of Atheism. (On second thought, they might object to being called a religion.) If the Illinois state government allows one religious symbol, a nativity scene, in the state Capitol, surely it must allow the religious or philosophical symbols of all other religions: a menorah, a crescent and star, or whatever would symbolize the sincerely held beliefs of atheists… the Great Black Bowling Ball of Oblivion, perhaps.

Obviously Mr. William J. Kelly, candidate for Comptroller of Illinois, wildly overreacted and displayed unlawful religious discrimination when he called the simple, heartfelt statement of first principles of the Freedom from Religion Foundation “hate speech” — and dared turn their little sign about so it couldn’t be read, at least temporarily (I’m sure someone would have turned it back eventually):

A conservative activist and Illinois comptroller candidate was escorted from the Illinois State Capitol building Wednesday when he tried to remove a sign put up by an atheist group….

But Kelly said when he turned the sign around so it was face down, state Capitol police were quick to escort him away….

Kelly called the sign “hate speech,” and said he does not believe it is appropriate for a sign that “mocks” religion to be placed next to a Christmas tree and also near a nativity scene.

“I don’t think the State of Illinois has any business denigrating or mocking any religion,” Kelly said, “and I think that’s what the verbiage on the sign was doing.”

How dare he trample on the FFRF’s freedom of mockery!

Except… well, it’s peculiar that such an obvious religious bigot as Mr. Kelly never objected to the Jewish menorah in the same Capitol rotunda display as the FFRF’s sign. Oh, and he also has no problem with other sundry symbols on parade there:

[Illinois Secretary of State's office spokeswoman Henry] Haupt said in addition to the sign, the Nativity Scene and the Christmas tree, there is also a Soldiers’ Angels wreath, and a tabletop display from the American Civil Liberties Union that says the group “defends freedom of religion.” A Hanukkah menorah had also been on display until the Jewish Festival of Lights ended on Saturday.

For the second year in a row, the Capitol also has an aluminum Festivus pole commemorating the fictional holiday created in “Seinfeld.”

Now that’s an odd duck of a religious extremist, one who seems to have no problem with other religious displays, including a fake religion created by a screenwriter — or even a display from the ACLU, which has far more often been on the side of, well, atheists and the anti-religious than believers in recent years. How to explain this seeming dichotomy?

Sometimes the devil (who doesn’t exist) is in the details; perhaps we ought to take a look at the actual wordage on the FFRF’s declaration, which they set up directly in front of the Christmas tree:

The sign reads: “At the time of the winter solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is just myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

Hm; in order to “let reason prevail,” let us consider how such a sign might look when pushing a different message; consider this hypothetical placard, which could have been erected directly in front of the menorah in the rotunda:

At the time of the Mass of Christ, let the Son of God prevail. There are no laws, no acts that can save you from hell. There is only the divine salvation that comes from the King of Kings. Judaism is just myth and superstition that bewitches believers and damns souls.

Does anybody believe that such a (purely hypothetical) sign would be allowed under the Illinois state Capitol dome? Obviously not, because it is not so much an expression of faith as an attack on other people’s faith.

As is the plaque placed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. It may be sincere mockery, but mockery and attack it clearly is.

FRFF plants their pugnacious sign like Cortez planting the flag of Spain in Aztec Mexico: Wherever it stands, it’s a deliberate and truculent affront to religions other than Atheism… as even the foundation’s co-president agrees!

As to Kelly’s claims that the sign mocks religion, foundation co-President Dan Barker said: “He’s kind of right, because the last couple of sentences do criticize religion, and of course, the beginning is a celebration of the winter solstice. But that kind of speech is protected as well — speech that is critical and speech that is supportive.”

Protected, yes; but not necessarily hosted. If the FRFF wants to put up a sign on private property proclaiming the falsity of Christianity and Judaism — or of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Wicca, though those other religions never seem to provoke such Vesuvian eruptions from the FRFF, the ACLU, or the United Separators (sorry, I meant Americans United for the Separation of Church and State) — let them.

But if they want to express themselves in a display in a public space devoted (for a time) to celebrations of religious faith, then let them simply state what they believe without mocking, attacking, deriding, or spitting on other faiths.

Mr. Barker seems to understand the thin ice on which he stands, for he attempts some sleight of hand to draw the false equivalence:

The foundation does not approve of the nativity scene, Barker said.

“We atheists believe that the nativity scene is mocking humanity,” by suggesting that those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell, Barker said. “But notice that we are not defacing or stealing nativity scenes because we disagree with their speech.”

Of course, stating one’s belief in the divinity of Jesus is surely not the same as “mocking humanity.” In fact, a mere nativity scene doesn’t even argue that “those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell.” I’m sure Christians generally believe that; but nothing inherent in a tableau of baby, parents, a trio of wiseguys, and a herd of barnyard animals makes any such case… no more than a Yule tree “makes the case” for Druidism.

(And why doesn’t the FFRF protest the menorah? It’s equally religious; why not equally offensive?)

There is certainly a fundamental constitutional right to freedom of religion (including the freedom to be of no religion); but there is no constitutional right to be free from religion: The latter would imply the right to remove all religious symbols from society, even those on private property, because the very sight of them — even the knowledge that they might be secreted out of sight inside a house of worship — could offend Mr. Barker’s “right” to live a life utterly devoid of contact with any religious beliefs, claims, sentiments, or values.

My freedom of religion as a non-Christian is not the slightest bit infringed by a nativity scene in a Capitol dome, nor by a cross in the seal of Los Angeles County, nor by an Islamic crescent erected decades ago in some state or federal park, if such a thing exists. Such symbols of faith do not assault my conscience; I am capable of passing them by, respecting them, even admiring the beauty of their designs without feeling any compulsion to convert.

I wonder at a religious zealot like President Barker, whose faith is so shaky that the sight of any other religious relic or symbol threatens it. Atheism must be a barren and comfortless religion indeed to provoke such insecurity, even in its most fervent defenders.

Cross-posted on Big Lizards

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