An atheist nativity
It seems there’s a bit of a rumpus in Santa Monica, where atheists are accused of “hijacking” a traditional nativity display. The display, which is generally used by various denominations to create a series of scenes from the nativity, was disrupted when atheists entered a ballot to be allocated plots, and won 18 of the 21 available, using the spaces to display anti-religious slogans.
There’s almost certainly a lot of background to this story that you can’t get from reading a few blogs and reports, but it’s an interesting story, and one that cuts to the heart of the battles over freedom of and freedom from religion in the US. I confess to having limited knowledge of the US constitution, but it seems to me that the claim that Christians’ 1st amendment rights are being infringed is just so much nonsense. Even if it could be argued that this amendment covers the right to use public spaces to convey a religious message, all that’s happening is that a different message is competing on an equal footing for that limited space and winning, surely the very essence of freedom and equality.
I think it could also be argued, as the area in question is a public park, that the displays should fall under the provisions of the separation of church and state. It may be constitutional to allow displays, but in keeping with previous rulings on displaying the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, it would probably only be acceptable if it doesn’t have a predominantly religious purpose, something which (in my entirely non-expert opinion) I think is neatly achieved by the open ballot for allocation of the plots. The alternative is to attempt to make an argument that the nativity and/or Christmas is predominantly cultural, a complex argument and one on which I’m undecided.
The interesting point to me is what the atheists have done about it. The entry into the ballot (making a concerted effort to apply in numbers, forcing a ballot which was rarely needed before) was a tactical masterstroke, resulting in an almost unopposed platform to make their point. But I think their tactical cunning may be matched by their strategic naivety, as whatever the facts and background of the story, this runs the risk of making them look like obsessive killjoys, which is unlikely to win over any who were previously undecided.
Of course, it may be that this is just the final act in a long-running saga of religion versus secularism in the area, and the facts may be rather more complicated than is immediately obvious, but that doesn’t seem consistent with the fact that allocation of the plots has generally been done on the nod in the past. Taking it at face value, it looks like a deliberate effort to act like jerks and annoy Christians and sympathisers. If that’s what they wanted, fair enough, but if they wanted to make a serious point and win a few converts, they might have been better off just taking one plot (even applying for lots to ensure they got some, then allowing the rest to be reallocated) and making a more positive point than “religion is stupid”.
Christians have been guilty of plenty of goading and jerkishness in the past, but if you want to point towards a better, more rational way of life, it doesn’t do you any favours to adopt the habits of the people you’re criticising.