People view a display showing the nativity scene in Palisades Park in Santa Monica, Calif. in this Dec. 12, 2011 photo.
Charles C. Haynes, in his “Christmas wars” column, acknowledges that atheists have achieved a victory in the battle to keep religious symbols from dominating certain public property during December. He astutely outlines the reasoning of the courts and municipalities that are opting for fairness and inclusivity for all Americans. But then, like a sore loser, he calls on nonbelievers to “stay home for the holidays. Let Christian groups set up Nativity scenes in public spaces unanswered in December — and save the atheist messages for another time of year.”
Haynes complains that the “in-your-face tactics” of people like Damon Vix, who organized the nonreligious displays in Santa Monica, Calif. (including a Winter Solstice banner from the Freedom From Religion Foundation) have become “counterproductive and needlessly divisive.”
Counterproductive of what? Isn’t diversity — with freedom and justice for all — what America is all about? And if there is divisiveness, who is to blame? Does December belong only to Christians?
Haynes is certainly aware that this season of the year has been celebrated for millennia before the Christian Church usurped it for their own agenda. No respectable scholar thinks Jesus was born in December, if he was born at all. Many other pagan sun gods and resurrected “saviors” had been purportedly born on Dec. 25 long before a sect of messianic Jews came up with their own version of the story. The Romans celebrated the Saturnalia during December, leading up to the New Year, the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on Dec. 25, which was the date in the Julian calendar of the winter solstice, the actual new year.
The real “reason for the season” is the natural astronomical holiday. We all like to honor the shortest day of the year with lights, food, gifts, fun, music, and family gatherings, as it signals the return of the sun for another year. While everything in the upper northern hemisphere is dark and colorless, the evergreen signifies hope for a returning spring. None of this is supernatural. It has nothing to do with the birth of a god.
In America, Christians are welcome to celebrate whatever they want. We are happy to share the season with them. They just can’t use the government to privilege their party over everyone else’s.
I understand how Haynes might feel that nonreligious displays during December “ridicule” the precious beliefs of Christians, but what is wrong with ridicule? What is wrong with protest, in this great country that cherishes the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion? Protestantism, for example, is based on protest — it’s right there in the word itself. The Puritans (who eschewed Christmas) based their entire flight to the new world on their ridicule of the Roman Catholic faith. And Catholics have had their inquisitions and holy wars. Religion, at its core, is fiercely divisive, criticizing and ridiculing all other faiths and nonfaiths.
To us nonbelievers, the nativity scene is a ridicule of human nature. We are all damned sinners who need to be “saved” by bowing down to the baby in the manger who grew up to become a king and dictator who threatens us with eternal torment if we do not submit like slaves to his authority. A popular Christmas carol claims that Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power while we were gone astray.” Believers might see a cute baby in a manger, but most nonbelievers see a reprehensible put-down of humanity.
We are not sinners or slaves. We live in a proudly rebellious country that fought a divisive Revolutionary War to get rid of kings and lords, establishing a nation that disestablishes religion.
Nobody should have to stay home for the holidays. We atheists love this time of year like everyone else, and we actually know what we are celebrating: the rebirth of the sun, not the birth of the son. Christians can do whatever they like in their churches and private property, but in the American public square, there is room at the inn for all of us.
Dan Barker, a former minister, is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and author of “Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One Of America’s Leading Atheists.”
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