Three Atheist Signs Part 1: Olympia Washington

            The first sign made a big splash in the news and I first heard about it on the CNN website.  The link to the article read: “Anti-God Sign Placed Across from Nativity Scene.”  The sign itself read:


At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail.  There are no gods, no devils, no angels no heaven or hell.  There is only our natural world.  Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.


            Like me, most people reading just the headline and sign probably already have an opinion and most likely a strong one. This all went down in Olympia, Washington and rather than paraphrase the article I’ll first go into my reactions before even reading.


The Sign Itself


Even though I agreed for the most part with the content of the message, the tone and some of the wording of the sign came off as immature to me.  The statement, “there is only our natural world,” sounds terra-centric and unscientific.  Without going off on a long semantic discussion what the author meant by ‘our natural world’ I’ll just say that replacing the word world with universe would fix some of the problems but even then science can’t say for sure that ours is the only universe.  We could live in one of infinitive universes each with their own native physics.  “Religion is but myth and superstition,” I’m fine with that bit but the absolute statement “that hardens hearts and enslaves minds,” is unflatteringly absolutist and dismisses the positive contribution of religions and myth.  I used the word unflattering because it makes us atheist look just as closed minded and dogmatic as the religious fundamentalists we find ourselves at odds with.  I think it’s true that myth religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds but it also inspires beauty and opens hearts.  Through metaphor, mythology can teach us about ourselves and our history and help us work out problems and moral dilemmas.  Of course being in the Atheist camp, I’m a firm proponent for teaching folks to draw a line between fact and myth because I find the biggest danger is when folks take the myth as literal truth.  To quite Joseph Campbell there’s are the ones willing to “die for a metaphor,” and we’ve all scene where that leads.


The Tone of the Sign


            The next bit that rubs me the wrong way is the confrontational nature of the sign.  Now don’t get me wrong, I believe there are situations when the non-religious need to fight religion head on but I don’t think protesting a nativity scene is the best use of our time and resources.  I think the battles in public discourse really only need to happen when the religious get out of line.  The easiest example is the fundamentalist creationists’ attempt to redefine science and dilute scientific knowledge.  Now a case can be made that the nativity scene constitutes religion getting out of line which I’ll get to in a bit but even if you assume that the atheists are 100% right and the Christians are 100% wrong, is that the way you really would want to go about making your point?  For some the answer may be yes but not me.  When the author writes: At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE, I get the impression of someone trying to shout over the word Christmas.  Imagine a group of carolers singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” while some guy stands beside them singing “We wish you a Merry THE WINTER SOLSTICE,” at the top of his lungs.  I’m personally against the “under god” bit of the pledge of allegiance so I can choose to not say it or I can try and shout out all the others by saying “one nation, THERE IS NO GOD, indivisible.”  If I stay silent it only becomes an issue if someone notices me not saying it and tries to force me.  I tend to think dignity and clarity will have more sway than belligerence and if you have to shout chances are you’re yelling at someone who won’t hear you anyway.   So I wouldn’t have worded the sign with such absolute one sided language and I wouldn’t have taken a confrontation attitude against a display of one of Christianity’s more peaceful symbols.  In fact I probably wouldn’t have even raised an eyebrow except for one thing:


The Location of the Sign


            That’s right, I was ready to write off the whole stunt as a bad idea until I read the whole article and found the nativity scene was placed in front of a government legislative building.  It’s one of those all or nothing issues.  If you’re going to let someone put a religious message in front of a government building, then you have to allow for all other religions and points of view.  If it were my call to make I would err on the side of nothing; keep the building and decorations secular.  It would be more a pragmatic than an ideological decision.  If you allowed a decoration for every metaphysical point of view, nobody would be able to get into the building for work and you open the door for Scientologists, yikes!  Finally on the double if train, if I felt the need to offer a different pint of view and if I chose the Olympia legislative building to make my stand, my sign would read something like:


In this country, you are free to hold any religious belief.  But know also, that if you choose NOT to believe in any gods, if you choose reason over mythology, if you choose science over superstition; you are not evil and you are not alone this holiday season.


1 Comment

  1. euclidcreek said,

    December 12, 2008 at 2:49 am

    I’ll get back to you after I have digested this rich meal.

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