This is my impromptu contribution to the blogswarm that is going on this Easter weekend. I’m obviously not doing this every day, since I missed posting yesterday, but I’m writing something today and perhaps tomorrow as well. I’d encourage my fellow AE posters to chime in with other posts, if they’re so inclined.
Austin is a city full of living contradictions. We Austinites live in a city that is probably the most laid back, religiously liberal locale in a very, very southern Bible belt state. Or as I sometimes describe it, “An island of blue in a sea of red.” On this island there live many people who have migrated from other states, so that I often go for several days without hearing a single Texas accent. On the other hand, there are plenty of “true Texans,” and there are quite a few people who still manage to live their lives inside a religious bubble. You can hear these people call in regularly to the TV show, perplexed about what in the world and atheist is, or why we would dare to risk eternal hellfire by not believing something that they feel is obviously true. Many of these people they aggressively defend their right not to have to leave that bubble.
Earlier this week, I was listening to a local radio show as they talked about a recent news story, in which a Muslim was invited to say a prayer in the Texas Senate. Many people were calling the show, predictably seething with outrage that the Muslim would dare to defile their upcoming sacred weekend by saying the word “Allah” in a public building. There was a woman on the show, who is not a regular, but she was the sole voice calling for tolerance of religious diversity. She was also getting berated. The callers asked, without a trace of irony, how it’s fair for this Muslim to come in our state buildings and pray to “Allah” when THEY (the callers) don’t believe in Allah.
That is, of course, exactly what atheists think about Christian prayers. I’m not going to bother making a case here that there shouldn’t be any prayers in public places (although I feel that’s important). I just want to point out — yet again — the rank hypocrisy of insisting that Christian prayers be allowed in public places while getting bent out of shape that any other prayers are also allowed. When called on it, they’ll repeat the Christian nation myth.
The fact that most people in America are Christian does not make this a Christian nation, any more than the fact that most people in America are white makes this a white nation. As the founding fathers wrote, and the supreme court has confirmed over and over again, the intent of our laws is to create a religion-neutral government. Islam has exactly the same right to our public forums as Christianity does. Either both belong, or neither does.
As atheists, we’ve begrudgingly gotten used to sucking it up most of the time when yet another effort to Christianize the government goes through, such as a giant “In God We Trust” sign gracing the lieutenant governor’s podium. We complain about it, of course, and work to bring about change, but often those things do not change and there is a certain psychological requirement to deal with it and move on. That’s why the enormous fuss about letting Muslims take up Senate time really doesn’t register with me as a serious issue. It’s not because I want Muslims to take over the government, obviously; it’s because it seems to be in the same category as things that go on already. “Oh well, Christians were wasting our time last week and this week it’s Muslims.”
In another sense, however, the general topic of religious ceremony in government is a very serious issue. The issue is simply highlighted by this Muslim prayer. Usually when anyone complains about government observation of religion, they are accused of persecuting Christians by preventing them from freely exercising their own religion. Listen, for example, to this pitiful whine by talk show host Glenn Beck, who complains that it’s really HARD to be a Christian because it’s so unpopular to be part of an 85% majority. It’s also apparently hard to be human, he says.
But as we can see, the same Christians who insist on their right to express themselves are not willing to afford the same “right” to Muslims, and that’s the point where they fall back on declaring that only Christian prayers have a place at the table.
That’s an example of theocracy. It’s a minor one. It’s not anywhere near the outrageousness of sharia law, and nobody should claim it is. But there are groups in the US that seek to install a religious government that is every bit as oppressive as fundamentalist Islamic societies. Christianity may not be unpopular but Dominionism is. However, fundamentalist Islam is also unpopular, but they still manage to take over small countries. So it’s important not to underestimate the threat. If American fundamentalists have failed to install a theocracy here, it is because they are tempered by post-enlightenment culture and not for lack of trying.
That’s why it’s important not to be intimidated and distracted by claims that keeping religion out of government is somehow oppressive and an imposition on people’s rights. People who want to put religion in government are either making this claim disingenuously, or they simply haven’t thought it through. Anyone who has a problem with bringing up “Allah” in the Senate should have a problem with religious pandering in general. It shouldn’t be solely the domain of atheists to point out that you can’t make an exception for your own favorite religion… unless you somehow figure out a way to prove that your religion is true.