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This is How You Do an Atheist Holiday Display

The Springfield Area Freethinkers are showing secular groups around the country how you do a holiday display on public property where there are religious displays. This display does not insult or offend, it offers a positive, inspirational statement.

Springfield Freethinkers Holiday Display

Compare that to this sign, put up by my friends at the Freedom From Religion Foundation in several cities over the years:

Illinois-Solstice-Sign

With all due respect to my friends at the FFRF, and I really do admire and like them, that second sign is a bad idea in every possible way. The first sign is exactly what atheists should be doing. I also like Margaret Downey’s Tree of Knowledge idea, a Christmas tree with books as ornaments, as a great alternative to religious displays.

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Comments

  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    With all due respect to my friends at the FFRF, and I really do admire and like them, that second sign is a bad idea in every possible way.

    You should explain that the FFRF is deliberately pursuing a “poison the well” strategy. They do not believe that religious displays of any kind should be located on government property, so they put up something they know is offensive, hoping to get all the displays dicontinued.
    You don’t have to agree with this strategy, but knowing their strategy explains why their displays are so in-your-face.

  2. Michael Heath says

    I think Reginald’s point is a good one.

    However Ed’s criticism of FFRF may still stand. Do positive-only messages have the same ‘poison the well’ effect? If they do then Ed’s criticism of FFRF stands; even with the framework Reginald raises.

  3. John Pieret says

    For anyone who can’t read it in that picture, it says:

    REASON’S GREETINGS

    This Winter Solstice, as blue-robed Earth tilts her face to the kiss of the waking sun, let us gather to tend the fire at Reason’s hearth, whose beacon shines for all the world. There may every one of us light a torch of truth and find our way to wisdom.

    With unfearing good will, we wish all people to share in the joyous gifts that await the children of the Enlightenment: freedom, peace, and endless love of understanding. Let hearts be lifted and dreams be dared in the brightening days that light the growth of this newborn year.

    Springfield Area Freethinkers

  4. Erk12 says

    Thanks John, that picture was painfully small.

    Positive-only messages may poison the well for atheists and theists alike if they contain as much treacle as that one. Still, I like it better than the FFRF’s sign. I don’t know that there’s any data, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that there isn’t one best strategy. From my purely anecdotal evidence, positive messages tend to provoke less ill-will from the religious; in online comment sections at least.

    I’d like more positive messages aimed at general audiences and reserve the venom for specific horseshit peddlers and movement leaders. But again, that’s just my preference.

  5. Alverant says

    I’m not so sure about the positive-only message. What has being nice gotten us so far? It wasn’t until we started playing hardball by going to the courts and speaking our minds regardless of who’s feelings got hurt did we make any progress in protecting our rights.

  6. Erk12 says

    Alverant, I don’t think there’s any conflict between protecting your rights and “being nice”. Though, I’m sure that to certain segments of the population merely existing as an atheist is “not nice”. Those people (e.g. I’m thinking of the group who refused atheist help in delivering meals, or the town that didn’t want Hemant’s donation), can be safely told to piss off for their crappy actions.

  7. matty1 says

    I think there are different audiences here. The aggressive Christianists will see the existence of Atheists as “not nice” anyway and deserve strong argument and criticism. A holiday display however is not the most effective venue for that criticism becuse of the audience.

    The people who will see this are for the most part not aggressive about their religion, indeed they may be pretty nominal or at least not political about it.* Trying to put myself in their shoes I imagine seeing the situation like this.

    Loud preacher: Those atheists want to take away the Christmas tree in the square that your kids like
    Atheist group: No we just want to put up our own display as well
    Audience: I wonder what their display will be?

    Now in that case if you put up the first one they may sympathise, they may start seeing Atheists as people like them or even being happier to voice their own doubts about religion.
    the second they will translate in their heads to “You people are stupid and we don’t like you”. They will be more inclined to tribalism, to seeing Atheists as the enemy and to listening to Loud preacher and his ilk.

    *I know this is the weakest bit of my arguument and can only appeal to experience most people whatever they believe do not seem to interpret their own lives through the lens of extreme politics or religion.

  8. madgastronomer says

    As a polytheist, I’m actually ok with both of those. The ones that bug me are the ones the FFRF have been doing that actually use pagan symbols and references as if they are not religious, like the image of Venus in their “natural nativity” scene, or the “Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia”. I know a lot of atheists tend to forget it in their fight, but there are still people who worship Venus and who keep Saturnalia as a religious holiday.

    It’s not so much that I’m offended by their use, as that I think it undermines their message, using overtly religious things in their “non-religious” displays.

    Personally, I’m a strict secularist: no religion, including mine, belongs in public and political life. Religious groups getting together to celebrate their holidays, sure, but religious displays and activities don’t belong on or around government buildings, schools, or in political discourse.

  9. Scientismist says

    Thanks for the text, John Pieret — I had to give up trying to read the first one. And I expect, many would not bother to read very far into those two paragraphs when browsing public holiday displays (my daughter calls the whole gemisch “DecemberWeen”).

    And if they did read through both paragraphs, there’s almost as much for a Christian theocrat to get upset about in the Springfield Freethinkers poster as in the FFRF version: Reason and a torch of truth leading the way to wisdom? Unfearing good will? Enlightenment? Understanding? These are all concepts of negative value to the culture of God-fearing, faithful believers. Didn’t Pope Francis recently comment on the conflict between human curiosity and the “wisdom” of faith?

    Personally, I prefer the more forthright approach of the FFRF.

  10. greg1466 says

    I think that it doesn’t matter which strategy is used. The Christians who complain about the later which complain just as much about the former, simply because it isn’t Christian. To these people, secular/atheist messages are offensive simply by their existence.

  11. Alverant says

    Speaking of holiday messages, I saw this in the Chicago Sun Times editorial page:
    http://www.suntimes.com/opinions/letters/24270563-474/story.html

    About that giant scarlet letter “A” now standing between the menorah and the Nativity scene in the Daley Plaza. I saw it and thought we were also celebrating adultery this holiday season.

    Peggy Zabicki, Chicago Lawn

    Please tell me again about being “nice”.

  12. Anthony K says

    About that giant scarlet letter “A” now standing between the menorah and the Nativity scene in the Daley Plaza. I saw it and thought we were also celebrating adultery this holiday season.

    Technically, every nativity scene is a celebration of adultery. Early apocryphal texts had four magi visiting the Christ, including one who kept saying “Oh yeah, Joe, he’s totally got your eyes” and smirking. His traditional gift, a cheap bottle of wine he picked up at a late-night discount merchant’s place just around the corner from the stable, was excised from the story and likely provided the basis for the miracle Jesus performed at the wedding at Cana. If true, it would be the earliest ever reference to Canadian ice wine in literature.

  13. plutosdad says

    Given that many Christians are angered at Atheist bands playing “jingle bells”, I think the positive message probably has the same poison-the-well effect that is intended. There is no need to deliberately offend, since enough people will take offence even when there is none at all.

  14. twincats says

    I don’t think it hurts anything to make nice at the Solstice season; there’s the whole rest of the year for pointed rhetoric.

  15. Trickster Goddess says

    There is a time and place for the aggressive approach, but it rubs me the wrong way to see it in these communal holiday displays. I would rather stick with the spirit of the season of ‘peace on Earth and goodwill to all’ and present a positive message. Save the religion bashing for the rest of the year.

    We’re atheists, not Grinches.

  16. coffeecat says

    The FFRF banner does its job when local politicians refuse to include it in the holiday displays, then have to get rid of the nativities.

    For billboards and displays not on government property, I greatly prefer the nice ones.

    The one nice one that was also provocative said, “Imagine no Religion” with a photo of the pre-9/11 WTC.

  17. says

    I find Matty’s approach reasonable. With the hard nuts, the dominionists and those politically committed to eroding separation, hit back hard, but in a venue like this it might indeed be wiser to offer something friendly. Even as friendly as: In this season when many of our friends and neighbors are celebrating holdidays, we wish you the very best, now and in the New Year.

    —-Freedom From Religion Foundation, and have pamphlets available as an educational tool.

    My concern would be that by being extremely aggressive with non radical Christians, the atheists may inadvertantly otherize themselves and make protection of seperation an agenda of The Other.

    Historically, atheists have been that Other, but just like geting to know gays/lesbians as regular people, many came to appreciate a new view of respecting rights. The harder rhetoric could be reserved for those entrenched misanthropes who perhaps ought to be Otherized by society.

    And while I’d rather that there be no expression regarding religion or the lack thereof on public property, I think that a forum opened to everyone, with atheists reminding everyonoe that they’re part of this world, with all the same rights, might be even better for wider acceptace of atheists as normal people who can be just as good human beings as anyone else.

    All of this is a maybe. Just food for thought.

  18. dingojack says

    Meanwhile, I’m sweating buckets at 31 C (87.8 F) & 80% humidity while listening to the deafening roar of cicadas, thinking about the Earth approaching its perihelion just after the SUMMER Solstice.
    Yep I’m dreaming of a white christmas…. :D
    Dingo

  19. says

    Dingo,

    What’s the deal in OZ? Public display permitted on government property? Equal voice for all? Absolute prohibition, Mangers in the classroom? Do people fight over this?

  20. Stella says

    Thank you for the text, John Pieret.

    I copied the image, opened it in another application, enlarged it several times and still couldn’t read it.

    Stella

  21. dingojack says

    The short answer is ‘no, not really’. You have to remember that Australia is not as religious a country as the US and the religious experience is not as strong a part of the national psyche*.
    Only about 80% consider themselves as being religious (in whatever form that is), about 60% are self-identified Christians (about 18% of these are Anglicans, who are not known for their religious fervour) and about 20% call themselves ‘none’ (Which should not be confused, of course, with atheist as it includes ‘Jedis’, ‘New Age’, spiritual but not religious’, ‘agnostic’ and so on,) ‘Nones’ are, numerically, the second largest ‘religious position’ in Australia (after Catholics, but that may change in the near future).
    Christmas displays, particularly in government departments, tend to be quite neutral as there is quite strong legal and cultural tradition of inclusiveness, however there’s always outliers. Schools may have nativity scenes but they are tending to become seen as kind of old fashioned and not representative in government schools (private schools are a different matter).
    The so called ‘war on Christmas’ seems to be a lot stronger in the US than here, although that could be due to the cultural tradition of disliking ‘wowsers’ (those who disapprove of something others regard as fun), the idea of a ‘beach Christmas’, that is, a secular holiday for being with family and friends rather than some kind of religious celebration, and that at 100 F who could be bothered fighting over the trivial (there’s always ‘how to properly cook sausages’, ‘Aunty Mavis’ shocking tendency to casual racism after a couple of drinks’ and ‘who got the best Secret Santa’ as examples).
    By and large, most here regard it as a holiday to eat far too much food, drink too much beer (or increasingly, wine) and go to the beach or sprawl out on the lounge watch the cricket.**
    Ooops, a little bit TL;DR, sorry ’bout that.
    Dingo
    ——–
    * except for footy, cricket, Bathurst and the like, I suppose
    ** I’ll ask our UK friends, how’s that going BTW? ;)

  22. skinnercitycyclist says

    madgastronomer:

    As a polytheist, I’m actually ok with both of those. The ones that bug me are the ones the FFRF have been doing that actually use pagan symbols and references as if they are not religious, like the image of Venus in their “natural nativity” scene, or the “Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia”.

    I am not entirely certain of the FFRF’s reason for using that image of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, but I take it not as a picture of your pagan deity, but as a representation of Renaissance humanist art, though I would rather have had something by Leonardo for that as Botticelli himself fell under the sway of that early modern Pat Robertson, Savanarola, if I remember correctly. I will buy your point on Saturn, though I think that those who originally practiced the holiday would have appreciated the spirit of topsey-turveydom in which it is presented. It’s not as though Saturnalia were some sort of po-faced, solemn rite, it was a bottoms-on-top, tops-on-bottom free for all of overeating, overdrinking, and overspending, just like some modern holidays we could mention.

  23. says

    I prefer my own display. None.

    “Ice wine is not cheap.”

    You only say that because YOU have not found any of the Two Buck Chuck Eiswein at Trader Joe’s. {;>)

  24. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    I much preferr the first message to the second, but you know the second is still going to piss someone off.

  25. Wylann says

    trickster goddess:

    There is a time and place for the aggressive approach, but it rubs me the wrong way to see it in these communal holiday displays. I would rather stick with the spirit of the season of ‘peace on Earth and goodwill to all’ and present a positive message. Save the religion bashing for the rest of the year.

    Let’s re-phrase that:

    There is a time and place for the aggressive approach, but it rubs me the wrong way to see it in these communal holiday displays. I would rather stick with the spirit of the season of ‘peace on Earth and goodwill to all’ and present a positive message. Save the religion for the rest of the year.

    There. Much better. Now, if only the religious nutters would stop trying to make it all about their religion, we would stop fighting back.

    See, the point of all this that anyone here whining (and I include Ed in this) about pushback against the dominant religion is that all the pushback is primarily reactive. In my view, it’s entirely justified too. We already know that if you give the religionists an inch, they’re going to try to take the whole damn country, so push back early and push back hard.

  26. freehand says

    Especially around the holidays I much prefer a non-confrontational message. I can assure you that the Christianists will take sufficient offense at our very existence. I have no problem with taking an aggressive response to an attack that does not respond well to civil discourse. I should point out that my automatic reaction to the knowledge tree was “Isn’t the Tree of Knowledge why we were kicked out of the Garden of Eden?” Of course, I haven’t been a Believer in 50 years so I think that’s a Good Thing®.

    Does anyone have any evidence supporting the claim that “We weren’t getting anywhere until we starting behaving confrontationally”? Perhaps we have simply reached a point where – like being gay – being non-churched is seen as normal, and young adults especially are more comfortable dropping out of church communities than they would have been 50 years ago. I get the impression that in the UK it happened on its own without anybody paying too much attention to the process.

    As a martial artist, I am all for a vigorous response to a mugger, but attacking everybody who looks like they might be a mugger is rude, and not very good self defense, either. Take comfort in knowing that merely being visible outrages the Dominionist. No need to insult the Quakers, Anglicans, and incidental church goers.

  27. madgastronomer says

    I am not entirely certain of the FFRF’s reason for using that image of the Birth of Venus by Botticelli, but I take it not as a picture of your pagan deity, but as a representation of Renaissance humanist art,

    There are plenty of famous and beautiful Renaissance paintings of nude women that are not pagan goddesses, though. This one is specifically of a pagan goddess.

    If I recall correctly, though I don’t have time to check right now, the article on Wild Hunt said when asked that they’d just grabbed something because they were putting it together in a hurry. We have both already put more thought into it than they did then. With or without intent and meaning, I still think using a religious symbol undermines the point.

    I will buy your point on Saturn, though I think that those who originally practiced the holiday would have appreciated the spirit of topsey-turveydom in which it is presented. It’s not as though Saturnalia were some sort of po-faced, solemn rite, it was a bottoms-on-top, tops-on-bottom free for all of overeating, overdrinking, and overspending, just like some modern holidays we could mention.

    I’m sure the plebians would have enjoyed our modern celebrations, yes, if possibly find most of them a bit tame. But the patricians of Rome tended to get a little cranky when people refused to pay proper respect to the gods of the State.

  28. says

    “But the patricians of Rome tended to get a little cranky when people refused to pay proper respect to the gods of the State.”

    Is this a fact?

    I’m not too sure that the primary reason for people getting crosswise to the powers that were, back in the days of yore, was any different than it is today. If I say your belief system is childish, or worse, I’m insulting you–not your nonexistent skydaddy pal. And that’s ALWAYS what it’s really about.

  29. says

    Thank you for the kind words, Ed. Here is a better image of the placard we use: http://www.meetup.com/safreethinkers/photos/18628512/

    Commenters should understand that the sentimental tone of the text was a deliberate choice. It was our intention to appeal to the religious general public. Therefore we methodically stole all the ideas, practices, and imagery associated with Christmas that we could, and rewove them into a secular message. The point was to let believers see that unbelievers are capable of the same depth of feeling that they are.

    The image is very important; it conveys feeling and gets people to stop and stare at the placard (just as the people in the image are standing and staring) long enough to read it. I’ve watched them. People literally stand and scratch their heads: they are thinking!

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