Last week, the Chicago chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation placed an 8.5-foot-tall Scarlet A monument and banner in downtown’s Daley Plaza (on Dearborn and Washington):
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, himself a self-hating atheist in the style of S.E. Cupp, can’t stand the displays. But before he could explain why, he took the time to complain about atheists as a whole:
I am not an atheist. Atheists are zealots, too, elevating denial of the divine into a kind of faux religion, complete with pieties, and manage to be as aggressive and joyless as those who at least can blame a higher power for making them the way they are.
Rather, I am an agnostic. Agnostics know what we know but don’t make a fuss. We’re the Unitarians of the nonbelief community.
The reason Steinberg thinks atheists are joyless is because all the happy ones manage to stay away from him.
And when you don’t believe in God, you’re an atheist whether you adopt the label or not.
Then he explains that a reason he shies away from the word is because of a particular atheist activist, Rob Sherman, who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way over the years from his legally-correct-but-very-unpopular fights over church/state separation along with his healthy dose of self-importance.
I asked Sherman for a response to Steinberg’s column and he sent me this:
Neil thinks that newspaper columnists are the only people who are ever justified in publicly expressing their opinions. Whenever anybody else has spoken out in any other forum available to them, Neil has always ridiculed it as a hostile, belligerent, negative, anti-social act.
However, nobody reads the Sun-Times, anymore, so it really doesn’t matter what Neil says in his column.
The Daley Center Plaza is the People’s Forum for those of us who don’t have newspaper columns to publicize our views. I support the efforts of all those who choose to express their views about theology, or anything else, at the Daley Center Plaza.
It should also be noted that Sherman had absolutely nothing to do with this display. He’s not even an FFRF member. The confusion may stem from the fact that a local news station included him in a segment about the display.
Either way, Steinberg should know better than to judge an entire group of people based on one unpopular member.
But back to the point at hand: What’s the problem with the downtown atheist display?
Steinberg’s ire is really directed at all the religious displays downtown that play into the culture wars, including a life-size Nativity scene, but he saves the headline (“A big ‘A’ on Daley Plaza? That’s the best atheists can do?”) and the first half of the column to just rip on atheists:
… I was not glad to see that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has erected a white plastic “A” at Daley Plaza. “Very Hester Prynne-ish” my editor sniffed, though it stands not for “Adultery” but for “Atheism” and “Agnosticism” and a bunch of other free-thinking concepts.
The distinction I make is between celebration and castigation.
The city tree is a celebration. The creche and the rest, castigation. Protected speech, true, though you wonder what happens when Muslims and Buddhists, Scientologists and Taoists all stake out spots. What the war-on-Christmas crowd doesn’t get is there are lots of religions, and if they all set up shop on Daley Plaza soon there wouldn’t be room for the big faux German Christmas folk village that’s already taken over the place.
Steinberg doesn’t get the point of the displays. Sure you could put up a more celebratory sign, like the Springfield Area Freethinkers did in the state Capitol building last year, but the FFRF’s purpose with the displays was to convince people that allowing religious groups to put displays on public property is a bad idea altogether. And if the Christian groups are going to push for giant Nativity scenes, then you have to fight fire with fire:
“If the government is going to open up a public forum to religion, then it has to permit the nonreligious — nearly 20% of our nation today — to express our point of view as well,” commented FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel said as much in an email to me:
Daley Plaza is government property, essentially the town square. FFRF does not think government property is the place for the divisiveness or strife caused by competing religious messages. We go out of our way to say this every time we erect a display to counter a nativity. But the nativity on government property is precisely the problem. No doubt there are hundreds of churches in Chicago that would proudly display a nativity, but that is not enough. They need to co-opt the power and prestige of the government to disseminate their religious message. They need to display their religion on government property so the legitimacy of the government bleeds onto their particular set of supernatural beliefs. They want to bask in the glory of a governmental endorsement of their religion.
The best way to fight that strategy in a public forum is to dilute the strength of the apparent government endorsement by displaying opposing messages — as many as we can. Often, the government will close the forum, which may have been opened solely to allow the nativity scene in the first place. This is what happened in Santa Monica, Deerfield Beach, and Loudon County.
FFRF would be perfectly happy to see our scarlet letter come down… so long as the other religious displays come down too. But if there is an open forum for all speech, people, including Mr. Steinberg, should expect to see messages with which they disagree. And most importantly, people should stop expecting religious beliefs to be treated with undue, unearned respect — the dark ages have come to an end.
Tom Cara, the President of the FFRF’s Chicago chapter, echoed those sentiments:
We would like nothing better than not having to make that point with our own displays. And we make this clear by telling government that if the religious symbols were not on government property, then neither would ours. So if Mr. Steinberg thinks the only reason we are doing this is to prove to the world that atheists can have fun too, then he is truly missing the big picture.
That’s what this is all about. Steinberg just wants to shit on atheists for something he doesn’t even understand. As he closes his column with,
They want to take their faith, or nonfaith, roll it into a tube and bop the rest of us on the head. It’s not subtle, and not joyous, and not welcome.
There’s no bopping. There’s no aggression. There’s only a display that is no better or worse than every other religious display on the property.
Yet it’s the atheists’ display that’s “not welcome.” The menorah and Nativity scene, I guess, are perfectly fine in his world.
And while we’re at it, Salon‘s Mary Elizabeth Williams made a similar argument against the atheist display, calling it a “petty turf war” — though she at least acknowledged the reasons why they’re doing it. Williams writes:
You think a nativity is inappropriate in a government building or public plaza? Me too. But “freedom” means fighting for what’s right without forcing your agenda at every turn, without forever insisting “Me too!” Rational conversation shouldn’t be a petty turf war. It’s about being a grown-up instead of hiding behind the excuse that you have to pull stunts to effect positive change. It’s about distinguishing between what’s a legitimate infringement and what is simply people of differing belief systems going about the business of celebrating their traditions — and picking your battles accordingly. It’s about striving for less rancor and less noise, not more.
She makes the common mistake of conflating a desire for the same privileges afforded to religious groups with FFRF “forcing” their “agenda” down people’s throats. She won’t say that about the Jewish group that put a Menorah at Daley Center, but atheists are an easy punching bag.
Here’s what really bothers me: She admits that the Nativity display is inappropriate to place on government property, yet she has no clue as to how to make it stop. FFRF does. FFRF’s method has worked in other cities. Turns out the best way to stop Christian displays on government property is to imitate them.
It’s like a parent whose son wears his pants waaaaay too low. You can tell the kid reason after reason why he shouldn’t do that, but nothing will convince him to stop more quickly than watching his dad walk around in public with sagging jeans.
Williams and Steinberg should at least acknowledge the effectiveness of that method instead of just complaining about it. It’s not like they’re offering a better solution to the problem.