Welcome to Further Than Atheism, an ongoing attempt to explore the wide open range of ideas that lies beyond the single idea that all atheists share: the rejection of gods. Atheism should be a beginning, not an end in itself. When they restrict their attention to what they do not believe, atheists restrict themselves to mere reaction to the ideas of the religious. Atheism can consist only of negation, but allows for an infinite variety of positive possibilities as well. The search for such possibilities is what Further Than Atheism is all about.
A few weeks ago I wrote an article for this column asking the question Can Atheists Celebrate Holidays? The whole point of that article is that atheists should have the choice to celebrate holidays if they want to. For that matter, everyone - whether they are religious or not - should have the right to celebrate what holidays they decide to be important. They also should have the right not to celebrate the holidays that they decide are not worth their while. After all, holidays are religious observances, and we Americans are supposed to be able to make decisions about religion in freedom, right?
A case that has recently come to a federal appeals court challenges the notion that the United States is a land of tolerance and freedom where people have the right to exercise their personal beliefs about religion . Rick Ganulin, a man from Cincinnati, is suing the U.S. government in order to end the official observance of Christmas as a national holiday. His work has been greeted by jeers and derision, even from the mainstream press which likes to think of itself as objective. Articles describing his case are introduced by such inflamatory and misleading headlines as "Bah Humbug" or "Man Sues to Eliminate Christmas". Hype aside, what are the merits of his case?
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." This amendment is written very clearly, although many conservative groups seem to believe that the First Amendment allows Congress to make Christian religious observances officially recognized and supported by the federal government. I guess I need to get out my bifocals to see where they're reading between the lines. Simply put, the First Amendment forbids any governmental body in the United States from passing any law which establishes any particular religion (or religion in general, for that matter) as official, or which interferes with the ability of people to practice religion under coercion.
You see, it's by nature impossible for there to be any free exercise of religion when a law exists making observance of religion mandatory. Yet, that's exactly what the establishment back in 1870 of Christmas as an official government holiday has done. None of us have any choice but to participate in Christmas in some way. At the very least, governmental and other essential services are withheld in the name of religion on the Christian holiday. Whether American citizens are Christian or not, they are barred from going about their daily business. They can't go to their banks. They can't send or receive mail. Heck, they can't even go down to City Hall and get a marriage license. They can't conduct any business with the government, because the government has declared through an ancient, outdated and unconstitutional act of Congress that Christmas is a holiday to be observed by the entire nation.
For Richard Ganulin, it gets even worse. He's not even allowed to work on Christmas because as assistant city solicitor for the City of Cincinnati he's a government employee. This man is cut of from his livelihood because of the national observance of a holy day from a religion he isn't even a part of. Practically speaking, he's forced to celebrate a religious sabbath whether he wants to or not.
Somehow, this simple truth has been overlooked by the judges before which Ganulin has made his case. In her judgment against Ganulin last year, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott wrote, "Christmas is about joy and giving and sharing. It is about the child within us; it is mostly about caring. There is room in this country and in all our hearts, too, for different convictions and a day off, too."
Christmas is about joy, giving, sharing, the child within us, and caring? No, it's not. It's a celebration of the birth of a man that Christians hold as a matter of religious doctrine to be a God on Earth. The name of the holiday is an abbreviation of Christ Mass. When the Christmas carols sing about joy, it's about the joy that Christ is born. When they sing about giving, it's about giving praise to the Christian God because of the birth of Jesus. When they sing about a child, it's not about some psychological child within, it's about Jesus as a divine child, as in the following lyrics from "Hark the Herald Angels Sing":Christ, by highest Heaven adored:
Glory to the newborn King? The everlasting Lord? If these words are believed to be believed, it sounds like Christmas is about establishing the earthly rule of Christian religion over all the Earth. Those of us who aren't Christian don't regard these sentiments as examples of "joy and giving and sharing."
What about Judge Dlott's assertion that "there is room in this country and in all our hearts, too, for different convictions and a day off, too"? Not much room is left for different convictions when one conviction is made official, to be observed by everybody, and all other convictions are ignored. Everybody loves a day off, but not everybody wants the same day off. How come Christians are given the power to stop the entire nation for the sake of their holy day but no other religious groups are given the same privilege?
Christmas is the only nationally recognized religious holiday, and Christianity is the only nationally recognized religion. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution reads, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Equal protection goes out the window when one religious group attains special privileges for its observances that other religions and non-religious groups are denied. If the U.S. government were to give equal protection, it would have to make the major holidays of all religions and other philosophies observed within the country national holidays, with government and financial shutdowns on each and every day. Of course, that would wreck the country, so the alternative must be enforced: equality through official recognition for none.
Judge Boyce Martin Jr., one of the three federal court judges currently hearing the Ganulin's case, has already let his prejudices be known, stating, "You donŐt have to celebrate Christmas. You can ignore it. Sometimes, we must accept those tenets of others that we donŐt necessarily agree with, in order to live in peace." Poppycock! As any non-Christian can tell you, official observance of Christmas makes the holiday impossible to ignore. We can't ignore the fact that the financial markets are closed. We can't ignore the locked doors at our Town Halls, decorated with Christmas wreaths. Making Christmas an official government holiday forces individual non-Christians to work against the power of national, state and local governments in order to ignore the religious observance.
What are we to make of Judge Martin's idea that non-Christians MUST accept Christian tenets in order to live in peace. Is that a threat? Does judge Martin honestly believe that if non-Christians are not forced to observe Christmas that violence will result? Is he implying that the Christian majority would engage in reprisals against religious minorities? Is that the kind of religion our national government supports with official recognition of Christmas, a religion of intimidation? Logically, this argument makes no sense.
Constitutionally, Judge Martin's argument is unfounded. Actually, the First Amendment was crafted to protect against this kind of reasoning. The freedoms of speech, the press and assembly as well as the freedom from governmental establishment of religion forbid the intolerant ideas inherent in Judge Martin's statement. The First Amendment ensures that no one in the United States is ever forced to accept the tenets of other groups because of the threat of implied violence or because of governmental establishment of those tenets. We are all supposed to be free to live by whatever tenets we choose. It looks like it's time for Judge Martin to take a refresher course in Constitutional law.
Put all these arguments aside, and this case can still be easily resolved. If these sanctimonious judges want to prove that Christmas is a non-religious holiday, there's one test they can employ to confirm that principle. Re-name the national holiday. If the Christ and the Mass really aren't important parts of Christmas, then it shouldn't bother anyone if the Courts mandate a new generic name for the government holiday: "Mid-Winter". A Mid-Winter holiday is religion-neutral because winter is a matter of scientific fact, not religious belief. Christians could still celebrate Christmas on that day, but no one else would have to.
Of course, Judge Martin and the other judges that are hearing this case know full well what would happen if they renamed the government holiday to "Mid-Winter". Most Christians wouldn't stand for it, because what they really want is for the government to recognize not just any old generic holiday of good cheer, but THEIR particular religious holiday. The practical impossibility of a name change is proof enough of the inherently religious nature of Christmas.
There's a principle at the heart of the Ganulin's case: the principle of mutual toleration. Mutual respect is not called for in his arguments. There's no right of any group to demand that its ideas be respected by everybody -- our Constitution states that we should all be able to ignore, make fun of, and even insult any idea whenever we want, even if that idea is a religious idea. Our Constitution guarantees that when it comes to the rule of law, nothing is sacred and no group of ideas is entitled to special protection.
Ganulin's case calls for the preservation of the principle of mutual toleration. Mutual toleration means that the right of all citizens to hold their individually chosen ideals, no matter how strange or stupid, no matter how offensive to others. Mutual toleration means that our government holds itself above the fray. Mutual toleration means that the most powerful groups, such as the Christians, refrain from using the power of government to force others into compliance with their beliefs.
Mutual toleration is best supported when it is supported by all. There are plenty of Christians who support the principles of the First Amendment, even when it comes to non-believers. We atheists would do well to remember that the executive director of Americans United For Separation of Church and State is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. It's unfortunate that fundamentalists have appropriated the voice of Christianity as a whole, and the more liberal wing of the religion needs our acknowledgement, understanding and assistance in their efforts to re-establish a more tolerant representation of Christianity.
We atheists also need to recognize intolerance within ourselves. If we had the power, would we try to turn the tables and use the power of government to restrict religious practices? Such revenge would be tempting, but ultimately counter-productive because it would establish a form of religious atheism based on faith instead of the freedom of thought we claim to cherish.
By supporting the efforts of people such as Rick Ganulin, we can help to build a more balanced nation in which the ability of individuals to make decisions about religion without coercion from the government is a reality. The goal is not an end to disagreement, but a society in which disagreements can be expressed freely, without special protections for any set of ideas, religious or non-religious.
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