Choose Your Religious Freedom Fights Wisely

A little humility would give atheists more ammo for the big battles.

I can remember the first time I admitted out loud I was not a Christian. I was probably 22 at the time and had sensed for years that my spiritual compass was taking me down a different path than the one my Catholic family members and the other people in my small suburban community were on. It had just taken me that long to formulate the words, which at that time must have seemed pretty radical, even to a young nonconformist like myself.

Since that day I have firmly established myself among the minority of Americans who do not count a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ—or in my case, the even smaller minority who reject the notion of  an omnipotent entity to whom we owe thanks for our mere existence—as a defining characteristic of their relationship with the world around them.

As a practicing Buddhist, not only am I am a functional atheist (I’ll spare you the exposition on Buddhist cosmology), but I’m a heathen as well. And worse: a humanist. Yet rather than carry what I consider an enlightened approach around on my shoulder like a proverbial chip, I have learned that part of my personal path involves a level of humility, and an acceptance that life is not all about my beliefs, or non-beliefs as the case may be.

I feel a profound sense of discomfort every time I witness fellow non-believers adopt the same fundamentalist zeal they detest in their religious rivals to advance their own agendas, almost always in the guise of defending the Constitution.

Don’t get me wrong, I get where they are coming from. Contrary to what some would like to believe, America is NOT a Judeo-Christian nation; our founders saw fit to negate the existence of a national religion and prohibit an active state role in the advancement of any one faith. It is, however, a nation largely populated by “believers.” At last count, 83 percent of our countrymen and women identify themselves as Christian. And in many communities it’s even higher. Add Jews and Muslims to the mix, and a monotheistic belief in a sentient higher power is practically universal in the U.S. (according to Gallup, it’s actually 92 percent, down from 96 percent in 1944). Expecting to avoid any reminder of that is not only unrealistic but unfair to the vast majority of people who find inspiration in that belief and feel a need to celebrate it. But more importantly, launching indiscriminate attacks against even the most harmless representations of religious expression risks deflating the power of our argument when we need it the most.

To illustrate my point, I draw your attention to a recent case in Rhode Island that has been getting a lot of attention. Earlier this month a federal judge ordered a high school in the predominately Italian-Catholic community of Cranston to take down a prayer banner that had hung outside the auditorium for  five decades, a gift from the school’s first graduating class. The ruling was sparked by a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Jessica Alquist—a 16-year-old atheist and student at Cranston High School West—who said that seeing the prayer gave her feelings of “exclusion and ostracism.” Since the decision by Judge Ronald R. Lagueux, a tarp has covered the banner.

While I commend Jessica for her stoicism and unwavering commitment to her cause, I worry that such indiscriminate attacks on anything so much as tinged with religious sentiment comes off as divisive and obdurate—an argument more for the sake of arguing than for its defense against any real threat. The offending passage begins with a reference to “Our Heavenly Father” and goes on to discuss universal values like kindness and friendship; it does not mention Jesus Christ, which means—by making reference only to the God of Abraham—it could conceivably be applicable to Jews and Muslims as well as Christians (although the “father” reference is admittedly Christian).

In an op-ed supporting the decision, the Brown Daily Herald noted:

“Opponents of Judge Lagueux’s decision argue that the banner was not harming anybody, calling it ‘historical’ and ‘artistic.’ In fact, such banners … effectively tell students who identify as atheists or belong to different religions that they are a minority, that they don’t fit in, that they are different.”

I get the point, but the fact is those of us who don’t believe in a “Heavenly Father” are in the minority—and it’s nothing to be ashamed of; nor will hiding any reminder of the fact change it. I’m not making a legal claim here about whether the banner violated the establishment clause of the Constitution. I will take the ruling at face value and assume that it does. I am, however, challenging the notion that forcing it to be taken down advances the doctrine of freedom of religion anymore than graciously allowing it to remain for the benefit of the vast majority of classmates who apparently wanted it there. We freedom fighters need to choose our battles, because I assure you, there are important ones to be waged.

Which brings me to my second example.

Last week the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed what it guilefully coined a “noncontroversial resolution” recognizing 2012 as “the Year of the Bible” in the Commonwealth.

The move isn’t particularly original; 1983 was already designated as such by President Ronald Reagan. But that didn’t stop Republican House member Rick Saccone from flaunting both constitutional convention and the legacy of William Penn himself by drafting his own proposal, House Resolution 535. It would be bad enough if Saccone acted as a lone zealot in a chamber of reasoned thinkers, but 37 other lawmakers stepped up to co-sponsor the resolution, and not a single House member from either party voted against it.

It begins:

“The Bible, the word of God, has made a unique contribution in shaping the United States as a distinctive and blessed nation and people,” and concludes: “Renewing our knowledge of and faith in God through holy scripture can strengthen us as a nation and a people; therefore be it resolved, That the House of Representatives declare 2012 as the “Year of the Bible” in Pennsylvania in recognition of both the formative influence of the Bible on our Commonwealth and nation and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures. (all emphasis mine).

This is what Saccone, who serves constituents from an array of religious backgrounds, had to say about the resolution:

“As not only Pennsylvania, but the United States, continues to face great tests and challenges, House Resolution 535 serves as a reminder that we must look to our faith in God and the Holy Scripture to provide us with the strength, wisdom and courage to conquer these great trials.”

Really, Rick? 
What about all those Pennsylvanians who don’t count the Bible as part of their heritage? According to the Association of Religion Data Archives at Penn State University, of the roughly 60 percent of Pennsylvanians who said they regularly attended religious services in 2000, hundreds of thousands of them represented 11 faiths that don’t count the Bible as their source of inspiration.

This is exactly the kind of overt government sponsoring of religion we need to rally against, but as far as I know the ACLU has made no move in that direction (although it did launch an unsuccessful attempt to challenge the Reagan proclamation).

My concern is if we don’t use a little better judgement in deciding what battles to fight, we’ll come off as overzealous aggressors instead of defenders of the American idea of freedom. We need to hold the higher ground against blatant intrusions of religion into public life, and crying foul every time a graduating class calls for a voluntary moment of silence or insisting that a Christmas Tree be called a “Holiday Tree” undermines that mission by creating an image of inflexible political correctness devoid of empathy and understanding.