Bill O'Reilly is in heaven, because the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has given him a platform from which to launch his latest series of tirades about "The War on Christmas." Alongside a manger scene and a holiday tree, the executive office building in Washington State now has a plaque that says, "At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail." It goes on to add: "There are no gods, no devils or angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." The sign was placed by ex-evangelist Dan Barker (author of Godless) on behalf of Washington members of the FFRF, an organization that works largely on separation of church and state.
As nontheist and a Washington State member of the FFRF, I have mixed feelings about the sign. Not about the fact that it exists, mind you. Our governor and attorney general have issued a joint statement:
The U.S. Supreme Court has been consistent and clear that, under the Constitution's First Amendment, once government admits one religious display or viewpoint onto public property, it may not discriminate against the content of other displays, including the viewpoints of nonbelievers.
Well, thank goodness!
For years Evangelical fundamentalists have driven their beliefs into the public square in the form of failed apocalyptic foreign policies, failed abstinence only sex ed, failed manufactroversies about climate change and evolution, and a failed bid to install a dominionist ditz in the vice presidency. Many of us--Christians and nonChristians alike, are tired of their astounding sense of entitlement and frightened by how far it has gotten them.
That said, the sign is pretty in-your-face. All right. Very.
I honor Dan Barker's work to call attention to the dark side of religion. Month after month, he and his wife Annie Laurie Gaylor defend kids who are tormented at school because they aren't Christians. They give voice to young freethinkers. They file anti-discrimination lawsuits. They labor to keep science classes rigorous and social services fair. They compile news articles about fraud and violence and sexual abuse committed in the names of gods--and they can assure you with stacks of evidence that Catholic priests are not outliers.
I honor their work so much that I support it, and I gave up my Monday evening to interview Dan for a Seattle Community Access show called Moral Politics. But, still, I have to ask, wasn't the first sentence enough?
Throughout recorded history, winter solstice has been a time to celebrate. Ancient agricultural cultures gave sacred significance to the return of light, the budding of new plant and animal life, a new cycle of plenty. Their festivals had names such as Saturnalia, Yule and Lucia. Some of them are celebrated to this day. It was the special significance of the winter solstice that caused the Christian church to designate it as the birthday of Jesus. Not only did it have the perfect connotations, representing as it did, the death and resurrection of the sun, it was already established as a birthday of gods. Prior to or during the time of Jesus, the Roman Attis, the Greek Dionysus, the Persian Mithra, and the Egyptian Osiris all had their birthdays celebrated on December 25. Solstice really is the reason for the season.
I wish that the FFRF had simply given secular voice to the wonder we all feel when, in the dark of winter, we experience the promise of warmth and beauty and new life.