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How Not to Fight the War on Christmas

Lately, there have been some encouraging signs that believers of conscience are more willing to stand up to the religious right than they once were. But this effort, though well-intentioned, is not the right way to do it.

It's time for a ceasefire in the Christmas culture wars.

...We invite Messrs. O'Reilly, Gibson and Donohue to join us in a new campaign of civility and conscience that restores our focus on the common good during this holy season.

This letter, signed by a number of liberal clergy, calls on the religious right's most prominent bloviators to stop using Christmas as an excuse to bash nonbelievers and assert their supremacy, and instead join in an effort to promote social justice.

There's nothing wrong with the sentiment. What I object to is the limp, conciliatory tone which, rather than calling out these loudmouthed bigots for their misdeeds, essentially just asks them politely to stop and implies that all will be forgiven if they do. This is the same weak, tepid attitude of conflict-avoidance and appeasement that allowed religious moderates to be shunted into the background in the first place by the marching culture warriors of the Christian right.

If we're ever to defeat the religious right, it's not enough to issue meek proclamations asking them to please be nicer. It should be more than obvious that stirring up anger and hate against the designated enemy is these people's stock in trade. It's been an enormously successful and profitable strategy for them, and as long as it continues to work, there's no reason for them to abandon it. No, if we're going to win, we have to take the fight to them; we must show that we can neither be pushed around nor intimidated into silence, and that we will not concede control over the public square.

In this respect, this brilliant gambit by the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia is just the kind of thing we need more of. When the Chester County courthouse erected a nativity scene on the lawn, thus creating a limited public forum for similar messages, the FSGP seized the opportunity to erect a "tree of knowledge" decorated with laminated copies of books by Richard Dawkins, Thomas Paine, Christopher Hitchens, and other outspoken freethinkers past and present. (It also has copies of the Bible and the Qur'an, under the theory - which I agree with - that nonbelievers should read those books.) I'm proud to say that I've met Margaret Downey, the passionate and dedicated president of the FSGP and soon to be president of the larger Atheist Alliance International.

Predictably, this monument to freethought has been vandalized several times by arrogant religious bigots who appear to be under the delusion that they have sole ownership of America. One woman at the scene, quoted in the linked article, warns that "God will take his hand off America" and "we will suffer violence and sickness and death" if atheists are given equal rights. In my opinion, it says all we need to know about these people's mindsets that they fantasize a god who punishes disapproved speech with indiscriminate terror and destruction.

Reactions like this are to be expected when atheists finally step up to assert our long-denied place in the public discourse. But vandalism and harassment will not stop us, and as much as militant believers would like to exert control over society and its speech, they'll soon learn that they have no choice but to live with us. The more we speak out, the more the religious right will learn that it can't have everything its own way. They can only seem powerful and respectable when they go unchallenged. A determined opposition, pointing out their untruths and fallacies at every turn, will do more to diminish their power than any number of wishy-washy statements from theologians.

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