The problem isn’t public religion, it’s public religion

Part of an occasional series addressing popular misconceptions about atheism. For more in the series, click here.

I don’t have a problem with public displays of religion, but I have a big problem with public displays of religion.

I came up with that line a couple of years ago, and I love using it. It sounds self-contradictory, but it’s really not. It’s all about how we define words. In this case, the word in question is “public.”

God OK

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Hermand Mehta, aka “The Friendly Atheist,” had a terrific article last week illustrating what I mean when I say the problem isn’t public religion, it’s public religion. It seems Christians (it’s mostly Christians in the USA who do this) think that atheists want religion to be unseen in public. They misunderstand the objection atheists have to public displays of religion.

In Pittsburg, Kansas, a local post office put up a “God Bless America” sign on its property. Atheists objected, and the sign was removed. But what happened next? A local business printed up 1,200 “God Bless America” signs and had people put them up on their property to spite the atheists who had it taken down from the post office.

And how did atheists respond to this?

Respond to what? There’s nothing to respond to. Most atheists have no problem with what the businessman or the residents of the town did. Those townspeople didn’t thumb their noses at us. They did exactly what we wanted.

How is that possible?

It all has to do with how you define “public.” Most of the time, we use that word to mean “done, perceived or existing in open view.” If you leave your house, you are now out in the public. Anyone can see you. Anyone can interact with you. And anyone can preach to you. Don’t like it? Walk somewhere else. Problem solved.

But there’s another definition of public that is used in a strictly legal sense. That meaning is, “of or provided by the government rather than an independent, commercial company.” When we say something is “publicly funded,” we don’t mean that the money is coming from the public. Wal-Mart gets its money from the public. We mean that it’s coming from the government, from tax revenue.

It is in this sense, and in this sense only, that politically active atheists like the Freedom From Religion Foundation object to “public” displays of religion.

If a church were to put up a monument to the 10 Commandments on its front lawn, where everyone could see it, no atheist group would object. The problem is not that people can see it. The only issue is, who put it up there? A church? No problem!

But take the same monument and put it in the lobby of a courthouse, and just wait for the lawsuits. We do object to such displays, not because of who can see them, but because of who is displaying it on government-owned property.

If you think you’ve defeated atheists by taking a sign down from the post office and putting it up on 1,000 privately owned lawns, you are mistaken. You haven’t defeated anyone. You have simply gone from doing something unconstitutional to doing something constitutional.

Atheists don’t have a problem with that. Seriously. We don’t.

When was the last time a church was sued for putting a cross on top of its building where everyone can see it? No one cares. When was the last time a church was sued for putting a Nativity scene on its front lawn? Again, no one cares.

No one cares if the department store you frequent instructs its employees to say “Merry Christmas.” Seriously. Atheists could not care less. Business owners might want to say something more inclusive, like “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings,” but that’s their choice. If they’re afraid atheists will sue them for saying “Merry Christmas,” they’re just wrong.

A private business (one that is not owned by the government) can do whatever it wants as long as it does not violate people’s civil rights. They can have a Christmas sale, a Ramadan sale, a Saturnalia sale. Atheists don’t care. You can put a gigantic crucifix on your lawn and, as long as it doesn’t violate city codes that apply to religious and non-religious displays alike, no one is going to object.

Because our problem is not with public (out in the open) displays of religion. It’s with public (government sponsored) displays of religion.

So you go and put up a God Bless America sign on your lawn. You won’t see us complaining. As long as you don’t use our government to promote your God, we don’t have a legal problem with your public displays of faith.







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