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?

Read More


Parent sues because school educated his daughter

One of my more contentious battles on Twitter came in late 2014, after a dad in Maryland received a no trespassing order from La Plata High School in Maryland. The dad, John Wood, “challenged a history class assignment that had students list the benefits of Islam,” according to a news account.

The reporter lied. Seriously. There was nothing in the assignment about the “benefits” of Islam. The assignment was about the tenets of Islam, and it’s something we should be expecting and even demanding our schools teach.

This is not a double standard. Atheists are frequently accused of crying foul whenever schools try to promote Christianity, but looking the other way when those same schools teach about other religions. But the argument is disingenuous, because there’s a huge difference between a public school promoting a religion and that same school teaching about a religion.

Reasonable people, atheists and theists alike, do not object to public schools teaching about religion.


Martin Luther at work.

A public school curriculum that teaches about the history of Judaism would be perfectly within its rights to expect its students to learn the 10 Commandments, and I don’t know of a single atheist group that would object. A school that teaches about Christianity would, of necessity, include information about the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead three days after his crucifixion. Again, I don’t know of a single atheist group that would object to a public school teaching about those religions.

For a school to teach about the Five Pillars of Islam would be equally uncontroversial.

At least, it would be if parents did not go out and actively oppose the education of their children.

But that’s what John and Melissa Wood of Maryland have done. Last month, they sued La Plata High School over their daughter’s homework assignment, claiming that it indoctrinated their daughter and tricked her into becoming a Muslim by reciting the “Shahada,” the Islamic Creed that states “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

The stupidity of the lawsuit is evident from several facts. Read More