Happy Holidays!

And so with that once-innocuous expression, I throw my support in the War on Christmas to the side of the unholy warriors. Okay, I'll be among the first to admit that the whole concept of a War on Christmas is absurd. The notion that religious Christians in 2007 America are an oppressed group is mostly a clever political strategy for a powerful group to claim the mantle of victimization.

That said, in a country of 300 million people and almost as many bloggers, one can always find someone to say something legitimately hurtful. Thus, when I googled "war on Christmas 2007," the first entry to pop up was this blog entry from something called the Atheist Revolution blog. Tooling around a bit on the blog, I concluded that its author is a reasonable person who does not mean to deliberately insult religious people. Nonetheless, the "war on Christmas" entry does contain the following addressed to a local school board member who defended the posting of "Merry Christmas" on a public school entrance with an admittedly incoherent explanation that the sign was there as an expression of inclusiveness:
What we are trying to do is make sure that the kids who don't live in a fantasy world aren't ridiculed for it by those who are as deluded as you claim to be. You see, we think you and your children should have the right to practice your religion in the privacy of your own home. We don't think you have any right to expect the schools to do it for you or to expose other children to it.
One way for a liberal
to make sense of the offense a religious person legitimately takes at such a statement is to imagine that instead of objecting to a pro-Christmas message, the blogger were objecting to a pro-sexual freedom message by saying that, e.g., gay and lesbian Americans are entitled to do what they want in the privacy of their own homes but shouldn't expect the schools to expose other children to their "lifestyle." People (like me) who favor LGBT rights would legitimately object in turn that this sort of tolerance-rather-than-acceptance is inconsistent with full citizenship. And likewise with religion, putting the best face on the complaints from religious people about the "war on Christmas," what they object to is the notion that their religious faith is something vaguely shameful that will be tolerated so long as it is kept private.

To understand the religious perspective is not, of course, to agree with it. As a legal matter, we have grounds for distinguishing a demand that our schools not promote religion---namely the First Amendment's Establishment Clause---that don't apply to demands that our schools not "promote homosexuality." Moreover, most people who believe that religion should be a private matter think that because of the risks---too often realized throughout world history---of oppression and violence when religion and the state become entwined. One can worry about these risks without believing that religious faith is in any way shameful.

Nonetheless, I do think it important to understand that, however silly the notion of a "war on Christmas" may be, the anxiety which provokes it is real. Accordingly, I think it's important for those who strongly favor secular public institutions to take pains not to give the impression that we disrespect people with strong religious beliefs. It's theoretically possible to say, as some prominent atheist writers say, that you disrespect the religious views of religious people (because you think they are illogical, harmful or whatever) while respecting the religious people themselves, but in the actual hurly-burly of public debate, it's very hard to distinguish ridiculing beliefs from ridiculing the people who hold those beliefs.

So, that said, Happy Holidays to all. I'm going to take a break from blogging for the next week and a half, which means I may post once or twice as a means of avoiding grading exams, but regular posts from me won't resume until after the new year.

Posted by Mike Dorf