Friday, December 6, 2013

A is for Atheist

     If people spent more time focusing on what they themselves believe and less time obsessing over what everybody else believes, or doesn't believe, we'd live in a better world. I believe I'd like to walk across Daley Plaza without having the earth's major religions conducting a weird holiday beauty contest one month out of every 12. It isn't as if Christmas — or Hanukkah, or Kwanza, or atheism—would get overlooked if the government didn't dedicate its land to drawing attention to it.

     Readers sometimes accuse me of being an atheist, based on my complete non-belief in God. I always correct them. I am not an atheist. Atheists are zealots, too, elevating denial of the divine into a kind of faux religion, complete with pieties, and manage to be as aggressive and joyless as those who at least can blame a higher power for making them the way they are.
     Rather, I am an agnostic. Agnostics know what we know but don’t make such a fuss. We’re the Unitarians of the non-belief community.
     Why? Rob Sherman for one. Anyone who has lived here long remembers the Buffalo Grove atheist gadfly, storming into board meetings, trying to get crosses off of water towers in such a heat of unpleasant legalistic dudgeon that it indicted the very notion of opposing government-endorsed faith. Northbrook could paint the bleeding heart of Jesus Christ on its water tower and I’d hesitate to complain, thinking of Rob Sherman.
     Maybe that makes me timid.
     For instance, I was not glad to see that the Freedom From Religion Foundation has erected a white plastic “A” at Daley Plaza.  
     "Very Hester Prynne-ish" my editor sniffed, though it stands not for "Adultery" but for "Atheism" and "Agnosticism" and a bunch of other free-thinking concepts.
     Let's put this new public pronouncement of belief, or rather, non-belief, in context.
     There is the 57-foot official Chicago Christmas tree, a gorgeous Colorado blue spruce festooned with 51,000 colored lights.
     Then, a polite distance away, a brutalist 20-foot stainless steel menorah — the sort of menorah the Germans would have erected at the Nuremberg rallies if, you know, they were into that kind of thing.
     Next to the menorah, a life-size Nativity scene with real straw and, lest anyone miss the point, a chiding placard noting that it was paid for by private donations from those who "wish to keep CHRIST in CHRISTMAS." (And who is taking Him out? We nonbelievers, striding into your churches, disrupting your services? No? Oh, you mean people who don't share your faith pointing out that they live here too and maybe you should consider honoring your particular religion in your own church? Yes, that is tough).
     Not that I mind. Honestly. Have fun. I like Christmas. Carols. Lights. Cookies. It isn't my faith, true, but then Scarlett Johansson isn't my wife, yet I don't mind seeing her either.
    The distinction I make is between celebration and castigation.
    The city tree is a celebration. The creche and the rest, castigation. Protected speech, true, though you wonder what happens when Muslims and Buddhists, Scientologists and Taoists all stake out spots. What the war-on-Christmas crowd doesn't get is there are lots of religions, and if they all set up shop on Daley Plaza soon there wouldn't be room for the big faux German Christmas folk village that's already taken over the place.
     When you're not really a victim, pretending to be one feels good, to you, because you don't understand suffering, so can shroud yourself in the unearned dignity that those who have actually felt oppression — at the hands of your forebears, as it turns out — are entitled to. Those who complain about Christmas being edged out of the public realm are like singers who complain that they can't put on blackface and sing "Swanee River" in a minstrel show. Yeah, that's a shame, but there's history here. Christians have been shoving their faith down people's throats at pain of death for a thousand years, and the key miracle of modern society has been prying their fingers off the levers of government, science and education. Maybe if Christian zealots weren't ripping pages out of textbooks, maybe if they were weren't yanking contraceptives out of women's purses, then Christmas would be welcomed by all faiths. But they do, and thus holiday trappings are a reminder of who has the whip hand, still.
     Agnostics get this. Atheists, well, they're putting up their big plastic A between the shame-on-you creche and Albert Speer's menorah. With a placard, "to encourage the non-religious to come out of the closet."
     OK. I'm out. And here's what I wish you atheists would do. Find something you think is significant and do it. On the day of the winter solstice, don elk antlers and prance around a bonfire at Daley Plaza. I'll join you.
     People sincerely expressing their religion in a public space seldom run afoul of anyone. The Chicago Police do not chase carolers off city sidewalks. Hasidic Jews can dance their brand new Torahs off to new homes. Muslims find a quiet corner and pray.
     For some, that isn't enough. They want to take their faith, or non-faith, roll it into a tube and bop the rest of us on the head. It's not subtle and not joyous and not welcome.


  1. Neil, your a coward on this. Agnostics are wishy-washy as to whether there's a god.
    I'm an atheist, there isn't one, period.
    As for Rob Sherman, he was great, as he forced a number of small towns to remove very obvious Christian imagery from their city seals & water towers.
    When I went to school in Chicago, the school was almost entirely Jewish, but the principal put up a Christmas tree every December.
    But our parents were cowards & said nothing!

    1. And I would point out to you that you're being indulged, since usually name-calling is not tolerated, but since you've commented sensibly in the past, I assume this is just one area where you go off the rails. "Your [sic] a coward"? Really? I would have more restraint when telling another person how he views God.

    2. I am a person who does not believe that any sort I spirit world exists. My quarrel with religions is that they have decided everything is god's will. So climate change becomes god's will. This perpetuates inaction. In 40 years of scientific data that shows otherwise we are unable to shake this belief and inaction reigns.

  2. "There isn't one, period."

    I would suggest that you are mistaking being right with being correct.

    "Surtout, messieurs, pas de zèle," Talleyrand ("Above all, gentlemen, no zeal.")

    1. I'm not a zealot.
      I'm not out there putting up that absurd "A" in Daley Plaza.
      I just don't want religious imagery & other religious things inflicted upon the public space.
      If I had the money, I'd be suing the city of Chicago for installing floodlights on streetlight poles to illuminate church steeples throughout the city.
      Not so much because they're religious buildings, but because they're private buildings & we, the taxpayers of Chicago, of which you so frequently remind us you aren't, are stuck with the bill, despite being broke!
      Plus, there's no need whatsoever to light these things up!

    2. Becca,

      As another wishy washy agnostic, may I ask:

      Can't you find something you find to be a greater injustice on which to focus your energies?

      By the way, there is are rational arguments that support agnosticism. What exactly is the definition of "god". If it's an old man with a bread, sure, I'll be an atheist. If god can be defined as natural forces in the universe that science hasn't discovered/defined yet (which tiptoes into the realm of zen buddhism), then atheism is as wistful as any other religion.

  3. I'm with Chris on this one, Becca. While I admire your brio, it only gives support to religious sorts who complain that their benign faith is being scrubbed out of the public way. A cop directs traffic as the congregation leaves after Yom Kippur services and why not -- he'd direct traffic if a truck got stuck under a viaduct. Religion isn't toxic, it just has plenty of places where it can strut its stuff. Those who want to put Christ back into Christmas really should be putting their noses back into the church, but that involves taking responsibility for their own lives, and isn't as much fun as running into the middle of the public square and complaining that their god isn't being honored there. The same group who recoils in horror at a minaret. They haven't figured out yet that they aren't the only people here anymore, and each December they experience the shock anew. You almost feel sorry for them.

    1. Your example of a cop directing traffic is ridiculous!
      Cops also park cars outside synagogues on Yom Kippur to protect them.
      That's a huge difference from shining lights on church steeples as no one needs steeple lit up for any reason, let alone the taxpayers getting stuck with the bill.

    2. Is it? I've actually never heard of the city illuminating church steeples. What makes you think it's done?

    3. Neil,

      I think your violating one of the better pieces of advice that I've received from your column.

      Don't waste energy arguing with Zealots.

    4. Neil, go to the corner of Broadway & Catalpa & you will see floodlights on a city streetlight pole aimed up at the steeple of St. Ita's church.
      There are numerous others throughout Chicago!

    5. Becca Parker,

      It's funny to me that you mention that specific church. When I read your first comment about the steeples, it called to mind an article that I had seen years ago. Mayor R. M. Daley was being driven around the city, or had a function up on Broadway, or something -- uh, I'm fuzzy about the details. But he saw St. Ita's, thought it was an impressive steeple, thought it should be highlighted, and said to whomever he was with: "Light it up." I don't recall if it was clear from the article whether he intended for the church or the city to do the illuminating.

      I just tried to google and see if I could find anything about this, but failed, as I often do with my inferior googling skills. But either I recall this article vaguely correctly, or I've had a remarkably pointless dream about it, at some point. ; )

      That being said, I'm not sure that, out of all the money wasted in a city like this, I'm particularly upset about the amount spent lighting up architectural highlights, religious or not, during the long, dreary winter to come. You're probably right, though, that this should not be a public function. And THAT being said, I suppose the people concerned about light pollution aren't too wild about it.

    6. I'll go down there this week & email the photos to Neil. I'll try to do it after dark when they're on.
      They also put too much amperage on the lighting circuit, which was never designed for the added lights.

  4. Wow, look at all the straw-man arguments in the first paragraph alone! My comments in ().

    Readers sometimes accuse me of being an atheist, based on my complete nonbelief in God (this is atheism by definition). I always correct them. I am not an atheist. Atheists are zealots(straw-man), too, elevating denial of the divine into a kind of faux religion(straw-man), complete with pieties(straw-man), and manage to be as aggressive and joyless(straw-man) as those who at least can blame a higher power for making them the way they are.

    1. Um, flat assertion is not argument, and you're using the idea of "straw man" argument incorrectly. And you're anonymous, which blows.

    2. and what would be the correct definition of a straw-man argument?

    3. Anon,

      It's not difficult.

      Nonbelief in God by itself, Atheist

      Nonbelief in God combined with an unwillingness to (zealously) assert his non-existence, agnostic.

      and I agree with Neil, give us a name if you want to debate.

  5. I would say there are fewer atheist zealots than there are people who believe in God The Westboro church people would be the easiest to point out. You have a lot of people who think the Constitution was based on the bible. Then there are the creationists. A blogger I follow writes a lot about these folks. He says the first time you suggest letting Muslims put up something in public, or something to do with Islam in schools, the Christians would all be screaming bloody murder.

    1. And you would be correct. But so what? There are fewer people than bacteria too.

  6. Neil, you are not agnostic, you are an atheist.

    Merriam Webster defines an atheist as "a person who believes that God does not exist."

    An agnostic is "a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god."

    1. Anon,

      You're either picking a fight for no reason or confirming Neil's characterization of atheists as zealots.

      His statements fit your definition quite well. He says he has a "non-belief" in god. To be an atheist he would require a more active "disbelief" in god.

      Unlike me, He's probably smart enough to ignore you, but as a fellow agnostic I get irritated when the blowhard atheist zealots taunt us because we decline to join their crusade against the blowhead religious zealots.

    2. Well-said, Chris. Given that atheists show the independence and critical thinking needed to reject several millennia of credulous belief, it seems odd in the extreme to use that newfound knowledge to leap into a clench with the religious fanatics they've just escaped, and waste their energy trying to convince them to abandon their tightly-held dogma. That's a fool's errand.

  7. Neil,

    Denying the existence of God doesn't in itself demonstrate either independence or critical thinking. I've run into "true believers" of the atheist variety who are just as bad as fundamentalists when it comes to having a closed mind. Plus, there are those who prefer there to be no god or gods because then they can do as they like. Their "reasoning" goes as follows - since there is no God and no worries about getting punished in a non-existent afterlife, I can do whatever I can get away with. Just as there are religious frauds who use faith as a cloak for their evil deeds, the same can hold true for atheists.

    1. That's sort of my point, albeit stated more succinctly. Their reasoning is skewed, of course, because morality is not based on divine punishment in the afterlife, or shouldn't be, but on maintaining a social contract now. Murder is bad because it harms others and erodes society, not because God sends you to Hell eventually.

    2. Aetheism does not imply lack of morality. I am an atheist and my moral code is very simple:
      No lieing
      No cheating
      No stealing
      No violence
      These rules are obvious and very self serving in a modern civilization. Tv

  8. I recognize this is late and probably not entirely relevant, but as a note on cops directing traffic on Yom Kippur - our shul actually pays for that service, at time and a half, out of pocket. So that is not coming out of the taxpayer's pockets at all. And beyond that, we are REQUIRED to use the city officers at that rate - we cannot use private security - even if the private security are trained officers.

  9. Pretty lights highlighting architectural beauty- whether a church steeple or the Wrigley Building- doesnt bother me. I am an agnostic, whuch I always thought meant that I dont believe that there is a god, nor do I believe there isn't - either of which assumes knowledge we dont have- but that I dont know ........and wont run my life based on either belief- but I do suspect there is something ( NOT a someone) that connects us, both now and perhaps into the past and future, perhaps some kind of force stronger and different than such forces behind atomic energy and quarks and other non solid energies weve only learned about recently- something that permits a mother to know instantly something is wrong with a kid from 1000 miles away- some kind of connective force- but not one emanating from a humanoid with a white beard, not one you can talk to or get answers from, just some kind of connective force, spiritual maybe? That cayses us to understand or believe in the connectivity of the human race on some kind of non physical plane. Dunno. And thats the bottom line. Dunno. Therefore, agnostic.

  10. Wow! A faux holy war, right here in the comments of everygoddamnday. I'm with you, Neil. Well done.

  11. Wow, comments being added three and four years after the original blog post. Cool; it pays to re-read these things.

  12. I don’t believe in debating religion or the lack of it. Reading the above comments explains why. The comments are stereotypical— lumping all Christians, all agnostics, all atheists each into a specific type when, in fact, individuals in those categories don’t have the same opinions about specifics. Individuals in each religious group may view a creche on public display or lighting church steeples differently. Kinda reminds me of Trump lumping all Muslims into the same pigeonhole. Sigh.


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