I’m not sure what the “War on Christmas” really is, nor do I bother myself much with the celebrations of a nonexistent Jebus. But what I do object to is using the excuse of the holiday to breach the American wall of church and state by putting religious symbols on public land. Nativity scenes crop up like mushrooms, and I don’t care if they’re in people’s front yards. But the faithful insist on the encroaching public creche, feeling that somehow they have a right to flaunt their beliefs in violation of the First Amendment.
The worst, however, is when a rabbi insists that Nativity Scenes on public land are okay. Who has suffered more from Christian hegemony than the Jews? And, sure enough, one Jew is glad to get in bed with the Christians on this issue: one Michael Gotlieb, identified by The Los Angeles Times as “rabbi at Kehillat Ma’arav, or the Westside Congregation, in Santa Monica.”
In an op-ed published in the Times two days ago,”Threatened by faith in Santa Monica,” Gotlieb raises once again the fallacious argument for breaching the wall of separation: our nation is undergirded by religious principles, so why not show that? Gotlieb:
Christmas in Santa Monica has gotten a whole lot darker and a whole lot less tolerant. For almost 60 years Santa Monica’s Palisades Park embodied the Christmas spirit with its displays depicting the birth of Jesus. Through the use of large dioramas, the Christmas story unfolded chronologically, based on the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.
The life-size statues of baby Jesus, along with Mary, Joseph and others, added a visual reminder of our nation’s religious underpinnings. The Nativity scenes were an impermanent acknowledgment of the timeless role faith and organized religion plays for the residents of Santa Monica and visitors alike. No longer is that the case; the city has now prohibited the display of these dioramas on public land.
What about the Jews of Santa Monica, who don’t believe in the Jesus story, or, for that matter, the nonbelievers, whose lives aren’t based on “faith and organized religion”?
As you might recall, to avoid squabbles about this matter, Santa Monica took the ill-advised step of having a “lottery,” in which members of different faiths could compete to put up their special display. Faced with an inundation of atheistic displays, the city council simply gave up and banned all displays. That’s what they should have done in the first place. Competing displays might be constitutional, but they are still expressions of religion on public property, and serve no purpose except to inflame people
And they sure inflamed Rabbi Gotlieb. On whom does he blame the fracas? Guess!
The second factor [after lawsuits] driving this unfortunate ban is an unprecedented, angry form of atheism.
Yes, because atheism has turned angry—and for good reason given the proselytizing of evangelicals and the fulminating infection of American government and politics with faith. The only good atheism, says Gotlieb, is a kind and gentle atheism. Presumably, the only feminism is a kind and gentle feminism (why do those women get so angry?) and the only opposition to racism or homophobia must be conciliatory. Well, we all know how well that strategy works!
And so the familar words tumble from Gotlieb’s pen—the old trope about why New Atheists should be like the old ones:
Today’s atheism is different from the atheism of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Nietzsche, Russell and Voltaire did not gloat over the presumed death or nonexistence of God. There was no triumphalism in their assertions. While not enamored of organized religion, they did not view it as a singular force for evil.
Things have changed. Outspoken, angry 21st century atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens have sought to eradicate God and organized religion from the planet; faith-based religion in any form is unacceptable to them. When studying these modern-day thinkers, the late Herbert Marcuse’s lament proves fitting and prescient: “We, no matter the side, become fanatical in our own anti-fanaticism.”
Today’s atheists hold that religion educates children and adults to hate in the name of their pious doctrines. Religion, they tell us, encourages followers to engage in God-directed slaughter and conquest of innocents. Its mission is to convert skeptics — or worse, subdue nonbelievers — until the whole world buckles.
Well maybe the old atheists were wrong! After all, religious persecution has existed since time immemorial. Does the good rabbi know about the evils of Catholicism, the kids who die because their parents try faith-based healing, the murders of abortion doctors, the opposition to assisted suicide, and the innumerable murders of Muslims bent on converting the world to their point of view? Does the good rabbi ignore the fact that nearly all mainstream religions disenfranchise half the populace: those lacking a Y chromosome? Presumably he knows that in Orthodox Judaism women are second-class citizens, forced to worship behind covered screens and to “purify” themselves in ritual baths after their periods. But maybe that’s okay with Gotlieb. Hey, that’s not discrimination, but the “timeless role of faith.”
At least atheists don’t kill others in their drive to “convert skeptics.” Further, although Russell may not have gloated, certainly many older atheists (viz. Mencken) trenchantly emphasized the follies of faith and its lack of evidence—something that New Atheists, with their connection to science, constantly emphasize. Gloating? That’s trivial. And who gloats more than evangelical Christians, especially those who put up nativity scenes on public land. “Look—we did it!”
To be sure, the Rabbi admits that evils have sometimes been done in the name of faith (how could he not?), but he doesn’t name them. Does oppressing women count, because Judaism is good at that?
Anyway, he dismisses these evils because they’re counterbalanced by the “evils” of strident atheism:
But today’s atheists are as extreme in their convictions as the fire-and-brimstone believer. The resolute follower knows beyond any doubt that God exists, whereas the atheist knows beyond any doubt that God is a figment of the imagination. I’m reminded of the aphorism: To the believer there are no questions; to the atheist, there are no answers.
Really? As extreme as fire-and-brimstone believers? No fricking way! We don’t kill people, toss acid on schoolgirls, let people get AIDs or HPV rather than use birth control, or instill guilt and fear of a nonexistent hell in our children. We don’t maintain that atheism dictates the inferiority of women.
And no, atheists don’t know beyond any doubt that God is a figment of the imagination. For most of us, it’s sufficient to say that “there’s no evidence that God exists and, in view of the fact that there could be evidence but isn’t, and that the world suggest that there is either no deity or a malicious one, we consider the existence of a beneficent god very unlikely.” The rabbi knows nothing about atheism—or else he’s distorting it to fire up the faithful.
Finally, Gotlieb pats himself on the back—for the wrong reasons:
As a Jew and a rabbi, my speaking out in support of Christians who wish to display a Nativity scene on public land can potentially carry more weight than a priest or minister speaking out. The reason is simple: It’s not my religious narrative. More important, faithful Christians do not threaten me. If anything, I’m inspired by them. By definition, different people from different faiths view God and religion differently.
Well isn’t he special?
Well, Rabbi Gotlieb, maybe you don’t feel threatened by Christians (or Muslims, for that matter), but you should. They make Christian-based laws, they impede scientific research and the teaching of evolution, and, if they controlled the government, Jews would have a harder time of it. Muslims are even worse: look what they do when their faith gets the upper hand in a nation.
But it doesn’t matter whether Gotlieb feel threatened or not. Democracy itself is always threatened by the hegemony of religion (that’s why the Freedom from Religion Foundation always has its hands full), and the possibility of that hegemony is precisely why the founders wrote the First Amendment. Or, Rabbi, do you reject our Constitution?