Good for Goodness Sake


Thumbnail image for american humanist.jpgBill Donohue, the reliably apoplectic president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, attributes freedom of speech to Christianity (never mind its history of burning heretics): "The only reason he has freedom of speech is because Christianity is the foundation of liberty in this country and western civilization," Donohue sputtered during a Fox News "debate" with a representative of the American Humanist Association, Jesse Galef.  The subject of debate was the AHA's "Be Good for Goodness Sake" ad campaign, which Donohue and others who are apparently good for God's sake seem to take personally:

"It's the ultimate grinch to say there is no God at a time when millions of people around the world celebrate the birth of Christ," Mathew Staver, chair of the Liberty Council remarked. "Certainly, they have the right to believe what they want but this is insulting."  Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County seemed equally offended.  "Peoples' faith should not be disrespected," he told the L.A. Times. "I consider it indecent," he said of the AHA ad.  Meanwhile, Donohue suggested that the ad campaign was a calculated assault on the Christian faith: "Why didn't they choose the summer solstice," he wondered.  "I guess they have no other time of the year to get out their message except to crib off someone else's holiday ... They always choose Christians, don't they?  If these guys had any guts they'd choose Ramadan and then explain it to the Muslims."
Explain what, I wonder.  Neither belief in God nor the lack of it is particularly amenable to rational debate or explanation.  I doubt that any explanation of non-theism would persuade Bill Donahue and other devout theists of its virtues.  The AHA (which I've supported) hopes to improve the image of non-theists, but I suspect it is mostly preaching to the unconverted.  Why should the converted care?  Are they harmed by an AHA financed ad campaign defending disbelief more than I'm harmed by the Central Park crèche financed by the Catholic League or church funded ads urging me to come to Jesus?  So long as the government refrains from sponsoring, endorsing or otherwise officially adopting religious or irreligious orthodoxies, we should all resign ourselves, at least, to their unofficial dissemination.
The trouble is that opponents of church-state separationism, like Matthew Staver and Bill Donahue, want more than the right to disseminate their religious beliefs; they want official power to impose them.  The Catholic League, for example, is outraged by opposition to the maintenance of a cross on public land (noting approvingly that the Supreme Court ruled, in 1892, that 'this is a Christian nation.'" The Liberty Counsel is actively opposing a consent decree obtained by the ACLU in a case against a Florida public school system that "prohibits district officials from engaging in school-sponsored prayer, proselytizing students, or otherwise facilitating school-sponsored religious practices."  From the Liberty Counsel's perspective, this effort to enjoin public school officials from actively proselytizing students is an attempt by the ACLU to "Criminalize Christianity!"  (The Liberty Counsel advocates for public displays of the Ten Commandments but seems to have no compunction about bearing false witness.)  
I doubt that Christianity will be criminalized in the U.S. anytime soon.  Nor will Christians  be stigmatized and relegated to the margins of American culture, along with atheists and unfamiliar religious minorities.  Over 90% of Americans profess belief in God, according to the Pew Forum, and "religion remains a powerful force in the private and public lives of most Americans."  I doubt that a modest humanist ad campaign celebrating goodness will shake the faith of many believers, or result in the persecution that zealous advocates of official Christianity seem to fear.  In any case, you have to wonder: what's so bad about being good?

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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