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Austin Cline

Charles C. Haynes: Atheists are Right, So Shut Up and Go Away Now

By December 5, 2012

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According to Charles C. Haynes, atheists are right in their efforts to prevent Christians from exercising exclusive control over public spaces during the holiday season. Now that they have established that they are right, though, they should just shut up, go home, and leave public spaces to the exclusive control of Christians.

Charles C. Haynes
Charles C. Haynes
Photo: Archive Photos/Getty

Charles C. Haynes isn't just some random, ignorant preacher. He's an influential, highly-placed ignorant scholar. As Senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, and can command a lot of attention of his views -- even including incredibly ignorant and bigoted views like this.

The context is the debate in Santa Monica over holiday displays: atheists successfully challenged the ability of Christians to have exclusive use of public spaces, getting their own displays up as well. Because of Christian vandalism and the fact that atheists had so many displays, though, the city decided not to have any displays at all and this has gotten Christians really upset. Haynes agrees with them, wishing that atheists would just go away and shut up.

The dueling displays in Santa Monica are the latest example of a growing trend across the country: Atheists are employing a new strategy to challenge the presence of religion in the public square. Wherever religious messages are allowed in public parks or government buildings, atheist groups are increasingly demanding equal time and space.

Source: The Washington Post

This is true (and it's one of the only true things that Haynes manages to say in his article). Atheists and secularists have for a long time tried filing lawsuits to get governments to follow the law and it hasn't always worked. Now, though, they are filing lawsuits to get the government to treat non-Christians as equals. This has been working a lot better and, as a consequence, many Christians themselves want to end programs that used to benefit them exclusively rather than let pagans, atheists, or others benefit.

Of course, Damon Vix and many other atheists would prefer to see all religious symbols banned from public property, even when privately sponsored, as a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. In their view, a Nativity scene on public property sends a message of government endorsement of religion.

This part isn't right. Atheists are fine with private displays on public property - but only so long as they are truly private and aren't benefiting from any special privileges that are unavailable to anyone else. That was the point behind the efforts of Damon Vix and others in Santa Monica. Haynes knows this because he is forced to agree that their efforts were legally and morally correct.

...atheists have established that the First Amendment creates a level playing field. If religious groups get space in public parks or government buildings, then so must other groups get space - including in December.

So now that we all understand that a right for one is a right for all, maybe it's time for atheist groups to declare victory and stay home for the holidays. Let Christian groups set up Nativity displays in public spaces unanswered in December - and save the atheist messages for another time of year.

Yes, I understand why atheists want to make sure that religion isn't privileged by government in the public square (as it has been for much of our history). But at some point (and Santa Monica has surely reached that point) in-your-face tactics become counter-productive and needlessly divisive.

After all, whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice or none of the above, we can all benefit from a more civil and peaceful public square.

So, when blacks established that they deserved equal rights, should they have just stopped marching and gone home rather than actually dare to exercise their equal rights? Once women established that they had a right to vote, should they have all just stayed home instead of actually exercising their right to vote? That's nonsense, but it's the sort of nonsense that you should expect to hear from a member of the privileged classes who doesn't actually want others to have, much less use, the same rights as they do.

A right that you can't or don't exercise is not really much of a right at all. That's what bigots like Charles C. Haynes count on: if they can get you to stay in the closet, then they can pretend that they support equality while blocking the reality of equality at every turn.

Note how Haynes defines "civil and peaceful" as the status quo where Christians continue to be privileged while atheists are in the closet, not exercising or enjoying any equal rights. He then defines "counter-productive and needlessly divisive" as atheists daring to fight for the ability to exercise equal rights and not being submissive to Christians demands that Christianity be privileged.

This is part of what marks him and people like him as bigots. Peace is defined as him and his fellow believers being dominant. Civility is defined as them dominating the public discourse. Counterproductive is defined as outsiders making progress in being treated as equals. Divisive is defined as outsiders rocking the boat, making the privileged few cognizant of their hypocrisy and bigotry.

And that's why people like Charles C. Haynes want atheists to shut up and go away. So long as atheists are out in public, making noise, they are reminding others that they exist, that they deserve equality, and that some are being unjustly privileged. People who benefit from unjust privileges don't like to be reminded of this because in order to maintain their self-image as a good and moral person, they would have to give up those benefits.

December 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm
(1) Dean J. Smith says:

It’s curious how often criticisms of activism by atheists add up to ‘shut up’.

December 8, 2012 at 1:47 am
(2) Robster says:

Hey Dean, that’s because they’ve got nothing else to offer.

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