The Washington Post/Newsweek had their On Faith panelists answer the following question:
What do you think of the American Humanist Association’s new “Godless Holiday” campaign? The ads, displayed on transit systems in five major U.S. cities, will say: “No God? . . . No Problem! Be good for goodness’ sake. Humanism is the idea that you can be good without a belief in God.” Is this another front on the so-called secular “war on Christmas”? Or is this another example of the pluralistic strength of America? And would you agree with the premise “No God, no problem”?
Daniel Dennett (who, as one of the so-called New Atheists, needs no introduction), said this:
I am delighted with the American Humanist Association’s campaign. It articulates a simple truth that should not even be considered controversial. OF COURSE you can be good without a belief in God….
We can all be good for goodness’ sake, and not because an imaginary God ‘commands’ it (who believes, literally, in such an anthropomorphic commander anyway?) or because we fear eternal torture if we don’t (what a vicious idea!), or because we crave the goodies in an afterlife (what an ignoble, childish myth!). Once we set aside, as beneath respect, those traditional themes of obedience to a supernatural monarch, fear of punishment, and covetousness of reward, religion turns out to have nothing to offer to morality except some inspiring examples of good and courageous behavior that can be appreciated by believers and non-believers alike.
I don’t share Dennett’s “delight” at the campaign (I’m more f’r it than agin’ it, but my attitude is akin to Susan Jacoby’s: “I actually think that proselytizing transit ads for goodness without God are, well, a bit undignified….”), but I agree that the ad’s premise, that people can be good without gods, shouldn’t be controversial. I’m troubled by Dennett’s reference, in his closing sentence, to “inspiring examples of good and courageous behavior” on the part of religious exemplars. As I think about those exemplars and their deeds, I’m struck by how often these people fail(ed) to live up to their moral ideals:
- Jacob cheated his brother
- Abraham lied about his relationship with Sarah
- Jesus cursed a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit out of season
- Inquisitors tortured people they deemed as heretics and infidels
- Protestants and Catholics bled Europe dry during religious wars
- The Catholic Church still refuses to take full responsibility for pedophilia
- Muslims stone women for being unchaperoned when in the presence of males to whom they are not related
The list goes on and on. One could argue more persuasively that religions have provided enduring moral teachings than that they have provided moral role models. Of course, many non-religious philosophies have also provided enduring moral precepts, so the realm of morality is not, and never has been, exclusive to religions. On that point, Dennett and I agree.
Susan K. Smith, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, had this to say:
I cannot for the life of me understand why humanists don’t just leave people who believe in God alone….
Just like atheists don’t want God pushed down their throats, neither do those of us who believe in God want atheism pushed down ours. People like me who believe in God find comfort in the thought of an Almighty. Belief in that Almighty has been a mainstay of my life and of the life of my ancestors. I choose to continue to believe and will do so, and so I resent people telling me that I should not….
I wish humanists would just go on and believe like they want … and leave those of us who prefer to believe in God alone.
I cannot for the life of me understand how Smith got the idea that this ad is directed at her. I don’t see anything in it that urges her to give up her beliefs. Here’s a newsflash for Smith and other Christians of her ilk: it’s not all about you. Really. It’s not. This ad is not about belittling believers, it’s about encouraging nonbelievers. If you and your peers want to believe in God, go right ahead. Worship him/her/it in your homes and churches. Find all the comfort you want from your faith communities, your hymns and your rituals. While you’re at it, turn your own words around, aim them at yourselves, and keep your religion out of my community’s science curriculum (i.e., intelligent design/creationism). And out of my country’s medical agenda (i.e., stem cell research). And out of my country’s laws (i.e., abortion). Most humanists would be glad to “live and let live,” if Smith and her cohorts would let us do so. But, as long as Smith and Co. insist on pushing their religion into our lives, we have no choice but to push it right back out at them.
Michael Otterson (Mormon) had this interesting take on the issue:
This is a nation that has long cherished the basic, founding freedom to be religious or nonreligious. Members of the American Humanist Association have every right to believe as they do and to communicate those beliefs.
The potential for trouble lies in whether a message like theirs is allowed to descend into ridicule or condemnation of those who do profess a belief in God. Just as those who consider themselves nonreligious expect their lack of belief to be respected, religious Americans should also be able to safely assume their profession of faith will be respected and not just tolerated.
Unfortunately, there is a growing tide of anti-religious sentiment in America….
The American Humanist Association’s appeal for us to “be good for goodness’ sake” is timely and reasonable. I hope they take their own message to heart when it comes to respecting the rights of the rest of us to celebrate a religious holiday with religious language, symbols and special acts of goodness.
I’ll touch on two points. First, the notion that “religious Americans should also be able to safely assume their profession of faith will be respected” is vague and troubling. What does the phrase “profession of faith” mean? I respect the rights of religious Americans to hold and profess their beliefs. I will not, however, respect the contents of their beliefs. That battle has already been fought and the religious have lost it – humanists, atheists, etc., will not respect beliefs that we deem to be either ridiculous, or, in more worrisome cases, dangerous. Second, given the role that the Mormon Church in the USA has played in squelching gay rights, Otterson’s final sentence is rich. Humanists do respect the rights of religious people to celebrate their holidays with their unique language, symbols and rituals; we are not trying to take those things away from them. Otterson and Smith are arguing against a position that is not held by most, if any, humanists. Otterson wants us to respect his rights to practice his religion, while he and his buddies campaign to deny basic human rights to others. Can you spell i-r-o-n-y? I guess it’s never occurred to him that the “rising tide of anti-theism” may be due, at least in part, to the roles that theists play in suppressing human rights.
I’ll quickly touch on two more articles and leave you to read the rest on your own (there are nineteen articles in all).
Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary left this brief, ostensibly cordial (but, actually, smug and self-righteous) message:
We evangelical types have paraded enough of our own in-your-face stuff in public places, so why should we complain when the unbelievers do the same? Nor should we get too worked up when those same folks insist that morality is possible without a belief in God. Actually, the Bible itself teaches that such is the case….
Ultimately, of course, the big question is what–or Whom–we are trusting in as we go about our efforts to “be good for goodness’ sake.” But, as for the Humanists wanting to run their anti-God ads: I say, “No problem”–at least in the short run.
Did you catch that? He ended with the trump card to trump all trump cards – the Threat of Hell! What a humble guy! His cup runneth over with Jesus’ love.
The person who most closely captures my attitude about the whole War on Christmas issue is Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, formerly of Chicago Theological Seminary and now a fellow at the Center for American Progress:
American public holidays are about consumption, not God. Even worse, the Christian faith has internalized this message of cultural Christmas. Christians themselves often forget what Christmas is really about. The humanists really can’t do any more harm to Christians about Christmas than we’ve already done to ourselves.
American holidays, particularly Christmas, are all about the economy. Economists track the health or weakness of the economy based on the purchasing habits of American consumers between now and Christmas….
We’ve set up our entire economy to depend on the sales generated by the hype of “holidays,” particularly Christmas. What could this possibly have to do with God?
The secularization of Christmas isn’t anything new and it can’t be pinned solely or even primarily on atheists, old or new (well, I’ll skip the part about the atheist songwriters who wrote all those great Christmas songs ;) ). The secularization of Christmas has occurred, and often continues to occur, with the full cooperation of Christians. Here’s an example of how a Christian organization does its part to secularize Christmas: the American Family Association opposes the secularization of Christmas by rating “naughty” and “nice” retailers according to how vociferously their sales catalogs promote Christmas rather than a generic holiday season. Moreover, the association urges people to boycott the naughty merchants and do all of their Christmas shopping at the nice stores. See above for the word i-r-o-n-y. For an example of how individuals participate in the secularization of the season, consider this: last year, a friend of mine who bemoans people taking Christ out of Christmas didn’t just take her children to see Santa Claus and get their picture taken with the jolly old fella. Oh no, she went one better: she took her dog to see Santa and got his picture taken too. My suspicion is that Jesus only plays a marginally greater role in her Christmas than he plays in mine. Just don’t try telling her that.
I’ll leave it to others to fight faux religious wars, max out credit cards and do almost everything to excess in this season in which many seem to celebrate excess above all else. As for me, I’ll take consolation in this thought: No God? No problem.
– the chaplain