I am a Christian. And it’s Christmas time. So this time of year, my faith tradition is manifested in Advent candles, Christmas carols, and nativity scenes. While December the 25th is not necessarily the historical date of birth of the historical person named Jesus, this is the season of the year when we celebrate the coming of the incarnation of God into the world. It’s a time of year to celebrate that God became one of us.
Of course, this is also the 21st century in America. So Christmas also means long lines at the mall, huge Christmas trees covered in red and green and exorbitant amounts of glitter, and long parades during which we get to enjoy floats, bands, and lots and lots of Santas. Whether you’re sitting in the pew of your church on Christmas Eve holding a candle, or sitting in the CEO’s office of a major retail chain watching your profits skyrocket, this is definitely the most wonderful time of the year.
Being such an important and hectic time of year for so many people, it’s no wonder that arguments between secular and religious Americans have pretty much become par for the course whenever Christmas rolls around. This time, the argument is being exemplified by a pair of billboards on either side of the Lincoln Tunnel between New York and New Jersey. On the New Jersey side, American Atheists has purchased a billboard featuring a nativity scene image with the words: “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason!” On the New York side, the Catholic league has responded with a board reading, “You know it’s real. This season, celebrate Jesus.” And so another Christmas season’s worth of religious wars begin.
When I first saw this story on CNN, I was only vaguely interested as a student of religion and a practitioner of one of the traditions in question. But the more I read and saw, the more I was intrigued, and somewhat disturbed, by what I saw happening. As Jeanne Moos interviewed the leaders of both organizations, all these two men really managed to do, in my opinion, was demonstrate how little each of these warring traditions understands about the other.
David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, insisted that we all know “the magic man in the sky” is a myth. This demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of not just the Christian understanding, but all Abrahamic understandings of who God is. He’s absolutely correct; God is not magic, God is not a man, God is not in the sky. He’s creating a straw man in place of addressing the things that Christians actually believe. Of course, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, isn’t doing much better. After explaining that the billboard was a necessary Christian response to avoid being a “doormat,” he starts returning the favor by attacking atheist beliefs with the same straw man strategy that Silverman uses, saying that they believe in either the Big Bang theory or the “King Kong Theory,” as he chooses to describe evolution, and calling them both fairytales. The moment in this interview when my jaw actually dropped, however, was when Donohue said of atheists, “They believe in nothing, they stand for nothing, they think they come from nothing.” If there’s anything I’ve learned as a religious studies major, it’s that there is no such thing as a person who actually believes in and stands for nothing. Just because their beliefs don’t exactly parallel our own, don’t involve worship of an ethereal other or a transcendent spirit, doesn’t mean their beliefs do not exist.
The core of this problem, however, is the claims that both billboards make. Both signs begin with the phrase “You know.” I am completely confident of what I believe as a Christian, but I would not necessarily define that as “knowing” anything. We, as Christians, have faith in the existence of God, the birth of Christ, and the guidance of the Spirit, but it wouldn’t be a very impressive show of faith if we had true “knowledge” of God. “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), don’t we? Christians aren’t claiming to fully know anything about our Creator or our Savior; our choice is to believe in something greater than ourselves. The choice of atheists is to believe in themselves, and their own abilities to understand the world around them, including the belief that there is not a force behind what we see, at least not one we can understand.
Until each of these groups come to a point where they can understand where the other is coming from, until we can stop throwing misguided insults and false claims at each other and have an actual discussion, the debate will continue to be relegated to petty billboards placed in the most commercially strategic places possible. And for me, that simply will not do. No one gains anything but a tarnished reputation by yelling at one another, and neither side is being reflected well in the current situation; progress in our claimed nation of toleration will only happen if we strive for something more than who can win the most converts.