Richard Dawkins, Bill O'Reilly, and Christmas in the Public Square.

Dec 16 2007 Published by under Church/State, Religion, Religion in Politics

When Richard Dawkins and Bill O'Reilly are on the same side of an issue, it's a surprise. When it's an issue that involves religion in the public sphere, it's quite possibly a sign that the apocalypse is drawing nigh. Nevertheless, that seems to be the case at the moment.

Bill O'Reilly's views on the Christmas season are well known. He thinks that the phrase "happy holidays" was cooked up by "secular progressives" in an attempt to wage some kind of "war on Christmas", and that all good Americans should fight back by saying "Merry Christmas" as loudly as possible. Most recently, he's declared victory in the "war on Christmas" because the ACLU is apparently not suing anyone over the issue this year. The whole "war on Christmas" thing is completely asinine, but it's been part of Bills schtick for a few years now, so it's no longer a surprise when he says things like this:

Well, former Philadelphia Daily News editorial board member Carol Towarnicky saw that and went wild, writing, "To that, this secularist pleads guilty. No religion should be in the public square, not even when the overwhelming majority of citizens practice it."

Is that unbelievable? Joseph Stalin, Mao, and Fidel salute you, Carol. Yes, that's the ticket. Let's ban all religion expression from the public square. Let's drive it indoors so it won't pollute the atmosphere.

There's no place in American public life for any expression of spirituality. No, because that's offensive to the secular-progressive movement, a beacon of tolerance.

What is surprising is that Richard Dawkins seems to have a similar view on the whole "happy holidays" thing:

Such seasonal opportunism continues to this day. In some states of the US, public display of cribs and similar Christian symbols is outlawed for fear of offending Jews and others (not atheists). Seasonal marketing appetites are satisfied nationwide by a super-ecumenical "Holiday Season", into which are commandeered the Jewish Hanukkah, Muslim Ramadan, and the gratuitously fabricated "Kwanzaa" (invented in 1966 so that African Americans could celebrate their very own winter solstice). Americans coyly wish each other "Happy Holiday Season" and spend vast amounts on "Holiday" presents. For all I know, they hang up a "Holiday stocking" and sing "Holiday carols" around the decorated "Holiday tree". A red-coated "Father Holiday" has not so far been sighted, but this is surely only a matter of time.

For better or worse, ours is historically a Christian culture, and children who grow up ignorant of biblical literature are diminished, unable to take literary allusions, actually impoverished. I am no lover of Christianity, and I loathe the annual orgy of waste and reckless reciprocal spending, but I must say I'd rather wish you "Happy Christmas" than "Happy Holiday Season".

Neither Dawkins nor O'Reilly seems to grasp what the whole "Happy Holidays" thing is about, and why it really isn't appropriate for governments - federal, state, or municipal - to endorse Christmas over the rest of the holidays that Americans celebrate around this time of year.

It's not about a hatred of Christmas. There are plenty of nonbelievers who are perfectly happy to celebrate Christmas in their own ways - many of which involve trees, presents, and even carols. None of us is raised in a cultural vacuum, and we can enjoy the holiday and all of its traditions without subscribing to every nuance of the religious background.

It's not about the commercial benefits that come from celebrating multiple holidays. I'd be very surprised to learn that people who celebrate gift-giving holidays other than Christmas around this time of year are dissuaded from making purchases at places that have "Merry Christmas" signs up instead of the more generic "Happy Holidays" banners. And, of course, none of that has anything at all to do with why it's objectionable for governments (which are notorious for not depending on customer satisfaction for income) to pick a specific religious holiday to celebrate.

It's not about tolerance. I really hate that one. "Tolerance" implies "tolerate" - putting up with something unpleasant, allowing something that you don't really want to allow. It implies a willingness to withhold objections, but without enthusiasm. That's what most religious minorities get right now, but that's not what they should have.

It's about respect.

The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights are as wonderful a product of enlightenment values as you'll find anywhere. One of the most important of those values - and one that comes into play multiple times in those documents - is the principle that you can be a good citizen no matter what you believe. The effect of putting those values into practice was to unify groups of people with very different religious views into a nation that was stronger as a result.

When the government - at any level - decides to embrace a holiday from one tradition and ignore all the others, it sends a message that runs counter to that basic principle. It says that the religion that's being celebrated is special, and the others aren't. It says that the people who don't subscribe to that holiday are separate from the mainstream of American society, and are not equal. That's divisive, but worse, it's just plain disrespectful.

Please don't misinterpret me here. I'm not calling for a boycott or ban on Christmas. I love the holiday, even if it does start with excited kids at 3:30 in the morning. I'm not even calling for the total expulsion of Christmas from the public sphere. If the Salvation Army wants to ring bells on streetcorners and collect money for the poor, more power to them. If carolers want to sing in the park, that's wonderful. If they're any good at all, I'll listen, enjoy, and probably toss some money into the hat. If a retail chain wants to wish all of its customers a Merry Christmas, that's their business.

But it's not the business of the town, or city, or state, or country.

13 responses so far

  • Hans says:

    I thought it was "happy holidays" because there are two: christmas and the new year's.

  • natural cynic says:

    But it's not the business of the town, or city, or state, or country
    Except when it is pragmatic. Logically, since Xmas is a religious holiday [that was co-opted from other religions], maybe governments shouldn't celebrate it with a non-working day. Riots ensue, even including the non-religious.

  • brtkrbzhnv says:

    Just call it Yule and forget that it ever had anything to do with Mr. van Nazareth. Then government can celebrate it just like any other non-religious festivity. At least that seems to be working excellently here in Sweden.

  • Eamon Knight says:

    Well, Bill-O invented this "War on Christmas", so I guess he gets to declare it over as well. And sensible people can go on ignoring him, and it.
    Anyways, I'm quite sure I've been hearing "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings" all my life (ie. 50 years).

  • zyan says:

    Fine for Dawkins - he's maintained a degree of cultural insulation and purity that he seems proud of. On the other hand, my boss's business clientele and friends are about 50% Jewish, the rest about 30-45% Christian, and a number who could be Muslim, Hindu, or other. Saying "Happy Holidays" just makes sense around here. For people close to me, it's "Happy Hanukah" or "Merry Christmas," as befits the person. I also like that fake, made-up, wannabe, noooooooobiieee holiday Kwanzaa. I don't celebrate it, but I recognize in it values that I see as part of my own Scandinavian-American life, not just for African-Americans. I also wonder when Dawkins forgot that all holidays are "fabricated." Holidays have their origin in people deciding to celebrate them, and all traditions had their origins somewhere.
    In the "public square" by which I suppose we mean city halls, shopping malls, public streets, tv specials, exchanges of greetings, I prefer more holidays over fewer. I actually LIKE including minority holidays and the idea of having a whole jumble of celebrations going on at once. But I seem to be weird.

  • Colugo says:

    I actually agree with Dawkins about the importance of knowledge of the Bible and of appreciating the Christian (I would write Judeo-Christian) heritage of our culture - which is ultimately a secular culture, not a Christian one. (Of course, Dawkins lives in Britain, which has an official Church and laws against the defamation of religion.) Dawkins is a deluded ass if he thinks that opposition to Nativity displays and the like is driven by religious Jews more than hardline secularists. (Recall that Dawkins has spewed idiocy about the control of US foreign policy by what he calls "the Jewish lobby.") And he is an intolerant paranoiac if he thinks that "Happy Holidays" is risible.
    As a New Atheist, Dawkins is an a-hole. As a Christian atheist (that is, an atheist who is deeply aware of his or her cultural Christian heritage), Dawkins is an even bigger a-hole.
    Happy Holidays, Dawkins, you twit.

  • Jud says:

    Mike wrote: "Neither Dawkins nor O'Reilly seems to grasp what the whole 'Happy Holidays' thing is about, and why it really isn't appropriate for governments - federal, state, or municipal - to endorse Christmas over the rest of the holidays that Americans celebrate around this time of year."
    With respect, Mike, I think it's you and the other "Happy Holidays" folks who haven't quite understood what this is about.
    The First Amendment's anti-establishment clause is not a variation of the FCC's late lamented "equal time" requirement. The Constitution does *not* say endorsement of religion with public tax dollars is OK, so long as no one feels left out. It says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...." That's *no* law, and *any* religion.
    I was raised in a thoroughly Jewish home. Every Christmas, we inwardly rolled our eyes as all sorts of acquaintances would wish us happy Hanukkah. It's a very minor holiday. Among Christians, only close friends were aware enough to extend good wishes during the important holy days. For those who were raised as Christians, imagine growing up in a society where Christmas and Easter were ignored, but everyone made sure to wish you Happy St. Swithin's Day. And imagine further a society where using your tax dollars to build an altar to Baal in the center of town was considered OK, so long as there were St. Swithin's Day artifacts scattered around it. Now you're getting the picture....

  • Colugo says:

    Lighten up, Jud. Poor you, annoyed by well-meaning non-Jews wishing you Happy Hanukkah. I'm an atheistic half-Jew. My Jewish, nominally Christian, and non-Abrahamic faith relatives and friends wished each other Happy Hanukkah.
    And Jud? Happy Baal Day.

  • Troublesome Frog says:

    I think that John Rogers said it best here. Come on, Christianity. Stay classy.

  • Jud says:

    For Colugo:
    Oh, take me out to the Baal game,
    Take me out with the crowd.
    Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack...

  • Colugo says:

    Touch

  • Skwee says:

    Somebody HAS to say this to Billo's smarmy little face and watch what happens.

  • Karl Priest says:

    Richard Dawkins is just another deluded Darwinist and his views on Christmas are tainted by the fact he is exposed at http://www.lifescienceprize.org/.
    I hope everyone had a Merry CHRISTmas.