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.