A dear friend posted an essay by Ben Stein, the one-time entertainment attorney turned laconic actor. It demands a response.
Stein started by saying that, although he is Jewish, he doesn’t mind saying Merry Christmas or seeing holiday-related items. He is hardly alone. Most people don’t mind Christmas ornaments. They are hard to miss anyway. Christmas lights and decorations abound; Christmas music fills the airwaves and stores.
In our neighborhood, some homes are already decorated with Christmas lights just days before Thanksgiving.
Most of us shrug off such outward demonstrations of religious belief. The objection people have to Christmas – a concern endorsed by the U.S. courts and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution – has to do with the placement of religious symbols on public land. Many people rightly feel that public money should not be used to support someone else’s religious teachings.
|The Santa Monica creche
That’s why there’s a court case involving Santa Monica right now. The city annually puts up a Christmas religious scene. After recent objections, officials allowed other religious groups to put up decorations and signs. However, they objected to atheists doing it. The idea that what’s fair for one is fair for all doesn’t have any impact in Santa Monica or with other Christians who think that they can present their religious ideas but no one else can.
Santa Monica joins a long list of communities learning that taxpayers object to tax dollars being spent on crèches and other religion-related items. I would imagine Mr. Stein might object if the holiday in question was Ramadan, for example, and his tax dollars were being used to support the activities of that Islamic holiday.
He then insisted that, as a result of the absence of such religious artifacts, the country is now atheistic. Nothing could be further from the truth. The last survey I saw on the subject this year showed 92 percent of Americans believe in God. Besides, the Constitution specifically prohibits Congress from passing laws that infringe on religion. This idea developed because members of one Christian sect wanted to impose their religious views on others. The choice then was one or none. Having seen what religious wars did to decimate Europe, our forefathers wisely opted for none. Later Supreme Courts then created the concept of separation of Church and State.
Nothing in that can possible be construed as atheistic. God is enshrined on our coins and in our Pledge of Allegiance, for example.
Besides, there’s no connection between belief in God and the public support of religious beliefs. There are more atheists and more people unaffiliated with any religion, however, which is all the more reason to stop wasting money to support any faith.
Equally, there’s no limit on worshiping God. Anyone can, anywhere, including public facilities. Prayer is not banned in school, contrary to repeated claims. What’s banned is forced prayer that everyone is obligated to participate in. As a result, schools have clubs formed by people of various denominations. They meet, discuss their religious views, pray and hold activities. They just can’t require others to join them.
Such rules are absolutely necessary in a polyglot society. Sadly, historically, any monotheistic religion that gains control of society immediately dictates religious views. No monotheistic religion is exempt. As a result, the framers of the Constitution prevented that from happening here.
|Damage from Sandy
Mr. Stein then claimed that the impact of restrictions on religion has forced God “to punish” people by sending such natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina. Does he mean all natural events are signs of God’s anger? What did the devout Catholics of Haiti do to deserve such torment? How about the Moslems in the Philippines, the followers of Confucius in China? They have suffered horrifically from earthquakes, tsunamis and/or floods. The followers of the Shinto faith in Japan who endured devastating earthquakes and tsunamis? How about Hurricane Sandy, which severely damaged parts of New Jersey and New York? What did the people there do so terrible as to receive God’s wrath? What about Hurricane Bill? That one caused no damage. God had second thoughts?
Was the Holocaust God’s punishment? If so, then the Nazis must have been His messengers. Forgive me for finding that especially absurd.
Moreover, when we do start acknowledging God’s wrath? After all, natural disasters have been around before mankind existed. They are easily traceable in the rocks that make up our planet. Was God sending a warning to dinosaurs or to the creatures that preceded them?
Not everyone in the Northeast was badly affected by Sandy. Was that a warning to only some of the residents? Residents not hurt by the storm must have been good, right?
The absurdity is obvious.
Natural events happen. As population increases, hurricanes will affect more people; so will tsunamis, tornadoes, volcanoes and the various other natural disasters the Earth produces on a regular basis and has through history. That doesn’t require God.
Then Mr. Stein blamed the late prominent atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair for lack of prayer in school. He forgot a few people, like the Supreme Court, who sided with her viewpoint. He also noted slyly that O’Hair was murdered, as if, I suppose, that renders God’s judgment. Bertrand Russell, a philosopher and an atheist, lived to be 98. Was that God’s judgment, too? Isolated incidents do not serve as proof of anything. Besides, as noted earlier, prayer has not been removed from school; forced prayer supporting a single faith has. There is a vast difference.
Then, he blamed the behavior of today’s children on the late Dr. Benjamin Spock. He is hardly unique. Dr. Spock is a popular and convenient target. However, all Dr. Spock did is offer a proposal of a way to raise children. He was not the first one to do so (or the last), but his timing, coming as it did during the Baby Boom, was excellent. He may have been right, partially right or wrong. Regardless, his ideas struck a chord.
It is ridiculous to blame him for the way children are. Just for starters, complaints about the younger generation can be found in literature for more than 2000 years. Plato was very angry at the children of his day, for example. The reality is that generations change. Mr. Stein’s generation went through the cauldron of the Depression and World War II. That will affect anyone.
The next generation – the one Dr. Spock addressed -- was determined that their children would not suffer. That worked until the Viet Nam war, which was widely protested in the same way previous wars were protested. There were anti-war riots in New York City during the Civil War, for example. Such events change people.
The next generation, growing up in abundance and opportunity, naturally was different than Mr. Stein’s. They knew nothing of war protests and Depressions. They didn’t have the same experiences or the same ideas. How could they be the same? Their values are different, too. That’s not better or worse; that’s simply different. There’s no point railing against them, because the next generation will be different, too.
Finally, Mr. Stein insisted that comments about God are not acceptable while anti-religious jokes are. I suspect some of that comes from commentaries like his. Nevertheless, he’s also wrong. There are literally millions of pages on the internet devoted to God and religion. As a religious historian, I can think of no time in history where more people had access to more religious material and ideas.
|Pope John Paul II
The problem for Mr. Stein is that scientific study is also available. That means, we now have a good grasp on how the universe, Earth and life appeared. It all can be done without a God. Even the Roman Catholic Church now acknowledges that: Pope John Paul II accepted evolution, conceding Adam and Eve never existed. Pope Benedict XVI has endorsed the Big Bang Theory, which did not require divine action. He was reduced to saying the universe exists “in the mind of God.” Intense and widely available investigations into the Bible by noted scholars have verified the non-historical nature of the religious texts. As such, the Catholic Encyclopedia, the compendium of that faith, admits that the Gospels represent not history, but the belief of the authors.
That kind of documented research is what is undermining faith, not the legal restrictions. The number of people leaving churches is soaring. They are not necessarily becoming atheists; they are searching for meaning in a world increasingly threatened by climate change, pollution and overpopulation. Mr. Stein would do well to search for God’s plan in such potential global calamities than to attempt to fix blame on a few people who do not accept current religious beliefs.
Perhaps it will be a consolation to him to know that humans have frequently changed their religious ideas throughout history and will again in the future. That’s human nature, just as it is to try to find someone else to blame for natural events and changing cultural mores.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.
You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1