Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The newest evangelical religion

kw: religion, atheism, popular culture

It is all over the news today, locally at least, that the city authorities in West Chester, Pennsylvania are under pressure by atheists, nontheists and humanists to restore the display of a "Tree of Knowledge" along with other "holiday greetings" on city property. It seems the City had been allowing all faiths and non-faiths to put up displays on city property, but in 2010 banned them all in favor of a few banners with neutral slogans, such as "Happy Holidays", that had been deemed non-confrontational by the Supreme Court. Now the anti-religion folks plan a rally/protest in hopes of convincing the city otherwise.

Of course, they don't want "Merry Christmas" banners or nativity scenes restored, just their tree of knowledge display. This demonstrates they are not just pro-nontheism, but anti-theism. That is, evangelical atheists are actually anti-theist. They don't disbelieve in God, they hate God or any idea of any god.

There are two partially conflicting principles that underlie democratic institutions, at least in the US. One is to do the greatest good for the greatest number. The other is to protect the rights of minorities. On the first principle, the greatest number of Americans are either Christian or sympathetic to Christian principles, and the next largest group is Jewish or sympathetic to them. On the other principle, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees us the right to practice our various religions according to our conscience. It does not guarantee the right of anybody to oppose another's religion, or the lack thereof.

The First Amendment actually contains the "Establishment Clause", which prohibits the Federal Government from establishing a religion to be the nationally practiced standard excluding all others. Thus the intimate relationship between the English government and the Anglican Church, or the German government and the Lutheran Church, are disallowed for the U.S. government. On this basis, I agree that specifically religious displays on government owned properties should not be allowed. If a business permits a religious display on its premises, that is OK, and the government has no right to an opinion about such things.

Is the "Tree of Knowledge" a specifically religious display? I say that it is. In particular, it is an anti-reaction to the story in Genesis in which God requires Adam and his wife to refrain from eating the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil". Note that the tree's designation is not pertaining to all knowledge, but to knowledge of moral issues. God wanted them to ask Him about moral issues instead; this is the basic Christian interpretation of this passage, and I think most Jews agree.

Let the City of West Chester regulate its own public spaces without regard to religion. If the atheists and their friends can persuade a business to display their Tree, fine and dandy. I wonder what the upshot will be…

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