It’s something that people who identify as atheist or agnostic know very well. It’s that feeling you get when you see Christmas lights at the post office or when someone puts up an “Easter tree” (think Christmas tree, but with Easter eggs) at the office. (True story, by the way.) These things don’t necessarily get in the way of anything in your day-to-day, but there is the assumption that not only does everyone believe in a god, but that everyone believes in a particular god. It’s just another thing you can’t avoid that tells you you’re definitely the weirdo around here.
When you look at it from this point of view, it’s easy to see why atheist and resident of Warren, Mich., Douglas Marshall was annoyed when he saw a “Prayer Station” set up smack in the middle of the Warren City Hall.
According to the ACLU, the “Prayer Station” has been located in City Hall since 2009. It’s staffed by volunteers from a local church who invite passers-by to pray with them or come to their church. They are able to do so because of a city policy that allows residents and civil organizations to reserve space in the City Hall atrium.
Nothing wrong so far, right? The point of public spaces like this is that lots of different kinds of speech can coexist. So that’s exactly what Marshall tried to do. He encountered some…resistance…from Mayor Jim Fouts:
Douglas Marshall, an atheist, often passed the Prayer Station and decided to set up a similar “Reason Station” to offer information on atheism and free thought. But when he submitted an application, the mayor refused to accept it. He told Marshall that he would allow any religious group to use the atrium, but not Marshall, who he claimed was “anti-religion” and trying “to deprive all organized religions of their constitutional freedoms.”
Man, so many misconceptions. I guess the mayor is afraid a “Reason Station” will somehow annihilate the “Prayer Station.” Don’t shake the mayor’s hand, atheist! He’ll burst into flames!
Just to be clear, Marshall didn’t ask that the “Prayer Station” to be taken down. He just wanted to also put up a “Reason Station.” This is only threatening if you consider the existence of people who believe something different from you to be threatening.
So this is bad and a completely unjustified response to a reasonable request. But, if you can believe it, it gets worse.
The ACLU, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Freedom From Religion Foundation have filed a lawsuit on Marshall’s behalf. Mayor Fouts, however, is not backing down. According to the Detroit Free Press:
Fouts said the lawsuit is “another continuing saga by a group of people who, in my opinion, promote conflict rather than resolution and understanding.” He said the group just wants to be there to oppose the prayer station and “as far as I am concerned, that’s not appropriate.”
Because everyone knows that fostering understanding between Christians and atheists only happens when the two groups are not allowed near each other, ever. Also, did you know that atheists are basically just like the KKK and Nazis? Because Fouts thinks so:
“The city has certain values that I don’t believe are in general agreement with having an atheist station, nor in general agreement with having a Nazi station or Ku Klux Klan station,” Fouts said. “I cannot accept or will not allow a group that is disparaging of another group to have a station here.”
I guess Godwin’s Law is in effect in real life now. In fairness, Fouts walked back the Nazi comment. Gee, thanks. It’s nice to know that you don’t actually think atheists are out to kill millions of people. What can I do to thank you?
Here’s what I don’t understand about reactions like this. This isn’t an attack on anyone’s freedom of religion. Marshall didn’t demand that the “Prayer Station” be taken down and a “Reason Station” be put in its place. How fragile does Mayor Fouts think organized religion is?
In fact, when you look at it from that point of view, this reaction actually fits in pretty well with other discriminatory practices. Anti-miscegenation laws focused primarily on keeping the white race pure, as if any outside DNA suddenly made white people into animals. Anti-marriage equality people say they need to protect marriage from the scourge of loving gay couples because it is somehow devalued if it’s not kept strictly hetero. Demanding the same rights as the majority is seen as an attack on that majority, when in reality that could not be further from the truth.
I don’t in any way mean to compare the injustices perpetrated on racial and sexual minorities to those faced by 21st century atheists. Really, we have it pretty good. But this instinct of the majority to circle their wagons seems to be a common thread.
The mistake is thinking that atheists necessarily want religion to be eradicated. I don’t think that’s necessarily true (although surely is for some). Sure, it would be nice if we could base decisions on rationality and reason, but as long as you don’t use your religion to limit what others can do with their lives, we’re not going to have a problem. The problem comes when you start using your social power to give your assumptions about people the force of law. It reinforces tired stereotypes and ultimately makes it harder to get to a point of mutual respect and understanding. It’s hard to empathize with someone if you never hear their side of things. Seeing as though we live in a country where the only religious group disliked more than atheists is Muslims, we could use a little more empathy.
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