An article in the January 18, 2012 edition of Newsday titled "Parents push back on school closings" highlighted the efforts by parents of children who attend six Catholic schools in the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island that are slated for closure at the end of the school year.
As an atheist, I don't normally have a personal interest in such stories. I can empathize with the parents in the sense that they are very disappointed, and in some cases, distraught, that the schools they want their children to attend are closing.
But what caught my eye in this story was a quote attributed to one of Long Island's representatives in the New York State Assembly.
The article quoted Alfred Graf, a Republican (of course!) from Holbrook, as saying, "With the onslaught of attacks on religion, I feel it is important for parents in my district to send their children to a religious-based academic institution."
An onslaught of attacks on religion? What the hell is he talking about? The last time I checked, there hasn't been any wave of vandalism against churches, synagogues and mosques on Long Island. Religious people are not being physically prevented from going to their houses of worship. Bibles, Torahs and Qurans are not being confiscated from peoples homes.
Want to know what an attack is, Assemblyman Graf, ask Jessia Ahlquist.
Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House and a current contender for the Republican presidential nomination, declared not long ago that an atheist has no business in the White House, and went on to add:
“Does faith matter? Absolutely,” Gingrich said. “How can you have judgment if you have no faith? How can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?” He continued, “the notion that you are endowed by your creator sets a certain boundary of what we mean by America.” Gingrich said that Americans should value religion first, above morality and knowledge.
This from a guy who couldn't be trusted to honor his marital vows to his first two wives. I think the only reason why we shouldn't expect him to cheat on his third wife is because at his age and physical shape no other woman would be remotely interested in sleeping with him.
No, religion is not under assault in America. What is being challenged (I think assault is hardly the right word to use) is the notion of religious privilege in this country. And history shows that whenever people believe that their privileged position is threatened, they lash out, sometimes violently, though more often it is confined to verbal vitriol.
Witness Jessica Ahlquist's state representative, Peter Palumbo, referring to the 16-year old girl as an "evil little thing."
If you look at the press release page for Palumbo's web site, what would you think of him had you known nothing about Jessica Ahlquist and what he said about her? One conclusion that you would draw is that he is an advocate for parents of children with autism. Another area he focuses on is strengthening laws against sex offenders. Palumbo also regularly goes on volunteer humanitarian missions, most recently to Nicaragua.
If you are an atheist and all you knew about Palumbo was the terrible things he said about Jessica Ahlquist, you might think that he is one of the biggest assholes in the world. I would be more nuanced about it and say that Palumbo overall is probably a good guy, but because of his religious beliefs, he reverts to being a knee jerk asshole when the religious privilege he supports is challenged.
Where does this anger and hatred stem from? I intend to do a fuller post about it at some point in the near future, but in summary, I would attribute it to the ceremonial deism that suffuses this country, the notion that we are a "nation under God", or as I like to call it, one of the bullshit stories we tell ourselves. Because we supposedly have some special connection to a deity that is said to have created the entire universe, it's taken for granted by a segment of the population that having "In God We Trust" on our money, "under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance, and having Christian denominated prayers and sayings on display in our schools and court houses is not only normal, but obligatory. People don't like having their cherished myths challenged. It is that myth that is starting to be challenged, and, which I would argue, should be replaced by a better reality, one that acknowledges that we are a diverse, pluralistic nation of believers and nonbelievers that can and should serve as a beacon to the rest of the world.