How many people of faith take seriously the biblical admonition against public prayer—“Be careful about not living righteously merely to be seen by people,” (Matthew 6:1)? Everywhere you turn more religious people are trying to find ways to use government, schools, and other public mechanisms to promote their faith. There are Ten Commandments monuments in public parks, permanent Christian cross memorials on roadsides, and prayers delivered before legislative bodies. My kids are asked to repeat that this country is “under God,” presumably the same God I don’t believe in that appears on my money, emblazoned on public buildings, and invoked by the Supreme Court Crier when that person says, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.” It’s pervasive, it’s prejudiced, and it violates the First Amendment guarantee of no establishment of religion as well as my right, as a nontheist, to equal protection under the law.
Humanists and others who are good without a god and want to address this unacceptable situation have a number of tactics to consider, and reading about a situation in Kentucky has really got me thinking about this tactical question. You see, a school superintendent allowed Bibles to be distributed at several public elementary schools. And then an atheist group there got permission to hand out Humanism, What’s That? A Book for Curious Kids written by Helen Bennett. Was that the right tactic?
From a humanist perspective, schools should steer clear of distributing anything that takes positions on religious questions. While atheism is no religion, it does take a position on theism, which is a religious matter. And so, if we’re going to keep government and public schools from being entangled in religion, we should oppose distributing Bibles, Korans, and humanist or atheist books in such venues. We should even mobilize our legal resources like the Appignani Humanist Legal Center to effectively stop such distributions.
But in cases where the courts have already allowed for school rules to permit distribution of Bibles, nontheists might be able to counter the indoctrination efforts by distributing humanist literature. Just like adding an atheist park bench, this tactic has upsides and downsides. On the one hand it gets publicity for the cause and provides an alternative viewpoint in the particular space we’re concerned about. And with a little luck, once the school or governing body realizes that atheists will use their space too (oh, the horror!) they might change their policy to be what was wanted in the first place: disallowing anything taking an explicitly religious position that could be construed as having the government’s endorsement.
But this tactic could backfire as well if the religious right simply doesn’t fight back. For if humanists distribute literature and put up park benches with no fuss from the other side, there will be no publicity, and nontheist viewpoints will be rarely seen. Why rarely seen? Because in a world where all monuments and indoctrination attempts are fair game, atheists and agnostics are still the minority and the devout still have one hundred times the resources to promote their sectarian view.
So what do you think? Should we only try to use the law to put an end to distribution of any theological/philosophical literature from outside groups, should we distribute our own literature, or do you have ideas that could meet the challenge in new, creative ways?