Almost Quiet on the Yule War Front

December 22, 2008

Continuing with my roundup of War on Christmas 2008, such as it is, what are some of the flashpoints other than the atheist placard in Washington’s state capitol?

In Washington, D.C., the American Humanist Association riffed on an initiative by U.K. freethinkers and paid to place billboards on city buses. “Why believe in a god?” they ask. “Be good for goodness’ sake!” It’s actually quite clever in the way it grabs additional cultural moxie by turning a line from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” into the world’s shortest explanation of nonreligious ethics. And of course that has some of the right-wing pundits all up in arms.

In West Chester, Pa., outside Philadelphia, a local freethought group has placed a large trimmed “Tree of Knowledge” in a public park alongside holiday displays placed by the usual smorgasbord of faith-based organizations. The tree’s ornaments are full-sized color copies of the covers of atheist and humanist books. (Full disclosure: the covers of all four of my books are on the tree.) The supporting signage presents a clear atheist/humanist message, though not as edgy as what’s on the atheist placard in Washington. This is the second year the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia has conducted this project. Last year the tree was the focus of recurrent vandalism, bad enough that West Chester officials made promises to the media that they’d keep a closer eye on it this year. I’ll continue following this angle.

But the real sleeper might be at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where executives of the sprawling campus’s two main libraries elected not to put up the usual Christmas trees this year, out of concern for the sensibilities of non-Christian and non-religious students. Librarians had fielded repeated complaints about the trees in prior years. This has engendered some genuine dialogue in the community, in addition to the predictable hollering and finger-pointing, and top university administrators have been laudably classy in defending a courageous decision we should hope to see replicated more widely in future years.