Thursday, May 03, 2012

Religion gets it right, religion gets it wrong

Two months ago, American Atheists paid for several advertisements on billboards in New York City.

In largely Jewish districts, they had the word "Yahweh" in Hebrew with the words, "You know it's a myth... and you have a choice" in both English and Hebrew. Similarly, in Muslim neighborhoods, the billboard reads "Allah" in prominent Arabic text, with the same quotation in both English and Arabic.

The reaction from NYC's Jewish and Muslim communities delights me.

"I don’t think God is a myth, but that doesn’t exclude people to have a different opinion." Also, "The great thing about America is we are marketplace for ideas." I love it - no calls for censorship, no threats of violence, just a shrug and a bemused attitude suggesting, "Deny God's existence? You may as well claim gravity doesn't exist! Hah hah, those atheists sure are strange folk." It's so nice to read reasonable responses to provocative messages.

The people interviewed in the article have precisely the right attitude - religious individuals and organizations have the right to quote Torah, Bible, or Koran verses on advertisements they pay for,  and nonreligious folk have the same right to identify these beliefs as superstitious and offer another way to view the world.

If only all people and jurisdictions in were similarly enlightened. The County of Lackawanna Transit System in Pennsylvania rejected an advertisement that consisted of the single word, Atheists, along with the name of the sponsoring organization. In Canada, the poster, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." was initially rejected by public transit authorities in Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria, Halifax and London.

Most recently, passions have been stirred about distributing Bibles in Ontario's public classrooms. When the Bluewater District School Board voted to discontinue distributing Gideon Bibles to young students, the religious community exploded with rage. (This is a recurring issue in Ontario: in late 2010, the Waterloo Region District School Board voted to allow handing out Bibles on school property during school hours. The reaction from the secular and several religious communities was negative.)

The reaction to the Bluewater vote was astonishing. According to some, failing to distribute Bibles in public schools is a plot to "destroy Canadian heritage", and will turn Canada into a "warring nation". The rhetoric was raised to such an extent that trustees are frightened to drive to board meetings unaccompanied. Making threats - "watch your back" - isn't free speech, it's a form of coercion akin to terrorism: threatening or employing violence against civilians to achieve political aims. One wonders where the often paraded Christian values of charity, humility, and compassion go when their faith is no longer granted special and unique access to students in public schools.

It's not that religious texts have no place in our public school system. I assume (and certainly hope!) that the Bible, Torah, Qu'ran, Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, and many others are available in all school libraries. And students should be able to check out any sacred text as easily and anonymously as The God Delusion or the latest in the Magic Tree House series.

The Bible is worth reading for many reasons, but I question whether it's appropriate for pre-teens. There is more sex and violence in it than most Restricted movies.

It has long been my belief that if the bible were not The Bible, it would be banned by the Bible-thumpers.

But let's not ban it - as  Halton District Catholic school board banned Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Let's make both available - the Bible and the Golden Compass - in school libraries. When school officials distribute material on school time on school property, it provides implicit approval and support for its content. Students in school should not be subjected to any evangelical efforts. Let's keep our public schools places for education - and continue to allow students to decide what reading materials they want to sign out from the library. I hope that all religious communities will mature to become more like New York City's and less like Ontario's.


  1. I respect religion but it is human right that religion does not respect sometimes!

  2. By Cade LaRen