Christians, atheists, and persecution


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"Christians feel alone at Christmas, right now, in this society that we live in," Gretchen Carlson, cohost of "Fox & Friends," said earlier this month on The O'Reilly Factor. "Because we're supposed to be tolerant of every religion … oh, except Christianity."

Since the early 2000s, Bill O'Reilly has joined the American Family Association on the frontlines against what they see as the increasing marginalization of Christian voices during the winter holiday season (O'Reilly and I are unrelated). From "happy holidays" to "holiday trees," mysterious secular forces are out to take Christ out of Christmas.

It's our yearly pathetic culture war that conveniently ignores two key truths: Christians possess more institutional power than any other religious group and still have no right to monopolize the public discourse.

At least the latest Christmas-compromising event is slightly different from the typically bemoaned bowdlerization of Christian cheer.

"You KNOW it's a Myth," proclaims a billboard above a nativity scene. "This season, celebrate REASON!" American Atheists purchased the billboard, which stands prominently near the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey. O'Reilly, Carlson, and political strategist Margaret Hoover puzzled about the motives behind erecting such a thing.

To hear them talk, you'd think America was rife with well-fed lions. But a 2007 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey found that 78.4 percent of all American adults identify as Christian. Only 6.3 percent of Americans reported that they were "secular unaffiliated," or nonreligious. And every single U.S. president has been some sort of Christian, although the deist Founding Fathers were known to push that envelope.

In fact, seven state constitutions explicitly ban atheists from holding public office, something not lost on University of Iowa students Asher Stuhlman and Patrice Metcalf-Putnam, founding members of the nascent UIowa Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, and Freethinkers. Metcalf-Putnam found the idea of anti-Christian discrimination fairly ridiculous, pointing out to me Wednesday that running for office as an out atheist is political suicide.

"The major idea of the group is to provide representation more than anything else," Stuhlman said. Providing a voice for nonbelievers on campus is just that — providing a voice.

This hubbub about anti-Christian sentiment fomented by bitter atheists is a persecution complex of Biblical proportions. But the eagerness of outspoken American Christians to climb up on an ideological cross is only fed by vitriolic atheist discourse that denies both the possibility of intelligent belief and the societal privilege held by many atheists.

Common atheist tropes — that belief divinity is an uneducated approach to the challenges of death; that believers don't express critical thought; that religion is the root of all evil — serve to alienate lay believers and clergymen alike.

Of course, these tropes should not be confused with atheists vocalizing their personal lack of belief. O'Reilly's assertion that out-and-proud atheists are infuriating to believers may be true, but it rankles American pluralistic values; rejection of atheist condescension, however, is entirely justifiable.

And rejecting that condescension is made easier because American atheists tend to be white, well-educated, and wealthy. The Christian right has succeeded in smearing atheists and liberals alike with the "effete intellectual" label, portraying them as out-of-touch with the common man — which, based on their social status, is not entirely unfair.

It's easy to claim persecution by a tiny minority when that minority seems to be out-of-touch and elitist. It's easy to set up this absurd fun-house mirror world in which Christians are oppressed by one billboard outside of New York City and atheists lead a sinister charge to destroy Christmas.

In the power struggle between a Christian majority and a tiny atheist minority just coming into its own, the terms of the conversation determine our pluralistic future.

Some UI students have the right idea, even as it eludes the Fox News commentariat.

"There needs to be a certain amount of respect on both sides," Metcalf-Putnam said.

"At least for the origins of the belief, if not the concept," Stuhlman interjected hastily.

"Getting people to think is the most important thing," Metcalf-Putnam finished, with a smile.

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