Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Seasons Greetings

The fine folk over at Volokh Conspiracy have authored a fascinating and insightful series of posts on the various holiday salutations we use to greet each other during this time of year, which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in the subject. 


Judging by the content and tone of all of those articles, I’m struck with the sense that none of the authors betrays the experience of having lived in the Bible Belt after the onset of hostilities in the annual War On Christmas.  They evidently have no sense of what it is like to live in a culture in which Christianity is so pervasive as to be taken for granted, in which people will routinely ask, by way of introduction, “What church do you attend?” and proceed to take offense if one refuses to discuss your personal religious beliefs.  The idea that “Merry Christmas” might be an attempt to subtly assert superior insider status over non-Christians doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind over at Volokh, which is particularly odd given that the authors are presumably familiar with Justice O’Connor’s reconceptualization of the constitutional disestablishment principle, “Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”  Of course, she was writing about endorsement by government officials, but the underlying social principle is surely no different in interpersonal relations than it is with official decrees.  In social situations, signals of outsider/insider status are surely more prevalent and vital than in official messages sent out scattershot by bureaucrats to no one in particular.


No doubt social conservatives are not following me by this point, and so I’ll try to paint you guys a thought picture which may help.  You’re in D.C. for a conference next month (what horrible timing) and some revelers on the street cheerfully wish you a “Happy Inauguration Day!”  When you pause non-responsively, they stop to carefully eye your reaction.  You try not to scowl, but as you feel your facial muscles relax, you realize that you’ve already given away your displeasure with the nation’s most recent choice of chief executive.  The revelers give you a knowing, “Ah, not one of us, what a shame for you!” look as they gambol off to make more merriment, leaving you standing in the cold, wondering why they have to be so annoyingly evangelical in their glee.  Why total accost strangers with it, presumptively assuming that their own joy is shared by one and all? 


I’m not saying that “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart” as Scrooge would have it, but I would like for people to consider it a sign of respectful deference to refuse to assume that everyone one meets on the streets is a coreligionist, celebrating the unique incarnation of the One True God.  If you’d bristle at being taken for a member of another faith, then you ought perhaps think twice before encouraging total strangers to rejoice in your own.  Christians, of all people, ought do unto others as they themselves would be done by.


Terry Mirll said...

Dude, I think you're overreaching a bit. While it's certainly true that a Christian ought to do unto others as they themselves would be done by, I'd say that anyone who asks you what church you attend is doing precisely that--he is showing concern about your spiritual state, which is nothing less than what he would want you to show for himself. Besides, as anyone from the Bible Belt might readily attest, while the "Do unto others" adage is important, it is no less important than this other Christian adage: "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel."

The reference to Sandra Day O'Conner is not germain. The US Supreme Court ejudicates matters of law, not social principles. The establishment clause of the Constitution states the matter quite clearly: Congress shall make no law establishing any religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof. That is, CONGRESS is forbidden to make a law establishing religion; CITIZENS face no such restriction.

Ditto for the social principal of interpersonal relations. Whether or not some shmoe wishing you "Merry Christmas" offends you or makes you uncomfortable, Congress can't do anything about it, because such an act would constitute prohibiting religious free expression.

Besides, noninclusionary language is a fact of life, not some mere social faux pas. Just as you might feel awkward at some Christian assuming you're a church-goer like himself, a homosexual feels awkward at being taken for a heterosexual, or a vegetarian might recoil at being asked "How do you like your steak?" or a Cowboys fan might cringe at the question "Are the Redskins THE GREATEST or what?" So? We're supposed to go through life in silence, lest we offend? Dealing with one another AT ALL requires we take chances. In short, it's IMPOSSIBLE to go through life without offending someone somewhere for whatever piddling offense might come to his fetid mind. Unless there's evidence you've been deliberately offended, I say: cut the other guy some slack.

To say otherwise is take on the mantle of victimhood; it is to try to control the behavior of others according to how you react to that behavior. Life's too short to waste on controlling things you can't control.

Amateur Archaologist said...

Oh but you could just so easily quote other parts of the bible where Christians are ordered to pray in their closets, for those that brandish their religion for all to adore are not genuine in their worship of god. And, I think it impossible to think that agnostichicagokie was supposing that all social engagments be ruled over by the government.

I think that it is difficult for many irreligionists to feel like citizens. Not being able to partake in a national catch phrase like "Merry Christmas" is far different than a regional thing like being a Dallas Cowboy fan. 'Cause, even when you're a Cowboy or a Sooner, you still know that there are a ton of people out there that you can easily fit in with. But atheists... we're more like a disease that must be shunned or else something terrible might befall the country.

Hans said...

I can attest to his frustration in everyone here assuming you attend church. It's fine if you believe you should go forth an preach the gospel, however, I have seen plenty of occurrences when someone here gets offended when we (I) have tried to sway them not to believe. All he's saying is if it offends Christians (some do, some don't - this isn't meant as a broad stroke), then it probably offends some of us too (not me personally, but I'm fairly easy-going).
And no, I wouldn't assume someone is heterosexual, or ask some random person how they like their steak cooked (maybe if they were ordering a steak at one of my cookouts?), or walk into a sports bar and proclaim the OSU cowboys are the best team ever (#1, they aren't, #2, in Norman, OK, that will get your ass kicked... Go Cowboys!)
Point being: For hot topics that people care deeply for (religion, politics, sports, etc), I get to know them a bit first before bashing my opinions at them. At least then I know if they welcome an opposing opinion / a good debate.

agnostiChicagOkie said...

“Congress can't do anything about it...”

If you read the original post carefully, you will see that I am not making a point about Congress, or SCOTUS, but about the ethical principle which O'Connor has put forth, of which the Volokh folks (as lawyers and law profs) ought to be aware.

“Besides, noninclusionary language is a fact of life, not some mere social faux pas.”

Why not both?

It would indeed be presumptive and at least a bit rude to assume that a homosexual is a heterosexual, a vegetarian likes steak, or that an OU fan roots for OSU. These are relatively minor gaffs, though, compared to assuming a Christian is a Muslim or a Jew, judging by the amount of shock and offense generating on the receiving end. Try it sometime if you don't grok what I'm saying.

“We're supposed to go through life in silence, lest we offend?”

No, we just try not to make unwarranted assumptions about people whom we hardly know. This is fairly basic etiquette, really.

“Dealing with one another AT ALL requires we take chances.”

Not really, no. We could simply ask polite, non-presumptive questions which do not assume facts not in evidence.

As for me, I don't much mind offending people, but it is surely hypocritical for easily offended people to expect that no one else take offense whenever they deal with sensitive subjects.

Again, if you'd personally take offense at being mistaken for a person of another faith (or none) then according to fundamental Christian (or Confucian) ethics, you should tread lightly when dealing with strangers who may be of another faith.