So every Christmas for the last several years American Atheists put up billboards.
For those who don’t know, this is the one they decided to use this year:
Now, I personally have mixed feelings about the billboard. I generally support Amercian Atheists and have found David Silverman to be a likable person the few times I’ve met him, and I also think the the stated goal of the billboards is good.
The billboards are aimed at in-the-closet atheists who are pressured to observe religious traditions during the holidays
On the other hand, I think this intended message is not terribly clear. As Hemant Mehta noted over on Friendly Atheist, it doesn’t really make sense for someone who doesn’t believe in God be writing to Santa. I also don’t think it’s really clear who the target audience is, particularly since they used a stock image of a child.
Of course, O’Reilly, needing his regular dose of conspiratorial ranting about a war on Christmas, pounced on the billboard with all the careful nuance and thoughtfulness we have come to expect from him. In other words neither of those things.
O’Reilly starts out by claiming that the billboard was arguing for kids to skip church service. Of course, as I acknowledged, using a child probably wasn’t the best choice to make the billboards intention clear, but O’Reilly at least likes to pretend to be a real journalist so you might think he would have bothered to read the statement, I linked above, from American Atheists, explaining the purpose of the sign which would have made it clear that he was wrong about the purpose of the message.
Now, I do appreciate that they correctly identified Danielle Muscato, in the short clip they played, by her chosen name, but I’m sure that was mostly because that was the name she provided them and not because of any sensitivity to transsexual issues on the part of Fox News or O’Reilly.
Next they bring on psychotherapist Karen Ruskin. I’ve written about Keith Ablow in the past, another Fox psychology commentator, but I hadn’t seen her before so I did a little bit of digging. I couldn’t find out much about her except that she has written a book on parenting, but on her own site she describes her approach thusly:
She tells you like it is with compassion, passion, professionalism, and humor.
It’s too bad she didn’t comport herself in such a manner in this interview. She gives a stilted psychological analysis of the kinds of people who put up the billboard even though she has never interacted with any of them as a therapist, which is rather unprofessional, and then moves on saying that the atheists doing this are “bullies,” and “gang like.” She half-heartedly says that not all atheists are “as nasty” but then she says the reason for the behavior is that we are uncomfortable in that belief, which seems to subtly suggests that our reason for this behavior is because we really believe in God. In other words her language if full of the kinds if invective and insults she claims the exists in the billboard.
To respond to Dr. Ruskin I’m going to say something that should not be controversial, but apparently it needs to be said. If a person holds a view contrary to yours, and they express that view on a billboard, a blog, a video, or any other media format YOU ARE NOT BEING BULLIED.
I cannot really stress this enough, the mere act of disagreeing with a view you hold, no matter how important that view happens to be to you personally, is not an act of bullying. You are not being ganged up on. If someone physically assaults you, you are being bullied, if someone threatens you, you are being bullied, if someone tries to pass laws that take away your civil rights you are being bullied, but if someone says something on a billboard that you don’t like you are NOT being bullied. Unless, of course, what is being said is an actual threat, which is not the case here.
Further, if we were going to fight over who publishes the most hateful billboards Christians would not win that one. I point you to this billboard claiming that atheists are all guilty of treason, and suggesting we be removed from this country by force.
That is just the tip of the iceberg. Just last week a pastor in my old home town proposed that Christians get together and start murdering gay people to end the AIDS epidemic. THAT is what bullying looks like.
By using the term “bullying” here she is actually diminishing the struggles that people who face actual bulling go through, and as someone who was a victim of bullying as a child that makes me rather angry. I would like to expect better from a trained psychotherapist, but sadly this is the kind sloppy behavior I’ve come to expect from fox news pundits.
O’Reilly goes on to act confused that anyone would do something in such “poor taste.” After all Christmas is a great time of year and everyone loves it and has a good time with their families and the gifts and all that. In this I can’t even ask for a better example of privilege. Of course Christmas is a great time if you are a Christian like O’Reilly.
However if you are an atheist, particularly when the rest of your family is deeply religious, it can be an alienating experience. At it’s best the rest of your religious family will still love and respect you. They will respect your wishes to not participate in certain overtly religious ceremonies that you might make you uncomfortable, and will do their best to make you a part of the things you are comfortable with while not calling undue attention to your disagreements. It can still be uncomfortable because there will probably parts of the celebration that make you feel like an outsider, but it can still be an enjoyable experience for everyone.
However at it’s worst religious holidays like Christmas become mine field. Family members will push you to partake in religious ceremonies, even after you have stated you aren’t interested and do their best to make you feel guilty or uncomfortable if you put your foot down. Year after year they will conveniently seem to forget boundaries you set in previous years and in some cases even, at least seem to, forget you are an atheist. If you are a teenager or still partially financially dependent on them it can be even worse given the fundamentalist tendency towards authoritarian parental methods. They may literally threaten you with punishments or financial ruin if you don’t acquiesce to demands that you partake in religious aspects of the holiday or even pretend to share their beliefs, essentially attempting to curtail your freedom of conscience. Then, if all of that wasn’t bad enough, when all of this behavior guarantees that you will find the holiday less than festive they will complain that you are being a downer, and demand you enjoy the holiday like you are supposed to. You don’t even have a right to your own emotional reactions.
However, if you listen to Ruskin she goes back to her theory of bullying to declare that in those cases it’s all the atheists fault, because of course she does. They both lack any capacity for empathy or even attempt to acknowledge that they (and these families she mentions) might share even the tiniest bit of blame for the situation.
Also rather than acknowledge that many atheists in these situations just want to be respected and have their opinions heard, she claims that these situations are typified by the atheist making authoritarian demands that everyone else adopt their beliefs. An odd claim given that atheists have, by and large, rejected authoritarian justifications for beliefs, but nonetheless A narrative that I, myself, have been falsely accused of by my own family long enough to give up even the mildest hope of some kind of reconciliation or compromise. I’m sure in many of these situations there is a failure to listen on both sides of the fence, but Ruskin is clearly picking sides and her statements are mostly designed to add fuel to the fire rather than facilitate any sort of reconciliation. It’s hard to imagine how she maintains her license if this is how she behaves in her practice.
Amusingly enough, Dr. Ruskin ends the interview by saying that people deny there is a “War on Christmas” because, “just like any kind of denial, if you don’t allow yourself to believe a certain reality then you can stay in your belief system.” Somehow, I doubt they appreciate the irony of that statement.