Columns » John Brummett

Irony abounds as religion arises



If you want irony, pop open a can of worms on religion, on those who claim it and those who don't.

To begin, ponder this riddle: Why would atheists want to advertise and proselytize?

Why would someone not believing in a deity feel compelled to appeal publicly to others also not to believe? Isn't that an innately passive thing — not believing?

It's the professed believers who often behave with overbearing and arrogant presumptuousness. They assert themselves to be so much in the holy right that they are commanded by their supreme being to bring others to their supposed truth.

Under the culturally pervasive bombardment of all that, it would seem that an atheist would appreciate a simple letting-alone. If you want the religionists to mind their business, would it not help if you minded yours?

After all, a belief or a rejection of belief is not an argument to be won, nor is it a reason for anger against those who don't share it. It is to be internally held and personally applied for whatever value the believer or disbeliever takes from it. Real persuasion of others would likely come less from debate than from the example set by the actions through which the belief manifests itself.

But, no, an atheist group wanted to pay $5,000 to put signs on 18 Little Rock city buses for the Riverfest activity over the Memorial Day weekend. They were to say, "Are you good without God? Millions are."

Predictably, the city bus authority and its advertising agency, fearful of being cast as heathens in a religiously overbearing culture, balked. They threw up costly obstacles — such as the requirement of $3 million worth of insurance — on the supposed fear that professed God-believers would commit illegal acts of violent vandalism against property so adorned.

Remember, this is about irony, to wit: Certain professed God-believers, who surely assert that that their godliness is the source of goodness, not to mention of law and order and civility and decency, stood accused by the city of being so godless in their supposed godliness that they would break the law and damage property because they disagreed intolerantly and violently with public expression in a society we say we want to be free.

This, then, may be the answer to the riddle on what the atheists are really up to: They want to proselytize less than to avail themselves of opportunities such as this to get a court to make into case law what is clear in the U.S. Constitution. That is that atheists have equal civil liberties, even in a country and culture that can be oppressive toward nonbelievers.

But you can't go to court without a grievance. Thus this advertising attempt was kind of like a trap. The transit authority gobbled the bait.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright in Little Rock had to acknowledge last week that a public agency may not deny free speech to a group seeking to pay hard currency for a perfectly legitimate if widely offensive advertising message. But the judge also ruled that, while the atheists were due free speech, they would need to put up a $15,000 bond to cover any vandalism.

Thus we behold a rich three-for-one irony:

One — A judge says your speech is free and I'm only going to charge you $15,000 for it. (The $5,000 is to use the advertising medium, but the $15,000 is because what you intend to say offends people. See the difference?)

Two — The $15,000 is a penalty on the innocent party in the event a guilty party disdainful of constitutional principle and law commits a criminal act.

Three — This criminal act is suspected of people professing belief in a God who is good against the legal actions of people who don't so profess or don't so believe.

May I propose a solution? How about this: Religious people believe as they wish. Atheists disbelieve as they wish. Each side shuts up about it. Neither side bothers or pays attention to the other. Religious people behave consistently with what they preach. Atheists save money on city bus signs.

It's pretty ambitious and radical, I know.

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