27 December 2009
Repression in Defense of Religion: It Can Happen Here
An Illinois politician got some publicity for himself this weekend by trying to take down a display of atheist sentiments that had been put up, presumably with permission, in a public building. The sign's assertion that "there are no gods" was taken by this man to be a vicious and hurtful denigration of religion; as such, in his view, it did not belong in a public place. By that standard, of course, he disqualifies all religious signs or symbols from public display, since the affirmation of deity must, by likewise definition, be a denigration of those atheists who supposedly enjoy equal protection under American law. But sophistry aside, something is wrong with the picture when the mere assertion of one principle opposed to another is taken as an insult to the other. That sounds like Islamic extremism or, depending on context, Bipolarchy thinking. Too many Americans, secular or not, bring an all-or-nothing, victory-or-death mentality to discussions that almost always require compromise solutions. Like violent Islamists, we act as if the failure to get our way in all things is an unendurable "humiliation" that justifies a backlash. In some extreme or absurd cases (the present one falling into the latter category) hypersensitive sorts can't stand to hear or see their beliefs contradicted in any way. It may be that the more public space is eroded and we retreat into virtual communities of affinity as opposed to communities of necessity, the less tolerant of compromise, or of tolerance itself, we become. A public building is bound to become a contested zone, and the expression of minority opinions becomes our canary in the metaphorical mineshaft. It it becomes intolerable to easily offended people and gets expelled, then all of us have less breathing space left than we think.