A friend sent me one of those many-times-forwarded emails about a judge in Texas who gave atheists a holiday -- April Fool's Day. I like her a lot -- she is good hearted and has been a good friend, and we have the same birthday, including the year. That's a bond that has kept us friends over the years. She acknowledged that it was a hoax, but said she wished it were true. She doesn't like atheists a bit.
She told me it shouldn't matter if people put up public crosses on government land, which only offends a small minority of people, and that we should require that the ten commandments be displayed in all the courhouses and everyone should have to learn them because Christians and Jews alike are taught those and "our laws are based on them."
This is not true, of course. We have no laws on the books that say we must love God or our parents, and none that outlaw coveting our neighbors ox, or that forbid adultery or making graven images or anything else on that list except murder and theft. Constitutional law's roots are in the Magna Carta, not the bible.
Jews are taught 613 commandments, not ten, and as far as Judaism is concerned, gentiles are only required to follow seven -- the six given to Adam and Eve, and the one added later for Noah -- not to eat the flesh of living animals. Damn! There goes biting the heads off live pigeons!
The commandments in Hebrew are wonderful -- not a "thou shalt not" -- or even a "thou" -- in there. Very clear: "No murder." "No steal." Period. Hebrew is wonderfully simple and direct -- says a lot with very few words.
My friend said she felt anyone could believe as they want, but she objected to someone trying to tell her she can't believe as she wants because "they don't believe the way I do." I told her that's exactly how the atheists feel, too. Well put.
I am one of those people who objects to the dominant religion displaying its symbols in public exclusively, as if it were the "official" one, and I also feel very strongly that church and state should stay totally separate. In an area like the south, where Christianity is so overwhelmingly dominant, I believe Christians tend to forget the rest of us exist. They are taught theirs is the only true faith and the rest of us must convert or go to "hell" (an idea derived from a place outside Jerusalem where garbage was perpetually burned and unruly children were taken for punishment). To a non-Christian, a big cross displayed in public can be very offensive. In fact, many Christians are offended by this, too. Commercialization of religion cheapens it.
Jews are not plastering stars of David all over the public domain, are they? Or insisting the Shema be said before every public meeting or at the beginning of every classroom day? I think it simply doesn't occur to people that a thing so beloved by them might have a completely different meaning to someone who doesn't share their beliefs.
I told my friend that atheists don't give a rat's elbow if one practices Christianity or Zoroastrianism, so long as we don't try to make them do it or make them watch it being done in a government-sponsored venue or ceremony. I'm with them.
When Laura's mother died, the Episcopal priest who did her awful funeral insisted on praying over us privately in his office before the service. We thanked him and told him we were Jewish and preferred he did not do that, though we appreciated the thought. He went right ahead, with gritted teeth, and did it anyway, "in Jesus' name." It was a physical shock. We could not believe he would do such a thing. He had to deliberately go out of his way to do it, too, because that phrase is not part of any Episcopal liturgy I have ever heard and he was reading his prayer from the prayer book. That phrase was his own addition. It was doubly bad under the circumstances -- we were burying Laura's mother -- and it was grossly disrespectful. He added it again and again throughout the service, defiantly glaring at us from the altar as he did so, using those words as a weapon. Her mother, who was born Jewish and did not accept a lot of standard Christian ideas, would have hated that service as much as we did. It was also disrespectful to her. I believe his behavior was the product of a two-edged bigotry -- we are Jews, and we are a same-sex couple. He was not, in my opinion, sufficiently mature or balanced to hold the position of parish rector.
Mature people respect that other people don't necessarily share their beliefs, or deserve to be unwillingly subjected to them in public places. They are not threatened by differing ideas. No one objects to anyone praying in public as long as they do it privately. God hears it loud and clear. In fact, Jesus' own instruction in prayer is to go to your room where no one can see or hear you and not to make an ostentatious show of it. A moment of silence does not require the world to stop so you can take it.
Atheism is actually one of the normal phases of the cycle of belief. Judaism acknowledges that and makes room for it. Everyone has occasional periods of doubt or disbelief. If not, they're just not paying attention. It's even in the gospels: "I believe; help thou my unbelief."
Photo credit: Google images, William Merit Chase 1875.