As with most children who grew up believing in Santa Claus, when I was a kid Christmas was little more than a way to reap benefits by doing nothing. My family never went to church, so if you asked me at the time what we were even celebrating, I’d probably stare at you blankly and say, “Toys?”

Now that I’m 20 and have distanced myself from all religion, I can safely say the holiday has lost most of its charm. There are still things to savor — the eggnog, the music, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” — but for the most part Christmas seems even more superficial to me now than it did when I was 10. The question of what we’re actually celebrating — and why — seems completely superfluous amid the bastardized, corporate-controlled Christmas of the 21st century.

Yet, incredibly, that doesn’t stop some people from being offended by it. Earlier this month, a group of atheists in the state of Washington representing the Freedom From Religion Foundation unveiled a public sign that read in part, “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” It was positioned, not coincidentally, next to two distinctly religious icons: a nativity scene and a Christmas tree, both of which were privately sponsored by other people.

Later, when the sign was found in a ditch after having been stolen earlier that day, Dan Barker, a co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told CNN why Christmas makes him so damn angry: “Most people think December is for Christians and view our sign as an intrusion, when actually it’s the other way around. People have been celebrating the winter solstice long before Christmas. We see Christianity as the intruder, trying to steal the holiday from all of us humans.”

Well, first, let me get this out of the way: The sign should not have been taken. Stealing is bad, censorship is un-American and it’s a telling fact that one of Christianity’s main tenets is “thou shalt not steal.” I agree.

OK, moving on. There are so many things wrong with Barker’s statement — as well as the sign itself — that even an indifferent agnostic such as myself can’t help but shake his head in disgust at this utterly embarrassing, not to mention prejudiced, excuse for a justification.

For starters, the sign was positioned where it was, and when it was, for a reason. If they had erected a sign that was meant to be there all year-round, I would have assumed it was the doing of some old flower-child spreading his ridiculous gospel. And I would have been fine with that. But the fact that the sign was erected just in time for the holiday season — not to mention positioned strategically next to a nativity scene — is clearly meant as an attack on a specific group of people during their most important time of year.

Meanwhile, Barker’s bigoted views of Christians are apparent in his remarks to CNN. Clearly, he sees all Christians as the enemy because he hates what they stand for. So his solution is to make a public attack on a bunch of people who are minding their own business. (Contrary to what he said in the same interview, the nativity scene is not damning anyone to hell. And if it were, maybe he could have learned the art of subtlety from it.)

As far as I’m concerned, that sign might as well be a burning cross — coercion is the name of the game here, whether Barker wants to admit it or not. There have been many attempts to legitimize the ever-growing cult of atheism, with its foundations, its books, its public speakers and newsletters (sounds like any other religion to me), but, certainly, erecting hateful signs isn’t the way to do it.

I guess the point I’m trying to eke out of this frankly minor incident is this: Can’t we just get along? Honestly. If this is what we can expect from atheist leaders, I might as well just stick with the religious leaders we have now. Besides, doesn’t the Freedom From Religion Foundation understand that Christmas isn’t even a religious holiday anymore? And more importantly, celebrating Christmas sounds a hell of a lot more fun than celebrating the “winter solstice.”

Brandon Conradis can be reached at brconrad@umich.edu.

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