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Taking Offense

December 21st, 2004 · No Comments

Some of the discussion occasioned by the new reason piece reminds me of what I think is a common misunderstanding that complicates a lot of cultural arguments. Now, the question of whether anyone should be upset by “happy holidays” is at least partly distinct from the question of why one might say “happy holidays”rather than “merry Christmas,” but that latter question was discussed rather intensely in some of the Hit & Run comment threads. Some people seem to have the notion that it’s said in order to avoid “offending” non-Christians.

Now, that would be silly. I assume almost nobody does (and certainly nobody should) take offense at being wished a merry Christmas. Offense isn’t the issue. There are two reasons I can think of why a shop, say, might instruct clerks to prefer “happy holidays.” First, if I don’t know you, it just seems kind of weird and presumptuous to presume I know what holiday they’re celebrating. I doubt anyone would consider it rude if I indiscriminately wished people I don’t know a happy Ramadan or Chanukah, but it would be a little weird. The less it’s the case that you can just assume a random person is Christian, the more that’s the case. The other reason is that, while it probably doesn’t consciously bother or offend anybody, it does create a specific sort of vibe. If some shop is decorated for one of religion X’s holidays, and the clerks are all mentioning that holiday, people of other faiths might well get a sense, whether or not they articulate it to themselves, that this is a store for members of religion X. Plenty of store owners probably figure: hey, whether or not they’re going to be “offended,” exactly, why risk making anyone feel like they might be unwelcome?

Something similar is going on with state-sponsored forms of religious expression—the Commandments monument in the rotunda, or “under God” in the pledge of allegiance. It’s not that I (or the vast majority of atheists) are going to find a statue or (gasp) the word “God” offensive in the sense that a religious person is likely to find, say, Maplethorpe’s Serrano’s “Piss Christ” offensive. It’s just that we don’t like a government that’s supposed to represent and speak for everyone appearing to endorse any particular religion(s). Indeed, I rather suspect most Christians wouldn’t be offended, as such, by “one nation under Allah,” it’s just that they’d wonder why (even if most Americans were Muslim) a putatively liberal and representative government was, so to speak, taking sides. To focus on “offense” makes it sound as though the objection is somehow to the word “God” itself, or to the Ten Commandments. But if that were the case, you’d expect the same people who object to “under God” to feel upset every time they passed a church or saw a sermon on TV, which, again, almost nobody does.

When we focus on “offense” in the latter cases, church/state separationists end up sounding thin skinned or hostile to religious content per se—someone who objects particularly strenuously to state sponsorship of art they consider offensive, after all, presumably finds that same art offensive as such, even if they’ll keep quiet so long as they’re not required to pay for it or look at it. Forcing the separationist objection into that pigeonhole needlessly confuses the debate, and may leave believers with the impression that other people are inexplicably rankled by their faith as such.

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