Do Atheists Curse a Blessed Day?
Objections from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation recently led to new policy at an Air Force installation to stop its gate guards from greeting visitors with “Have a blessed day.” The objection was that this religious greeting was inappropriate for government officials in the performance of their official duties. Certainly the objection was valid and the Air Force properly enforced secular greetings, at least by the letter of the law. In a politically unsurprising reversal, gate guards can go back to wishing others a blessed day. Does this kind of letter of the law objection advance equality for nontheists and protect religious neutrality in government? Or does it cost us more than we gain?
If someone says Merry Christmas, it’s really not a big deal, despite outrage fabricated by Fox News. If someone says “God Bless You” after a sneeze, it’s not a big deal. Even “I’ll pray for you,” if it’s meant in a friendly way, is just religious speech that comes naturally either from religious conviction or colloquial habit. All these become different when government officials are performing officials duties. But for gate guards choosing “Have a blessed day,” is it over the line? We asked fans of MAAF on Facebook:
What do you think – Should gate guards be able to say, “Have a blessed day?” Sure it’s religious and technically inappropriate, but didn’t we already decide it sets us back to rage about Merry Christmas? Similar situation?
Of course this is no scientific study, but it’s interesting to poll interested respondents. And we can be certain that there was not one overwhelming response for or against.
One type of response was that it may be wrong but it’s minor and can be best handled in person:
“I hate when they do this. It starts the day off rather unpleasantly.”
“I’m serious when I say that a polite response would be, “Thank you, have a god-free day.”
“Inappropriate. But I think we should pick our battles. Not to be flip, but sometimes it’s best to turn the other cheek.“
Another common response was that the blessed day greeting was not ok because those giving the greeting would themselves be offended if they received a religious greeting that didn’t fit their beliefs. Some commenters test this hypothesis:
“As long as they don’t mind that a Muslim might say ‘Inshallah’ in return. Or an atheist reflect on the nature of reality at length… because you know we can.”
“They just can’t get mad when I answer with ‘hail satan’.”
Probably the most common response is that it’s not ok because it is the guard’s duty to give an official greeting, not a personal greeting. This isn’t an objection not so much to religious content as to unofficial content. It’s not so much a problem with what was said but an opportunity to say something more appropriate.
“As an occasional gate guard, I say ‘meh, who cares?’ … I choose not to get offended. I also don’t care if one of my defenders says that while checking id’s for the same reason.”
“We all know we cannot wear items in uniform with a logo on them. You can’t wear a camelback without removing the logo. You can’t go out and endorse a product or politician in uniform because the government is supposed to be impartial. This situation is no different. You are in uniform, you should not be endorsing your version of religion [in our official duties] as you are a government employee on tax payers time.”
Many respondents were perfectly fine with the greeting. Some think nothing of it, or want to be open in the spirit of mutual toleration, and some accept the greeting because it was intended to be positive and not intended to evangelize.
From Offutt (Air Force Base) Humanists, “I, for one, can’t understand taking offense at a well-wishing of any sort. That’s just good manners, as is accepting it graciously.”
“as long as they aren’t being instructed/forced to say it, it’s fine. I’ve had a guard say it to me here at JBPHH (Hawaii). I just said “thanks.” It’s all good.”
“If people want to invoke their God for my benefit, that’s awesome. I don’t think it works, but feel free to give it a shot.”
“It doesn’t bother me, it is not a way of forcing religion on [anyone]. I see it as being genuinely kind for even bothering to say something like that though I am an atheist. I would never condemn someone for being kind.”
Note: names are redacted here, but anyone wishing attribution can ask.
In a purely legal sense, “Have a blessed day” is an inappropriate greeting for a public official because it pushes personal beliefs into official duties. Such a greeting could never be written into official policy to be enforced as an official greeting or even officially suggested as an optional greeting. And guards should be instructed on what to say, lest these sorts of problems arise. We should look for the day when a “Blessed Be” Wiccan greeting sends a Christian into fits.
In a political sense, this objection will give lots of ammunition to the Christian victimhood folks about how poor and downtrodden they are. In return for this cost, stopping or trying to stop these quasi-religious statements from gate guards will have essentially no effect on the civil liberties or military freedoms of nontheists. The effect may even be to cement the presence of those religious statements in the public context or even encourage lots of gate guards to adopt the religious greetings purely to protest the original protest. This is a good example of how principled protection of church-state separation has to be weighed with the cultural cost in each situation.