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Atheist protesting Denver nativity: an interview

A different take on the First Amendment
A different take on the First Amendment

Why do atheists want to remove the nativity scene from Denver's City Hall? Are they Christmas Grinches with nothing better to do with their time?

Not so, according to Marvin Straus, co-founder of the Boulder Atheist group. There is only one reason to remove the religious icon on public property: separation of church and state.

The Boulder Atheist group was started in 2001 by Mr. Straus and Mr. Simons. Their primary concern was the same then as it is now: keeping church and state separated. The group has two other reasons for existence: creation of social activities and help for those "damaged by religion."

A few years later in 2004, Mr. Straus and others formed COCORE to better coordinate the activities of the various atheistic, freethinking and humanist organizations in the Denver metro area.

The umbrella group is only politically active "when it's appropriate," as their two separate billboard campaigns illustrate. Their message is simple. The first campaign reminded the public that atheists were not alone and could band together. The current campaign argues for separation of church and state in Denver's City Hall (the first billboard went up December 6th).

In a gracious interview, Mr. Straus explained clearly and forthrightly his views on this matter.

Were you always an atheist?

"I was a Christian until I was about 12. I was not only raised in the Bible Belt but I was raised on the buckle of the Bible Belt in Saint Jo (Joseph), Missouri."

He was an inquisitive child, whose curiosities about life were about to come to a head: "There was a significant incident in my life that was probably the linchpin, if you wish. The pastor of the church, his son murdered the church janitor in a most horrible fashion ... even as a child I thought … this is a son of a man of God who's supposed to be having direct communications with God; how could God allow that?"

He found an answer to that question: there was no God.

Different Atheists follow different philosophies of science -- which do you follow?

He was willing to give a more specific answer but admitted: "I’m a rubber-meets-the-road guy; so I’m more involved in the day-to-day things that take place within the community."

Is American Atheism one monolithic group or are there noticeable differences?

Mr. Straus illustrated one such difference by his own actions: "I’ve reacted badly to an atheist going into a school and telling the kids that there was no God. I said you have absolutely no right to do that … I will do everything I can to prevent you from ever doing that again."

With his organization receiving many requests for help from those adversely affected by religion, Mr. Straus admits to succumbing to negativity toward religion. Yet friends have reminded him, "Marvin, you have to remember that there are good religious people out there ... And I have taken that advice to heart."

Why should these displays be removed?

He actually thinks the display is "absolutely lovely."

He also notes that there are two displays: the Christian nativity on the right and the secular elves and Santas on the left. Mr. Straus pointed to the 1984 landmark decision Lynch vs. Donnelly (here), that stated that a nativity was allowable on public property as long as there is "equal seating for everybody at the table."

People have actually prayed at the nativity scene in the past, according to Mr. Straus. So it is "a religious icon; so it is government supported religion." And separation of church and state forbids such icons. "It has nothing to do with signs that say 'Merry Christmas' … it is a religious icon."

In fact, this issue "is the fourth or fifth civil rights movement."

Early America included sponsored religious statements and practices at all levels of government -- what is your view of this?

Yes, the Creator was mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, but “when they got the Constitution and when they got to the Bill of Rights, they did not mention God. And that was a conscious decision."

He sees this time period as a time of transition; such activities reflected the battle at the time.

Then he asked rhetorically, "Why am I doing this? ... I shouldn’t be. I’m not the proper person or organization to be doing this. The proper person or organizations that should be doing this is Christians." It was the Anabaptists of the early 1600s who moved separation of church and state to the forefront (alluding to the book Revolution Within a Revolution, here.)

The larger background of this question -- the "culture wars" -- came to the forefront later in the interview, but without anger: "I hate the term 'this is a Christian nation.' I think it is one of the biggest lies …"

"The fact that they are coming too close" to making this a Christian nation is why "I am an activist." "They [religious right leadership] have turned and wheeled the American churches as they wish."

"I’m talking about Jerry Fawell, Pat Robertson and … Dobson ... basically taking over the leadership of the Republican Party." That is a "mixture of church and state." His evidence is summarized in Blumenthal's book Republican Gomorrah.

Does separation of church and state mean revoking church tax-exemption status (501(c)3)?

He replied that all all such groups can speak against public bills but not against individuals running for public office: "If you want to lose your status, all you have to do is stand up and say ‘vote for John Smith, don’t vote for Mary Jones.'"

His claim is that many churches are violating these conditions.

At the end of the day, the goal of Mr. Straus and those like-minded individuals who payed for this new round of billboards is simple: "I would prefer an absolutely, one-hundred-percent secular government."

You can subscribe to these articles at the top of the page. Shawn is the pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Denver.


  • xexon 4 years ago

    Even as a non religious person, I have no objection to holiday displays and such. It doesn't matter what religion either, as I disregard all of you.

    We require a void between our church and our state however. And for good reason. We can never allow any one religion to get the upper hand and write the laws of the land.

    Islamophobia has swept that land already, and most people now fear Islamic sharia law. This give the Judeo-Christian community permission to make their politcal move as a response.

    I don't intend to live under either of you.


  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    Xexon--If you don't "intend to live under either of you," would you have lived under George Washington? Supposedly the First Amendment created a "void" between church and state" and yet Washington pronounced religious days of thanksgiving, state's had Sabbath and blasphemy laws and Supreme Courts assumed Christianity as part of the common law of America.

    Let's be honest: such inconvenient facts belie a deeper belief: the use of early American law in an evolutionary fashion: take the words and fill them with modern meaning; today its "void," tomorrow there is no church...

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    Xenon--Does "void" mean:
    1. No more 5013c status for churches?
    2. Ministers do not get tax breaks?
    3. Ministers cannot fun for office (like Witherspoon did?)
    3. Ministers cannot vote?

    Those would be logical conclusions from an *absolute* separation of church and state. Most atheists, I think, do not believe in *absolute*--not even the one interviewed in the article.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    "RUN for office"! (LoL)

  • Peter Mahoney 4 years ago

    Atheists protest because the nativity violates the United States constitution, which essentially forbids government endorsement/favoring of religions, which is what a GOVERNMENT-intituted nativity scene does.

    Meanwhile, a Christian group called the Westboro Baptist Church is protesting Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral because they claim Edwards did not have faith in God through her illness. Yes, protesting her funeral! Way to go, christians!

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    Peter--Do atheists normally practice the logical fallacy of guilt by association (ad hominem)? Westboro does not represent me anymore than atheistic communism represents you (or, so I presume).

  • Profile picture of Jess d'Arbonne
    Jess d'Arbonne 4 years ago

    Westboro Baptist Church is known for being a group extremists. They disrespectfully protest funerals all the time. I wouldn't associate them with any Christians that I know, just as I don't associate Osama bin Laden with the Muslim family who live next door to me.

  • Profile picture of Susan Herschel
    Susan Herschel 4 years ago

    Gad-- I am weary of this superficial kind of story in the face of many other issues which mean life or death among Denver's citizens, rather than an issue of who believes what and how...

    Statistics show this issue is not representative of most Coloradoans' concerns, but is rather a sensational presentation of relatively inor issue... I am a native of this state and city, and from that basis state my experience as knowing Denverites and Coloradoans alike acknowledge and accept varying and inclusive views of the holidays, andacknowledge that a nativity on Denver Capitol steps is but one representation of the Season of Caring. Arghh! Tired of the rhetoric.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    Susan--I think upon second thought you may agree that this interview brought out a very practical concern for those of Denver: if the 5013c status were removed from churches, charities would be hurt. Some atheists think this status should be removed

    The Christmas issue is not an "issue" as you rightly point out. Yet this interview included more than the Christmas issue. As an insight in how some think, interviews help us better understand each other and move beyond the rhetoric.

  • Profile picture of Jess d'Arbonne
    Jess d'Arbonne 4 years ago

    Great article and interview. I always appreciate reading your articles. Even when we don't agree, you have a very reasonable, kind approach, and I sincerely appreciate that.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    Thank you.

  • KD 4 years ago

    To the author- George Washington was very secular at points in his life. He supported religion but i think he would also support atheism. What nobody would support is jihads of any nature, or faith based molestation / rape. ( Seen the news lately?)

    Also- it would be nice if an atheist could run for office but religious folk are also bias.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    KD--Not sure what you mean about Washington being "very secular at points"--the man was a Christian (see the latest 10 year work, Sacred Fire).

    I think the confusion is over what a "Christian nation" would look like. Just because a public figure is a Christian it does not follow that they would mention God in every speech or every other!

  • KD 4 years ago

    FYI- And the constitution doesnt have the first 3-4 commandments because it has freedom of religion.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    KD--your statement is misleading. The Constitution was written to delimit the authority of the Federal government in contrast to the more living tradition of mother England (wh/ had a church establishment). It was a governmental covenant between the States and the Feds.

    When I have a written contract with another Christian for a job, I don't insist upon explicitly mentioning God in the document.

    On the other hand, the States had many explicit laws that included the First table of the Law, such as Sunday laws and blasphemy laws (see my article, Christianity and the Centennial State ).

    We still have blasphemy laws; we just don't call them that: you can't curse (much!) on TV, etc.

  • xexon 4 years ago

    I don't agree with the tax exempt status of any house of worship.
    The lack of this is what's caused this explosion of mega churches with their TV studios and theme parks.

    Same thing for "ministers". I don't recognize your authority.

    Religion is a favorite method of controlling people. From a political standpoint especially. Such as the relationship between the United States and Israel. Who asked us to be a nursemaid to this colony founded by Jewish supremacists?

    The conservative Christian crowd has been lead around for decades by these "zionists". All for continuing US "aid" to Israel, most of which goes into their military machine. Over 60 years worth now.

    I'm, of the opinion if you're not off welfare by now, you're not going to make it anyhow.

    So yes, I deplore the way you religious folks are lead around.

    But not as much as I object to the fact you're dragging the rest of us along with you.

    Expect resistance.


  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    Xexon--this is good to know, if I read you right: 1) You believe churches should be taxed; 2) ministers have no authority over you.

    As for the first point, you forgot my other points: ministers cannot vote--at least, if one consistently applies the rhetoric of "separation [void] of church and state". Why not petition the government to stop the likes of me from voting according to my creed and influencing others accordingly?

    My original claim has never been rebutted just side-tracked: "...and yet Washington pronounced religious days of thanksgiving, state's had Sabbath and blasphemy laws and Supreme Courts assumed Christianity as part of the common law of America."

    That last point is impossible to refute. Ergo, the original meaning of the First Amendment has to take that fact into account.

  • KD 4 years ago

    George Washington was a Cristian but was seen at many different churches,and he was a Free Mason. He laid the White Houses corner stone.
    My writing is not misleading-im also saying that the constitution limits religion in government.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    KD--He was a Free Mason and Free Masons had an explicitly Christian confession as the new book demonstrates. Thus, it is not proof of his "secular activities".

    My previous response was unclear (sorry): the States had many explicit religious references and laws for around 100 years after the First Amendment. That Amendment limited the Federal government.

  • KD 4 years ago

    i like how you admit that you would rather have a contract with a christian than a atheist.
    Your blasphemy laws are exactly what the constitution protects against. blasphemy against god or the church is still not accepted in many parts of the world and many still use archaic methods to judge -such as stoning.

    Sure the constitution limits government power and pious power like that which was 'given' to the queen . Many english rulers used their 'closeness' to god to do whatever the human mind might desire. The founding fathers made the first amendment very clear that no religion is above another, or above human rights.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    KD--In normal dialogues people are at their best when they do not *assume*. I never said I "would rather have a contract with a christian than a atheist."

    The point of the illustration was that you *assume* that since God and the first few commandments were not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, then it was a secular or non-Christian document. That is a false assumption.

    To try again: When I make a contract with another person (Christian, atheist or alien) I do not believe that I have to refer to God. The Constitution similarly was created in a predominately Christian cultural environment.

  • KD 4 years ago

    FYI - Free Masons are religious but do not speak of their religion to other masons. They also do NOT have a required, or set, religion in their system.
    Also to be secular does not mean to be atheist, you can be secular and still be religious- George Washington did not participate in communion and it is this fact which represents a more secular veiw.

    And your right many states have archaic laws which reduce a individuals right through religion and thats why i dont live in Utah.
    However the Constitution and federal law is considered the supreme law of the land. (and freedom is the individual right)
    Not that i really care if says Chrismas or Holidays because it is both. What i dont like is how the pious see themselves as superior because that is ignorant.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    KD--"Constitution and federal law is considered the supreme law of the land". This is an interesting point because it finally puts on the table where you think law originates from (unless I am mistaken).

    So, if the current laws all allow Christmas, etc. and blasphemy laws,etc. then you should accept that. But you don't b/c you do not really believe they are the law of the land but agents to distribute a higher law.

    Perhaps your higher law is "reason" or "common sense" or anarchy. I don't know. But this discussion (and many similar ones) bog down b/c no one digs deep enough.

    I'm digging an await your answer.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    KD--then you admit my original point about the Constitution: it does not limit state-rights in these matters.

  • KD 4 years ago

    Also if you were a true Christian than you would accept an atheist like a christian and you would not be so ignorant as to consider one a communist.
    What about gay rights?

    i agree with the first post, i dont care about your religion as long as it doesnt affect my freedom.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    KD--"you would not be so ignorant as to consider one a communist."

    I would encourage you to take a deep breath and re-read carefully what I wrote. I never said that. Surely you don't argue this way with your friends by making up things they never said?

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    Xenon & KD: A_REQUEST: given your zeal on this issue, would you be interested in an email interview and/or email discussion on this topic that would be later published (contingent upon your review)?

  • xexon 4 years ago

    I prefer to wash dirty laundry in public. It's about them after all.

    First, I'm not an atheist. I have a non religious yogic backgound. And I'm quite immune to religious argument.

    I only concern myself with politics because religion concerns themselves with it. I am first and foremost a spiritual being.

    The nature of God realization turns one into the ultimate socialist. Personal desire is replaced with a kind of hive mentality. You become a champion for humanity as a whole rather than a race or a country or a religion. A world citizen.

    Anyone peddling special interests, especially ones that harm others in the "name of God", will have a difficult time with me.

    Because you're messing with my younger brothers and sisters.


  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    Xexon: So, given the opportunity to defend yourself in a more useful forum (with better positive impact than the comment section), you would turn it down?

    I never said it would be private. The emails would be reviewed by you before publishing. Or if you wish, write up a blog post and I can respond to it in an article.

  • KD 4 years ago

    Your right i shouldnt assume anything accept for my past assumptions of employers etc. Not that im atheist either i just dont like the pious who think of ego and triumph over others.
    Interviews are just that - a veiw over one another i could easily do the same to you.

  • Profile picture of Shawn Mathis
    Shawn Mathis 4 years ago

    KD and Xexon: So, my request to give you an open forum on is rejected.

    Curious, people say Christians are unfriendly and narrow minded...

  • xexon 4 years ago

    I have no need of defending myself.

    I state what I am. I ask for no one's approval of it.

    I am a product of a perspective that most people lack in their normal lives. Where others went off into the world to have a spouse and children and careers, and got sucked into that malstrom, I stood back and contemplated the "why" of it.

    It was never my calling. Worldly life. I was practically born a yogi.

    You would be mistaken to think that I am Godless however. I entered what you would call the Kingdom many years ago. "God" is all around me.

    And that is the difference between you and I. A believer in God, and a person who sees God. Everywhere.

    You, are in the same boat as atheists. You are both products of belief rather than perception. Atheists, by and large, are well developed spiritually. But instead of traveling a path based on somebody else's beliefs, they pulled over to the side of the road. Engine running. They want to study the map a little more. They need more evidence of where they're going. And they prefer to do the driving themselves.

    Only actual direct perception of God displaces belief/non-belief about God.

    And it never comes from anywhere other than from inside your own being. As you leave spiritual puberty.

    Those who have completed that journey are known to rub religions the wrong way. Because you're wrong.


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