UPDATE 7/31/2013, 5:33pm EDT. Real Clear Religion has now linked to this article with a headline that runs just above a byline for me reading “When Atheists Become Holocaust Deniers”. That is an irresponsible headline. I have never leveled such an incendiary charge of Holocaust denial at any other atheist. That is not the point of the piece below. I am angry that such an incredibly volatile and unnuanced charge would be attributed to me so carelessly and I have written them to ask them to rectify this mistake as soon as possible.
The state of Ohio is planning to build the Holocaust memorial pictured above on statehouse grounds as a most appropriate, poignant, and vital reminder to “lawmakers and those who work in and around government of the important role and responsibility they have in speaking out in the face of hatred, anti-Semetism and genocide” because “The Holocaust did not begin in concentration camps in the ovens with smoke stacks and mass graves. It began in the halls of government with the passage of laws that targeted Jews, taking their properties, their businesses, their home, their freedom and ultimately their lives.”
But I am aghast, livid, embarrassed, ashamed, and offended to report to you that Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation have written a letter opposing this memorial under the false charge that it is exclusionary and violates the principle of the Separation of Church and State simply because it features the Star of David on government property and (only allegedly but not actually) omits other victims of the Holocaust. And David Silverman of the American Atheists has gone on FOX News also to attack this memorial on the same grounds. In doing so they show an outright offensive inability to understand the multivalence of symbols and their different meanings in different contexts. They conflate the affirmation of the Jewish people’s dignity, endurance, and victory over one of the world’s most monstrous and horrific attempts at utter genocide with a government endorsement of the Jewish religion or religion in general. This is unbelievably historically and culturally ignorant.
It is doubly offensive to truth and history to try in any way to minimize any of the relevant context of why the people in the Holocaust were targeted. It matters that people were targeted for mass murder explicitly because of their religions, ethnic identities, and sexual orientations and symbols honoring and affirming the endurance of these groups are integral to repudiating the efforts to eliminate them. Atheist critics of the monument claim that the reasons that the people in the Holocaust were systematically murdered does not make their attempted annihilation any worse. It is horrific in either case. But it does matter. It matters that we never forget any detail about any brick of the path that led to the Holocaust lest we ever start down that road again and not recognize it. Treating people’s rights to identities as matters of indifference because supposedly identities should not matter, only humanity should, is to erase from our minds the reality about how much people’s identities make them targets of hatred. We must remember that hating and trying to use legal force to eradicate a religion, an ethnic group, people stigmatized as sexual deviants, those deemed “genetically inferior” for a variety reasons, led there. This is especially true when, as Sara Manasterska has pointed out to me, trying to erase the Jewishness of so many of the victims and the anti-Semitism so deeply motivational in the Holocaust happening at all, is a tactic of Holocaust deniers. And, according to reports the charge that other groups murdered in the Holocaust were excluded from the acknowledgment at the memorial is false.
This monument is not an endorsement of the Jewish religion. It is an endorsement of the right to exist and thrive and prosper of one of the groups of people most heinously and relentlessly demonized and abused in all the world. That Star of David in this context is a symbol of the longest fighters for religious freedom, the people who endured in defiance of Christian theocracy (both formal and informal), the people who represent defiance against unbearable efforts towards marginalization like no one else in the European mind.
Affirming the Star of David in a Holocaust museum in Ohio where Jews represent merely 1.3% of the population is not an endorsement of the Jewish religion. The meaning of this memorial has nothing to do with making any unconstitutional and marginalizing claims about a necessity for religion to govern through law. It is an acknowledgment of history using a Jewish symbol that has secular and cultural connotations well beyond religion. It is a powerful a symbol of religious freedom and right to conscience. Its concrete acknowledgment of the existence of this specific religion, the most persecuted in Western history, stands as a powerful symbol for that right in all its other forms.
We atheists as an organized movement need to be far less obtuse and simplistic such that we perceive religious symbols as only ever having one possible meaning–an utterly ahistorical and decontextualized one–and attack them with crude, ignorant, and occasionally morally offensive and legally baseless arguments as a result. This knee jerk response from atheists at any religious symbol whatsoever and reduction of all religious expression to its worst forms is one of the places that atheists fail as critical thinkers the most humiliatingly. I spent last night listening to the Center For Inquiry’s public policy director and representative to the United Nations, Michael De Dora, talk about the immense amount of work that needs to be done worldwide and here at home to safeguard the freedom of conscience and the freedom to be irreligious or anti-religious/anti-theist. I am all the more flabbergasted to see frontline secularist activist organizations decide to become so petty and so context-blind as to pick an astoundingly ironic fight with the Jews for supposedly using Holocaust remembrance as an excuse to impose their religion in America.
I want to repudiate this blind reactionary atheism in this instance with no qualification.
In a follow up post, having taken in numerous counterarguments to my position, I try to explain methodically as possible why I don’t think this proposed Star of David centered memorial has anything to do with actually imposing either Judaism or religiosity generally on any American and so should be dropped by the FFRF and AA as having nothing to do with their goals of protecting the separation of church and state. Then I pointed out, in another follow up post, that even were the precedents on the FFRF and AA’s side in this case, that their view of what the Constitution should say would still be wrong.
UPDATE 8/2/13: Subsequent to writing this blog post, I convened a panel of passionate and articulate secularist activists for a vigorous and insightful debate and discussion about the memorial design proposal. It is long but, if I do say so myself, it is a must watch for anyone who cares about the separation of church and state. A transcript is here.