The Very Worst of the Atheist Movement on Display: Major Atheist Orgs Attack Star of David Holocaust Memorial

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.

Other recommended reading:
Suing Ourselves in the Foot
The Ohio Holocaust Memorial
Symbols and Secularism: What Sort of Secularism Do We Want?
The Difference Between Secular Law and Secular Culture

The Moral Imperative Not To Dehumanize When We Criticize #MuslimLivesMatter
7 Exciting Announcements About My Online Philosophy Classes
Education Funding: Where Two Fundamental American Ideals Completely Conflict.
City on a Hill
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Simon3456

    So is the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC that was built on land donated by the Federal government “minimizing” the terrible events of the Holocaust by not prominently displaying the Star of David on their entrance?

    • Nick Fish

      The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is a museum–full of context. Not a monument, standing alone, of a Star of David. Unless I’m missing it somewhere:

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      No, Simon, but fighting to have the Star of David removed is fighting literally to minimize the amount of recognition of the importance of the Jewish people to the Holocaust. It’s insisting the Jewishness of the Jewish victims deserves to be dialed back. It’s a horrific message to Jews.

    • Neil Wehneman

      I disagree. I believe FFRF and AA are fighting to recognize the importance of the Holocaust while not simultaneously breaking the Constitution.

      To use a rough analogy, the State of Ohio could put an Operation Enduring Freedom memorial on my front yard and refuse to pay fair market value for the cost of the land.

      Is my insisting on receiving compensation under the Takings Clause a horrific message to our veterans?

      Or is it honoring their sacrifice by insisting that the government follow ALL restrictions on its power, even when they are doing something that is otherwise worthwhile?

      (Comments are my own and not my employer’s.)

      Edit: Missed an “s” on the Takings Clause.” Fixed.

    • Simon3456

      That is not accurate. It’s in the planning and procurement phase at this point so its more selecting the right design as happens with most public projects. There were two other designs in the running that did not have religious symbols but the legislature apparently chose this one.

    • caleb

      You’re spot on.

    • David Gorski

      It is indeed.

      The FFRF’s campaign in this case flirts uncomfortably close (certainly unknowingly on the part of FFRF) with one complaint that I’ve seen used many times by anti-Semites, which is to deny the centrality of Jews to the Holocaust. Basically, they will say something along the lines of, “The Nazis killed lots of people during the Holocaust, not just Jews. What makes the Jews so special? The Holocaust was about more than the Jews.”

      Let’s be clear. The central purpose of the Holocaust was to rid the Reich of its Jews. It started with taking away their rights, then progressed to violence against them, then to forcible expulsion, and then finally to mass extermination. Yes, the Holocaust then expanded to a lot of other groups, but it started with the Jews. Accepting this does not minimize or deny the suffering of other groups. Perhaps the best brief explanation I’ve ever read about this aspect of the Holocaust was written by Gord McFee, an old Usenet mate of mine from back in the late 1990s:

  • Katie Graham

    Does the monument include symbols for the LGBT people, gypsies and disabled and deaf who were killed? The monument at Dachau has a pink triangle. The Deaf community has adopted a blue ribbon to commemorate those who were murdered for their inability to hear (also note that Deaf people are often part of a distinct cultural group).

    • erin.nikla

      The link in the article says the following:

      The inscription planned for the memorial will read: “Inspired by the Ohio soldiers who were part of the American liberation and survivors who made Ohio their home. If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.”

      “In remembrance the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust and millions more including prisoners of war, ethnic and religious minorities, homosexuals, the mentally ill, the disabled, and political dissidents were suffered under Nazi Germany.”

    • Katie Graham

      Sure it does, but the inscription is overshadowed by a humongous religious symbol.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      No, by a humongous ethnic cultural symbol.

    • DoctorDJ

      So, a humongous cross on a federally paid-for monument is OK, since many (most, in parts of this country) would assume it’s just an “ethnic cultural symbol?” Geez, we’ve been fighting just those battles all over this country.

      Dan, you’re wrong.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      No, crosses are not ethnic cultural symbols but the Star of David IS. Secular Jews were forced to wear it alongside religious Jews. Hitler used the star to designate ethnicity, not religion. It is a symbol of the specific persecution of the ethnic Jews in the Holocaust. It is not just a Jewish religious symbol in any context. It is the symbol of the ethnic group whose extermination was attempted in the Holocaust. It is perfectly germane to the context. A Christian cross would only have comparable justification on a memorial commemorating persecution of Christians. Otherwise, no comparison. And in this case it’s an even stronger disconnect because the Star of David is not specifically religious the way the cross is specifically religious.

      A Jewish commentator on Facebook wrote the following:

      The bottom line is that the Megan David is not really a deeply religious symbol. It is a decorative symbol that does appear on synagogues and religious texts but is really a symbol of the the culture and community . It has become a symbol of the Holocaust (which has also become a secular term for the six million Jews killed) even though many other groups were killed. The Megan David really originated from the mystic Kabbalah which is separate from the Jewish Religion , so what we are dealing with over all is akin to a commercial branding for the Judaic culture as a whole . The Star of David is not in anyway worshiped as part of any ritualized service in reformed or Orthodox service. In fact the Orthodox do not recognize the symbol at all. Humanistic Jews have synagogues which ritualized the culture and history and holidays but do not believe in God or the supernatural , yet have the decorative symbol every where . It has nothing to do with separation of state and religion. The symbol recognizes the secular interpretation of the historical version of the Holocaust. From the Holocaust museum.” the adoption of holocaust as the primary English-language referent to the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry, but the word’s connection to the “Final Solution” did not firmly take hold for another two decades. The April 1978 broadcast of the TV movie, Holocaust, based on Gerald Green’s book of the same name, and the very prominent use of the term in President Carter’s creation of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust later that same year, cemented its meaning in the English-speaking world. These events, coupled with the development and creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum through the 1980s and 1990s, established the term Holocaust (with a capital H) as the standard referent to the systematic annihilation of European Jewry by Germany’s Nazi regime.”

    • 3lemenope

      The Facebook commenter you quote here is playing slightly fast and loose with the history and significance of the Magen David. The origins of the symbol and its association with Judaism reach much further back than mystical Kabbalah. Archaeological remnants of the symbol having been used in synagogues as early as the late 3rd Century CE exist, though it is thought this use was strictly ornamental. The first known use in a religious context is as a prominent illumination in the Leningrad Codex, which is the oldest surviving complete Tanakh scroll, dated to the very early 11th Century CE. Around the turn of the 16th into the early 17th century, the symbol began to symbolize not just religious Judaism but the community of Jews itself, especially in contradistinction to communities of Christian and Muslim neighbors, but never shed its religious-contextual use.

      It is also not really true that the Orthodox, by-and-large, reject the Magen David as a religiously appropriate symbol. There are fringe Haredim, like the Neturei Karta, that do reject it, but more on the basis of it being considered by them a symbol of Zionism. Most Orthodox synagogues prominently display the symbol (like the one just down the street from where I’m sitting does). It is also the primary official symbol of the state of Israel, and is the prominent main ornamentation on the flag, which would be odd indeed if the mainstream Orthodox did not approve.

    • Katie Graham

      It could be argued that the Christian Cross is the same. Also, you aren’t at all concerned that the monument pretty much minimizes the other five million ethnic and cultural victims of the holocaust?

    • threenorns

      judaism is not just a “religion” – it’s a race and a culture.

      if you leave the catholic church or the buddhist faith or islam, you are no longer a catholic, a buddhist, or a muslim.

      if you are never told you are a jew, you’re still a jew.

    • 3lemenope

      judaism is not just a “religion” – it’s a race and a culture.[...]if you are never told you are a jew, you’re still a jew.

      From the perspective of the Jewish community (in view of their rules defining who is and is not a Jew, matrilineal tracking and so-forth) this certainly makes sense–and given the recent history of the Shoah and the criteria that the Nazis used for Jewishness, there is also a moral imperative component to be expansive in this manner–but it makes far less sense from an outside perspective.

      For example, it is not at all clear that Ashkenazim and Sephardim and (especially) Mizrahim share much more than a common religion. They are geographically and linguistically distinct (Yiddish v. Ladino v. many local patois). And even in religion it gets dicey, with bitter arguments in the Israeli rabbinical community in the early 80s for example on whether and how to accept diasporadic Ethiopians into the wider Jewish community given a greater divergence of religious practices than was noted from the rest of the diaspora due to geographic isolation. There are generally significant liturgical differences between the main branches as well.

      In light of that, I’m not entirely sure how much weight ought to be placed on claims of racial and cultural unity throughout the diaspora. After all, humans are a diasporadic and itinerant species, and our linguistic, cultural, and morphological variations are entirely due to the same factors that make the specific case of Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim distinct.

    • threenorns

      it’s not a question of “racial/cultural unity”.

      i’m british – i was born in sweden to a finnish mother and british father, raised in canada.

      Set side by side, i have virtually nothing in common with a man from london – but i’m still british.

      my SO is hindu. he was born and raised third generation trinidadian – but he’s still hindu even though he doesn’t have a lot in common with hindus from india. the two groups have a bit in common but a lot that is not.

      there is no “one true” judaism, any more than there is a “one true” christian faith, especially since one of the laws of the talmud is that jews have to honour and follow the laws of the country in which they reside.

    • 3lemenope

      And I have to question at that point whether those terms mean anything. What features of the world are they referring to, what stable referent? If two people can be separated by language, cultural practice, and genetics, to the point where they have as much in common as they would with the average randomly chosen human on Earth, how can they be said to be the same “race”? What is race under a conception where that question can be answered?

      My great-grandfather on my paternal grandmother’s side is Miq’Mac indian. *I* am not Miq’Mac indian; I do not speak the language, I do not know the customs, I share no distinctive common morphological traits with the average tribe member. Saying “I am one-eighth Miq’Mac” doesn’t seem to say anything meaningful about me so much as say something about one of my ancestors, and saying that I am the same “race” as the average tribe member would be a stretch beyond belief.

    • threenorns

      you don’t say “i am one-eighth miq’mac” – you say “i have some miq’mac ancestry” bec that’s as far as it goes.

      my case would be a better point: my mother is finn, my father is british. i was born in sweden.

      i identify myself as british bec that’s how i was raised. had i been raised in the finnish tradition, i would identify myself as finnish. had i been raised in sweden, i would say “i was born and raised in sweden but i’m half finn and half british” (much the way i say it now – “i was raised in canada, but born in sweden to a british father and finnish mother”. bec we lived with and near my dad’s family all my life and had little to no communication with my mom’s, i identify myself as british.

      now this is all great – but the jews are a totally different ballgame. jews can be identified through DNA. for example, “With the exception of Ethiopian and Indian Jews, all of the Jewish populations have mitochondrial genomes that were of Middle Eastern origin.” ( )

      when it comes to the ethiopian and somali jews, however, that falls back onto the torah and god’s command that jews honour the laws and customs of their host country. if a jewish woman has no other alternative but to marry a non-jewish man, her children will be jews. if a jewish man were to marry a non-jewish woman, his children are NOT jews. you haVe to wonder if they knew things back then: the majority of the jews in the middle east are genetically traced (via mDNA) back to one of only four founding females!

    • Katie Graham

      That’s very arguable. An atheist Catholic could still follow the cultural norms and holidays of the religion without reverence to the church itself.

      Your answer also doesn’t address the fact that the giant Star of David overshadows the other races, cultures and religions that were also systematically targeted and killed.

    • threenorns

      but DNA won’t confirm if they’re a catholic or not. catholicism is not automatically passed down through parentage – if catholic parents do not have their children baptised and consecrated in the faith, the children are not catholic.

      as for the star of david overshadowing the others, so what?

      it’s an aesthetically pleasing structure; it acknowledges the other races and cultures that were destroyed; and it’s a symbol of the fact that while hitler et al disapproved and didn’t like gay, blacks, rom, etc, they all had a mad hate on for jews.

      if they’re going to have to give equal air time to every single group that was targetted, it would be a hot mess to look at.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      That’s my question as well. Yes, Jews were killed for being Jews, but that’s true for lots of other groups. If only the Jews are highlighted, that sounds like a problem.

      The inscription does sound like it does a good job of noting the Jews as well as the other 5 million people in other categories who also died. I’m wondering if the structure does the same.

    • Whirlwitch

      I have seen a chart of all the various cloth patches used to tag death-camp prisoners’ clothing to identify what category of undesirable they were. I think adding such a chart, along with estimations of numbers of those who wore each symbol, would be a good way of bringing in the diversity of the victims.

      To the best of my knowledge, though, Jews were the only group forced to wear their symbol while going about their lives prior to the death camps, and their oppression and ghettoization is unique. So recognizing that is appropriate.

  • eamonknight

    Meh. Jewish identity is not only, or even primarily, and in some cases, at all, about any belief in God. As a symbol, it seems to me that the Star of David has been desacralized in a way that the Cross has not. And I’m surprised to see Silverman (a Jew) on the opposing side on this one.

  • ragingrev

    I support you Dan.

    I think Barker is far too committed to the cause of fighting an enemy he perceives to be there that he is now becoming a caricature of himself…much like the Christians he fights against so often. I think that AA and FRFF are beginning to make enemies, much like Christianity has been doing for years, so that they can have an excuse to exist and raise funds – I’ve always feared this is what the movement would become.

    How much better could we be if we were to fulfill the needs of humanity by doing what religion fails to do: Feed the hungry, educate the ignorant, and cloth the naked. Were these the causes that we spent our efforts on rather than lawsuit after lawsuit I suspect that we’d get what we want simply out of respect than out of forcefulness.

    Edit: (I said Silverman, meant Barker)

  • GCBill

    The last sentence of the 3rd paragraph has problems. For one, “in ability” should be one word. I also think the last predicate needs another word besides “is” (though given the sentence’s incredible length, it’s hard to follow the grammatical structure).

    In any case, you make good points about the contexts of religious symbols being important to their constitutionality. I’m also deeply worried that the FFRF doesn’t appear to have their information right about what the monument actually depicts.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      reedited the last sentence just for clarity, not for substance. Thanks.

  • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

    I’m frustrated to learn people are having trouble commenting through Disqus, even logged in. Please if anyone else is having this problem, I am not disapproving comments with any regularity whatsoever, so if you have problems, please e-mail your comments to me at camelswithhammers

    Dave Muscato, PR director of American Atheists wanted to write the following:

    Hey Dan! For some reason I’m having trouble logging in to post this on your blog directly, but here’s what I was trying to post there:
    Thanks for your post, Dan.

    While I stand with Dave and Dan Barker on this issue, I do understand your point. The problem here though is one of inclusiveness—40% of the people targeted in the Holocaust were not Jews (and consequently not killed because they were Jewish). The Holocaust was about eugenics as much or more than it was about religion. It was a movement to create a superior “race,” free of ethnic Jews (no consideration was given as to whether they were practicing in their religion or not), ethic Romani, disabled people, gay people, etc etc.

    What we oppose is not a Jewish Star on a Holocaust memorial—that’s fitting and relevant. What we do oppose is the lack of representation of all these other groups. It’s about equality. If you’re going to spend taxpayer money or put a memorial on government land, as is the case here, in order to be constitutional, it has to include everyone OR not have a religious symbol. What you can’t do is just have one religious symbol by itself because that implies endorsement. If there was a Jehovah’s Witnesses symbol, a rainbow, etc to go along with the Star, that would be one thing. Or alternatively, they could just go with the runner-up design, which doesn’t include a Star of David.

    This is about the design of the memorial on account of the fact that it’s on government land and uses taxpayer dollars but does not represent all effected groups equally. Equality is an all-or-none bar—either everyone is represented or no one is. It’s not the Star of David that’s the problem; it’s the fact that the design calls for it to stand alone. It’s a constitutionality issue.

    A woman named Rebecca writes:

    “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.” But this isn’t a museum; it’s a symbolic monument whose purpose is to draw attention of government officials to a particular religious group.
    “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. ” If it matters so much, why only concentrate on the one detail, the Jewishness of the victims? I highly doubt that *that* detail is the one likely to be forgotten.

    The memorial is beautiful, stately, and sobering. I’ve seen many Holocaust memorials that are beautiful, stately, and sobering that don’t make exclusive use of the Star of David. The one from my hometown comes to mind:

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Dave, assuming the other groups are not recognized, which has been disputed by the officials, as far as I understand, are you really saying that were there a monument to a genocide of only one religious group that that memorial could not use a religious symbol of that group on that memorial if it was on state grounds? That is the “letter of the law” of “only one religious symbol=endorsement” that fundamentally violates the important spirit of that vital principle.

    • David Gorski

      Dave Muscato is, quite simply, painfully mistaken about history. The Holocaust was not primarily about eugenics. Eugenics was grafted into the Holocaust later, but from the very beginning Jew hatred came first. It was a defining principle of the Nazi Party from very early on (1920) and a constant principle until the very end in 1945. His distinction between race and religion is also irrelevant to the centrality of the Jews to the Holocaust.

  • The Vicar

    My reactions to this:

    1. We are very much in danger of living in a world where people believe that the Holocaust was evil not because of what was done but because of the identity of the victims, or maybe that of the perpetrators. The Nazis were evil because of what they did, not who they did it to or who they were following — and we are increasingly losing that distinction. (Torture and collective punishment were two of the crimes for which the Nazi leaders were tried and executed after the war. Right now, we ourselves are torturing, and I seem to recall we’re doing collective punishment in our bombing campaigns as well. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is explicitly and enthusiastically carrying out collective punishment against the Palestinians. If it was evil for the Nazis, it’s evil for the U.S. and the Israelis as well — but where are the trials? Where are there even accusations of any serious standing? Since nobody is goose-stepping and wearing swastikas as they do this stuff, there seems to be no objection to it.) While this design may not have been intended to exacerbate that problem, I think it definitely will contribute in practice.

    2. The timing of the construction of this memorial is highly suspect. Why did Ohio wait ~70 years before constructing it, and then suddenly make room in the budget — at a time when budgets are incredibly constricted across the board — to do so? To me, this reeks of dishonesty at some level. Someone is trying to score points, and they should be resisted on those grounds alone. (Not connected particularly to the issue at hand, but I really wonder why this was pulled out NOW.)

    3. For that matter, is yet another memorial necessary? We’ve got an awful lot of memorials already, both to the victims and to ourselves for helping them. If they aren’t sufficient to remind us — alongside the endless programming of war porn passed off as “history” on cable — then I really doubt that this will help. Arguably, the military actions of our government in the last 10 years or so suggest that we have not learned anything worth knowing as a result of all that carved stone. Which means that further monuments are merely self-indulgence, not actually memorials.

    4. Daniel, how can you possibly say that having a highly-visible Star of David — and no other symbols — doesn’t outweigh the words on the monument? That’s really beneath you; not only is there a great deal of research showing that visual signals outweigh verbal ones by a huge factor, but in the images which are used to promote this monument in the future, the inscription will not be legible. Little schoolkids dragged to see this — and you’d better believe there will be plenty — aren’t going to remember the words, they’re going to remember the Star of David.

    All in all, a bad idea, poorly executed.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Daniel, how can you possibly say that having a highly-visible Star of David — and no other symbols — doesn’t outweigh the words on the monument?

      It’s not a matter of a competition of relative weights.

    • The Vicar

      Yeah, it can’t be because nothing else is shown, so the “relation” is infinite.

      Graphics outweigh text for humans. It’s always been that way, and probably always will — our brains are wired like that. We should insist that they be chosen wisely if they’re going to be carved out of stone by representatives of the government.

      More to the point, I note that you address none of my other concerns.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I think your concern about only worrying about the dehumanization of certain groups and not others is a good one but I don’t think it means we shouldn’t also focus on specific groups’ persecutions.

      Questions of why now or what motivates this project really do not concern me. They are not topics for the FFRF or AA. I would rather they focus on actual secularism and atheism issues and I simply do not think this is one of those.

  • Paul Schmeer

    Why are they singling out just this holocaust? What of the Armenians, the American Indians, and many other systemic genocides of minorities? (A 1920′s dictionary defines holocaust as “a sacrafice wholly consumed by fire”.) To ignore these many previous or later genocides commited by other societies is abhorant.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      The rule cannot be include every genocide or commemorate none. What we need are multiple memorials for multiple tragedies.

  • Lane

    Refreshing. Great article. This is an example of the intellectual honesty that keeps me coming back to this blog.

  • Michael R

    I agree. If this sort of reflexive insensitivity continues in the atheist movement, many of us will drop the term atheist altogether and use something else. I felt likewise aghast with the American Atheist billboards at Christmas time: “Keep the merry, drop the myth”. Unnecessarily offending people is counterproductive. We should be spending more time building a positive humanism, than attacking religion.

  • Octavo

    Thanks for this post, Dan. This sort of behavior by the FFRF and other atheist orgs are a big part of why I don’t want to have anything to do with organized atheism.

  • RobiDon

    With this Star of David symbol the memorial may not be seen as promoting Judaism, but it may be seen as promoting the State of Israel, which is after all a Jewish State. It’s not that we shouldn’t forget the Nazi holocaust: it’s that in our remembrance we must not hide the 64 year long Israeli genocide against the Palestinian people. In other words, it’s the political impact of the symbol about which we should also be concerned.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      The political impact of the symbol you raise could be powerful, there definitely could be those other meaning connotations for some or such could even become stronger over time. That is an interesting but wholly different question to raise than whether this is a 1st Amendment issue and whether the star equals religious Judaism simpliciter as the FFRF and AA simplistically seem to be assuming.

  • Dhoelscher

    So the man who wrote a long civility pledge is now accusing those he disagrees with of offering “knee jerk response” and “obtuse and simplistic … crude, ignorant” arguments and as representing “blind reactionary atheism”?


    How do you know their responses are “knee jerk” and “ignorant”? Might they be well considered, even if those responses don’t meet with your approval?

    There is an element of religious establishment in what Ohio is doing with this memorial, but it is rather subtle and not central enough to the project to make me get worked up about it to the degree Barker and Silverman are.

    But the memorial is still highly problematic. In recent years, historians have begun to craft a fuller, more detailed account of what the Holocaust, broadly understood, involved. In books like Michael Berenbaum’s (ed.) A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis (New York University Press, 1990); Reynaud and Graffard’s The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Nazis (Cooper Square Press, 2012); Richard C. Lukas’ The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation 1939-1944 (University Press of Kentucky, 1986) and Richard Plant’s The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (Henry Holt, 1988); a picture emerges in which the evidence suggests that at least 40 percent, and perhaps as many as 60 percent, of the Nazi’s victims were non-Jews. As Karen Silverstrim writes, the other victims included “Communists, Czechs, Greeks, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, mentally and physically handicapped, Poles, resistance fighters, Russians, Serbs, Socialists, Spanish Republicans, trade unionists, Ukrainians, Yugoslavians, prisoners of war of many nations, and still others whose identity may never be recognized.” (Some of these groups, of course, overlap with Jews, as in the case of Ukraine, where one million Jews were killed out of 4-5 million people exterminated by the Nazi’s.)

    Now I suppose you could say that, well, the Ohio memorial does not seek to downplay the other victims, but rather focuses on the Jewish victims with no disrespect intended to other victims. But why would anybody want to create a memorial in that fashion? The inscription speaks of “ethnic and religious minorities.” But in places like Russia, Poland, and Ukraine, the victims were not either type of minority. How much respect are you (i.e. the Ohio people) giving non-Jewish victims if you can’t be bothered to craft the right language to describe them? And “political dissidents who suffered under Nazi Germany”? Are they kidding me? How about something like “hundreds of thousands of murdered brave dissidents, including communists, socialists, trade union leaders and members, journalists and intellectuals”?

    You quote this: “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.”

    That’s downright chilling, both in terms of the original meaning and the revised one I’m about to suggest. In that second sentence, substitute the words “the poor and the middle classes” for “Jews.” Doesn’t that fit perfectly our current situation under neoliberalism? Of course, I wouldn’t expect most atheist bloggers, even though most of them identify as humanists, to think about that, as the problem of class seems to strike them as being about the most boring and irrelevant topic imaginable.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      “knee jerk response” and “obtuse and simplistic … crude, ignorant” arguments and as representing “blind reactionary atheism”?


      There is nothing inconsistent with those charges and the civility pledge. I’m assessing the quality of their arguments and giving the reasons that I have for seeing them as bad in these ways as charged.

    • Dhoelscher

      “Obtuse” means “slow to understand.” In other words “dumb.” So one who offers obtuse arguments is being stupid. And as I said before, you can’t know whether those you’re criticizing are acting in knee jerk fashion or out of ignorance. “Blind reactionary atheism” suggests defenders of godlessness who go about their work mindlessly or under self-inflicted delusion.

      I watched the Silverman interview. His arguments could have been better, but they were definitely not “simplistic.”

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      It’s a self-inflicted delusion to say that religious symbols always function religiously even in contexts where anyone who is not a hyper-sensitized anti-religionists can clearly recognize a whole set of primary meanings of a symbol that are historically, culturally, and ethnically relevant to what it memorializes.

  • NiteInJail

    all correct and if the holocaust only happened to Jews then maybe you might have a point … but it didn’t. So using only one symbol (even one ethically associated with 60% of the victims) is misleading.

    There is significant historical non-religious use of the symbol but to ignore it’s religious context and how it will be interpreted is just plain crazy. If you show a thousand people that symbol, well over 90% of them will say it’s a Jewish symbol AND religious. And so it doesn’t belong on public space in isolation like that. It gives the impression of supporting a religion and so it’s illegal.

    The mere fact that people are fighting so hard to keep this symbol in the design is proof this is more than just a symbol. They intended to push the law here. The committee that decided on this design was informed that this design would raise legal issues and they chose it anyway.

    On public lands and with public funds don’t get to put up single religious symbols like that … you just don’t … too freaking bad.

    The atheist movement here (FFRF specifically) are fighting for equality, which is the BEST thing you can fight for. If enough people in Germany fought for equality this would be a very different world.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I’m not saying that people will not see religious connotations at all, but I am saying that they will understand them not in a vacuum but in the context of a very specific memorial with a very specific historical, contextual meaning.

    • John_in_Vegas

      Throughout history, humanity has witnessed countless episodes of the systematic extermination of an ethnic group of people; and yet, very few are remembered as such; Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur just to name a recent few. Jews were not the only victims of genocide, nor is religion always the catalyst. The Star of David acknowleges only one ethnic group in only one instance of ethnic cleansing.

      We remember the the Holocaust and honor its victims for very good reasons; however, the way we remember it dishonors millions of others who suffered atrocities at the hands of their governments. They deserve the same recognition and should not be excluded in favor of any one group, especially on property maintained with public funds.

  • SubMan USN

    I agree with you Dan. I made an mild objection to Dave Silverman via twitter about this. It started a long discussion with others (not Dave). Unfortunately the format of twitter is not conducive to lengthy discussions. Now, I’ll just link people to this post.

  • DoctorDJ

    So we’re arguing over the meaning of a symbol. The star of David in Dan’s context is purely ethnic. To me it’s religious. To those in Gaza it’s the symbol of the state occupying Palestine.
    So many controversies bound up in one little symbol.

    • threenorns

      in that case, it makes sense to accept the symbol for its intended symbolism instead of imposing your own on it.

  • kanenas101

    Yawn. And how many of you people assume all Christians follow the teachings and actions of the Westboro “Baptist” “Church” and judge those of us who call us Christians based on those?

    Sounds like it is a very very high percentage.

    • 3lemenope

      “You people”?

  • Bob Seidensticker

    “Other groups” amounted to 5 million people.

    Isn’t it more inclusive to say “11 million people died” than “6 million Jews”? Everyone is a person; not everyone is a Jew. It would resonate better and it would show in inclusive attitude in the memorial, which is the attitude that I think we’d hope people would see the memorial with.

  • threenorns

    i have no argument with your stance – he’s just the flip side of the taliban.

  • Ric

    How about, if this is to be a so-called secular monument reminding us of the Holocaust, perhaps we should include in it all those instances of forgetting – the Rwandan genocide, the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis as a result of the United States lies and perversions of law, the Balkan massacres of the 90s, the Belgian genocide in the Congo, and on and on. How about specific remembrances of the six million non-Jews murdered in Hitler’s concentration camps – the atheists, the gays, the disabled, the Gypsies, and the rest – the forgotten millions? To talk about the nobility and strength of the Jews in their suffering without recognizing the constant insanity of the human race is to demean all the people who suffered devastating losses at the hands of human madness and hatred and who have demonstrated just as much nobility and strength. The Jews have no monopoly on suffering and the world does not owe them any more than it owes any other religious or cultural group that has suffered mass murder. If a memorial is desired in Ohio let it be built on private land with private money.

    • 3lemenope

      The Jews have no monopoly on suffering

      Nor do they have a monopoly on memorials.

  • happydog

    Personally, I regard hardcore atheists as being the same as evangelical Christians these days. A plague on both your houses.

    • 3lemenope

      What makes an atheist “hardcore”?

    • happydog

      The very fact that you are asking means that you are trying to bait me into a useless discussion. Read the article above. And, I repeat, a plague on both your houses.

    • James Yakura

      There are many definitions of “hardcore atheist”. We would like to make sure that you are not expanding this to cover “anyone who publicly admits to being an atheist”.

  • Laurence

    Dan, you are both right and wrong. It is a ethic/cultural symbol. But it is also a religious symbol. I mean, there’s a reasons why people who aren’t ethnically Jewish but convert to Judaism wear the Star of David. The Star of David is clearly a ethnic/cultural symbol. It is also clearly a religious symbol. The question is whether the religious meaning of a symbol taints it for use in public displays. I think another question is whether having a monument such as this will open the floodgates for monuments without the noble aspirations as this one. If it will, then it seems like a small price to pay omit a symbol with religious meaning or, at the very least, to include symbols of others who suffered the wrath of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Personally I think the second option makes the most since because it is the most inclusive.

  • Lausten North

    They just wrote a letter. It has good points and was eloquently written. It’s just a letter. One of the main points that most miss is that this design was chosen from others submitted. Some of those others did not contain religious symbols. It’s just a a letter.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      It’s just a letter. And the symbols are just symbols. Communication is just communication. Ideas are just ideas.

      So what is your point, exactly? In the letter that is “just a letter,” the author took issue with a Holocaust memorial, for heaven’s sake, because you unpleasant atheist types are so unreasonably allergic to any religious symbolism at all. It is perfectly appropriate to be “aghast, livid, embarrassed, ashamed, and offended” by that, because, you know, it’s stupid. So the idea that it is “just a letter” means nothing if the letter expresses an obnoxious idea. It is not so much that they just wrote a letter as it is that they just wrote an obnoxious letter, which tries to impose their ideas on people who don’t share them.

    • Lausten North

      Did you read the letter? Where in it did you get the idea that anyone was “aghast”? That’s the point. You are using words to describe something that don’t fit what it is.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      Did you read the article on this exact page? THAT’S where I got the idea that anyone was aghast – I quoted the author of the article. Obviously you think that the author – an atheist himself – overreacted. Because, you know, you think the letter was “just a letter.” But the point of the letter was to object to a Star of David on a Holocaust Memorial. You have to be the most insensitive, obnoxious, unfeeling jerk in the world to think that way. You are pushing your extreme overreaction to any possibly religious connotation in any symbol to the point of parody. It is ridiculous.

    • Lausten North

      Ah, got it, I thought you were referring to what the letter said, not Daniel said. So, yeah, I disagree with both of you. The letter did not simply react to the Star of David, it discussed the selection process and other options they could have taken. It explained the potential problem, but did it with nuance and balance. Pretty much the exact opposite of the way you have presented yourself here.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      Of course it simply reacted to the Star of David. That was the whole point. The criticisms of the selection process and other options all revolved around the objection to putting the Star of David on the memorial on the ground that the symbol is associated with a religion as well as an ethnic group and a culture. Other options would have been to exclude or de-emphasize the symbol, perhaps by adding other symbolism as well. The complaints about process had to do with not considering the objections of people like you who are allergic to any religious symbolism in public. This was all to the point of eliding over or minimizing the very specific religious and ethnic bigotry inherent in the Nazi genocide campaign and the horror most people (maybe not you) experience when that kind of evil manifests itself. You have to be the most insensitive, obnoxious, unfeeling jerk in the
      world to object to the placement of a Star of David on a Holocaust memorial. You are pushing your extreme overreaction to any possibly religious connotation in any symbol to the point of parody. It is ridiculous.

    • Lausten North

      It is incomprehensible how you use over the top language while accusing others of doing that, when they didn’t. Did you read the part of the letter describing the other submissions that didn’t use a religious symbol, or its description of well known memorials that also don’t? Or the part about Jewish people supporting a separation of church and state? An extreme overreaction would have been to spend a lot of money on a lawsuit. Instead, they wrote a letter bringing up issues and citing laws that the governor may not have been aware of. Just a letter.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      Incomprehensible only to you.

  • Spengler47

    Many of Hitler’s victims were white, heterosexual men and women, including very conservative army officers and aristocrats who opposed his regime. Others were radical leftists, including some Communists. Many of Htiler’s opponents were motivated by Christian religious convictions. But the fact also remains that about half of the people who died in Hitler’s camps were Jews and they were targeted on ethnic and religious grounds. They had no choice, they were given no opportunity to collaborate with the regime, unlike other people in Germany who made the decision to oppose Hitler. The author, by the way, should learn to spell anti-semitism correctly.

  • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

    I’m appalled they did that. It does not reflect my views or this article.

  • Mike_418

    Let’s not forget that the bible has it’s fair share of ethnic cleansing, religious supremacism, and zionist hatred for anyone non-jew. These people are asking us to make a memorial to remember the atrocities of the nazis, how about a memorial for all the palestinian people killed in recent decades? Forget the mythological genocides, and rapes that are documented in the bible. There are atrocities being carried out TODAY in the name of YAWEH! Many jewish people today seem disconnected from the reality of the fact that their recorded history (the bible) is not any happier than the history of the early 1900′s.

    By the way… I am not racist, I don’t agree with nazism, or any of that shit. Just saying….

  • Patrick Dempsey

    6,000,000 Jews were slaughtered. FACT!!! We lend these victims of ‘Genocide’ a term which seeks to Remember and Recall they were taken from us in a systematic and barbarous way. What follows, be it Rwanda, the Balkans or Iraq is a genocide by another name, not a holocaust of any description. We owe 6,000,000 People much more than a term lends, yet we seek to deprive them even of that?

  • Brooke Anstey

    I want to repudiate this blind reactionary atheism in this instance with no qualification.

    La Solution Aux Régimes avis