Memo to NYC Atheists: Please Don't Sue

There’s a special street sign going up in New York City to honor a group of firefighters who sacrificed their lives to save others on 9/11. Not only were they heroes, they were among the first firefighters to arrive on the scene that morning. There were seven of them and, after they died, they were collectively known as “Seven in Heaven.”

And that’s how city officials are memorializing them:

So it raises a really difficult question for some atheists: Is this something worth responding to?

Let’s be honest here. Nothing we can say or do will make us look good. If we tell the truth (“There’s no evidence that Heaven exists”), no one will care. If we talk about the legal aspects (“This may be a case of church/state entanglement”), the response from most people will be, “You’re kidding, right?” If we suggest a different name (“Remember the Seven from 9/11″), people will say we’re being disrespectful to the firefighters’ memory.

There are arguments against having this sign, but the response to any of them is almost universal: What do you have against the firefighters who gave their lives for us? At that point, you’re going to lose the debate regardless of how right you are.

We’ll get attention for it if we say/do anything — we already have — but none of it will make us look good. It’s a far cry from billboard messages that might make readers feel uncomfortable but still make an important point.

With all that in mind, the media is now reporting that the New York City Atheists may be filing a lawsuit over the street sign:

“It’s just like product placement,” said Ken Bronstein, the President of the New York City Atheists.

“We are not against honoring those who died on 9/11, but we are arguing the word heaven should not be used. It has religious connotations,” continued Bronstein.

Now the NYC Atheists say they are poised to sue the City to get a name change. “It’s a whole conspiracy trying prove we are a Christian nation and imprinting our culture and our vocabulary,” complained Bronstein.

*Facepalm*

That can’t be right… suing over *this*? It’s a PR disaster in the making.

I have to do something about this… what can I do…

*Looks at phone*

*Finds the number for NYC Atheists.*

I ended up speaking to Jane Everhart, director of communications for NYC Atheists.

Is that article true?

She tells me they’re not actually “poised to sue.” That makes it sound like everything is already in motion, which isn’t true.

So are you going to sue?

They are considering it. They’re giving it serious thought. But they haven’t actually taken steps outside of a few consultations with lawyers.

But you know this is going to be a PR disaster, right? You’ll never be able to convince the public that “Seven in Heaven Way” is promoting a faith.

She strongly disagrees.

Well, tell me what good will come from you suing…

She tells me I can quote her on this:

The way you change the laws is the way Madalyn Murray O’Hair did [when she sued to get mandatory prayer out of public schools]. You have to sue to change the laws. Suing isn’t fun. It costs money. It takes time… but the way to get really tough laws changed is to sue.

We have been inspired by the civil rights movement and by the gay rights movement. And the progress they have made has always been by changing the laws.

I have something I put at the bottom of my emails. It says, “Power concedes nothing without a demand” (by Frederick Douglass).

But what if you lose a lawsuit and it sets a precedent that could hurt us when it comes to more egregious church/state violations?

At that point, someone else from the media calls her and she has to go.

So there you have it. There’s a chance NYC Atheists may sue over this. And they’re really not concerned with any PR ramifications. On principle, they may have a point, but this particular case is going to be much harder for atheists to defend (in the battle of public opinion) than other church/state violations.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

    Agreed. It would be giving up so much to (maybe) gain so little.

  • http://standardspicywhatnot.blogspot.com/ Naomi

    I suppose it does rhyme. I imagine if there was another number it wouldn’t be the same saying. Like “Six We Miss Way” or whatever.

  • Red

    “Six in the River Styx Blvd”?

    The one notable point, to me, is the possibility of setting a legal precedent that emboldens the religious right. Considering that, I just don’t see how a lawsuit will be helpful.

  • Susan

    I agree with the NYC Atheists, actually. They should push to change the name to Seven Heroes Way, unless the city can CONCLUSIVELY state that the men were Christians, Seven in Heaven may actually be an insult to their memory.

  • jay

    You might as well sue the city for allowing zoning to build churches. Or sue the USPS for delivering any mail with religious connotations. Waste of time and worse, makes Atheists look like jackasses. Pick your battles!

  • fea24

    The only way I would say that they should go ahead with this is if they had a family member of one (or more) of the seven on their side who objected on the grounds that the firefighter had not believed in heaven.

    Surely, they can find something else to complain about? there is no shortage of stuff out there.

  • crystal

    I’m agnostic. There is a possibility that heaven, god, and/or hell does or does not exist nor do I care. But even if you don’t believe in heaven, what about heaven as a mental construct? Like I feel like I’m in hell while livng in this earth. We may think they’re not in heaven because there is none but they certainly acted like angels on this earth and it is just a good thought or something. I don’t know, just trying to make light of this. This is difficult to argue against.

  • AteoAbsurdo

    Personally, I appreciate “Remember the Seven from 9/11.” It just feels more catchy to me.

    However, the families already decided on a loosely religious name, and I think that’s fine.

    In this case I feel the state could allow streets to incorporate religious diction so long as the words are not restricted to one religion.

    I hope we see “Heathen’s Boulevard” spring up somewhere. :)

  • Slider33

    Unless one of these “seven” were outwardly atheist, I say we should drop this one.

    Seems nit-picky when there are smarter battles to fight. Choose your battles wisely.

    Hemant said it well, there is probably no way to come out of this looking good.

  • http://www.meetup.com/av-freethinkers David Dionne

    While I think A.A. has a good point, I don’t think this is worthy of the time and resources–not to mention the negative publicity–of a lawsuit.

  • Kate

    The fact is that if we as a group, keep letting things like this go, we are in fact sending the message that there are only certain circumstances in which we are willing to voice our ‘outrage’.

    I completely agree that we are going to look like assholes by speaking out against this. However, the facts are that this does in fact have a religious theme.

    For me, not doing anything or “letting them get away with this one” says that anyone who died on 9/11 is somehow less a hero when they have the atheist tag, or a religious tag taken away. If this group of firefighters that they are remembering, were Christians or people who believed in a heaven, then I don’t think the sentiment is disrespectful at all, but city funds should not be used to immortalize that (religious) sentiment.

    This isn’t an atheist-or-not argument so much as it is a legal argument. I think suing is a brave thing for them and us as a community to do because the louder our voice, the more people won’t be able to help but hear.

  • gski

    Anyone raising an objection to this sign is an asshole. The atheist community has enough of an image problem without these morons working to make the problem worse.

  • Sarah

    This is not a battle worth fighting for. At all. Technically they have a point, but this isn’t a prayer in a public school or ten commandments outside of a public building. This is about firefighters who have died on September 11th. This is a losing battle. You lose the lawsuit (if they do sue them), you look terrible. You win the lawsuit, you look even worse.

    Maybe if we all email them about this matter they will reconsider?

  • Steve

    Oh give me a break, NYC atheists, you’re taking this WAY too seriously, and looking like douchebags in the process.

    We wouldn’t want Christians to point to a street sign as validation of their religion!

    Christ, it’s a memorial to fallen firefighters, it’s not the Ten Commandments at a courthouse. If you think that somehow this would be a victory for the atheist movement, then I think I’m going to go sit on this bench across the hallway. Yours kind of reeks.

  • CelticWhisper

    This is a real grit-your-teeth matter for me, because 9/11 and the “AmeriChristian” mentality are so tightly linked and I’d love to help break that chain, but I find myself agreeing with Hemant.

    There’s the battle and there’s the war. Suing over this may well get 7IH Way renamed but the next fight is going to be harder and there will be a massive PR cost to be paid.

    A strategic retreat is better-advised here. Maybe release a statement saying “NYC Atheists honors the memory of the WTC firefighters and will never forget the sacrifice they have made. They will be ever fondly remembered.” And leave it at that. Make a point to not make a point of the religious issue. Don’t even mention heaven, hell, or Lordy McJesusGod. Instead, maybe coordinate some kind of “highlighting the contributions of atheist/secular firefighters” campaign to play up the altruism of atheists in civil-service roles.

    Forfeit one battle to better win the war. And though it could easily be said that even thinking of it as a war in the first place is ill-advised, I daresay the religious have made that decision for us. Let’s not fuel the fires of their culture-war machine.

  • http://www.horsegoeswest.com Horse

    One valid way I see through this is if they can find one or more of the firefighters who were not Christian. Arguing how the ‘in Heaven’ part is not a way they’d appreciate to be remembered might work – that it is a projection of other individuals.

    But if all the firefighters were ardent Christians, well then to hell with it. That’s a way they most likely would want to be memorialized.

  • Sarah

    Lordy McJesusGod.

    :)

  • pendragon

    The interesting thing here is, in order for anyone to think these firefighters are currently in Heaven, that person would have to be profoundly ignorant of Christianity*. According to the Bible, you do not automatically get an immediate trip into Heaven. Nobody gets to go there until the Rapture.

    So what we, as atheists, should do is to chuckle quietly to ourselves, and say nothing out loud. It’s just a little bonus for us, highlighting the nonsensical nature of Christian religious nonsense.

    Peace.

    *The fact that this is true for virtually all American “Christians” just increases the irony and the humor.

  • Brittany

    When atheists have problems putting up billboards that simply say “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone,” I don’t see how NYC Atheists thinks that this won’t be an utter disaster.

  • fuzzybunnyslipperz

    Well… what if one of them was an Atheist? Would we be disrespecting their memory if we sit back and let them say that person is in heaven? This should be all inclusive, as these brave fire fighters gave all they had for everyone. Not just the ones who think they are going to heaven at some point.

    Should they sue? Yes. I think they should.

  • http://s2solutions.us/wordpress Seth Strong

    I think atheists have a job they could do on this subject and that is come up with a catchy honorable better name.

    “Seven Heroes” is more religiously neutral but takes pride in the same thing as the current sign for example.

  • C. Robert Dimitri

    This is staggering to me. It’s a street sign. It’s not on our official currency purporting to be our national motto. It’s not children in a public school being prompted to recite the Pledge Of Allegiance or join in prayer. It’s not anything resembling any sort of compulsory mandate, endorsement, or indoctrination. At its most basic level, the name of a street is only that: a name consisting of words from our language. Even an atheist like me who can be quite outspoken about keeping church and state separate sometimes uses the word “heaven.” For example, “Those French fries taste like heaven,” or “I enjoy reading tales of Valhalla, the heaven of Norse mythology.” Are we going to police all of the thousands of street signs in the entire country, thus rendering them void of any artistic license and reducing them to a series of numbers and letters? We have so many more debates that are so much more important to join.

  • http://whatthefaith.wordpress.com Jaime Delgado

    I don’t give a f*ck about PR. What’s right is not always popular and what’s popular is not always right. If they want to sue, they’re technically in the right so if they lose, we’ll know it has nothing to do with the merit(s) of the argument and more with the prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance on the behalf of the majority.

    As if those that hate us need any further reason to do so…

  • http://www.secularleft.us Doug B

    I’m sure those in the civil rights movement complained about the NAACP suing all the time. Thurgood Marshall’s idea was to break down discrimination a little at a time so that it would fall under its own weight.

    I’m sure many people told Marshall that he couldn’t win Brown v Board of Education.

    Baby steps mean not letting up no matter what the so-called PR result is.

  • Lena

    This doesn’t bother my atheist sensibilities at all. It’s harmless. I don’t disagree with the arguments against it, it’s just not something that pings my radar.

    It does, however, really piss me off from my “Don’t be corny” perspective. I mean, there’s “heaven,” which even without the religious aspect is just an offensively cheesy concept. And then there’s the first grade rhyming that just makes my teeth itch. And finally, I just have a general impatience with symbolic gestures. It’s one of the reasons it was so easy for to drop all aspects from religion…that kind of stuff does nothing for me.

  • Miko

    The proper Douglass quotation is:

    “Those who profess to favor freedom, yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

    Not exactly a call for lawyers.

    If you don’t like the sign, take it down when no one is watching.

  • Rich Wilson

    I’m just waiting for a Christian to sue of the names of the days of the week.

    /twiddle

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    If we called them Seven in Valhalla, that would be a reflection of their heroism, and not necessarily a statement about their actual location. The same argument could be used about Seven in Heaven, that it’s not an affirmation of anything other than the goodness of these men. Makes the NYC atheists case seem pretty weak to me.

  • Miles McCullough

    I wonder what kind of precedent allowing the sign will set. Will we see more Xtian streets along the line of Divinity Rd., Praise St., and Hallelujah Ave.? Or will we see protest streets like Heathen’s Boulevard or Skeptics Alley or Madonna in Nirvana Way for the new agey folks? Or will this be a one off?

  • Will

    Hrm.

    I think if the city is paying for the sign, then yes, they are in the wrong, and no, I don’t particularly care that it makes me look like an asshole to say so.

    If, on the other hand, the sign is being paid for by a private entity, it should be allowed.

    I also see this as biting the atheist community in the ass later – not because we’re perceived as jerks (though we are perceived that way) but because allowing such a blatant abuse on the city’s part will probably set a precedent for further abuse down the line.

  • Stephanie

    The NY Atheists have every right to sue over this one.
    Of course, it has all the class and good PR potential of neon protest signs at a military funeral…

    Sigh. Why must everything be a battle? These people are mourning, not trying to prosthelytize. How sad is it that the New York Atheists are too militant to know the difference.

  • JustAGuy

    I have to believe the NYC Atheists have limited resources.

    This cannot possibly be the best use of those resources.

  • Gibbon

    Mountain out of a mole hill, that’s all this is, oh, and class warfare.

  • downtown dave

    No matter where you take the fight,
    God is still God. http://atheistlegitimacy.blogspot.com/

  • http://luckyatheist.blogspot.com Michael Caton

    NYC atheists, this would be a disaster. Ask yourself if the lot of non-religious Americans will be more, or less, advanced five years from now if this law suit goes forward. That’s the only way to think about this, and if NYC atheists won’t think about it that way, then we might start asking which group has the bigger problem with reality. DO NOT DO THIS. MORONIC.

  • Andrew

    It would be a travesty for NYC atheists to sue over this. Most importantly, there’s no possible way for them to win. Nobody’s rights are being infringed by a sign that says “Heaven” on it.

  • ORAXX

    I find their choice of street names appalling, however, nothing good can come from fighting it. This is not a battle worth winning, as it would only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes.

  • http://awaitinginspiration.com Adam

    They should fight it – you give them an inch, you let them set a precedent, and soon we will be back to mandatory prayer in schools.

  • Meyekael

    If you’re going to sue over this then you better sue San Francisco, San Diego, St. Louis, and all the other U.S. cities and towns that are name after Catholic saints.

  • Timmy

    The word heaven is speculative so I see no reason to sue.

  • Kim

    Agreed, it makes us look awful.

  • Mihangel apYrs

    It’s rather like Armistice Day or a church funeral: one loses no integrity by honouring the dead even if it means singing the Xian songs and giving due courtesy: it’s being polite.

    Some fights are worth taking to the barricades for, others make one seem petty.

    And as an aside “Heaven” is a gay club in London!!

  • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

    @Darwin’s Dagger

    I had the same thought.

  • FormicHiveQueen

    It’s militant idiots like these who make the rest of us look bad.

  • walkamungus

    If the families agreed on the name — yes? — presumably any serious objections on behalf of any one (or more) of those firefighters regarding atheism have been mentioned and more or less worked out. Especially since we’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, suing would be a PR disaster.

  • Freemage

    Given the broad definition of the word “heaven”, coupled with the acceptance of the group title by their families, I just don’t see any chance of success. If one of the families was saying, “Bob was an atheist, he didn’t even believe in heaven, and this is not how he’d want to be honored,” I’d swing around the other way in a heartbeat. But this… yeah, no, definitely a bad idea, NYC atheists.

  • Claudia

    Next up, they can sue to change the name of Church St. in every town in America, as well as force the change of every building and street named after a saint.

    Unless you can produce the family of one of those seven who says their loved one was an atheist (or a theist of a religion that doesn’t include the concept of heaven) then get a grip.

    If this is really the most pressing Church vs. State issue in NYC, it must be paradise for atheists over there.

  • Robert Solomon

    Not every mention of Heaven is a government sponsored religious message. “Heaven Help Us!” is an interjection that does not require a true sense of the afterlife. No one even remembers that “Zounds!” and “Gadzooks!” have religious origins. This street sign is not a religious message. And there are times to not be an ‘in your face’ atheist, just as there are times to not be an ‘in your face’ theist. I have no problem with this sign. Besides, this is not for the dead, it is for the living heroes. Anyone who runs into a burning building is a hero. Some are just unlucky, and don’t get out. This is NOT what I want to argue with them about.

  • Ben

    This is Pat Tillman all over again, groups claiming either that slain heroes belonged to their team or shared their worldview when the acts of heroism had nothing to do with those groups. It’s outrageous that political groups or churches would claim heroes to bolster their image, be it overt or inadvertent. The only group that could claim these heroes of 9/11 would be “firefighters for going above and beyond the call”.

    By putting up the sign “Seven in Heaven”, religious people are claiming the firefighters as their own when their heroism had nothing to do with religion. As for a lawsuit, that’s up to the individuals. It’s not worth my time to sue, but if someone else wants to, they shouldn’t be hampered by us just because we all happen to be atheists. If an outside observer wants to paint all atheists with the same brush, then that’s a result of their ignorance. How much do we want to compromise to cater to these idiots?

    This incident is indicative of the consensus that religion enjoys. The fact that even most religious people wouldn’t give it a second thought is exactly what we are trying to reverse. Sue their asses off. HOW DARE they use this heroism to score political points for religion. We are the only one’s that are truly respecting these heroes while the religious defenders of the sign are shitting on their graves.

  • http://www.atheist-experience.com Matt Dillahunty

    I’ve posted on this subject twice already at the AE blog and on FB.

    I won’t give a rat’s ass about PR when we’re in the right – but that’s not the case here.

    This case is NOTHING like the cases Madalyn fought. There’s not a constitutional violation here. It’s simply factually incorrect that this is an implicit endorsement of Christianity or religion. And that’s probably why American Atheists (who are generally cautious about what court cases they take) aren’t considering a lawsuit here.

    It’s a stupid name for a street. There were many better ways to honor those who died. It may not even fairly represent the beliefs of those who sacrificed their lives. It’s possibly worth some mild complaints or comments.

    But, threatening to sue is an incredibly stupid move…and I’m hoping that the lawyers they’re talking to will tell them so.

    Street names and city names aren’t government endorsements of ideas. Heaven and angels and a number of other concepts not only transcend the religions that spawned them, they also transcend religion. Metaphoric, poetic, references abound and we might as well be claiming that Led Zeppelin were making a pro-religion statement in Stairway to Heaven…

  • Chris

    It appears to me that atheists are quickly going to get a reputation for being “those kind of people”. The super uptight, easily offended type.

    Atheists “won” in Utah to have privately-funded crosses removed from the road side. Those crosses were there for Highway Patrol Troopers who died while working.

    The message these atheists are getting across is “we hate all religion” – I’m certain. No one is going to take the time to understand the nuances of “we’re ok with your religion, but not at the expense of the taxpayer, or on taxpayer land. Unless of course it’s equal treatment for all”. It’s too easy to see “Tragic deaths, angry atheists won’t let us remember them.”.

    Let them put their crosses on public land. Let the city pay for a street sign with “heaven” on it. There’s a line somewhere, but a few square inches of public land or a couple thousand dollars isn’t it.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    As the Beetles song says: “Let it be”

  • http://www.frommormontoatheist.blogspot.com Leia

    In my little Indiana city we have a Friar Drive, a Godman Avenue and a Bethel Avenue (which means holy place). It’s never really bothered me. Even if we had a Heaven Lane or a Elysian Fields Avenue… it’s all fiction to me.

    I guess they have balanced it out with a Dicks Street…

  • StarScream

    Agreed. It is not a good idea to sue over this. Just guessing and I hope I’m not repeating what someone else has already said, but the suit, if brought, won’t win. “Seven in Heaven” is too general to be considered an endorsement of religion which is the only way it would be illegal. It’s the same as “Under God”.

    Furthermore, why do they care so much? If you just look at it metaphorically, this whole problem goes away.

  • Mikel

    Pointing out that the sign name has religious connotations which are not universal to Americans or New Yorkers is just fine with me. Suing over it is only going to bite the whole non-religious community in the end though. There is no legal issue here, I’ll bet.

  • Mikel

    I am, of course, viewing this in the context of the religious fervor that seems to have always surrounded 9/11.

  • Dark Jaguar

    My stance is that so long as streets around the country can be named after whatever religious beliefs someone has, then this is okay.

    I checked and that does seem to be the case.

    According to Google maps, there is Allah Avenue, Harrodsburg, KY (Yes, Kentucky of all places), Shiva Court, Durham, NC, Jesus Maria Road, Mountain Ranch, CA (that’s the ONLY US street with Jesus in it, color me surprised), God Sent Court, PA, Budda Lane, Summerville, SC, a few streets with Hell in the name like Hell Neck Road, VA and about 4 Heaven roads.

    On the flip side, while there are no “godless streets” or “atheist avenues”, there’s 5 different Reality streets, such as Reality Trail, Heritage Creek, KY.

    There are also countless streets named after fictional characters or places, like Gandalf Way, Wilmington, MA.

    In other words, far from being an epidemic, at least when it comes to street names, it’s purely flavor. I don’t consider this to be either a direct promotion of religion nor for it to be government taking one religion’s side. Had that Google search resulted in thousands of Heaven streets and not one street named after another religion, I’d probably have a different opinion. Yes, I’m actually rather surprised that religion hasn’t corrupted US street names. Most of them are still named after trees.

    In other words, street names seem to be completely open to whatever whims someone enters, with no unfair bias against any religion or lack thereof as near as my google map search could uncover. This isn’t even in the same category as removing “under god” from money and the pledge, or getting the ten commandments out of a court house. This is more along the lines of protesting a government funded art exhibition that happens to feature a lot of religious artwork.

  • flatlander100

    Gotta pick our fights, guys. I’d give this one a pass.

  • http://about.me/andrewrwilson Andrew Wilson

    I just wonder, if all 7 firefighters were actually christian, that wouldn’t be so much of a problem, would it?

  • Heidi

    I can’t even believe somebody compared this to Brown v. Board of Education.

    *shaking head sadly*

    If the firemen’s families are OK with it, who cares?

  • Dark Jaguar

    Let me put it this way. Imagine if they took the opposite tact. They waited for a minority faith to request a street named something like “10 in Valhallah” and the public started protesting that. At that point they decide to actively defend that street name demanding the government not take sides in religious matters and that the majority should either accept any religion’s claim to a street name or two, or deny ALL religions such claim, including their own. Then I’d be all for it. Personally, from the results I’d say such a protest over a street name is very unlikely.

    I put it in the same category as suits over stamps. So long as minority religions get their own custom stamps, along with Elvis and Garfield the cat, I really couldn’t care less about a Mother Teresa stamp. I just won’t buy one.

  • http://lasvegasbadger.blogspot.com Dan

    You did a very nice job with this blog post, more information than most media, so thank you- especially contacting the nYC Atheists. I used your information on my blog because it was very useful.
    We may not agree on much, but you did a good job.

  • Michael

    We should only emphasize how those responsible for the “Seven in Heaven” nickname are taking advantage of the dead firefighters’ memories.

  • http://www.dankoleary Dan

    Should we call them and tell them “look guys, don’t be dicks!” ? I think hearing from a few hundred of us might help.

  • C. Robert Dimitri

    Dark Jaguar nailed it. Thanks for doing that research!

  • http://baconeatingatheistjew.blogspot.com/ The Atheist Jew

    I’ve heard that two chicks at once is heaven.

    I think suing in this case is way over the line.

  • keystothekid

    While I do believe in picking your battles isn’t it sort of the duty of humanity to do the right thing even when it’s unpopular? That being said, picking your/our battles is extremely important when we already have such an uphill battle. I think eventually we can get to things like this and simply call it out and then people will be like, “you’re correct.” As it stands now, it will no doubt be seen as a personal attack.

    It sort of reminds me of the whole Pat Tillman thing. His brother shouted down Mccain (I believe it was McCain) at the funeral for talking about how Pat was with God now, etc. His brother and family knew full well that Pat was an atheist therefore I think they had a right to let McCain have it. Maybe the NYC atheists should do a little research and see if all the firefighters were Christian. What if one of them were Muslim? Would the irony of the situation be lost on those conservative Christians?

  • Annie

    Perhaps others have already stated this, but I think the seven fire fighters who died should be honored in a way they (and their families) would like. If they all believed in a heaven, I personally see no problem with it.

    It’s important to pick our battles wisely, and I think this one is a lose/lose situation. This is a remembrance, not a law or a school requirement. If this is how others think they would like to be remembered, so be it.

  • SeekerLancer

    I think the best thing we can do is let it be known that the majority of us are against any legal action.

    I was hoping the argument about this was in the past and I’m pretty appalled to see it back.

    The idea that any publicity is good publicity is false. It’s hard to get your point across when everyone listening wants to punch you in the face. Westboro Baptist Church gets a lot of media attention too but do you think they’re gaining anyone’s acceptance any time soon?

  • Glenn Davey

    No TRUE atheist would do this… ;)

  • Vivian

    I’m always one to speak up when people throw around religious remarks like a blanket over everyone. But with this, I also use terms like “hell” and “heaven” more like an idea and not an actuality. We can consider this an idea and the others can consider it real.

    When I die, I know I will have family members who will think I’m in heaven (and enemies who think I’m BURNING!) and I’m okay with that. My Grandmother recently passed away. She was an INCREDIBLE woman who watched her two young children die in the Vietnam war and then sought refuge in America. She was a Devout Catholic. I’m an atheist.. I still like to think of her being in Heaven. As I will my father and mother.

    This is something for the families to speak on. It would make much more sense for one of them to object. But based on my experience, I doubt they would want to.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    There are arguments against having this sign, but the response to any of them is almost universal: What do you have against the firefighters who gave their lives for us? At that point, you’re going to lose the debate regardless of how right you are.

    We’ll get attention for it if we say/do anything — we already have — but none of it will make us look good.

    I actually agree with this, but I don’t get the hypocrisy. How is what NYC Atheists want to do any different from suing to prevent Obama from saying ‘So help me God’ at his inauguration, or suing to remove ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance? Someone could say the same things about Newdow’s efforts. Or about the FFRF’s efforts. It’s all the same.

    As far as I can see there are very few important violations of separation of church and state to be fixed anymore. When people were teaching Bible classes in public schools, that I can see. And I can see the same today for aggressive proselytizing in the military. But that’s about it.

    All the other lawsuits are trivial lawsuits in the same category as suing to remove reference to ‘Heaven’ in a PUBLIC (insert fake outrage here) sign on public streets! My God, how will we ever survive?

    That these sorts of lawsuits are trivial is seen by the fact that only oversensitive atheists are ever offended by them. Where’s the Buddhist outrage at state ‘endorsement’ of Christianity with Seven in Heaven? Doesn’t that make Buddhists second-class citizens? How intolerable!

    I dunno, maybe Buddhists have better things to do with their time than picking pointless fights. Thank God for that. (And I hope Thank God doesn’t offend – I’m just trying to talk like normal people do when they take off their postured outraged atheist hats.)

    Sorry for the rant, but so much of organized atheism today strikes me as community in search of a cause – any cause – to justify its own existence. It’s a community looking for a cause rather than a community united by a cause. That’s what makes it so tepid compared to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s more like a ComicCon convention than a social movement.

  • walkamungus

    What names could NYC Atheists sue over next?
    The Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon?
    The Mount of the Holy Cross in Colorado?
    Lake De Smet in Wyoming? (named after a Jesuit priest!)
    Hells Canyon in Idaho?
    Any ‘Zion’ in Utah?
    Santa Fe, NM? (double jeopardy! 2 for the price of 1!)
    Most of the Southwest and upper Midwest, where the Spanish and the French left many San, Santa, St., and Ste. placenames?
    Los Angeles?
    (Don’t answer that.)

    This is so *not* a constitutional violation. Is is a slow summer in NYC, or something?

  • Thilinab

    This is going to be PR disaster, and on top of that they will loose as well. This may be a religious or church/state issue right now (at least from our point of view), but it will easily turn into a patriotism issue, and once those blinders are on the case is lost.

    I’d say the most NYC Atheists could have done was find out if all the fire-fighters were Christian an if they would have been offended by the term being used.

  • Trace

    Meh.

  • Cortex

    Should they sue to rename St. Mark’s Place, too? I dare anyone to walk down that street and see it as an endorsement of Christianity.

  • Vanessa

    It’s a freaking street sign! Someone please explain to me how this is the least bit worthy to sue. I don’t understand. Heaven doesn’t have to exist for the word to be put on a sign. As long as the firefighters’ families are happy with it, I see absolutely nothing wrong with it.

  • El Bastardo

    An awful amount of time, money and effort wasted on an own goal.

    *sigh*

  • The Other Tom

    I’m gay, so I’ve been through this shit before. I was even a member of Irish Lesbian Gay Association of Boston, which you’ll recall as the group that sued for the right to be included in the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade and lost in the supreme court. So I know about losing too.

    Bluntly, when it’s time to go to court, worrying about public opinion is a waste of time. Someone will always vilify you. If you win ANY case you will be vilified for it. So, “will they hate me” is an irrelevant question – the important question is “will I win?

    When you decide that a civil rights case is important enough that you want to take it to court, you balance the value of the win (what does the case actually get you in terms of civil rights?) versus the probability you think you have of losing (obviously the lower the better) and the consequences of losing. I was surprised to learn about how coldly calculated the major civil rights cases usually are… if a supreme court case is being litigated by the ACLU or, for example, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, you should know that they made a determination before they ever got involved that they had a strong chance of winning, period. That’s why it took so long for the lawsuits for our marriage rights to come around, and why they’re taking place in a handful of states, not all 50. Before the gay marriage lawsuit in MA, GLAD had not only determined they felt they could win the suit, but they also did the research to determine we could also win the almost-inevitable referendum to change the MA constitution.

    In the ILGA case, we believed we had a good chance of winning on the grounds that the parade wasn’t really private because it received too much city sponsorship. We lost because the court decided firmly that it was still a private event. On the other hand, besides pissing me off royally the consequences weren’t so bad: the ruling did not say that a city could sponsor a public parade and exclude gay people, only that a private sponsor can, and it has been used as precedent to allow gay groups to throw invading groups of radical fundamentalist christians with bullhorns intent on harrassing innocent gay people out of outdoor “private” events for gay organizations. And, we showed that the sponsors of the Boston St. Pats parade are a bunch of bigots, from which they and the parade have socially never recovered.

    So I agree with Jane Everhart. Meekly begging for your rights and for laws to be obeyed often gets you nowhere. Lawsuits are a vital tool in a civil rights movement, no matter how unpopular.

  • Sarah

    Lawsuits are a vital tool in a civil rights movement, no matter how unpopular.

    I don’t see how renaming a street “Seven in Heaven Way” a civil rights issue.

    Dark Jaguar explained it very well a few posts earlier, so I won’t repeat that very thorough response. :)

  • sue

    On the subject of Valhalla, a town in England has an area with streets including Odin Close, Thor Drive, Baldur Close and Asgard Drive.

  • http://hoverFrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    I don’t believe that heaven is explicitly a Christian concept. From wikipedia (which is never wrong):

    In many religions, Heaven is a realm, either physical or transcendental in which people who have died continue to exist in an afterlife. Heaven is often described as the holiest place, accessible by people according to various standards of divinity, goodness, piety, faith or other virtues.

    As such the city of New York is not making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. I don’t see how anyone is suffering a loss by the addition of this sign. Are you human rights being infringed by it’s presence? As atheists we might feel excluded or even offended by the assumption of religion in the name but so what? Is Darwin Street or Copernicus Alley offensive to some Christians? Probably. Is Malcolm X square offensive or Martin Luther King Road? I’m sure some people would find offence in such names.

    The name allows New Yorkers to remember the bravery of these firefighters so that they do “live on” in the memories of future generations. I may not think that the name is entirely appropriate but I’ve no great objection to it.

  • Nick

    This is a violation of church and state separation and should be treated as such. It is regrettable the people cannot understand that the atheists mean no harm to the memories and the efforts of the seven individuals.Not suing them because it can give bad press Let’s see it another way. If the seven firefighters were Muslim and the sign read, “Seven in Paradise, Inshallah”, there would protests against the sign! Allowing this to continue will only bolster the false belief that America is a Christian nation. So, even if defeat is inevitable in the face of blind and misguided patriotism, I give full support to the NYC Atheists. As a foreigner reading about this in your country, I find it sad that religion occupies the workings of almost every aspect of social life.

  • Graeme

    The people behind this need to get a life

  • http://www.atheistrev.com/ vjack

    Maybe we should all convert to Christianity too. Wouldn’t that help our PR?

    I support NYC Atheists on this one.

  • Jeff

    @downtown dave: No matter where you take the fight, God is still God.

    And you’re still a moron.

    To all of you who think suing is a good idea – you’re as wrong as you can be. Really, sometimes the Christians are right about us.

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    Let’s not forget Corpus Christi, TX, a whole town named The Body of Christ.

    Of course many of these places were founded under Spanish or Mexican governments that were clearly tied to the church, so the names are historical and not fresh attempts to insert religion into the public arena.

    Still, I think that Heaven is rather a broad term and doesn’t have to be interpreted in an explicitly religious light. The universe beyond the earth might poetically be called the heavens by astronomers, and since we are all star stuff one day going back to the stars in a way we are all going to heaven.

  • James

    I don’t have an issue with this sign because “heaven” is such a generic word. It’s not like it has crosses on it or anything. In that case, I’d see the point. But just the word “heaven,” come on.

  • Phil

    Lots of interesting perspectives in these comments. Although, the street sign annoys and offends me, I think a lawsuit will be a PR disaster. Not the right battle.

  • SeekerLancer

    There are many, many towns with biblical names including the one I live in as I said in a post about this before. I’m sure there are thousands of streets in the United States with names related to Christianity and even other religions. Do we have to go and change all of those now?

    I feel like some of you are stretching this too far and just trying too hard to feel oppressed and upset about something. No matter what others have said public opinion does matter at least in cases like this where there’s no real harm being done and a lot of deep wounds may be opened over something that’s more of an invented issue than a serious one. If we become the angry boogeymen they think we are then it will be harder to win the serious battles in the future where civil rights are actually at stake.

    The name “Seven in Heaven Way” is in no way infringing upon your rights to do anything. It doesn’t even strictly advertise Christianity as the concept(s) of heaven is much farther reaching than that religion.

    When something does more harm than good it’s not giving up to take a step back. I know the sign upsets a lot of people but use your head and not your emotions before you’ve got the whole country using their emotions against you.

  • JB

    Heaven need not be an assertion of Christian belief. One can be “in Heaven” as a result of eating black cherry ice cream.
    I wonder if these Christians would be as happy with the street name if they realized the juxtaposition of Seven with Heaven is part of Islamic cosmology?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Heavens

  • T-Rex

    Please don’t pursue this law suit. Unless one of those fallen 7 was an atheist or didn’t believe in heaven and their family members are complaining, it’s just not worth it this time. The PR will not be good regardless of the outcome. Pick your battles wisely. There are many to choose from.

  • Daniel K.

    How disappointing, I thought Hemant was better than that. Cutting back on your principles in favor of public opinion is nothing more than old, dirty politics. That is exactly what the church does when one of its bullshit claims is not defend-able any longer. That is also what our politicians do year in and year out. I thought atheists were better than that.

    It is an entirely other question whether to fight if success is unlikely. But whether something is “right” or “wrong” does not depend on public opinion. Especially since public opinion is synonymic with “uneducated, reactionary bullshit” most of the time. So, dear fellow atheists, drop the stupid marketing and stand for your principles. Hold yourself to a higher standard.

  • http://sleepinginsundays.com Josh

    @Daniel

    Most of these responders agree with you: when your principles are under assault, it’s time you take a stance.

    But many of us don’t see this street sign as besieging our principles. The Dark Jaguar post a bit earlier pointed out the whole profusion of street signs with religious connotations throughout the USA, and I just can’t see a sign with “Heaven” in it as a real threat. No unnecessary financial obligations, no official government stances.

    Not to mention the PR nightmare over a quibbling point.

    There’s wisdom in knowing what battles to fight, and how publicly to fight them. Because of our court system, taking every little issue to trial can also end up working against us (legally and in the public eye). So we have to worry beyond a PR perspective, since frivolous cases (and, yes, I would see this as frivolous, as a street sign of all things) can end up coming back to bite us when we have more important things to challenge later.

  • Nordog

    I thought atheists were better than that.

    Why on Earth would you think that? Are not atheists people too?

    Especially since public opinion is synonymic with “uneducated, reactionary bullshit” most of the time.

    Oh, now I know why you think that. You remind me of Chesterton’s observation:

    Those thinkers who cannot believe in any gods often assert that the love of humanity would be in itself sufficient for them; and so, perhaps, it would, if they had it.

    Yeah, the great unwashed masses, you know, people who use words like “synonymous.”

  • http://hoverFrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    It is Thursday, July 7th today, a day named after the god Thor and a month named after a Roman emperor. Should we sue to have the days of the week changed? January, March and April are named after Roman gods. Should we sue to change these too.

    That would be frivolous wouldn’t it?

  • Rich Hugunine

    Sigh.
    I believe that Bronstein & Everhart perhaps see themselves as the heirs of O’Hair and have apparently adopted her aggressive tactics. I doubt such will work in this particular instance.
    These “Seven in Heaven” and all the other fire fighters and first responders have the status of gods in New York: they are heroes of the very highest order and consensus on how properly to honor them is very difficult to achieve.
    I think the New York City Atheists will do more harm than good to their cause if they pursue this court case. But that is, of course, their decision.

  • youth

    This is the first thing I thought of when I read the sign, before I had read the article:

    Seven minutes in heaven is a teenager’s party game. Two people are selected to go into a closet and do whatever they like for seven minutes. Sexual activities are allowed, however kissing and making out is more common.

  • Michael

    Personally I find the cheezy-ness of this more offensive than the religious reference. Its just so…corny.

  • John

    I agree, they should sue. Indeed, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” This run for cover, don’t sully our image is really funny. What are we, bright, shiny, Mormon, paint-a-different-picture atheists? No one ever said dissent was pretty.

  • Larry Meredith

    wow… So… only do things if they make you look good. If it’s socially unacceptable just stfu and deal with the way things are.

    that’s pretty fucked up, yo.

  • CanadianChick

    What an incredibly silly thing to sue over.

    The sign & concept are stupid and banal, but I have to agree that it’s not a significant violation of separation.

    And yes, PR matters. A lot. Especially in cases like this where no ones rights are being trounced on.

  • Non-Litigious Atheist

    I wonder if any of those firefighters standing in that picture don’t believe in heaven. It would not surprise me if maybe one did not and just played along. Identity politics atheists could learn a thing or two about when in Rome do as the Romans do. People do it all the time on the job and everywhere else in life without making a big stink about their sensitivities and being the center of attention. Some people really need to get a life.

  • Jeff

    I find these “Who gives a crap about PR?” comments extremely offensive. These people died as heroes. Their friends and family are still in a state of grief. They aren’t conservative Christians trying to take away your civil liberties or teach your kids that humans rode dinosaurs to work 6,000 years ago. They simply want to believe they’ll see them again. Who cares if it’s a fantasy? Life is hard; who are we to want to take that away from them? What, we’ll be doing them a favor by forcing them to confront cold, hard reality? Please.

    “Choosing our battles”, in this context, isn’t about convenience or maintaining our collective public image. It’s about not being assholes. By pushing for this, you’re validating the “angry atheist” stereotype promoted by many Christians – and if you tell me you don’t care about that, you’ll merely be proving my point.

  • http://thingsfindothinks.com AndrewFinden

    Interesting that you think it’s bad to protest simply because it’s bad P/R (why bad P/R – because you know it would make your position seem foolish?) and not because it is a fundamentally intolerant and absurd position to take.

    (and are you willing to argue that every single ‘Saint So-&-so street’ in Manhattan be changed?)

  • Rike D.

    IMHO, the word “heaven” is not an exclusively christian word. There have been movies with the work heaven in the title that had nothing whatsoever to do with religion. I belong to a forum called “Computer Heaven” which is totally non-religious. I bet there are more than a handful of streets in the US with the word “heaven” in their name. What about “hell”? Are we going to sue to have “Hell’s Canyon” renamed?
    If they sue over this, I’m going back in my closet – I’d be ashamed to be an Atheist!

  • Paul

    Hemant, just to add to what you’ve written here, there is virtually no chance of success in the courts with this. This is a commemoration of individuals whose families want the street to be so named, apparently. The naming is legally defensible if the City would do the same thing for “Seven Humanist Heroes” or “Rationality Way” should the occasion arise. Indeed, several streets already have secular names honoring famous people. A lawsuit would be analyzed per the rule governing nativity scenes on public property: all they have to do is put up enough secular images to avoid an excessive entanglement with religion. Theologically, we might think the sign is silly: after all, a Biblically-centered Christian “knows” that people don’t go to heaven for good works, not even heroic good works. Doesn’t matter. Complaining about this is bad strategy. The better strategy, by far, would be identifying other heroes and asking for them to be celebrated. 

  • Paul

    Hemant, just to add to what you’ve written here, there is virtually no chance of success in the courts with this. This is a commemoration of individuals whose families want the street to be so named, apparently. The naming is legally defensible if the City would do the same thing for “Seven Humanist Heroes” or “Rationality Way” should the occasion arise. Indeed, several streets already have secular names honoring famous people. A lawsuit would be analyzed per the rule governing nativity scenes on public property: all they have to do is put up enough secular images to avoid an excessive entanglement with religion. Theologically, we might think the sign is silly: after all, a Biblically-centered Christian “knows” that people don’t go to heaven for good works, not even heroic good works. Doesn’t matter. Complaining about this is bad strategy. The better strategy, by far, would be identifying other heroes and asking for them to be celebrated. 

  • Paul

    Hemant, just to add to what you’ve written here, there is virtually no chance of success in the courts with this. This is a commemoration of individuals whose families want the street to be so named, apparently. The naming is legally defensible if the City would do the same thing for “Seven Humanist Heroes” or “Rationality Way” should the occasion arise. Indeed, several streets already have secular names honoring famous people. A lawsuit would be analyzed per the rule governing nativity scenes on public property: all they have to do is put up enough secular images to avoid an excessive entanglement with religion. Theologically, we might think the sign is silly: after all, a Biblically-centered Christian “knows” that people don’t go to heaven for good works, not even heroic good works. Doesn’t matter. Complaining about this is bad strategy. The better strategy, by far, would be identifying other heroes and asking for them to be celebrated. 

  • http://twitter.com/BBprincess Chard

    Mommy, that word offends me.

    I do not feel any city or jurisdiction should over react to one compaint or threats of any kind, unless it involves loss of life, of course. The NYA compaint of being “offended”  is  immature and self centered. And it is obvious to this Seattle native that the NY Atheists and other groups like them, NEED attention so badly that they shamelessly go after sensitive events to validate themselves.

    So, I would ask them this; how is it that your being offended trumps the feelings of the families of the firefighters? And where, exactly, in the US constitution does it say, sticks and stones can break my bones and words can hurt my feelings? Sounds like they want to be the free speech nazi’s.

  • http://evolutionguide.blogspot.com/ William

    Just my opinion but I believe they are working off the famous assumption “Bad publicity is still Publicity.”


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