Does It Matter That the Atheist Bench in Florida Looks Kinda Ugly?

This is the atheist bench that was recently installed in front of Florida’s Bradford County Courthouse, in response to a Ten Commandments monument on the city-owned property:

(via Gamma Atheist)

(via Gamma Atheist)

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: It’s not all that pleasing to the eye. It’s asymmetrical. It looks like someone just slapped a bunch of random quotations on any available space. Your head has to be damn near the ground to read some of the words on it.

As far as design goes, it could be a lot, lot better.

In fact, Gordon Haber at Religion Dispatches calls it “proof of unintelligent design”:

this particular bench is an eyesore. About five feet long, the monument looks like, well, a marble bench, but with a four-foot-high pillar at one side.

All in all, the monument does not look like in inviting place to sit and contemplate the separation of church and state — especially as the sitter would have to crane his or her neck to actually read the quotations. And the conspicuous placement of the name of the sponsoring organization makes the edifice seem less a monument to atheism than to American Atheists.

I don’t disagree with the assessment, but I’m going to say what I’ve said before: The design really doesn’t matter here.

The question you have to ask yourself is: What’s the main reason American Atheists wanted to put up this monument?

Was it so people could sit on a beautiful bench? No. That’s much lower on the list of priorities. I don’t have any inside information on this, so Dave Silverman may say something different, but here’s the way I see it:

Priority #1 was simply to put up somethinganything — to counteract the Ten Commandments monument already on the property. AA wanted to make a point about how the government must treat all beliefs equally. They could have put up a giant LEGO installation of the Flying Spaghetti Monster made by a five-year-old and it would have achieved the same purpose. If the awkward design makes the front of the courthouse look like an eyesore, that’s not really a problem. It’s all the more incentive for city officials to remove all religious and non-religious displays from the property.

Priority #2 was to get media attention for American Atheists. And it worked beautifully. There was coverage of the bench in local and national media, in both newspapers and television. My Google Alerts were coming in like crazy. The design of the bench would not have changed the way the media covered the story. So why bother? Not to mention the vast majority of coverage that I saw spent very little time describing the bench itself. Most of the stories were all about why the bench was there in the first place and all the hoopla surrounding the unveiling of it.

Priority #3 was for AA to get across its message of atheism and church/state separation. Obviously, no one’s going to change his or her religious views by looking at a quotation from Madalyn Murray O’Hair, so AA just needed to get some quotations on the bench. They chose some famous ones from the Founding Fathers and AA’s Founding Mother and slapped them on there. There was space on the side of the bench facing the walkway, so they put their logo on it (something that also helped them achieve name recognition courtesy of Priority #2).

Priority #4 was to create a bench people could sit on and “reflect” about the truth (or lack thereof) of the Ten Commandments and why the monuments were on the property at all. This is the stated purpose of the bench, but it’s not really the point. If it was, AA could have found more professional designers to make the bench more like a work of art. But it didn’t matter because this wasn’t their ultimate goal.

I know commenters are going to say this is me railing against design again, and I’ll try to blunt that right now. I’m not against it. I would love it if the bench were more aesthetically pleasing, just as I appreciate a well-designed billboard.

All I’m saying is that when you look at this bench as a publicity stunt for the organization, and not as a marketing tool designed to increase their membership, the need for better design falls by the wayside.

You could argue, of course, that a better-looking bench might make more people want to join the group, and you would have a good point there, but I’d just go back to Priority #1. The main purpose of the bench was to counter the 10 Commandments monument, not to bring in members. That would just be a nifty bonus. AA achieved their primary goal regardless of how the bench looked.

Keep in mind, too, that the money for the bench was donated. It wasn’t AA’s money to begin with. If it was, you could make a stronger argument that part of the budget should have included a professional designer, but when someone hands you just enough money to pay for a monument, you roll with it.

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.


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