If Atheists want a creed, they ought to have one

In Florida, some atheists, peeved that a monument to the Ten Commandments could not be protested out of existence are planning to erect their own monument, celebrating their beliefs:

A small city in heavily Christian northern Florida is about to become home to the first public monument in the United States dedicated to atheism.

Florida members of American Atheists, a national advocacy group, plan to erect a 1,500-pound granite display in front of the Bradford County Courthouse in Starke, Fla., next month, opposite a controversial year-old display of the Ten Commandments outside the same courthouse.

“We’d rather there be no monuments at all, but if they are allowed to have the Ten Commandments, we will have our own,” said Ken Loukinen, the director of regional operations for American Atheists who designed the monument.

The new structure will feature quotes related to secularism from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair…It will stand in a small square in front of the courthouse, opposite the 5-foot, 6-ton Ten Commandments monument sponsored by a Christian group.

American Atheists sued Bradford County last July, saying the Christian monument in front of the county courthouse was a public endorsement of religion. In response, the county asked Community Men’s Fellowship, the organization that sponsored the display, to take it down. But the fellowship replied by saying it had “prayerfully considered” the request and would not comply. The county and American Atheists went to a court-ordered mediation in March and settled upon the atheists getting their own monument.

I think this is a good idea, and I think the Christians interviewed made a good response to it:

…the [Community Men's Fellowship] posted a statement on its Facebook page after the settlement was reached saying that “God worked this out.”

“On the very first day we were informed of the lawsuit, [member] Dan spoke up and said he believed the Lord had given him a word on how to deal fight this thing. He was right. Praise God,” the statement read. “We want you all to remember that this issue was won on the basis of this being a free speech issue, so don’t be alarmed when the American Atheists want to erect their own sign or monument. It’s their right. As for us, we will continue to honor the Lord and that’s what matters.”

Well done, Christians! Tolerance, rightly reasoned and practiced. Some of our secular leadership could take a lesson.

And the monument is also a bench. As a woman with arthritis in the knees and spine, I appreciate such things, perhaps, more than most. The design is nice. I’m wondering about the quotes being planned for inscription, though. None of them are awful, but if the atheists are meaning purely to represent their celebration of reason I wonder why they would choose quotes that mention religion at all.

For instance, this one:

“The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”
– 1796 Treaty of Tripoli

Aside from sounding defensive, in this context, why single out the Christians? What is this rebutting, exactly? What about the Jews and the Muslims, those wily monotheists? What about the Hindus and their multi-gods, or the Pagans? Shouldn’t an atheist bench either take issue with all faith traditions, or simply not mention them?

I’m not complaining; it is a free country, today, and the atheists can inscribe what they like, but I’m wondering why they felt a need to specifically mention Christianity?

But then, that leaves me to wonder — given the news that the DOJ is pondering ersatz “blasphemy laws” — is this quote meant to be a dig at Muslims?

“When religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
– Benjamin Franklin

If the quote is not meant to reference Muslims, I can nevertheless see why some, given the headlines, would take it that way.

Again, I’m not complaining about the quote. I’m just critically thinking it through, and wondering. As I have written pretty frequently — wondering is how we come to know anything.

Then this:

“It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service [writing the Constitution] had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven.”
– John Adams

Again, it seems like a non-sequitur. I read it and think, “well…yeah…so?” Including this quote seems defensive, but what is it rebutting? The Ten Commandments? If it is meant to rebut those Christians who tread near to idolatry of the Constitution, well, okay…I guess I can see that, except, again, if you’re declaring yourself — your beliefs, your organization, your credo — shouldn’t the quotes be about the reason and secularism you are promoting, rather than turning attention elsewhere?

“An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated.”
– American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair

Finally, I actually like that this quote; it is entirely secular in scope and doesn’t really discuss religion at all. I still don’t know if I would use it, though, simply because it ends up prompting questions of the reader, that could ultimately defeat the monument’s purpose:

An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church.

But…don’t churches build a lot of hospitals? Are there hospitals built specifically by atheists? Should only government build hospitals?

An atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said.

I understand that people who do not pray still do things, but does prayer exclude action? Do people who pray not do things that must be done? Why must it be an either/or? Is it not possible to be a both/and? What about people like this, and this, and this and this?

An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death.

What does this even mean?

He wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated.

Putting the exclusionary pronoun aside — no gender-warrior, here — is this line suggesting that only the atheist wants disease conquered, poverty banished and war eliminated? But…haven’t non-atheists worked for centuries and millenia toward those goals?

I’m sorry, I read that line and I simply want to paraphrase my cousin the Capuchin: “you want to conquer disease, banish poverty and eliminate war? Well, lah-di-fecking-dah, so do I!” I tend to agree with the psalmist, though, in thinking of all three as elements of the human condition, and hostages to human knowledge and (more treacherously) the vagaries of the human heart.

I’m all for the atheist monument, but I think they could find better, more constructive quotes to mark in granite:

“Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”
– Sandra Day O’Connor

Oh, wait, no. Sorry. Just teasing. Seriously — why not these?

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.
– Thomas Jefferson

Better, right? Or this?

The world is indebted for all triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.
– Thomas Jefferson

C’mon, give the Catholic girl credit; she’s two-for-two!

The secular argument, or the liberal argument, is to as much as possible remove taboos so things do not become unmentionable; to let some air into the discussion.
– Christopher Hitchens

That’s not bad. It not only suggests a dutiful broadness that is essential to society, it does it without mentioning religion at all.

“But the philosophical and scientific process which I call ‘secularization’ necessarily involves the divesting of spiritual meaning from the world of nature; the desacralization of politics from human affairs; and the deconsecration of values from the human mind and conduct.”
– Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam and Secularism

That’s pretty good, right? Or…

“Whether we “spiritualize” our life or “secularize” our religion, whether we invite men to a spiritual banquet or simply join them at the secular one, the real life of the world, for which we are told God gave his only begotten Son, remains hopelessly beyond our religious grasp.”
– Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy

In terms of brilliant thinkers, they don’t come much more brilliant than Schmemann.

The defiance of established authority, religious and secular, social and political, as a world-wide phenomenon may well one day be accounted the outstanding event of the last decade.
Hannah Arendt

I like that, too, except it does encourage a defiance of all authority, and if secularists want to be the authorities, that might get dicey.

So in my freshman year at the University of Alabama, learning the literature on evolution, what was known about it biologically, just gradually transformed me by taking me out of literalism and increasingly into a more secular, scientific view of the world.
– E. O. Wilson

Speaks to a common experience, yes? And finally, for the materialist side of things:

From my point of view, there is a tremendous amount to be said for secular humanism.
– Vidal Sassoon

Anyway, good luck to the atheists on their upcoming unveiling. I have no expectation that any of them will take my genuine congratulations and kindly meant suggestions in the good faith they’re offered, but I do hope to visit the monument one day, and when I rest my weary arthritic bones upon it, I will be grateful and I will say, “thank you, atheists, for beginning your long road and heavy task of healing the world, banishing poverty and eliminating war, with the single step of building a bench.”

Be encouraged. Of such small beginnings, greatness has followed. Ask these folks.

Of course, while I rest, I may well read those Ten Commandments on the monument nearby. But not to worry; I rarely make it past the first one, these days!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • tanyam

    I am trying to read this, as if I were an atheist. I’d be mostly grateful for the lack of snark. Thank you. I’d likely say that the logic of public monuments is a little hard to grasp — after all, Christians didn’t choose to quote just any text, but rather the Ten Commandments. I imagine an atheist would consider which statements a secularist might choose as a rejoinder to that, say, rather than as a rejoinder to the 23rd Psalm.
    The Treaty of Tripoly quote, I think, means to counter the “foundational myth” that the US began as a Christian nation. Or even a “Judeo-Christian nation,” which was likely a part of the rationale for displaying the commandments in the first place.
    The others — well, some are more obvious than others.
    Good conversation to have!

  • Jan

    This is almost too much. First, some atheists try to remove a monument to something which no doubt has made the world a better place – the Ten Commandments. Then, since they can’t lick ‘em they try to join ‘em by building their own monument to…nothing? Some pithy sayings? Well, whatever. More power to them. God did give us the free will to believe in Him or not.

    But in my opinion, atheists should be counting their blessings (from wherever they think such things come) that so many people believe in God and in doing the right thing – otherwise it might not be so easy for them to be so glib about their non-belief.

  • Hesitate

    Religion and its claims simply don’t have supporting evidence, Jan. In fact the evidence points exactly counter to it. We atheists are only athiests because the evidence supports a universe with no gods in it. In no other human pursuit, save religion, can we make utterly baseless claims and assertions, as you do by asserting there is a god to which we ‘choose’ to believe in, as if it were factual, when in fact no evidence can be offed. Somehow the rest of us must dig and test, and retest and dig for evidence when we want to make a claim about what is and in not a part of the Universe. We are all tired of religions’ elbowing their way through society, into our classrooms, denying science when it’s results refute the myths.

  • jimofolym

    I sent this to my atheist friend. I suggested that the creed might start with: I don’t believe in God the Father Almighty, nor in his son jesus Christ….

    I might report back when I Have her answer.

    Jimofolym

  • Hesitate

    I think most atheists would agree that a more fruitful monument would be a tribute to all those past and present with the courage to put personal preferences aside from the process of science, so that the true nature of it all can be understood, what ever we find. Unfortunately, we have religion to contend with, which clatters on the sideline, unable to present their own evidence, so insists on louder, bigger, heavier assertions such as this religious monument. The atheist monument serves well to refocus the fact that our country and government was founded squally and intentionally as a secular one. Examples abound, as you indicate, of those who insist ours is a Christian nation.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    And in 50 years it will be as outdated as the Georgia Guidestones, an earlier attempt at this:

    http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2602

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The Treaty of Tripoli quote was specifically to combat the Barbary Pirates insinuation that since American sailors were Christian, American Ships were valid under Islamic law for being boarded and the sailors sold as slaves.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    The point is that a religious monument on public property imposes that view upon those who do not hold to its view, in violation of the Constitution. I think it would be obvious if the monument were for any religion but Christianity. However, since Christianity has been and is still the majority, that view is privileged. There are plenty of private places, especially churches, which I’m sure would be happy to display this monument, just as with nativity scenes. A conflict does not have to arise.

  • Dave Muscato

    Actually we were limited in the quotations we could use; monuments approved for this area have to have historical significance to both the United States and Bradford County, Florida. So we couldn’t just put in a Christopher Hitchens quote or a Vidal Sassoon quote even if we wanted to.

    Yes, churches build a lot of hospitals. These hospitals also deny certain services based on religious beliefs, though. We do not believe the two should intermingle in this way.

    Prayer and action are mutually exclusive. If you’re on your knees with your hands clasped or standing there with your arms up and your eyes closed, you cannot simultaneously do something useful. It’s a trade-off when it comes to time and resources. Small amounts of time add up. For example, the estimated cost to the economy of reading the OJ Simpson verdict was 480 *million dollars* in lost productivity while people stopped working for 15 minutes to listen to the radio or watch television so they could hear what it was. If everyone prays for 15 minutes a week instead of working, that’s roughly half a billion dollars a week in lost productivity. It does make a difference.

    Atheists want to eliminate disease, poverty, and war. Religions celebrate suffering. Scientific advances in fields like medicine only happen when scientifically minded people, logical and rational people, go against what religion teaches, roll up their sleeves, and actually try to figure out what’s really going on. For thousands of years, people thought that demons caused disease. It wasn’t until someone thought, “That’s stupid. Let’s get to the bottom of this,” that progress was made in germ theory. The same is true of poverty. Christianity may pretend that it wants to end poverty but what it really does is convince people that it’s okay to suffer in this life because, as long as you have Jesus, things are going to be just fine. It doesn’t matter if you die young, it doesn’t matter if you die unnecessarily; as long as you were saved first, everything turned out okay. It’s ridiculous. As far as eliminating war, don’t even get me started. Religion is the fuel on the fire for virtually all wars in history.

    Why are we singling out Christians? Well, a couple of reasons. We want to install this monument because Christians got to install one, and we care about equal access. Also, most religious people in the United States are Christian, and so when we deal with religious conflict, it’s frankly usually a conflict between Christianity and secular values.

    I hope this helps address some of your questions!

    - Dave Muscato
    Public Relations Director
    American Atheists

  • MeanLizzie

    This is the strangest argument I have ever heard. The monument no more “imposes” a view on people than the atheist monument does. It merely expresses a pov. Are we supposed to live in a world where no one is permitted to express a pov? What’s the point of the first amendment, then, which guarantees “free exercise of religion” and says only that gov’t shall not enforce a religion. No religion is being “enforced” with the Ten Commandments any more than by the atheist monument. But I suspect that your penultimate sentence is at the root of this, and that the true desire, here, is to omit religion — or any public expression thereof — from the public square. This is, again, a perversion of the constitution. But I expect this conversation will go on and eventually the secularists will prevail. “You will be hated for my sake” and all that. :-)

  • MeanLizzie

    Thanks for your reply, Dave. I must say, a lot of what you’ve written here deserves response, but it’s so difficult to do this on weekends when one needs to spend time with family. I’ll try later, though.

  • Pamela Whissel

    Dear Sister Elizabeth,

    Please know that I, speaking only for myself, do take your genuine congratulations and kindly meant suggestions in the good faith that they’re offered. Very much so. It’s a pleasure to read such good writing.

    Sincerely,

    Pamela Whissel

    Editor-in-Chief

    American Atheist Magazine

  • Jan

    Science makes utterly baseless claims all the time! The only evidence a religious individual needs, regardless of flavor, is faith.

    So your God is science. My God is the One Who made science. :-)

  • Jan

    And if I never had to see a monument to atheism or the spire of a church whose beliefs I don’t subscribe to or a damned rainbow flag proclaiming sexual perversion alive and well, I’d be happy. But that’s not how it works here – at least how it used to be, when the Constitution meant something. Christians as well as everyone else have the right to express their beliefs publicly, not just the gays or the atheists or the Muslims.

  • BrandonUB

    Honestly, I don’t really think there’s any sort of atheist creed that works uniformly. What’s being exhibited here (at least the intention) is the values of secularism. There’s some overlap with things that a lot of atheists think, but there’s a lot of values in secularism that overlap heavily with what many American Christians believe. If we were drawing up Venn diagrams, I suspect that the overlap in ideas between atheism, liberal Christianity, and secularism would be much larger than the differences.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    They have the right to express beliefs in public, of course. Not with my tax dollars though, which is what happens when it’s on public property.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Of course they can express their views. Just not on public property, which everyone pays for. I don’t like the atheist monument any more than the religious monument, despite being an atheist myself, because, again, it imposes that view. However, if the religious monument stays, it’s only fair for others to open have their space. This is an imposition because it requires that people pay to express views they do not believe, on property that ostensibly belong to all of them. As I said, there are plenty of private places for this. No one view, atheist, Christian, or any other, should be endorsed by government, which claims represent us all.

  • Patti Day

    It will stand in a small square in front of the courthouse, opposite the
    5-foot, 6-ton Ten Commandments monument sponsored by a Christian group.

    Great, Christians will be able to sit on the little bench on the atheist monument and look across at the Ten Commandments. I like it.

  • Jan

    What you seem to ascribe to is a sterile facade where no one’s views may be represented because those views might offend you. Well, I guess we could go in circles all day about this but there is no point. I would only add this: the conservative faction of this nation is not going to just lie down and die or be trampled underfoot by a government and a peoples run amok.

    It’s not in our nature or our blood to do this, as we come from people who left tyranny to be free to do as they pleased in order to live and be left alone. There will be a dictator arise from this damnable mess, and WE ALL better pray or hope or do whatever it is that you do, that that person is compassionate. And we really better hope he’s a conservative because then at least we will have a chance to live and let live, albeit, some people might have to crawl back into their perverse holes. If a liberal dictator arises, well, goodbye useful idiots, i.e. gays, atheists, liberals, etc.

    In any case, Michael – peace to you and yours, again, wherever that might come from.

  • Dale

    I think it is a mistake to say that the atheists are promoting a creed. To say this is to also say that the Ten Commandments monument is a creedal statement. In 2011,an exact replica of the Starke Ten Commandments monument, but located in a different Florida city, was ruled against by a federal district court because the location of a permanent marker constituted government speech.
    http://www.gainesville.com/article/20110718/ARTICLES/110719637

    If the Starke Ten Commandments monument is a religious creed, then it doesn’t belong in front of the courthouse.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    No, I absolutely defend the right to express your views. Just not in this way on public property, using my tax dollars. It is not asking that people “lie down and die.” An insistence on inscribing the buildings we all own and use with religious iconography is the opposite from leaving people alone. I hardly think removing a ten commandments monument constitutes the slippery slope into dictatorship.

  • Hesitate

    Each sentence you have said is simply false. Science is DEFINED by establishing a testable repeatable basis. You cannot give a example of a baseless claim from science. Faith is what is required because evidence cannot be found. No gods made science, not yours, not the 1500 gods that have ‘existed’ before yours. You don’t have faith in them. We can’t go on making up pet realities.


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