Secular Statue, Religious Statue

Via Rawstory, an Oklahoma man will be allowed to sue the state for its depiction of a allegedly religious statue on the state license plate.

The plaintiff is Keith Cressman. The statue is “Sacred Rain Arrow” sculpture by the late artist Allan Houser. The question that is likely to come up in the trial is whether or not the statue is religious. Or rather, do people perceive the statue as religious?

It’s a tricky question. Consider the secular Christmas display. Our culture has already decided that Santa Clause is secular, even though his full name is “Saint Nicholas” and he has a distincly religious backstory. St. Nick stands next to the Christmas tree, originally a Christian symbol with possible roots back to pre-christian midwinter festivals.

Are these secular symbols? Religious symbols? It really comes down to the viewer, and that’s the problem that Cressman has. Can he convince the next batch of judges that the image will lead people to think he approves of beliefs like “God and nature are one, that other deities exist, or that ‘animals, plants, rocks, and other natural phenomena” have souls or spirits.”

The appeals court decided that the answer would have to wait until the next phase of the litigation. The dissenting judge disagreed, and noted that Cressman had made no argument:

He [Cressman] asserts that the license plate promotes ‘pantheism, panentheism, polytheism, and/or animism,’ all of which are antithetical to his religious beliefs. However, he has not alleged facts from which we can reasonably infer that others are likely to make the same series of connections. … Cressman’s allegation that others are likely to perceive an ideological message based upon the image—as opposed to a historical or cultural message—lacks facial plausibility.

My guess is that with a name like “Sacred Rain Dance,” Cressman won’t have any problem convincing the court. Certainly the curator of Allen Houser’s estate, David Rettig, isn’t doing Oklahoma any favors:

“We were just pretty miffed to see that it would be controversial.” Rettig said that Cressman seemed to think that the statue depicted some kind of “pagan ritual” but that was a misinterpretation of Houser’s work, but “that’s certainly not the intent of it.”

“Allan, in his work, believed in a single great spirit,” Rettig continued. “[Cressman's] trying to parallel this imagery with something from greek mythology or some multi-theist culture.” Rettig pointed out that a Catholic church even once commissioned a Houser piece entitled “prayer” to memorialize a deceased church member.

So not polytheism but monotheism. But still religious, and not Cressman’s religion. If Rettig thinks he rebutting Cressman’s argument, he’s failing.

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