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If Atheists Want a Creed, They Ought to Have One

Atheist Bench

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.

Atheist Bench2

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 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.

Then there's 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, 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, like:

“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.
Originally posted at The Anchoress. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Friendly Atheist)

Elizabeth Scalia

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Elizabeth Scalia is an award-winning writer, a Benedictine Oblate, and managing editor of the Catholic Channel at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress. She is also a columnist at First Things and for The Catholic Answer Magazine. Elizabeth was a featured speaker at the Vatican's much-noted 2011 meeting with bloggers from around the world and has a multi-media presence that includes contributions to NPR, CBS News Online, and a stint as a regular panelist on the Brooklyn-diocese-produced current events program, In the Arena, seen at NETNY.net. She is the author of Caring for the Dying with the Help of Your Catholic Faith (OSV), was a contributor to Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind (Ascension Press), and her latest book is titled Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life (Ave Maria). Follow Elizabeth through her blog and on Twitter at @TheAnchoress.

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