The American Atheists lawsuit

There’s a bit of a hub-bub over a lawsuit by the group American Atheists. Some of it is expected while other reactions are mildly surprising. Here’s the gist. An atheist group is suing over attempts to use a World Trade Center crossbeam as part of a public memorial. The crossbeam is a “t” and basically is viewed as symbolic of the cross of Jesus. We all know this. The atheist group knows it, Christians know it, liberals know, conservatives know it. Anyone who says the beam is not being revered because it represents a particular aspect of a particular religion is just being insincere.

As expected, most Americans find this lawsuit offensive. By and large, it is Christians who really care – this is a symbol of their religion and they believe it is okay to display it publicly while using public funding and government property. But those who are sympathetic to religion also believe the crossbeam ought to be displayed. Or, perhaps more commonly than that, people believe this is a trivial issue. Of course, if we were talking about a Mosque a few blocks away, it might be a different story.

One other reaction has been from PZ. His beef is that this is the wrong battle to pick. People aren’t going to see this at all rationally (plus he sees it as relatively trivial). September 11, 2001 was an emotional day for a lot of people. Attacking any method they use in order to cope is going to be viewed extremely negatively. I can understand that, but I still find this disappointing. PZ doesn’t tend to be one to back away from controversy. Besides that, I’m not sure when the last time it was that he cared about how people are going to react to offensive things. Jon Stewart and Richard Dawkins have also come out against the suit. Stewart did so in part because he views this as a trivial issue over which to sue, but also probably because he has so much emotion tied up in the whole day. Dawkins has posted articles on his site which defends the display as one of many.

As for myself, this seems like a fine lawsuit. Yes, it is politically difficult, and no, it isn’t going to help the image of any atheist group, but so what? The short-term effect will be negative with all the press, but should American Atheists succeed, it will represent a significant win. That crossbeam is only being viewed as special because it is being viewed as representative of the cross on which Jesus died. Atheists, Jews, Muslims, deists, agnostics, and Buddhists don’t see it as special. Why should any of us have to pay for it to be displayed? Why should we be forced to remember all the murdered non-Christians with a Christian symbol? Why can’t we just leave it at the church where it has been? I don’t see any particularly good justification for why it ought to be used as part of a public memorial. And besides, if anyone found any piece of rubble which represented the symbol of any other religion, we all know there would be an uproar against its public display.

PZ’s challenge

PZ has a post about an interview from The Daily Show with Marilynne Robinson. In it, he issues a challenge:

Name one. Name one insight religion has ever given us that could not have been made by secular philosophers, that was also useful and true.

There isn’t one. Not a one.