Atheists aren’t always going to agree. That’s just an undeniable truth. I am, perhaps, a bit abnormal because I actually like the fact that we often disagree. Among my atheist friends, it’s often the ones I disagree with that I most value and the disagreements often help us all more than we realize.
For example, I like and value David Silverman and American Atheists. In general, I support what they’re doing…but there are going to be times when we don’t completely see eye-to-eye and today is one of those days.
Here’s the AA press release…go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.
American Atheists does a great job of making sure that they only take legal battles that they’re likely to win and they’ve been critical of Michael Newdow, and others, who risk setting bad legal precedent by challenging things we aren’t likely to win. I’m not in complete agreement on every decision about which cases we take and which we don’t, but I recognize that we have to be careful.
I really wish, though, that the same sort of careful thinking went into decisions about which issues to challenge in the court of public opinion. Today’s press release is just a monumentally bad idea.
First of all, heaven isn’t a strictly Christian concept. Many people who don’t adhere to any religion hold to this concept in a cultural fashion that is probably more strongly tied to our fear of death and our desire to think and say nice things about the dead than to any specific religious doctrine. Plenty of other religions have heavens and heavenly concepts and plenty of non-religious people will use heaven in a metaphoric or poetic sense.
Second, many Christians would point out that admission into heaven, according to their doctrine, isn’t tied in any way to the heroic actions of those firefighters or the quality of their character. There are many Christians who would point out that, according to their beliefs, the overwhelming majority of those firefighters left the fires of the twin towers and proceeded directly to the fires of hell. Though few would make this claim with the glee of the members of the Westboro Baptist Chruch, it’s still part of their doctrine and they’d also note that the conventional concept of heaven being a place for ‘good’ people is a cultural convention that is only loosely tied to Christianity by way of misunderstanding.
On those grounds, it’s just factually incorrect to repeatedly assert that this reference to heaven is an explicit linkage of Christianity to these individuals. (I’m not denying that it will be viewed that way by some Christians, I’m simply pointing out that it’s the sort of statement that is sufficiently nebulous that it will automatically mesh with the internal concepts of each individual reader…which is why, I suppose, Dave and other atheists are instinctively objecting; their concept places it firmly in the realm of “legitimizing Christianity”.)
More importantly, this is a recipe for being viewed as reactionary curmudgeons. We’re talking about something meant to honor the heroic sacrifice of firefighters during the 9/11 attacks. Even a blatant violation of the constitution might be viewed negatively, but this is going to be viewed very negatively and the constitutional issues are hardly clear, if they even exist. There is no real upside to this – especially if we’re making statements that demonstrate we don’t really understand that there are some cultural references that aren’t an explicit endorsement of any religion.
It’s a bit like objecting to Christmas trees by claiming that they’re explicitly Christian when they most definitely aren’t.
I’m a pretty confrontational guy. I’m an advocate of challenging first amendment violations and religious stupidity and harm at almost every opportunity. I generally support the direct, confrontational direction that Dave and American Atheists have been taking. I mostly liked most of the billboards. I’ve gone after the accomodationist buffons on a regular basis… but this is just a bad idea.
In this case, I’d have opted for no press release, but if I’d done one, I’d have made sure that it was one that was structured in such a way that those who complained about the release would look foolish. Some statements that might work a bit better:
“While atheists don’t share the religious optimism of heavenly afterlives, and we think that something like “Seven Heroes Way” would have been a less contentious and more accurate representation of the fallen, we are pleased to see the memory of these heroic individuals honored.
These firefighters, through training and dedication, overcame our natural, human instincts for self-preservation and charged directly into a deadly situation in an attempt to assist others.
On a day when the divisive conflict between religious ideals resulted in the death of thousands, these individuals focused on the value we place on human life irrespective of religious views and other divisive constructs.
As they moved into harm’s way, there was no consideration of whether the individuals they were saving were Christian, Muslim or atheists. There was no consideration of whether those individuals were gay, straight or transgendered. There was no consideration of whether those individuals shared their personal political views…there were simply people, in need of assistance. We should honor them on those same terms.
In the chaotic aftermath of the ruthless and shameful attacks of 9/11, the character of these individuals truly represented those traits that define heorism and the sort of character that we should all hope to instill in future generations.
Seven, of many, heroes…have shown us the way.”