Friday, December 19, 2008

The Infamous Atheist Sign in the Capitol Rotunda

At finals time I tend to lose track of the news. Hence, I entirely missed the recent furor about the atheist sign posted in the Washington State Capitol rotunda, in the vicinity of a manger scene. (The trick has since been performed elsewhere, including the Illinois Capitol). The sign, and the controversy surrounding it, were brought to my attention this morning by none other than Chuck Norris.

Chuck (if I may call him that) had a gigantic editorial printed on the opinion page of the Stillwater News Press, in which he railed against the hateful atheists—describing his response, modestly enough, as the equivalent of a “roundhouse kick” against those responsible for anti-religious hate-mongering.

If it was a roundhouse kick, I think it largely missed its target. But I suspect that the more apt metaphor would be a series of jabs, some of which struck glancing blows. But what interested me about Chuck’s editorial wasn’t the merit of his reply (or lack thereof), but the facts about the case. Both a manger scene and an atheist sign had been put up in the rotunda. And the sign read as follows: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven and hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

The message (sans reference to the Winter Solstice) was familiar to me, of course. It’s the dominant message coming out of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and other recent atheist bestsellers, albeit expressed in a brief slogan and without supporting arguments.

And so, since I’ve just finished writing a book critically assessing the arguments in support of this very message, I felt I should consider the issues surrounding the posting of this sign.

The first thing I want to say is that there is more than one issue here. There is, of course, the substance of the message itself, and then there is the question about the moral propriety of posting it in a public venue adjacent to a manger scene in December. But what I want to think about first is the Washington State policy that permits a Christian group to place a nativity scene in the Capitol Building.

Now at first this may seem like a blatant case of state sponsorship of religion, except for the fact that Washington state has apparently made the same space available in a non-sectarian way to other religious groups that want to put things up (a Menorah has been put up in the past). And this year, back in October, state officials agreed to let an atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), put up its own display. What appeared, a few weeks ago, was the now-infamous atheist sign.

In one sense what we have here is an example of state officials trying to fairly carry out one interpretation of our nation’s commitment to church/state separation and freedom of religion. According to the interpretation expressed by the decision-makers in Washington State (and, apparently, elsewhere), what the state should do is provide a neutral context in which divergent comprehensive worldviews can express their beliefs. And instead of doing so by purging all state institutions of religious symbols or ideas, the strategy is to make sure that all comers have the same opportunity (should they wish to avail themselves of it) to express themselves in, say, a public school holiday concert or a Capitol rotunda. And this includes not only those who believe in a transcendent reality and have certain ideas about it, but also those who believe that the natural world is all that there is. In the broadest sense of the term, the latter is a “religious expression” as much as any other. If Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus should be free to express their faith, then so should atheists, even if their “faith” is essentially that none of the things in which religious believers place faith are real.

Now in theory, I like this approach better than the “purge all state institutions of everything remotely religious” approach. But there are difficulties that arise in a society in which one religion dominates as much as Christianity does in the US. When that is the case, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon that an open invitation to religious communities to put up symbols of their religious holidays in a public space would lead to a nativity scene promptly going up and nothing else (other religious communities feeling reluctant, perhaps, to call too much attention to themselves). Put simply, an open invitation by the government runs the risk of combining with pervasive social forces and majority power to ensure that the invitation is only taken up by the dominant religion.

This risk is magnified if the state does not in any way regulate the content of the religious ideas being put on display. For example, suppose that the state lets all religious comers post a display in the rotunda of a public building, regardless of the substantive message expressed in that display. And then suppose that a Jewish community group puts up a Menorah. And then, a few days later, a radical Christian group puts up a signs which says “The people that put up that Menorah are all going to roast forever in the fires of hell.”

If this were a real possibility—if the Jewish group knew that putting up its Menorah could very well generate such a response, and that the state would do nothing to block such public hate speech—then the Jewish group might well decide to spare its community the hateful message by not taking up the state’s invitation to express its religion. And so powerful social forces, unrestrained by the government, could turn what in principle is an open invitation to express religious views into a lopsided forum for the promulgation of the dominant religion.

Of course, this danger could be minimized if the state exercised its judgment concerning what, exactly, could be put on display. Perhaps it could say something like, “Expressing your religion in symbols and images and words is fine, but attacking other religions is unacceptable.” But if it does so, it runs the risk of being accused of censorship.

For these reasons, it might be safest for the state to simply keep its rotundas (literally and metaphorically) free of all religious symbolism. But the effect of doing so will have its own costs, of course. I would much rather go to a holiday concert at my son’s public school in which I was treated to an array of holiday songs from a diversity of religious traditions, than I would a concert in which all we got were “Let’s Go for a Sleigh Ride” and “Frosty the Snow Man.” The fact is that religion, in its diverse forms, fires the soul in ways that often spill over into great art. And I would prefer to live in a world where all of us can appreciate, if just on an aesthetic level, public displays of these creative expressions of the religious consciousness.

So I think there’s no easy answer to how the government should best pursue its mandate to refrain from endorsing a particular religion and to foster freedom of religious expression. The general strategy pursued in Washington state is, it seems to me, a defensible approach.

But if this approach is going to be pursued, government officials need to think carefully about parameters. A Menorah is a symbol related to a religious story, one that brings inspiration to many people. A nativity, likewise, is an image that evokes a religious story that many find inspirational. Both symbols are polysemitic—that it, they do not have a single uniform meaning, but can be interpreted differently by different viewers. Many view the nativity and see in it the message that God rejects human hierarchies and affirms the dignity of the poor. But Dan Barker, head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, claims to see in it the message that everyone who does not bow down before Jesus is bound for hell.

Now I’m sure there are experiences in Barker’s life that explain why he sees such a loathsome message in an image of shepherds and kings and farm animals gathered in awed silence around a newborn baby. But it should be plain that the nativity image does not say this. The atheist sign, by contrast, does say that “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds”—in slightly different terms, that religion, without distinction, is a source of moral corruption and irrationality.

Now, as I argue in my book, I think that we can identify properties which, if possessed by a so-called religion, do render it a source of moral corruption and irrationality. But we can find religious believers whose faith lacks these harmful properties, and hence who are not “guilty as charged.” In short, I think that the message on this atheist sign is mistaken.

But the state should surely not welcome some religious expressions and exclude others based on judgments about truth. For obvious reasons, doing so would be a recipe for the state to take sides among religious options, and therefore abandon its mandate to refrain from endorsing one religion over others. Freedom of religion evaporates the moment that the government thinks it has the insight and authority to judge which religions are true and which are false. We see this in Muslim nations. We saw it in the atheist Soviet Union. We saw it in the explicitly Christian nations of the middle ages.

Now there is a great deal of truth to the insight that dominant religions can weather harsh criticism from disempowered minorities far better than the other way around. Thus, there is far more harm in allowing the dominant religion to ridicule and denigrate minority religions (including atheism) than in allowing minority groups to take pot-shots at some religious Behemoth. From this perspective, it might be said that allowing an atheist group to use a state forum to attack the moral and intellectual integrity of those who are religious isn’t all that serious a matter.

In fact, it probably isn’t. But I don’t know that I want public officials to be in the business of deciding who can weather attacks on their belief system and who can’t. And so my inclination is to say that when the public school puts on its multicultural holiday concert, the officials shouldn’t decide that songs explicitly attacking Christianity are okay, but ones that attack Judaism or atheism are not. Instead, they should probably just agree not to have religious attack-songs on the program—even if, as may be the case, the atheist choir director has recently composed a beautiful four-part harmony setting of the text to the FFRF sign. This choir director should have a venue in which to perform his creation, but the public school concert probably isn’t the right one.

Of course, deciding to keep religious attack-songs out of a holiday concert is a different matter than deciding to keep attack messages out of the holiday displays in the Washington State Capitol rotunda. In the case of the public school concert, it is employees of the school who are putting together the program. In the rotunda, what we have is a state policy of permitting religious groups to sponsor displays. So the choice of what is displayed is made, not by state officials, but by these groups. Do uniform criteria which preclude explicit attacks on other worldviews, communicated to all who wish to put up a display, count as inappropriate censorship?

This question inspires in me another, related question: Does atheism have enough affirmative content that it can be anything but a denigration of the alternatives? According to Sam Harris, the answer is no. In his Letter to a Christian Nation, he maintains that atheism “is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.” By “the obvious” he means that there is no God (something that is far from obvious to many others). So, according to Harris, atheism is exclusively negative in its content. It is nothing but a claim to the effect that every religious believer is wrong--and, in his view, obviously wrong.

But even if he is right about atheism, it doesn’t follow that an atheist display couldn’t appear in a public forum guided by a prohibition on attacks against other worldviews. To say, “I think you are mistaken” isn’t an attack. It's just disagreement. To say, “We don’t believe in any higher power that can redeem us” is not an attack on those who do. But what about saying, “Those who believe other than we do with respect to the existence of a transcendent reality are lacking in both moral and intellectual integrity”? That sounds like an attack—one that is commonly heard among religious extremists of every stripe, including, recently, among atheists. And while the FFRF sign doesn’t say precisely this, it comes awfully close.

Is it state censorship to require that divergent perspectives express themselves in the rotunda with a measure of decorum and mutual respect? If it is, then I would say that the state should probably leave the rotunda empty. But I hope that fair and reasonable policies can be developed, policies which can help to put on display the rich and varied textures of our society, without at the same time creating a venue for our intolerance, animosity, and derision of those who disagree with us.


  1. Very good article! Unfortunately, even a "positive" presentation of a "negative worldview" (if possible) is not going to appease some fanatics. There have been attacks on on "non-religious" symbols, just as there have been on religious symbols, at this time of year.

    However, there does not seem to be as much controversy about children's holiday programs, if they are well balanced. In many cases where there have been reports of such controversy, they turn out to be substantially false or contrived for public relations purposes.

    One reason is that we are dealing with a very personal form of communication in a more or less intimate setting between folks who can expect to have quotidian dealings with each other in the near future. And there are children involved. That leads to more civilized behavior by all. The capital rotunda is a much more anonymous forum, which, like the internet, can bring out the worse in us.

    However, there is a difference between the two cases that I think is missed in the article. The children's choir and holiday program serves a legitimate educational purpose within the context of an institution which is specifically educational. The manger scene does not have such a strong rational. It is obviously not part of the architectural or ornamental apparatus of civic architecture. It is therefore more reasonable to assume that its purpose is endorsement, plain and simple, whether that is fully the case or not.

    Getting rid of the manger scene from the capital rotunda does not mean getting rid of accidentally religious ornamentation that is part of civic architecture. It would not jeopardize the character or content of the children's holiday program. It certainly does not mean getting rid of such scenes where they are appropriate and wanted, on the church lawn, for instance. Let's get rid of it, and rid ourselves of this civic headache.

  2. Alan,

    You may be right that, in the end, it avoids needless headache just to keep the rotunda empty. I'm a bit conflicted on this point, as my post probably indicates. What is clear to me is that the state needs to operate as a neutral party and avoid endorsing any one religion (or species of religion--which is why I think the argument for preserving "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, to the effect that it doesn't endorse a particular religion, is specious).

    You bring up a good point about the difference between the rotunda display and the holiday concert. In the latter case, there is a clear educational function that is served by a balanced multicultural concert. And since public schools are in the business of educating, such a concert fits in with its purpose.

    The question is whether there are legitimate state purposes that are advanced by opening up a venue such as the Capitol rotunda for private (and frequently sectarian) organizations to put up displays. These purposes, if there are any, could serve as the basis for impartial standards.

    It seems that advancement of the arts might very well be a legitimate state purpose for which a venue like the Capitol rotunda would be uniquely suited. If so, then it might be conceivable to have some sort of artistic competition during the holidays, with winners being chosen by an expert panel on the basis of aesthetic merit, and winning entries being displayed in the rotunda.

    Such a competition could be unified around a theme that encourages a celebration of diversity during the holiday season. A theme like this wouldn't exclude religious content, but would likely prevent some of the problem the current policy gives rise to.

    Don't know if this would work, however.


  3. I'm glad that you brought this subject up, because it's one that I've been thinking about quite a bit recently. Though I'd love to see equal time for all viewpoints, I think it would just be a logistical nightmare for something like a single rotunda to contain them all. Also, the government allowing space for religious (or anti-religious, in the case of these atheists) displays comes awfully close to endorsing those viewpoints. At least, that's what it would seem to imply.

    I do think that the atheists, in this case, shouldn't have gone as negatively as they did. It's a great rallying message for other non-believers, but it won't do anything to change a theist's mind about religion in the long run. I think they would have made their point much better by displaying an alternate nativity depicting the birth of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Invisible Pink Unicorn. At least those could also incorporate humor.

  4. I think it is relevant to point out that Dan Barker has written a very readable book, “Godless”, expressing the development of his philosophy and attitude toward religion. In addition, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (I'm a member) as a web site ( with the policies of the organization outlined, Those who are in favor of, or opposed to, Barker's ideas or those of the Foundation can find them fully expressed in those sources.

    The FFRF grew from two women's objections to starting civil government public meetings with prayer, and the organization has consistently opposed any religious display that puts government in the role of supporting religion. At the request of a Washington member, the FRRF asked the State of Washington to eliminate any religious display from it's capitol. The sign posted was the result of the state's refusal, offering the FFRF "equal space" instead.

    As for the ad hominem "Now I’m sure there are experiences in Barker’s life that explain why he sees such a loathsome message in an image of shepherds and kings and farm animals gathered in awed silence around a newborn baby." it is perhaps unnecessary to point out that the god represented by the "newborn baby" directed the butchery of the captive Midianite women and male children, accepted the sacrifice of Jephthah 's daughter in fire, and thought it worthy to relate to us the story of the rape and dismembering of the concubine of Gibeah. Surprisingly, the image of a cooing child may also represent a god who sends all unbelievers, whether Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons or Quakers, to burn forever in a fiery pit, even if they've been good citizens of the State of Washington.

    As for the interpretation “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds”—in slightly different terms, that religion, without distinction, is a source of moral corruption and irrationality." "And while the FFRF sign doesn’t say precisely this, it comes awfully close," I will leave to the reader to decide whether anything in the actual text points to moral corruption or irrationality. What *I* read is that religion is false, divisive, and actively attempts to prevent people from thinking for themselves. Which of these accusations implies moral corruption or irrationality? Is not the divisiveness demonstrated by the furor over the FFRF sign?

    In a final expression of concord,
    "Is it state censorship to require that divergent perspectives express themselves in the rotunda with a measure of decorum and mutual respect? If it is, then I would say that the state should probably leave the rotunda empty," is exactly, without qualification, the position of the FFRF: asking government to obey the Constitution and not endorse any religious opinion is their mission. Let's agree that the state should simply not endorse religious belief.