In South Carolina, where I live, the Confederate flag is prominently displayed on the grounds of the state Capitol. Many of us want it moved to a museum that contains artifacts of the Civil War (also referred to here as “The War of Northern Aggression”). That’s why I’m somewhat conflicted about whether the cross-shaped steel beam found in the rubble of 9/11 should be placed in a museum that memorializes the event.
The courts might have to decide whether this cross would be in a museum simply to commemorate a historical event or as a sectarian religious artifact inviting worship.
Government displays of sectarian symbols can give the false impression that our government is allowed to favor one religion (usually Christianity) over another or religion in general over non-religion. The 9/11 cross has been displayed outside a nearby Catholic church for the past five years, certainly a non-controversial place for religious symbols. Nobody questions Ten Commandments plaques in churches or private homes, but they don’t belong on courthouses or other public buildings.
I didn’t like the argument by American Atheists that the cross should be taken down because it gave some of its members “dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish from the knowledge that they are made to feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack.” I can’t help but think that American Atheists, a serious organization, was just having a little fun.
Nevertheless, that’s the kind of remark the media likes to focus on. Atheists are often falsely accused of being “militant” for speaking out against religion or making fun of antiquated religious beliefs. Here’s what I view as militant: death threats and threat of violence posted against atheists after the Communications Director for American Atheists appeared on Fox News. Here’s a sampling: “I say kill them all and let them see for themselves that there is God.”
“Shoot them. Shoot to kill.”
“They’re atheists so it won’t matter if you kill them.”
“Nail them to the cross then display it.”
On a personal note, I also had a cross incident. The College of Charleston, where I was teaching, purchased a building from a church that had a cross on top. I sent an email to Alex Sanders, president of the College, requesting that he remove the “plus sign” from what had become a public building. Sanders did, but with his usual sense of humor about most things, described our exchange in a local newspaper. He wrote, “I will just assign the building to Herb Silverman as his office. With the cross at the top and Herb Silverman at the bottom, that would be an equalizing force. I told him that if he kept quiet about the cross, no one would be nailed to it.”
Neither of us had been offended by Sanders’ public humor. However, there was much community outrage about my referring to the cross as a “plus sign.” Indignant writers fumed about how I offended Christians. Nobody took offense to Sanders’ allusion that I might get nailed to the cross for my behavior.
What do atheists want? We want the same rights and privileges as everyone else in our secular country.