In a little known town by the name of New York City, a select few are bravely fighting back against the tyranny of a ironfisted religious organizati-whoops sorry, my bad. Wrong script this week.
As you may or may not have heard, the American Atheists, led by David Silverman, are currently embroiled in a legal battle to remove one particular item from being exhibited in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum’s collection: A cross-shaped hunk of metal discovered and eventually ordained by a Catholic friar in the rubble of the terrorist attacks that shook the city over ten years ago. Are they fighting to preserve the clear distinction between Church and State? Eh, kinda. How about to prevent religiously-motivated discrimination? Sorta. Well, at least they’re not trying to use the argument of people becoming so physically and mentally ill at the sight of a giant metal T that it would be an affront to the memory of Louis Pasteur to let it stand unencumbered. Oh.
Far be it for me to offer suggestions to A.A. (unless they changed their mind on my idea to rename themselves The Godbusters, that is), but it’s apparent to me, as a fellow New Yorker present during the attacks, just what an incredibly, incredibly dumb ledge they’ve decided to walk out on with this lawsuit. A hella-dumb ledge if you will.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s arguments to make about how the faux reverence of a cross-beam, one of thousands that would inevitably be found in the rubble of two building collapses, shouldn’t be endorsed by anyone, let alone a museum. A case to bring up that sanctifying a plus sign not considered holy enough until it was later trimmed down to look more cruficix-y is a slap in the face to the families of non-Christians who also died that day. There’s even a great point to make about the cultural implications of honoring a clear as day testament to the ineffectiveness of a Christian god.
Trouble is, the American Atheists already made those points when discussions about the cross first started up, and for their part they were dutifully ignored. Sad as that is, they did lose the argument and dear Cthlulu, does all of this now smack of sour grapes. Of course, that might even not be so bad if not for the alternatives presented by the crack staff at American Atheists. Such gems as building a giant A to be held next to the cross as a symbol of the non-Christian presence at the attacks. Let’s leave aside how hokey that would look to anyone who isn’t disturbingly interested in scrabble, and focus on how self-centered that idea makes Silverman and Co. look in front of everyone. If you’re arguing out of a respect to allow equal representation of all creeds and non-creeds, the worst way to go about it is to suggest your own symbol as a placeholder. (Note to self: Suggest better symbols to American Atheists). Yes, I know they also offered a display to present other religious symbols in the interest of equal time, but the idea of the giant A should have never been uttered by anyone looking to make a serious point. Least of all because you’re giving the 20 ft. chunk of God metal a run for its money in terms of ridiculousness.
But let’s save the brunt of the ridicule for the claims of physical and mental anguish as a result of all this. While I don’t doubt that some fraction of people could find themselves in enough pain at the thought of the cross being allowe- actually no, I severely doubt that, but it’s at least in the realm of possibility. All I have to say is that if you’re honestly going to make the argument that the discomfort of a few is reason enough to force the removal of a museum exhibit that, like it or not, has historical merit being in there, does it have to sound like a ten-year-old’s excuse for skipping gym class? Seriously, it’s right there in the petition:
Named plaintiffs have suffered, inter alia, 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[...]
What makes it worse is that the opposing side actually has pretty solid counter-arguments. The main organization behind the museum, the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, is a not-for-profit organization (albeit one that has received federal funding to build the museum). The cross, corny as it is, is accurately part of the lore surrounding the rescue and clean-up efforts after 9/11 and it needn’t be a concerted effort to malign other faiths on the part of anyone if they wanted to portray that lore. Most damaging of all is the museum’s concession prior to the lawsuit to exhibit other religious symbols that would be crafted out of the metal wreckage right alongside the cross. In essence, defeating the point of the lawsuit right from the get-go.
Shaky legal ground aside, ultimately the real death knell is the silliness factor. I realize I’m not giving their arguments the full nuance they deserve, but that’s the point; neither will anyone else, including the judge that will hear their case.
Now, I’m not going to argue that the American Atheists have better things to do with their time because:
A. There’s always better things to do with your time, and I’m sure the American Atheists are doing some of those things right this instant.
B. Nearly everyone who makes that argument seems to forget the miraculous ability of people to do more than one thing at a time.
What I will say is that there are fights you pick that you know you don’t stand a chance of winning in order to prove a larger point, and then there are fights you should probably just gracefully pull back from, because the longer you stay in them, the pettier you make your side out to be. Especially when you lob out suggestions so mind-numbingly pretentious that if you read them out aloud to the Cannes Film Festival, you’d get a standing ovation. And oh-so-especially in light of how touchy and emotionally charged a subject 9/11 is to most New Yorkers. Silverman might not care about playing the bad guy, but that’s not really the danger here. The danger is in looking like the guy who insists he really did win that one poker game five years ago, no matter what anyone says otherwise. That’s the guy everyone knows not to pay too much attention to.
All that said, I’m actually greatly appreciative of the screw-ups by the American Atheists. They’re not going to always lobby for the causes I care about, or even go about those causes in the best possible way (clearly), but you know what? I’m glad there are atheist groups around to screw up in the first place. And I’m glad I feel free to criticize and mock those groups to my heart’s content when they do screw up, so long as it means they brush themselves off and learn from their P.R. gaffes. (Seriously, a giant A? What, are you trying to audition for the Avengers 2?)
With all this talk of new movements and DEEP RIFTS within the larger atheist circles, it’s important to be reminded that ‘criticism’ isn’t a bad word. And that the ability to take some should be the difference between non-believers and believers.
Maybe hold off the giant A’s for a little while, too.