Jul 2, 2013

Atheists make peace with public monuments

There was some reticence.

Among the atheists who organized to erect an atheist monument at a Florida courthouse, there was some ambivalence about the idea of having a monument. It was a compromise. They had wanted a 10 Commandments monument removed from the courthouse grounds, and had argued against such displays on government property in principle. Such a monument, they said, signaled the exclusion of some citizens. Such a monument meant an implicit government endorsement of religion.

They settled for denying the 10 Commandments its exclusive position in Starke, Florida.

David Silverman with America's first atheist monument.
Credit: American Atheists
According to the Associated Press, "It's a case of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Maybe that's a win for pluralism, and equal access, but it's also at least a little bit of a de facto endorsement of the idea of monuments on government land. It would seem to be accepting the idea that a monument in can exist on public property, at least in certain contexts without signaling government endorsement or making some feel like second-class citizens.

The internal conflict can be seen in the public statements about the monument made by the American Atheists. The man who designed the monument expressed this reticence. Ken Loukinen, a regional director of the American Atheists, said "We'd rather there be no monuments at all, but if they are allowed to have the 10 Commandments, we will have our own."

The president of the American Atheists made similar statements. David Silverman told Time Magazine "We don't want to establish this monument; we feel we need to establish it."

The American Atheists have apparently made peace with that position, though, because Silverman announced on Saturday at the monuments' unveiling that there's now a plan to build 50 more monuments on government property in the United States. Silverman said an anonymous donor has provided funds for more atheist monuments, and the group is working to make that happen.

He told reporters he would also support other groups' legal rights to put up their own monuments.

Atheist blogger Hemat Mehta writes that this strategic, though not ideal. He says,
In an ideal world, atheist monuments like this one wouldn’t have to be here. It’s not like American Atheists was pushing to have it installed. It was only when the Courthouse granted special access to a Christian group that AA knew they couldn’t let them get away with it. Same with the rest of the nation.  
If the Christians take down their monuments, the atheists will, too.  
But until then, might as well make Christians feel *really* uncomfortable about the fact that their actions are paving the way for pro-atheist monuments to go up across the country.
There were a few protestors at the unveiling who perhaps could be taken as evidence of more general discomfort with the idea. Some flew Confederate battle flags and had signs with slogans about Yankees. Another, creationist Eric Hovind, reportedly jumped up on the monument and thanked those gathered for giving him a platform from which to preach Jesus. The private group that put up the 10 Commandment monuments has said several times publicly that they're not concerned by this development. They also weren't present at the Atheists' ceremony on Saturday.

Whether there are others who "feel *really* uncomfortable" with the monument and the idea of other such monuments remains to be seen.

The American Atheists, though, seem to have overcome their own discomfort with idea of public monuments, so long as they can have theirs too.