On the Ohio Holocaust Memorial Debate

There’s a debate happening around the atheist blogosphere about the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) letter regarding the design of a Holocaust memorial to be built on the grounds of Ohio’s statehouse. The letter expresses concern over a potential breach of the US Constitution due to the inclusion of the “Star of David,” a symbol with sectarian religious connotations. The concern arises because the memorial is partially funded by the public and will sit on public land.

The debate within the atheosphere is whether or not FFRF should be expressing concern over the memorial. Those in agreement with FFRF tend to point out that the chosen design seems to focus on only one group targeted during the Holocaust (Jews) to the exclusion of other groups (Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc). Also, they have a question about whether or not the inclusion of the Star of David, as the sole religious symbol, constitutes a breach of the US Constitution. Their principle concern isn’t with the Holocaust memorial but with the design chosen for the memorial.

Those who do not agree with FFRF tend to point out that the Star of David has a secular, ethnic connotation along with a religious connotation. Likewise, they tend to argue that highlighting the tragedy suffered upon Jews by the Nazis does not constitute and cannot reasonably be considered a promotion of Judaism. Their principle concern is that the FFRF is overly focused on legal literalism to the detriment of human experience.

To see some of the debate in action, you can check out these posts:

Agree with FFRF:

Hemant Mehta: here and here.
Adam Lee: here.

Disagree with FFRF:

Daniel Fincke: here and here.
James Croft: here.

Personally, I tend to fall with those who disagree with the FFRF. I am sympathetic to the argument that the design could be broader in scope. For example, the Holocaust memorial in Portland, Oregon does a great job of eliciting powerful emotions without expressly Jewish symbols (or, at least, I don’t remember any expressly Jewish symbols). However, the concern about how well the design of the memorial represents the victims of the Holocaust is a concern for Ohioans. I am similarly sympathetic to a Holocaust memorial that puts an emphasis on the experiences of Jews for the obvious reasons.

Likewise, I am sympathetic to sticking to principle and defending secularism against potentially tricky breaches (like using the Holocaust as a means of getting the state to promote Judaism). But nothing of the sort is happening with the Ohio Holocaust memorial. No one seeing the design of the memorial would take it to be a promotion of Judaism. It makes complete sense that a Holocaust memorial would include Jewish symbols because Jews were the principle target of the Holocaust. The victims of the Holocaust are a group we, as fellow humans, have cause to memorialize. As such, I see no reason for the FFRF to be involved.

This is an interesting case. I have pared this post down quite a bit, so I recommend reading the various views out there.

 

On Being Worm Food

If I am being honest, I have always had mixed feelings about the discussion of discrimination against atheists. For example, a lot of the church/state separation battles really do seem to be over trivial things, but I am sympathetic to the argument that allowing small breaches of church/state separation provides justification for larger breaches.

Likewise, I understand that atheists, in the US, are viewed negatively and with distrust. I briefly touched on experiencing this first hand in my atheist challenge post. At the same time, atheists are predominantly male, white, higher-income, and educated.  As such, many atheists are in otherwise socially privileged groups.

Myself, being male, white, educated, and from a middle-class background, it would be completely disingenuous to claim that I have suffered or struggled in my life.  Certainly, I have had obstacles and challenges to overcome, but suffering and struggling would grossly over-exaggerate the challenges I’ve faced in comparison to the challenges others have overcome.

Though it would take little effort to find specific counterexamples, considering the demographic makeup of many atheists, I think it fair to suggest that there are many atheists that do not experience much personal suffering despite the discrimination that exists against atheists.

Then, every once in a while, something happens that slaps me across the face and reminds me of why it is important to fight against discrimination against atheists no matter how severe it is relative to other forms of discrimination. That something was congressman Mike Conaway’s (R-Tex) comments on an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would forbid Secular Humanist, Ethical Culturalist, and atheist chaplains.

Though there are chaplains of many religious faiths in the military, they must be trained to handle the actual diversity of religious belief that exists among those serving in the military and their families. One of the most difficult things a military chaplain has to do is provide grief counseling. This important role makes it clear why it is important and relevant for the military to have chaplains that share the views of non-believers.

Rep. Mike Conaway, however, thinks such an occurrence is opportunity to inject a little bile:

They don’t believe anything…. I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it — your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.’

You see, here’s the funny thing, people like Rep. Mike Conaway like to think that atheists “don’t believe anything” so that they can claim atheists act in some vile, inhuman way. They use this as an excuse to actually be vile and dehumanizing toward atheists, proving they are the slander they fling.

If my spouse died while serving in the military, I would not want a Christian chaplain to try and console me in the manner that he would try and console a fellow Christian. I could appreciate the sentiment, but I’ve just lost my spouse. I don’t want to have to smile and nod and worry about being disrespectful to the chaplain’s beliefs.

I would much rather have someone come to my door that would already understand how I relate to death, will not appeal to heavens and gods, but can articulate the value of my spouse’s service, the pride I should rightly feel, help me celebrate my spouse’s life, and help me grieve my spouse’s death.

Or, as Rep. Mike Conaway describes such an interaction: recognize that my spouse is just worm food.

Well, Rep. Mike Conaway– Fuck you.

If you were standing in front of me, I would spit in your face.

Because you would deserve it.

Oh, also, Rep. Mike Conaway. Saying a dead, atheist soldier is “just worm food” expresses beliefs about the behavior and diet of worms. I guess atheists do believe something. Just thought I’d note that pedantic point. Fucker.

***Edit***

Check out Chris Stedman’s post for a less cuss-filled discussion of atheist chaplains.