Though very involved with various NYC-based atheist and skeptical groups under the banner of Reasonable New York, I’ve never been a big fan of NYC Atheists, which I’m far from alone in finding off-putting. NYC Atheists isn’t part of the Reasonable New York coalition and does their own thing, which is fine, but they’ve never shown particularly welcoming of differing opinions.
And recently I and others have taken issue with their threats to sue New York City for naming a street “Seven in Heaven Way” in honor of a group of fallen firefighters during 9/11 on the grounds that it violates separation of church and state. The problems with this action are multitude not least that this is the most liberal interpretation of the First Amendment I’ve ever heard and that they’re opposing a monument to fallen 9/11 firefighters.
- The Brooklyn, NY reporter who wrote the original story (which has now gone worldwide, thanks to Reuters) got it right when she wrote that the “Seven in Heaven” street sign “endorses the religious view that afterlife exists.”
- Those who wrote about the Establishment Clause in the Constitution got it right — and wrong. It’s true that the First Amendment says merely that the state cannot establish a religion. However, case law has gone beyond that. In the Philadelphia case of Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) the precedent was established that subsequently forced Alabama’s Judge Roy Moore to remove from his courthouse a standing monument with the 10 Commandments on it. The decision (later to be known as the “Lemon Test”) established that you cannot place religious symbols in public places where other people are forced to endure them. I.e., you can’t shove your religion down our throats.
- NYC Atheists is not concerned about any “bad” public relations we would get by filing a suit. We have found the opposite to be true: We got 25 new members in the first week the story broke. Apparently a lot of people who have been silent are encouraging us now with their money and their presence in our ranks.
- A lot of your blog people think seem to think that this is an “unimportant” issue. We did not choose this issue; it chose us. Once it broke in the newspapers, all hell broke loose. Nationwide! And now, Reuters has made it worldwide. I worked for 10 years in a New York public relations firm as a P.R. account writer/supervisor, and one thing I learned: the media controls what stories it wants to cover. You can send tons of press releases to the media and they won’t pick up on the story you want them to cover. So when they bring a story to you, you pay attention. This street sign story is important not because we say so, but because the world says so.
- This story is not about the seven firefighters who died — and not even about their families. We too honor the firefighters. That’s why we resent that they are being exploited as an indirect advertisement for a religious afterlife in a heaven that the dictionary describes as the place “where God and angels live.”
- The church has become expert at subliminal religious imprinting. And I assure you they too have a public relations office that, even as I write this, is pondering how to deal with our potential suit. We have already sued Bishop DiMarzio of Brooklyn’s Catholic diocese once for making robocalls during the last election to plug a candidate that was soft on clergy child-abusers. That case was thrown out of court. Brooklyn is heavily Catholic. We’re not afraid to sue again. Whatever it takes, we’re prepared to do it.
- We have said publicly that we do not wish to change the names of places like “San Francisco.” Those religious names were affixed a couple of centuries ago and have mostly lost all connotation of religon. Nobody thinks of San Francisco as the city of St. Francis. If anything, they think of San Francisco as the city-where-many-gay-people-live. Besides, that’s naming a city after a person, not after an idea or a religious precept. But, as Ken Bronstein puts it, we are now drawing a line in the sand and saying, OK, no more. No new religious “product placement” on our street signs!
- The “Seven in Heaven” street sign was paid for by the City of New York, using our tax money. As atheists, we pay taxes and we do not want our hard-earned money to be used to pay for an advertisement for a religious afterlife. You may ask, don’t the religious people also pay taxes? But that does not give them the right to put their religion on a public street sign. We cannot; they cannot.
- Are we denying religious advocates their freedom of speech? No. They can spout their religious aphorisms in their churches, in their homes, on their private property. They just can’t do it in public places where it constitutes forcing their religion in our faces. But nobody, nowhere, has complete freedom of speech. You cannot yell “Fire” in a crowded theatre. You cannot slander or defame somebody.
- Picture this. You, B.A. (before Atheism), are walking by the “Seven in Heaven” street sign with your 5-year-old kid. He says, “What does that mean, Mommy? ” You say, “It means seven brave firefighters died in the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11.” “Why are they in Heaven, Mommy?” “Well, that’s their reward, son, for being heroes.” “Will I go to heaven, Mommy?” “Well, um, if you are good.” “Will you go to heaven too, Mommy?” “Well, I guess so.” “Will I be there with you, Mommy?” You, bristling: “Well, look, I don’t know.”Do you want to go through that conversation with your child? I don’t. But that’s going to happen with scores of borderline-religious moms and dads. Look, if advertisements can get kids to eat Fruit Loops, advertisements can get kids to worry about heaven and hell. And there it is, staring at them: That ad up there on the street that says if you are good, you will go to Heaven and be with the Firefighters. Fruit Loops, anyone?
Sigh. Please allow me to retort.
1. The word heaven has been fairly secularized at this point. Does it have religious connotations? Sure. But a lot of phrases in our modern vernacular have religious origins. So what? The sign doesn’t need to be taken so literally. It’s just a nice gesture, like exclaiming, “Jesus Christ” to express frustration or saying “god bless you” when someone sneezes. Now I usually try to remember to say something like, “Zeus bless you,” but even I slip sometimes.
2. Now it’s true that later Supreme Court decisions broadened the definition of the Establishment Clause, but this is a fuckin’ street sign. I’m sure there are whole towns in America with religious-themed names. I’m not suggesting that that makes it okay. Ideally, the government would not issue a name with a religious context to anything but it’s hardly infringing upon the rights of people who don’t believe in a literal heaven like atheists or Jews. Whereas a Ten Commandments display outside a courthouse does suggest the endorsement of Judeo-Christianity, as the Supreme Court decided. A street sign is hardly shoving anything down your throat. Get real.
3. Hope that whopping 25 new people covers their losses with this dumb publicity stunt. And that’s what this is, a publicity stunt. So to claim you don’t care if it causes bad publicity is laughable. No other explanation can come close to justifying such a misplaced sense of priorities. This is NYC Atheists following the PETA model of fanatically caring more about getting media attention than what is actually best for the cause they claim to be fighting. Not only will atheists be seen as making much ado about nothing but you’re actually fighting a memorial to fightfighters who died during 9/11. This will be a spectacularly bad PR move. It will backfire and set back our efforts for acceptance in mainstream society. Fox News’ goal is to turn viewers against us, so why would any atheist organization want to feed into their stereotype?
4. The issue most certainly did not “choose you.” That’s retarded. Most activists learn to choose their battles. There are many more important battles we could be fighting without wasting our time on a fuckin’ street sign. How about the “In God We Trust” letters in New York City’s court rooms? Where’s the outrage about that? No, you’d rather attach yourselves like ramoras to a more newsworthy event for publicity.
5. No, for everyone who isn’t NYC Atheists, it most certainly IS about the seven firefighters who died. That’s the story the media will present because, let’s face it, that’s the narrative you’ve framed yourselves into, the atheists versus 9/11 fightfighters story. Congratulations. Nobody’s going to buy after this that you believe in honoring these brave men. If you did, they’ll say you should just let this one go rather than cause greater emotional distress to the families of these victims.And are we really going to get caught up in dictionary definitions? The dictionary also defines a marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Yay dictionary!!
6. I don’t think any of these religious PR departments are even remotely concerned about this potential lawsuit. They might even send you a present as a thank you for handing them such an easy political victory.
7. Now this is just a lame excuse to explain away your transparent hypocrisy. You have no interest in changing the name of San Francisco because it’s been here too long to be newsworthy, whereas this street sign is current news. It’s funny how you have no problem recognizing how dumb fighting a name is in one instance but not the other. True, nobody thinks of San Francisco as the city of St. Francis, but nor does anyone think literal of a literal heaven every time they see the word.
8. Regardless of what it was named, it’d still be using our tax dollars. Please explain again how this is personally affects your life or livelihood.
9. How the fuck did you get from the word “heaven” on a street sign to shouting fire in a crowded theater?
10. Oh my god (don’t sue me NYC atheists)! Bill Donohue is running the NYC Atheists! How else can you explain this lame argument that having to explain religion to a five-year-old child is offensive. This is exactly what Donohue and other homophobes say about schools recognizing homosexuality. They say their kids shouldn’t have to be exposed to it. And of course, if not for this one sign, those kids would never have found out religion exists. Poor you. Poor, poor you having to actually explain things to your kids. I feel your pain.
NYC Atheists has officially lost their fuckin’ minds. I don’t know whose interests they’re supposed to be representing but it certainly isn’t mine. Just don’t do it. It will fail spectacularly and the rest of us will have to suffer the consequences for this stunt.
The reason the media is covering this story is not because it’s an important issue. It’s because it’s ridiculous to most people that anyone would be upset about a sign honoring firefighters who died on 9/11 and the media wants to capitalize on that public rage.
I’m all for getting media attention but not bad press. Our goal should be to steal media attention in instances where we’ll be framed as the heroes of the story. Or at the very least, as the victims. You never, never want to be the guy who goes up against 9/11 victims’ families. Any “Communications Director” who can’t figure that out is incompetent.
(Need proof? See: related articles headlines below)
- Atheist Group Threatens Lawsuit Over ‘Seven In Heaven’ Street Sign Honoring 9/11 Firemen (mediaite.com)
- Atheists say dead heroes shouldn’t be honoured (samisaacson.wordpress.com)
- Angry Atheists are such Feckless Fundamentalists (zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com)
- Anti-theists all aflutter over a street sign. (defendingcontending.com)
- Four words that drive radical Atheists nuts- NO GOD, NO RIGHTS (thedaleygator.wordpress.com)