Thursday, July 17, 2014


Lately there have been accusations from the Christian community that atheists have been attacking Christians for just wanting to practice their religion.  Hmmm . . . It might have started last winter with charges that atheists were objecting to the use of the greeting, “Merry Christmas.”  And more recently, of course, there has been secular criticism of the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case.  All of this has made me think about where atheists should concentrate their efforts and about how vocal they should be in promoting their point of view.
At a recent atheist gathering (yes, we have meetings) the example that brought these issues home to me was the question of how to deal with the placement of crosses along highways where an automobile accident has resulted in someone’s death.  Many of these crosses are located within the public right of way, that is, on government property.  As such, arguably they represent government support for specific, namely, Christian, religious symbolism, no different in principle from, say, the placement of a copy of the Ten Commandments on a sign in a county courthouse.  And some more strident atheists felt that the government should be advised that such crosses on public property represent a violation of First Amendment rights against the establishment of religion and should be petitioned either to prohibit such crosses or to remove them after a reasonable period of time.  

I disagree with this position for a couple of reasons.  First, my sense is that in that context the use of a cross, though historically a Christian symbol, has essentially been secularized and is simply seen as a symbol for death.  Perhaps there’s another way to signify death without using a religious symbol.  A skull and crossbones or a ghost in a white sheet would serve, I suppose, but those symbols are freighted with their own connotations, some of which, of course, are negative.  During a recent visit to Austin, Texas, I noted a couple of examples of “ghost bikes,” bicycles painted all white that had been left at a specific location to symbolize the death of a cyclist at that spot.  Powerful, I thought.  And perhaps a new symbol could be devised to represent a death by automobile accident that could avoid the religious symbolism.  But to me it’s just not a big deal.  

Second, and more importantly, objecting to the use of roadside crosses sends the wrong emotional message.  One can assume that someone had placed the cross to commemorate the death of a loved one at that location.  And the cross is there, not to symbolize the dead person’s Christian faith, but as a tribute to that person and to remind passersby of the fragility of life and perhaps to remind them as well of the need for vigilance when driving.  Objections to such a display can too easily be seen as an instance of atheists acting like heartless, one-dimensional curmudgeons who “just don’t get it.”  To me that’s a legitimate issue of image that needs to be addressed whenever atheists are considering taking a stand on a particular matter.   We are not going to succeed if we come across as being insensitive and intolerant.  In short, I think we need to be careful how we pick our fights.

As atheists, we need to ask ourselves, What are our objectives?  If our goal is to assure our continued freedom from religion, then perhaps we need to weigh the seriousness of the infringement.  It may be annoying to some atheists to see roadside crosses, but it hardly amounts to a violation of First Amendment rights.  The Hobby Lobby case is a more serious matter, as it represents the use of religion to limit freedom of choice in reproductive health matters.  Even there, though, my sense is that the case has more to do with views on sexual morality than with religious freedom.  If our goal is to educate others to the parameters of the First Amendment, then we need to do so in a way that will avoid turning people off. 

So what factors should determine when and how we defend and promote secularism?  Certainly, we need to monitor and challenge any governmental action that would represent a serious violation of the First Amendment prohibition against establishment of religion.  For me the key word here is “serious.”  And generally I am encouraged by the success of the secular community in this regard in recent years.  I think we have been succeeding in sensitizing the courts to the ways in which governments, both local and federal, have violated those First Amendment rights.  Rulings forbidding prayer or the teaching of creationism in public schools represent signal victories in this area. 

As odd as it may seem, my biggest disagreement with Christians, particularly fundamentalist Christians, is not with what they believe.  It is with how they have come to those beliefs.  From my perspective, the ultimate goal is not to convert everyone to atheism.  It is, rather, to educate others to the use of critical thinking skills, to employing objective evidence, rational analysis, and the scientific method in understanding the world—and in formulating a moral code—rather than to a continued reliance on “revealed authority,” such as scripture.  In short, it is to persuade others to question beliefs that are based on authority and instead to require that assertions be supported by objective evidence and well-designed research.  If we succeed in doing that, then the demise of religion will take care of itself.  

Unfortunately, in my experience it is futile to expect change among longstanding Christians, especially those who are older and were taught early on to embrace a faith-based mindset.  Their beliefs are essentially logic-proof and rational discussion is futile.  But that’s not the case with younger people who have not yet been indoctrinated in an authoritarian mindset.  In brief, we are engaged in a philosophical battle with religion.  The battlefields, if you will, are the younger generation, and education is the key to victory.

We need to continue to oppose efforts to teach creationism (or intelligent design, as it is now called) in our schools as an alternative to the settled principles of biological science.  We need to teach students to use critical thinking and skepticism instead of simply accepting answers based on “revealed truth” or authority.  We need to educate our children in the incredible power and success of the scientific method.  And we need to ensure that students recognize that the advocacy of religion is wholly inappropriate in a school setting.  That is not to say that religion has to be totally avoided.  Rather, it needs to be taught for what it is, simply as a part of our cultural heritage, as literature, as history, as mythology, alongside other cultural components, other literature, history, and mythologies.

There is no doubt that secularism will ultimately win this intellectual war with religion, and the decisive battles will be won in the educational arena.  That is why there is where we need to focus our efforts.

© 2014 John M. Phillips


  1. Why can't both be taught and let the student decide in which to put their beliefs?

    I am not a long standing Christian. I have not been indoctrinated in an authoritarian mindset. And yet, I believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

    1. Creationism (or Intelligent Design, as its proponents now refer to it) is not science; it is religion. And the First Amendment strictly prohibits the promotion of religion in public schools. This issue has been litigated a number of times and the verdict is clear.

      What do you base your belief in Christianity on?