Atheists in Burbank and a Cross in the Desert

Those out-of-town folks in the rental cars can drive you crazy, creeping along rather lost and nervously glancing about, looking for street signs that aren’t totally ambiguous or some sort of landmark, then suddenly darting across three lanes of oncoming traffic to make the right turn that might get them somewhere, anywhere, that’s near where they’re supposed to be. Yeah, everyone stood on their brakes and skidded sideways to a stop, but that’s how it is. Los Angeles, and this side of Los Angeles, has Hollywood for the tourists, and from downtown through Beverly Hills out to Santa Monica, convention after convention, and the trade shows. It could be Star Trek fans or an international gathering of proctologists, or an adult film and sexual accessories awards show – someone is always in town. So you learn to be careful. If anyone is driving what looks to be a rental car, like a Dodge Stratus, which no real people buy, you keep your distance. At Academy Awards time and during Rose Bowl week you stay home. It’s safer.

But do atheists drive better than true believers? There were no reports of an unusual number of fender-benders in the period for October 2 through October 4, 2009, and we had the Atheist Alliance International Convention 2009 right here. Actually it was at the Burbank Airport Marriot Conference Center, in Burbank of course, right next to the Bob Hope International Airport (the new name for the Burbank Airport). That meant no one really had to drive anywhere, even if it was their largest convention ever – fly in, take the shuttle to the Marriot and settle in. Bill Maher will come to you, so there’s no need to putter around Hollywood looking for stars. His 2008 movie, Religious – his documentary on the absurdities of religion – was a big hit with this crowd. Of course it was a box-office bomb. No one in their right mind, in America, would ever admit to being an atheist – the whole idea is beyond taboo. There was no way to market such a film.

But the trends are obvious:

A wide-ranging study on American religious life found that the percentage of Christians in the nation has declined and more people say they have no religion at all. Fifteen percent of respondents said they had no religion, an increase from 14.2 percent in 2001 and 8.2 percent in 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

The study found that the numbers of Americans with no religion rose in every state. “No other religious bloc has kept such a pace in every state,” the study’s authors said.

So when these folks met in Burbank, thanks to the Atheist Alliance International – to mull over “Darwin’s Legacy” – they were just another convention. No one is calling for a boycott of the Marriot chain (so far). And their next convention, The Rise of Atheism, will be in Melbourne, Australia, in March 2010. Things are changing.

And they’re getting bolder. Jerry Coyne, at Why Evolution Is True, blogged from the event:

Dan Dennett talked about interviews with active priests and ministers who are atheists, and also mounted a hilarious attack on theologians like Karen Armstrong, who mouth pious nonsense like, “God is the God behind God.” Dennett calls this kind of language a “deepity” – a statement that has two meanings, one of which is true but superficial, the other which sounds profound but is meaningless. His exemplar of a deepity is the statement “Love is just a word.” True, it’s a word like “cheeseburger,” but the supposed deeper sense is wrong: love is an emotion, a feeling, a condition, and not just a word in the dictionary. He gave several examples of other deepities from academic theologians; when you see these things laid out – ripped from their texts – in a PowerPoint slide, they make you realize how truly fatuous are the lucubrations of people like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught. Sarcasm will be the best weapon against this stuff.

Of course, the committed Catholic, who also hates the simple-minded religious right, Andrew Sullivan, took umbrage at that:

They’re really charming, aren’t they? It is as if everything arrogant about the academy and everything sneering about cable news culture is combined into one big snarky smugfest. Maybe these atheists will indeed help push back the fundamentalist right. Maybe they will remind people that between these atheist bigots and these fundamentalist bigots, the appeal of the Christianity of the Gospels shines like the sun.

Of course his readers jumped all over him for that, and he apologized:

I got a little tetchy recently, a little battered by the constant barrage of atheist argument. Forgive me. I’ve had a lot on my plate recently and my moods are hard for me to disguise when writing so much so often in real time. But the reason I blog about this and air it on what is a mainly political blog is because, to my mind, it remains the vital matter of our time – not just an attempt to rescue faith from bigotry and certainty, but an attempt to acknowledge the limits of our own understanding, wherever we sit.

He claims he thinks too, and that his faith isn’t as blind as his outburst implied:

I’ve written and thought a lot about doubt as inherent in genuine faith. What I have failed to do is emphasize the role of action as religion. …

Religion, in one profound sense, is simply what we do every day, the practice of daily compassion and spiritual discipline that brings us closer to God and to our highest nature as humans. The obsession with doctrine is rather modern, let alone the imposition of doctrine through politics or, worse, violence. Religion, properly understood, is less the assertion of facts we cannot prove than the living of a love that transcends fact into mindful compassion. This is so hard. I fail every day. I fail on this blog.

But our religion is simply and best exemplified by the way we live, rather than what we say we believe. At least that is how it increasingly seems to me; and it acts simultaneously as a rebuke and a salve.

But his readers won’t let up:

I’m 55 and have been an atheist for as long as I can remember. Throughout my life I’ve had to listen to smug preachers railing against the evil of atheism, gleefully describing the torment we’d endure after we died.

I was very active at one time in state politics as an employee of the state Democratic Party. I got interested in running for office, but was told unless I was willing to join a church, preferably a Baptist church, I could forget about it. I listened to the U.S. president publicly state that “atheists should not be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots.” On those few occasions where I let people know about my lack of belief, reactions ranged from supercilious pity (“You poor, pitiful lost soul…I will pray for you that you may see the light.”) to outright hostility.

By the way, that president was the first President Bush. His son never went that far. But this reader continues:

I was a scoutmaster for 10 years, well liked and appreciated by the kids and their parents. But, the entire time I knew that if a parent ever found out that I was an atheist; I would have been immediately removed. With all that, and more, do you really wonder why I have a general disdain for religion and all the wonderful things it does for our society? Throughout my life, religious belief has been nothing but a sword hanging over my head, ready to fall the moment my lack thereof was discovered. Do you really wonder why I would like to see that sword broken and cast into the forge?

Maybe there’s a reason the atheists had their convention at the Burbank Airport, the original site of Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works out in Building 82. The irony might have been too good to pass up. And there is this interactive picture going around these days, of everyone who makes up the United States of America. You will note that Jesus created the United States and is the author of the Constitution. There’s a lot of that going around.

And another reader offers this:

There really are two different types of people in the world: religious and non-religious. Your final sentence about the appeal that “the Christianity of the Gospels shines like the sun” really means nothing to me. I knocked my head on church doors for years thinking something was wrong with me that I couldn’t understand what is meant by statements like that. Finally, just like coming out, I realized that I’m just not that sort of person and to hear of a whole conference of people feeling the same way about God is just like hearing of rumors of gay bars where… everyone is GAY!

Of course there’s a dig there. Sullivan is openly and proudly gay. But he is a good man. He publishes all these comments, including this one:

First you declare that an atheist meeting is “one big snarky smugfest” – but then in the next breath you declare Scientology “The Super Adventure Club.” What makes Christianity any more believable than Scientology? What is the difference between worshiping Xenu and worshiping a Zombie Carpenter? What makes Christianity superior to Pagan beliefs, Muslim beliefs, Nordic Beliefs or Hindu Beliefs? The double standard is disgusting and quite obvious that you only advocate “one” religion and not another. If you want to be critical of “snarky smug” atheists and in the same breath berate other religions, I suggest you take a good look at your own beliefs and imagine seeing them from the point of view of someone who doesn’t believe in them, and then tell me who belongs in a super adventure club.

Another adds this:

An atheist pointing out that a sound-byte is intellectually vacuous is not “bigotry.” It is not based on hatred, or discrimination, or anything but adherence to the rigorous demands of our own intellect. If the Creationists, ID supporters, and theists in general want to run with the big boys, they should expect to be treated like everyone else on the field. If they say meaningless things, they deserved to be called on them. Why should we be expected to hold our fire? …

And another:

Your complaints about atheists seem to center on their tone – the fact that Dennet is not “really charming” when exposing some vacuous statements masquerading as spirituality. (They’re not all rude – your debate with Sam Harris was respectful on both sides). But perhaps they have a right to be a bit rude – they are the most unpopular minority in the USA, with no chance of electoral representation, and they feel as if the country has been overtaken by the Christian right for the last twenty years. Plenty to be rude about, in my opinion.

Well, at least these rude people weren’t driving around this end of LA for those two days.

But that is all rather abstract. A few days later, on Wednesday, October 7, things got specific:

As the Supreme Court weighed a dispute over a religious symbol on public land Wednesday, Justice Antonin Scalia was having difficulty understanding how some people might feel excluded by a cross that was put up as a memorial to soldiers killed in World War I.

“It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead,” Scalia said of the cross that the Veterans of Foreign Wars built 75 years ago atop an outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve. “What would you have them erect? … Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?”

Peter Eliasberg, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer arguing the case, explained that the cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and commonly used at Christian grave sites, not that the devoutly Catholic Scalia needed to be told that.

“I have been in Jewish cemeteries,” Eliasberg continued. “There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”

There was mild laughter in the packed courtroom, but not from Scalia.

In fact, Scalia was pissed, saying that was an outrageous conclusion. This AP item says he was “clearly irritated by the exchange.” That’s unusual. It’s a good thing he hadn’t been in Burbank the weekend before. But it was clear that he sees no problem with the cross at all. The lower federal courts did find a constitutional violation and were not persuaded that the previous compromise, the transfer of the site of the cross, the few square feet on which it stands in the middle of the federal Mojave National Preserve, to private owners, really fixed the problem. This is why such things rise to the Supreme Court.

And then it broke down into the usual division, the conservatives versus the liberals:

Several conservative justices seemed open to the Obama administration’s argument that Congress’ decision to transfer to private ownership the land on which the cross sits ends any government endorsement of the cross and takes care of the constitutional questions. “Isn’t that a sensible interpretation” of a court order prohibiting the cross’ display on government property? Justice Samuel Alito asked.

The liberal justices, on the other hand, indicated that they agree with a federal appeals court that ruled that the land transfer was a sort of end-run around the First Amendment prohibition against government endorsement of religion.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the decisive vote in these cases, said nothing to tip his hand.

And there were the amicus parties, like veterans groups worried that other religious symbols that serve as war memorials could be threatened by a ruling against the Mojave cross. Can we have no symbols? The ACLU lawyer said they need not worry – the Veterans Administration offers a choice of thirty-nine different emblems and beliefs on tombstones at Arlington. And it was the Jewish and Muslim veterans who object that the Mojave cross honors Christian veterans and excludes others, like them. No atheists filed amicus briefs. This was an insider’s thing.

For more detail, and a photograph of the cross in question, see Dahlia Lithwick’s item in Slate, Cross-Eyed:

“The cross doesn’t honor non-Christians who fought in the war?” Scalia asks, stunned.

“A cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity, and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins,” replies Eliasberg, whose father and grandfather are both Jewish war veterans.

“It’s erected as a war memorial!” replies Scalia. “I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of … of … of the resting place of the dead.”

Eliasberg dares to correct him: “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”

“I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead,” thunders Scalia. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion!”

It was lively, and Lithwick dryly offers this – “Far less outrageous is the conclusion that religious symbols are not religious.” That seemed to be what Scalia was saying.

And she is more precise with the facts of the case:

The white cross, which sits on a desolate outcropping of rock known as Sunrise Rock, was erected in 1934 as a war memorial by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The original has been replaced several times. Easter services have been held at the site for more than 70 years. But in 1999, the National Park Service denied a Buddhist’s request to erect a shrine near the cross then declared its intention to take the cross down. Congress responded by enacting legislation in 2000 that prohibited government money from being used to remove the cross and by designating the cross in 2002 as the “White Cross World War I Memorial.” After a district court permanently enjoined the government from displaying the cross that year, a cross-happy Congress passed yet more legislation, this time transferring the small parcel of land where the cross stood to the VFW. This transfer left what the 9th Circuit court of appeals later described as a little “doughnut hole of land with a cross in the midst of a vast federal preserve.”

The 9th Circuit has interceded twice in this case. First, to uphold the 2002 injunction, then again in 2008 to prevent the government from transferring the land-doughnut as a way of curing the violation of the Establishment Clause, which bars the government from any “establishment of religion.”

Well, things are difficult out here in California. Someone always wants to erect a Buddhist shrine and all hell breaks loose.

Lithwick goes on to report on what happened next – the Nine decided it was safer to argue procedural issues and just who had standing, and why or why not. So that’s what they did. Expect a decision by spring.

But is a Buddhist shrine an affront to Christianity, or tradition, or something? For those of us who watch religion from the sidelines, and might be tempted to drop by that convention in Melbourne next March, this is all very puzzling. The cross in the desert doesn’t seem to be that big a deal, nor is the idea of adding a Buddhist shrine, or something for the Flying Spaghetti Monster folks. What’s the problem?

Maybe these folks just think differently, at least in “Wired” that’s what they report:

Brain scans of people who believe in God have found further evidence that religion involves neurological regions vital for social intelligence. In other words, whether or not God or Gods exist, religious belief may have been quite useful in shaping the human mind’s evolution.

“The main point is that all these brain regions are important for other forms of social cognition and behavior,” said Jordan Grafman, a National Institutes of Health cognitive scientist.

In a study published Monday in Public Library of Science ONE, Grafman’s team used an MRI to measure the brains areas in 40 people of varying degrees of religious belief.

People who reported an intimate experience of God, engaged in religious behavior or feared God, tended to have larger-than-average brain regions devoted to empathy, symbolic communication and emotional regulation. The research wasn’t trying to measure some kind of small “God-spot,” but looked instead at broader patterns within the brains of self-reported religious people.

Well, that’s curious. Religious people have brains that are different, that naturally excel at empathy, symbolic communication and emotional regulation. Does that explain the religious right, or Ann Coulter, who after 9/11 famously said of all Muslim nations in the Middle East – “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” That’s empathy and emotional regulation? In 2001, as a contributing editor and syndicated columnist for National Review Online, she was asked by editors to change that. She refused, and on Bill Maher’s show, Politically Incorrect, she accused them of censorship, and said that she was paid five bucks per article, so they were getting their money’s worth. They dropped her column and terminated her editorship – they fired her.

The NIH cognitive scientist might think about rerunning that study on a wider sample. As for the rest of us, we’ll putter along, and accept we might be bad at empathy, symbolic communication and emotional regulation. But at least we’re not pushing anyone around. And we do drive better.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Ann Coulter, Antonin Scalia, Christian Nation, Church and State, Religion These Days and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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