With some hesitation, I must re-open the issue of officious inter-meddlers and grievance-mongerers who get satisfaction and empowerment from claiming to be offended by things that could not possibly harm them or genuinely infringe on their rights. The atheists are at it again.
My position has been stated here and elsewhere many times: in the absence of genuine long or short term harm, the ethical human response to a symbolic grievance is to keep one’s response proportional to the offense, which sometimes means considering how many individuals will be made miserable in order to satisfy one individual or a small group, and letting it go. Forcing a university to change the long-standing name of its football team based on a dubious argument that the name is an offense to Native Americans when most Native Americans couldn’t care less, for example, is wrong. Forcing a school to stop teaching kindergarteners to sing “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer” because a Jewish parent thinks the song promotes Christianity is wrong.
Now a group of New York City atheists is demanding that their city re-name a street that was dedicated to the memory of seven firefighters killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Brooklyn street is now called “Seven in Heaven Way,” officially named last weekend outside the firehouse where the perished firefighters once served, in a ceremony attended by dozens of firefighters, city leaders and family members. The atheists say the sign violates the separation of church and state. This is one of the purest examples of grievance bullying and misuse of special interest power I have ever seen.
“There should be no signage or displays of religious nature in the public domain,” Ken Bronstein, president of New York City Atheists, said. “It’s really insulting to us.” Bronstein said that his organization was especially concerned with the use of the word “heaven.” “We’ve concluded as atheists there is no heaven and there’s no hell,” he said. “And it’s a totally religious statement. It’s a question of separation of church and state.”
Right. And “All Dogs Go to Heaven” was a religious movie, as was “Heaven Can Wait.” And those Chock Full O’ Nuts commercials calling it a “heavenly coffee” insulted Ken and his pals too, whether they drink coffee or not. Fred Astaire was proselytizing when he sang “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” to Ginger Rogers (“Heaven…I’m in Heaven!”)
And that’s just the word “heaven”…what about angels? Ken’s atheists are under assault everywhere by those pesky angels! Elvis is singing that “she walks like an angel,” and there is a whole city in California called Los Angeles, and the supermarket is selling angel food cake…wait! What about devil’s food cake? All those references to the devil promote religion too…and they’re everywhere! “Damn Yankees,” the classic musical, has a devil in it—that means it’s a religious show! Insult! In Illinois there’s a hill called “Devil’s Bake Oven,” another hill called “Devil’s Backbone,” and an area called “Devil’s Kitchen.” Get over to Illinois, Ken and protest: Illinois is promoting religion. So is Wisconsin, which has a Devil’s Lake.
In fact, I think Ken is obligated to spend his life trying to expunge all cultural references to religion and religious lore, including metaphors and allusions, from the American scene, because their very existence offends him and his deadly serious band of atheists.
No, not really. I think Ken needs to get a life. I think Ken needs to learn that a rhyming street name about “Seven in Heaven” no more promotes a religion within the meaning of the Establishment Clause than “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” that it was nice, memorable way to say that the firefighters had died, were heroes, and lived on in the fond memories of their families and the city they died for. I think Ken needs to learn that there is a time and place to take a stand, and taking a stand regarding a street honoring 9-11 victims is petty, obnoxious, and wrong.
The kind of doctrinaire, unyielding, bullying self-righteousness that Ken’s atheists are engaging in is exactly the kind of intolerant and oppressive conduct that atheists justly criticize organized religion for engaging in over the centuries. If the existence of one street named to salve the grief of the families of fallen firefighters really is that psychologically traumatizing to the atheists, the most practical remedy is an army of psychiatrists.
From an ethical standpoint, the atheist protest fails every standard and test. It does not pass the Golden Rule’s standards. If we were to hold every New York City street sign to the standard that not one person or group could be offended by its name, the only streets that would be able to keep their names would be the numbered ones, and not all of those. (Anti-obesity groups would surely object to the candy bar-evoking 5th Avenue, and anti-violence groups might be offended by 10th Avenue, the setting for the tragic “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet). Thus the Rule of Universality fails.
As for utilitarianism, there is no contest. On one side, we have a fitting and touching honor for heroic dead that cheers their families and inspires their colleagues and profession, without any reference to a particular religion, or, to anyone rational, any religion. On the other, there is only capitulation to a trumped-up imaginary offense to a small group of atheists that sets an absurd precedent, and also undermines the cause of atheists by making them appear to the public as callously contemptuous of community sentiments. Which side represents the greater good, Ken? It should be an easy question.
We can argue about what kind of offense justifies taking a principled stand, but Seven in Heaven Street is so far from being genuinely and reasonable offensive that it doesn’t belong in the discussion. The New York City Atheists are grievance bullies, nothing more, and nothing less.