Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Dec/11

27

The symbolism of the nonexistent

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditShare on StumbleUponEmail this to someoneShare on TumblrShare on Google+

A few years ago I listened to Brad Stine, who happens to be a conservative Christian, make a joke to a sympathetic audience about how funny it was that some non-Christians were offended and objected to the image of a cross in a classroom. Stine’s assertion was to the effect that “It’s only a cross people! What’s so scary about that!” But my first thought was this: would Stine’s audience be laughing so hard if their children had to sit in a classroom with a Satanic pentagram? I doubt it.

Symbols are only innocuous when you find them innocuous. As a matter of fact atheists are not the only ones to object to crosses. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc., object to crosses in public places, or in locations which connote state sponsorship, because the symbol represents Christianity. For Christians the Satanic pentagram is a marker of the antithesis of their religion. Some Christians may even believe that the pentagram has a malevolent power! For Christians who hold to the position that Hinduism is a demonic cult standard statuary common to that religion has malevolent implications. Jews in particular have negative responses to the crucifix for reasons having to do with that religion’s history and relationship with Christianity.

I point this out because it is often amusing to laugh at the offense others take at what you find innocent or benevolent. But when the shoe is on the other foot you stop laughing. But I do have to admit that those of us who hold that all supernatural systems of belief are fictitious are in a peculiar position: we are taking offense at a symbol which is rooted in something which we think has no coherent basis in reality. This may not matter in a purely cognitive sense. To give an extreme example an atheist who was sexually abused by their priest may have a concrete viscerally negative reaction to symbolism associated with the Roman Catholic church without agreeing to the proposition that those symbols have any supernatural properties, or correspond to something with a supernatural basis.

But atheists are in a different position from those who adhere to religions which are not Christianity. For those people the supernatural domain may be real. And just as Christians may believe that non-Christian religions are fundamentally false, and non-Christians may be in thrall to false idols, so these individuals may have the inverse reaction to Christians and Christian symbols. A Jewish aversion to the cross may not be due to the fact that the cross is a symbol of a false religion, so much as that it is the symbol of a heresy debased with a idolatrous pagan ethos.

This somewhat pedantic exposition is to highlight that these issues aren’t so simple upon further reflection. One person’s offense is another person’s sacred. For atheists our very existence is objectionable, as can be made clear by some of the comments below. Therefore, how we position ourselves in the public debate does matter.

9 comments

  • Jeeves · December 27, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    A Jewish aversion to the cross may not be due to the fact that the cross is a symbol of a false religion, so much as that it is the symbol of a heresy debased with a idolatrous pagan ethos.

    Not sure what Jewish “aversion” to the cross is. How is is manifested? Avoidance? Dislike? Repugnance? To the extent Jews think about the cross at all, they probably think “Not Jewish.”

    If the cross represents anything at all in the Jewish mind, isn’t it more likely to be the legacy of Christian persecution? Like Blood Libel? Or maybe pogroms? Or perhaps even this:

    http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/how-the-catholic-church-sheltered-nazi-war-criminals/

    (Sorry, preview only; the article’s behind a paywall. I doubt the Church has much to fear from these revelations. Unlike its problem with abused altar boys, I doubt that the Church could be sued for aiding and abetting Nazis on any legal theory–except murder–that could get around the statue of limitations.)

  • Larry, San Francisco · December 27, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    I was on my high school debate team. One of our debates was at a Catholic high school. While arranging our material, my (Jewish) partner shrieked, I looked at her and she had turned white and pointed at something. I looked and saw that what had freaked her out was a 4 foot crucifix with a sickly white Jesus ostentatiously dripping blood. It was one of the creepiest images I had ever seen.

  • RandyB · December 27, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    “It’s only a cross people! What’s so scary about that!”

    Schools don’t normally display depictions of execution and torture devices.
    Should they put up thumbscrews, iron maidens and guillotines?

  • D · December 27, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    I don’t object to the cross per se. I object to the implied license it gives to kids to bully other kids. Think of the over-the-top persecution of Jewish kids that happens on South Park. It’s funny to watch as an adult, but growing up in the rural South I saw way too many Baptist kids play holier-than-thou for real.

  • Author comment by David Hume · December 27, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    If the cross represents anything at all in the Jewish mind, isn’t it more likely to be the legacy of Christian persecution? Like Blood Libel? Or maybe pogroms? Or perhaps even this:

    yep. what the cross is correlated with.

    Schools don’t normally display depictions of execution and torture devices. Should they put up thumbscrews, iron maidens and guillotines?

    perhaps. most xtians have internalized the cross so much that they don’t consciously reflect on that aspect. just like most catholics don’t think too deeply about the implied cannibalism of the ‘real presence.’ and most non-christians don’t think too deeply about the torture implied in the stylized abstract crosses which are the norm in protestant america.

    I don’t object to the cross per se. I object to the implied license it gives to kids to bully other kids. Think of the over-the-top persecution of Jewish kids that happens on South Park. It’s funny to watch as an adult, but growing up in the rural South I saw way too many Baptist kids play holier-than-thou for real.

    interesting point, but i wonder about the correlation here. the main issue are schools/authorities who seem to be sanctioning one position as the norm.

  • SpaceGhoti · December 27, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    Mark Twain said it best in Following the Equator:

    “We despise all reverences and all the objects of reverence which are outside the pale of our own list of sacred things. And yet, with strange inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the things which are holy to us.”

    We can’t avoid giving offense. That’s not a reason to walk on eggshells. It is not our responsibility to avoid giving offense. It is their responsibility to avoid responding to offense with violence or suppression. If their beliefs are so fragile that they can’t stand up under criticism, then they aren’t worthy of respect in the first place.

    So no, I’m not going to take any more care than usual about how I position myself in public debate. There is no silver bullet to addressing the problem of religious belief. If we’re going to take down the influence of religion in public life, then one of the first things that has to go is the idea that belief is somehow sacred or immune to challenge. It is neither.

  • mark e. · December 28, 2011 at 1:26 am

    In Aldous Huxley’s sterile (the world not the book) Brave New World the cross has been removed even from place names. “Streptocock-Gee to Banbury-T, to see a fine bathroom and W.C.”

  • Abelard Lindsey · December 28, 2011 at 4:46 am

    Let me ask you guys something. Its a little off topic, but relates to the earlier postings about libertarianism vs. conservativism.

    I don’t smoke or do any drugs. I don’t gamble or do any other activity that is considered a vice/self destructive/problem behavior. I exercise and live a healthy life. I am a competent, intelligent, responsible adult. Given all of this, what constraints would you conservatives put on my personal life choices that would not be done in a libertarian society that I don’t already observe.

    It seems to me that there is little difference between conservatism and libertarianism for those of us who accept responsibility for our actions and have our “personal shit” together. Anyone care to tell me how this is not the case?

  • TGGP · December 30, 2011 at 12:36 am

    I don’t mind crosses or pentagrams or whatnot. But I don’t mind attending church on holidays with my parents either. If there’s no such thing as sin, it can’t be a sin to pretend to a religion you don’t hold.

<<

>>

Theme Design by devolux.nh2.me