The symbolism of the nonexistent

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.

This entry was posted in Religion and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The symbolism of the nonexistent

Comments are closed.