Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Seven Heroes...and press releases.

Atheists aren't always going to agree. That's just an undeniable truth. I am, perhaps, a bit abnormal because I actually like the fact that we often disagree. Among my atheist friends, it's often the ones I disagree with that I most value and the disagreements often help us all more than we realize.

For example, I like and value David Silverman and American Atheists. In general, I support what they're doing...but there are going to be times when we don't completely see eye-to-eye and today is one of those days.

Here's the AA press release...go ahead and read it, I'll wait.

American Atheists does a great job of making sure that they only take legal battles that they're likely to win and they've been critical of Michael Newdow, and others, who risk setting bad legal precedent by challenging things we aren't likely to win. I'm not in complete agreement on every decision about which cases we take and which we don't, but I recognize that we have to be careful.

I really wish, though, that the same sort of careful thinking went into decisions about which issues to challenge in the court of public opinion. Today's press release is just a monumentally bad idea.

First of all, heaven isn't a strictly Christian concept. Many people who don't adhere to any religion hold to this concept in a cultural fashion that is probably more strongly tied to our fear of death and our desire to think and say nice things about the dead than to any specific religious doctrine. Plenty of other religions have heavens and heavenly concepts and plenty of non-religious people will use heaven in a metaphoric or poetic sense.

Second, many Christians would point out that admission into heaven, according to their doctrine, isn't tied in any way to the heroic actions of those firefighters or the quality of their character. There are many Christians who would point out that, according to their beliefs, the overwhelming majority of those firefighters left the fires of the twin towers and proceeded directly to the fires of hell. Though few would make this claim with the glee of the members of the Westboro Baptist Chruch, it's still part of their doctrine and they'd also note that the conventional concept of heaven being a place for 'good' people is a cultural convention that is only loosely tied to Christianity by way of misunderstanding.

On those grounds, it's just factually incorrect to repeatedly assert that this reference to heaven is an explicit linkage of Christianity to these individuals. (I'm not denying that it will be viewed that way by some Christians, I'm simply pointing out that it's the sort of statement that is sufficiently nebulous that it will automatically mesh with the internal concepts of each individual reader...which is why, I suppose, Dave and other atheists are instinctively objecting; their concept places it firmly in the realm of "legitimizing Christianity".)

More importantly, this is a recipe for being viewed as reactionary curmudgeons. We're talking about something meant to honor the heroic sacrifice of firefighters during the 9/11 attacks. Even a blatant violation of the constitution might be viewed negatively, but this is going to be viewed very negatively and the constitutional issues are hardly clear, if they even exist. There is no real upside to this - especially if we're making statements that demonstrate we don't really understand that there are some cultural references that aren't an explicit endorsement of any religion.

It's a bit like objecting to Christmas trees by claiming that they're explicitly Christian when they most definitely aren't.

I'm a pretty confrontational guy. I'm an advocate of challenging first amendment violations and religious stupidity and harm at almost every opportunity. I generally support the direct, confrontational direction that Dave and American Atheists have been taking. I mostly liked most of the billboards. I've gone after the accomodationist buffons on a regular basis... but this is just a bad idea.

In this case, I'd have opted for no press release, but if I'd done one, I'd have made sure that it was one that was structured in such a way that those who complained about the release would look foolish. Some statements that might work a bit better:

"While atheists don't share the religious optimism of heavenly afterlives, and we think that something like "Seven Heroes Way" would have been a less contentious and more accurate representation of the fallen, we are pleased to see the memory of these heroic individuals honored.

These firefighters, through training and dedication, overcame our natural, human instincts for self-preservation and charged directly into a deadly situation in an attempt to assist others.

On a day when the divisive conflict between religious ideals resulted in the death of thousands, these individuals focused on the value we place on human life irrespective of religious views and other divisive constructs.

As they moved into harm's way, there was no consideration of whether the individuals they were saving were Christian, Muslim or atheists. There was no consideration of whether those individuals were gay, straight or transgendered. There was no consideration of whether those individuals shared their personal political views...there were simply people, in need of assistance. We should honor them on those same terms.

In the chaotic aftermath of the ruthless and shameful attacks of 9/11, the character of these individuals truly represented those traits that define heorism and the sort of character that we should all hope to instill in future generations.

Seven, of many, heroes...have shown us the way."


  1. Your revised press release is what should have been released - the original is poorly written and poorly thought out.

    "These heroes died FOR our Constitution" - no, they died trying to save lives. Forget about the misplaced appeals to patriotism and focus on the PEOPLE.

  2. a lot of things changed that day... every generation has its moment. its *what* you do with the effects of the moment that make our world. its the loosing sight, not what you see that hurts.

    (smiles to everyone out there)

  3. I wouldn't normally post unless I thought I actually had something to add, but.... eh.
    Hear hear and huzzah!

  4. Yeah, agreed. It’s silly to focus their criticism on Christianity.

    The very idea that the firefighters are in heaven diminishes the sacrifice that they made - giving up the only lives they had any good reason to believe they’d ever have, to save other people. It really was the ultimate sacrifice, and the suggestion that they’re in heaven, living on while somehow still looking down on their loved ones, serves to distract people from the depth of the tragedy that is their unnecessary deaths. It allows people to ignore that the attacks were carried out in the name of a god for whose existence, like that of all other gods, no evidence can be found, and that without this sort of delusional religious belief those firefighters probably wouldn’t have died that day.

    So yeah, the whole fuzzy feel-good notion of the Seven in Heaven is a bit gross to me, but I fail to see how it specifically legitimizes Christianity.

  5. That "dying for the Constitution" claim is absurd. As a comment above already pointed out, they died to save people in those buildings. To link that act to the Constitution is absolutely groundless. I bet the Constitution was the last thing on their minds at the time! To me, this reeks of uber patriotic propaganda--perhaps an attempt to support the AA's claim here of violation of Church and State. If I were a family member of one of the firefighters, I would feel insulted by this blatant misrepresentation. They should be honored for what they did--and that's it! We sometimes add so much fluff and flowers that we lose sight of what actually happened in the first place--and therefore of the act which we should be appreciating.

  6. First of all, the irony of the situation where the perpetrators of this attack did it with one intention in mind and one intention only: To get into heaven.
    Second of all, why is Christianity being targeted so much? Clearly it is influenced by the somewhat Christian culture in America but as Matt pointed out heaven, the same way as Christmas, gained a more universal secular meaning to it alongside it's religious origins.
    Thirdly, this is the worst possible fight to pick. Even if they had a legal case (which the may or may not, I don't really know) picking on the memory of the firefighters with such a pettey justification is everything but a good PR stunt for atheists and secularists.

  7. I just can't understand how anyone vetted "Seven in Heaven" without seeing the obvious connection to the make-out session game.

  8. Michael... the same way I missed it until you said it. Now it's going to be stuck in my head every time.

    Great point. :)

  9. I guess I shouldn't judge. I'm a copy editor and I'm paid to see innuendo in everything. But, man, do they ever put up some absurd street signs around here!

  10. "[David Mabus has been banned for violating the comment policy.]
    6/21/2011 1:55 PM "


  11. I agree with Matt's assessment. There's no way that "the street uses the tragedy of 911 to legitimize Christianity by asserting that Heaven is a real place." If we name a street Valhalla Way, it doesn't assert that Valhalla is real.

  12. Well said, Matt. I agree completely. "Seven in Heaven" is just a figure of speech and doesn't have anything to with promoting religion, let alone Christianity. Picking this battle is just throwing stones and screaming loudly with little attention to any long-term goals. AA needs to envision what their end-goal is and ask if this lawsuit is going to bring them closer to that goal, or make it even harder to reach it.

  13. @John K. I disagree. I believe that the In God We Trust and Under God mottos pushed through during MacArthurism are a very blatant breaches of the 1st Amendment. Heck they were openly meant to be religious from the very start as a symbol against communism (something that the Conservative Supreme Court fails to recognize).
    Admittedly it's not that big of a deal as the battle over science classes and other breaches of secularism but I don't see it as being comparable to this case.

  14. Tin-earred and ham-fisted as anything I'd expect from AA.

  15. I'm voting for Matt D. as next President of American Atheists...or at least as Communications Director! :-)

  16. Wasn't there a similarly garbled press release by CFI awhile back that caught some flack in the atheist blogosphere and podcast-o-verse...? I remembe them talking about it on Reasonable Doubts awhile back...

    Agree w/ Matt, there's a difference between taking a confrontational approach and "shooting from the hip" without aiming...making noise rather than a coherent point... this press release was ill-considered and lazy...and we can do better and should do better.

  17. In the city where I live a firefighter died while fighting a fire in a church. He was a Christian and it was a Christian institution, and this is FundyVille, U.S.A., but I would like to think he'd have made the same sacrifice willingly to protect any other building, and not because of his religion.

    The 9/11 attackers believed their actions would earn them a spot in heaven, so this street name is a kiknd of poke in the eye to them. OTOH, it was a secular sacrifice by people doing a secular job protecting a secular institution. If they'd died protecting lives in a brothel or a porn set, would they still be honored in the same way?

    I think I prefer the heroes way idea, which sounds more suitable for fightin amurkins. "Seven in Heaven" 1) is a hokey rhyme and 2) sounds victimy. In the end I don't like it but not for any religious reason.

    BTW, I like it that we disagree amongst ourselves because it's a direct contradiction to the theist projection on us as having our own religion. They think we worship Darwin or read The God Delusion as a holy text. The more we demonstrate free thought the more likely they'll actually "get it."

  18. Something that can be seen as symbolic/poetic/metaphorical as "seven in heaven" certainly doesn't seem to be much of a violation of separation of church and state (if at all). While I would prefer a better name for the street, it's a non-issue to me. Unlike "under god" in the pledge and "in god we trust" on our currency (which imply the existence of a single personal god) it doesn't strongly imply a particular religious view. Street names are just arbitrary labels that generally aren't trying to push any particular ideological message.

  19. "I believe that the In God We Trust and Under God mottos pushed through during MacArthurism are a very blatant breaches of the 1st Amendment."


  20. I really like what Matt wrote better than the AA one. Why not make this a press release of the ACA?

  21. I think Matt's suggestion of "Seven Heroes Way" is by far a much better idea than "Seven in Heaven Street", which strikes me as twee to the point of trivialization and more evocative of some high school party game than a reference to a timeless instance of bravery and self-sacrifice, and as such, is faintly offensive even on a non-religious level.

    I agree with uncivlengr's sentiments... those folks didn't die for the US Constitution; they died for humanity, as such people anywhere would have been; spurred to action by the realities of the suffering of their fellow human beings, not the goosebumps stirred by the such abstractions as "We, the people..." or similar offerings elsewhere.

  22. "Seven Heroes Way,” as you suggest, would have been a more neutral name. And I appreciate your point about picking our battles. I’m a fairly hard core atheist, but if someone says “God bless you” after I sneeze I don’t get in their face about it – it’s not worth it and is likely counter-productive to do so. Nevertheless, I have to argue that naming a PUBLIC street “Seven in Heaven Way” crosses the line. While you points are true – heaven is not a strictly Christian concept and admission is not based on heroism – most people when reading the sign are not going to go through your detailed analysis. They are going to have a quick stimulus-response reaction. The fact is that in the U.S., by virtue of religious demographics, most people are going to assume in knees-jerk fashion that the label refers to the Christian heaven. The fact that it may not be a “factually correct” assumption is beside the point and, in any case, defies the way religious cognition works. It runs not on logic and facts, but on faith and assumption. To allow that shallow perceptual process to be engaged so easily here is the issue.

    Your second point about atheists being viewed as “reactionary curmudgeons” has some validity. But I think the street name should at least be called attention to, and a piece on an atheist blog is harmless. If American Atheists wanted to sue over the issue, that would be a different thing. But since the wall of separation is being constantly assaulted from the right, I think atheists must remain vigilant and chip away at false perception and assumptions having power in our lives. Religion is a hegemonic force, it is all about power. Give it an inch and it will take a mile.

  23. Just about any reader would prefer Matt's revision to the AA's official press release. Great job.

    While I do think it's good to call attention to things like this street sign, Matt's revision is a clear example of the *right way* to do it, especially when the issue at hand is such a sensitive one for so many people and since atheists have a bad enough image problem as it is.

  24. how many atheists would say they believe in a heaven?
    it may not be a specifically christian concept but it is certainly a religious one and should be avoided.

    i also dislike this hero-worship of firefighters/soldiers/police. as the stanford prison experiment showed, people will behave congruently with the role in which they are cast. i think the majority of the population would behave heroically in the same situation, in which case is it really heroic?

  25. There can not be anything more Heroic than to die trying to save people.

  26. ResCogitans: as the stanford prison experiment showed,

    You might want to turn some of your religious skepticism toward popular psychology as well. The Stanford Prison Experiment was unblinded and uncontrolled, the data taken were subjective and anecdotal, Zimbardo took an active role rather than acting as a neutral observer, the study was small and non-representative (as with many preliminary psych studies, it used students as its subjects), it hasn't been replicated, and in at least one case, the "guard" was actively role-playing a character from the movie "Cool Hand Luke." Skeptoid has a decent overview of the problems.

    The Stanford Prison Experiment is too flawed and limited for people to extrapolate causation of complex situations from it. Anecdotally, we know that people with power are often corrupt, but determining the causal link is more complicated, and cannot be done on the back of one small, biased study.

  27. yes there were many flaws in the SPE, and I used it simply as a popular psychology example of the point I was making. I could have equally referred to the Millgram experiment, or nazi guards, or a completely obscure psychological attribution theory paper.

    do you actually disagree with the point made by referring to the SPE: namely that people tend to change their behaviour to be more congruent with behaviours expected of a role they have committed to?

  28. @ResCogitans
    I strongly disagree with both your last two posts.

    When you wrote:-i also dislike this hero-worship of firefighters/soldiers/police. as the stanford prison experiment showed, people will behave congruently with the role in which they are cast. i think the majority of the population would behave heroically in the same situation, in which case is it really heroic?

    I do not believe in an afterlife i believe that the dead only live on in our memory.
    I do not understand why anyone would feel the need to say that fire fighters who are killed in the act of bravely trying to help other people. Are not Heroic?
    You bring up the SPE i think this is not relevant.
    If these firefighters felt scarred and only pretended to be brave. While they were in the act of doing brave deeds. Then i think that makes them even more worthy of praise.

  29. tony, i'll try to explain my position in more simple terms:
    humans seem to be prepared to cite psychological influences to excuse mass BAD behaviour such as nazi guards sending jews to their death, and yet not admit the same influences may be at play on mass GOOD behaviour. i was just drawing attention to that fact to explain why i felt the hero-worship in our society may be overdone.

  30. @ResCogitans
    I don't deny that psychological influences effect people.These influences can be positive or negative.
    I am saying that these influences do not excuse bad behavior.And they do not cheapen good behavior.
    I would also ask you to consider that people who volunteer for dangerous professions do so in full knowledge of the risks involved. So they are being brave just by signing up.(before they encounter the influence of the group dynamic they are joining)
    Its easy to become a bit cynical but when good people give up there lives while trying to aid strangers then they are Hero's in my book.
    I note that you blogging from Australia.
    Have a look at some of the citations for these Ozzy winners of the Victoria Cross.And let me know what you think.


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