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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

US Supreme Court - cross is now a secular symbol

The US Supreme court, by a 5-4 majority, has held that it is okay for the government to use a cross as a "secular" symbol in the context of a war memorial. In that context, the cross is now de-Christianised, according to the majority, so no question of separation of church and state arises.

This will not please American secularists, and who can blame them? It gives the government much more authority to spray the landscape with Christian symbols, and of course many Americans don't read the cross as merely a secular symbol of the deaths caused by war. Thus, Derek Araujo at the CFI says: “This endorsement of a sectarian religious symbol for purportedly non-religious purposes should disturb religious and secular Americans alike.”

Well, yes. Quite right. But that's the way a lot of these cases are now going to be decided, by de-Christianising the Christian symbols and interpreting them as "just ceremonial deism" or even as symbols that have, in context, taken on a secular meaning. Once you do that, you can avoid some of the hard questions about separation of church and state, because you assert that such-and-such a Christian symbol or practice is no longer "the church", but now has some non-religious meaning in American culture.

I'll cop some reaction to this, but I actually think the position was pretty arguable in the particular case. I don't know how things stand in the part of California where the cross was set up, but here in Australia a cross really might be interpreted, at least to some extent, as a secular symbol if it were connected with memoralialising the sacrifices involved in war. To some extent, the meaning has segued from a specifically Christian thing to a more ambiguous thing as a result of our exposure to countless images of crosses on war graves ... in contexts where all the emphasis is on the horror of war, and none is on religion. So, I could actually live with the outcome of this litigation, at least if it were viewed as an isolated development.

The bitter pill to swallow will be when (and if) the Supreme Court upholds the National Prayer Day legislation, which is blatantly and unambiguously religious. The case is a long way from reaching Supreme Court level, but surely it will. I can see no plausible legal basis to save National Prayer Day, but when you count judges ... well, there's four unequivocally conservative judges plus Justice Kennedy. If they vote as expected, the law will change. With Justice O'Connor gone, the balance of the bench has altered considerably, leaving Justice Kennedy as the only swing judge. Kennedy will sometimes vote against the government in cases like this, but only if he sees something at least mildly coercive. Given his previously-expressed views, the law in the US will soon allow a lot more non-coercive endorsement of religion by the government. That's where all this is heading, and it's not a good destination.

28 comments:

William Skyvington said...

I disagree when you say that "in Australia a cross really might be interpreted, at least to some extent, as a secular symbol if it were connected with memoralialising (sic) the sacrifices involved in war". Australians are surely aware that the victims of recent wars have included countless Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, non-believers, etc. The idea of grouping them all together under an allegedly secularized cross symbol is absurd. Why is any kind of universal visual symbol required?

GTChristie said...

The US government is prohibited from "establishing" any religion which means, in its original use of that word, it cannot make any religion mandatory for the populace and cannot elevate any church to wield political power; nor can the government wield canonical power over any religion (note "church" is not mentioned in the constitution). Presumably these protections include atheism, of course. All of which is good policy: in the US we are guaranteed the right to worship as we please. That is the main intent of the law. The main intent of the law is not to wring every last vestige of religion out of society, nor to cast every symbol of religion out of official life. Praying Christian prayers in school is proscribed mostly because it favors one brand of faith and may be considered coercive to non-religious or non-Christian people. Taking this separation of church and state to mean also that no traditionally religious symbol can ever appear in a government context is a fallacy (both as an interpretation of the specific language of the constitution and as a logical argument). The cross is a symbol of reverence for other ideas or cultural meanings besides religion -- "rest in peace," for instance (war related or not) and "hallowed ground," for instance (understood even by non-Christians). So it is illogical to associate the cross in every context as a peculiarly Christian symbol. I am not even a Christian but I do admit there is something correct in recognizing a cultural symbol as cultural in certain contexts. Your argument for drawing the line at (I presume) no iterations is simply a slippery slope argument. If we open the door to this secular interpretation of a cross, suddenly we can "spray the landscape" with religious symbols? Not so. The context still must be considered. There is a subtle but distinct acidity to the atheist demand to rid the world of religion, and it plants an unwelcome intolerant face on the notion that since no one can prove the existence of God (note no one can prove the non-existence either), no one can rationally believe in God. That's right in only one sense: no one can scientifically believe in God -- but explain exactly, what has God got to do with religion? There are, in fact secular religions -- and atheism is one. I'm sorry I could not find a symbol to display in a public place ... it would have been better if atheists had 10,000 years of history and countless icons to interpret ... but there's not enough tradition behind it to consider atheism anything but a religion (whereas the cross is so common, it means several things quite apart from religion). Another long post from the future ... sigh. I apologize.

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, William, but when you see this ...

http://possumblog.mu.nu/images/somme.jpg

and other such images, what do you think of? Maybe you really do think of Christianity, but I honestly don't. I must admit that I think entirely of death in war, and the general horror of modern warfare (not the old kind was really better). And note that the WWI fields of slaughter are covered in all sorts of memorials that use crosses. I'm confident that many secular Europeans would not be troubled by this, as the meaning of the images in this context has segued into something more ambiguous. I don't think that the French (for example) lack freedom of religion because these historical monuments exist and are maintained.

If I were giving a lecture about, say, just war theory, and I wanted to highlight the horror that just war theory exists to mitigate, I'd happily show images of mass graves that are marked by crosses (as I've seen Rob Sparrow do in his excellent lectures on the subject) without expecting the students to think for a moment of religion.

Now, I'm only reporting my own phenomenology here. Maybe it's not typical. I'm trying not to make any large claims. Nor was I suggesting that it would now be appropriate for the Australian government to use a cross as a war memorial. I totally agree with you that it wouldn't be.

tomh said...

GTChristie wrote:
Presumably these protections include atheism, of course.

Of course? Not according to several Supreme Court Justices. In MCCREARY COUNTY v. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION OF KY.(2005), Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by former Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Thomas, and Justice
Kennedy, opined, "the Establishment Clause ... permits the disregard of devout atheists."

Anonymous said...

If the cross is a secular symbol, then why does the Red Cross have to call itself the Red Crescent in Muslim countries?

Anonymous said...

GTChristie said "There is a subtle but distinct acidity to the atheist demand to rid the world of religion"
Atheists are trying to rid the government of religion, not the world. It is insulting of you to ignore the distinction.

GTChristie said "There are, in fact secular religions -- and atheism is one."
Atheism is as much of a religion as bald is a hair color.

Anonymous said...

GTChristie said "There are, in fact secular religions -- and atheism is one."

Presumptive reasoning. A fact requires evidence, and there exists no evidence to support the notion that atheism is a religion. Atheists uphold no beliefs in the supernatural. Atheists do not subscribe to dogma. When atheists do convene, it is to discuss common interests (Science, art, philosophy, what haircut suits your poodle the best, etc.), and not to praise the non existence of god. Atheists do not seek to convert, though I cannot argue the point that there do exist militant atheists who would do away with religion if they had their way. Atheists do not spread tales of salvation or claim to possess ultimate truths. All these are defining properties of religion. Atheism might share some similarities, but that does not a religion make. To call atheism a religion is to call your local biker club the same, because they all ride bikes and hang out at bars. Atheism could at most be called an effect to a cause.

Now, for my two cents. Atheists exist because of an ideology that has been forced down our throats. That same ideology that can now sport the cross as a“secularized symbol.” This is a cop out move. It is a blatant attempt to create a loop hole for the religious right to exploit. The government should have no voice whatsover concerning religion, let alone the right to legislate it. That is the true problem here. Not the display of the cross, but the stamp of approval the the government has just slapped on it, and in a very underhanded way.

Anonymous said...

There are secular religious people, but not secular religions. The opposite of secular is theocratic, not theist. Some religious people are theocratic, many aren't. Secularism is a belief about the nature of good government, or goo-goo thinking, as fundies and their pals the neocons have mockingly called it. That government institutions should be separate from religious institutions. As such, it is not sufficient to form a religion. How is it passed on? How does it retain members? How is it associated with other beliefs when there is no doctrine other than that I just stated?

Then there are the institutional questions that can only lead a defender of your idea to conspiracy theories:
What is its holy and openly revered basic text or texts? Who are its recognised leaders?

Keri said...

So would he families of christian soldiers be happy having their dead buried under a secular cresent?

MC said...

A cenotaph would be an appropriate secular symbol. Just a monolith, a simple slab, is a clear marker of death and sacrifice, without engraving it with any crosses, stars, moons, hearts, clovers, or diamonds.

Jeff D said...

The kernel-idea that "the cross is now a secular symbol" is dicta, and is not established as U.S. law for all future cases and in all contexts. For example, if some local government erected a Catholic-style cross (with the figure of Jesus) on public property, I have little doubt that this would be struck down as an Establishment Clause violation.

It wasn't actually a 5-4 decision; it was a messy plurality, where Justice Kennedy's opinion was joined by only 2 justices, where 3 justices dissented, and where a majority did NOT agree about the precise rationale for remanding the case back to the District Court.

And the issue before the Supreme Court -- did Congress commit an unconstitutional endorsement of religion when it enacted a law requiring the acre of land (on which the cross stands) to be transferred to private hands -- was a narrow one. Kennedy's plurality opinion said simply that the lower courts were too quick in their conclusion. The earlier decisions holding that the maintenance of the cross on public land was an Establishment Clause violation were not appealed to the Supreme Court and were not affected by this latest ruling.

What disturbs me about this case is the anti-secular, reflexively pro-religion mindset that is displayed by the Roman Catholic Justices on the Court. I hope that Pres. Obama nominates Diane Wood of the 7th Circuit as Justice Stevens's replacement, and I hope that -- somehow -- she survives the confirmation process.

tomh said...

Jeff D wrote:
I hope that Pres. Obama nominates Diane Wood of the 7th Circuit as Justice Stevens's replacement

This won't affect the markedly pro-religion bias of the Court. Religionists should be pushing every church/state issue they can find to the current high Court. It's open season up there.

Jeff D said...

From my original comment: "I hope that Pres. Obama nominates Diane Wood of the 7th Circuit as Justice Stevens's replacement . . ."

Reply: "This won't affect the markedly pro-religion bias of the Court. Religionists should be pushing every church/state issue they can find to the current high Court. It's open season up there."

Well, having Diane Wood on the Supreme Court would do a lot to prevent the pro-religion bias from getting worse. Look at Wood's dissent in Hinrichs v. Bosma, 506 F.3d 584 (7th Cir. 2007), in which a majority of the 7th Circuit dismissed the case on the grounds that the plaintiffs' lacked standing (one of the favorite ploys of Scalia and Thomas in these church-state cases).

tomh said...

Jeff D wrote:
What disturbs me about this case is the anti-secular, reflexively pro-religion mindset that is displayed by the Roman Catholic Justices on the Court.

Which is too bad because traditionally Catholics have been pretty good on church-state issues. The problem was always the fundamentalist Protestants. The rightwingers on this court just seem to take the most extreme position on everything.

Anonymous said...

One reason Atheism can be considered a religion is some ways or to some parts of the belief system, and it is a belief system, is that when you form a collective of like minded individuals there exists the possibility of the creation of a set of belief laws:

In the outset these may just be very simple - die Christian die (being funny here) - or that all people within the collective support the notion or idea that fact is evidence dependent.

Christianity, when the dogma is peeled away is not different in general concept to atheism. Individually Christians hold very different understandings to the next believer and it is only when collectives are created (Church) that you see a set of general rules set up to make sure everyone follows the same path. Not all Christians belong to a church.

Also a religion is not determined on the belief in a spiritual being, a religion is based on the collective believing in the same thing. The church of scientology is not a God based religion. There are even collectives of scientists and researches whose behaviour is not all that different to that of any religion.

I am always wary of anyone who claims another is living in denial when it is apparent the speaker is denying the individual there rights as free people.

There are also philosophers, though individuals there are collectives who understand reasons for social movements and future social creation. What a philosopher believes in isn't hard wired evidence based logic, it is assumed and peculated thinking based on trends and possibilities.

Now, is atheism a religion? It depends on what you are viewing in terms of the atheist. The individual observation would say no to religion but yes to a belief system with a different base. But, if you are viewing a collective that has a written or unwritten set of guidelines then this can emit religion type standing.

As I hinted at, not all Christians follow the rules of a Church, or believe in the doctrines or laws of a collective.

Robert N Stephenson

Necandum said...

To answer the question of whether atheism is a religion, first define what a religion is.

Now, does that definition include AFL (Australian Rules Football)? If yes, try again.

---

But basically, the point is this:

If a person tells you they're an atheist, what does that tell you about them?

Answer:
Nothing, except they don't believe in Gods.

For that reason, you simply cannot consider atheism as a religion, as it makes no positive claims.

GTChristie said...

Let's examine some of the hackles that came up when I called atheism a religion.

there exists no evidence to support the notion that atheism is a religion.

What counts as evidence? More to the point, What actually constitutes a religion? I consider religion as any belief (with moral content) held in common by a group, which belief that group requires of its members or else they are not members. One cannot be an atheist without believing, in common with other atheists (and with moral intent), that there is no such thing as god. In my book that makes it a religion. The magic bullet word here is "belief." Does atheism (duh ... it's an ISM) defend its beliefs? Yes. Morally? Yes. What's the problem?

Atheists uphold no beliefs in the supernatural.

There are religions which do not believe in the supernatural. The most ancient religions actually venerated nature itself, directly. Nothing super about it. Yet they were religions. Religion per se is not dependent on the supernatural, even if some specific religions do that.

Atheists do not subscribe to dogma.

In the atheist religion, "no god" is the dogma. If I have misidentified the dogma, correct me. If I have called the belief a dogma mistakenly, correct me. I'll bet it takes a whole long paragraph to do that, versus my simple nine words. Occam would roll over in his grave. That is, if he could. LOL.

When atheists do convene, it is to discuss common interests (Science, art, philosophy, what haircut suits your poodle the best, etc.), and not to praise the non existence of god.

I have never been to an atheist convention. Reason: that would be too much like a religion. Did I mention that I am irreligious? The "common interests" mentioned as examples surface at my backyard barbeques as well, but my parties are political not religious. Yet I'd be willing to bet a 72 oz. steak there never has been an atheist conclave that actually avoided general conversation contra the idea of god. "Praising" is your magic bullet word here, but it doesn't work. A convening of like-minded people -- specifically like-minded on the issue of god (pro, con, or non-sequitur) is a good old go-to-meetin' religious conclave of believers.
Sure as heck.

Atheists do not seek to convert, though I cannot argue the point that there do exist militant atheists who would do away with religion if they had their way.

Militancy was part of my point. Perhaps I should have distinguished between good atheists and bad atheists. If atheists do not seek to convert (or recruit), why is there an evangelical element? Do we want to spread the idea that there is no god, or not? "A-theism" is literally "without god." That is a concept quite separable from the idea that "religion isn't true." A religion could be perfectly wrong about god and still remain a religion (the atheist position in fact IS that point, in part). Religion is about belief -- especially the beliefs of (self-identifying) groups. The human ability or propensity to believe in god, in fact, does not depend on god's existence (or factuality). After all, if god really does not exist, but people believe in god, that proves empirically that god need not exist to believe in it. The reverse is also true: if god exists and people believe otherwise, the existence of god still has nothing to do with their beliefs. Do you see how this hits your points? Are we speaking of gods, or religions? Since atheism is a belief qualifying in my definition of the term religion, and god is irrelevant to the discussion, what's the problem?

GTChristie said...

Atheists do not spread tales of salvation or claim to possess ultimate truths. All these are defining properties of religion.

Some secular philosophers claim to possess ultimate truths. But no one would call them religious. So these are defining properties of other things besides religion, and not exclusive to religion. You need some more properties. It is true most modern religions beat a path to "salvation." The atheist equivalent of "tales of salvation" is the proposition that, sans god (or religion) the world would be a better place. That could be a true statement. But the point is: it's the atheist's "ultimate truth." If I do not believe the atheist's ultimate truth, I am not an atheist. If I speak against the atheist's ultimate truth, I am, atheistically, an infidel. I will be ridiculed or marked for exclusion, rebuked, etc. What other definition of a religion do you need?

Atheism might share some similarities, but that does not a religion make. To call atheism a religion is to call your local biker club the same ...

Well ok. My definition of religion includes biker clubs with specific beliefs and (moral) practices which, if not followed, result in derision, peer-pressure and expulsion. Maybe even crucifixion. What's your point?

Atheism could at most be called an effect to a cause.
If religion can cause atheism, I'm turning in my logic badge.

tomh said...

GTChristie wrote:
I consider religion as any belief (with moral content) held in common by a group, which belief that group requires of its members or else they are not members.

An absurd definition, as the example of the biker club makes clear. Of course you can call atheism a religion, if you make up your own definition of religion. You can call a dog's tail a leg if you want to, but that doesn't make it one.

One cannot be an atheist without believing, in common with other atheists (and with moral intent), that there is no such thing as god.

Again, you're making up your own definition. An accurate definition would be that atheism is the absence of belief that any gods exist. There are no others involved and there is no moral stance required.

GTChristie said...

Define religion.

tomh said...

GTChristie wrote:
Define religion.

That's what dictionaries are for. The very first definition at Dictionary.com pretty much covers the subject.

"a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs."

None of the eight definintions given include anything like, "an absence of belief in any gods," which is what one would need to classify atheism as a religion.

GTChristie said...

2.
a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects

----
Nothing about supernaturality, god, no-god, ritual or devotion. This is the sense I mean when I use the word.

tomh said...

GTChristie wrote:
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects
----
Nothing about supernaturality, god, no-god, ritual or devotion. This is the sense I mean when I use the word.


Why is it so hard to understand that an atheist has no set of beliefs and practices? There is no group of persons or sects, no moral intent. There is merely a person without a belief in god. That doesn't make it a religion, no matter how much you want it to.

bad Jim said...

GTChristie, most of us who identify as atheist do not assert the non-existence of god; we merely acknowledge that we don't believe in any god. Most of us also share liberal values and a scientific outlook, but not all.

We don't necessarily have any beliefs in common. What distinguishes us is that we don't share a very common belief.

GTChristie said...

bad Jim wrote
most of us who identify as atheist do not assert the non-existence of god

I'm surprised by that statement. But I can grant it on the basis of "most" ... if it's true. I have seen enough counterexamples
-- "militant atheists" as noted above -- I have to wonder.

I did not set out to prove to the world that atheism is a religion. My definition of religion is broader (more inclusive) than several people above. But it is not pulled out of the blue to make a dog's leg look like a tail; but if I called both appendages, classifying what they do have in common, I would be on solid ground. My point was, atheists are believers in common in such a way that I classify atheism as a religion. I think I have shown in what ways that's an arguable point: first, the definition of religion is not necessarily about god, nor necessarily about supernaturality, nor dogma, nor a few other features that are not universal across all religions. What is universal is belief in common, provisioned with a moral component. Since that seems to offend several atheists here, I will admit that some atheists are not anti-religion or anti-god, but simply un-god (neologism alert!) and un-religious. But every time I encounter an anti-god or anti-religious comment from an atheist, I will refer them to this claim about which I am surprised, and ask which is true, the claim or their own notions. I do know nobody can have it both ways.

To tomh in particular: thank you for the stimulating repartee. You impress. Yet I stick by my definition of religion. The reason I define it as I do has more to do with encompassing all possible religions than with an axe to grind about atheism. I, myself, am rigorously and only an agnostic and I am not religious. I do not believe there is anything such as "a true faith," if that means one faith more true than others. My own "faith" is in reason. But some days I doubt even that.

Thank you, Russell Blackford, for this blogsite. I have become hooked ... thought I can't explain why.

tomh said...

GTChristie wrote:
the definition of religion ...What is universal is belief in common, provisioned with a moral component.

In other words, according to your own, unique definition of religion, anything could be classified as a religion. Child pornography could be a religion. It has a common belief, (sex with children is good), and a moral component, (whether negative or positive depends on whether you subscribe to the religion or not). Of course you can define religion any way you want, but I can't think of a more useless definition than the one you have invented.

Words matter. Nonbelief does not equal belief.

GTChristie said...

With the exception of "anything" in the above comment, everything you've said there is true.

Show me what anyone worships and I will show you that person's religion.

I do understand where you're coming from. But having actually studied religion from a secular perspective, I've found that defining religion necessitates (as you point out) such a broad definition to fit all existing religions into it, there is nothing peculiarly god-centric about it and many counter-intuitive "beliefs in common" actually fit in as well.

This should force us to clearly distinguish, as much as we can, between god-centered and non-god centered religions and clearly label any other distinctions we are making in so-called "attacks on religion."

What this should show us -- atheists, agnostics or religious alike -- is that we cannot reasonably attack a generality such as "religion" but can only criticize specific beliefs (of certain religions, for instance) just as in every other sphere of philosophy we critique the particular more effectively than the generalized in any argument.

So I agree with everything you've said except "anything" you said.

Finally, my two cents on the cross as a secular symbol: the argument CAN be made that in certain contexts, the cross has no peculiarly Christian meaning (ie, that it's a generic symbol in the West but recognizing that in law creates more confusion than it solves and in my (evidently dissenting} opinion I probably would argue
that more than the specific merits, on grounds that the principle of separation is clearer and more secure if (arguable but excessively nuanced) exceptions are not allowed. I would not like to wake up one morning to a world where the government suddenly has the power to require each place of worship to display its peculiar iconic symbol (cross, crescent, star, scimitar, obelisk, cenotaph) as a "truth in labeling" law. The government clearly should stay out of religion, even if (because we live in a democracy) it's impossible to keep religiously motivated people from influencing policy without denying them the right to vote.

We cannot eliminate every shade of gray from the law, but we should avoid over-actively trying to color the gray shades into black and white.

GTChristie said...

BTW I don't think my definition of religion is neological or "unique." Anyway it is, to me, a duty of philosophers to redefine anything we see a need to, as long as we give good reasons. Then it's just up to the marketplace of ideas. I don't mind creating new memes. It separates the "real" philosopher from the "traditional" philosopher (a point found, for instance, in Nietzsche).

But that is so far off-topic I guess Russell should delete this one. LOL.