I’m an avowed atheist; I believe that religion is detrimental to the advancement of the human species. I dismiss all religions as merely man-made fairy tales, and it is my belief there is no redeeming virtue or practical benefit to be found in any religion. Simply put, to quote Christopher Hitchens, religion poisons everything.
It may offend people to read statements like this, but that’s OK with me. It’s OK for people to be offended.
I’d like to emphasize that point. Many people truly believe they somehow have a right to live without having to confront opinions or values different from their own. Let’s get one thing straight: You do not have the right to not be offended.
Religions offend me for a variety of reasons. When I drive past a church on a Sunday morning and see smiling parishioners spilling out into their communities, it bothers my conscience. I find it to be deeply disturbing. But I acknowledge and appreciate their right to the free exercise of their religious convictions, and that those rights are justly protected by the law. It would be wrong for anyone to attempt to take these rights away.
So, at what point do the nonreligious decide it is time to object to religious practices? Many atheists have fought legal battles against government endorsement of specific religious institutions or practices. Some of these battles have been legitimate and some frivolous, at best. An example of a frivolous skirmish is currently taking place just north of here.
At Camp Pendleton, there is a hilltop memorial dedicated to the memory of marines who died in Iraq in various engagements throughout the last decade. This memorial, which was erected on Veterans Day last year, is a 13-foot tall cross. The existing memorial was built to replace a previous one, which was destroyed by a fire. The original memorial was built by a group of marines in 2003, who put it on the hilltop before leaving for Iraq. Three of the marines who built the original cross were subsequently killed in combat. A group of Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans and the widows of the soldiers who built the original memorial carried the new cross to its current location.
This is not OK with Jason Torpy, president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, who has objected to the memorial.
According to Torpy, “No cross or statue of Jesus represents military service.” In a written statement, he continued to argue, “Military service is being exploited to secure unconstitutional Christian privilege.”
However, according to the Camp Pendleton public affairs office, “The memorial cross activity… was conducted by private individuals acting solely in their personal capacities. As such, they were not acting in any official position or capacity that may be construed as an endorsement of a specific religious denomination by the Department of Defense or the U.S. Marine Corps.”
Torpy has taken issue with this, arguing that knowledge of the memorial was akin to official approval. Torpy has posed the question, “Would they allow that for anyone else who wanted to put up something for atheists?”
This type of position is how atheists have earned a reputation for being obnoxious. As an atheist, this bothers me. Atheism is, by definition, the absence of religion. There is currently no equivalent symbol that atheists could (or would) place on a hilltop to memorialize fallen comrades. If there were such a symbol, our laws would provide equal protection for such a symbol to be displayed.
There is no place in this nation more sacred than Arlington National Cemetery. I don’t care what anyone has to say to the contrary. In the United States, there is no ground more hallowed than that place. When I visited Arlington, I was overwhelmed with solemnity and gratitude. The weight of the sacrifices that have been made by service members is incalculable, and that is all I thought about when I walked through that special place, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of gravestones, the majority of which have crosses on them. I would have to be thoroughly solipsistic to take offense at the presence of crosses in memorials to soldiers.
When I see a cross on a hilltop at Camp Pendleton, I have freedom in how I interpret that symbol. I can see a symbol of torture and oppression, responsible for untold misery and suffering through the last 2,000 years, or I can see the meaning that this symbol carries for a third of humanity. For most people, the cross is a completely harmless symbol that gives hope and meaning to their lives. I completely disagree with their position and the cross is a disgusting thing to me; but how big of an egomaniac would I have to be to attempt to ban the display of crosses, or other religious symbols?
It’s disappointing the atheist community feels the need to resort to litigious action instead of promoting a more healthy dialogue. The problem of religion will not be solved in the courtrooms.
—Kenneth Leonard is an English junior.