Come on, atheists. You’re protesting a cross in the 9/11 Museum? I know you don’t believe God can hear you, but you realize the rest of us can, right?
— Stephen Colbert in his opening routine, March 10th
Colbert had some fun at the expense of David Silverman and American Atheists, the non-profit Silverman runs. American Atheists filed a lawsuit to have a steel cross that was cut from the wreckage at Ground Zero removed from the memorial on site. The lawsuit stems from the fact that the site is public property owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and the memorial receives public funding. The case is hardly cut and dry, though. If it were, there would be little argument. The cross has no business in a public facility, as its mere presence is an endorsement of religion. There are plans for the site to include other religious symbols, as well, but none on the scale and prominence of the cross.
Claims that the cross is a significant historical artifact are also dubious, at best. As Colbert himself pointed out on his show, although mockingly, “Yes, those I-beams that were found in the wreckage can only be a Christian cross. What other possible explanation could there be for a building made of right angles to leave something like that behind.”
There were literally thousands of crosses present in the structure of the World Trade Center. There are literally millions of them in New York City. But this particular cross was cut from the wreckage specifically in the dimensions of the Christian cross. Soon after, it was even blessed. The cross has been regarded as a miracle, when it is anything but. If, as Colbert’s quote asserts, it is a mere hunk of metal whose shape would inevitably be found on site, then there is no more reason for the cross to be included from a historical standpoint than any other piece of debris. But the cross has been blessed, has been nicknamed the ‘miracle cross’, has had religious symbols added to it, and has been given a place of prominence at the site. That is an endorsement of the cross as a religious symbol. The implication is clear, although untrue: God’s hand came down from on high and shaped this cross. Why he didn’t bother to instead prevent the attacks in the first place is something about which only those who have faith can speculate.
American Atheists, and David Silverman in particular, have been vocal proponents of atheism and atheism’s acceptance in the public sphere. But because their tactics are often confrontational, they engender little sympathy even when they are right, and even from fellow atheists. In addition, Silverman is a television pundit who makes most of his appearances on Fox News, which makes anything he has to say hard to take seriously. The hosts of the shows he appears on openly treat him with disdain, not necessarily because of his beliefs, but because that channel is theater, and treating atheists like dirt is something their audience eats up. I have to wonder how anyone with a serious desire to effect change can spend so much time arguing their case on that channel.
That being said, however, I chose to include quotes from Stephen Colbert in this article, and not Fox News or other outlets, because of his prominence as a liberal. He, and other liberals such as Jon Stewart, have far more respect for diverse views than their competitors at non-fake news outlets. But, they seem to regard displays like the cross as nothing that should give atheists offense. Religious intolerance in the United States is hardly on a par with that of other countries, to be sure, but that does not mean it does not exist.
Telling atheists to shut up about the supposedly harmless religious intrusions here and there in the public sphere is no answer to atheists’ concerns. All that does is compound the offense, because it discounts atheistic beliefs as of no concern to the rest of society, as unworthy of respect or consideration. That, more than anything else, is why Silverman and company brought their lawsuit.
The motivations behind displaying the cross at Ground Zero are pure. To many, it is a symbol of hope. And to none, I choose to believe, is it a symbol of intolerance, or an attack on those who do not believe in a Christian god. However, just because it has not been erected as an attack, but in response to one, does not mean it is harmless. Every person who walks on to that property who is not a Christian, whether or not they are an atheist, sees a Christian symbol casting its shadow over the site. This site of deep reverence and contemplation, a memorial to the worst attack on American soil, and on Enlightenment ideals the world over, now becomes just another place where non-Christians are second-class citizens.