Museum or Memorial, and Why It Matters: Thoughts on Religious Symbolism

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Posted on August 4th, 2011 | Filed under Academic, Challenges, Featured, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Social Issues
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Put yourself in the shoes of a family member of a 9/11 victim, visiting the 9/11 Memorial for the very first time on September 11th, 2011.  You wander through the eight-acre Memorial quadrant for a while, finding solace among the trees, a core of quiet within the Big Apple. You follow the sound of falling water to one of the twin reflecting pools, marking the footprints of the fallen Towers, and stand at the rim watching the water flow endlessly into the pools, and then into a dark hole in the center to be recycled and sent spouting upward again. You find the name of your lost loved-one on one of the bronze panels edging the Memorial pool, and spend long moments in quiet remembrance of them, your tears adding minutely to the volume of falling water at the site.

You wipe your eyes and, raising them to the sky, your vision is filled with the image of a 17-foot tall Christian cross. And you are not a Christian. Your dead relative is not a Christian. This space - this space of remembrance for all who died - is not supposed to be a Christian space. And yet here in front of you, looming over the waterfalls and reflected brazenly in the pool, is the symbol of another's faith. And no symbol at all of yours.

***

A new imagining. Again, take the form of a family member of a 9/11 victim. But instead of visiting the Memorial quadrant you choose to explore the 911 Memorial Museum, a paid exhibit beneath the gardens. During your journey through the museum you come upon the Historical Exhibition, which is split into three parts. The first "present[s] the events of the day as they unfolded on September 11, 2001", and you shudder to relive those terrible moments. The second "chronicles the antecedents to 9/11, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing", and chills you to the bone. The third chronicles "the response to the attacks in New York and around the world", including "presentations on collective grief, global responses, and the search for the missing in the immediate days and weeks after the attacks".

In this exhibit are collected numerous examples of the human response to this human crisis, including religious responses. These range from "a Star of David cut from World Trade Center steel and a Bible fused to a piece of steel that was found during the recovery effort" to a large cross-shaped object found in the rubble of the towers. This cross, the exhibit informs you, was found in the rubble of the Twin Towers, and came to be a symbol of religious significance to many who toiled in the dust and dirt. You are unmoved by the icon, not being religious yourself, but recognize its place among the other expressions of grief, anger and hope housed int he exhibit, and move on.

***

These are not idle daydreams. The question of religious symbolism, in particular how the so-called "9/11 Cross" relates to the religion of Christianity, is the subject of a lawsuit filed by American Atheists, Inc. on July 26th. Opposing the placing of the cross at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, a publicly owned and funded site, American Atheists, Inc. claim that the cross' presence, absent items of equal stature representing other faiths and those of no faith, suggests that the state promotes Christianity and religion in general while leaving non-Christian and non-religious individuals unrepresented and forgotten. They request either that the cross be removed from the Memorial & Museum, or that other items of similar significance be placed there to represent those of other faiths and none.

They point out, correctly, that the cross has been repeatedly blessed and sanctified by Christian clergy (most notably Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan Priest), including once in a ceremony directly prior to its relocation to the Museum & Memorial site. They aver, too, that despite the protestations of Joe Daniels, the Memorial & Museum's director, that "this cross provided comfort to everyone, regardless of their religion", the cross is unmistakably and irrevocably a Christian icon.

In this last, at least, American Atheists, Inc. (hereafter referred to simply as "American Atheists") are correct. Claims that the cross is a symbol of hope for "everyone" are overblown - there will be many who do not find the cross comforting, including some who feel that the sense of comfort derived from what is essentially a piece of wreckage is morbid and even perverted. Although I take umbrage at how Dave Silverman (president of American Atheists, Inc) has worded his criticism of the placing of the cross at the Memorial & Museum, there is something strange, from a Humanist perspective, about claiming to see the hand of a loving god in the rubble of a terrorist atrocity which God, presumably, had the power to prevent from happening at all.

Recognizing all this, I feel it would take an extraordinary lack of empathy to dismiss American Atheists' lawsuit out of hand. The question of how we choose to memorialize those lost in an atrocity like the attack on 9/11 is a profound moral question, and there is no doubt that people of all faiths and none should feel included and represented by the Memorial. Those who have responded to the lawsuit with death threats against atheists have acted with callous disregard for their fellow citizens, and give ample evidence of how deep, widespread, and accepted prejudice against the nonreligious really is in America.

These threats are gruesome. They suggest that atheists should be shot, killed, hung, and thrown to sharks. One particularly creative hater suggests that "we should hang the leader of that group on the cross with nails though their hands and feet, place a crown of thorns upon their head, RAM a spear through their side all after being whipped and beaten publicly." I submit that had violent slurs against any other minority group in this country been so widespread after the filing of a controversial lawsuit (there are many, many more examples), there would be public outcry and messages of support, perhaps on this very site - but as usual the papers and blogs have little ink to spare for hateful prejudice against people like me.

Nevertheless, despite the vitriol and opprobrium heaped upon Silverman and American Atheists, and despite my empathy for those who might feel unrepresented by the Memorial due to this move, I cannot, given the evidence I have gathered and analyzed, support their lawsuit.

The reasons are complex and nuanced, but essentially come down to symbolic function. Philosopher Nelson Goodman argued that the same object can function in different ways, symbolically speaking, depending on multitudinous factors, including its location, its surroundings, how it is presented, the viewer's past experiences etc. (those interested in the philosophy of symbols should seek out Goodman's Languages of Art). In some situations, he would argue, the cross could symbolize in a way entirely appropriate to a secular space like the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. In other situations, it might symbolize in a way that was indeed exclusionary, trespassing over the boundary between church and state.

Marc D. Stern, associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee and specialist on church-state issues has said that the cross is “a significant part of the story of the reaction to the attack, [and a] secular piece of history”, but also that it's "very clear from the repeated blessing of the cross, and the way believers speak about the cross, that it has intense present religious meaning to many people. And both of those narratives about this cross are correct.” So the question becomes: "How does the way in which the cross is to be displayed privilege one "narrative" over another?" Or, in other words, "What will the cross symbolize?" While these may seem academic questions, it is critical, with emotions running high and death threats flying, that we take time to untangle the real meaning of the cross in its intended context. The questions of  how we memorialize our dead and how we seek to understand acts like the 9/11 attacks are profoundly moral, and go to the heart of some of our deepest commitments: the desire to respect the departed and to learn about ourselves, to prevent such atrocities in the future.

So think of the two imaginary situations with which I began this article. I believe the two scenarios are very different, and I've painted them in such a way as to bring out what I judge to be the salient distinctions. In the first, the cross is placed in such a way as to "Christianize" the Memorial quadrant. It stands above a reflecting pool in an authoritative position, casting a shadow over the names of the fallen, unchallenged by any other similar symbols and unexplained by museum labels. It is simply there, and it seems to say "This is a Christian space", just as the cross on a church steeple or at an altar designates a place of worship as Christian.

This, it seems to me, would be unacceptable. It would indeed seem to suggest that the only victims of the attacks were Christian, and that the publicly-funded memorial itself endorsed the Christian worldview - an illegal transgression over the boundary between church and state. The cross, in such a position, would symbolize the fallen and symbolize the memorial, instead of merely representing one group's response to the attacks. If this were how the cross were to be displayed, I would object to it too, and fully support American Atheists' lawsuit, just as I support Jessica Ahlquist's brave efforts to remove a large prayer banner from her public school's aufditorium.

Now the second scenario. Here, the cross appears in a secular context - the Memorial Museum, a separate entity to the Memorial quadrant, which doesn't open until 2012 and which you must pay to enter. It is surrounded by other artifacts from the aftermath of the attacks (including artifacts representing other religious faiths and none), which represent the collective human response in an exhibit which seeks to "explore the prodigious efforts of recovery and rebuilding at the three attack sites". It is supplemented with labels which explain the significance of the cross to some, its history and genus.

The cross, here, doesn't seem to symbolize the fallen in the same way it would were in standing alone in the Memorial gardens. Rather, it seems a record of secular history, of sociological and anthropological importance. "Here is an example," the museum seems to say, "of how some human beings responded to this crisis. We present it here so you may consider the implications of this fact."

This presentation of the cross, it seems to me, is not only unobjectionable, but desirable. As Goodman has pointed out in a significant essay "The End of the Museum?", museums are essentially educational institutions, which should seek to offer the public ways to inform and reform their understanding. The cross, presented in an exhibit with accompanying information and alongside other artifacts, helps us all, Christian or not, to better understand how people have responded to the crisis. It also records a piece of cultural history which people would otherwise be forced into a religious space to see. It therefore plays an important and legitimate public education role in this context, and does not, in my view, threaten the separation between church and state. Further, placing religious artifacts in publicly-funded museums (like the Smithsonian museums) is a widely-accepted secular practice which is not seen as an unnecessary entanglement of religion and government.  Like housing a Bible in the school library, there is nothing objectionable, and much of potential benefit to all, in this second scenario.

So which is it? Is the cross in the memorial or the museum? Is this case equivalent to the prayer banner in the auditorium or the Bible on the bookshelf? American Atheists have seemed confused on this point. In response to my initial article on this subject, an American Atheists representative stated the following:

James is certainly entitled to his opinion, but like many he has one fact wrong. The memorial and museum are separate entities. The memorial is a separate place surrounded by the museum. The cross is going in the memorial and is the only religious symbol in the memorial.

If it were part of a display in the museum…

This claim has been repeated multiple times, seeming to show that the suit was predicated on the belief that the cross was to be housed in the Memorial gardens, as in my first imaginary scenario. As I demonstrate in the updates to my article, however, this is not the case. The cross will in fact be housed in the Historical Exhibition in the Memorial Museum, along with other religious and non-religious artifacts documenting the response to the attacks (I have had direct confirmation form the museum itself on this point).

Since then, the justification provided publicly for the suit seems to have shifted, with some now claiming that the cross was initially going to be housed in the Memorial gardens, and that process to select exhibits to be held in the museum was prejudiced against atheists, and that atheist expressions of grief were not accepted into the museum. This may be so - I can find no evidence that the Museum has abruptly shifted-tack, nor that any atheist artifacts were offered to the museum through their official donation process, nor that the museum actively rebuffed such offerings. But such evidence could exist.

On the basis of what is publicly known at this moment, then, I stand by my judgment (echoed by Susan Jacoby) that American Atheists have, in this instance, misjudged the situation. The cross, housed in the Museum exhibit, is telling its "secular narrative", not the fundamentally religious narrative which it told when it was outside the Museum. Indeed, housing the cross in a Museum serves to secularize the symbol, by making it clear that it is merely one potential response among many, and not the response to the attacks.

As a symbol of the Memorial itself, and of the dead, placed in the Memorial gardens, the cross is unacceptable and should be opposed. As the symbol of one of many human responses to a human crisis, and as an authentic piece of cultural history, it has every right to space in the Museum, and it should be supported.

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53 Responses to “Museum or Memorial, and Why It Matters: Thoughts on Religious Symbolism”

  1. Great post, James. I think your distinction between memorial and museum, as well as your argument for why the cross has a proper place in the latter and not the former, is spot on.

  2. K.O. Myers says:

    I agree with Jason. The distinction between a record of history and a tribute to the victims is an important one, and you lay it out beautifully. It’s disappointing that American Atheists seems to have rushed to file suit without either understanding, or having any regard for, the difference.

  3. Steve Schlicht says:

    I think you and many others are still missing the stronger point here, James.

    This particular display is being promoted *as the only one* to represent all people who suffer, feel despair and who seek a memorial that reminds us of our common humanity, our common hope to prevail.

    This icon *alone* doesn’t suffice to represent those sincere and heartfelt feelings.

    Currently, the American Atheists organization is arguing that government cannot exclude other traditional symbols and icons at a memorial site that represents a diverse community of people.

    If the government endorses or establishes only one religious icon then it is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

    Here is more in for everyone to consider:

    http://atheists.org/law/Ground_Zero

    “This cross is set to be included in the official WTC memorial. No other religions or philosophies will be honored. It will just be a Christian icon, in the middle of OUR museum. This will not happen without a fight.

    We love this country, and our constitution. We honor the dead and respect the families, which is why we will not allow the many Christians who died get preferential representation over the many non-Christians who suffered the same fate. This was an attack against America, not Christianity, and Christianity’s does not deserve special placement just because the girders look like their religious symbol.

    We will pay for our own memorial of equal size inside the museum, or the museum will not include the cross. Equality is an all-or-nothing deal.”

    Thanks for your time and consideration of an alternative viewpoint.

    • James Croft says:

      Hi Steve,

      You say “This particular display is being promoted *as the only one*…No other religions or philosophies will be honored.”

      This is simply false. The cross is one article in a large exhibit of responses to the attacks which includes numerous articles representing other religions and some non religious responses. This is made absolutely clear my article:

      “The cross will in fact be housed in the Historical Exhibition in the Memorial Museum, along with other religious and non-religious artifacts documenting the response to the attacks”

  4. Steve Schlicht says:

    I am an atheist, first responder and a veteran police officer living in Biloxi, MS.

    September 11, 2001 is forever seared into my heart and mind just as much as the despair and disaster hurricane Katrina caused with the death of so many loving families, men, women and children in our community has been.

    No one religious sect should be given a government mandated monopoly to use their idols, icons and graven images as representative of the memory of such loss or displayed to infer that only their symbol provides the hope and resilience of our human family.

    It just isn’t right and it only adds salt to the open wounds for those many Americans of assorted other world views and traditions.

    No atheist is impeding anyone’s ability to worship in the way of their tradition to their heart’s content or to consider this icon as what you claim that it is, a secular symbol (though many Christians may want to take issue with that as well).

    One religious sect just doesn’t get to have our secular government establish or endorse a particular icon or give it special treatment at public memorial sites representing perseverance, resilience and the brilliantly human trait to prevail over great despair.

    As an aside, did anyone else see the Humanist “H” emerging from the metal beam in some of the photographs of Ground Zero?

    What would be the arguments, pro and con, be to the government paying for a similar display next to the cross?

    • James Croft says:

      Hi Steve. You make some important points here. I entirely agree when you say “No one religious sect should be given a government mandated monopoly to use their idols, icons and graven images as representative of the memory of such loss or displayed to infer that only their symbol provides the hope and resilience of our human family.”

      You are quite right about that.

      I also agree when you say “One religious sect just doesn’t get to have our secular government establish or endorse a particular icon or give it special treatment at public memorial sites representing perseverance, resilience and the brilliantly human trait to prevail over great despair.”

      The point of this post is precisely to investigate whether this is actually happening IN THIS CASE. In my view, for the reasons I have outlined, there is no establishment, endorsement or privileging of any one religion or religion in general when you house the cross in the museum in the way it’s planned.

      So I don’t disagree with your principles – I absolutely share your values – I just don’t think those values are being traduced here.

      As for the “Humanist H”, the “Humanist “H”” shouldn’t be in the museum. It has no historical value, no cultural value and no educational value. It is a completely post-hoc invention which has no real connection to the human response to the crisis.

      Had there been something found in the rubble which was, at the time, seen as an important Humanist symbol and which had been written about, sent round Humanist groups etc, then sure that should be in the museum, because it’s a legitimate piece of history.

    • James Croft says:

      I want to make clear what I meant about the “Humanist H” here, because it has already been misconstrued by some and could be clearer. I do NOT mean that the Happy Human symbol of Humanism (which I adore) has no historical, cultural or educational value in itself. I would never say that.

      Rather, I meant that the particular “H shaped object” in the photos hasn’t actually been used as a Humanist symbol, and so doesn’t have value in relation to the museum exhibit.

      I’m absolutely not rejecting the rich and valuable history of the Happy Human logo, of which I am a staunch defender against many of my Humanist colleagues who HATE it =D.

  5. […] Museum or Memorial, and Why It Matters: Thoughts on Religious Symbolism […]

  6. Nathan DST says:

    James, well done, this is better than your first article.

    AA has said that they would accept including another item that represents non-believers and other faiths, and that they would pay for something representing non-believers, suggesting an atomic symbol. Of course, such a symbol falls into the same problems as the H shaped object that Steve mentioned (lack of historical, cultural, educational value in this context). So, how about a mural or wall with the actual stories of survivors and family of loved ones lost written out, including the stories of the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit? Let those who visit learn about the people who were there, and be reminded of how we are all humans, and all in this together.

    If that’s too much, perhaps a wall of names for those lost, like so many soldier memorials.

    • I like Nate’s suggestion here. Although I’m a Christian, the cross isn’t really a part of my particular tradition, but as humans, can’t we all come together around stories relating how people of various backgrounds experienced 9/11 and its aftermath? This seems better to me–and more “humanist”–than some symbol concocted for the occasion, to which few people aside from its inventor will probably relate. For that matter, James seems to be arguing that the cross belongs in the museum for reasons that could be described as humanist in just the way I’m talking about.

    • James Croft says:

      Nathan’s idea is really great, which is why it’s fantastic that both elements he suggests are already parts of the planned Memorial Museum. There is a mural wall with stories, along with video of people speaking – you see an early draft of this exhibit here:

      http://www.911memorial.org/contribute-memorial-exhibition

      A wall of names of the lost is already part of the Memorial opening in September.

  7. Jonathan says:

    I think the cross’s inclusion is acceptable if and only if all other religious traditions are allowed to place comparably sized religious or irreligious memorials. People of faith don’t have a monopoly on grief.

    • James Croft says:

      I’d agree that if the cross were placed in the memorial then it would be necessary to represent all traditions. But in the museum, it seems to me very strange to think the museum should simply invent things to put in the exhibit (and thus potentially distort history) to provide ‘balance’. Museums, even those related to memorials, generally don’t work this way.

      • Jonathan says:

        Hey James,
        My argument is that many of us who lived in NYC and the surrounding environs knew a lot of atheists, Jews, and Muslims who died in that same terrorist attack, and they won’t feel honoured by a cross.

        • James Croft says:

          I don’t deny this. But the purpose of housing the cross in the Museum is not to memorialize or honor the fallen but to record the history of the aftermath to the attacks. In this context I think the cross is legitimate.

  8. […] breaks” whether or not I support the cross being displayed. As laid out eloquently in a post by James Croft, the museum does not seek to support a particular viewpoint, but rather to do its best at […]

  9. Zerotarian says:

    Okay, so I think American Atheists is at worst flat-out wrong and at best has totally failed to make the case for why this exhibit shouldn’t be included in a *museum*. But as I commented on AA’s Facebook page, I also think 9/11 provoked soul-searching among all kinds of religious and non-religious traditions beyond just one particular brand of Christianity that finds this cross-like formation meaningful. And I think if the museum wants to document this one Christian response, it should make a real effort to document the responses of other traditions/institutions as well. James, you suggest that the museum *is* doing this, but where are you getting this information? I don’t think a mere mural of personal responses, which is the only example you’ve offered, balances the cross sufficiently — there needs to be a real documentation of other themes and trends and the influence of other religions/philosophies in the responses. If one subset of Christianity gets a special kind of documentation, and everyone else just gets scattered individual representation, I think that still privileges Christianity in an inappropriate way.

    Examples of things that could be included might be:
    * Particularly influential sermons (or equivalents in other religions) delivered the weekend after 9/11
    * The responses of Muslim institutions and mobs, both positive and negative?
    * I wasn’t an atheist at a time, but perhaps clippings of atheist-leaning editorials? Perhaps atheists could be interviewed to get a sense of what atheist writings were most influential/memorable/comforting in the aftermath of 9/11?
    * Samples of the New Atheist books? After all, some of them (especially The End of Faith) were very much in response to 9/11.
    * Jerry Falwell’s infamous rant?

    As you can see from my suggestions, I don’t necessarily want to whitewash/nice-ify the responses that are documented. But the fact that some might personally be made uncomfortable by the cross isn’t sufficient reason to exclude it from the museum, so why should that criteria be used to exclude anyone else’s response? They should take an honest look at all the prominent responses.

    And obviously, the documentation of other responses might be less prominent, in that it might consist of newspaper clippings and videos instead of a large cross. I’m fine with that. Again, this is a museum, so this is about proportionate and accurate documentation; it’s not a limited public forum where different groups get absolutely equal “advertising” space.

  10. Zerotarian says:

    Ah, I see, Part 3 of http://www.911memorial.org/museum-exhibition-design-1 sounds reasonably promising.

    But another counterpoint: American Atheists’ official complaint (http://www.atheists.org/upload/WTC_Complaint.pdf) claims: “41. On July 23, 2011, in a religious ceremony during which the cross was blessed a second time by Defendant Jordan, the cross was installed at the September 11 Memorial and Museum.” *That’s* a little fishy. Is that the way museum exhibits are normally installed?

    • James Croft says:

      Good question. As far as I can gather, AA is under the impression that some religious ceremony occurred AT THE SITE. In the following video, Silverman claims that ground AT THE MUSEUM was “sanctified” to house the cross:

      http://vimeo.com/27347757

      I can find no evidence to support this claim. Rather, there seems to have been a blessing ceremony BEFORE the cross was moved to the site, held on public land. IF there was a sanctified area at the museum itself that would raise my eyebrows too. But Silverman needs to substantiate that claim.

    • Artrell says:

      It’s a joy to find smoneoe who can think like that

  11. Steve Schlicht says:

    I’m so glad this nuance is worth examining:

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_O_lhQWg8YFs/TPnhqOlhoaI/AAAAAAAACK8/cZG6aetnyOo/s1600/0809190255.jpg

    Hope that clears things up a bit for all who are interested.

    What exactly does the cross “stand for” and how does it represent “all” people?

    Thanks again for your time and effort.

    • James Croft says:

      Hello again Steve! I’d just point out here that in the piece above I reference and reject the claim that the cross “stands for everybody”. I think that’s junk, but I also think there are good reasons to house the cross even though this claim is junk.

  12. Steve Schlicht says:

    As for the issue of separation of church and state, the American Atheists are correct to take this to court.

    Folks are certainly free to put cherished items (religious or otherwise) found in the wreckage to represent the real lives of those loving folks murdered during this act of terror into the museum.

    That said, again, this T-beam, a simulacrum of what are common construction “column trees” found through the wreckage, is not some recovered victim’s cross, someone’s rosary beads, or a Star of David, or a teddy bear, or a policeman’s badge, or a firefighter’s helmet, or an atheist’s family photograph, or a teacher’s schoolbook, or a tattered prayer shawl, or a hijab, or a Buddha statue, etc., found in the wreckage to be justifiably included in the museum under glass as a matter of heartfelt and *actual* historical value.

    And no lone religious sect gets to invent their doctrine, dogma and symbol from the actual building, have their holy men bless it and deify it and then claim it represents the monopoly on human comfort, hope and resilience for our government to support, endorse and establish.

    That’s just wrong and a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

    Let it remain with the church where people who find comfort in it can go and do so, while those who do not, can share in the memory of their loved ones at Ground Zero and find hope and resilience in their own way.

    E Pluribus Unum.

    • James Croft says:

      There’s a very interesting distinction you’re making here, Steve, which probably bears further investigation. The distinction I see you making is between an item which belonged to an individual who was killed in the attacks, and the cross, which is not such an item. I see this distinction and think it’s a valid one.

      But you go one step further than simply pointing out the distinction. You seem to imply that since the cross is not an object which was owned by a person killed in the attacks, then therefore it does not have “actual historical value”. I question this. It seems to me that something can have historical value even though it wasn’t an object owned by a person killed in the attacks. For the multitudinous reasons I have given, I think the cross qualifies as an item of actual historical interest, despite it not being a lost person’s property.

      • Steve Schlicht says:

        “It seems to me that something can have historical value even though it wasn’t an object owned by a person killed in the attacks.”

        Well, James, only as much as telephone poles, cross beams and window panes do as well, if one merely proclaims it to be so and asks for government sponsorship for the simulacra as sacred and holy.

        I think that is not only nonsensical, but not very practical, fair or presented in equanimity.

        Religious items from the site, as far as I know, are allowed into museum, so there is nothing being lost by way of Christians finding comfort in that representation.

        In this case, since this column tree t-beam is an invention it doesn’t/shouldn’t require consideration or government support as a symbol of history or something that reflects comfort to all people.

        Craig, I’ve read all of the posts with great diligence as well as the private messages James and I have exchanged and continue to disagree on the very important stated nuance.

        I am glad that James does recognize the distinction and I hope you do as well.

        Take care, be good, stay safe!

        Steve Schlicht
        Biloxi MS

        • Jonathan says:

          Look, in one sense it won’t matter, because our children’s children’s children will wonder why all these buildings have plus signs on their roofs. I actually already witnessed a professor’s daughter at Vassar (my alma mater) who asked her Dad why their was a plus sign in one of the stained glass windows of chapel at Vassar (Vassar’s chapel has no exterior cross, nor any interior crosses, except in some of the stained-glass [part of why Vassar always ranks highly in “students ignore god on a regular basis” in the Princeton Review]).

          • Jonathan says:

            wow, grotesque typo, I meant, “I actually already witnessed a professor’s daughter at Vassar (my alma mater) who asked her Dad why there was a plus sign in one of the stained glass windows of chapel at Vassar (Vassar’s chapel has no exterior cross, nor any interior crosses, except in some of the stained-glass [part of why Vassar always ranks highly in “students ignore god on a regular basis” in the Princeton Review]).”

        • Craig Volpe says:

          @Steve: I guess I don’t understand what the disagreement is, then. In a nutshell, I’m hearing American Atheists say they don’t want the cross in the quadrant, but it’s okay if it’s in the museum, while James has confirmed the cross won’t be in the quadrant and will in fact be in the museum. If that’s the case, why is there still disagreement about this? Do they not want the cross in the museum?

          Also, I don’t agree with you about the telephone poles and window panes comment. Value is a human invention, nothing inherently has it. When people put value in the cross it then had more historical value than the rest of the rubble. If a group of people found special value in one of the window panes then that should also be considered for placement in the museum.

          @Should separation of church…: Having an item on display in a museum should not be considered as the museum endorsing any statements or content said item contains. If the sign was placed in a way that made it more than a display item, that would be relevant. However I find no evidence for the claim that it will bet see for anything other than as an item on display.

          • steve schlicht says:

            Yes, I agree, you don’t seem to understand what the argument is about, Craig.

            If value is a human invention, then there is no need to assert one is a “post hoc invention” (the Humanist “H” metal beam or even a respective atheist symbol among others) not deserving of special recognition, while the column tree t-beam post hoc invention as a Christian cross is somehow acceptable, by default…that it is somehow different and special and deserves unique treatment by our secular government.

            Again, if a Christian rosary or cross collected from the debris of those present in the building during this example of religious nihilism and terrorism, among all of the other items that are representative of history and bring a collective of diverse people hope and comfort are rejected…then I would be first on the band wagon protesting the government oppression of one view.

            That is not the case.

            The failed column tree that happens to be a cross beam, however, deserves no special treatment as it claims to be the totality of the WTC building site disaster and the unique symbol, memorial or historical artifact representative of all of those seeking comfort, when it simply is not and deserves no special treatment from our secular government.

            Additionally, Blair Scott has stated it is both in the memorial and the museum, in any event. A disingenuous ploy at best, given the prominence, location and size of the display of the simulacrum.

            I will post a photograph of the Hurricane Katrina memorial depicting how such a collection can be reasonably presented without special treatment for any particular sect on my FB page if you are interested (please look me up under my name and location)

            In the meantime, please consider this:

            http://www.thehumanist.org/humanist/articles/Schlicht.Hurricane.pdf

            Thanks for the great exchange of ideas and opinions!

            Steve Schlicht
            Biloxi MS

          • James Croft says:

            Steve,

            Kudos to you for sticking to your guns. I fear your arguments have been consistently countered, however. You seem to want to make a distinction between the cross and other relics which may have been found in the rubble which would have been, in your view, more legitimate.

            I reject this distinction, because I think it is not up to us to decide where people place their value. As a matter of unarguable fact, the cross was discovered shortly after the attacks and was seized upon as a representation of a particular religious worldview by many. It had symbolic potency from the start. That legitimizes it, in my view, even though it was not created as a religious artifact (or created at all), and makes it far more relevant for inclusion in a historic exhibition than the “Humanist “H””, which has no such history of connection to the attacks (i.e. people DIDN’T find it and place value in it). So while the cross is, in a certain sense, a “post hoc invention”, it is far less one than the “Humanist “H”” is, which was only invented by you the other day, as far as I can tell (here I’m referring to the H-shaped beams, NOT the Happy human symbol itself).

            Do you not see the obvious distinction between these two items?

            Further, you claim that the cross “claims to be the totality of the WTC building site disaster and the unique symbol, memorial or historical artifact representative of all of those seeking comfort”. This is flat-out false. Other artifacts from other religious traditions and none are being included in the very same exhibit, and we have no evidence to support the idea that the cross will be displayed in a way to give it undue prominence over and above those.

            I would like a link to Blair Scott’s assertion regarding the housing of the cross, please. In a sense he is obviously right – the Memorial Museum is on the same site as the Memorial quadrant. In another sense it sounds like he is attempting to be misleading, which would not surprise me given the amount of misinformation that has been propagated by AA on this subject.

  13. Craig Volpe says:

    Wow. I wish I could articulate my thoughts and write as well as you. Even your responses in the comments section are reasoned and show maturity.

    @Steve Schlicht: Did you read the article and responses to your comments? It seems you either didn’t read them or are ignoring them.

  14. […] in a way that was indeed exclusionary, trespassing over the boundary between church and state. State of Formation – Museum or Memorial, and Why It Matters: Thoughts on Religious Symbolism if this didn't say "a sign of comfort for ALL" i wouldn't have a problem with it. but it […]

  15. steve schlicht says:

    To be clear, James this isn’t about convincing you of the validity, rationality, consistency and legal logic of my point of view.

    I’ve taken some time while traveling recently to more thoroughly read many of your posts here and have determined your mindset as a religious humanist and not really what would be defined as a secular one.

    Even so, this is really about expressing a view in the free and open marketplace of ideas and letting the ideas stand or fall on their own merit.

    That you are highly competitive and enjoy the notion of winning is clear, but I’ve come to realize long ago that folks rarely (if ever) admit, in the middle of a discussion, that they’ve had a change of mind, a change of heart based upon new evidence or considerations…because they’ve already invested too much in a text narrative.

    That my points have been “countered”, notwithstanding, there is merit to them, you just don’t agree with them.

    That you personally favor the notion that simply because this one of many column tree metal beams is “seized upon” post hoc by one religious sect somehow makes it “legitimate” without presenting any evidence as to why folks who don’t accept the notion *should*, by default, accept it as well and have our secular government support it at that location, is obvious.

    Like a priest blessing a T-beam, you merely proclaim it to be so, while others are not, in a location representative of all peace loving people.

    What you haven’t done is explain why one group gets this special favor over all of the others, which is the foundation of the lawsuit.

    That is what makes the lawsuit valid and purposeful.

    And, isn’t that what we’re discussing after all.

    :0)

    PS Here is the link to Blair Scott’s comments:

    http://atheists.org/blog/2011/08/05/now-is-not-the-time-for-atheists-to-back-down

    As an aside, do you two know each other?

    • James Croft says:

      Steve: I’m delighted and flattered this discussion has led you to consider some of my other work. I hugely enjoyed your piece on Katrina.

      I’m intrigued you would define me as a “religious Humanist”, and wonder what you think follows from that. I call myself simply a “Humanist”. I do pride myself on my willingness to admit I am wrong when new evidence or arguments sway me, and I have publicly stated I will do so in this case if such evidence or arguments arise. But I must note that while I have presented fastidiously-documented arguments here, you have merely repeatedly asserted your point of view.

      As for this current discussion. First, Blair Scott is simply wrong to say the “Memorial is contained within the Museum”. I am frustrated that you won’t simply accept the museum’s own information regarding this issue, which I have meticulously presented, and let it lie. Why seek out every possible opportunity to avoid the truth?

      You seem to think that for the cross to be a legitimate piece if history everyone must consider it so, and that because you do not think it legitimate therefore it cannot be housed in a public museum. I, on the other hand, think there are reasonably objective criteria for determining what is legitimate to display as a historical artifact, and I have enumerated and explained those criteria and the reasons why I think the cross fulfills them (again: historical, cultural and educational value). You must, to take effective issue with my view, tell me why these criteria won’t do (and which alternatives you support), or why the cross doesn’t fulfill any of these criteria (with reasons, not simply assertions).

      Finally, you have repeatedly stated that this cross is getting “special favor” and is being valued above other items. You have completely ignored every time I have pointed out that this is factually incorrect, seeing as many other items are housed in the same exhibition. You must now either substantiate your repeated claim or, in the interests of intellectual honesty, drop it.

      • steve schlicht says:

        Well, James, it is very interesting that you don’t recognize the difference between your obvious religious humanism and the very clear and contrasting secular version.

        I think it is clear within your writings and will leave them to stand as the required evidence supporting my recognition of it for those interested in reading your heartfelt beliefs.

        In order to be informed of all sides to a story it isn’t a special trait to read material from one you may disagree with on an issue.

        That is why I was diligent to immerse myself into your views to come to a better understanding of your subjectively held bias and disregard for the feelings of non-believers regarding the column tree t-beam conversion into **the sole symbolic relic lording over the WTC ground zero museum and memorial** over any others.

        (NOTE: the information within the ** is important to study and fully consider).

        Please refer to my earlier posts for the nuanced distinctions well articulated that, at times, you seem to recognize and then ignore when you repeat your position.

        I am still amazed at the cognitive dissonance you express when you compare what one religious sect perceives or “seizes on” regarding the post hoc t-beam invention, while giving no substantive recognition or credit to those who do not.

        Again, if personal crosses or other religious and non-religious items found among the property in the wreckage are banned from the museum, that would be unfair.

        But that isn’t what is happening at all, that is a red herring. Religious and non-religious items are present within the museum.

        That those who “seize” on **the actual wreckage** as the particular symbol **that comes from** Ground Zero and hopes to impose it as the unique, government supported, icon representing all folks in seeking comfort is all you posit as important and valued, speaks volumes regarding your bias.

        In this regard, the equality that is being sought in the lawsuit is the stronger and more moral position.

        Why not simply move the T-beam to the church where it belongs so that those visiting the church (and who share in that symbolism) can find comfort from it?

        I am certainly happy you enjoyed my narrative of the experiences of non-believers before, during and in the aftermath of Katrina.

        That said, what is your view of the associated link to the Hurricane Katrina memorial photographs?

        PS “You must now either substantiate your repeated claim or, in the interests of intellectual honesty, drop it.”

        Physician, heal thyself.

        • James Croft says:

          Well, Steve, I have to admit this discussion is really confusing me. When I asked you what you meant by “religious Humanist” I did not do so out of ignorance of the term but out if a sincere desire to understand what you meant by it. The term has been used in many ways over many centuries and I was wondering what specifically you meant, because it interests me as a topic. That your reply assumes ignorance on my part (the second time you have done so in this thread) is uncharitable and unhelpful.

          As for the cross, wa have clearly reached an impasse. You keep claiming that the cross is “the sole symbolic relic lording over the WTC ground zero museum and memorial”. I have stated that this is factually inaccurate. You have not presented any evidence that your point of view is correct. So I have to assume you have none. In what way is it the “sole symbolic relic” when at least three others will be included (the Star of David, Prayer Shawl, and Fused Bible)?

          Yu have also claimed that the cross will be displayed as “the unique, government supported, icon representing all folks in seeking comfort”. Again, given the existence of other such items and the position. Of the cross in the museum, I say this is wrong as a matter of fact. How do you substantiate this claim!

          You also have referred repeatedly to my “bias”. What bias is this, precisely?

          I would appreciate a clear answer to these questions. Without these answers we cannot proceed.

        • Nathan DST says:

          Yea, I’m also a little confused as to why you would call James a religious humanist. I don’t see him that way based on his writings and my limited interactions with him, but perhaps I am using the term differently from you Steve?

          Nor do I see how he has shown a disregard for the feelings of non-believers on this issue. Perhaps my agreement with his position is why?

  16. Steve Schlicht says:

    Here is the link to the photographs of the Hurricane Katrina memorial in Biloxi, MS, for your consideration:

    http://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.php?fbid=1869366264991&set=a.1597794915877.2070261.1566144898&type=1&theater

  17. Craig Volpe says:

    @Steve: I’m not trying to attack you here, but I think there’s a couple things you could do to be more effective communicating/debating.

    I just noticed that your post was entirely made of (sometimes very long!) single sentence paragraphs. Then I looked back and noticed all your other posts are the same. Some of your thoughts would be easier to follow if you used paragraphs to address separate points, and broke some of your longer sentences into shorter ones. Take this sentence for example:

    “That is why I was diligent to immerse myself into your views to come to a better understanding of your subjectively held bias and disregard for the feelings of non-believers regarding the column tree t-beam conversion into **the sole symbolic relic lording over the WTC ground zero museum and memorial** over any others.”

    It’s hard to follow. I think you are claiming particular peoples feelings about the t-beam are being ignored, but it’s easy to read it as you making a claim that the t-beam is “the sole symbolic relic in the museum”. I had to read it several times before I understood what I think you meant by it.

    It would also be much more effective if you backed up your claims instead of just asserting them. You can’t just say someone is biased and your evidence for that is because you’ve determined it from listening to them. I mean you can say it of course, but it just sounds like an appeal to authority. It would be much more effective if you made the claim and gave an example.

    The above in no way invalidates any points you’ve made; I’m just trying to give some friendly and helpful advice.

    BTW, I was curious to see the Katrina memorial photo, but Facebook told me the content was currently unavailable.

  18. […] alebo pamätník a prečo na tom záleží – úvahy o náboženskom symbolizme a diskusia o kríži na […]

  19. […] I posted a link to this essay by James Croft on my Facebook.It was discussing the violent threats and hate-filled rants that have […]

  20. whoah this blog is wonderful i really like studying your articles. Stay up the great paintings! You understand, a lot of people are hunting round for this info, you could help them greatly.

  21. […] (a fight we will lose, and a significant problem with some of American Atheists more misguided lawsuits), but rather against lovers of freedom and theocrats. In episode #546 of the Atheist Experience, […]

  22. Hello friends, its great paragraph concerning educationand fully defined,
    keep it up all the time.

  23. […] damaging of all is the museum’s concession prior to the lawsuit to exhibit other religious symbols that would be crafted out of the metal wreckage right alongside the cross. In essence, defeating […]

  24. […] 9/11 CrossNovember 2, 2012 By James Croft Leave a CommentThis article was originally written for State of Formation, an interfaith community blog. I repost it here to ensure all my posts on the 9/11 Cross are hosted […]

  25. […] Interpreting the Star as a government endorsement of the Jewish religion requires an unreasonable rejection of central historical facts regarding the use of that symbol. A reasonable, well-informed observer would see in this memorial not an attempt by the government to promote Judaism, but an attempt by the government to memorialize a despicable moment in human history, and to educate around it – a secular purpose. So, in my view, there is no legal problem here (this case is similar to that of the 9/11 Cross, which seems to me to also hinge on questions of how a religious symbols is functioning – see here). […]

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James is a teacher, researcher, actor, singer and a proud, gay Humanist. He teaches and studies toward his Doctorate in Human Development at Harvard University, where he works closely with the Humanist Chaplaincy.


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