December 06, 2008

Godless Sign Found in Washington: True-Believers Say Dumb Things in the Meantime

The sign placed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the state capitol building in Olympia, Washington and then stolen — possibly at the behest of notable falafel enthusiast Bill "Would You Look at the Size of That Head" O'Reilly — has been returned. It was dropped off at Seattle radio station KMPS by an unidentified man, received by receptionist Rose Gumpe and passed to DJ Ichabod Caine. It's now being used as promotional material by the radio station for Caine. KOMO-TV news in Seattle has the story:

According to local police in Washington:
State Patrol Sgt. Ted DeHart said the billboard was still on display Thursday evening when the Capitol rotunda building was shut down.

He said there would be no way someone not authorized to be inside could get in the building after it's closed at 6 p.m...


So it looks very much like an inside job, as it were.

It's worth noting that KMPS is a country music station, speaking perhaps to a conservative demographic in terms of its listeners (and recent guests on Caine's show have included Dinesh D'Souza). Caine had been discussing the sign on his show since it went up, although he denies any responsibility in terms of its theft. It may explain, at least, why the sign was dropped off at the station.

Personally, I think this event is yet another example of the "religion does not make people moral" principle. The situation is that religious groups were allowed to place displays on government property, and as both Governor Chris Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna explain in a bipartisan joint statement,
The U.S. Supreme Court has been consistent and clear that, under the Constitution's First Amendment, once government admits one religious display or viewpoint onto public property, it may not discriminate against the content of other displays, including the viewpoints of nonbelievers.
That someone, or even some group of people, found the sign objectionable is not the point. The FFRF had the right to place their sign in the Capitol because other groups were allowed to advertise religion-related messages. There is nothing special about it being a couple of weeks before a holiday held in particular esteem by one such group; the same rights and responsibilities still apply, and unauthorized removal of the sign constitutes theft as it would during any other time of the year. A crime was committed, and the motivation for that crime being religious or political makes no difference at all. It is exactly the same crime that would have been committed if someone who agreed with the FFRF had swiped a baby Jesus mannequin from a creche.

Caine, for his part, misses a subtle but important point in the interview recorded above. He states that the sign is "negative speech." He's right in that, of course. The sign is making a manifestly negative statement about religion, as it was intended to do. However, any religious display, and in fact nearly every religion, makes an intrinsically negative statement about all other religions (or the absence thereof). Each maintains that it is the correct one and that others are, therefore, incorrect. The Christian religion teaches that belief in the divine nature of Jesus is necessary to gain a reward in the afterlife and "blessings" in this life, and that there is no other way. That's an essentially negative statement about any religion that doesn't include this belief and the accompanying obeisances. Islam says the same thing about the status of Mohamed as a prophet. In fact, both Christianity and Islam were formulated precisely as negative statements against what was perceived at the time as corruption within the existent religions from which they stemmed (Christianity regarding Judaism, Islam regarding both Judaism and Christianity). This isn't even touching on polytheistic religions. To say, then, that beliefs are to be inherently respected or should go unchallenged by negative statements about them runs precisely counter to why those beliefs were formulated into codified religions in the first place. A Christmas display, a menorah... it doesn't matter. None of them make only a positive statement of belief, they also make a negative statement about other beliefs. If they didn't, they would be meaningless. The FFRF's sign was more explicit in it's statement of non-belief, and that non-belief was about the very supernaturalism upon which religions are based. One God is, after all, just one more than none.

That true-believers realize all of this at some level is exemplified by another sign put up in the State Capitol by Ken Hutcherson, former NFL player and Tim LaHaye/Rush Limbaugh disciple and present senior pastor at the Antioch Bible Church:
The controversy over the anti-religion sign prompted Rev. Ken Hutcherson, pastor of the Antioch Bible Church in Kirkland, to post a pro-religion sign about 15 feet from where the athiest sign was located.

It reads: "There is one God. There is one Devil. There are angels, a heaven and hell. There is more than our natural world. Atheism is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."


To make such a statement, Hutcherson first has to know in some way what the basis of the FFRF's sign was and how it ties into the state-sponsored religious debate that has been opened up in the capitol building. Of course, stating that a non-belief can be superstition or myth — both of which categories are entirely based on positive beliefs — is stupidity, duplicity, or both. If Hutcherson himself weren't part of the effort of one religion to make negative statements about others, moreover, his church would not have the following as elements of their doctrinal statement:
We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the verbally inspired Word of God, the final authority for faith and life, inerrant in the original writings, infallible and God-breathed..
In other words, all beliefs other than ours are wrong. This is "negative speech.
We believe that man was created in the image of likeness of God, but that through Adam's sin the race fell, inherited a sinful nature, and became alienated from God; and that man is totally depraved, and of himself utterably unable to remedy his lost condition (Genesis 1:26,27; Romans 3:22,23, 5:12; Ephesians 2:1-3, 12).

We believe that salvation is the gift of God brought to man by grace and received by personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ...
This, of course, means that anyone who doesn't hold these beliefs is "fallen" and not "redeemed." It's a negative statement couched in a positive assertion
The sign may be back, but the episode points out that there is a growing connection between the right to free expression and the holding of a particular set of beliefs in a worryingly substantial portion of the American populace. In Washington, this connection found expression in the theft of the sign by an as-yet-unidentified (and likely to remain unidentified, unless he seeks publicity) culprit with very specific motives. In California, it was a local official who brought pressure to bear for the removal of a statement of non-belief after calls from a few religious residents. Statements that challenge religion are seen as things to be excepted from free speech.

When and if that happens, the true-believers can fight it out amongst themselves whose statements of belief are allowable and whose aren't. After all, ask a religious Jew what he/she thinks about the divinity of Jesus and he's going to make a negative statement in all likelihood. If statements about the non-existence of God aren't protected, then why should we expect that statements about the non-divinity or non-existence of Jesus would be? And after they get that hashed out, maybe they can have a boxing match to decide whether the denial of papal infallibility and the central importance of the Vatican by Protestants should be protected or not.

Given the time, I'm sure that believers like Hutcherson can ultimately figure out exactly which speech and which religions are guaranteed freedom... and which aren't.

Oddly, enough, the FFRF sign never mentions any such things and no atheists I know of have suggested that the negative statements about reason and logic made by the religious should be considered blasphemous and so not protected speech. You can't have blasphemy without the belief to blaspheme in the first place. Without the superstition, there can be no violation... which would throw a bit of a kink into Hutcherson's very silly sign if he only hadn't gotten a few concussions back when he played football.

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