Following a lawsuit and more than a year of controversy, at noon on Saturday a group called the American Atheists will unveil the United States’ first public monument to atheism in a square outside the Bradford County courthouse in Starke, Florida, near Jacksonville. The five-foot-long, grey granite bench and connecting pillar, which were built and engraved by local masons using granite quarried in Georgia, will feature secular quotes from the Founding Fathers as well as a statement from the organization’s founder, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, encapsulating the 50-year-old group’s views:
“An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that deed must be done instead of prayer. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty banished, war eliminated.”
As a rule, atheists aren’t big on monuments, due to their religious symbolism. But the 4000-member group decided to erect one anyway after it lost a lawsuit in March that would have forced a local Christian group to remove its own monument – two stone tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments – located in the same public square. Once the atheist bench and attached pillar are in place, the two monuments will stand just a few yards apart in the square’s “Free Speech Zone,” where private citizens are allowed to erect displays.
“We don’t want to establish this monument, we feel we need to establish it,” says American Atheists President David Silverman. “If [Christians] are going to have their religious statements made on public land, we’re also going to have our statements made on public land whether they like it or not.” To drive home their opposition to the tablets, the atheist monument will also be engraved with a list of Old Testament punishments for breaking the Ten Commandments, including stoning and death. The point, says Silverman, is to shed light on the “hateful” side of the Bible.
Ironically, some of the most vocal criticism of the new atheist monument comes from other atheists, who are annoyed that the monument references the Ten Commandments at all. Luis Perez of Tampa, Florida commented on the group’s Facebook page: “This isn’t a victory for us, it is a victory for the theists. There should be NO representation of any agenda.” Another commenter, David Lavoie, wrote, “I think getting a monument instead of them taking the commandments down is a failure.”
Twenty percent of the U.S. public say they do not identify with any religion, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey. And while the atheist monument has evoked strong reactions, the vast majority of atheists may not care about the monument that much because they are not involved with organized groups in the first place. “They’re not obsessed with fighting religion or arguing about it,” says Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, California.
The group that erected the neighboring Ten Commandments tablets says it has no hard feelings about the new atheist monument. “We’ll bring coolers full of bottled water, be hospitable and kind and show we’re not angry,” says Ken Weaver, one of the leaders of the Community Men’s Fellowship.
Despite the uproar over the monument, it’s actually one of the least provocative gestures the group has made. In the past, American Atheists have flown banners that read “God-LESS America” on Independence Day, run bus ads proclaiming “You don’t need God,” and replaced nativity scenes at a Santa Monica, Calif. park with a sign that read “Religions are all alike — founded upon fables and mythologies.” In contrast, the new monument just looks like a form of biblical criticism. Barry Kosmin, Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College, notes, “The Founding Fathers quotes are not atheist quotes, they’re separationist quotes, because the Founding Fathers don’t qualify as atheists as we define it today.”