Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Tree of Knowledge: A Fitting Symbol of Free Thought?

It's been said that getting atheists and free-thinkers to combine forces and form a cohesive political/social unit is like herding cats - not easy to do. I came across a terrific short film that was posted at The Friendly Atheist blog site. It is a film by Gregory Walsh in which he interviews several people while a Tree of Knowledge is planted at the Free Speech Zone in Philadelphia.

The Tree of Knowledge may be finding a new purpose as the symbol atheists and free thinkers have been searching for. On the plus side, free thinkers could use a powerful icon to symbolize their cause. It has the potential to do for free thinkers what the Menorah does for Jewish people and the nativity scene does for Christians - give them a symbol to rally around during the traditional American holiday season.

Such a move is not without controversy. Many religious people believe it would be distasteful to celebrate atheism at a time that has been traditionally recognized for celebrating the birth of Christ or the Hanukkah miracles. Atheists make the point that such a collusion has outlived its time claiming the holiday season should not be devoted to uniquely Christian or Jewish concerns. There is also the added pressure from church-state separation advocates to make certain public property doesn't promote or favor one religion over another. (In this broad sense, atheism is commonly construed to possess the benefits of a "religion.")

Personally, I like the idea of finding a sort of humanist trademark to identify our philosophical brand. I do have mixed feelings, however, about such a symbol being plucked from a widely recognized biblical source. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is, after all, the very thing God allegedly commanded Adam and Eve not to partake of (if you believe that sort of thing). It is not totally unreasonable to understand why some might find offense in this. Yet for the same reasons some might take offense, it may be a particularly appropriate symbol to use - atheists do in fact stand in direct opposition to core beliefs of the religious.

I am of the mind, however, that this need not be a problem. True diversity demands that in some ways we make allowances for one another. It does seems important that atheists be accommodated not for what they stand in opposition to - belief in god - but rather for that which they steadfastly support, e.g., the Affirmations of Humanism. Better to celebrate an affirmative ideal as opposed to a negativity.

There will no doubt always be those who vehemently oppose any normalization of atheism, free thought or humanism, but it seems clear that such normalizing would only serve to elevate the best of what our country stands for, and by the way, guarantees - freedom of expression. Not at all a bad ideal to celebrate.


  1. When California voters (some of them, at least) voted-in Prop 8, basically banning same sex marriage, it occurred to me just how far our nation still has to go in the realm of acceptance and tolerance. A similar thought occurred to me today when, sitting in a waiting room, a morning television show being shown in the room was doing a piece on how religious organizations are seeing increased attendance during these tough economic times. Not surprisingly, there were just two faiths represented: Christianity and Judaism. And, of course, the point of the piece was to show how God has the answers and the strength you need to weather tough times...

    I think it would have been just peachy neato for a Humanist to have wandered into the picture and said, "Gee, ya' know, somehow I'm doin' just fine too." Can you imagine how the wind would have come out of the sails of that conversation...? ha!

    In both cases, I see plainly that we still live in a society that, by majority vote, still wants to decide for us what is right and what is wrong and who from among us gets an invitation to the ball...

    As much as society likes to talk about "acceptance" and "tolerance", I think we're still a century away from really realizing it.

  2. hmmm....another interesting and thought provoking post. That's why I like reading here, it helps me to see another point of view than that which I may be used to.

    As far as freedom of expression, or freedom in general, I take no offense and have no issue as long as it doesn't infinge upon my rights or that of another. But that is a whole other topic. In these days and times it is hard for all to be treated equal and have their rights repected. I think it is sad because I truly don't believe it has to be that way.

    So many are so worried about offending and political correctness, that there are more rights being taken away than there are given.

    Someone, somewhere will take offense to your Tree of Knowledge and petition to have it removed, than that person will say if he can't have his tree, than I can't have my nativity, and so on it goes to where at some point there will be no symbol for the Christin, the Jew, the Athiest or anybody.

    Personally, I'd rather keep my nativity and let you enjoy your tree and my neighbor enjoy his symbol, but it wont ever be that way I fear...

  3. Great comments, Tara. The thing I would say is that government buildings are inappropriate places for religious symbols. Personally, I would never want to trample on anyone's right to practice their religion or celebrate their faith. Maybe the point has to be made, however, that there is no "right" to use government property to facilitate the expression of any religious faith. The reason nativity scenes on government property are now being challenged so much is due to the fact that the historical ubiquity and cultural dominance of Christianity (in America) is slowly being replaced by a truer representation of the religious melting pot we are becoming. Not allowing any religious displays on government property, in all honesty, has the effect of elevating the principle of religious freedom - not restricting it, because those of minority religions - or non-believers - are then not made to feel as outsiders or unwelcome, thus are more apt to openly express their personal beliefs.

  4. The concept of tolerance is very important to me. We need to be tolerant of the religious or humanist beliefs of others. Let's not trumpet our own beliefs as if they are the absolute truth. Let's explore and respect other ways of thinking and seeing the world.