Saturday, December 5, 2009


For the third year in a row, the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia has placed a Tree of Knowledge next to the Christmas tree, menorah and nativity scene on the courthouse lawn of the town of West Chester (Chester County, PA). The Tree of Knowledge is a standard pine tree, decorated with book covers from famous scientific, philosophical and atheist authors. While the other three holiday displays pay tribute to religious figures and holidays, the Tree of Knowledge acknowledges a rich history of freethought and joy in learning.

The first year it appeared, the Tree was vandalized. Last year, it was left alone. Will it be vandalized again this year? Time will tell.

Margaret Downey, founder and former president of the FSGP, writes on her Facebook page that the tree is being met with obstacle after obstacle from town commission members.[1] Apparently, the commissioners are attempting to restrict which book covers can be displayed. This appears to be a clear violation of the First Amendment, but as of this writing, Downey and the commission are still trying to work things out, as detailed on her Facebook page. The commission also prohibited the FSGP from displaying a website address on the tree, as this was too similar to advertising for their tastes (as far as I am aware, none of the other displays included website information, so this may be a valid criticism).

Not surprisingly, many are offended by the existence of the tree, as well as its near proximity to the religious displays on the courthouse lawn. One local blog is quite adamant, proclaiming the tree “a grotesque and kitschy shrine to Godlessness.” Apparently, the separation of church and state doesn’t mean much to that particular blogger.

As for me, I am undecided. Frankly, religious displays on public property offend me. But a Tree of Knowledge on public property doesn’t thrill me, either. It seems a little in-your-face for my taste. While the FSGP makes an excellent point with their display — and I applaud their intent completely! — I don’t think that the way to persuade people of faith to open their hearts to freethought is to mock their displays. And I strongly suspect that most of the hardnosed religious types looking at those book covers are simply taking notes on which books not to read.

If the display were pretty, or didn’t reference a cherished Christian symbol, it would be harder for most religious types (let’s face it, they’re more concerned with aesthetic values than ethical principles) to oppose it. If it’s a thing of beauty that enhances the courthouse lawn, you’re not going to get as much of a fuss. Of course, a fuss may be part of what they’re looking for, if generating publicity for freethought is their goal. But to be honest, a lot of the publicity just seems to make them look like cranks. And they’re not cranks. They’re committed people who want to share their own brand of holiday spirit. Margaret Downey and the FSGP are making a heartfelt outreach effort with their Tree, and that’s more than most of us are doing.

I emailed Barry Karr, Executive Director of Committee For Skeptical Inquiry, for his personal opinion on the Tree. He wrote back: “To be honest, and I am sure this will offend a few of my fellow unbelievers, but I am not really a fan of the Tree of Knowledge idea. I know that the tree was appropriated from earlier pagans into Christian Christmas traditions, and I understand the symbolism they are aiming for with the bible story where God forbade Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge. But like it or not it is now a symbol associated with Christmas and I am not in favor of us trying to co-opt it as one of ours.”[2]

Mr. Karr makes a valid point. (And as long as we’re co-opting Christian symbols, I’d love to see a cartoon of the Three Wise Men, with the heads of Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan.)

Last year, my daughter and I decorated a tree in our dining room. We put up ornaments that we had decorated ourselves. Orbs with symbols of things we cared about. A couple of Darwin fish. Pi symbols. Hearts, peace symbols, ankhs, happy faces. The result was a colorful secular celebration of many of the concepts near and dear to our hearts. It was also a very pleasant way to spend a chilly December afternoon with our family. Yes, we had a tree, but Christians don’t have a monopoly on trees. I’m not saying our decision to have a tree of our own is the best choice for any atheist, but it was certainly a good choice for us. We will be doing a tree again this year.

I guess my point is that the holiday season is a time in which people try to open their hearts and make peace with one another, even if they don’t celebrate holidays. And while the Tree of Knowledge is a good idea, perhaps the holidays aren’t the best time for it to be up. I’m very interested to hear if anyone out there has alternative ideas for appropriate non-theist displays.

In any case, to all the atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Subgenii, adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and everyone else reading this, I would like to say: no matter how good or loving or ethical you were in 2009, let’s all try to be a little more so in 2010. Let’s be more accepting of one another. Let’s all make an effort to be rational, compassionate, respectful human beings for the next year. That’s my resolution. I hope you’ll join me.


Amy Frushour Kelly

[1] I tried to contact Ms. Downey by email regarding the Tree this past week, but she did not respond.

[2] Please note that this is Mr. Karr’s personal opinion, and not to be considered as reflective of any organization in which he is involved.


  1. Great stuff Amy and I agree, no matter how militant I am, it's all about getting along and respecting each other in ALL aspects. That being said I do have one minor criticism. It's my understanding that "adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster" prefer to be called "Pastafarians" ;->

  2. I have to say, I like the CONCEPT of a Tree of Knowledge -- curious as to what books are on there, and how they're doing the covers... hate to think they're ripping covers off books, but probably they're just scans, which is OK, but potentially doesn't look great. But yeah -- the situation you're talking about just seems a little aggressive for my tastes. I'd like it more if it were, say, on their Headquarters' site or something, if that makes sense.

    Which is not to say that atheists shouldn't have a display there -- but perhaps it's better to do one that's not quite so mocking.

    I'm glad that it wasn't vandalized last year, though. And I'm bugged at the concept of city folks determining what books are on there. (Particularly, as I'm assuming they didn't decorate it with anything that could really be construed as offensive, like, I don't know, the Penthouse Letters XIV or something.)

  3. Interesting post! Cool points about the tree itself as symbolism (or not) and also your three wise men! --Sue

  4. I agree that confrontation usually hardens views and is therefore ineffective. Also, wasn't the tree of knowledge a fruit tree? :)