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
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. 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,
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.”
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
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