The LookOut columns What I Say
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By Frank Gruber
December 12, 2011 -- I read a good book over Thanksgiving. We were staying at my mother-in-law’s in Pittsburgh, and she had a copy of the new book by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, and I hijacked it. The book is about the rediscovery in the early 15th century of a copy of On the Nature of Things, a long philosophical poem the Roman Lucretius wrote in the first century B.C.
I couldn’t put it down.
In his poem Lucretius expounds the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. A whole lot of Epicurus’ thinking was interesting, not the least being that he believed the universe was infinite and timeless, and made up of infinitesimally small particles. It’s Prof. Greenblatt’s thesis that the rediscovery of Epicurean philosophy led to the birth of the modern world -- hence the title of the book.
I thought of Epicurus and Lucretius when I went to Palisades Park last week to photograph the atheistic displays that have supplanted most of the traditional Nativity scenes this year (see “Santa Monica Nativity Display Nudged Out by Atheists”, December 9, 2011).
What came to mind were the Epicureans’ views about God (or, in their case, since they weren’t limited by monotheism, their views about “the gods”).
The Epicureans thought that gods existed, or that they could exist, but they did not believe that any gods could, by the nature of being a god, give the slightest damn about what human beings did, or what happened to us. For the Epicureans, there could be neither divine judgment nor an afterlife.
This theology resonated with me in a peculiar way, because my view about the existence of God is the mirror image: the Epicureans say God doesn’t care whether we exist, while I don’t care whether God exists.
Atheism is for those who don’t believe God exists, and agnosticism is for those who don’t know if God exists, but what I’d like to promote is a new category: akedism, for those who don’t care one way or the other, as in “it’s not my problem.”
I got akedism from talking to a friend who is a professor of ancient philosophy. She told me that the Greek word for care is kedos; I’ve added an “a” to it, to add the “don’t.” (My professor friend pointed out that there already is a word based on this root, usually spelled acedia, which means, originally in the context of monks who suffered from boredom (the “Noonday Demon”), indifference to the point of depression. For that reason I'm going to use the “k” to distinguish non-carers from the merely despondent.)
Why am I an akedist? Let’s put it this way: if God isn’t going to make it clear to everyone that he exists, then, as I see it, it’s his problem. He’s the omnipotent one; why all the mystery? As a result, since the world has so many different creeds, I figure I should live as moral a life as I can based on standards that will be understandable by as many people and peoples as possible -- any reasonable god should understand that, right?
If I fall short, and there is divine judgment, then I’m not going to worry if God is going to be so unreasonable as to hold this attitude against me.
So -- what does this have to do with Nativity displays in Palisades Park? It’s a long introduction designed to establish my credibility: that I have no reason to promote religion or, since I’m Jewish, the Christian religion in particular, when I say that the atheists who pushed the Nativity scenes from the park showed the very stiff-necked intolerance that they accuse religions of.
Imitation is the sincerest flattery, and what’s happened is that some atheists, whose best strategy would be to provide a calm and reasoned alternative to the worldwide fashion for fundamentalism, can’t help themselves from aping the current norm of combative religiosity. In so doing, they give atheism, a noble intellectual tradition shared by tens of millions of Americans, a bad name.
I may have an iffy relationship with God, but I believe in the First Amendment -- all of it. The amendment not only contains the no-establishment clause, but also the “free exercise” clause, and in the spirit of that it’s reasonable for public property to be used at times for religious expression or celebration, so long as the uses are not permanent, overtly proselytizing, or aggressive towards anyone else’s beliefs.
Agreed, the First Amendment does not permit a permanent cross in a park, or the Ten Commandments in a courthouse, or prayers in school; but calling a temporary Nativity tableau, that’s been a tradition for half a century, a violation of the separation of church and state is like saying a public radio station can’t play Handel’s Messiah or the L.A. Phil can’t perform Berlioz’s “L’enfance du Christ” in County-owned Disney Hall.
The displays that have pushed the Nativity scenes from Palisades Park not only ridicule the beliefs of others -- juxtaposing, for instance, as examples of myths, pictures of Jesus, Santa Claus and the Devil -- which is bad enough, but the whole thing is slap-dash, showing minimal artistic effort. With the Nativity scenes non-Christians or non-believers at least got the benefit of modern folk art; with the atheists’ displays you only get words behind chain link fences.
Here’s an idea: if the City must open up the park for competing displays, can’t it at least require neutral artistic standards? For instance, if people want to supplant the Nativity tableaus, shouldn’t they at least need to provide the public with an equivalent?
Note to the atheists: instead of a mere quotation from Jefferson (who, by the way, described himself as an Epicurean, not as an atheist), how about a display of him at his desk, cutting out all the supernatural verses of the Bible? I mean, if you’re hell bent on making yourselves look like jerks, at least make an effort so that you don’t look like lazy jerks.
But here’s another idea: Palisades Park from Colorado to Georgina is 1.4 miles long. Isn’t there enough room to allow, for the month of December, anyone to exhibit a display? Call the park a free speech zone for a month.
We could all celebrate that.