Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

The Quandary of Place Names

First, please forgive me for linking to The New American.  I know, I know.  Trust me when I say that this article is actually pretty even-handed, and it leads me to a digression that has nothing to do with Ron Paul.

Recently the atheist-visibility organization New York City Atheists protested NYC’s decision to rename one of the streets near Ground Zero “Seven In Heaven Way.”  David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, chimed in, too – he also feels it’s inappropriate to officially designate a city street in this manner.

I’m rather torn on what I think, to tell you the truth.

On the one hand, Silverman has a damn good point when he says,

“People died in 9/11, but they were all people who died, not just Christians. Heaven is a specifically Christian place. For the city to come up and say all those heroes are in heaven now, it’s not appropriate. … [We] should celebrate the diversity of our country and should be secular in nature. These heroes might have been Jews, they might have been atheists, I don’t know, but either way it’s wrong for the city to say they’re in heaven. It’s preachy.”

It’s hard to argue with that.  On the other hand,

[New York] city official, Sara Gonzalez, noted that the seven firefighters “have long been known as the ‘Seven in Heaven.’ That’s something that [the city government] didn’t have any hand in, it is the way the community and their families chose to remember them. So if that is their desire then we are happy to continue to remember them in the way that their family and fellow firefighters prefer to call them.”

Sara also has a damn good point.  Part of being in a secular community is acknowledging that we all have varying beliefs.  Secularity in the context of national culture means that no particular religion or denomination is advanced before others; it does not mean utterly lacking in religion anywhere.  It means that we all have the right to believe and express ourselves as we wish, so long as the expression of our rights don’t infringe on those of others.

I think there’s no denying that the 9/11 firefighters and other first responders who risked (and lost) their lives to save others are deeply important to all of us.  Certainly they are particularly revered in New York, in the very community where they served.  Far be it from me to say that the family, friends, and admirers of these brave people are “wrong” for believing their loved ones are in Heaven.  I don’t believe in Heaven, but lots of people do, and the thought that these firefighters are enjoying an eternal reward in a really great place provides some comfort to believing survivors.  If indeed the community has taken to calling the lost firefighters “The Seven in Heaven,” then Sara Gonzalez has a point in her favor.  The community should be able to express their admiration in terms that work for them.

But this is still a pretty sticky situation.

Officially renaming streets is a government duty.  Silverman and New York City Atheists have a serious point in their favor in that respect.  And yes, “Heaven” is a Christian concept.  Is this a case of government promoting one religion over others?  I truly can’t decide.  It looks like it could be the harmless acknowledgment of a meme.  It could be a more subtle grab for yet more public voice by the already-overrepresented Christian demographic.

Hell, I can’t figure this one out.

I can tell you that I personally find the name rather goofy. Want to honor the dead firefighters?  Rename seven streets after each one individually.  “Seven In Heaven” sounds banal and saccharine, a Dr. Seuss rhyme that sterilizes and rainbow-washes what was an extreme tragedy in American history and an event that totally changed the entire world.  Don’t these people deserve better than a marketing catchphrase or a sports-night tagline, on par with “The Battle in Seattle,” “The Thrilla in Manilla,” and “The Thunder from Down Under?”  Come on.

My personal distaste for cutesy rhyme aside, there’s another point made in the article that I think is important to address.  I hope I am not getting too rambly for you.  Bear with me for a few more paragraphs.

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission noted, “There are cities that have religious connotations in their names. Why not a street[?] Do they want us to rename Los Angeles, Corpus Christi, and St. Joseph?”


This comment jumped out at me, because just a few days ago I watched a documentary called Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.  In it, a Christian man named Dan Merchant posits that the majority of the U.S. doesn’t trust Evangelicals because their approach to Christianity is so socially revolting and not very Christ-like.  He sure made a lot of interesting points in the film.  I largely enjoyed it, except the part where he mockingly suggested we rename all the religious-named cities in the U.S. with outrageously “secular” names.  That was the only part of the movie that left a bad taste in my mouth.

But not for the reasons you might suspect.  I am not in favor of renaming religious-themed places to make them more secular, and I find it obnoxious that Dan Merchant or anybody else would assume atheists are in favor of such rampant goofballery.  History is history, and history has value — even religious history.

Added Land, “In a country where 85 percent of the people say they are Christian or claim to be Christian, should it be surprising that you name cities and streets with religious terminology?”


No, it’s not surprising at all.  It’s to be expected.  In historical place names.

Usually whichever individual founds a town gets to name it, and so it’s no big shock that we have a lot of historical place names that are derived from religion.  Religion is important to religious people.  Duh.  We’ve got St. Louis, Bethlehem, San Jose, and Santa Fe.  In the state of Utah alone we’ve got Zion National Park, the Jordan River, Canaan Mountain, Kolob Canyon, and the cities of Orem, Bountiful, Moab, Deseret, Nephi, Lehi, Moroni, Brigham City, and Heber City: all of them derived from the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or from important early church founders – and those are just the ones I pulled off the top of my head.  There are surely dozens more.  (I’m a former Mormon, in case you were curious.)

I am not and never would be in favor of changing historical place names to make them less religious in nature.  That is, frankly, silly.  It defeats the purpose of history.  One of the many pleasures of appreciating history is being able to look back at the way we were – and appreciate the ways we’ve changed for the better.  So what if a Catholic founded Saint Louis?  Does that make it somehow tainted or hostile toward atheists?  Of course not!  It’s simply a part of its history.  Saint Louis is not an exclusively Catholic city.  It never was.  Catholicism was important to its founder’s life: one bit of trivia among many about the city’s founding.  I should hope that any sane and rational atheist is not going out on crusades to change religious-themed historical place names.

But renaming a modern street to have an explicitly religious name, for the sake of honoring lost heroes whose loved ones apparently remember them in religious terms – hmmm.  Will this – the street name, I mean, not 9/11 – become an essential part of New York City history?  Is it necessary to honor them in this way?  What about the historical context of the street’s original name — is it right to wipe that bit of trivia away?  Are the people in favor of Seven In Heaven Way (ugh!) on the same kind of silly history-erasing quest I hope no atheists ever go on?  Or is this the innocent expression of a meme born of community grief and sincere camaraderie?

I just don’t know where I stand on the issue.

Maybe you do.  What do you think?


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Is it right to modify history? Who knows? But as we all know there are many examples of written history being modified; King County comes to mind as one example. I think it’s alright to change a name in most cases. What’s in a name? A lot. But change is inevitable. I think the people who want to change the street name are coming from a sincere place as the firefighters “have long been known as the ‘Seven in Heaven.'” (Darn quotation marks.) Speaking of quotation marks… I wonder if using them could add some clarity to the meaning of… Read more »


I’m glad you wrote the article, Libbie. I used to live in Las Cruces, NM, where the city seal is 3 crosses. Las Cruces was named because it was the place along the Santa Fe trail where 3 dudes were killed, and a cross was erected at the grave of each. Folks from my hometown synagogue would get their panties all in a bunch about how the city seal was oppressive, violated establishment clause, and made Catholicism a state-endorsed religion, blah blah blah. In the case of Las Cruces, the name and seal are merely DESCRIPTIVE! It’s like calling a… Read more »

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