Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hot Cocoa

In many ways, my life... well, it sucks. I’m fortunate in that I’m an optimist at heart. I tend to look on the bright side; partly by nature, partly by choice. One thing I don’t look for is a theist god. If I did, I would probably melt into a puddle of despair, kind of like porridge, but not as tasty.

That’s what I was reflecting on as I shoveled my way through 21” of snow this morning. The snow was piled high against the house. I had to shoulder the storm door open just to get to my front steps.

The sky was dark. The forecast calls for clearing skies, but I haven’t seen any evidence to support that theory. I was just glad that the snow had stopped at last.

If someone else was out there, shoveling upwards of 50 cubic feet of wet, heavy snow from my walk, I would be busy inside. I would be heating up hot cocoa on the stove. Going to the door frequently to see that the person out there was okay, that s/he didn’t need a break, wasn’t having trouble breathing, didn’t need someone to take over the shoveling for a while. And when that person came in, I would have a warm blanket and the hot cocoa (or coffee, or soup, or whatever else s/he liked) ready and waiting. To me, it’s a basic expression of concern for the well-being of another individual, and gratitude for work done.

Last night, my car was stuck in the blizzard. I was dressed for a wedding, and stuck, freezing, for two hours with no heat. A friend came out and got my car started. I was thankful, and I paid him $20, all I could afford, for his kindness. He was very grateful. There was about 8” of snow on the walk when I finally got home. No one had shoveled. I had to pick gingerly through the snow in my three-inch heels, clutching my coat to my body. I slept like the dead till morning, when I came out to shovel. The amount of snow on the ground had nearly tripled.

I’m not a tall person or a particularly strong person, but I shoveled the whole walk, the steps, cleared off the mailbox, dug out access to the street. It took a long time, and it was cold. I don’t have a pair of boots at the moment, so the whole experience was kind of miserable. And there wasn’t a cup of hot cocoa waiting for me. I didn’t have the energy to make it myself by that point, so I wrapped myself up in a warm, dry shirt and huddled up, alone, on my bed. There wasn’t even any coffee for me, although I’d made a pot. Someone else had drunk it all.

Two other adults are in the house. One of them said “thank you” when I got back in. The other asked in passing if I was okay when I came in to use my asthma inhaler. Both these people are bigger than I am, and at least one is much stronger. But they’re not the same kind of person that I am. I think they were raised with a certain sense of entitlement. Maybe they should have done some of the work, or cared enough to do something nice for me. But they didn’t, and I was too exhausted to ask. Besides, I’m not their responsibility. Not really.

You see, I’m alone. I have a daughter, but she has rather severe special needs, and communication with her is often difficult. There’s no one to snuggle with at night, no one to wake up with in the morning. Life isn’t easy. I wish it were.

But I’m a good, kind person. I am thoughtful and considerate. I choose to be that kind of person. It has nothing to do with a “higher power” or ten commandments or any of that nonsense. It has to do with concern for my fellow human beings. Nobody’s going to fall down and hurt themselves on my front walk. No one will have to climb through mounds of snow, as I had to. Anyone who comes to my home will be safe and can enter without difficulty. And if I know they’re coming, there will be a warm drink waiting for them.

If I believed in a theist god—that is, one who creates the universe, listens for my prayers, intercedes on my behalf, and judges my actions—I’d be a basket case. I do my best, 24-7, to be the most loving, rational, responsible and respectful person I can be. I try not to judge, not to be hurtful, to afford every individual I meet with the same courtesy and dignity I would like for myself. But virtue is its own reward. There’s no heavenly choir waiting for me. And there’s certainly nobody waiting with a cup of hot chocolate. If a god existed and gave a $%*& about me, then I wouldn’t be cold and wet and miserable, shoveling snow for other people’s comfort and safety, with no reward.

Fortunately, I’m an atheist. And because of that, I don’t expect hot cocoa. I expect practically nothing from my fellow human beings. And yet, more often than not, I’m pleasantly surprised. Maybe I didn’t get a nice surprise today, but so what? My life sucks, yes—but it could be so much worse. And at least I have the comfort of knowing that every day, in some way, I’ve tried to make someone else’s life better. There isn’t an afterlife, that I know of. So I do my level best to make this life better. It’s all I can do. And it feels good to know that I’ve done it.

I’ve warmed up now. The walk is clean. I may be able to take my daughter out sledding later, and that will be wonderful. But that’s in the future, and I have something that I need to attend to now, now that I’ve warmed up and I’m feeling better.

I need to go into the kitchen and make some hot cocoa.

Wish you could join me. This is going to be a beautiful day.


Amy Frushour Kelly

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.

I'm back...

Been quite a busy couple of months around here. I moved from Bay Shore, NY, to Lindenhurst, NY, wrote a few articles, had family visit from out of town, and lost a close friend. With any kind of luck I will be able to post more regularly from here on out.

Amy Frushour Kelly

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


On September 11th of this year, I (among many, many others) was tagged on Facebook by Margaret Downey with the above image[1]. She asked people to post it on their blogs, Facebook pages, and email it freely.

It’s not the only icon of this sort out there. A friend of mine created and shared a similar one some time ago. The response when I posted the Facebook picture (and e-mailed it, to my mailing list) was pretty much what I’d expected: no response from most people; a positive response from my atheist, agnostic and freethinker friends; and a gentle, wry note from my friend Craig, one of the many Christians I know who really try to live by the spirit of the Gospels.

As I said, nothing unexpected, until an email arrived from someone I knew. I’ve had some correspondence with this individual, and regarded him as an intelligent, rational person. I was horrified to read that he interpreted my email as a “...type of intolerance and hatred,” and “this kind of prejudice and close-mindedness will not find an audience in me.” If you know me, or read my blog, you’re probably aware that this is the diametric opposite of what I’m trying to achieve. Could I have miscommunicated my intentions that badly? I replied,

“First, a heartfelt apology for offending you. That was not my intention. Frankly, I'm surprised that you accuse me of intolerance and hatred -- as you know, my primary goal in maintaining my blog and in my job (I'm a Humanist minister, after all) is to promote understanding and acceptance for all beliefs, theist or not.

“Second, I suspect you're reading into the picture (and I may be wrong in thinking this) that this is directed toward one belief system in general. It is not. Islam has many qualities to recommend it, as do most or all religions, and it was _never_ my intention to single out Islam. The picture (which was shared with me by Margaret Downey, and is widely circulating among atheist-agnostic-freethinker e-lists) depicts the World Trade Center as one example, but not the only example of atrocity perpetrated by members of a particular faith. It would have worked as well with an engraving depicting the Spanish Inquisition, or the Egyptians murdering the Israelites, or the Israelites smiting their enemies, etc, etc.

“Third, please understand that my circulating a picture presenting religion as the cause of this tragedy is meant to illustrate that without religion, the events of 9/11 would not have happened. ... The idea is to imagine a world without the intolerance and hatred engendered by religion. That's all.

“...All I (and I hope any Humanist) would ask is that the reader pause and reflect on the what the world could be without the influence of religion. Ethics based on reason and compassion, rather than fear of a god from ancient texts from ancient times.

“Lastly, I would not ban religion -- I am never in favor of any type of "thought-policing" -- but I think the world would be a better place if people would consider religion as something optional.”

I received another severe e-mail in response. I was accused, among other things, of committing “some rather severe intellectual dishonesty” and “making the depressingly common mistake of equating theism with religion.”

I beg to differ. It’s a petty point at best, but theism is not what caused the events of 9/11. Or the Inquisition, or anything else. Theism is more or less neutral; a conception of God as an external, intercessory creator deity who participates in the governance and activity of the world, including individuals.[2] Religion, on the other hand, is an organized, clearly defined belief system, with specified behaviors for its followers.[3] So one is a concept, but not a lifestyle; the other, a structured system of belief and behavior.

A concept doesn’t organize people to do evil things. A religion can, and sometimes does. A world without religion doesn’t have to be a world without theism or spirituality. Not that religion is bad in general. In fact, Phil Plait argues that both science and religion are neutral; they are tools for helping understand the universe.[4] He’s right, and I agree — in fact, I often argue that “faith [or religion] is a crutch, but if a crutch helps you walk and you don’t hit anybody over the head with it, it’s beautiful.” The problem is, when you’ve got a crutch in your hand, it’s awfully tempting to hit someone with it.

I would have liked to enter into further dialogue with this correspondent, but to be honest, I found his approach highly disrespectful. He claimed to know my thoughts and intentions, and accused me of backpedaling when I contradicted him. I wasn’t intending to be hateful or intolerant. When I made a good-faith effort to explain myself, he refused to accept it as the truth. It seemed that he would rather think of me as a deluded, intellectually dishonest person than think of himself as having misinterpreted my intent. His mind was made up, and nothing I said would cause him to decide otherwise. That in itself is irrational. I wrote a brief missive, telling him so, and haven’t heard from him since.

So that was very disappointing. There is a silver lining, though. I have tried earnestly these last few days to put myself into his intellectual position. It’s been a good exercise. And this experience has confirmed for me that an inflexible mental state is not where I want to be.

It’s always good to be reminded of that. Because I think we’re all guilty of it sometimes.


Amy Frushour Kelly

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I'd Make a Great Mormon

Last week, a chance meeting with a new person resulted in my spending two hours counseling this gentleman on a personal matter. The man (I’ll call him Kurt[1]) was in spiritual need, hungry for an ethical solution to a painful quandary. I was touched that he reached out to me, and did everything I could to help him find a solution he felt comfortable with.

We embarked on this conversation with the clear understanding that I was an atheist, and he was of some strict religious background. Over the course of our conversation, I learned that Kurt is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints[2]. This knowledge did not influence my opinion of him as a human being. He was struggling for a rational, compassionate ethical strategy that would fit into his religious home. Kurt is an intelligent and educated man; his guiding philosophy is closer to humanism than he would probably like to admit.

When we finally arrived at an appropriate strategy, Kurt was thrilled. He had sought help from his religious leaders, who referred him to counseling. The counseling had not been successful. And yet here, in two hours, we’d found a workable solution. Not an easy solution, to be sure, but something acceptable that he could be excited about, and which he could implement right away.

Kurt thanked me profusely. And then he said, “I know you’re an atheist, but you’d make a great Mormon.” From his perspective, he was paying me a high compliment. I returned the compliment, telling him I thought he’d make a fine atheist. And he would. Apart from this blind-spot of faith, Kurt is quite the rationalist.

I figured we were done. Kurt’s problem was apparently solved, he was happy, I’d done a good deed, mission accomplished on all counts. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there.

Kurt’s mind has been blown. He is awed by the fact that an atheist can be such a nice person. On one hand, I’m happy that this experience has opened a door for him — he has firsthand knowledge that not only can atheists provide satisfactory solutions to personal problems, but they are kind and compassionate, just like (his impression of) Mormons. So hooray. On the other hand, however, ouch. Are atheists really seen as such cranks and meanies that an intelligent individual could be shocked at being treated compassionately by an atheist? If atheists are all belligerent proselytizers who hold religion up to scorn, why consult with one in the first place?

Another thing that bothered me was that Kurt seemed to think that God wanted him to be perfect. No faults, no chinks in that shining armor. I tried to get around that by telling him that perfection is inherently unattainable, and that he might find comfort in considering that our inability to attain it means that we have infinite opportunity for change and improvement. He liked that, but it was clear that he would continue being (in my opinion) much too hard on himself for having absolutely normal feelings and desires. So much of what he saw as a moral standard appeared to be aesthetic, rather than ethical. It saddens me to see someone so needful of external validation, as opposed to internal fulfillment[3].

Which leaves me here, concerned that by continuing to pursue his religion, Kurt may be doing psychological damage to himself. He is seeking the validation of a being who doesn’t exist, rather than living an intellectually and emotionally satisfying life. And for myself, I am somewhat offended that anyone could be shocked that I am a nice person, just because I don’t have an imaginary friend.

No, Kurt. I would not make a good Mormon.


Amy Frushour Kelly

[1] This is not his real name.


[3] Although to be fair, aren’t we all guilty if this? I certainly am, on occasion...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Truth in Advertising

I’ve been working on two rather long, involved blog posts, but today I am putting them aside in order to address a situation I was reminded of this morning.

At the grocery store today, the cashier was a tall, attractive African-American woman decked out in a great deal of gold jewelry. Much of the jewelry appears to be religious in nature: a cross and a “WWJD” pendant are among the symbols indicating her beliefs. And what gets me about this woman is that, on this and every other occasion on which she has rung up my purchases, she is rude. Not in the sense of some of the teenaged cashiers I’ve seen who text while working, but impolite in a deeper sense. She doesn’t respond to anything I say. “Good morning.” Nothing. “How do you like this weather?” Nothing. “How much is this mango?” Nothing. No eye contact. No response to any question or comment. Never a smile.

The first time it happened, many months ago, I was offended. Then I started to worry that maybe she was under a lot of stress, or perhaps ill, and I tried to draw her out: “Hi, how are you?” “I like your blouse. Where did you get it?” “How are you feeling today?” I wasn’t patronizing, didn’t plead for her confidence, just tried to be a kind, respectful person. All my efforts were ignored. Pointedly ignored.

Maybe she was hard of hearing? Or had some sort of condition that affected her vocal chords? That idea was nixed when I saw her conversing with another cashier.

My strategy changed then. I’m in this store three or four times a week (she’s the only blight in the whole place—it’s a terrific grocery, really), so I had ample opportunity to emulate her own actions. But after a few weeks of my own silence at the checkout, she still hadn’t volunteered a word or made eye contact. No facial expression other than a scowl.

This morning, she rang me up, grudgingly, as always. As an experiment, I remained at the counter when she was finished. “Thank you,” I said.

She had already turned away to fiddle around with some coupons next to the register. “Thank you,” I repeated. Nothing. I tried again, a little louder. “Thank you.”

The cashier gave a sigh of impatience and walked away. (Nobody was in line behind me.)

I don’t know why she refuses to speak to me. Other cashiers have mentioned that this woman is particularly cold, so it’s nothing aimed specifically at me. And I don’t know how or why she keeps her job. I don’t even know her name — she refuses to wear a name tag. But I do know this: this woman advertises her beliefs. She wears the symbols of her faith at her neck and on her heart. These pendants are heavy and expensive. They may have cost her dearly. Yet she is not practicing her own faith. She conducts herself in a markedly un-Christian manner.

I try to be a kind and compassionate person. I have my rude moments, as do we all. but for the most part, I comport myself in a more Christian-like manner than this woman does. And I am emphatically not a Christian.

My point is simply that if you choose to wear a badge of belief, be it a “WWJD” pendant, a burka, a Star of David, or the Happy Human, then you should try to live up to it. Or down to it, as the case may be. Otherwise, you’re wearing nothing but a lie, endorsing a set of beliefs you condone but don’t practice. You’re a sham and a hypocrite.

I’ve decided not to waste any more of my time on this woman. If I see her on a cash register, I will go to another cashier. And if I do happen to end up with her again, I will say to her, “I have tried many times to be friendly to you, and you choose not to respond. Why?” I doubt I’ll get an answer. It saddens me to give up on a fellow human being for any reason, but my efforts to be kind are resulting in my own anger and frustration. Life is too short to get angry over a situation you can’t change. I’m accepting her as she is, and moving on. (And probably complaining to the store manager.)

With that in mind, I have a challenge to you as atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and anyone else who happens to read this post: Be unusually kind to someone today. It doesn’t have to be a stranger; it can be anyone you like. Be respectful and understanding. And if they thank you for your kindness, tell them about my cashier and suggest that they do an extra kindness for someone else, as well. I don’t believe in karma, but I do believe in spreading the wealth of compassion. Kindness begets kindness. And that’s something that will benefit everybody.

Amy Frushour Kelly

(edited for typos)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Short Glossary

To all who are reading so far: thank you. I’m grateful for the e-mail dialogues that have sprung up since beginning this blog.

A reader responding to my first post suggested that I include a glossary or link to clarify what I mean by some of the terms I’ve been throwing around, such as “faith” and “atheism.” Below is a short list, to give you a sense of what I intend when I used these words. Read on, and tell me what you think...

~ Atheist: Not a theist, plain and simple. This includes deists and agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers, and anyone else who does not believe in a theist god.

~ Faith: Choosing to believe something despite a lack of evidence or insufficient data. It may be argued that I have faith in science and reason; this is not quite true: I have faith in science and reason because they yield replicable results. If Isaac Newton developed an experiment or equation to test a theory, I can perform the same test myself and expect to receive the same direct experiential results as Newton. So it’s not that I have faith in science and reason; I trust them. And should our understanding of the nature of the universe and physical laws change, my beliefs about the universe will change, also. This is very different from faith.

~ Theist: An individual who believes in a personal, external god; that is, a creator who takes an interest in the universe and the people who live in it. A theist god hears prayers and responds to them. This is a god you can communicate with, someone who made you and looks out for you and controls daily events. A god who gives you rules to live by and watches carefully to see whether you follow them. Kind of like a super-parent. There are monotheistic gods, like the god of Islam, polytheistic gods, like those in the Hindu religions, pantheistic gods, who are part of everything, and then there’s the trinity god of Christianity, who is three, yet one.

~ Deist: The “watchmaker god.” The watchmaker designs the watch, creates it, adjusts the settings so it will work properly, and his work is done. He doesn’t check on the watch afterwards, or listen in case the watch’s new owner has a question. He makes the watch and forgets about it. After that, the watch is on its own. Substitute the word “universe,” or “earth,” or “life,” and that’s what deism means to me.

~ Agnostic: A person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience. Someone who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge.

~ Gnostic: An individual who possesses knowledge, especially esoteric spiritual knowledge. So essentially, a person who believes not only that the universe is essentially knowable, but claims to somehow have this knowledge.

These may or may not be the same thing you might mean when using these words, and it is by no means a definitive glossary. It is meant only to represent my understanding of what these terms mean when I use them.

Do you have any suggestions for words that might be added to this list?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Murphy and Malleability

Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre (New York) Diocese publicly confronted Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi in his column published last week in the Diocese newspaper. Murphy took issue with Suozzi’s stance on gay marriage and abortion rights. Suozzi considers himself a Catholic, went to Catholic schools, and regularly attends Mass. However, he supports a woman’s right to choose, and recently changed his stance from being in favor of civil unions for gays to openly supporting gay marriage. This change is what provoked the column by Bishop Murphy.

Murphy contends that Suozzi’s public stances are contradictory to the teachings of the Catholic church. This is entirely accurate. Roman Catholicism is not accepting of gay relationships, as Murphy explains: “While homosexual orientation is a neutral reality on a moral level, homosexual acts are not morally neutral. They are wrong, and they are sinful. Abortion is wrong, and it is sinful.”[1]

Asked about Murphy’s column, County Executive Suozzi said, “The bishop has a job to do as a leader of the church. I have a job to do as a leader of government.”[2] This is interesting; Suozzi is effectively affirming the separation of church and state. According to Newsday, he still considers himself a practicing Catholic. So is this a matter of a politician really representing the public he serves, rather than his own views? Possibly, just possibly.

Sunday of this week, Newsday reported that Catholics on Long Island generally sided with Murphy on same-sex marriage. This was based on an informal survey of attendees at several Long Island Roman Catholic churches. One parishioner said, “If you're going to be a buffet Catholic, where you pick and choose [what teachings to heed], then don't call yourself a Catholic.”[3] This is a principle I tend to agree with — if you call yourself a Catholic but don’t believe in the tenets of Catholicism, you’re probably not really a Catholic; you’re just labeling yourself.

In related news, a bill in the New York State Assembly failed to advance yesterday. According to Newsday, this was due to an effective lobbying effort led by the abovementioned Bishop William Murphy. The Markey Bill would make it easier for alleged child sex abuse victims to sue their abusers by creating an “open window” in which the statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases could be dropped. Murphy’s spokesman Sean Dolan acknowledged that the bishop (not a politician) played a crucial role in opposing the bill.[4]

I find it personally interesting that Murphy condemns Tom Suozzi, a politician (not a clergyperson), for doing his secular job and representing the values of those he represents, but doesn’t hesitate to manipulate the secular system in order to effectively derail a bill that could affect the cash flow of the diocese. Does Murphy consider himself part of the church or part of the state? It’s generally acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church did all it could to shield pedophile priests (many of whom were homosexual) for decades.[5],[6] Don’t the victims, now adults, deserve some sort of restitution? Why is it more important to protect the Vatican’s coffers than to protect children?

I’m not condemning Murphy, though he seems to deserve it. He’s probably some poor schmuck just trying to do a difficult job, same as you or me or Tom Suozzi. But I would encourage County Executive Tom Suozzi to leave the Roman Catholic Church (hey, he could always try secular humanism). Clearly, Tom Suozzi is capable of growing and changing. The Church is demonstrating itself to be much less capable.


Sunday, June 21, 2009


Gerry Dantone and Cliff Bernstein hold the CFI-LI banner high.

Me, holding the CFI-LI banner with Richard Schloss.

I was proud to march with some of my fellow CFI-LI members in the 19th Annual Long Island Pride Parade in Huntington, New York, on Sunday, June 14, 2009. Our group (secular humanists) was situated in the parade between Long Island GLBT Baby & Me, which was composed of lesbian moms, aunts, sisters, mothers, grandmas and nanas and their toddlers and babies in strollers, and a congregational church which accepts and affirms gay marriage. So much of what the Pride Festival is about is family — these are parents, children, wives, husbands, struggling for affirmation of their rights as families. It is worthwhile to remember that secular humanism is also a family cause.

As parents, we have the responsibility to raise our children in a happy, healthy, loving environment. This includes providing them with a strong sense of ethics; teaching them to value reason; nurturing their natural abilities and whenever possible, instilling a sense of wonder and joy in the cosmos. This applies to humanists and believers alike.

It’s also important to remember that many atheists, agnostics and freethinkers are in the closet. Like so many gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders, they are trapped by a fear of judgment, or concerns that they could lose their jobs, socioeconomic standing, or alienate their families and friends. I came out as an atheist more than a decade ago. I’ll tell you, the last twelve years have not exactly been a cakewalk.

But the Pride Parade gives me hope. I saw three generations of open GLBT’s last Sunday. I hope someday to see as many generations of open secular humanists.

In the preface to his 1957 book Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Related Essays, Bertrand Russell concludes that “The world needs open hearts and open minds, and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new, that these can be derived.”
This is as true now as it was fifty years ago.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Atheists and Public Prayer

In a recent episode of the excellent web series “Penn Says,” Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller brings up a quandary many atheists, agnostics and freethinkers face: how to respond when asked to join a group in prayer at a dinner or some other group event.

He makes a good point. A secular group composed mainly of Christians would not invite Muslims, Jews or Hindus to an event, then enjoin them to engage in prayer invoking Jesus Christ. It would be inappropriate and probably offensive to the guests. Why, then, is it okay to do the same thing to atheists? Don’t we have feelings, too?

In my experience, many of the faithful seem to have a tough time discerning that the supremacy of their god isn’t obvious and apparent to people who don’t subscribe to that particular magazine. It’s not confined to religious groups — this is true of many belief systems and political or environmental viewpoints. It’s even true of a lot of atheists. It’s certainly hard for me sometimes.

It is always worthwhile to remind others (in a kind way, whenever possible) that your beliefs are as valid as their own. Often, the best way to encourage acceptance and understanding of your own beliefs is by being accepting and understanding of the beliefs of others.

How, then, should we respond in this situation? My default response is, “When in Rome...” and then to approach the group leaders privately afterward so as to address the situation in a kind and respectful manner. However, this is not always appropriate. As a humanist celebrant, I occasionally find myself placed in the role of community leader, and as such, am expected to speak up on subjects that represent my fellow thinkers. Maintaining silence until after the event can be interpreted as tacit agreement. Is my not speaking up in these situations a disservice to other atheists? Possibly, sometimes.

One alternative is to address the situation directly at the time it happens. It can be difficult to do this tactfully, because by interrupting an event in progress, the speaker is already at a disadvantage and seen as a crank. Still, it can be done. It doesn’t necessarily follow that when everyone else in the room is standing with folded hands and bowed heads, they are praying. No doubt some of them are merely following the abovementioned “When in Rome...” default.

Still, it would be nice for other people to understand, accept and respect the fact that not everyone shares their religious views. Perhaps the best thing to do in these situations is to deal with the situation preemptively. If you’re an atheist invited to participate in a group dinner or similar event, ask ahead of time whether the group is religious or has any religious affiliations. Find out beforehand whether the group usually conducts a prayer or blessing before the meal. Ask questions, and make it clear in a respectful, loving way that while you respect their right to believe what they choose, they must also respect your right to accept or decline the invitation based on your own beliefs. Naturally, if you are okay with being asked to pray, the choice is entirely up to you.

When visiting a church and the congregation kneels in prayer, I simply sit. By keeping my seat I am not making a spectacle of my own beliefs, but I am also declining to participate in the worship of (what is to me) an imaginary friend. When attending an event in which a speaker asks the gathered audience to join him in prayer, I do not bow my head; rather, I fold my hands politely and look around to see how many other people are doing the same thing. This course of action is a compromise on my part, but it enables me to gauge the audience and decide whether anyone else might appreciate my speaking up on their behalf. Often, there are several.

Again, the choice of how to proceed in this situation is yours and yours alone. As always, in all situations, I encourage you to treat others with compassion, respect, understanding and joy.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Thanks for reading this, my first blog entry here on Blogger. You may know me from my short stories, my drumming, or my short films and music videos. While references to these pastimes may appear within my posts on this site, the primary aim here is to post information and ideas that may be of interest to atheists, agnostics and freethinkers -- and possibly even to open-minded followers of religions.

One thing you will not find here is hatred. I am of the opinion that faith is a crutch -- but if a crutch helps you walk, and you don't hit anyone over the head with it, then it can be a beautiful part of your life. But we all have our crutches. There are dogmatic atheists, just as there are dogmatic Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Shintos, Buddhists, etc.

Science and reason are my crutch(es). For me, they are just as fulfilling as faith; more so, in fact. Their results are verifiable, and subject to critical scrutiny. Atheism doesn't preclude ethics -- quite the opposite. For instance, while I treat others as I would like to be treated, I don't do this because Jesus or Buddha told me to. I do it because a lifetime of trial and error has led me to the conclusion that it is a practical, loving way to go about my daily life.

You can find more information on me and what I do by checking my website: You can also meet me, if you like, at the annual Long Island Pride Parade on Sunday, June 14, at 1:00 PM in Huntington, NY. This long-running parade and festival is the biggest parade in New York state outside of NYC. I march in support of the GLBT community, but also as a proud atheist. After the parade, I will be at the CFI-LI table at the festival in Heckscher Park. Hope to see you there. It's a fun event, with music and games and all sorts of fascinating marchers.

Again, thanks for reading. Looking forward to hearing what you think as this blog progresses.

- Amy Frushour Kelly, O.C.P.