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...