On September 11th of this year, I (among many, many others) was tagged on Facebook by Margaret Downey with the above image. 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
“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. Religion, on the other hand, is an organized, clearly defined belief system, with specified behaviors for its followers. 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. 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