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


  1. Nice blog entry, Amy. You've written poignantly about a situation in which I've found myself on occasion. I suspect I did not deal with it as diplomatically as you would have.

    And, you've certainly captured the essence of humanism with the following: "Ethics based on reason and compassion, rather than fear of a god from ancient texts from ancient times."

    Thanks for the post,

  2. Were you expecting rational behavior from a person who subscribes to an irrational belief system? :)

  3. Phil -- Thanks!

    Val -- Actually, the individual I was talking about is (or at least, to my knowledge, is) an atheist.

  4. I have a couple points of disagreement that I hadn't gotten around to putting into words yet for you, Amy, so I'm going to take this opportunity to get them in order and into words.

    First, and this is Ms. Downey's responsibility rather than yours, the use of the image in question smacks of using a painful and tragic image to push a philosophical message. We all decry when religious groups do this -- e.g., when religiously motivated anti-abortion activists use intentionally traumatizing pictures of fetuses -- so I think we should be above that kind of behavior.

    Second, religion was not the primary motivating factor in Al Qaeda's hatred of the U.S. The WTC attack was more directly based in political reaction to our foreign policy in Afghanistan during its war with the former Soviet Union, and subsequent abandonment after. A much surer way that attack could have been avoided would have been appropriate supportive peacetime aid in Afghanistan after the war was over. Instead, we turned our backs on the brave resistance we had armed and trained, leaving them to starve and freeze in their war-torn country. We left them no better off for having resisted Soviet hegemony than if they had surrendered quietly.

  5. Amy -

    The intention of the "message" the poster is trying to convey, I feel is far less important than what I believe to be a more important purpose - which is to open a discussion just like this one. It makes a powerful statement which sturs up very emotional opinions, and we can make important progress and discoveries in our world if we can see these discussions to the end. Some of us will reach middle ground. Others will continue to be rabid opposites. But it teaches us where we stand, and gives us a little more power to make changes in our world

  6. Hi Amy!

    Interesting blog.

    You wrote, "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 an intellectual leap I cannot make. It is my observation that people are perfectly capable violence, intolerance and hatred with or without "religion."

    Likewise, people are perfectly capable of compassion, love and mercy with or without "religion."

    Why make religion the scapegoat for what is essentially amoral human behavior?

    If, as a secular humanist minister, you are attempting to promote a nonreligious approach to individual and social behavior, then why preoccupy yourself with religion, when the real problem is essentially the "human" condition?

    Thus the entire premise of the 9/11 picture [and your argument] is fatally flawed by its reductionist view of reality and its myopic fixation on religion as the source of flawed human behavior.

    Propose a nonreligious solution to the human condition that can be universally applied with sufficient motivation to cause behavioral shifts away from violence and toward whatever values you espouse & that would be something worth considering.