The Arc of the Moral Universe Bends a Bit Further Towards Justice

“They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

“The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

(Justice Anthony Kennedy, majority opinion on Obergefell v. Hodges)[1]

For the past several days, I’ve been listening to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and on 26 June 2015 I felt like singing the refrain “Glory, glory, hallelujah!”[2] The Supreme Court of the United States of America, in their decision on Obergefell v. Hodges, declared that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right, due to the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[3] (The opinion is available on the Supreme Court website.)[4] This case will go down in the history books alongside Loving v. Virginia, the decision that did the same thing for interracial marriage in the United States in 1967.[5] I feel such joy that this day has come and honored that it has happened in my lifetime.

Marriage has been redefined and redefined and redefined throughout history, and it is a step forward when it is redefined for the better, as it has been with this ruling. I have always been ambivalent on the subject of marriage in general, due to its long history (up to and including today) of being an oppressive institution in many ways, but I am cheered by progress in marriage equality. I know what it’s like to grow up in a culture and community in which many people expect not only heterosexuality but also arranged or semi-arranged marriages with little to no chance to date. These types of expectations, along with marriage restrictions based on characteristics such as race and religion, place unreasonable limits on relationships; they place too much power in the hands of parents and community leaders to interfere in people’s personal decisions, while demonizing those who do not conform. A just society should take the side of those who are being discriminated against by their families, not with the families that hurt them. This ruling tells people: It doesn’t matter who you want your children to marry. They get to marry whom they want to marry. The law of this country sides with the people who want to marry someone of the same sex or gender, not with those who would stand in their way. Progress in marriage equality is not only beneficial for same-sex couples specifically, but is a step forward in the redefinition of marriage, romance, family, and love as concepts that should be about equality and mutual respect.

Almost immediately after the announcement, people started discussing the work that still needs to be done to advance LGBTQIA+ rights and human rights in general. One of the things I love about social justice advocates: They do not rest on their laurels. This battle is won, but the war is not over. Celebrate, and then move forward. March on. Bend the arc a bit further. I would not have the rights I do today if not for the many people throughout history and today who raise their voices for equality on all fronts, and they have taught me that justice is something that must constantly be fought for and defended. There is much more progress still needed to make my country, and this world, a more just place for everyone. In the courtroom, we appeal to the law. And of course, outside the courtroom, there is a need for a change of hearts and minds, because the views of the people in one’s community have a great impact on equal rights. Human society must change and improve if we want to see a better future. Spare a thought, a moment of silence, for those who and for all those throughout history and even today who face injustice, and then commit to fighting that injustice.

The arc of the Moral Universe does bend towards justice, but only as long as there are people here to bend it.

It bent a bit further on 26 June 2015.


Recommended Reading

James Obergefell, the man whose name is on this historic case, wrote a moving open letter “My Husband” regarding the ruling.[6] The case that legalized same-sex marriage started with Obergefell and his husband John Arthur attempting to make sure that Obergefell would be listed as Arthur’s surviving spouse on Arthur’s death certificate. At the time, John Arthur was terminally ill with amyotrophic lateral sclerois (ALS) and has since died. Obergefell can’t celebrate this historic moment with his husband, but because of him and because of the many others who fought tirelessly, this moment has come.

Greta Christina wrote a great essay “Same Sex Marriage a Constitutional Right!” about the ruling, discussing the great jubilation and the work still to be done.[7]

Chelsea E. Manning wrote a great article about continuing the fight for equality “Same-sex marriage isn’t equality for all LGBT people. Our movement can’t end”.[8]

Glenn Greenwald wrote “Today’s Court Ruling, Though Expected, Is Still Shocking – Especially For Those Who Grew Up LGBT In The U.S.” discussing the history that lead to this historic decision.[9]

Kristen Hare compiled front pages announcing marriage equality from every state in Union from the Newseum’s collection.[10]



[1] Supreme Court of the United States of America. Obergefell et al. v. Hodges, Director, Ohio, Department of Health, et al. Docket 14-556. Posted 26 June 2015 at

[2] The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Wikipedia entry. Retrieved on 27 June 2015 from

[3]Obergefell v. Hodges”. Wikipedia entry. Retrieved on 27 June 2015 from

[4] Supreme Court of the United States of America. Obergefell et al. v. Hodges, Director, Ohio, Department of Health, et al. Docket 14-556. Posted 26 June 2015 at

[5] “Loving v. Virginia”. Wikipedia entry. Retrieved on 27 June 2015 from

[6] Obergefel, James “Jim”. My Husband. Posted at Medium on 26 June 2015. Retrieved on 27 June 2015 from

[7] Christina, Greta. “Same Sex Marriage a Constitutional Right”. Posted on 26 June 2015 at Greta Christina’s Blog. Retrieved on 27 June 2015 from

[8] Manning, Chelsea E. “Same-sex marriage isn’t equality for all LGBT people. Our movement can’t end”. Posted on 26 June 2015 at The Guardian. Retrieved on 28 June 2015 from

[9] Greenwald, Glenn. “Today’s Court Ruling, Though Expected, Is Still Shocking – Especially For Those Who Grew Up LGBT In The U.S.” Posted on 26 June 2015 at The Intercept. Retrieved on 28 June 2015 from

[10] “Front pages from all 50 states on the same-sex marriage ruling”. Posted on 27 June 2015 at Poynter. Retrieved on 27 June 2015 from

Book Review: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”

“In a sense, this is a military history—one in which the adversary is formless, timeless, and pervasive. Here, too, there are victories and losses, campaigns upon campaigns, heroes and hubris, survival and resilience—and inevitably, the wounded, the condemned, the forgotten, the dead. In the end, cancer truly emerges, as a nineteenth-century physician once wrote in a book’s frontispiece, as the ‘emperor of all maladies, the king of terrors.’” (Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies)[1]

There are some books in each reader’s life which leave a great impression, touching various aspects of the reader’s life and becoming entwined with certain experiences and memories. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is one such book for me. A non-fiction history of science book about cancer, it’s a volume that gives one of the most dreaded diseases that humans face its due. I decided I absolutely had to write a review of this.

Mukherjee covers a very long range of time and a variety of topics. For the most part, the book focuses on the history of the scientific research and discoveries made about cancer, but there are also sections focusing on political discussions about cancer, the War on Cancer, and advocacy by various groups. Interspersed throughout are stories about Mukherjee’s oncology fellowship and some of his patients. The book is just as much about the actions of human beings as it is about the disease. These illnesses, after all, affect and are fought by human beings. We see how people have been greatly motivated to figure out this mysterious group of illnesses over the years. We see how human fallibility affects the decisions of all humans, even those who are incredibly intelligent. There are triumphs and failures and the human ability to persevere. There’s also a generous amount of epigraphs throughout the book, at the beginning of each part and chapter. Mukherjee manages to make all of these passages fit together beautifully. I became teary several times while reading this book, both due to sadness and happiness, grief and inspiration.

One of the things conveyed well in this book is the way that science progresses, with people making discoveries that build upon the discoveries of the past. The book covers the efforts to understand the causes and characteristics of cancer as well as the efforts to invent treatments for it, including explanations of how these are all intertwined. There are also explanations of how scientific discoveries in other areas, from clothing dyes to weapons of war, inspired scientists to look into topics that led to discoveries related to cancer. Humans have been affected by cancer and trying to figure it out for a very long time, and the book gives an appreciation of this lengthy struggle, from thousands of years ago today.

Mukherjee’s writing in this book is absolutely amazing; it is of that quality that makes me despair of never writing anything equal to it. The many topics discussed in the book are tied together beautifully, with one section leading to the next in a way that obviously required a lot of planning and work but seems inevitable due to the way it’s written. It’s a wonderful thing, to read a book that discusses such an important topic and that is also so beautifully written that I wanted to keep reading more. It’s also great to find well-written books that discuss non-fiction topics, such as science or history, in a way that is as enjoyable to read as literature as it is educational. It’s my hope that books combining non-fiction topics with good writing will increase interest in and knowledge of important topics.

This book is moderately accessible to a lay audience. There is a glossary of scientific terms at the back of the book; readers may or may not need to refer to the glossary depending on their background knowledge. One need not be an expert in oncology or even a healthcare professional to understand the book, and the author knows he’s explaining a subject that he knows a great deal about to those who are not experts in it. However, having some basic understanding about science, especially biology, is helpful in understanding some of the content and may help add some depth to some of the passages. Those with a passion for science or history should definitely read this book, and even those who may not have a prior interest may find that this book inspires them to read more.

To be human is to be faced with our mortality, and one of the most feared causes of death is cancer. In this book, Mukherjee writes about cancer in a way that shows an appreciation of its complexity and its affect on humanity.

This book is fantastic, and I definitely recommend reading it.



[1] Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. New York: Scribner, 2010, Author’s Note, p. xiv.

Born on the Fourth of July

This year’s Fourth of July was the 238th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.[1] As I’ve been writing quite a bit about comics recently, this holiday brought to mind Steve Rogers/Captain America, the superhero dressed in red, white, and blue and born (believe it or not) on the Fourth of July 1920.[2] It occurred to me that there’s a certain symbolism to be considered here. I’d like to reflect a bit on the state of my country, a country which I love but which unfortunately has a long history, like the history of much of the human race, of not living up the ideas to which it claims to stand for.

The Statue of Liberty, one of the United States’ most recognizable national symbols, stands on Liberty Island in New York Harbor.[3] The place, along with nearby Ellis Island, is associated with immigrants. The United States is called, with good reason, a country of immigrants; even Steve Rogers, Captain America himself, was the child of Irish immigrants. I tend to see the whole world that way; human beings have always been moving around, going to new places, settling in lands foreign to those inhabited by their ancestors. One would hope that moving to new places and meeting new people would be a positive experience and that we would find it in ourselves to be welcoming and cooperative. Inside the lower pedestal of the Statue of Liberty is a plaque with an inscription of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus”, which expresses this positive sentiment, about welcoming immigrants to the United States.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[4]

And yet, our country has not lived up to these words; our government all too often favors those who were already in privileged positions and not those who are tired, poor, or yearning to breathe free. There is hatred and discrimination, violence and violation, all the things which can make even the most optimistic person feel that humanity is doomed. This is why, when I look back on the history of my country and of my world, I know that the people who I most admire and who most inspire me are those who worked hard to make things better, to try to convince humans to live up to the wonderful ideas which we love to claim that we believe in. If there is any hope for humanity, it is in our ability recognize the horrible side of our nature and fight against it, to realize that humans have inside us both good and evil and that it’s important to try to fight for the good.

One of the reasons superheroes are so beloved are because this is what the best of them do; they stand up for those who are in a bad situation, for those who are being hurt by others. My favorite superhero stories aren’t those in which a hero is violently beating up generic villains who are only bad because the story says they’re bad; the best superhero stories are ones in which there is some positive theme about doing the right thing, helping others who are being hurt, doing so even when it’s difficult or dangerous, and showing mercy towards those who’ve made mistakes. The best heroes recognize that things are wrong and try to make things right, and so we admire them and expect them to hold themselves to high standards (while feeling disappointed when they fail to live up to these standards).

It is perhaps a cliché to say that dissent is patriotic (and it’s also an often-hypocritical cliché, as people apply it only to people of their own political affiliation, sometimes even to those who are dissenting against the good and in favor of injustices) but there have certainly been a great many ideas and movements that have increased equality and human rights by fighting against the belief that things should just continue the way they’re already being done. There are many people in the history of my country, as in the history of the entire world, who have stood up to make things better. They have spoken up when others tried to silence them, fought hard when others tried to threaten them, and sometimes suffered dearly for their trouble.

Again, here, Captain America’s story provides a relevant analogy. There’s a storyline in the Captain America comics in which Captain America dies,[5] after he’d been fighting in the superhuman Civil War, in opposition to the Superhuman Registration Act.[6] In Captain America Vol. 5 #25, Steve Rogers — the man in red, white, and blue — who is supposed to be a symbol of the United States of America is arrested and shot dead.[7] Often, attempting to make things better puts people in great danger; they make sacrifices, sometimes even sacrifice their lives, in order to make things better. People who believe in peace are targeted for violence. People who are different are singled out and persecuted. Perhaps our country and our world are just like this, but we keep hoping that things can get better.

So, Captain America was shot dead. But fictional characters are sometimes resurrected,[8] and comic book superheroes are brought back to life with alarming frequency.[9] Though these resurrections happen in fiction, and we may wish they’d happen in real life, to me that resurrection symbolizes the continued rebirth of the dream to make things better, to keep hoping despite the odds.

Because, in reality, there are no superheroes. There are only humans. And yet even humans can do great things. I believe this. I have to believe this — because humanity has proven this, and because believing it is the first step to achieving a better world.

So, this Fourth of July, as we remember the past, let’s also look forward to a better future.


Notes and Acknowledgments

The title is taken from the song “The Yankee Doodle Boy”, which is from the musical Little Johnny Jones, which was written by George M. Cohan.[10]

This essay was posted on 9 July 2014. It’s dated 4 July 2014 to keep my archives in order.



[1] “Independence Day (United States)”. Wikipedia entry. Retrieved on 5 July 2014 from

[2] “Captain America (Steven Rogers)”. Marvel Database entry. Retrieved on 5 July 2014 from

[3] “Statue of Liberty”. Wikipedia entry. Retrieved on 6 July 2014 from

[4]  “The New Colossus”. Wikipedia entry. Retrieved on 6 July 2014 from

[5] Brubaker, Ed; Perkins, Mike; Weeks, Lee; et al. The Death of Captain America: Complete Collection, Marvel, 2013.

[6] “Civil War (Event)”. Marvel Database entry. Retrieved on 9 July 2014 from

[7] “Captain America Vol 5 25”. Marvel Database entry. Retrieved on 9 July 2014 from

[8] Sharmin, Ani J. “The Sacrifice and Resurrection of Heroes and Fiction”. Posted on 21 April 2014 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 9 July 2014 from

[9] “Comic book death”. Wikipedia entry. Retrieved on 9 July 2014 from

[10] “The Yankee Doodle Boy”. Wikipedia entry. Retrieved on 5 July 2014 from

Comments on Messiahs and Martyrs Outside of Religion

Over at Friendly Atheist, Paul Fidalgo wrote a post called “Even Seculars Pine for Messiahs” in response to a post by William Deresiewicz.[1] I wrote two comments and thought I should post them here. The first, shorter one[2] was written in response to a comment by Richard Wade;[3] the second, longer one[4] was in response to the topic in general.

Very good point. I would add that, often, though there is one prophesied hero in these stories, there are often lots of other people participating in the fight. It’s often stated, or implied, they could not have done it alone.

Thanks very much for writing this! It’s really given me much to think about.

I agree with Richard Wade’s excellent comment.

That being said, I do think there is something in human beings that makes us like the one-prophesied-true-hero narrative. We certainly love stories of that sort, and even the way we talk about our history also shows this, when we pick certain figures to focus on, even when talking about events or movements that contained hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. Related to messiahs, there are also martyrs. Whenever people say atheists don’t have martyrs, I always think that’s only partially true. Certainly, we don’t have people like Jesus, but I think people of any particular opinion or persuasion tend to remember certain people with the same beliefs who were killed for what they believed in.

I think the main thing with messiahs is whether we wait for one, or whether we take their stories to be an inspiration to act, and people can certainly do either. Because, ultimately, no savior or messiah is “destined” or “prophesied”. People become legendary because of their great actions, after they did something. (Even many of the prophesies in the Bible were written after the fact, and I remember hearing about how some scholars are able to get some idea of when they were written based on what the prophecy writer got right and wrong, i.e. events they got right happened before it was written.) When we realize that the legendary savior or messiah status happens after the fact, after someone has done something, then we can use the messiah type stories to learn good lessons, instead of waiting for a hero. (I’m reminded here of fictional heroes who don’t want to be heroes, but who end up with that status. Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins are certainly among them)

Part of this is also our own procrastination and denial of the severity of the various problems in our society. As much as we may be waiting for a messiah, we are (even more so, in my view) denying that things have gotten so bad that we have to do something now, instead of waiting. On the other hand, there’s also a tendency to think that the problem is too big to solve, and thinking we can’t do anything on our own, so some super big thing has to happen to solve the issue. (I’m reminded of the stories in which human beings are fighting each other, and the only thing that can get us to finally stop fighting amongst ourselves is a visit from space aliens.) There are lots of issues that require human cooperation on a large scale, and regular people feel as though we don’t have the resources to make that happen.


[1] Fidalgo, Paul. “Even Seculars Pine for Messiahs”. Posted at Friendly Atheist on 2 September 2013. Retrieved on 2 September 2013 from

[2] Sharmin, Ani J. Comment on 2 September 2013 at 4:48 pm. Retrieved from

[3] Wade, Richard. Comment on 2 September 2013 at 12:36 pm. Retrieved from

[4] Sharmin, Ani J. Comment on 2 September 2013 at 5:07 pm. Retrieved from

For Anne Frank

“I hope I will be able to confide everything in you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” (Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, 12 June 1942)[1] 

Today is Anne Frank’s birthday and also the anniversary of the day she started writing her now-famous diary. Anne Frank was born on 12 June 1929, and she wrote in her diary from her thirteenth birthday in 1942 to 1 August 1944. From July 1942 to August 1944, Anne, her mother Edith Frank-Holländer, her father Otto Frank, her elder sister Margot Frank;  Auguste van Pels, Hermann van Pels, their son Peter van Pels; and Fritz Pfeffer stayed in a secret annex above the Opekta offices in order to go into hiding. Several people – Miep Gies, Jan Gies, Johannes Kleiman, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl, and Johannes Hendrik Voskuijl – helped them hide and brought them food, clothes, and news. On 4 August 1944, they were discovered; the eight occupants of the annex, as well as Victor Kugler and Johannes Kleiman, were arrested. Of those arrested, Otto Frank, Johannes Kleiman, Victor Kugler were the only ones who survived. Anne Frank’s diaries were discovered by Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl after the arrest; Gies kept them away and gave them to Otto Frank after the war.[2]

I remember reading a play based on Anne Frank’s diary as part of English class during middle school. Moved by the story, and realizing that the book is a classic that’s considered very important, I decided to read her diary. It remains one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read. There is nothing I can write here that can properly honor this young woman; I can, perhaps, comment on one of many things her story can teach us today and why it is important to read her words.

When we learn about history, a cursory glance at each event may only give us the names of politicians and other powerful people, with most of the rest of humanity consigned to be spoken of in numbers (e.g., the millions who were killed in various wars, conflicts, and genocides). It’s important to remember that they are not just numbers; they are people. Anne Frank’s diary is the story of one person who lived through terrible historic events that we look back on with sadness and horror. She was a human being; she had a life, thoughts, feelings, and goals. When reading her diary, we do learn a little about the time period in which she was living, but we also learn – very importantly – about her. And we know that there are many others, whose stories we don’t know in as much detail, who also had their own lives that were ended so tragically.  

On this day, 12 June, take a moment to remember Anne Frank and to think of the countless people down the ages who have been persecuted by their fellow human beings. Remember that they are people. And if you haven’t already done so, please read Anne Frank’s diary.


[1] Frank, Anne. Entry dated June 12, 1942. The Diary of a Young Girl. Trans. Susan Massotty. New York: Random House (Bantam Books), 1995, p. 1.

[2] The information in this paragraph is compiled from: Anne Frank’s diary, the forward and afterward to her diary (from the edition cited in reference #1), the website of the Anne Frank Center, United States (, and the website of the Anne Frank House (

Assumptions, Ideologies, and Horrible Actions: Some Thoughts on the Reactions to the Attacks in Norway

Even after such a horrific tragedy, it’s still sometimes comedians who manage to convey the most appropriate responses.  Stephen Colbert, in the Colbert Report segment Norwegian Muslish Gunman’s Islam-Esque Atrocity, shows that some people in the media made unwarranted assumptions about the terrorist who perpetrated the attacks in Norway.  The part when he says, “Just because Norway’s confessed murderer is a blond, blue-eyed, Norwegian-born, anti-Muslim crusader doesn’t mean he’s not a swarthy, ululating madman” beautifully sums up the point that horrible actions can be committed by people of any race, nationality, or religion.  In response to the desperate attempt by some to continue blaming Muslims even after Anders Behring Breivik was arrested and admitted to  committing the crime, Colbert hilariously asks, “Which is more plausible:  That a non-Muslim did this or that al-Qaeda has developed Polyjuice Potion?”[1]  Jon Stewart, in the Daily Show segment called In the Name of the Fodder, responded to to the prevalent “Breivik is not a true Christian” argument.  He pointed out that there is a double standard whereby certain reporters are quick to believe that attackers who claim to be Muslim really are Muslim, while claiming that attackers who claim to be Christian aren’t really Christian.  Stewart also says that he would be fine with people distinguishing between attacks done in the name of religion and members of the religion if that standard was applied equally, instead of only being applied to Christians.[2]

In a similar vein, over at The Wall of Separation (the blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State), Kurt Ostrow writes about the way that the religious right here in the US advocates discrimination against Muslims.  He also shows that well-known religious-right figures only half-heartedly condemn attacks committed by non-Muslims, especially if the attacker was motivated by a hatred of non-Christians and people on the political left, looking desperately for excuses.[3]  It is disturbing to see the way in which the reactions to attacks on innocent people are different based on the religious beliefs of the attacker.

There are also those who, while being horrified by and condemning the attack, still found a way to bring the conversation back to Islam, cautioning against forgetting the problems of Islam.  One such person, whose response to this tragedy frustrated me, was Sam Harris.  He wrote a blog entry called Christian Terrorism and Islamophobia, in which he expresses that he is uncertain if the attacker was a Christian, pointing out various writers who were mentioned by the attacker who are not Christian.  He also writes that Islam is worse and that the attack, ironically, will make it more difficult to talk about the problems in Islam since people will bring up Islamophobia.[4]  While I cannot know for certain the internal workings of anyone’s mind, and cannot therefore say with certainty what the attacker’s thoughts are, it is important to mention that just because someone is not the same kind of Christian as many others is not a reason to say that they’re not Christian.  More importantly, however, I must ask this:  If attacks by Muslims that seem to be based at least partially on religious belief should motivate us to look at Islamic beliefs more closely, instead of endeavoring to change the topic, why should an attack by a non-Muslim not motivate us to likewise look more closely at the beliefs of the attacker, rather than changing the topic to another group?  Why should only some ideologies that are responsible for harming people be examined while harm caused by other ideologies is used as an excuse to change the subject to a different ideology?  (Also, incidentally, if an attack by someone who expressed hatred of Muslims — followed by assumption by people in the media that the attack must have been committed by a Muslim — is not an appropriate time to bring up Islamophobia, what is an appropriate time?)

One person who does advocate looking closely at Christianity in this case is Professor Susan Brooks Thislethwaite (of Chicago Theological Seminary), who advises Christians in When Christianity becomes lethal to think seriously about connections between Christianity and violence, specifically the theological perspectives that may lead Christians to justify such hatred and violence.  She writes, “It is absolutely critical that Christians not turn away from the Christian theological elements in such religiously inspired terrorism. We must acknowledge these elements in Christianity and forthrightly reject these extremist interpretations of our religion. How can we ask Muslims to do the same with Islam, if we won’t confront extremists distorting Christianity?”[5]  I think there is great value in actually thinking about the content of one’s beliefs, rather than just insisting that anyone with a different interpretation is not a true believer.  Holding one’s own ideology and group to the same standards as one holds for others is difficult to do, so I have respect for people who point out to members of their own belief system that it is not right to dodge problems rather than addressing them.

Christopher Hitchens (a frequent critic of Islam who I sometimes agree with and sometimes disagree with) wrote an article titled A Ridiculous Rapid Response, in which he asked, “Do the extreme jihadists and their most virulent opponents really have a symbiotic relationship?”  (This is something I’ve wondered about as well, as the actions of those who hate each other seem to demonstrate an almost mutually dependent relationship.)  He writes about the irresponsible assumptions made about this attack and states,

So-called “experts” should have been ashamed to reverse-engineer the motive from the modus operandi, rather as Steve Emerson had done in Oklahoma by stating that the maximization of violence was “a Middle Eastern trait.” A pale Christian rider from ultima Thule with a private view of the Book of Revelation may also be said to be infected with “Middle Eastern traits” of the sort that hell has not hitherto boasted.[6]

The traits found in extreme ideologies and their members are not restricted to people from any one country, race, or religion.  The attempt to guess that an attack must have been perpetrated by a member of a particular group based on invalid assumptions about the groups that have certain traits (rather than basing conclusions on evidence) is hasty and ill-advised.

Ultimately, the issue that comes up whenever someone takes a horrible action is what influenced them to do such a thing.  JT Eberhard wrote a blog entry in which he argues that the attacker was indeed a Christian.  The main important point I took away his from his entry was the following:  “Christians commit horrors.  Muslims commit atrocities.  And yes, atheists also can be delegates of evil.  The poison that infects them all is an unreasonable belief about something, erroneously convincing them that their actions are somehow beneficent or acceptable.  Unreasonable beliefs, inaccurate beliefs, prompt people to do unreasonable, sometimes wicked deeds.”[7]  His statement, I think, expresses succinctly that the more general problem is any kind of unreasonable belief, which can lead to horrible actions, because people erroneously believe that their horrible actions are justified.

Susan Jacoby, in a recent article in her column The Spirited Atheist, addresses those who deny the influence of non-evidence based ideologies, writing,

Of course, right-wing Christian fundamentalists are as bent on insisting that their religion has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with a terrorist act committed by a man dedicated to a new Crusade as many liberal multiculturalists (both religious and secular) are on insisting that terrorism has nothing to do with the “real” Islam. Give it up, apologists for irrationality. Non-evidence based ideology, whether religious or ostensibly secular, always has something to do with this kind of pathology.

 In addition, Jacoby cautions against making quick assumptions and acknowledges that many other factors can also play a role.

A lot of people jumped to a lot of unresearched conclusions in the 24 hours after the attack and a number of writers are still doing it. This time, however, they’re seizing on Christian fundamentalism and Islamophobia as the ideological villains.

It is undeniable that extreme religion-based ideology (most often Islam in the past decade) plays an integral role in the vast majority of terrorist acts. Recognizing that other emotional and cultural forces may also be involved could only aid us in identifying prime suspects before they turn their deadly, irrational fantasies into reality.[8]

The aim of any reasonable and feeling person after such horrible attacks should be to support efforts to prevent such attacks in the future — efforts which include determining what causes them.  What contributes to the corruption of a human mind, until it becomes capable of thinking that such violence is acceptable?

In this time, we can say that we stand with Norway and feel their pain; moving forward, it is necessary for us to realize that our feelings of sorrow should compel us to action which will improve our planet, which will create a better world for ourselves and our descendents.  This better world can only exist if we think about the causes of horror and try to address them.



Much thanks to the people I linked to and/or quoted.

I found the video clip of The Colbert Report via Else Marie (a.k.a. mrsweasley on Tumblr),[9] who reblogged it from Arina (a.k.a. warningdontreadthis on Tumblr).[10]  I found the video clip of The Daily Show via Krisko Isackson (Godless Liberal on Xanga).[11]


Edits/Additional Recommended Reading

Michelle Goldberg has an article in The Daily Beast (of 24 July 2011) called Norway Killer’s Hatred of Women, in which she writes about the combination of Christian nationalism and male superiority that Anders Breivik expressed in his manifesto.  (URL:

Thanks to Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels, who mentioned Goldberg’s article in a Notes and Comments Blog entry.  (URL:

Edit/Correction (as of 18 August 2011)

I initially incorrectly credited the video clip In the Name of the Fodder to Stephen Colbert.  It is actually a clip of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show.  I offer my sincerest apologies; I get the two of them mixed up sometimes.  The mistake has been fixed.


[1] Colbert, Stephen.  Colbert Report:  Norwegian Muslish Gunman’s Islam-Esque Atrocity.  Posted on 25 July 2011 at the Colbert Nation website.  Retrieved on 26 July 2011 from

[2] Stewart, Jon.  The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:  In the Name of the Fodder.  Posted on 27 July 2011 at The Daily Show website.  Retrieved on 29 July 2011 from

[3] Ostrow, Kurt.  Norway’s Sorrow:  Why Is It So Hard For The Religious Right to Denounce Evil?  Posted on 28 July 2011 at The Wall of Separation.  Retrieved on 29 July 2011 from’s-sorrow-why-is-it-so-hard-for-the-religious-right-to-denounce-evil/.

[4] Harris, Sam.  Christian Terrorism and Islamophobia.  Posted on 24 July 2011 at Sam Harris’s Blog.  Retrieved on 27 July 2011 from

[5] Thislethwaite, Susan Brooks.  When Christianity becomes lethal.  Posted on 25 July 2011 in the On Faith section of The Washington Post.  Retrieved on 28 July 2011 from

[6] Hitchens, Christopher.  A Ridiculous Rapid Response:  Why did so many experts declare the Oslo attacks to be the work of Islamic terrorists?.  Posted on 24 July 2011 at Slate.  Retrieved on 26 July 2011 from

[7] Eberhard, JT.  Convict the killer – convict unreason.  Posted on 23 July 2011 at What Would JT Do? (WWJTD).  Retrieved on 28 July 2011 from

The link has been changed to, because JT Eberhard’s blog What Would JT Do? is now at Freethought Blogs.

[8] Jacoby, Susan.  Media know-nothings first declare Norwegian terrorist Muslim, then Christian.  Posted on 27 July 2011 at The Spirited Athest column at The Washington Post.  Retrieved on 27 July 2011 from

[9] Marie, Else (a.k.a. mrsweasley).  Posted on 27 July 2011 at mrsweasley’s Tumblr.  Retrieved on 27 July 2011 from

[10] Arina (a.k.a. warningdontreadthis).  Posted on 27 July 2011 at warningdontreadthis’s Tumblr.  Retrieved on 27 July 2011 from

[11] Isackson, Krisko.  For those pissed at my post about Norway (+ Edit).  Posted on 28 July 2011 at Godless Liberal’s Xanga.  Retrieved on 29 July 2011 from–edit/.

Thinking of and Standing with Norway

 The attacks in Norway on 22 July 2011, like any such death and destruction in the world, make us wonder if there is in fact hope for a good future for humanity.  Last year, on the ninth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks, I posted an entry about the feelings of confusion and fear that are the result of such horrible actions.[1]  Then, as now, there is a feeling of near speechlessness inside me, because no words seem adequate to express the horror.

At times like this, there is mourning, and we wonder how anyone could do such a thing, such a vile act.  Is there something so wicked within the hearts of humans that such violence will always be with us?  Such violence happens so often, and even when it seems like we have moved forward and created a better society, there is still violence, jarring us.  There are tears and sadness and pain and dread almost unimaginable.  All the symbols in the world — the candles lit in memory, the flowers placed on graves — seem unable to convey the sharpness of the pain, but they do provide us humans a way to express the nearly inexpressible.

To the people of Norway, there is nothing to say except that all decent people are saddened by the tragedy that has happened in your country, that we are thinking of you.  It is important to remember in times like this that there are still good people in the world, that there are those who will be there to help the injured and grieving, those who will keep believing that humanity and society can be improved, rather than giving up in despair.  Humanity is capable of great acts of destruction, but it is also capable of great acts of compassion.  And it is often in response to such tragedy by the worst of humanity that we see the best of humanity stand up and offer a helping hand to those who are hurting.

Live on in hope by responding to such hate with love.


[1] Sharmin, Ani.  The Approaching Thunder and the Return of Tranquility:  a blog entry in remembrance of September 11, 2001.  Posted on 11 September 2010 at The Eternal Bookshelf.  Retrieved on 29 July 2011 from

Eradicate Hate, Not Literary History: Censoring words is not the right way to fight against racism

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a very controversial book, even after more than a century.  According to the American Library Association,[1] it was the fifth most frequently challenged book in the 1990s[2] and the fourteenth most frequently challenged book in the 2000s.[3] This book, along with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, is a beloved classic, but both are often controversial due to the fact that they contain racial epithets.

It seems the book has come under a more subtle, yet still dangerous, form of censorship.  The publisher NewSouth Books is going to release a new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in February.  In this new edition, the word “nigger” will be replaced with “slave” and the word “injun” will be replaced with “Indian”.  Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University in Montgomery, suggested this idea to the publisher, because he was hesitant to read the racial epithets aloud.  He thought that perhaps the book would not face as much opposition, and more people would be willing to teach it, if the words were changed.[4] While I do feel a certain amount of sympathy for the teachers who say they have a difficult time figuring out how to teach classic works that contain questionable language, I think that changing the words is wrong; it is both ineffective as a way to discourage racism and is also a dishonest alteration and misrepresentation of the words of an author.

We live in a society in which racism still exists, so it is understandable that a racial epithet still carries with it a rather strong sting.  We cannot see these words in a completely historical manner, because we know that there is still discrimination against African Americans and Native Americans today.  I feel a strong hesitation to speak or even type such epithets, even though I know I am talking about the words, rather than using them to insult another person.  It can feel intimidating if a student is one of a few people in the class of a particular group, and an epithet in a book is referring to the group that they are a part of.  Censoring these words, however, is not going to make the problem of racism go away.  One of the ways in which racism thrives is by people denying that it exists.  There are those who support discrimination outright and those who pretend that it is no longer a problem.  There are those who pretend that acknowledging the existence of minority groups is “politically correct”, when it is really just an acknowledgement of reality.  There are those who make clearly racist comments and then claim that they are not racist.  We should oppose racism, and we cannot do that if we don’t talk about it or refuse to admit that it exists.  Instead of removing words from books, instead of denying our bad history, we should make it clear that racism is not acceptable.  We should call out and condemn those who promote hatred and discrimination.

Literature can teach us great things, if read and taught properly, and the integrity of a text is important if we want to examine and study its content.  Even a book in which a character expresses discriminatory ideas can be valuable to read.  Although a book may contain epithets, it can allow us to see the clear wrongness of discrimination, the harm that it causes.  We can see the cruelty of discrimination and feel sympathy for those who are being hurt by it.  I remember reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book which is also controversial for similar reasons, and it has a message against discrimination, despite the fact that there are racial epithets.  On this alteration of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Dr. Sarah Chuchwell, of the University of East Anglia, is quoted (by Benedicte Page in The Guardian) as saying,

The fault lies with the teaching, not the book.  You can’t say ‘I’ll change Dickens so it is compatible with my teaching method’.  Twain’s books are not just literary documents but historical documents, and that word is totemic because it encodes all of the violence of slavery.  The point of the book is that Huckleberry Finn starts out a racist in a racist society, and stops being racist and leaves that society.  These changes mean the book ceases to show the moral development of his character.  They have no merit and are misleading to readers.  The whole point of literature is to expose us to different ideas and different eras, and they won’t always be nice and benign.  It’s dumbing down.[5]

Students should not be underestimated; they see the world around them.  They are capable of understanding that a book contains ideas that we now know are wrong, even though people in the past wrongly thought they were okay.  They are also capable of understanding a book written by an author of a different race or with characters of a different race.  Perhaps a better way to create a curriculum that is more reflective of our diversity is to include books with diverse authors and characters.  It can be frustrating (and embarrassing) when the only book in the school curriculum with a minority character is a book in which the minority character is being treated badly.  Instead of removing books, why not encourage students to read more books and a greater variety of books?  Accuracy, honesty, and a willingness to read books by those who are different from us are a better way to combat discrimination than an editor’s pen.


[1] The American Library Association’s official website can be found at

[2] 100 most frequently challenged books:  1990 – 1999.  American Library Associated.  Retrieved on January 6, 2011 from

[3] 100 most frequently challenged books:  2000-2009.  American Library Association.  Retrieved on January 6, 2011 from

[4] Bosman, Julie.  Publisher Tinkers With Twain.  Published at The New York Times on January 4, 2011.  Retrieved on January 6, 2011 from

[5] [Quote of Dr. Sarah Churchwell, as reported by Benedicte Page] Page, Benedict.  New Huckleberry Finn edition censors ‘n-word’.  Published in The Guardian on Januray 5, 2011.  Retrieved on January 6, 2011 from

Unsurprisingly Infuriating Comments and Their Antidotes: Secularism, Not the Pope, Deserves Support


The Pope’s recent visit to the UK resulted in both protests against and defenses of him and his visit.  Given the actions of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church — its insistence that members must follow some very questionable doctrines and, added to that, the scandal in which many church officials were found to be sexually abusing children and others found to be protecting the abusers from justice — this response was not surprising.  Catholicism is simultaneously both an important belief for many around the world, giving them comfort and hope, and a source of great harm to many around the world.

Some Unsurprisingly Infuriating Comments

In what can be described as an extremely unsurprising event, Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and said something hateful and offensive.  Despite mentions of peace, human rights, honesty, respect, and fair-mindedness, it is clear from the speech as a whole (and please do read the entire thing, as it has the amazing quality of being both incorrect and impressively frustrating) and his decisions and actions that his ideas about what is right, honest, and fair are divorced from reality.  He mentions good values briefly but then demonstrates bad values through his words and actions.  In his speech he emphasized Britain’s Christian history (which is true enough, although this has had mixed results, with much that is unjust due to favoritism towards Christianity and religion in general) and then went on to criticize “atheist extremism”, claiming that “the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society”.  He also said,

“Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.”[1]

For this, he has been criticized (in addition to the criticism he was already facing for coming to Britain for a state visit and for many of the other policies and actions of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church).

In addition to this, Cardinal Walter Kasper has been criticized for his comment, “When you land at Heathrow you at times think you are in a Third World country”.  He’s apparently upset (among other things) about an argument about whether British Airways staff members should wear Crucifixes.  He has also said that does not believe that it is likely that women will be priests in the Church, at least not in the next couple of hundred years.  Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, pointed out — correctly, I think — that Cardinal Kasper is just upset that people aren’t obeying the Vatican.[2] I would additionally point out that complaining about Crucifixes while supporting wide-spread discrimination against women is a demonstration of messed up priorities.

If this wasn’t enough, Bill Donohue (who can always be counted on to demonstrate how horrible one can become if one strives to always defend a certain individual or organization, regardless of individual’s bad actions or the organization’s ridiculous policies) has demanded that if the Pope is expected to apologize for the actions of Catholics, then the British Humanist Association should apologize for the actions of atheists.[3] My guess is that he is upset about Andrew Copson’s response to the Pope’s speech, although Dobson already didn’t have a very high opinion of secularism or atheism prior to this event.  It has apparently escaped Donahue that, while the Catholic Church has a hierarchy and rules that one must follow to be a Catholic, there isn’t a hierarchy or rulebook one must follow to be an atheist.  While being a Roman Catholic means, by definition, that one is a member of the Roman Catholic Church, being an atheist or humanist does not mean one has to be a member of the British Humanist Association (or any other association).  A person cannot take an action and accurately claim that it is an official teaching or dogma of atheism, but a person can take an action and accurately claim that it is a teaching of the Church.  It has also apparently escaped him that the things which the Pope has been asked to apologize for are specific immoral actions that were either endorsed by Church teachings or immoral actions that were hidden by the hierarchy.  One would not ask the Pope to apologize for Catholic bank robbers, because people aren’t taught to be bank robbers by the Church and because great numbers of bank tellers are not coming forward claiming that priests robbed their banks while Church officials hid the crime.  However, one might ask the Pope to apologize when, for instance, the teachings of the Church cause harm to women’s health or when the Church hierarchy participates in hiding abuse against children.  Personally, I think an actual improvement in Church beliefs and rules would be better than just an apology.  An apology by the Pope followed by more hate seems to be the easy way out.

Hearing and reading offensives statements made by various religious leaders (including the Pope) and their defenders (such as Bill Donahue) is such a common occurrence that the main aspect making it newsworthy is the fact that people still believe these horrible ideas and respect the religious leaders who make them.

The Antidote:  The Response

So what is the antidote to this?  What should the response to the Pope be?  We should most definitely not respond with violence or hatred, but rather show through our words and actions that secular values and actual human rights (not the distorted version which the Roman Catholic Church promotes) are superior to religious values.  We should criticize the Church for its horrible actions and emphasize real human rights.

The British Humanist Association’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said the following:

The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis (who were mostly not atheists in any case) that led to their extremist and hateful views or that somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in god. The notion that it is non-religious people in the UK today who want to force their views on others, coming from a man whose organisation exerts itself internationally to impose its narrow and exclusive form of morality and undermine the human rights of women, children, gay people and many others, is surreal.[4]

These are the words to which Bill Donahue was presumably responding, and the really damning thing about them (for the Church) is that they are true.  It is important to point out that it is highly hypocritical and ridiculous of religious leaders who routinely champion discrimination and human rights violations to claim that people who believe in secularism and equal rights are targeting religious groups for discrimination.

Making his point clear right from the beginning, Richard Dawkins delivered a speech titled Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity in which he mentions the many ways in which the Pope and the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church are harming people.  The list is long and shows that the Church’s horrible actions are numerous and serious — not just a matter of occasional mistakes.  (Dawkins also makes a good point that if the Church is going to count every person who is technically a member of the Church, regardless of the person’s agreement or disagreement with the Church’s policies, when bragging about how many Catholics there are around the world and in the UK, then they have to also admit that horrible people like Hitler were also Catholic.)[5] Ratzinger’s membership in the Hitler Youth was horrible, although I have to admit that it is an unreliable indicator of his personal views, since it was required; many people who didn’t support the Nazi Party had to pretend they did in order to keep themselves alive.  His actions as an adult, however, cannot be given the benefit of the doubt.  Ratzinger is and has been in positions of power for a long time.  Concerning his actions while a member of the leadership of the Church, he cannot say that he was child who was required to take certain actions by law; he is in fact a person in a position of power who is now telling other people what to do.  His willingness to continue the horrible policies of the Church, teach lies, and spread hate is worthy of condemnation, and there is no excuse.

The effect that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church have on its members is evident from some of the testimonies that former Catholics make about their time as members of the Church.  Miranda Celeste Hale wrote a blog entry titled A dirty little girl, her head hanging in shame that should make a person doubt the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is moderate or loving or kind.  She describes her experience with confession and the feeling of guilt that Catholicism taught her to have.

Although I left Catholicism fifteen years ago, on occasion I still catch myself wondering what I need to do in order to rid myself of the guilt, shame, and feeling of dirtiness that, in one form or another, is almost always my companion. I sometimes find myself feeling frustrated: why, I wonder, can’t someone just tell me what penance to do? I obviously no longer think in terms of sin or feel the need to go to the confessional, but the desire for absolution remains, like an itch that cannot be scratched.

Who can deny that this is a form of child abuse? The mere act of writing this is making my hands shake and my stomach churn with anxiety. Fifteen years ago, I made the choice to leave Catholicism, something that, among the family and community I grew up in, just isn’t done. This choice was, without a doubt, the best and most liberating choice that I have ever made. However, I do not have a choice when it comes to the ever-present guilt, shame, and anxiety that resulted from my childhood religious indoctrination, and which, to varying degrees of intensity, will always be with me.

The Catholic Church loathes children. Loathes them. To the Church, children are Catholics first and humans second, and the lifelong trauma caused by childhood indoctrination is mere collateral damage in the Church’s battle against the outside world. As is so often the case, the Church unashamedly places their own interests above all other concerns, including the welfare (physical, emotional, and mental) of children. And an organization that despises and preys upon its weakest and most vulnerable members (who haven’t even chosen to be members) is undoubtably a force of great evil in the world.[6]

Whenever the Pope or a leader of the Church claims that the Church cares about families and children, remember those who have been hurt by the Church.  Whenever a person tries to claim that the children who were hurt were only a few, were the exceptions to the rule, remember that it is also the teachings and practices of the Church itself (not just the solitary actions of individuals) which are harmful.

Maryam Namazie also spoke at the protest.  In her speech she replied to the Pope’s assertion that we need the “corrective supplied by religion”, pointing out that religion’s attempt at correction leads to the kinds of atrocities which are committed today in countries run by Islam.[7] Attempts to enforce religious morality have resulted in horrors throughout human history, because what religions consider morality so often turns out to be bigotry.  When making decisions based upon religious dogma, a person can use the opinions of an imaginary deity to make up rules instead of actually taking people into consideration.

Susan Jacoby wrote about Pope Benedict XVI’s selective memory and martyrdom, pointing out that the Pope selectively cited only times when Catholics were martyred and left out times when Catholics targeted others for violence.  She points out that while there are great causes worth fighting for, the supernatural details and weird rules of religions are not among them.  She also points out that it is ridiculous for the Pope to complain about being made fun of.

Benedict’s basic message throughout his visit to the United Kingdom was that England has become a largely secular society and that the mission of his church is to challenge “aggressive forms of secularism.” It was in this context that he cited the names of Catholic martyrs. He might reflect that since secularists have been more or less in charge, no one has been drawn and quartered for professing a particular religious belief. But oh, how painful it is to be mocked![8]

One would think that that Pope would realize that the reason he is able to visit the UK and make his harsh remarks is because of the ideas of secularism, freedom, and equality; people of other groups cannot coerce the government into censoring him.

There is a video of some of the speeches made at the Protest the Pope Rally.  There are some impassioned words by various speakers, but especially moving and sad are the words of a lady speaking on behalf of abuse victims, expressing how they thought they were alone and are grateful that there are people who are willing to stand with them.[9] Who can look at those who have been abused and tell them that the Church is a good institution?  Who can honestly say that the Church should still be respected?

There are, of course, many Roman Catholics who disagree with the teachings on the Church and especially with its actions in response to the crimes committed by its clergy.  Back in May 2010, Greta Christina wrote Why Are You Still Catholic?, asking why people who disagree with the Church on so many issues (e.g. birth control, equal rights for LGBT people, gender equality) continue to support it.  She also points out that even if a person agrees with the Church’s policies on other issues, it is certainly wrong to continue supporting an organization that protects child abusers and child rapists from justice.  To continue supporting such an organization because of the comfort of religion, she argues, is to place one’s own comfort above the safety and welfare of children.[10] This is an argument I wish more people would make.  While the veracity of certain supernatural religious claims is a separate argument, the issue here is a person’s association with an organization which is hurting people.  There comes a point when one must say that, whatever benefits one has received from being a member of an organization, those benefits are not worth it if they come at the price of hurting others.

Also worth reading is Joan Smith’s In defence of modern Britain, an article in which she defends “modern, tolerant, secular Britain” against the religious bigots who criticize it for being a “culture of death”.  She point out that it is a much better place to live, with more equality, than countries ruled by religions.[11] (She was responding to Mr. Adamus, director of pastoral affairs at the diocese of Westminster, but her words are applicable in this instance as well.)  Despite all the claims made by religious leaders who want us to believe that religion must have much influence and power for a society to have morals, we actually find the opposite to be true.  It is when people have freedom — when one religion is not in charge and cannot force its views on others — that a society can become a better place to live.

Adam Lee sums this all up concisely.

I’ve got a brief question for Julian Baggini, William Oddie, and everyone else – atheist or theist – who’s bemoaned the lively protests of Pope Benedict’s visit to the U.K.:

Do you believe the pope is not guilty of helping to protect child abusers (and if so, how do you respond to this evidence) – or do you simply believe that, because he’s the pope, he should be immune from any consequences for his actions?[12]


We should remember that the goal is to have equal rights and justice — to live in a society in which each person has worth and in which people of one religion are not given preference over others.  In order to achieve this, it is important to speak up when a person or organization is taking actions which harm people, taking away equal rights, and preventing justice.  The response should not be censorship or violence; the response should be peaceful protest.  The response to words of unreasonableness and hate should be words of freedom and equality.  We can show that a free and secular society allows people with different beliefs to give voice to their views and make it clear that this is preferable to a theocracy which censors “blasphemy” and “heresy” while taking away rights and promoting injustices.

There are those who may argue that the criticism of the Church is really anti-Catholic bias and discrimination.  As I’ve written previously about Islam, there is a difference between discrimination and criticism.[13] Reasonable criticism is required,[14] and there has been plenty of it.  We should not dispute the rights of Catholics to practice their faith, but we should definitely be against any government support for a particular religion and also be willing to criticize the Church when its officials endorse actions which are harmful.

Those who profess to be shocked or upset by the opposition to the Pope ought to cease ignoring the world around them.  Why are we asked continually to consider the feelings of devout Catholics by people who ignore or minimize the experiences of those who have suffered serious harm due to the Church’s teachings and policies?  Is the anger and frustration with the Pope and the hierarchy of the Church really unexpected when so much of what the Church does harms people around the world, either by actually endangering their lives or making their lives more difficult?  Is it really expected that those who are harmed will continue to have a positive opinion of those who are harming them?  Our opinions of the Pope should not be completely divorced from the harsh reality of his actions.

Ideally, I hope that more people realize that it is a dangerous idea to place one’s faith in a particular dogma based on false information and to defend the actions of an organization regardless of the harm it does.  We should choose to support people based upon their actions; we should not just pick one person and defend that person dogmatically due to their job title.  If we choose to support people who are doing what’s right in the world and protest against those who are doing what’s wrong, we can move forward and create a better life for people everywhere.  Only then will we be able to say that we hold up a fair moral standard and actually make a better world.



I offer my thanks to the people I’ve quoted and referenced, especially those who have been speaking out in favor of secularism.


Edit (as of 18 February 2012)

This entry has been edited. I had referred to Britain as being “technically a Christian Nation” in the first paragraph of the second section, before mentioning the mixed results Britain’s Christian history has had, not realizing that while England has an established church, Scotland and Wales do not. The Church of England is the established church of England, and the Church of Scotland is the national church of Scotland. I should have looked it up before writing. Needless to say, my position on the importance of secularism remains the same.


[1] Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI).  Transcript of Speech at Holyroodhouse on September 16, 2010.  Retrieved on September 19, 2010 from

[2] [Views of Cardinal Walter Kasper and Terry Sanderson, as quoted and explained by Owen and Gledhill] Owen, Richard and Gledhill, Ruth.  Pope flies into storm in UK after Vatican adviser complains of Britain’s atheism.  Posted on September 16, 2010 in The Austrailian.  Retrieved on September 19, 2010 from

[3] Donahue, William.  Atheists Must Apologize For Hitler.  Posted on September 16, 2010 at The Catholic League website.  Retrieved on September 28, 2010 from

[4] Copson, Andrew.  Comment made in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Holyroodhouse on September 16, 2010.  Retrieved on September 19, 2010 from

[5] Dawkins, Richard.  Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity.  Longer version of speech delivered at the Protest the Pope rally on September 18, 2010.  Posted on September 19, 2010 at Richard Dawkins site.  Retrieved on September 21, 2010 from

[6] Hale, Miranda Celeste.  A dirty little girl, her head hanging in shame. Posted on September 19, 2010 at ex-catholic girl on Tumblr.  Retrieved on September 19, 2010 from

[7] Namazie, Maryam.  We don’t need the ‘corrective supplied by religion’.  Speech delivered at the Protest the Pope rally on September 18, 2010.  Posted on September 19, 2010 at Iran Solidarity.  Retrieved on September 22, 2010 from

[8] Jacoby, Susan.  Martyrdom, selective memory and Pope Benedict in England.  Posted on September 22, 2010 at The Spirited Atheist column of The Washington Post.  Retrieved on September 28, 2010 from

[9] [Various speakers] Protest the Pope Speeches — London Rally.  Posted on September 19, 2010 by TheNewsauce.  Retrieved on September 28, 2010 from

[10] Christina, Greta.  Why Are You Still Catholic? Posted on Greta Christina’s blog on May 25, 2010.  Retrieved on September 20, 2010 from

The link has been updated to, because Greta Christina’s blog is now at Freethought Blogs.

[11] Smith, Joan.  In defence of modern Britain.  Posted on September 2, 2010 at The Independent.  Retrieved on September 18, 2010 from

[12] Lee, Adam.  A Followup on the Pope Protest.  Posted on September 23, 2010 on Daylight Atheism.  Retrieved on September 28, 2010 from

[13] Sharmin, Ani.  On Everybody Draw Mohammad Day.  Posted on May 20, 2010 at Eternal Bookshelf.  Retrieved on September 20, 2010 from

[14] Sharmin, Ani.  Weird Arithmetic and Reasonable Criticism:  Some Thoughts on Park 51 and Islam [Part 3 of 3].  Posted on September 9, 2010.  Retrieved on September 20, 2010 from

The Approaching Thunder and the Return of Tranquility: a blog entry in remembrance of September 11, 2001

Today is the ninth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Despite my usual tendency to be wordy, I find myself unsure of what to write.  On occasions such as this, days when we remember the tragic events of the past, I feel that there is nothing I can say or write — nothing I can express — that would be appropriate or good enough.  Still, I feel the need to write something, to not have silence misconstrued as uncaring.

One of the most common questions I hear asked about tragic events such as this is, “Where were you?”  Perhaps that’s a place to start.  On that day, I was in second period English class, during eighth grade.  (I was thirteen years old.)  There was a phone call, and my teacher answered the phone.  She told us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon.  We listened to the radio for the rest of the period, and some of the teachers didn’t have the heart to teach that day.

Yesterday, I found my (pen and paper) journal entry from that day.  It is in the form of a letter to God.  (I was a theist back then.)  With apologies for the writing abilities of my younger self, I want to share a few sentences of what I wrote on that day.  After relating the events that happened at school, I wrote, “At home Daddy, Mommy, [my brother] and I watched the news.  There was pretty much news on every channel.  Seeing footage of the plane going through the South Tower of the Twin Towers and of both towers collapsing really shocked me.  My heart hurt.  And it still does when I think about it.”  Later in the entry, I also wrote, “Please don’t let this turn into WIII [I think I meant to write ‘WWIII’ (World War III) – Ani], GOD.  We learn a lot about wars in school, but I’ve never lived through one.”  I remember thinking of the wars and other violent tragedies that we’d learned about in school.  They had always seemed so very far away, whether in time or space, and these attacks brought great fear into my heart.

It is difficult to find words appropriate for how I and many others felt on that day.  It was a mixture of fear, confusion, anger, and sadness.  Through it all, though, there was some hope as we saw that there were people who were willing to help others, to run into a disaster site to save others, to offer their help to those who were hurting.  I think Anne Frank said it better in her diary than I did in mine, when she wrote the following:

We’re much too young to deal with these problems, but they keep thrusting themselves on us until, finally, we’re forced to think up a solution, though most of the time our solutions crumble when faced with the facts.  It’s difficult in times like these:  ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality.  It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical.  Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death.  I see the world slowly being transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.  And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too will end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.  In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.  Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them![1]

It’s one of my favorite passages from that book.  I quote it not to compare the attacks to what happened to Anne Frank and millions of others, but rather because this passage captures how, when we look out into the world, it does not conform to our idea of what the world should be.  We see death and destruction.  We wonder why this happens and why there are people who would do such horrible things to their fellow human beings.  Don’t they understand?  Don’t they have a sense of right and wrong?  Don’t they know that the people who were killed had lives and loved ones, and that their loved ones cry for them as any human would?

All of this is scary for anyone to contemplate.  Being presented with an act of such horrible violence against innocent human beings and against my country brought this to the forefront of my mind.  I was confused, afraid, and sad; I know now that this was not just because I was too young but because this is how any human being would feel.

One day, perhaps, we and our descendents will look back on September 11, 2001 the same way we look back on other tragedies — with sadness, but with the distinct feeling that they happened so very long ago.  There are so many horrible events which happen every day, so much fear and destruction in the world, even today.  Each such horror is added to all the others, stretching back into the past like a chain of misery, blood, and tears.

And yet, despite all of this, all is not lost.  There is good in the world; there are people who help each other, who look out for one another, who speak up when others are hurting, who still their fear and risk their lives to save others.  As much hate as there is in the hearts of humanity, there is hope and love, too.  Living on consists of holding on to the idea that these last two will win out.


[1] Frank, Anne.  Entry dated Saturday, July 15, 1944 from The Diary of a Young Girl.  New York:  Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., 2009, pg 333.

ISBN:  0385480334

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