Perhaps This Experience Will Teach Them An Important Lesson: We Shouldn’t Fund Religious Schools with Public Funds

Whenever members of the majority religion, which is Christianity here in the United States, want to put into place some law that would give special treatment to their religious group, one wonders how they would feel about giving that special treatment to another religious group. Occasionally, there is a situation when one can’t help feel the desire to say: “This is what we’ve been trying to tell you! See how you feel in this situation? That’s how we feel.”

In the state of Louisiana, Representative Valarie Hodges (R-Watson) has changed her stance on the voucher program in her state (part of Governor Bobby Jindal’s education overhaul plan) after she realized that the money going to religious schools would not be limited to Christian schools, writes Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress.[1] Alice Dowty reports in the Livingston Parish News,

“I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” the District 64 Representative said Monday.

“I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.”

Hodges mistakenly assumed that “religious” meant “Christian.”


“Unfortunately it will not be limited to the Founders’ religion,” Hodges said. We need to insure that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools. There are a thousand Muslim schools that have sprung up recently. I do not support using public funds for teaching Islam anywhere here in Louisiana.”[2]

Hodges isn’t the only one who is surprised and upset that the word religion isn’t synonymous with Christianity. Gregory Kristof reported last month that there are other lawmakers who are also against the money from the program going to Islamic schools, even though it was already known that money would be going to Christian schools (as well as schools with a questionable quality of education).

Critics have pointed out that while the potential diversion of federal funds toward a Muslim school generated controversy among legislators, the state was already slotted under the new voucher program to provide millions of dollars to schools run by Christian churches.

The New Living World School near Ruston, for example, is a church-run school that has been approved for $2.7 million of taxpayer money under the Minimum Foundations Program. The New Living World School was granted permission to take 315 school vouchers – the largest number for any school – even though it has no library, and students reportedly spend most of their day watching Biblically-themed DVDs.[3]

School voucher programs giving money to religious schools is a problem in other parts of the country as well. There are some Muslim schools that do receive public funding due to voucher programs, which should have helped legislators in Louisiana predict the obvious. Rob Boston at Americans United writes,

Where to begin? Hodges’ bigotry is perhaps only rivaled by her ignorance of constitutional and legal principles. Of course Muslim schools will qualify for funding under a voucher plan. When programs like this are set up that dole out benefits to religious schools, the government can’t play favorites. That’s basic.

In Washington, D.C., where House Speaker John Boehner and his Republican allies in Congress have established a federally funded voucher program, most of the schools taking part are Catholic, but two Muslim schools have been among the recipients.

As it turns out, the Muslim school in New Orleans has since withdrawn its request. But it’s probably only a matter of time before another one applies to enter the Louisiana program.

Some legislators aren’t comfortable funding Muslim schools. What’s to be done? How about not establishing these programs in the first place? Let Muslims fund Muslim schools. Let Catholics fund Catholic ones. Let fundamentalist Protestants pay for the conservative Christian academies and so on.[4]

Hemant Mehta sums it up nicely,

Rep. Hodges made the mistake of saying out loud what most conservative Christians only say to themselves to private: When they say they want “religious freedom,” they’re only referring to their own faith. Everyone else can fend for themselves.

Message to Rep. Hodges: Your Christian privilege is showing.[5]

I’m against voucher programs in the first place, because I think they ignore the problem and don’t really fix the public schools. Too often, school voucher programs are a way for people who are against public schools and against taking responsibility for improving our education system to pretend they’re doing something helpful. The funding for religious schools adds another level of horribleness to the whole situation. This is an attempt to avoid addressing the real problem of poor-quality education in our country while conveniently (for the politicians) giving privileges to religious groups, especially the ones of their own religion, so that they can then brag about being in favor of Christianity and “values” when running for reelection.

School vouchers are often praised as giving parents a choice about their children’s education and the inclusion of religious schools in these programs is considered an example of religious freedom. To people who are accustomed to living in a country where their religion is in the majority, it’s easy to frame everything and anything they want (including receiving special treatment from the government) as religious freedom. When determining what they should be allowed to do, it doesn’t occur to them that the effect on others (in this case, forcing others to fund religions with which they don’t agree) should be taken into account. In this situation, however, they have been given a little glimpse of what it feels like when a religion they don’t agree with might receive support from the government. They realize that Islamic schools receiving public funds is not religious freedom, and they need to realize that Christian schools receiving public funds is not religious freedom. Both are examples of religious privilege, of discrimination against the people whose money is being used to fund religions with which they disagree.

Just as Valarie Hodges doesn’t want to fund Islamic schools with public funds, I don’t want to fund any religious schools with public funds. Though Hodges’s statement that Christianity was the religion of our Founders is incorrect, as not all of our country’s Founders were Christian (and those that were wouldn’t have believed in an interpretation that is the same as that of 21st century American Christians), the point is that even if all of the Founders had been Christians, that would still not be justification for funding Christianity with public money. The point is not to look at the religious beliefs of our Founders and then fund that religion; the point is to realize that one of the great things about this country is that there have been, and still are, many people who have written about, spoken about, and fought for freedom of religion.

One hopes that this experience will provide some enlightenment for the members of the Louisiana legislature, as well as people throughout the country, about the importance of secularism. Perhaps they will think twice in the future when they are considering whether or not to support a law that favors their religion. Somehow, I doubt this, but perhaps there are some people who will see the news articles about this and have a change of heart.



I first heard about this news story from a clip from The Young Turks titled State Funded Religious Schools Are Ok (If They’re Not Islamic).[6]


[1] Culp-Ressler, Tara. Louisiana Republican Supports State Funds For Religious Schools, As Long As They’re Not Islamic. Posted on 6 July 2012 at ThinkProgress. Retrieved on 7 July 2012 from

[2] Dowty, Alice. Hodges now leery of Jindal reform. Posted 29 June 2012 at The Livingston Parish News. Retrieved on 7 July 2012 from

[3] Kristof, Gregory. Louisiana Lawmakers Object To Funding Islamic School Under New Voucher Program. Posted on 14 June 2012 at The Huffington Post. Retrieved on 7 July 2012 from

[4] Boston, Rob. Louisiana Revelation: School Voucher Funding – It’s Not Just For Christians Any More. Posted on 5 July 2012 at Wall of Separation, official blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Retrieved on 7 July 2012 from

[5] Mehta, Hemant. Louisiana Republican: When I Voted for State Funds to go to Religious Schools, I Didn’t Mean Muslim Ones. Posted on 5 July 2012 at Friendly Atheist. Retrieved on 7 July from

[6] The Young Turks. State Funded Religious Schools Are Ok (If They’re Not Islamic). Posted on 6 July 2012 The Young Turks YouTube channel. Retrieved on 7 July 2012 from

It’s clear which side comes out looking like a bunch of whiners: a comment

Attempts to defend secularism often result in anger from religious apologists who are accustomed to getting special treatment.  During this holiday season, we are seeing examples of this once again, in response to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s challenge to Arizona’s Day of Prayer.  Mark Shea (in New Atheists Need to Get Their Narrative Straight)[1] and Mary Kochan (in You Whiny Sniveling Little Atheists Are Pathetic)[2] have written articles in which they mention Christian martyrs in an attempt to make it seem as though secularists are weak and complaining about nothing.

In response to these articles, Adam Lee has written, in ’Tis the Season for Holy War Nostalgia, about “apologists who are openly nostalgic for an era when religious disagreements were settled not through peaceful persuasion, but through violence, torture, and bloodshed in the streets” and who “think it’s cowardly for atheists to file lawsuits enforcing the separation of church and state”.[3]

The following is a comment I wrote in response to Lee’s blog entry.

What really bothers me is the way the apologists who use arguments like this are using other people’s bravery to make themselves and their entire religion look good.  It sounds like they’re trying to identify with Christian martyrs, insinuating that their situation is in some way similar.  In reality, the people who make these kinds of arguments aren’t displaying the bravery of martyrs; they’re displaying immaturity.

This reminds me of Daniel Fincke’s “Top 10 Tips For Reaching Out To Atheists” at Camels with Hammers.  (  For point #10 he responds to people who brag about how Christians tolerate mistreatment and how they’ll have to stand up for their rights one day.  (A quote:  “Do you know when a Christian instantly loses all credibility?  It is when they say something like this, ‘Our enemies assume that just because we are Christians we are going to turn the other cheek, but at some point we have a right to stand up for our beliefs!’ Really, any obnoxious, pugilistic behavior in defense of your supposed Christianity convinces people you have none.”)

They want to compare atheists and secularists living in secular countries to Christian martyrs, because if you compared the Christian right in the US to the people who are in support of secularism, it’s clear which sides comes out looking like a bunch of whiners.  The people who are in support of secularism are upset about legitimate discrimination, while many of the people on the Christian right are complaining about not getting special treatment.

About the whole fatwa envy thing:  I’ve noticed that, too.  They seem almost jealous of the violence that is used by certain Muslim groups to silence criticism.  At the same time, though, they want to be able to brag about how much better, more peaceful, etc. Christianity is compared to Islam.  I don’t know how many of the people who say things like this actually want violence.  I suspect that some probably do, but I don’t know about most.  There does seem to be a double standard, though, in that Muslims who say anything violent are considered suspicious or dangerous, whereas Christians who say something violent get the benefit of the doubt until they actually do something.  I think the Christians who say things that insinuate violence (but don’t intend to act on it or don’t actually want it to happen) know that they live in a society that gives them leeway, or they would stop and think before saying it.  As for those who actually do want violence, they’re obviously horrid.


[1] Shea, Mark.  New Atheists Need to Get Their Narrative Straight.  Posted on 13 December 2011 at Catholic and Enjoying It!  Retrieved on 21 December 2011 from

[2] Kochan, Mary.  You Whiny Sniveling Little Atheists Are Pathetic.  Posted on 13 December 2011 at Catholic Lane.  Retrieved on 21 December 2011 from

[3] Lee, Adam.  ’Tis the Season for Holy War Hostalgia.  Posted on 19 December 2011 at Daylight Atheism.  Retrieved on 21 December 2011 from

Muslims are Part of the Community, Too

Crazy Muslims & Mosques Comments By Herman Cain[1] (TheYoungTurks on YouTube)[2]

I’ve written about my disagreements with Islam and my frustrations with fundamentalist Muslims, but I hope I have also expressed that I very much believe that Muslims should have equal rights.  Soon after reading about gender-segregated Islamic prayers in some Canadian public schools,[3] I watched the above Young Turks video.  There is serious problem of discrimination against Muslims, and the comments by Herman Cain are an example of this problem.  (Over at the blog Atheist Revolution, vjack has declared Cain Idiot of the Week.[4]  Vjack linked to an entry at The Religion Virius in which Craig A. James points out that if Cain wants to ban religious institutions based upon the fact that there are some members of a religion who favor theocracy, he would have to allow communities to ban churches as well.[5])

This is not the first time that Cain has advocated discrimination against Muslims.  Here are some Young Turks videos from earlier this year about other comments he has made indicating that he would discriminate against Muslims if elected.

Anti-Muslim GOP Presidential Candidate Herman Cain[6] (TheYoungTurks on YouTube)

More Anti-Muslim Comments from Cain on Fox News[7] (TheYoungTurks on Youtube)

The irony of Cain’s comments is that he’s a person who says he cares about the United States Constitution, but is conveniently ignoring the First Amendment.  As is my reaction to most politicians, I can’t be certain if he’s doing this to appeal to a certain base, or because he really doesn’t believe in freedom of religion, or both; my guess is that it’s for both reasons.

It is a simple, yet so often-ignored, fact that Muslims are a part of the community, too.  Muslims living in the United States of America are not visiting someone else’s house; this is their home, too, and they can build a mosque if they want to, even if others in the community disagree with it (and, incidentally, even if it is close to the site where other Muslims committed a horrible crime).[8]  They have every right to speak about their faith and even to try to convince others that their beliefs are correct, as does everyone.  A person should not be suspected, by default, of being a horrible person or of favoring discrimination or violence just because others in their religion favor such things.

In short, it’s time for everyone (including the politicians who pretend to represent “The American People”) to realize that this country does not belong solely to conservative Christians; freedom of religion applies to everyone, and no one should be relegated to second-class status.



Much thanks to The Young Turks.[9]  They are an online news show (the largest in the world).  They broadcast five days a week, Monday through Friday, and put some of their clips up on YouTube.  They also have several other YouTube channels dedicated to various topics.


[1] The Young Turks.  Crazy Muslims & Mosques Comments by Herman Cain.  Uploaded on 18 July 2011 on YouTube by The Young Turks.  Retrieved on 23 July 2011 from

[2] The Young Turks’ YouTube channel can be found at

[3] Sharmin, Ani.  On Segregated Prayers in Public Schools.  Posted on 24 July 2011 at The Eternal Bookshelf.  Retrieved on 24 July 2011 from

[4] vjack.  Idiot of the Week: Herman Cain.  Posted on 23 July 2011 at Atheist Revolution.  Retrieved on 24 July 2011 from

[5] James, Craig A.  Candidate Cain:  Constitution Allows Anti-Muslim Discrimination!  Posted on 20 July 2011 at The Religion Virus.  Retrieved on 26 July 2011 from

[6] The Young Turks.  Anti-Muslim GOP Presidential Candidate Herman Cain.  Posted on 23 March 2011 on YouTube.  Retrieved on 26 July 2011 from

[7] The Young Turks.  More Anti-Muslim Comments from Cain on Fox News.  Posted on 1 April 2011 on YouTube.  Retrieved on 26 July 2011 from

[8] Sharmin, Ani.  Weird Arithmetic and Reasonable Criticism:  Some Thoughts on Park51 and Islam.  Posted on 9 September 2010 at The Eternal Bookshelf.  Retrieved on 24 July 2011 from

[9] The official website of The Young Turks can be found at

The War on Holiday Cheer

I used to like Christmas.  I really did.  Actually, I still do, but the good cheer associated with it is dimmed by a portion of population who treat Christmas like a battering ram instead of a holiday.  To me, Christmas means that school will be closed, that I get in the mood to listen to Christmas music, and that I’ll be able to enjoy the warmth of joy in contrast with the cold weather outside.  When I was younger, I used to watch the yearly Christmas movies that are released around this time of year.  (I remember being fond of I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1998)[1] when I was ten years old.  Polar Express (2004)[2] was another one that made me quite happy and put me in the mood for the holidays, even though I was sixteen at the time.)

I do not wish to declare a “War on Christmas”; in fact, the religious conservatives who claim that they are defending Christmas are the ones declaring war on good cheer.  Although I have no disagreement with the holiday, I do have a disagreement with them.  Their actions are wrong when judged against the United States Constitution, the physical reality of the world, the history of religion, and the spirit of good will.  It is them I accuse of ruining Christmas for all of us who believe in the spirit of the season.

The First Amendment:  Separation of Church and State

There is a difference between being able to celebrate a religious holiday and having a religious holiday recognized by the government; the first is protected under the United States Constitution while the second is a violation of it.  The supposed defenders of Christmas equate government neutrality on the topic of religion with discrimination against Christians.  (Please note that they do not think that the lack of federal holiday for other people’s religious holidays is evidence of discrimination against these other religious groups.)  The government cannot endorse explicitly religious ideas or put up explicitly religious displays (such as nativity scenes) on government property.  If there are going to be privately-owned displays on government property, then any group should be allowed to put them up; one group should not be given sole access.

A fascinating aspect of Christmas, of course, is that it contains both a religious and secular component.  There are non-Christians who also enjoy and celebrate Christmas.  In fact, I think even those who don’t necessarily celebrate it have grown accustomed to having some time off during late December and early January.  So, although I am opposed to a federal holiday for Christmas as a religious holiday, I would not object if a secular holiday was to take its place and be recognized around this same time of year.

Again, the supposed defenders of Christmas don’t seem to comprehend why the religious aspects of the holiday being officially recognized by the government is not fair to people of other religions and also to nonreligious people.  Conservative religious groups will cite the fact that lots of people celebrate Christmas to justify government endorsement, while leaving out the crucial fact that many people celebrate the secular parts of Christmas while leaving out the religious parts (either because they are not Christian or because they believe in a more liberal interpretation of the Bible).  The secular aspects of the holiday can be considered universal, but the religious ones cannot.  A person should know and expect that a holiday observed by people of many faiths and no faith will be secular; if that person wants to celebrate a religious holiday, they should do so in a religious setting, without the endorsement of the government.  Greta Christina phrased it well in her recent article Why Religious People are Scared of Atheists, in which she wrote,

They still want Christmas to be a religious holiday, special to the Christian faith. Yet at the same time, they want it to be a government-recognized Federal holiday that everyone has to observe.

In other words: They want theocracy.

See, you don’t get have it both ways. You don’t get to have Christmas be a secular holiday, universal to the culture, recognized by government agencies and celebrated by people of all faiths and of no faith at all… and still have it be a religious holiday of the Christian faith. Not if you respect people’s basic right to worship, or not, in their own way. Pick one. If Christmas is a universal secular holiday, quit whining about it being secularized. If it’s a distinct religious holiday, quit trying to ram it down everyone else’s throats.[3]

While an attempt to share a secular holiday with others can be done with good will and happy tidings, the attempt to share (especially with government endorsement) a religious holiday with others is nothing other than proselytizing — which, in my view, takes away the good will and happy tidings.

Cashiers Do Not Have Telepathic Powers (or, Explaining the Obvious)

There is also the issue of business decisions being labeled anti-Christian.  Every year, we hear (usually via Fox News) about stores where the staff members say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”.  (I must point out that the same Christians who will complain about the greetings stores use at Christmastime do not seem to appreciate that their religious season receives attention while the holidays of other religions go completely unnoticed by most businesses.)  This is reported as an important news story, as “evidence” of an attempt by secularists to attack Christians.  In reality, this is not evidence of anti-Christian sentiment but evidence of business owners trying to appeal to as many customers as possible.  It is also evidence that business owners do not believe that their employees have magical powers.

I work in a retail pharmacy, and one of my responsibilities is being a cashier.  Having a job in customer service does not give a person telepathic abilities.  This may seem obvious, but evidently, there are people who do not realize this.  When I am at the cash register and people are picking up their medications, I cannot possibly know what the religious beliefs of a particular person are (unless there are clues from their jewelry or clothing).  If I know which religion you follow, I’m happy to greet you accordingly; however, if you are a stranger, I don’t know which religion you follow.  Even if one particular customer is Christian, the customer who is next in line may be Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or atheist or agnostic or deist or a believer in the Bajoran Prophets,[4] who have appointed Captain Benjamin Sisko[5] as their Emissary.

When the owners or bosses of a particular store use generic greetings instead of a specific one in signs and advertising, it is most likely because they want to maximize their profits.  When employees say “Happy Holidays”, they are not attacking Christmas but rather realizing that they have a diverse customer base.  Some business owners may find it advantageous to tell their employees to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”.  If a store specializes in Christian products and has Christian employees, it would make sense to focus on Christmas.  Most stores, however, have employees and customers of different religions.  The managers of a big retail store (especially one that has stores all over the United States and even in other parts of the world) cannot possibly know the religious beliefs of all of the employees, let alone the beliefs of the customers.  For them, it makes sense to use a more inclusive greeting.  Is it really surprising that business owners will prefer using a generic greeting rather than a specific one, in order to appeal to more customers?  To believe that this is an example of persecution requires a person to be so accustomed to special treatment that equal treatment is interpreted as discrimination.

History, Diversity, and Similarity

Throughout the history of humanity, there have been and are many holidays.  Humans seem to have a talent for proclaiming special days.  Many religious as well as secular holidays have been created by humans, and many of them have similarities to each other.  People take older traditions and recreate them in a new way for their own cause or belief, so that we find similar details (such as candles, gifts, special foods, etc.) in many celebrations.

The mere existence of other people and their holidays should not be considered offensive, especially when non-Christians are not the ones whose holidays receive regular, official government support in the United States.  There are Christians who act as though they own the entire time period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve.  Instead of appreciating the fact that they live in a country where they can freely practice their religion and celebrate their holidays, conservative Christians pretend that a lack of special treatment is persecution.

The history of various holidays is a fascinating topic.  We can understand how different people have been inspired to create holidays and see the similarities between them.  Adam Brown, over at Atheism Resource, has written a blog entry advising atheists to steal Christmas back, pointing out that many Christian traditions have origins in other religions.[6] Ray Garton at Atheist Oasis has written a long entry wishing a Merry Christmas and explaining the origins of the “war on Christmas”, pointing out that it is just bigotry.  (He also points out that the people who once banned Christmas in America were themselves Christians.)[7] When one group tries to deny history or use a holiday to discriminate against others, it becomes a holiday of hate.  I cannot help noticing that any holiday celebrated by those who believe in a hateful version of God is likely to be used to discriminate against others.  Bigotry being the motivation behind the words of those who accuse secularists of declaring an imaginary “war on Christmas” is not a surprise; the people who pretend that Christmas is being attacked are the same ones who attack everyone else during the whole year.

Conservative Christians talk about preserving tradition but never bother to acknowledge the traditions of anyone but their own group; they recognize the contributions Christianity has made to Western society and culture but do not acknowledge that Christianity and Christmas have themselves been created from ideas that existed in other religions and traditions.  This arises, I expect, out of a desire to believe that while other religions may have been invented by humans, one’s own religion was created by the Almighty.

’Tis the Season

Although there are people who are reclaiming Christmas for Christian bigotry and although Christmas often contains the shallow aspects satirized by Ursula K. LeGuin in her description of The Holiday Plane™,[8] there is still something in his holiday that can be redeemed.  One of the people who had a good message for Christians celebrating Christmas was Reverend Barry Lynn (Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State), who is often targeted by the people who claim to be defending Christmas.  He wrote,

So, what’s a reasonable Christian to do in this season? How about cutting to the core of the Jesus narrative, and promote your favorite value in the story. Joseph didn’t have his spouse Mary stoned to death for a pregnancy without his involvement, but, instead, embraced her. Mary was not a rich or powerful person, a demonstration that birth into privilege is not a prerequisite for the future career path of you [sic] child. And then there was the angels’ message: “on earth peace, good will toward men”. Peace- not a bad principle for believers or non-believers. Why, there’s even a message for Tea Party Christians. Be skeptical of political authority. King Herod really didn’t want to locate Jesus to worship him; he wanted to kill him.[9]

Why not take from a story the good messages, instead of trying to make the story exclusive?  Isn’t one mark of a good person the ability to read a story and determine which parts contain the good ideas worth following?

For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of Christmas is the music.  When I was younger, I used to love the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.[10] I would sing it frequently, and (according to my mother) a lady in the grocery store heard me singing it one day and thought I was cute.  Just a few days ago, my mother asked me to sing it again because, in her words, it “makes me remember your childhood”.  I even enjoy religious music.  Earlier this semester, I was listening (repeatedly) to Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing.[11] There is something about religious music that I just find inspirational and moving.

So I hope that this holiday season is enjoyable for all.  Try to remember the lyrics to The Twelve Days of Christmas,[12] find an excuse to watch the holiday television specials, eat good food, generally enjoy being with family and friends, and help others who are less fortunate.

And remember:  Peace on Earth and good will toward men is a universal statement applicable to the whole of humanity.



Two years ago, Adam Lee (a.k.a. Ebonmuse) wrote a blog entry about The Roots of the War on Christmas, showing that the Christian-right tactic of pretending that there is a “war on Christmas” and accusing minority groups of discriminating against the majority has a history of bigotry.



[1] I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1998).  The Internet Movie Database.  Retrieved on December 22, 2010 from

[2] The Polar Express (2004).  The Internet Movie Database.  Retrieved on December 22, 2010 from

[3] Christina, Greta.  Why Religious People Are Scared of Atheists.  Posted on AlterNet on December 16, 2010.  Retrieved on December 23, 2010 from

[4] Prophet.  Memory Alpha.  Retrieved on December 23, 2010 from

[5] Benjamin Sisko.  Memory Alpha.  Retrieved on December 23, 2010 from

[6] Brown, Adam.  Hey, Atheists, don’t destroy Christmas… Just steal it back! Posted at Atheism Resource on December 14, 2010.  Retrieved on December 23, 2010 from

[7] Garton, Ray.  An Open Letter to Christians:  Merry Christmas From An Atheist.  Posted at Atheist Oasis on December 13, 2010.  Retrieved on December 23, 2010 from

[8] LeGuin, Ursula K.  Great Joy.  Changing Planes.  New York:  Ace Books, The Berkley Publishing Group, 2005 (2003), p. 130-46.

ISBN:  0-441-01224-8

[9] Lynn, Barry.  Take a deep Christmas breath. Posted in the On Faith section of the Washington Post on December 22, 2010.  Retrieved on December 23, 2010 from

[10] Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer – Lyrics.  Posted on YouTube by OuiiTisMoii on December 12, 2008.  Retrieved on December 23, 2010 from

[11] Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing.  (As sung by Amy Grant)  Posted on YouTube by JC3Productions on December 23, 2007.  Retrieved on December 23, 2010 from

[12] The Twelve Days of Christmas (song).  Wikipedia.  Retrieved on December 23, 2010 from (song).

Weird Arithmetic and Reasonable Criticism: Some Thoughts on Park51 and Islam [Part 3 of 3]

[To read Part 2, click here.]

The Importance of Reasonable Criticism

As an apostate from Islam, I know that there is much in Islam which deserves criticism.  I have no reason to believe that I will agree with the beliefs being taught at Park51; given my disagreement with Islam, I think it is very likely that I will disagree with the religious beliefs of the Muslims who pray there, even if they are not extremists.  Whether my disagreement is merely one concerning the existence of God (a disagreement which I can have with a person while still maintaining great respect for that person) or an actual condemnation of a hateful and discriminatory ideology will be based primarily on what kind of Islam is believed in and promoted by the people at Park51.

It is a source of annoyance and worry to me that the criticism of Islam, which I consider so important, comes too often not from those who value freedom but from those with a desire to discriminate.  It is important to remember that there is a crucial difference between criticism and discrimination; to speak out against the horrible practices that are all too common within Islam is valid criticism while stopping a group of Muslims from practicing their faith (in ways that are not infringing on the rights or safety of others) is discrimination.  The same is true for any other faith.

Given the danger being caused by the Islamic faith all around the world, I think criticism of it is vitally needed.  The important qualifiers are that the criticism must be reasonable and based on evidence.  Alternative ideas must actually be better and not just more nonsense.  Criticizing a bad idea with another bad idea doesn’t move humanity in a good direction, but keeps us forever repeating our mistakes.  The reason I supported Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, for instance, is because the protest was based upon the evidence of people being unjustly threatening for drawing Mohammad and because I thought it was a good way to make the point that people should be able to exercise their freedom of speech, even if it offends another person’s beliefs.[1]

Many of the reasons being given for not building this Islamic center do not contain any reason why this particular institution or the people within it will be a threat requiring legal action.  There have been arguments over the imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, due to comments he’s made in the past.  If there was evidence of funding from a terrorist organization or a reason to think that the people would be involved in illegal activities, then that would be cause for concern and further investigation.  If there is no illegal activity going on, then criticism, but not legal action, is warranted.

There is the issue of expressing disagreement with a person or group while still respecting their rights.  I think Christopher Hitchens (eloquent as always) makes good points in two articles.  In Mau-Mauing the Mosque:  The dispute over the “Ground Zero Mosque” is an object lesson in how not to resist intolerance, he expresses concern about the views of the imam and the mosque (in addition to his obvious disagreements with Islam, expressed elsewhere at length) and then goes on to criticize the unreasonable arguments being used by those opposed to the mosque, writing “Where to start with this part-pathetic and part-sinister appeal to demagogy?  To begin with, it borrows straight from the playbook of Muslim cultural blackmail. Claim that something is ‘offensive,’ and it is as if the assertion itself has automatically become an argument.”  When the actions of those criticizing Islam begins to resemble the actions of those seeking to make excuses for the harm it causes, one finds oneself listening to an endless string of baseless arguments.  Hitchens ends the article with, “We need not automatically assume the good faith of those who have borrowed this noble name [Cordoba] for a project in lower Manhattan.  One would want assurances, also, about the transparency of its funding and the content of its educational programs. But the way to respond to such overtures is by critical scrutiny and engagement, not cheap appeals to parochialism, victimology, and unreason.”[2] He wrote another article A Test of Tolerance:  The “Ground Zero mosque” debate is about tolerance — and a whole lot more, in which he expands upon his concerns about the views of Imam Rauf and points out that Muslims in some Western European countries have taken advantage of the idea of equal rights and tolerance of religion to demand discrimination based on their religious beliefs and censorship of ideas which they find offensive.  Hitchens ends the article with, “Let us by all means make the ‘Ground Zero’ debate a test of tolerance. But this will be a one-way street unless it is to be a test of Muslim tolerance as well.”[3] I think that Hitchens is correct on this issue and expresses it wonderfully well.  Religious people need to realize that tolerance means not just tolerating religion, but also expecting religious people to tolerate those who disagree with them; it means standing up for equal rights and not giving special privileges to religion.  I am glad that Hitchens can simultaneously take apart the ridiculous nature of some of the arguments against Park 51 while offering his own criticisms of Islam.  In a similar vein, in his second blog entry on Park51, Professor PZ Myers correctly points out that if expressing support for theocracy was made illegal, it  would affect a great many religious leaders, including many Christians, and that this would be unfair, violating their rights.  What is necessary, he adds, is that “we stand back and make it an open example of the principle of liberty that they can build anything they want (within zoning laws), whether it is a mosque, a synagogue, a cathedral, a community center, or a retirement home for mentally ill clowns, but that that freedom does have reasonable community constraints that they are voluntarily accepting, and there’s no going back and saying after the fact that the ideology of their building occupants allows them to violate local laws.”[4] Respecting the First Amendment rights of a religious group does not mean that we should blindly trust them; simultaneously, criticism of a religion should not turn into discrimination or an acceptance of any argument made against them no matter how unreasonable and ridiculous that argument is.

We need more people who are willing to criticize anyone who acts unreasonably, even if it means disagreeing with both sides and stating one’s own dissenting opinion.  One person who attempts to do this is Irshad Manji, who is a Muslim speaking out for reform in Islam.  In A Muslim Reformer on the Mosque:  The warriors for tolerance and the antimosque crusaders are both wrong, she calls out Imam Rauf, who criticized the Danish cartoons of Mohammad based upon the feelings of Muslims who were offended but now does not accept the feelings of Americans opposed to the location of Park51 as a valid argument.  Manji says that she is offended by the location, but that it does present an opportunity.  She writes the following:

But for all the restless offense I feel, I step back and force myself to think. As I wrestle with the issues, I realize that an opportunity exists for something more constructive than anger.

Namely, accountability. If Park51 gets built, thanks to its provocative location the nation will scrutinize what takes place inside. Americans have the opportunity right now to be clear about the civic values expected from any Islam practiced at the site.

That means setting aside bombast and asking the imam questions born of the highest American ideals: individual dignity and pluralism of ideas.

Among the topics that Manji suggests we should ask questions about are whether the swimming pool will be segregated, whether women will be able to lead prayers, whether non-Muslims will be welcome to pray in the prayer area, what will be taught about homosexuals and apostates, and where one will be able to get tickets to a lecture given by Mr. Salman Rushdie at Park51.[5] All of these are exactly the right questions to ask, and we should not shy away from asking them just as we would of any other organization or religion.  As Ophelia Benson points out, “Of course, people who make a fetish of ‘tolerance’ without really thinking about what it should mean tend to think questions of that kind are none of their business. That’s why they need, as Manji points out, to think about all this, not just emote about it.”[6] Too often, people misinterpret the First Amendment to mean that religion should be above criticism and that religious groups should be able to get away with all sorts of ridiculous actions without facing criticism, due to the fact that believers justify their actions using quotes from holy texts.  This is an unreasonable interpretation.  To demand that religious freedom includes censorship of religious criticism is, in effect, to argue that religious freedom only applies to some people while others must remain silent.  This is absolutely contradictory to the idea that freedoms apply to everyone.

Criticism must be based on evidence and be reasonable, offering valid arguments.  We should keep in mind that rights and freedoms, not fear and hatred, should be the goal of this criticism.


One of many great characteristics of this country, one of the many things which do indeed make our society better than the beliefs of those who attacked us, is that we believe in equal rights and freedom.  These freedoms must be extended to each person — not only to people who are members of the majority religion.  We must understand that freedom means that everyone, including those whose views we may disagree with, should have equal rights.  Let us act in such a way that no person has just cause to claim they were wronged or had their rights taken away.

There are times when freedom is violated, when people use the practice of their beliefs as an excuse for taking away the rights of other individuals, and in these instances when it is essential to speak up.  We must do so with the goal of securing freedoms and rights.

I find it frustrating that so many people will speak at length about the distance between a mosque and Ground Zero and be willing to spend time protesting it, but then will be conspicuously silent when there are real human rights abuses occurring in Islam on a regular basis (or, alternatively, will only bring up such human rights abuses when it suits their political goals and soon forget about them once election season is over).  We have for ourselves a situation in which the reasonable criticism of Islam gets drowned out by the unreasonable, bigoted, and incoherent arguments made by those whose main motivation for opposing Islam is the desire to win an election or to create a government based upon their own religion.  This will not get us anywhere.

What is needed is a willingness to address the real issues within Islam.  We should criticize Islam with reasonable arguments and not just baseless nonsense.  Let us ask the important questions about the problems within Islam and not be so focused on doing some weird arithmetic to figure out how far Park51 should be from Ground Zero, and let us do this with an actual concern for the human rights of both non-Muslims and Muslims who are currently being harmed.

Secular criticism of Islam is needed, with the goal freedom and human rights for all.  My concern is that a continuation of a fight between Islam and unreasonable critics of Islam will result in less freedom and the continuation of human rights violations.  The way to actually improve the situation is for critics of Islam to support freedom and show concern for those who are being hurt by Islam.  We should remember always that freedom and rights are for each individual, and that it is wrong for leaders of religious groups to cite freedom in an attempt to actually take away freedom, whether from members of other religions or from members of their own religion.  People who have been hesitant to speak out due to the sometimes ridiculous and discriminatory nature of some criticisms of Islam should feel motivated to counter the ridiculous critics by offering real criticism of Islam, so that there is progress in human rights, as opposed to just pointless and ineffective yelling.

Truth, freedom, and equal rights should be considered most important.  We may not always agree with one another; however, people who disagree on the details but believe first and foremost in freedom can work together, discuss ideas, and learn from one another.

It is in hope that I write this, and perhaps my hope for a better world will be realized.  I do think there is something within us as humans, which gives us the potential to imagine a better future and the determination to build it.



I have quoted extensively from some of the many articles and blog posts that I’ve come across recently, and given credit to the authors when appropriate.  I offer many thanks to all of the people who wrote these pieces and inspired me.  I’ve done my best to accurately represent their words and to honestly express my agreement and disagreement.  I very much recommend reading all of the linked articles and blog entries; their authors have some very thought-provoking ideas.


[1] Sharmin, Ani.  On Everybody Draw Mohammad Day.  Posted on May 20, 2010 at Eternal Bookshelf.  Retrieved on August 21, 2010 from

[2] Hitchens, Christopher.  Mau-Mauing the Mosque:  The dispute over the “Ground Zero Mosque” is an object lesson in how not to resist intolerance.  Posted on August 9, 2010 in Slate Magazine.  Retrieved on August 21, 2010 from

[3] Hitchens, Christopher.  A Test of Tolerance:  The “Ground Zero mosque” debate is about tolerance — and a whole lot more.  Posted on August 23, 2010 in Slate Magazine.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[4] Myers, PZ.  I don’t like the Manhattan mosque, but they’ve got the right — as long as I’ve got the right to point and laugh.  Posted on September 1, 2010 at Pharyngula.  Retrieved on September 9, 2010 from

[5] Manji, Irshad.  A Muslim Reformer on the Mosque:  The warriors for tolerance and the antimosque crusaders are both wrong.  Posted on August 26, 2010 at The Wall Street Journal.  Retrieved on August 27, 2010 from

[6] Benson, Ophelia.  Hitchens and Manji.  Posted on August 27, 2010 at Butterflies and Wheels.  Retrieved on August 27, 2010 from

Weird Arithmetic and Reasonable Criticism: Some Thoughts on Park51 and Islam [Part 2 of 3]

[To read Part 1, click here.]

Synagogues in Saudi Arabia

There is the important issue of the persecution and discrimination faced by non-Muslims in various theocratic Islamic countries, such as Saudi Arabia.  I for one will be overjoyed when Jewish people can build synagogues in Saudi Arabia and when people of all various faiths can build their houses of worship in countries where they now cannot.  The question then arises of how we can bring this about.

Since it is certain governments and other violent groups which are persecuting people of different faiths and no religious faith, I think that any ultimatums we place should be against these groups particularly, instead of against all members of the faith.  It is reasonable to demand that the Saudi Arabian government cannot finance any mosques on American soil as long as it does not give equal rights to all people.  It is unreasonable to demand that, due to the actions of the Saudi Arabian government, no Muslims can build mosques in America.  (The idea that all Muslims would be in support of the governments which persecute non-Muslims is ridiculous in and of itself, since these same governments often also make the lives of the Muslims within their countries a living hell.)

I love the United States and the freedoms we have here; I think the goal should be to create a world in which more people have these freedoms.[1] The suggestion we should model our behavior on the atrocious actions of the despicable House of Saud would, if acted upon, ruin all that our ancestors worked for.  Instead of moving in the right direction to gain equality for more people, we would be taking away freedom from the few people on the planet who do have it.

Peter Beinart makes this point in America Has Disgraced Itself at The Daily Beast.  (I take exception to the title but am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, since editors often choose or change the title of the article.)  Although I don’t share his newfound pining for President George W. Bush, I think his general point is valid.  He writes, “Now, Newt Gingrich says we shouldn’t build a mosque in Lower Manhattan until the Saudis build churches and synagogues in Mecca — which is to say, we’re bringing Saudi values to the United States.”  Beinart seems to understand a crucial idea which many others seem oblivious to, which is that we cannot defeat religious intolerance and bigotry by modeling our own actions on the actions of government officials of a country whose people are regularly oppressed by religious tyranny.

Beinart also makes a another good point near the end of the article, writing,

And oh yes, my fellow Jews, who are so thrilled to be locked arm in arm with the heirs of Pat Robertson and Father Coughlin against the Islamic threat.  Evidently, it’s never crossed your mind that the religious hatred you have helped unleash could turn once again against us.  Of course not, we’re insiders in this society now:  Our synagogues grace the toniest of suburbs; our rabbis speak flawless English; we Jews are now effortlessly white.  Barely anyone remembers that folks in lower Manhattan once considered us alien and dangerous, too.[2]

There have been Jewish people on both sides of this issue; I am grateful for the secular reforms within Judaism and for many Jewish people’s willingness to speak up against wrongdoing, even when some members of their own religion are participating.  Beinart’s main point is valid, in that it is highly suspect and ridiculous when people who are themselves often targets of discrimination line up to discriminate against others.  I am grateful that there are many people who do realize that discrimination is wrong even if they themselves are not the targets.

Ultimately, the correct response to religious discrimination is not more discrimination.  One would think that people should have realized this just by looking around themselves and thinking, but sadly it needs to be pointed out.

The “True Islam” and Terror

One of the ongoing disagreements about Islam for about nine years now has been the question of whether Islam played a role in the attacks of September 11, 2001.  When discussing this Islamic Center, the argument is sometimes framed in the wrong way, with some suggesting that Muslims should not be able to build Park51 because Islam played a role in the attacks and others suggesting that Muslims should be able to build Park51 because “true Islam” did not play a role in the attacks.  I personally choose a third option:  Islam (or a certain version of it) was involved in the attacks, but Muslims who did not participate in those attacks and are not involved with any similar terrorist organizations should be able to build an Islamic center if they want to.  In other words, the claim being made about Islam not having anything to do with the attacks and others like them in many places around the world is an exercise in denial, but it is not a valid reason for stopping people who were not responsible for those attacks from building a religious community center.

The idea of building Park51 to show that Islam is peaceful and that the beliefs of the September 11th terrorists were not a part of “true Islam” seems dubious to me.  Peaceful Muslims will rightly point out that Islam cannot be judged based upon the actions of just the extremists and called a religion of violence; however, it is also true that Islam cannot be judged based solely upon the actions of peaceful Muslims and thereby called a religion of peace.  Just as peaceful, freedom-loving Muslims would not consider the terrorists “real Muslims”, the terrorists would likewise not consider peaceful, freedom-loving Muslims “real Muslims”.  I do hope, of course, that the Muslims who will go to Park51 will play a role in improving Islam to move it away from the extremism, but even if they did, they still would not really have a claim to “true Islam” — though maybe they’d have a claim to a more peaceful Islam, which is something to hope for, in my desire for a better and safer future with more freedom, even if I think their God is just as fictional as the horrible one believed in by other Muslims.

As it is, I have grown accustomed (as I’m sure have many others) to various ideological groups mutually excommunicating those they disagree with and claiming that their own version is the “true” version of whatever ideology they espouse.  (As Julie Clawson points out, it is also highly ridiculous for members of one faith — in this case, Christianity — who regularly use the “true faith” excuse for extreme members of their own faith to then generalize about all of the members of another faith — in this case, Islam.[3])  The debate about “true Islam” (as that of “true Christianity[4]) is one for another day and another entry.  As it pertains to the issue at hand, whether or not the Islam of those who will attend Park51 is “true Islam” is unclear.  If the people at Park 51 are involved in illegal activities, that calls for government involvement; if they are not doing anything illegal but are doing something we disagree with, then it is appropriate to speak out and protest.

Addressing the problems within Islam is a bigger issue than Park51, and moving Park51 is not going to solve them.  We need rather to actually discuss and confront the real problems within Islam in a reasonable way.  Sam Harris has written two articles about this issue, making it clear that he believes that the people building Park51 have the Constitutional right to do so, and then going on to express his concerns about the religion of Islam and the denial that many moderate Muslims are in over the problems within the faith.  Although I disagree with some suggestions he has made in the past, he does offer very clear explanations of the problems with religion.  In What Obama Got Wrong About the Mosque (which was actually written, according to Harris, before President Obama made a statement and then given this title later by an editor), Harris writes, “My friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali is said to be suffering from it [Islamophobia]. Though she was circumcised as a girl by religious barbarians (as 98 percent of Somali girls still are) has been in constant flight from theocrats ever since, and must retain a bodyguard everywhere she goes, even her criticism of Islam is viewed as a form of ‘bigotry’ and ‘racism’ by many ‘moderate’ Muslims. And yet, moderate Muslims should be the first to observe how obscene Muslim bullying is—and they should be the first to defend the right of public intellectuals, cartoonists, and novelists to criticize the faith.”  A part of the problem is that moderate Muslims take great offense at any criticism of their faith while ignoring the far worse offenses committed by their fellow Muslims, against both non-Muslims and Muslims.  Even when they are presented with arguments from people who themselves grew up in an Islamic home and were treated badly due to the religious teachings, many Muslims remain in denial (and others who are aware of the problems may be afraid to speak out).

We come again to the issue of true Islam and response to terrorism of Muslims around the world.  Harris continues, “The claim that the events of September 11, 2001, had ‘nothing to do with Islam’ is an abject and destabilizing lie. This murder of 3,000 innocents was viewed as a victory for the One True Faith by millions of Muslims throughout the world (even, idiotically, by those who think it was perpetrated by the Mossad).”  Related to the refusal to criticize faith is the denial that anything horrible done was influenced or inspired by faith.  There is also the fact that a horrible event may be celebrated by some members of a faith and mourned by others.  How does one address believers who say that they were horrified at a terrible crime when others of the same faith celebrated it?  How does one address the issue of religion’s culpability when there are so many disparate forms of the religion being practiced?  How can one convince followers who are not contributing to the violence that the book to which they subscribe contains passages which (although ignored by some believers) are nonetheless horrible and provide inspiration to extremists?  Is there a possibility that some Muslims will make an effort to differentiate between the actual discrimination that they face and the legitimate criticism of their faith that they should pay more attention to?

Harris concludes, “Perhaps there is some form of Islam that could issue from this site that would be better, all things considered, than simply not building another mosque in the first place. But this leads me to a somewhat paradoxical conclusion: American Muslims should be absolutely free to build a mosque two blocks from ground zero; but the ones who should do it probably wouldn’t want to.”[5] Harris seems to be saying that moderate Muslims, who could potentially take steps forward to reform Islam, would probably not build a mosque near Ground Zero out of respect for the site; specifically that which would make them a positive presence also motivates them to take into consideration how others would feel about their actions.

In another article, Harris writes that too many Muslims are remaining silent about the extremism in Islam and gives an example of what he would expect Imam Rauf to say if the imam wants to be considered an actual moderate and allay people’s fears.  He ends with, “Find an imam who will speak this way, and gather followers who think this way, and I’ll volunteer to cut the ribbon on his mosque in lower Manhattan.”[6] So, we are back to the idea of so-called moderates being silent and unwilling to properly address the problems within their faith.  It seems that it is often the case that the more extreme members of the faith are more organized and vocal; while we as a society should want more participation and cooperation from the moderates of a faith, it is the extremists who make themselves heard more easily and demand attention.  Many times, it seems that a person may or may not be a moderate; there are religious leaders who, perhaps wanting to cooperate somewhat with secular society but not wanting to upset the more conservative members of their own religion, make vague statements about the problems within their own religion, being careful not to lay the blame on religion itself (or certain parts of it).

Fortunately, despite the silence, there are some Muslims who are indeed willing to speak out about the problems within their own faith.  Asra Q. Nomani writes in A Muslim Questions the Mosque about the problems within Islam.  “We’re not being honest in our Muslim community about the violent ideology inside of our Muslim world that needs to be defeated, and so the war has spread beyond our community to include the Tea Party activists. In the name of political correctness, too many inside our Muslim community have been apologists for Islam, feeling defensive, but not being as brutally honest as the world needs us to be about this problem.”  Although I cringe at her kind words towards the sometimes ridiculous and sometimes discriminatory Tea Party supporters, I think she makes a valid point about the extremism and, I am glad she points out that many liberal and progressive Americans have not offered “a nuanced, intelligent critique of extremist Islamic ideology, currying pluralism points instead in the name of interfaith relations”.  This, I think, is what has resulted in a situation in which many of the people who could offer secular and intelligent criticism of the extremism in Islam are not willing to.  There are some who do, but their voices get drowned out by those who really are hateful and who want to discriminate against Muslims.  This should convince more people who believe in equal rights to criticize Islam from a secular point of view, with the goal of human rights, so that the only people criticizing Islam are not those who are hateful.  Nomani points out what is needed in Islam and illustrates one of the problems in Islam when she writes, “We need an expression of institutional Islam that is moderate, progressive and liberal. We don’t have it yet. There is only one mosque in America where women can pray in the front row. It’s in Toledo, Ohio.”[7] This should make any Muslim question the idea that the discriminatory ideologies within Islam are just a small fringe.  Although the worst of the terrorist attacks may be committed by a small fringe, other actions of discrimination and hate are supported by many more.  Ignoring these violations of rights is not right, and it is frustrating that many Muslims (using the excuse “We’re not terrorists”) try to hide the other, more ubiquitous, problems within Islam.

There is perhaps some potential for a more secular form of Islam to challenge the extremism that is so much of a problem in the world today.  I have mentioned previously that I am of two minds on this, hoping for a reformed secular form of Islam (so that there is less violence and so that more people within the religion itself can gain equal rights) while disbelieving in a nice version of God just as much as I disbelieve in a horrible version of God.[8] Currently, though, there is no question that there are big problems within Islam.

The question then arises:  How should we address them properly?

[To read Part 3, click here.]


[1] Sharmin, Ani.  The Fourth of July in Four Parts.  Posted on July 4, 2010 at Eternal Bookshelf.  Retrieved on August 21, 2010 from

[2] Beinart, Peter.  America Has Disgraced Itself.  Posted on August 17, 2010 at The Daily Beast.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[3] Clawson, Julie.  A Christian response to the Islamic community center near Ground Zero.  Posted on August 10, 2010 at Common Ground News Service.  Retrieved on August 29, 2010 from

[4] Eberhard, JT.  An Old Letter about true ™ Christianity.  Posted on April 14, 2009 on Zerowing21’s Xanga.  Retrieved on August 21, 2010 from

[5] Harris, Sam.  What Obama Got Wrong About the Mosque.  Posted on August 13, 2010 at The Daily Beast.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[6] Harris, Sam.  Silence is not moderation.  Posted on August 24, 2010 at The Washington Post’s On Faith section.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[7] Nomani, Asra Q.  A Muslim Questions the Mosque.  Posted on August 10, 2010 at The Daily Beast.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[8] Sharmin, Ani.  Foundations of Dissonance? Posted on July 22, 2010 at Eternal Bookshelf.  Retrieved on September 9, 2010 from

Weird Arithmetic and Reasonable Criticism: Some Thoughts on Park51 and Islam [Part 1 of 3]


Given the recent controversy over the building of Park51 (a.k.a. Cordoba House), an Islamic community center and mosque, in New York City near Ground Zero, the site of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I’ve decided to write an entry containing some of my thoughts about the topic.  Professor PZ Myers has stated that he does not care about a mosque/community center in New York,[1] and I might not have either if it wasn’t the topic of so many television segments, news articles, and blog posts (some of which have been incessantly pouring into my feed reader).

It was, however, a good opportunity for me to do some thinking about the various issues that are being brought up, colliding with one another, and being mixed together (sometimes appropriately and sometimes not) in the discussion and argument over this project.  This entry is my attempt to gather my thoughts and write them in a somewhat coherent fashion.

First Amendment

Whatever houses of worship may be built in this great land, their continued existence and the freedom of those within them depends on how diligently we build and maintain the wall between church and state (or, in this case, I suppose mosque and state).  A legal argument against Park51 can be made if it is found that it is involved in illegal activities or is receiving funding from a criminal organization.  The legal attempt to shut down the project cannot be based upon its proximity to Ground Zero.  An attempt by the government to choose one religion over another, to stop one religion from building a house of worship in a place where another religion would be permitted to do so (all else being equal) on their own property, would be a violation of the First Amendment.  We will all have certain times when we have to say that we absolutely disagree with what someone does while supporting their right to do it, but it is not right to take legal action against a group for doing something that we disagree with.

Tied up in all of this is the noticeable self-contradiction of those who regularly speak up in favor of freedom of religion for their own group, but who deny that same freedom to others.  I think part of the justified reflexive defense of the community center is due to the fact that some of the people speaking out against it (especially some of the politicians and news anchors) have in the past shown that they favor one religion — particularly Christianity — over all others, so there is the question whether their criticism is coming from a genuine concern or from their own bias.  Combined with similar protests against and vandalism of mosques in other places around the country and the horrifying violence against Muslims, this raises the suspicion that the protests are due to the fact that the people are Muslim and not based on any reasonable argument.  There is a concern that at least some of the people speaking against the community center really do not favor separation of church and state and may be in favor of taking away the rights of non-Christians.  (This is, of course, not true for everyone.  When Susan Jacoby writes that she supports the First Amendment right of those building Park 51, but questions whether it should be built so close to Ground Zero,[2] I believe that she actual does support the First Amendment and equal rights for people of different religions, since she has shown this in her previous writings.  She has even written a book called Freethinkers:  A History of American Secularism about the important role that secular people and ideas played in American history, including contributions made by both religious and non-religious supporters of secularism.)  When others, such as Sarah Palin, claim that they support the rights of those building Park51, but question the wisdom of it, I am suspicious of their motivations, given their support for a nation based upon their own religious beliefs.  Since not all the critics of Park51 are supporters of separation of church and state (based on their past statements), there is a need to reaffirm secularism, which is always a good goal.  We should remember that secularism is one of the ideas which make this country great, and there are several people who have expressed this sentiment during this whole debate and drama.

Hemant Mehta, in What freedoms will we lose next? (his first article for The Washington Post’s On Faith section) makes a good point about not blaming all Muslims for the 9/11 attacks (just as we should not blame all Christians for something horrible done by some Christians) and writes, “Why do I support the building of the mosque?  Because we live in a country that supports freedom of religion, even when we disagree with others’ beliefs.  I support it because they’re paying for the space and they have every right to build there.”[3] We cannot start deciding that the First Amendment only applies to certain groups and not to others.  Those who routinely say that the Christians who take horrible actions are not “real Christians” should ask themselves what they would think of their freedom being limited based on what other Christians have done.

Herb Silverman, in Mosque is insensitive; so are pandering politicians, criticizes the politicians whose clichéd arguments have gained them undue publicity and then goes on to write that he agrees that the mosque is insensitive.  Ultimately, he states quite plainly, “It is my right to be bothered by this, it’s the right of others to be bothered by the potential mosque at Ground Zero, and it’s absolutely the right of American Muslims to build it.  Observing Constitutional principles may be bothersome, but that’s a small price to pay for the liberties our Constitution guarantees.”[4] Following the Constitution and agreeing that others have rights, even if we disagree with them, may not always be easy, but it is necessary if we want to preserve our freedoms and rights.  The hope that humans will be able to grant others the liberties they themselves so cherish is the basis of my hope that a secular society can work and thrive.

Arthur Waskow tells a touching story about his grandmother in Mosques in America:  Rabbi Hillel, George Washington, & my grandma, reminding readers of the promise of freedom that American stands for.  Just as his grandmother remembered the horrible way Jewish people were treated in Europe and knew that it was wrong to treat Black people that way (even when other Jewish women were talking about them with contempt), Waskow remembers his grandmother and reminds us that we must not treat Muslims that way.  He thinks it is right to build Park51, which will be “[a] beacon of the Islam that celebrates the God Who is Compassion. A beacon of truth, of hope, of peace to vanquish the hatred and despair and violence that murdered 3,000 people of many different nations and many different faiths in the World Trade Center.”[5] I am glad he has hope for the emergence of a better Islam that will not be as fraught with problems as the religion is right now.  Perhaps if more Muslims were willing to speak up against the extremism in their own faith and create a new Islam that would be more secular and supportive of equal rights, we would have a better world.

What makes the situation even more absurd is that one suggestion that’s been made concerning the moving of the mosque actually would violate the First Amendment.  Over at The Wall of Separation (the blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State) Sandhya Bathija has written a blog entry titled Land Plan Panned:  N.Y. Governor’s Islamic Center ‘Compromise’ Draws Fire, in which she comments on a statement by Governor David Paterson.  According to Glenn Blain at The New York Daily News, Governor Paterson supports the Park51 Islamic Center and has said, “Frankly, if the sponsors were looking for property anywhere at a distance that would be such that it would accommodate a better feeling among the people who are frustrated, I would look into trying to provide them with the state property they would need.”[6] Bathija writes at The Wall that this idea will fortunately probably not be put into action due to the fact that it’s obviously unconstitutional.  (She links to an article[7] by Justin Elliot at Salon, in which Barry Lynn, Americans United’s executive director, and Professor Jay Wexler express concerns about such an idea.)  She points out in her blog entry that a suggestion like Patterson’s (providing state property to a religious group for a religious place of worship) “should outrage Americans, yet it’s hardly caused a stir. At the same time, when a private group wants to build a religion-based community center on private land, some find cause for a public uproar.  All this goes to show that many Americans could benefit from another glance at the Constitution, and that includes Paterson.”[8] It does often amaze me that more people are not more concerned about separation of church and state, but as can been seen above, there are many who do.  This gives me hope.

It is absolutely essential to remind both ourselves and our fellow humans deserve to have equal rights.  Demanding that they should voluntarily give up their equal rights (especially when such criticism is coming from those who have shown their own support for discrimination in the past) is unreasonable and wrong.  (It is for this reason that I also support the rights of peaceful protesters who are against Park 51 to express their views, just as I support the right of the people who are building it.)  I am glad that there are many people who realize the importance of secularism and of the First Amendment, even for those whose religious beliefs they do not agree with.

Rebuilding Ground Zero

Any hallowed nature associated with Ground Zero is not a characteristic force emanating from the spot itself but rather the hurt that is felt in the hearts of human beings when we look upon a site and remember the horrid events of the past.  When Sarah Palin claims that the planned mosque “stabs hearts”, it is as an American that I reply that the real stab to my heart was the actual attack.  What further stabs my heart is the attempt by various groups (including, to various extents, the groups both in favor of and against Park51) to use what was a tragedy for our country to forward their own agendas, which contain little or nothing in the way of either dealing with the extremism within Islam or protecting our freedoms, including those outlined in the First Amendment.  It is important that we remember what is really important and do not focus on inanimate objects.  As Susan Jacoby writes in What makes ground so “sacred” that it provides soil for profane behavior?, “Truth and knowledge, not ground or steps, are sacred.”[9]

The rebuilding of Ground Zero, including a memorial to those who died, has not moved forward by much, and this is a cause of sadness for many Americans, including myself.  We are still living with the memory of these attacks, and that memory will never go away.  We desire to do something to honor those who died, and lack of such a memorial makes us feel that we are not properly remembering them, that we have been lax in taking the correct action.

There is also the issue of other religious buildings.  In the arguments against Park51, the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church is sometimes mentioned.  The anger over the fact that the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church has not yet been rebuilt is understandable, but I don’t understand how that is related to the building of Park51.  The Islamic center is not being built to replace St. Nicholas.  The fact that the rebuilding of Ground Zero and St. Nicholas has been slow is not, to my knowledge, caused by some kind of covert plan by the people planning to build Park51.  The various building projects going on in our country are not in competition with one another.  The fact that Park51 has been approved while plans for Ground Zero and the St. Nicholas Church have not yet moved forward does not mean the government is endorsing Islam or insulting either Christians or Americans in general.  One difference between St. Nicholas and Park51 is that St. Nicholas was actually destroyed in the attacks and is in the area that has sadly not yet been rebuilt, whereas Park51 is two blocks away.  If all the circumstances surrounding the rebuilding of the church were the same as those involved in building Park 51, then I would expect it to be given the same approval as Park51.  There seem to be various issues affecting the rebuilding of St. Nicholas.  As Nicole Neroulias writes in an entry at the Beliefnet Blog, “St. Nicholas, a Greek Orthodox church with only a few dozen regular worshipers before 9/11, has been mired in Ground Zero-specific bureaucracy for years, trying to hammer out a deal with the Port Authority to swap its tiny piece of land for a bigger plot and receive millions of dollars in public funds for the construction and security requirements.”[10] She writes in an article at Religion News Service that the plans for Park51 have motivated people to ask about why more progress has not been made on the church, and goes on the explain the various circumstances and events which lead to the delays.  “The entire Ground Zero rebuilding process has taken years longer than expected, due to the arduous rescue, recovery and rubble-removal efforts, followed by the bureaucratic process of establishing property ownership and designing the memorial and buildings.”[11] It is clear that, despite the understandable upset of the Greek Orthodox community in New York City, blaming the people building Park51 for the delay in rebuilding St. Nicholas is the incorrect response.  Although I disagree with both Islam and Christianity, I support the right of members of both of these religions to build their places of worship.  It seems that in addition to being important to the Greek Orthodox community in New York, St. Nicholas also has a long history behind it.  I look forward to Ground Zero, including St. Nicholas, being rebuilt.

The relevant parts of this situation, to me, are protecting freedom and equality, building of a memorial to those who died, and dealing with Islamic extremism that played a role in the attacks in the first place.  Moving the mosque will not accomplish any of this.  The distance between Ground Zero and Park51, to me, is not completely irrelevant, but one of the least relevant points of the whole situation.  (This is mostly because the center is not actually on Ground Zero; if it was, then I would be opposed to the location, because I think there should be a memorial there.)  As Jeffrey Rowland illustrates in this cartoon, the whole argument is ridiculous and YHWH has not shown a preference in the matter (which is as I expected, given the deity’s propensity for revealing contradictory messages to different members of humanity).  Rowland writes beneath the cartoon, “Exactly what is a ‘safe distance’ to put your Muslim Community Center away from a place so that it doesn’t have some imaginary effect on it? I’d prefer a ban on ALL religious buildings being built within 1,000 miles of a place where ANY MEMBER of ANY SPECIFIC religious organization did some harm unto society.”[12] Well, that would considerably decrease the number of houses of worship, but it would of course, not be in line with the freedom of religion on which we place great value.  The cartoon and its caption illustrate perfectly the problem we face when trying to determine exactly how far away this Islamic center can be from Ground Zero.

What type of weird arithmetic can we come up with to determine exactly how far away a religious place of worship has to be from the site of a disaster?  Does this vary depending on how many people were killed?  Does the rule apply to all religions or only to one?  Does it apply to all the people who follow the same religion as the perpetrators of the attack or to those of the same denomination?

All of this is not only confusing but misses the point entirely.  The building is not the cause of the problems within Islam, but the bad ideas and actions of certain people and groups within Islam.  It is important to identify and criticize these ideas and people while realizing that many Muslims themselves also realize the problem and are being hurt by members of their own faith.

[To read Part 2, click here.]


[1] Myers, PZ.  I don’t care about a mosque/community center in New York.  Posted on August 16, 2010 at Pharyngula.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[2] Jacoby, Susan.  Ground Zero mosque protected by First Amendment—but it’s still salt in a wound.  Posted on August 4, 2010 at The Washington Post’s On Faith section.  Retrieved on August 25, 2010 from–but_its_still_salt_in_a_wound.html.

[3] Mehta, Hemant.  What freedoms will we lose next? Posted on August 16, 2010 at The Washington Post’s On Faith section.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[4] Silverman, Herb.  Mosque is insensitive; so are pandering politicians.  Posted on July 19, 2010 at The Washington Post’s On Faith section.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[5] Waskow, Arthur.  Mosques in America:  Rabbi Hillel, George Washington, & my grandma.  Posted on August 16, 2010 at The Washington Post’s On Faith section.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[6] Quote of Paterson, David (Governor of NY).  Blain, Glenn.  Gov. Paterson:  No objection to Ground Zero mosque, but floats state land for less controversial site.  Posted on August 10, 2010 at The New York Daily News.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[7] Elliott, Justin.  Law prof:  Paterson mosque plan may be unconstitutional.  Posted on August 10, 2010 at Salon.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

[8] Bathija, Sandhya.  Land Plan Panned:  N.Y. Governor’s Islamic Center ‘Compromise’ Draws Fire.  Posted on August 11, 2010 at The Wall of Separation, blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from’s-islamic-center-‘compromise’-draws-fire/.

[9] Jacoby, Susan.  What makes ground so “sacred” that it provides soil for profane behavior? Posted on September 1, 2010 at Washington Post’s On Faith section.  Retrieved on September 8, 2010 from

[10] Neroulias, Nicole.  The Real Story Behind the ‘Ground Zero Church’ Rebuilding Delay.  Posted on August 24, 2010 at the Beliefnet blog.  Retrieved on September 8, 2010 from

[11] Neroulias, Nicole.  Future of destroyed Ground Zero Orthodox church in doubt.  Posted on August 23, 2010 at Religion News Service.  Retrieved on September 8, 2010 from

[12] Rowland, Jeffrey.  Proximity.  Posted on August 16, 2010 at Overcompensating.  Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from

Amendment XIX

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by proper legislation.[1]

It was on August 26, 1920 that the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was signed into law, expanding the right to vote to include women.[2] It is difficult to believe that this was only ninety years ago.  There were many people who worked hard to make this happen, and we should be grateful for all of their hard work.

What I have learned from the history of the United States is that there are people who realize that it is important to make the world a better place.  The whole point of the amendments to the Constitution is that we are still learning that rights belong to everyone — not just to one select group.  We can protest and speak out when we believe that our actions and laws are not in adherence to the principles of equal rights, freedom, and justice.  The Nineteenth Amendment is an example of a change to the Constitution which shows that our country is committed to learning from past mistakes and fixing them.  When we realize our past mistakes and stand up for a better tomorrow, we leave a better future for those who will come after us.

The struggle for equal rights has a long history and is still going on, all around the world, including in our own country.  It is important on occasions such as this to appreciate how far we have come, and to recognize how far we still have to go.  There are still people who see women’s lives and contributions as less important than those of men.  There are many women around the world who do not have the same rights we do here, and on this day we should remember their struggle and find ways to help them as we are thankful for those who paved the way for us.


[1] Amendment XIX.  Constitution of the United States:  Amendments 19-27 at the National Archives.

URL of the link:

[2] The 19th Amendment.  Constitution of the United States, Amendment XIX at the National Archives.

URL of the link:

Via Friendly Atheist “Interview with Pastor Terry Jones, the Man Behind ‘International Burn A Koran Day'”

[I know I’ve already mentioned Hemant Metha the Friendly Atheist[1] previously on this blog, but I’m going to do so again.  What can I say?  He’s awesome and writes posts that make me want to comment.  I also think it’s awesome that he has the courage to contact people who he disagrees with and ask for an interview.  Here’s a comment I posted on his entry Interview with Pastor Terry Jones, the Man Behind International Burn A Koran Day.[2] I added italics to indicate words quoted from other people’s comments.]

July 24th, 2010 at 9:19am[3]

I think this shows that they can’t prove that the Bible is actually better than the Qur’an, so instead of arguing why it’s better, they’re just burning the Qur’an. The horrible contents of the Bible are what convinced me that, if I converted from Islam to Christianity, I’d just be switching from one horrible religion to another. If this conversion attempt is going to work, they’re going to have to count on potential Muslim converts doing what so many Christians do — not actually reading the Bible and just trusting religious leaders who say it’s wonderful.

People like this are the reason why, as much as I respect and agree with Ayaan Hirsi Ali most of the time, I had to express my disagreement in that one post you did about her book Nomad, concerning Muslims converting to Islam [edit:  I meant to write “Christianity”]. I just don’t think that it would be much of an improvement if a Muslim joined a hateful church (whereas it would be if they joined a more secular church).

I think it’s different from Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, because EDMD was in response to some Muslims demanding that everyone should follow a religious rule in their holy book. This is just a deluded (and ridiculous) conversion attempt.


It all comes down to the book burning. Book burning is not generally illegal (as long as the books legally belong to you), and I support this guy’s first amendment rights to do it if he wants.
That being said, the whole thing does not sit well with me personally. Not only am I a bibliophile who cringes at the thought of even a dog-eared page, but there is a long, symbolic history behind book burning that makes me shudder.

I agree. It’s one of those situations when I support someone’s right to do it, but I think they’re being horrible for doing so.

Strangely, this is the same way I felt when people were burning Harry Potter books. They can do it, but it just makes them look ridiculous.

[Later, I posted another comment in response to what someone else wrote.]

July 24th, 2010 at 9:23 am[4]


I would rather urge people to read Quran and see for themselves that the piece can aptly be ternmed as ‘Book of Violence’.

I agree. It’s an insult to a person’s intelligence to demand that they should just accept someone else’s opinion about a book without reading it themselves.

[The post I was referring to in the first comment was Mehta’s review (from June 30, 2010) of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent book Nomad, Why You Should Read Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.[5] The comment I wrote on that post can be found here.[6]]



The link to the specific comment cited in footnote 6 no longer works because Friendly Atheist has moved to a different site with a different commenting system.  I have posted that comment along with some others in a separate entry, which can be found here.




[2] Mehta, Hemant.  Interview with Pastor Terry Jones, the Man Behind International Burn A Koran Day at Friendly Atheist  Retrieved on July 24, 2010 from“international-burn-a-koran-day”/.

[3] Comment by Sharmin on July 24, 2010 at 9:19 am on“international-burn-a-koran-day”/#comment-520327.

[4] Comment by Sharmin on July 24, 2010 at 9:23 am on“international-burn-a-koran-day”/#comment-520330.

[5] Mehta, Hemant.  Why You Should Read Nomad by Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Friendly Atheist.  Retrived on July 24, 2010 from

[6] Comment by Sharmin on June 30th, 2010 at 4:01 pm on

Via Friendly Atheist “If Christians Would Listen, What Would You Say To Them?”

[Note:  The Friendly Atheist[1] Hemant Mehta posted a blog entry yesterday about a book-and-DVD set called The Outsider Interviews by Jim Henderson, Todd Hunter, and Craig Spinks.  Henderson is the person who “bought” Mehta’s soul on eBay.  The question asked in the video is “If Christians would listen, what would you say to them?”  Mehta asked readers to give a reply in the comments section.[2] I wrote a comment replying to the question, and I thought I would repost it here.]

July 6th, 2010 at 7:32 pm[3]

If Christians would listen, I would say:

Please realize being a member of one particular religion is not a prerequisite for morality. Just look around you. You probably have coworkers, neighbors, and fellow classmates who are members of different faiths and no faith. They are regular people, just trying to live their lives. If you want to be pro-family, then don’t encourage people to be hateful towards family members and friends who convert or deconvert away from Christianity.

Before deciding to support a religious law or Christian organization, please imagine yourself in the other person’s position. Imagine that you’re living in a country where Christians are the minority and where another religious group is doing a lot of the same things which some Christians are doing. Imagine that your kids are going to a school where another religion’s creation story is being taught as science, that your tax money is going to organizations that discriminate against you, and that there are organizations doing biased fake science research to “prove” that discrimination against you is okay. Would you be okay with that? If not, then don’t support it when your religion does it to other people.

Lastly, on a more personal note, don’t assume that I only dislike religion because I’m from a Muslim family and that I would change my mind if I learned about Christianity. I actually considered Christianity and found that I disagree with it as well. I’m an atheist because I don’t see evidence for God; if I saw the evidence, I would believe in God.




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