Today’s post in our series of guest contributors is by Vladimir Chituc, President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. Like previous guest contributors Lucy Gubbins and Heidi Anderson, Vladimir wrestles with the issue of how atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and the like should approach religion and the religious, and how the larger movement might work toward establishing some shared goals. Without further ado:

divideAs a relative newcomer to the broader skeptic and humanist movement, I’ll admit that I was somewhat at a loss when Chris first approached me to write a guest post. Though I spend eleven months of every year in the implicitly secular and liberal North East, an area with an underlying atmosphere suggestive of religion and atheism as private affairs that publicly hold little importance, I was raised in a conservative and devout small town where I’ve been able to catch a small glimpse of religion’s ills so well documented and addressed by my more vocal and aggressive superiors in our movement.

I find this internal disparity even more jarring when interacting with my religious classmates that have proven to be consistently liberal, accepting of contrary viewpoints, and just generally wonderful people. So as an ardent skeptic and atheist, I find this leaves me in a somewhat interesting position in the supposed “accommodationist” vs. “confrontationist” dispute.

Where can I side on a debate so stereotypically framed as a conflict between skeptical rationality and pragmatic cooperation when I strongly value both? Do I promote rationality and consequently alienate potential local allies, or do I work to build bridges while spurning those who legitimately address religion’s ills elsewhere?

I’d like to think that these two values — skepticism and cooperation — are not intrinsically at odds. So while I, like some others, am in the process of forging my own interfaith ties and promoting rationality within my own group, I try to keep the following points in mind. I hope to share these with the humble hope that some others may find in them some relevance.

There is no set of consistent values that intrinsically unite the non-religious movement. If we are only brought together by a belief that we don’t share, should a disagreement on our values or how to implement them surprise us at all? Some of us are going to be really interested in interacting and cooperating with those of faith, while others of us are going to find the idea inane and counterproductive.

Instead of calling each other insufferable morons or atheist fundamentalists, we might consider valuing the unique perspectives we all bring to the table. My group runs that gamut from ardent anti-theists to proponents of an abstract deism perhaps recognizable only by Spinoza, and yet somehow we get past these differences and find our conversations so much more interesting despite noo unifying philosophy.

We should take deep pride in the diversity of thought and opinion that is the hallmark of a freethinking group, and not expect a completely unified position. In an open marketplace of ideas, competition and disagreement should be seen as a source of value and innovation, not as a source of bitter conflict.

Bridge-building is awesome, but we should start with each other. If we can recognize the importance of reaching out to those of faith, then we can surely recognize the importance of reaching out to our disagreeing non-religious peers as well. We so easily see the tribal in-group/out-group mentality that leads to much of the bigotry that we condemn in religion and other groups, yet it’s becoming increasingly common on both sides of the accommodation/confrontation debate to turn a blind-eye and practice that exact same thing.

When we marginalize an entire group of people simply as an “other,” we commit the egregious error of attributing the worst stereotypes of a group to the individuals of that group. P.Z. Myers becomes a monster that would punch a well-intentioned grandmother for saying “God bless you” following a sneeze, and atheists interested in interfaith work are painted as only seeking the approval of the religious while abandoning their atheist peers.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re on the same side and have many of the same goals, and, though we may disagree on some finer points, we certainly both play an important role. It might behoove us to see each other as allies with different but overlapping values, while rejecting any divisive language that serves no other purpose but to alienate each other.

We’re already a small enough group as it is; do we want to make ourselves even smaller? So it might be best to follow Chris’ lead, reach out to each other, and…

Focus on the values that we do share. I know I started this piece by saying that there are no values that intrinsically unite anyone in non-belief, but I’m not contradicting myself; by being a non-believer there are no values that you must have. But I think there are still some values that most, if not all of us, can agree on — even if just pragmatically.

Though the non-religious movement may tend to branch out in different directions at its extremities, there remains a core of shared values that can be focused on. If we can find common ground with the religious, we can definitely find common ground with each other.

Can we all agree that a society based on secularism, not theocracy, is the best kind of society, and that no one should have any kind of belief forced on them? Can we all agree on the importance of science education and free thought, while denouncing compulsory adherence to preferential and localized dogma?

I realize that I’m not an expert or an authority so I don’t have these answers, but I think this is a job that the leaders of our movement can work together on. Because if we talk to each other and find this common ground, then while we are in the process of drawing out this picture of our values with their own relative hues of importance, we can subdivide ourselves further based on whatever weight we choose to give any one in particular, be it skepticism, cooperation, or something else entirely.

If we all know how we fit into the broader non-religious picture, then we can work toward our own values while keeping in line with those that we share. So long as we all can work toward forwarding and promoting these common values, I don’t think any of us can say that anyone else is doing it wrong.

VladVladimir Chituc is a junior at Yale University and the President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. A self-identified skeptic, atheist, and secular humanist, he’s currently majoring in psychology and studying philosophy in order to better understand religious thought and its origins.

  • Hitch

    Bravo, exactly how I look at things, perhaps with a minor caveat.

    See people keep trying to divide people apart. That is indeed the issue, there is a lot of labeling, branding, upset, and dividing going on. Often views are exaggerated or pulled out of context. Denunciations and crass comparisons all to be had.

    Yet somehow it is bridge building to shame some people for having a different idea what is important to them. We have to put them down because they don’t have positive experiences with religions. We have to otherize them as “aggressive”.

    So that leave me with the minor quibble in that we should follow Chris’ lead only on some matters. Not those where he denounces, shames, makes white supremacist comparisons or hosts people who call others haters and bigots, or denounces Greta Christina for having uttered 3 numbers. We do follow real bridge building that does not otherize, that understands that there are different ways and different identities and that we can work with and through that.

    Sadly I also have to take a minor caveat at your conclusion. I fully agree with the spirit. But there are lines in the sand. There are values to be had. There are situations where we have to speak. Those are the tricky ones and often the most important ones. In that sense I can defend Chris. He saw a line for him and drew it in the sand. I disagree with him on it, but I want him to draw the line. Others draw their lines. Such as that violence against artists is not OK. To learn how to deal with these tougher issues is the real lesson to be learned and to understand that these lines at times have to be drawn but that what we should seek to find is the positive goals that have to inform them and that the ultimate goal is perhaps a friendly, inclusive, pluralistic world, where diverse people with diverse experiences and needs can live nicely.

    • http://yale.edu/ssa Vlad Chituc

      Hitch,
      I’m inclined to think we agree on more than you might initially think. I’m in no way saying that the way “accomodationalist” do it is the way everyone should do it. And I’m in no way saying that there is no room for aggression.

      In fact my entire point is that we can all have your lines in the sand, our different values, but recognize that we are not a one-size fits all group. It is not that you value rationality and skepticism and Chris values cooperation. How absurd a distinction to make, as if this is somehow a conflict of values. Rather it’s a conflict in either what weight we give to any specific value in comparison to others, or complete non-value related ideas. Perhaps I was unclear, but I was trying to suggest that we all have these underlying values that manifest in different ways in different relative weights.

      For example, the abortion debate is not a debate on whether life is valuable or whether women should have autonomy. Rather, it’s a debate on what value to place what life, what life even is, and how to weigh seemingly conflicting rights of different entities. None of these are conflicts of value directly.

      I recognize we can value different things in different weights, and I hope to share the idea that we *shouldn’t* expect our values to overlap entirely. To criticize someone for having different weights, especially in an inflammatory way, is counterproductive and irrational. Especially when they stem purely from unique circumstances (say growing up in a bigoted small town, or in a neighborhood with a close muslim friend).

      I’m in no way saying we should unify by eradicating any values that may clash with the hive-mind, but rather we can appreciate that we all disagree, and take it as a source of diversity and strength, rather than a source of conflict. Let Chris argue with Gretta Christina, or defend his muslim friends. Also feel free to disagree and let him know you why you do (as you are prone to do so respectfully). But to pretend we must be unified on all ideas and all fronts, and show rudeness to anyone who doesn’t fit your picture of unity is absurd.

      I know Greg Epstein personally and he’s a wonderful person, but I entirely disagree with his assessment of the new atheists as fundamentalists or evangelical in any way. I find any such comparison completely lazy and divisive. He does provide a legitimate warning though: we, in some way or another, are opposed to the way religions do things. And we must be careful not to emulate such divisive and hateful behavior, which, not too ironically, comes most often from those hoping to connect with the religious. So believe me, I do see the frustration from the “confrontationalist” side as well.

      So to sum up my sentiments: Lets not sell each other out, lets not be dicks to each other, and let’s appreciate the fact that we disagree and should disagree and it is an awesome opportunity and resource.

      /incoherent rant.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        “I know Greg Epstein personally and he’s a wonderful person, but I entirely disagree with his assessment of the new atheists as fundamentalists or evangelical in any way.”

        It is a mistake and a mischaracterization of Greg’s views to say that he sees the new atheists as “fundamentalists”, as he has repeatedly stated. I’m not sure how this misunderstanding became so widespread, but it is not true, and should be propagated no longer, as it harms the image of the excellent work going on at the Humanist Chaplaincy.

        Would you offer a retraction?

      • Hitch

        Perhaps Greg should explain why he then mischaracterized student’s behavior on Draw Muhammad day as well and issue a retraction on that.

        http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/05/20/my-take-everyone-chalk-mohammed/?hpt=Sbin

        He has created an anti-outspoken image by bashing those who are outspoken. Also his book speaks negatively of new atheists.

        But perhaps it would be nice to have Greg guest-blog and explain all this.

      • Vlad Chituc

        Pardon my shorthand, James. Perhaps I somewhat overstated, but for the sake of disclosure let’s replace the words “assessment of” with “comparison with,” and instead of Greg, lets say a press release sent out by Greg put together by him and the New Humanist organizers, and lets just move the quotes from “atheist fundamentalists” to atheist “fundamentalists”

        That’s as far as I’ll go, and it’s foolish to pretend it makes such of a difference at all. My point, to restate is that “I find any such comparison completely lazy and divisive.” The entire thought is entirely contradictory, the analogy nonsensical, and the words shouldn’t ever be seen in such close proximity, ironic quotes or not.

        I do not dispute, in fact I actively laud, the great work that Greg has done for Humanism and at Harvard, but please acknowledge that we are not religion. We do not have perfect leaders. And supporting and appreciating someone’s work does not preclude you from making an open, honest, and justified criticism of someone’s statement.

        I am actually somewhat offended that you simultaneously assume my knowledge of the topic is so cursory, while pretending as if Greg had done no wrong. So no, I will not offer a retraction.

        To bring this back to my original topic, we should be able to tell even close friends that they made a mistake and might just be wrong about something. We shouldn’t pretend like disagreeing with or criticizing someone somehow invalidates their behavior, work, or value as a person.

        If we are so concerned with the image of the Humanist Chaplaincy, perhaps they should be more careful with how they word their press releases.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        @Hitch:

        “Perhaps Greg should explain why he then mischaracterized student’s behavior on Draw Muhammad day as well and issue a retraction on that.”

        I do not see anywhere in that article where Epstein mischaracterizes unfairly the behaviour of certain students. I simply see a well-reasoned, respectful and conscientious disagreement.

        “He has created an anti-outspoken image by bashing those who are outspoken.”

        Bashing is an odd term for unusually polite criticism.

        “Also his book speaks negatively of new atheists.”

        In the sense that he thinks more is needed than critique of religion, yes. In the unfairly pejorative sense suggested by the tone of your response, not at all, and I challenge you to demonstrate otherwise.

        None of your points pertain to mine, which was the inaccurate claim that Epstein referred to the new atheists, or believes them to be, fundamentalists.

        @Vlad:

        Thank you for refining your comments.

        I am shocked that you found my post offensive. You say that I “assume [your] knowledge of the topic is…cursory”, but I can see nowhere in my post where I say anything that can be interpreted in such a way. Perhaps you have misread me?

        You certainly have misread the press release which you mention (as did a great many people, it seems), and I do not quite understand, as I said before, how it is that a statement intended to demonstrate the oddness of applying the term “fundamentalist” to atheists was in fact read in precisely the opposite way to how it was written.

        With respect, there is all the difference in the world between calling someone, in print, an ‘atheist “fundamentalist”‘ and an “atheist fundamentalist”. The first clearly indicates that the term “fundamentalist” is considered by the author to be inappropriate, while the second suggests the author endorses the term. This is a very common use of so-called “scare quotes”, which in most contexts does not provoke this perverse reading. I can see no fair way whatsoever that anyone seeing the actual text of the press release could think that Epstein endorses the term “fundamentalist” as applied to any atheists whatsoever, as he has repeatedly clarified online and elsewhere.

        I am saddened that so many both recognize the distinction between what the press release said and what it was erroneously reported to have said, and yet deny the obvious semantic difference that punctuation makes in this case.

        I entirely agree with you when you say that we must create an environment in which the nonreligious can debate and disagree with each other, in which we do not believe that “disagreeing with or criticizing someone somehow invalidates their behavior, work, or value as a person.” It is therefore ironic that you seem to wish to perpetuate an entirely unfair misrepresentation of the words of someone with which you happen to disagree based on shoddy reporting and bad reading of what they actually said.

        I push back hard on this because it impacts my own work with the Chaplaincy, which takes up much of my spare time, and because I think we should hold ourselves to high standards of intellectual honesty. I think that means holding people accountable for what they actually said, and not for what they did not say.

      • Hitch

        James, you say:

        “None of your points pertain to mine, which was the inaccurate claim that Epstein referred to the new atheists, or believes them to be, fundamentalists.”

        Look, Greg has in various places articulated positions like this:

        http://www.secularstudents.org/node/602

        Greg is actually not horrible about these things. He early on around the time of that interview driven that story line that new atheism/anti-religious “fundamentalism” is just like religious fundamentalism.

        Sadly that just fit straight into other narratives that in variable ways tried to depict the new atheists as extreme.

        That really shouldn’t detract from (a) Greg can change his mind on it, (b) Greg says many good things that one can agree with.

        Sadly the DMD incident is relevant because it goes into the same type of grievance. If secular people are outspoken, they are left out to dry and get depicted as worse than they really are.

        Compare this line by Greg:

        “I begrudgingly admit the Muslims’ approach in this incident is superior in humor and civility.”

        With the facts on the ground;

        http://wiscatheists.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2010-05-03T20%3A16%3A00-07%3A00&max-results=7

        And tell me that you honestly believe that the secular students got a fair representation in the CNN article. I don’t think they did.

        Nor did they get a fair representation in many places, but were instead subjected to all sorts of harsh comparisons (the whole swastika/racist/bigotry/haters barrage).

        But the whole point is that we can do better than this.

        Vlad’s article is pertinent. Can we move away from the blaming, shaming, denouncing, attacking, otherizing, towards a better place? That still remains the key point of the article.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        Hitch, what exactly are you seeking to demonstrate? Neither of the links you provide support the arguments you are trying to make, it seems to me. In one, Epstein speaks about what he calls “anti-religious fundamentalism”, which is very different to “atheist fundamentalism” or to calling specific individuals “fundamentalist” – Stalinism might be an example. He also says that “Some atheists want to erase religion, the way some religious fundamentalists want to erase humanism.” This does not equate religious fundamentalism with atheism, but merely points out a similarity between the views of some religious fundamentalists and some atheists. It is an accurate characterization, is it not?

        In the other, there is only an exchange of letters between two representatives of groups who disagree. Both letters are polite but firm. I see no evidence that Epstein, in the thoughtful and balanced CNN piece, misrepresented what was going on here. He suggests that the students “see themselves as standing up for free speech and free intellectual inquiry. They hope increasing the number of potential targets will make extremists think twice before attacking. And they earnestly believe no person should be so revered that they can not be drawn or spoken – that such reverence is simply a bad idea.” I think this is accurate. He calls them “good, smart people, trying to do the right thing”. I think that’s balanced.

        I just don’t see why people go out of the way to misrepresent his views. I find it profoundly frustrating, since it creates unnecessary division within our community, and makes us look like we can’t discuss amongst ourselves without getting into stupid arguments.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        I should add that there are a number of significant issues about which Greg and I disagree quite profoundly. We frequently have discussions about things where he and I take different positions. One important thing, to me, about our disagreements, though, is that they are based on a real understanding of what the other actually thinks. I feel this is a matter of courtesy and respect. That’s another reason why I’m pushing so hard at this (perhaps too hard, given the small nature of our quibble here!).

      • Hitch

        “Hitch, what exactly are you seeking to demonstrate?”

        Well, how about honesty? Fairness? Treating others well or at least describe their position accurately.

        Look you came out and claimed (and still claim) that Greg gets misrepresented. I think you are fine to claim that though I disagree. The views described here are fair enough. Noone is going after Greg, we have lots of good words for him.

        But I will not lie just to get you to be happy. I will not deny what I perceive and know.

        What are you trying to achieve by micro-mincing quotes and phrases?

        “Neither of the links you provide support the arguments you are trying to make, it seems to me.”

        Oh yes, they do.

        “In one, Epstein speaks about what he calls “anti-religious fundamentalism”, which is very different to “atheist fundamentalism” or to calling specific individuals “fundamentalist” – Stalinism might be an example.”

        You pretend I’m a fool. Look we all understand in what context he said these things. It was at the height of the backlash against the new atheists. Numerous people at the time discussed how they are extremists, fundamentalists and so forth. In this backdrop Greg makes his remarks. If you want to pretend that he was just abstractly discussing Stalin, well go ahead. It does not convince me, especially in the light of other statements of his, including the press release and his book.

        I am NOT saying that Greg is anywhere near the worst of those leading negative associations on new atheism, but he is also not squeaky clean as you apparently try to get us to concede.

        But you bicker over quotes, ask us to deny context and so forth to pretend that we mischaracterize Greg. Now James, can you explain to me why that is?

        “”He also says that “Some atheists want to erase religion, the way some religious fundamentalists want to erase humanism.” This does not equate religious fundamentalism with atheism, but merely points out a similarity between the views of some religious fundamentalists and some atheists. It is an accurate characterization, is it not?”

        Erm no. Getting rid of religion is not the same as getting rid of humanism. We can have humanism without religion but we can also have religion without humanism. But we cannot have humanism without humanism. This is not symmetric.

        It is exactly what is wrong with equating new atheist with fundamentalists. To critique and oppose a world view is not the same as wanting to abandon humanism.

        But more importantly you quote exactly why I pointed to this. Now who are these “atheists” that he mentioned. It’s at the height of the new atheism wave and a backlash against it… you really want me to think it’s Stalin and Greg just happens to think it’s worthwhile articulating this now?

        “In the other, there is only an exchange of letters between two representatives of groups who disagree. Both letters are polite but firm.”

        So you did not see this:

        “I would like to inform you that, as far as we understand, the event you are planning is illegal by the constitution of the University of Wisconsin (88-12 RACIST AND OTHER DISCRIMINATORY CONDUCT POLICY). Deviating from this law will offend not only the UW Muslim Students Association but the entire Muslim community on this campus and other organization of similar culture and faith. The Dean of Students shall be contacted immediately.”

        I guess this is polite but firm. Very firm. Civil only in the sense as it is civil to start legalistic procedures against someone else.

        But that was not my point. Here is what Greg wrote:

        “I begrudgingly admit the Muslims’ approach in this incident is superior in humor and civility.”

        And you still insist that this fairly describes what went down? I’m sorry but I cannot take that as a serious position. Either you didn’t do your homework or you intentionally minimize this.

        Now let’s not forget that the MSA made true and the AHA did sit down with the dean though no wrong-doing by the AHA was established by the dean. The AHA did not take this badly and welcomed.

        Polite but firm (aka “civil”) to threaten university action on other student. And a great sense of humor!

        You wrote: “I see no evidence that Epstein, in the thoughtful and balanced CNN piece, misrepresented what was going on here.”

        James, either you have been negligent reading the web page, which is likely given how quickly you responded, or you are willfully ignoring the point I am making.

        “I just don’t see why people go out of the way to misrepresent his views.”

        I nowhere misrepresent his view. I make two claims:

        1) He put out the press release under discussion and it left a distinct impression in the community. He also gave interviews like the above and wrote about it in his book. All this at the height of the wave of new atheism.
        2) He presented the secular student as less humorous and civil than the muslim students neglecting to present what the secular and muslim students actually did during the events. This give the impression that the secular students were less civil and humorous when frankly that is not a fair characterization.

        I think both of these are perfectly fine. Do not mischaracterize Greg. It can be that Greg just didn’t do his homework. Or that other factors are at play. But that doesn’t mean that I or anybody has to take how Greg wrote the article is fair to the facts.

        “I find it profoundly frustrating, since it creates unnecessary division within our community, and makes us look like we can’t discuss amongst ourselves without getting into stupid arguments.”

        I agree, it does create unnecessary division in the community of people are misrepresented. That is exactly the point. New atheists were subject and still are subject to rather misrepresentation both from without and from within.

        To drive this point home: Do you think that the secular students were bigots, haters, comparable to swastika smearers? If no where were you standing up to defend the secular students against that mischaracterization?

        And isn’t that way worse than us bickering over quotes and how to precisely read Greg’s comments?

        Noone is accusing him of being a hater, or nazi-like after all.

        Or to put it differently are you sure you are looking at this the right way?

        And let me repeat Greg is really among the very good guys in this misunderstanding. It’s kind of horrible that he is topic of discussion. But you made him that. Vlad has nothing to correct and frankly you should know this. There are however plenty of people out there who should correct things. Why are you not calling on them to do it?

        The truth is of course that Chris Chavley holds unwelcome opinions like this:

        “The absurdity of the swastika comparison shines light on another elephant in the room – Eboo and his secular compatriots advocate a kind of “kumbaya” religious pluralism which is incompatible with an honest discussion about religion.”

        That is exactly the point. It’s the point of Vlad’s article as I read it and it’s my point. Can we have different opinions and honest discussions or do we have to be silent about anything that is uncomfortable?

        The elephant is still in the room, and you basically ask us to concede that we mischaracterized it. Well no. As long as there is no apology/retraction on all the smears the students were subjected to, I won’t be silent. And Greg has a very minor part in this. That we discuss him so much is indeed somewhat paradoxical, but only if we do not look at the bigger picture. Let’s quote what Vlad said again, that triggered all this:

        “I know Greg Epstein personally and he’s a wonderful person, but I entirely disagree with his assessment of the new atheists as fundamentalists or evangelical in any way. I find any such comparison completely lazy and divisive.”

        You know the solution to this is trivial. Greg can write a comment clarifying his position. You mincing over quotes does very little to our perception of what Greg’s position is given what he has written.

        And why is protecting Greg over placements of quotes more important than perhaps protecting secular students from uncalled-for and frankly outrageous nazi/racism/bigotry/hatred comparisons?

        You are a humanist. How about being humane to all?

        And sadly Vlad article made a brilliant point. Why are you not giving voice to what the article has to contribute?

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        Hitch, I find the tone and content of your response entirely out of proportion to the specific issue I have raised and defended, and to the way I have raised and defended it, which I see as being respectful, clear, specific and conciliatory. I take the time to respond to you because it seems like you are upset by what I have said, and it isn’t my intent to cause anyone upset. I want to engage in productive, positive discourse here, and I think what I’ve written is in that spirit.

        You say you wish to promote “honesty? Fairness? Treating others well or at least describe their position accurately.” That’s fantastic – we both have the same aims. I have stated that twice in this discussion. I am glad we both agree on the importance of this. It seems to me that in order to describe others’ position well we need to look at what they actually said – a practice that you repeatedly criticize me for in your response. I do not think this a defensible position.

        I do not ask you to “lie” or to “deny what I perceive and know.” I give you no reason to think I wish you to do this. Nor am I “micro-mincing quotes and phrases”. Rather I am attempting to provide evidence to support my reasoned position. Something which, with regards to your claims about Greg’s books, you have not yet done. Would you prefer I disagree with you on the basis of no evidence?

        You misread my comment on Greg’s use of the term “anti-religious fundamentalism” – I provide the example of Stalin, not Greg. Perhaps I was unclear on this point. But it does not seem to me fair to suggest that this is the same as, for example, saying “Christopher Hitchens is an atheist fundamentalist”, or “Sam Harris is an anti-religious fundamentalist”. I see a very clear distinction between the two. Perhaps you do not – could you explain to me how you equate them?

        You again mention “other statements of his, including the press release and his book”, without giving specifics. I’ve already dealt with the press release, and you haven’t responded to what I had to say regarding that.

        You again criticize me for providing evidence in support of my views, which strikes me as odd.

        Your comment on the issue of “erasing religion” baffles me. I honestly do not know what you mean by the following:

        “Getting rid of religion is not the same as getting rid of humanism. We can have humanism without religion but we can also have religion without humanism. But we cannot have humanism without humanism. This is not symmetric.”

        Perhaps I’m not reading it right but your remark does not seem to me to be attached to the quote I presented. I was trying to point out that Greg is correct to say that “some atheists want to erase religion” and that “some religious fundamentalists want to erase humanism”. I can’t see any way one could disagree with such a statement, and your response does not clarify this for me.

        You then say “It is exactly what is wrong with equating new atheist with fundamentalists. To critique and oppose a world view is not the same as wanting to abandon humanism.” I entirely agree with you. But I can see no way in which the quoted passage can be read to suggest that Greg either equates any sort of atheism with fundamentalism with fundamentalism, or that he is suggesting anything regarding “abandoning humanism”. So I’m entirely confused as to what you mean. Could you please clarify, because I think I’m missing your point!

        You ask “you really want me to think it’s Stalin and Greg just happens to think it’s worthwhile articulating this now?” No, here it is clear he is critiquing the New Atheists. He just isn’t equating them with fundamentalists, as I have endeavoured to show. I also think it odd that, at the same time you criticize me for selecting particular quotes, you accept that I “quote exactly why I pointed to this”. This was precisely my purpose – I sought to find the section that would be most objectionable to you and defend it. That was my attempt at scrupulous intellectual honesty (something I take extremely seriously).

        You ask me if I saw the notification by the UW Muslim Students’ Association that they would be informing the Dean of Students of something that they considered to be racist and discriminatory. I did see that. It is, of course, the responsibility of ANY student, were they to witness or become aware of a plan for any other student to conduct an activity that is racist and discriminatory to report it to the proper authorities in good conscience. I see no reason why the group in question should not take this action and allow the Dean to decide the matter. If I were to become aware of a student group wishing to take an action that I honestly felt were discriminatory, I would certainly do the same. That is what such codes and bodies are for – to adjudicate these sorts of issues. That the Muslim group informed the AHA that it would be taking this action is another sign of civility. As you say, they followed through on their action, and the dean found in favour of the AHA – so, what is the problem here?

        You quote Greg saying that “I begrudgingly admit the Muslims’ approach in this incident is superior in humor and civility.” It seems clear to me from the context (wasn’t it you that was encouraging we take note of context?) of the articles that Greg here is referring to the addition of boxing gloves to the stick figures. I agree with him on this point, yes:

        “Several campus groups of nonreligious students affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance, of which I am a big supporter, have started a campaign to chalk smiling stick figures on their campus quads, labeling the figures “Mohammed.”

        Muslim students’ reaction? Add boxing gloves and re-label the drawings “Muhammad Ali.” As an atheist (or better yet, call me a Humanist: one who emphasizes doing good without God) who longs for fellow Humanists to gain respectability in this religious nation, I begrudgingly admit the Muslims’ approach in this incident is superior in humor and civility.”

        So, I intentionally minimize nothing. I object to the following: “James, either you have been negligent reading the web page, which is likely given how quickly you responded, or you are willfully ignoring the point I am making.” I have given clear reasons why I take the position I do, based on actual evidence from the texts YOU provided. I think the only evidence of “negligent reading” is on your part, particularly regarding the “erasing religion” quote which you seem to have entirely misconstrued. Nonetheless, I do accept I may be misreading your response, which is why I requested a clarification a little earlier.

        Your two claims:

        “1) He put out the press release under discussion and it left a distinct impression in the community. He also gave interviews like the above and wrote about it in his book. All this at the height of the wave of new atheism.”

        I accept all this, and it does not make your point. The press release was misquoted, which is unfortunate, and that “created a distinct impression”, agreed. But I don’t think the HCH is responsible for that. I have defended the interviews above. No evidence regarding the book has been presented.

        “2) He presented the secular student as less humorous and civil than the muslim students neglecting to present what the secular and muslim students actually did during the events. This give the impression that the secular students were less civil and humorous when frankly that is not a fair characterization.”

        I have dealt with this by demonstrating beyond doubt that what was being referred to was the boxing-gloves incident, which is manifestly clear when one reads the whole paragraph.

        I have answered both of yours claims to the letter, I think.

        You now become more personal in your critique, which I do not appreciate, but to which I will respond nonetheless. You ask:

        “Do you think that the secular students were bigots, haters, comparable to swastika smearers? If no where were you standing up to defend the secular students against that mischaracterization?”

        I do not, as I said so vociferously at the time (and as Greg says so in the article, as I have quoted), and as I said repeatedly at the AHA Annual Conference in San Jose to members of the SSA and others. I think such smears against well-meaning secular students are truly appalling, and I take every opportunity to say so – for example, I recently wrote a letter to a magazine which I felt unfairly referred to the new atheists as “fundamentalists” (look for my letter in this month’s Attitude, if it is printed). I also frequently feature articles which attack unfair mischaracterizations of nonbelievers at TheNewHumanism.org – see the current featured article for a very nuanced take on how non-belief was characterized as seditious by Gingrich, for example.

        It is unfair to chastise me for not doing something I am already doing, with a significantly bigger mouthpiece than most can muster.

        Regarding the importance of having honest, frank discussion regarding religion, I entirely agree with you. Nothing I have said suggests otherwise. I actually laughed out loud when I read the following quote: “Eboo and his secular compatriots advocate a kind of “kumbaya” religious pluralism which is incompatible with an honest discussion about religion.” I recently, in a planning meeting for a day of interfaith discussion about “The Future of Faith at Harvard”, said almost exactly the same thing, arguing vociferously against Eboo Patel’s model precisely because I felt it would stifle frank discussion. I went even further, in fact, and suggested that the model itself was discriminatory, as many of the questions presume religious faith from the outset, which makes me uncomfortable.

        I recently complained that a Harvard class I am taking seemed prejudiced against the nonreligious (which led to some difficult discussions, but ones I was willing to put myself forward to have), and am working through the same class to build better understanding of nonreligious people. So I take no advice from you on how I should speak out regarding smears against the nonreligious.

        If I can be frank with you for a moment Hitch: you make a lot of assumptions about me and my work without seeming to know anything whatsoever about my work or opinions, and this is both unfair and unwise.

        To conclude, “I entirely disagree with [any] assessment of the new atheists as fundamentalists or evangelical in any way. I find any such comparison completely lazy and divisive.” I also find that Greg Epstein has made such an assessment.

      • Hitch

        “Hitch, I find the tone and content of your response entirely out of proportion to the specific issue I have raised and defended, and to the way I have raised and defended it, which I see as being respectful, clear, specific and conciliatory.”

        Hmm. So you asking for a correction from Vlad was not out of proportion?

        I completely agree with you that this is all out of proportion. The swastika comparisons were out of proportion, the backlash against new atheism was out of proportion and us having these long comments over one sentence that Vlad wrote and you take exception too is out of proportion.

        “I take the time to respond to you because it seems like you are upset by what I have said, and it isn’t my intent to cause anyone upset.”

        Good, it isn’t anybody’s intend here to upset. That should be a given.

        “I want to engage in productive, positive discourse here, and I think what I’ve written is in that spirit.”

        Good. I agree that I think that this was your intent this was your intent. Asking people to retract a rather sensibly held position has however potentially other consequences. Vlad took it the way one might just take it.

        Let me repeat the simple solution: Greg can clarify his position. You do not have to ask anybody for retractions. If Greg thinks it’s wrong he can ask for one, or he can clarify his position. It really is as simple as that. Until then we have our diverse readings of what he has written.

        “It seems to me that in order to describe others’ position well we need to look at what they actually said – a practice that you repeatedly criticize me for in your response. I do not think this a defensible position.”

        Well, let’s see.

        “I do not ask you to “lie” or to “deny what I perceive and know.” I give you no reason to think I wish you to do this. Nor am I “micro-mincing quotes and phrases”. Rather I am attempting to provide evidence to support my reasoned position. Something which, with regards to your claims about Greg’s books, you have not yet done. Would you prefer I disagree with you on the basis of no evidence?”

        Seriously? No evidence? Well I gave an interview and I described the context in it.

        Do we really have to to through the whole row of 2007 again? We all understand that Greg claims that he is misquoted and we know how people read it in context at the time. Do I have to pull out all the links again? Is that really what you ask us to do because of one sentence?

        I’ll do it, just say go. The outcome will be what it was in 2007, both sides claiming to have the right to their perspective.

        But to claim that there is no evidence is laughable.

        In fact you do not counter my critique of your reading of the interview at all. Yet you come to me and charge that I present no evidence.

        Clearly I have to write a dissertaion about my perception of how Greg Epstein stands on this to be entitled and I have to defend that perception to a quote level. That is utterly ridiculous.

        “You misread my comment on Greg’s use of the term “anti-religious fundamentalism” – I provide the example of Stalin, not Greg.”

        No I understand your example as you intended it.

        “Perhaps I was unclear on this point. But it does not seem to me fair to suggest that this is the same as, for example, saying “Christopher Hitchens is an atheist fundamentalist”, or “Sam Harris is an anti-religious fundamentalist”. I see a very clear distinction between the two. Perhaps you do not – could you explain to me how you equate them?”

        I gave my explanation already. Context. I don’t see why I have to repeat my explanation. Again I’ll be happy to quote all the discussion that was the context of this.

        “You again mention “other statements of his, including the press release and his book”, without giving specifics. I’ve already dealt with the press release, and you haven’t responded to what I had to say regarding that.”

        Vlad has given his specifics, I have given the interview.

        How about we invert this. Can you tell me what Greg’s position actually is with respect to outspoken atheism and give me quotes the corroberate that?

        There is plenty. Greg did try to reconcile in various ways. If you want to defend him how about you actually quote what he has to say about new atheism?

        “Your comment on the issue of “erasing religion” baffles me. I honestly do not know what you mean by the following:

        “Getting rid of religion is not the same as getting rid of humanism. We can have humanism without religion but we can also have religion without humanism. But we cannot have humanism without humanism. This is not symmetric.”

        Perhaps I’m not reading it right but your remark does not seem to me to be attached to the quote I presented. I was trying to point out that Greg is correct to say that “some atheists want to erase religion” and that “some religious fundamentalists want to erase humanism”. I can’t see any way one could disagree with such a statement, and your response does not clarify this for me.”

        OK let me try again: Getting rid of humanism absolutely destroys humanism. Getting rid of religion does not necessarily absolutely destroy humanism. Getting rid of one or the other is not the same thing. This is not a clean parallel. It makes the fallacious assumption that all getting rid of religion is by definition anti-humanistic.

        But this is not the debate we are having, but as you brought this quote in as irrefutably correct I kind of have to respond to it.

        “You then say “It is exactly what is wrong with equating new atheist with fundamentalists. To critique and oppose a world view is not the same as wanting to abandon humanism.” I entirely agree with you. But I can see no way in which the quoted passage can be read to suggest that Greg either equates any sort of atheism with fundamentalism with fundamentalism, or that he is suggesting anything regarding “abandoning humanism”. So I’m entirely confused as to what you mean. Could you please clarify, because I think I’m missing your point!”

        This cartoon humorously depicts the fallacy.

        http://www.thegoodatheist.net/2009/08/no-new-atheism-isnt-fundamentalist/

        I’d love to have this debate, but perhaps it’s better to have it in a different context. Because you are right, this is (a) way out of proportion and (b) has nothing to do with your concern except that you insist on this debate to defend Greg’s own wordings.

        “You ask “you really want me to think it’s Stalin and Greg just happens to think it’s worthwhile articulating this now?” No, here it is clear he is critiquing the New Atheists. He just isn’t equating them with fundamentalists, as I have endeavoured to show. I also think it odd that, at the same time you criticize me for selecting particular quotes, you accept that I “quote exactly why I pointed to this”. This was precisely my purpose – I sought to find the section that would be most objectionable to you and defend it. That was my attempt at scrupulous intellectual honesty (something I take extremely seriously).”

        James, do you realize that it is virtually impossible to have a discussion on this level. I have to weed through a complex intermix of what Greg says and how you interpret things. The Stalin thing nowhere appears in Greg’s quote. I responded to your reading of it. Now you say I selectively quote, but I have no choice but take your quotes.

        Let’s put this back into context. You took objection to Vlad’s wording and explanation. Why do I have to microrespond to your reading that he meant stalin and not the new atheist when that is up for interpretation and that is my point!

        There is just no way to argue like this.

        “You ask me if I saw the notification by the UW Muslim Students’ Association that they would be informing the Dean of Students of something that they considered to be racist and discriminatory. I did see that. It is, of course, the responsibility of ANY student, were they to witness or become aware of a plan for any other student to conduct an activity that is racist and discriminatory to report it to the proper authorities in good conscience. I see no reason why the group in question should not take this action and allow the Dean to decide the matter. If I were to become aware of a student group wishing to take an action that I honestly felt were discriminatory, I would certainly do the same. That is what such codes and bodies are for – to adjudicate these sorts of issues. That the Muslim group informed the AHA that it would be taking this action is another sign of civility. As you say, they followed through on their action, and the dean found in favour of the AHA – so, what is the problem here?”

        You don’t take my point. My point was that Greg writes an article that claims that the MSA article showed more civility and humor than the secular students. You are entitled to think it’s perfectly humorous and civil to involve the dean on racism and discrimination charges. I reject this.

        It may be one of many possible legitimate moves, but it is not particularly civil and it is not particularly humorous, which is the VERY point.

        If you read Greg’s article you do not get a fair picture how each group behaved around the event. What went down and who was civil and humorous. The truth is that AHA actually behaved rather impeccably with great sense of humor and taking the unfriendly reactions with great maturity. Will any reader who does not do the background research walk away with that impression?

        That is my point. You go ahead and keep defending how all that is OK. It’s not.

        “You quote Greg saying that “I begrudgingly admit the Muslims’ approach in this incident is superior in humor and civility.” It seems clear to me from the context (wasn’t it you that was encouraging we take note of context?) of the articles that Greg here is referring to the addition of boxing gloves to the stick figures. I agree with him on this point, yes:

        “Several campus groups of nonreligious students affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance, of which I am a big supporter, have started a campaign to chalk smiling stick figures on their campus quads, labeling the figures “Mohammed.”

        Muslim students’ reaction? Add boxing gloves and re-label the drawings “Muhammad Ali.” As an atheist (or better yet, call me a Humanist: one who emphasizes doing good without God) who longs for fellow Humanists to gain respectability in this religious nation, I begrudgingly admit the Muslims’ approach in this incident is superior in humor and civility.””

        So you say that the whole article gives the right impression about secular student’s behavior, the muslim student’s behavior on the event overall etc? I reject this. No, he did not discuss how the dean was called on the secular students. Rather he discusses how their were humorous with the boxing gloves, but then he does not discuss how the secular students themselves celebrated that idea as positive!

        “So, I intentionally minimize nothing. I object to the following: “James, either you have been negligent reading the web page, which is likely given how quickly you responded, or you are willfully ignoring the point I am making.” I have given clear reasons why I take the position I do, based on actual evidence from the texts YOU provided.”

        Yes now you have apologized that the MSA called the dean on the AHA, but you have not addressed how that is missing from the article and hence how the respective student group’s behavior is not presented to the facts.

        We have the same evidence. Greg’s article and the student’s documentation of events beforehand. Noone I know has ever contested the validity of what the blog posts discuss by the way.

        “I think the only evidence of “negligent reading” is on your part, particularly regarding the “erasing religion” quote which you seem to have entirely misconstrued.”

        This is covered above. I’ll ignore the undertone.

        “Your two claims:

        “1) He put out the press release under discussion and it left a distinct impression in the community. He also gave interviews like the above and wrote about it in his book. All this at the height of the wave of new atheism.”

        I accept all this, and it does not make your point. The press release was misquoted, which is unfortunate, and that “created a distinct impression”, agreed. But I don’t think the HCH is responsible for that. I have defended the interviews above. No evidence regarding the book has been presented.”

        Well if you have peace of mind I guess it’s OK.

        ““2) He presented the secular student as less humorous and civil than the muslim students neglecting to present what the secular and muslim students actually did during the events. This give the impression that the secular students were less civil and humorous when frankly that is not a fair characterization.”

        I have dealt with this by demonstrating beyond doubt that what was being referred to was the boxing-gloves incident, which is manifestly clear when one reads the whole paragraph.”

        See above.

        “I have answered both of yours claims to the letter, I think.”

        Well I disagree, see above.

        “You now become more personal in your critique, which I do not appreciate, but to which I will respond nonetheless. You ask:

        “Do you think that the secular students were bigots, haters, comparable to swastika smearers? If no where were you standing up to defend the secular students against that mischaracterization?”

        I do not, as I said so vociferously at the time (and as Greg says so in the article, as I have quoted), and as I said repeatedly at the AHA Annual Conference in San Jose to members of the SSA and others. I think such smears against well-meaning secular students are truly appalling, and I take every opportunity to say so – for example, I recently wrote a letter to a magazine which I felt unfairly referred to the new atheists as “fundamentalists” (look for my letter in this month’s Attitude, if it is printed). I also frequently feature articles which attack unfair mischaracterizations of nonbelievers at TheNewHumanism.org – see the current featured article for a very nuanced take on how non-belief was characterized as seditious by Gingrich, for example.”

        Good, perhaps you should have a word with Eboo and Chris about this. I have heard at best vague, non-specific distancing such as “This is not to say the secular students are bigots seeking to cause offense, as some have suggested.” in Greg’s article, however he never came out and said that Eboo’s words were unfair to the students. If you did do that I’ll be happy to see the quote (evidence!). I think it would be very good to see a clear position of the TheNewHumanism.org on this, as you claim it has.

        “It is unfair to chastise me for not doing something I am already doing, with a significantly bigger mouthpiece than most can muster.”

        I think that’s great. If you have called out against Eboo’s article and blog posts here in a similar tone, I’m glad. If I have missed it I apologize. But I do want to see it. I have pressed for explanations and apologies here with no luck.

        “Regarding the importance of having honest, frank discussion regarding religion, I entirely agree with you. Nothing I have said suggests otherwise.”

        And I have never claimed that I think you stand otherwise. My point was that this vilification of outspoken atheists has exactly that outcome. Mischaracterizing them is OK and all too often left uncountered, in fact sometimes to the cheer of a crowd that praises how we want a more civil discourse (where civil really means that diverging views are silent).

        “I actually laughed out loud when I read the following quote: “Eboo and his secular compatriots advocate a kind of “kumbaya” religious pluralism which is incompatible with an honest discussion about religion.” I recently, in a planning meeting for a day of interfaith discussion about “The Future of Faith at Harvard”, said almost exactly the same thing, arguing vociferously against Eboo Patel’s model precisely because I felt it would stifle frank discussion.”

        Good, I’m glad we agree. It feels very lonely arguing this position.

        “I went even further, in fact, and suggested that the model itself was discriminatory, as many of the questions presume religious faith from the outset, which makes me uncomfortable.”

        Great, I couldn’t agree more.

        “I recently complained that a Harvard class I am taking seemed prejudiced against the nonreligious (which led to some difficult discussions, but ones I was willing to put myself forward to have), and am working through the same class to build better understanding of nonreligious people. So I take no advice from you on how I should speak out regarding smears against the nonreligious.”

        You do not have to take any advice from me. All I can tell you that Vlad’s post here is one of the very first that actually tries to make this very point. Create a space where nonreligious can speak broadly and freely, without that leading to divisiveness.

        I understand that Greg is in a difficult position. Some people really do hate new atheists, and some people are not very nice to the religious either. How to navigate that space is very difficult and he is smack middle. I have a lot of sympathy.

        Greg cannot easily rebuke Eboo either. They have to work together. And it shouldn’t be necessary. I shouldn’t have to complain about ad hominems. It shouldn’t be necessary either. But that is the difficulty of this space. How can we not have people be stuck with an image they do not deserve, but this has to include everybody. Not just Greg, Eboo, yourself. It has to include the secular students, the new atheists, the religious. Basically everybody.

        I sense we agree. But I can tell you that when I advocate for this I do not make friends. Some mischaracterizations are more important than others. I’m looking forward to us actually advocating for this on the same level.

        And what do we do? We argue over a point that is, frankly 2007.

        Look we seem to want to get out of divisiveness and find open discussion. We have a minute difference in interpretation of Greg’s position. The only person who can really resolve this is Greg.

        We can keep going over reading of the texts we have on the table so far. I can happily add more of the 2007 discussion for example if you really really think that adds anything.

        I think the point is quite simple. Vlad’s perspective is sensible. Greg can clarify if it doesn’t represent his views. That’s it.

        As for mischaracterizing, I’m looking forward to you advocating on the point. I actually do appreciate it. But given what atheist have had to take, especially around here, you have to excuse that that one sentence of Vlad, given all the discussion the topic already had, does not tickle my fance as a topic for this kind of elaborate discussion we are having on it. Else people will believe that we are emotional robots, out to offend, extremists, and nasty. And I know the both of us do not want this.

        “If I can be frank with you for a moment Hitch: you make a lot of assumptions about me and my work without seeming to know anything whatsoever about my work or opinions, and this is both unfair and unwise.”

        Sure, I ask for honesty so be frank. If you feel I make assumptions then take my apology. It certainly is not intended. I can only judge by what I know. I have never seen you advocate in defense of the secular students around DMD. Around here I am largely alone in trying to defend some fair characterization of what happened. So yes, perhaps I am a burned child. Fairness is a rare commodity. I cannot say I get it a lot in debates. I do try. So take this as my intent. I do not mince words either and I understand that at times this comes off as abrasive. But some observations are unpleasant and the ability to work through them is the very thing I seek to protect. I’m sure you appreciate the difficulty. In short I do not question your intentions at all, and what I say is from the prism of what I know. I don’t mean harm to anybody, but I also cannot in good faith not say certain things.

        “To conclude, “I entirely disagree with [any] assessment of the new atheists as fundamentalists or evangelical in any way. I find any such comparison completely lazy and divisive.” I also find that Greg Epstein has made such an assessment.”

        I think you meant to say “no such” and I accept that as your position.

        How about we return discussion to the key aspect of Vlad’s article. That’s really what tickles my fancy. We really should be largely in agreement on it.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        I wrote a long reply to this before reading your last few paragraphs and then deleted it – you’re right, this isn’t worth disagreeing over. We agree on the substantive issue. If you ever are around Cambridge come visit the Chaplaincy (come to one of our weekly discussions) and we can show you precisely how we foster the sort of open environment for dialogue you crave.

      • Vlad Chituc

        Sorry to butt in, but I do think we are largely in agreement here. As I think we’ve all admitted at this point, perhaps we did go too into detail into what really was only a minor point in my piece. I admit I somewhat overstated I’m sure what Greg’s true views are, but I find I’m largely satisfied with how I presented my views. To continue this any further would be to split hairs and I believe be somewhat contrary to the original intent of my writing.

        I do agree that I find both of you to be wonderfully engaging, opinionated, and knowledgeable. James, I’ll of course be at Harvard for the Game, so I’d love to see the Humanist Chaplaincy, and touch base with both you and Greg, so I’d love to discuss things further with you then.

        And Hitch, if you ever find yourself in Connecticut do send me an email. I’d love to meet with you and discuss some of your ideas more in depth.

        First and foremost I’d like to see the non-religious movement stop trying to divide itself so forcefully among party lines, lest we turn into the parody presented by Southpark with Richard Dawkins.

      • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

        Vlad – seriously shoot Greg and email so we can meet up before or after we annihilate you in the Game. Wait, did I just start another argument? =D

      • Hitch

        Thanks for the kind invitations. And may be best team/color/dog/mascot win.

  • Hitch

    Vlad, I think you are quite right. I didn’t mean to imply that you defend an “accommodation-only” position. I read you as saying that we can find commonality in diversity and I agree without reservation. Really I gave a lot of space to very minor nuance.

    I agree that this idea of lock-step unification isn’t working and a distraction and I certainly agree of your assessment of what is troubling with many people’s assessment of supposed atheist fundamentalism.

    But I’m a bit of a burned child, because when I try to advocate for this kind of position around here I’m not getting positive responses, so I’m glad that you bring out that position. I really think this is the the core of how we shall do things, and Greta Christina also tried to articulate a very similar position.

    We are a diverse crowd. We can see that is a plus or as a reason to divide. I think the former is the right attitude and I’m glad you see it that way too. Ultimately interfaith is exactly the same. It’s a diverse crowd on an even larger scale and we cannot operate by hiding difference, but working with and through it.

    • http://thenewhumanism.org James Croft

      I want to say that I entirely agree with this post, Hitch, in case it seems we disagree on the substantive issue!

      • Hitch

        I think our disagreement is minute. It’s take a lot of time to deal with minute disagreements at times ;)

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  • http://ju mulualem alemayehu

    i agreee all

  • http://ju mulualem alemayehu

    no more religion in the world