Monthly Archives: September 2014

I’ve been tossing around what to say about this movie since I saw it last night. It’s been more difficult than I thought because I enjoyed it and would like to convey that basic fact but many of the things I want to say sound like criticisms. It’s very predictable. That’s not necessarily bad. It’s sweet. That’s not bad, either. The humor is very gentle. Also, not a bad thing.

It’s a true story, but ever since Dallas Buyer’s Club and Philomena I’ve started finding myself feeling suspicious of true stories, especially ones that get their emotional impact from interactions among characters that may or may not have happened.

The movie lurches from one feel good moment to another. That sounds rather ridiculous, but it mostly works, especially if you’re a certain age and really enjoy eighties dance music. Since I’m used to the idea of a script centering on conflict this did have me feeling like the movie was about to end at five or six different moments. The movie’s plot is about a group of gay activists who raise money to help striking mine workers in Wales during the Thatcher era. The main conflict centers around whether or not the miners will be willing to accept help from gays, who were still seen as being a little disreputable at that time. About fifteen minutes into the movie, a representative of the miners comes to London to thank the group for its help. The miner, Dai, takes the stage in a gay bar and there is some grumbling. Will gays accept the miners? Dai makes a short, humble speech and ends it with a gentle joke. Cue the eighties dance music! I might have thought it was the end, but I had barely settled into my chair. The rest of the movie felt like one feel-good climax after another. More dance music!

At some point I realized that I was more or less the same age as many of the younger gay activists in the movie. Despite being on the other side of the Atlantic, I remember the Thatcher era quite well. This movie will not change your life, or even change your opinion about anything. On the other hand, it’s a light upbeat comedy, so maybe I’m asking too much of it. It’s perfectly manipulative. When they started singing “Bread and Roses” the cynical side of me wanted to say, “Oh, come the fuck on,” yet the emotional side of me found myself getting caught up in it anyway. The acting was solid throughout. Perhaps rather than calling it “manipulative” I should say it’s “polished.” For a bisexual whose grandfather was a Wobbly and whose great-grandfather was a miner and who rather misses eighties dance clubs, this movie definitely massaged all the right spots.

Pride aroused a great amount of nostalgia in me, for a time when people who were interested in social justice were liable to be interested in economic justice as well and for a time when gay culture was less interested in bourgeois respectability than it is today. Now, if you pardon me, I need to go dye my hair funny colors and find a dance club that caters to old people.


Via Kaveh Mousavi:

A blogger found guilty of insulting the Prophet Mohammad in his postings on Facebook has been sentenced to death. An informed source told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that the blogger, Soheil Arabi, will be able to appeal the decision until September 20, 2014.

Agents from the Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Sarallah Base arrested Soheil Arabi, 30, and his wife in November 2013. Arabi’s wife was released a few hours later, but he was kept in solitary confinement for two months inside IRGC’s Ward 2-A at Evin Prison, before he was transferred to Evin’s General Ward 350. Branch 76 of the Tehran Criminal Court, under Judge Khorasani, found Arabi guilty of “sabb al-nabi” (insulting the Prophet), on August 30, 2014.


“Soheil had eight Facebook pages under different names, and he was charged with insulting the Imams and the Prophet because of the contents of those pages. He has accepted his charges, but throughout the trial, he stated that he wrote the material without thinking and in poor psychological condition,” the source told the Campaign.

(Source: International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran)

Kaveh Mousavi added:

I think it’s more likely that they will not execute him. But please share this widely, if you have a blog, blog about it: let it become major news. Maybe the international pressure of public opinion will save this man.


George Jacob Holyoake, a British writer and newspaper editor, coined the term “secularism” in 1851. In his book, English Secularism, he quotes Harriet Martineau, the British sociologist and Unitarian,

The adoption of the term Secularism is justified by its including a large number of persons who are not Atheists, and uniting them for action which has Secularism for its object, and not Atheism.

Although this statement sets up a contrast that distinguishes Secularism from Atheism, in the rest Holyoake’s book the line is blurred. For instance, he contrasts “Secular education” and “Secularism”:

Secular education is by some confounded with Secularism, whereas the distinction between them is very wide. Secular education simply means imparting Secular knowledge separately—by itself, without admixture of Theology with it. The advocate of Secular education may be, and generally is, also an advocate of religion; but he would teach religion at another time and treat it as a distinct subject, too sacred for coercive admixture into the hard and vexatious routine of a school. He would confine the inculcation of religion to fitting seasons and chosen instruments. He holds also that one subject at a time is mental economy in learning. Secular education is the policy of a school—Secularism is the policy of life to those who do not accept Theology.

Today, The National Secular Society in the UK defines secularism in the following way:

Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

They go on to specify:

Secularism is not atheism

Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Secularism simply provides a framework for a democratic society. Atheists have an obvious interest in supporting secularism, but secularism itself does not seek to challenge the tenets of any particular religion or belief, neither does it seek to impose atheism on anyone.

Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike.

This more closely resembles the concept of the separation of church and state rather than Secularism as it is used by Holyoake. Citizens of the United States may have taken notice that the coinage of the word “secularism” post-dates the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The word secularism may have two possible meanings, but there is no other single word which is used to describe the concept that the state should be neutral in matters pertaining to religion.

Although the word secularism was not coined until 1851, its root, secular, has been around since the fourteenth century, and means earthly, worldly, temporal or profane, as opposed to spiritual, or sacred. We find it being used by John Milton in Paradise Lost.

Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places and titles, and with these to joine
Secular power, though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God, promisd alike and giv’n
To all Beleevers; and from that pretense,
Spiritual Lawes by carnal power shall force
On every conscience; Laws which none shall finde
Left them inrould, or what the Spirit within
Shall on the heart engrave.

This appears in the last book when the angel Michael tells Adam what lies in store for humanity. This summary is inflected with Milton’s own ideas regarding liberty. He describes corruption in the Church. The representatives of the Church seek worldly, or secular power while pretending to still be spiritual. With this power they shall force their law on every conscience. This passage is not surprising since Milton argued for a separation of church and state and religious toleration, as least as far as Christian sects were concerned.

Although the notion that the state should refrain from involvement in religious affairs has antecedents stretching back to at least the Ancient Greeks, much of our contemporary understanding of the concept comes from the Enlightenment. We owe a tremendous debt to John Locke for many of the concepts the make the modern world modern and the concept of the separation of church and state is not least among them.

The American and French Revolutions would give a chance for many of these ideas, including the idea of secularism, or laïcité in French, to be put into practice. However, many Western countries would not follow for a long time. England, with a monarch who is also the head of the Church of England, is a particularly difficult case. Until 1778 Catholics were unable to own land or to keep a school. In 1791 further restrictions were removed from Catholics and 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed, allowing Catholics to serve in Parliament, although a few restrictions remained in place. Although nonconforming Protestants were not persecuted as severely, they were not allowed to hold civil or military office. To matriculate from Oxford or to graduate from Cambridge it was necessary to be taking communion in the established Anglican Church. The Anglican Church today is still the official state religion of England, although not of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

As in England in the nineteenth century, in the United States during a comparable period the strongest supporters of the separation of church and state were religious minorities like the Baptists. The separation of church and state protect religious minorities even more than it does non-believers, as atheists have no religious practice to be restricted.

Support for a separation of church and state is an essential protection of the liberty of all individuals. It is distinct, and entirely so, from atheism. It is a position about the best way to order the temporal authority of the state regarding spiritual matters. Secularism, has often been the word used to describe this political viewpoint.

2. The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition


1. (Philosophy) philosophy a doctrine that rejects religion, esp in ethics
2. the attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged


2. the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the influence of religious beliefs.

Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary


1. a view that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or excluded from social and political matters.

-Ologies & -Isms.

It is essential in our current political climate that we have a word for this. I grew up believing that word was “secularism.” Apparently Jaques Berlinerblau did so as well. He calls the association of secularism with atheism “groundless.” Until I started researching for this post I thought so too. However he does note, and I believe rightly, that the religious right has profited from this confusion.

Second, for secularism to reinvigorate itself it needs to reclaim its traditional base of religious people. As I noted in my forthcoming book, the secular vision was birthed by religious thinkers, such as Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the last two, admittedly were idiosyncratic believers, but believers nonetheless).

Throughout American history it has been groups like Baptists, Jews, progressive Catholics as well as countless smaller religious minorities who have championed secular political ideas. But religious believers today, even moderate religious believers, will not sign on to secularism if they think it’s merely the advocacy arm of godlessness.

He also points out:

Yet it is not only foes, but friends of secularism, who sometimes make this mistake as well. Nowadays most major atheist groups describe themselves as “secular.” Many are in fact good secularists. But others, as we shall see, are beholden to assumptions that are strikingly at odds with the secular worldview.

Which brings me to why I wrote this post.

I see that there is a new action afoot called “Openly Secular.” To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this differs from the “Out Campaign.” Perhaps that one had simply stopped receiving enough attention. To say that one is “secular”, well, what the heck does that even mean. I am secular, earthly, temporal… okay, but I thought that goes without saying. Even people who call themselves spiritual would probably say that they are also of this earth.

This muddies the water very badly, and I think for no other reason than people think there is some advantage to be had to avoiding the word “atheist.” To see the danger that Berlinerblau is warning us about we need look no further than Rick Santorum’s recent comments.

I think we should start calling secularism a religion,” Santorum told a grinning Fischer. “Because if we did, then we could ban that, too, because that’s what they’ve done: they’ve hidden behind the fact that the absence of religion is not a religion of itself.

I’m afraid my voice in this movement is very small, but I hope that I’ve persuaded you to not use secularism when you mean atheism. Like all people who do not belong to the majority religion, atheists do have a self-interest in this. I hope everyone keeps Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance” in mind and advocates for the freedom of conscience, not only for ourselves, but for all.

If, some months from now, Openly Secular continues to draw attention, perhaps we will need to take a page from Holyoake’s book and coin a new word.

For several months now, I’ve had a series of posts kicking around in my head that seem to me to be related in so far as they are questions that tend to pop up in almost any atheist forum given enough time. They are atheism and agnosticism, atheism and anti-theism, atheism and secularism, and atheism and skepticism. I actually didn’t think that I’d be starting with secularism, but now that some people have started an “Open Secular” campaign, I am going to tackle that one first.

(Important update below.)

I just read about 4chan threatening Emma Watson . To me, this just emphasizes why we need to destigmatize nudity in general and female nudity in particular. Why should the possibility of releasing nude photos even be a threat in the first place? It’s hard to imagine comparable photos of men being used as a threat. If Watson really wanted to strike a blow for women’s equality, she should pull a Dirty Harry and say, “Go ahead. Make my day.”

It’s only our indoctrination that we should be ashamed of our bodies that makes this threat even possible.

Oh, yeah, and I’m speaking as someone who has had naked pictures of her posted on the internet without her permission. Let me tell you, I want copies. I looked damn fine in them!

The fact that women are more ashamed of naked pictures than men are, or at least we’re supposed to be, only serves to highlight society’s double standards regarding sexuality.

There’s not a whole lot to say about this because it’s none too subtle.

Update: Damn, I’m feeling like an idiot now. It turns out that the Emma Watson nude photos was a hoax by a company called Rantic Marketing.

Watson’s face and the countdown clock has been replaced with a banner that says, “#shutdown4chan” and an open letter to President Barack Obama that claims celebrity publicists hired the marketing company to popularize a call for Internet censorship and the end of 4chan.

Although I’m not a fan of 4chan by any means, I don’t support censorship. I would like to see the people who stole the photos prosecuted for the appropriate crimes like theft. Being an advocate for free speech occasionally mans supporting speech you don’t like. I would like to see internet harassment taken more seriously, but as harassment, not as an issue of restricting offensive speech.

Sorry everyone.

(Ah… and I was feeling so proud of myself for not falling for the lady with three breasts hoax. Pride goeth before a fall – or something like that.)

An even better explanation from Business Insider.

My mother and sister came up and helped me make some drapes for my bedroom. Consequently, I’ve spent the past week or so thinking about the geometry of swags, that pit of cloth with drooping folds that conceals the hardware of the curtains. Since light keeps me awake, and my neighbors can see in my window, I wanted to put up fairly elaborate drapes for entirely practical reasons. The aesthetic side of me required that it all be topped off by a valence. When I get my stuff together I might put together a how-to for drapes, curtains and the valence, which was my own design.

For now, though, I’m going talk about making swags. (I know that I’m primarily a painter, but on several occasions clients have asked me to make draperies as well. Furthermore, I’ve made them for my mother and sister, so I have a moderate amount of experience making window treatments.)

Now, the shape of a swag is like that of a chain, wire or rope hung from two points. In other words, the curve of the draping of a swag is a catenary (or an approximation of one), which, in my opinion, is one of the world’s most beautiful shapes. So, the bottom line of a swag, when the cloth is unfolded and laid out, is the length of the catenary most closely resembling the desired swag. It it tempting to want to use math to figure out that length. Certainly this is doable, but to be honest, it is far easier to simply hang a tape measure or some rope and measure the length. If anyone has done this mathematically, I would love to hear about it.


Okay, so now we know that we need a piece of fabric whose bottom width is equal to the width measured by the rope.

There are two type of swags, open swags and closed swags. My main experience until now has been with closed swags. I plan on making some open swags in the near future and will report on how that goes. For now, I’m discussing closed swags.

So, the width of the swag is probably given by the width of the window and the depth is often chosen because it looks “right.” That gives us the silhouette of the swag. Next, you have to figure out how many pleats you want and the size of the “picture.” The picture is the moon-shaped part of the fabric in the center top part of the swag. If you’re using a print fabric, it is important to consider what part of the print will appear in this area.

swag showing picture

Once you determine the size and shape of the picture, you can use the tape measure technique to find the length of the curve created by this fold. This will be the width of the fabric at this point.

swag showing top fold

beginning to draw patternNow, you have two widths, the width of the fabric at the bottom and the width of the fabric along the top fold. (We still haven’t allowed for hems or overlaps, so don’t get too excited yet. We still have lots of figuring to do.

Now, let’s think about how the swag would look in cross-section.

swag cross section

From here, I confess that I just guesstimate and use a number between double and one and two-thirds times the depth of the swag. So, now we have:

swag pattern 1

swag showing measurements


For the next dimensions, if you’re working out a full-sized pattern on paper, you can literally just draw the necessary lines,

swag pattern 2

otherwise, the math is easy enough.

swag pattern 3

Half the difference of the length of the top fold and the bottom, that’s the length of segment DE.

Half the difference of the width of the picture and the length of the top fold is the length of segment HF.


So, now we have a parallelogram.

swag pattern 4

The next thing we need to take into account are the overlaps. Take the width of the swag and subtract the width of the picture. Divide by two to get the width of all the pleats. Divide by the number of pleats to get the width of one pleat. Divide the length between the line indicating the top fold and the bottom by the number of folds.

swag showing folds

Don’t forget to include an allowance for the hem.

swag pattern 5

And this is how I make a swag.

Well, today I took a little walk in the park. I’m trying to build back up to my old five-mile habit. I think I did about three miles today, so I’m making progress. Before setting out on my brisk “power walk” for exercise, I stopped by the little rivulet where I watched the birds bathing the other day. The robins (American Robins) were enjoying themselves thoroughly. I stood quietly, leaning against the railing of the small wooden bridge that crossed the water. The rats were nowhere to be seen. Today, however, there were squirrels foraging in the low undergrowth. One dug something out of the mud on the bank and ate it.

A squirrel ran along the water towards me in short bursts. After each little skip and hop she seemed to pause and look at me. She climbed up the footing of the bridge, just beneath my feet. She paused for a moment. The wooden beam on which the walkway was resting stuck out a few inches. The curious squirrel peered at me with this obvious barrier between us. Then, all of a sudden, she jumped up on top of it and looked me right in the eye. I was trying to figure out what she wanted. She was right at my feet, just on the other side of the railing, and for a moment I wondered if she would climb up my leg. I didn’t want to scare her and I had become quite curious as to what she would do, so I stood very still. She pondered my face for a moment and then disappeared under the bridge.

A moment later, I had the distinct feeling someone was watching me. Slowly, I turned my head and looked behind me. There, peeking through the opposite railing was the squirrel. She disappeared again and reappeared at my feet. She stared at me for a few more moments then, curiosity presumably satisfied, hopped down and ran away along the stream.

About a month or two ago, I was surfing the internet while waiting for my mother to get ready to go with me to the gym. During this brief time, following from one link to another, I came across a shampoo ad that was, according to the post in which it was embedded, getting a lot of attention on the internet. The ad showed women in everyday situations offering apologies that the makers of the video deemed unnecessary. The title card which introduces the video asks “Why are women always apologizing,” which implies that they are doing something that men don’t.

Sitting at my computer, whiling fifteen or twenty minutes waiting for my mother, I was not in an especially critical mindset. If that week’s viral videos had been cute puppies I would have watched cute puppies. I nodded in implied agreement while watching. While I don’t think I have heard about that particular habit before, it did not surprise me. In women’s studies classes that I took in college, I read about similar studies that examined seeming trivial differences in male and female behavior. Although the video doesn’t say so in so many words, the clear implication is that apologizing makes one appear weak. The title of the video is “Shine Strong.”

This video was still fresh in my mind when I arrived at the gym.

I walked in, grabbed a towel and headed up the short flight of half a dozen steps to the weight lifting area. A man rounded the corner and came down the stairs rapidly as I was going up. He stepped backwards saying, “Sorry.”

I stepped to my right saying, “Sorry.”

Another step to the right on my part and we were able to pass each other on the stairs without incident. This is the sort of thing I wouldn’t have even noticed if I hadn’t seen that video. No one was at fault. He couldn’t have predicted my arrival and I couldn’t see him approach, yet we both apologized. Thanks to the video, I noted that he was male and I was female. I also noticed that he was African-American. He was probably about ten years my junior.

(Aside: Do you, too, dislike the false intimacy of WordPress telling you to “Keep on goin’!” or is it just me?)

A little while later, I took a barbell off the rack. Carrying the barbell, which is awkward, I weaved between the benches to find a location to do some curls where I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way but I could see my form in the mirror. A man was coming from the opposite direction, also weaving around equipment. He turned around a bench at the same time I did and we came nose to nose. With the barbell, it was a bit awkward for me to get out of his way, yet he made no move to do so. I backed up a few inches saying, “Sorry.” He moved forward without acknowledging my presence. To say that I felt slighted would have overstated the case, still there was a very slight unpleasant feeling left by this encounter. Normally, I would dismiss it and think that he had something else on his mind. However, since I was now attuned to this issue I realized that he was male and white.

Going to put the barbell back, I had a nearly identical run in with another man. This time, the man said, “Sorry,” I said, “Sorry,” and the man rapidly stepped backward to allow me to pass. This time it was a black man near my age. This was starting to look to me like it wasn’t a coincidence.

Over the next few weeks, I observed people’s behavior. The gym struck me as a prime location for this because as gym members we should all be on terms of equality with one another. Furthermore, the gym is large and appears to have equal numbers of black and white members present. There seem to be more men than women, but it doesn’t feel male dominated. There are all age ranges present. There are relative few Asians or people who appear to be Hispanic, but that is unsurprising given the demographics of Baltimore. Of course, this is still anecdotal evidence even if it’s multiple anecdotes. However, over several visits I couldn’t help notice that black men apologized in the same situations in which I did whereas not a single white man apologized during the same period. I did not have any incidents with either black women or white women but Asian women did apologize to me.

According to an article about the video in FastCompany, “Apologizing unnecessarily puts women in a subservient position and makes people lose respect for them.”

I began to see the question in a new light. Instead of wondering, “Why are women always apologizing,” I started to wonder, “Why don’t white men ever apologize?” However, I didn’t feel respect for those men who didn’t apologize. If I felt anything, it was mild irritation. Meanwhile, the men with whom I had done the sorry-sorry tango left me with mild positive feelings towards them. One of them said “Hello” and smiled every time we encountered each other in the gym after that.

Last year, there was an article on Slate that questioned the conventional wisdom about this. Amanda Hess notes that it is not an established fact that women apologize more frequently than men. She also goes on to say that apologizing is not inherently bad.

And treating others with empathy doesn’t equal devaluing ourselves. Yoko Hosoi, a professor at Tokyo University, describes the “apology-forgiveness culture” among men and women in Japan as “an ingrained cultural heritage, which serves to make a harmonious, peace-oriented society”—not to lay blame or establish hierarchies. Saying “I’m sorry” is a cultural thing. Often, it’s a positive one. And yet when we recognize a trend in the culture of women, our impulse is to say, “Women do X. Men do Y. Therefore, women should stop doing X.” Why don’t we instead think: Perhaps men could be a little bit more like women.

My casual observation would indicate that any further studies would have to take characteristics other than gender into account. Furthermore, the assumption that it’s inherently bad needs to be questioned.

Since moving to New York City, I have had several white men apologize for getting in my way on the sidewalk. So, it seems even one more factor would have to be taken into account.


The incident from a few days ago when U.S. Senator Cruz of Texas was booed off stage demonstrated an important issue regarding Secularism and the place of religion in public life.

It is rare that I find myself in agreement with anyone who writes for a media outlet with the word “Conservative” in its name, however the American Conservative had a good article about the incident and another in The Federalist also made some good points. Although I haven’t yet written a blog post about it, I’ve grumbled off-line to family and friends about the increasing tendency to use “secular” as a sort of euphemism for “non-religious” or “atheist.” Clouding the issue between the two serves to undermine the goals or secularism. As it happens, I am both an atheist and a secularist, but it is entirely possible to be both a devout Christian and a secularist. In fact, I would say that it is in the self-interest of religious people to be secularists.

The summit at which Cruz spoke, organized by the group In Defense of Christians, was “dedicated to Christian unity in the face of persecution and genocide.” According to Jonathan Coppage writing in the American Conservative,

While the Cruz incident was a low-light for the summit, the Christian leaders gathered at the dinner continued to make vigorous defenses of the separation of church and state and the importance of inculcating pluralism in the Middle East.

It is important to remember the origins of Western notions of secularism in the European Wars of Religion following the Reformation. Historically, many pious people have advocated for the separation of Church and State. In U.S. history, Roger Williams springs readily to mind. Secularism is a political opinion, and a very basic one, like self-government versus monarchy. It is an answer to the question “What limits should be put on the state’s ability to infringe upon the individual’s freedom of conscience.”

This brings us to a comment Rick Santorum made recently. According to Raw Story,

“I think we should start calling secularism a religion,” Santorum told a grinning Fischer. “Because if we did, then we could ban that, too, because that’s what they’ve done: they’ve hidden behind the fact that the absence of religion is not a religion of itself.”

Secularism is the belief, not that the individual should be neutral in matters of religion, but that the state should be. In most Western nations, many of these conflicts seem to be arguments over symbolism, like displays of crosses on public property. It is important to remember that elsewhere, it can be a life or death situation. Those of us who favor liberty of speech and thought must support that liberty for people we disagree with as fervently as for those with whom we do agree.

Sometimes the question is thrown out why many atheists in the U.S. are critical of Christians while we supposedly let Muslims off easily. The question is one of power. Muslims in the U.S. are less than one percent of the population and lack any real political power. While I wouldn’t use the word “persecuted”, they are certainly beset in many quarters by prejudice and bigotry. They are unlike to impose their beliefs on other people in the U.S. anytime soon. For this reason, I don’t spend much time criticizing Muslims in the U.S. In the Middle East, the situation is quite different. There, it is Muslims who are dominant and Christians who are beset with troubles, and due to the lack of separation between Church and State those troubles rise to the level of persecution. The situation of Christians in the Middle East should be a lesson to all of us of the importance of a secular society where each individual is guaranteed freedom of conscience.

Yesterday, I took a walk through the park and I saw some people standing on a bridge watching the animals. Today, I went back with my camera.