How religion poisons Brazilian politics

Originally published on the Secular Humanist League of Brazil's blog here.

In Brazil we’ve witnessed a growth in the number of national representatives elected in 2010 who only work to try and limit individual rights of women, gays and other minorities hated by biblical text. They are known as the “evangelical bench“. I would rather call them “theocratic bench”, since I know not all evangelical Christians think their beliefs should be forced down everyone’s throats, let alone by the power of a purportedly secular government.

Since we’ve got constitutional separation of church and state, we should at least hope their actions were halted. But often government is very dubious. In 2011, Marco Feliciano, a representative who is also a preacher, tried to pass a bill to make religious teaching mandatory for students in public schools. Fortunately, his bill was rejected at once.

On the other hand, public schools have been forced to offer religious teaching for decades, with no orientation whatsoever of what kind of teaching this would be, rendering a not so unexpected result of public tuition hijacked by religious proselytising, as has been proved by human rights scholar Debora Diniz. The law says students can choose not to attend religious teaching, but the truth is that most of them are not even informed of this right.

Another example of religious intrusion is that last July the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro has approved a law that forces public libraries to have bibles in their collections. No such thing has been done in relation to the Quran or the Baghavad Gita, of course.

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First National Atheist Meeting in Brazil

Recently Brazil has experienced how organization through social networks is resulting in protest and events in the real world. The first big event that comes to mind is the “March for the laic Government” that took place in August 2011. Since then, we have had public events against corruption, for feminism, and the latest - to gather atheists.

The idea of the event, according to Stiphanie Silva, is to meet each other and organize. “We need to get out of the closet, show we are good sons and daughters, parents, that morality is independent of faith” says Silva, who is a member of Sociedade Racionalista, the association responsible for the event organization.

 

On February 12th (Charles Darwin’s birthday) several States held atheist meetings, each one organized by local atheists. The places were usually public parks, and in most of the cases the activities were decided during the meeting. Among them, speeches from participants and debates were the most common.  Atheist meetings have happened before, however, this was the first time coordinated meetings occurred all over the nation on the same date - and it was mentioned in the press.

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Teachers, Be Not Afraid

Across the US, representatives in state Senates and Houses of Representatives are attempting to legislate curriculum that would substitute mythology for science in biology classes by teaching creation instead of evolution.  By mandating curriculum in this way, Christian representatives could circumvent state boards of education, comprised of experts who set scholastic standards in our public schools.  The Christian base, preaching to their representatives, chant, “Teach the controversy,” demanding our schools be forced to teach creationism alongside evolution because they believe that their disagreement with experts is equivalent to a disagreement among experts.  It isn’t, of course.  No more than a high school classroom is the place to discuss scientific controversies (assuming, for the sake of the argument, a controversy existed).  It should be obvious—though it isn’t to everyone—that the place for that kind of discussion is in the field, or a dissertation, or a peer-reviewed journal, where cases are judged by experts on the quality of the evidence, not by laypeople on the circuity of the reasoning.

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Limbaugh, Santorum, Sex, and the Origins of the Roman Catholic Church

Originally published on BuzzFlash@Truthout.

In the year 312, the Roman Emperor Constantine saw some kind of a religious vision at some time before a battle in which he defeated his major rival at the time, Maxentius (1). Just what the nature of the vision was is unclear, but it did lead to Constantine's conversion to what became Roman Catholicism. This event functionally ended close to 300 years of an often underground existence of the early Christian religion, which had previously suffered major episodes of violent persecution from a succession of Roman emperors. Now the Church could exist out-in-the-open. Constantine's conversion led to the calling of a grand Council of Church leaders under the direction of the Emperor himself. (No separation of church-and-state back then. Rick "JFK's-separation-of-church-and-state-speech-made-me-want-to-vomit" Santorum would have fit right in.) It was held in the lake-side town of Nicea (now Iznik, in Turkey). It produced what came to be known as the First Nicean Creed, the first coordinated statement of Catholic doctrine.

Nevertheless, the bishops were hardly unchallenged in the field of competitive religion. There still were a wide variety of both polytheistic and competing monotheistic religions within both the Eastern and the Western sectors of the Empire. As well, there were major schisms (sometimes leading to violent struggles) within their own house over such issues as the true nature of Jesus: human, divine, or both. Nevertheless, over time those conflicts were resolved, sometimes through the use of force (yes, even over such matters as the nature of Jesus.) Then the bishops struggled with what they could do to enlarge their flock and retain their allegiance. They developed a variety of approaches to solving this problem. One major initiative was to focus on sex.

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Atheist faces three counts in court

This article was originally published in the Jakarta Post.

A civil servant who incited controversy by declaring that he was atheist was on Monday indicted on three charges, including one for violating the Information Transaction Law (ITE).

The first charge brought against Alexander at the Muaro Sijungung District Court was for violating Article 28, Clause 2 of the ITE. Next was for Article 156a(a) of the Criminal Code (KUHP), and the last for violating Article 156a(b) of the KUHP.

Alexander was indicted for creating a Facebook group called Minang Atheists. Alexander wrote about Prophet Muhammad on the Facebook wall. The trial was attended by five witnesses, Hendri, Mulyadi, Doni Saptri, Yon Riadi, and Hendri Martariko, who had seen the pictures and posts on Alexander's Facebook group.

Prosecutor Ibrahim Khalil, in the indictment, said the Facebook posts and pictures insulted Islam. The posts also caused a public disturbance and outcry.

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Apostasy Campaign in Chile

The AECH, Skeptics Association of Chile, started as a group of people who got to know each other through debates on online forums.  They were familiar with the work of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, among others, and were also catalyzed by the appearance of a very well known charlatan on television.

AECH’s work involves publishing articles online, running two radio shows, and also going after possible charlatans or quacks, explaining people why some benefits-for-little-money might be a scam.  They spread science through the internet and their radio shows, which a lot of people still don’t have access to in our country, where statistics about reading skills and reading comprehension are frantically depressing.

AECH’s objectives are to undertake an educational role in the mass media, create debate wherever and whenever it’s needed and raise awareness of all the quackery still going on.

I contacted Luis León Cárdenas Graide, better known as ‘Luchostein’, who is a member of this association.

But before Luis’ interview, what is the apostasy campaign and how does it work?

The apostasy campaign is a (hopefully) massive gathering of people to formally renounce their religion. People participate by attending a meeting in their communities where they are given apostasy letters to fill in.  The letters are handed in by groups to their respective archdiocese, which then has two days time (by law) to go through the papers and delete the apostates from its records permanently.

For more information on the apostasy campaign in Chile see: http://www.aech.cl/2012/03/convocatoria-participar-en-apostasia.html.

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PATAS, A Spark of Reason in the Philippines

The First Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Convention was held in Manila on Saturday April 21st by the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society (PATAS). This event is notable in that it came into being from a grassroots organization started on Facebook only just over a year ago. The ambitious work of its members, its chairperson Marissa Torres Langseth and president John Paraiso, drew a crowd of around 150 supporters and speakers from many organizations around the world. Don’t be fooled by the size of the turnout; this is truly a spark in a tinderbox.

The vast majority of people in the Philippines are fervently religious, the country being predominantly Roman Catholic with an Islamic population in the south, and it is also highly superstitious. At the convention we learned of the power of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, where voters are outright coerced into election choices under the threat of excommunication. Even more alarming is the church’s stance on birth control, abortion rights and, women’s rights. The church’s influence has led to overpopulation with a majority of Filipinos living in poverty, where AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase. Lack of basic education and the threat of damnation for rational family planning plague the population. Undue meddling in the government by the church has allowed it to maintain control since it was forced onto the Filipino population by the Spaniards.  But times are changing. As Marissa Torres Langseth wrote in the preamble to the convention, “No more hiding, no more lying—we are coming out…Our tools are logic, critical thinking, reason, science.”

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Brazil deems abortion of anencephalic fetuses legal

Women celebrate when the results were announced.
“Crime is having no rights!” reads the banner. (Picture: AgBR/ CFêmea)
  

Anencephaly, according to Wikipedia,  is a cephalic disorder that results from a neural tube defect that occurs when the cephalic (head) end of the neural tube fails to close, usually between the 23rd and 26th day of pregnancy, resulting in the absence of a major portion of the brain, skull, and scalp.

On 12 April Brazil took a true secular action by decriminalizing the abortion of anencephalic fetuses and assuring the rights of pregnant women in such cases. With eight votes for and two against, the result of the judgment may not have been as significant as the signaled Brazilian position regarding religion and State separation: minister Marco Aurélio Mello of the Supreme Court of Brazil (“Superior Tribunal Federal”), the highest judicial court, rapporteur of this process and first to vote pro-decriminalization, included a whole section in his speech to reinforce the fact that the constitution is laic, and no religious belief should interfere in the law. 

Some interesting parts are transcripted below[1] (free translation):

“Gods and Caesars have separated places. The State is not religious, nor is atheist. The State is simply neutral.”  

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Religion and Government, Gambian Context

As it is the concern of many atheist and free-thought organizations in other parts of the world, Gambia Secular Assembly concerns itself with the separation of religion from government.

In The Gambia, religion is so juxtaposed with government that one finds it hard to distinguish one form the other. This is manifested in the serious promotion and propagation of particularly of Islam, the dominant religion.

The Gambian State, largely supposed and believed by the population to be secular, has condoned the involvement of the State with religion. This is an unchecked involvement that extends to the State’s investment in the construction of a mosque on the grounds of a State residence – State House has an Imam (Islamic religious leader) paid from the government coffers to head prayers and conduct other religious services, such as the annual celebration of the birth of the 'prophet' of Islam, Muhammad named Maw lud al nabi in Arabic.

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Vatican continues to try to limit access to IVF, promotes a “natural alternative”

VATICAN CITY- 23-25 February 2012. The 18thGeneral Assembly of The Pontifical Academy for Life, a three day conference attended by 200 medical (alleged) professionals and Church representatives. The theme for this year was the Diagnosis and Treatment of Infertility.

On the agenda; NaProTECHNOLOGY (Natural Procreative Technology), a system proposed by Dr. Thomas Hilgers, which is supposed to assist women with infertility issues to achieve pregnancy more successfully than in-vitro fertilization (IVF).  IVF (involving the fertilization of ova outside the woman’s body and the transfer of the resultant zygote to the uterus) assists women with blocked, severely damaged or no fallopian tubes, facilitates the use of a donated ova and can also overcome infertility caused by endometriosis or issues with sperm.

The (alleged) research behind NaPro was done at The Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction, in Omaha, Nebraska, USA. This institute, which provides a service within the “moral framework” of the Catholic Church, was founded in 1985 by Dr. Thomas Hilgers, who is also its Director.

Dr. Thomas Hilgers claims that NaPro’s success rate is two to three times higher than for IVF. If this claim is true NaPro would be a major breakthrough in reproductive health technology and welcomed by doctors and many couples who are unable to conceive naturally.  Yet the NaPro website admits there is no peer reviewed medical or academic literature that supports its approach (in the text under a heading misleadingly titled Peer-Reviewed and Academic Literature That Supports NaProTECHNOLOGY). 

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Bangladesh to shut Facebook pages for blasphemy

Originally published by AFP

DHAKA — A Bangladesh court on Wednesday ordered authorities to shut down five Facebook pages and a website for blaspheming the Prophet Mohammed, the Koran and other religious subjects, a lawyer said.

Judges at the high court in Dhaka ordered the telecommunications regulator, home ministry officials and police to block the offending pages immediately.

"These pages contain disparaging remarks and cartoons about Prophet Mohammed, the Muslim holy book of Koran, Jesus, Lord Buddha and Hindu gods," Nawshad Zamir, a lawyer of the petitioner who brought the case, told AFP.

"They mostly targeted the prophet and the Koran. These pages hurt the sentiments of the country's majority Muslim population and the followers of other religions. Some of the cartoons are very close to pornography."

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Church facilitates kidnapping of albino boy

An albino boy was abducted from a church in Kenya in March 2012.  He was taken while the people in the congregation had their eyes closed as prayers were being recited.

The congregation’s suspicions fell on the pastor who was interrogated and apparently confessed to facilitating the boy’s passage to Tanzania, a country known for ritual killings of albinos.  The pastor is said to have been ordered to bring back the boy – he left, but returned a few days later without the young albino boy.  Subsequently a mob descended on the church.

Lawrence Nyagah, a humanist activist and an albino himself, said”images of an enraged mob burning and tearing the church into pieces was aired on one of Kenya’s TV stations [which] spoke more than words could have said about the anger of the crowd, but it further said more: that by perpetuating superstitions the church as an institution was complicit in such incidences of human rights abuse.”  The matter is (allegedly) being pursued by the Kenyan police.

Lawrence said he is “attracted to humanism because of the work humanists are doing to end belief in superstition.  Lawrence said he converted from Catholicism to humanism about two years ago after reading about Leo Igwe and the IHEU, and expressed Africa’s need of more courageous people committed to the fight against belief in and practice of superstitions.

17 GLBTI Gambians Imprisoned

In Gambia lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons are not accorded their basic right to simply be who they are. 

Monday 10 April 2012 marked a historic day of the unrealistic denial of the diversity of sexual orientation.  Seventeen young Gambian men - Alieu Sarr, Kebba Ceesay, Abdoulie Bojang, Amadou Jallow, Amidou Nyang, Ousman Gomez, Sainey Fatty, Lamin Konateh, Lamin Sarr, Buba Banda, Ebrima Jallow, Lamin Saho, Abdoulie Cham, Lamin Jaiteh, Ousman Dibba, Adboulie Saidy, and Muhammed Manneh - were remanded at the Mile 2 Central Prison on grounds of being under police investigation for having engaged in  homosexual activities. An  eighteenth accused man, Nigerian immigrant Ogika Amenechi, was also charged. 

The seventeen Gambia nationals and Nigerian were charged with having been engaged in "indecent practice among themselves in public places" on 5 April 2012 at Serre Kunda and other places in The Gambia.

The seventeen accused, who pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, were denied bail on Monday on the grounds that they were being investigated. Even though the Magistrate who presided over the case told the court that the men were charged with a bailable offence and noted that they had been in detention since 5 April, the Police prosecutor persisted with his application for bail refusal. 

The case was adjourned to 19 April 2012 for hearing.  The accused were not represented during the first hearing.

Rabbi's little helper

Just when sequestering, shunning and sheltering seemed to be enough to keep the minds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish followers from exploring anything reasonable or scientific outside themselves, it seems the leaders have learned to embrace modern psychology, well sort of. In a new effort to help "problematic" members fall in line and control their tayvos - desires - leading rabbis in various Hasidic communities in Israel have linked up with morally questionable psychiatrists in order to prescribe drugs intended to kill sex drive and aid in the "struggle against homosexuality." 

http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/rabbi-s-little-helper-1.422985
http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/psychiatric-drugs-become-talk-of-the-ultra-orthodox-community-1.425727

Some definitions of terms that appear in the articles: Yeshiva- a religious college for boys where only religious scriptures are learned; Rebbe- the head of a Hasidic community, higher ranking than a "rabbi" and seen as an intermediary between the faithful and God; Hasidic Jews- continuation of an 18th century spiritual revival movement in Eastern Europe which is known for stringent observance of Jewish law and isolating themselves from the secular world in regards to media, education and actual contact. The first article is the initial report uncovered by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which is one of the most widespread and internationally recognized Israeli newspapers.

Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic

Thank you to Richard Ponce for his recording of Bertrand Russell's Am I an Atheist or Agnostic for AAI's Freethought Audio Library.  AAI Members can access this recording by logging into the Members Only section of the AAI website, then finding the Freethought Audio Library under the Resources menu.

Witchcraft in Malawi - new report released

The Association for Secular Humanism in Malawi (an AAI Member) has released a report on the extent of witchcraft in Malawi - and it is depressing reading. Belief in witchcraft is widespread, the number of cases is rising and people suspected of witchcraft are often subject to violence. The report recommends ten initiatives to combat the violence against those accused of witchcraft.

Atheist Alliance International congratulates the Association for Secular Humanism for its work to document the extent of the problems in Malawi and its ongoing campaign against superstitious and dangerous practices.

Read the full report