Dismissal of teacher who removed crucifix from classroom was unlawful

Valentin Abottspon, the Swiss teacher who was fired for removing a crucifix from his classroom in 2010, has won his appeal against his dismissal.  The cantonal court in Valais ruled that Valentin's dismissal was unlawful, although did not conclude whether or not it is legal to display a crucifix in a public school in Switzerland. [1]

I was fortunate to meet Valentin last year at the launch of the International Association of Freethought in Oslo and again at the 2012 European Atheist Convention in Cologne, Germany, earlier this year.  He comes across as a dedicated teacher who did not ask for this particular fight, but found himself in it because he took a principled stance and refused to back down.  

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No God, not even Allah

This is the first paragraph from an article published in The Economist titled Atheists and Islam - No God, not even Allah:

A MOB attacked Alexander Aan even before an Indonesian court in June jailed him for two and a half years for “inciting religious hatred”. His crime was to write “God does not exist” on a Facebook group he had founded for atheists in Minang, a province of the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Like most non-believers in Islamic regions, he was brought up as a Muslim. And like many who profess godlessness openly, he has been punished.

Read the full article here.

Revisiting the Vatican’s Stance on Condoms

1 December marked World AIDS Day, dedicated to raising awareness of HIV and the global AIDS pandemic. Several governments and organisations also observe the whole of December as AIDS Awareness Month. Needless to say, the situation is dire as AIDS has caused – and continues to cause - a great deal of death and suffering. However, more positively, UNAIDS (a coalition of 11 specialised UN organisations) reports that HIV infection rates are dropping throughout the world with an overall drop in new HIV infections and AIDS related deaths. [1] UNAIDS vision is “Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths” and this is the World AIDS Day theme from 2011 to 2015. UNAIDS’ vision is a highly ambitious goal and for it to be achieved proper and consistent condom use, among other things, is essential. This is a widely accepted view and there is plenty of scientific evidence regarding the importance of condoms in the fight against HIV and AIDS [2]. However, despite the evidence, the Vatican’s stance on condoms remains virtually unchanged and people’s lives continue to be damaged and risked by the Vatican’s harmful and irresponsible behaviour.

There was a slight “shift” in Vatican official policy in November 2010 allowing for condom use in a few select situations but this was not even remotely enough. The Pope stated that condom use can be acceptable in a few select situations, for instance where male prostitutes are involved, but generally the ban on condoms stands. [3, 4] Despite strong evidence to the contrary, the Vatican insists that condoms are not a solution and that they make the situation worse. [5] The Vatican continues to demonstrate that it is out of touch with science, the modern world and reality.

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The Islamic Morality Police in Iran

I worked in a Iranian police office for two years, and it was common to see women being mistreated by the so-called Morality Police on Tehran's streets. The Morality Police have not been trained in any aspects of moral studies, but have have been given the authority to stop people on the street, give them advice on their outfits and ask for immediate action.  People can be arrested if they do not follow this advice, on the grounds of abusing the Islamic hijab. This has become a social phobia in Iran.

Stories from people who have dealt with the Morality Police show that there are no clear laws and rules in place; the Morality Police treat people according to their own personal wishes. A husband and wife who were arrested say that it occurred because the wife was wearing a white outfit. The Police forced the wife to sit inside a minibus in Narmak Square in Tehran, while photographers from different agencies took pictures. When the husband complained about the situation he was also arrested and taken to the police station. This is only one of the minor cases that acts to suppress dissent - treating people who wear 'different' outfits as though they are not a part of society and have to be taken away.   Sometimes activities by the Morality Police are reported in the Western media (eg here and here) but usually they are not.  

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Science Textbook Dispute in South Korea Continues

Image: The president of STR, Lee Kwang-won, submits petition to the Seoul Education Chief.
Source: Christian Television System of Korea.

The Society for Textbook Revision (STR), which triggered the science textbook dispute in South Korea with its “petition for Archaeopteryx removal”, has submitted a third petition for revision, this time saying that science textbooks that reference the Miller-Urey experiment – considered as a classic experiment on the origin of life – are wrong.

STR said it submitted the petition for the revision of high school science textbooks on 18 December 2012 to the acting Seoul Education Chief Lee Dae-young. This petition, titled “Chemical evolution has nothing to do with birth of life – focusing on Miller's experiment and synthetic response” was signed by 175 science-related educators including 85 science and engineering university professors, 67 middle and high school science teachers and 23 elementary school teachers. Most of the STR members who signed the petition are known to be Christians.

The petition contains a claim that “the described contents of chemical evolution about the ‘birth of life’ recorded in current science textbooks are based on assumption and imagination and contradicts with today's academic research contents [translation]” and “we have to remove chemical evolution [translation]”. It stated that if the content was difficult to remove, “it must be revised...that experimental ground of chemical evolution is very weak, especially Miller's experiment is not relevant with birth of life [translation]”.

The Seoul Education Office received the petition and stated that it would arrange expert council soon and embark on review work.

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Opting out the only way to opt in

Ethics class in action.  Image: Primary Ethics/Summer Hill Media

Imagine for a minute that you’re the parent of a young child and you’ve just received a letter from his or her school asking whether you would like your child to be included in scripture classes or not. You re-read the letter, wondering if there’s an alternative option you’ve missed, but it remains a simple yes or no. So you say yes and send it back, glad that your child will be included and hoping the school will provide important moral teaching.

If you had said no, however, you would have received a follow-up letter informing you about ethics classes that are being offered as an alternative. These are the volunteer-provided Primary Ethics classes that were created to provide children with a secular alternative to scripture classes in New South Wales (Australia) government schools, which are nominally non-religious. The program, funded by the St James Ethics Centre, aims to teach children about ethical decision making, how to think logically, formulate arguments and rationalise information in an inclusive environment. It was initiated in 2010 partly for children not taking part in scripture classes, whose only alternative had been being physically separated from their classmates without alternative class work. According to Helen Walton, the president of the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations of New South Wales, “ethics classes provided parents a choice in how their child was meaningfully engaged when other students were participating in SRE (Special Religious Education)”.

Despite a trial conducted by the Department of Education in 2010 finding 97% approval from 750 submissions on the introduction of ethics classes, politicians such as Christian Democrats MP Reverend Fred Nile have consistently attempted to block the classes. The Legislative Council of NSW resolved in November 2011 to conduct an inquiry into the ethics classes program in response to a bill introduced by Nile to abolish ethics classes.

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Pressure on European Blasphemy Laws Threatens Freedom of Expression

In Europe there is a tension between those who support freedom of expression and those who claim that their freedom of religion extends to freedom from their religion being offended.  Laws protect both freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but recent events threaten to expand the scope of freedom of religion into freedom from religious insult.

Historically, Europe has sought to protect freedom of expression to a high degree.  The European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) issued a report  in October 2008 [1] concluding with these recommendations:

a) That incitement to hatred, including religious hatred, should be the object of criminal sanctions.
b) That it is neither necessary nor desirable to create an offence of religious insult (that is, insult to religious feelings), without the element of incitement to hatred as an essential component.
c) That the offence of blasphemy should be abolished where it still exists and should not be reintroduced. 

The report indicated that blasphemy remained an offence in some European countries (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Italy, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and San Marino – and Ireland added blasphemy as a crime in 2009), with many others instead, or in addition, making it a crime to insult religion (Andorra, Cyprus, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey and Ukraine).  There is, however, no general definition of what counts as religious insult.

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Brazilian Real Can Be Free From God

Brazilian Real: Deus seja louvado - "God be praised"

Public Attorney Jefferson Dias, who has declared himself Catholic, is being threatened by his fellow Christians for moving a legal action to remove the phrase “God be praised” from Brazilian Real paper money. “I received some emails threatening my life, in the name of God” he stated, in an interview with an online news website. [1]

Dias is acting following a request to the Public Attorney by an atheist who stated he was disturbed by the Brazilian State showing a preference to one religion on the currency. Investigation by Dias revealed that the phrase “God be praised” was added to Brazilian currency after a personal request by Jose Sarney, currently president of Senate, during his time as President of Brazil (1985 - 1990). Dias noted that the Central Bank did not provide information about how the inclusion of the phrase occurred: but after Minister Marco Aurelio spoke of this matter in the context of his vote to make the abortion of anencepalic fetuses legal, the Central Bank acknowledged the phrase had been included as a personal favour.

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Gay Rights' Progress Blocked by Malawi Churches

For a second it seemed that Malawi was on its way towards improved rights for its gay community. After being sworn in as President in April 2012, Joyce Banda promised to overturn the country’s anti-gay laws. Following this, in November 2012 the Malawian government announced that it was suspending anti-gay laws and ordered police to stop arresting gay people.  Malawian churches acted swiftly to strongly oppose the announcement. As reported by the Independent/Reuters, the Malawi Council of Churches, a coalition of 24 church groups, pressured the government until its backed down and reversed the decision.

While Malawi is officially a secular state, recent events show that separation of church and state does not occur in practice. In Malawi (and many other African countries) religious institutions use their positions to influence national politics and further their agendas. Gay people continue to be marginalised largely due to religious influence.  As a gay man in Malawi put it, the Council of Churches "believes that gays are not human beings and should not be allowed to be free." [1] Secularism promotes human rights for all but, as demonstrated in Malawi, religious institutions choose their particular interpretation of their particular god’s law over human rights. 

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Not joining in the silly season? You're not alone

Grinch....or just different?  (image: Dr Seuss' The Grinch)

Our poor senses have been abused recently by the most prominent holiday of the year (at least in Western countries): Christmas. Even as a budding atheist last year I celebrated it. It can be quite fun. But it always feels as if those who choose not to participate in these yearly solstice-based activities, be it due to their beliefs or lack thereof, are demonised in our culture. Even the basic act of ignoring the Christmas season is seen as supremely anti-social.

For some reason, it seems to be those few social 'commentators' who think that their insightful rantings and lists on why EVERYONE should be joyful around Christmas time always receive publicity in the media. Those who write nice and simple articles about the need for some variation in holiday music for the non-religious among us and those of other religions [1] are ignored in favour of things such as one of the many over-hyped nonsense lists on "Why you need to stop being a Christmas grump". [2]

Those who come out against public collections of art only depicting nativity scenes are shown as 'grinches' or 'grumps'. Those who ask that Christmas messages are not splayed over every wall and window in shopping centers are told to be quiet and bare the brunt of the mass marketing of an over-stated holiday. And don't even start about the infamous 'war on Christmas'. [3] It makes me want to rip my hair out even more than the holiday and its consumerism itself. 

So, for those of you out there who don't need a certain date on which to give gifts to those whom you love, for those of you who don't see the significance in celebrating a conglomeration of pagan and Christian traditions, and for those of you who prefer to read a book or play games instead of listening to "important sounding dead languages" [4] during a mass, I say to you, you are not alone.

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Are Atheists the Ultimate Scapegoat?

Let’s face it, atheists have been the ultimate scapegoat for society’s problems for years and we have often just accepted this role in society. Perhaps it is easiest; perhaps we find it pointless to put up a fight against the narrow-minded. The longer we do not fight back against this prejudice, the more likely it is this role will stick, and that this way of thinking will be passed down through generations. 

I have often been subject to countless assumptions about myself purely based on the fact that I do not subscribe to an all-powerful being in the sky. But a recent event struck a chord with me. Whilst on a train journey to work I was approached by a woman carrying a Bible who asked me what I personally thought of ‘our Lord Saviour Jesus Christ’. Although I was in no mood to get into a heated debate about my thoughts on God or Christianity, I felt obliged to tell her that I do not believe in God. I braced myself for the initial shock, and I was not disappointed: her expression was of sheer terror, as though I had just told her that I sacrifice goats on a daily basis when the sun goes down. As much as I anticipated this reaction, the response that shocked me above all was when she asked me whether I felt love. Is this really how the religious still views the nonreligious? That we are incapable of love, that we are hollow, cold sinners? 

I have been contemplating this notion of how the nonreligious community is perceived for a while now and following the horrific events of the Connecticut shootings in which 28 people were killed, including children, it dawned on me that as a community, atheists tolerate an absurd level of prejudice against their lack of belief. After reading an article via Twitter, I came across a statement made by former US Presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee whereby he indirectly blamed the Connecticut massacre on the atheist community by proclaiming that the shooting rampage was the natural result of our having “systematically removed God from our schools”. Would Christians stand for being blamed if Lanza had been educated in a faith school? Have atheists and the notion of a God-free curriculum become the ultimate scapegoat for political and societal problem?

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AAI's Top 10 Atheist / Religious Discrimination Stories of 2012

1.  The Rise of 'Nones' in the World

A survey released by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in late 2012 identified the Religiously Unaffiliated, or ‘Nones’ as the third largest ‘faith’ group in the world, 16% or 1.1 billion, approximately the same number as Catholics.  900 million of these unaffiliated reside in the Asia-Pacific region, where they make up an average 21.2% of the population. Europe is the next largest region then North America.  Latin America, Africa and the Middle East all lag behind, with 7.7%, 3.2%, and 0.6% of the populations identified as ‘Nones’.

A trending study by WIN-Gallup International in 2012 noted that religiosity is declining worldwide while atheism and non-belief are increasing.  Religiosity has fallen by 9 points just since 2005, while the number of atheists has almost doubled. The U.S., France, UK, Ireland, Canada as well as Vietnam are included in the top-10 list of countries to have experienced a "notable decline in religiosity" since 2005. 'Nones' tend to be younger than the overall population.

References: Pew Forum, Huffington Post, Time, LA Times, UK Census

2.  Islamic Religious Violence and Intimidation Explodes in Response to Offence

2012 was a year with multiple incidents where Islamist leaders reacted to criticism, mocking and attacks on their faith by fomenting and encouraging violence to express their displeasure. At the same time, Islamic nations cracked down on religious dissent in their own countries and again demanded that the UN adopt anti-blasphemy laws as a ‘human right’ (albeit the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has now abandoned this path - refer #9). Atheists were exceptionally vulnerable to these actions but the problem extends far beyond the atheist community, to the level of being an international menace that threatens not just free speech rights, but human lives and livelihoods.

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Alexander Aan update

A member of Indonesian Atheists recently visited Alexander Aan in prison. The visitor was able to bring food and drink for Alex and spoke with him for around 20 minutes. Alex appears to be well, socialising with other prisoners and communicating with the officers.  Alex and the visitor discussed recent news related to secularism and atheism and Alex provided a copy of some of his recent notes, including (on the second page)  "I always concern in humanity and science and never come back to Islam", "I need to leave Indonesia quickly" and "I need to be myself".  Alex also thanked his supporters: "Thank (you) for all my friend who support(ed) me all the way".

Alex's appeal to the Indonesian Supreme Court is in process.  Atheist Alliance International is raising funds to support Alex's legal case and, separately, to assist him to study outside Indonesia after his release if possible.  If you would like to help Alex please donate here.