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Except...there is no heaven

On Wednesday, Pope Francis addressed people from all walks of life by claiming that anyone who does ‘good’ will go to heaven, even atheists. Pope Francis has been the first in many aspects of his papacy: first Pope from the Americas, first Jesuit Pope, and first to use Francis as a regnal name. However, he is not among the first to take a more universalist approach. Pope John XXIII began the Second Vatican Council in 1962, stating he wanted to “throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” That council went on to be more accepting of others, but their acceptance focused primarily on other types of Christ-based religions. Many Christians, from Origen in the third century to Madeleine L’Engle in the twenty first century, have argued for a universal acceptance to heaven, but never has a Pope so concretely stated that morality, not faith, is the way to heaven. With such a broad change from the denominationally strict tendencies of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, what does Pope Francis’ Wednesday morning mass mean for nonbelievers?

Pope Francis alluded to the Gospel of Mark during his mass, telling a story of Jesus’ disciples seeing another man do good and complaining that “if he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not our party, he cannot do good.” The Pope explained that Jesus tells his disciples not to “hinder him” and they should “let him do good.” It appears that the Pope is paralleling the story found on Mark 9:39-40. This book was likely the first of the four canonical gospels, having been written around 60 C.E. It provides the early groundwork for what modern Christians believe, such as being the only gospel to refer to Jesus as a carpenter. With such significance, shouldn’t Mark’s universalist undertones have come to light sooner? Additionally, Mark isn’t the only one arguing for acceptance: “Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). With all of these apparent allusions, why is Pope Francis the first to openly accept all people? There is a simple answer: the Bible is unreliable.

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Pakistani Freethinkers to UN: recognise Int'l Day Against State Religion

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A petition urges the UN to come to the rescue of non-Muslims and non-believers in Pakistan – who are often the victims of State Religion – and recognise and celebrate 11 August as the International Day Against State Religion.

As Pakistan makes history and marks five years of democracy by successfully upholding general elections, conditions in Pakistan for non-Muslims and non-believers are far from getting any better. The 2013 election has been termed the most violent election in the history of Pakistan. The Taliban carried out their threats and attacked convoys and rallies of secular and even Islamist political parties. Here is a whole timeline of pre-poll violence in Pakistan. Even on Election Day, the violence didn't stop.  

Non-Muslim candidates were largely absent from the elections, but those who ran were voted for because electors felt they could offer protection. The Christian residents of Joseph Colony, a Christian community that was attacked by a Muslim mob earlier this year, voted for the conservative party Jamaat-i-Islami's non-Muslim candidate because they wanted to vote for protection.

Conditions in Pakistan for non-Muslims are grim. In 2009 and again in 2012 the World Council Of Churches stated that minority religious communities in Pakistan are living in “fear and terror” of Islamic fundamentalists amid abductions and forced conversions that the government is helpless to stop. WCC’s ruling Central Committee declared that Pakistan’s small Hindu and Christian communities were increasingly subject to “persecution and discrimination”. Likewise, Ahmaddiya Muslims face persecution, outlawed and at the mercy of Islamists.  In light of these and other incidents where non-Muslim and non-believer Pakistanis have been victims of persecution and intolerance, a petition has been set up calling on the Secretary General of the United Nations to recognise an International Day Against State Religion on August 11, 2013 “in solidarity with victims of the State Religion, namely, non-Muslims and non-believers of Pakistan”. The petition says "the life of non-Muslims and non-believers of Pakistan is as good as hell thanks to the State Religion of Pakistan.” There is now a need for State Religion to be hit by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

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Freedom Of Conscience: Can Theists And Atheists Work Together?

Our modern world, where ideas spread far and wide with just one click, continues to fight for something as basic and crucial as freedom of conscience. In 2013, we'd like to think otherwise, but the truth is we have a long way to go before we can score a victory in this fight.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recognised atheist discrimination in its 2013 Annual Report. Discrimination against atheists thrives even in a modern society such as America. In March, the German shoe company Atheist Shoes called out the US Postal Service for discrimination against atheists. The company found that boxes shipped to the U.S. labelled “ATHEIST" were much more likely to be delayed or lost en route than packaging without the label. Similarly, the talented atheist singer Shelley Segal recently faced discrimination when she was booted from a venue. 

If atheists are discriminated against in a modern country like the US, atheists face intolerable discrimination and persecution in Muslim-majority countries. Currently in Bangladesh, Islamists are demanding the hanging of atheists. On 25 April and 2 May atheists around the world rallied in support of the country’s atheist activists. In Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the Maldives, atheists can face the death penalty simply for expressing their views. Elsewhere atheists face the curtailment of basic rights the right to citizenship, prohibition from holding public office and restricted access to public education. This year the UN Rights Council was informed about the extensive discrimination atheists face around the world. From Alber Saber to Alexander Aan, from Asif Mohiuddin who was stabbed by Islamists and later arrested by the Bangladeshi government, to world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say who faces retirement after being convicted for blasphemy by his government; fromSanal Edamaruku for whom an arrest warrant was issued by the Indian police because he debunked a miracle believed by many, to Tunisian atheists Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji who were sentenced to seven years in prison for blasphemy by a Tunisian court, there's a long list of cases of persecution and global discrimination against atheists.

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Zambian government calls on church to fight against homosexuality

In April 2013, the Zambian government asked the church to help fight what it called ‘vices’, the most notable of these being homosexuality. It has been reported that over Easter some rather brave gay couples tried to get married and have their unions officially recognised. This was enough to scare the government into action and following their request for help, a Zambia Police spokesperson promised to crack down on "homosexual activities". A gay rights activist, Paul Kasonkomona, was arrested days later. 

The reasons given for the need to rid society of homosexuality are nothing new: it’s not a part of Zambian culture, it’s unAfrican, it’s unChristian and it goes against Biblical law. On the one hand, opponents of gay rights are arguing that because homosexuality is alien to Zambia (it isn't), it should not be allowed and they use Christianity to back up their views. What these hypocrites don't acknowledge is that Christianity is unAfrican. It is a religion that was introduced to Africa by European colonialists and wholeheartedly embraced. Those who oppose gay rights in Zambia and throughout Africa falsely claim homosexuality as foreign to the continent, yet they use a foreign religion to back up their claims.

In dealing with homosexuality, the Zambian government has shown a complete disregard for separation of church and state. Government officials not only use their Christian faith to guide their work but actively involve the church in it. This is unfair for the non-Christians and people with no religious affiliation living in Zambia as they are forced to live under rules based on a religion they do not subscribe to. Laws developed through logical thinking, taking into consideration issues facing the modern world and human rights do better to serve the people than laws based on ancient texts whose true authors are unknown. These texts, in form of the so-called Holy Bible, contain a multitude of passages that are not at all acceptable in the modern world and yet they are held in such high esteem by a large proportion of the population, including those who make decisions that affect everyone living in Zambia. 

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Boston Bombing and Islamophobia in America

In the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, many Americans focus on *why* it happened.  It seems to be human nature to try to find the cause behind these types of events and, when any information is found, then attempt to use that knowledge to prevent any future incidents from taking place.  Unfortunately, more often than not the “Why?” question leads down a path to an emotional response and bigotry rather than rational solutions.

This line of thinking can also be dangerous and may infringe on the rights of those who are in no way connected to the event.  In this case, the first news to come from an official source said the act was religion based, and that the bombers identified their religion as Islam.  Before this news even came to light, the right-wing extremists had been calling the attack "a pretty safe bet .. that this attack was carried out by an Islamist.”  This sparked outcries from many left-leaning liberals of “Islamophobia” and racism, some justifiably so.  However, the two groups caught up in these remarks from both sides are peaceful Muslims who want to distance themselves from this violence, and anyone who speaks out against Islam in a more civil, factual tone.  Look at some of the writings of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and at the responses they have received.  Simple statements or questions, based on facts such as Islamic traditions teaching that the Prophet Mohammed flew on a winged horse, have elicited the “Islamophobe” response.  This exaggerated, ill-used retort does nothing to counter any logical statements, but only serves as an attempt at discrediting an otherwise valid, logical point.  Meanwhile, moderate Muslims are caught in a wave of ridicule and hyperbole from right-wing fundamentalists.

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New Atheists Are Not Islamophobes

An article by Nathan Lean is making the rounds on the internet and it seems like everybody is jumping on the atheist-bashing bandwagon. Lean recently wrote an article for Salon – the title: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia. Many anti-Islamophobia crusaders quickly shared it with comments like “Dawkins’ idiot brigade”. To be fair, many liberals, atheists and Christians shared it too. But Lean’s article is currently a hot favourite in circles that dislike atheists in general because of their atheist views.

If you’ve read Lean’s article, you probably already know who he is. But if you haven’t, let me fill you in.  Nathan Lean is the editor-in-chief of the non-profit organisation Aslan Media, an aggressive pro-Islamic, self-proclaimed opponent of Israel of which some members – including Lean himself – hold a reputation for making anti-Israel comments on Twitter. Aslan Media is supposedly an anti-Islamophobia crusader, taking cheap shots at Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller in the past, and been called out by Jihad Watch on more than one occasion. It is also ‘supported’ by Loonwatch, a group of anonymous people who smear almost every critic of Islam while also outing anti-Muslim bigots.  Lean is also the author of the book The Islamophobia Industry, which received a critical review by Jonathan Schanzer for the Wall Street Journal, and elicited a petulant and defensive response piece viciously attacking Schanzer by Loonwatch. As well as writing books, Lean also endorses cyber terrorism:    

A criticism of 'new atheism' is that this type of non-believer is the 'mean' and ‘in-your-face’.  Lean puts new atheists like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens in the ranks of Pamela Geller and anti-Muslim bigots, calling new atheists ‘the new Islamophobes’. This is a little disturbing and so over the top that it sounds almost absurd.  Anyone who has read the works of 'new atheists' such as Dawkins and Harris knows that their ‘invectives’ are directed against Islam as a religion, and not Muslims. If Lean should be criticising anyone, it should be those who engage in destructive acts of terror, those who make the lives of people hell on earth by giving fatwas, those Muslims who kill Muslims and then go on to whine about Islamophobia.

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Dangers posed to atheists in Pakistan

Imagine living with the constant fear that an angry mob would torture you to death if they found out you are a free thinking person.

That’s how many agnostics and atheists live in Pakistan. Being Pakistani and an atheist is undoubtedly a dangerous combination. This does not even begin to make sense until you bring the context into the picture, which is a religious verdict about apostates being punishable by death.  So much for 'thinking freely or differently’. This religious ruling is the prime factor that puts the life of Pakistani atheists in danger. In fact ‘thinking’ is just as big of a sin in Pakistan as thinking differently. You are doomed if you decide to use your so-called god-given mental faculties and engage in critical thinking because thinking in matters of faith is a sin in itself.

Despite the fact that revealing yourself as an atheist in Pakistan is like having a death wish, some are brave enough to publicise their atheism. Yet most atheists living in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have no choice but to live in disguise as Muslims. They are often called ‘in-closet atheists’ which is not far from reality. The constant dread, dismay and the pressures have taken a significant mental toll on atheists in Pakistan as religion takes hold on the majority of Muslims in the country.

Another significant factor jeopardising the life of atheists living in Pakistan is the Penal code of Pakistan, which has laws decreeing the death penalty for various religious offences. This may or may not come as a surprise to free thinking people all over the world, but the famous ‘Blasphemy Law’ proposes death penalty for merely defiling the ‘sacred’ name of Holy Prophet Muhammad. So far many innocent people have fallen prey to the draconian law of blasphemy:

”An estimated number of 1,274 people have been charged under the stringent blasphemy laws of Pakistan between 1986, from when they were included in the Constitution by General Zia ul Haq, until 2010.” (Source: Dawn News)

The exhaustive list of people accused, jailed and even killed by radical Islamists ‘in the name of Allah’ can be accessed here.

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Suspension of Responsible Parenthood in the Philippines

Image: Protesters rally at the Philippines’ Supreme Court in Manila to protest the four-month suspension.  Source: Kalatas

On Tuesday 19 March, the Philippines’ Supreme Court issued a four-month suspension of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act. The new law would have required government health centres to provide free contraceptives and schools to teach sex education.

The suspension, which is intended to allow opponents until 18 June to present their arguments, was issued after petitions were received from religious and pro-life groups seeking to overturn the law, who are now claiming the move as a ‘partial victory’

The law came as a result of disturbing statistics in the Philippines, which revealed increased rates of teenage pregnancies and the maternal and child death rate. The maternal death rate alone has increased by almost 40% since 2006. These statistics have been linked to poor knowledge of sexual health and little or no available family planning advice. The President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, has thrown his support behind the law: ‘Items like sex education for instance, how can anyone argue that there is such a need, it shouldn't be deriving your knowledge from your peer group who are actually as ignorant as you.’ The President’s office reported that despite the suspension, there is confidence that the law will be retained.

Even if it is retained, opposition to the law will likely remain. 80% of the Philippines’ population of 100 million identify as Catholic and as yet the Catholic Church in the Philippines and elsewhere has vociferously opposed any reproductive health law. There is hope, however. On the day the suspension was announced, protesters gathered at the Philippines’ Supreme Court in Manila, claiming that the Supreme Court should be held “accountable to the 15 women and children who will die each day” until the law is reinstated. 

Thoughts of an ex-Catholic on Pope Frankie and his Church

On the night of 13 March, white smoke and chiming bells alerted the world that we had a new Pope. I waited, somewhat impatiently, to see who the new leader of the world’s largest religious institution was going to be. Part of me wished I could have been in the Vatican to witness the revelation for myself. Strange as it may seem for an atheist to express such a desire, it is true. As a Catholic I had once listened to Pope John Paul II speak in the Vatican and I wondered what it would be like to once again listen to a pope speak in the same location but as a non-believer. Furthermore, the revelation of the new leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics was a significant moment in history. One moment that happened to be going on just twenty minutes from my old home.

Once Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, stepped out onto the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, it quickly became clear that he would have more mass appeal than his predecessor. News contributors have talked at length of the significance of the name Francis but I realised its significance as soon as I heard the name. For eight years I attended a Catholic school named after St Francis of Assisi and I was well aware of his legacy. He was a man who was born into a wealthy family but chose to live a life of poverty. 

In his hometown of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio famously rejected the perks that came with his high rank in the Argentine church. However, it seems that religious leaders are held to a low standard when people determine whether or not they are good people. A church official taking public transport or rejecting a palatial home should not make international headlines. After all, when priests begin their ‘careers’ they take a vow of poverty. All too often though, once a priest climbs a few notches up the church hierarchy those vows are forgotten. I recall when the news broke that Pope Benedict’s butler had leaked private Vatican documents; my first thought was, ‘Why on earth does a man who took a vow of poverty have a butler anyway?’

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Racist preacher elected president of Brazil's Human Rights Commission

Tweets from Marcos Feliciano in 2011: "Africans are descendants of an ancestor cursed by Noah. This is fact. The reason for the curse is polemic." and "The rottenness of homosexual feelings brings hate, crime and rejection.

7 March 2013 was not a day to be remembered by minorities in Brazil as Marcos Feliciano, a known racist and homophobic preacher, was elected president of the Human Rights Commission by Brazil’s House of Representatives. Originally planned to take place on the 6th, the voting process had to be transferred to the 7th due to protests and rows among the voting deputies.

The Social Christian Party minister is currently being investigated for accusations of homophobia and embezzlement. He became famous in 2011 for his offensive Twitter posts, which he insists are simply biblical quotations and are just being misinterpreted.

Public demonstrations against Feliciano took place in various cities, among them 10 state capitals: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Florianópolis, Porto Alegre, Maceió, Curitiba, Vitória, Fortaleza and Salvador. But since little attention was given by politicians to demonstrations against the election of Renan Calheiros to President of the Senate despite reports of corruption – including 1.6 million signatures collected via the web platform Avaaz and 250 people gathering in São Paulo – Brazilians have little hope for any immediate result. 

However, after a recent demonstration in the city of Franca where the preacher was attending a meeting, Feliciano’s official website no longer posts his daily agenda. This is a small impact, but shows to all activists that maybe he is starting to doubt God is on his side.

New US Poll Shows New High of Religiously Unaffiliated Americans

new poll released this week by the University of California, Berkeley, and Duke University has disclosed that more Americans than ever now consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated.

The report, released on 12 March, indicates that the percentage of Americans who do not claim any religious affiliation has reached a new high of 20 percent, the highest recorded since US religious affiliation began to be tracked in the 1930s.  This new number is more than double the percentage reported in 1990 when only 8 percent of Americans polled did not identify with an organized faith, and constitutes a steady and accelerating rise in the Unaffiliated since the 1930s when only 3 percent of Americans identified as such.

It is important to note that the research did not measure the percentage of Americans who self-identify as atheists or agnostics. Responses in the survey were to the question, “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?”

Other interesting aspects of the survey include a heavy skewing to the younger generation, with over one-third of 18-to-24 year olds claiming no religious affiliation, compared to only 7 percent of those 75 or older. Also some 40 percent of progressives and liberals claimed no religious affiliation, compared to only 9 percent of conservatives. And more men (24 percent) versus women (16 percent), and more whites (21 percent) compared to other minorities.

Some analysts attribute the trend to the heavy influence that Christian conservatives have had as of late in US politics, particularly in dominating the issues of the US Republican Party.  They describe the rise as "blowback" to the mingling of church and state in the US.

In the 2012 US Presidential election, over 70% of the religiously unaffiliated voted for President Obama, a higher percentage than any other constituency.  With this new report, it seems that the religiously affiliated will only become a more powerful and important constituency in future US elections.