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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.

While one form of discrimination is stopped, another begins...

Recently the Australian Government acted to ban the discrimination practices of churches that run aged care facilities. In a great step towards equality for older gay couples who have been rejected from such facilities, this new bill would allow churches to be sued for discriminatory practices against patients within their institutions. However, in one giant leap backwards, the bill still allows religiously-run facilities to use discriminatory hiring policies.

While the current finely-balanced federal parliament supports these measures overall, the opposition Coalition party rejects the bill, stating that it is a “back-door attempt” at allowing a human rights bill into parliament. There has also been opposition from bishops and religious institutions, claiming that the bill restrains their freedom of religion.

It has now emerged that the committee behind the bill attempted to add clauses that would make it unlawful to ‘offend’ or ‘insult’ a person (these clauses have been removed after a backlash) and the exemption that permits religious institutions to use discriminatory hiring practices has been subject to criticism. These aspects of the bill have worried several human rights groups within Australia, which have noted that several sections of the bill may contravene international human rights law.

That this bill has been drafted without consideration to its compatibility with international human rights principles is concerning.  This bill is intended to consolidate five pieces of current anti-discrimination legislation, but it does not appear that it will adequately protect our population from discrimination within both public and religious institutions.

The Catholic Church and women's health: Will a new Pope bring change?

With the resignation of Pope Benedict, does that mean there will be real change in areas where the Catholic Church is seen to be at odds even with its own people?  Paedophile priests aside, I wish to focus on the attitude of the church toward women, their health needs, and in particular contraception and abortion. There have been recent events in Europe regarding these issues which are worth discussing.

Jackie Jones, writing for the Irish Times, wrote of her disapproval of a custom in Ireland, a country with strong Catholic traditions, where medical professionals address women patients as “mother”. Catholic bishops have spoken about their “two-patient model” regarding maternity services in which mother and child are treated as one unit.  Jones’ objection is that referring to a woman as “mother” means treating that woman as a role rather than as a person; it implies that women are for breeding, and cannot be considered in separation from that role. Such a stance skews any possible discussion on abortion: “Women have the right to be treated as equal, responsible, capable human beings, independent of any roles they may assume. Women are entitled to medical services in their own right, including abortion.”

Ireland is not the only country in Europe where Catholic views have conflicted with the health needs of women. As reported by Der Spiegel in January of this year, certain Catholic hospitals in Germany refused to examine a rape victim. The case was reported by an emergency centre doctor who treated a 25-year-old woman suspected of being the victim of a date-rape drug.  After prescribing the ‘morning after pill’, the doctor contacted two Catholic hospitals, and both hospitals refused to provide the gynaecological examination requested by the doctor and the woman. This refusal was given because Catholic hospitals do not want to be in the position of having to advise victims of rape regarding possible unwanted pregnancies. The case caused uproar in the community, and a defensive reaction by the Catholic Church at the time.


Secular Bangladeshi Youths Organise Their Own “Bangladeshi Spring”

Photo: Reuters

Outside of the “Arab Spring” movement and unbeknownst to most of the atheist community in the West, there has been an equally forceful effort in East Asia to throw off Islamist domination since its establishment as an independent country in 1971.

Bangladesh - A country that was initially created as part of Muslim-dominated Pakistan in the movement of Indian independence in 1947, and later separated from Pakistan in 1971 as an independent country - has had a schizophrenic identity since then. Having been the ruling seat of British-ruled India, the Bengal region has had a strong heritage with the British Enlightenment. The region played a major part in the Indian Independence movement. But the region is also strongly Muslim and was the birthplace of the separationist Muslim League which led to the partitioning of India and the creation of Pakistan, which included East Bengal, later renamed East Pakistan, as a nation and a society focused on strict Sharia (Islamic law).

Politics have always been complex in Bangladesh. Since its separation from India, Bangladesh has endured a series of corruption scandals, assassinations and coups that left the country mired as one of the poorest for decades and eventually led to its own war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Much of that war was driven between conservative Islamists (supported by Pakistan) and moderate-minded Muslim and secular progressives (supported by India). The Islamists formed a military faction, the Jammat-e-Islami, which later transformed itself into a political party that led the state for the first decades after independence. 


How many knots for your problems?

During the first two Arabic months, Moharram and Safar (most recently mid-Nov 2012 to mid-Jan 2013 on the Western calendar), Shia Muslims go into a mourning period and the colour black comes into prominence. People wear black clothes. Arabic sentences written on black pieces of cloth are seen in streets, in the entrance doors of shops, and especially in mosques. During this two-month holy period, Shia Muslims attempt to find solutions for their problems. One of their solutions has always been quite strange to me.

It was the beginning of Moharram when I went as usual to the Afghan Student Union (in Mashhad City, Iran) to take part in a weekly English-discussion class. In the yard, there was a tree which had several pieces of cloth tied to it. Some of the cloths had two or three knots in them and some had many. While I have seen the green pieces of cloth tied onto the door handles of mosques or holy places before, this time it was different for me: this time, I was at a place where university students gathered. I have decided to write something about this tradition because it has found its way into a place where the younger generation is educated.

How many serious problems do you have in your life? An Islamic traditional solution recommends you to take a piece of cloth (green is preferred) and begin tying.


In The Name of Honour

While those concerned with the negatives of atheism often concentrate on moral “ideals” that they perceive atheists could not have, they seem to forget that their own ideals give less validation to this life we have now, allowing finite time to be taken up by demonstrably petty mythical tales.

In recent times we have seen an upsurge in honour killings in the large up-and-coming powerhouse of the world, India, and from it, a greater acceptance of honour killings from the communities within these regions. While this is not an issue confined to the South Asian continent, it is an issue strongly linked to religion (and, in India, specifically, the caste system), with the ideology of these murders spreading through several doctrines of faith.

Now, with more emigration around the world (which is not a bad thing in itself), some of these strange ideologies have spread into western societies, hiding in plain sight as we wear our politically correct tinted glasses and ignore that an essential issue behind these numerous human rights abuses is religion. Proving a ‘higher’ set of morality provides justification in some people’s minds for what is simply a crime.  While when the judicial system is involved the right outcome can be achieved many people are sympathetic to the notion of allowing immigrants to keep their ‘culture’. A lot of people feel like it is too much of a messy issue to deal with.


The Onward March of Islamism in Africa

On Christmas Eve 2012, attacks on two Nigerian churches resulted in the deaths of at least 12 people. Brutal as the attacks may have been, they were not necessarily surprising as attacks by militant Islamist groups against Christians in Nigeria have become all too common. The Christmas attack is one of many since 2010. More than 30 people died in 2011 on Christmas Day in a wave of attacks in the region, blamed on the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Indeed, al-Qaeda affiliated militant Islamist groups such as Boko Haram have become more active not only in Nigeria but in other African countries as well. Some of the other main groups include Ansar Dine in Mali and al-Shabab in Somalia. 

As of January 2012, Boko Haram had killed close to 1,000 people. One year on and many attacks later, the death toll is well over 1,000. Although it has targeted a wide range of people, Boko Haram is especially known for attacking Christians during religious gatherings. This is in part due to the fact that many international news agencies tend to give more coverage to Boko Haram when it targets Christians as opposed to other groups. Ansar Dine has taken over large areas of Mali, most notably Timbuktu, and imposed sharia law. Al-Shabab has caused devastation in Somalia and has been responsible for attacks in Kenya and Uganda.


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.


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.


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?


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.