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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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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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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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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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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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.

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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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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Broken Trust

Photo: http://www.stephenjones.org.au/opinion/a-royal-commission-into-child-abuse-and-systemic-cover-up/

On 12 November the Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, announced that there would be a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, encompassing public and private organisations and institutions [1], including state care, residential homes, and religious organisations.

The news was met with elation and wary hope from victims, many of whom have waited for most of their lifetime to have their stories heard. Scouts Australia and Australia’s most senior Anglican Bishop released statements strongly supporting the Commission and condemning the abuse of children. [2] [3]

The organisation that was the major impetus for establishing the Commission was less welcoming about the announcement. Cardinal George Pell, the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, claimed the accusations against the Church were ‘exaggerated and historic’ [4] and part of a broader smear campaign.

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Zambia: The Christian Nation Debate

Zambia is currently in the process of developing a new constitution and one of the most controversial issues surrounding this process is whether the declaration of Zambia as a Christian nation in the preamble should be maintained. In 1991, President Frederick Chiluba declared Zambia a Christian nation and the current constitution was amended to reflect the declaration in 1996. This, by the way, is the same Chiluba who was convicted on corruption charges in a London court after stealing millions of dollars of public funds. [1]

Religion or non-religion should not be imposed on anyone but the Christian nation declaration does exactly this. The draft constitution acknowledges that Zambia is a multi-religious, multicultural and multi-racial society but then contradicts itself by only truly acknowledging the Christian majority. 

Another major problem with the Christian nation declaration is that it is not factual. Simply stating something does not make it true. The majority of Zambians are Christian but there are also minority religious groups such as Muslims and Hindus. Atheists and agnostics are virtually unheard of but we do exist. If you want to confuse a Zambian bring up atheism or agnosticism. The thought that there are people who do not believe in God or are unsure about the existence of a deity is difficult to comprehend even for the most liberal of Zambians. Zambia may generally be a tolerant nation but the deeply ingrained religious belief and the hostility towards non-religious people means that most of us are not open about our beliefs, or lack of beliefs. The preamble of the draft constitution states that “We, the people of Zambia, in exercise of our constituent power: Acknowledge the supremacy of God Almighty.” This is yet another lie. I am Zambian but I do not acknowledge the supremacy of God or any gods. Zambia needs a constitution that promotes the rights of women and other marginalised groups in society and one that promotes an equitable and just society. Declaring Zambia a Christian nation and declaring God supreme will not bring this about. These are just empty statements. 

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The role of religion in the US Presidential election

It should be no secret, even to those outside of the U.S., that the Republican Party is deeply entrenched in religious belief.  While its presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has not been strident about his own religious beliefs, his speeches and voiced policies have consistently reflected an adherence to his party’s rather dogmatic Christian point of view.  His support of the Hyde Amendment, which would ban abortions funded by tax payers, his views opposing same-sex marriages as well as civil unions, and his support of displaying religious symbols in public areas by governmental agencies and schools are all obvious leanings toward his Christian supporters.

However, the Governor’s own religious view has been a topic that has been avoided by his campaign. Specifically, the differences between Christianity and the Governor’s own Church of Latter-day Saints have not been much of a talking point since his winning of the Republican nomination. Prior to the other Republicans dropping out of the race it was mentioned by a few news stations, but no in-depth details given. It would also seem that the Romney campaign itself wishes to turn a blind eye to these differences and allow their constituency to focus on their opponent’s imagined religious views, that he is a Muslim in disguise, God forbid. More on that later.

Do American Christians of the Republican party, who believe in a talking snake, a divine virgin birth, and body spontaneously turning into a pillar of salt, know that they are backing an individual whose faith believes in magical underwear and that their prophet translated sacred text while planting his face in a hat, but does not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?  No wonder the Grand Old Party does not wish anyone to delve too deeply into Mormonism, their beliefs are as crazy as….oh well, never mind.

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