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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Alex Aan update

Atheist Alliance International is pleased that a friend and supporter of Alex's was able to visit him in prison recently.  Thank you everyone who sent in messages of support for Alex - the second set has now been delivered.  Here is an update about Alex:

"Alex is in good spirits and is very much his old self. I had a nice long chat with him. His burning ambition remains to work to relieve poverty and injustice. He is very interested in the situation in Iran and wants to fight for the people there. He has heard of a journalist who has been imprisoned and is also deeply shocked by the executions there. He is horrified by the idea of stoning in particular. This was one of the things that made him question the morality of religion. “How can anyone,” he said, “pick up a stone without thinking about their mother or their sister?”.  I told him about the case of Malala Yousufzai in Pakistan and he was deeply moved. Once again, his main concern and the thing he wants to talk about most of all is the plight of others. 

"He told me again how much the support from around the world inspires him and keeps him going. He sends you all he love and thanks. The scholarship fund has been a strong motivator and he promised that he will always work for humanity and for science.

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First information stall on secularism, humanism and atheism in Dublin

Brendan Maher launched first ever information stall about secularism, humanism and atheism in Ireland on 6 October 2012 in Dublin's city centre.  Brendan says:

"The purpose of this initiative is to furnish information on secularism, humanism and atheism to the person in the street.

This idea began about two and a half years ago when I noticed that there were about two or three street preachers in the vicinity of the GPO.  Since then the number has grown to about nine.  There are a range of different Christian groups and a few Islamic and Hari Krishna people.  I felt that there had to be an alternative view given, a rational, ethical, scientific and realistic view of things.

Although we live in the era of the computer there are still many people who live their lives without reference to the computer.  A stall like this and the personal approach can be quite effective.  I do not see it as proselytising but as an information exercise to help raise awareness with regards to secularism, humanism and atheism.

Because of the success of this first event I plan to have the stall at the GPO on the first Saturday of each month from 12 to 2 pm.  Perhaps this could be done in other cities in the country.

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The Profane in Pakistan

In Pakistan, two young women have recently become the target of violence and accusations of blasphemy, as retribution for speaking out about modernisation and education, or for simply belonging to a minority group, highlighting ongoing divisions in the country.

Malala Yousazai , a 15 year old girl, was attacked earlier this month for being an activist for the rights of children and education for girls. [1]  Malala was shot in the head by a member of the Pakistani Taliban, for what a spokesman for the Taliban claimed as ‘obscenity’ and bringing secular and Western ideas to Pakistan. She has since been moved to a military hospital then to the UK, and while there are hopeful signs she remains in a critical condition. This incident has resulted in public outcry within and outside Pakistan, suggesting that violent and unjust acts may not be as acceptable as the perpetrators appear to believe.  Avaaz has started a petition to support Malala and the right of Pakistani girls to receive an education.

The attack on Malala follows the 16 August arrest in Mahrabad, Pakistan, of a 14-year-old girl on a charge of blasphemy.  Rimsha Masih spent two weeks in remand in an adult prison after her accuser said she had been carrying a bag of refuse which included burnt pages of the Koran. As blasphemy laws in Pakistan decree a life in prison for anyone who defiles the Koran, and require no evidence other than the word of the accuser, there is little hope for most who are accused. [2]

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Petition to free arrested Egyptian atheist Alber Saber

More information has come to light regarding the arrest of Alber Saber in Egypt, as reported by The Examiner on 16 September  2012, including reports of Saber being abused while in captivity by other prisoners who were incited against him, and also of his mother being further harassed by the mob, which threatened to burn her alive in her own home unless she leaves the neighbourhood. [1]

There is now a petition to free Alber Saber, which quotes a television interview with Saber’s mother, where she indicated that her son had been tortured for three days in custody, and that no lawyers are prepared to assist them, due to receiving death threats themselves.

Atheist Alliance International encourages all readers to show their support for Albert Saber, and for the freedom of expression, through signing the petition.

[1]   American Humanist Association statement.

Criticising Catholicism in Ireland through art

Richard Wall is an Irish artist.  This is a short film about his life and work, including (in the later part of the film) his artwork criticising the Catholic Church for its influence on his country.