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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

Witchcraft based violence in Malawi - Margaret Wesele

We are very concerned about Witchcraft based violence in Malawi.  Here is the story that should make you very disturbed. The attached two photos is that of Margaret. One where she is alone and of course on the second photo I am there standing with her.

Margaret Wisele (50) who has her leg chopped off  with a machete because she was accused of witchcraft. This happened on 21st  January 2013. The  local hospital had to finally amputate her on 25th January 2013. This was done at Zomba Hospital.  

She was hacked on 21st Jan 2013 by three boys from her village. She was accused of being a witch. On this day, there was a funeral of a grandson to Margaret`s sister. And the village blamed her for the sudden death. And these three boys picked themselves out of the group at the funeral to go and kill Margaret. Since the incidence in January the local police did not arrest the perpetrators for reasons best known to themselves. 

However, with our influence the perpetrators have now been arrested now. The arrest was made yesterday,  on 18th March 2013-one and half months after the event.  We went to see Margaret on Monday 18th March, 2013 at her village.

We should be buying her walking clutches or artificial leg in the near future. Margaret is well. Except that she feels some pain on her amputated leg sometimes.

You Ask, An Atheist Answers

Karl from Indonesian Atheists, an AAI Affiliate, talks to the Jakarta Globe about "You Ask, An Atheist Answers":

Discussions between atheists and theists, or those who believe in the existence of God, are fragile events that rarely, though not impossibly, manage to do anything more than reinforce just how disparate the two factions’ stances are. This profound divergence is evidently true in Indonesia, where the concept of atheism is still seen as remarkably foreign, to put it mildly. 

Stigmas and assumptions about Indonesian atheists often paint them as smart-aleck contrarians with a penchant for hedonistic nihilism who leave the burden of proof to believers. 

To disprove this widespread view, two Indonesian atheists have taken up the call, Karl Karnadi and Virgi Albiant, the latter of which is a pseudonym used by the founder of “Anda Bertanya, Ateis Menjawab” (“You Ask, an Atheist Answers”), an Internet-based forum and community that aims to build a friendly bridge between believers and non-believers. 

Read the full article here.

Empowering Women Through Secularism

Atheist Ireland, an Affiliate of AAI, will be hosting Empowering Women through Secularism in Dublin, 29-30 June 2013.  The speaker line up is excellent - Annie Laurie Gaylor, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasrin, Ophelia Benson, Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers and Dan Barker, as well as AAI President Carlos Diaz. Don't miss this fantastic opportunity - early bird tickets now on sale for EUR100.  For more information click here.

Death and Humanist Funerals in Nigeria

On February 9, 2013, the former Chair of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, Eze Ebisike died after a brief illness. On March 2, he was buried in his hometown Okpokume, Mpam, Ekwerazu Ahiazu Mbiase in Imo State. Ebisike was an ex-catholic priest and an atheist. He was buried after a short humanist funeral ceremony in the compound. The ceremony was a historic event because it was the first time, in that part of the country that someone who was an atheist was given a non-religious funeral.

Funerals constitute a vital part of the local culture and tradition. Most people attach a lot of importance to rites marking the end of life. Some people plan for their own funerals even though they know they won't be there to celebrate it! People devote time, energy and resources to mourning the dead and paying their last respects.

But like most other aspects of culture, funeral ceremonies have been based on religion and supernaturalism. A funeral is a ‘spiritual’ and godly exercise.

Hence people think that a funeral must be conducted in line with the teachings of one of the traditional religions; Islam or Christianity. They cannot imagine a godless funeral service or a non religious or non theistic way of mourning the dead. This is to be expected given the ubiquity of the theistic cosmological outlook. Most people believe in a god that rewards or punishes people after death. There is a strong belief that death is not the end of life, that death is a kind of transition from this life to the ‘next life’, that there is a heaven and a hell. But humanists do not hold to these beliefs. For humanists, death is the end of life. When people die they decompose just like all other living things. Post mortem life in heaven and hell is viewed at best as a comforting illusion. The evidence for a personal god is simply not there. There has also been no evidence produced for the existence of a soul. And the whole idea of the soul leaving the body is just wishful thinking.

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If You Are Not Free to Dissent You Are Not Free

On the International Day To Defend Apostates and Blasphemers, the Council of Ex-Muslims, an AAI Affiliate, is supporting:

Alex Aan, Indonesia: 30 year old atheist, in prison for saying there is no god on Facebook. Sign petition here.
Abdul Aziz Mohammed Al-Baz (also known as Ben Baz), Kuwait: Blogger and atheist charged with blasphemy.  Support him here.
Turki Al Hamad, Saudi Arabia: Novelist in prison for tweets critical of Islam and Islamism. Write letter here.
Raif Badawi, Saudi Arabia: Charged with apostasy for website that “harms the public order and violates Islamic values”. Sign petition.
- Asia Bibi, Pakistan: 45 year old mother of five, sentenced to death for ‘insulting Mohammad’. Join save Asia Bibi Facebook Page here.
Hamza Kashgari, Saudi Arabia: 23 year old Muslim charged with blasphemy for tweeting about Mohammad and women’s status. Sign petition here and here.
Saeed Malekpour, Iran: Sentenced to death for ‘insulting and desecrating Islam’. Join Free Saeed Malekpour Facebook Page here.
Shahin Najafi, Iran:  A death fatwa for apostasy has been issued for a song critical of an imam.  Support Shahin here.
Ahmad Rajib, Bangladesh: The well-known 35 year old atheist blogger had his head hacked apart with a machete one day after attending anti-Islamist protests.
Alber Saber, Egypt: The atheist blogger has been sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy. Support him here.

In each of these cases Islam was apparently 'offended', providing 'justification' for the crimes against these apostates and blasphemers.  Those who claim Islam is a religion of peace need to think further about the behaviour of Islamists and how they justify their actions.

AAI Position Statement: Freedom of Expression

Following consultation with members, AAI is pleased to announce that it has finalised its position statement on freedom of expression.  This statement is intended to provide a concise reference and coherent argument that members and other atheists may use in situations in their own countries, and refute the common accusation that 'atheists stand for nothing'.  Thank you everyone who contributed their views!  

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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Apology from the AAI President

Yesterday AAI tweeted a link to an Atheist Revolution article that trivialised harassment of women in the atheist community.  The tweet (and related Facebook post) have been deleted and this apology posted on the Butterflies & Wheels blog:

Hi everyone, tweeting that link was a mistake, a big one. One of our Social Media collaborators twitted the link from what looked to him as a sensible source with a title that seemed on the same page as we are.  He wasn´t aware of the fact that the article is far off from our stance on harassment: we don´t condone it, we don´t defend it and we certainly will not accept it in our community, end of story.  We are completely committed to promoting women feeling safer in our community (something we should all strive for) and to stopping this senseless harassment that plagues us.

We have an anti-harassment policy that is mandatory for all conventions we help organize or give funding to and we are always open to receiving suggestions or requests for help regarding this, and any other issue (email: president [at] atheistalliance [dot] org).

I personally apologize for the slip up and hope you understand we, in no way, share any view other than the fact that we all must work together against harassment in our community, we must all feel safe discussing ideas among ourselves and not blame the victims in order to hide the shortcomings our community has.

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.