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.

Continue Reading

Alexander Aan update

A member of Indonesian Atheists recently visited Alexander Aan in prison. The visitor was able to bring food and drink for Alex and spoke with him for around 20 minutes. Alex appears to be well, socialising with other prisoners and communicating with the officers.  Alex and the visitor discussed recent news related to secularism and atheism and Alex provided a copy of some of his recent notes, including (on the second page)  "I always concern in humanity and science and never come back to Islam", "I need to leave Indonesia quickly" and "I need to be myself".  Alex also thanked his supporters: "Thank (you) for all my friend who support(ed) me all the way".

Alex's appeal to the Indonesian Supreme Court is in process.  Atheist Alliance International is raising funds to support Alex's legal case and, separately, to assist him to study outside Indonesia after his release if possible.  If you would like to help Alex please donate here.

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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. 

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

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.

Secular World podcast 008 - Atheist Census

The end of the world; Atheist Census with Carlos Diaz, AAI President; David Ince, the Carribean Atheist; and so much more! Enjoy! Contact the show by emailing podcast [at] atheistalliance [dot] org.  Click here for the latest podcast.  And yes, we've re-numbered the podcasts, we're just mysterious like that.

Carlos Diaz on American Freethought Podcast

AAI President Carlos Diaz talks with hosts David Driscoll and John Snyder about his background and religious education in Argentina, Atheist Census and other AAI activities.  The interview starts at around the 10:15 mark.

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.

Continue Reading

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!