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AAI's 2011 Top 10 Stories for the International Atheist Community

As we commence 2012, AAI looks back at the Top 10 stories for the international atheist community in 2011.

1. Outspoken Atheist Christopher Hitchens Dies

Journalist, author, iconoclast and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens died in 2011 after struggling against esophagal cancer for over a year. Hitchens was not only well-known for his fiery rhetoric and incomparable wit, he was also celebrated in the atheist community as one of the best-known to take religion to task for its harm to society.

Hitchens first became known in much of the atheist community with his release of The Missionary Position, a scathing expose on Catholic nun "Mother" Theresa and the community center she ran in Bangladesh. Hitchens followed this work a few years later with God Is Not Great, a more comprehensive tome on the failings and corruption of religion over the centuries.

He will be missed.

2. Pakistani Politicians Killed by Muslim Extremists for Questioning Blasphemy Laws

The world was shocked by the assassinations of two prominent Pakistani politicians – Punjabi Governor Salman Taseer and National Minority Minister Shahbaz Bhatti - in March 2011 by Muslim terrorists who took exception to comments made by both politicians questioning the appropriateness of Pakistani's blasphemy laws. These laws were recently used to sentence one Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian village woman and mother of five to death, for questioning the truth of the Koran – a conviction that was made via hearsay of other villagers and which the woman denied.

Taseer, a self-described ‘moderate’ Muslim, was gunned down with 20 rounds fired into his back by one of his own bodyguards. Bhatti, a Christian and the only non-Muslim in the Pakistani cabinet, was ambushed in his car and died in a hail of bullets en route to a cabinet meeting, in front of his mother’s home. Bhatti had enough sense of the risk he was taking in his comments to record a video testimony of his convictions to be released in the event that he was actually killed. The killers in both of these acts were declared heroes and received loud praise and adulation from many in the Pakistani Muslim community, including a number of mullahs who threw rose petals at Taseer’s assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, at his trial. Unsurprisingly, other Pakistani leaders, both secular and religious, failed to condemn either of the killings out of fears of retribution against them. At Bhatti’s assassination, the gunmen dropped pamphlets around the car that threatened Bhatti by name and stated, in part: "From the Mujahideen of Islam, this fitting lesson for the world of infidelity, the crusaders, the Jews and their aides ... especially the leader of the infidel government of Pakistan, Zardari.... In the Islamic Sharia, the ruling for one who insults the Prophet is nothing but death."

3. Gay Discrimination and Persecution Worldwide Continue to be Promoted by US Christian Evangelicals

Religious communities and leaders in the US and elsewhere expressed anger over comments made at the UN Human Rights Council by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ahead of Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, where she stated that religious beliefs and cultural values "continue to be a problem" in condoning and encouraging the persecution of gays and lesbians around the world. Although Clinton made no specific references, one of the more noted persecutions in 2011 arose in Uganda where anti-gay legislation, promoted by Christian evangelicals, was resurrected to make homosexuality a capital crime. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated in May that anti-gay hate crimes are increasing around the world and now account for a high percentage of all reported hate crimes.

Many analysts point to a conservative religious indoctrination being promoted by US evangelical Christian groups to a more sinister form of homophobia as fanning this shift in many African countries over the last decade.The anger among Christian conservatives arose not because they felt the claims were false, but because they saw the condemnation of such discrimination as an infringement of their religious freedom.  Religiously-overt Republican presidential candidates in the US described Clinton’s comments as representing a “War against people of faith”. In the US, many of these groups have been fighting the enactment of laws criminalizing hate speech and demanding exemptions for their communities, claiming that these laws violate their freedom of religion. Working with African evangelicals, these groups have been using homophobia as a recruiting tool for their African missions for over a decade. “It wasn’t until the late 1990s that we saw Africans with the help of American conservative religious groups using this issue (homosexuality) as an organizing tool,” said Rev. Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia who has studied the US evangelical influence on African societies.

Clinton’s comments at the UN Human Rights Council underscored this rise of religious bigotry towards gays and lesbians and called on all nations to increase their commitments to slow and reverse such discrimination in the coming years.

4. UN Drops “Defamation” Line In Annual Call to Condemn Religious Intolerance

The UN has been a battleground for much of the past decade as nations from the Muslim world, organized under the Organization for Islamic Countries (OIC), have pushed to add “Freedom from Religious Defamation” as a right recognised under the UN Conference on Human Rights.

In December 2011, the 57-nation OIC suffered a setback as the UN General Assembly adopted its annual resolution to combat religious intolerance without including a call for the outlawing of “defamation of religion”. The call on countries to prohibit “defamation” has been included in a non-binding resolution on combating religious intolerance passed annually by the 193-nation assembly since 1998, but has gradually been losing support over the years, with the clause retained in the 2010 resolution by only a bare majority of the General Assembly.

In early 2011, Western countries and their Latin American allies joined forces with moderate Muslim and African states on the UN Human Rights Council in backing a new approach that switched the focus from protecting beliefs to protecting believers. That new approach led to the resolution adopted this year by the General Assembly without the “defamation” language.

5. Fewer Catholics Than Ever Follow the Vatican

2011 saw the informal power and influence of the Vatican continue to suffer as new revelations of sexual scandals continued to be revealed across the Catholic world. Countries that have been seen as the staunchest supporters of the Holy See, such as Mexico, Italy, Spain, Brazil, as well as others, have enacted legislation in response to these scandals that either rolled back the Vatican’s power in their countries or simply contradicted longstanding Vatican positions  on issues such as abortion, birth control and same-sex marriage.

Ireland’s government has been perhaps the most vociferous in denouncing the criminality and massive concealment of the Church in the sexual scandals that rocked the country, introducing legislation that significantly disconnects the strong relationship the Church has had with the government since the founding of the Irish Republic. Spain’s socialist government pushed through fast-track divorce and legalized same-sex marriage over the past few years, to the outrage and dismay of Spanish Catholic Bishops.  Calls have even been made in the National Italian Legislature to begin taxing Vatican property (outside churches and other explicitly religious worship sites) to help offset the financial stress being faced by the Italian government. Although this seems a long shot, the fact that the issue has been raised at all is unprecedented in modern Italian politics. And in the United States, larger numbers than ever of lay Catholics admit to disregarding Papal dictates and policies, with a majority of US Catholics regularly practicing chemical birth control and having few of the qualms about divorce and same-sex marriage that the US Council of Catholic Bishops, the Vatican’s representation in the US, constantly rails against in its lobbying of the US Congress.

6. US Military Continues Role as World’s Largest Christian Missionary Force

The US military, with a US$500+ billion annual budget – larger than the combined military spending of all other nations – remains the world’s largest proselytizer of Christianity with multiple billions of its annual budget dedicated to its Chaplaincy Corps.

With more than 3,800 military chaplains, the US Chaplaincy Corps includes a disproportionately high number of evangelical Protestant Christian missionaries who openly argue their role as converting US soldiers into “Warriors for Christ” and using their positions and resources to promote Christianity overseas, both stances in flagrant violation of the US Constitution. Organizations like the Officers Christian Fellowship (OCF), The Military Ministry of the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and the Christian Military Fellowship (CMF) have been documented as encouraging soldiers to proselytize as their primary mission in the military. These organizations operate in almost all US military bases worldwide, with the OCF alone counting 15,000 US military officers around the world as members. These groups have been discovered to be supplying coins stamped with biblical verses and local-language copies of bibles to local children, much to the outrage of local parents and religious leaders.

In the past year, a new “Spiritual Fitness” test issued by the US Army to its soldiers came to light. This test, required as part of a soldier’s annual evaluation, included questions that asked whether a soldier believed in life after death, whether they turned to a ‘higher power’ in times of strife or confusion and whether they regularly prayed or meditated. Those soldiers who answered those questions in the negative were noted as “spiritually deficient” and ordered to participate in rehabilitation classes that promoted Christianity. Failure to complete those classes could result in a mark on their military records and a denial of promotions and other military privileges.

7. Black Atheists Rising in US, Africa (The “Post-Soul” Generation)

Black atheists, about as common as sightings of the Scottish Loch Ness Monster or the American Bigfoot, are on the verge of coming out in the United States as well as throughout the African continent. In the United States, on-line groups such as Facebook Black Atheists and the Black Atheist Alliance, blogs like “Godless and Black”, African-Americans for Humanism, and Center for Inquiry-Harlam, as well as Black Atheists of America and Black Nonbelievers have all been founded and have experienced explosive growth over the past two years. Across the Atlantic, a similar explosion of groups in Sub-Saharan Africa  has occurred in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Benin, Malawi, and South Africa. The rise of these groups is all the more remarkable arising within cultures and communities that have long been renowned for their religious fervor, especially in relation to Christianity, with religious leaders in the black communities constituting the wealthiest, most powerful, and oftentimes the most corrupt in those communities.

8. Religious Caste Systems Continue to Maintain Firm Hold in South Asia

The Hindu caste system continues to sentence millions of Dalits (untouchables) to lives of dire poverty and subject them to kidnapping and human slavery, including for ritualised prostitution (Jogini).

The source of Dalit discrimination, and in the Indian caste system in general, comes from Hinduism and its ancient texts. Hinduism divides India’s society into five castes, with the religious Brahmins being the highest caste and the Dalits the lowest. Many Hindus even consider Dalits as subhuman, to be treated as property or livestock. Dalits regularly suffer denial of education, work opportunities, even health care. Despite legislation that has been passed by successive Indian governments to abolish the practice, discrimination remains prevalent across India, especially in the more rural regions.

India and its system of Jogini is estimated to be the source of almost half of all human trafficking worldwide. In 2011 Jogini was reported to be on the increase in India and spreading elsewhere in the world. Jogini involves dedicating young girls to a goddess, and selling into a lifetime of prostitution as soon as they reach puberty. While this practice was made illegal by legislation in the 1980s, 2011 reports indicated that the practice has markedly increased over the past decade and is even appearing in Indian districts where it was previously unknown.

9. Number of Godless Groups and Conferences in World Reaches New High

In 2011, the number of recognized “godless groups” in the world reached a new high, encompassing more than 150 significant groups across 40 countries as well as extra-national groups and communities that transcend national boundaries.

Counting and tracking godless organizations worldwide remains a difficult task, as there is no official database that tracks such numbers. But estimates can be made by considering the memberships of international freethought organizations like Atheist Alliance International (AAI) and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

The IHEU reported in early 2011 that its membership had reached 118 groups (now 124) across 38 different countries, the highest number of member groups since its founding in 1952. AAI, following a  reorganization  in 2011, has a membership of 31 groups across 24 different countries at the end of 2011, its highest level of non-US group membership since its founding in 1992. (Approximately 50% of AAI’s group members are also members of the IHEU.) These groups are primarily (but not exclusively) national organisations that have an interest in an international presence, and the number excludes many more godless groups that exist locally but who are not active at the international level.

Informal surveys and conversations with non-theist leaders in many of the countries represented in the IHEU and in AAI also indicate that local godless groups are flourishing, partly in part to the Internet and partly in response to non-theist discrimination and religious privileging that have become more evident in recent years.  Non-theist conferences also seem to be reaching new worldwide highs: Only ten years ago, it would have been unusual for more than one or two conferences to be held anywhere in the world during one year. In 2011, more than a dozen non-theist conferences have been held across multiple continents, with plans for many more conferences to be held in 2012 and beyond.

10. “Witch-Hunting” Continues to be Largest Religious Scourge in Sub-Saharan Africa [1] [2] [3]

Witch-hunting, which has plagued Africa for years, seems no closer to being eradicated at the end of 2011.

Although witch-hunting has arisen from time to time in all parts of the African continent, most recently they have been noted in South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi, and Ghana. Witch-hunting, both in medieval Europe as well as in modern Africa, appears to rise as a consequence of economic and environmental stress. As communities suffer various calamities, members of those communities – usually elderly women or orphaned children – are blamed and persecuted for supposedly causing the calamities with their “witchcraft”. They are attacked or driven out of the community. Cut off from all support (including their families) and often injured from these attacks, these “witches” are unable to fend for themselves and often die from their attack injuries, from starvation, or from exposure.

The belief in witchcraft comes partly from the blend of Christian and native religion that has encompassed most of Africa from colonial days. But there are also dynamic, self-anointed religious leaders who promote this mix of religion for their own benefit. Many of these leaders go from community to community, preaching a form of “affluence theology” promising that the community's woes will end if they embrace the religious leader’s faith and support their self-anointed “prophet” (through monetary and other donations, of course). Part of the pitch is the religious leader’s promotion of witch hunts and the promise to “rid” the community of its witches.

Many of these religious leaders amass significant wealth and large groups of followers in their religious practice, and secular political leaders even embrace these religious leaders to help secure their own popularity. Their support is so strong that political leaders are unwilling to challenge these religious dynasts.

In the past year, activists, including African atheist leaders Leo Igwe of Nigeria and George Thindwa of Malawi, took action to try to protect some of those marked by local religious leaders as witches and had both themselves and their families personally attacked for their challenges. Mr. Igwe was sued by one Nigerian religious evangelist for his challenges to her witch hunts and was attacked by mobs of her followers. The evangelist further used her political influence to have Mr. Igwe arrested and jailed by local authorities until their hearing. Mr. Igwe was subsequently released and left Nigeria to promote his anti-witch-hunt campaign from outside the country.