The National Secular Society & Reverend Whittaker’s Apocalypse.

March 26, 2015

It’s funny how people interpret things in different ways. Especially when it involves religion, and even more so when it comes to the challenging of religious privileges. A quick trip over to the National Secular Society’s website, presents us with this line:

“The National Secular Society works towards a society in which all citizens, regardless of religious belief, or lack of religious belief, can live together fairly and cohesively. We campaign for a secular democracy with a separation of religion and state, where everyone’s Human Rights are respected equally.”

– Now – as a secular humanist – I interpret the above as a declaration of the principle that all are to be considered equal, regardless of belief. A post-Enlightenment World has no fairer way to organise a system, than one that privileges none, and protects all equally. Thomas Jefferson once noted that the our civil rights & civil society have no more dependence on our religious beliefs, as our opinions in geometry. The NSS reaffirms that understanding. But that’s not how Reverend John Whittaker interprets the work of the NSS. Reverend Whittaker – having a tantrum writing for The Hinckley Times – is convinced that a state that offers no special privileges to his particular religion, and does not allow religion to creep back into the institutions of state, can only be imagined as a terrible apocalyptic state in which no one gives to charity, and the sex trafficking industry is left unopposed. It’s an odd link to make, but let’s humour him. In response to the National Secular Society’s campaign to prevent council meetings opening with prayers – because council meetings aren’t churches – Whittaker said:

“And just in case anyone wants to make a point that religion has no place in public life, lets recall some of the facts of how faith interacts with and contributes to the common good in this country.”

– Are you ready for the “facts of how faith interacts….“. Facts, according to Whittaker:

“If religion were to hide in a corner as per the secularist’s fantasy world, 1.4 million Christian volunteers would drop out of community based work (that’s over and above the work to support the life of church communities and look after the largest number of listed buildings in the country). Foodbanks would cease, Street Pastors, with their sober, caring presence in so many of our city and town centres late at night would evaporate away. Mums and toddlers groups, homeless projects, work with ex-offenders, women in the sex industry, asylum seekers, vulnerable children, addicts and those who self-harm would all see a dropping away of sustained, tangible support. Air brush Christianity out of public engagement and around 114 million volunteer hours would need to be found to maintain the community work done by churches worth about £2.4 billion a year in addition to the use of buildings and direct financial contributions.”

– That’s right! If the state does not grant special privileges to Whittaker’s religion in turning secular council meetings into a Church service, charities will collapse, foodbanks will collapse, people would starve, work with vulnerable children and addicts would cease to exist, the homeless would be left to starve in the street, and the country would lose billions of pounds. It’s an odd charge, because those same council meetings also do not begin with Islamic prayers, or Hindu prayers, or any other prayers or dedications to a particular God, and yet, believers in those faiths still manage to give to charity and help the most vulnerable. Council meetings work fine without prayers from every other faith, it is simply bizarre to expect the World to stop turning if Christians are brought down to the same level as the rest of us in state affairs.

Secondly, it is probably worth noting that secularists do not want “religion to hide in the corner“, in the same way that we don’t wish liberalism, or communism, or capitalism, or conservatism, to hide in a corner. All ideas are to be treated equally, with no constitutional state recognition of any single one above any others. This implies that no single idea, is to be hidden away in a corner. To do so, would of course be oppressive. The operation of state is to be open to all, on an equal level. Leveling the playing field, and privileging no religion is not the same as oppressing those who believe.

Thirdly, as far as I’m aware, the National Secular Society is not attempting to prevent Christians undertaking charity work in any way. The suggestion that opposing state privileges for religion, as being synonymous with preventing charitable work, is a massively false, fear-based, and manipulative strategy on the part of the Reverend. A council meeting is the representative discussion of work required within the community. That’s a community that represents all who live in it, regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, or belief. We do not offer special privileges to a single ethnicity, nor should we offer special privileges to a single religious belief.

And finally, the title of Whittaker’s piece – like the rest of it – is horribly misleading: “Not The Final Word: To pray or not to pray?” It’s like claiming oppression because a library wont allow you to play the drums. The right to pray and to believe according to one’s own conscience is not under threat by ensuring that a council meeting is not religious in nature. If Councillors wish to pray, they have every right to go to Church prior to a council meeting, and pray. They can pray until they can’t physically pray any more. They can join hands and pray together. There is no “to pray or not to pray” dichotomy here. They have every right to pray. They do not have a right to enshrine their particular brand of God, into the institution of state. A council meeting itself is an institution of state, not an institution of religion.

It becomes clear that when religions lose their traditional privileges and power over the lives of others, they tend to lash out in the most absurd ways. Reverend Whittaker has done just that with his bizarre apocalyptic portrait of a secular state he just doesn’t understand.


Stephen Fry, Giles Fraser & the capricious God.

February 3, 2015

In what has become a sort of viral must-see recently, Stephen Fry took to RTE Ireland this week to express his views on the Christian concept of God, to ‘Meaning of Life’ presenter, Gay Byrne. When asked what he’d say to God, if he met him at the pearly gates, Fry replied:

“I will say bone cancer in children, what’s that about? How dare you, how dare you create a world that has such misery that is not our fault. It is not right. It is utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is full of injustice and pain?”

– Naturally, this has caused a flurry of responses across media platforms. I thought I’d address a few of the points raised in a couple of those responses.

Over at ‘Christian Today’, author Krish Kandiah says:

“In a godless universe we lose any concept of ultimate justice, good or evil. The universe is ultimately impersonal and indifferent to any of these concerns. For Dawkins, atheism’s answer to the problem of suffering is basically “Tough luck. Bad things happen. Deal with it.” Why should anyone expect anything other than blind indifference from an impersonal, randomly generated universe?”

– Firstly, I’d be quick to note that ‘atheism’s answer to the problem of suffering’ is not “tough luck” at all. We atheists say that we as humans must keep searching, studying, inquiring, testing, and developing answers and cures to nature’s hideous diseases. The responsibility is ours. No matter how hard you try, you wont find a cure to illnesses (including psychological issues that have taken on the religious-like phrase ‘evil’) by praying, or searching through a book of ancient Palestinian myths. The choice is not ancient deities or “tough luck”. The dichotomy is entirely false.

Secondly, the key problem you’ll note with Kandiah’s position, is that Kandiah expects the universe owes something to humanity. He asks; why should we expect anything other than blind indifference from an impersonal universe? I’m not entirely sure why we’d expect help from outside anyway? It strikes me as a case of passing the buck. He delegates responsibility away from humanity, to a concept that he doesn’t actually prove exists first, and cannot seem to understand that we as humans can and should assume responsibility that we’d otherwise hope an invisible force might sort out for us in an afterlife. An indifferent universe is irrelevant. Humanity is not indifferent. The indifference is in a man expecting everything to be okay in an afterlife, and so passing responsibility on from himself.

Thirdly, it is simply wrong to imply that without a divine law giver, we ‘lose any concept of justice, good, or evil‘. He has simply rehashed an old argument for God, based on morality. But on the contrary, morality does not require God. In fact, any definition of morality that predates Darwin is entirely incomplete and can – and should – be dismissed as such. Kandiah ignores human evolution entirely in his idea of human morality, ignores our survival as a group species, the evolution of empathy and so forth, and instead implies it is entirely reliant on a supernatural force. Essentially, the God of the gaps. Incidentally, for my take on the evolution of morality, see here.

Over at the Guardian, Church of England Priest, and journalist Giles Fraser tried his hand at criticism of Fry’s comments. In it, Fraser bizarrely says:

“For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity.”

– It’s true… you really do have to “think metaphorically” (in other words, dismiss what it actually says) in order to believe the God of the Bible promotes “love“. It takes a real creative mind, to imagine that God’s request to Abraham that he sacrifice his son to prove his devotion, before stopping him at the last minute, or insisting Jephthah follow through on his promise to sacrifice his child in return for victory in battle, is anything but a show of cruel self indulgence, from a God whose idea of “love” is completely linked to just how willing others are to murder for His glory. It seems self evident to me that a finite human being, with such precious little time on this Earth, offering to spend that time loving you for just being you, is a far greater love than an infinite being, unrestricted by time, offering to love you or torture you depending on how well you adhere to His list of demands, and the hideous sacrifices you’re willing to make to show your devotion to Him. Therefore, the human capacity for love, is far greater and far more advanced than that of the God of Christianity.

Secondly, Fraser completely remodels the Christian God by taking away His implied omnipotence. Suddenly God is one with humanity, restricted by natural laws, and completely at the mercy of the forces of woe that he is unable to control. He ‘suffers’ with His creation. This strikes me as defeating the point of a universal creator in the first place. I’ve always been under the impression that the Christian concept of God begins at the premise that He created everything, that He can see everything – from the beginning of time until the very end, that He can intervene at any moment (and in fact, has done, several times) and by doing so, He can transcend natural laws, implying that He is not governed by those laws. He cannot possibly suffer, given that He is the grand designer of the chain of events that lead to that suffering in the first place, and – given that He can see all of time (because, again, He isn’t restricted by time) – He knew it was going to happen this way. And so, if Fraser is correct and if God cannot be accused of the cause of humanity’s suffering, we are left with three options;
1) God is the all knowing, all seeing creator, natural laws flow from Him, and as such, He is not restricted by those laws. Time itself, is His creation, meaning that Time is a tapestry that He has full control over (otherwise, He cannot be described as all-powerful). This further implies that He knew exactly how the course of human history would be affected by the onset of Christianity, including centuries of violent oppression, and – as Fry points out – cancer in children, all to take place for the sake of a grand scheme that He refuses to reveal until we’re dead. This is appealing because it allows for the all-knowing, all-powerful God, yet leaves a lot to be desired for the notion of an all-loving God, seeming as it does to imply that God is playing a cruel game with human beings who have no choice.
2) God is restricted by time, cannot see the long stretching consequences of His actions, suffered with humanity, and is not responsible for human suffering at all, which implies He is not all-knowing, nor all-powerful, is restricted by natural laws and time, and if we look back over the course of history of the religion, reads like a series of bad decisions by the divine. For this – the God of Giles Fraser – we need to completely dismiss the Christian concept of God right up until Giles Fraser re-imagined Him to suit a weak argument criticising Stephen Fry.
3) There is no God, and the flawed species of humanity is responsible for its own shortcomings.

The concept of the God of Christianity, as with Judaism & Islam is simply a personification of the moral & social fabric and upheaval of the time in which it was conceived. This naturally brings issues with it when humanity inevitably outgrows those moral ideals of that single time and place. Indeed, most – if not all – religious folk have outgrown the moral framework laid out by their Holy Books centuries ago, which is why we end up with very absurd arguments desperately re-imagining God, like Giles Fraser attempted to do in his article. Stephen Fry is right to suggest that a God – with the traditional attributes set out above – is nothing more than a capricious maniac.


Charlie Hebdo & the importance of free expression.

January 15, 2015

For the most part, the response to the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week, has been one of staunch solidarity with the values that separate the civilised from the barbaric. The freedom to express ones thoughts and ideas, the right to criticise and satirise ideas, the rule of law; values that were attacked that day in the centre of Paris. This includes the freedom for religious folk to believe and express ideas that I myself find incredibly offensive. But every so often, we hear voices referring to themselves as liberal, or as progressives, making excuses for the violence whilst trying desperately to insist that they’re not making excuses for the violence. As the new edition of Charlie Hebdo went on sale this week, with a picture of Muhammad on the front, Sky News apologised for showing it live on air, and several commentators referred to it as needlessly ‘provoking‘ Muslims. The excuses tend to start with a line like “There can be no excuse for murder, but….” followed by a tirade of victim blaming. For example, Mehdi Hasan’s obscene article for the Huff Post here in which he begins by suggesting it is those who pronounce “Je suis Charlie” who are playing an “us vs them” game, and then himself goes on to play that very game far better than anyone else, by manipulatively implying that Charlie Hebdo focused entirely on Islam, when in reality it mocks the Pope often, Judaism, and Christianity, along with political figures across the World… Here:

“And why have you been so silent on the glaring double standards? Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark? Were you not aware that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published caricatures of the Prophet in 2005, reportedly rejected cartoons mocking Christ because they would “provoke an outcry” and proudly declared it would “in no circumstances… publish Holocaust cartoons”?
Muslims, I guess, are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren.”

– He must have been asleep (or, as he puts it “so silent”) when Charlie Hebdo printed this:

charliehebdo5
– He must also not be aware that Catholic organisations have attempted to sue Charlie Hebdo on countless occasions for ‘offending’ them. So you see, contrary to Mehdi’s false game of us VS them, Islam is one in a list of ideas that Charlie Hebdo satirised. After this manipulation, Mehdi then proceeds to inform us that he isn’t sure why we’d feel the need to mock religions, but not the Holocaust. One being a 7th Century idea, the other being 6 million people murdered less than a century ago.

There are then several issues I take with the response outlined above. Firstly, I think it is vastly counter-productive. It implies that Islam is in some way different, and must be treated differently to other ideas, and that a protected space must be carved out specifically for one ideological framework of power (in this case, Islam), that no other system of belief is granted. That sort of subtle demand, is then backed by false narratives, like Mehdi’s. There was no anger or claims of racism when Charlie Hebdo mocked Catholicism. If Have I Got News For You mock conservatism, it isn’t usually followed by the suggestion that the show has ‘taken free speech too far’, nor Mehdi Hasan suggesting that Have I Got News For You should consider satirising 9/11 just for some balance. These ideas – Catholicism, conservatism, liberalism, Hinduism, capitalism – are all rightly granted no implied protection. Thus, they are considered on a level playing field, open as they should be, to criticism, mocking, and satire (despite the Pope’s bizarre insistence today that we shouldn’t ‘offend’ religious beliefs). There is no legitimate reason to protect religion – or a single religion – from the forms of criticism that all others are open to. It is in fact vital, that all religions – and in fact, ideas in general, be open to that criticism and mocking. Contrary to what detractors may assume – anti-Muslim hate (that is, the abuse of Muslims, the denial of rights, the demand for denial of equal rights, dehumanising) is not in any way to be compared with mocking the religion. One is violence aimed at human beings, the other is dis-empowering an ideological narrative, & system of morality. To conflate the two, is deeply problematic for a whole host of reasons, and the complete antithesis of secular, liberal inquiry and free expression.

In other words, it is not those of us who openly criticise, or mock Islam that create a taboo around that particular faith. On the contrary, we treat it like any other ideological framework of power. We do not seek to deny Muslims equal rights, we believe those who commit anti-Muslim hate, those who attack Mosques, are grotesque human beings lacking any sense of decency, and we will always defend equal rights & dignity for all, including Muslims. People deserve that, not ideas. Ideas must be open to critique and satire. It is those who seek to protect Islam from mockery (whilst themselves defending the freedom for the religious to continue to believe and express a belief in offensive ideas to the rest of us), that not only create a taboo out of the faith – hence, counter-productive – but also give credit to the extreme idea that one must be a little less forthcoming with our expression on one particular idea, if it might ‘offend’ believers in that one particular idea.

I would also suggest that it is a betrayal of those Muslim voices fighting for secular, liberal values, & free expression against a poisonous narrative within their faith, for liberals who should be on their side of the fight, instead choosing to give credit to the narrative on the extremes.

Secondly, it is a reflection of the authoritarian nature of a religion, when its followers suggest we should either unquestioningly respect the faith, or else keep quiet. Which, in turn, means it is vital that it be open to criticism and satire. If satirising that religion is even a matter of debate, it already has far too much power.

Indeed, your freedom to believe that non-believers are destined an eternity of violent torture in the pits of hell – alongside our apostate and LGBT friends – is my freedom to openly mock that ridiculous (and frankly, offensive) belief. The freedom for Mehdi Hasan to refer to believers as keeping the moral high ground, whilst non-believers as those who “live their lives as animals“, is my freedom to express a distinct lack of respect for that particular moral anchor. Any less, implies that your belief that I am morally lacking, to be eternally tortured, is deserving of a level of unquestioning respect, that my objection (however I express that objection) simply isn’t. Further, if your religion – or political ideal – in any way, extends beyond the individual, to the lives of others (be it non-believers, apostates, the LGBT community) – not only in belief, and writing, but also in practice in many countries on this planet – then it is absolutely vital that that religion be open to the same criticism and satire as every other system of oppression. Indeed, the greatest indicator that a religion so desperately requires being opened up to free expression in all its forms, is if it can result in your murder for doing so.

Islam – like Christianity – is a system of power, regardless of how it is framed by those seeking to protect it. When it has any sort of political power, it is oppressive. This is why it is vital to stand up for the necessity of free expression. But on a purely individual basis; if your religion insists that I am to be burned for eternity in hell for non-belief, then I’m afraid you’re not going to get away with telling me that it is I who is the one being ‘offensive’ for mocking that belief. The freedom to express one, is the freedom to express the other.


The nature of religious privilege…

December 29, 2014

On BBC local radio here in the UK after the Sydney cafe siege, the presenter had a conversation with a local Imam on the subject of religious extremism. The Imam reiterated that the attacker was a lone nut, who didn’t represent Muslims. The conversation was one of damage limitation and worry for Muslims who may be abused and attacked in the aftermath. The rise of anti-Muslim hate must be addressed – one would hope with the promotion of civil rights & protections for all – but I was unsure that the conversation on BBC local radio that day was particularly helpful, when at one point, the presenter insisted that ‘all religions promote peace and love‘. To begin from that uncritical premise – as if it is a matter of undeniable fact – is just as problematic as beginning from the premise that all religions are violent and oppressive. The problem of religious dogma – that is, the chaining of morality to a single time and place (usually very patriarchal, middle eastern tribal squabbles) – is suddenly dismissed, and other explanations for extremism take its place. The rise of ISIS was blamed on Blair, Bush, and the Iraq war, sometimes on Israel, but little attention payed to religious dogma. It is almost as if it is too uncomfortable to accept that such ingrained religious traditions & much loved religious ideas may present issues within themselves and autonomous of surrounding context. And so it is a distinct religious privilege, to free its problematic dogma from shouldering any blame for extremism, instead blaming everyone else for its problems. No other ideological framework of power has that privilege. But it isn’t the only privilege religions currently enjoy…

When the debate over same-sex marriage came up before Parliament last year, the only dissenting voices – and those who believed themselves to have the privileged right to tell others whom they can and can’t marry – were those of the religious. It is as if “it’s unnatural, because Leviticus says so” is a legitimate argument in a 21st century that has extensive knowledge of the natural spectrum of sexuality. It is therefore a religious privilege for Christians to believe that firstly they own the institution of marriage; Secondly, that they and they alone have the right to tell others whom they can and cannot marry based on discredited myths; and thirdly, that breaking the barriers to equal rights and freedoms regardless of sexuality, is an assault on Christianity.

It is breathtakingly delusional to believe that extending rights that you have always enjoyed, to those traditionally oppressed by your faith, is oppressing you. It is even more delusional to assume that the institution of marriage is a solely Christian, unchangeable institution. Hebrew society engaged in polygamy much of the time, it certainly wasn’t frowned upon. Monogamy in a marriage is a pretty new development. We know that the Mohammad married Aisha when she was 6 years old. In Ancient Rome, marriage was civil, it was not overtly religious. In India, if the bride was born when Mars and Saturn are “under the 7th house”, she is considered cursed and could end up murdering her husband. And so to break the curse, the bride must first marry a tree, the tree is then destroyed, and the bride is free from the curse forever. In the Tidong community in Northern Borneo, after marriage, the couple must not urinate for three days. Marriage is not official within the Neur tribe in Sudan, until the bride has had two children. It was only in 1967, that the US allowed interracial marriage. By 1910, Arizona, California, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah had all banned interracial marriage. And what was used to justify anti-miscegenation laws in the US? Of course it was the Bible. The destruction of all other concepts of marriage, to the benefit of just one concept – the Christian concept – and then attempting to ensure that single concept reigns supreme, is wildly oppressive to say the very least.

A couple of months ago on the Bill Maher show over in the United States, in a debate on extremism Sam Harris referred to Islam as the ‘mother lode of bad ideas‘. Consequently, actor Ben Affleck- also appearing on the show – referred to Harris’ statement as ‘racist‘. It is a curious criticism and one that had me considering the unique nature of religious privilege, the language that sustains it, and its lashing out – by among other things, demonising criticism – when challenged. It is a religious privilege to be able to claim racism at criticisms of an idea. As a secular liberal, I define racism as the institutional disenfranchising and denial of equal civil rights based on ethnicity. Language can & does of course further add to the perpetual dehumanising of an ethnicity. Also as a secular liberal, I believe all ideas must be up for inquiry, criticism, satire, and mockery. Religions are not immune to this, nor should they be. Racism is not criticism, or even complete contempt for a religion. Much like racism is not criticism, or even complete contempt for a political ideology. Further, and by implication, I would argue that if words that offend a religion are to be deemed racism, then equally words that offend non-believers must also be deemed racism. And so, left-leaning commentators like Mehdi Hasan would be deemed racist, for rants like:

“We know that keeping the moral high-ground is key. Once we lose the moral high-ground we are no different from the rest of the non-Muslims; from the rest of those human beings who live their lives as animals, bending any rule to fulfil any desire.”

– I am quite certain that if Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris had referred to all Muslims as ‘living like animals’, Hasan would be the first to call racism. Further, the New Testament, Old Testament, and Qur’an would be deemed incredibly racist books. Most chapters of the Qur’an begin with God explaining how great he is (a little arrogant), followed by a lovely little description of the fate that awaits those of us who have not been convinced that a God exists:

“[10:4] To Him is your return. This is Allah’s promise that will certainly come true. Surely it is He Who brings about the creation of all and He will repeat it so that He may justly reward those who believe and do righteous deeds, and those who disbelieve may have a draught of boiling water and suffer a painful chastisement for their denying the Truth.”

– Whilst Sam Harris simply referred to a religion as a bad idea and was deemed racist for doing so, Holy Books go beyond criticism, and become threats of eternal torture for non-belief. This of course would also mean that the idea of a Caliphate – in which non-believers are barred from highest office – is institutionally racist. It would mean that South Carolina was institutionally racist when Herb Silverman ran for the post of Governor in 1992 but was discarded from the race for refusing to swear an oath to God. It took five whole years for the courts to rule in his favour. It is therefore a massive religious privilege to demand and expect respect for a book that threatens people like me, with religious institutions that disenfranchise anyone ‘outside’ of the religion, whilst yelling racism if I am to call that book the ‘mother lode of bad ideas’. If one is to be considered racism, so must the other.

Along with compulsory worship in schools, and a Monarch whom also happens to be head of the Church of England, it is a religious privilege in the UK, for over 25 Bishops to have a permanent position in the national legislature, as if they have some sort of natural right to consider legislation based solely on which invisible being it is they believe in. To be called ‘Lords Spiritual‘, as if spirituality is a supernatural phenomena consigned to the religious only. The perpetuation of privilege based on the bizarre belief that a deeper understanding of a very unproven deity somehow grants one a position to legislate above the rest of us. It is worth noting that no religious scholar has any more of an idea about what happens after we die, than the rest of us, and that filling in that gap in human knowledge with myths is a ‘science’ consigned to the history books in every other realm of human understanding, yet when it comes to this particular question, we put Bishops in the Lords for their adherence to 1st Century Palestinian myths. It is also worth noting that spirituality does not in any way require a belief in God, or an afterlife, and is a perfectly natural and human trait. Religious supremacy has no more place in a national legislature, than racial supremacy, sexuality supremacy or gender supremacy. The very fact that structures of religious supremacy are not treated with the same contempt as those of racial, or gender supremacy, is in itself, a vast privilege milked for every drop it is worth by those in positions of religious power.

Often, religious privilege is sustained by the powerful few, & the denial of many. Those who are so invested in their religion, refuse to accept that it might be flawed. Jumping back to the racism theme, not too long ago Twitter exploded in rage at Lady Gaga wearing a full face veil. The charge was that she – a white westerner – had ‘appropriated’ a cultural symbol of the Islamic east. It is a wildly hypocritical religious privilege to claim the veil for one religion, thus dismissing it from every other culture that has ever used the veil, whilst refusing to acknowledge that Islam has appropriated Christian & Pagan stories, Temple Mount, the Hagia Sofia, the Palestinian freedom cause (Palestinians are all who live there – not simply heterosexual Muslim men), every piece of land deemed to be “Muslim land” (no land belongs to a religion), and when Mo Ansar recently mentioned the French invading Muslim Tunisia in the 19th Century as an act of western imperialism, he neglected to mention that Tunisia was only “Muslim” by the 19th Century, because imperialist Arab Muslims had invaded it and established the Arab Aghlabids dynasty in the first place. It is a religious privilege to rewrite history by deflecting onto others, the often violent ‘appropriation’ of cultural symbols into its own black hole.

It is a religious privilege for Christianity to be so enshrined into state constitutions, that it requires a national constitution to protect everyone else:
Arkansas’ Constitution:

No person who denies the being of a God shall hold any office in the civil departments of this
State, nor be competent to testify as a witness in any Court.

Maryland Constitution, Article 37:

That no religious test ought ever to be required as a qualification for any office of profit or trust in this State, other than a declaration of belief in the existence of God; nor shall the Legislature prescribe any other oath of office than the oath prescribed by this Constitution.

Mississippi Constitution, Article 14, Section 265:

No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office in this State.

South Carolina Constitution, Article 17, Section 4:

No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.

Tennessee Constitution, Article 9, Section 2:

No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State.

Texas Constitution, Article 1, Section 4:

No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

The list of religious privileges is endless. It includes Jehovah’s Witness families torn apart if a member decides they don’t believe any more. It includes apostates dehumanised and abused for leaving Islam & then referred to as ‘Islamophobic’ if they dare to speak out. It includes women covered from head to toe so as to not arouse the apparently uncontrollable lust of men. It includes Uganda’s Christian Minister for Ethics condemning homosexuals to a life of fear, whilst insisting that the rape of young girls in his country is, and I quote:

“… the right kind of child rape. It is men raping girls and that is natural.”

– It includes Pakistan’s grotesque blasphemy laws that punishes the ‘offending’ believers, whilst institutionalises the ‘offending’ of non-believers. It includes the Boy Scouts of America prohibiting the inclusions of atheists and whose charter states:

“The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”

– It includes ‘In God we trust’ and ‘One nation under God’ placed on US institutions in blatant disregard of the secular founding. It includes Iran murdering gay people because an ancient, unenlightened, out-of-date myth condemns homosexuality and is taught to impressionable young minds as truth – despite the fact that many of those young minds, will be gay – whilst neglecting to teach the actual biology and genetic base for sexuality. It includes all of these things causing little uproar, whilst a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, or a “There is no God” billboard on the side of buses causes the religious to insist that their faith is under severe attack. It is the moment the religion of one, extends to control the liberty of another. In short, the nature of religious privilege.


The brilliance of humanity & the shackles of religion.

November 12, 2014

Rosetta's Philae touchdown.

Rosetta’s Philae touchdown.

Since the dawn of humanity, we have been a species addicted to discovery. Our ape-like ancestors braved the unknown as they left Africa and spread to every corner of the Earth. We tamed fire, and we built machines to carry us across oceans. We innovated with bronze tools and placed a flag on the Moon. Our natural curiosity is a wonderful trait that despite attempts throughout history, cannot be suppressed. Over ten years since its launch, the European Space Agency successfully landed a man-made machine – Rosetta – on the surface of comet 67P travelling at speeds of up to 135,000km/h. This wonderful ingenuity is a reminder of the greatness that humanity can achieve.

Our natural inclination toward discovery is a product of our desire to understand the World around us. Today, the civilised World has the scientific method – with a flawless track record – to keep that desire to understand on the right path, free from dogma and superstition, continuously re-evaluating itself, attempting to prove itself wrong, and open to all regardless of thoughts, words, beliefs, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality. It is at its core non-discriminatory and open to all who seek knowledge. This wonderful framework for applying Mankind’s continued search for knowledge is a freedom we may take for granted, whilst much of the World clings as they do to archaic and very much discriminatory methods of discerning knowledge, of which only a select few unjustifiable privilege themselves according to old myths, to the misery and detriment of everybody else. We know this as religion.

Whilst the scientific method this week landed a craft on the surface of a speeding comet, Pakistan arrested Tufail Haider on ‘suspicion’ of voicing his opinion about the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Unfortunately, Haider’s opinion differed from those who bizarrely believe themselves to be granted the inherent privilege of violently punishing anyone who happens to think differently. It is the obscenity of considering the lives of others to be so chained and dependent on your beliefs only. Haider – who was Shiite – was then murdered by a policeman with an axe. This comes a few days after the young couple Sajjad Maseeh and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi were attacked by a mob, had their legs broken so they couldn’t escape, and were thrown to their deaths into a kiln after being wrapped in cotton wool (to catch fire quickly) by hundreds of people, for “blasphemy”. It was rumoured that they had burnt a page of the Qur’an. To that barbaric mob, burning human beings alive is far more acceptable, than accidentally burning a page of something the mob quite likes to think is divine (of which, they haven’t actually offered any evidence for). Similarly, in the case of Haider, the police referred to him as ‘mentally unsound’, rather than the policeman willing to kill a man with an axe for expressing negative thoughts about a group of people who lived 1400 years ago.

Humanity is capable of placing a man-made craft on a speeding comet, whilst murdering other human beings – including a pregnant woman – for saying unkind words about a magic invisible sky man who cannot do His own dirty work. It seems to me that if we are to base concepts of justice on how offended one may feel by the beliefs or words of others, it is non-believers – insulted and threatened on practically every page of most Holy books – who should be the main beneficiaries of such a policy.

Whilst my fellow atheists at times tell me that at its core, religion is the promotion of peace and love, I see nothing but what Sam Harris recently described as the mother lode of bad ideas. It would seem self evident to me that if religions are to be considered fundamentally peaceful, then the fundamentalists must be peaceful. The opposite is the case. Human suffering caused directly by religious dogma, is a clear result of anchoring human knowledge & moral ideals, and the human search for knowledge to a single time and place – often patriarchal – far removed from our own and that we as a species outgrew both intellectually and morally centuries ago. Indeed, a significant – if not the most significant – barrier to individual freedom, happiness and social and scientific progression, is the assumed privilege of religious supremacists. Over too vast a geographical spread, it plunges individuals whom tend not to fit its very narrow moral structure into fear and silence, which not only robs the individual of their right to a happy and dignified life, but also robs humanity of countless great minds. What if the cure for cancer is in the mind of a gay man in Uganda right now?

Humanity cannot be so great until it universally accepts that no single ideology or religion is inherently gifted the privilege to control the lives of others, to tell others that they are not to be included in society, or to withhold the talents of much of the population based solely on their skin tone, or gender, or belief, or sexuality. The minds and lips of all, free to believe and to utter according to the conscience of the individual alone, is the absolute prerequisite for a free and civilised society, and one in which the talents of all can be utilised. I see no greater flaw in our species than our ability to be so wonderful, to move with the times, to change based on the constant updating of human understanding, to free those traditionally oppressed by unjustifiable power structures, to create machines capable of landing on what is essentially a speck of sand in a cosmic ocean; yet at the same time be so willing to coerce and harm others in order to enforce – and make excuses for – the mother lode of bad ideas, regardless of the endless misery it so clearly causes.


God’s tapestry & the problem of foresight.

September 2, 2014

There was a moment during a debate between Dr William Lane Craig & Christopher Hitchens, in which Hitchens points out that to believe in the Christian narrative, one would have to believe that for 200,000 years of human existence, through the awful conditions that our fragile species barely survived within, through the disease and violence, through it all, heaven didn’t particularly care. 198,000 years later, heaven decided it was now time to intervene, by having a 1st century Palestinian Jew tortured to death somewhere in the Middle East. Laurence Krauss used a similar argument in his debate with Dr Craig also.

Craig countered and insisted that it wasn’t the timing that was important, but population, in that only 2% of the overall population of mankind existed prior to Christ and that Christ appeared to have arrived at a time prior to a population boom. Dr Craig referred to this as God choosing “an opportune moment” to send Jesus, right before massive population growth. Leaving aside God’s lack of concern for the poor 2%, and the fact that an all-powerful God could have created a population boom whenever He pleased rendering the “opportune moment” suggestion meaningless, I think it important to note the consequences of that “opportune moment” chosen to intervene, and its implications for the premise of the Christian God.

For, not only would you need to believe that for 198,000 years heaven peered on with indifference, but you’d also have to believe that either God did not foresee the future consequences of choosing that moment and that specific region to send Christ to ‘save’ mankind and the suffering that it would entail, or He did foresee it, and was absolutely fine with it; the problem of foresight.

All religious narratives suffer a form of contradiction every so often, whether that be contradiction within texts themselves, or the text contradicting the premise of the God on offer. In this case – the problem of foresight – it is the latter that we’re focusing on, because the premise of an all-knowing God implies eternal foresight, whilst the historical consequences of what Christian’s believe to be God’s actions, imply a God unaware of how this plan was going to turn out, or simply an uncaring God (contradicting the concept of an all-loving God).

For Christianity, time – God’s creation – is laid out in front of Him like a tapestry that He wove. Before the events of Genesis 1, He already knew, because He created as a timeless absolute, the consequences of the actions of all mankind at all times, from the hugely consequential decision to convert the Roman Empire to the faith, right through to an individual’s private sex life in the 21st Century. He sees it all and crucially, He can intervene whenever He chooses. And yet it seems unfathomable that such a power would be so oblivious – or simply uncaring – to the consequences of the manner in which His followers would convey the Christian message over the centuries. Indeed, He necessarily knew the consequences, and again sat back with indifference for the next 2000 years.

Whilst not wishing to document every instance of Christian-led persecution over the past 2000 years, it is perhaps worth noting a few, in order to highlight the contradiction and the problem of foresight.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God knew that the brutality by which Christian Emperors of Rome – like Constantius and his persecution of Pagans – would aid the growth and power of Christian dogma into a disastrous dark age and the suppression of all things ‘heretical’ – including extensive book burning – for at least the next thousand years. He could have encouraged free inquiry in medicine, democratic accountability in political affairs, astronomy, human liberty, and all over forms of inquiry that simultaneously shrink the gaps by which God traditionally resides, whilst elevating the suffering of mankind. With few exceptions, the opposite occurred. Along with the centuries-long justification of tyrannical Christian power under the guise of “divine right”, and knowing as He would have if He were all-knowing, among other edicts of suppression, that the Emperor Jovian would order the burning of the library at Antioch, through to the child abuse scandal of the modern day Catholic Church.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God knew that a great deal of Europe’s human beings – like Thomas Moore – and their families would suffer the indignity of religious-inspired state murder; the unimaginable physical and psychological pain that comes with confinement and executed for such nuanced differences as whether or not the King or the Pope had supreme control of the Church. His own devout followers, who offered nothing but devotion and love, He knew would be subject to the most cruel punishments for simple disagreements. An all-knowing God would necessarily have seen this in great detail, long before the “In the beginning…” of Genesis 1.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God before events described in Genesis 1, knew the tragedy that would beset Native tribes in the Americas when the sincerely believed Christian message was forcefully imposed. Indeed, He knew far greater the reason for that pain and tragedy than the Friar’s involved, yet started the ball rolling down that inevitable path by sending Christ, and very mixed messages in the Holy Book that followed. Ken Burns documentary ‘The West’ notes one 18th Century Friar during the missionary period firmly believing his life’s work must be to save Natives from damnation, confused as to its clear failure, saying:

“They live well free, but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life… they fatten, sicken and die.”

– The Friar could not understand how a Godly message of what he considered to be saving grace, was having such an adverse affect on the Native population. God however, does not get the luxury of such an excuse.

It must be the case that an all-knowing God knew that Jerusalem would be a Holy centre for three major faiths, and consequently, the centre of such a violent dispute. He set humanity up for that inevitable conflict. The Gods of Islam and Judaism don’t escape this criticism either.

And most notably, it must be the case that an all-knowing God knew that 1700+ years later, a movement to prevent further Christian state brutality, and to free human ingenuity and autonomy required the disestablishing of Christian authority over the public realm.

The birth of Jesus was a moment that would change the course of history for humanity… though not for God, who knew how it all would pan out anyway. It is on that second point that it is not viable to suggest He provided that divine message, and that from that moment on, it was up to humanity to live according to it. It is not viable, because with the tapestry of time laid out in front of Him, He could see the minute-by-minute detail of exactly how His message would be used, and He chose to go with that course anyway; in fact, He created that course and intrinsically stitched humanity to it. Indeed, to suggest God is all-knowing, is to suggest humanity has no choice but to follow the path God is already aware that he/she will follow. The only possible way to deflect from that path, is to be more powerful than God, which again, contradicts the premise of the all-powerful Christian God.

And so we’re left with three possibilities; 1) God knew exactly how the course of human history would be affected by the onset of Christianity, and not simply allowed, but forced through His unbreakable tapestry, centuries of violent oppression – including the suppression of scientific endeavor – to take place for the sake of a grand scheme that He refuses to reveal. This is appealing because it allows for the all-knowing God, yet leaves a lot to be desired for the notion of an all-loving God, seeming as it does to imply that God is playing a cruel game with human beings who have no choice. 2) God is restricted by time, cannot see the long stretching consequences of His actions, which implies He is not all-knowing, nor all-powerful and if we look back over the course of history of the religion, reads like a series of bad decisions by the divine. Or 3) There is no God, and the flawed species of humanity is responsible for its own shortcomings. Because the problem of foresight as summarised in points 1 and 2 necessarily contradict the Christian premise of an all-loving, all-knowing God, I am further led to conclude that point 3 is the more likely.


The fallacy of religious ‘objective morality’.

August 29, 2014

All atheists have come up against it at some point in their lives. Along with ‘so you think everything came from nothing?’, it is the main weapon in the ever shrinking theist arsenal. I’m talking of course, about the obsession with ‘objective’ morality and the absurdity that follows; ‘How can you condemn Hitler? By what standard?’ At first glance, it sounds like a philosophical conundrum that we may find troubling to deal with. But scratch the surface, and it really isn’t that difficult to respond to, without even having to begin to quote vastly immoral passages from those books.

There are several key problems, but the one I wanted to focus on is the misguided belief that religion provides a desirable objective moral standard. It is simply untrue that a moral
Statement magically transforms from ‘subjective’ to ‘objective’ by preceding it with a simple “my God says….”. I thought I’d highlight where I see the problems:

Firstly, to insist on an ‘objective’ moral base sent straight from heaven to humanity – the very base upon which a ‘subjective’ moral conclusion becomes ‘objective’ – one must conclusively prove the existence of your particular God. This means not simply convincing yourself of the existence of God, but convincing the rest of us also. Otherwise, the word ‘objective’ seems very familiar to the word ‘subjective’ and any moral judgement can be declared ‘objective’ if it is preceded with the phrase “My God said…“. We often hear from the religious the rather manipulative dichotomy presented as ‘Man’s law, or God’s law‘. Without first proving the existence of your God, what that dichotomy actually breaks down to, is 21st century Man’s law, or 1st/7th century Man’s law. If you cannot conclusively prove the existence of your God (this requires first proving the existence of a creator, followed by proof that the creator is all ‘good’ rather than all ‘evil’, followed by the leap from creator to your specific God) – through more than simple philosophical guesswork – the case for ‘objective morality’ or ‘God’s law’ falls before it’s even begun.

Secondly, both the Bible and Qur’an are subject to a myriad of interpretations and continual revisions depending on the context of the time and place, and the individual believer. Sit a liberal, secular Christian in a room with the Westboro Baptist Church, and the differences between them will be an ocean the size of the Pacific. Indeed, we see members of ISIS differing intensely in interpreting Islam’s ‘objective moral base’ from that of their immediate family members. If members of the same faith, in the same household, cannot agree on the meaning of countless ambiguous passages, nor can scholars over the course of time agree, constantly revising its meanings to fit a more modern narrative, it doesn’t get the luxury of being referred to as an ‘objective base’ for morality. If a divine being sent down obscure passages that believers in the same house hold cannot agree on, I’m afraid that reflects terribly on God’s ability to convey his message.

Thirdly, our nature is often – not always – in direct conflict with the idea of objective moral standards. Religion did not inform us that senseless murder is wrong (often, religion permits murder). We know this intuitively, and we punish murder, because murder contradicts our evolved ability to empathise with others, whilst posing a direct threat to our survival as a species if accepted universally. We empathise; that is to say, we imagine ourselves in the position of the other. Is that a basis itself for objective moral standards? Perhaps, though not in the form crafted by the religious, of an outside standard that transcends humanity. It is as much a part of our nature, as breathing. It is not separate from humanity. If indeed morality were a set of distinct rules, separate from humanity, existing prior to humanity, set out by a God, it would make sense – if God is to be considered ‘good’ – for those rules to be succinct and lacking ambiguity when handed to humanity. For those rules to be ambiguous, requiring 200,000 years of human suffering and violence to attempt to work out, implies a vastly immoral game by the divine rule giver.

It is then essential to note that humanity is not perfect. We are a wonderful yet very flawed species, and that reflects on our collective ideals over time, as we learn and grow. Morality is informed by complex interactions, including but my no means limited to our collective knowledge, our history, our mistakes, our experiences, and our evolved human intelligence – this essentially includes empathy and the ability to rationalise – at any given time. We are a complex species with deep flaws. Morality does not escape that. It evolved from our basic need to cooperate in order to survive the harshest of conditions, and grew as we grew. It is a natural condition in which without it, humanity would not have survived. Indeed, morality is essential for the survival of our species, yet not confined to our species. We see through the research of primatologists like Frans de Waal that our ape cousins show basic forms of moral reasoning; cooperation, conflict resolution etc. Morality is natural, and ever evolving. As with most natural occurrences – sexuality, gender, spirituality – religions tend to try to grab hold of nature, as if they own it, and shape it to fit the dictates of the faith, which in turn has the most awful consequences for those ‘outside’ of its narrow spectrum of what is to be considered God’s plan. In the case of morality, chaining moral progress by attempting to anchor moral ideals to tribal squabbles of 1st Century Palestine or 7th Century Arabia, and the obscurity of the passages that emerged as a result of those squabbles, is a distortion of nature, an attempt to reshape our nature, and by extension will without exception always end in oppression, because it cannot abide the nature of updated knowledge that contradicts 1st or 7th century far less informed dictates. From lands that were very patriarchal and very heterosexual dominated, it should come as no surprise that heterosexual males are the ones who coincidentally, God seems to offer the most privileges and power.

Further, there is a bizarre suggestion from the faithful, that no divine objective set of moral standards implies all moral conclusions are to be considered equal. For me, this isn’t true. One moral conclusion may be based on the available evidence and data, applied on a framework of our natural inclinations encompassing empathy among others, whilst the opposing moral conclusion may lack all evidence basing itself on mere belief, dismissing all contrary consideration. The two are not to be considered of equal weight. This is why I object to the reductive terms “objective” and “subjective” when speaking of morality. I don’t accept either.

So, we have noted that what the religious refer to as ‘objective’ requires as a bare minimum the conclusive proof of the existence of their particular God to begin its journey to actual objectivity; that what they tend to call ‘objective’ right now is simply their own subjective interpretation of ambiguous passages; and that anchoring morality to the moral ideals of a specific time and place is both unnatural, and by definition oppressive. So when theists insist that you as an atheist do not have an objective moral base distinct from humanity itself, by which to make moral judgements, the simple answer is; neither do you.


The Island of Secular, Liberal, Democracy.

July 15, 2014

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800

Involving myself in several debates this week with members of Hizb and their supporters threw up one consistent theme; secular liberal democracy oppresses Muslims, and so by advocating a return of Khilafah, they are in fact fighting oppression (nothing says ‘fighting oppression’ quite like ISIS beheading ordinary people). The obvious question then becomes; how does a system that advocates – according to Hizb’s constitution as drafted by al-Nabhani – the execution of the ex-Muslims (essentially, genocide), and the oppression of the LGBT community, whilst forcing non-Muslims to pay to uphold it and disallowing women from holding high office, get to be considered anything but oppressive?

The response was predictably deflective, the points raised were not addressed (save for the ill-informed “being gay is unnatural” argument often used to defend the hideous oppression of the gay community by religious supremacists), instead opting on far more occasions than I ever considered possible, to just keep insisting that secular, liberal, democracy is in fact an oppressive religion itself. Whilst I’ve argued the case for secular, liberal democracy on several occasions pertaining to the specifics – the veil, or sexuality, free expression, or the building of mosques – I thought I’d use this article to explain my fundamental reasoning behind why I believe secular, liberal, democracy is the opposite of oppression.

Let us imagine there are ten of us on a desert island. We propose to come up with a governing system. Two of the new inhabitants are Muslim. Two Atheist. Two Christian. Two Hindu. Two FutileReligion (my new faith for the purpose of this article). The ten on the island consists heterosexual people, homosexual people, bisexual people, men and women, lighter toned skin and darker toned skin, red haired, blonde haired, blue eyed, green eyed people.

When coming up with our system, we all agree that the green eyed people – on account of having green eyes – have no inherent right to state privilege, nor the blue eye’d people, nor the blonde haired people, nor those with light toned skin. If we were to suggest that green eyed people are entitled the distinct privilege of law making, we imply that no one else is capable. We imply the superiority of one eye colour, to the inferiority of all others. We do so, without any reasonable justification. We therefore not only chain the rights of others whilst privileging green eyed people, we also chain green eyed people who could have their lives improved by the ideas in the minds of the non-green eyed people for improving island living. It is an absurdity. We acknowledge the equality of all when it comes to eye colour. And so we must then ask; if we accept that one particular eye colour isn’t naturally privileged, nor do we accept that the island is naturally a white supremacist island, why would we presume one particular faith must be granted state privilege and supremacy? And if we do believe one particular faith should be permitted an inherent right to state privilege, whose religion shall it be?

Well, the FutileBelievers believe the state should be theirs, and so all Christians and Muslims should be executed immediately for their sinful religion, because FutileGod insists that they are in fact unnatural. We presume that if we call it “God’s law“, it somehow permits it a privileged position to control and punish according to its rules, even those who don’t consider it to be “God’s law“. According to the two Muslims, the state should be Islamic with everyone else paying jizya to uphold the system and that the three gay people on the island should be immediately executed, and the four women disqualified from high office. The four women and the three gay people aren’t given a say in this, because the Muslims automatically presume a right to control those lives, simply on the basis of their personal religious belief. Again, an absurdity. The Christians believe the system should be completely controlled by Christians, with no Muslim being allowed high office, they also seek to burn any condoms they find and your private sex life will essentially be handed over to the two Christians. Muslims don’t get a say over whether they are allowed power in this Christian state, they simply have to deal with being institutionally inferior to their Christian rulers, who have taken it upon themselves to declare supremacy. So, who in this scenario gets to enshrine their particular religion into the framework of state?

Contrary to Hizb and other religious supremacists bizarre notions of oppression, you may note that secular, liberal, democracy enshrines the right to believe whatever it is you choose to believe. It protects that right fully for the individual. No single sect can take that away from you, in a secular, liberal, democracy. It is not anti-religious, it is anti-religious supremacy and privilege. To achieve a state that enshrines religious privilege, and supremacy, requires force and it requires the institutional subduing of others. It is the definition of oppression.

Let us be clear; by privilege I mean the institutionalising of one belief – and so, the power of state handed to two people on the island at all times – into the framework of state; perhaps insisting that gender and sexuality of all inhabitants must be subject to the rules of one faith. I do not mean banning those people from invoking their beliefs when it comes to island debate. Simply, the institutionalising of one belief; The perpetual chaining of everyone to the dictates of the faith of those two. Who gets to make that decision? How might we expect the other 8 react, if the two FutileBelievers were to say “… right, we’re in charge, we now run this place. First thing’s first, all Qur’ans and Bibles are to be burnt“. I imagine they’d react in the same way Catholics reacted when Protestants permitted themselves state privilege and oppression ensued. Or how Shia react when Sunni permit themselves state privilege and oppression ensues. It is a recipe for perpetual oppression and inevitable conflict, because it relies on the oppressed staying quiet and resigning themselves to an inferior status, and history teaches us that if you chain people to the privileged few, those in chains will fight to break them.

We have a situation in which ten people are currently free and equal. Eye colour does not get to control other eye colours, hair colour does not affect our right to participate in society and to an individual life. We extend that principle to belief. The freedoms are equal to all. There are no barriers erected to our liberty. None of those people were born attached to the religious beliefs of any of the others. Therefore, the burden is on those seeking to chain others to their religious beliefs, to convince others to hand over their liberty to that particular belief. As of yet – not just on our island, but on the entire planet – no one has succeeded in convincing others to become subservient to the beliefs of one individual, through anything other than threat and force.

So, how do we develop this impasse into a framework of state? Well, we could all insist that our particular religion is deserving of institutionalised state privilege, that others must be chained to our supernatural beliefs, thus putting us in constant conflict with everyone else on the island who similarly believe themselves privileged, and everyone else subordinate. This is unlikely to end in anything other than violence, when those threatened with the rules of the faith of the other start to break the chains. Or, we could enshrine into the framework, our acceptance that we should all be free to practice our own religion where it does not encroach on the same freedom for others, and where our freedom on the island is not chained to the beliefs of anyone else. We devise a system that is constituted firstly to protect each other, from each other. That is the primary basis of a free and equal society. The freedom of Person A – regardless of sexuality, or gender, ethnicity, or faith – does not end where the religion of Person B begins.

Once individual liberty, to pursue our own goals, is protected through a constitutional framework, we can then all jointly involve ourselves in the political process. The structure of the democratic institutions – be them Parliamentary, or Presidential, direct or representative, comes next. We compromise on decisions that effect us all, we split power, we get it wrong at times, but we learn and we move forward, and our participation in the political process is in no way dependent on our belief, gender, sexuality, hair colour, eye colour, ethnicity, if we’re missing a toe on one foot, or any other biological trait. All of those are irrelevant to our ideas and our participation within society, and so the initial protection of us all is the only possible way to allow everyone our full potential without fear of repression. The burden is on those who seek to remove our liberties, to explain why we should be forced to give them up.

The 10 person society is run on the basis of compromise and free and open debate and discussion. We can inquire, scrutinise, and progress without our ideas and creativity and contribution withheld simply because we have a particular eye colour, gender, or sexuality. If you disagree with a policy, you are free to protest, to run for office on your platform, to scrutinise, to mock, to critique. This is as true for you, as it is for me. This is secular, liberal democracy. It isn’t a religion, and it privileges no single individual or belief above any other. It is the neutral protection of all, from all, and the freedom for all to participate in the process of state. The governing of state in no way inflicts restrictions upon your right to live according to your religion, where your religion does not damage the liberty of anyone else.

To believe secular, liberal democracy is oppressing you, is simply another way to say you believe your faith should be granted state privilege to harm the liberty of others. This isn’t oppressing you, this is denying your determination to oppress others. And on that charge, I absolutely agree, and that is exactly why liberal, secular democratic institutions are the only way to guarantee civil protections for all.


The right to blaspheme.

May 20, 2014

benjamin_franklin

I’m deeply suspicious of those who believe their God expects them to do His dirty work in punishing blasphemy, without their God first offering conclusive proof that He exists. His followers seem to be affording themselves a privileged position – a position in which they free themselves to oppress – based on nothing more than how much they believe in their particular God, and how much the rest of us don’t. Indeed, for those of us who aren’t religious, we see no reason why you shouldn’t be free to believe in faiths that offend our every principle, at the same time as we’re free to ridicule that offensive faith. Neither you, nor I get to privilege ourselves by defining what is and isn’t to be considered universally ‘offensive’ when it comes to beliefs.

Today is international draw Muhammad day. Whilst argument persists about the nature – is it ‘Islamophobic’? Isn’t it? Who cares? – of the idea of ‘draw Muhammad day’, I’m left wondering why no one is concerned about the atmosphere that leads to this sort of a protest in the first place. It is the 21st century, and billions across the World continue to be denied the fundamental human right to express their view, if it happens to contradict the often far more vicious views of those who believe themselves inherently privileged on account of their religion. An atmosphere that appears to afford a bizarre “right” to not be offended – even among Western ‘liberals’ who clearly feel uneasy at offending religious concepts or arguing the superiority of liberal, secular values – a position of higher dignity than the right to self expression.

It is bizarre, because when it comes to individual liberty, only one of those previously mentioned presumed ‘rights’ is by its nature oppressive. When we express, we do not rescind the civil liberty of anyone else, and nor should anyone else – whether in the majority or not – rescind your civil liberty, for expressing contrary opinions. Our civil rights are equal, we are protected, I am simply expressing an opinion that is contrary to yours. I choose the way that I express that opinion, but I have no right to injure your liberty in the process. You might be offended by my expression, and that’s fine. Nothing happens. That’s it. You’re offended, and you move on with your life. Your liberty is protected, as much as mine is. The same is not true, of the presumed “right” to not be offended. This obnoxious presumption can only manifest itself in the removal of civil liberties – through blasphemy laws – of others, and so the privileging of your view above all others. Why – for example – should you have a right to believe in a faith that offends me, yet I shouldn’t have a right to offend that faith? This is you privileging your faith, or faiths in general, claiming ownership over my voice, this is supremacy, and it is by its nature, oppression. It is the claiming of ownership not only of the voices of others, but of skepticism in general. The very fact that you may seek to privilege your specific belief, protecting it from forms of criticism arising from skeptical inquiry on account of how deeply you believe it to be true, is the exact reason it must be open to criticism; to deflate its authoritarian desire to control my freedom to express.

For example, the anti-secular group ‘Christian Voice’ freely expressed their displeasure at homosexuality this week, when they grotesquely stated:

“The Eurovision Song Contest sank to a new low on Saturday night as a bearded homosexual drag artist swept to an overwhelming win.”

– So, given that ‘Christian Voice’ utilises the freedom to express and perpetuate their beliefs without reproach, one has to wonder why they refuse to support that same freedom for others. In 2005 ‘Christian Voice’ threatened to picket outside of the cancer support centre ‘Maggie’s Centres’ if the centre took a £3000 donation from ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’, because it was full of “filth and blasphemy”. The donation would have been used to provide a better standard of palliative cancer care for sufferers and their families. ‘Christian Voice’, not content with dehumanising the LGBT community, also took £3000 away from vital cancer research. This is what happens when the religious claim ‘offence’. Not only do they seek to restrict the liberty of others to express opinions contrary to their own, they’re willing to put lives at risk for that privilege.

Similarly, Rashid Rehman – a lawyer in Pakistan representing a Professor accused of blasphemy – was shot and killed by armed men posing as clients, for defending blasphemy. In Pakistan, for even defending the right to a fair trial for someone accused of simply expressing their opinion, will get you killed. These people appear to be under the curious impression that harming another human being for words, is acceptable. The implication is that Islam must be considered privileged and protected, simply because believers in Islam say so, and you will die if you openly express disagreement. The irony is that one must be severely insecure in one’s beliefs – almost blasphemously so – if seeking to completely eradicate criticism of the faith, and only permitting a single narrative.

Those who seek to punish those deemed to be ‘offending’ faith, tend to be the most offensive people on the planet, themselves. You will find that most religious sects that position themselves as a political entity, seek to restrict criticism of their faith to some degree, whilst freely and happily expressing their own offensive views in public. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Uthman Badar argued that Prophets and religions should be protected from insult. The same Hizb ut-Tahrir that called for the eradication of Jews, and followed on by insisting that homosexuality is an evil that destroys societies. Such is the nature of the child-like followers of organised religion; the hypocrisy, and self indulgent tantrum is breathtaking.

It is worth noting again, that you should be free to believe whatever it is you choose to believe, according to your own conscience, where that belief doesn’t manifest in shackling others to your belief. The state has no inherent right to restrict your personal belief, where it pertains to your life only. But the freedom to express, is as true for me as it is for you. And so if you choose to believe in a faith that seeks to, or has a long history of, condemning all those who don’t quite fit its narrow spectrum for salvation, then you must expect dissent. You must expect criticism and you must expect to have your beliefs offended. You must expect the life and words of your role model and the person you seek to emulate – be it Moses, Abraham, Jesus or Muhammad – critically examined. You must expect to accept that defending the dignity of your God, is irrelevant to those of us who don’t believe, and we won’t be told what we’re entitled to say about your God, by you, especially if the rules laid out by that God offend our principles. You must expect those who abandon a belief in your God, to speak out on their experiences free from harm. You must expect those who have been shackled by your beliefs, to fight to break free from those shackles. You must expect those who find your religion to be morally corrosive, to express exactly why they came to that conclusion, in their own way, and in a way that does nothing to harm your liberty. If your religion is strong, it will combat the falsity of the contrary opinion through reason, rather than force. That is the nature of the basic human right to inquire, to believe, and to express without fear. It comes hand in hand with your right to believe and to express that belief.

Blasphemy laws are an archaic expression of religious supremacy, an irrelevant, and irrational power structure that cannot deal with challenges to its authority in the modern World. We know better now. And so if you are more offended by blasphemy, than you are by the violent removal of the basic human right to expression, your principles desperately require redress.


God does not love you.

May 11, 2014

'The Sacrifice of Isaac' by Caravaggio.

‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ by Caravaggio.

This morning I found a collection of old photos of family, and myself as a child. My mum has less of a 1980s Bon Jovi haircut going on these days, but nevertheless is still looking pretty similar, whilst my dad hasn’t changed a bit (though he has thankfully opted to ditch the three top buttons undone on his shirt these days). Another similarity between my parents of the ’80s and my parents of the 10s, is that neither were religious back then, and neither are religious today. And yet, the picture depicts my family all smartly dressed and me as a baby, on the day of my Christening into the Church of England.

I was baptised almost entirely because of my mother’s fear. Fear that if I died young, and the Christian God really did exist, there’s a chance He might send me to the pits of hell simply because a man in an old, elaborate crucifix shaped building hadn’t dunked my head in water. It is the hideous notion that a baby – far from obtaining the age in which they can reason – has angered God simply by existing. The sin of Adam, passed onto a completely innocent child, that now requires a bizarre ritual to cleanse, or eternal punishment. This is not a ‘love’ that any parent would wish to emulate and inflict upon their child, because it is not ‘love’ by any definition of the word.

The element of fear is doubtlessly a factor driving people to baptise not only their children, but themselves, in times of danger. In 2003, the Chicago Tribune posted an article entitled: “Facing uncertain fate, troops line up for Baptism”. It includes a quote from Cpl. Jason Irving, that reads:

“If I don’t get to see them again here on Earth, I want to make sure that I am all right with God, so I can see them in heaven.”

– The implication being that if his head is not dunked in water, there’s reason to suspect that the God of Christianity will forever keep him apart from his children in an afterlife. For myself growing up through years of school prayers, and hymns, hearing stories of what seemed to be good people destined for hell, the “love” of the Christian God seemed confusing at best, and today it seems absurd to me to claim that God loves you.

If we are to start from the premise that God is the single, infinite cause of everything (which apparently, doesn’t encompass ‘everything’, if we play by the illogical features of the commonly utilised cosmological argument), and thus has full control over all of His creation, then it seems self evident to me that human beings, and every living creature on the planet, are just small parts of a rather grotesque game. We are ‘valued’ as a pawn on a chess board might be valued, and sacrificed, and discarded, in a game of chess that God is playing against himself. We have no choice but to be chained to this game, to follow rules that are completely His invention, for a supposed ‘higher purpose’ that He created and has the full ability to achieve without the suffering He inflicts, and all appear to be for no other reason than to stroke His ego by insisting upon unquestioned worship and reverence – like a slave holder – on fear of eternal punishment.

The Christian God offers us His ‘love’ at the small price of suspending all of our natural faculties of reason – something He endowed us with in the first place. We are a species that values criticism and doubt in order to progress. Indeed, criticism and doubt are the essence of reason. God must have been aware of the cruelty of this. Like dangling bread in front of a starving child, and threatening to punish him if he eats it. We do not then get to claim we had a higher purpose all along. It is not ‘love’, it is blatant cruelty.

The disciple Thomas – as described in John – seems to have been a very wise, reasonable and curious man. He was not convinced by the other disciples that Jesus had returned from the dead, and so rightfully demanded proof. Thomas thus reflected the curiosity of Adam and Eve, forever punished for wishing the freedom to learn and to question according to our natural curiosity. If there’s one thing that oppressive power structures do abundantly well, it is policing thoughts and expression, for their own ends. Later, Jesus appears to Thomas and shows him his hand and side wounds in order to provide Thomas with the evidence he demanded. Upon seeing the evidence, Thomas is convinced. Jesus says:

“Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

As with Genesis, Jesus seems to be condemning doubt, and blessing unquestioned belief. Thus, both Genesis and Jesus (according to the Gospel of John) punish humanity for our natural condition, whilst demanding the suspension of that natural condition in order to achieve his blessing. A sick and completely unnecessary game of abuse. We are not free if our minds are chained. A worthwhile teacher does not teach children to believe exactly as they’re told without evidence. A worthwhile teacher inspires curiosity and a yearning for knowledge, to engage their natural desire to understand without bias or dogma. There is no love in demanding unquestioned obedience. It seems to me that if we are to indulge our curiosity and inquire into the nature of God’s ‘love’, and it is a love we identify with, it is all the more stronger if backed up with evidence, rather than a claim of ‘love’ that we are demanded to accept without question. The latter suggests that God may be a little insecure about his concept of ‘love’.

After endowing humanity with curiosity, the ability to reason and to doubt, and yet failing to recognise that we might use that natural disposition to question His demands, God sets out to fix it. In order to correct His mistake (the mistake of a seemingly unintelligent designer), He refuses to accept any responsibility, and chooses instead to violently torture to death a 1st century Palestinian Jew, and claim it was all for us. Christians today tend to argue that this was a heartbreaking ‘sacrifice’ for God to have made. To me, it seems the opposite. A sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice if the ‘victim’ rises three days later, walks around for a while, and ascends to heaven to join God as a judge for eternity. And again, this is all part of His design, His game, nothing and no-one else is responsible, it is all Him. Any deviation from his apparent plan, reflects His inability to think and plan ahead. But he can’t accept that, He refuses to accept responsibility for his dreadful workmanship, and instead punishes his creation for it. A victim blaming mentality. Indeed, absolving sins requiring a torturous death, is also His concept, His broken rules, and His idea of a fitting punishment, no one else thought this up. He may just as easily have told us that forcing Jesus to wear sandals that are too big for his feet, is the punishment required to absolve our sins. It’s all his silly little game, not ours, we didn’t ask for this badly planned dictator-like game. And what a stunningly ineffective punishment the sacrifice of Jesus to atone for sins was, given that Christians spent the next 1700+ years killing each other, forcing conversions, and building oppressive empires. It spawned just as bad, if not worse oppression, than it replaced.

All of this, a few centuries after asking Abraham to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion, before stopping him at the last minute. What needless and self indulgent cruelty to inflict upon a child. In the years between Abraham and Jesus, God chooses to make Jephthah follow through on his promise to sacrifice his child in return for victory in battle, rather than renegotiating a far less horrific deal, thus freely choosing to violate the sacred life of a completely innocent young girl. This is a God that appears to think that showing love and devotion, is intrinsically linked to torturing and murdering family members. Appeasing a problem that He created in the first place, is apparently redeemed not by accepting that His plan may not have been the most wisely conceived plan in history, but by the suffering of others; whether Adam and Eve, their progeny, Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter, Jesus, or the rest of mankind; we are all liable to be punished for His mistakes.

The predictable answer from Christians, is that we cannot know God’s love. It is a divine ‘love’ beyond our limited understanding. We are finite beings unable to conceive of the love God has for his creation. I find this to be a cop out. After all, God must know that this World is all we know, and so it would make sense for his dealings in the material World, to be sympathetic and sensitive to our condition in order to cause us the least suffering and pain. Instead, He is fine with intervening according to His own standard, knowing the suffering and pain it causes His subjects. God must be aware that by way of its cruelty, the ‘love’ he offers, is a love that no reasonable person would strive to emulate with people that we love. And in fact, in many cases – human sacrifice as a sign of devotion for example – if we were to emulate His divine standard as reflected in His example to us, we’d be condemned to Hell.

To conclude, even if we discard the horror of God’s ‘love’ for us, it would still seem to me that a finite human being, with such precious little time on this Earth, offering to spend that time loving you for just being you, is a far greater love than an infinite being, unrestricted by time, offering to love you or torture you depending on how well you adhere to His list of demands. A human being’s love for another human being, is therefore greater than God’s ‘love’ for humanity. To the Christian God, you are simply an ant struggling to survive, and God has his foot hovering just above your head, waiting to crash down upon you if you do not sufficiently beg him not to. God does not love you, God tortures you.


Why secularism is good for the religious.

April 12, 2014

Thomas_Paine_rev1

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their “legislature” should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
– Thomas Jefferson.

A wall of Separation between Church and State” was a phrase first coined by Thomas Jefferson in his famous letter penned to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. The significance of Jefferson’s letter was that the phrase was not coined as an attack on religion in the United States, but protection for the freedom to be religious according to one’s own conscience. The Danbury Baptists in Connecticut were concerned that the powerful Congregationalist Church in the state may acquire a position of privilege and power and that their right to practice their faith freely, would be under threat. The same worry almost two centuries earlier had prompted the pilgrims to flee England, for a land in which they could worship according to their own conscience and without fear of state oppression. Jefferson wrote to the Baptists to reassure them that the constitution of the United States protected their right to believe and to worship, and would not empower another sect with state privilege above any other. Secularism protects and enhances the rights of the believers, to believer without fear.

Jefferson’s point in his letter to the Baptists was that secularism protects the right of individual interpretation of faith for the individual believer. Secularism concludes that belief is between the individual and their God, and has nothing to do with any Earthly power. If the individual wishes to dedicate their entire existence to their belief – including their choice of clothing, France banning the veil is the opposite of secularism – the secular state protects that right. Conversely, the Earthly power must not empower or permit privilege to a particular choice of belief, to the detriment of all others. A line of equality is maintained by state neutrality. We are equal regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, belief, and gender. From that position, we are free to test and elevate the boundaries of our own abilities and to seek happiness, without harming the same liberty for others.

If we imagine a small group of twenty believers of a particular faith, it is quite likely that each will have differences pertaining to interpretation of articles of faith, given that religious literature is so vast in scope even for one religion. They may be small differences or large important differences. In that situation, it would be absurd to say “Number 12 in the group has the inherent authority to punish those of us who don’t abandon our interpretation, and follow his interpretation“. It is obvious that no single individual in the group has that privilege of authority, simply because a faith is not an absolute science. We must start from the premise that all 20 have the equal right to belief. It is also obvious that if number 12 did institute a policy by which those who disagreed with him were punished, the differences do not suddenly go away. The individual beliefs will still differ, opinions don’t change, it is fear of punishment that will prevent those differences from being expressed, and so not only is the individual oppressed, but the right of all of us to hear dissenting views and not be told what we – as grown adults – should be allowed to hear, is similarly oppressed. Humanity is blessed with curiosity, and uniformity of thought is impossible, and attempts to argue otherwise are inevitably bloody and oppressive. Shia and Sunni, Catholic and Protestant; history teaches us that granting privilege to one interpretation, does not end well. If your faith relies on fear to survive, it not only has no right to privilege, it absolutely doesn’t deserve privilege.

An individual’s interpretation is anchored to their own experiences throughout life. As Jefferson noted; it is a matter that lies solely between an individual and his or her God. Only secularism protects the right of each individual within the group to disagree, to question, and to value each individual’s right to interpret their faith according to their conscience and without fear of oppression by any other member. If the personal belief of each member is strong, it will withstand the freedom of others to differ. Indeed, whilst secularism may diminish the privilege and supremacy of a single interpretation, it is the only mechanism by which religious liberty for the whole group is preserved and protected.

The great Thomas Paine expressed beautifully a concept in one sentence, that religious texts have failed to express through thousands of pages:

“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”

– Secularism guarantees equal rights as citizens under the law. If a Christian wishes the right to build a private temple of worship, the same right must be extended to Hindu’s, to Muslims, to Sikhs and so on. If, as an atheist, I wish the right to “offend” the beliefs of others, I must accept the right for others to hold views that “offend” my beliefs. You are free to believe that homosexuality is a sin, you are not free to restrict the liberty and equal civil rights of gay people according to your belief. Your belief plays no part in the liberty of others. You are free to believe that those who abandon their faith are evil. You are not free to restrict the liberty of those who abandon their faith based on your belief. Because again, your belief plays no part in the liberty of others. Similarly, if someone believes those who subscribe to your religion are a great evil and should be restricted and punished, they’re free to believe that, they’re just not free to enforce it through the state. We are all to be considered equal regardless of belief, or ethnicity, or sexuality, and of gender. This further enhances our security when questioning, criticising, and inquiring. The mark of a civilised society.

It isn’t just a single religion controlling the apparatus of state that leads almost inevitably to human rights violations. It is the tyranny of a single sect, of a single religion that tends to cause problems for smaller sects of the same faith. When Catholics held state power, Protestants were brutally slaughtered. When Protestants held state power, predictably, Catholics were brutally slaughtered. To end this ceaseless war between sects vying for power, required secularism and declarations of inalienable rights that no religion had a right to violate.

Indeed, the fight isn’t between secularism and religion – religion is protected and freed by secularism and anyone wishing to oppress rights based on someone’s belief, is by definition not secular – the fight is between secularism and a particular individual’s interpretation of their religion to the often violent exclusion of all others. If, in the group of 20, 19 of the members all believe one interpretation to be correct, but you don’t, those 19 still have no inherent right to force you to live by their beliefs. You have the right to criticise the beliefs of the 19, to believe differently to all of them, and to worship freely according to your conscience only without fear. You have a criticism of the Bible or Qur’an? Then say it, or keep it to yourself, or write it, or express it in anyway you wish. No one has a right to prevent you from that. Your expression of your faith – as long as it doesn’t interfere with the liberty of anyone else – is yours only. Secularism is therefore the only mechanism by which the smaller sects, and the individual believers are protected. A real world example, would see the natural rights of the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia currently facing oppression, completely protected. The barriers to freedom and equal rights for Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia are the necessary result of one sect opposed to Shia beliefs presuming a place of privilege that they do not deserve. Shia Muslims in Saudi are prevented from obtaining high office. Shia parents are banned from using certain names for their children. Saudi schools teach children that Shiites are a Jewish conspiracy, and need to be destroyed. I struggle to describe this hideous manipulation of the young minds of children, as anything other than abuse. The Shia minority in Saudi Arabia face oppression, for no other reason than the Salafi leadership doesn’t believe what they believe. The presumption on the part of the leadership, is that their belief is inherently privileged. It is a position maintained by force, and if a privilege must be maintained by force, it is wholly illegitimate.

If a religious authority in a non-secular country suddenly decries an aspect of your daily life, or something you consider sacred to you, as a violation of the state’s religious principles, you are in danger of the state punishing you. Your human rights are in the hands of the religious authority. In a secular state, if the same religious authority were to decry an aspect of your daily life as a violation of their religious belief, they’d be free to say so, they wouldn’t be free to punish you for it. Your liberty and right to believe differently is preserved and protected. No single religious person or group has a right to punish you for not accepting and living according to their beliefs. Secularism recognises this and trusts you as an individual to come to your own conclusions and beliefs freely and without fear.

It is clear to me that a faith loses its integrity the moment an individual is forced to accept it at gun point. When I hear the claim that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the World, I choose to discount not only those children considered ‘Muslim’ by way of being born to Muslim parents, but also those who live in countries in which it is illegal to leave the faith, or to openly question or criticise the faith. At it stands, apostasy is illegal in Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, UAE, Somalia, Afghanistan, Saudi, Sudan, Qatar, Yemen, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Jordan, and Oman. Apostasy in Jehovah’s Witness families is enough for a child to be disowned. It is supremacy by way of threat. If we were to hold a gun to someone’s head, and instructed them to say that they are in fact a giraffe or I’ll fire the gun, we wouldn’t then suggest the giraffe population was clearly growing. The integrity of an individual’s faith is diminished entirely when it is actively forced upon others. Similarly, a child isn’t to be considered of a particular faith. They have not reached an age by which they can rationalise, critique, and accept or reject religious precepts. Their minds are a sponge, and if a particular religion is indeed correct, teaching a child to be critical and curious will lead that child to the religious truth of that faith anyway. It should be obvious to all that a faith enhances its integrity if those who find it, find it through their own free inquiry and will, rather than indoctrination and threat. Secularism is an idea based on free inquiry, expression and will. The opposite, is indoctrination and threat.

Secularism begins and ends with the idea that the beliefs of an individual are sacred to that individual, and have no inherent right to trespass upon the liberty of others. A Sunni majority has no inherent right to force Shia to live by the dictates of their interpretation of Islam, Congregationalists have no inherent right to force Baptists by threat of state punishment, to live according to the dictates of their interpretation of Christianity. As a non-believer, no religious faith or sect has the right to threaten me with state punishment, if I do not adhere to, or if I criticise or satirise their religious guidelines. Similarly, I have no right to prevent or restrict your liberty in believing anything you choose to belief and worshiping where ever you choose to worship, as long as it isn’t forced through the mechanism of state. We are equal citizens deserving of equal protections. Progress – both individual and societal – is the product of free inquiry, debate, expression and compromise, and not forced adherence. If you believe a slightly different interpretation of your faith, than what is demanded of you by the authorities, then feel free! Express it! Secularism encourages that discussion. Indeed, as secularists, we believe only you have the right to decide what it is you believe, and how you express that belief. The chains between you and those wishing to regulate your thoughts, are completely smashed. To paraphrase Jefferson, the state should not be in the business of regulating your opinion and your expression; to do so is by its nature oppression. For that reason alone, secularism is good for those who are religious.


Atheist discrimination in the United States.

April 5, 2014

atheism

When Thomas Jefferson was establishing the University of Virginia, he fought hard to ensure that no religious books were included in its library. According to Professor Leonard Levy of Southern Oregon State University:

“No part of the regular school day was set aside for religious worship….Jefferson did not permit the room belonging to the university to be used for religious purposes.”

– Similarly, according to Dr. Daryl Cornett of Mid-America Theological Seminary:

“Jefferson also founded the first intentionally secularized university in America. His vision for the University of Virginia was for education finally free from traditional Christian dogma. He had a disdain for the influence that institutional Christianity had on education. At the University of Virginia there was no Christian curriculum and the school had no chaplain.”

– It is with this in mind, that one must note the anti-secular, anti-American treatment by which Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was subjected to when he objected to Christian prayer at graduation. He was threatened, thrown out of his own home by his parents, and his own teacher told a news outlet that he wasn’t respecting the ‘majority’ of students, and felt the need to demean him by saying he’d not contributed much to class. Essentially, the constitution doesn’t matter, if the majority of students are Christian. The very reason schools get away with promoting Christianity in an obvious abuse of the constitution, is because speaking out leads to the hideous treatment that Fowler faced; public abuse, and the loss of his family. On the night of the graduation at Bastrop High, students gleefully prayed anyway, as if abusing a kid standing up for the constitution of the United States, was some sort of great victory. The video of their sickening joy can be viewed here. I wonder how they would have reacted, had the speaker pulled out a prayer mat to lead an Islamic prayer. Or a massive banner above the stage with “There is no God. Jesus didn’t die for your sins” written across it. I’m almost certain it’d make national news, with parents and students registering their disgust and claiming a war on Christianity. And yet, for consistency’s sake, If they don’t support this, they’re simply advocating a public institution recognise an inherent privilege of one faith. Unjustifiable and completely un-American.

A graduation is not a Christian ceremony any more than it is a Poseidon ceremony. It is a secular event. There is no excuse for imposing Christian ritual upon it.

Those kids are not born with discriminatory attitudes. It is enshrined through years of being taught that their faith, is true and that those who question or criticise, are agents of the devil. This is ideology, taught as truth and it is the foundation of discrimination. The poison grows more potent and the sense of religious privilege those kids are imbued with, necessarily transfers from public school, to public office.

Three weeks ago, Uganda enacted its anti-gay law entirely motivated by religion (the exact same grotesque reasons for Governor Bryant signing off on Mississippi’s anti-gay bill, though I’m guessing Bryant is still perfectly happy to have part of his pay packet funded by the LGBT community in his state). This week, Saudi Arabia – home to 18 of the 19 suicide bombers from September 11th – declared all atheists to be terrorists. In fact, Atheists face death execution in thirteen countries across the World – all Islamic. The challenges to religious supremacy and privilege almost always result in oppressive outbursts. A sense of supremacy and privilege – whether based on religion, sexuality, gender, or ethnicity – is a learned behaviour, and completely illegitimate. Indeed, there is no such thing as a ‘Christian country’ or a ‘Muslim country’, only a country whose leaders violently impose a single ideology and privilege, upon a diverse group of curious, and critical human beings. They are exclusive barriers, they are not defining features of an entire population.

The exclusive religious barriers that necessarily leads to discrimination, including atheist discrimination isn’t unique to the Theocratic world. Indeed, as seen with the treatment of Damon Fowler, the US have a recent history of abandoning secularism, for the sake of atheist discrimination. Whilst atheist discrimination does not reach the same horrific heights of racial discrimination, nor homophobic discrimination, it is still prevalent and still causes a lot of difficulty and harm for those not professing deep religious sentiment in the US. Often non-believers will not speak out, through fear that questioning Christian privilege, leads to social exclusion, and family trouble. This is not to be taken lightly.

One has to wonder how Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would have reacted – having worked so hard to ensure a secular birth for the new nation – had they been around to hear President Bush Sr allegedly say:

“No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”

– Apparently the atheists (of which there would have been a few) sent to the Persian Gulf to put their lives on the line and fight for a President whose own son had dodged the draft years earlier, can not be regarded as citizens, or patriotic. Such is the absurd and insulting nature of the mix of religion and state. No single belief system has a fundamental right to claim the privilege of the standard by which everyone else is measured. A country belongs to those who live in it, regardless of sexuality, gender, belief, or ethnicity. It does not belong to a single religion or ideology.

When Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell declared that he does not believe in a God, the Christian Right of North Carolina took great offence. H.K. Edgerton, a board member for the Southern Legal Resource Center – an organisation that apparently stands to protect the rights of all, threatened to file a law suit against Bothwell, claiming he is unfit to serve, and that his appointment violates North Carolina’s anti-Atheist Constitutional provision. Indeed, the provision in the constitution of North Carolina reads:

“No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.”

– This provision is overruled by Paragraph 3, of Article VI of the Constitution which insists that no religious test shall be required for public office. And so whilst barring an Atheist from public office would certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Federal Constitution; it didn’t stop the Christian Right from trying to impose their beliefs only, which often leads to long battles for an Atheist to serve publicly. For example, Herb Silverman ran for the post of Governor of South Carolina in 1992, but was discarded from the race for refusing to swear an oath to God. A whole five years later, the courts ruled in his favour.

In 2001, Carletta Sims – the Tennessee director of American Atheists Inc – worked for Associates Commerce Solutions. Two of her colleagues discovered she was atheist, and requested to be moved away from her desk. After the company obliged, the two colleagues left a sketched picture of Jesus stuck to Sims’ computer. Sims complained of the incident, and was fired for disruption. So, when the Christians complained they were moved desk. When the atheist complained, she was fired. She sued ACS and Citigroup for discrimination, and eventually settled for an undisclosed sum. The judge said:

“The court has reconsidered the facts and does believe that an inference of discriminatory intent could be drawn from the facts now before it.”

In 1991, Professor William Zelner was the victim of discrimination after a student wrote to her local newspaper, and said:

“I don’t take Dr. Zellner’s classes because he is an atheist.”

– What followed, were threatening phone calls to Zellner’s home, his car was keyed on an almost nightly basis, a fellow lecturer wrote that he was in league with Satan, a local church group created buttons for people to wear reading:

“I am praying for Dr. Zellner.”

– His two children – aged 6 and 9 – were shunned, and beaten up. Zellner said:

“He [his son] couldn’t understand why they wanted to hurt him. Explaining bigotry to children is difficult.”

– This is what happens when you teach a single ideology – with its moral anchor somewhere in 1st century Palestine – as truth to children, excluding those who don’t fit its narrow confines. These children are not ‘Christian’ children. They are impressionable minds that absorb the prejudices of parents. It is abuse. The Boy Scouts of America, which exists through a Congressional Charter, currently does not allow Atheists to be a part of it and abuses the naivety and curiosity of children through its institutional Christian dogma. It states:

“The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, ‘On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.’ The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”

– This dangerously theocratic passage doesn’t go on to provide a reason as to why a belief in a ‘ruling and leading power’ and ‘grateful acknowledgement of his favours and blessings’ are required for good citizenship. The implication being that non-religious folk, are not good citizens. There is of course no analysis to back up this implication, just words, by Christians, who consider themselves the best kind of citizenship. Such is the nature of unjustifiable discrimination, and it is this that leads to the hideous bullying by fellow students, of those who don’t share the exact beliefs of the parents and teachers. It is institutional discrimination aimed at dehumanising those who don’t fit a specific set of criteria set by those privileged few in a position of power, and according to their beliefs only. It is also vastly anti-American, and anti-secular and it is this that eventually leads to situations like that at Bastrop High; where anti-secular bullying and discrimination was so loudly celebrated as a victory.

A recent study found that those surveyed favoured medical treatment for Christians, over atheists. Most placing ‘atheist’ down the list of priorities for a Kidney transplant, simply for professing a lack of belief in a God.

Similarly, according to a Gallup poll from 2007, 48% of those surveyed would not vote for an Atheist running for President.

According to a a poll by the University of Minnesota, parents would not be happy for their child to marry an atheist. A parent would look at me as unworthy of marrying their daughter, simply because I don’t believe the Bible to be the ultimate truth.

State judges for some odd reason, give lectures on how to be good parents, through religious teaching. When challenged on the constitutionality of that lecture, they then try to defend it in the most ridiculous way, as was the case with Anita McLemore v. Carl McLemore. Originally, the chancellor had insisted that both parents should take their children to church on Sunday. This was challenged, and so this bizarre response was penned:

“Anita misinterprets the court’s order. She was not ordered to attend church. The court’s order pertained
only to the children, stating that “[b]oth parties shall assume responsibility for the attendance of the
children in church each Sunday while in their respective custody.” (emphasis added). Anita asserts that this
court order violates the First Amendment establishment and free exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution
as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, arguing that the court order constitutes government establishment of
the Christian religion. She alleges that the word “church” used in conjunction with a specific day, Sunday,
implicates a particular religion, Christianity. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY OF THE
ENGLISH LANGUAGE (1981) defines “church” as “place of worship, a congregation”. It is not a
foregone conclusion that such could only refer to a particular religion, sect, or denomination. The chancellor
did not specify a particular faith. There was no discrimination or preference shown. The chancellor’s order
that the children attend church inherently provided for choice. One need only glance through the yellow
pages for the vicinity in which Anita and Carl live to appreciate the diverse meaning of the word “church”.
This is simply a succinct term employed by the chancellor to describe a benefit that he determined to be in
the best interest of the children.”

Anita asserts that the court order violates her constitutional right not to practice organized religion. While the order for the children to attend “church” might somehow inhibit her ability to be completely free from
any effect that “church” might have on her, the order was reasonably based upon serving the best interests
of the children. The chancellor, familiar with the churches in the community, was doubtless aware of the
myriad of programs offered for enrichment of children’s lives. The range is great. Churches are traditionally
places of calm and concern. At virtually no expense to parents, churches offer children the opportunity for
interaction with groups of other children as well as adults, in an environment conducive to character-building.

– They have answered the criticism, with the reason they were criticised in the first place, and added a ridiculous clause; that by “church” and “on Sunday” they didn’t actually mean specifically Christianity. Does anyone buy that? And even if they genuinely had Taoism or Buddhism in mind as well as Christianity when suggesting “church” on “Sunday”, it is irrelevant. The court has ordered someone to force their child to receive a religious education every Sunday. Christians have decided they know what’s best for children. And whether Christians believe this to be true or not, the courts should not be endorsing – let alone forcing – any religious practice or teaching.

In 2006, Judge James Punch of Orleans County stripped Rachel Bevilacqua of custody of her son, because of her involvement in the ‘Church of Subgenius’; a parody religion. The Judge called her a “pervert” and “mentally ill”. After the case, she finally regained custody in 2007 (after spending $140,000 in legal costs; the cost of overturning the discriminatory attitudes of Christian supremacist Judges), but was told by Judge Adams that she must keep all ‘Subgenius’ literature away from where her child might see and become corrupted by it. Obviously, the child is allowed to see and become corrupted by Christian literature, that leads to homophobia, and bullying those who object to schools promoting Christian prayer at graduation.

In 2012, the San Antonio Independent School District firewall provider, Fortinet blocked school access to atheist websites, categorising them as ‘occult’, whilst allowing access to Christian and creationist websites. It took a threat of court action on the basis of 1st Amendment discrimination, for the District’s Chief Information Officer provider to back down.

According to “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” conducted by WIN-Gallup International, 5% of the US population now identify as Atheist. There are no Atheists in the US Senate. By contrast, Lutherans account for 4.6% of the population, and are represented by 5% of the Senate. Episcopalians make up 1.8% of the population, and enjoy 4% representation in the Senate. Most astonishingly, Presbyterians make up just 2.8% of the population, whilst enjoying 13% of the US Senate. The Senate is dominated by religion.

One must conclude that there is no ‘war on Christianity’ but a war on Christian supremacy. The courts offer preferential treatment to the religious, public schools constantly preach Christianity. For years, religious privilege and supremacy ensured vital stem cell research was withheld. The US political system is loaded with Christian supremacists. It is all but impossible for an Atheist to become President. An ongoing battle since the dawn of the enlightenment – the cause of Jefferson and Madison – to slowly roll back the illegitimate power and privilege of religion over the lives of others and the misery it inflicts on those that don’t adhere to its dictates; this is secular goal the US was founded upon and it is a war that must be won.


What secularism isn’t…

March 30, 2014

I’ve always been ever so slightly bemused by the term ‘militant secularist’. It is generally used by two groups primarily; those who wish to oppress the rights of the religious and presume secularism is a backdoor for Sharia. And ironically, the religious sects who think secularism is out to destroy their religion. From both sides, it’s an odd attack.

Secularism is particularly easy concept to grasp. It is quite simply the denial of religious supremacy and privilege – through the power of state – over the lives of others. Civil rights and protections come first. Religious belief is not inherently permitted to interfere with this. And so the term ‘militant secularist’ seems to be an attempt at a slur by religious sects unhappy that their institutional privileges – gained through centuries of erecting hideous barriers to equal civil rights – are increasingly under scrutiny. What is it that constitutes a ‘militant secularist’? Someone who militantly wishes the same protections for you, as for they? Baroness Warsi gave us her unique interpretation of the phrase, whilst completely misrepresenting what secularism actually is:

“For me, what I define as a secular fundamentalist is somebody who says that there should be no public space for faith.”

– And so begins my ‘what secularism is not…’ rant. Secularism is not seeking the outlawing of faith-based arguments in the public space. If someone wishes the state to punish those who argue from a position of faith in the public sphere, they aren’t secularists. For example, every argument against same-sex marriage in the Commons in 2013, was based on faith to some degree. This isn’t banned, nor do secularists wish to ban it. We do not advocate the state punishing anyone for arguing a principle according to their beliefs, nor, even, to stand for election according to those beliefs. I am absolutely fine with The Christian Party existing, with The Islamic Party existing, and I’ll always defend their right to exist. Progress and knowledge derives from free debate and inquiry, on a framework protecting all from oppression. Secularism protects free expression, inquiry, and belief for all. What you are not allowed to do, is force others to live according to the dictates of your religious beliefs only. To do so, is by its nature advocating the supremacy of your individual faith over the freedoms of those who do not subscribe to your beliefs. It presumes the superiority of your beliefs. You’re entitled to this belief, you just have no right to enforce the rest of us to accept it.

In 2012, Peter Popham – foreshadowing Warsi two years later – writing for the Independent, published a curious article entitled “No secularism please, we’re British“. A horrid title that presupposes those of us that hold secular principles dear, are not to be considered British. In it, Popham goes on to misrepresent – or simply misunderstand – secularism, and conflate it with a plethora of completely unrelated ideologies and concepts:

“But the fanaticism of the Islamists has provoked an equally intolerant and intemperate reaction from secular and other quarters, with the ban on headscarves in France and on mosque-building in Switzerland and the rabid anti-Islam rhetoric in the Netherlands; while in Britain it has produced a sudden lurch of opinion among our noisiest public intellectuals against any and all religion. All religions are wrong, goes the argument, everyone knows they are wrong, and their time has expired. As Dawkins put it at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, faith is “a virus”; he looked forward, he said, to the “complete death of organised religion” in his lifetime.”

– This brings me to my next point on what secularism isn’t. Secularism is not anti-religious oppression. Indeed, for secularists, the idea of the state punishing people for their choice of clothing is grotesquely anti-secular. Whether the state punishes someone for choosing to wear headscarves, or the state punishes someone for choosing not to wear headscarves, for secularists it is equally as oppressive. It is not secularism. Secularism does not grant certain faiths privileges over others. To deny others the right to worship freely where they choose, and to develop property that they are as entitled as me to develop, denying them purely on the basis of what they choose to believe is an act of supremacy and oppression. This is not secularism.

The second point to take from the quote above, is that Popham apparently sees no difference between the French state banning religious garments, and criticism of religion in Britain in general. The two are entirely different concepts, and both have nothing to do with secularism. The former is the state interfering with the private lives and choices of its citizens through threat of punishment – a clear violation of the separation of church and state principle – whilst the latter is individual expression and critique of religion. Secularism ensures an individual the right to wear whatever she or he chooses, without fear of punishment, as well as ensuring the right of the individual to criticise all ideologies. Thus, Popham conflates secularism, with atheism. This ridiculous conflation ignores the myriad of religious secularists, like the wonderful ‘British Muslims for Secular Democracy’. We atheists do not have a monopoly on secularism.

Popham then goes on to rewrite history, in justifying his anti-secular, pro-religious supremacy position:

“What is staggering about the secularists is their arrogance and the shortness of their memories. The materialist utopianism of the Communists and Nazis is to blame for all the worst atrocities of the past century.
Dawkins may appear to make sense, but it is incredible that we should be ready to pay serious attention to a prophet whose message is the same as those whose schemes led straight to the hells of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge.”

– It is difficult to know where to be begin with this, given the amount of misrepresentations to appear in such a short paragraph. I’m choosing to ignore the ridiculous comparison of Richard Dawkins, to every major dictator of the 20th century, because it’s pathetic. I will address the premise of the argument itself. Here, Popham – again conflating secularism with atheism, and both with anti-religious oppression – is entirely wrong. Secularism ensures equal protection for all, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or belief. No single ideology allowed a privileged position to oppress at will. Here’s the wonderful thing about secularism; you can be a secular Christian, a secular Muslim, a secular Atheist, a secular Communist, a secular Fascist. You’re beliefs still are not permitted a place of privilege above any others. You are equally protected, equally free from oppression. The right of Christians to publicly say that homosexuality is unnatural, the right of Wahhabi Muslims to insist that Sharia is greater than secular democracy, is protected by the same laws that protect my right to blaspheme and mock religion. What secularism doesn’t allow for, is a Nazi-esque extermination of an entire religious sect based on the dictates of one ideology (despite Popham’s claim, I am yet to see Richard Dawkins advocate this). For that, a state requires centuries of religious propaganda:

In Germany in 1543, Martin Luther produced his work “On the Jews and their lies“. In it, Luther calls for Jews to be put to work as slaves, for Jewish schools to be burnt to the ground, that Jewish people are the enemy of all Christianity. Johannes Wallmann writes:

“The assertion that Luther’s expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment have been of major and persistent influence in the centuries after the Reformation, and that there exists a continuity between Protestant anti-Judaism and modern racially oriented antisemitism, is at present wide-spread in the literature; since the Second World War it has understandably become the prevailing opinion.”

– Nazi policy toward Jewish people was not a new thing. It was the conclusion of 2000+ years of hideous Church sponsored anti-semitism. Luther is vicious in his criticisms and his ideas for the future. But it wasn’t just Luther. The Nazi precedent of forcing Jewish people to wear something that makes them identifiable as Jews, and inferior to the Christian population, was not a Nazi precedent at all. It began much earlier. The Nazis simply appropriated it. Pope Paul IV issued Papal bull Cum nimis absurdum in 1555. The bull states:

“Moreover, concerning the matter that Jews should be recognizable everywhere: [to this end] men must wear a hat, women, indeed, some other evident sign, yellow in color, that must not be concealed or covered by any means, and must be tightly affixed.”

– The Bull also insisted that Jews be moved to Jewish ghettos:

“…all Jews are to live in only one [quarter] to which there is only one entrance and from which there is but one exit.”

– To suggest that the concept of separating church from state – ensuring freedom of, and freedom from religion – is responsible for the terrors of the 20th century, is so incredibly short sighted, and requires a complete rewrite of history. Indeed, if you need to rewrite history to make your case; you’ve already failed.

As is usually the case when an argument fails on so many logical standards, Popham predictably then gets insulting:

“… religious faith can do what secularism cannot: open doors on to areas of human experience – compassion, altruism, serenity, even enlightenment – which have no meaning for the secularists.”

– Here, Popham has decided not to conflate atheism with secularism anymore, because it suits his purposes not to. For Popham, secularism is now soulless. Divorced from all ethical standards. A big grey wall blocking human compassion and enlightenment. And so again, here is what secularism is not. Secularism is not and does not claim to be a ‘moral anchor’ (as Hamza Tzortzis likes to call it) to one specific time and place (1st century Palestine, or 7th century Arabia). It makes no moral judgement. It isn’t trying to be a system of morality. This is why it isn’t an atheist concept. It appeals to all concepts. It rightly presupposes that the state has no right to claim religious truth and force uniformity through it. It acknowledges that you do not get to force the principles and beliefs that guide your life, onto me, and vice versa. Equal protection on a line of equality, ensuring that no ideology be granted special privilege. How you frame your individual moral compass, is then up to you. I see no example of state power combined with religious power, that ended in anything but oppression of those that did not fit its dogmatic heavenly vision.

Indeed, over the centuries compassion, altruism, serenity and enlightenment were strangely absent from religious societies (unless you observed the state religion as instructed). Prevalent in non-secular states; forced conversions, state murder for anyone deemed to say something heretical, forced payment to uphold the state faith, rampant homophobia (see Uganda). Most of those, still occur in nations whose institution of state is shackled by faith. For this, Popham has no basis by which to tell me, as a secularist, that compassion, altruism, serenity, and enlightenment have no meaning for me. I decide that, not him. Further, I believe Popham has the same right by which to decide what compassion, altruism, serenity and enlightenment mean for himself, as I do for me, without fear of state interference.

Another description of constitutes a ‘militant secularist’ comes to us via Mo Ansar:

mo8
– If opposing the ritualistic genital mutilation of children is to be considered ‘militant secularist’, I am happy to wear that badge. No one has a right – under any pretext, including ‘religion’ – to mutilate anyone else, especially children. There is no other area of life where this would be considered even slightly acceptable, and it doesn’t get a free pass simply for being shrouded in ‘faith’.

Secularism, coupled with democracy, is the only system that has an inbuilt mechanism by which we progress. Since its inception, we have slowly worked to break down oppressive barriers (most, originally erected by the parties of faith). I cannot imagine that states with an enshrined religion are ever likely to accept they have no right to viciously oppress sexuality. For this, secular democracy is necessary.

Secularism protects us equally. It is a system that allows for the religious to believe and express the violent notion that we non-believers are cursed to spend eternity burning in the unforgiving flames of hell. That is your right to believe and to say. Similarly, I have a right to say that I find that to belief to be horrific, outdated, and worthy of nothing but ridicule and condemnation. I have no right to censor that belief, in much the same way as you have no right to censor my expression.

It is secularism that protects religious minorities. No longer are Catholics permitted to utilise the power of state to oppress Protestants or vice verse. Sunni Muslims are not permitted the power of state to dictate how Shia Muslims observe Islam according to their own conscience, and vice versa. The secular state cares not for whether you believe the Pope to be the authority on Christianity, nor whether Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman were rightful Caliphs. That’s up to the individual believer to decide. Evangelical Christian sects in the 1770s aligned themselves with the secularists in public life, in the hope of enshrining secular protections for all religious denominations. Within a century, the US was filled with a variety of denominations, from Catholics, to Mormons, none having power over others to enforce uniformity through privilege and oppression. The playing field is level. This is secularism.

The prominent arguments against secularism seem to follow the same underlying logic, regardless of how it’s presented. Firstly, the argument tends to be a misunderstanding of secularism as anti-religious oppression. Perhaps this is derived from fear of retribution for centuries of religious oppression. But it isn’t actually true. If indeed a state pursued policies designed to oppress the religious, it would follow that the state lost its secular title the moment the oppressive policies were instituted. Secondly, the arguments – especially from the Christian right in the US, and the more Wahhabi Muslim sects in the Middle East – tend to be nothing more than a child-like refusal to accept that their faith does not inherently deserve a place of privilege to interfere with the liberty of others. The former argument, is often an obvious mask for the latter.

It is perhaps worth remembering that had religion not so horrifically abused state power through grotesque persecution when it had it, there would be no need for ‘secularism’. The concept would almost certainly be considered a natural societal condition. The fact that we need a specific ‘ism’ to protect basic individual rights, speaks volumes of the history of religious oppression that preceded it, and how fast and loose they tended to play with human lives. Today, secularism must be the starting point. No one gets to claim their personal religious belief is more worthy of privilege and supremacy, over any other. A line of neutrality, on a framework of civil rights regardless of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and belief, is the only natural and reasonable position for a state to observe. If you wish to impose your personal religious principles on a population, you need to (not be forced to) accompany it with a reasoned argument. Your personal belief is not an adequate reason in itself. If the argument stands up to scrutiny, then it will stand by itself. If you wish your faith to be granted specific institutional privilege – as with the institution of marriage, for example – you’re going to have to provide a reasoned argument as to why the rest of us should accept your inherent right to a position of superiority, and live according to the dictates of your personal faith. If your argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it would be prudent not to take this as a green light to claim oppression. To do so, comes across as one big child-like tantrum.

Secularism isn’t anti-religious oppression. Secularism isn’t the wish to ban religious folk from the public sphere. Secularism isn’t a system of anchored morality. Secularism isn’t Atheism. In short, secularism isn’t anything that anti-secularists seem to believe that it is.


Offending the Church: Caravaggio’s St Matthew.

March 2, 2014

Caravaggio's 'The Inspiration of St Matthew' - the altarpiece for the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Caravaggio’s ‘The Inspiration of St Matthew’ – the altarpiece for the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

The religious art of the Renaissance portrayed Jesus’ divinity above all else, in dream like states. The physical and the spiritual almost become one in the same. As if Pagan Gods existing in a perfected World separate from our own. The perfectly chiseled bodies of Biblical patriarchs cover the Sistine Chapel, with Jesus on the far wall judging souls and displaying his power. Similarly, ‘The Last Judgement’ by Rogier van der Weyden shows Christ illuminated by surrounding fire, floating on a rainbow above every other figure. Jesus and the saints were idealised in the art of the middle ages, through the Renaissance, right up until the turn of the 17th Century.

Born in 1571, half a century after Luther sparked the reformation, Michelangelo Merisi – Caravaggio – through his art, contributed greatly to the new Roman Catholic desire to counter the Protestants, and reaffirm the importance of religious imagery in connecting the founding years of Christianity, with modern day Catholicism. A few years prior to the artist’s birth, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent’s final session and set its new rules on religious imagery:

“Moreover, in the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished; finally, all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust; nor the celebration of the saints, and the visitation of relics be by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness; as if festivals are celebrated to the honour of the saints by luxury and wantonness.”

– One might suggest that this marks a point in time in which the Church began its long history of obsession with sexual repression. But it also marks the break from the art of the renaissance depicting idealised saints far removed from the lives of ordinary people, and gave Caravaggio’s more naturalistic and human style access to the wealthiest patrons, through the Catholic Church. Cardinal Del Monte being a key player in the promotion of the young artist when he arrived in Rome. To this end, Caravaggio worked to emphasise the humanity and naturalism and humble nature of Jesus and the saints. The material Jesus and the Saints, as ordinary human beings. Divinity was not a theme he cared too much for. To attempt to provide links from the past to the present, Caravaggio would place Jesus or the Saints often in early 17th Century Rome, in naturalistic settings completely removed from anything previously imagined. No idealised hills and valleys would be included. For example ‘The Calling of St Matthew’ sees Matthew dressed in late 16th Century Roman clothing, in a 16th Century dingey Roman house, with dirty windows, whilst Jesus appears in 1st Century attire, bear foot, so as to emphasise his humbleness. And whilst this seems to be in keeping with the Church’s new strict rules on religious art, it seems they weren’t entirely ready for what they had unleashed.

In 1602 Caravaggio was tasked with producing an altarpiece for the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome. The French Church sits close to the Piazza Navona, housed Martin Luther during his trial in Rome, and already contained two Caravaggio works either side of the altar, depicting St Matthew’s calling (an obvious homage to French King Henri IV and his conversion to Catholicism in the 1590s), and St Matthew’s martyrdom. The newly commissioned piece was entitled ‘St Matthew and the Angel’. The painting itself was destroyed in Berlin during World War II, but this is a photo of it:

angelmatthew
– This is a work of profound genius. St Matthew is portrayed as a humble human being, wrinkled and old, a poor Roman of Caravaggio’s day, completely dazed and shocked by the divine guidance being offered to him by an angel, whilst bathed in light. As with all Caravaggio works, God is represented by a stream of light in a darkened surrounding. The Conversion of St Paul similarly shows this style, with Paul’s outstretched arms soaking in the light. A World away from the bearded God flying through the air in Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Caravaggio’s lowly ‘St Matthew’ is intended to connect the saints, to the common man. As if to say “they’re just like you”. He is unable to comprehend the gravity of the mission in front of him. Matthew’s hand is directed to write the very first words of the very first account of the life of Jesus – the Gospel of Matthew was at this time believed to be the first – almost as if he is in such a state of profound shock, he cannot write without the guiding hand of the angel. He is depicted as just a man, unable to comprehend the message without direct and concentrated help. The angel is concentrating intently on the hand of the illiterate Saint, producing the presumed first account of the life of Jesus, and you can almost imagine the words being written slowly, guided throughout by the patient teaching angel. The saint’s clothes are all over the place, exposing his legs and his dirty feet that point directly out to the viewer. Caravaggio has painted Matthew as real as humanly possible. And for that reason, the Church censored the painting and scandal ensued. According to Caravaggio’s early biographer, Giovanni Bellori:

“Then something happened which greatly disturbed Caravaggio and almost made him despair of his reputation. After the
central picture of St. Matthew had been finished and placed on the altar, it was taken away by the priests, who said that the figure with his legs crossed and his feet crudely exposed to the public had neither decorum nor the appearance of a saint.”

Art historian E.H. Gombrich elaborates on this episode in Caravaggio’s life:

“Caravaggio, who was a very imaginative and uncompromising young artist, thought hard about what it must have been like when an elderly, poor, working man, a simple publican, suddenly had to sit down to write a book. And so he painted a picture of St Matthew with a bald head and bare, dusty feet, awkwardly gripping the huge volume, anxiously wrinkling his brow under the unaccustomed strain of writing. By his side he painted a youthful angel, who seems just to have arrived from on high, and who gently guides the labourer’s hand as a teacher may do to a child. When Caravaggio delivered this picture to the church where it was to be placed on the altar, people were scandalized at what they took to be lack of respect for the saint. The painting was not accepted, and Caravaggio had to try again. This time he took no chance. He kept strictly to the conventional ideas of what an angel and a saint should look like. The outcome is still quite a good picture, for Caravaggio had tried hard to make it look lively and interesting, but we feel that it is less honest and sincere than the first had been.”

– Bellori conveys to us the despair that Caravaggio felt at being censored, whilst Gombrich informs us of the scandal that ensued from such a break from traditional depictions of saints and from that which the Church deemed acceptable. It is the epitome of expression through artistic endeavour meeting dominant resistant power structures.

Despite the strict new rules on religious imagery set by the Council of Trent, the Church was unable to let go of what they previously believed the ‘appearance of a saint’ should be; a belief that must not be contradicted on threat of censorship and scandal. The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi still believed that depictions of the saints should retain an element of the divine about them; something that differentiated them from ordinary people, a sort of inability to let go of the idealised Catholic art of the past. Any deviation, any attempt to suggest a link between the common folk, and the saints was still not completely acceptable, and so Caravaggio’s attempt at a truthful portrayal of the apostle could not penetrate Church propaganda and ideals, and so was censored. It ended up in a private collection far away from the public gaze. Millions of people denied the right to see this work, purely because the Church deemed it to be offensive to their tastes.

Caravaggio painted a second dumbed down version, seen at the top of this article. Whilst still seeped in realism, and a wonderful painting, it loses a lot of the merits of the first painting. In it, a perfectly literate St Matthew in flowing rich red robes, an air of ‘respectability’ looks like a philosopher from antiquity. Holding the pen himself, Matthew lacks the look of shock that he had in the first painting, almost as if he’s perfectly prepared for this. The angel may as well not be there. The angel – counting on his hand – dictates arguments rather than the Gospel word for word. The saint writes unaided, his feet pointing away so as to not cause any offence, and most telling of all, the newly depicted St Matthew has a halo. He is now balancing between a regular human being, and divine. He is no longer connected to ordinary people. This version of St Matthew, with all its confusions, is entirely mirrored in a Catholic counter-reformation still unsure of itself.

I am often inclined to wonder if Caravaggio’s dangerous life might have turned out differently, had his creative flair been fully liberated from the clutch of a Church that presumed it had a right to prohibit what it considered to be ‘offensive’ to its wholly illegitimate grip on power. Challenging power structures on any level, is absolutely vital. Caravaggio was – to a degree – constrained by ideology. Modern day attempts to prohibit expression based on what a religious group consider ‘offensive’ are no different. The rationale they employ is one that attempts to tell the rest of us that we shouldn’t be allowed to produce what they deem to be ‘offensive’ expressions, and by attempting to outlaw ‘offensive’ material, it further seeks to forbid our right – as grown adults – to view material that adherents to that one religion might consider ‘offensive’. We are denied a right to see or hear dissenting views, as much as we are denied a right to create dissenting views. This is abhorrent to me. It is constraining human thoughts, and naturally creative instincts, for the perpetuation of one ideology. It is this censorship inherent to authoritarian religions that contributed greatly to their spread and grip on power and the one reason that liberation of ideas, of art, or expression in all its forms is the very basis of a decent, free and progressive society.


The Theocracy of Arizona.

February 24, 2014

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: Visitor7.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: Visitor7.

One can only imagine the outrage that would grip the Christian communities of the United States if signs across the businesses of the nation started appearing that insisted “Christians will not be served here”, or perhaps firefighters refusing to serve the needs of Christians in trouble, or teachers refusing to teach kids who identified as Christian. Screams of anti-Christian discrimination would take over Fox News and the World would be treated to hour after hour of journalists asking for Sarah Palin’s vacant opinion. And yet, this same discriminatory tone is exactly what the Christian-right in Arizona is attempting to force upon the LGBT community and non-religious folk in the state.

Arizona’s now infamous SB1062/HB2153 law allowing businesses to deny services to the LGBT community, passed by both the Republican controlled Arizona State Senate, and House is proving to be a disaster for the GOP. The response from Republicans in the State Legislature and beyond, has been almost as shameful as their willingness to pass such a vicious piece of Theocratic and bigoted legislation in the first place. It isn’t the targeting and dehumanising of gay people for discrimination – in a very Jim Crow like manner – that has bothered their conscience over the past couple of days; it has been the national and international attentional the state has received for the hideous Bill.

According to the Bill, religious freedom is only fully recognised if religious folk have the legalised right to oppress those they don’t particularly like, and deny those people equal rights. During the debate, Democrats tried to amend the Bill so as to not include firefighters and police (the fact that this was even up for debate, is horrendous in itself). Republicans voted against the amendment. As it stands, the Republicans in Arizona have revoked equal protection under the secular, constitutional law, if Christians don’t like them. Creeping Theocracy, framed as ‘religious freedom’. The same horrendous argument was used to permit an Arizonan constitutional amendment in 2008, banning same-sex marriage. Christians with the right to marry, restricting the same right for same-sex couples to marry, is hard to describe as anything other than Theocratic and a belief that Christianity must be considered supreme. It is the institutionalising of Christian ‘values’ above all others. The same is true for SB1062/HB2153. Christian supremacists in Arizona are targeting an unprotected group that they take great pleasure in oppressing, for the sake of further empowering their ideology, in much the same way that white supremacists took great pleasure in protecting their privilege by oppressing the rights of anyone with darker skin. Arizona’s Christian conservatives, have publicly set fire to the United States Constitution, and replaced it with Leviticus.

Republican State Sen. Steve Pierce – a man who voted to legalise anti-gay discrimination and enshrine Christian privilege into law – has decided he now hopes Gov. Jan Brewer will veto it. You may think he’s had a change of heart? You may think he now acknowledges that there is no fundamental right to oppress that overrides the right to equal protection and citizenship under the law. Perhaps he believes it is wholly wrong to institutionalise discrimination. Perhaps he’s accepted that Christians have no privileged right to decide who should be treated as a second class citizen based on sexuality, in much the same way that white Americans had no privileged right to decide who should treated as a second class citizen based on skin tone. Maybe Republican State Sen. Steve Pierce had a change of heart. Well, no. In explaining why he now opposes the Bill, Pierce said:

“I don’t like the negative picture of Arizona, and I’m on board asking the governor to veto the bill.”

– Steve Pierce is far more concerned about looking bad, and the negative attention that comes with legalising discrimination, than he is with legalised discrimination itself. Pierce then signed a letter, along with Senators Bob Worsley, and Adam Driggs.

“While our sincere intent in voting for this bill was to create a shield for all citizens’ religious liberties, the bill has instead been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance. These allegations are causing our state immeasurable harm.”

– Yes. It’s pointing out the theocratic and bigoted nature of the Bill that is the problem. Their complaint is that they aren’t allowed to discriminate in peace. Following the line of ‘a shield’ protecting all citizens’ religious liberties; if this bill were active in Texas, it would afford the right for a business owner of a member of the congregation of the Appleby Baptist Church in Nacogdoches – who believe in racial segregation based on the ‘curse of Ham’ – to place a ‘whites only’ sign in his shop window, and claim it on ‘sincerely held religious belief’.

I’m almost certain the same Republican state representatives don’t take issue with their salaries being partly funded by LGBT taxpayers, or the roads they drive on, or the state education their children receive, or the police protection they enjoy. Conveniently, I’m sure none of that violates their ‘sincerely held religious belief’.

But the State Republicans aren’t the only ones to provide awful responses to the controversy. Kristin Jarnagin, vice president of the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association said:

“We have already lost untold amounts of tax dollars due to the negative perception that this legislation attaches to our state’s image, and the bill hasn’t even been signed into law yet.”

– Similarly, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council said:

“With major events approaching in the coming year, including Super Bowl XLIX, Arizona will be the center of the world’s stage. This legislation has the potential of subjecting the Super Bowl, and major events surrounding it, to the threats of boycotts.”

– Yes! That’s the problem! Tax dollars and the effect on a sporting event. Apparently bigotry is fine, if it doesn’t interfere with tourism. That’s what they seem to have decided is the problem. Not the further institutionalising of heterosexual privilege and legalisation of bigotry and bullying. Not the subtle message sent out that the rights of all non-Christians should be secondary to the rights of Christians, and dependent on the demands of those Christians. This legislation not only legalises discrimination against the LGBT community – and, well, anyone else that Christians decide they’re not too keen on – it tells the LGBT community and non-Christians that they are not to be considered equal citizens, will not be entitled the same rights as Christians, and that their right to equal citizenship and protection should be decided upon by Theocrats, on the basis of Biblical ‘morality’. It is the grotesque concept of the state recognising and establishing religious intolerance at the expense of equal rights. Completely anti-constitutional. It is the state placing the supremacy of the Bible, above the Constitution. It is the state creating two classes of citizen; the religious, and the non-religious, with the former to be given a privileged societal position above the latter. This is illegitimate and extremely dangerous religious (and so, Christian) supremacy, in much the same way as Jim Crow was illegitimate and extremely dangerous white supremacy.

It seems to be the case that conservative Christians struggle to identify the difference between being persecuted for their faith, and challenges to the supremacy of their faith. The latter, is not the same as the former. The Bill authorises persecution, for the sake of the supremacy of faith. A state based on the supremacy of one religion should be considered as vile and dangerous as a state based on the supremacy of one skin tone. It is vastly anti-secular, and vastly anti-American. It is a dehumanising bill that should offend all who value equality, human dignity, secular protections, and the Constitution. There is so much wrong with this Bill, and the response to it, that it’s difficult to know where to even begin.