Category Archives: Religion

Where Are The Feminists?

Suffragettes

The release of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s new book ‘Heretic’ has predictably reignited the debate on the status of women’s rights, particularly, though not exclusively, within Islamic cultures at home in Britain and around the world.  My regular readers will be aware that I’ve already laid out many of my thoughts on this subject elsewhere on my blog – for example, see: www.believethetruth.co.uk/veil-of-confusion.

However, a brief glance at my twitter timeline has made me feel more than ever before that there is a very fundamental misunderstanding in play here that is subverting the crucial conversations that ought to be taking place, so I am going to revisit this topic.

Firstly though, such is the level of toxicity associated to many of my contentions (indeed I’ve been blocked on Twitter multiple times, but not before being called ‘an EDL-type’ or similar) that it is necessary to preface my thoughts by stating my political persuasions; I call myself a true liberal, mostly of the left but I have opinions that cross the political divide.  I’m an atheist, I support socialised healthcare (the NHS in the UK), I’m pro-immigration, pro-drug legalisation (read strict regulation), pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights including marriage equality, I support the right to die campaign and I’m a passionate defender of animal rights – in fact I spend most of my time working and fundraising in this field.  I despise UKIP with every sinew and I happen to think nationalism a divisive concept – indeed it appears to be the last western government endorsed form of prejudice.

So, while I may be correctly accused of many things, I hope it’s clear that I’m not a far right-wing nutjob!

Below are a couple of tweets I recently read.  This article is not meant as a personal response but they are a useful summary of the challenges I believe we are facing:

“Women within Islam challenge things all the time. Why can’t we just support that?”

“What is our role – it isn’t for us to decide.”

Sometimes it feels as if people who say things like this are totally unaware that, for example,  women were once banned from voting, that black people were treated as second class citizens and that gay people were thrown in prison – all within living memory in western societies.  It’s truly staggering how quickly people forget, how quickly they take their freedoms for granted and how they fail to imagine the complexities of oppression or the barriers it may construct.

The truth is that the progress of western women and various minority groups with regards to human rights would have been impossible without tireless campaigning from outsiders – simply cheering politely from the side-lines but otherwise keeping out of it, as the above comments seem to recommend, would have been all but useless.  The most important step in the liberation of the oppressed from their chains always comes from State backing and legislation.  It ought to be obvious that this is somewhat difficult to achieve for minority groups and for those who are silenced, unless they receive the full and unequivocal backing of other good people.  It ought to be.

Frederick Douglass

Women’s rights in cultures that have their roots in the developing world are facing an emergency.  Currently, the situation is so uniquely terrible that we now have fascism playing both sides of the board.  On the one hand, religious fascists, largely from the Islamic community (this is not to say that all Muslims are fascists – but various surveys inform us that some significant percentage clearly are, and it is those to whom I refer), are campaigning to keep women in the dark ages via the concept of ‘honour’ enshrined within their faith.  This, they believe, entitles men to decide who women can have sex with, who they can marry, what clothes they can wear, what, if any, education they should receive, when they can go outside and with whom, and even if they should have a clitoris or not.

Yet as I write this, the only significant pushback to this dreadful set of circumstances that millions of women endure every day, is coming from the far right and white supremacists in Europe and from the Tea Party conservatives in America.  This is a shameful and un-mitigating disaster for women everywhere, for all of us in fact.  One only has to take notice of how these people tend to talk to white women (the ‘get back to the kitchen sink’ brigade) to know that they do not really care about women’s rights.  They are simply using the plight of Muslim women as a pawn in their racist, anti-immigration, bigoted agenda.  Imagine how hopeless this scenario must appear to those who dare to dream of one day deciding their own destinies.

Western liberals, particularly feminists, have a responsibility to take this fight out of the hands of people with ulterior motives and to stand up to misogyny in all its forms.  That it may occasionally be justified within holy texts should make no difference, and frustratingly, when it comes to the various outrages against women with regards to birth control that are becoming increasingly common across the Bible belt in the US, most seem to understand this.  But bizarrely, when the backdrop switches to other cultures, far too many people are seduced by cries of racism or Islamophobia.

This must stop.  Now.  We must not allow the terrible behaviour of our ancestors in the colonies to fool us into believing that only white Christians can ever oppress people.  Sadly, it isn’t even necessary to journey to Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan to witness State complicity in the oppression of women.  Here in the UK, tens of thousands of women have been genitally mutilated (to say nothing of the millions of men, without explicit consent) yet there has not been a single conviction – and only one case has ever been tried.  Forced, arranged marriages are all but ignored.  Shari’a jurisprudence is allowed to take precedence over inheritance claims, meaning that women are often left with no financial support to raise their children.  In mosques and on university campuses, gender segregation is enforced and protected, and the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal has revealed that many of our state funded schools are also segregating children on the basis of gender, as well as teaching some truly awful things about the roles of men and women in society, including that women cannot say no to men in the bedroom.  Finally of course, many liberals wear the defence of the effacing of women via the niqab, as a badge of honour.

I believe that now is the time to rediscover the spirit of the suffragettes and finally call time on these injustices.

Will you march for Muslim women’s civil and political rights? Or will you wait half a century for the movie..?

-Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Waking Up After Charlie Hebdo

CH Cartoon

As the latest outrage to peace, liberalism and free speech draws to a close in Paris, with at least 17 innocent people lying dead, one thing must be shouted through the fog of confusion that is inevitably already infecting media and social media commentary; an issue of major concern in the aftermath of this horror is not a consideration for the possible hurt feelings of anyone with regards to the contents of satire, cartoons and so on.  No one has the right not to be offended in a liberal society.

Due to the avalanche of usage, I must once again briefly deal with the word ‘Islamophobia’.  Islam is a set of ideas written in the Quran (the Islamic holy book, dictated allegedly by Allah) and the Hadiths (the sayings and the actions of the Prophet Mohammad).  Therefore, the word ‘Islamophobia’ actually implies that the liberal world is irrational if it dares to criticise a book, which is bad enough, but in reality it is always deployed in such a way as to imply bigotry against all Muslims.  There are two crimes here; the conflation of criticising ideas with bigotry, and the downplaying of actual anti-Muslim bigotry, which is abhorrent.  The intention of course, is to stifle debate.  The word’s very purpose is to frighten everyone into silence.  We must all reject it if we wish to honour the bravery of those who were killed defending freedom of speech in the offices of Charlie Hebdo.  Human beings have rights that deserve respect, books or ideas do not.

The correct and necessary response to the nightmare in Paris, is to make a stand against this assault on liberalism by publishing the above cartoon.  We must spread the risk.  Below, Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains why:

Video Link

 

“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”

– Stéphane Charbonnier, editor of Charlie Hebdo, who was murdered in Paris on Wednesday.

 


2014 – Another Year In Denial

ISIS

So it’s been another big year for religion.  As such, it’s almost impossible to list all of its ‘achievements’ but below are some ‘highlights’:

In terms of wars, we’ve seen the growth of ISIS as they conquered large areas of Syria and Iraq, murdering, enslaving and raping tens of thousands of people in the process, and beheading four western journalists and an aid worker. We’ve witnessed yet another outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestine, resulting in the deaths of approximately 2,200 people, many of whom were innocent non-combatants. There has been a continuation of the bloodletting in the Central African Republic between Christians and Muslims, causing an unknown number of civilian casualties – but 5,000 is considered a very conservative estimate. Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamic group, have moved on from hit and run attacks to holding territory in the North East of the country, displacing over half a million people while doing so, and murdering at least 2,000 just between January and June of this year (a total number for the whole year is unknown), to say nothing of their habit of kidnapping and raping pre-pubescent girls by the truckload. Finally, the fight against the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan continues to rage, with atrocities a regular occurrence, the worst of which we learned about only 2 weeks ago when 132 school children were shot and killed with automatic weapons at a school in Peshawar (9 teachers were also killed). Of course, though I will not make the case here, one could also argue that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is in part religiously motivated. Certainly much of Putin’s disdain for the West is linked to our increasingly secular, humanist and moral outlook that flies in the face of his professed and apparently sincere Orthodoxy.

With regards to religiously inspired terrorist attacks on Western soil, in the last few weeks alone there have been deadly strikes in Ottawa, Canada, in Nantes, France and in Sydney, Australia.

One thing that should instantly leap out at you from the above information is that this is truly a global struggle, with every continent regularly falling victim to attacks by individuals or armies high on religion. Last year of course, we had to endure the assault on the oilfield in In Amenas, Algeria, the Boston Marathon bombing in the US and the vicious murder of Lee Rigby on the streets of London, England, to name but three corners of the globe forced to mourn the loss of innocents.

In a sane universe, something like the following would make sense:

In response to the threat of religiously motivated violence, the world’s 2 billion atheists, along with the moderate faithful and the many leaders across the West in particular, are decrying these outrages against humanity in no uncertain terms. They are highlighting the obvious link between some religious texts and the actions of certain groups and individuals and demanding that these scriptural passages are universally rejected as simply wrong and pronounced as incompatible with a desire for a peaceful, moral and tolerant world. They are not only insisting that all religious leaders drive through reform from within their communities but furthermore are doing all that they can to intercept the passing on of terrible ideas to the next generation by attempting to ensure that every child receives a modern, secular education, free from religious dogma. Finally and more generally, the separation of church and state is being steadfastly defended and reinforced.

Unfortunately however, we appear not to live in this sane universe, but one parallel to it, where truth and logic are strangers. Here is David Cameron’s response to the massacre of 132 children in Peshawar:

“There is not a belief system in the world that can justify this sort of appalling act. I think what this shows is the worldwide threat that is posed by this poisonous ideology of extremist Islamist terrorism. It is nothing to do with one of the world’s great religions – Islam, which is a religion of peace.”

Here is US president, Barack Obama, on ISIS:

“ISIS is not Islamic because Islam is a religion of peace.”

After the self-appointed Iranian Muslim cleric Man Haron Monis, a man previously known for his habit of writing crude letters to the families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, walked into the Lindt Café in Sydney (incidentally, an establishment I have visited myself) with a shotgun and a black flag with the Shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) written on it, and murdered two innocent people and shot a policeman in the face, Tony Abbott, the Australian Prime Minister, spoke these words:

“(Man Haron Monis) is a deeply unstable person with a long history of violence and mental illness… I guess one of the encouraging things is there are less and less of people trying to explain and justify terrorism in the name of religion.”

This mindless currying of favour with the public, rather than making nuanced arguments, is not only popular with politicians; some celebrities are also big fans, as was demonstrated recently by ‘Affleck-gate’. In the video below, mediocre American actor Ben Affleck loses both his marbles and his manners when he calls comedian Bill Maher, and author and neuroscientist Sam Harris “gross” and “racist” merely for articulating some of the undeniable intolerance and inequality that exists in parts of the Muslim world toward women, free-thinkers and homosexuals:

Video Link

At this moment in time, there appears to be no discernible plan at all by Western politicians to find a way out of the circle of violence.  I’m sorry to have to sign off the year on such a low.

 

“Islamophobia; a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.”

– Someone on Twitter


A True Expression Of Faith

Gaza

Fantasy, by comparison, is the drunken bore to reality’s life and soul of the party.  It’s Lennon’s sugar-coated ‘Imagine’ to Dylan’s biting ‘Masters of War’.  Fantasy is merely the representation of the limits of our imaginations.  Reality doesn’t require imaginations though, and it certainly doesn’t acknowledge man’s limitations in this regard.  The briefest of excursions into the worlds of biology, physics, & cosmology in particular, will reward you with information about this life that will leave you breathless.  Fairy tales are a poor substitute, trailing behind, clinging to the coat tails of truth.  Facts inform and inspire fiction, but the reverse is impossible.  How fascinating it is then that so many seem to have so much disdain for evidence based decisions.

It may sound as if I have something against ‘make believe’.  I really don’t.  I love a good story.  This truth about me gives rise to just another item on the list of reasons why I hate religion.  Religion survives on the myth that we all need to pretend sometimes.  Of course we don’t – but occasionally it’s fun.  The godly tarnish, dare I say poison, even this.

For sure being hostage to our imaginations is the least of fantasy’s crimes – it’s when it becomes a tool of fascism, used to justify genocide, murder, rape, torture, cruelty to animals and all the rest of it that we have to worry.  When grown-ups with access to guns and rockets start to believe, and I mean really believe that their wishes will come true, predicated only on certain behaviours, it really matters what these behaviours are and where the reasoning for them comes from.

And so it is that there are now only two clocks running in Israel and the Palestinian territories; one is what we might depressingly call the annihilation clock.  That is to say the moment when one side decides to go all in and commit the very worst of crimes.  The other is the atheism clock.  The moment of clarity when everyone in the region (and elsewhere) realises that even a two state solution is one more than is actually necessary.  It’s not clear yet which one of these clocks will rundown fastest.  Either way, what is clear is that while we wait for the ticking to stop, we will have to witness thousands of children being blown to pieces, interspersed with periods of calm where we’re all hoping that one side doesn’t look at the other the wrong way again.

Alas, fear not, I’m not about to write yet another analysis of this latest human catastrophe in the Middle East.  I simply wish for us all to admit what the real problem is, if only because that always seems like a good place to start when trying to resolve an issue.  It can be summarised with this graphic:

IsraelPalestine

These pronouncements, which are taken seriously by far too many, leave very little room for compromise or reason to hope that a permanent agreement is achievable.  They’re also why the war has a majority of public support on both sides of the conflict.

I think I must say one more thing.  None of us have done enough to prevent this.  None of us.  We all make concessions to untruth every day.  We all normalise it.  Scientology seems crazy to everyone, but that’s only because it’s new.  It’s no crazier than Judaism, Christianity or Islam.  We should be much more outraged at the miss-education of children, the ritual slaughter of animals, the unashamed resistance to equality for homosexuals, the misogyny and so on, in our own countries.  That’d be a start at least.

As Bill Maher said in his 2008 film ‘Religulous’: “Wherever there is mass delusion, bad things will follow.”

Trojan Horse Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

Faith Schools

The more that I read about the situation in some, who knows how many, of the schools around the UK with regards to the influence of religious teachings, the more I become convinced that the relevant authorities have not and will not get a grip of the situation.  And how can they, for not only do the inspectors themselves seem unable to navigate the ground between calling out the teaching of intolerant behaviour and insulting minority groups unnecessarily, but more pertinently, they are working in an environment that makes effective action almost impossible in any case.

The appropriate fear has of course been brought to the forefront of our minds by the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ scheme by hard line Muslims, who are allegedly attempting to infiltrate UK schools, specifically in Birmingham and Bradford that we know about, so that they can indoctrinate children with ‘extremist’ Islamic ideas.

But the real issue here is the very concept of faith schools.  It matters not whether there actually is an organised plot to takeover schools because we do know for sure that children have been repeatedly segregated by gender.  We know that the teaching of evolution is often ignored, instead replaced by a grab bag of creation myths.  We know that sex education is likewise regularly completely omitted.  We also know that some children have been taught that homosexuals should be killed and that women cannot refuse to have sex with their husbands.

Yet for weeks, months, years, successive Governments have been acting as if this is a difficult issue to resolve.  In fact, it’s a little worse than that – the numbers of faith schools have increased year on year.

I will tell you what we can do.  We can demand that every child has a fair chance in life.  We can truly treat all cultures equally by insisting upon the same level of education for all, rather than the slightly insulting notion that learning by rote is ok for some people, but not others.  Religion must be entirely removed from all schools and replaced with classes based on a modern understanding of morals & ethics.  Sex education could easily be a part of this.  As I’ve argued before our societies must teach children kindness, empathy, altruism and so on, with as much vigour as it teaches them mathematics.  But alas, we are still in a world where most seem to believe that morals should be taught by the religious, whose institutions are doctrinally homophobic, misogynistic, anti-scientific and cruel to animals.  What hope can be found there?

Last week Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, sought to move the conversation away from religion and the issue of faith schools by suggesting that the problem was a lack of “British values” being taught in schools.  As if being nice is ‘British’.  And of course, slyly insinuating that people behave badly because they are not British enough is just piling on more divisive rhetoric.  I despair!


Veil Of Confusion

The Home Office Minister, Jeremy Browne, has said today (17th September, 2013) that we should have an open debate about whether the niqab, which is the face covering portion of the Burqa (the all encompassing garment often seen covering Muslim women from head to toe), can be worn in public places.

Absolutely!  By all means let’s have a debate.  But what are those in favour of allowing the niqab to be worn in public likely to say?  They will reliably argue that it is a matter of religious freedom, freedom of expression, and tolerance.  They will tell us that Muslim women who wear the veil do so out of choice.  And they will say that it does more harm to ban it because doing so will be a hindrance to cross cultural relations (in fact the ever feeble Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has already offered this defence of the niqab).

So is this just about freedom and civil rights?  We must first un-muddy some waters.  Liberty and tolerance do not require one to turn a blind eye to everything.  If they did, we wouldn’t require a police force.  Freedom of speech is a wonderful and precious cornerstone of our culture, worthy of vigorous defence, but we do not allow people to say literally anything, and for good reason.  One cannot incite or threaten violence.  One cannot even incite hate without some constraint.  Would we, for example, allow a media campaign recommending the boycott of all Jewish stores, as was done by the Nazis in the early 1930’s?  Of course not.  We do however allow campaigns for the boycott of certain stores if, for example, it is discovered that their suppliers use child labour abroad or test their products on animals.  The distinction should be clear; the latter is aimed at a faceless corporation that can immediately adapt its ethical behaviour (i.e. switch suppliers), whereas the former targets human beings distinguished only by that which they cannot change and did not choose, such as race, ethnicity or sexuality.

Further to this, we can easily see that we do not allow religion ‘carte blanche’ either.  Liberal societies are all broadly in agreement on the need to resist the imposition of Shari’a – Islamic religious law that often condemns criminals to brutal, medieval punishments and prejudices against woman, putting them at a distinct disadvantage in legal matters, particularly where sex crimes, divorce, domestic violence, child custody or inheritance are concerned.  We do not allow apostates to be murdered, as is demanded by most interpretations of Islamic doctrine.  We certainly do not allow people to be killed for working on Sundays, as the Bible recommends.  Both Yahweh and Allah are clearly for slavery and against homosexuality, but thankfully our laws reflect the opposite view.  So we must do some more thinking – to simply cry (religious) freedom doesn’t cut it.

Is this a feminist issue?  Yes it certainly is, but the other way about to how the argument is often formed.  Make no mistake, the niqab is a garment promoted by men, in the name of Islam, to protect their honour:

“Tell your wives and your daughters, and believing women, to draw their veils over their bodies. It will be better that they should be known as respectable woman.” (Quran 33:59)

Many Muslim men (not all) feel their honour is dependent on how submissive the women in their lives are because they believe, on the basis of religious scripture, that women are essentially their property – objects that can be bought and sold (think dowry – selling their daughters to other men in arranged, forced marriages), objects that must represent and serve the men who own them before themselves, and of course objects used for breeding.  To protect such misogyny beneath a cloak of feminism is an obnoxious insult to the extremely vital cause of real sexual equality.  It is also a form of cultural snobbery, as it suggests that western feminists believe freedom and equality to be indispensable for themselves but not necessarily for Muslim women – the soft bigotry of low expectations.

It is true that some Muslim women defend their right to wear the niqab, but then sadly it is also true that some Muslim women also defend and participate in the forced marriages, honour killings and genital mutilations of their own daughters.  No one of sound moral judgement argues that these are feminist issues.  It’s therefore impossible not to conclude that these women are just scared.  Scared of the men in their lives or scared of Allah – a fictional character whose lines were written by men, all too often with the express purpose of subjugating women.  In this regard, we may also wish to ask ourselves whether our real responsibilities lie with women who yearn for freedom or with those who are glad of their chains.

We also often hear western feminists explain to us that not every woman wants to present the image of herself that the more revealing end of western style clothing can generate.  This is perfectly reasonable of course, but it is remarkably easy not to conform to western ideals, or to otherwise remain inconspicuous, without wearing a cloth bag, with only a thin slit for seeing through, for the whole of your adult life.  Millions of women manage it every day.  However, only Muslim women dress as shown in the photo at the start of this article.  It is the urgent responsibility of all of us to wake up and realise why.  Quite frankly, I find it remarkable that the fact that no one else, anywhere in the world, with a genuine free choice dresses in this manner doesn’t raise more alarm bells.

Is banning the niqab worth the consequence of creating more tension in our relationship with Muslims here in the West?  We need only ask if it was worth upsetting slave masters by releasing slaves from their chains.  It is difficult to think of a more selfish and lethargic approach to social reform than to effectively say “scenario A is really bad for them, but scenario B isn’t great for me, so let’s keep scenario A.”  The journey we must actually embark upon is a far grander and more ambitious one than that.  With freedom comes great responsibility.

It should be clear to all moral, thinking people that the effacing of women via the niqab (as opposed to the covering of their hair and bodies in the form of the hijab) is a form of violence and oppression against women, and as such has no place in any society, anywhere.

 

“Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.  The grave will supply plenty of time for silence”

Christopher Hitchens


Another Letter To A Believer

Dear Friend,

You told me that you read my previous letter, in which I challenged the logic of your beliefs.  Allow me now to anticipate the only other way to defend religion that I have ever encountered; that we need religion to be moral.

Before I deconstruct the arguments for this line of defence, it is necessary to make some broader observations with regards to this approach.  Firstly, as with the provision of consolation, arguing that religion makes us moral says nothing with regards to its truth.  Every religious person who is genuinely good may simply have been duped.  Indeed I would say that they certainly have been.  Further to this, I will argue in this letter that they are good in spite of religion, not because of it.  Secondly, it always pains me to have to point out what a dreadful world it would be if people were only good because they feared God’s wrath or hoped for his generous rewards.  Albert Einstein summed it up;

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

So does a belief in God make us behave better?  Are we less likely to be violent if we have faith?  Do religious people treat their fellow human beings with greater tolerance and compassion?  Who is more charitable – believers or atheists?

All we have to answer these questions are the facts.  Facts are everything because they tell us what is really happening, as opposed to what some people may wish to be true or what members of in-groups simply tell each other.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first of all.  Almost every war that has been fought in the past 1,000 years has been a religious war, from The Crusades (1095-1291) to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), through to the Catholic on Muslim genocide in The Balkans (1992-1995).  The Second World War, whilst not explicitly religious, certainly had its worst crimes inspired by religion.  Germany was overwhelmingly Catholic or Lutheran, and both of these are steeped in anti-Semitic traditions.  It is without question that this eased the path to implementing the Final Solution.  Hitler himself was a catholic, and invoked his faith in many of his speeches.

Today, the greatest risk to the destruction of large areas of our living space (and of course the instant death of millions of people) comes from three main threats; a dirty bomb (essentially a small, crude, nuclear device, perhaps as small as a briefcase) delivered by Jihadists, a full scale thermo-nuclear exchange over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or similar between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, both of whom are armed to the teeth with primed nukes, that are pointing almost exclusively at each other.  We should have no doubts in our minds that these are overtly religious conflicts, contrary to the insistence of many misguided liberals and much of the religious lobby.  How can we be sure of this?  Well, because this is what those involved in these disputes tell us.  To provide just one of many available examples, here is an excerpt from the Hamas charter:

“It is necessary to in steal in the minds of the Muslim generations that the Palestinian problem is a religious problem, and should be dealt with on this basis. Palestine contains Islamic holy sites. In it there is al-Aqsa Mosque which is bound to the great Mosque in Mecca in an inseparable bond…I swear by the holder of Mohammed’s soul that I would like to invade and be killed for the sake of Allah…”

If we can be sure of anything it’s that if we manage to destroy ourselves, it will be for the sake of an imaginary God.

When moving away from the theatre of war and its causes, it can likewise be shown that violence occurs most commonly (though of course not exclusively) among the religious on our streets and in our homes.  In America, where various polls inform us that four out of five people believe in God, only 0.2% of prison inmates profess to be atheist.  When ranking the US States by murder rate, almost all of the traditionally Christian bible belt States appear in the top half of the list.  In France, over 70% of prison inmates identify as Muslim.  Trends such as these are reflected unwaveringly across the entire world, by country and within their own demographic spread.

Surely though, the religious are more charitable?  Unfortunately, every non-bias study that has ever been conducted shows there is a perfect negative correlation between religiosity and the money donated per capita on an annual basis.  As Daniel Dennett noted:

“Needless to say, these results strike so hard at the standard claims of greater moral virtue among the religious that there has been a considerable surge of research initiated by religious organisations attempting to refute them.  One thing we can be sure of is that if there is a positive relationship between moral behaviour and religious affiliation it will soon be discovered, since so many are eager to confirm their traditional beliefs about this scientifically.  Every month that passes without such a demonstration underlines that it just isn’t so.”

And what of compassion and tolerance?  What does religious scripture demand relating to these noble traits, and is it reflected in how religious people act toward their fellow humans?

Let’s start with slavery.  Religious people are often credited with being at the forefront of the abolitionist movement in America.  Whilst on the surface this may appear to be the case, we should pause to question what really motivated them – was it an adherence to scripture?  What does the Bible have to say about slavery?

“As for your male and female slaves whom you may have, you may buy slaves from the nations that are round about you.  You may also buy from strangers and their families who have been born in your land, and they may be your property.” (Leviticus 25:44)

Was the New Testament, often (mis)credited with righting the wrongs of the brutal Old Testament, any better on the subject of slavery?

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5)

“The slave who knew his master’s will and did not act will receive many lashes” (Luke 12:47)

Jesus clearly expected us to keep slaves and to beat them.  Oh merciful Lord!

Abolitionists did not have scripture on their side.  As with other social reforms, it was in fact the pressure of modern secular values and ethics that drove change, in spite of religion, not because of it.  The doors have only ever opened from the outside.

Two of the greatest struggles of the twentieth century with regards to social reform – those of equality for women and homosexuals have been, and are still being fought, almost entirely against religious groups. When we examine religious doctrines, it’s easy to see why.

Things start pretty badly for women in the Bible.  They are at first an afterthought, born from the spare parts of man, and not even given a name.  Eve, as we know her, is then the instigator of the original sin, and so responsible for the burdens of mankind until the end of days.  The subordination of women to men in the eyes of God is clear and their only purpose and chance of saviour comes as a wife and a mother.  There is nothing else in this life for a woman in the good book except to serve men.

The Koran makes great play of the impurity of women, especially during menstruation, so much so that men must not come into contact with them.  The Koran also informs us that the word of two women is required to equal that of one man.

“To the male goes the equivalent of the portion of two females (of inheritance).” Koran 4:11

“Men are in charge of women because Allah hath made one of them to excel over the other…so good women are obedient.  As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart and scourge them.” (Koran 4:34)

The first prayer a Jewish man must recite every day includes the giving of thanks to God for not making him a woman.  These attitudes, combined with the dogma of the virgin birth (an event we now know was not even in the original transcripts that eventually made up the Gospels, but rather was added later via what appears to be a deliberate mistranslation to enhance the case of Jesus’s messiah status), its illusions of purity and incitement of fear of female genitalia, have had terrible consequences for women through the ages, up to and including our own.

In Western societies, whilst it is bad enough that some countries did not give women the vote until after the Second World War (France, 1945, Belgium, 1946, Switzerland, 1971), there has been the constant need for women to fight for control over their own bodies, and to remain vigilant in the face of the ever present threat from the Godly.  In Ireland, where the Catholic church still calls the shots, abortion is illegal, and a tide of archaic reforms are creeping their way across the Bible belt in America, cynically obstructing women from access to sexual health information, birth control, even preventing rape crisis centres from advising on abortions.  In Ohio for example, laws have just passed that effectively cut off state funding to planned parenthood clinics and women are now obliged to undergo medically unnecessary ultrasounds before they can have an abortion – ultrasounds they must pay for themselves.

In societies that have been, or still are influenced by the teachings of Mohammed in particular, female genital mutilation (FGM), honour killings, dowry payments, gang rapes, acid attacks, niqabs, forced arranged marriages, lashings or even stonings due to a suspected lack of virginity (even after being raped) are things that we have become all too familiar with.  The honour of man before Allah is more important than the life or freedom of the lowly, lesser, impure woman as depicted in the Koran.

Homosexuals have fared little better under the gaze of the religious.  Once more, scripture is the source of their on-going misery:

“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”  (Leviticus 20:13)

Study after study (see: http://www.pewforum.org/Muslim/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society.aspx) shows us that well over 90% of Muslims the world over believe homosexuality to be morally wrong on the basis of doctrinal instruction.  The Talmud informs us that a man without a wife is only half a man.

As a result, religious lobbies in Western societies have continually campaigned against the legal rights of homosexuals, against their equal treatment in the public sphere and against their admittance into armed forces.  Unconscionably, it took until 2011 for America to allow openly gay people to join their military.  Only this year (2013) have France and England legalised gay marriage, much to the dismay of almost every key religious figure, including the new, supposedly liberal, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Elsewhere, homosexuals are actually in danger of arrest or worse.  Russia has just made public displays of homosexuality illegal after a despicable campaign by their Orthodox Church and there are currently nine countries, all deeply religious societies, where the ‘crime’ of homosexuality is punishable by death (Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Somaliland, Mauritania, & The Maldives).  Uganda is on the brink of becoming the tenth, due in no small part to the efforts and the funding of evangelical Christians in America. (see: http://www.godlovesuganda.com/film/story/)

There are many other areas of public life where religion also imposes its dubious morals at the expense of the suffering of others.  The great Catholic cover-up of crimes of sexual abuse against children within their midst I have written of previously, and the religious obstruction of embryonic stem cell research, currently one of the most promising areas of medical research because it has the potential to produce cures for so many chronic conditions, is breath-taking for its arrogance and callousness.  It is essentially saying that a small cluster of cells in a petri dish should be of greater concern to us than a living person who is in pain or dying.

Approximately 100,000 children die each year from cancer, and many of them without access to painkillers.  A belief in God means believing that this is his will and that it is the best thing that could happen.  Furthermore, you must also believe it is righteous for many of these children to go on to suffer for all eternity in the fires of hell for being born to parents who worshipped the wrong God (or no God at all).  If it is not obvious to people that such interpretations of these tragedies are repugnant, then there may be no helping them.

It is time we came to our senses and ceased trying to make this awful outlook on life compatible with our innate desires to minimise suffering and maximise happiness.  It is time we are all honest enough to accept that some belief systems are simply ill-equipped to promote the sort of universal kindness we must surely aspire to.

Sam


The Purpose Of Uncertainty

Almost everyone would agree that our sense of purpose is very personal.  Indeed it is, and this is a wonderful thing.  It’s fascinating then, that so many people appear willing to offshore one of the most thrilling aspects of living with a big brain – the challenge of finding our purpose in life.

Often people say to me, when they find out that I’m an atheist, things like; “you must feel so empty,” “what’s your reason for doing anything?” or worse still, “aren’t you scared of dying?!”

Aside from once again having to point out that the limits of one’s imagination is no reason at all to postulate the existence of a God there’s no evidence for, it’s also surprising just how difficult people seem to find it to be able to see the advantages, the potential, and the freedom that the real answer to the question of purpose affords us.  For many, it’s God’s way or the highway.

The truth is that there is no pre-defined purpose awarded us by a power higher than all humanity that we know of.  From a Darwinian perspective, we know that our genes are desperate to survive long enough to replicate.  But the good news is that some human beings have developed a taste for more in a day’s work than simply eating, not being eaten, and having sex (though I’m certainly not knocking any of those things).  Generally speaking though, we also want to feel purposeful beyond our basic impulses.  This is such an amazing emotion, and of such great importance as it lies at the root of our happiness.  So why waste it then by dedicating one’s life to the thoughts of ancient desert tribesmen, whose very existence depended on certainty.  Hesitation killed.  If the long, hard struggle from the treetops to modernity has been for anything, it’s been for the privilege to question, to be uncertain.

One of the best things about being sceptical is the freedom of choice it purveys.  Many religious people view this as the main motivation for unbelief – a desire to be able to sin at will without consequence.  This is of course an astoundingly negative indictment of humanity which doesn’t survive the mildest scrutiny of human behaviour (whether religious or otherwise).  But it is also as dramatic a case of seeing the glass as half empty as I can think of.  Being free to choose our purpose means that we are free to inform it by the lights of science and modern ethics, without the burden the constraints of ancient texts bring.  We are free to be as kind and as tolerant as we like, to everyone.  And we are free to change our minds, to update, to improve.

The specifics are your own to cherish, but broadly speaking, from the atheists perspective, the purpose of life appears simply to be to have as much fun as you can, to try to enable every other living creature to have as much fun as they can within your power to do so, and to try your best not to hurt another living creature in pursuit of these goals.  Isn’t that fantastic?!  Why would anyone think we should be unhappy with that? Of course you could say that’s just made up.  But so are The Gospels.  It’s your choice.


A Letter To A Believer

Last week I had the extremely depressing experience of learning that someone I have worked alongside at a charity for almost a year, someone I greatly admire and respect for their kind, easy going nature – and for their intelligence, believes in God.  It really bothered me though, so when I got home I wrote an email to my friend.  Below is a slightly adapted version (to protect identities and make it relevant for everyone) of that email.

 

Dear Friend,

Never have I been so distraught to learn that someone is a believer in malicious, intolerant fairy tales.  You’re so kind and smart!  We didn’t have time to discuss what it is that you actually believe in detail, but you did say that you think God exists, that the bible is true and implied that praying works, so I’m going to challenge some these ideas in the hope of convincing you that these statements are not compatible with the real world.

Firstly, one hopes that you do not believe, as it says in the bible, that the world is around 6,000 years old and therefore that humans once walked around with dinosaurs.  This is of course as false as the assertion that I can fly – and both can be proven to be false beyond the doubt of any rational person.  The fact that life on earth is 4.6 billion years old and that all life has evolved from simple cellular structures, is beyond dispute.  If you don’t know this then please read a book on evolution.  This certain fact means that all life on earth is related.  You and I are cousins.  We are both cousins to that dog we met today.  The virus that was on your chest during the spring time is also your cousin (and mine, though I’m not so keen to meet that particular relative!).  These are all facts that can be proven.  They are unanimously accepted as true in the world of science.  The debate is over because the evidence is so overwhelming.

But isn’t it a wonderful thing?  What better reason is there to all be kind to one another and to be kind to animals, than the knowledge that we are all related and that we all get just one shot at this life.  To understand the true wonder of nature, how everything around us came about, how precious life is, how truly lucky we are even to be born (and how unlikely it was – your own existence is as close to a miracle as you will get), is mesmerizingly beautiful.  Ultimately, as everything on earth is a product of the big bang, it means that we are all quite literally made of stardust.  This is amazing!  How can you think that this is not enough (or feel sorry for me, as you said you did)?  What more do you want!?!  Looking up at the stars whilst gazing across the Grand Canyon and knowing that everything you see, including yourself, is made of the same ‘star stuff’(as Carl Sagan put it) ought to be more than enough for anyone.  In any case, it’s all we have.

You said that the bible is true, but you must know, aside from there being absolutely no evidence for such a statement, that the God of the bible condones genocide, infanticide, stoning women to death simply for not being a virgin on their wedding night, slavery, torture, homophobia, misogyny, even, as I said, killing people for eating seafood.  This is all true.  You are free to go and look it up.  The girl who overheard us, and interrupted on your behalf, said that these things were “true for then.”  You seemed impressed by this, but you must surely see that this is one of my best arguments!  Indeed these were people who knew nothing of the world as we understand it now.  They thought the earth was flat and would have been amazed by the engineering feat of a push bike.  We all tacitly accept that we’ve moved on.  So move on.  Biblical explanations of our world are merely the best guesses of people who didn’t understand that we live on a cooling planet with a thin crust, and so imagined volcanoes and tsunamis were the wrath of God.  They didn’t understand the germ theory of disease, and so mused that illness was a punishment.  It’s understandable that they thought such things.  But now we know the real answers.

You said that praying had helped you through some tough times – that God is a source of consolation.  The first thing you must acknowledge here is that this says nothing about the truth of his existence.  This could simply be a placebo (and I concede that on the surface it appears to be so for many people).  But it comes at a price.  A price paid by science, medicine, technology and politics every day.  If it wasn’t for religion we may have had penicillin and the microchip by the year 1600.  It really amazes me how anyone imagines a lie to be the best source of consolation.  Psychologists call this ‘spiritual bypassing’.  Understanding the truth and the nature of reality is the best source of consolation.  In this space, one can properly grieve and move on.  It is psychologically unhealthy to turn to invisible friends for comfort.  We must learn this truth if we want to be mentally stable.

You asked “what is truth?”  It is a common trait of religious people to believe there is some deep mystery behind the word.  But in reality we all understand its meaning, and (for the most part!) this is reflected in how everyone behaves.  Truth is what can be demonstrated to be true.  We know that two plus two equals four.  We know that if we touch something hot it will burn and that if we do not eat and drink enough we will feel unwell.  We trust planes to fly, our mobile phones to work.  You show your belief in these laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and demonstrate your understanding of them to be true every moment of every day.

You spoke of having faith as though it is a gift that I am unfortunate not to have.  But faith is merely the suspension of your critical faculties.  It’s believing in the absence of evidence – or in spite of evidence to the contrary, and you do not behave in this way in any other aspect of your life.  Ignoring undeniable evidence is nothing to be proud of.  Again, to quote Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary explanations.”  Faith just doesn’t cut it.

You should also question why you have this faith.  I mean really question it, not just unthinkingly reach for the lazy answer that it is a gift from God.  Ask yourself whether it is plausible that you think this way only because your parents and the society you were brought up in influenced you.  When we consider that almost everyone in Iran is a Muslim, almost everyone in Italy is a Catholic and almost everyone in Israel is Jewish, is it possible that these things are merely an accident of birth?  Is it possible that they are traditions simply passed down from generation to generation?  Is it possible that faith is in fact more comparable to a virus than a gift?

Finally you spoke of numbers.  You said that more people believe than do not.  I’m not so sure of the statistical accuracy of this.  Certainly in western Europe it is about 50/50 and almost all of China and Japan rejects the Abrahamic traditions at least.  But there are other problems with this statement.  You must observe that there was a time not so long ago when almost 100% of people believed in God in western societies.  The reason this has changed should be obvious to you.  We are literally educating ourselves out of a belief in superstitions.  Also, even if 99% of people believed in God right now, this would still not be convincing.  There was a time when everyone thought that the world was flat, but they were wrong.  Facts and evidence trump all else.

I hope you know that I mean no harm.  It’s just that being sceptical is such a wonderful thing that I wish to share it with you.  It’s true that we don’t know everything, such as how it all got started, but that doesn’t mean God did it.  There are infinite possibilities.  It is far more honest and humble to say that you don’t know and that you are awaiting the evidence, than simply to credit God (which God?).  The truth is that you understand my position far more than you let on.  Historians have identified somewhere around 2700 Gods that mankind has invented.  You know exactly how it feels to be an atheist with regards to 2699 of those Gods.  Some of us just go one God further.

Regards,

Sam


FILM: God Loves Uganda

Director:  Roger Ross Williams

Running Time:  83 Minutes

Website:  http://www.godlovesuganda.com/

 

Review

God Loves Uganda explores the role of the American evangelical movement in Uganda.

The film follows evangelical leaders in America and Uganda along with politicians and missionaries as they attempt the task of eliminating “sexual sin” and converting Ugandans to fundamentalist Christianity.

As an American-influenced bill to make homosexuality punishable by death wins widespread support, tension in Uganda mounts and an atmosphere of murderous hatred takes hold. The film reveals the conflicting motives of faith and greed, ecstasy and egotism, among Ugandan ministers, American evangelical leaders and the foot soldiers of a theology that sees Uganda as ground zero in a battle for billions of souls.

Through interviews and hidden camera footage – and with unprecedented access – God Loves Uganda takes viewers inside the evangelical movement in both the US and Uganda.

It offers a portrait of Lou Engle, creator of The Call, a public event that brings tens of thousands of believers together to pray against sexual sin. It provides a rare view of the most powerful evangelical minister in Uganda, who lives in a mansion where he’s served by a white-coated chef. It goes into a Ugandan church where a preacher whips a congregation into mass hysteria with anti-gay rhetoric.

God Loves Uganda records the culture clash between enthusiastic Midwestern missionaries and world weary Ugandans. It features a heart-breaking interview with gay activist David Kato shortly before he was murdered. It tells the moving story of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a minister excommunicated, ostracized and literally spat on for being tolerant – and chronicles his remarkable campaign for peace and healing in Uganda.

Shocking, horrifying, touching and enlightening, God Loves Uganda will make you question everything you thought you knew about religion.

Trailer (video link)

http://youtu.be/_x3PTLQRQbA

Global Screenings

UK Screening Information

Venue:  The DocHouse (ICA), The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH.

Website: http://www.dochouse.org/film-screening/God-Loves-Uganda/332

Date:  01/08/2013

Time:  6:30 pm

Price:  £10