Britain, Fix Your Libel Laws!

Legal observers have noted for some time that the laws governing defamation in the United Kingdom are far more plaintiff-friendly than similar laws in the U.S. In the U.S., anyone claiming they were libeled has to prove that the allegedly libelous statements were false. But in the U.K., the burden of proof is reversed: the defendant in a libel suit has to prove that the statements they made were true. This creates a serious hazard to free speech: rich, litigious individuals can file lawsuits and win just by prolonging the court battle until the other side runs out of money to fight, at which point they instantly lose - and then must pay damages and court costs.

This is precisely the strategy that thin-skinned billionaires and powerful business interests, many of them not even based in the U.K., have been using to shut down anyone who criticizes them. It's become so common, it's acquired a name: "libel tourism". Most infamously, the Saudi businessman Khalid bin Mahfouz sued journalist Rachel Ehrenfeld in the U.K. courts for her book Funding Evil, which alleged that bin Mahfouz financially supported Muslim terrorist groups - this even though Ehrenfeld doesn't live in the U.K. and her book wasn't published there. Another example is the case of Simon Singh, a science journalist who wrote an editorial saying that there was no evidence for the effectiveness of chiropractic - and was promptly sued by the British Chiropractic Association. That case is still ongoing and has already cost Singh tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours defending himself.

And now, the U.K.'s libel laws are being invoked yet again in what promises to be their most outrageous and absurd application so far. Atheists might have guessed that this was coming:

A Saudi Arabian lawyer has threatened to use British courts to overturn a Danish free speech ruling by bringing a defamation case over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that depicted Islam's founder as a terrorist.

Faisal Yamani, a Jeddah based lawyer, is planning to take a case to London's libel courts on behalf of over 90,000 descendants of Mohammed who have claimed that the drawings have defamed them and the Islamic faith.

...Mr Yamani demanded last year that 11 Danish newspapers remove all cartoon images of Mohammed from their websites and issue front page apologies along with promises that the images would never be printed again.

Yes, it's those Danish cartoons of Mohammed again. Five years after they were first published, the Muslim world just can't move on, and is still demanding that someone, anyone, must be made to pay for their hurt feelings. From angry mobs in the streets and ax attacks on cartoonists, to libel lawsuits and pushing defamation resolutions at the U.N., it's clear there's nothing they won't try to censor and intimidate anyone who criticizes them in any way at all.

But even under the U.K.'s plaintiff-friendly defamation laws, this suit looks even less meritorious than its predecessors. First of all, on what basis does anyone assert the right to sue on Mohammed's behalf? Can a many-centuries-dead person be libeled? And what "factual statement" was made by these drawings that the plaintiffs claim to be defamatory?

But whatever legal issues are raised by this lawsuit, the question of its merit is irrelevant. Like all libel tourism, its purpose isn't to prevail on the merits, but to intimidate and harass media organizations with protracted, expensive litigation and the threat of a catastrophic judgment, thus chilling their speech and making them afraid to offend any deep-pocketed individual. Whether it's pseudoscience groups protecting their cash cow from scientists' criticism or the perpetually aggrieved Muslim mob and their petulant demand that no one be allowed to express any opinion they disapprove of, the strategy is the same, and the result is too often the same as well.

America has this problem too of course, with so-called SLAPP lawsuits - but in our system, with the burden of proof the right way round, it's much more difficult for cults and corporations to succeed in silencing their critics. Britain's libel laws, on the other hand, are far too easily abused by those who flee from criticism and avoid open debate - but eagerly use thuggery and coercion to shut down their opposition if given the chance.

Fortunately, the U.K. has seen the rise of a broad coalition seeking to overhaul the libel tourism laws and put the country back on a more rational footing. But too much damage has already been done, and more is being done, so reform can't come soon enough. If you live in Great Britain, contact your MP and tell them to support this effort! We need to take action before any more scientists, atheists or freethinkers are silenced by the allies of corruption, censorship and superstition.

March 17, 2010, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink29 comments
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Catholic Sex Abuse in Germany

It happened in America. It happened in Ireland. Now, it seems that another major Catholic sex abuse scandal is about to break open - this time in Germany (HT: Butterflies and Wheels).

As the German newspaper Der Spiegel reports, the pattern we're now seeing from abuse victims who've come forward is very much the same as we've seen in other countries - sexual predators among the priesthood whose proclivities were well known to the church higher-ups, but who were quietly shuffled from parish to parish rather than turned over to law enforcement, enabling them to continue preying on innocents:

For decades, German bishops tried to look the other way when their pastors engaged in sexual abuse, as well as to downplay the problem by characterizing it as isolated incidents. Now they are finally revealing their own figures, though hesitantly. According to a SPIEGEL survey of Germany's 27 dioceses conducted last week, at least 94 priests and members of the laity in Germany are suspected or have been suspected of abusing countless children and adolescents since 1995. A total of 24 of the 27 dioceses responded to SPIEGEL's questions.

...With at least 94 suspects uncovered nationwide so far, the church's official line that cases of abuse are just isolated incidents no longer holds water. The abusers include not only priests, but also include lay workers for the church, such as sextons, choir directors, employees of church charities and youth program volunteers.

As the article notes, the cover-up went straight to the top of the Catholic hierarchy - dating back to an order from the Vatican that sex abuse by priests be kept a secret and the matter be handled internally within the Church.

The guidelines, issued in the year of our Lord 1962, address a sensitive subject: sex in the confessional. The Vatican doesn't put it quite that directly, preferring to use more guarded terminology to describe what happens when a priest leads a member of his flock astray before, during or after the confession -- in other words, when he provokes a penitent "toward impure and obscene matters" through "words or signs or nods of the head (or) by touch."

...According to those guidelines, which remain in force today, potential cases of abuse must be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The guidelines also forbid bishops worldwide from taking any steps beyond an initial investigation of accusations without direct instructions from Rome. The entire procedure is subject to "pontifical secrecy," the second-highest level of secrecy within the Holy See. Anyone who violates this code of secrecy without papal permission can be punished.

Ostensibly, this is to protect the sanctity of the confessional. But the actual effect is that the Catholic church acted as though it was above the law, refusing to contact the authorities even when there was evidence that a serious crime had been committed. Usually, the church didn't even enact any serious discipline of its own against the offender. In fact, it seems the only people who were punished in any way were the ones who tried to bring the matter to light:

"If you are forced, by virtue of your profession, to live a life without a wife and children, there is a great risk that healthy integration of sexuality will fail, which can lead to pedophile acts, for example," theologian Hans K√ľng wrote in SPIEGEL in 2005. "In addition to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it would make sense for Rome to establish a Congregation for the Doctrine of Love, which would examine every decree issued by the Curia to ensure that it is in keeping with the Christian concept of love."

His fellow theologian Eugen Drewermann writes of a "church structure that is repressive in emotional areas and on questions of love." Because of these and similar views, the Vatican has revoked both theologians' permission to teach.

As I wrote in a comment on Butterflies and Wheels, the laws of probability alone virtually guarantee that there are scandals like this waiting to come to light in many more countries. Perhaps prosecutors should begin investigating in France, in Italy, in Poland... It's almost impossible to believe that there's nothing else to be found.

But regardless, this story has punched another hole in the Catholic church's flimsy pretext of being able to speak with moral authority to the rest of us. They are a whited sepulcher, whose ornate facade conceals only moral rot and corruption within, and a cabal of wicked old men more concerned with preserving their own power than with any harm they allowed to be inflicted on innocents. They do not deserve the continued allegiance or support of any thinking person.

February 16, 2010, 10:13 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink12 comments
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Bloody-Handed Evangelicals

In the U.S., the cause of gay and lesbian rights has made major advances in the last few decades. Anti-discrimination laws are in wide effect, including a recently passed federal hate-crime law; marriage equality is already an established reality in several states; and despite setbacks, the now overwhelming tolerance and acceptance of gays and lesbians among younger generations heralds further progress in the future.

But in spite of these hopeful signs, the hatemongers and bigots of the religious right aren't giving up. As their cause slowly, but inexorably dries up at home, they're spreading their poisonous seed to foreign countries where it takes root in more welcoming soil.

Such is the state of affairs in the country of Uganda, where American evangelicals have long enjoyed a disproportionate degree of influence over the government. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda and has been for a long time, but Ugandan religious conservatives have learned from their American counterparts that even an oppressed and politically powerless group can easily be depicted as a menacing enemy in propaganda campaigns intended to stir up fear and hate among their followers. Just such a campaign has led to a proposed "Anti-Homosexuality Bill", which threatens to open the floodgates for the state-sanctioned mass murder of gay and lesbian people.

As previously discussed on Daylight Atheism, this bill would imprison homosexuals for life, and in some cases, would establish a crime of "aggravated homosexuality", which is punishable by death. But what I haven't discussed as much is the shockingly large role that American evangelicals played, both in the propaganda campaign that led up to it, as well as in the actual drafting of the bill itself. An article from the New York Times from earlier this month has the details, including the names of several key figures:

Scott Lively, a missionary who has written several books against homosexuality, including "7 Steps to Recruit-Proof Your Child"; Caleb Lee Brundidge, a self-described former gay man who leads "healing seminars"; and Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International, whose mission is "mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality"...

As the article explains, these missionaries visited Uganda in March 2009, giving a series of talks about how "the gay movement is an evil institution" which seeks to prey on boys, eliminate marriage and replace it with "a culture of sexual promiscuity". And just a month later, a Ugandan politician introduced the bill, which threatens to punish gays and lesbians with death.

Naturally, these American evangelicals claim they never wanted this outcome and profess shock that anyone could have misconstrued them in this way. But before Western media picked up on it, they were far less reticent:

But the Ugandan organizers of the conference admit helping draft the bill, and Mr. Lively has acknowledged meeting with Ugandan lawmakers to discuss it. He even wrote on his blog in March that someone had likened their campaign to "a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda."

Whether Lively and the others knew specifically about the death penalty provision is uncertain - but to claim that they were entirely ignorant of what the government was planning is a claim that strains credulity.

In the face of Western threats to withdraw millions of foreign aid, the Ugandan government has backed down slightly - offering to change the death penalty provision to life imprisonment, as if that was an improvement - but whether the bill will pass, and what its final form will be, are still very much open questions. A hint of the attitude that still prevails comes from the Ugandan minister of ethics and integrity, who recently said, "Homosexuals can forget about human rights."

If this bill passes, the evangelicals who played a role in its creation will have bloody hands. All their pious pleas of naivete and innocence cannot change what their actions have wrought. They chose to travel to an extremely anti-gay country and try to whip the populace up into a frenzy of hatred and fear. And they profess shock at the outcome, but they shouldn't be surprised: all that's happened is that the Ugandan government has taken them at their word and proposed a policy that's the logical conclusion of their starting premises.

How else did they expect the government to react to claims, like these ones made by Lively, that the gay movement is raping and preying on children, that they're recruiting and bribing young boys to engage in sexual relationships with older men, that they're importing pornography "to weaken the moral fiber of the people", that they want to abolish marriage and replace it with a culture that embraces "sexual anarchy"? They've systematically portrayed gays and lesbians as evil deviants defying the law and engaging in a malevolent conspiracy to destroy Ugandan society. Did they really think the Ugandan government would do nothing more than build some Christian therapy centers?

To be absolutely fair, I don't doubt that Lively and the others are sincere when they claim they weren't seeking the execution of homosexuals. It's just that their brand of shrill, hysterical rhetoric is what they're accustomed to using; in America, it often gets them their way. But in America, this intemperate language is counterbalanced by a strong feminist movement and an effective system of constitutional rights. In Uganda, neither of those things exist; and again, the Ugandan government didn't treat their speeches as rally-the-troops political posturing, as American politicians and media usually do. Instead, they treated them as literal truth and acted accordingly. This potential theocratic horror is the result.

But this outcome was completely predictable, which is why the American evangelicals will have bloody hands if this bill does pass. If they haven't acted with malice aforethought, they've shown reckless indifference at the very least. Like the right-wing pundits whose deranged rhetoric pushes some of their more unstable followers over the edge, they will bear moral responsibility for whatever may result. (A little more credit, but only a very little, goes to Rick Warren, who after weeks of silence and an onslaught of bad press was finally shamed into offering a grudging condemnation of the bill.)

So, the next time the gay-bashing evangelicals claim to know what's best - the next time they claim to have moral authority over the rest of us - remember this moment. Remember their bloody hands. Remember their guilt and their responsibility. They'd clearly love for this whole sordid story to be forgotten. That's an opportunity we should be certain to deny them.

January 27, 2010, 6:44 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink39 comments
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Geert Wilders on Trial

This week, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders appeared in court in his home country to face charges of "inciting discrimination and hatred", which could carry a two-year prison sentence on each count. Wilders is, of course, the bomb-throwing right-wing populist whom I wrote about in 2008, made infamous by his short film Fitna (caution: some disturbing images).

When Wilders' blunt criticisms of Islam caused fury among Muslims, the nation of Jordan - of which Wilders is not a citizen, and where he has no political or personal connections - demanded that he be extradited there in order to punish him. Understandably, the Dutch government refused. And despite a flood of complaints, Dutch prosecutors - to their credit - refused to charge him, finding that he had broken no laws. Their statement on the matter was a clear and welcome affirmation of the principle of free speech:

"That comments are hurtful and offensive for a large number of Muslims does not mean that they are punishable. Freedom of expression fulfils an essential role in public debate in a democratic society. That means that offensive comments can be made in a political debate."

But now a Dutch court of appeals, acting on its own initiative, has reversed this decision and ordered that Wilders be prosecuted - hence this week's hearing.

Before I respond to this, let me make one thing clear: Wilders himself is a hypocrite. Despite his vaunted love for the principle of free speech, he's called for a ban on the Qur'an, a ban on the founding of new mosques, and a ban on further immigration from Islamic countries. I disagree with all those proposals just as vehemently as I disagree with the plan to prosecute him.

But that's precisely the point. It's not Geert Wilders to whom I owe any allegiance, but the principle of freedom of expression. And the Netherlands is doing grave harm to that principle by its decision to prosecute someone for doing nothing more than voicing his opinion. As Russell Blackford astutely notes, it's not just Geert Wilders who's on trial now - it's the Netherlands as well. If it shows by its actions that it is now a country where a person can be jailed for speaking his mind, it's well on its way to erasing the distinction between itself and the theocracies of Islam.

In truth, it's not Wilders' fate I'm particularly concerned about. If he's acquitted, so much the better. If he's found guilty and punished, that will in all likelihood allow him to paint himself as a martyr (and rightfully so) and will probably win him even more support. The Dutch court has yet to learn the most basic lesson of free speech, that trying to suppress ideas by force tends to make them even more powerful and resilient.

What does concern me is that there are those among the Dutch people who fail to grasp what's at stake here, who think they can solve all their problems with Islam by punishing the ones who call attention to them:

Gerard Spong, a prominent lawyer who pushed for Mr Wilders's prosecution, welcomed the court's decision.

"This is a happy day for all followers of Islam who do not want to be tossed on the garbage dump of Nazism," he told reporters.

If Muslims are indeed concerned with avoiding that label, they should be doing more to stop violence in the name of Islam. Speak out, support free speech, denounce the imams who call for violence, make it clear that they are not the sole authority on the teachings of Islam! Muslims have not done nearly enough along these lines, and throwing one Geert Wilders in jail will accomplish precisely nothing if their actions are such as to cause similar thoughts to occur in a million minds. If anything, it's likely to inspire more hatred, more anger, more xenophobia, and make the eventual outcome worse for everyone concerned.

January 22, 2010, 6:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink31 comments
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Ni Putes Ni Soumises Organizes a Protest for Rayhana

By Sarah Braasch

Rayhana, a French-Algerian playwright and actress, was attacked last week in front of the theater in Paris where she is performing her provocative play, "At My Age, I Still Hide My Smoking". Rayhana speaks out against Islamism and obscurantism and the Muslim culture of female oppression in Algeria. Her play takes place in a hammam in Algeria and portrays nine women sitting together and discussing their daily lives. The two men who attacked Rayhana grabbed her from behind, forcing her to the ground, and poured gasoline over her head and in her face, momentarily blinding her, and then attempted to set her on fire by throwing a lit cigarette on top of her head. Prior to this incident, Rayhana had been harassed verbally. Despite the attack and the threats of violence, Rayhana is determined to continue performing her play. She has received many offers to stage performances from theaters throughout France, in response to this outrageous criminal act.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives), a French women's rights organization that condemns cultural relativism and fights for women's rights as universal human rights without compromise, organized a protest to support Rayhana on Saturday afternoon, January 16th. A huge crowd assembled in front of the theater, la Maison des Métallos, where Rayhana is performing her play. The crowd included women's rights activists, government officials and representatives from some of France's political parties. Sihem Habchi, the President of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, condemned the attack on Rayhana and proclaimed, "It is her job to be in the theater and our job to be in the streets."

[Editor's Note: Sarah provided some pictures of the protest, several of which are reproduced below.]

January 19, 2010, 7:39 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink6 comments
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Book Review: The Means of Reproduction

Summary: An outstanding book, broad in its sweep and compelling in its use of fascinating detail, that paints a clear picture of the international forces opposing women's rights - and what's at stake in the fight against them.

I've said in the past that I believe all feminists should be atheists, the better to deny power and legitimacy to the religious belief systems that have treated women unjustly throughout history. But after reading Michelle Goldberg's outstanding new book The Means of Reproduction, I'm convinced that the converse is also true: all atheists should be feminists, in recognition of how many of the goals of religious fundamentalists entail the subjugation of women, and how effectively we can defeat them at home and around the world by working to uphold gender equality.

Goldberg's book examines the state of women's rights throughout the world and explores how the inevitable clashes with fundamentalist religion and traditionalist culture play out in the lives of millions of women. It's not, as I had assumed, primarily about the culture wars in the U.S. over abortion - although both abortion and American culture war politics do play a central role. But the legal and cultural equilibrium in this country hasn't changed much in the past several decades, and as Goldberg brilliantly shows, by far the most consequential impact of America's shifting political winds isn't felt at home, but abroad.

The opening chapters of the book offer a historical perspective on this fight by showing how, ironically, the U.S. was once the biggest provider of contraception and abortion services to developing countries worldwide. This happened during the Cold War era, when Malthusian fears of overpopulation were intertwined with concerns over the spread of communism in impoverished countries. The ways that American politicians lined up to combat this seem bizarre to anyone used to today's ideological battle lines. (One of many great tidbits is that former president George H.W. Bush, when he served in Congress, was so zealous an advocate of contraception that he was nicknamed "Rubbers".) By fighting overpopulation, politicians hoped to check the spread of Marxism - and so the U.S. in its heyday spent millions of dollars to launch family-planning clinics and distribute birth control pills around the world.

But these programs, in many cases, were victims of their own success. Most of them focused only on preventing births, while doing little or nothing else to help or empower the poor and disenfranchised women who most needed them. As a result, the growing international conservative movement, which took off during the Reagan administration, was able to frame them as Western racism and cultural imperialism - a charge that was not always without merit. Today, the worldwide feminist movement is opposed by a bizarre, but equally transnational, coalition of Christian and Islamic conservatives who join together in defense of patriarchy - often working hand-in-hand at the U.N. even as they denounce each other at home.

Goldberg next traces the origins of the international conservative movement. At the root of this bitter tree stands the Roman Catholic church, which was and is the staunchest opponent of women's rights in the world - as she points out, even Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran have a more permissive view of abortion than the Vatican. There are some truly amazing details here: I was startled to learn that a papal commission in the 1960s actually recommended that the Catholic ban on birth control be lifted - but Pope Paul VI overruled his own commission's advice and issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, reiterating the church's absolute ban on contraception. Several prominent bishops explained at the time that the pope had to do this, because anything else would have been a tacit admission that the church's prior beliefs were wrong and that can never be permitted, regardless of the consequences.

But the Catholic church alone was largely ineffective in stemming the tide of women's rights, until it was joined by conservative Christians from other denominations. Goldberg argues that, contrary to popular belief, it wasn't Roe v. Wade that galvanized Protestant evangelicals into entering politics, but the rise of the feminist movement that threatened traditional notions of the patriarchal family and the subservient wife. This reactionary movement, which began mostly in America, has been exported abroad in recent decades. The effects can be seen in Latin American countries like El Salvador, where pro-life groups have triumphed. In these countries, women who come to the hospital hemorrhaging from a miscarriage are handcuffed to their hospital beds until they can be examined by forensic vagina inspectors, to ensure they didn't obtain an illegal abortion; other women die horribly from ruptured Fallopian tubes because their country's laws don't permit abortion even in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.

However, not all anti-woman practices come from religion. In Africa, we learn of a few incredibly brave activists fighting the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, a tribal custom which predates Islam but has been perpetuated by many Islamic societies. In even the mildest versions of FGM, the woman's clitoris is sliced off with crude instruments like scissors or razors, without anesthetic. (This is the practice that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was subjected to as a child.) But there are even more extreme versions, such as infibulation, in which the woman's clitoris is cut off and her vagina is sewn shut, leaving only a tiny hole to urinate - on her wedding night, her husband must literally rip her open. Bizarrely, this practice is still defended by some women - even well-educated, cosmopolitan women - who argue that it's an ineradicable part of their culture and a necessary step of womanhood.

As the FGM controversy shows, feminist issues don't always play out along familiar ideological lines. In India, Goldberg discusses the rampant practice of sex-selective abortion, which has led to dramatically skewed sex ratios - in some areas, as imbalanced as 700 women to every 1000 men. The resulting demand for wives not only encourages human trafficking and sexual slavery, but poses a threat to societal stability from the millions of angry, frustrated, unmarriageable young men.

Yet India is a clear example of the principle Goldberg repeatedly returns to: the root problem isn't the availability of birth control, but the need for female emancipation. She describes how India's growing wealth has encouraged an explosion of ever-more exorbitant demands for dowry, making daughters more and more of a financial drain on their families and increasing the pressure to have sons. Shockingly, in some places, dowry has become not just a one-time payment but a steady stream of demands from the groom's family - and if the woman's parents refuse to pay, their daughter may be beaten or murdered by her own husband and in-laws. The depth of the problem is summed up in a local saying she quotes: "Having a daughter is like watering your neighbor's garden."

But despite all the horrible sexism that Goldberg chronicles, all the discrimination and oppression she details, her conclusions are not wholly pessimistic. The cause of women's rights is advancing, albeit frustratingly slowly and haltingly, but advancing nevertheless.

One of her arguments that came as a revelation to me is that the United Nations does a lot more good than most people are aware of. Its treaties and resolutions on the rights of women, so often disparaged as powerless symbolism, have had major, concrete effects in reforming the legal systems of many countries and establishing reproductive choice as a human right before national and international judicial bodies.

Second, as I mentioned earlier, Goldberg argues convincingly that the greatest effects of American politics are felt abroad rather than at home. Abortion politics in the U.S. have settled into an uneasy but stable equilibrium, one that changes little regardless of which party is in power. But in the developing world, it makes a huge difference whether and to whom the U.S. provides aid. The most infamous example is the "global gag rule", which forbids family planning groups that receive any federal aid from providing, or even acknowledging the existence of, abortion. This rule, which has been repeatedly canceled by Democratic presidents and reinstated by Republican presidents, makes all the difference in developing countries whose only source of family planning aid is the U.S. When in effect, it's forced the closure of countless clinics that provide not just contraception or abortion, but also prenatal care, checkups, vaccinations, and other help for new mothers and families.

There's even more in this book that I haven't mentioned, but I've written enough to support the conclusions from my opening words. Goldberg makes a clear and compelling case that all the evils she mentions, all the battles that feminist groups are fighting, all of this stems from the same source: the refusal to recognize women as full human beings with equal rights, including autonomy over their own bodies and the right to decide for themselves when and whether to have children. This pervasive sexism is still entrenched throughout the world, and although religion isn't solely to blame for this, it has always been the strongest and most enduring friend to patriarchy. Only when its malignant influence is defeated will women truly be free. And conversely, by freeing women, we take one of the most effective steps to roll back religion's power and influence.

January 18, 2010, 7:19 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink98 comments
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An Appeal for Haiti

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled flame war for this important announcement.

As everyone has no doubt heard, Haiti was hit by a colossal earthquake last night; the city of Port-au-Prince is in ruins, and tens of thousands of people may be dead. If you're able to help, please consider making a donation to the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders. And if simple human compassion doesn't move you, consider it doing it to spite that wicked, heartless old fraud Pat Robertson, who said that the people of Haiti got what they deserved for rebelling against slavery. His religion made him evil; now, for Haiti's sake, I hope that our atheism makes us good.

UPDATE: I'm proud to see that atheist organizations are joining the effort. As commenters have mentioned, there's the Foundation Beyond Belief. The American Humanist Association also has a relief fund, and the FFRF has made a donation to Doctors Without Borders.

January 13, 2010, 9:19 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink28 comments
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Free Speech Still Threatened in Europe

Scarcely two days into 2010, we've gotten a stark reminder of how free speech is still threatened by religious fanatics: Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew the image of Mohammed depicted to the right, was attacked at home Friday night by a murderous, ax-wielding religious fanatic. Fortunately, neither Westergaard nor his 5-year-old granddaughter, who was with him at the time, were harmed. They escaped to a panic room built into the house for just this purpose and summoned police, who shot and wounded the attacker when he refused to surrender.

This isn't the first time Westergaard's life has been threatened by crazed Muslims. As I reported previously, he's been the target of multiple death threats since the Mohammed cartoons were first published in 2005, and in 2008, three other men were arrested by Danish police and charged with plotting his murder.

In an October interview with the conservative National Post (which notes ruefully that Westergaard isn't much of a fan of Christianity, either), the artist was unrepentant:

"As I see it, many of the immigrants who came to Denmark, they had nothing. We gave them everything - money, apartments, their own schools, free university, health care. In return, we asked one thing - respect for democratic values, including free speech. Do they agree? This is my simple test."

The best way to defend this brave man is to ensure that he's not the only target. There has been too much embarrassed silence and self-censorship over this affair in the halls of Western journalism. We need more images and drawings of Mohammed, not fewer, to show Muslim thugs that their religious laws have no power over us - and to ensure that they'll have no single target, if they persist in the belief that they can avoid criticism by murdering all their critics. (Any Daylight Atheism readers have artistic talent?)

It's not just lone fanatics, but governments that are getting in on the anti-free-speech game. Sadly, Ireland's new blasphemy law, which criminalizes the publication of matter "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion", has just taken effect. (Atheism is not similarly protected from offense, in case you were wondering.)

However, we should count ourselves fortunate for having the smart freethinkers at Atheist Ireland - who promptly challenged this idiotic piece of medievalism by publishing 25 blasphemous quotes, against a wide variety of religions, as a way of testing the new law and exposing its foolishness. Will the government dare to prosecute them? Stay tuned!

January 2, 2010, 10:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments
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Mountains of Prohibition

In January, I wrote about the Pakistani Taliban:

All that is worst in the human spirit, all that is savage and low and cruel, finds its expression in the Taliban. They are amoral and nihilistic fanatics who never create, only destroy - whether it be the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the girls' schools in Swat, or the very lives of those who oppose them. To them, everything good in life is a sin, and existence is a narrow, cramped, twisted path between vast mountains of prohibition.

What I find striking is that this stark prohibitionist impulse turns up so often in desperately poor, uneducated and superstitious societies - places where people's most urgent needs should be food and clean water, education, medicine, investment in infrastructure. Where the need is obvious, it would seem the response should also be obvious. Yet in so many of these societies, the governments turn their scarce resources to further restricting and limiting the lives of their citizens that are already so restricted by poverty and ignorance.

Take one of the most noteworthy examples, the Gaza Strip. Gaza is still suffering under an Israeli blockade; its infrastructure and health care system are in ruins from repeated wars, and 80% of the population lives below the poverty line, and dietary ailments like malnutrition and anemia are rampant. One would think that Hamas, which is in control of Gaza, would be bending all its efforts toward easing its people's suffering and securing their access to the necessities of life. Instead, we see this:

The Islamic Hamas movement banned girls last month from riding behind men on motor scooters and forbade women from dancing at the opening of a folk museum. Girls in some public schools must wear headscarves and cloaks.

...The government's Islamic Endowment Ministry has deployed Virtue Committee members to preach at public places to warn of the dangers of immodest dress, card playing and dating.

...The opening of the Palestinian Heritage Museum on Oct.7 was meant to include a rendition of the dabke, a line dance performed by girls and boys. Except that no girls were allowed.

Black-shirted men from Hamas carrying AK-47s appeared at the gates of the museum, on Gaza's waterfront, said Jamal Salem, the curator. They said girls shouldn't dance because it wasn't religiously proper.

Saudi Arabia is not as destitute as Gaza, but has an extremely high unemployment rate and a single-product economy that's bound to lead to economic disaster as their oil fields run dry and the world economy decarbonizes. But here, too, religious fanatics are steadfastly opposing any progress, even the very modest steps taken by the king, such as attempts to create mixed-gender universities where women are allowed to go unveiled and to drive on campus:

A backlash by clerics, led in public by Sheikh Saad Bin Naser al-Shatri, is slowing those efforts, though the king dismissed al-Shatri from the country's top religious body last month.

...Just days after the Saudi monarch presided over a Sept. 23 inauguration ceremony for KAUST in which he called it a "beacon of tolerance," al-Shatri said in a television interview that mixed-gender classes were "evil."

Saudi clerics have also opposed the country's nascent film industry - yes, Saudi Arabia has a film industry; a fairly astonishing fact, considering that movie theaters are still illegal there - and their influence has caused several local film festivals to shut down:

Waleed Osman, a 21-year-old Saudi film director, almost got arrested when he shot his award-winning movie "The Revenge" on the seafront corniche in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

...Senior religious figures have condemned cinema as un-Islamic. Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, in March told students at King Saud University in Riyadh that musical and film performances were against Sharia, or Islamic law.

I find it hard to comprehend the mindset that sees the world as bristling with snares and traps, that sees every interaction in daily life as a sin to be shunned or a temptation to be avoided. If these medievalist clerics wanted only to close themselves off from the universe and spend their lives in a dark and narrow box of dogma, I'd say more power to them. But instead, they've turned their fear outward, into a positive loathing of everything that doesn't conform to their ideas, and are trying to banish all unorthodoxy from the world. In the process, they're crippling their own societies, keeping millions of people trapped in benighted and stagnant pools. In Gaza and in Saudi Arabia, as in many other places, we can see the sparks of human creativity struggling to escape. If there's anything that gives me hope, it's that so many other tyrannical societies that sought to repress their people ultimately collapsed to make way for something better.

December 16, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments
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Christian Missionaries Are Doing God's Work

By Sarah Braasch

I leaned over to one of my teammates. "Why are there so many fat, white people on the plane? We're going to Ethiopia. We're flying Ethiopian Airlines."

"They're missionaries," she responded, completely uninterested.

"What?" I gasped. It had never occurred to me. I was not pleased.

Everything became so obvious. The Texas drawls. The recitations of Bible verses. The prayers. The seasoned braggarts recounting their prior trips to the Horn of Africa. The newbies airing out their nerves. They couldn't wait to get to Africa to start saving souls for Jesus. I wasn't sure I could take a full day of travel with a cabin full of bombastic Texas Christian missionaries, giddy with evangelical fervor. I tried to force myself to sleep.

As I slept on the plane, I dreamt of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Opening Ceremonies. The fifty or so pick-up trucks circling hundreds of cheerleaders as they moved into formation, spelling out the words, "How Y'all Doin'?" The firecrackers exploding over the international crowd of tens of thousands. Then-President Clinton's pasted on smile, which looked more like a grimace of pain and mortification.

When I awoke, I felt troubled. I didn't want to be a missionary or an apostle. The very thought conjured up excruciating childhood memories of door-to-door witnessing as a Jehovah's Witness. I didn't want to be an imperialistic colonizing Westerner, bringing the good news to a nation of Godforsaken heathen hordes. I wasn't bringing them a religious message, but I was bringing them a universal human rights message. I was bringing them the good news of individualism and democracy and rule of law. I was bringing them the light of women's rights and constitutionalism and secularism. Wasn't I?

I leaned over to my teammate again. "We're not like them, are we? I mean, the missionaries. We're not like the missionaries, are we?"

"Yes, I'm afraid we are," she replied with the world-weary wisdom of a millennia-old sage.

"But, we're not going there to impose our beliefs on them. We're going there to learn, to study their political and legal systems. I mean, yes, ultimately we intend to make policy suggestions in a report, but it's not the same thing, is it?"

"Hmmm. Well, ultimately, we think we know better than they do how they should be running their country, so, really, it is the same thing," she said with tenderness and as little condescension as possible.

"Really?" I looked at her plaintively, as if I expected her to grant me absolution.

"Really." And, she shrugged her shoulders as if to say it wasn't hers to give.

"Then why do you do it?" I asked her in all seriousness.

"Because I can't do nothing, you know?"

"Yes, I do know."

"I think it's good to constantly question your own motives, to have that interior monologue, to struggle constantly with that ugly truth of human rights work, that, ultimately, we are going to a land not our own and telling a people whom we do not know how they should be living their lives," she said encouragingly.

"I like to think of it as liberating the oppressed. We're not telling them how to live their lives. We're saying that they have the right to decide for themselves how to live their lives."

"But, they're already doing that. They just don't place the same value on individualism that we do."

"I don't buy that. I just don't. I think that that cultural relativist stance is very convenient for those in power who wish to maintain the status quo. And, everywhere I've been people are struggling desperately for their individual rights. And, anyway, groups don't have rights. People do."

I spent the rest of the trip ruminating on this conversation. As soon as we were in the hotel shuttle van, I was thrilled to be rid of the missionaries. I didn't want to see another American, let alone another Texan, for the rest of our stay. Then we arrived at the Ghion Hotel.

The Ghion was a sea of entitled whiteness. The only dark faces were those of the employees and the babies. Throngs of white couples and families were milling around with their newly adopted Ethiopian newborns and toddlers. Even the youngest of these infants had huge, terrified eyes, as if they understood that they were being severed from their kindred irreconcilably. And, the missionaries were there. Many of the same faces that I had had the misfortune to encounter on the plane were there. They attacked the front desk with the same self-important hubris with which they attacked the un-baptized.

There was something about the entire scene that turned my stomach. The reek of colonialism sickened me: Ethiopia as baby and soul factory. I would have been more than happy to forego any creature comforts to not be staying in the same hotel as every other overfed Westerner in Addis Ababa. I was starting to hate myself by association.

We took refuge in the sanctum of our hotel room. My roommate immediately fell into a deep slumber. I decided to soak in the tub for a little ablution.

After my bath, my cigarettes were calling to me. I headed out to the lobby. I ordered a Coke from the bar and sat myself at the most isolated table in the room. There was a family with school-aged children watching the television at the opposite end of the room. They were obviously missionaries. They wore the telltale earnest expressions, sensible footwear and frumpy clothing. I didn't pay them any heed. I was concentrating on enjoying the novelty of my indoor cigarette.

Why can missionaries and evangelicals and proselytizers sense a former believer like sharks detect blood in the water, like rapists and child molesters can smell the lingering odor of victimization emanating from the pores of the abused?

"Are you in our group?" she asked me.

I tried to maintain a benign expression. "No, I'm here with my human rights clinic from my law school."

She sat herself down beside me. "Oh, wow. That's so interesting. Did you know that this is a Muslim country?" She looked like she could barely contain herself, she was so excited to get past the small talk and begin her theocratic spiel.

"Well, actually, it's a secular country. I mean they have a secular Constitution with freedom of religion. On paper, anyway." I can never bring myself to be really cruel or rude to someone, even if they are being obnoxious themselves. It's just not in my nature.

"Did you know that they chop people's hands off for stealing here?" Ugh.

"Actually, Ethiopia has had a large Christian population almost from the advent of Christianity. They're Coptic. Have you heard of the Solomonic line of kings?"

"That doesn't sound Christian," she responded. I was so not in the mood. I stared blankly off into the distance and blew smoke in her direction. It didn't seem to help.

"Are you Christian?" she asked me. She was eager to get a head start on her conversions to show off to her companions, and I'm sure I cut a far less intimidating figure, what with my white skin and Western demeanor.

"I was raised Christian, as a Jehovah's Witness."

She winced, "They're not Christian."

"But now I'm an atheist. And, a human rights activist."

She winced again. She looked a bit fearful, like she had bitten off more than she knew how to chew. This was an unanticipated challenge that had not been addressed in her preparatory apologetics and theocratic ministry education. She bit her lip. She decided to try again.

"Our church does human rights work too. Especially for women and children. Of course, we don't call it human rights work. We just call it God's work."

Both my cigarette and my patience were finished. I bade her good night and headed off to bed.

I couldn't sleep. My mind was racing. Why had I allowed her to upset me so much? Why was I so indignant? Of course the missionaries are obnoxious and ignorant and embarrassing. Of course they are doing more harm than good. Of course their barely disguised self-interest belies any superficial attempts at philanthropy. But, I couldn't quite put my finger on why I was so personally offended. Was it simply a matter of being forced to grapple with the morality of human rights work?

I couldn't turn my brain off. I was incensed. I replayed the conversation over and over again in my mind, and each time I came up with wittier, more acerbic and more biting comebacks. I wished that I had screamed or yelled. I wished that I had shamed her into packing up and going home. How did she not understand the harm she was causing?

Spreading the gospel is not human rights work. Missionaries spread ignorance, hatred, death, disease, famine, overpopulation and war. They spread AIDS. They propagate the sexual slavery of women and girls. They encourage the torture of witches. They are the apocalypse.

I think the missionaries are right. They are doing God's work. And exactly what kind of work is God doing in Africa? Apparently, he instructs parents to pour acid onto their children's faces to rid them of demons at the behest of church leaders. He leads parents to abandon their albino children, because they have been condemned as witches by their churches. He sends missionaries into communities that practice sorcery to teach them to torture one another for so doing as the Bible demands. And the American churches that established these Christian communities in Africa? They disclaim any responsibility for these atrocities. But, what happened to God? Apparently, God left when the missionaries did.

And, then, it hit me. Christian missionaries are undermining our ability to advocate on behalf of universal human rights. Undermining it to such an extent, that most of the world rejects international human rights as a strictly Western, and explicitly Christian, ideology. To the majority of the world, it is tantamount to the venom and vitriol spewed forth by the Christian ignoramuses imposing themselves upon the heathen Third World nations.

This phenomenon threatens not only the credibility and viability of international human rights organizations and activists from the West, but also of homegrown, grass roots movements within developing nations. Their governments attribute a Christian (i.e. Western) agenda to all human rights activists. This has become a particularly virulent epidemic in Muslim nations, especially for women's rights activists.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that, for most of the world, state and church are one and the same. There is no separation between religion and government. Thus, not only are Christian missionaries undermining human rights activism around the world, they are undermining the US government's ability to advocate on behalf of universal human rights. (This wasn't made any better by the previous US administration's explicitly Christian agenda.) Christian missionaries, unfortunately, are viewed as an aspect of US foreign policy. I shudder to think. Throw in some overt Christian proselytization by the US military, and you have a recipe for disaster.

We don't need anyone to think that the US military or government is doing God's work. I think we need a campaign to educate the international community that Christian missionaries represent only themselves and not very well at that. We need to start reminding the rest of the world that we are indeed a secular state, just like France. And, not like Texas.

December 14, 2009, 10:09 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink53 comments
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