Friday, April 13, 2012

Off with your head!

Not really! In Kuwait, capital punishment happens by way of hanging. In private, but the dangling corpses are then open to the public. I remember flipping open the newspaper once as a teenager and seeing front page shots of two people with nooses still around their necks. It was disturbing. But until now, capital punishment was reserved for murder, rape and drug trafficking.

All that might be about to change. On Wednesday, the Kuwaiti Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of amendments to the blasphemy law, amendments that put people who blaspheme on the same level as murderers and rapists. Yes, say something against the prophet Muhammed or his wives and you could be hanged. 46 Members of Parliament voted for the amendment, with 4 against and 3 abstaining. The 4 Shiite MPs who opposed the amendment wanted Shiite imams to be included in the law. It was not an opposition on basic moral and humanitarian grounds, but rather on the grounds that the law was not inclusive enough.

Here's an excerpt from the Kuwait Times:
Currently, Kuwait’s penal code stipulates hefty penalties including many years in jail for those who commit religious offenses, especially those related to Prophet Mohammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) wife and some of his companions. Shiite MP Hussein Al-Qallaf strongly lambasted the manner in which the law was passed, describing the parliamentary majority as ‘exclusionists’ as they wanted to pass laws that only suit their wishes.

The amendments still have to go through another round of voting and also get the Amir's approval before it can be signed into law, but if it does, it will put Kuwait on par with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that currently have the death penalty for blasphemy. Having to surrender your life for exercising your basic right to free speech is outrageous and any sane human being should be able to see that. You can insult someone who is currently alive, but you cannot say a word against someone who has been dead for over a thousand years. Utterly shameful!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Faithless in Philly

I started graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010 and frankly, I was quite surprised that we didn't have an atheists and freethinkers group. In a university founded by a man who gave us gems such as, 'Lighthouses are more helpful than churches' and 'The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason', all I found were faith based groups. There was the Christian Association, Penn Hillel, the Muslim Student Association, the Hindu Students Council, the Penn Catholic Association and more*. But there wasn't a forum where freethinkers could meet and discuss ideas -- social and political issues, science, education, the common lack of faith in the supernatural, etc.

I did toy with the idea of starting a group, but being the lazy person that I am, I didn't really go ahead with it. It seemed like there were too many hoops to jump through and the fact that I was going to be here at Penn for only a short time didn't really help matters. So I was overjoyed when I noticed a poster calling attention to a Darwin Day event conducted by a group called Rekindle Reason.

Rekindle Reason was founded by three freshmen, Emmett Wynn, Isaac Louis Garcia and Seth Koren. Their first official meeting was on 12th February, 2012, the 203rd anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. It was a relatively light-hearted affair --  we discussed group policy and watched a few videos. The main aim of the group is to foster a community of atheists and freethinkers and encourage critical thinking. The mission statement of Rekindle Reason reads as follows:

Rekindle Reason: A Community of Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers at the University of Pennsylvania is to be an organization first and foremost dedicated to fostering community. Association with individuals of similar philosophies is oft lost for the irreligious, and we aim to make certain these members of the Penn community have such access and are aware that they are not alone in their views. Our meetings shall be havens in which people can question religious beliefs in absolute safety and security.

We wish to encourage the constituents of the University of Pennsylvania community-at-large to think critically about their superstitious and indoctrinated beliefs, as well as make the community aware of the detrimental effects on individuals and on society that religious belief all-too-commonly spurs.

We shall advocate for thought based solely upon science, logic, and reason: the three arbiters of a healthy, modern life. We shall show that neither religion nor any belief in higher powers, superstition, or pointless shibboleth is necessary for individuals to be moral, caring people. Furthermore we advocate that critical thought based upon these three arbiters is more important to human progress than mythical belief, and that it is within our reach to create progressive, just, peaceful societies founded upon these ideals and free of superstition.

Finally, we shall support and advocate for the final severance of the collusion of church and state. The influence of religion upon politics in this nation still occurs to a sorrowful degree. The nation can and must free itself of this oppressive yoke, and in doing so enlighten our policy- and decision-making.

I really hope they can foster enough interest and keep the group going. Not to be presumptuous, but I think Ben Franklin - one of America's greatest thinkers and inventors -- would be proud to see a group that encourages free thought in the university he founded about 250 years ago.

Rekindle Reason' Facebook group can be found at:
If you go to Penn, and you are an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, secularist or humanist, go ahead and join the group.

*I'm not saying that these groups shouldn't exist. On the contrary, they have every right to practise their faith as long as they don't impose themselves on others, and I've had no reason to think that they do.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dying For Your Faith

Fox News recently aired a special edition of Hannity titled Faith in America: Where do we stand today to discuss President Obama's mandate that requires all health care providers to include birth control in their healthcare coverage.

Somewhere around the 9.50 minute mark, host Sean Hannity asks the panel if they would be willing to go to jail over the issue of abortion and the morning after pill. Father Morris, a Roman Catholic priest and TV personality responds by saying that he is willing to die for his faith.

Fr. Morris: People have died for those things that are absolutely essential to their faith. It's not a question, are you willing to go to jail? But if I'm asked to do something that goes against my conscience, I better be willing to die for that. If I'm not willing to die for that, what am I standing up for if not?

Sounds eerily similar to what an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber would say, don't you think? Sure, he didn't say he was going to kill people, but it's still an extreme and fanatical viewpoint. Especially since the issue is about birth control. He doesn't want women to have a right to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and risk of STDs. What are your thoughts?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Islamic Double Standard

Ever heard Muslims cry foul over what they call Western intolerance? About religious stereotyping and profiling? About how they are not allowed to practise their religion in peace? Of course you have! Many non-Muslims might even sympathize with them. But this is all a part of the double standard that is rampant among Muslims. They want to have in Muslim-minority countries what they do not give to non-Muslims in countries where they are in the majority.

The Satanic Verses

Muslims are quick to protest anything that they perceive as a slight to Islam. Take the case of Salman Rushdie, the eloquent Indian born author who was forced to live under constant police protection in the United Kingdom for fear of his life. His 1988 book, 'The Satanic Verses' alleges that Mohammed received verses from the angel Gibreel that permitted prayers to three pre-Islamic goddesses. The naming of characters in the novel also drew the ire of Muslims worldwide. They considered it to be blasphemy and an outright attack on the Muslim faith.

Muslims the world over took umbrage at the book, and demanded that the books be withdrawn from shelves. It was banned in India within a month; other countries followed suit. Bookstores in the United States and United Kingdom received thousands of threats. In the United Kingdom, bookstores and department stores that carried the book were bombed. In the USA, the office of a community newspaper that defended the right to read the book was destroyed. And to top all of this, that excuse for a human being, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the killing of Rushdie or anyone associated with the book including publishers, editors and translators. Iranian officials offered a bounty to anyone who killed Rushdie.

"We are from Allah and to Allah we shall return." (Qoranic verse). I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Koran, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death. I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, Allah Willing. Meanwhile if someone has access to the author of the book but is incapable of carrying out the execution, he should inform the people so that [Rushdie] is punished for his actions. Rouhollah al-Mousavi al-Khomeini."

Many people were attacked and killed directly as a result of this fatwa. Several more were killed in riots that stemmed from this mindless decree. Even today, over 23 years after the publication of the book, Rushdie cannot live in peace. He was invited to address a literary festival in Jaipur, India on the 20th of January, but Muslim leaders objected and threatened violence if he were allowed to come to India. Mullahs and maulvis offered substantial amounts of money[1] to anyone who would physically harm him. Political leaders said that they would not allow Rushdie enter the city. Sadly, in a cowardly move that threatens the very foundation of the Indian right to free expression, the Indian government caved to the demands of the mob and persuaded the organizers to take Rushdie's name off the guest list. It's sad to see India sliding down the slope of demented illiberalism into the abyss of mental slavery that is the hallmark of Muslim nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Jyllands-Posten Mohammad Cartoons

The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of 12 cartoons that depicted Mohammed, none of which could even be considered offensive. This was in response to an article about self-censorship in another Danish newspaper, Politiken. As expected, Muslims in Denmark were infuriated and demanded that the editors apologize. Two imams created a dossier containing the 12 cartoons as well as three additional cartoons that had nothing to do with Denmark. The three additional cartoons which could be considered offensive, were added and captioned by the imams in order to further rouse Muslims everywhere. They traveled across the Middle East to gather support for their cause.

And again, as expected, there were protests and riots. And where there were protests and riots, destruction of property, injuries and deaths weren't far behind. Muslim countries called for a boycott of Danish goods. Death threats were issued against the cartoonists, editors and publisher of Jyllands-Posten.

The Double Standard

These are not the only two issues that have incensed Muslims. Dutch director, Theo van Gogh was murdered for his work on the film, Submission, which criticized the treatment of women in Islam. Taslima Nasreen suffered physical attacks after the publication of her novel, Lajja, and a bounty was offered for her death. Even a mild criticism or debate on Islam has caused severe outrage. Yet, Muslim countries heap scorn on other religions. They desecrate and insult religious beliefs that differ from their own.

In Saudi Arabia, people of other faiths cannot worship in the open. Any religious symbols are censored and possession of non-Muslim religious artifacts are illegal. Imagine the US or India deciding that Muslim religious artifacts including, but not limited to, the Quran are illegal. Imagine these countries denying Muslims the right to pray or talk openly about their faith. The hue and cry that such a move would raise would be staggering. Yet, numerous Muslim countries deny the same rights to people of other faiths.

Proselytizing by non-Muslims in Muslim majority countries is illegal, punishable by prison, sometimes even death. Yet, Muslims are free to proselytize and coerce non-Muslims into converting to Islam. And they demand the right to do the same in countries where they are in the minority too. Numerous people were forcefully converted to Islam in countries like India during periods of Muslim rule. Christians and Hindus are terrorized and subjugated in Islamic countries. But, speak a word against Islam or a Muslim in a Western country and lo!, it is profiling and unfair treatment.  After 9/11 many Muslims complained about how hard it was for them to lead a normal life in the US. But just imagine what would happen if a Christian terrorist group flew a plane into the residence of the Ayatollah of Iran. Every Christian in Iran would have been rounded up and killed.

Books that are critical of Islam are routinely burned, their authors threatened and bookstores bombed. But somehow Muslims have the right to criticize other religions. There are numerous Islamic texts and scholarly articles that deride other religious beliefs. Take idol worship for instance. Muslims waste no opportunity in condemning the practice that is a part of Hinduism and other pagan traditions. But criticize a word in Quran and they are up in arms.

What makes Islam so above criticism? It's time this double standard was stopped. If Muslims can deride and scorn other faiths, they should expect the same treatment from other religions and atheists. Moreover, it's time they learnt to accept that freedom of expression is not only for them and their beliefs. If they want to live in progressive liberal countries they have to accept that every one has the right to free speech and that includes criticism of their faith. If they want to live in peace in the Western world (which they do, more often than not), they have to open up their countries to all other points of view as well. Till they do, Muslims have no right to cry foul over imagined threats to their culture.

"The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where one must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context. [...] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him. [...]"
-- Flemming Rose, culture editor of Jyllands-Posten

Friday, January 13, 2012

Lovin' Like A Christian

The school prayer that hung in Cranston High School West asked god to give students the desire to be kind and helpful to classmates, and to help them be good sports and give them the ability to smile when they lose. Yet when Jessica Ahlquist, a 16 year old student at the Rhode Island high school, challeneged the legality of having a school prayer, they turned on her like a pack of wolves. Heck, a pack of starving wolves would probably have shown more restraint. There was an outpouring of hate on Twitter and Facebook directed at her and nasty doesn't even begin to describe many of the comments.

Jessica Ahlquist had shown enormous courage in speaking out against the unashamedly blatant Christian message in strongly Catholic Rhode Island. She knew that the school was not doing the right thing by promoting the Christian faith over all others and asked the administration to take the prayer down. She said that the prayer was divisive, offensive to non-Christians and made her feel ostracized. It was only after the administration refused that she approached the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to reason with them. But as is so often the case, when god knocks on your door, reason leaves through the window and the ACLU did no better than Jessica. The issue eventually went to court with Jessica as the plaintiff represented by the ACLU. The lawsuit -- which had no raison d'ĂȘtre in the first place if the school administration had shown even a modicum of rational thought -- was presided over by Judge Ronald Lagueux, a Reagan appointee.

In what was an open-and-shut case, Judge Lagueux said that the prayer was without a doubt religious in nature. He said that it was a government endorsement of religion and therefore unconstitutional. The Constitution of the United States calls for a separation of Church and State and having a Christian prayer displayed prominently in the school is a clear violation of the law. He ordered that the prayer be taken down immediately and decided that the legal fees should be provided to the plaintiff. The school officials had the chutzpah to argue that the paryer is secular and its purpose was more traditional and motivational than religious. But it's clear as day that a prayer when it starts with 'Our Heavenly Father' and ends with 'Amen' is nothing but secular. That being the case, any unbiased layperson can clearly see that it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Like a testimonial to Christopher Hitchens' book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, the abuse flowed soon after Jessica took issue with the constitutional violation. Even if you have the stomach for vitriolic comments, the vile nature of many of those the so-called children of Jesus hurled at Jessica will make you do just that -- hurl. Abuse from her peers, though inexcusable, can be attributed to a lack of maturity, but when adults in her city who are supposed to be more reasonable and rational stoop to such low levels, it is utterly disgusting. She was constantly harassed, insulted, belittled and ostracized for doing nothing more than standing up for the constitution. It is shameful that fighting against a blatant disregard of the law can leave you fearing for your own life.

State Rep. Peter Polombo called her "an evil little thing," a "clapping seal" and a "pawn star" on WPRO, a radio station station in Providence, RI [1]. Other students in school threatened to beat her up. Somebody who obviously knew her posted her home address on the Internet in the hope that other haters, aka Christians, would harass her. The comments on the Internet range from 'I want to punch you on the face' to 'getting shit thrown in her face' (her classmate). Somebody even said that god is going to f**k her in the ass with the banner.

JesusFetusFajitaFishsticks took screenshots of this appalling behavior. You can read some of those here, but be warned, it will make you cringe.

This widespread 'love' shown by Christians in Cranston, Rhode Island, the United States and probably the whole world is a perfect example of the hypocrisy that is rife among followers of Christ. Even us godless 'immoral' atheists couldn't bring ourselves to abuse a 16 year old girl. If this is the Christian definition of the word 'moral', I'd rather be immoral, thank you very much. When the god they so love causes them to do such abhorrent things, how do they expect atheists to even want to believe in him?

Bodily harm, rape and death threats are what Christians wish upon Jessica. So much for the love and tolerance that they preach. They are tolerant of rapists and murderers who repent and come back to Jesus, but will spit on an atheist no matter how good they are. It is a sad but true fact that many Christians think they have carte blanche to do whatever they want, break any laws as long as they do it in the name of Jesus or god. I'm not saying that all Christians participated in the abuse, but a majority did and that is absolutely sickening.
Hemant over at the Friendly Atheist has started a fundraiser for Jessica Ahlquist's college education. You can read more about it here. According to Hemant the proceeds will be given to the American Humanist Association. Please contribute if you can.

Jessica Ahlquist is a hero for defending the Constitution in the face of such brutality. She has shown immense courage in standing up to these monsters. Her strength of character will hopefully be an inspiration to other young atheists to speak up. After witnessing this torrent of abuse, the more humane among us stood up in support of Jessica. Here is a sampling of some of those heart-warming comments:

Now if anyone tells me I have the courage of a 16 year old girl, then I'll be flattered because of @jessicaahlquist
     - Paul Anskat

@jessicaahlquist If my daughter grows up to be half as strong as you, I've succeeded as a father. Well done.
     - Eric Thornber

@jessicaahlquist Tune off the disgruntled souls, you upheld the constitution. You should be handed a medal, not death threats.
     - Celeste Rousselot

There's a tag for letting @jessicaahlquist know that her efforts are appreciated. Thanks, Jessica! #ThankYouJessica
     - Patrick May

@jessicaahlquist You're a hero, these people sending insults will only be remembered for showing the world what "christlike" really means!
     - james boggs

Jessica Ahlquist, we are proud of you. Don't let those damned Christians say anything else.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pakistan's Quest for Truth

After Rick Santorum's advocacy for procreation-only sex and the pope's anti-gay comments, it gladdens me to learn of the Pakistan Atheists and Agnostics (PAA) group. In a country known for it's strict anti-blasphemy laws, where Islamist militancy has been on the rise in recent times, the PAA is a sign -- small, but nevertheless a sign -- of hope. Their goal is to let other atheists in Pakistan know that they are not alone.

Huzrat NaKhuda founded the Facebook group a few months ago and membership now stands at over 800. His name is obviously a pseudonym, for revealing his identity might mean death. In Pakistan, blasphemy is a crime that calls for life imprisonment. But many a time, a person accused of blasphemy ends up being murdered by fundamentalists. Take the case of Salmaan Taseer, the former governor of the Punjab province in Pakistan, who was assassinated for criticizing the blasphemy law. He didn't blaspheme. He merely criticized the laws and supported Asia Bibi who was sentenced to death for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. And for this, he was shot and killed by his own bodyguard. In the face of such extremism, you have to commend Huzrat NaKhuda and all the other atheists in Pakistan for taking such a courageous step.

In an interview with The Commentator, Huzrat NaKhuda said that the battle for reason needs to be fought with urgency in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, countries that are steeped in intolerance and backward thinking. He laments the lack of development in Pakistan and blames it on the adoption of a religion as the country's identity. He believes that progress is stifled whenever any country does this. He quotes the example of Mohammed Abdus Salam, the Pakistani theoretical physicist and the country's first and only Nobel laureate. Though a devout Muslim, Abdus Salam was discriminated against and shunned in his own country because he belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, a group that was labelled non-Islamic by Pakistan.

"The nerve to claim one specific religion and one specific God out of hundreds as the real God, and rejecting all others merely because ones parents asserted so, seemed too presumptuous. That is when I started rejecting and accepting ideas based on arguments rather than scripture. Once you start doing that, it is only a matter of time."

NaKhuda thinks that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan is only partially responsible for the growing number of atheists in his country. While it has not directly increased the number of atheists/agnostics, the effect of fundamentalism has been to make closet atheists come out. But he does think that Islamic extremism in the country might have had a role in people beginning to question their own beliefs. But the biggest factors influencing the rise of atheism in Pakistan, he explained, is the Internet and social media. "People in small towns in Pakistan can listen to lectures by Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens", he says. They become more aware of the reality of the universe as opposed to outdated Islamic teachings.

In a country where children are brainwashed right from the time they are kids, where madrassas are aplenty, where honor killings are still commonplace, it is amazing and comforting to see that people have slowly but surely started to question what they see as outmoded practices and views. Some of the women in the group have rebelled against the Quran's (and most religions') discriminatory stance against women. They believe that religion is nothing more than a tool for men in power to assert control. Yet others cite injustice and disillusionment as factors that lead them in their quest for truth.

The path towards atheism, or even skepticism is a perilous one. Almost every member uses a pseudonym. Most members haven't even come out to their parents or friends. Free expression is not a birthright in Pakistan and many Muslim countries. Bodily harm, torture and even death are common punishments for unbelievers.

Most people in Pakistan don't know that there is an option to not believe in god. Three quarters of the people think that apostasy should be punishable by death. Pakistan also has very strict blasphemy laws that calls for life imprisonment or death. Huzrat NaKhuda and the PAA want to change all that. It is a journey fraught with danger. But on behalf of all rational thinkers, free thought proponents and atheists, I wish all of them the very best. Nothing would make me happier than seeing Huzrat NaKhuda and his group achieve their goals and inspire other such groups in similar radically conservative societies in the world.

To read the full interview with Huzrat NaKhuda in the Commentator:
Pakistan Today article about PAA:
Huzrat NaKhuda's journey to atheism:
The PAA website:

Monday, January 9, 2012

Biggest Threat to Humanity?

The increasing temperatures and changing weather patterns might be a clue. Increasing tensions between Iran and the US might lead some of you to think nuclear war. Others may think of earthquakes and tsunamis. Food shortages. But no! According to Pope Benedict XVI, one of the biggest threats to humanity is gay marriage!

Pope Benedict labelled gay marriage a threat to 'the future of humanity itself'. On the 9th of January, 2012, in an address to diplomats from across the world [1], the pope extolled the virtues of a traditional family based on the marriage of a man and a woman. "Pride of place goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman. Policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself," he said.

And this is coming from a man who has pardoned pedophilia among members of his clergy. And I'm not talking about isolated incidents. Child molestation has been prevalent in the Catholic Church for a long time now. The John Jay report [2] determined that between 1950 and 2002, 4392 priests in the United States alone have had substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct with minors made against them. That's an alarming number. I wouldn't be hard pressed to imagine that there are at least hundreds of other non-reported incidents. As is often the case, many children don't report such inappropriate advances by priests out of shame or fear and the actual number may be much higher.

The Church's response in most such cases after 2002 has been to send the offending priests to seek psychiatric treatment. They were not reported to the authorities for legal persecution. After treatment, the priests were simply moved to another parish where they still had contact with children. Yet, the threat to humanity comes from gays having the same rights as every one else. How utterly shameful.

If the pope's concern is procreation, the significant majority of human beings are still heterosexual. Besides, don't we have problems with over-population already? Also, I wonder if the pope has heard about adoption. There are numerous orphaned and abandoned children the world over who could be adopted by gay parents -- children who, otherwise, might not have had a chance at survival. No, God doesn't often listen to their prayers -- he has to help Tim Tebow win. The best solution to the Catholic Church's problem would be to allow his clergy to marry. That would kill two birds with one stone. No threats of a dwindling population, no sexually frustrated priests to molest little boys.

The pope said that the education of children needed the proper 'settings' of a traditional family. I would easily be able to find millions of less intelligent, less articulate children from traditional families than Zach Wahls who was raised by two lesbians in Iowa. I end with a quote from a speech he made supporting gay rights in the Iowa legislature.
"The sense of family comes from the commitment we make to each other. To work through the hard times so that we can enjoy the good ones. It comes from the love that binds us. That's what makes a family."

Here is the video of his speech: