A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003). A Devil's Chaplain is a collection of three decades of essays by this British biologist and well-known atheist. Dawkins discusses genes and memes, religion, Darwinism, creationism, Stephen Jay Gould and other timely topics.
When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball (Harper San Francisco, $21.95). Kimball, an ordained Baptist minister with a Harvard degree in comparative religion and Islamic studies, is chair of the religion department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Religions may cross any of five lines to become evil, Kimball asserts: by making absolute truth claims; requiring blind obedience; declaring an 'ideal' time for confrontations between good and evil; believing the end justifies the means, or proclaiming a holy war.
A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty by Daniel Goldhagen (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, $25). Goldhagen maintains Pope Pius XII tacitly condoned the persecution of Jews:
"The Church has gotten more or less a free ride for the last 50 years and it was not a heroic bastion of resistance as it would sometimes like to portray itself, but was deeply complicit in many of the crimes of the time."
The Harvard social studies professor and son of a Holocaust survivor documents anti-Semitic statements by clergy. The Roman Catholic Church temporarily won a ban on Oct. 7 against selling his book in Germany, which was lifted when a disputed photo caption was blacked out.
Gruess Gott und Heil Hitler (Hail God and Heil Hitler) by Stefan Moritz. Moritz argues the Austrian Catholic Church struck a bargain with the devil to survive Nazism, with many priests and bishops actively supporting Nazis. Austria today is still 80% Roman Catholic. Moritz provides countless documents and examples, such as minutes from the Austrian bishops' conference in 1942 noting the mass transportation of Jews to Nazi death camps, an influential Jesuit describing Jews as "God's Murderers," and a parish newspaper urging Catholics to support Hitler: "One people -- one Reich -- one Fuhrer --one God!"
Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, A Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (Broadway Books, $24.95). This biography tells the story of Michael Servetus, considered a freethinking, humanist theologian and predecessor of Voltaire, who was burned at the stake by John Calvin in Geneva. The scientist also discovered pulmonary circulation. His treatise on the Trinity brought him to the attention of the Inquisition, and his rejection of Calvin's doctrine of predestination resulted in the sham trial leading to his execution.
Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America by David Wise (Random House, $24.95). The book documents how Robert Hanssen, a devout Catholic who went to Mass daily and hung a crucifix on his wall, was obsessed by exhibitionist sex. He rigged a videocamera in his bedroom so that a friend could watch him and his unsuspecting wife have sex. He gave some payoff money to Mother Teresa, and spent the rest on strippers. "He betrayed his country and simultaneously betrayed his wife," Wise wrote, while "urging his friends to get closer to God."
Honor Lost by Norma Khouri (Simon & Schuster). Khouri, an activist against "honor killings," tells the story of her Jordanian childhood friend and business partner, who was stabbed to death at age 26 by her own father for walking with a man in public. Her book, describing the trapped lives of women in Jordan and many Islamist countries, has been a bestseller in Australia and France, and is now being distributed in the U.S. and Europe. Her friend represents "thousands of women who are still dying."
"The Magdalene Sisters," directed by Peter Mullan. This film literally depicts Ireland's "dirty laundry"--the plight of girls abused by nuns at Catholic convents and Magdalene laundries in the 1960s. It was released in Ireland in November. It has already been condemned by the Vatican, although it won the 2002 Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. The film is being distributed in the U.S. by Miramax Films.
Irish girls and young women were dumped in the Magdalene laundries if they were orphaned, became pregnant, were "too pretty" or were otherwise unwanted by families. Mullan said his movie is based on true events--"one of the great injustices of the second half of the 20th century."
More than 30,000 women over a period of 150 years were forced to work without pay in profit-making convent laundries, "to wash away their sins." "We were the living dead," Mary Norris, 60, recently told British TV.
"The Crime of Father Amaro," directed by Carlos Carrera. This Mexican movie has caused an uproar and been a box office hit in Mexico. Based on a 19th-century Portuguese novel, it depicts a young priest seducing a younger woman, then forcing her to have a clandestine abortion.
"Amen," directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras. The Greek director makes the case against Pius XII as a Nazi collaborator. He told the New York Times (Jan. 19): "For me, the idea of silence is the film's main theme. The silence of the people, the silence of a lot of people in the church." The film is loosely based on "The Deputy," Rolf Huchhuth's play about Pius's refusal to denounce the mass murder of Jews.
We do not claim to know all the ways of Providence. Yet we can trust in them, placing our confidence in the loving God behind all of life, and all of history. May he guide us now.
The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity.
--State of the Union Address, January 28, 2003
America believes deeply that everybody has worth, everybody matters, everybody was created by the Almighty. --White House Remarks on AIDS proposal, Jan. 31, 2003
The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we pray that all are safely home. --Remarks after the Columbia shuttle disaster, Feb. 1, 2003
It is fitting that, in the midst of tough times, that these these two leaders [Joint Chief of Staff chair Gen. Richard Myers and CIA Director George Tenet] are sharing with scripture and prayer with the country. Since we met last year, millions of Americans have been led to prayer. They have prayed for comfort in time of grief; for understanding in a time of anger; for protection in a time of uncertainty. Many, including me, have been on bended knee. The prayers of this nation are a part of the good that has come from the evil of September the 11th, . . . I believe in prayer. I pray. I pray for strength, I pray for guidance, I pray for forgiveness. (Quoted by Knight-Ridder) In this time of testing for our nation, my family and I have been blessed by the prayers of countless of [sic] Americans. We have felt their sustaining power and we're incredibly grateful. In this hour of our country's history, we stand in the need of prayer. . . . We pray for wisdom to know and do what is right and we pray for God's peace in the affairs of men. (Quoted by Associated Press) --President's Remarks at National Prayer Breakfast, Washington, D.C., February 6, 2003 (All quotes from White House posted speech unless otherwise indicated.)
I welcome faith. I welcome faith to help solve the nation's deepest problems. We're being challenged. We're meeting those challenges because of our faith. After we were attacked on September the 11th, we carried our grief to the Lord Almighty in prayer. The American people have deep and diverse religious beliefs, truly one of the great strengths of our country. And the faith of our citizens is seeing us through some demanding times. . . . We're meeting those challenges because of our faith. In times of tragedy, faith assures us that death and suffering are not the final word. . . . [America's enemies] hate the thought [that] . . . in this great country, we can worship the Almighty God the way we see fit. Liberty is God's gift to every human being in the world. --President's Remarks at National Religious Broadcasters convention, Nashville, Tenn., Feb. 10, 2003. Bush was introduced as "our friend and brother in Christ" and as someone who "unapologetically proclaims his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ" when he appeared at the broadcasters' convention, according to the Washington Post (Feb. 11, 2003).
My world view went through profoud changes about five years ago. Before then I was a traditional Catholic. Then, after college, not wanting to make use of my biochemistry degree, I served in two vounteer programs committed to youth education and cross-cultural understanding. The first was a year in the economically depressed, bible-thumping backwoods of Mississippi; the second in affluent, intellectual western Germany. Although both programs were partially sponsored by the Catholic Church and I was living and working with priests and nuns, my beliefs were constantly being challenged, and before my service was up religion had completely lost its hold over me. I think my parents and their church friends prefer to believe that I did not make this decision freely, but that I was under the influence of evil forces--a.k.a. "those radical European priests." Nobody has ever asked me how it happened, so I had not really tried to understand it, until recently. The topic came up during some email exchanges I had with a former fellow volunteer. We had secrets to share: she announced her engagement to the Catholic priest who directed our program, while I admitted that I had become an atheist.
So, how did this change happen? Was it the "bad" influence of the young Jesuit seminarian who laughed at belief in the literal existence of evil? Or the feminist nuns that I saw running their own rural parishes better than any priest? Or was it from years of dating a secular intellectual? I consider these among many positive influences that led me to freedom from religion, but I think I can best summarize my motivation as follows: I had expectations about how God should operate, and eventually I had to admit that these assumptions did not add up with the real world.
. . . All the confusion and contradiction that exist among people who are supposedly close to God is the result of having no objective proof of supernatural phenomena and no divine guidance. There does not seem to be anyone at the helm. If this is the case, then the belief in divine guidance seems very dangerous. It allows people to put blind trust in their leaders, be uncritical, judge others as evil or unacceptable, or allows people to avoid responsibility for their acts and decisions. Perhaps this gets to the heart of why religion is so popular. Decisions can be hard to make and what better way to make a decision than with the help of an omniscient being--how can you go wrong? Even better if the decisions are already made for you, for example, which candidate to elect for president or which issues or values should be important to you.
There was a time when I thought that being a non-believer meant giving up morals and the meaning of life. But now that I am free of religion, I am learning that I have to rely on my personal experiences and constant self-evaluation to decide what is important and meaningful in life. Blind faith has been replaced with greater awareness of the world around me and a greater sense of responsibility for the consequences of my opinions and actions. I find it unfortunate that the majority of people go through life without this experience.
"I am an M.A. student of linguistics at the University of Colorado. My main interests are foreign language and cross-cultural understanding. I am currently studying Japanese language and culture."
The Dilemma of the Christian Apologist
By Richard Spencer
"What happened?" The previous question is one that I have been asked a countless number of times since my "deconversion" from Christianity to atheism. Like many questions Christians ask, the question is a telling one. As my family and friends search for a reason for my departure from faith, they all want some kind of scapegoat upon which to place the blame for my "falling away." For my family and friends to admit that I may have good reason for questioning Christianity, and consequently leaving it, would be cause for them to critically evaluate their own beliefs. However, the task of measuring the value of one's faith is unfortunately a task that too many shy away from. Consequently, it is very difficult for my family and friends to realize that the scapegoat they're searching for is the simple truth that over three years of bible school, I studied Christianity intensely and found it lacking. To realize that fact would be to admit that I may have good reason for my decisions, and if that is so, then they fear following in my footsteps. We see then that fear of the truth is one of the first things we must rid ourselves of in order to find it.
. . . Faith is belief without reason. Quite simply, if a belief is held with reason, then it is believed by reason and cannot be held by faith. Therefore, any belief truly held by faith is either supported by no reason or by necessarily insufficient reason. Since the belief in god is fundamental to all of Christianity, in order for Christianity to be rational, belief in god must also be shown to be rational. However, Christianity teaches that faith is necessary to not only please god, but to even believe in god. Therefore, Christianity inadvertently admits from the very beginning that its fundamental belief is one that must be accepted without reason. The result is a system of beliefs based on an irrational belief. The Christian apologist then, in attempting to prove anything about Christianity, is forced to attempt to rationally justify that which is inherently and admittedly irrational.
. . . The truth has never hurt anyone. What hurts us are the lies that we allow ourselves to believe. Therefore, we must realize that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain from an honest pursuit of the truth. By removing my personal bias toward what I was raised to believe and approaching the world with a respect for the facts of reality, I simply came to the conclusion that any religion claiming to have the truth is not only wrong, but also fraudulent. It took a painful release of my pride, but in the end I admitted my error and began to align my beliefs with that which seems most rational. Looking back, I see that I have left nothing behind but a conglomeration of superstitions, myths and pseudo-intellectual elitism. In the end, I have chosen to reject religion because I cannot doubt that to be led by faith is to be misled.
"I began studying at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., where I stayed through the spring semester of 2002. My plans were to graduate with a degree in pastoral ministry and become the pastor of a church. I ended up taking bible and theology classes to the exclusion of my pastoral ministry requirements, although I never made the change in majors official with the school. During my last year at Lee, my years of studying Christianity culminated in my determining it to be untrue. I have now transferred to Georgia State University where I will major in psychology. Had I stayed at Lee, I would be classified next semester as a senior. However, with my transfer credits, I am a junior at GSU.
"My interests include movies (Fletch, Memento), reading (Fletch novels, freethought-oriented books), music (Mineral, Hopesfall), spending time with my friends, and both watching and performing concerts."
"Well . . . I Was Raised Catholic"
By Dean Barry
My wedding ceremony made me rethink the whole idea of religion. My wife was also raised Catholic and so at first it seemed natural to follow tradition and get married in the church. We did go to a priest and sign up to get married with his blessing. Throughout the meeting, though, we found ourselves lying. Lying about the fact that we lived together (sex before marriage if you're Catholic--a big no-no); that we wouldn't use birth control (we already were); and that we would accept as many children as we were granted (we had already decided that two children seemed like a good plan).
We left that meeting in a daze, or maybe it was a fury--I'm not sure. It was very confusing. We didn't want to begin our marriage on a foundation of lies. Why did we need this guy's "blessing" anyway? We had already spent two years living together and knew that we had something special and that this was what we wanted for the rest of our lives.
My wife was feeling frustrated with many of the rules of the Catholic religion concerning women--particularly that women are seen as second to men, and of the ignorance toward basic women's health needs like birth control, and of the control the church exerts over a woman's decision about her body and abortion. All of these unanswered questions led us to end up getting married at a beautiful park with an entertaining Justice of the Peace. Everyone who came to our wedding had a wonderful time, and more importantly, we felt right in beginning our married life together outside the church. Nearly three years later, we are happier than ever and have not been back to the church since the day we began to question our religion in the first place.
Life is easier when you don't follow religion. There are a lot less things to feel guilty about and a lot more things to enjoy and be happy about. For example, we can feel confident about our decision to limit the number of children we have. We are no longer sitting on a hard wooden bench for an hour each Sunday morning listening to a man who has taken a vow of celibacy, telling us why birth control is wrong.
Dean Barry is a 28-year-old college junior. He returned to school full-time in January 2002, after being laid off from his job as an aerospace inspector as a result of the industry downsizing after the events of September 11. He graduated from Asnuntuck Community College on May 31, 2002, with an Associate's Degree in General Studies. He will continue his education full-time at Westfield State College in Westfield, Massachusetts. He plans to double major in American history and secondary education so he can become a high-school history teacher.
An Obsolete Madness
By Jeanne Petty
Perhaps religion has been, in the past, a necessary human "madness." Mental illness can be caused by circumstances which are awful enough to make a person retreat from the "real" world into a safer, delusional world. This is the mind's attempt to assert control over uncontrollable circumstances and to subvert the pain of the real world. Religious belief operates upon the same principle.
Religion is a cultural tool for dealing with death. Humans may be the only animals to find themselves in the peculiar circumstance of knowing that they exist as individuals, and being intelligent enough to wonder about the nature of that existence, while knowing also that they will die. Our egos are so well-developed that, naturally, they fight like hell against ceasing to exist. Our consciousness would do anything to preserve itself, and if someone believes that saying 50 "Hail Mary's" or strapping a bomb to their back will achieve that purpose, then of course they will do it.
People often turn to religion in an attempt to deal with the death of a loved one, unbearable living circumstances, or their own looming mortality. . . . It would be a false happiness, like taking Prozac for the rest of my life, and I would realize that sooner or later.
. . . Another reason why I reject religion is that the religious frequently infringe upon the rights of others in the name of their god. The most horrific examples of this are, of course, terrorism, genocide, and war. How ridiculous to kill over religion. I once heard a comedian say that "Going to war over religion is like going to war over who has the best imaginary friend." How true. It's crazy that in these modern times people would kill each other over something so intangible and unverifiable.
"I am a junior in painting at the School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. My interests include philosophy, travel, writing, photography, and reading."
By T'ere Pagaduan
It is absolute madness, celebrating a birthday in a pre-school classroom. Between the frenzy of fielding dangerous projectile party hats and guarding the heavily frosted cake from probing little fingers, it would have been easy to miss the fact that one little scholar was not joining in the festivities. Yet, I spotted him, across the room, idly fiddling with a pile of Legos. What's he doing, I wondered. Time out, maybe? I asked one of the other teacher's aides what he was being punished for. Nothing, she says.
"He can't participate in birthdays, mother's orders. It's against his religion."
I was floored--and more than a little annoyed. I decided to take the poor kid outside to play. I suspected he did not want to suffer through watching his classmates scarf down cake he couldn't eat and play with party favors he couldn't have.
Against their religion. He was four years ago, it wasn't against his anything. All he knew was that his buddies were having a party and he was outside, alone. I watched him amble about the playground and wondered, What do his parents think God has against birthday parties, anyway? I chalked it up to just another one of those ridiculous rules drawn up by some freak who thinks he's the voice of God and imposed on the dim-witted through religion.
Later, his parents came to pick him up and take him home. The lead teacher informed his mother that we had celebrated a birthday party today and he had spent the time outside.
"Thank you for taking him out," she said to me.
"He wasn't too happy about it," I told her stiffly.
"He'll get used to it," she laughs. She really doesn't get it.
As they walk out of the classroom, hand in hand, I am relieved to know that they aren't Catholic. At least the poor kind will never be an altar boy.
T'ere Healoha Pagaduan is a student at the Universtiy of Hawaii's Kapiolani Community College. She has 42 credit hours completed towards her AS in Paralegal. She plans to attain her BA and go on to law school.
Held Captive By Choice
By Susie Cosier
My definition of religion is that it is a form of voluntary bondage. . . .
Religion cannot exist without faith, like a school can't exist without pupils. When a person can't think freely, question the credibility of a statement, be open to opposing views, and make informed decisions, then that person remains captive in their beliefs.
. . . Being brought up with three different religions, Animism and Muslim from my African nanny, and Christianity from the British boarding school I attended, I have observed that these three religions are quite similar. They are all extremely rigid in their beliefs, causing needless suffering, promoting inequality with opposing views of faith, and restricting behaviors with severe punishment, depending on what is deemed unacceptable by each group.
. . . In West Africa, where I grew up with my African nanny, little girls between the ages of five and eight would be taken into the swamp for a horrifying ceremony. They would be restrained on a large rock while the Sorcerer cut off the clitoris with a sharp instrument. The Muslims believe that it gives a woman less desire for sex, and, therefore, makes her less promiscuous. I accepted my circumcision just like all the other little girls, but still wondered why such a painful, terrifying ordeal was believed to purify me and make me more desirable to men.
When I was five years old, I was sent to a British boarding school. Through the degradation of being labeled a "heathen," and receiving severe punishments for innocent mistakes, I found that this religion caused suffering, too. During the nine years I lived there, I saw what Christianity was like, according to my teachers, who hatefully judged the African religions, had a finality of thought that promoted their culture, and used force to form my mind.
Why consent to bondage of the mind and body, without question, when there is in each human the capability of reason and an immense source of intelligence. . . . Through experience one learns, but through the power of choice, one determines one's destiny.
"I was born in Gambia, West Africa, to parents who gave me to an African woman for nursing and care. I now consider her as my mother. My American father was in the Peace Corps and my German mother was a nurse. I grew up with my nanny in her village for five years, before I was sent to a British boarding school. I stayed at the school in Senegal, West Africa, for nine years, and then arrived here, in America, to go to high school in Missouri. After high school, I moved to Northern Michigan to attend North Central Michigan College. I am a second semester sophomore, majoring in Social Work with a minor in Art. My interests are in culture, language, and art (drawing, clay sculpting, and writing). My sports interests include running, bicycling, and hiking. I volunteer to help with children at a daycare and babysit for friends. I am employed full-time and attend school full-time."
If They Knew Then What Some of Us Know Now
By Greg Foster
The grandest and most circumspect claim staked by the world's religions is the possession of knowledge otherwise unknowable to humankind. This claim of divine inspiration is the keystone of religious doctrine, and thus offers itself as the optimal focal point for critical scrutiny. If the central tenets of religious doctrine can be shown to have human origins or influences, the claim of divine inspiration is suspect and the entirety of its content is called into question.
Critical review of religions past and present reveals the belief in an afterlife and some form of creation myth as the common threads from which the worldview of its believers is woven. Projecting oneself into the mindset of the earliest modern humans can reveal insights as to how and why both became ubiquitous fixtures of religion, by way of their being nothing more than artifacts of human cognition. In doing so, the central tenets of religion can be seen as self-fulfilling prophesies of the human condition, rather than sanctimonious bequeathals from the almighty. . . .
Consider how near-death experiences continue to tantalize the irrational with prospects of an afterlife, in spite of neurological explanations to the contrary. People accept science when they turn on their television or microwave oven, but allow it to be superceded by faith when it comes to spiritual matters. If such beliefs can persevere in today's informed world, imagine how near-death experiences and dreams of the deceased would have affected people before the age of reason. . . .
While the promise of an idyllic afterlife is enticing and the prospect of eternal damnation is undeniably grim, I see no evidence of divinity within any of the world's religions to support these claims. To the contrary, there is growing evidence supporting the notion of humankind's propensity for religious belief being nothing more than an attribute of human cognition. Recognition of purely human vectors driving religious adherence throughout the ages makes the act of casting a minority vote all the more easy. In the end, I am no more impelled to avow myself to a religion than I am to join an organization whose platform I do not believe in. If the end of life marks the beginning of eternal nothingness, then so be it.
"I am currently in the first year of a joint MS degree in Marine Biology and Coastal Zone Management at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, and I plan to continue my studies to the Ph.D. level. My academy and professional goals lie in the field of coral reef restoration. My undergraduate degree was in Chemical Engineering, so this one-eighty to the life sciences could be considered a form of environmental penance, although it goes much deeper than that. After several years in the petrochemical industry, shoulder to shoulder with engineers whose religious beliefs blinded them to the science unfolding before their eyes, I decided my one shot at life would be better spent elsewhere. By the way, my personnel file reflects my outspokenness as a freethinker, surprisingly a very undesirable trait in today's corporate America. My major interests, on the basis of time allocation, include scuba diving and instruction, nature photography, science, anthropology, and natural history."
"Simply an Individual"
By Kristina da Fonseca
Every day I am grateful for the fact that I questioned Catholicism as a teenager, because the desire for reason and fairness has provided me with more options and has allowed me to never have to question my love and acceptance of my [gay] brother. The indoctrination of children into that religion only serves to brainwash a new generation of unquestioning contributors. Religion is rarely used for the purposes it claims. Instead of being accepting, it is often exclusionary; instead of being loving, it is often hateful; and instead of being giving, it is often greedy.
As an agnostic, I am afforded the freedom to actively reason out my morality. I can make decisions based on beliefs I have created on my own instead of relying on what others tell me I should do. I can live each day knowing that I can be a good person without depending on an old book or a man who spends his lifetime judging others. I can follow my heart instead of a leader. I can stand up against the sexism, classism, racism and homophobia of many organizations, including churches. I can actively question why heterosexuality, marriage, submission and uniformity are considered by many to be the "right" way.
My rejection of religion may be seen by many as a fault, but I consider my decision to reject religion a positive one. I have felt more fulfilled and free than I would have had I remained a Catholic. I am extremely proud of my unwillingness to be pressured into conformity.
"I entered my senior year at Smith College last fall. I am majoring in both Government and Portugese-Brazilian Studies. I am President of the Lusi-Brazilian Club and will be a member of both Smith Feminists Unite and Smith Labor Action Coalition. Last summer I continued my employment with my local state Senator and also interned for the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. I am very much interested in feminist issues and hope to continue my activism throughout my life. I plan on attending law school and hope to use my law degree to change the laws to help underprivileged people navigate the laws already in place. I believe that everyone has a right to be treated fairly and equally under the law and in everyday life and I plan on working to making that more of a reality."
Tools of Hope, Tools of Fear
By Nate Hertweck
From my first memories to this very moment, my most intrinsic instincts have been against the institutions of religion. I can vividly remember playing with my best friend on the playground one carefree day in second grade and hearing him tell me that when the caravan returns to pick up all the good people and take them to heaven that I would be left behind because I did not attend church. Initially, I was somewhat frightened, but feeling confident of my instincts I knew this wasn't the truth about the world that I was only beginning to observe and explore.
About ten years and several blemishing religious experiences later, I began to take greater interest in learning and contemplating religion, philosophy, and history. I have since read such works as those by the great revolutionary writer Thomas Paine, the brilliantly audacious German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, and even the Old and New Testaments, and I see this as only a beginning to my inquiries. Not only have my findings in these readings been consistent with the values of my heart, but also I have been repeatedly surprised and deeply saddened by the false reasoning, the manipulation, and the harm done by religion both throughout history and today in our present societies. I feel the worst of religion's shortcomings is its condemnation of life, its implementation of fear, and its imperialism of thought.
My very own grandmother once told me, regarding her faith, that when she dies, if that were the end of her existence she would be devastatingly disappointed. The functional selling point of religion is to secure an afterlife for its believers. This idea is packaged and sold as "hope" in exchange for the financial and numerical support of churches or other places of worship. By definition, hope, especially that of a perfect afterlife, vastly exceeds any success, pleasure, accomplishment, happines, or love that can be attained in the reality of this current life. By creating the idea of another perfect world, religion condemns the world we inhabit as always falling short. . . .
Unfortunately, the consequences of condemning life through the superstition of religion can be much more severe than the simple lack of perspective. Now more than ever, the world is seeing religious believers destroy their own lives and the lives of others all because of unfounded faith in the afterlife. The tragic cases of cult mass suicides and suicide bombers would have never taken place if it weren't for the religious beliefs of the perpetrators. The only reason these people take lives in order to become martyrs for their cause is that they believe in an afterlife that is preferable and promised by their respective religion. . . . The overtly religious acts of terrorists and cult members are also symptoms of this kind of life where hope serves only to degrade reality and justify death.
Perhaps the greatest triumph over the detriment of organized religion is self-confidence. Likewise, the use of fear as a mind controller is probably organized religion's most heinous crime. . . . Children who are raised to fear their parents and their God only learn one way to make choices: out of fear. In my experience, nothing holds a person back from pursuing dreams more than the fear that is instilled in him or her at a young, impressionable age. Nothing I have ever seen promotes fear more than religion and nothing has been more invigorating in my life than being free from it.
"I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am twenty years old and in my third year at Middle Tennessee State University, where I am majoring in the Recording Industry with an emphasis on Production and Technology. Basically, I'm learning how to be an audio engineer. Someday I hope to be a freelance record producer with a home studio. My hobbies and interests include songwriting, listening to music, reading, working with kids, and traveling. I'm very close to my parents, my sister, and my extended family."
Prof. Rodrigue Tremblay
"The most dangerous madmen are those created by religion, and people whose aim it is to disrupt society always know how to make good use of them." --Denis Diderot (1713-1784)
President George W. Bush never hesitated to introduce religion and the dangerous notion of absolute virtue into American politics. When he was the governor of Texas, he had established an annual "Jesus Day" on June 10th.1
In his public debates, he also exclaimed, "Jesus changed my heart!" And, once elected president, in January 2001, George W. Bush declared September 14 to be a national day of prayer.
Bush even opened his administration to a notorious representative of the American religious right: Attorney General John Ashcroft. Son and grandson of Protestant pastors, potentially a modern-day Torquemada,2 Ashcroft declared to a group of students at the Bob Jones seminary, "We have no king but Jesus."3 All of these declarations and policies were in violation of a pluralist society's democratic principle of government neutrality in religious matters.
So it was no surprise after the September 11th attacks when George W. Bush, mirroring his antagonist bin Laden, said that Islamic terrorists and mass terrorism represented "Evil," implying that "Good" and virtue belonged to the United States, and promised to "rid the world of evil and terror."4 This followed a declaration in his "war whoop" speech to Congress on September 20, 2001, that "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." In other words, God is on our side (heard that before?).5
* * *
George W. Bush has multiplied his sermonizing speeches and public prayers. An example of this was on March 30, 2002, when he declared in a radio broadcast: "We feel our reliance on the Creator who made us. We place our sorrows and cares before him, seeking God's mercy. We ask forgiveness for our failures, seeking the renewal He can bring."6
And he continued: "Faith brings confidence that failure is never final, and suffering is temporary, and the pains of the earth will be overcome. We can be confident, too, that evil may be present and it may be strong, but it will not prevail."7
And as if to underline the fact that he believed himself mandated by God to wage war, he added, "In this season, we are assured that history is of moral design. Justice and cruelty have always been at war, and God is not neutral between them. His purposes are often defied, but never defeated."
Such religious messages from a head of state resemble what came out of the theocracies of Iran and of the Taliban government of Afghanistan, before it was deposed by a foreign army. Other than George W. Bush, I know of no other head of state of a democratic country,8 including Great Britain where there is a state religion, who prays in public and claims to act in the name of God.9
For people who are not American, hearing U.S. politicians close their speeches with the inevitable "God bless America" is quite startling. As a Belgian bishop remarked recently, such an incantation at the end of a political or military speech could really mean "God bless all of us, but not the others." Godfried Banneels, Archbishop of Malines-Bruxelles, noted that "it is not the first time in history that God has been recruited to favor one side, but it must be understood that this should not be done."10
But it is done in the United States. President George W. Bush goes even further: he begins his war council meetings with a prayer. When we realize that at these conclaves decisions are made to bomb thousands of people, one blanches at the thought that a president believes himself to be anointed by God to make war.11 In the case of Bush, known for his jingoism, the mixture of religion and flagrant nationalism makes one ponder.
As reported by Bob Woodward, The Washington Post's veteran journalist, Bush doesn't hesitate to claim openly that he considers the United States to be above international law. In fact, during a meeting of his war council, on September 15, 2001, Bush is said to have declared the following, concerning the need for America to wage war against terrorism whatever others might say: "At some point, we may be the only ones left. That's okay with me. We are America."12 Secretary of State Colin Powell is said to have remarked that talking big was no substitute for policy.
It is surprising that a country founded by people who wanted to escape the tyranny of the state religions which prevailed in 17th and 18th century Europe, today has leaders who want to establish Christianity as a state religion. In the past, empires called on the gods to confirm their supremacy. That the United States, the world's only military superpower at the beginning of the 21st century, seeks the same consecration is another indication that humanity's progress is very slow indeed. What is astonishing is that the Constitution formally forbids the government from taking a position on religious matters, nor may it declare what is good or bad according to a religious interpretation.13
What is the most disturbing for world stability is the American president's double penchant for things religious and for things military. The two together are dynamite. In a speech on April 8, 2002, in Knoxville, Tennessee, George W. Bush voiced his vision of the relationship between his religious morality and American military power: "The best way to fight evil is to do some good. Let me qualify that--the best way to fight evil at home is to do some good. The best way to fight them abroad is to unleash the military."
Around the same time, Bush's advisers released a political document announcing that the Administration was considering modifying the U.S. policy regarding the future use of nuclear weapons. Under certain circumstances, the old policy of deterrence or dissuasion--which stipulated that the U.S. would not be the first to use nuclear arms--could be replaced by the unilateral use of nuclear weapons.
People with a sectarian and ultra-religious morality are at risk of showing great cruelty toward people who do not think as they do. This is all the more possible if the others are of a different color, a different ethnicity, or a different religion. For my part, I don't think that Harry S. Truman, in 1945, would have dropped nuclear bombs on European cities, but he did bomb Asian cities.
Today, I do not think that George W. Bush would dare go after Europe. However, the Arab cities in the Middle East who oppose Israel have much to fear from a commander-in-chief who believes himself to be mandated by God to impose his version of justice. He would surely be able to find an excuse afterwards.
* * *
It is ironic that in their public declarations, it seems to be a contest to see who can be the most pious and mention Allah or God more often, George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein. Even though the Iraqi dictator is not really known for his piety, he resorts to references to Good and Evil to chastise the United States for its "policies of Evil," as he multiplies his incantations to Allah. In 2002, after having been plebicited at 100% by the Iraqi population, Saddam Hussein declared, "The Iraqi question . . . is now the center of the battle between Good and Evil."14
In 1996, after his disastrous wars against Iran and Kuwait, Saddam Hussein decided to wage a political campaign with the theme of "faith" or "iman," discarding the secular model that he had espoused until then. He even ordered the construction of two new mosques in Baghdad, one of which is said to be named after himself.15
All three leaders--Bush, bin Laden, and Hussein--rely on absolute values with a religious connotation to consolidate their authority and to demonize their adversaries. It is perhaps understandable on the part of bin Laden, a medieval conception of Islam seeming to be the only ideal he has to offer the world. Even a sanguinary dictator like Hussein can be understood, if not condoned, for associating himself with religion and the deity to legitimate his position after having led his country to ruin.
However, this shouldn't be the case in the United States, the historic example par excellence, along with France, of democracy and liberty. That George W. Bush is not able to articulate fundamental American values without losing himself in conjectures on Good and Evil is a tragedy for the United States, for the West, and for the world.
What the United States has to offer the world is not a sketchy medieval version of Good and Evil, but a system of fundamental political values that are based upon the rights of people to self-determination, to a democratic government and the rule of law, to inalienable human rights and individual freedom, to the respect for life, to tolerance, to the basic rights of freedom of thought, religion, and liberty of conscience, to free enterprise and economic progress through science, industry, and personal effort, and to the right of individuals to seek happiness.
All these values are rejected by Islam, but George W. Bush is incapable of explaining the contrast between the two civilizations, one founded upon a medieval and totalitarian religion, and the other on a modern and democratic humanism. On the contrary, he gets mired in a role that is not rightly his--that of Chief Theologian--when he takes it upon himself, as president, to judge the relative worth of different religions. For this is just what he did when he declared publicly that Islam is a religion "based on peace, love and compassion."16
When leaders succumb to a manichaean classification of "Good" and "Evil," it is not only to demonize their enemy, although that can be a prerequisite before killing them or committing atrocities, but especially to assure themselves and their people that the enemy is 100% in the wrong and that they are 100% in the right.17
Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist movement, could not be more clear: it is in the name of God (Allah) that he kills innocent victims. "These men (the September 11th hijackers) have realized that the only course to achieve justice and defeat injustice is through jihad (Muslim holy struggle) for the cause of God (Allah)."18
The language is practically identical to that used by George W. Bush after the September 11th attacks. It is a paradox of the 21st century that both Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush apply the same manichaean terminology to describe themselves and their enemies. One seems to be a mirror image of the other. Both refer to Allah or God to justify their political actions. Both believe, or at least claim, that the Divinity is on their side; each thinks he is on the side of Good, while the other is automatically on the side of Evil.
For a manichaean leader, debates and discussions are out. Any policy is justifiable, since the goal is to fight absolute Evil. It is all-out war, jihad, with the blessing of God or Allah. An ambitious leader can then put the frosting on the cake and announce that he was chosen by Allah or God to lead, and the circle is closed.
This is perhaps the fundamental reason for the fanaticism of manichaean religions and why they have for so long been at the source of war. They tend to encourage blind obedience and primitive instincts, instead of reflection, study and dialogue. Whether it be in the Bible or in the Koran, there are many passages that justify violence.
The mix of religious Manichaeism and public affairs is always to be feared. It is wrong to think that religiously based terrorism is a kind of modern war of religions pitting Islam against Christianity, or against any other religion. It is rather the extreme reaction of some totalitarian and religious groups who are violently opposed to the humanist values of democracy, freedom, openness, tolerance, and the rule of law; that is to say, the values that have dominated in the West for three centuries and are the foundation of its progress.
Rodrigue Tremblay is Professor Emeritus of Economics and of International Finance at the UniversitŽ de MontrŽal. Dr. Tremblay holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Stanford University. He is the author of numerous professional articles and books, including a basic textbook in economics. He was the President of the North American Economics and Finance Association in 1986-87. His latest book was published in Paris and Montreal on February 12, 2003, in French, under the title "Pourquoi Bush veut la Guerre" [Why Bush Wants War] (Les Intouchables).
1 "Therefore, I, George W. Bush, Governor of Texas, do hereby proclaim June 10, 2000, "Jesus Day" in Texas and urge the appropriate recognition whereof, in official recognition whereof, I hereby affix my signature this 17th day of April 2000." George W. Bush, "Jesus Day" 2000 Proclamation day of prayer.
2 By virtue of the "Patriot Act," adopted in 2001, the Attorney General authorizes the FBI to use wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance on citizens, even when they are not suspected of a crime.
The best current example of government intrusion in personal privacy is the program of electronic surveillance proposed by the Department of Defense, at the Pentagon, to collect billions and billions of pieces of personal information on American citizens (phone calls, e-mails, credit card accounts, bank accounts, plane reservations, and many other sources of data), with the aim of detecting possible terrorist activities. This system, under the cover of the "Homeland Security Act" and called "Total Information Awareness," will use super computers to find specific information on particular individuals. See John Markoff, "Pentagon Plans a Computer System That would Peek at Personal Data of Americans," The New York Times, Nov. 9, 2002.
In George W. Bush's own words: "America is now a battlefield. There should be no doubt in anybody's mind that we must do everything we can to protect the homeland." See Mimi Hall, "Deal set on homeland department," USA Today, Nov. 13, 2002.
3 Jonathan E. Smaby, "American Ramadan," The New York Times, Nov. 18, 2001, p.WY13.
4 Paul Koring, "Bush pledges to conquer 'evil'," The Globe & Mail, Nov. 12, 2001, p.A4.
5 Bush was not the only one to put the United States on a pedestal of absolute moral purity. Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York, echoed the words of the president, after September 11th: "On the one hand, you have democracy, the rule of law and the respect for human life; on the other hand, tyranny, arbitrary executions, and mass assassinations. We are Good; they are Evil. It's as simple as that." The New York Times, October 1, 2001.
Bush concluded his speech to the Congress, by saying, "May God grant us wisdom and may he watch over the United States of America." The American president, like many Americans, is close to thinking that God is an American, and that the United States was created by God. He came close to making such a solemn proclamation in 2001, when he declared "Our nation was chosen by God and mandated by history to serve (the world) as a model of justice." It seems that no side has a monopoly on narrowmindedness.
6 George W. Bush's chief speechwriter is Michael Gerson, an evangelistic Christian who studied theology at Wheaton College.
7 Radio speech by George W. Bush, on March 30, 2002. Elizabeth Bumiller, "Bush Strikes Religious Note in an Address for Holidays," The New York Times, March 31, 2002, p.21.
8 An exception could be Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel. In his end-of-the-year message in 2001, he declared, "From Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish people for the last 3004 years and forever, I send you my warmest greetings for a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year . . . Israel is the only place in the world where Jews have the right, the capability and the duty to defend themselves by themselves. For this we must thank God every day . . . At this New Year, I fervently pray we will be blessed with security, peace and joy for all of us."
9 In Utah, there is a de facto state religion, the Mormon Church. Michael Janofsky, "Plaza Dispute in Salt Lake Roils Citizens Over Religion," The New York Times, Nov. 16, 2002.
10 Jean-Pierre Stroobants, "Le primat de Belgique en a assez du 'God Bless America'," Le Monde, Dec. 24, 2002.
11 Bob Woodward and Dan Blaz, "At Camp David, Advise and Dissent; Bush, Aides Grapple with War Plan," The Washington Post, Jan. 21, 2002, p. A01.
12 Bob Woodward, Op.cit.
13 The First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;"
14 Jooneed Khan, "Les ƒtats-Unis reculent sur l'Irak", La Presse, October 18, 2002, p.A1.
15 John F. Burns, "Iraq Arms Quest uncovers a zest for Drink," The New York Times, Dec. 7, 2002.
16 David Waters, "Bush can't Begin to Judge Religion," Scripps Howard News Service, Dec. 8, 2002.
17 Manichaeism was a religion founded by Mani (c.216-276), a Persian who thought the universe was simultaneously under the control of Good and Evil, but that one day these forces would be separated, each one in its own domain. This religion disappeared in the West in the 6th century, but survived in the Orient until the 14th century.
18 Statement attributed to Osama bin Laden. Associated Press, Salah Nasrawi, "Arab station airs tape with bin Laden reportedly naming all 911 hijackers," Sept. 11, 2002.
Dan and I timed a brief mid-February vacation in New York City to take in comedian Julia Sweeney's new monolog, "Julia Sweeney in the Family Way," at the Ars Nova theater. Julia, the "Saturday Night Live" alumna and actress, was a popular speaker at the Freedom From Religion Foundation's most recent convention.
We were thrilled when we realized our last day in New York City would coincide with the huge peace rally scheduled there and in some 600 other cities around the world on Saturday, Feb. 15.
Julia Sweeney's monolog about how she came to adopt a baby girl in China was very, very funny. Thanks to Julia's hospitality, it was topped off by meeting the tiny subject of the monolog herself, Mulan, now three, a vivacious, adorable little personality in her own right. (Freethought news scoop: Julia is beginning to schedule her newest monolog: "Letting Go of God.")
This was my first visit to Manhattan, so Dan and I spent an enjoyable two and a half days sightseeing. But by Saturday, I was ready to start marching. You may know that city authorities refused a permit for a march, or even to let us congregate in front of the United Nations building, a refusal upheld by two courts.
Hoping for the best, Dan and I set off for the noon rally at about 10:30 a.m. from our hotel at 45th Street and Eighth Avenue, walking a long mile toward First Avenue, the site of the rally. Dan got a lot of laughs carrying a homemade sign with his personal pun: "Bush is a bad precedent." Packing light, I only had a piece of bright pink cardboard bedecked with two relevant bumperstickers and a little scrawled advertisement, "Bumperstickers available" (always the freethought saleswoman).
Reaching Third Avenue, we realized we were in for an endurance contest. Police had barricades up along the sidewalks, and had totally shut off side streets that led directly to the rally. Instead, they slowly herded us (there is no other word) for blocks and blocks away from the rally site before letting us turn toward Second and then First Avenues. We later learned that marchers filled First, Second and Third Avenues all the way from 51st to 80th Street!
At least we had our march of sorts, however poorly the city had planned for it. There was no room and no way to contain us. Confrontations took place on Third Avenue later as marchers, dangerously overcrowded, had no choice but to overflow the barricades. Almost 300 were arrested, some simply for doing what I had done--walking in the street to avoid overcrowded sidewalks.
We kept moving like cattle, finally squashed into pens erected on First Avenue. We came to a dead halt six or seven blocks from the rally. Utterly smashed, I was contemplating being the first in our block to climb over a barricade, until I spotted a police officer sauntering by with a German Shepherd. Was that necessary, Mayor Bloomberg?
The diverse crowd was extremely good-natured. In too-close proximity, we smiled at each others' signs. A grandmotherly woman passed out Girl Scout Thin Mints. I chatted briefly with a female professor from Iran. She shrugged off the unhappy crowd conditions but told me she was so dismayed to realize she was using the same slogans against Bush that she had used against rulers back in Iran. With a wicked wind blowing up from the East River, we were slowly freezing. Protesters took every opportunity to clap, cheer and jump up and down.
As the rally began, heard through loudspeakers, at least three or four "reverends," maybe more, invoked their respective gods. There was a Baptist minister or two, a rabbi, and preachers sprinkled throughout the program, such as Al Sharpton. It's one thing if a speaker mentions personal beliefs--but scheduling formal prayers and invocations excludes so many of us. Just as a welcome secular speech began by actress Susan Sarandon, the loudspeakers by us turned to static.
This was too much for me: I hadn't come to the rally just to freeze, smother and hear only prayers! Although it looked impossible, we politely elbowed our way through wall-to-wall protesters until we came to an intersection. There was no way out of our corral.
Since the coast looked clear, I climbed over the barricade. Dan followed eventually (son of a police officer, he is usually very law-abiding), and we slowly worked our way through two more pens until we could see and hear again, getting about five blocks from the stage.
A monitor screen displayed the speakers: many local activists, some celebrities such as Harry Belafonte and Rosie Perez, a few politicians, Palestinians, Israelis for peace, Arab Americans and representatives from around the world. Although we missed a lot, we heard enough to realize that many speakers were liberally peppering their remarks with "God," reassuring the crowd that "God is on our side," or ending remarks with "God Bless America." Dan and I periodically exchanged glances of wonderment, and muttered, "They sound just like George Bush!"
(I later read European coverage contrasting the religious nature of American peace rallies with Europe's pronounced secularism.)
The final straw was special guest Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. (I do give him great credit for attending.) He expansively told us "God was smiling" on all the people down the avenue. Tutu always argued from divine authority against apartheid, rather than as a civil libertarian ("We are all God's children."). Although I clapped enthusiastically at Tutu's secular follow-up remarks, I wondered if nonbelievers--after all, we are 14% of the U.S. adult population--would ever be acknowledged or represented at this huge rally!
Feminist singer Holly Near saved the day, when she launched without preamble into her feisty song, "I Ain't Afraid."
I ain't afraid of your Yahweh
I ain't afraid of your Allah
I ain't afraid of your Jesus
I'm afraid of what you'll do in the name of your god.
She took a minute to explain that we shouldn't do stuff in the name of a god or divide ourselves by religion. I sensed no crowd comprehension. But after her song, when I put down my sign to tie a shoe, a little girl read it and asked if she could buy a bumpersticker. Her father stepped forward and handed me a dollar for "Imagine no religion."
We know freethinkers were there in full force, are here in full force. We just haven't made it to the radar screen of the media, politicians or the public. We need to demand representation of our reason-based views. Analyzing the growing crises out of context, without acknowledging the role religion plays in war, in suppression of civil liberties and in terrorism, is like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle when vital pieces are missing.
Well. There I was, making music, minding my own business, chatting away on an Afrikaans literary debating forum, when I woke up to find on the front pages of the Sunday papers two lines selectively picked from a three-month debate on the merits of religion, God and Bart Simpson.
"I do not want to believe, I want to know."
Unlike Sagan, I added that "I did not know," but this was not printed because why should a journalist forfeit a front-page story?
Line 2 read:
"God created a world Bart Simpson could improve on."
Okay. Granted. A slightly harsh metaphor, but no less accurate. If the traditional God existed, He'd surely agree with it, as He himself cowered in shame and regret at His lowly creation. More than once (Gen. 6:6, Ex. 32:14, 1 Sam. 15:11)!
And I didn't even claim that I did not believe in God. I merely asked "which One?"
It is very hard to follow the South African Synod meetings of this millennium, when they still entertain consensus on aspects of God's will in everybody's lives and that woman shall not preach, gays shall not be included anywhere, evolution shall not be taught and former archbishop Desmond Tutu shall not receive accolades for his indefatigable work for his God.
This they round off with a consuming debate over the type of cup, goblet or chalice acceptable for use during Communion. Is it hard to see how these church fathers could sanction and justify Apartheid from the Word of God? It is not.
White Theology is alive and well in Africa. I'll have you know that my name was on the very same hit list that brought about the assassination of struggle leader Chris Hani. A list compiled by my own people. And I thought notes and bars and measures was my business.
I perform in Afrikaans, mostly for Afrikaners, a vague demographic these days, as it includes many coloured folk alienated by that very Biblically-based model of exclusion, Apartheid. One needs to be (very Chosen and) extremely sure that one owns the only God and Truth to qualify as the architect of the big A. I give credit today to my culture, the black and white, tolerant and friendly Afrikaans South African folk, but not for the clammy residue of religious arrogance still hanging in the air almost a decade after our Mandela-esque transformation in 1994.
What am I saying? That the true genesis of Apartheid is alive and well as long as you can claim that your (white or Muslim) God is the only God and that He chronically whispers in your ear His will that you should fly Boeings into buildings or burn the CDs of heretic singers.
Apartheid is a religion thing and therefore almost entirely un(ad)dressed in South Africa.
With my new CD on the shelves and my suitcase packed for the national 2003 tour, I prepared to do what I have diligently done for 14 years. Family concerts in the city halls of the beautiful places I grew up in. The Karoo, the Free State, Johannesburg and Cape Town. And then it happened.
Management phones. My agent whispers to me the befuddling news of the first concert cancellations. This has never happened. Not on grounds of religious disposition. Fans want to lay hands on me after concerts. Priests warn against the moral decay I am subjecting the nations to. And entire sermons are preached on the proverbial Dwaas (the Fool) I have become. All this for merely claiming that our Christian God created a world Bart Simpson could improve on, and that our synods surely did not represent a God anyone should be associating with. That we should edit out the statements in our Bibles that make our Gods look funny and sound ridiculous. That the mustard seed is not the smallest seed "on earth" and that God need not send two bears to annihilate 42 kids to show off His omnipotence.
These statements reached our Afrikaans press in a controversy of Spanish Inquisitional proportions, raging through all media, radio and TV. I have had to defend my spirituality on all our secular and gospel stations, often against boxers-turned-preachers who can hardly read. My 14-year successful recording career seemed blown, culminating now in CD-burning sessions countrywide and in local evangelists, who drive Japanese vehicles and watch Scientologists' movies, encouraging bully-boycotts at the proposed venues I perform at. I have since managed to sue clients that have cancelled shows on account of my "religion," as we really have the most liberating constitution in the world, which ironically accounts very little for the true sentiment out in the real South.
Do all countries need a Scopes trial first, or can we learn from the mistakes of others? Are we the only sicko fundamentalists left or does the modern West still suffer its fair share of Flat Earthers and Bruno-Burners? Why have Thomas Paine and Dan Barker been banned from our public libraries and why don't their Christian adversaries know that Satan can come disguised as an Angel of the Light (2 Cor. 11:14)? I have a notion that the antichrist will not come as the marked beast, but as something more subtle; something we're all extremely comfortable with; something we're even very sure of: our religion.
But I won't hold my breath.
Well, sales are picking up again, but not in church venues, often the only fitting place to give a family concert out in the platteland. I don't make loud music, I can't rap, don't use foul language and take care of everyone, 4 to 84 years of age. My mailbox is cluttered with national prayers for me and notes warning me that I should stick to singing.
Like music, spirituality is afforded everyone. Choices too.
Even to rappers.
President George W. Bush has unveiled a plethora of proposals to fund "faith-based initiatives" so far this year.
In December he bypassed Congress with his executive order to Cabinets to allow pervasively religious groups to apply for public social-service grants without modifying religious content.
He couched the executive order as a ban on "discrimination" against faith-based charities, largely directed toward human services funding.
In January, the Administration dropped a stealth bomb--quietly publishing a proposed rule to allow churches, mosques, synagogues and religious groups to apply to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for federal grants to construct church buildings. Churches would be eligible to apply if any part is used for "social services." (See banner story above.)
At his State of the Union speech, he unveiled several proposals to fund faith-based approaches to social problems.
At a speech before the National Religious Broadcasters in February, Bush said: "The role of government is limited, because government cannot put hope in people's hearts, or a sense of purpose in people's lives. That happens when someone puts an arm around a neighbor and says, God loves you, I love you, and you can count on us both."
Yet he proceeded to spell out his intention for this "limited" government to promote religion and his belief that "faith" will "help solve the nation's deepest problems."
"But governments can and should support effective social services provided by religious people, so long as they work and as long as those services go to anyone in need, regardless of their faith. And when government gives that support, it is equally important that faith-based institutions should not be forced to change the character or compromise their prophetic role. I think the charities helping the needy, it should not matter if there is a rabbi on the board, or a cross on the wall, or crescent on the wall, or religious commitment in the charter."
Critics note that Bush is not increasing social-services funding per se, only encouraging religious groups to vie against secular groups for current or decreasing social-services funding. A listing of Bush's latest "faith-based initiatives" follows.
Drug Treatment Program
In his January State of the Union address, Bush asked Congress for $600 million for a new drug treatment program, "Recovery Now," to endow community providers, especially religious groups. Treatment would be provided for 300,000 drug addicts and alcoholics over the next three years.
Bush said he looked forward "to working with the Congress to empower programs which work, particularly faith-based programs which work, to help save Americans one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time."
White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives director Jim Towey explained to the Washington Post: "This program is funding treatment, not worship. But what you would term 'worship' is integral to a successful treatment program."
In his speech Bush cited the Healing Place Church, Baton Rouge, La., as an example of what he seeks to fund. That church relies "solely on . . . the Word of God to break the bands of addiction."
Bush also invited Henry Lozano of Teen Challenge in California to sit in Laura Bush's box during his address. This signals that Bush intends to fund overtly proselytizing groups, including those relying exclusively on faith, such as Teen Challenge, rather than programs combining religion with a medical approach. (According to an analysis of Teen Challenge's financial forms by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Feb. 9, 2003, that Christian group spends only one-fifth of its budget on programs, with the rest going toward overhead and fundraising.)
Teen Challenge's approach is similar to that of Faith Works of Milwaukee, singled out by Bush on the campaign trail as a prototype of faith-based funding. Faith Works' mission is to lead "homeless addicts to Christ." The Freedom From Religion Foundation won the first federal lawsuit in the nation against faith-based funding, when a federal judge in January 2002 declared direct funding of Faith Works to be unconstitutional.
(The judge later ruled against the Foundation's challenge of indirect funding of Faith Works through state contracts, involving state referral of men on parole or probation. In a decision issued after the Supreme Court's infamous pro-school voucher ruling last summer, the federal judge compared such referrals to "vouchers." The Foundation has appealed the ruling; oral arguments were heard by a 3-judge panel of the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Feb. 12.)
Faith Works is similar to many overtly religious drug treatment programs in that it had no AODA-certified staff, relied on "witnessing" and did not meet federal standards in credentialing and training. Under Bush's proposal, uncredentialed religious treatment programs would be on equal footing with programs that follow the protocols of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which statistically have the best success rate.
To make legal challenges more difficult, Bush promotes this scheme as a "voucher" program, whereby clients, at taxpayer expense, would allegedly be given a choice of programs, including religious treatment, in some 25 states, territories or Indian tribes.
In his State of the Union address, Bush called on Congress to finance a $450 million program to provide mentors for a million children, especially those who have a parent in prison. Bush called this part of his "compassionate conservative" effort. His proposal would give $150 million over the next three years, through the Department of Health and Human Services, to help more than 100,000 adolescent children of prisoners find an adult mentor. It also would allocate nearly $300 million through the Department of Education over the next three years to support "the development, expansion and strengthening of mentoring programs" for disadvantaged middle school students.
The HHS press release notes: "Through the mentoring initiative, federal agencies will work with nonprofit, community and faith-based organizations that train volunteer mentors and pair them with children in need." HHS notes this will expand earlier acts to create and increase mentoring programs "through networks of community organizations, including religious organizations."
D.C. Voucher Plan
Bush is asking Congress to set aside $75 million in federal money for a school voucher program in the District of Columbia and seven or eight other cities in his 2004 budget.
A spokesman for District Mayor Anthony A. Williams said the city flatly opposes any voucher program. He contends it would drain funds from the school district and other forms of secular school choice, such as public charter schools. In 1981, 90% of D.C. voters rejected a tax credit to allow school vouchers to be used for religious or private school tuition.
In the face of opposition by D.C. officials, the Administration is toying with the idea of giving the money to a "nonprofit" to run the voucher program.
Marriage Promotion Grants
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced on January 2 that he would award more than $2.2 million in grants to 12 states and a variety of religious, nonprofit and tribal organizations for child support enforcement--with $550,000 designated for programs endorsing marriage.
The Marriage Coalition, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, received $199,994 to "test" a curriculum for poor parents on the value of marriage and child support. Marriage Coalition director Sandra Bender described her group to Associated Press as "a nonprofit organization of inter-religious clergy, mental health professionals and individuals dedicated to reducing the divorce rate and birth to unmarried parents through education." It trains clergy and counselors to work with engaged and married couples.
(In May 2000 the Freedom From Religion Foundation won a federal lawsuit in Wisconsin against funding a similar program for clergy to promote a "Marriage Savers" agenda for ministers working with engaged couples.)
Community Services for Children Inc., Allentown, Pa., got $177,373 to work with local church groups to provide marriage education and other services to unwed couples.
The proposed budget also calls for $300 million to be spent by the federal Administration for Children and Families on premarital counseling, and pro-marriage and fatherhood educational campaigns. The Administration is led by fundamentalist Wade Horn. Critics accuse the administration of using marriage initiatives as a smokescreen to hide its failure to effectively aid the more than 11 million U.S. children living in poverty. Welfare rights organizations argue that education and training, as the surest path out of poverty for low-income women, are what should be funded.
School Prayer Directive
The Bush Administration issued a directive on Feb. 7 warning the nation's public schools they risked losing federal funding if they ban prayer by students.
"Public schools should not be hostile to the religious rights of their students and their families. At the same time, school officials may not compel students to participate in prayer or other activities."
The instructions are patterned after the guidelines issued by the Clinton Administration, allowing prayer outside classroom instruction and initiated by students.
However, the new guidelines say students taking part in assemblies may not be restricted in expressing religious ideas as long as the speakers are chosen through "neutral, evenhanded criteria." Schools may issue disclaimers that the student speech does not represent the institution.
Significantly, the changes include permission for teachers to meet with each other for "prayer or Bible study" before school or after lunch, provided they make it clear they are not acting in their "official capacities."
The changes are being implemented through the "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001." The letter to schools signed by Secretary Paige refers to "constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools."
Paige advised officials that students may "read their Bibles or other scriptures, say grace before meals, and pray or study religious materials with fellow students during recess, the lunch hour, or other noninstructional time to the same extent that they may engage in nonreligious activities." He did remind officials that they may not "compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities," nor may teachers or officials "encourage or discourage prayer, or participate in such activities with students."
Department of Labor Grant
The Village Voice (Jan. 29 - Feb. 4, 2003) published an exposŽ about an ongoing example of faith-based funding through the Department of Labor. In early October, the department made one of the first international faith-based funding awards, granting $700,000 to the International Justice Mission, a Washington, D.C.-based Christian group. The mission describes itself as "an explicitly Christian ministry" to deal with human rights abuses.
The money is allocated to counter child trafficking in the hills of northern Thailand near Myanmar and Laos, where, the Voice reported, members of the Akha hill tribe, targeted for conversion, are increasingly wary of missionary meddling.
"With the region's average monthly wage pegged at something less than $100, the sheer size of the $700,000 grant is raising eyebrows," wrote Voice reporter Steve Hargreaves.
Iowa Prison Program Challenged
Two federal lawsuits were filed in Iowa on Feb. 12 challenging InnerChange, a state-financed evangelical Christian prison program giving privileges to participating inmates.
Watergate felon Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries runs the Christian program at Newton Correctional Facility. The program is also running at prisons in Minnesota, Kansas and Texas.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed the challenges on behalf of one Mormon inmate and three relatives of inmates, noted:
"This program contains everything that is wrong with the president's faith-based initiative. It uses tax dollars for pervasively religious programs, allows discriminatory hiring, gives preferential treatment to one religion over others, funds coercive conversion efforts and basically ignores the whole notion of a separation between church and state."
The recruitment brochure for InnerChange advertises:
"This program confronts prisoners with the choice of embracing new life in Christ and personal transformation, or remaining in the stranglehold of crime and despair."
Staff and volunteers must sign a statement of belief in the bible as literally true. Participants in the 18-month program live in one cellblock and are given privileges such as access to computers, large-screen TVs, free phone calls and keys to their cell doors. Participants pray, take bible study and are mentored by church volunteers. The Iowa program has had 215 participants and 125 graduates, according to Jerry Wilger, executive national director of InnerChange.
The State of Iowa subsidizes InnerChange by adding a surcharge to telephone calls to and from inmates.
If President Bush's proposal to grant federal money to build places of worship is approved, it would deal a crippling blow to the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, the Freedom From Religion Foundation warns.
The Bush Administration's scheme, quietly unveiled in January, would permit public money to be used to build or reconstruct churches and other religious structures--so long as any part of the building is also used for "social services."
"Under the proposed regulations, it would be difficult to imagine a church, mosque or synagogue that would not be eligible for federal dollars," pointed out Foundation president Anne Gaylor. "Imagine the drain to taxpayers and the needy!
"Pres. Bush is turning on its head more than 200 years of traditional respect for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
"It is time to take true alarm, time for the public to weigh in on this issue and reject this proposal."
The proposal would also rescind current requirements that religious organizations receiving HUD funding "provide assurances that they will conduct eligible program activities in a manner that is 'free from religious influences.' " The proposed regulation states that this is "unfair" since secular entities are not required to make such a pledge.
The regulations offer no guidelines on the extent of social service use that would make a church eligible for funding. Instead, officials indicate funding would be decided case-by-case. The proposal declares any place of worship would be eligible for public-funded construction "where a structure is used for both eligible and inherently religious activities."
"If a church lets a support group for single mothers meet in a lounge once a week, would it therefore be eligible for tax dollars if it wishes to enlarge or improve a room that benefits the church 99% of the time? The scenarios for abuse are endless," Gaylor said.
The process would be rife with opportunities for political corruption, for public officials to funnel money to the congregation or denomination of their choice, and for powerful churches to lobby for public funding in exchange for mustering political support from their congregations.
Foundation spokesman Dan Barker said the Administration is "bypassing the 3 C's":
"Court precedent, Congress, and the Constitution."
The courts have never permitted such a breach in the wall of separation between church and state, he said. "Nor has Congress been consulted. Once again Bush has promoted this radical departure from the status quo through fiat, not democratic processes."
At the heart of Bush's argument is his claim that the government has been "discriminating" against churches, said Barker, a former minister. But churches themselves discriminate--in dogma, practice, and employment. "The Establishment Clause absolutely requires that churches be treated differently from secular entities, because their basis for existence is to propound exclusionary doctrine and dogma, which the government may not endorse."
The Administration's "faith-based initiatives" permit publicly-funded religious groups to discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation in hiring staff. It is uncertain how far the discrimination can extend, since churches as employers also regularly discriminate based on race, ethnicity, gender, and personal conduct issues.
Barker pointed to Thomas Jefferson's famous Virginia statute for religious freedom, with its guarantee that no citizen may be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship--wording which was adopted in many state constitutions.
"Our founders were unalterably opposed to the idea that citizens could ever be taxed to support a place of worship. This is at the heart of guarantees to U.S. citizens made by our secular Constitution, that citizens shall not be tithed to support a church against their conscience."
Religion already gets the credit for charities that taxpayers often get the bill for, he added. Although some homeless shelters are housed in churches, it is often county governments that pick up the bill, including rent for use of the religious facility. Especially under aggressive new governmental funding of religious social services, it is foreseeable that churches, already well-paid for serving the public, could invoke publicly-financed programs in churches to apply for construction projects at taxpayer expense --thus double-billing taxpayers for services rendered.
"What is also being forgotten is that any public subsidy extended to religious groups frees up their coffers to promote religion," said Gaylor.
If a church doesn't need its own building fund because it may apply for federal subsidy, it can obviously direct its own resources for proselytizing: buying bibles, ministerial perqs, bigger crosses and crucifixes, advertising. "Any public subsidy of churches inevitably ends up being government support of religion," said Gaylor.
Gaylor noted that churches already receive a major public subsidy--tax exemption. There is no practical difference between giving public money to a church outright, and failing to send them a tax bill, she added.
The Foundation pointed out another grave problem--churches are the only nonprofits exempted from filing a yearly Form 990 detailing purpose, officers' salaries, income sources and what it spends on charitable purposes, overhead and fundraising. The rules posted by the White House propose that religious groups would have to be audited each year if they have incomes of more than $300,000.
"This would be an accounting and monitoring nightmare," Gaylor added.
The scheme was quietly announced in the Federal Register (Monday, January 6, 2003) under "Participation in HUD Programs by Faith-Based Organizations."
While preparing for my deployment to the desert to fly missions in support of "Operations Enduring Freedom" over Afghanistan and Southern Watch in and around Southern Iraq, I had to ensure that my mobility folder was in order. Since becoming the mobility officer for the unit I had noticed that a few of my peers had dog tags that said "No Religious Preference" or "Other." Mine had said "Other" until someone told me I would receive better treatment in a POW camp if I said I was religious. Since then my dog tags have said "Christian."
It has been a long time since I had had my dog tags changed, and as I prepared for this deployment I began to think more about that word that so often hangs from my neck.
Though I was raised Christian at an early age, I found that the questions I had could not be answered to my satisfaction. I had just left it at that, until recently my wife joined the Mormon Church. Initially, upon studying Mormon beliefs, I couldn't help laughing at some of the bizarre dogmas they have added to Christianity, and at their sordid history as well.
But when my kids began singing songs about "following the prophet" and I heard "authorities" in the church teaching my kids things like, "When the prophet speaks, the debate is over," I stopped laughing. I began to read more about religious history and also began voicing my opinions in the local paper and various periodicals, especially after September 11 and with the recent controversy over "Under God."
When one of my pieces was printed in the "Faith and Ethics" section of the local paper, a local religious group contacted me and invited me to speak at its weekly meeting. It turned out that this group was pretty open-minded. My views, surprisingly enough, were very similar to a favorite author of theirs, former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who is an outspoken advocate of church reform.
I learned a lot of surprising things about the church from the members of this group, especially their pastor, a woman who has become a good friend. She told me of seminary school where one learns about the true history of the church, things that are not taught to "the sheep," probably because they are not very faith-promoting.
Basically the bible is, at least mostly, a fraud, and the church knows it. The gospels were written long after they pretend to have been, by people with little knowledge of the history of the time or even the geography of the places in the fictitious stories. A widely held opinion among experts both within and outside the church is that Jesus was created as a fictional character of Christian stories and never lived at all. The silence of historians from the time and places where the Jesus stories were set gives that theory some weight.
Much of the bible was written for political influence, with rulers like Constantine and his Roman Catholic Church being strengthened by the "word of God" of their invention. When Constantine held the Council of Nicea, more than 300 years after the Jesus story was said to have occurred, the council selected the official collection of works that would become the bible. Amazingly, the conference actually voted to decide whether the Christian God would be a Trinity or not.
The name "Jesus Christ" is not found at all before the first Council of Nicea in 325. The two names represented older gods that were molded into one by the council, Hesus of the Druids, Jesus of the Israelites and Christos of India, among others. Constantine, ruler of Rome, thus created the Roman Catholic Church with elements of many popular religions to unify all people under his control under a god of his design.
As if fraud in the name of political control wasn't bad enough, the real tale of the spread of Christianity is a horror story more gruesome than anything Stephen King could invent. It is a story of true sin unmatched in scale and cruelty in all of human history.
Long-held beliefs tend to die hard, but all across the world, they did. Millions were killed for not denouncing their indigenous beliefs. The most gruesome torture imaginable was inflicted on those who clung to the faith they had held since their childhoods. Christianity spread by literally killing off the beliefs of large portions of the world. I wonder if believers today could see the mountain of innocent tortured bodies that is the true foundation of their church, would they still take their children's hands and climb to the gaudy entrance?
I am now sitting in a trailer in a desert not far from the birthplace of Christianity. I fly a military jet over land and peoples torn by centuries of war over oil, land and the religions that began here and spread like a plague across the world. I contemplate the horror that faith enables as I fly over Afghanistan, where our mission is to track down and kill those responsible for the worst terrorist attacks in American history--largely inspired by a difference in religious upbringing. Faith in their imaginary god gave them the courage to end their lives, happy with the elaborate delusion of an afterlife, while they disintegrated in a murderous hell of their creation.
As Seneca the Younger said: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."
Today we live in a world of delusional beliefs that were spread by conquest and the most perverted torture humanity has ever invented. These beliefs were deployed with the same clear conscience possessed by the September 11 religious murderers.
Thinking of all this makes me feel dirty for having the word Christian pressed against my skin by the dog tags hanging from my neck.
I do not look down on Christians who don't know the history of the tradition they represent, but now that I know, I will not represent Christianity in any way. When I get back home, I am going to have some new dog tags made. If I can't have "Agnostic" printed on them, I will dig out my old "Other" dog tags and use them from now on. It is possible that I could be treated worse in a POW camp someday as a result, but I feel that it is more important to represent who I am.
Hell, the way things are now, they would bury me with a damn cross over my body. I don't want to be remembered like that.
I was born in 1962 to a Muslim family in a small town called Mymensing in what then was East Pakistan. Now, after it gained its independence, the country is called Bangladesh.
My childhood was not much different from that of other girls of my generation. Like other girls of a middle-class family, I was sent to a coeducational school until I reached the age of seven. When eight, I had to go to a girls' school. From 6th to 10th grade, coeducational schools were not open to girls. After 10th grade, I went to a girls' college. My father disapproved of my going to a coeducational college where boys were, but he had no alternative when he decided that I should study medical science.
My father, I should add, was different from other fathers. Girls frequently dropped out of school when they were fifteen or sixteen, ages at which they often were given into marriage by their parents. Few girls had a chance to continue their studies, for after an arranged marriage they were not allowed to continue studying in school or college or university nor could they take a job. They became totally dependent upon their husbands, in other words.
It was usual for us children, in the early morning, to read the Qur'an in Arabic, and like all other children in Bangladesh I did this. But I found myself asking questions. I wanted to know what I was reading, what the meaning of the Qu'ranic verses was. Our language is Bengali, not Arabic, and it was impossible to know the meaning of the verses that we read. We just read, that's all. When I asked Mother to tell me the meaning of what I was reading, she explained that the meaning is not important, that what is important is that Allah will be happy that I am reading the Qur'an in its original language.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, however, I found a book that translated the Qur'an into Bengali. To my surprise, I found Allah saying that men are superior, that women are inferior. Men can have four wives. Men can divorce their wives any time they want. Men are allowed to beat women. Women are not allowed to give testimony in some legal cases. Women are not allowed to inherit the property of their father equally with their brothers. Women are supposed to wear veils.
Islam does not consider woman a separate human being. Man was the original creation and womankind was created secondarily for the pleasure of man. Islam considers a woman as a slave or sexual object, nothing more. Woman's role is to stay at home and to obey her husband, for this is her religious duty. Women are considered weak, so they should be taken care of, their bodies and minds, their desires and wishes, their rights and freedom must be controlled by men. Islam treats women as intellectually, morally and physically inferior. In marriage, Islam protects the rights of men and men only. Once the marriage is consummated, women have no rights whatsoever in this field. The Qu'ran gave total freedom to men, saying 'Your women are as your field, go unto them as you will (2.223).'
Taslima signing books after her speech at the FFRF convention. Photo by Brent Nicastro.
Women are told to run to their husbands wherever they are, whatever they do. It is their duty. The Hadith says that two prayers that never reach the heavens are (1) those of the escaping slaves and (2) those of the reluctant woman who frustrates her husband at night.
Islam considers women psychologically inferior. Women's testimony is not allowed in cases of marriage, divorce, and hudud. Hudud is the punishment of Islamic law for adultery, fornication, adultery with a married person, apostasy, theft, robbery, and so forth. If any woman is raped, she has to produce four male witnesses to the court. If she cannot, there is no charge against the rapist. In Islamic law, the testimony of two women is worth that of one man. In the case in which a man suspects his wife of adultery or denies the legitimacy of the offspring, his testimony is worth that of four witnesses. A woman does not have the right to charge her husband in a similar manner.
Women are not allowed to inherit the property equally with their brothers. In the case of inheritance, Allah says, a male shall inherit twice as much as a female (4.11-12).
And after all the rights and freedom, after getting all the sexual pleasure and pleasure of being the master, Allah will reward the men with wine, food, and 72 virgins in Paradise, including their wives of the earth. Allah says, "Eat and drink happily, in return for your works." They relax on luxurious furnishings, and we match them with beautiful virgins (52.19-20). Near them shall be blushing virgins with large beautiful eyes which will be like hidden pearls (37.48-49).
And what is the reward for the pious woman? Nothing. Nothing but the same old husband, the same man who caused her suffering while they were on earth.
I was a student of science, so it was hard to accept that the sun moves around the earth, that the moon has its own light, and that the purpose of mountains is to support the earth so it will not fall down somewhere. I came to suspect that the Qur'an was not written by Allah but, rather, by some selfish greedy man who wanted only his own comfort. Then I read the Hadith, the words of Muhammad. I found different events of Prophet Muhammad's life in which, when he had problems, Allah solved them right away. For example, he was sexually aroused by seeing his daughter-in-law, so Allah sent him a message saying he could marry her because his son was adopted and not a real son, so the marriage was therefore justified. Further, he created a new rule, that Muslims could not be allowed to adopt any child.
Muhammad married 13 times, one of his brides being six-year-old Ayesha. Allah, he said, told him that he was allowed to enjoy his wives, his female slaves and all the the captive women he had. He put Ayesha in a veil because he was jealous and did not want his friends looking admiringly at her. Allah, he said, told his friends that they should not go to the Prophet's house any time they want but if they go, they should not look at any of his wives or ask any of them for something. He was so jealous that he introduced the veil for his wives and, ultimately, for all Muslim women. Even though widow-marriage was legal, he made it illegal for men to marry any of his own wives when he himself died. It became clear to me that Muhammad had written the Qur'an for his own interest, for his own comfort, for his own fun.
So I stopped believing in Islam. When I studied other religions, I found they, too, oppressed women. When I stopped practicing religion and made some offensive comments about religion to my mother, she became both nervous and furious, sure that I would go to Hell, and she started praying for me.
My father, a physician, had a scientific outlook but was very domineering. He did not allow me the freedom to play, to go outside, to meet friends, to go to the cinema or theatre, or to read any book that was not in a syllabus. He wanted me to earn a medical degree so he could say that one of his children followed his path. On the one hand, he wanted me to be independent, but on the other hand he wanted to find a good match for me inasmuch as educated men often desire an educated wife.
As I grew up, I kept observing the condition of women in our society. My mother, for example, was a perfect example of a woman oppressed. She had been given into marriage when she was but a child, she was a good student in school, but she was not allowed to continue her studies. My grandfather and my father did not want her to study, for what they wanted was for her to be a good housewife, a good mother, a good caretaker.
She was unhappy from the first day of the marriage. My father never loved her, he was promiscuous, and she knew that he had affairs with other women. In frustration, she sought refuge in religion. Unloved and not respected by her husband, she became religious. As a result, I came to think that this was foolish and unworthy of a mother. Although I was supposed to respect both my parents, I could not. I could not respect my father's being such a cruel and brutal person. Throughout my life he beat me, even when I was 30 years old! He loved to beat children, his theory being that unless children were beaten they would become spoiled. He had come from an illiterate, poor farm family, yet had succeeded in becoming a medical doctor.
In our house, I grew up with much fear, having to keep inside my heart all my desire for freedom and curiosity for the outside world. I was not allowed to step outside the house except to go to my school or college. As a result, I developed a passion for reading books, fiction, poetry, essays, anything. But I had to hide the books from my parents. And I had another passion: to write poetry.
Growing up, I naturally had the belief that girls surely must be inferior to boys, for boys could play in a big field whereas girls had to play with their dolls in a corner of the house. My brothers could go anywhere they wanted, could watch any games, could play anything they wanted to play. I could not. My sister could not. I was told that girls were not made for such activities, that their role was to stay home, learn how to cook, make beds, clean the house. My mother was not the only woman who was oppressed, for I saw my aunts, my neighbors, and other acquaintances who were playing the same roles, that of being oppressed. In our minds, torture of women was not oppression but, rather, tradition. We become accustomed to tradition. As I grew, I realized that I was a part of the tradition but also that I was being oppressed the same as my female classmates and, later, my female patients.
Whether they were poor or rich, beautiful or ugly, had blue or black or brown eyes, had white, black or brown skin, were unmarried or married, illiterate or literate, clever or stupid, all were oppressed. Everywhere women were oppressed. And all because of male-devised patriarchy, religion, tradition, culture and customs.
Nobody told me to protest, but I developed a strong feeling that it was important to fight against oppression. Nobody asked me to shed a tear, but I did. When I started writing prose that was published weekly in the newspapers, I found my protests got the attention of readers, that people either hated me or they loved me. I became accustomed to receiving extreme hate and extreme love letters. One by one, my books got published. Not only publishers but also newspaper editors wanted me to write. With perseverance, I became a bestselling author.
However, those who hated what I wrote developed demonstrations against me, and people began protesting by marching through the streets. In 1992 at a national book fair, my books were publicly burned, and I was thrown out of the event. A "Smash Taslima Committee" commenced, and I was not allowed to visit the book fair any more because the fair's leaders said my books were causing the problem.
In 1993 I returned, but this time the fundamentalists and an angry mob assaulted me publicly, breaking into the bookshop where my books were kept. I may have received the biggest literary award, but at the same time I received the biggest hate compaign ever. The government then confiscated my passport, asking me not to write any more if I hoped to keep my job as a medical doctor in a public hospital. In protest, I quit the job. My passport, however, was not returned until a year later, when a human rights campaign outside Bangladesh's borders successfully pressured the government.
I continued writing. In my poetry, prose, essays and novels I have defended women and the minority community that is being oppressed. I cried loudly for equality and justice, justice for all people whatever their religion or gender. I spoke loudly on behalf of secularism. I spoke against any religious laws in which women are oppressed. My book was banned by the government.
Women continue to be flogged, they are stoned to death. Women are raped, are accused of allowing the rape, and the rapists are set free. Women have been suffering from trafficking, from slavery, from all sorts of discrimination. Men have thrown acid on women's faces and walked away as happy men. Women are not considered as human beings, not by religion, not by so-called tradition. For a couple, the most unwanted thing is a female baby. If a female baby is born, either the wife gets a divorce for her crime of having given birth to a female or the wife must spend her life with disgrace.
By writing books, I wanted to do something constructive, I wanted to help women understand that they are oppressed but do not need to be. I wanted to encourage them to fight for their rights and freedom. My voice gave women the chance to think differently. That, however, did not make the religionists or the male chauvinists happy. As a result, the fundamentalists took the stand of absolutely not tolerating any of my views. They objected to a woman's breaking the chains and becoming free, and they could not tolerate my saying that the Qur'an is out of place, out of time, and that secular law with a uniform civil code for women is a necessity. Extremists broke into newspapers' offices, sued my editors, publishers, and me.
They demanded my execution by hanging. Hundreds of thousands of people were on the street. They called a general strike all over the country, insisting that I be killed. The government, instead of taking action against them, took action against me. They filed a case against me, charging that I had hurt the religious feelings of the people. I had no other alternative but to go into hiding. While in hiding, I was fortunate in receiving the support of the western democratic governments, feminists, and human rights organizations. They literally helped to save my life. Actually I thought I would be killed, for daily I saw mobs of people demanding my death. Police looked everywhere for me, knowing that the fundamentalists wanted me dead. Anyway, I survived. The government threw me out of the country. Since then, I have been trying to go back to my country, but it is impossible. I am not allowed to go back to my country.
Meanwhile, three of my books are banned in Bangladesh. I have written 24 books, and cases have been filed against me in order to ban the other books. Recently, a Bangladeshi court sentenced me to one year in prison for having written what I did.
Everything is because of religion. Because of religion there is bloodshed, bloodshed everywhere. Because of religion there is hatred among people. Because of religion there is ignorance all over the world. Because of religion there is illiteracy, there is poverty. Because of religion there are injustices and inequalities. Because of religion millions of women have been suffering, they are flogged, they are burned, they are stoned to death. Because of religion my books are burned and banned. Because of religion I was thrown out of my country.
But we can do something; we can eliminate all the problems of humanity that are caused by the belief in God. It is dangerous to follow the religious scriptures in this modern world. Not only the Qu'ran, all the religious scriptures are out of time, out of place.
Both the Judeo-Christian bible and the Qu'ran clearly accept and condone slavery. Jesus explicitly tells slaves to accept their roles and obey their masters. No one in the world today would defend chattel slavery in any public forum or allow it under any legal code. Neither fundamentalist Christians nor Orthodox Jews talk about animal sacrifice or slavery. In those countries in which Sharia law exists, where stoning for adultery and amputation for stealing are legalized, no legitimization of slavery is ever mentioned. Polygamy and concubinage are clearly accepted in the Old Testament but nowhere in the Judeo-Christian world are either of these practices legalized. Thus, insistence of the continuation of practices which denigrate, oppress and suppress women under the guise of scriptural reference is a hoax. Such practices could and should be delegitimized, as chattel slavery has been delegitimized.
I have been writing about all this. But my freedom of expression has been continuously violated by the authorities. I could not reach the readers of my country. My latest book, My Girlhood, is banned in my country. My autobiography, I realize, is not just my life story. It is the same story that thousands of women know about. It tells how Muslim women live in a patriarchal country that has hundreds of traditions in which girls and women suffer. I have looked back into my childhood days and described the life of being a female child, told how I was brought up, explained that I had privileges that many others did not have. I was able to study and become a medical doctor, something which thousands of girls cannot even dream about. I wanted to show where and how I grew up and what made me think differently, what made me do things differently. It is important to give other women some strength to revolt against the oppressive system that I grew up under and which still continues for them.
I told the truth. I expressed everything that happened in my life. Normally it is taboo to reveal rape or attempted rape by male members of one's family. Girls shut their mouths because they are terribly ashamed. But I did not shut my mouth. I did not care what people would say to me or to my family. I know well that many women feel that I am telling their untold stories, too. We, the victims, should cry out loud. We need to be heard. We must protest loudly and demand our freedom and rights. We must refuse to be shackled, chained, beaten and threatened. We have only one life, and we demand to live it in happiness.
If women do not fight to stop being oppressed by a shameful patriarchal and religious system, then shame on women! Shame on us for not protesting, for not fighting, for allowing a system to continue that will affect our daughters.
My story is not a unique one. My experiences, unfortunately, have been shared by millions of fellow sufferers. In my book, I cried for myself. I also cried for all the others who have not been able to enjoy the productive life of which they are capable and which they most assuredly deserve! We who are women no longer must remain solitary, crying softly in lonely places.
I do not regret what I have done so far, what I have ever written. Come what may, I will continue my fight against all the evil forces without any compromise until my death. I am all the more committed and all the more determined to my cause.
This is a brief story of what I have experienced. Meanwhile, I do not regret one word that I have ever written. My regret is that I have been unjustly condemned by evil and ignorant people, people who say they preach love and knowledge.