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Religion

I was reading the comments on one of Noel’s blog posts. Violet mentioned that around Easter and Christmas the doorbell might be rung by people proselytizing as many as four times in a day. More than a few people were shocked to hear it. Although that is at an extreme, I find that my own experience regarding aggressive preaching is often at odds with those of other people living in the U.S. I knew that the region in which I lived was not one of the most religious parts of the country, but when I looked it up on the internet, a map at the county level showed that much of the region is more religious than I thought. However, the map was small enough and I couldn’t see my own county, New York, on it very well.

So, I looked at a few other maps, including some that showed the most common religious group and another that showed the second most common. They were Catholicism and Judaism, which went a long way to explain why I didn’t encounter much proselytizing. Although Catholics, like all Christians, feel an obligation to “spread the word,” they don’t tend to be as aggressive about it as some Protestants. Of course, as we all know, Jews do essentially none.

So, I got curious and thought I might dig down a little deeper. I found a source that had the religious affiliations for the residents of New York City, broken down by borough. For those of you who don’t know, New York City has within it five counties. The counties correspond to the boroughs. Manhattan is New York County, Brooklyn is Kings and Staten Island is Richmond. Queens and the Bronx have the same name for both the county and the borough. I found some figures and I made up a graph because I like seeing things visually.A bubble graph showing religious affliliation in ManhattanThe source is PRRI, Public Religion Research Institute. I don’t know how accurate it is, but the numbers didn’t leave me in shock. The biggest surprise was that there appear to be so few Buddhists. At thirty percent, the largest group was the “unaffiliated.” I know that many of us are curious how many people are non-believers and it would have been nice to see this group broken down. I think you can see from the relatives sizes of the bubbles, it doesn’t feel in the least bit odd to be a non-believer in Manhattan. The source also broke down Catholicism by race. I marked it, but in the end I didn’t label it. It had the group I’m calling Protestant in separate groups, “Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Hispanic Protestant and Other Non-White Protestant.” I won’t even begin to get into how weird that all is. Is “other non-white” redundant? Why not just “other,” or “other race?” What about blacks who go to a “mainline” church? Also, there were several groups in the survey who weren’t numerous enough to make it to the chart, including “White Evangelical.”

Now you all know why my experience with religious people is so different than that of others who are U.S. citizens.

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Apparently, this photo went viral a couple of years ago. I didn’t see it at the time. I came across it because I’ve been reading older posts the blog Infidels Are Us. I used her blog as a source for some information a couple of days ago. I hadn’t realized at the time that her own family members have been attacked for leaving Islam. As it happens, they converted to Christianity.

She put up a link to a video that appeared on the website Vice, “Rescuing Ex-Muslims: Leaving Islam.” The video starts with a shocking, dreadful attack captured on closed circuit video. It wasn’t until after I watched it I that I realized that the opening footage was of an attack on the father of the young woman who writes Infidels Are Us. I went back and read some other posts on her blog, including a post in which she describes her own experience of that night. It adds to the immediacy to hear about it in her voice. We see these things on the news and we learn, after a time, to disassociate them from real people who lead lives not unlike our own. Reading her version really broke down that self-defense for me.

The Vice video contained footage about about a Saudi ex-Muslim who fled Saudi Arabia. A couple of years ago, her parents made her go to the Grand Mosque in Mecca. There, she took the following photo:

A hand holding a piece of paper reading "Atheist Republic" inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca

Source: Atheist Republic

At the end of the video, the young woman who took the photo is in Cologne, Germany.

A couple of days ago, I put up a post with the title “Thirteen Countries Execute Atheists.” I put a link up to my source, a UK site, Channel 4, although I saw the number in several places when I was looking it up. I used that particular source because the list was easy to find on the page and gave a quick and convenient summary beneath a graph. In my post, I put a caveat regarding Nigeria being on the list, but I didn’t put any notes about any of the others. There were a couple of comments, so I thought I would take some time to elaborate about Malaysia. From the site itself:

Every Malaysian citizen over the age of 12 must carry an identification card, a “MyKad”, which must state the bearer’s religion.

According to Sharia law within most Malaysian states, apostasy or conversion is a punishable offence, either with a fine, a jail sentence or the death penalty.

I’ve had a slight interest in Malaysia for many years partly because one of my close friends from college was born there, although she grew up in Brooklyn. However, I have never been there. The friend in question often referred to herself as “indigenous Malaysian” and told me that she followed the indigenous religion. Her description of it made it sound polytheistic or animist, with nature spirits. There is an interesting article I came across some time ago, “Native Religion in Malaysia: An Introduction.”

It is a comprehensive system of beliefs closely connected to nature and the earth. Elements of nature are often included in its rituals and symbols. In general, nature is often regarded as the base of life, as the earth where the soil, rivers, trees, rocks and animals are seen to possess a form of “life” that is similar to human beings. Nature is even regarded to have its own language that only the followers of the native religion can understand, even though this “language” is not verbally communicated in words of human understanding. The practitioners of native religions believe that nature is moved by a very powerful cosmic energy. Humans cannot live without nature but nature will endure even without humans.

My friend told me that she learned about the native religion from her grandparents when her mother sent her back to live with them for a time because her mother was afraid she was becoming too Americanized. Although she usually referred to herself as indigenous Malaysian, her father, it should be noted, was ethnic Chinese. Her parents came over here in 1969 during a period of political upheaval and inter-ethnic violence.

One of the things that makes Malaysia interesting in regards to the rise of political Islam (Islamism) and the increasing conservatism of Islam more generally, is that Malaysia is an multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.

Graphic: Ethnic Groups - Malay 50.1, Chinese 22.6, Indigenous 11.8, Indian 6.7, Other .7, Non-Citizens 8.2; Religions - Muslim 61.3, Buddhist 19.8, Christian 9.2, Hindu 6.3, Other Chinese 1.3, Other .4, None .8, Unspecified 1.

Source: Graph created from information found on CIA World Factbook

Malaysia was part of the British Empire until 1957 when the country gained its independence. The Constitution written at this time, guaranteed that Malay political power would have a special privileged position. It should be noted that the Malay ethnic group is a different group than those considered “indigenous Malaysian,” who are also multiple groups. Malays and the indigenous Malaysians are all considered “Bumiputera,” or “Sons of the Land.”

In the 1970s, the Malaysian government implemented policies which The Economist called “racially discriminatory” designed to favour bumiputras (including affirmative action in public education) to create opportunities, and to defuse inter-ethnic tensions following the extended violence against Chinese Malaysians in the 13 May Incident in 1969.

Religion mostly coincides with ethnic groups. It should be considered that the demographic numbers hide the existence of mixed-race individuals. I was looking for some information and came across this interesting video on YouTube:

Until September 2001, Malaysia was generally considered a secular country. On the Wikipedia page about Secular states, Malaysia is in the category labeled “ambiguous.”

In Article 3 of the Constitution of Malaysia, Islam is stated as the official religion of the country: “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.” In 1956, the Alliance party submitted a memorandum to the Reid Commission, which was responsible for drafting the Malayan constitution. The memorandum quoted: “The religion of Malaya shall be Islam. The observance of this principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim nationals professing and practicing their own religion and shall not imply that the state is not a secular state.” … This suggestion was later carried forward in the Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals 1957 (White Paper), specifically quoting in paragraph 57: “There has been included in the proposed Federal Constitution a declaration that Islam is the religion of the Federation. This will in no way affect the present position of the Federation as a secular State….” The Cobbold Commission also made another similar quote in 1962: “….we are agreed that Islam should be the national religion for the Federation. We are satisfied that the proposal in no way jeopardises freedom of religion in the Federation, which in effect would be secular.” In December 1987, the Lord President of the Supreme Court, Salleh Abas described Malaysia as a country governed by “secular law” in a court ruling. In the early 1980s, the Malaysian government led by Mahathir Mohammad implemented an official programme of Islamization, which was manifested in the form of introducing Islamic values and principles into the bureaucracy, substantial financial support to the development of Islamic religious education, places of worship and the development of Islamic banking. The Malaysian government also made efforts to expand the powers of Islamic-based state statutory bodies such as the Tabung Haji, JAKIM (Department of Islamic development Malaysia) and National Fatwa Council. There has been much debate in public and political circles on Malaysia’s status as a secular or Islamic state in recent years. (Emphasis mine.)

In “The Threat To Secular Democracy In Malaysia,”  Farish A. Noor begins with “As far as complex plural societies go, Malaysia has to be one of the most complex and plural societies in the world at the moment. There are few countries with a racial, ethnic, linguistic and religious mix like Malaysia’s…” He goes on to note,

there is the emergence of an increasingly vocal, visible and powerful parallel civil society that operates along the basis of particularist religio-communitarian demands and which advocates the concerns of their specific targeted constituencies only.

With the rise of religious-based consumer groups, workers groups, professional groups, etc. it would seem that the space of secular civil society seems to be shrinking on all fronts. Issues such as workers rights, gender equality, environmentalism et al. that were once neutral issues in a secular public domain have now been “claimed” by exclusive religious groups instead…

He observes that “sectarian politics that was initially race-based and now increasingly religion-based” and wonders “what will happen to the very idea and ideal of a universal Malaysian citizenship.”

He concludes with a statement whose relevancy extends well beyond Malaysia:

The challenge that stands before any government of a society as plural as ours is to develop a national politics that is inclusive and accommodating to all, giving every citizen a space and a place in the national narrative and national identity. The safeguard that ensures that such a politics of universal representation can take place is a secular democratic system where the state remains the honest neutral broker between all communities, and does not favour one community over others.

Any attack on the very idea of secularism is therefore an attack on the value of universal equality itself, and those who condemn secularism as being “un-Godly” or corrupt are really the ones who wish to destroy the secular basis of a free and equal society where every citizen is accorded the respect that she or he is due. When the attacks against secularism come from the representatives of the majority ethnic-religious community (such as was the case with the rise of Hindutva supremacists in India, and Muslims communitarians here in Malaysia), what we face is nothing short of the rise of the tyranny of the majority.

For all its weaknesses, secularism remains the only safeguard we have to keep our country on a democratic track. And for that reason, the democrats among us must be prepared to defend our secular democratic and plural public domain at all costs, come what may.

I think it’s hard for those of us who live in most Western democracies, where, whether we are talking about Catholic emancipation in the U.K. or the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., equality under the law for all is seen as a hard won achievement and is widely enshrined as an ideal, to understand laws still exist that depend on the ethnic background or religion of an individual. Although we my argue about whether or not it is honored in practice, the ideal is usually assumed.

In Malaysia, ethnic Malays must legally be Muslim. According to Wikipedia:

Attempts by Muslims to convert to other religions are punished by state governments, with punishments ranging from fines to imprisonment. The federal government does not intervene in legal disputes over conversion, leaving it to the courts. The secular courts of Malaysia have ruled they do not have the authority to decide these cases, referring them to the Syariah courts. These Islamic courts have unanimously ruled that all ethnic Malays must remain Muslims. Even non-Malays who have converted to Islam are not allowed to leave Islam, and children born to Muslim parents are considered to be Muslims. A non-Muslim who wishes to marry a Muslim must first convert to Islam.

It should be noted that Malaysia is a federation and some laws vary among states. This Wikipedia entry might be slightly out of date because I found a mention that in 2015 the state of Kelantan would be enforcing Sharia Law, including, possibly, the death penalty for apostasy.

Anniesa Hussain, on Infidels Are Us, writes,

I am witness to the alarming rate at which Malaysia sways towards religious oppression of its non-Muslims.

She goes on to detail:

This Kelantan bill which was initially passed in 1993 but prevented from being implemented on the grounds of its unconstitutional nature, has been passed yet again and now being set in motion. The Bill is an amendment of the 1965 Syariah (Sharia) Courts Act which currently limits Sharia penalties to a fine of 3,000 Malaysian Ringgits ($800), 5 years imprisonment and 6 strokes of a cane.

This PAS Bill states that Hudud can only affect the Muslim population of the state but it fundamentally strips away the right of anyone wishing to leave Islam for any other religion or quite possibly, to simply abandon it. …

It should be pointed out that this Hudud Bill is not unique to Kelantan alone, rather the state is just a latest example of the curtailing of religious freedom within Malaysia. Terengganu state for instance has also attempted to introduce similar legislation. I am still living in Malaysia until the summer and I can honestly say the country’s politics does not shy away from exclusively carving out a Muslim nation explicitly for the Malays and chipping away at non-Malay and non-Muslim freedoms.

As the original secular roots of Malaysia continues to be eroded and replaced with an ever-present, ever-pressing purer form of Islam, the nation continues to be plunged deeper into uncertainty for its religious minorities. Malaysia is becoming a country of increasing alarm, its politics increasingly embedded and infiltrated by hard-line Islamists. Personally speaking, it has become a country that has gained priority in my nations-to-watch list.

It has been for several years on my “nations-to-watch” list as well. Besides the laws, moderate or non-practicing Muslims have felt greater informal pressure to conform to the rules of strict Islam. However, I should note, that I have not yet found a case where anyone was actually executed, although people are imprisoned. In one case, a professing Hindu was forced to eat beef.

As far as what laws might affect atheists who are not ethnic Malays, did not have Muslim parents or did not convert, I have not been able to ascertain. Since non-Muslims are not allowed to proselytize to Muslims, I would assume there it would be illegal to try to convince a Muslim to become an atheist. Would simply talking about atheism be allowed? If not, what sort of laws would apply and what sort of punishment if they were broken? I have not been able to find out answers to those questions. It’s getting late and I’ll have to leave that for another time.

I think in the Western world, and possibly elsewhere as well, we are inclined to believe that there is a tendency towards progress, and that progress includes greater liberalization and secularization. Due to this, I think we often miss the fact that much of the Islamic world is becoming less liberal and less secular. Oddly, our own ethnocentrism leads us to the mistake of seeing as “traditional” developments that are in fact recent.

As far as traveling goes, it should be noted that Noel, as I mentioned, recently returned from Somalia safe and sound. I suspect, and perhaps he will tell us, that he did not engage in any public debates about the existence of deities while he was there. In all likelihood, I imagine in most places, if you don’t feel a need to talk about it, people will just assume that you follow one major world religion or another. That’s not exactly “freedom,” but one doesn’t usually presume that sort of freedom in another country. For those that live there, however, it must feel very different than it would as a traveler.

The situation in Malaysia is very complicated and I hope that I have done it at least some justice. I don’t think anyone should feel that it is dangerous to travel there on account of their beliefs and I’m sorry if my previous post gave that impression.

I didn’t finish a longer post, so I thought I’d post a sketch I did earlier today. Noel, who, coincidentally, just returned home from Somalia a few days ago, put up a post, alerting atheists who are Considering Visiting Muslim Majority Countries.  He gave a link to the Godless Spellchecker’s blog in which GS posted translations of what people are saying in Arabic about atheists on Twitter. Back on Noel’s blog, the very funny (and occasionally offensive – you’ve been warned. Don’t blame me if you click the link.) Armchair Pontificator made a quip and I drew a quick cartoon. Being caught postless, I decided I might as well post my cartoon here.

Beheading Hurt

It has often occurred to me that there is no way to know how many people are really Muslim in countries where there are severe punishments for atheism. The thirteen countries that execute atheists are Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, UAE and Yemen. Another four, Bahrain, Gambia, Jordan and Kuwait, imprison atheists. In Nigeria, it should be noted, the constitution protects freedom of thought, but rights are often violated by local governments and non-state militias and Islamist groups. Hence, I put different words on the picture.

Beheading-ofw

For those of you who are not familiar with Maryam Namazie she is an activist for secularism and human rights. This particular speech, which was given at the invitation of Goldsmith’s, University of London’s Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, came to my attention because Maryam was heckled and interrupted by members of the university’s Islamic Society. For those of you who are following the freedom of speech issue as calls for censorship rise, might be interested in this event since Maryam has been accused of harassing the hecklers, invading their safe space and being an “Islamophobe.” I’ve met Maryam in person and she is a lovely, gentle, soft-spoken, warm woman. The idea that anyone might find her threatening in any sense of the term as it’s normally understood is totally laughable. It is only her words and her ideas that are threatening.

Besides the disruptions, many people will be interested in hearing the content of the talk. In comment threads in the past few weeks, I’ve seen many people struggle with the difference between opposing Islamism, a political ideology, criticizing Islam, a religion which is appropriate to discuss critically but would be wrong to try to suppress, and anti-Muslim bigotry, which I expect most people will view as wrong. For those struggling with the difference between those things, I think Maryam’s talk will be very helpful.

When I first raised my fingers to begin typing, in my mind was the “inherent conservatism of religion.” Then I paused. Too often, those of us from culture dominated by one of the three Abrahamic religions fall into the trap of assuming all religions follow the model of those three.

The original prompting was an article on Reform Judaism that appeared on the website Breitbart. The title is “Reform Judaism Adopts Far-Ranging Transgenderism Resolution, Because They’re Not Jewish.”

I always find it funny when people outside the United States think all religion here is the holy-roller stuff. The lack of an establishment church resulted in an environment where religions compete with each other in a chaotic marketplace. All I would need to establish myself as head of a new religious movement is a couple people willing to agree I was.

So, yes, we have the holy rollers in their storefront churches in the cities and the preachers of the prosperity gospel in their megachurches in the suburbs. We also have Scientology, Mormonism and Christian Science. Quakers didn’t arise here, but they prospered here. The Reformed Church of the Netherlands became the mild mannered Reformed Church in America, highly criticized by traditionalists. Religion, one could say, is almost a competitive sport.

Another notable religious movement in the United States is Reformed Judaism.

Until the modern era, most (if not all) European countries enforced restrictions on the Jewish populations within their borders.

Jewish involvement in gentile society began during the Age of Enlightenment. Haskalah, the Jewish movement supporting the adoption of enlightenment values, advocated an expansion of Jewish rights within European society. Haskalah followers advocated “coming out of the ghetto,” not just physically but also mentally and spiritually.

On September 28, 1791, France became the second country of the world, after Poland 500 years earlier, to emancipate its Jewish population. There were 40,000 Jews living in France at the time. They were the first to confront the opportunities and challenges offered by emancipation. The civic equality the French Jews attained became a model for other European Jews.

That paragraph from Wikipedia mentions “opportunities and challenges.”

One of the challenges was how to maintain their identity and religious practices within a society that no longer excluded them by law. One response was the creation of Reform Judaism. Although most of the originators of this form of Judaism were in Germany, it took hold in the United States.

At Charleston, The former members of the Reformed Society gained influence over the affairs of Beth Elohim. In 1836, Gustav Posnansky was invited to serve as preacher and minister. A native of Hamburg, he knew the rite of its Temple. Posnansky was at first traditional, but around 1841 he excised the Resurrection of the Dead and abolished the Second Festival Day in the Diaspora, five years before the same was done at the Breslau conference.

In addition to Posnansky himself, the American Reform movement was chiefly a direct German import, brought along with the many Jewish immigrants from that country. In 1842, Har Sinai Congregation was founded by such in Baltimore. Administered from its inception according to the Hamburg rite, it was the first synagogue to be established as Reformed on the continent. In the new land, there were neither old state-mandated communal structures of the European variety, nor strong conservative elements among the newcomers, who were mostly thoroughly modernized individuals. Reform Judaism quickly became dominant even before the Civil War.

As I mentioned in other posts, until middle school my family lived in a town which was about a third Jewish. Our immediate neighborhood was probably even more so. The local congregation was a Reformed Congregation and the variety of Judaism practiced by most of my friends was Reformed. So when I see a headline about Reformed Jews, I see in my minds eye, not a faceless mass of people, but specific individuals with whom I grew up. They vary in their religiosity. It might surprise some people who associate more orthodox forms of religions with devotion, but a few among them were quite strong believers. Not everyone agrees that rigidity in the external forms of religion is a reflection of inner feeling. With precious few exceptions, I would say they were proud to be Jews. Those few exceptions would likely argue against the importance of ethnic identity more generally. So, when I read a post in which someone says that Reformed Jews are not Jews, I have to take it as an insult directed at some of my childhood friends.

Not being Jewish, I can’t really get into a theological discussion of what Jews should believe and can only discuss what they say they believe.

Throughout history, Jews have remained firmly rooted in Jewish tradition, even as we learned much from our encounters with other cultures. Nevertheless, since its earliest days, Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time cannot coexist effectively with those who live in modern times. The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship. – See more at: http://www.reformjudaism.org/what-reform-judaism#sthash.dc3C6ygm.dpuf

I supposed I am a little biased, but I think that Reformed Judaism is one of the most humane and beautiful religious traditions there is.

The event that caused Breitbart’s Ben Shapiro to declare that Reformed Jews were not really Jews occurred earlier this month:

The largest movement of Judaism in the U.S. passed the most far-reaching resolution in support of transgender rights of any major religious organization, saying Thursday that it’s a continuation of a tradition of inclusion in the Reform Jewish movement.

Other religious bodies, such as the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, previously approved resolutions affirming equality for transgender and non-gender-conforming people. None, however, go as far as the one offered by the Reform Jewish movement, which counts 1.5 million members.

Shapiro writes in his post:

The challenge of organized religion has always been the question of interpretation: how literally should texts be interpreted? When should certain texts outweigh others?

Indeed. And that is the great problem with text based religions. All these religions will be riven with people who want to go back to the original text and interpret it as literally as possible. They come with built in fundamentalists because while society changes, the texts do not. It might be amusing when it comes in the form of an Amish man who refuses buttons. It is much less amusing when fundamentalist Muslims throw suspected homosexuals off of buildings.

In a related issue, Richard Dawkins retweeted a link to a video. In the video, a questioner asks a panel of prominent Muslims why “the media” always attacks Islam over issues like homosexuality, when, as he says, the same punishments exist in Judaism and Christianity. “For example,” he continues, “in the buses in Jerusalem women sit separate from men.”

As the debate about how Jewish congregations should related to their trans congregants shows, there is a lot of debate within Judaism and Christianity on just these issues. Many of my female Jewish friends have been highly critical of the attitudes towards women in many Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox communities. A friend who considered herself a Conservative Jew (another interpretation of Judaism) worked for a time at an Orthodox school and had many critical things to say on the subject. The issue of segregated buses in Israel, specifically, has been brought up with often quite heated emotions. It doesn’t get much attention outside of Israel and Jewish enclaves because Jews rarely foist their rules on others outside of Israel. On the occasions when they have, people are just as willing for push back as they are towards Muslims.

http://forward.com/news/breaking-news/176270/israel-seeks-to-end-back-of-bus-segregation-for-wo/

When a gym in Montreal tinted its windows at the request of a nearby synagogue, many heated words flew over that one.

The video is shown more for the response than for the question, I just thought that since I was writing a post about reformed Judaism, I would note that the question is not a valid one since the questioner clearly has not been paying attention to debates among Jews.

United States citizens may not be familiar with blasphemy laws. They are laws limiting irreverence towards or criticism of religion, and people, beliefs and customs associated with religion. In many instances, it can prevent the free exercise of religion for individuals who do not belong to a dominant group. Members of religious groups that depart from the mainstream views might be charged with blasphemy. The punishment for the seventeenth century Quaker, James Nayler was to

be put in the pillory in the city of Westminster for the space of two hours, on Thursday next, and then be whipped by the hangman through the streets from Westminster to the Old Change, and there be put in the pillory again from the hours of eleven to one on the following Saturday. He shall then have his tongue bored through with a red hot iron, and be branded with the letter B, and sent to Bristol, where he shall be paraded through the city on horseback, with his face backward. From Bristol he shall be brought back to London and sent to the Tower, there to be kept to hard labour by order of Parliament, and be debarred the use of pen, ink, and paper, and have no relief but what he can earn by his daily labour.

The Ranter John Robins avoided prosecution for blasphemy by recanting his former beliefs.

It may sound like a medieval concept, but the last successful prosecution for blasphemy in the UK occurred as recently as 1977. The Gay News had published a poem by James Kirkup that portrayed Jesus as gay. They were both convicted and fined and Kirkup was given a suspended sentence.

After Salman Rushdie, a respected author who has won many awards, published the book The Satanic Verses, the British Government was petitioned  “No charges were laid because, as a House of Lords select committee stated, the law only protects the Christian beliefs as held by the Church of England.”

In another case:

Michael Newman, a secondary school science teacher and an atheist, was arrested under England’s blasphemy law for selling Wingrove’s blasphemous video, “Visions of Ecstasy” in February 1992 in Birmingham.

Finally, in 2008, the law was abolished.

Less than a decade later, however, at least one Labour MP seems to think it would be a good idea to not only reinstate the law, but to extend it to other religions as well. From an article published in Al Arabiya News on November 13:

A MCB conference held in London on Wednesday, entitled ‘Terrorism and Extremism – how should British Muslims respond’, also heard debate over potential blasphemy laws in the United Kingdom.

Keith Vaz MP, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, told Al Arabiya News that he would have “no problem” with blasphemy laws being reintroduced, under certain conditions.

“It should apply to all religions. If we have laws, they should apply to everybody. Religions are very special to people. And therefore I have no objection to them… but it must apply equally to everybody.”

Although people who advocate for such laws will surely invoke more plebian art forms such as cartoons and comics, we must forget that more genteel forms like literary novels and even possibly works of history will be affected. Not only professional purveyors of outrage like Katie Hopkins will be affected, but more sober and serious critics of religion and religious figures as well.

Update: Here’s a link to a short YouTube video about Wingrove’s Visions of Ecstasy.

I find it almost strange that no one has mentioned something in relation to the U.S. Presidential elections. Governor O’Malley’s Catholic and Senator Sanders is Jewish. Senator Rubio is Catholic as is Senator Santorum. Governor Pataki seems to avoid saying, but he might be Catholic, which is how he was raised. Governor Bush converted to Catholicism as did Governor Jindal.

As an atheist, I don’t really care myself as long as they believe in the importance of a secular government. I find it interesting, though, because in the history of the United States there has only been one president who was not a Protestant. I’m old enough to remember when President Carter’s Baptist faith raised quite a few eyebrows, however President Clinton and the younger President Bush normalized the sect that had been so persecuted during the early years of this country. Still, I have always thought that religion was a bigger barrier in this country than race or gender, so I find it interesting that the press hasn’t commented much on that, at least not as far as I can see.

I can remember idly saying to someone sometime shortly after the year 2000 that the U.S. could have a black president if the right person came along. I had people telling me I was wrong almost up until election day in 2008. I’m a little less certain of whether or not the country could vote for a woman overall, but it is within possibility. However, I cannot see this country electing a Jew. Now, don’t put words in my mouth. It doesn’t make me happy to say it, but I’m just being honest about what I see and hear around me. Personally, on the small number of subjects where it might come into play, assuming an atheist is out of the question, I’d prefer a Reformed or Conservative Jew to just about any other group, with the possible exception of an Episcopalian with an agnostic temperament.

We shall see. With such a small sample, it’s impossible to make any definitive pronouncements, but in a field with so many non-Protestants it will be interesting. The apparent diversity in leadership brought about by President Obama might only be skin deep. Obama is related to Presidents George W Bush, his father George H. W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman and James Madison, and, most famously, Vice-President Dick Cheney. Through his mother’s side he belongs to the same religious and ethnic group that has always dominated the top positions in this country.

Do Bobby Jindal and Bernie Sanders even have a chance?

♠ ♣ ♥ ♦

Last night, I was reminded by some Canadians that they have an election going on there too. This is the year for political junkies I suppose.

For my readers outside of the United States, the Pew Research Center is an organization that conducts data-driven social science research on issues and attitudes shaping both the United States and the world. They are “nonprofit, nonpartisan and nonadvocacy” and their research is widely cited and is generally considered reliable. They focus very heavily on polling and demographics. They have regularly published research on the United States’ religious attitudes and demographics.

The U.S. Census does not ask questions about religion.

The Religious Landscape Studies were designed to fill the gap. Comparing two virtually identical surveys, conducted seven years apart, can bring important trends into sharp relief. In addition, the very large samples in both 2007 and 2014 included hundreds of interviews with people from small religious groups that account for just 1% or 2% of the U.S. population, such as Mormons, Episcopalians and Seventh-day Adventists. This makes it possible to paint demographic and religious profiles of numerous denominations that cannot be described by smaller surveys.

A few key items that might interest people:

  • There has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of people identifying as “unaffiliated,” a group that includes agnostics and atheists. They are the second largest group after Evangelicals.
  • All major Christian groups, Evangelicals, Mainline Protestant and Catholics, have declined as a percentage of the population. Mainline Protestants and Catholics have declined dramatically. Evangelical Christians have grown in absolute numbers, but declined slightly as a percentage.
  • Non-Christian faiths have grown, with the main growth occurring among Hindus and Muslims.
  • Switching religions is a common occurrence in the U.S.
    • “If all Protestants were treated as a single religious group, then fully 34% of American adults currently have a religious identity different from the one in which they were raised.”
    • “If switching among the three Protestant traditions… is added to the total, then the share of Americans who currently have a different religion than they did in childhood rises to 42%.”
  • Religious switching has mainly resulted in gains among the unaffiliated. “But for every person who has joined a religion after having been raised unaffiliated, there are more than four people who have become religious “nones” after having been raised in some religion. This 1:4 ratio is an important factor in the growth of the unaffiliated population.”
  • The percentage of the unaffiliated who describe themselves as atheists or agnostic has grown.

You can read the report on the Pew website.

I don’t have any thoughts on the report yet myself, but I’d love to hear yours if you have any.

This is going to be short and sparsely sourced because it was just going through my mind and I wanted to get it off my chest. There was an article in The Atlantic Monthly about addiction treatment, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.” The subtitle reads, “Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.” Some people have called it a “hatchet job,” but that’s not what I saw. I’ve seen all these concerns raised about AA in the past. Now, I am quite far from having a drinking problem and have no first hand knowledge of this organization or any other, however our understanding of psychiatry and the workings of the brain have come so far since 1935 it seems almost odd to me that people are still using a method that old without any significant alterations.

I did, many years ago, have a boyfriend who had, years before I met him, had a problem with the law. Something small, like drunk and disorderly conduct. He was effectively sentenced to AA. Also, he was an atheist, which is why I’m bringing this up. As many people know, one of the ideas of AA is that you are supposed to turn your life over to a “higher power.” The better known of the two founders of AA, Bill Wilson, was active in a Christian fellowship known as the Oxford group and he credited becoming sober to a religious experience he had. The original book, Alcoholics Anonymous, had a chapter specifically addressed to agnostics. They acknowledge that agnostics and atheists might not like the ideas behind the method.

    Lack of power,that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be A Power Greater Than Ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?

Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself, which will solve your problem. That means we have written a book which we believe to be spiritual as well as moral. And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God. Here difficulty arises with agnostics. Many times we talk to a new man and watch his hope rise as we discuss his alcoholic problems and explain our fellowship. But his face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored.

After acknowledging some of the thought that might lead one to doubt the existence of a supreme being, the book continues:

We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.

Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, A Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding. It is open, we believe, to all men.

This seems to me to be fairly obviously religious, although of a pluralistic sort. Some agnostics might find this satisfying. Defenders of AA seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the burden this puts on atheists.

I was reading the comment thread under the article and I couldn’t help noticing a recurring theme:

This useful concept is so open ended, it really shouldn’t give atheists problems if they can keep an open mind (and disregard the opinions of some of their fellow AAs). I started out as an atheist. Now I would consider myself a skeptical agnostic. I recognize there is a higher power than myself. It reveals itself to me through physical laws, like gravity or the second law of thermodynamics.

 

People are generally encouraged to find a higher power of their own understanding, and in the case of atheists or agnostics (of which there are many) they generally lean on the collective wisdom and experience of the group as their higher power. Many people return to the religion of their upbringing as well, and there are all varieties of faiths among members.

 

Trust in God, is all that’s asked. That’s not “religious”, that’s what happens when you assume enough about tomorrow , to fill out your calendar.

You have faith, if you believe tomorrow will come.

 

Yes, AA is based on many principles drawn from religion. That’s a feature, not a bug, to the vast majority of humanity not afflicted with spiritual autism.

 

AA is not faith-based program. It does not come under the aegis of any religion. Those who complain about “god” in the Steps are leaving something out: “as we understand him”. That may be the most important phrase in AA. It was inserted at the insistence of an Atheist in the first New York AA Group (see BB story “That Vicious Cycle”). God as we understand him covers a lot of territory, including Agnostics and Atheists, of whom there are many in AA.

Overall, the impression I got was that the theists just wanted the atheists to shut up an pretend to go along. Well, I’m glad I don’t have a drinking problem because I would sure hate to go to AA.