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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.

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I have recently returned to France from England where I attended the Secular 2014 Conference which was held in London this past weekend. It was an incredible conference and I’m sure I will be referring to it quite a bit over the next few weeks. For now, I’m going to limit myself to one short subject since I wrote about it a week or so ago.

To summarize very briefly what I said, the word “secularism” appears to have two principle meanings. One is primarily a political concept, and is the way I prefer to use it, indicating the concept that the state should remain neutral in matters of religion. The other meaning is close to atheism or humanism. I also stated that the concept of state neutrality in matters of religion is so important to a prosperous, human state that comprises people of multiple views on religion that we really should have an unambiguous term.

At the conference, I was impressed by the unanimity of the Francophones in the resistance to the term “secularism.” I, myself, had always felt that it was an adequate translation of the French concept of “laïcité.” However, multiple speakers, including Caroline Fourest, Nadia El Fani, insisted on using the French word, which was accompanied by some grumbling on the part of Anglophones as well as Allophones. I might have been inclined to agree with the grumbling if I hadn’t just done some research on the use of the word “secularism” and found it to be disappointingly plastic.

The term “laïcité” is, at least in my mind, most associated with the political changes that followed the French Revolution and the ideas of the French Enlightenment that preceded it. However, the Wikipedia entry traces the term much further back into history than that.

In pre-Christian antiquity, there was no separation of religious and political power. Roman emperors were considered divined and played a role in the religion of the empire.

The teachings of Jesus are sometimes cited as examples of the principle of the separation of Chuch and State, for example in Mark 12:17: “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God.” André Gounelle recalls that regarding the discussions about the law of Separation of Church and State, Aristide Briand refers several times to a passage from Luke and considers that certain Christians, along with Stoics, were among the first to deny “that the state had a role to play in determining the relationship between God and human beings.” (Source: Wikipedia. Translation: Mine)

In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I wrote of the difference of temporal power and spiritual power, which is seen as prefiguring the Catholic Church’s concept of “Two Swords.” This concept is derived from a bull issued by Pope Boniface VIII in the fourteenth century which asserts that temporal powers are subordinate to the Church. At the same time, the concept of the Divine Right of Kings held that monarchs received their authority to rule directly from God. These concepts led to many conflicts between secular and ecclesiastical authorities in Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

Despite older origins of the word rooted in the latin word “laicus,” meaning the common people, our contemporary understanding of the word “laïcité” is derived from the Enlightenment and, like so many of our modern political concepts, can be traced to John Locke.

Although the freedom of thought, conscience and expression were strongly promoted by an array of Enlightenment thinkers, much like the English term “secularism,” the French term “laïcité” was not coined until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Unlike the English term, however, the French term arose in a more obviously political context, during the Paris Commune and during the Third Republic. In this context, the term “laïcité” takes on a connotation of a communal organization that allows for the coexistence of individuals belonging to different spiritual traditions. Although the Francophones did not adequately explain why they preferred the French term to its English equivalent, I suspect this association with peaceful coexistence accounts for part of their preference.

Jean Baubérot, a French historian and sociologist specializing in the sociology of religions, describes the concept of laïcité as comprising three ideas, a secular state, a guarantee of freedom of conscience and the equality of different religions.

A secular state most protects minority beliefs and, since atheists are a minority everywhere, it is unsurprising that we are everywhere associated with the advocacy of a secular state. However, as Ted Cruz found out while speaking to an organization defending persecuted Christians, religious people frequently support a secular state when they belong to a minority religion. Several of the speakers at the conference emphasized that they did consider themselves adherents of a religion. It is important to separate atheism from need for a secular state. It is clear that the English term “secularism” is vague to a great many people all over the political spectrum. As I suggested in my earlier post, if we cannot clarify the term, perhaps we should adopt another. With that in mind, I have been wondering the past few days if adopting the French term and Anglicizing it as “laicity” might be useful and effective.

George Jacob Holyoake, a British writer and newspaper editor, coined the term “secularism” in 1851. In his book, English Secularism, he quotes Harriet Martineau, the British sociologist and Unitarian,

The adoption of the term Secularism is justified by its including a large number of persons who are not Atheists, and uniting them for action which has Secularism for its object, and not Atheism.

Although this statement sets up a contrast that distinguishes Secularism from Atheism, in the rest Holyoake’s book the line is blurred. For instance, he contrasts “Secular education” and “Secularism”:

Secular education is by some confounded with Secularism, whereas the distinction between them is very wide. Secular education simply means imparting Secular knowledge separately—by itself, without admixture of Theology with it. The advocate of Secular education may be, and generally is, also an advocate of religion; but he would teach religion at another time and treat it as a distinct subject, too sacred for coercive admixture into the hard and vexatious routine of a school. He would confine the inculcation of religion to fitting seasons and chosen instruments. He holds also that one subject at a time is mental economy in learning. Secular education is the policy of a school—Secularism is the policy of life to those who do not accept Theology.

Today, The National Secular Society in the UK defines secularism in the following way:

Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

They go on to specify:

Secularism is not atheism

Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Secularism simply provides a framework for a democratic society. Atheists have an obvious interest in supporting secularism, but secularism itself does not seek to challenge the tenets of any particular religion or belief, neither does it seek to impose atheism on anyone.

Secularism is simply a framework for ensuring equality throughout society – in politics, education, the law and elsewhere, for believers and non-believers alike.

This more closely resembles the concept of the separation of church and state rather than Secularism as it is used by Holyoake. Citizens of the United States may have taken notice that the coinage of the word “secularism” post-dates the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

The word secularism may have two possible meanings, but there is no other single word which is used to describe the concept that the state should be neutral in matters pertaining to religion.

Although the word secularism was not coined until 1851, its root, secular, has been around since the fourteenth century, and means earthly, worldly, temporal or profane, as opposed to spiritual, or sacred. We find it being used by John Milton in Paradise Lost.

Then shall they seek to avail themselves of names,
Places and titles, and with these to joine
Secular power, though feigning still to act
By spiritual, to themselves appropriating
The Spirit of God, promisd alike and giv’n
To all Beleevers; and from that pretense,
Spiritual Lawes by carnal power shall force
On every conscience; Laws which none shall finde
Left them inrould, or what the Spirit within
Shall on the heart engrave.

This appears in the last book when the angel Michael tells Adam what lies in store for humanity. This summary is inflected with Milton’s own ideas regarding liberty. He describes corruption in the Church. The representatives of the Church seek worldly, or secular power while pretending to still be spiritual. With this power they shall force their law on every conscience. This passage is not surprising since Milton argued for a separation of church and state and religious toleration, as least as far as Christian sects were concerned.

Although the notion that the state should refrain from involvement in religious affairs has antecedents stretching back to at least the Ancient Greeks, much of our contemporary understanding of the concept comes from the Enlightenment. We owe a tremendous debt to John Locke for many of the concepts the make the modern world modern and the concept of the separation of church and state is not least among them.

The American and French Revolutions would give a chance for many of these ideas, including the idea of secularism, or laïcité in French, to be put into practice. However, many Western countries would not follow for a long time. England, with a monarch who is also the head of the Church of England, is a particularly difficult case. Until 1778 Catholics were unable to own land or to keep a school. In 1791 further restrictions were removed from Catholics and 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed, allowing Catholics to serve in Parliament, although a few restrictions remained in place. Although nonconforming Protestants were not persecuted as severely, they were not allowed to hold civil or military office. To matriculate from Oxford or to graduate from Cambridge it was necessary to be taking communion in the established Anglican Church. The Anglican Church today is still the official state religion of England, although not of Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

As in England in the nineteenth century, in the United States during a comparable period the strongest supporters of the separation of church and state were religious minorities like the Baptists. The separation of church and state protect religious minorities even more than it does non-believers, as atheists have no religious practice to be restricted.

Support for a separation of church and state is an essential protection of the liberty of all individuals. It is distinct, and entirely so, from atheism. It is a position about the best way to order the temporal authority of the state regarding spiritual matters. Secularism, has often been the word used to describe this political viewpoint.

2. The view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

 

1. (Philosophy) philosophy a doctrine that rejects religion, esp in ethics
2. the attitude that religion should have no place in civil affairs

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged

 

2. the view that public education and other matters of civil policy should be conducted without the influence of religious beliefs.

Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary

 

1. a view that religion and religious considerations should be ignored or excluded from social and political matters.

-Ologies & -Isms.

It is essential in our current political climate that we have a word for this. I grew up believing that word was “secularism.” Apparently Jaques Berlinerblau did so as well. He calls the association of secularism with atheism “groundless.” Until I started researching for this post I thought so too. However he does note, and I believe rightly, that the religious right has profited from this confusion.

Second, for secularism to reinvigorate itself it needs to reclaim its traditional base of religious people. As I noted in my forthcoming book, the secular vision was birthed by religious thinkers, such as Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (the last two, admittedly were idiosyncratic believers, but believers nonetheless).

Throughout American history it has been groups like Baptists, Jews, progressive Catholics as well as countless smaller religious minorities who have championed secular political ideas. But religious believers today, even moderate religious believers, will not sign on to secularism if they think it’s merely the advocacy arm of godlessness.

He also points out:

Yet it is not only foes, but friends of secularism, who sometimes make this mistake as well. Nowadays most major atheist groups describe themselves as “secular.” Many are in fact good secularists. But others, as we shall see, are beholden to assumptions that are strikingly at odds with the secular worldview.

Which brings me to why I wrote this post.

I see that there is a new action afoot called “Openly Secular.” To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how this differs from the “Out Campaign.” Perhaps that one had simply stopped receiving enough attention. To say that one is “secular”, well, what the heck does that even mean. I am secular, earthly, temporal… okay, but I thought that goes without saying. Even people who call themselves spiritual would probably say that they are also of this earth.

This muddies the water very badly, and I think for no other reason than people think there is some advantage to be had to avoiding the word “atheist.” To see the danger that Berlinerblau is warning us about we need look no further than Rick Santorum’s recent comments.

I think we should start calling secularism a religion,” Santorum told a grinning Fischer. “Because if we did, then we could ban that, too, because that’s what they’ve done: they’ve hidden behind the fact that the absence of religion is not a religion of itself.

I’m afraid my voice in this movement is very small, but I hope that I’ve persuaded you to not use secularism when you mean atheism. Like all people who do not belong to the majority religion, atheists do have a self-interest in this. I hope everyone keeps Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance” in mind and advocates for the freedom of conscience, not only for ourselves, but for all.

If, some months from now, Openly Secular continues to draw attention, perhaps we will need to take a page from Holyoake’s book and coin a new word.

The incident from a few days ago when U.S. Senator Cruz of Texas was booed off stage demonstrated an important issue regarding Secularism and the place of religion in public life.

It is rare that I find myself in agreement with anyone who writes for a media outlet with the word “Conservative” in its name, however the American Conservative had a good article about the incident and another in The Federalist also made some good points. Although I haven’t yet written a blog post about it, I’ve grumbled off-line to family and friends about the increasing tendency to use “secular” as a sort of euphemism for “non-religious” or “atheist.” Clouding the issue between the two serves to undermine the goals or secularism. As it happens, I am both an atheist and a secularist, but it is entirely possible to be both a devout Christian and a secularist. In fact, I would say that it is in the self-interest of religious people to be secularists.

The summit at which Cruz spoke, organized by the group In Defense of Christians, was “dedicated to Christian unity in the face of persecution and genocide.” According to Jonathan Coppage writing in the American Conservative,

While the Cruz incident was a low-light for the summit, the Christian leaders gathered at the dinner continued to make vigorous defenses of the separation of church and state and the importance of inculcating pluralism in the Middle East.

It is important to remember the origins of Western notions of secularism in the European Wars of Religion following the Reformation. Historically, many pious people have advocated for the separation of Church and State. In U.S. history, Roger Williams springs readily to mind. Secularism is a political opinion, and a very basic one, like self-government versus monarchy. It is an answer to the question “What limits should be put on the state’s ability to infringe upon the individual’s freedom of conscience.”

This brings us to a comment Rick Santorum made recently. According to Raw Story,

“I think we should start calling secularism a religion,” Santorum told a grinning Fischer. “Because if we did, then we could ban that, too, because that’s what they’ve done: they’ve hidden behind the fact that the absence of religion is not a religion of itself.”

Secularism is the belief, not that the individual should be neutral in matters of religion, but that the state should be. In most Western nations, many of these conflicts seem to be arguments over symbolism, like displays of crosses on public property. It is important to remember that elsewhere, it can be a life or death situation. Those of us who favor liberty of speech and thought must support that liberty for people we disagree with as fervently as for those with whom we do agree.

Sometimes the question is thrown out why many atheists in the U.S. are critical of Christians while we supposedly let Muslims off easily. The question is one of power. Muslims in the U.S. are less than one percent of the population and lack any real political power. While I wouldn’t use the word “persecuted”, they are certainly beset in many quarters by prejudice and bigotry. They are unlike to impose their beliefs on other people in the U.S. anytime soon. For this reason, I don’t spend much time criticizing Muslims in the U.S. In the Middle East, the situation is quite different. There, it is Muslims who are dominant and Christians who are beset with troubles, and due to the lack of separation between Church and State those troubles rise to the level of persecution. The situation of Christians in the Middle East should be a lesson to all of us of the importance of a secular society where each individual is guaranteed freedom of conscience.

I don’t reblog often, but over lunch I was doing a little bit of blog reading and I came across the phrase “militant atheist” twice in about twenty minutes and I thought it might be worth highlighting a post I first read a few weeks ago.

I have to confess that the phrase “militant atheist” has never jumped out at me. Perhaps, because as someone who rarely tries to convince anyone to give up his or her belief, I don’t quite fall into that category. Perhaps it is because when I was younger I was frequently called a militant feminist. Perhaps it is because the word militant in French means something much milder than it does in English. My first language is English, but atheist activism, aka “New Atheism”, didn’t come into its own until I’d been called a “militante” of several different political currents.

Whatever the reason, “militant atheist” never caused me to raise an eyebrow. However, Irish Atheist has a very different, and I think important, view of the word.

Words are complicated things. If I look at blogs tagged with “atheism”, I can usually tell the orientation of the writer by the end of the second or third sentence, not by the content, but by the choice of words. Any propagandist will tell you that words matter. Our choice of words reveals things about ourselves that we don’t even always intend.

Irish Atheist’s post reminded me of why I grew up in a pluralistic environment. I have mentioned that both my parents were atheists. What I may not have mentioned is that my mother came from a Catholic family and my father came from a Protestant family. Except for the fact that his parents didn’t write him out of their wills, my father’s family essentially disowned him. For this reason, I barely knew my paternal grandparents, uncles or cousins. It was especially ridiculous since no one was particularly religious. It was just stupid tribalism. For me, however, it had a positive result, I grew up in an environment where individuals were not defined by their ethnicity or religion. My classmates came from families belonging to a wide variety of sects, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, other branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Reformed Church (my father’s family), Presbyterian, Congregationalist, United Church of Christ, Methodist, Baptist, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, Radical Reform Judaism, Buddhists, Taoists, and, of course, none of the above. In fact, many of my friends had roots in multiple ethnicities. If the future is pluralist, then I’ve seen the future and the future is good. There was little conflict on ethnic or religious grounds. I would like to say there was none, but I recall an incident when a swastika was painted on the Reformed Temple, so I can’t honestly say that.

We must never forget the bloody history of the Wars of Religion in Europe which gave rise to modern notions of secularism. Some people seem to confuse secularism with atheism or non-belief. In fact, secularism is the concept that allows people of different religions to live side by side without killing one another. For this reason, I am more interested in promoting secularism than in promoting atheism. My town of my childhood was highly secular, but many people there were quite religious. I probably should have written a post about this when the holidays were still upon us.

The Irish Atheist obviously grew up in an environment almost the exact opposite of my own. (I didn’t use the WordPress reblogging tool because I had more to say than I could write in the little box they provide, but I encourage people to go over to this post.)

The ‘M’ Word: The importance of using the exact right word

I’ve been called a lot of names over the years. Some are more inventive than others.

My personal favourite is “Gypo whore.” Racism, misogyny, and lies all packed into two syllables. Another one is ‘moss-wipe’. Don’t ask.

I think most atheists have had the same experience on one level or another. The name-calling comes mainly from Christians and Muslims and other religious groups who regard atheists as a dangerous faction of anti-morality activists. Devil-worshipper, amoral, Satanist, the list goes on. And I’ll establish right here that many atheists are just as guilty. Let’s not shy away from it. Go on Twitter and see how many atheists there are calling Christians retarded, delusional, idiotic or brain-dead.

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I happened to come across this petition, intended for the White House, on the White House website, to ban creationism and intelligent design in science classes. It currently has fewer than 40,000 signatures, which I find sad. I think we all know that there is about a snowball’s chance in hell that President Obama will act on it, still I think we need to make our numbers known. It’s been sitting there since June 15th and the deadline is July 15th.

http://wh.gov/l3kuf

I don’t have tons and tons of readers, so please spread the word as well. Maybe even if you’re not living here but you have a lot of readers who do, you might want to be super nice to us and put up a link.

Amina

When I last wrote about Amina Tyler, there was not much information to be had. For those who have not been following this story, the nineteen year old Tunisian woman first came to the attention of the world when she put up a photograph of herself on her Facebook page declaring herself to be a supporter of the feminist group FEMEN, a group I only became aware of when I attended a marriage equality demonstration in Paris last December. In the photograph, she was topless with the words “My body belongs to me and is not the source of anyone’s honor” written across her torso. Adel Almi, a Salafist preacher and president of Al-Jamia Al-Li-Wassatia Tawia Wal-Islah, The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, in Tunisia, called for her execution by means of stoning. On March 16th, she appeared on the Tunisian television talk show, Labes, to explain why she joined Femen. Shortly afterward, she disappeared from view for a time. Her family had kept her locked up and given her psychiatric medications and forced her to read the Koran. On April 4th, there were world-wide protests in support of Amina. In mid-April she escaped from her family and contacted the Femen website. She began to make plans to move to France where she would continue her education.

Since that time, she has continued speaking out and protesting. Acting against the advice of friends and political supporters, she wanted to continue to engage in political protests while waiting to move to France. On May 21 she appeared in court as a result of writing “FEMEN” on the wall of a mosque for which she was charged with “desecrating a grave” and “attacking modesty.” Nadia El Fani, the Franco-Tunisian film director, and Caroline Fourest, the French journalist, called the charges, which could result in six months to two years in prison, “ubuesque” in an article written in support of Amina which appeared in the French news magazine Marianne. A photograph of the graffiti in question can be found on Caroline Fourest’s blog.

Three other members of Femen, two from France and one from Germany, staged a topless protest in front of the courthouse when Amina Tyler went on trial on May 30th. According to Maryam Namazie:

the three FEMEN activists – Marguerite, Josephine and Pauline – who staged a topless protest at the court in Tunisia at Amina’s first hearing and who are now in jail and face prison terms must be freed immediately. In the courtroom, the activists bags had been put over their heads and they were covered in blankets; the judge banned photos and videos. According to human rights activist Patrick Klugman, who came from Paris to represent the interests of the FEMEN said: “I am horrified. Without giving FEMEN activists permission to speak, the court listened only to Salafi organizations which are not even the defendants in this case! Fair trial did not take place because the accused have not been released from custody, and they were not even heard.” Pre-trial is set for June 12.

I had to search multiple sources to write this up and I hope I got all the facts right. Most of the information came via Mayam Namazie and Caroline Fourest.

Frank Lautenberg

On Monday, the United States senator from the state of New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg, passed away. He was a consistent advocate for the separation of church and state. There is a very interesting article about his opposition to the conservative activist and writer of false American history books, David Barton, on Chris Rodda’s blog. It’s probably a little too steeped in the American Constitution for anyone who’s not highly familiar with our laws regarding the separation of church and state. Still, it makes for interesting reading.