Canadian government funds anti-gay group to work in Uganda

If you don’t watch the Rachel Maddow Show, you really should. She is unparalleled in her journalistic excellence, and her self-deprecating wit is matched only by her insightfulness. If you’ve watched The Newsroom and longed for a hard-hitting newsman like Will McAvoy, the good news is that Rachel Maddow has been doing exactly what Sorkin fantasizes about, and has been doing so for years.

One of the most heart-wrenching episodes of her show I’ve ever seen takes the form of an interview with Uganda’s David Bahati. Having painstakingly detailed the extent to which Uganda’s anti-gay legislative fervor finds its ideological home in the American conservative movement, Maddow interviews Bahati as one of the chief architects and facilitators of a Uganda bill that would make homosexuality a capital crime. The palpable subtext of the interview is that Maddow is herself gay, and somehow manages to keep her rage in check long enough to expertly interview a clearly-outmatched Bahati.

Canada has decided to insert itself into the anti-gay quagmire that is Uganda’s political infrastructure by sending in exactly who you would want as ambassadors of Canadian values: [Read more...]

Movie Friday: Voices United for Mali

Music has been, and continues to be, an integral part of my life. I picked up my first musical instrument at age 6, and since then there hasn’t been a time when I wasn’t doing something musical in my free time. I went through private lessons, string ensembles, chamber orchestras, symphony orchestras, rock bands, solo gigs, string quartets… it’s been a huge part of not only how I live my life, but how I see myself.

So, at this moment in time, I am really glad I don’t live in Mali:

Musicians in Mali are defying militants in the North who have declared Shariah law and banned all music but the Islamic call to prayer.

(snip)

Strict Islamist militants imposing a version of Shariah law first seized control of major towns across northern Mali last March. They have since solidified their grip on the North and forced hundreds of thousands to flee.

(snip)

“It is strange for us to understand the extent to which it is impossible to listen or play music in the North. You can’t do it anymore. The only way you can play it is to drive miles out into the desert, where you are beyond the earshot of anyone.”

Before this recent outbreak of fundagelical religious tyrannical fascism, Mali sounds like a place I could be quite happy in. Music is woven into their cultural expression in much the same way it is woven into my life. And that makes the ban on music all the more shocking and deplorable.

Now I’m not going to comment on the rightness or wrongness of European/North American military intervention in Mali. Some analysts have pointed out that the crisis there was triggered as a result of NATO intervention in Libya – as mercenary groups fled post-Gaddhafi Libya, they moved west and eventually took over. I am not sure what is to be done there, since foreign involvement may have triggered the damn thing in the first place. What I do know is that the people who made this video are impressive as hell:

I can’t imagine what I would do if music was outlawed by threat of death. One thing I do know is that by standing up and resisting, the people of Mali are setting a powerful example for oppressed groups everywhere: resistance in the face of unjust persecution is human dignity at its height.

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Supreme Court of Canada rules on niqab case

Back in the early days of this blog, I talked about an Ontario court case involving a woman who did not want to be compelled to remove her niqab (a Muslim face covering) in order to testify against two of her family members who she accused of sexually abusing her over a number of years. I thought it was an interesting case for those of us interested in how to properly build a secular society that respects personal expression but does not kowtow to every religious cause under the sun. I said this at the time:

For once, I don’t have a clear-cut answer of what the court should do. On the one hand, testifying would have deleterious effects on the plaintiff and possibly cause her to lose her family and social life; it would most certainly deter other abused women from coming forward after they see that the consequence of speaking up is social isolation (and possibly more abuse). On the other hand however, allowing her to wear the veil not only violates the right of the accused to confront their accuser face-to-face, but implicitly assents to the practice of veiling women.

The case found its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, who handed down their decision this morning. I have, on several occasions, expressed my deep respect and admiration for Canada’s Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who wrote for the majority in the 4-2-1* decision, finding that while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (equivalent to the U.S. Bill of Rights) does explicitly defend a person’s right to freedom of religion, it also explicitly defends the rights of the accused. As such, the decision prescribes a series of test questions that must be satisfied before requiring a woman to remove her niqab to testify.

The full text of the decision is here, and my own summary and analysis of the decision follows below the fold. [Read more...]

The best laid plans of mice and small minds

One of the fascinating aspects of the denial of privilege is the pirouettes one must turn in order to square the denial with observed fact.

“Black people have just as many opportunities as white people!”

Well, here’s an assload of evidence that suggests that’s not true

“…culture of poverty! Single moms! Phrenology!”

This is the reason why I think race is a perfect subject for the skeptical movement, because we can point to the evidence and say “here’s a whole bunch of problems, and the excuses offered for them are based on stereotypes rather than facts”. This is what we do when it comes to homeopathy, UFOs, gods, whatever you like. We find ways to take human inference out of the equation, and then figure out what the truth looks like regardless of what beliefs you had before you asked the questions.

The hubris of those who discover that Obama didn’t raise their taxes, or that FOX News isn’t “fair and balanced”, or that outlawing contraception causes more abortions, is always highly amusing to watch. Well, sometimes amusing, other times depressing as they manage to find smaller and smaller loopholes of post hoc reasoning to justify the rapidly-disappearing credibility of their arguments (“he’s a secret socialist! You just wait!” “Scientists and media observers are all liberals!” “the devil lives in the uterus!”). At any rate, it’s never boring.

What’s even more amusing is when the myths of the obsessed are punctured at their own hands: [Read more...]

God, Jesus, Dad, and Me (part II)

I was asked to contribute my ‘deconversion’ story to a book project about black non-belief. Since it’s (in my opinion) a pretty solid piece of writing, I thought I’d add it here. You can compare it to a previous occasion when I wrote this story, albeit in less detail. Read part I here.

I had been enamoured of Greek mythology as a kid. Dad used to read an adapted version of The Iliad called “Black Ships Before Troy” (a book that I am pleasantly surprised to learn that has survived several moves and sits on my bookshelf as I write this). I devoured the stories of Theseus and the Minotaur, Apollo, god of the sun, and his fiery chariot, the several trials of Hercules, and the punishment of the titan Prometheus, cursed to eternal suffering for having the temerity to bring the fire of the gods to lowly humans. I read mythology from the West Indies as well – Anansi the trickster, and Tiger, king of the jungle. I read mythology from various First Nations within Canada; I read African creation mythology.

And so, when I opened my Bible and read the stories of Cain and Abel, the Exodus from Egypt, the punishment of Onan for failing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife, the flight of Lot from the damned city of Sodom, I found myself disturbingly confronted by the familiar syntax of myth. These were no lessons handed down from an almighty god; they were the oral histories of a group of nomadic tribesmen. It was myth mixed in with parable mixed in with law mixed in with fable. The similarities forbade me from seeing it as holy writ. [Read more...]

God, Jesus, Dad, and Me

I was asked to contribute my ‘deconversion’ story to a book project about black non-belief. Since it’s (in my opinion) a pretty solid piece of writing, I thought I’d add it here. You can compare it to a previous occasion when I wrote this story, albeit in less detail.

I can’t tell the story of my ‘deconversion’ – my escape from faith – without telling the story of my father. Dad was born the youngest of seven in Guyana, a country geographically located in South America, politically located in the Caribbean, and geopolitically located in the third world. A British colony, Guyana was home to a simmering political dissatisfaction (which would be resolved during Dad’s adolescence with independence), ever-present racism, and serious poverty.

Dad, taking one of the few opportunities available to a bright young man, entered the Catholic priesthood. He was educated at the seminary, growing up with other priests in training. Dad also grew during this time as a musician and photographer. His missionary work took him all over the Caribbean, and eventually to Toronto, Canada as part of a foreign mission organized out of Scarborough.

Facing his own doubts, particularly around the church’s teachings on birth control (he would tell me, many years after I was born, that he felt as though he was contributing to the suffering of people he was supposed to help), Dad left the priesthood in the late ‘70s. It was also around that time that he met my mother, although he has repeatedly assured me that those two developments were not related in any way. [Read more...]

Hilarious parody site skewers Catholic sainthood

I am not sure why, I assume it has something to do with the fact that my name and e-mail is out there and searchable, but I regularly get spam e-mail from people hawking a book or offering me an “exclusive chance” to interview someone I’ve never heard of for my blog. Usually I reply with a simple “please remove me from your e-mail list”, but they continue to pour in unabated. Because I occasionally talk about religion, I often get this unsolicited spam from people hawking religious books on behalf of their clients – a feat of irony that tells me they don’t bother to read the blogs before they start pimping to them.

The joys of internet notoriety, folks.

Most of the time I delete them without reading, but yesterday I received an e-mail that, to the untrained eye looked like the same kind of spam, but was, upon closer inspection, actually an extremely clever bit of anti-Catholic parody: [Read more...]

The terrible burden of religious persecution

Part of the reason I have such a difficult time taking complaints about the “persecution” of Christians in North America (and indeed, most of the world), is because by degrees they demonstrate again and again that they have simply no fucking clue what persecution looks like. To wit:

Jamaica’s public transport authorities have banned lay preachers from addressing commuters in public buses. Jamaica is a predominantly Christian country, but many passengers have complained about the noise and disturbance. Drivers have been instructed to politely warn religious ministers that they are no longer allowed to evangelise fellow passengers. Preachers say the decision infringes freedom of speech and religion.

No, Jamaican dickhole priests, your rights are not being infringed because people are telling you that you’re not allowed to push your superstition to people riding the bus, on their way to actually doing something worthwhile in the world. Your rights are intact. You can still say whatever you want, you’re just not allowed to do it with absolutely no regard for the feeling or comfort of other people. You know, like a non-sociopath.

I am reminded of this comic: [Read more...]

The freedom of religion

I have to admit that I have a massive throbbing hate-on (read it again) for the phrase “freedom of religion”. It is an over-used canard that really has no useful value. The protection of a right to freedom of conscience, along with similar protections for speech, ensures that any religious belief or practice is protected. Carving out a specific protection for religion is redundant.

What it is a reflection of, as far as I can tell, is a cultural obsession with the totems and taboos of worshipping various failures of rational thought. We fetishize our ignorance, call it “religion” or “faith”, and then incessantly remind everyone how important and central it is to the human experience, to the point where people don’t know how you could possibly live a life without it. So of course it has to have special protection. After all, if we don’t protect something so essential to human functioning, how could we have any rights at all?

Bullshit.

And yet, we continue to do it. We enshrine it in our laws, we plaster it on bumper stickers, we even create entire government ministries to oversee it. An office, by the way, overseen by a person who is capable of saying stuff like this in public:

In too many countries, the right to believe in and practise one’s faith in peace and security is still measured in blood spilled and lives lost. This is not an abstract debate. Blasphemy laws target religious minorities.

And then saying this:

Nothing is easy. And you really only get one chance to get it right. We know that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.

Oh really, Mr. Baird. Thanks for pointing that out. Let’s look at a couple of blasphemy law cases then, shall we?

Greek Church charges playwright, actors, with blasphemy:

The actors and creative team behind a play that depicts Jesus Christ and his apostles as gay face charges of blasphemy in Greece, according to court officials.

The production of Corpus Christi, a 1997 play by U.S. playwright Terrence McNally, was greeted with protests by priests and the right-wing Golden Dawn movement during its run in Athens in October. The Greek-language staging was eventually cancelled earlier this month.

Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus launched a lawsuit against the production and called for charges of “insulting religion” and “malicious blasphemy.”

Because, and I think the whole international community can agree, there’s nothing more important happening in Greece right now than cracking down on people who insult religion. Even though the play is about political corruption. None of that in Greece though…

India arrests two for Facebook status:

Police in India have arrested a woman they say criticised on Facebook the shutdown of the city of Mumbai after the death of politician Bal Thackeray.

A woman friend who “liked” the comment was also arrested, they said.

The women, accused of “hurting religious sentiments”, were released on bail after appearing in court in the town of Palghar, police told the BBC.

Yes, it would be just awful if people were allowed to express dissatisfaction at things that are tangentially related to deeply held religious beliefs! Don’t you get how deeply they’re held, you guys? Deeply! Like… really deep!

It seems to me that religion isn’t exactly under existential threat here. If anything, it’s got quite a bit of muscle to flex. And while the supposed goal of this “Office of Religious Freedom” is supposed to be about protecting minority groups, Minister John Baird expresses this ‘freedom’ in explicitly faith-y terms. Not a freedom to believe and practice according to the dictates of one’s own conscience, but a freedom to “draw upon one’s faith to contribute to the greater good of society—something greater than oneself.”

I’m, it hardly needs to be said, skeptical.

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The fall of (giving) a damn

The Scene: An expansive penthouse office in heaven. YAHWEH sits at a desk, happily munching on a bowl of peanuts and playing The Sims.

YAHWEH: Oh I know the stove is on fire, little Sim dude. But somebody sold all the doors and windows out of the house, so now the fire department can’t get in! Not so cute to complain about your lack of entertainment now, is it, you fucker? (He laughs wickedly).

(An alarm goes off. After waiting for a few moments, irritated, YAHWEH finally storms to the door to his office, throws it open, and enters an anteroom where panicked angels and archangels are screaming into phones, waving around reams of paper, and generally not looking happy. Somberly, one angel wipes the number ’8′ from a whiteboard entitled ‘THIS PLANET HAS GONE __ DAYS WITHOUT A LOSS OF INNOCENCE’)

YAHWEH: Does someone want to tell me what the holy fuck is going on here?

(Gabriel, an archangel, quickly dismisses the person on the other end of the phone, hangs up, and approaches YAHWEH, clipboard in hand)

Gabriel: Bad news, boss. We’ve got a code black.

YAHWEH: A meteor is heading toward the planet?

Gabriel: No no, we haven’t scheduled that for (checks clipboard) another few thousand years or so. You said it would be funnier if we let the planet get populated with sentient creatures before we completely wiped it out.

YAHWEH: (Chuckles whimsically) Oh yeah. So what’s the problem? [Read more...]