In Memoriam: Richard Allan Glenn – by One for Sorrow

Richard Allan Glenn (December 6th, 1984-November 4th, 2005)

Richard Allan Glenn (December 6th, 1984-November 4th, 2005)

I first knew of Allan, like many others in online nontheist and religious communities, as WinAce the “Fundies Say the Darndest Things” guy, of which I was an occasional reader. FStDT, which began as a way to collect some of the more asinine statements by religious fundamentalists from one of his favorite religious message boards for his personal use in signatures and quickly took on a life of its own. I also knew of him through his posts on the old IIDB (now FRDB), which were consistently well-written, and even in serious discussions he almost invariably inserted a bit of his characteristic humor. Noticeably absent in those early posts were any facts about his life, or really any personal information at all. He shared those details with only his closest online friends, and in May 2004 I was about to become one of them.

That May, our paths crossed in the old IRC channel #infidelchat, and I was surprised to learn that all those brilliant posts were written by a 19-year-old. Given his impressive writing skills and knowledge in a broad range of subjects, I had assumed he was quite a bit older, and probably a college graduate. I would be even more shocked when I later learned that he could read, but not speak, English until around the age of twelve, when he taught himself by watching television with the closed-captioning on. As the first-generation American son of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, his first language was Russian. Being just 20 years old myself, my curiosity was piqued. After he made a particularly bad joke in chat, I threatened him with one of the insidious creatures from his Organisms That Look Designed page. We became fast friends.

What began as innocent flirtation quickly became much more. He often kept me literally doubled-over in laughter, but was quite capable of discussing serious matters at length and seemed to exude genuine kindness, a remarkable trait for text on a screen. He was determined to steal my heart, so steal it he did. Though he lived in Queens, NY and I was 3,000 miles away in a rural Oregon town, distance turned out to be a surmountable obstacle.

In the first few conversations, he remained hesitant to discuss anything about his personal life, but about a week and a half later, he revealed what he had always been reluctant to tell anyone: he had cystic fibrosis (CF). Although he did not tell me the severity of his illness, all the apparent inconsistencies in previous conversations suddenly made sense, and I knew that he must be quite ill. I knew that moment one of my closest friends had just told me he was dying.

Allan said he suspected he would be hospitalized again soon, and I gave him my phone number so that we could keep in touch when that happened. From that day forward, we spoke nearly every day. In that first conversation, he told me that he might soon need a lung transplant, confirming my worst fears, but that he might have a germ that would disqualify him, which surpassed them. But, I was already quickly falling for him, and the knowledge of his illness did nothing but make me far more concerned about his well-being.

Allan’s life in many ways was not a happy one. He was the last of four children, all of whom had cystic fibrosis, and all had died very young: two in infancy, and one older brother, Sergei, who passed at the age of six when Allan was four. It is not an understatement to say that his parents were driven mad with grief, even to the point of blaming their remaining son for the death of his older brother. His illness was treated with a great deal of secrecy and even shame. His grandparents back in Russia were not even told that his brother had died, and other close relatives within the United States from whom his breathing difficulties could not be disguised were led to believe that he had something like asthma, rather than CF. It has been three years since Allan died, and his aunt and cousins still haven’t been told about it.

Through his sad family life and the realities of coping with a debilitating and ultimately fatal illness, Allan seemed to be more sensitized to the sufferings of others, not less. One time he started to tell me of a documentary he had watched about sex trafficking in a third-world country, but stopped. He couldn’t discuss it; it was just too awful. He became strangely quiet for days afterward whenever something reminded him of it. I think a lot of us are so used to hearing about the worst atrocities that mankind commits that there is little that can surprise us, and most would not be as clearly affected. At the same time, he was not stirred by the things that people tend to get upset about that ultimately do not matter. It seemed to me that he had a firm grasp on what is really important in life, something which most people do not achieve in a lifetime.

His sense of humor also came through intact, and probably enhanced by the hardships he encountered in life. Allan was quite the prankster from early in life, when at around eight years old and having just been asked for a urine sample, he booby-trapped the top edge of a door with a cup of warm apple juice for the next unsuspecting nurse to come along. His humor eventually became more sophisticated, and he delighted whenever somebody took one of his parodies seriously. He eyed his own situation with a lot of humor as well, and encouraged his friends to ask questions and even invited them to occasionally poke fun at his predicament. We took the adage that you sometimes have to laugh to keep from crying to heart, which buoyed us through a number of setbacks.

I met Allan in person for the first time in September, 2004. If possible, he was even more wonderful in person than online. I spotted him near the baggage claim in LaGuardia airport, holding a sign with my name on it and looking endearingly shy. I had told him I was sure the day I met him in person would be the best day of my life, and it was. I spent ten days with him in New York, and when I saw him again in January 2005, we were moving in together.

It turned out that he did have the germ that disqualified him for a lung transplant in all the centers in New York State, so we followed the hope of a transplant down to North Carolina. There, he found that UNC-Hospitals at Chapel Hill was willing to transplant him, but Medicaid refused to cover it, citing the dangerous bacteria he cultured, low weight, and osteoporosis as making him too high of a risk. He was told that he’d have to shoulder the nearly $400,000 burden himself. His friends online started a campaign to fundraise the money needed for the surgery, setting up the website Save-Allan.org, writing letters on his behalf to media outlets and politicians, and raising thousands of dollars toward the cost of his surgery. We were both humbled at the tremendous outpouring of support. Allan remained upbeat throughout most of it, and indescribably brave. Unfortunately, he ran out of time, and died from complications arising from a gastric feeding tube surgery which was a last-ditch effort to raise his weight and get Medicaid to accept him.

Allan passed away the morning of November 4th, 2005. We had lived and loved a lifetime in less than two years, and he approached the last of his 20 years of life with grace and humor in the face of extreme hardships. His legacy of kindheartedness and wit is embodied in his self-penned eulogy, and in the hearts of his many friends. As heartbroken as I am, I am profoundly grateful for every moment I was able to spend with him, right up until his last.

The last words I remember him speaking were, “It was nice knowing you, my dear.”

Oh, my sweetheart, it was ever so nice knowing you, too.

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The Invisible Atheist – by Garnet

Mourning My Mother

The end of October has become a melancholy time for me. A time when I’m prone to fits of sadness and episodes of morose contemplations of my life. A time when people closest to me are likely to experience the sharper edge of my tongue and my temper. A time in which I realize fully that my mourning for my mother is not yet finished, not quite yet. She died two years ago on October 26.

Hers is the first death of a loved one that I’ve faced as a strong atheist, without any remnant of the comforting notion of a happy afterlife where there will be no more tears and no more pain. This is the first time I’ve had to forcefully face the fact that there will not be any after-death reunion, that there is no walk through a dark passage towards the light of another, better kind of existence. She is gone and the only remnants of her are memories and some few possessions. In the realization of the finality of her loss are the ghosts of other dead loved ones circling around in my mind and whispering, “We’re gone too.” My father, my nephew, my fiancé, my friend, my uncle and on and on. All those I loved and have died are forever gone.

This is the time when I look back wistfully at the beliefs I held in my youth. Those warm, fuzzy, magical ideas that there was some sort of God up there, somewhere who loved me and would take care of me in the end. Those beliefs are long gone now; as dead as the loved ones I mourn. Those beliefs were doomed first by my short-lived conversion to Christianity in which I was taught that my notions about God were all wrong and, in fact, bordered on blasphemous. Those beliefs were finally and irrevocably eradicated during my search for convincing evidence, first, of the Christian God and then later, of anything divine.

So at times like these, when memories of my mother are welling up inside me, when I miss her very, very much, where do I turn? What do I do? How do I deal with the grief of her death?

By remembering that I am the daughter of a strong, compassionate, sometimes foolish, often wise, woman. While I miss the sound of her voice, the touch of her hand, the way she looked when something struck her as funny, her love, her acceptance and the way she cared about everything I did and how I felt, I must also remember this. If she was with me right now, she’d tell me to wipe my eyes, blow my nose and put this grief away. She’d tell me to live my life and enjoy myself in ways that she couldn’t. She’d touch me on the arm and tell me how proud she was of me. Then she’d arch her brow and tell me that it’s time to let go and get going.

Those who are gone still dwell in my memories. The lessons they taught me and the love they gave help me every day and buoy me up when I feel like I’m drowning. The realities of those relationships, both good and bad, are a part of who I am today. While I will always miss my loved ones, I know that the raw harshness of my grief will ameliorate over time. Living hurts sometimes. But when all is said and done, I find that I’m in a better place for living in reality than in the fanciful realms of magical thinking. I find that facing the facts of the deaths of my loved ones, while painful, is better than trying to believe in primitive or fuzzy notions of the afterlife. I find that I’m more able to appreciate my life here and now. In the end, it is better to live understanding the finality of death than in the throes of wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance.

So, when next October rolls around, I’ll likely experience feelings of sadness and perhaps I’ll be a little more difficult than usual to be around. But it will be a bit easier for me, as this year was easier than last. My melancholy moods will be shorter and as the years pass, those moods will eventually dwindle away. As long as I am able, I will hold dear the memories and lessons of those who are gone. Those are treasures. Real treasures that are far more valuable than any notion of heaven.

My Christian Deconversion – by Jedi Mind Trick

JMT is a member of FRDB who is now a Buddhist, but his deconversion from Christianity still holds good.

I was raised in a Missouri Synod Lutheran home, A actually my Mom was the religious one and my Dad, for most of my childhood, was agnostic. I attended St. Peter’s Lutheran School from 2nd grade all the way through half of the eighth where I was then placed in public schools.

Growing up was confusing for me because my Dad was also an alcoholic and there was turmoil in the home. I spent most of my time as a teen up in my bedroom playing the guitar and listening to music, it was a great escape for me.

I went through a time of drug experimentation during my mid teens, mostly just pot. Anyway, I was trying to get involved in a good band but I didn’t have the contacts I needed. Most of the guys I ran with who played an instrument were not all that serious about it, but I was. I wanted to become a musician and a great guitarist someday.

I started hanging out with another guitar player during the summer previous to my junior year in high school. All we would do is get high, play guitar and listen to music. It was fun, but it would lead nowhere and by the end of the summer I began to feel real empty.

I had been listening to Jimmy Swaggart a lot on the TV (this was before his scandal) and I was beginning to take him seriously. I especially liked his emphasis on the end times as I had a keen interest in it for some reason. I would also tune into Jerry Falwell’s broadcast and various other televangelists.

One August evening I was laying in bed getting ready to sleep and I was thinking about existence. I remember thinking to myself that the mere fact of existence somehow proved there is a god (don’t ask me the logic of it because I wasn’t running on logic at the time). And you know what? I also had the good fortune to know that if there was a god the only true god, obviously, could only be Jesus.

Remembering the stuff I saw on the televangelists programs I was prompted by emotion to ask Jesus into my heart and to promise to live for him all my life. So in the solitude of my bedroom I, then and there, asked Jesus into my heart and life and I made the promise to live for him no matter what.

All of a sudden I felt a flood of exhilarating, deep peace like I had never felt before. It was physical too, it was as though I felt Jesus enter into my soul and awaken me. I was saved! Or was I?

The very next day I marched over to my guitar buddy’s house and his Mom let me in. I went upstairs to his bedroom, where he was busy smoking a bowl, and I grabbed my guitar gear, turned to him and said “Dude, I’ve become a Christian and I won’t be hanging out anymore.” Thereupon I left and never returned…

I started attending St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, my Mom was very pleased. I remember thinking to myself that what was once so boring to me, church, had now become full of meaning. I would almost always find something of value coming from the pulpit that I took as “a word from God” directly to me personally. But the Lutheran church wouldn’t hold my attention. I was very interested in the claims of miracles and signs and wonders that I heard about from the televangelists.

About this time I would run into a Christian guitarist through a mutual drummer friend and we started a Christian Thrash band called “Tsaba” meaning “lord of the armies.”

I played with Tsaba for three years and just when we were getting ready to cut a demo I left the band over doctrine. I also, regrettably, left playing the guitar behind.

I left the Lutheran Church and started attending “The Vineyard Fellowship.” It was a heavily Charismatic church. Speaking in tongues, Singing in the spirit, Healings, Prophecy and all manner of ecstatics typical of the movement. I was in deep and walked with my head in the clouds 24-7, until I read a controversial book called “The Seduction of Christianity” by Dave Hunt.

This book was painful for me to read. It was an attack, by a Christian, on the very practices of the charismatic movement. This book convinced me that I had been deceived by the devil. I, with some disillusionment, left the charismatic movement and started attending fundamental bible churches.

It was about this time that I left the band also and for many of the reasons that Dave’s book outlined.

I would stay a bible only fundamentalist for the remainder of my Christian walk, except for the last year where I experimented with more liberal ideas.

As a fundamentalist I would ignore things like all the evidence for evolution, the observable age of the universe, the absurdity of the biblical flood. I would just pack those things away in the back of my mind and plod on believing.

I had several stints at a “backsliden” state. I would, for a time, in my twenties go to bars and get plastered with friends only to latter turn my back on those friends and repent.”

This lead me deeper and deeper into a problem of faith that I had always struggled with, the question of whether or not I can and or have lost my salvation. When my Dad died this turned into questions about whether or not my loved ones were ever saved. I would find myself increasingly obsessing over the issue of eternal hell and if I and others I love would go there.

In my late twenties I married a woman who was a Christian but just as compromised as I was. We lived together and slept together before marriage and this nearly ruined my conscience. I was full of guilt…

Later in the marriage I began to obsess over the question of divorce and remarriage. My Wife was a divorced woman and I began to wonder, based upon some things I read, if this meant I had lost my salvation because we were technically “living in sin.”

This proved to be the issue that would cause me to ask questions about the justness of an eternal hell. I would obsess over the hell issue daily during this time and one day I asked myself important question. Would I want my worst enemy to be tortured in a hell for eternity? My reply was no… I then had the blasphemous thought to actually question God’s own justice. The question was “why then will God torture his own enemies forever.”

As a Christian I spent a lot of time reading apologetics especially anti-cult and anti-new age material. I was also very interested in prophecy and I expected the fulfillment of the return of Christ in my lifetime and I read quite a few books on the topic, some more scholarly than others.

By the time I had turn away from the Charismatic movement I had come to a theological stance known as dispensationalism. As I ‘grew’ older in the faith my dispensationalism took on more and more radical tones. Just before I tried liberal theology on for size I was persuaded by radical dispensational theologians like E.W. Bullinger, C.R. Stam, J.C. Ohair, Miles J. Stanford and Adolph E. Knoch.

What I liked about this theology is that it, especially the radical dispensationalists, divorced the church age from the old testament and emphasized that this age was an age of unparalleled grace as opposed to the age law, one passed and one yet to come. Miles J. Stanford was especially favored by me. His emphasis was on the mystical union of the believer with Christ, so much so that god is said to only notice the perfection of Jesus when he sees any of his children no matter how sinful they may be. This was good news to someone who was guilt ridden and having very low self esteem, like myself. It also was an attempt to answer for myself the perplexing question of my enduring salvation when it eluded me by my actions.

My actions, now that I look back on them, were not sinful. In fact there is no sin to worry about at all. I have only ever acted as a normal red blooded human male. I’ve made mistakes, sure, but where there is no god to sin against there is no sin.

I would also spend a lot of my time trying to figure out differences in theology within the church in a effort to find the “true” doctrine. This only led to greater confusion.

I asked the blasphemous question about the justice of a good god sending anyone to hell. This began my exploration into more liberal forms of Christian thought.

It was also about this time (2004) that I began to visit the internet infidels to “teach” them about true Christianity. Boy was I in for a lesson. A poster who goes by the screen name “Mageth” thrashed me with my own words.

It’s a little embarrassing that I used to be that preachy. The thread where Mageth gets around to hanging me with my own rope is still availible.

After my run in with Mageth I really could no longer tolerate the contortions I had to go through to justify some of my beliefs. I started out by modifying my belief in an eternal hell because it disturbed me the most.

I eventually turned to universalism and argued for it on the infidels, but the critical genie was out of the bottle and before long I was looking critically at the bible and finding it full of contradictions that I could no longer make excuses for. I determined that I wasn’t going to prop the bible up with faith anymore. If it couldn’t stand on it’s own feet then it deserved to fall, and fall it did.

It wasn’t long before I was calling myself an agnostic and then shortly after that, an atheist.

This isn’t the end of the story though, I would yet give theism one more pitiful chance. Not Christianity, but a wishy washy I hope I hope I hope I hope there is a good god up there sort of theism mixed with generous amounts of new agey feel goody fluff.

This reversion back to theism happened mostly because I had a nervous breakdown late 2005 due to the break-up of my marriage and near financial ruin. Me and my wife are patching things up now.

After I lost the need for an emotional crutch I soon had to admit that no other gods are any more or any less likely than the Christian one and I feel I have falsified him to my satisfaction.

It is now a matter of parsimony and honesty that I call myself an atheist.

Pizza Pull-Aparts – by Isolde

Pizza Pull-aparts
King Arthur Flour

Bread:

3 cups bread flour
2 tsp instant yeast
1 tsp salt
3 tbs olive oil
1/3 cup instant potato flakes
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water (more as needed)

Cheese:

1 cup grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese
1 cup grated provolone or mozzarella
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning (or to taste)
3/4 cup water

For the bread, mix all together and knead  (by hand, mixer or bread machine) until you have a soft, smooth dough.  Cover and let rise for 1 hour (until it’s puffy, but not necessarily doubled).
While you’re waiting, Grease a 9″ springform pan.  You can also use a small bundt pan or a deep cake pan.  For the cheese, mix all ingredients together.  Don’t worry that it looks like a gloppy mess.

Cut the dough into golf-ball sized pieces and roll into balls.  Roll each piece in the cheese goop and place in the pan, layering when needed.  Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise for 30 minutes. Get the oven preheating to 350F.

Bake for 30 minutes, then check on them.  If they’re browning too much, tent the top with foil.  Bake 10 more minutes.  Let them cool for five minutes, then remove them from the pan.

pizza-pull-aparts-2

The U.N. and the War on Freedom of Expression – by DMB

The UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After World War I, “the war to end all wars”, the League of Nations was established in a bid to find a more peaceful way of dealing with international disputes. Ultimately, the League failed in its primary objective when World War II broke out.

As World War II drew to its close, the nations who had suffered from the two world wars were determined to try to avoid a third. They set in motion the creation of an international body that they hoped would be more effective than the League and profit from an understanding of the League’s shortcomings. And so the United Nations was born, and it took over a number of agencies that had been created as part of the League.

World War II had been notable for the hideous crimes against humanity that had come to light, and so the founders of the UN wanted to do everything possible to protect human rights.

A key figure in the fight for human rights was the First Lady of the USA, Eleanor Rooseveldt, who worked hard to set up the UN. She chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and had big influence on its style and contents. The UDHR was adopted by the UN in 1948, and we are thus celebrating the 60th birthday of this ground-breaking document this year. I urge anyone who is interested in human rights to read the UDHR. It isn’t long. We may perhaps see in it as a descendant of the US Bill of Rights and as a fruit of the Enlightenment. It is worth mentioning that Saudi Arabia and the Soviet bloc abstained in the vote that adopted the UDHR.

What is remarkable about the UDHR is that it recognises that rights belong to individual human beings, not groupings of human beings, and that they apply to all human beings: it is indeed universal. Quite obviously, it is intended to give individuals protection against abuses of their rights by powerful governments.

The UDHR carries no legal weight, but its daughters, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) do.

UN structure for human rights

The UN Charter created a UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). One of its responsibilities was to promote human rights, so ECOSOC set up a Commission for Human Rights in 1946. This was intended to help member states implement human rights within their territories, but it adhered strictly to the idea of the sovereignty of nation states and did not intervene to prevent human rights abuses.

There was in fact a great deal of disagreement among states as to how interventionist the UN could be in questions of human rights, and that argument has continued until now. The Commission did eventually come to investigate human rights abuses by member states, but it was always hampered by its composition of elected member states, which always seemed to include a sprinkling of the worst abusers of human rights. By the middle of this decade it had become clear that the abusers on the Commission supported one another in an unholy alliance and that any effective defence of human rights was not to be expected from the Commission.

The UN therefore tried a fresh start in 2006, setting up the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). It soon became evident, however, that the Council suffered from many of the same problems as the Commission. In my opinion it is unlikely that we shall ever see a UN body that seriously addresses human rights issues across the globe. The states that are members of the Council always vote mainly in accordance with calculations of national interest. For example, while Saudi Arabia remains the major supplier of oil, it is highly improbable that any abuse of human rights in that country would ever be dealt with by the Council. Three current members of the Council, China, Cuba and Pakistan, have signed but not yet ratified the key human rights treaty, the ICCPR, which came into force in 1976. Pakistan did not even sign it until this year. Two other Council members, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, have not even signed it.

Two things do work reasonably well at the UNHRC: special rapporteurs and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Special rapporteurs are experts given a brief to investigate certain general areas of concern within the field of human rights and to report their findings and recommendations back to the Council. And the Council does provide a platform for NGOs. They do not have the same rights as member states, but they can try to raise issues that member states are failing to discuss.

For a discussion of the performance of the UNHRC during its first year, see this report by UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO. Note that UN Watch has an American Jewish background and might be supposed to be Zionist in its sympathies, but I have found its reports to be accurate.

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference

The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is a grouping of 57 states with Muslim populations. In not all cases do Muslims constitute a majority of the population. For more about the OIC, see this Wikipedia article.

The OIC normally operate as a bloc within the UN. At present 17 member countries of the OIC are represented on the UNHRC. Another significant bloc is the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). There is considerable overlap between the membership of the OIC and that of the NAM. In addition to the I7 members of the OIC, a further 11 members of the NAM are on the UNHRC. There are 12 members who belong to neither group. Very frequently, members of the NAM vote with the OIC within the UNHRC, giving them an easy majority on most votes. China, also, can normally be relied upon to vote with the OIC and Russia does from time to time.

Islam and human rights

Now you may be wondering why I am devoting so much attention to the OIC. It is because there seems to be a significant mismatch between the human rights outlined in the UDHR and the ideas of Islamic Shari’a law. In particular, Islamic law has problems with the following articles of the UDHR

  • Articles 1 and 2: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights… Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Disagreement over equal rights for men and women and for Muslims and non-Muslims.
  • Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Possible problem over stoning to death and amputations.
  • Article 13: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State… Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. Not all Islamic laws accord these rights to women.
  • Article 16: Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. It is arguable that this is not the case where child marriage is permitted. However, a number of Islamic countries are trying to discourage child marriage.
  • Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. The idea that any Muslim should be free to change his or her religion is unacceptable. Apostasy is punishable under Islamic law and in some countries can incur the death penalty. Saudi Arabia does not allow the free practice of any religion other than Islam.
  • Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. This is another particularly problematical idea. Islamic law punishes blasphemy, which can be a very wide-ranging offence, often incurring the death penalty.

There are a few other areas in the UDHR which are of concern to some Islamic states, but those seem to be the main ones. It is perhaps now not difficult to see why Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the guardian of Islam and Islamic values, has refused to sign or ratify UN human rights treaties. A number of Islamic countries have in recent years expressed dissent with the idea of universal human rights. In fact, an Iranian delegate described the UDHR as “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which could not be implemented by Muslims without trespassing the Islamic law”.

In 1990 the OIC adopted the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI). It is worthwhile comparing the UDHR with the CDHRI. The most striking difference is that the UDHR puts forward rights with no extra conditions. The CDHRI states:

  • Article 24: All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari’a.
  • Article 25: The Islamic Shari’a is the only source of reference for the explanation or classification of any of the articles of this Declaration
    .

Furthermore, the article on freedom of expression says:

  • Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’a.
  • Information is a vital necessity to society. It may not be exploited or misused in such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Prophets, undermine moral and ethical values or disintegrate, corrupt or harm society or weaken its faith.

The OIC initially tried to get the UN to adopt the CDHRI as an alternative to the UDHR. This bid was unsuccessful, but in 1997 they succeeded in getting listed (without any vote) as a regional human rights instrument. Recently, they have been attempting to get it recognised as complementary to the UDHR, which it clearly is not, since it restricts some of the rights outlined in the UDHR.

Freedom of expression

Having done my best to explain some of the background, I now come to the main question: the right to freedom of expression, as stated in Article 19 of the UDHR. In my opinion this is a key right. Without it, the individual has little protection or redress against abuses of other human rights by governments and others. Historically, freedom of expression was not encouraged by most regimes, although it famously forms part of the US Constitution. It is something that individuals have fought for over centuries, often paying with their lives in the struggle. It is something we should not lightly give up.

In many modern Islamic countries it is not a full right. Most of them have stringent laws against blasphemy, which is very widely interpreted. Blasphemy often incurs the death penalty. Because blasphemy is so ill-defined, it is very easy for someone to be convicted of it even if they had no intention of committing it.

Not content with blasphemy laws within their own territories, the OIC have for some years been working energetically to restrict freedom of expression in the international arena in order to protect “religion” (although, of course, they only have one religion in mind). Every year from 1999 to 2007 they succeeded in getting first the UNCHR and then the UNHRC to pass resolutions against “defamation of religion”, and finally in 2007 such a resolution was passed by the General Assembly of the UN. These resolutions validate repression of freedom of expression within Islamic countries and place some obligation on other countries to fall into line.

There is an innate absurdity in a human rights body trying to limit freedom of expression that is in any way critical of religion or which in some way offends believers. Religions do not have human rights: individual people do. And there can be no human right to be spared offence.

It is particularly ironic that the UNHRC, the international body that is supposed to protect human rights, should give so much effort to this issue and so little to any of the serious human rights abuses occurring across the world, with one exception: human rights abuse by Israel against the Palestinians. For example, no attention is paid to the actions of China in Tibet. Earlier this year, when there was a lot of concern in the West about this question, not only was it not dealt with in the Council, but NGOs were forbidden to mention it.

In fact repression of freedom of expression is thriving within the UNHRC itself. It was ruled earlier this year that the word “Shari’a” could not be mentioned in the Council, even though a speaker was attempting to talk about the question of the “complementarity” of the CDHRI with the UDHR. And another speaker was interrupted and prevented from finishing by a passionate declaration that “Islam will not be crucified in this Council!” The President of the Council ruled that there could be no discussion of religion or any criticism of the Shari’a or fatwas.

The UNHRC has a Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. The mandate of this individual had always been to report back to the Council on denials of the right to freedom of expression. In March this year, the mandate was changed. The Special Rapporteur was now required to report on “abuses” of the right. Too much free speech can be a bad thing in the Orwellian world of the UNHRC. See this report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

For more details on the fight for freedom of expression within the UN, see the IHEU website, which carries many reports.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in liberal democracies may shrug our shoulders and feel that none of this is all that important to us. But human rights campaigners in repressive countries need our support. They believe in the universality of human rights. Many of them are brave individuals who risk a great deal to fight for human rights. We should not fail them.

Within our societies there is an attitude of withdrawal from defence of freedom of expression. At the time of the Danish cartoon affair, when angry mobs were burning embassies, a very few courageous editors reprinted the cartoons in solidarity with Jyllands Posten. Most were too scared. And politicians came out to criticise, not the dreadful overreaction, but the publication. Why weren’t they supporting the UDHR?

Recently the American author of a novel about the Prophet Muhammad’s child wife Aisha was unable to find a publisher in the USA. An English publishing house took the novel on and was firebombed as a result. Our society is giving in to the Islamists who would seek to censor what we can say. We are now exercising self-censorship, partly through fear of physical retaliation and partly through fear of being accused of Islamophobia. If we don’t try to preserve our freedoms, then bit by bit we shall lose them.

Without It All – by Andrew Cross

You tell me I need to choose the right way
Just let him into my heart
Even though you say he gives free will

Somehow you find all of this fulfilling
I’m scared of your wanting
To be watched and abused forever

I sometimes wonder who you really are
Without it all

You tell me there’s no morality without him
But it’s only cause you’re hollow
And empathy can’t deter you

Somehow you find all of this meaning
From eternal worship
What do you even think of this fucking life?

I sometimes wonder who you really are
Without it all

Think about it
The creator of the universe
Deviser of the laws of physics
Begetter of an expanding universe
Comprising billions of light years of space
Billions of years of time
Special and general relativity
Quantum indeterminacy
The shattering complexity of a living cell
This everlasting scientific and mathematical genius
Couldn’t think of a better way to forgive our sins
Than to visit our tiny speck of cosmic dust
And have himself tortured and executed as a scapegoat
So that he could forgive himself
How pathetic is that?

Fucking pathetic

Children are suffering
Societies are oppressed
Some god
Species go extinct
Stars eventually die
Some creation
Worship or be tortured for eternity
Some free will

You tell me I need to choose the right way
Just let him into my heart
Even though you say he gives free will

Somehow you find all of this fulfilling
I’m scared of your wanting
To be watched and abused forever

I sometimes wonder who you really are
Without it all

Hanne Stinson on the Atheist Bus Campaign

Hanne Stinson is part of the British Humanist Association, and very kindly agreed to be interviewed about the role of her organisation in the atheist bus campaign. Thank-you, Hanne!

bus-2

How did the idea of godless buses come about? Was there anything that jumpstarted the BHA to get involved, and what did you hope the outcome would be?

The idea came from comedy writer, Ariane Sherine, who wrote a ‘Comment is Free’ article on the Guardian website when she saw Christian bus advertisements with quotes from the Bible. The website the advertisements directed people to (http://proclaimingtruthinlondon.org/) condemned those who do not follow Jesus’ teachings to “spend all eternity in torment in hell”. Ariane suggested in her article that people might want to contribute to a more reassuring message for the non-religious, and the campaign has grown out of that. We thought this was an excellent opportunity to reach people who are not religious with a simple message that it’s OK not to believe in a god, that you don’t have to worry about all that, and can still lead and good life without religion – and enjoy it. So we got together with Ariane to work on the advertising campaign together. We hoped to raise £5,500: enough for ads on 30 bendy buses in London for 4 weeks, and to raise awareness of the fact that many people are atheist or agnostic and of the BHA.

What has the response been like? Obviously it is being reported all over the world, but do you have any idea what the people in the streeet are saying? How much of the reaction is positive, and how much not?

The response has been quite overwhelming. The appeal hit its target within a couple of hours, and so far we have raised nearly £120,000, which means that we can take the advertising campaign nationwide. And the media response, not only in the UK but around the world has been quite phenomenal – it’s been reported from Russia to Australia to Nepal to Rwanda, and it looks as if similar campaigns are going to be launched in some other countries too. What has really struck me has been that almost all the money has come in small donations – mostly £10 or less – so this is ordinary individuals saying they want to see these advertisements on buses and, from the messages they leave on the donation site message board, what comes across very clearly is that these are people who feel they have never had a voice. The response has also been overwhelmingly positive. We have had a few negative reactions from people saying we are attacking religion, or that the message is offensive, which I find quite interesting as no one complains that messages like ‘Jesus is the only path to salvation’ are attacking atheists or attacking other faiths. Some people seem to apply different standards when the non-religious say what they believe.

How did you decide on the slogan? There’s been some discussion round our part of the internet that the “probably” shifts the theme from atheism to agnosticism, and that the message might have been stronger without it. How do you feel about that?

There are a number of reasons why we chose the slogan ‘There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. We wanted the message to be positive and reassuring, and we wanted to reach not only people who have firm atheist or humanist beliefs, but also people who no longer believe the religion they were brought up in, but are perhaps not quite as confident in their non-religious beliefs. And we didn’t want to offend people who are religious either. We also wanted to get across that many people who describe themselves as atheists or humanists would say that one can never be 100% certain about a negative. If there were ever convincing scientific evidence of the existence of god, people who base their beliefs on evidence and reason would have to reconsider their position. Not that I think that is every going to happen!

Will you be using different slogans in the future, and would you take suggestions? It seems the perfect excuse for a competition…

We have now agreed to take the campaign nation wide, and we are looking at the possibility of using different slogans, or perhaps adding to the existing slogan with a bit more information, or something about the issues that humanists and atheists face in society.

How long can we expect to see the godless buses running?

We are going for a 4 week campaign, starting in January, although the timing may not be exactly the same in different cities. And if we continue to raise money for advertisements it will probably go on longer – perhaps in additional cities.

What’s the excess money – if any – going to be used for?

More buses!

Have you heard any news about the possibility of similar campaigns being carried out in other countries?

We know that humanist organisations in some other countries are considering this. There will almost certainly be atheist buses with either the same of different slogans in the USA and Australia, and quite likely a number of other countries.