Jan 122015

The cover art of the upcoming issue of Charlie Hebdo has been leaked. Unlike many of their cartoons that were deliberately gross and provocative, this one depicts a grieving Mohammed:

I have a suspicion (make it a hope) that even among Muslims, few will find this cover offensive, especially in light of last week’s events.

But even if I am wrong… I said it before and I will be saying it again: as a citizen of a liberal democracy, it is my fundamental right to ridicule other people’s beliefs. At the same time, it is my fundamental duty to defend, risking life and limb if it comes to that, the rights of other people to believe, no matter how ridiculous those beliefs appear to me. After all, Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman who was first at the Charlie Hebdo scene, died defending the magazine’s right to ridicule his beliefs.

 Posted by at 6:27 pm
Jan 072015

Cartoonists are frustrated. Muslims are frustrated. A collection of fresh cartoons express the frustration of a world, hijacked today by extremism. Here are two that illustrate these feelings most profoundly.

This drawing by Sudanese political cartoonist Khalid Albaih from Doha, Quatar depicts how many Muslims must feel today:

And the anger of cartoonists (and journalists and, well free people) around the world is captured by Manjul, Chief Cartoonist at the Mumbai-headquartered Daily News and Analysis:

Thank you and all other cartoonists for not letting yourselves be intimidated by murderers. I just hope that the rest of us have the courage not to blame all Muslims for the crimes of a demented few.

Kind of funny, by the way, in the wake of the SONY/The Interview farce how there is a common theme between religious zealots and atheist despots: they both hate humor and freedom of expression.

 Posted by at 7:16 pm
Dec 302014

German author Jürgen Todenhöfer recently returned from an incredible visit to the Islamic State.

His experiences and his conclusions are sobering. He believes that the threat represented by ISIS (which he considers a legacy of George W. Bush’s illegal war in Iraq) and the strength of the Islamic State are greatly underestimated. He also believes (and I tend to agree) that ISIS cannot be defeated by bombs; that unless a viable, credible alternative is offered to the Sunni population, ISIS will prevail.

I disagree with his conclusion, though, that ISIS is the greatest threat to world peace. It is a threat, to be sure, but apart from random attacks by ISIS sympathizers (which, thankfully, are few and far between) I don’t think ISIS represents a serious security challenge to the West. If I went looking for the greatest threat to world peace, I’d be more concerned about a potential conflict between nuclear-armed adversaries in Asia, or about a Putin presiding over a failed Russian oil state, whining to the world that because he has so many nukes, he must be taken seriously and be treated with more respect.

 Posted by at 10:01 am
Nov 092014

Earlier today, someone I know shared a video on Facebook. The video is just a text slide show, retelling a story that, according to snopes.com, has been around for almost a century.

Condensed version: an atheist university professor keeps ridiculing religion year after year in his class, “demonstrating” that God does not exist by dropping a piece of chalk, which shatters into pieces as God fails to intervene. When finally, just as a young man stands up to him, the demonstration fails (the chalk slips from the professor’s fingers and does not break), the humiliated professor flees the classroom, leaving the young man sharing his faith in Jesus with his fellow students for the next half hour. The video version then laments on people’s lack of faith and how everyone wants to go to heaven but so few are willing to do what it takes.

I felt compelled to reply to the post of my Facebook friend. I told him that as a committed atheist, I would call the professor of this story a much bigger fool than he thought his religious students were. He basically turned his atheism into a matter of faith… a religion, in other words, with himself the firebrand preacher.

The chalk story reminds me of the joke about a deeply religious person who is caught in a flood. When rescuers come to his door, he refuses the help, “God will help me”, he says. When later, he had to climb to the top floor of his house to escape the waters and rescuers in a boat arrive at the window, he once again rejects their assistance. Finally, when a helicopter tries to rescue him from his rooftop, he again says no. Needless to say, he dies and finds himself in heaven before God. He asks, “God, I feared you, loved you, prayed to you all my life, why didn’t you help me in my deepest need?” God answers, “I sent you rescuers on foot, I sent you a boat, I even sent you a bleeping helicopter, what more do you want?”

The morale of the story is not that God does parlor tricks, as in the chalk story. (That just kind of ruined it for me, to be honest. Is the Christian God really just a stage magician?)

The morale of the story is that if there had been true believers in that classroom, and I mean true believers, not just timid, half-committed people practicing a form of Pascal’s Wager in the vain hope for a better chance in the afterlife, one of them would have stood up and caught the chalk long ago. And then, perhaps even the half-hour sermon would not have been necessary afterwards to convince others of the purity and depth of his faith.

And yes, I am a committed atheist. It does not stop me from respecting, even defending other people’s right to their faith, though I have no use for it. And no, everyone does not want to go to heaven. I have no need for an imaginary kindergarten afterlife. I just want to make the most of this one life here on Earth, as a decent (I hope) human being. Which includes not ridiculing others for their faith, even if I myself find the subject of that faith somewhat ridiculous.

 Posted by at 9:26 am
Jul 272013

I was watching RDI’s coverage of the memorial ceremony that was taking place last hour in Lac-Mégantic, the location of the horrific derailment a few weeks ago that claimed so many lives.

I was impressed by the size and beauty of Sainte-Agnés church where the mass was taking place, so I went to Google to find out more.

It was, of course, unsurprisingly difficult to find background material, as search results were dominated by recent articles about the disaster. But, after wading through some directory entries and such, I came across a true gem: the story of the “Electrical Priest”, Father Joseph-Eugene Choquette.

When he was not attending to his priestly duties, Father Choquette spent a fair bit of his time as an amateur scientist. And what an amateur he was!

Bringing a player piano to his church (and drawing the ire of his parishioners when they found out that it was not their vicar who was in secret a talented musician) was just one of his many pranks (perhaps an unintended one in this case). Apparently, he also liked to play with electricity, to the extent that visitors to his house were often shocked by a jolt of current when they touched a doorknob or sat down in a booby-trapped chair.

But Father Choquette was interested in more than mere pranks. He also experimented with telephony and electric lighting. Having installed a personal lighting system (powered by a dynamo hooked up to a windmill) that proved to be a success, he proceeded with a more ambitious plan: a generating plant to light the whole town. He remained directly involved with this project until his death; parishioners often found their vicar strapped to a pole 25 feet in the air, working on a faulty transformer.

When Father Choquette died, he left much of his equipment and collections to the Sherbrook and Saint-Hyacinthe Seminaries and to the Convent and College of Megantic. That was nearly a century ago. I wonder if any of his belongings still survive somewhere.

 Posted by at 1:10 pm
Jun 202013

OK, so gay-curing is officially off the table. Exodus International, the Christian ministry that was dedicated to “curing” homosexuals is shutting its doors. (Whether or not it will be resurrected under some other name, now that’s another question.)

I think they failed, in part, because they started with an irrational premise. Homosexuality is no more an illness than, say, pedophilia. (No, I am absolutely not trying to draw some moral equivalence between the two. But I am planning to make a point, which will be clear shortly.) Nor is it a matter of choice: people do not intentionally choose their personal preferences.

So in what way, exactly, are pedophilia and homosexuality different? No, it’s not because one is “abhorring” or “criminal”; in many societies (including our very own Western societies in the not too distant past) both are considered abhorring and criminal.

There is a crucial difference, though. Homosexuality is between consenting adults. Pedophilia involves children who are brutalized and victimized.

Our enlightened society basically came to the conclusion that what consenting adults do with one another in the bedroom is nobody else’s business. On the other hand, we certainly do not condone the abuse of children for sexual gratification.

So here is an argument religious folks who are opposed to homosexuality could have made: that in their view, while it may be a victimless crime, homosexuality is just as immoral as pedophilia. We expect people to restrain themselves and not commit immoral acts, even if they are unfortunate enough to have been born with desires and preferences that would otherwise compel them to act immorally.

Of course the problem is that enlightened societies have, in recent decades, moved in the opposite direction: we stopped labeling homosexual acts immoral and became more accepting of the fact that homosexual people can be just as loving and caring for each other as heterosexuals.

But it does leave open a difficult question. If there is something that you consider deeply immoral, which is increasingly tolerated by the society in which you live, what do you do? What should you do? Should you simply accept the will of the majority? Obviously that’s not the right answer, as illustrated by plenty of historical examples when the support of the majority made horrendous atrocities possible.

But if people with a deep moral opposition to homosexuality feel compelled to act in what they believe to be is their good conscience, how can we convince them not to?

I don’t think “gay pride”, especially in its most visible forms, helps; in-your-face activism is much more likely to alienate people.

I came to accept homosexuals when, still in my teenage years, I learned that a teacher I knew has been living in a harmonious, deeply loving relationship with his homosexual partner for many years. I realized that their “marriage” (though it was not yet called as such; homosexual marriages were still decades away) was a healthier and more loving one than many heterosexual relationships (indeed, many decades later, they are still together, a lovely elderly couple). This teacher also loaned me his copy of Stefan Zweig’s Confusion of Feelings, a collection of short stories that contained, among other things, the eponymous novella.

Making people understand how deeply homosexual people care for their partners, how strong and long lasting their relationships can be… that might help. At the very least, it will make it harder for people to defend their homophobia by arguing that they are acting in the name of a loving God.

 Posted by at 8:59 pm
May 242013

How about this: some 700 years after Dante placed virtuous pagans in the outermost circle of Hell, beyond the reach of Satan, and free of any punishment save the fact that they are not allowed in the presence of God, we now have a Pope who says that it’s okay to be an atheist so long as you do good. And Jesus redeemed every human being, not just faithful Catholics.

Wow. Thank you, Pope Francis.

 Posted by at 11:35 pm
Mar 232013

This used to be a subject of many jokes, like this one: “When two popes meet, how do they greet each other?”

Not anymore. Two popes met today, prayed, and had lunch together.

I’d still like to know how they greeted each other, though. And what did they have for lunch?

 Posted by at 1:10 pm
Mar 132013

There are two popes in Rome today: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.

And it is historical: Pope Francis is the first pope from outside of Europe (okay, technically Saint Peter was also from outside of Europe, but it’s not quite the same thing). He seems like a kind, charismatic person who reportedly lives in a lowly apartment, cooking his own meals. He took the name of St. Francis, which may indicate a desire to reform the Church. The first few seconds of his appearance on the papal balcony were seconds of silence. Last but not least, he is a Jesuit, whatever that implies.

Anyhow, the old joke I learned back in grade school (“How do popes greet each other?” The answer, of course, is that they don’t, since there is only one pope) no longer applies. It is very likely that Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI will have many chances to say hello to each other.

 Posted by at 4:58 pm
Feb 272013

I’ve been reading a lot lately about Quebec’s recent language police fiasco, an overzealous Office québécois de la langue française cracking down on an Italian restaurant for its use of the non-French word “pasta” and other, similar terms on its menu. Of course I’ve been reading a lot about it lately; apparently, its news coverage exceeded by a factor of 60 (!) the coverage Quebec premier Pauline Marois received during her recent trip to drum up foreign investment in the province.

Yes, I could go on lamenting the superficiality of the news media these days, and I think I would be right. But I am thinking about Pastagate now for a different reason: I am wondering if I am the only one seeing strong parallels between a zealous police force guarding the integrity of a language and a zealous police force guarding the integrity of a religion.

At least officers of the language police do not come with canes.

 Posted by at 10:49 am
Jan 252013

I came across this image on a Facebook page dedicated to the former glory of the Soviet Union. It is titled “Russia and the USSR: similar, yet noticeably different.”

There is, unfortunately, far too much truth in what the image depicts. It does not make me wish for Soviet times to return, but it does make me wonder why so much good had to be thrown away along with the bad.

 Posted by at 3:31 pm
Dec 082012

One of my favorite photographs ever, in fact one that I even use on my Facebook timeline page as a background image, was taken by a certain Bill Anders when he was flying almost 400,000 km from the Earth. Anders was one of the first three members of our species who flew to another celestial body (albeit without landing on its surface; that came a bit later.)

Yesterday, I read a very interesting article about Anders, both his trip on board Apollo 8 and his life afterwards. The article also touched upon the topic of religion.

The message radioed back by the crew of Apollo 8 is probably the most memorable Christmas message ever uttered by humans. (Or maybe I am biased.) And yes, it starts with the words from Genesis, but I always viewed it the way it was presumably intended: as an expression of awe, not as religious propaganda.

The curious thing, as mentioned in the article, is that it was this trip around the Moon that changed the traditional Christian viewpoint of Anders about Earthlings created by a God in his own image.

“When I looked back and saw that tiny Earth, it snapped my world view,” Anders is quoted as saying. “Are we really that special? I don’t think so.”

Well, this pretty much sums up why I am an atheist. I’d like to believe that it’s not hubris; it’s humility.

 Posted by at 10:55 am
Nov 022012

I am reading some very interesting statistics. It is a survey of Muslims in the United States.

Wenzel strategies is a partisan public opinion firm associated with the US Republican Party. Nonetheless, while their ideology may be reflected in their choice of questions, I have no reason to believe that the statistical integrity of their survey is compromised. There may be some shenanigans not uncommon when partisan pollsters are involved (for instance, how did they select their respondents?) that may skew the results somewhat, but I don’t think they would alter the outcome dramatically. In other words, I don’t think this is islamophobe fodder.

The picture painted by the survey is complex. A small but not insignificant percentage of the respondents (almost all of whom are US citizens who are registered to vote) clearly have extremist views: for instance, 12% of the respondents think that those who criticize Islam or Mohammed should be put to death, with a further 9% unsure. On the other hand, defying stereotypes, only about 16% think that Israel has no right to exist, and only 7% think Sharia law should take precedence over the US constitution (with a further 20% unsure). And a surprising 30% think it’s okay for US citizens to evangelize Muslims, with a further 28% unsure.

In the data set, I don’t see much by way of significant differences among demographic groups. One exception is the support for the death penalty for those who offend Islam: younger responders were much more inclined to agree (19%) than the older generation. Similarly, younger responders were much less likely to support Israel’s right to exist (31% disagree with that right).

Overall, if the survey results are valid, they are troubling. While the majority tends to have moderate views, an alarming minority (and in some cases, even a majority) expressed views that are fundamentally incompatible with liberal Western principles. For instance, as many as 58% do not believe that the First Amendment of the US constitution should protect criticism of Islam or Mohammed. And the fact that younger Muslims tend to have more extremist views may mean nothing (younger people are generally more receptive to radical ideas) but may also indicate an alarming trend.

One conspicuously missing demographic question is the one about immigration status: how many of the respondents were born in the US, immigrated as children, or arrived as adults? Perhaps accompanied even by a breakdown by country or region of origin. That is because I would not be surprised at all if the more extremist views were held by recent immigrants from countries with strong tribal traditions. I wonder why these immigration questions were omitted from the survey.

Immigration status and partisan views notwithstanding, I find it deeply disturbing that, at least according to this one survey, as many as one in five young American Muslims think I should be put to death if I were to make my critical views on Islam or Mohammed public.

 Posted by at 3:53 pm
Sep 302012

There is, apparently, a call for a world-wide ban on anti-Islam “hate speech”: essentially, any speech that criticizes Islam or its prophet.

My immediate reaction was a flat out Cold War Soviet-style “Nyet”. Or simply to tell them to bugger off. Seriously bugger off.

But it was a friend of mine whose views on Islam are generally far less restrained who offered the most eloquent way to respond to these calls. It was a quotation supposedly from Voltaire:

“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

 Posted by at 8:27 am
Sep 232012

Protesters at the US Consulate in Toronto yesterday demanded that American authorities do something about the infamous anti-Islam video, the Innocence of Muslims. They held up signs claiming that “free speech does not mean disrespecting any prophet”, among other things.

But, my friends, that is EXACTLY what free speech is. It is precisely the right to disrespect, even insult if I wish, God, Yahweh, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Ra, Moses, and every other living or imaginary prophet, deity, political or religious leader. Even using crude or obscene language and bad humor, if that happens to suit my fancy.

Do you want to know what hate speech is? Why, it’s easy: holding up (not to mention handing to 4-year olds to hold up) signs that demand the beheading of people as it happened the other day in Australia:

No, I am not ready to join the ranks of Islamophobes worried about the coming Caliphate, but I still categorically reject these Islamist attempts to limit the right to free speech in Western societies and the implied or, in this case, explicit threats. As an immigrant myself, I think I have the right to say something that might appear a tad more distasteful if uttered by persons born here in Canada: if you don’t like it here, you are free to leave.

Perhaps go to Pakistan. After all, that fine country’s Minister of Railways thinks that offering a $100,000 bounty for the head of the filmmaker is the right thing to do. How enlightened and civilized. I am sure people who think about free speech like these protesters do would fit right in.

 Posted by at 8:44 am
Sep 132012

So an American (or not; the identity, ethnicity and nationality of the filmmaker(s) are not entirely clear) filmmaker creates a rather amateurish production bearing the title, The Innocence of Muslims, screened originally to an audience of less than 10 when it was first shown in a theater earlier this summer. To say that the movie is obscure is an understatement… It doesn’t even appear to have an entry in the Internet Movie Database (though chances are this will change soon.)

So what’s the best way to defend the honor of your Prophet? Why, how about launching a world-wide publicity campaign for this film, attacking embassies and consulates, burning American flags, and generally making sure that every news media talks about the film and its availability on YouTube. The trailer has now been seen by more than 1.2 million people.

So, dear protesters, if your goal was to promote this hack job on your religion, give the filmmaker worldwide fame (and no doubt help him earn a few dollars in the process) and, incidentally, by murdering America’s ambassador to Libya, produce evidence that perhaps the movie’s point is not entirely to be dismissed, you succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. Mohammed must be proud.

 Posted by at 8:36 am
Sep 112012

At this moment, there are protesters ripping down US flags at the American embassy in Cairo, upset over some film (no idea which one, just repeating what I heard on CNN) that in their mind insults the prophet Mohammed (many Muslims like to add the phrase, “peace be upon him” to his name, but there is nothing peaceful about the name of a prophet in whose name suicide bombers kill innocents, even if most followers of Islam do not subscribe to such violence. No, I don’t think Christ represents peace either.)

I think it’s about high time we tell something to violent Islamists who believe it is alright to intimidate others who, in their view, offend their religion. You, Islamists, offend us. You offend one of our most sacred beliefs, our belief in the right to free speech and freedom of expression. And yes, if necessary, we are willing to resort to violence if that’s what it takes to protect these rights. And don’t think for one moment that our beliefs are less important to us than your beliefs are to you. So what shall it be? Shall we go on and murder each other in the name of our mutually incompatible beliefs? (Don’t forget, there is a good chance that we might win. Westerners have become rather good at this war business after two world wars and countless smaller ones, and we are armed to the teeth. We also invented industrialized murder, you know, Auschwitz and all that.) Or shall we just let each other be?

I suggest the latter. And if you believe that there is a veiled threat behind this suggestion, you might not be wrong.

So next time you hear about a film that you don’t like, here is an easy solution: don’t watch it. Then we can just happily leave each other alone.

 Posted by at 2:20 pm
Jul 172012

Imagine you come across a cult whose leaders, either through malice or ignorance, let their gullible followers consume raw sewage. You might not expect gratitude from the cult proper (fanatics are rarely rational) for revealing the truth, but you may expect society as a whole to applaud your actions.

Not when the cult is the Catholic Church and you are in India. Sanal Edamaruku, founder-president of Rationalist International, president of the Indian Rationalist Organization, was recently invited to investigate a weeping statue of Jesus. He found that the weeping was caused, in fact, by a nearby clogged drain and sewer water seeping through walls through capillary action.

You might think this gentleman should deserve some recognition for having saved possibly thousands of believers from the consequences of consuming sewage (they were licking and consuming Jesus’s “tears”).

No… the Catholic Church, in their infinite wisdom, chose to file a complaint instead under India’s penal code alleging that he hurt the religious sentiments of their community.

No wonder it took these superstitious clowns half a millennium to apologize for Galileo.

Hey, you pompous Pope person, perhaps it’s time to open your pie hole and say something on this matter, reining in your nutty followers? Surely you are not this nutty yourself?

And no, I don’t care one iota if anyone’s religious sentiments are hurt by my present tirade. You have a right (a right I am willing to stand up for) to believe whatever nutty fairy tales you want to believe in, but conversely, I have a right to ridicule your nutty beliefs. At least I have that right here in Canada.

 Posted by at 6:48 pm
Apr 102012

I was reading about a place called Göbekli Tepe today.

This is a place in southeastern Turkey. It is the site of an archeological excavation; they are exploring the ruins of an old temple.

The ruins of a really old temple. Really, really, really old.

How old? Well… when the first Egyptian pyramid was still on the drawing board, Göbekli Tepe was already some 6,000 years of age. Indeed, when Göbekli Tepe was built, the place where I now live, Ottawa, was still covered by the Champlain Sea. The oldest ruins at Göbekli Tepe are 11,500 years old, take or leave a few centuries.

That is an astonishing age for a major stone structure like this. Wikipedia tells me that it was built by hunter-gatherers, but I have a hard time accepting that hypothesis: Stone construction on this scale requires highly specialized skills not to mention the organization of the necessary labor force. Maybe I lack imagination but I just can’t see how hunter-gatherer tribes, even if they have permanent village settlements, would be able to accomplish something on this scale.

But if it wasn’t hunter-gatherers, who were they? What kind of civilization existed in that part of the world 11,500 years ago that we know nothing about?

 Posted by at 8:15 pm