Saturday, February 14, 2009

Ten Women I Have a Heart On for This Valentine's Day

10. Aung Yan Suu Kyi.
Pro-democracy activist and leader of Burma's National League of Democracy, elected Prime Minister in 1990 but forcibly not allowed to take the role by the military junta, who've kept her in detention ever since. Advocate of non-violent resistance, and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

9. Fatima Bhutto. Poet, writer, activist. Intelligent, conscientious, progressive, and gorgeous. And it doesn't even matter that she's Benazir's niece.

8. Wanda Sykes. Brilliant, perceptive, and absolutely hilarious stand-up comic and actor. I've had a crush on her for years.

7. Angelina Jolie. Everything she touches turns to gold, from her work as an actor to her humanitarian work everywhere in the world, from the Congo and Sudan to Afghanistan and Cambodia. She's super hot as hell, and she'll be as sexy thirty years from now as she is today.

6. Melissa Harris Lacewell. Associate Professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University. One of the most intelligent, articulate commentators on gender issues, racial issues, and politics today.

5. Ani DiFranco. Incredible poet, singer, songwriter, and guitar player. Super-smart feminist icon who is a role model for women - and men - worldwide.

4. Mukhtar Mai. One of thousands of women who are victims of the tribal practice of "honor revenge" every year - in her case, a brutal gang rape in the village of Meerwala, Pakistan. What differentiates her from the others is that she spoke out, wrote a book, and became a voice for millions, something virtually unheard of among rape victims in her country.

3. Tina Fey. She should be sent flowers every day of her life - not only for her brilliant writing on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock - but for playing such an invaluable role in preventing the obliteration of at least half a century of struggle for women's rights by helping to expose and defeat patriarchy's most prominent poster woman since Phyllis Schlafly: Sarah Palin.

2. Taslima Nasrin. Bangladeshi physician, author, activist, feminist, and secular humanist who risked her life to expose the truth about the status given to women by most religions. A woman ahead of her time. Thankfully, the world is catching up.

1. Helen Thomas. Eighty eight years old this year, this presidential correspondent has continued to help keep all US presidents since Kennedy accountable to the people, and continues to be a beacon for journalistic integrity. When President Obama called on her at his first major prime-time press conference, he said, "Helen, I'm excited. This is my inaugural moment." In a conference that had been going well for him so far, she hit him with the ultimate presidential foreign policy litmus test, asking if he knew of any countries in the Middle East that possessed nuclear weapons. Obama failed her test, refusing to give her the answer that both of them knew was the right one: Israel. Simple question, massive impact. And... Bill O'Reilly said she sounded like the Wicked Witch of the East - that alone is enough to put her at the top of my list of women that I have a huge heart on for this year.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Honorable mentions: Rachel Maddow, Christiane Amanpour, M.I.A., Shirin Ebadi, Kerry Washington, Hillary Clinton, Naomi Klein, Kate Winslet, Janeane Garofalo, Michelle Obama, and Amy Poehler.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Atheist Bus Campaign: Who Should Really be Offended?

First off, I have to admit that initially, the idea of an "Atheist Bus Campaign" made me cringe a bit.

I thought that the campaign, which has already been launched in Britain and Spain and is now coming to my hometown of Toronto, blurred one of the distinctions that I think separates non-believers from many religious groups -- an opposition to large-scale proselytization.

But seeing what the campaign consists of made me chuckle: it's a series of ads in buses, subways, and trains that simply proclaim, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" -- an upbeat, somewhat tongue-in-cheek-sounding statement that can just as easily be translated to, "Don't worry, be happy!"

Also, although the word "probably" was placed into the statement to satisfy legal advertising standards, it maintains another distinction between the rationalists and the religious -- the rejection of absolute certainty in the absence of evidence.

The idea for this campaign -- which is very controversial and has outraged religious groups in Europe and North America -- was first proposed by Ariane Sherine, who saw two bus ads from a website called, that quoted Luke 18:8, on her way to work. She expressed her response in a column in The Guardian last year:

"[Apart from the Biblical quote], there was also a web address on the ad, and when I visited the site... I received the following warning for anyone who doesn't 'accept the word of Jesus on the cross': 'You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell. Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire which was prepared for the devil and all his angels (demonic spirits)' (Matthew 25:41). Lots to look forward to, then.

Now, if I wanted to run a bus ad saying 'Beware - there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!' or 'The bits in orange juice aren't orange but plastic - don't drink them or you'll die!' I think I might be asked to show my working and back up my claims. But apparently you don't need evidence to run an ad suggesting we'll all face the ire of the son of man when he comes, then link to a website advocating endless pain for atheists."
At the end of the day, non-believers and rationalists will use words: they will question, challenge, and ask the religious for evidence supporting their beliefs and ideas -- applying the same standards to religious claims as they would to any scientific theory, political ideology, or legislative proposal. At the very most, they may satirize these beliefs and make jokes, all of which falls in the realm of non-violent free speech.

But what do the holy books -- which billions believe contain the indisputable word of God -- say about non-believers or those who question religion?

Start with Leviticus 24:16 in the Torah/Old Testament, which states clearly that "blasphemers" who question the Lord are to be stoned to death. (Remember, for Jews and Christians, this is God speaking.)

In Islam, the blood of one who converts out of Islam is halal (the Islamic equivalent of "kosher"), and numerous verses in the Quran speak about a "terrible fire" awaiting non-believers, where they will dwell for eternity.

The view of Christianity towards non-believers is pretty clear in Sherine's citation of Matthew 25:41. And to Catholics who have been outraged and hurt by this ad campaign, is it really worse than what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his Dominus Iesus?
"[Followers of other religions are] in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the [Roman Catholic] church, have the fullness of the means of salvation."
Another argument against the campaign from the religious right is that it is "hate speech". Again, there's no comparison.

It's well-known that the holy books advocate many forms of sexism, from saying that a woman's word (Quran, 2:282) or monetary worth (Leviticus 27:3-8) is half that of a man, to declaring that a woman who is not proven to be a virgin on her wedding night should be sent to her father's doorstep to be stoned to death (start at Deuteronomy 22:20 and read on), and that's just scratching the surface. Homophobia also figures prominently in the holy texts, and the Pope himself pulled an Ahmedinejad when he called homosexuality an "intrinsic moral evil" and an "objective disorder".

And again, what do the scriptures say about the non-believers?

Apart from being sentenced to death here on earth for simply questioning these beliefs and scriptures, non-believers are also promised eternal damnation in hell, and considered to be immoral, evil agents of Satan that have gone astray. Hate speech, anyone?

Which side over here should really be offended?

Let's get real. The ad may not be the best idea ever, but it's fun, it's satirical, and it's a smart, funny response to similar ads from the religious community that aim to use fear and guilt to make you feel bad about yourself and give them your support and money (that they don't have to pay taxes on, by the way). These are the people that persecuted Galileo for saying the world was really not flat, but round, and still reject evolution in the face of evidence like fossils, molecular genetics, and the innumerable species of bacteria that have evolved over the last few decades to become resistant to penicillin. Worse, these ideas frequently find their way into our legislation, foreign policy, and public schools.

Let's welcome the much-needed dialogue that the ad campaign brings to Toronto and other cities after it. When President Barack Obama acknowledged non-believers in his inaugural speech, he was acknowledging between 10% to 16% of the population of the United States (more than 25% of 18-25 year olds) -- that's more than Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists combined and doubled.

It'll be okay. Now stop worrying, and enjoy your life!