Policy: Is Religious “Freedom” a Get Out of Jail Ticket?

The weekly report on religion and politics
by Johnny Monsarrat

Religious Freedom: What Does it Cover?

bible-extralegalThe religious freedom argument, having been used in the United States to refuse cake, crafts, and chicken sandwiches to LBGTA people, and then to refuse full healthcare coverage to women, is being used in a variety of creative new ways. In 2012 a religious school was allowed to ignore the Americans with Disabilities Act. Now teachers are using a religious argument to avoid paying union fees.

Should a union be given a monopoly to speak for every teacher at a school? Regardless of your views on this, using religion to opt out of obeying laws is a dangerous trend.

In this MSNBC article,┬áReligious Freedom Arguments Used to Weaponize the First Amendment,┬áGeorgetown Law professor Robin West says that the┬ádemands for extralegal treatment create┬áÔÇ£separate sovereignties.ÔÇØ Is this a form of theocracy?┬áWhat’s next, opting┬áout of traffic tickets?

Majority of White Adults in UK Have No Religion

More than half of white adults in Britain have no religion now, a figure that is forecast to rise, according to a new poll by YouGov, the survey component of magazine The Economist.┬á’No religion is the new norm,’ says Professor Linda Woodhead, ‘and there is every indication that its majority share will continue to grow.’ She also says that the trend can be linked to churches┬ábecoming more religious, so that people who are merely spiritual may find themselves preferring to go it on their own.

What is World Religion Day?

GoT-Melisandre-with-torch-768x512Last Sunday was World Religion Day, founded in the 1950s by the┬áBahaÔÇÖi community, which believes that all religions are basically the same if you squint your eyes hard enough. We wonder whether┬áthey might like to include the religions of the TV show Game of Thrones.

While we don’t embrace ignorance of the differences of religions, we do support interfaith engagement and outreach, especially if it includes nonbelievers. And we might advocate for the logical next step. Perhaps what brings us all together in a shared sense of dreams and values is that we are all human and all have critical thinking skills, not that we are religious.

Read more about World Religion Day.

Proud Faith of US Presidential Candidates

trumpAt a public event in Iowa, an early and thus important US state for showing momentum in the forthcoming presidential election, Republican candidate (and Catholic) Marco Rubio was asked by an atheist whether faith would interfere with his decision-making.

Similar questions were asked in the 1960 election, when candidate (and future winner) John Kennedy was the first Catholic to run for US president. Would Kennedy be controlled by the Pope from Rome, or be free to make his own decisions? Implicit in the question was separation of church and state, the idea that no matter how infallible, that government decisions should be made free from religion.

More than 50 years later,┬áthe questioner┬ásaid, ÔÇ£atheists like me are looking for somebody that will uphold their rights as Americans, and not pander to a certain religious group.” This was in response to a religious advertisement where Rubio┬áspoke about his faith earnestly.┬áRead Rubio’s reply.

Meanwhile, US presidential candidate┬áDonald Trump can’t portray┬áa strong faith as well as he would like to, and an article in the Times of Israel declares that Democratic US presidential candidate┬áBernie Sanders’ religion is a non-issue for Iowa voters.

Obama Says No to Religious Discrimination

Although US presidential candidates were not specifically named, those who like Donald Trump support discrimination against Muslims were shamed in President Obama’s annual State of the Union address to Congress. He said, “we need to reject any politics — any politics — that targets people because of race or religion. Let me just say this. This is not a matter of political correctness. This is a matter of understanding just what it is that makes us strong. The world respects us not just for our arsenal; it respects us for our diversity, and our openness, and the way we respect every faith.”

And those with no faith, right?

Sunni-Shia War of Religion?

To what extend is the tension and wars of the Middle East a religious fight between the two major branches of Islam, Sunni Islam and Shia Islam? An article in the Zimbabwe Independent explores this in,┬áThe Islamic Wars of Religion. (And here’s why it’s not much like the split between Catholic and Protestant Christians).

Recording of the SPI International Call — January 7, 2016


About the International Coalition Calls

Every first Thursday of the month, the Secular Policy Institute holds an international coordinating call for its 300 members to discuss the future of the secular movement.

Call for January 7, 2016

Here’s the latest recording of the Secular Policy Institute’s international coordinating call.


SPI International Hot Spot of the Month ÔÇô Saudi Arabia

December 14, 2015

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

The Honorable John Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520

President Obama and Secretary Kerry:

The Secular Policy Institute and the below signed coalition members call on your office to demand clemency for artist Ashraf Fayadh. Through a hearsay allegation and a crooked interpretation of one of his poems, Fayadh faces beheading come mid-December. After initially determining capital punishment unwarranted, upon prosecutorial appeal Saudi Arabia condemned Fayadh to death for the crime of blasphemy. The breadth of human rights conventions stands against such brutality and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) calls for action against ÔÇ£Tier 1 Countries of Particular ConcernÔÇØ for which Saudi Arabia is listed.

A well-known poet and artist both within Saudi Arabia and globally, Ashraf Fayadh (35) has helped cultivate Saudi ArabiaÔÇÖs contemporary arts movement, is a member of a Saudi-British Arts coalition (Edge of Arabia), and has curated exhibitions in Venice and Jeddah. Ethnically Palestinian, and living in Saudi Arabia, Fayadh is officially a stateless person. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is infamous for its persecution of those claiming their inherent rights of free speech. Free Saudi LiberalÔÇÖs Raif Badawi sits during this the first few of his ten-year imprisonment, already experiencing many of the lashes laid upon him by a Saudi Court, and nearly half of the 2,200 executed since 1985 have not carried a Saudi passport.

Following and August 2013, post-soccer match argument in a caf├® in Abha, claiming that Fayadh had blasphemed against God, Mohammed, and Saudi Arabia, his accuser contacted the Committee on the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (religious police) who then detained him. FayadhÔÇÖs father calls this matter the result of a personal vendetta. FayadhÔÇÖs friends allege that the policy berated him owing to his ÔÇ£smoking and having long hair.ÔÇØ Fayadh was released later to be tried from February until May 2014. FayadhÔÇÖs charges included blasphemy for his poetry (ÔÇ£AsylumÔÇØ in his 2008 book Instructions Within) and for ÔÇ£illicit relationshipsÔÇØ by pictures on his cellphone of him associating with women. On May 28th, 2014 a General Court judge determined that FayadhÔÇÖs repentance disqualified death as punishment opting for four yearsÔÇÖ imprisonment and 800 lashes. The prosecution appealed, and in a November 17th, 2015 second trialÔÇÖs verdict, Fayadh was sentenced to death.

A close associate of Fayadh (Mona Kareem of Kuwait) said that this was a message from the morality police against the arts community of Abha. Friends of Fayadh assert that this is retaliation for the poet posting videos of the religious police publicly flogging someone. According to Human Rights WatchÔÇÖs Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson, ÔÇ£Regardless of what Fayadh said or didnÔÇÖt say, Saudi Arabia should stop arresting people for their personal beliefs. The fact that Ashram Fayadh is facing the prospect of being beheaded only adds to the outrageousness of this court ruling.ÔÇØ These actions tend be less about protecting religion than intimidation and disposing of actors considered undesirable by repressive authoritarian regimes.

More than 150 people have already been executed this year in Saudi Arabia. To offer a reprieve from capital punishment only to apply it again is the height of cruelty, to do so upon hearsay for against what the global community would otherwise consider inviolable free expression is chilling. Ashraf Fayadh does not deserve what has been imposed upon him. There is a one-month window to save his life. According to sources close to him, Fayadh lacks legal counsel and visitation rights. As global human rights conventions were established to protect people like Ashraf and as the USCIRF mandates action to protect ÔÇ£prisoners of belief,ÔÇØ we call upon the Offices of the President of the United States and the U.S. Department of State to intervene on behalf of Ashraf Fayadh.


Edwina Rogers

47 executed, not Ali al-Nimr, but his uncle Nimr al-Nimr (and 46 others).



ARP Sociedad para el Avance del Pensamiento Cr├¡tico ÔÇô Spain
Association Fran├ºaise Transhumanistes ÔÇô Technoprog ÔÇô France
Atheist Foundation of Australia ÔÇô Lane Cove, New South Wales, Australia
Central London Humanists ÔÇô London, UK
Community Action Network ÔÇô Washington, DC, USA
Humanist Association of San Diego ÔÇô San Diego, California, USA
Humanist Chaplaincy at American University – Washington, DC, USA
Humanists of North Central Florida ÔÇô Ocala, Florida, USA
The La Crosse Area Freethought Society ÔÇô La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA
Mid-West Humanists ÔÇô Ireland
Muslimish ÔÇô Madison, WI
North London Humanist Group ÔÇô London, UK
Omaha Metro Area Humanists Association ÔÇô Omaha, Nebraska, USA
Red River Thinkers ÔÇô Fargo, North Dakota, USA
Sidmennt ÔÇô The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association ÔÇô Reykjavik, Iceland
United Coalition of Reason ÔÇô Washington, DC, USA
Universal Church Triumphant of the Apathetic Agnostic ÔÇô Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
Watford Area Humanists ÔÇô Watford, UK

I ÔÇô SPI Overview

(Edwina Rogers, CEO, edwina@secularpolicyinstitute.net, 202-674-7800)

  • SPI Mission

The Secular Policy Institute (SPI) is a think tank organization of thought leaders, writers, scholars, and speakers with a shared mission to influence public opinion and promote a secular society. We believe governmental decisions and public policies should be based on available science and reason, and free of religion or religious preferences.

Community Action Network (CAN) promotes the development and application of science and reason in an ongoing quest for secular solutions to local problems. As an inclusive, affirming, and action-oriented initiative, CAN seeks to promote rational relationships and effective community building in support of collective problem solving and the ongoing advancement and enjoyment of a more just and reasoned world.

The World Future Guide collects the public policy recommendations and findings on demographic trends from the foremost fellows at the Secular Policy Institute. Leading thinkers give research and opinion on law, education, and healthcare, practical advice on defense and surveillance technology, the big picture trends on the interplay between secular government and religion, and more. And we give you the scoop: even a peek into the finances of the Islamic State!

Our ten articles are written by fellows from seven countries representing diverse points of view.  Yet each is committed to a rational, evidence-based analysis of a timely topic that can inform effective public policy.  The first in a series of Guides, the World Future Guide 2016 provides critical secular insights into timely topics of international import in the hopes of guiding more informed public opinion and policy-making in our increasingly secular world.

First Thursday of Every Month at Noon Eastern Standard Time (GMT -4): January 7; February 4; March 3; April 7; May 5; June 2; July 7; September 1; October 6; November 3 (No conference call in August and December)

  • Recruit National and Regional Leaders
  • International Hotspots in Need

II ÔÇô FellowsÔÇÖ Corner

(Madeline Schussel, Policy Director, madeline@secularpolicyinstitute.net)

We would like to highlight the accomplishments of these SPI Fellows in 2015:

Amatzia Baram┬ágave a report on the state of Lebanon in his article┬áLebanonÔÇÖs fragile balance holds amid political paralysis, and contributed to the World Future Guide.

Gregory Benford is a multiply award-winning science fiction author whose blog contains poetry about bout life, the universe, and everything. He is faculty of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine.  He is also a contributing editor of Reason magazine, wrote an article about Pluto for Air and Space Magazine, and published an adventure novel, Against Infinity.

Elliot D. Cohen is a philosopher who has written a whopping twenty-five books, including What Would Aristotle Do?: Self-Control Through the Power of Reason and The Theory and Practice of Logic-Based Therapy. He also contributed to the World Future Guide.

A.C. Grayling┬áspoke to the BBC on┬áThe Meaning of Life According to AJ Ayer, wrote abouthow religion seems to be growing when it isnÔÇÖt, was┬áinterviewed by the Atheist Debates Patreon Project, gave a┬áspeech urging students to have more courage, and contributed to the World Future Guide. He wrote about the Middle East immigration crisis in┬áThe irony of migrancy.

Marty Klein recently wrote an article about an aspect of NorwayÔÇÖs cultural re-education (Norway, Immigrants, and Sex Education) of its Syrian immigrant population.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi contributed to the World Future Guide and gave Middle East policy advice in Why America Should Aim to Contain- Rather Than Destroy ÔÇô ISIS.

Mark Juergensmeyer wrote about how cooperating with Iran might help the US defeat ISIS, and offered a poignant perspective on the attacks in Paris in his newly published article, Why ISIS Attacked Paris. He also analyzed the religion of ISIS in What Kind of Islam is That? Talking with Refugees from ISIS. In an interview he spoke about how religion fuels conflict in the Middle East.

Patrik Lindenfors wrote about EuropeÔÇÖs immigration emergency in Refugees Crisis: Humanists call for a strong and humane EU response.

Elizabeth Loftus was interviewed by NPR about false memories, gave a TED Talk called How Reliable is Your Memory?, and contributed to the World Future Guide. She was the focus for a Washington Post article on the failing memory of US Presidential candidate Donald Trump. She appeared in an interview that explored the ÔÇ£Religious ExperienceÔÇØ from a neurologistÔÇÖs perspective.

Kevin Perrott is a leader in the movement to extend the natural healthspan of humans so that people could feel as healthy as 40 years old in their 80s. We interviewed him at length for a newsletter.

Michael Semple, Visiting Research Professor in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at QueenÔÇÖs University Belfast, has written an article for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Making Peace with the Taliban.

Daily News Clips Now Available (Follow this link to register) 

III ÔÇô Coalitions & Resources

(Johnny Monsarrat, Alliance Director, johnny@secularpolicyinstitute.net)

  • World SPI Calendar ÔÇô Upcoming Major Conferences
  • Volunteers & Interns ÔÇô SPI Volunteers/Interns Recruitment
  • Coalition Update
  • Newsletter ÔÇô weekly, please sign up (Subscribe to newsletter)
  • Secular Leaders League

You do a lot through the SPI coalition in 2015. See our report! (2015 report)

Now weÔÇÖve launched two Secular Leaders email chat lists: the US Secular Leaders League (secular-leaders-usa@googlegroups.com) and the Global Secular Leaders League (secular-leaders@googlegroups.com). The purpose of these groups is to:

  • Trade group emails on the secular movementÔÇÖs future;
  • Plan a global ÔÇ£business plan competitionÔÇØ to coach secular leaders;
  • Host a donor conference where plans get presented judged, and funded, and;
  • Fund winners through a ÔÇ£Secular Donor Advice FundÔÇØ for investment firms like Fidelity.

Coordinating makes us stronger. Please contribute your needs and ideas! Please join via the Google group email invitation you received. You may leave at any time.

Thank you! With you, weÔÇÖre going to change the world in 2016.


IV ÔÇô Public Policy Update

(Hugo Estrella, Latin America Regional Director, hstar@argentina.com)

  • Latin America Update
    • SPI is seeking UN Special Consultative Status. Edwina will be representative in NY and Hugo in Geneva. We are looking to build coalitions and join networks. SPI will seek UNESCO consultative NGO status. Then we have the EU, there, they have an office which would be more than appropriate for us to lobby, which is the European Commission for Fundamental Rights.
    • Our fellows from the Italian Union of Atheists Rationalists, Agnostics and Freethinkers (it) to which Hugo belongs and who publish news from US matters and internationally as well (they are members of the European Humanist Federation) have office space in the city (Circolo UAAR di Pisa). SPI will share the office thanks to Hugo.

Recent Letters

All letters can be found on our ÔÇ£CoalitionsÔÇØ tab under ÔÇ£Advocacy CampaignsÔÇØ.

ÔùÅ┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á Comment Letter: Healthcare Discrimination

  • The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office of Civil Rights (OR) issued the proposed regulations that take critical steps toward realizing the promise of Section 1557 in ending sex discrimination in health care. Sex discrimination in health are results in women paying more for health care, receiving improper diagnoses more frequently, being provided less effective treatments, and sometimes being denied care altogether. Further, numerous surveys, studies, and reports have documented the widespread discrimination experienced by LGBT individuals and their families in the health system. In response, the ACA included broad protections against sex discrimination in health programs and activities, with Section 1557, which prohibits discrimination in federally funded and operated health programs and activities, as the cornerstone of this protection. Strong regulations implementing Section 1557, paired with robust enforcement, are necessary to ensure that all women can access affordable, quality health care.

ÔùÅ┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á Sign-on Letter: Saudi Arabia’s Seat on the UN Human Rights Council

  • Does your secular group want to help SPI in a charge to maintain the integrity of the United Nations Human Rights Council? The UNHRCÔÇÖs website prominently features a 2007 quote by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, ÔÇ£All victims of human rights abuse should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action.ÔÇØ The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a UN-member state and therefore now eligible for a seat on the UNHRC. The Consultative Group is tasked with reviewing and assigning applicants to serve as ÔÇ£Special RapporteursÔÇØ and other ÔÇ£Independent InvestigatorsÔÇØ for human rights abuses around the planet. Beyond the high profile cases of condemning a teenager (Ali Mohammed al-Nimr) to death for participating in protesting for democracy, and sentencing a blogger (Raif Badawi) to degrading physical abuse and a lengthy prison sentence for expressing critique; the Kingdom sentenced Saudi rights lawyer Walid al-Khair to 15 years for ÔÇ£breaking allegianceÔÇØ to the monarchy by founding and directing the organization ÔÇ£Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.ÔÇØ

ÔùÅ┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á Letter: Sending Sympathies to France

  • View the letter that the Secular Policy Institute sent to President Fran├ºois Hollande regarding the terrorist attacks in Paris. We at the Secular Policy Institute express our deepest sympathies and sorrow for the actions of those few who permanently impacted the lives of so many. Vive la Ville Lumi├¿re, vive la├»cit├®, vive la France!

ÔùÅ┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á Sign-on Letter: Inclusive Police Vehicle Decals

  • We are asking the National Association of Police Organizations to highly consider advising and educating police officers regarding the use of religious decals on secular government vehicles. These actions can be divisive and threatening toward over thirty percent non-religious in the U.S. The United States has two national mottos, of these ÔÇ£In God We TrustÔÇØ was chosen to be placed as a decal upon police and sheriff cars. Unlike ÔÇ£In God We TrustÔÇØ (which was adopted as a national motto in 1956 ÔÇô mainly to counter communism), E Pluribus Unum has been with us since 1776. E Pluribus Unum is a far more accurate representation about what is best of America: ÔÇ£out of the many, one.ÔÇØ

ÔùÅ┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á Sign-on Letter: A Child’s Right to Medical Care

  • Should a child be denied access to healthcare because of the religion they happened to be born into? The Secular Policy Institute and our coalition partners remain steadfast supporters of science-based medicine. We expect to find no better ally in advocating for medical science than the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Thus we ask the Secretary to lobby the President and Congress to introduce Federal requirements to provide medical care for children against religious and philosophical objections from their parents. The SecretaryÔÇÖs office has the leverage to educate lawmakers about science, and the importance of proper medical care.

ÔùÅ┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á Update: Sign-on Letter: UN Asylum for Bangladeshi Authors

  • We have recently received correspondence from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

V ÔÇô Project and Member Spotlight

  • Margaret Downey
    • The former President of Atheist Alliance International and founder and president of the Freethought Society
    • Visit the Freethought Society website on January 29 to learn how you can support efforts to honor Thomas Paine
    • Currently working on a statue project, a music compilation of Thomas Paine songs, and a coloring book for children
  • Bob Churchill
    • Director of Communications of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)
    • The Freedom of Thought Report 2015 provides timely insight on the rights of and discrimination against humanists, atheists, and non-theists
  • John A. Wagner
    • Representative of the IHEU to the United Nations; Member of the Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief; Member of the Committee on ChildrenÔÇÖs Rights
    • Advises gaining consultative status through the Economic and Social Council (Civil Society, A Practical Guide for Civil Society)
  • Doug Thomas
    • President of Secular Connexion S├®culi├¿re
    • Calls to attention the new political scene in Canada brought on by the new majority Liberal government and its effect on non-believers
  • John Kirbow
    • Founder, “Reason Revival”, (347) 738-3245
    • Collaborating with ex-Muslims and other Islam reformers on specific ways in which science and freethought movements can help Islamic societies, including:
      • Several ideas for a greater presence in NYC, and
      • Prospects for how a leading human rights crowd-sourcing platform, “Movements.org”, can be a hub for much of our common causes, in mutually beneficial ways

VI – Upcoming Events

SPI Staff:

Edwina Rogers – edwina@secularpolicyinstitute.net
Madeline Schussel – madeline@secularpolicyinstitute.net
Johnny Monsarrat – johnny@secularpolicyinstitute.net

Numbers: Why Politicians Emphasize Religion

ted-cruzUS presidential candidate Marco Rubio was taking questions from an audience this week when an atheist asked him about his faith. He responded, “No oneÔÇÖs going to force you to believe in God. But no oneÔÇÖs going to force me to stop talking about God… You shouldnÔÇÖt be worried about my faith influencing me. You should hope that my faith influences me.ÔÇØ

Why do politicians in the United States emphasize religion so much? Conservative candidate Ted Cruz even said in November that atheists aren’t moral enough┬áto be president:┬á”Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this country.”

Revised-Report-Images-1A common question in religious discourse asks whether belief in the divine makes one behave better or worse; or, more precisely, whether religious belief is essential to ascertaining objective morality. A Pew Global study in 2014 showed that more than half of Americans (53%) believe that it is ÔÇ£necessary to believe in God to be moralÔÇØ. Such an approach has likely had a significant impact on American policy-making. Indeed, which aspiring Presidential candidate could conceivably build an electoral campaign without professing a belief in the supernatural ÔÇô a position essential to achieving an objective morality for 53% of PewÔÇÖs respondents?

A profession of religious belief, and thus divinely oriented morality, allows a leader ÔÇô whether Presidential, Senatorial, etc. ÔÇô to claim a level of moral authority. It is likely for this reason that the faithful reliably vote for the candidate which they know will stringently adhere to religious doctrine. Take this 2012 study by Pew Research, for example, which demonstrates the trend. 79% of evangelicals voted for Romney; 69% of white Protestants also voted for the former GOP nominee. However, in making a claim to objective morality, religious leaders claim to represent everyone. This leaves the 22.8% of the religiously unaffiliated demographic (as defined in this Religious Landscape study) unrepresented at the governmental level, disempowered by the refusal of irreligious politicians to vocalize their worldview in fear of political or social ostracism.

From a policy perspective, this is troublesome. Just as interreligious differences lead to competing policy directions (the Muslim lobby is likely to attempt to impede the US-Israeli relationship, for example), differences between the secular and religious worldviews can also foment friction. Take Bush Jr., whose ÔÇÿfaith-based initiativesÔÇÖ sought to (among various other things) strengthen the legislative pro-life stance on abortion. This is likely to be in direct conflict with the secular approach, which tends to endorse a scientific evaluation of the pro-life v pro-choice debate. Indeed, in this poll conducted by Gallup in 2012, it was demonstrated that just 19% of non-religious Americans find themselves on the pro-life side of the table. And thus the antagonism is highlighted: while religious leaders claim divinely mandated and universal morality, some, such as Bush Jr., also pursue policies which counter the secular worldview. It can reasonably be said, then, that religious leaders cannot represent an entire nationÔÇÖs demographic.


Pew has identified that just 0.2% of the 115th Congress is religiously unaffiliated. This, compared to a nationwide average that sits at around 20% is at best a statistical anomaly; at worst, a patent failure to represent the publicÔÇÖs interests. The secular position does not equate religious belief with morality or immorality. Instead, it favours a rational, objective evaluation of a politicianÔÇÖs motives and legislative performance. The non-religious deserve recognition and representation in the political system. Endeavouring to evolve attitudes which relate to the cast-iron incremental relationship between religious belief and morality is therefore a crucial step towards a more representative political landscape.

Kenya: Why the State Must Stay Away From Religion

miracles-for-moneyWhen the Kenyan government late last year expressed its intention to begin regulating religious practices in order to weed out “fraudulent” preachers and groups, we warned in this column that this constituted a very slippery slope.

It was obvious to any disinterested observer that attempting to regulate religious belief marks the first steps towards government-sanctioned religion, a theocracy in all but name.

What surprised some of us was the unanimity with which many religious leaders welcomed the proposed regulation, and we pointed out that they would probably come to regret this.

A few short weeks later, these same leaders are calling press conferences to dispute the published regulations, arguing that churches and religious organisations should be left to operate according to their own doctrine.

Read more on allafrica.com.

Coalition: Secular Schools Around the World

Many of the SPI Coalition members work with kids. Here are just a few!

campquestukSPI Coalition member CampQuest UK┬áis the secular answer to bible camps. It’s a secular humanist summer camp for kids to learn about science and critical thinking. And they have outdoor campground adventures in the outdoors with archery, zip wires, climbing, high ropes, canoeing, rafting, mountain biking,┬áand more.

If you have kids in the UK, you can sign them up for junior camp for ages 7-11 in May/June in West Runton, Norfolk, or senior camp for ages 11-17 in July/August in Dearne Valley, near Doncaster. On their Facebook page they say the highlight of the week is usually the water fight!


uganda-humanist-schoolAnother coalition member, Uganda Humanist Schools Trust, helps schools in Uganda working to offer liberal, humanist education to needy children. Founded by Ugandan Humanists and run as charities, the schools are inclusive and do not discriminate on grounds of religion, social or ethnic background.

Over the past two years, both Mustard Seed and Isaac Newton High Schools have seen huge improvements in their examination results. Each school has students who have achieved Grade 1 aggregates at O-level, achieved only by the top 8% of students in Uganda. Their first A-level students have shown outstanding achievement, with 4 or 5 students in each school gaining government scholarships to university.

They are raising money to award scholarships, to refurbish existing buildings, to add wash rooms, medical rooms, and hostels, to add sports fields, and more.

Coalition member Parent Teacher Community Action Network leverages the natural community that is created in schools by students and their parents who work together despite coming from different background, including secularism. A new organization, they are actively building out local groups in the United States, with support to springboard local secular leaders into the center of their community by getting involved with community initiatives, beginning with schools. Find out how in their leadership guide.

SPI Fellows Who Run Organizations: Kurdistan and Florida

Too many of the SPI Fellows to list have founded or take an executive role in an intellectual or political organization. Here are two, with more to be featured in future articles!

Dr. Salih (left) doing field work

SPI Fellow Sarbagh Salih is the founder of Hataw, an NGO in Kurdistan that helps people who were forced to move to cities to return to their villages to work in the fields. She is a board member of Nature Iraq and the Sakran-Halgurd National Park, and a member of the committee of the Kurdistan National Herbarium.

She is also President of the Kurdistan Botanical Foundation, which recently finished a botanical survey of the Azmer-Goizha mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan, a two-year effort that collected specimens of more than 1,000 species. The group also replants rare and endemic plant species in different areas in Kurdistan. She is raising money to fund a Kurdistan National Herbarium at the University of Sulaimani and to create a Botanical Garden in one of the largest parks in the Middle East, Hawari Shar Park.

She recently wrote a contribution to the Kurdistan Tour Guide 2015-2016, the first comprehensive travel book for Kurdistan. She is also the wife of Dr. Batham Ahmed Salih, the former Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Deputy PM for Iraq, and the founder of the American University for Iraq. They live in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.

Elliot D. CohenSPI Fellow Elliot D. Cohen is one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States. He is co-founder and Executive Director of the National Philosophical Counseling Association (NPCA), and President of the Institute of Critical Thinking. He is also founder and editor of International Journal of Applied Philosophy and International Journal of Philosophical Practice.

How does philosophy become an applied field? He answers in his recent essay, What Else Can You Do With Philosophy Besides Teach? published in the International Journal of Philosophical Practice that one thing is to give philosophical counseling, a form of mental health counseling. In September he wrote on this topic in Using Logic-Based Therapy to Address Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and in November gave a keynote address, with his wife Dr. Gale Cohen, at the International Conference on Philosophical Counseling & Humanities Therapy in Taipei, Taiwan.

In February┬áhe launches his new book,┬áLogic-Based Therapy and Everyday Emotions: A Case-Based Approach, where he discusses how philosophy is applied to counseling, and explains Logic-Based Therapy (LBT), a six-step method to counseling that he invented. It’s a follow-up to his 2013 book,┬áTheory and Practice of Logic-based Therapy: Integrating Critical Thinking and Philosophy into Psychotherapy.

Policy: SPI Advocates the Environment to the US Congress

The weekly report on government and secularism
by Edwina Rogers

SPI World Future Guide Advocates for the Environment

This week the Secular Policy Institute sent the SPI World Future Guide 2016 to all staff of the US Congress, with a focus on the environmental recommendations of SPI fellow Silvian Ionescu.

Re: Expert Guide on the Future of International Politics and Environment

From terrorism to climate change, we all have fears about the future.┬á Your service to our nation is at the forefront of shaping public policy, and you know it never hurts to get input on whatÔÇÖs best from the experts in various fields.┬á Our new DC-based international think-tank has just released its first annual World Future Guide, with essays on the current state of politics by ten leading scholars and scientists.┬á From different academic angles, theyÔÇÖre all focused on where policy and our planet are headed, and on what we can do to keep them both on course.

SPI facilitates a round table for some of the worldÔÇÖs most prominent thinkersÔÇöincluding A.C. Grayling, Taslima Nasrin, John McWhorter, and Elizabeth Loftus.┬á The Guide is a collection of their findings on trends in law, education, healthcare, and greenhouse gases, including practical advice on defense and surveillance technology, the Islamic/Western ideology conflict, and of course, the role of science in government.

Whether your personal bent is more faith-based or more empirical, thereÔÇÖs reason to believe that people are interested in fact-based lawmaking.┬á Worldwide, 16% of the population outwardly claims no religious affiliation, making this belief group the third largest after Christianity and Islam.┬á In the United States, the ÔÇ£NonesÔÇØ are growing particularly strong in number as voters.┬á Appealing to this bloc with legislation backed by strong evidence isÔÇösimplyÔÇösmart.

In the Guide, you will find an analysis by Dr. Silvian Ionescu of the most notable actions and prescriptions we have taken and can now take to protect the globe as temperatures shift.  You will also find tips on: how to spot the beginnings of a dictatorship; how to tease out the benign aspects of Islam from those that encourage violence and discrimination; and how to reap the health benefits of certain religions while avoiding the hazards of religious warfare. You can read the World Future Guide immediately at https://secularpolicyinstitute.net/survey/secular-policy-institute-world-future-guide-2016/.

If you have any questions about the Guide, our Fellows, or our other work, please do not hesitate to ask.  I am also available to meet at your convenience on the Hill to discuss any of our recommendations further.

Edwina Rogers
Chief Executive Officer
Secular Policy Institute

Bangladeshi Bloggers Need Help in Nepal

The Progressive Atheists, a group in Melbourne, Australia are raising money to support freethinker bloggers from Bangladesh, where several secular bloggers have been attacked, including SPI Fellow Taslima Nasrin.

Funds raised will “directly assist secular bloggers in Bangladesh“. For example, some of the bloggers have fled the country for Nepal without taking any possessions, and must survive for six months before being hopefully refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Oregon AG Urged Not to Waive Merger Review for Catholic Hospitals in Six States

The ACLU has sent an open letter to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to prevent the waiving of an open hearing on the merger of two major hospital chains. Normally, the Attorney General conduct a public hearing on the proposed transaction, and in this case there is much the public would like to say.

Religious hospitals must follow the Ethical and Religious Directives written by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which violate accepted medical practice and basic and necessary minimum healthcare. Issues include birth control, sterilization, miscarriage management, abortion, end-of-life care, and more.


The Millennial Generation: Leading The Secular Way

funny-protest.Emily_.Mills_.flickr-370x277It is now widely understood that global religiosity is declining. But which demographic is driving this demonstrable decay, and which factors are contributing to it? A recent Pew Research study demonstrated the momentous impact the millennial generation (those born from 1981 onwards) is having on religiosity levels.┬áLetÔÇÖs look at some of the key factors at play, while providing international context and identifying the methods by which we can continue to drive the secular movement.

PF-2015-11-03_RLS_II-02PewÔÇÖs results showed us that, while 82% of US citizens born between 1981-1996 believe in God, just 52% do so with ÔÇ£absolute certaintyÔÇØ. 92% of the comparatively older generation ÔÇô defined in the study as those born between 1928-1964 ÔÇô believe in God, with a certainty rate of 70%. These results do not merely suggest declining religiosity; they represent a wider trend. Indeed, a separate Pew study conducted in May of 2015 mapped the correlation between age and faith and produced similar results.

Furthermore, these results form part of an international consensus. Take Britain, for example, where according to a YouGov poll just 25% of 18-24 year olds profess a belief in God compared to a national average of 59%. Further afield, an Australian Bureau of Statistics study establishes the trend once more, with the young being most likely to have no religion. We see, then, the internationalization of non-belief among young people.

There are many factors propelling this pattern, so letÔÇÖs just look at two. Firstly, the growth in Internet accessibility has meant the millennial generation has grown up online. This not only enables instant access to popular scientific journals as well as critiques of theological arguments, but also fosters a healthy, critical approach towards political and economic establishments. As we become comfortable with undermining earthly authority (including, for example, the scandals of the Catholic Church), so too do we shed the taboo that shelters celestial authority from criticism. Secondly, as we begin to scientifically define the neurological underpinnings of transcendence, we begin to free spirituality from the shackles of religion. This welcome severance will most likely reduce the percentage of those who affiliate themselves with religious orthodoxy simply because of its spiritual dimensions, and often do so unaware of the potential spiritual scope of an atheistic, secular person.

However, some important barriers to secularism remain for the younger populations. One particularly unfortunate example is the social and familial stigma attached to being an atheist in the USA. Indeed, this stigma diffused rapidly during the McCarthy era ÔÇô a time when atheism was associated with communism and thus irreligion with treason. That in 2016 a nonbeliever must ÔÇÿcome outÔÇÖ while fearing social persecution is a truly lamentable reality, and a reality which stands in stark contrast to the basic precepts of secularism.

While PewÔÇÖs results give us much encouragement, we must be sure to strengthen from a position of strength. But how are we to fully know the secular millennial demographic? Until we eliminate the stigma associated with atheism ÔÇô and an objective, critical approach is paramount here ÔÇô we cannot begin to guess. The total amount of closet atheists and secularists, living in too much fear to profess their worldview, is incalculable. What we do know, however, is that the millennials are leading the way, giving the secular movement a generation of optimism.


The Taboo Of Atheism In Egypt

Cairo2When I started writing this article, one idea dominated my thoughts: ÔÇ£I donÔÇÖt want to be sent to prison.ÔÇØ Then I thought, religious tolerance doesnÔÇÖt punish reporting about the taboo of atheism in the Egyptian society. Acknowledging the rights of atheists doesnÔÇÖt mean adopting their ideas.

While atheists just donÔÇÖt believe in one further religion in comparison to believers, everyone should be entitled to express their ideas and thoughts without intimidation. Challenging religious oppression and rusty social traditions, many Egyptians risk their lives to uphold and protect freedoms and values of tolerance.

Read more in eurasiareview.com.

Coalition: A Variety of Secular Opportunities

canadian-secular-allianceThe┬áSPI coalition is the world’s largest association of secular groups, and comes with the variety that you might expect! This week’s groups are centered around a country, a minority group, and a famous thinker. Explore and see what inspires you to get involved with.

SPI coalition member Canadian Secular Alliance represents all Canadians, religious and non-religious alike, who believe that the Canadian government should adopt public policies consistent with a secular state. For example, they advocate for removing the word “God” from┬áCanadaÔÇÖs national anthem and┬áending the practice of conducting official prayers during government meetings.

Keep up to date on their frequent Facebook posts on world news. You can join the discussion on their Google Group, and check out the Think Again! YouTube Channel, where the CSA is an occasional contributor.

joinus_00000Coalition member┬áBlack Atheists of America┬áis a national non-profit organization dedicated to bridging the gap between atheism and the black community. African-Americans are underrepresented in America’s secular community, perhaps because of a “one size fits all” approach to outreach to new members. BAA has an active Facebook page, sells t-shirts,┬áand promotes secularism by:

  • Improving education through the promotion of critical thinking and science
  • Participating in community service efforts in lower income areas
  • Creating a community of black atheists

bertrand-russell-society-logoCoalition member The Bertrand Russell Society follows the lead of Bertrand Russell, a supporter of secularism and arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century and the greatest logician since Aristotle, at least according to his fans.

They sponsor sessions of talks, give grants to students, and host a regular annual meeting featuring scholarly and popular presentations which in 2016 will be held in June in Rochester, New York, and publish a biannual magazine, The Bulletin.