Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Atheists face extensive discrimination, UN rights council told

Humanist group raises concerns amid new efforts by Muslim countries in UN to ban denigration of religion

  • Pakistan protest over Muhammad caricatures
Muslim countries are seeking to obtain a worldwide ban on denigration of religion, specifically what they call Islamophobia. Photograph: Rehan Khan/EPA
Atheists, humanists and freethinkers face widespread discrimination around the world, with expression of their views criminalised and even subject to capital punishment, the United Nations has been told.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) said atheism was banned by law in a number of states where people were forced to officially adopt a faith.
"Extensive discrimination by governments against atheists, humanists and the non-religious occurs worldwide," said the union, which has 120 member bodies in 45 countries.
In Afghanistan, Iran, Maldives, Mauritania, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan "atheists can face the death penalty on the grounds of their belief", in violation of UN human rights accords, the IHEU said in a document submitted to the UN human rights council.
In several other countries legal measures "effectively criminalise atheism [and] the expression and manifestation of atheist beliefs" or lead to systematic discrimination against freethinkers, it said.
Three of the states on the rights council – Pakistan, Mauritania and Maldives – have legislation providing for death for blasphemy against Islam, a charge that can be applied to atheists who publicly reveal their ideas.
The paper was submitted as the council opened its annual spring session against a background of new efforts in the UN by Muslim countries to obtain a worldwide ban on denigration of religion, specifically what they call Islamophobia.
Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told the council there was a "rising trend" of Islamophobia. "We condemn all sorts of incitement to hatred and religious discrimination against Muslims and people of other faiths," he said.
This month a senior official of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) said the body would focus on getting agreement on criminalising denigration of religion in coming talks with western countries.
Last November the head of the 21-country Arab League told the UN security council in New York that his organisation wanted a binding international framework to ensure "that religious faith and its symbols are respected".
The IHEU and other non-governmental rights groupings argue that many Muslim governments use this terminology and the concept of "religious blasphemy" within their own countries to cow both atheists and followers of other religions.
A number of these governments "prosecute people who express their religious doubt or dissent, regardless of whether those dissenters identify as atheist", the IHEU document said.
Islamic countries including Bangladesh, Bahrain, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey had also stepped up prosecution of "blasphemous" expression of criticism of religion in social media such as Facebook and Twitter, it said.
OIC countries have 15 seats on the council, all from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, making up almost a third of the rights body.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Happy Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend

Charles Darwin's birthday has become not just an international holiday, but an entire evolution-themed weekend. Here are ideas for how to celebrate.
Fri, Feb 10 2012 at 12:48 PM

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British naturalist Charles Darwin strikes a pensive pose in this copy of an 1881 oil painting by John Collier. (Image: National Portrait Gallery)
Charles Darwin was born 203 years ago Sunday, 50 years before he would forever change the field of biology with "On the Origin of Species." Another book, published 143 years later, dubbed his opus on evolution "the single best idea, ever."
The editors of that book helped found Darwin Day in the 1990s, honoring not just Darwin, but also "the achievements of humanity as represented in the acquisition of verifiable scientific knowledge." People had already been celebrating Darwin's birthday every Feb. 12 for decades, but Darwin Day became a broad, global holiday for science, with Darwin as its patriarch — sort of like a less jolly, more scholarly Santa Claus.
But while Darwin's discovery of natural selection has revolutionized science, it has also inspired generations of critics. Some distrust it for religious reasons, seeing it as a threat to Creationism or Intelligent Design, and some just don't like to think of people as animals. Darwin wasn't anti-religion, though — he was on track to be a clergyman before his fateful Galapagos trip, and his body is buried at Westminster Abbey.
If you'd like to commemorate this Darwin-packed weekend, but aren't sure how, here are a few suggestions:
• Host a Phylum Feast: Darwin enthusiasts have been holding yearly Phylum Feasts on Feb. 12 since at least the 1970s. A Phylum Feast is a potluck dinner in which all the dishes are as biodiverse as possible — ideally, each should come from a different phylum. Darwin reportedly enjoyed eating "birds and beasts ... unknown to human palate," and many people still see this as a way to embrace our evolutionary past. "Most of our day-to-day food comes from a small number of domesticated vertebrates and grasses," writes naturalist and Phylum Feast authority Frederick Schueler, "but by seeking out and identifying the diverse biotic sources of our diet in this meal, we remember our origin as omnivores, and our relatedness to other lineages."
• Make "primordial soup": Of course, the idea of a Phylum Feast can make conservationists cringe, especially when the menu includes exotic items like minke whale meat. Phyla diversity is also limited at some grocery stores, often making such feasts impractical. But you could always just make another Darwin Day favorite instead: "primordial soup." Named after the cocktail of amino acids believed to spark the first life on Earth, this dish is wide open to interpretation — from simple stews to Phylum Feasts in a pot. There's also Julia Child's version, if you're feeling more literal.
• Attend a Darwin Day event: There were more than 800 Darwin Day events worldwide in 2011, and offers a partial list of those being held in 2012. Some are one-day affairs, like Friday's Darwin Day exhibit at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; Saturday's Darwin Day Beach Cleanup in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; or Sunday's annual Darwin Day Lunch in Oxford, England. Others are more stretched out, like a monthlong Darwin exhibit in Bologna, Italy; "Darwin Week" festivities in San Antonio, Texas; and a variety of three-day weekend celebrations. Darwin Day originally focused on lectures by prominent scientists, but today it has expanded to include debates, museum exhibits, film festivals, art shows, essay contests and more. Some even use the holiday to jointly honor U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, who was also born on Feb. 12, 1809.

• Read "On the Origin of Species": Not only is the full text of Darwin's seminal work available online, but so are all of his publications. It's a lot to absorb in one day, or even three days, but a chilly weekend like this one might nonetheless be a good time to dig in — with a steaming bowl of primordial soup, of course.
For more information about evolution by natural selection, check out this classic (and animated) explanation by the late astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan:
Have other ideas for celebrating Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend? Let us know in the comments below.
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