An Encyclopedia of Heresy in South Asia

This is a guest post by Abhilash Mudaliar. Abhilash is a friendly freethinker who tweets @abhilashgm and blogs here.

We know fundamentalist religion is a particularly potent institution; it’s a subset of organized religion characterized by dogma, literal adherence to scripture, hostility to critical thinking, intolerance, indoctrination, and absolute faith.

Atheists (and even moderate theists) play a critical role in countering that type of thinking. Unchecked, not only can the power of fundamentalists grow excessive, but a lack of heterodoxy, generally, also stifles overall human progress.

South Asia is a particularly religious part of the world. Religious fundamentalists – chiefly Hindu and Muslim, but also others – wield significant power, as do allied charlatans of all sorts, from “godmen” to tantriks to peddlers in black magic.

For a heretic in the region, life has always been dangerous.

In recent years, however, promoting critical thinking has become a “crime” punishable by death. No fewer than 12 freethinkers have been murdered in South Asia by religious fundamentalists in this decade.

BANGLADESH

On the evening of February 26, 2015, Avijit Roy was returning home with his wife from a book fair in Dhaka. He was traveling in a cycle rickshaw that was intercepted by two men who dragged Roy and his wife out and brutally attacked them with machetes. Both were rushed to hospital. Roy died shortly after, though his wife survived. Later, she told reporters that there were police standing nearby when they were being attacked, but they did nothing.

Roy was the founder of the Mukto-Mona (freethinkers) website. Its mission, like that of so many other groups around the world, is to promote rational thinking and fight the forces of dogma: “Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition, or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science.

Given his vocal opposition to religious extremism, Roy was, not surprisingly, unpopular with religious fundamentalists in Bangladesh. Sometime in 2013, he, along with 83 other freethinking progressive Bangladeshis, found their names on a hit list compiled by an Islamist organization.

Roy was not the first name on this list to be so callously attacked. Others include:

  • Asif Mohiuddin, secular activist and religious critic, stabbed outside his office on January 15, 2013 by four youth. He survived but was soon imprisoned for “blasphemous” blog posts. After release he moved to Berlin, Germany, where he now lives.
  • Ahmed Rajib Haider, atheist blogger often critical of religious fundamentalism, hacked to death by machete-wielding Islamists, outside his home in Dhaka on February 15, 2013.
  • Sunnyur Rahman, atheist blogger, attacked on the streets of Mirpur on March 7, 2013, also by machete-wielding assailants, but saved after police took him to hospital.
  • Shafiul Islam, well-known humanist and professor of Sociology at Rajshahi University, hacked to death by Islamists on November 15, 2014.
  • Oyasiqur (a.k.a. Washiqur) Rahman, a blogger known for criticizing irrational religious beliefs, murdered on the streets of Dhaka on March 30, 2015 by three assailants brandishing meat cleavers.
  • Ananta Bijoy Das, editor of science magazine Jukti and head of the Science and Rationalist Council, murdered on May 12, 2015 by four masked men wielding machetes, in Sylhet.
  • Niloy Neel (a.k.a. Niloy Chatterjee), organizer of the Science and Rationalist Association of Bangladesh, murdered by six men armed with machetes in his home in Dhaka, on August 7, 2015.

All said, six names on the hit list of 84 have been murdered since 2013. There is little indication that politicians or the police are doing anything of note to protect the other 78.

INDIA

Narendra Dabholkar was a rationalist and founder-president of Maharasthra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), an organization set up to battle the forces of superstition and black magic in his home state of Maharashtra. In his activism he criticized self-styled godmen, Hindu ascetics, and tantriks for promoting irrational fears and miracle cures for life’s ailments. And it wasn’t just harmless superstition he was fighting.

Just two months before his murder, MANS heard of a case where a 10-year-old girl was kidnapped by her own grandmother along with 10 villagers. They took her to a forest where they slit her throat before proceeding to drink her blood. The reason for this macabre ritual? The grandmother had dreamt of a goddess who wanted to drink blood and so she plotted to sacrifice her granddaughter.

These were the types of practices that Dabholkar was trying to stop. For his efforts, he received several death threats over the decades. He was murdered on August 20, 2013 while out on his morning walk, shot down by two unidentified gunmen.

His murder has been followed by those of two others.

  • Govind Pansare, also from Maharashtra, was renowned for his left-leaning ideology and support for progressive thinking on many social issues, including support for inter-caste marriage and disapproval of the preference for male children. He also had open contempt for the agenda of right-wing Hindu groups. Pansare argued that Shivaji (a 17th-century king who is a modern-day icon for nationalist groups) was actually secular, respected women, and abolished serfdom.

    After Dabholkar’s murder, Pansare called for the passing of the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Act that Dabholkar had spent many years fighting for.

    On February 16, 2015, when returning home from his morning walk, Pansare and his wife were intercepted by two men on a motorcycle and shot at multiple times. He was taken to the hospital but succumbed to his wounds four days later.

  • Dr. M.M. Kalburgi, a former Vice Chancellor of Kannada University in Hampi and a rationalist who had had several run-ins with Hindutva (nationalist) groups throughout his life, was shot dead by two unidentified men at his home in Dharwad, Karnataka on August 30, 2015.

    Like Dabholkar and Pansare, Dr. Kalburgi had spoken openly against the irrational elements of Hinduism, in particular superstition and idol worship.

Other rationalists in India have been luckier, though they continue to live in danger. Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association, spent many years exposing the fraudulent practices of mystics and godmen across India. In one famous incident, he invited a tantrik who boasted he could kill a man just with his thoughts to try to kill him on live television. After hours of trying, the tantrik gave up, accusing Edamaruku of having sought protection from the gods. Edamaruku told him he was an atheist.

In March of 2012, a rumor spread that a crucifix at a church in Mumbai was dripping water from the feet. Edamaruku’s research indicated that the dripping was caused by capillary action from a clogged drain. Shortly after this, the Catholic Church in Mumbai filed a complaint against Edamaruku under India’s blasphemy laws, wherein one can be charged for “outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens.” Edamaruku fled to Finland, where he has lived ever since. The Catholic Church has offered to drop the charges if Edamaruku were to apologize, but he’s refused to do so.

PAKISTAN

Salman Taseer was a Pakistani businessman and politician. He came out in support of Asia Bibi, a Christian women sentenced to death under Pakistan’s archaic blasphemy law. On January 4, 2011, Taseer was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards, shot 27 times by an AK-47 machine gun.

A month before his murder, Taseer had criticized religious clerics who had issued a fatwa against him as “illiterate.” And just five days before his death he’d tweeted: “I was under huge pressure sure 2 cow down b4 rightist pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, said he killed Taseer because of the latter’s vocal opposition to the blasphemy law. Many Islamist groups came out in support of Qadri, warning against any public mourning of Taseer’s death. Qadri was also showered with rose petals as he was being taken to court for his trial.

Former Minister for Minorities Affairs, Clement Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated two months later by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban). Bhatti was also a vocal opponent of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and had been receiving death threats since 2009, when he’d spoken in support of Christians who’d been attacked in communal violence.

On March 2, 2011, shortly after leaving his mother’s house, two assassins sprayed his vehicle with bullets. Bhatti was struck eight times. He was taken to hospital but pronounced dead on arrival. Before fleeing the scene, the assassins dropped leaflets denouncing “infidel Christians” and the existence of a (non-existent) committee to review the nation’s blasphemy laws.

Junaid Hafeez was a professor of English at Bahauddin Zakariya University in the city of Multan. A Fulbright scholar, Hafeez’s progressive views won him the popularity of students, but also the disapproval of Islamist groups. In March of 2013, a student affiliated with Islami Jamiat Talaba, accused Hafeez of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Hard-line students soon held a protest calling for Hafeez’s execution.

Shortly after, the police registered a case for blasphemy against Hafeez and arrested him. He is alleged to have used a pseudonym to comment about Muhammad’s wives in a closed group on Facebook called “So-Called Liberals of Pakistan.”

Hafeez continues to languish in jail and is now on his third lawyer. His first lawyer, Chaudhry Mudassar, dropped the case in June of 2013 after facing a multitude of death threats. His second, Rashid Rehman, was murdered on May 7, 2014 by two men who walked into his office, shot him multiple times, and walked out. A month earlier, at a hearing, prosecuting lawyers had warned Rehman that he would not live to attend the next hearing. Despite this threat being made in front of the judge, no charges were levied against the attorneys. Soon after taking on the case, Rehman, who was also the regional coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, had remarked to the BBC that doing so was akin to “walking into the jaws of death.”

Hafeez is currently represented by Shahbaz Gurmani. Gurmani has also received death threats including an incident where guns were fired outside his home.

Last, but not least – and perhaps the most famous case – is that of Malala Yousafzai. Yousafzai was just 11 years old when she wrote an anonymous blog for the BBC about life under Taliban rule and, in particular, about the struggles to ensure access to education for girls in Swat valley. Even after her identity became known, she didn’t stop campaigning.

On October 9, 2012, while riding to school, a gunman boarded the school bus, asked for Yousafzai by name, then shot her in the head. She survived, moved to England, and has continued her education there. Yousafzai has since continued her vocal activism for girls’ education, winning numerous international awards including the Nobel Peace Prize.

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In all, twelve human beings have been murdered, three have survived attempted murders, three now live in self-imposed exile in Europe, and one has been imprisoned — all for the “sin” of promoting critical thinking and arguing against regressive religious dogma. The victims have been atheists and religious, politicians and academics, activists and bloggers, young and old.

(While my research hasn’t unearthed any recent cases of violence or harassment against freethinkers in Sri Lanka or Nepal, superstition and religious dogma are just as deeply entrenched there.)

That such a growing strain of intolerance is enveloping the region should be cause for deep concern for all supporters of free speech and expression.

No one should be in danger for having the audacity to think critically and encouraging others to do the same.

(Image via Shutterstock)

Zoroastrians Are Suing Snoop Dogg After Music Video Shows Him Smoking Under Religious Symbol

The Faravahar is an important symbol of Zoroastrianism, depicting a guardian angel of sorts.

So when Snoop Dogg is sitting on a throne, smoking a joint, with the symbol right above him, you can understand why some religious types might get all offended…

It all happens in the music video for “King” by Iranian pop singer Amitis:

And it’s pissed off one community to the point where they’ve filed a completely unnecessary lawsuit:

A public interest lawsuit has been issued by the Calcutta Zoroastrian chapter in the hopes of getting the video, which also features pole dancers in golden underwear and men as cliched Ancient Egyptian servants, banned.

A representative said: “The wrong use of religious and sacred symbols and iconography hurts, insults and outrages the religious sentiments and beliefs of Parsi Zoroastrians.”

It’s hard to get worked up over a symbol that virtually no one knows anything about. I promise you nobody watched that video and came away thinking “Yeah! Screw Zoroastrianism! (Also, if we’re making a list of offensive places Snoop Dogg has smoked a joint, this probably ranks in the lower quintile.)

While India has no formal blasphemy law, there’s a history of misguided arrests for people who intentionally criticize religious sentiments. (You remember Sanal Edamaruku who fled the country to avoid arrest after debunking a supposed Catholic “miracle.”)

This wasn’t intentional. And it isn’t really even critical of religion. So it’s unlikely this lawsuit will go anywhere, but it’s telling how thin-skinned religious groups can be that they’d get offended by something this harmless. If anything, they should be thanking the video’s producers for potentially introducing their faith to a wider audience.

(Thanks to Sharon for the link)

Two Years Later, the Indian Skeptic Who Debunked a “Miracle” is Still in Exile in Finland

Sanal Edamaruku — a.k.a. “the Indian James Randi” — has debunked a lot of sacred cows in his life. In 2012, after explaining how a statue of Christ could be dripping water seemingly on its own, he was charged with “hurting the religious sentiments of a particular community.” The “crime” could have resulted in a prison sentence of up to three years in addition to a fine, so Edamaruku fled from his home before he could be punished (or physically attacked).

Since then, Edamaruku has been in Finland. And according to Samanthi Dissanayake of BBC News, he still can’t go back home:

He arrived in Helsinki on a summer afternoon two years ago, the endless hours of sunlight saturating both day and night. He thought he would only stay for a couple of weeks until the furore he left behind in India had died down.

But the furore has not died down — the Catholic Secular Form (CSF), one of the groups that made the initial complaint, still insists it will press for prosecution should he ever return.

Two years on, he is angry, bitter and defiant. Living in a small flat on the eastern edge of Helsinki, he has forced himself to adjust to an alien landscape. After the crowded hustle of Delhi, more than 3,000 miles away, he can now walk mile upon lonely mile without seeing a single person.

“I miss a lot of people… That I cannot meet them is something that saddens me,” he says.

Since he left India, his daughter has had a child, and his mother has died.

He’s had the opportunity to go back to India, but it would require him to apologize for what he did, a compromise he’s not making:

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai tried to broker a solution by calling upon Edamaruku to apologise and on Catholic groups to drop their case in return.

But Edamaruku staunchly refuses to compromise on what he sees as his freedom of expression.

“I don’t regret anything I said,” he says. “I feel that I have full right to express my views… I am open for discussion and correction but I am not willing to accept anybody’s bullying, change my views or submit to their pressure to apologise.”

That, my friends, is a skeptic hero.

He has been forced to adjust his life for the “crime” of telling the truth and backing it up with evidence — and the ones going after him are the religious extremists who can’t take their miracles being disproven.


The TAM 2013 Interviews Episode 7: Karen Stollznow

Those of you with far-reaching memories may recall the series of video interviews that my trusty sidekick Mikey and I put together from The Amazing Meeting 2013. I understand it is now 2014, but we had some technical difficulties (i.e., the computer he was using to edit everything unexpectedly crapped out and we needed to get a new one. Guys, computers are not cheap. Even with this baller blogging money. Apparently, the four-year-old semi-functional laptop I write on is not good enough for his fancy schmancy editing programs. La. De. Dah.)

Anyway, now that we have gotten everything back in good working order, Mikey has been able to get back in the swing of things.

For our long-awaited relaunch, we’re kicking things off with the remarkable Dr. Karen Stollznow. Though I had missed her talk at TAM, there was a gentleman who was also blogging there who told me that I absolutely needed to talk to her.

Holy cow. He was right.

First of all, Stollznow is a wonderfully delightful person. Second of all, in a series of extraordinarily interesting people, she stood out (to me) as the most fascinating person to interview. She has recently published her latest book, God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States.

I haven’t had a chance to grab a copy, though I plan to order one ASAP, but the book follows Stollznow’s journey around the country observing a huge variety of religious rituals. During this interview, she told me a couple of stories about her stranger encounters. She touches on everyone from the Amish to Scientology. Her story about stopping in to a Scientology church has since become one of my favorite stories to share with hapless strangers at cocktail parties (Note: I have never been to a cocktail party. Please invite me to one.)

Anyway, I was sincerely riveted by this whole conversation. Enjoy!



This May Be the Worst Argument Ever Made for Why You Should Believe in God

Tony, Tony, Tony, what on earth were you thinking…?

Tony Jones, a progressive Christian blogger on Patheos, just wrote a post explaining why he’s a Christian. And instead of offering your standard run-of-the-mill, easily-refutable apologetics, he made what may be the worst argument ever for believing in God: Everyone else does it.

wewew
I’ll have what they’re having

And he threw in some awfully ignorant remarks about atheists, too. Emphasis is his:

… I have several answers to the question — many of which relate specifically to Jesus of Nazareth — but here’s the one reason that’s most significant to me these days:

The vast, vast majority of my fellow human beings are theists. Globally, well over 95% of the human race professes belief in God. As others have noted recently, atheism is a position of privilege. Atheism is almost exclusively the purview of educated, white elites. The old saying goes that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it should be updated to say that their are no atheists in the slums of Bangladesh, in the townships of South Africa, in the trash heaps of India.

At this point, I simply cannot abide severing myself from the rest of the world’s population, from 7 billion of my fellow human beings. I have enough respect for the collective wisdom of humanity to stand in solidarity with them in proclaiming that there is, indeed, a God.

Where do you even begin with such a bad argument…?

Let’s see… if you really cared about the collective wisdom of humanity, you sure as hell wouldn’t be a Christian, since they’re not in the majority. And while most of the world believes in God, their visions of “God” are vastly different. (Jones says 95% of the world believes in God. The Christian Post reported the number at a little more than half. They also include a citation, unlike Jones’ number, which came directly out of his ass.)

Is atheism “almost exclusively the purview of educated, white elites”? Absolutely not. A few decades ago, perhaps, but you have to be living in a bubble to not realize the changing demographics of the religiously-unaffiliated at least in America. There are black, Hispanic, and Asian atheists who aren’t just footnotes in the research and their numbers are constantly on the rise. As for “educated,” it’s true that the more formal education you have, the more likely you are to not believe in God. But I don’t get how that’s a bad thing. It’s like Jones is complaining, “The people who know things are atheists! That can’t be right!” (Turns out the more educated among are also more likely to accept evolution. Should we all become Creationists since that’s what the majority believes?)

Then we get to the most slanderous part. Let me repeat it for everyone:

The old saying goes that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it should be updated to say that their are no atheists in the slums of Bangladesh, in the townships of South Africa, in the trash heaps of India.

I can’t believe he said any of that…

There are atheists in foxholes. That’s obvious to anyone who does the slightest bit of research, which Jones didn’t do.

No atheists in Bangladesh? Sure, except for Asif Mohiuddin, the atheist blogger from Bangladesh who was almost-fatally attacked for writing about religion online. And except for his friends who were also arrested for writing about atheism. I wonder why more of them don’t make themselves known…

No atheists in South Africa? Let’s just click here

No atheists in the “trash heaps” of India? Besides that just being plain offensive, that’s also completely untrue. If you’re only looking at numbers, it might have something to do with the fact that India’s census doesn’t even include a category for those who are not religious, and outspoken atheists in India have been assassinated or driven away. But to assume that means everyone in India is automatically religious takes a lot of willful ignorance on his part. I’ll say it straight out: Yes, there are atheists in India, including those who live in poverty.

So to summarize: Jones believes in God because a bunch of statistics that he made up without doing any research show that a lot of people believe in some form of a higher power. Even though a lot of those people are polytheists, Muslim, and think Jones’ beliefs are completely ridiculous.

Therefore, Jesus.

Because logic.

By the way, want to know why I’m an atheist? Because I’ve considered the evidence and concluded that none of it points to a higher power. I didn’t just look to what everyone else was doing and assume they’re right.

It turns out the majority can be wrong about a lot of things.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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