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26 and 27 NOVEMBER 2009

Letters in The Age:

Atheists feel cold shoulder

ATHEISTS have accused the Brumby Government of discriminating against them by refusing to fund the movement's global conference in Melbourne but giving $2 million to a religious conference.

The Parliament of the World's Religions begins on December 3 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. It has received $2 million from the Federal Government and $500,000 from Melbourne City Council.

The Atheist Foundation of Australia says it approached all three levels of government for a total of $270,000 for its conference, to be held at the same venue early next year, but has received no funding.

''This is a world-class event with world-class academic and intellectual speakers,'' foundation president David Nicholls said.

''If I was the Catholic Church they'd be all over me like a rash. This is an ideological decision.''


Some tourism dollars worth less

AS ONE of 4 million-plus non-religious Australians, I'm outraged that Labor governments are putting $4 million of taxpayers' money into a religious event, but have refused funding for Melbourne's Global Atheist Convention.

You only have to search the internet to see how news of this event is spreading internationally. Isn't that what the funding is for: to promote tourism to Australia and Victoria?

I will be travelling to the convention in March. Does the Brumby Government value my tourist dollars less than those of a theist? If so, I will be careful to restrict my spending while in Victoria and I won't be in a hurry to return to a state where non-theists are obviously not wanted.

Chrys Stevenson, Mapleton, Qld

Was application read?

I WOULD be tempted to think there may be some kind of religious bias in the Government's decision especially as I wrote to Tourism Victoria, the department responsible for funding not-for-profit international conferences, only to be told it did not provide funding for business conferences.

The Atheist Foundation is a registered not-for-profit organisation and this was clearly stated in the application.

From the department's answer I can only assume the application for assistance was rejected without even being read.

Doug Steley, Cowwarr

Christians agree with bias

AS A Christian minister I agree with my atheist friends on this one - it appears they have been discriminated against on the basis of religion.

It's all very ironic and kind of humorous, given the Brumby Government's social engineering reconstruction project for Victoria. As a taxpayer I don't support funding a conference for atheists (how much money do they need to say ''God is not there''?), and I also don't agree with funding the ''World Parliament of Religions''. I would have thought that putting the money into hospitals would be a better investment.

Murray Campbell, minister, Mentone Baptist Church, Mentone

Blurring the boundaries between church and state

THE Government's funding decision is not surprising. Religious lobby groups have formed a very powerful relationship with government far, far beyond the numbers they represent. This continual assault on the equality of non-believers in supernatural things is going to prove costly. We really have had enough.

The State Government's decision to grant $2 million to a world religious conference, also in Melbourne, reveals a bias that disregards our status as a secular nation. This is just another example of the blurring of the separation of the church from the state.

Warren Bonett, Pomona, Qld

Where's the money going?

WHERE are the missing delegates to the Parliament of World Religions and where is all the money going?

Original claims of about 13000 delegates have now been reduced to 5000 by John Brumby. With funding of $4.5 million from taxpayers and ratepayers, that is nearly $1000 per head.

What have they spent the money on?

Andrew Rawlings, Blackburn

All welcome to attend

ATHEISTS need not ''feel the cold shoulder'' (The Age, 26/11) because the State Government has provided funding to a multi-religious, not a religious, event.

Everyone who is willing to be respectful of the views of others is welcome at the Parliament of the World's Religions, including atheists. They, too, are part of the rich diversity of religious and philosophical value bases that ennobles our life in Melbourne.

Professor Gary D. Bouma, Monash University

24 DECEMBER 2009

Article in The Age:

You wouldn't read about it

Mary and Jesus were ejected from their neighbourhood mothers' group, due to an unshakeable belief of exceptionalism.

Mary and Jesus were ejected from their neighbourhood mothers' group, due to an unshakeable belief of exceptionalism. Photo: Rebecca Hallas RLH

Israel. Upper Gallilee. A woman identifying herself simply as ''Mary'' claims her nine-year-old son Jesus Christ is the Son of God™. The 28-year-old mother alleges she was a virgin when she gave birth and conceived via ''impregnation of the Holy Spirit". According to Mary and her son's followers, who refer to themselves as ''Christians'', her son performs miracles and ''speaks the word of God'' because he is ''the Saviour of the World''.

Jesus' insistence that he is ''King of the Jews'' has led to the boy being home-schooled due to bullying. He is also allergic to nuts.

The family is currently being psychologically assessed by family welfare services.

Mary and her de facto husband Joseph claim around the time she became pregnant an angel called Gabriel visited and told Mary she was ''the favoured one''. The angel said: ''You will conceive in your womb and bear a son. You will name him Jesus.'' Mary allegedly asked the angel how this could happen when she was a virgin and the angel responded: "The Holy Ghost will come upon you."

Mary and Joseph were homeless at the time of Jesus' birth and the child was born behind a backpacker's hostel in Jerusalem. A group calling themselves ''The Three Wise Men" turned up uninvited to welcome ''The Messiah'' and claim to have been given the heads-up on the birth from supernatural sources.

Mary and Jesus made headlines five years ago after being ejected from their neighbourhood mothers' group due to ''an unshakeable belief of exceptionalism and entitlement that undermined the community spirit of the group".

Ezrelle Orzberg, one of the mums from the now disbanded group known as The Nazareth Nine wrote a best-selling book about the experience, Son Of God? Let Me Guess, You're Special, Join The Queue. "Sure, we call ourselves The Chosen people but every parent thinks their kid is special, which is simply an extension of healthy narcissism, which aids our drive for genetic superiority and survival of the species," says Orzberg.

"Mary eventually alienated all of us after constantly insisting her son deserved superior treatment, saying things like 'give Jesus the first go, he's the Son of God, he's the Saviour of the world' so make sure he gets his cordial in a glass not a cup. Jesus wouldn't have bitten her, he's divine. Anyway, she started it.''

Mary is urging the world to follow her son's teachings and celebrate his birthday, which falls on December 25, suggesting a holy feast called ''Christmas''.

Despite the far-fetched nature of the claims, soft drink giant Coca-Cola is negotiating branding the proposed ''Christmas'' with a character called Santa, an elderly obese bearded man who lives in the North Pole and has elves who make gifts for good children who follow the teachings of Christ.

The idea has provoked an outcry from child labour protesters, environmental activists and anti-discrimination campaigners.

Santa, who wears red and white to advertise the world-famous soft drink and is allegedly friends with God, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, delivers gifts in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. The idea that Santa climbs down people's chimneys has been slammed by occupational health and safety bodies as ''a bad example'' and by family groups as ''an accident waiting to happen - not to mention issues with stranger danger".

Mary is currently in negotiation with Oliver Stone to make her story into a feature film. Vivid Entertainment has offered her an undisclosed sum to appear in an adult movie. She has declined the offer.

The Facebook page Jesus Rulz currently has more than 30,000 members. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are yet to comment.

Follow @ jesustheawesome and @godssonsmum on Twitter.
Catherine Deveny's column appears in The Age's MelbourneLife on Wednesdays.

Catherine Deveny is the author of It’s Not My Fault They Print Them and Say When both published by Black Inc. Her third collection of columns Free To A Good Home will be released in December 2009.

10 JANUARY 2010

Article in The Age:

By Michael Bachelard

Beyond belief

Leanne Carroll and Joel Kilgour are part of a growing number worldwide to openly acknowledge a lack of religious faith. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

DAMIAN Coburn once lived in a cult-like Catholic offshoot in which owning a new car was frowned upon as being too much like investing in a graven idol. But Coburn bought one anyway, and called it the Golden Calf. Anne Robinson was raised a Christian but as a teenager became a pentacle-wearing witch who was in touch with the earth goddess Gaia and performed magic spells to win love, or money. Aam grew up in a strict Bangladeshi Muslim family, where marriages were arranged, the Koran taken literally and a set of religious and cultural taboos were woven together into a complete way of life.

These three Australians are united by a religious upbringing. But in the past few years all have been united by something entirely different. They've shucked off their faith and become part of a growing world-wide movement - atheism.

What is driving this move is a matter for debate. Some say it's a reaction against religious terrorism, fundamentalism. Others that the habit of Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Tony Blair and others of wearing their religion US-style on their sleeves has prompted a backlash, with people concerned about the political lobbying power of faith. Still others believe the children of 1960s hippies have grown up without strong childhood indoctrination and are now embracing rationalism and science.

The new atheism is bigger, more organised, and much more assertive than ever before. It's based on the belief that science explains everything we need to know about the world so there's no need for religion. Its founding texts are by scientist Richard Dawkins and writer Christopher Hitchens, and religion, in their eyes, is not just some harmless illusion, it's a dangerous, immoral force in society.

The adherents of this new atheism are not simply out to proclaim their own existence - they are proselytising, they want to convert the faithful.

''If this book works as I intend,'' Dawkins wrote in his 2006 best seller, The God Delusion, ''religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.''

By legitimising atheism and speaking openly about it, Dawkins and others have either brought thousands of people out of the closets of their faith, or crystallised their inchoate feelings of unbelief into something firmer. These people gather in online forums to talk - Dawkins' forum at has 81,000 signed-up members, and the relatively new Atheist Foundation of Australia has 704 and growing.

They vary from the mildly non-religious to the aggressively, sarcastically anti-faith. And in March thousands of them will come to Melbourne to attend the Global Atheist Convention, billed as the largest gathering of non-theists in Australia, and perhaps the world. Here they will listen to Dawkins as well as a number of international and home-grown activists including Peter Singer, Phillip Adams, Catherine Deveny and Robyn Williams.

There are two key questions about this new atheism. Firstly, as Adam is reputed to have said to Eve on that first day in Eden, ''How big does this thing get?'' And secondly, if it's a fully fledged movement, where does it go? What does it do?

For both Hitchens and Dawkins, the ultimate goal is clear. They want to reassure the religious waverers that it's OK not to believe and, eventually, to rid the world of organised faith - in Hitchens' words, to ''transcend our prehistory and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection''. As even Hitchens admits, though, the task remains enormous.

Two hundred years after the birth of Charles Darwin, Fairfax's recent Neilsen poll on faith showed 23 per cent of Australians still believe that God created all life in a week about 10,000 years ago. Another 32 per cent believe he guided a long process of creation over time. Only 12 per cent believe Darwin's theory of natural selection, the scientific underpinning for much of the new atheism. More encouragingly for the atheists, 24 per cent of Australians firmly believe there is no God, and 6 per cent are pretty sure. In the United States, by contrast, 92 per cent believe in God.

FOR many who quit their religion, the seeds of unbelief are sown young.

Leanne Carroll is typical of the new atheist in Australia. Now 46, this eloquent Melbourne medico-legal transcriptionist was schooled by nuns in 1970s Kew, ''where too much Mass was never enough''. But at the age of about eight, she started asking questions the sisters were not equipped to answer, such as ''what's heaven like?''. A conscientious girl, Carroll tried hard to get her head around the Trinity (''it breaks your brain'') and lay frightened in bed at night because she thought God was watching. But then, as she grew and her faith wavered, she remembers testing the Lord by saying ''bloody'' out loud in the playground, waiting to be smited for disrespecting His wounds. She was not. At 12, tired of fabricating sins to mention in confession, Carroll stopped turning up.

Apart from dabbling in New Age spirituality as an adult, she went no further with religion. But it was not until she found Richard Dawkins' BBC documentary The Root of All Evil? on the internet that she was able, finally, to apply the label ''atheist'' to herself. ''I thought, 'That is what I am!''' Carroll says. ''I had a word to describe me. It's not true that I had a Dawkins conversion - he just crystallised it for me … So I went on the website and met tonnes of people. Then I started reading his books … I discovered an innate interest in and a love of science.''

Her experience of adolescent doubt is a common theme. Melbourne HR consultant Joel Kilgour, 31, was a member of a ''very Christian'' Uniting Church family who had his first argument with his Sunday school teacher over Creation at the age of about 12 or 13: ''I couldn't understand if God created the world in six days, why not in one, in one second - that's when I started to ask a lot of questions.''

He lapsed into apathy before he went to university and studied science. But he did not consciously acknowledge that he was an atheist until he read the recent spate of books on the subject.

Anne Robinson, a 29-year-old public servant from Perth, also started off a Christian but at the age of 11 had a ''sudden epiphany'' about a multi-faith world: ''Kids were being raised in India as Hindus, and I was raised Christian, it made no sense to me that my religion was right and theirs was wrong,'' she said. ''Also, I couldn't get that sex was so wrong.''

This insight led her on a spiritual quest familiar to many Western seekers. She looked firstly to the East, dabbling in Buddhism, but at the end of high school she ''stumbled across my perfect religion'' - paganism and Wicca. It was earth and female-centred, and embodied a healthy attitude to sex. The magic was ''all very intriguing as well - the whole New Age idea that you can think positively and things will happen for you''. But after years of practising positive visualisation, celebrating the solstice and equinox and reading tarot cards and star signs, Robinson began to realise that she was looking at the world ''through a curtain'' that made things more complex than they needed to be.

''I think it was sort of creating a gap there that wasn't really there, and trying to fill it with religion … it seems so much stronger to look at the world and see what's physically there rather than imagining things into it.''

Others have come to atheism after much deeper indoctrination in religion, and much tougher roads. Aam is a former Muslim, brought up in a Bangladeshi family in Sydney. Aam is not his real name: his parents took his atheism badly and are still exposing him to fire-breathing sermons in an attempt to draw him back.

He was brought up as a strictly observant Muslim, but felt the seeds of disillusionment at the age of 14, as he listened to the imams preach at his school. He simply could not believe their message about the subjugation of women and the alleged scientific proofs in the Koran.

It was not until he studied logic and philosophy at Sydney University and then was caught by his parents after drinking alcohol at a picnic that he ''proclaimed'' his atheism to them. This was two years ago. He is now 20, and his parents have stopped speaking to him because they have caught him drinking again.

But when living in a community where religion is so deeply embedded in every aspect of the culture, atheism is a difficult stance to adopt.

''A lot of the celebrations we have are religious. The custom is to go over to other people's house and eat, and my family and friends seem to enjoy it. And part of me feels I'm on the outside looking in,'' Aam says. ''But I guess I'd rather not be a part of it.''

Damian Coburn, 44, knows all about the community of the religious. He lived in an enclave of his co-communicants from the Disciples of Jesus Covenant Community in Canberra, an offshoot of the Catholic Church. Coburn was a prayer leader in what he describes as an ''almost cult-like … happy clappy, praying-in-tongues group which supplements regular church with pentecostal-style prayer meetings''.

Like many cults, it had inner and outer circles, with those in the inner circle privy to ''special knowledge'', and the rest suffering ''second-class expectations''. According to Coburn it made high demands for time spent in prayer and was also controlling, misogynistic, homophobic and emotionally manipulative.

He lived within it despite a high-powered job in the Canberra public service and the kind of sardonic personality that allowed him to drive a car called the Golden Calf, and to volunteer at the AIDS Action Council because his son was gay. ''It took a long time to admit to myself that I didn't believe in God. And there were two stages - a lack of belief in God's existence, then dealing with a heck of a lot of guilt,'' he says. To him, religion's rules are of two kinds - ''the golden rule about how to treat people'', and then all the taboos about sex, food, dress, ''which tend to screw people up''.

In Australia, most of the damage done by religion, he believes, is not due to the violence, war and doctrinal tribalism that mars so many other societies, but the ''day-to-day miseries'' - the suppression of people's sexuality, conformity, discouragement of questioning, the oppression of women - ''all these things that restrict people's lives and that lead to misery and guilt''.

WRITER and former editor of Arena magazine Guy Rundle, an atheist, believes the Dawkins-Hitchens version of atheism is ''the most shatteringly empty creed to come along for many a year''. It misses the point, he says, goes out of its way to hurl insults, misunderstands how belief systems work, uses straw man arguments and is boring because it ''takes the least sophisticated form of theism and beats it around the head''. It also fails to grapple with sophisticated theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth; and it is blind to the fact that, when science (quantum physics and cosmology) try to explain the origins of the universe, its materialist, atheist account is as mysterious and improbable as that of any religion. New atheism also, he says, refuses to concede that many people have feelings of transcendence that must be expressed.

It's a criticism echoed by the religious. ''All that Dawkins can offer is a revival of old-fashioned secular humanism, whose hopes and aspirations are summarised in John Lennon's insipid 1971 composition Imagine,'' theology professor Tom Frame wrote last year. Melbourne Catholic auxiliary archbishop Peter J. Elliott says the new atheism should be respected, and welcomed into dialogue, and could even play an important role in ''correcting religious fanaticism'', on which score ''many religious people would agree with them''. But he echoed the concerns of a number of religious people that this movement was in danger of becoming a faith in its own right. ''It's when they slide into a kind of fundamentalism themselves, and become dogmatic, that's when we have a problem with them.''

Dawkins has responses to all these arguments, and lays them out in the paperback edition of The God Delusion. For example, to the accusation that he beats up fundamentalists while ignoring the moderates, Dawkins writes that, unfortunately, ''understated, decent, revisionist religion is numerically negligible''.

But it's to the accusation that they are establishing a new, fundamentalist faith called atheism that the unbelievers react most strongly. They are free thinkers. Individualists. They will change their mind if the evidence changes.

The only thing atheists agree on, says David Nicholls, the president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, is the lack of a God, ''everything else is up for grabs''. ''Atheism itself doesn't say what it's got to do … there's no push, or movement or anything like that - it's certainly not anything like [the] women's liberation movement. … [Atheists are] not good joiners, they don't mass on ovals and wave copies of Darwin around.''

This makes for an odd lobby group. The most pressing questions regarding religion and society in Australia are political ones - tax exemptions for the religious, school funding, exemptions from discrimination law, public funding, religion in state schools. The Atheist Foundation of Australia and other humanist groups have long made their views known on these subjects, but there's no evidence that more and louder atheists have made any difference to their power - they could not, for example, secure public funding for the March convention, even though the Parliament of World Religions was given $4.5 million.

Dawkins says atheism needs first to gather ''critical mass'' and then, like cats, become loud.

''Even if they can't be herded, cats in sufficient numbers can make a lot of noise and they cannot be ignored.''

Which leaves the question of transcendence. To the new atheists, the material world of physical beauty and the wonders of science are all the spiritual fulfilment they need. Dawkins writes that a ''proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world … can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically - and inadequately - usurped''.

Joel Kilgour refuses to describe himself as a spiritual person, but, ''if you ask if I have transcending moments, absolutely''. ''Sunset over the ocean, holding the hands of families or friends, looking into the face of my newborn niece … A lot of people claim spirituality for those moments … but I think people just like to feel they are special, that the universe was created specifically for them when, really, we're just a speck of dust.''

17 MARCH 2010

Article in The Age:

By Catherine Deveney

Atheism is a broad church

WHAT were we going to talk about all weekend? Nothing? Could we scientifically prove the existence of Richard Dawkins? What does an atheist scream during sex? "Truth, evidence and reason?" We'd heard them all.

We atheists were in heaven at the Rise of Atheism Convention held last weekend. More than 2500 people, who for many years had felt like the only atheist in the village, were suddenly luxuriating in a free-thinking soup. There were enough people who looked like Trekkies and scoutmasters for The Chaser boys to say, "Welcome to the Global Atheist Convention, or Revenge Of The Nerds 4,'' and for all of us to laugh.

There were loads of great lines. I loved Sue-Ann Post's take about religion being like going without the lobster in favour of the invisible dessert; A. C. Grayling's "Religion and science have a common ancestor - ignorance"; Dan Barker, ex-minister, now atheist, who spoke about his debate with Cardinal George Pell.

"The debate topic was 'Without God we are Nothing.' Maybe without God he is nothing."

Funniest line of the weekend? "Here's a two-word argument against religion: Senator Fielding,'' from ABC's science guy and confessed ''congregational hedonist'' Robin Williams. He was referencing Fielding's appearance with Dawkins on Q and A last week. Watching Fielding, a creationist, speak, Dawkins looked as if he was witnessing a talking cat.

And no, we didn't all agree on everything. But we were all open to rational debate.

When any topic is off limits for rational thought and critical analysis, it infects the way we think about everything. Becoming an atheist, I've become fascinated by religion. When I was a believer I was very uncomfortable discussing or reading about religion because so much of what I read conflicted with my fundamental beliefs.

When you no longer believe, it's fascinating to look under the bonnet and see how it all works.

There weren't enough women in the line-up. But the percentage and the gravitas of tasks given to them was far greater than usual.

Sure, there was a ''women's panel''. But Sue-Ann Post was the opening act, and I was the closing act on the opening night. And Taslima Nasrin, who now lives in exile due to religious persecution, was a highlight.

Educator and sceptic Kylie Sturgess introduced Dawkins to the stage. I wondered how many times he'd been introduced by a woman.

Leslie Cannold and Jane Caro and I have decided to address the common refrain of ''We couldn't find any women to speak'' by setting up a website called No Chicks No Excuse, with a list of women speakers on diverse topics. Here are some questions atheists are frequently asked:

What do you actually believe in? Truth.

Isn't atheism just another religion? No. A religion believes in supernatural power. Sure, Dawkins is super and natural - but he's not supernatural.

When I asked what the difference was between a religion and a cult, someone replied "a good accountant''.

The ''atheism is a religion'' question is best answered by the Non-Stamp Collector, a YouTube animator who says:

"Saying atheism is a religion is like saying not collecting stamps is a hobby, off is a TV channel or bald is a hair colour".

Why are you atheists so angry? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder then anger is in the sphincter of those people whose beliefs are being confronted. No one who agrees with Dawkins has ever called him strident.

The word ''militant'' has become synonymous with atheist. Militant is simply a word used to describe someone showing opposition in a way the people being opposed don't like.

And yes, atheists have killed, tortured, lied and stolen - never in the name of atheism, but because they're bad. Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists are generally moral people. But that's not because they're Jews, Muslims, Christians or atheist. It's because they're people.

I do hate. I hate religion taking credit for most people's innate goodness.

Catherine's one woman show God Is Bullshit, That's The Good News runs from March 25 to April 8 as part of The Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Go to for more details.

Letter in The Age 17 MARCH 2010

In this, the faithful must lead the way

BARNEY Zwartz believes that too many atheists lack humility (Comment, 16/3). Religious representatives appeared on Sunday news broadcasts accusing atheists of arrogance. Such accusations may have some validity, but not when they come from the religiously inclined.

Atheists have never attempted to impose their will on others through an inquisition, a jihad or a death penalty for heresy. They don't attempt to tell women what they should do with their bodies; they don't attempt to prevent the use of condoms in HIV-infected communities; they don't deny same-sex couples the opportunity of legal marriage; they don't create obstacles to people wishing to die with dignity. They don't claim tax-free status as if it is right rather than a privilege.

Can you imagine the outcry if an employer who happened to be an atheist demanded the right to only employ atheists?

Mr Zwartz ends his article with a call for atheists to be prepared to laugh at themselves.

That sounds like a great idea, and one I'm sure atheists would find appropriate if they were to hear the Pope, or a bishop, imam or priest making fun of their own beliefs.

Graeme Smithies, Northcote

24 MARCH 2011

GILLARD GETS GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!! – Southern Star Observer 24 MARCH 2011

Marriage equality un-Australian: Gillard


Prime Minister Julia Gillard has declared that marriage rights for same-sex couples are incompatible with Australian culture and heritage one day after hundreds demanded their rights in Sydney and Brisbane. “I do find myself on the conservative side in this question … because of the way our society is and how we got here,” Gillard told Sky News on Sunday.

“There are some important things from our past that need to continue to be part of our present and part of our future.”

When asked if she was expressing a personal view or what she thought Australians wanted to hear, Gillard said she would have said the same thing had she never entered politics, pitching herself as a social conservative.

“I had a pro-union pro-Labor upbringing in a quite conservative family in the sense of personal values,” Gillard said.

“If I was in a different walk of life, if I’d continued in the law and was a partner of a law firm now, I would express the same view.

“I think for our culture, for our heritage, the Marriage Act and marriage being between a man and a woman has a special status … I know that people might look at me and think that’s something that they wouldn’t necessarily expect me to say but that is what I believe.

“I’m on the record as saying things like I think it’s important that people understand their Bible stories. Not because I’m an advocate of religion — clearly I’m not — but once again, what comes from the Bible has formed such an important part of our culture.”

Only the day before crowds of around 400 gathered at the Sydney Town Hall before marching to Taylor Square and in Brisbane’s Queen Park.

In Sydney, speakers from New Mardi Gras, Australian Marriage Equality urged people to contact their MPs and lobby them directly, while Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann warned of the danger of a conservative-controlled Upper House after the NSW state election.

“The influence of people like Fred Nile and the Christian Democratic party may only get stronger after this election,” Faehrmann said.

“What we’re hearing is that not only will the Coalition probably win government but they may also win control of the Upper House with the support of the Christian Democratic Party and the Shooters and Fishers. The only way to stop that is to make sure that everyone you know votes progressive in the Upper House. That’s probably more important than what you do with your Lower House vote.”

Faehrmann and Sydney MP Clover Moore both pledged to introduce legislation to create marriage equality at a state level if the federal Government failed to act.

This post was written by:
Andrew M Potts

Julia the Christian

Posted on 23 March 2011

Photo of Doug Pollard

Let me understand this. Here we have a prime minister who doesn’t believe in God telling us to read the Bible because it’s the basis of our tradition, society and culture, opposing marriage equality because it’s not part of that tradition (Sky TV interview last Sunday).

A prime minister who employs gay staff but doesn’t consider them her equals. A woman extolling the virtues of one man one woman marriage refusing to marry her long-time live-in lover.

When asked to explain on Sky TV, Gillard hauled out her Bible and pitched for the Christian vote. Cynical or what?

Describing herself as a traditionalist and a conservative, she praised the virtues of the ‘strong Welsh Labor working-class household’ in which she was brought up: politeness, thrift, fortitude, discipline conveniently omitting the narrow-minded prudishness and prejudice equally typical of that era.

Where the hell did all that come from? It came from Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party, the Australian Christian Lobby and the Australian Christian Values Institute, whose website features Peter and Jenny Stokes (the Salt Shakers), Bill Muehlenberg, and Warwick Marsh, among others.

“Australian values are Christian values. These are the values that made Australia great,” it says, “… reaffirm Australia’s commitment to Judeo-Christian values as the cornerstone of our nation’s prosperity for the common good.”

Compare that with Gillard’s more subtle evocation of Christian heritage: “what comes from the Bible forms an important part of our culture”, we have to pay respect to “the way our society is and the way we got here”, “important things from the past should continue into the present and the future”, “for our culture and heritage marriage has a special status,” and so on, and on.

I wonder what else she has been reading lately.

Could it be the latest report from the Australian Human Rights Commission, which says “hostility towards homosexuals …. remains widespread” and that there is “great wariness about rights legislation”? (The Age) If so, then how perfectly she dog-whistled for the prejudiced vote.

Imagine for a moment if she had spoken honestly. “It’s not me, reverend,” she pants, tugging her crimson forelock.

“Honest, I get the Christian values thing. It’s the Greens who made me do it, with their euthanasia and gay marriage. Vote for me and I’ll save you from them. Don’t worry about the poofs and dykes — they don’t count.”

Maybe not, Julia, but we — and our families and friends and their families and friends — do vote. But not for you and your party while you continue this grovelling to the God squad.

Oh, and Tim? I’d order the top hat and tails now if I were you. She’s obviously decided there are votes in straight weddings.

This post was written by:
Doug Pollard


Article in The Age:

The church has failed victims of clergy. The state must not

By Chrissie Foster

A protester holds a banner during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in London in 2010. Photo: Reuters

Where are the Victorian government leaders brave enough to say the age of deference is over and enough is enough? A royal commission will not bring back the lost lives of two of my daughters or many other victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, but it will help prevent much further suffering.

The Catholic Church is one of the richest and most powerful organisations in the world. Australia is no stranger to its influence, power and wealth. Recently, Cardinal George Pell stated: ''Australia is 26 per cent Catholic and we are now the largest denomination, having passed the Anglicans. He went on: ''We have a huge network of services; we educate 20 per cent of all Australians in our schools, operate 23 per cent of hospitals, we provide 55 per cent of palliative care.''

The Catholic Church is one of Australia's biggest property owners, enjoys tax-free status, is the biggest single employer in this country and receives the support of weekly donations from its 1500 parishes.

Children are small and vulnerable, they have no real power. They cannot vote, have limited vocabulary, cannot organise a union to represent them. Their word holds little authority. They are reliant on others for food and shelter. They are easily intimidated. They cannot lobby the government. And they are considered unreliable witnesses in court. In the eyes of those who sexually assault them, all of this makes them perfect victims.

Our society continues to hear disturbing revelations of sexual assaults and rapes from brave survivors, who were attacked and silenced by criminal clergy. If these courageous people did not speak up, child rapists such as Father Gerald Ridsdale, Father Michael Glennon and the many other Catholic priests convicted in Victoria would have been left in parishes to reoffend.

The church had no hand in the arrests and convictions of their collar-wearing marauding priests, even though the hierarchy knew in many cases they were employing violent and prodigious sex attackers.

We must not turn from understanding the extent of the suffering caused by ''sexual abuse'' - a term that masks and softens the cruel and criminal reality of childhood sexual assaults and rapes, often repeated over many years.

This insidious crime is carried out in seclusion and secrecy. Nobody sees the assaults; they are, of their nature, well planned and executed. These innocent children are silenced through guilt or menacing threats from their priestly offenders, cowards bent on protecting themselves and enjoying and prolonging their illicit sex. The manipulation and destruction of young lives is of no concern to the rapist.

It is no wonder countless victims have not survived the torment that can last for years and causes the disintegration of their very being.

The state government owes these Victorian children an independent investigation into the institution that allowed paedophile priests to retain their access to our children. The government should stand up for the young people whose lives were and are destroyed. Victims deserve the right to tell their awful stories to an authority capable of righting the wrongs inflicted on them by an institution too arrogant and powerful to hear their desperate voices or feel their tortured existence.

We, as a country, need to protect the victims, who were set upon as children. We want and need to protect the children of the future - the church has shown, repeatedly, that it does not care.

In the face of all the well-documented cases of knowledge of abuse and cover-up by the church, our elected representatives allowed and continue to allow it to operate money-saving, legally minded, in-house systems of meagre cash handouts and sham apologies. These systems were installed by the very hierarchy that failed to protect children in the first place. They were created and implemented by people with vested interests in protecting the church, its public image, its property and its future income. Victims' protection and justice came dead last.

In short, the church seeks to corral victims back to itself and bind them there.

Many victims who go through what the church has set up and accept small cash sums in lieu of proper legal, let alone moral, justice do so because there is nowhere else for them to turn.

In this country, the church cannot be sued because it refuses to offer a litigation model to accept civil claims. It prefers to legally not exist. These systems and legal invisibility have saved the church many millions of dollars in Australia. The global church has not been so lucky in other countries, such as the United States, where laws are different, and Ireland, where accountability is imposed following government inquires.

When the church in Australia is questioned about its systems of handling clergy sexual assaults and rapes, we often hear a public statement made. Something like, ''we are happy with the system''. No wonder.

When there is no state inquiry into an institution that causes so much harm to children, the further damage done to these victims festers in the worst possible way. The hurt and distress it produces mutates into alcoholism, drug addiction, self-harm, dangerous living, broken hearts and minds. And more suicides. Are paedophile priests getting away with murder by way of their victims' suicides?

All these victims have are their stories. We must listen to the soft voices of survivors. The state must listen to them and not look away. The full extent of what the church has done - how it managed its offenders, how it now mistreats those embattled survivors, and what it still must do to properly protect children - needs to be exposed.

Our government and the Attorney-General of Victoria have the power to enforce our human rights and civil law. An inquiry is needed to protect us all - children included. Years and lives have been wasted. Act now.

Chrissie Foster is the author of Hell on the Way to Heaven (Bantam Australia, 2010).

16 JANUARY 2012

Letter in The Age:

Dangerous beliefs

ONE is not born Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, Scientologist or any other creed. Children have to be taught to believe in the supernatural. Despite Dowrick's belief, her God still favours white men who vote conservatively. Women are bad enough but it is homosexuals that her God sees as an abomination.

Referring to Richard Dawkins as ''a professional atheist'' does nothing to advance her argument. In our so-called secular society, it is not atheists who demand special privileges but priests, ministers, rabbis, imams and other self-serving professional religionists. Also, one does not require religion to live by The Golden Rule. The self-righteous arrogance of those who proclaim they belong to the ''true'' religion automatically places all others in the ''wrong''. It would be wonderful to look at what we have in common without the distraction of superstitious beliefs.

Cushla McNamara, Richmond

10 MARCH 2012

Article in The Age:

The silence of the cloth under siege

By Chrissie Foster

Chrissie Foster and her husband, Anthony, with a portrait of their family, torn apart from church sex crimes. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

FORGET religion. Forget God. This is about the safety of children.

The landmark Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children inquiry, headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, Philip Cummins, has made powerful recommendations about Victorian churches' handling of child sex crimes.

Citing the Catholic Church's system as an example of inadequate child protection, the Cummins report said: ''Any private system of investigation and compensation which has the tendency, whether intended or unintended, to divert victims from recourse to the state, and to prevent abusers from being held responsible and punished by the state, is a system that should come under clear public scrutiny and consideration … Crime is a public, not a private, matter.''

The inquiry believes the closed doors of the Catholic Church need to be opened. Recommendation 48 declares: ''A formal investigation should be conducted into the processes by which religious organisations respond to the criminal abuse of children by religious personnel within their organisations. Such an investigation should possess the powers to compel the elicitation of witness evidence and of documentary and electronic evidence.''

For a long time, victims and their families have been arguing for a royal commission on the Catholic Church's mishandling and cover-ups of child sex crimes. We were pleased with, indeed much relieved by, the findings of the Cummins report.

It is frightening that the church's so-called Melbourne Response, and the similar rest-of-Australia scheme ironically called Towards Healing, have been operating unchallenged by the state for 16 years. In that time the church has minimised payouts to victims and locked away the truth that could make for a safer future for children.

Church authorities keep the facts to themselves. But let us consider, on the evidence that is available to us, just how damaging these schemes have been.

We know that between 1993 and 2011, 65 Victorian Catholic priests and brothers have been convicted in the courts. A further 53 different Catholic priests and brothers have been involved in out-of-court settlements. That is a total of 118 clergy offenders in Victoria alone. But 118 is not an accurate number. It is a minimum. Many more clergy offenders have eluded media scrutiny and still more have been secreted away in the church's self-serving internal systems.

Only the church knows the true number of offenders. It is time for us all to know.

The career paedophiles of the Catholic Church, who had trust, authority and access to endless numbers of Victorian school children, were living the dream of every paedophile. History tells us the only sanction paedophile priests faced if discovered to be criminals was relocation to another parish. Never laicisation. Never police intervention.

Sexual assaults are costly both to the child and society. Victims suffer directly, and taxpayers foot the bill in supporting and repairing these broken lives.

But the highest price of all is suicide. Clergy childhood sexual assault costs lives. Victoria Police investigations over the past 10 years have shown 35 suicides, most from just two clergy. There are other suicides from other clergy offenders; my daughter is one of them. Sometimes I wonder if these suicides are murder.

In July 2010 the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, wrote a pastoral letter, stating: ''Since 1996, we have introduced procedures to protect parishioners and children against sexual abuse, and processes have been developed and applied.'' But only seven months earlier, my husband and I had wanted to visit the shower room in the school hall where our paedophile parish priest had raped our five-year-old daughter. We learnt that, 20 years later, the priest was still the only person possessing a key to this secluded room.

Archbishop Hart's letter to parishioners also announced: ''Seminarians are required to undertake study of the church's code of conduct for priests.''

I had to wonder what effect the church's ''code of conduct'' - mere words on paper - would have in deterring a paedophile.

In the past, no threat of the wrath of God from God's law, no threat of laicisation from canon law and no threat of prison from civil law - all words on paper - had ever worked.

But now, time is up for the church. The cries for justice for Victoria's children must be heard. The state government must say yes to a state-led inquiry, as called for by the Cummins report.

Our state must protect our children. We must have a royal commission now.

Chrissie Foster is the co-author of Hell on the Way to Heaven (2010).

29 MAY 2012

Letters in The Age:

Vatican reforms now wound back

THREE people, including my Greek Orthodox sister-in-law, alerted me to Will Day's superb contribution, "Don't tell the Cathedral" (Focus, 28/5). Many of us priests do have to live compartmentalised lives to be pastorally effective and survive.

The centralising Vatican control, backed up by conservative bishops, appointed for orthodoxy rather than leadership gifts, has clearly wound back the refreshing Vatican ll reforms. Enthusiasm and initiative have given way to caution and reactionary attitudes.

The church's teaching provides for considerable flexibility and freedom. The last canon in the Code of Canon Law basically says that the pastoral care of people "must always be the supreme law".

The main difference between local clergy and the hierarchy is one of vision. My ears pricked up when I heard Cardinal Pell say on Q&A that "in the Christian view, God loves everyone except those who turn their back on him through evil acts". The biblical God I experience has no "ifs", "buts" or "excepts" - God's love is unconditional and absolute.

Father Kevin Burke, parish priest, Eltham

Evil prevails in silence

WILL Day writes that the ''messy reprehensible 'Catholic Church' … that struggles to conceal its horrible abuses'' - is not representative of the larger body of the contemporary Church.

He is referring to the hierarchy that did nothing about complaints it received over its priests sexually assaulting and raping children - a crime. A hierarchy that played no part in handing over these child rapists to the police or laicising them to be rid of them. Instead this hierarchy preferred to move these criminals on to new parishes and new child victims. This is the pathology, worldwide, of the Catholic Church hierarchy.

And yet those who support this hierarchy with their silence also do nothing to cause change. When this huge body of ''good people'' - the religious brothers and nuns and parishioners - do not oppose their unelected hierarchy they only allow self-serving, power hungry men to flourish. We all need to speak out to end their cruel dominance no matter what the cost, because evil prevails when good people keep their mouths shut.

Chrissie Foster, Oakleigh

Onerous sanctions

THE deafening silence from religious men and women is indeed perplexing. But why would they utter a word publicly condemning their church's handling of the rape of children given the onerous sanctions they would have to bear for such action?

No more private health cover, overseas sabbaticals, housekeepers or new cars every two years would be harsh punishment. How unbearable to lose your job and your social standing, or be shunted off to a disheartening gig in the middle of nowhere. If the nightmare of child rape hasn't already rallied religious men and women to challenge their church then one wonders what atrocity would. Dream on, Will Day.

Paula McLeod, Hurstbridge

Reorientation is needed

WILL Day argues that many Catholics' understanding of the nature of God changed in the second half of last century, from ''the idea of the authoritarian, hyper-vigilant, disapproving old God-Man in the sky'' to something better; but that description of olden-time mainstream Catholic belief is a gross caricature.

The mediaeval world produced many great theologians who had a mystical understanding of the Source and Sustainer of all; and both the Catholic and Protestant traditions in the past 500 years have strongly emphasised the benevolence and mercy of the Lord.

The reform needed by the Church (or the churches) is not the adoption of a feel-good humanitarianism that in many contexts may be unwise, but a reorientation of its Christology based on the profound inflow of knowledge that has accumulated in recent centuries from studies in comparative religion, from research into Christian origins and from the coming together of all sacred traditions in the global village we now live in.

Nigel Jackson, Belgrave


Article in the Sunday Age:

From a wheelchair-bound perspective, thank God I'm an atheist

By Holly Warland

God didn't make the cut when I assessed my life at age 12.

WHY do people turn to religion, if not to help them with their troubles? Most people believe the logical thing to do when presented with a tumultuous life-changing event is to turn to God. I feel like I bucked the trend in a major way.

When I was 12, I was diagnosed with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy. The prognosis for this involves the gradual weakening of all muscles below the neck, rendering the sufferer unable to do everyday activities such as walking, lifting things and driving.

At 21, I'm in a wheelchair with limited use and strength of my arms and legs, but only time can tell how much worse it will get. When I was young, I noticed I was very clumsy and not as strong as other kids, but simply thought I just wasn't destined to be a sports star. The symptoms involved falling over a lot, running strangely, and having slower reflexes. It will come as no surprise that I was teased and bullied a lot.

I was raised in a Christian household. I was taught to believe in God, I attended youth group at church, and I genuinely believed in prayer. As you can imagine, when I was diagnosed I was shocked and upset, to say the least. The only way I knew how to cope was to pray. I remember lying in bed and asking God why He made me like this. Had I done something wrong? Was He punishing me?

As I look back, my heart breaks for my 12-year-old self. This poor girl thought her muscular dystrophy was her fault and God had given it to her. She couldn't understand how He could give such a terrible disability to someone he loved. I want to give her a hug and assure her that things will be all right and that it's not her fault.

After the initial shock, and days of prayer, I started to get frustrated with the lack of answers. You could say I have the egocentrism of my 12-year-old self to thank for my lack of beliefs today. Something changed in me. I grew up in a short time. I had to face the reality that my life wasn't going to be a fairytale and that I'm going to have to rely on others to help, and that God simply didn't make the cut.

After a few years, I had abandoned all ties with God and the comfort I previously felt whilst talking to Him, but this didn't stop people from trying to reassure me that He was still there. I had a friend tell me that my muscular dystrophy was the "devil's disease" (which I think is a great name for a heavy metal band), and I often encounter complete strangers who stop me in the street to tell me they're going to pray for me.

However, the reassurances I receive most often are "everything happens for a reason" and "God doesn't give challenges to those He knows can't handle it". I have major problems with these almost insulting remarks. What possible reason is there for an innocent child to be born with a genetic disease so severe that it will render her incapable of doing most enjoyable things in life?

If He is the all-loving God that preachers claim He is, what possible reason would He have to create these afflictions in the first place? I may sound bitter and twisted, but there is no reason behind any heartbreak in this world. Once I realised this, and started to think about things from a scientific and logical point of view, I found a freedom and peace that I'd never experienced before.

No longer do I question "why me?" I accept that my disability is the result of random chance: the genetic lottery.

From there I can extrapolate to the rest of the world. I can appreciate everything for what it is. Science has explained life to me, and has comforted me much more than a deity whom I can't see, hear or feel. I can sense the sun on my skin, I can hear my little sister giggling, and I can see the universe when I look up and feel a part of something much bigger and more beautiful than I am.

I discovered that turning to a God doesn't solve any of your problems; it just projects them onto an invisible being.

You don't take responsibility for your life. God doesn't make me get out of bed in the morning. He didn't put me through university. He doesn't set goals for me. I have to do it. I have to grit my teeth and ask for real help from real people who love me.

So that's my story in a nutshell. I highly doubt you'll be seeing it on your current affairs television show as they tend not to like defiant, questioning, atheist cripple stories. They're not very inspiring for the viewers.

Holly Warland writes for The Australian Atheist.

17 NOVEMBER 2012

Article in The Age:

So much heartbreak, so much pain, it's about time

By Chrissie Foster

Happy bedtime: Chrissie Foster with Aimee, Emma and Katie before their world was shattered.

I COULD never stand to live in a world without justice and truth: at last there will be a platform for both. Prime Minister Julia Gillard's announcement of a royal commission on child sexual abuse has brought to an end the cries from victims and victim supporters. Of course, there have been many tears this week. More will be shed. But the royal commission is a cause for celebration.

For my family, the struggle to achieve this breakthrough began 16 years ago, on March 26, 1996. This was the day my daughter Emma, after almost a year of starving her 13-year-old body to an emaciated 41 kilograms, numerous self-harming horrors and attempts to take her own life, disclosed that our parish priest had sexually assaulted her. Not once, but on many occasions over her primary school years.

Fifteen months later more horror and heartbreak surfaced through a half-finished suicide note from our second daughter, Katie. She had hidden the note in a shoebox. It was written in her very neatest handwriting. Katie had been another victim of our parish priest.

There was no cure for my much-loved daughters. The pain never leaves. After years of subsequent torment, Emma took her own life at the age of 26. Katie, while drunk after binge drinking, was hit by a car in 1999 (she was 15) and still receives 24-hour care as a result of her injuries.

There are many of these stories. Ours is not rare. The Prime Minister's announcement was a godsend, proof that our many voices have been heard and believed, at long last. It feels like justice. The burning truth has ignited a light and we must shine it on the Catholic Church because of its cover-up.

The Catholic hierarchy fiercely lobbied against a royal commission. But a royal commission had to be called. The claim from the hierarchy and biased commentators - that the Catholic Church is no different to other organisations in relation to child sex crimes and cover-ups - is nonsense. On the first day of the Victorian parliamentary inquiry I sat and listened to the evidence of Victoria Police and three professors.

All stated they would speak only about the Catholic Church. They based their submissions on records and research. Facts. Catholic Church sex offenders committed six times more sexual assaults on children than all the other religions combined. At least one in 20 Melbourne priests was a child sex offender, but the real figure was probably one in 15. There was a systemic obstruction of police inquiries over five decades.

Officers in two police forces - Victoria and New South Wales - have made allegations of extensive church interference with investigations. The royal commission should look closely at this. It should examine the influence of the religious leaders on police and governments.

Why did state governments allow the church's flawed and destructive Melbourne Response and Towards Healing schemes to exist unchallenged for more than 15 years? At his media conference on Tuesday, Cardinal George Pell, ignoring the Victorian inquiry's expert evidence, chose to blame the ''press'' for a ''smear'' campaign against the Catholic Church. But the media is not the problem. Along with brave victims willing to go to police despite their trauma, the ''press'' has helped find a solution. If journalists had not written and broadcast stories of crimes and cover-ups, the likes of Father Gerald Ridsdale and countless other convicted criminal priests would still be celebrating Mass in Australia's Catholic parishes.

One thing is certain: the priesthood never lifted a finger to protect children from ongoing sexual assaults and rapes. Rather, the church paid for the paedophiles' legal defences. Not one priest or brother did it help jail.

Cardinal Pell said the confessional seal was ''inviolable''. I say the lives and bodies of our children are inviolable.

Why should a foreign state law - the Vatican's Canon Law - override our Australian laws in protecting our children?

To understand why the confessional seal must be broken to protect children, we need only look at evidence given to a Queensland court in 2004. Father Michael McArdle, after pleading guilty to and being convicted of child sexual assault offences, swore an affidavit. In it he stated he had confessed to sexually assaulting children 1500 times to 30 different priests over a 25-year period.

Every one of those ''good'' priests, as if of one mind and voice, said to the criminal: ''Go home and pray.'' Is that what they are taught to say to each other when told of such crimes? Not one of the 30 priests urged him to get help or go to police. Nor did they report his crimes. The victims were abandoned to become hurting adults, their lives shattered. Distraught. Suicidal.

This is a rare insight into the secret world of paedophile priest confession. We must learn from it. The church system was designed to protect the priest and church from scandal. It was not established to consider the futures of Australia's children. We must not be distracted by the confusion and side issues thrown our way by the church hierarchy.

If mandatory reporting had been enforced at McArdle's first confession, then the next 25 years of pain and suffering for children would never have occurred. The guilt of which he was unburdened though confession only served him to reoffend within the same week. Cardinal Pell said he welcomed the royal commission. Why then did he deny its need just the previous day and the 20 years before? Recently he spoke of a ''cancer'' in the church. He is part of that cancer. Perhaps it is time for Cardinal Pell to step down and hand over to another cleric who possesses some empathy and compassion for children.

As for the royal commission, the government must strive to write the best terms of reference that encompass the essential need to expose child sexual assault and its cover-up in organisations.

Justice and accountability are needed for past crimes against children. Though it will not help my daughters, this will ensure change and safety for all future children. Only with this reality will victims become survivors.

Chrissie Foster is the co-author of Hell On The Way To Heaven.

20 DECEMBER 2012

Article in AlterNet:

By Greta Christina

6 Outrageous Incidents of Discrimination Against Nonbelievers

Atheists are often seen as crying wolf when they speak about bigotry. But discrimination against atheists around the world is real.

Photo Credit: © BortN66/

"Oh, you atheists are always whining about how put-upon you are. You don't experience real discrimination: not like African Americans, or gays, or women, or immigrants. So knock it off with the pity party."

You may have heard this refrain. You may have even sung it yourself. So let's look at this question for a moment: Are atheists subjected to real discrimination?

It's certainly true that, in the United States, while atheists do experience real discrimination, it's typically not as severe as, say, racism or misogyny. Or rather, since I don't think comparing discriminations is usually all that useful: Anti-atheist discrimination takes different forms. It's not like the systematic economic apartheid African Americans experience, or the systematic enforcement of rigid gender roles women experience. It takes other forms: such as social ostracism; bullying in schools; public schools denying atheist students the right to form clubs; religious proselytizing promoted by the government; widespread perceptions of atheists as untrustworthy; businesses denying equal access to atheists and atheist organizations; government promotion of religion in social service programs; government promotion of religion in the military. And it's true that atheists have significant legal protection in the United States: people sometimes break those laws, and those laws aren't always enforced, but we do have these laws, and they do help.

But the United States isn't the whole world.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a world umbrella group bringing together more than a hundred humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, and freethought organizations from 40 countries, has just produced the first ever report focusing on how countries around the world discriminate against non-religious people. Published on December 10 to mark Human Rights Day, the Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious: ...covers laws affecting freedom of conscience in 60 countries and lists numerous individual cases where atheists have been prosecuted for their beliefs in 2012. It reports on laws that deny atheists' right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.

There are two big take-home messages from this report. One: This is a world-wide issue. Examples of anti-atheist discrimination have been reported in 60 countries, from Algeria to Zambia; including the Bahamas, Brazil, Bahrain, and Belize; Italy, India, Israel, Iceland; the United Kingdom and the United States. It's been reported in brutal theocracies notorious for their human rights violations, like Pakistan and Iran -- and it's been reported in supposed secular paradises, like Sweden and France. It's worse in some countries than others, obviously... but this is a global problem.

Two: In some countries, this anti-atheist discrimination is severe. It doesn't take the form of government proselytizing or being denied the right to organize clubs. It takes the form of being arrested. It takes the form of being imprisoned, for years. It takes the form of being targeted by a mob screaming for your blood... and when the police who should be there to protect you show up, instead they throw you in jail. Where another mob forms up, screaming for your blood.

Don't believe me? Here are six outrageous examples of discrimination against non-believers.

1: Alber Saber, Egypt. Alber Saber, the 27-year-old atheist activist, blogger, and reported administrator of the Egyptian Atheists Facebook page, was arrested after a mob swarmed outside his home demanding his arrest for insulting religion. Saber was then attacked in prison, after a guard told the other prisoners what he had been charged with. On December 12 of this year, he was convicted of blasphemy, and sentenced to three years in prison. I would just like to point out: This is 2012. It is not 1633 during Galileo's conviction for heresy; it is not 1692 during the Salem witch trials. It is 2012. And people in the world today, in 2012, are being arrested, charged, convicted, and imprisoned -- for blasphemy. They are being arrested, charged, convicted, and imprisoned -- not to mention attacked by mobs and assaulted in prison -- for the crime of not believing in God, and for saying so out loud. (Pending appeal, Alber Saber has just been released on bail -- a week after the bail money was paid.)

2: Alexander Aan, Indonesia. In January 2012, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan was attacked by an entirely different mob, after he criticized Islam on Facebook and said he'd left the religion and become an atheist. Following the attack, Aan was arrested for insulting religion (i.e., blasphemy), electronic transmission of defamatory statements (i.e., blasphemy via the Internet), and false reporting on an official form. That last charge is loaded with horrible irony, by the way: Indonesians are legally required to register as one of six official religions... thus literally forcing people who doesn't believe in one of those religions, including people like Aan who don't believe in any of them, to lie.On June 14, Aan was sentenced. He is now serving two and a half years in prison.

3: Phillipos Loizos, Greece. In September 2012, Phillipos Loizos was arrested in Evia, Greece, on charges of posting "malicious blasphemy and religious insult" on Facebook. His crime? Creating a Facebook page making fun of Elder Paisios, the late Greek Orthodox monk revered by many as a prophet -- a page referring to Paisios as Pastistios, connecting him with the satirical atheist faux-religion Pastafarianism, and replacing his face with an image of the Greek beef dish pastitsio. Seriously. Aggravated Photoshopping, with intent to mock. Overzealous police officer? Maybe. But then why was Loizos not immediately released, with pleading, tear-stained apologies and a groveling request not to sue? Why, as of the release of the IHEU report on December 10, is he still being charged?

4: Sanal Edamaruku, India. A humanist organizer and a renowned skeptical debunker of supernatural claims -- sort of a James Randi of India -- Sanal Edamaruku is the president of the Indian Rationalist Association. He's also the guy who, in March 2012, profoundly embarrassed the Catholic Church on national television, when he debunked a supposed "miracle" believed in by thousands by proving that a weeping Jesus on the cross was actually the result of a leaky drain. The Catholic Church, naturally, was profoundly grateful for this information, as it cares passionately about the truth and wants to be sure that any "miracles" it promotes are truly the hand of God... ...No, wait, That's not what happened at all. In April 2012, a group called the Association of Concerned Catholics filed a complaint against Edamaruku with the Mumbai police under Section 295 of the country's penal code... a complaint the Catholic Church didn't officially support but also didn't speak out against or try to stop in any way. The police, recognizing this complaint for the blatant absurdity that it was, laughed them out of the room... ...No, wait. That's not what happened at all. The Mumbai police actually took this seriously. They issued an arrest, charging Edamaruku with "hurting the religious sentiments of a particular community." The police haven't dropped it, either: they have since gone to Edamaruku's home in Delhi to serve the arrest warrant, and to demand information on his whereabouts. What's more, they are denying him "anticipatory bail," so if he submitted to the arrest he could do months of jail time before his trial. Edamaruku, unwilling to do months of jail time for first-degree debunking of fraudulent miracles, has fled the country, and is currently in hiding in Finland. (More information at the Friendly Atheist blog.)

Please note here that -- as in the Greek case -- it is not Islamic theocrats or would-be theocrats trying to get atheists locked up for making them look bad. It is Christian ones. So in case you were going in that whole "this is just a problem of Muslim extremists" direction... yeah, don't go there.

5: Fazil Say, Turkey. Of course, sometimes it is a problem of Muslim extremists. If you know the world of classical and jazz piano, you might already know of Fazil Say: he is apparently widely renowned in that world. He is also an atheist. On June 1, 2012, he was arrested and charged with insulting Islamic values, via the fearsome and formidable medium of Twitter. The case is pending (it's scheduled for February 2013): if he's convicted, he faces up to a year and a half in prison.

He's not the only one. Say's arrest is just one of a series of recent legal actions in Turkey, targeting artists, writers and intellectuals for making less than entirely laudatory statements about religion and Turkish national identity. And if you're thinking, "Oh, dear, another of those terrible Middle Eastern theocracies" -- think again. The Turkish Constitution protects freedom of religious belief, guarantees equal protection under the law regardless of religion, and lists secularism as one of the Turkish republic's fundamental characteristics.

Yeah. I know. My head is spinning, too. I keep thinking of Inigo Montoya: You keep saying "secularism and freedom of religious belief." I do not think it means what you think it means.

6: Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, Tunisia. Seven and a half years: that's the prison sentence given to atheists Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji in Tunisia in March 2012, for posting cartoons of Muhammad on Facebook. Beji got lucky, and got the hell out of the country: he is still being sought as a fugitive by Tunisian authorities. Mejri wasn't so lucky. He is currently in prison -- serving a seven and half year sentence. Think, for a moment, about how long seven and a half years is. In seven and a half years, a kindergarten child would almost be in junior high. In seven and a half years, an elm tree would grow from a sapling to over twice your height. Now, think about spending seven and a half years in prison. For posting cartoons about religion that the government didn't like.

If you've noticed how many of these incidents involve social media -- non-believers being arrested and imprisoned for using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to discuss atheism and criticize religion -- you're not alone. The IHEU noticed that, too. As IHEU pointed out when it announced the report: "The report highlights a sharp increase in arrests for 'blasphemy' on social media this year. The previous three years saw just three such cases, but in 2012 more than a dozen people in ten countries have been prosecuted for 'blasphemy' on Facebook or Twitter."

There seems to be something about atheism on the Internet -- the possibility of anonymity, the speed at which ideas can spread, the ability to organize at the touch of a finger, the impossibility of keeping a movement invisible -- that makes oppressive theocrats piss themselves in panic, and desperately try to shut it down.

Please note, also, that every single one of these incidents happened this year. These incidents are not outdated relics of the Dark Ages, or even of a century ago. They happened in 2012. They are still happening right now: as of this writing, every single one of these people is under arrest, awaiting trial, awaiting sentencing, in prison, or in hiding.

And these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg, a handful of the more egregious examples. They don't include Mauritania, where leaving Islam means losing citizenship; Pakistan, where the government blocked all access to Twitter because of "blasphemous content"; Italy, where Minister for Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini called on Christians, Muslims and Jews to join together in the fight against the "threat" of atheism; Zambia, where the government requires Christian instruction in public schools; Poland, where pop musician Doda was fined $1,450 for saying that the Bible is full of "unbelievable tales"; Israel, where atheists or anyone else wanting a secular marriage have to leave the country to get married; the United States, where attendance at evangelical Christian events in the military is often mandatory; Sudan, where leaving Islam is punishable by death.

I wish I knew what to do about all this. I usually like to end my "alerts about outrages" pieces with a call to action: here's who to donate money to, here's where you can sign a petition, here are the elected officials you can call or email. But this is bigger than just a one-shot call to action.

Who can you give money to? Atheist organizations around the world; international atheist organizations; human rights organizations that recognize human rights violations against atheists as a real thing. Where can you sign a petition? Get on the mailing lists of a couple/few atheist organizations, especially international ones, and they'll alert you when petitions are happening. (The International Humanist and Ethical Union would probably be a good start.) Who can you call or email? Your elected officials, especially on the national level, to demand that they treat human rights violations against atheists as seriously as they do any other kind. (Not that that's such a high bar...) What else can you do? Speak out. Spread the word. Like I said, there's a reason theocrats and would-be theocrats are scared to pieces of Facebook and Twitter...

But the first step, before you can do any of that, is this: Don't pretend that this isn't real. This is real. This is happening, around the world, at the hands of every major religion. Don't dismiss it.

6 JUNE 2013

Article in The Age:

Why these two men are still part of the problem

By Chrissie Foster

High-ranking clerics must answer for the smokescreen they created in protecting criminal priests.

Cardinal George Pell. Photo: Joe Armao

On the last two Mondays in May, we heard the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, and Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, give testimony to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sexual abuse in religious organisations. They spoke on the sexual abuse of hundreds of "innocent people" – known to the rest of us as children – committed by priests and brothers in Victoria.

Discussion, debate and analysis have followed their evidence. I must add to this argument. I bear personal witness to experiences with both Archbishop Hart and Cardinal Pell which contradict their limited vision of events. Space limits the attack I would like to launch, so I will refer to just two instances, one relating to the cardinal and one the archbishop.

I first locked horns with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in 1996, and the protection of children has meant I have not stopped challenging them since. In March 1996 I discovered that my eldest daughter Emma had been sexually assaulted by our parish priest, Father Kevin O'Donnell, who at that time was in prison after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting children from 1946 to 1977. Emma's disclosures and, later, those of our second daughter, Katie, took his offending to his retirement in 1992 – amounting to 50 years of raping, sodomising and sexually assaulting, most likely, hundreds of children.

Archbishop Denis Hart. Photo: Joe Armao

In Cardinal Pell's written submission to the parliamentary inquiry, he stated: "Although he [Father O'Donnell] brought shame upon the priesthood and the church, he was buried with other priests in Melbourne. Had he been laicised before he died, this would not have occurred." Seemingly the cardinal is lamenting that a career child rapist was not laicised before he died so, sadly, a criminal priest is "buried with other priests". This sounds a noble and reasonable lament for a pious and forthright cardinal.

Yet on February 18, 1997, I and 44 other distressed parents met with then Archbishop George Pell in Oakleigh. At this meeting we asked the archbishop that the then living and imprisoned Father O'Donnell be laicised. Pell smiled condescendingly and said "we can't do that" – just as the canon lawyer had said and done to our same request only months earlier.

This time we were talking to the boss, so we persisted. We told Archbishop Pell that his own canon law said it was possible. The archbishop replied that canon law was hard to understand, hard to interpret. We produced a copy of the 1152-page book of canon law and read aloud law number 1395.2 – it clearly stated a priest could be laicised for the sexual abuse of a minor. Taken aback, with the evidence of the book and its clear language, the archbishop back-pedalled, saying he would have to get back to us about it. He never did. Later in the meeting, we again asked that O'Donnell be laicised; again it was denied.

So despite his 2013 public show of disappointment that Father O'Donnell was not laicised before he died, it was in fact George Pell, as Archbishop of Melbourne who, 16 years earlier, refused to laicise O'Donnell. Pell as archbishop had from July 1996 until O'Donnell's death in March 1997 to laicise the imprisoned criminal "before he died". But even when asked to laicise O'Donnell he refused, claiming ignorance of laicisation protocols when in fact he had served, for nine years at that time, on the body that oversaw the laicisation of priests in Rome – the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. We did not discover this fact until 12 years later, in 2009.

While Archbishop Pell denied our request in 1997, he now appears to lament the fact that Father O'Donnell was not laicised before he died – as though he had nothing to do with it. Cardinal Pell should face the truth: that in 1997 he was happy for O'Donnell to be "buried with other priests in Melbourne"; he ensured it happened. Yet Cardinal Pell now presents to Australia a misleading impression of regret that O'Donnell is buried with other priests, when he played a major role in bringing that reality about. Cardinal Pell's failure to act meant one of Australia's worst child rapists kept his privileged title of Father and was buried honourably with other priests.

In Archbishop Hart's oral evidence to the parliamentary inquiry, he stated that when victims decided not to accept the church offer of compensation, it had "walked with them" through the court system to "more generous payouts". Later, he stated that "no victim had made it to court". So how could the church have possibly walked with victims through the court system when it has never happened? You can't have it both ways.

In addition to this, we personally sued Archbishop Hart in our attempt to reach court, him being the current leader of the Melbourne Archdiocese. Hart never contacted us. He did however send us a message. Instead of acting out his words of apparent compassion in "walking with victims", he set his lawyers on us for years, engaging, directing and paying them to strenuously defend the church to the point of claiming Father O'Donnell's innocence – even after their independent commissioner, Peter O'Callaghan, had found sexual abuse had taken place with both Emma and Katie. Astoundingly, their attack negated Archbishop Pell's earlier written apology to Emma.

Also Archbishop Hart, if you and the church hierarchy are happy to "walk with victims" to achieve "higher payouts" as you say, why not simply remove the cap you hold in place to control and minimise payouts? Your heart, like that of others in the hierarchy, is bent on preserving church wealth instead of restoring broken lives. None of your actions, in any way, resemble your claim of "walking with victims". It is time for honesty, Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Hart, not smokescreen words for personal cover-ups. Your words are manifestly misleading to all who hear them, and therefore you remain part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Chrissie Foster is the co-author of Hell on the Way to Heaven.

16 NOVEMBER 2013

Article in The Age:

An unspeakable betrayal of trust: one parent's journey

By Chrissie Foster

Chrissie Foster and husband Anthony, whose daughters were abused. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

It has been quite a journey, but this week we arrived.

The tabling in State Parliament on Wednesday of the inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations report, with its findings and recommendations, was an emotionally charged occasion.

Morning and afternoon saw both the upper and lower houses of Parliament silent and intent as each of the six Family and Community Development Committee members read their speeches. Every one of them passionate, resolute and united in their damning of the Catholic Church and the atrocities it bestowed on generation after generation of Victorian children.

Their collective disgust at evidence presented before them reverberated throughout the Parliament and every person who listened.

Tears were shed as the strength and clarity of their words damned an organisation that wore sheep's clothing in public yet, in reality, tolerated, hid and protected criminal clergy who never tired of their lustful crimes and were left unchecked to continue molesting and raping boys and girls.

There were no stops put in place, no checks, and no punishment for these criminal clergy, just further access to the bodies of our defenceless children.

This week, that all changed. Our Parliament - our elected representatives - did our society proud: they listened, they believed and they acted.

Georgie Crozier, chairwoman of the committee, spoke with strength and commitment as she described key recommendations then placed her hand on a tied bundle of pages to be handed officially to Parliament - a piece of history happening before our eyes.

Andrea Coote, MP, stood and spoke with force and passion, also slamming the Catholic Church for its betrayal of society's children, which caused untold pain, loss and destruction.

MP David O'Brien, emotion barely contained, raged at the disgraceful actions of the church, reading in alphabetical order more than 30 towns in the Ballarat dioceses that suffered the horrendous effects of paedophile priests. At times struggling to speak, he delivered a speech that was applauded for a long time by those in the public gallery.

The condemnation continued later with MP Frank McGuire, whose poignant, clear and heartfelt words touched us all.

Nick Wakeling, MP, spoke movingly of his experience of listening to victims, and how it had affected him. And MP Bronwyn Halfpenny also struggled to say the words that described what she had learnt and its impact on the lives of those who had suffered.

The committee's findings and recommendations, contained in the two-volume, almost 1000-page document, are the key to change and a safer future for children. The committee believes it has got to the heart of the many issues that have allowed the Catholic Church and other religious and non-government organisations to avoid accountability through inadequate laws and non-binding moral obligations.

Premier Denis Napthine has assured us that the recommendations of the Betrayal of Trust report will be acted upon immediately, instead of after the usual six-month waiting period.

On Wednesday night, Archbishop Denis Hart spoke on national television, saying the church would co-operate fully with the implementation of the recommendations. But the past has shown that no matter how many times the Catholic Church announces it will co-operate, it later falls short of doing so.

On Thursday morning, the church's so-called Truth, Justice and Healing Council (TJHC) issued a media release stating the Catholic Church would support a national redress scheme, rather than the recommended Victorian Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal scheme.

How quickly they turn.

As was recently exposed in the media, the TJHC says nothing without first being authorised by Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop Hart and the other bishops. It is nothing but a front for the church hierarchy.

For the church leadership to repeatedly reiterate its proposal for a national scheme only hours after the same church hierarchy publicly supported the Victorian inquiry's recommendations should be taken as an affront by the Victorian Parliament.

Our Parliament has responded passionately and powerfully to the evidence it heard from the people of Victoria, and the committee members have acted on this evidence with their findings and recommendations.

One very important area to all victims - the reassessing of 16 years of church-settled cases, some settled under pressure for as little as $2400 for lifelong damage - has been left in the hands of the Catholic Church.

In the words of the report: ''The committee considers that the willingness of organisations to review these existing settlements will be a measure of how genuine their undertakings are to comply with the inquiry recommendations and their implementation.''

Archbishop Hart, are you willing to do this? Are you genuine?

Chrissie Foster is the co-author of Hell on the Way to Heaven.

godless Links:

American Atheists

Atheist Alliance International

Atheist Foundation of Australia

Freedom From Religion Foundation

The Brights - An Atheist Organisation

godless Readings:

Against Religion by Tamas Pataki published by Scribe 2007

Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam by Michel Onfray published byArcade Publishing 2007

God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens published by Allen and Unwin 2007

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins published by Bantam Press 2006

The Purple Economy by Max Wallace published by Australian National Secular Association (ANSA) 2007

Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell published by Unwin Books 1967


Contact me at: red-jos_at_red-jos_net

Atheists' Corner Part 1
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This page was created 3 MAY 2014 and updated on 11 OCTOBER 2016