Canada
4 min

Positive signs following Obama’s inauguration

Hope emerges, despite religious chest-thumping at swearing-in ceremony

Watching the presidential inauguration, one would never have guessed that in the US there is an official separation of church and state.

God was ubiquitous. Every other word involved somebody invoking God or reminding the world that God blesses America. And every second event appeared to be some sort of prayer meeting.

The debate over homophobe Rick Warren delivering the invocation during the inauguration seems almost irrelevant in the deluge of religious chest-thumping. But debate there certainly was, especially when it became known that Gene Robinson — the first openly gay Episcopal bishop — had been asked to deliver the invocation at the Sunday ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial. If you missed Robinson’s speech, by the way, so did everybody else. HBO, which was televising it, cut it out of their coverage.

Some argued that Robinson’s presence balanced out Warren’s, a suggestion that angered me and which points out the tendency of the media not to present the actual facts when writing about prominent homophobes. To equate Robinson, who is controversial only because of being gay, with Warren — who fought to take away people’s civil rights in California and whose much-ballyhooed AIDS work in Africa includes his supporters calling for the arrest of gay men — is completely dismissive of anti-gay discrimination.

In his speech, Obama mentioned that Muslims, Hindus, Jews and even “non-believers” have equal rights. Legally, he’s right, of course, but watching the non-stop prostration to Christian belief, it’s hard to believe that separation of church and state is a viable concept.

Now there are positive signs. In the days following the inauguration Obama struck down a rule prohibiting US money from funding international family-planning clinics that promote abortion or provide counseling about abortion services; affirmed his support for Roe v Wade; and made the US the first country in the world to approve a clinical trial of embryonic stem cells in human patients.

He also listed on the White House website a list of measures he wants to enact for gays and lesbians, everything from strengthening hate crime legislation to legalizing civil unions. I could argue that unions are still not the equivalent of marriage, but there are hopeful signs that Obama may at least occasionally intend to swim against the tide of religious intolerance.

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An Amsterdam court ruled last month that a right-wing Dutch MP must be prosecuted for anti-Islamic comments and a short film he made accusing the Koran of inciting violence. The film called for Muslims to tear out “hate-filled” verses from the Koran.

The court ruling came following a decision by a public prosecutor not to prosecute Geert Wilders.

“The Amsterdam appeals court has ordered the prosecution of member of parliament Geert Wilders for inciting hatred and discrimination, based on comments by him in various media on Muslims and their beliefs,” the court said in a statement, according to Reuters. “The court also considers appropriate criminal prosecution for insulting Muslim worshippers because of comparisons between Islam and Nazism made by Wilders.”

The film shows footage of the 9/11 attacks and other bombings interspersed with quotes from the Koran.

To put it mildly, such films are not helpful. But I have to say that prosecuting Wilders for making it appears to be a wild overreaction based on the threat of possible violence by Muslim extremists.

The fact is the Koran does have verses that have been interpreted by some as calling for the hatred and even the murder of others. So does the Bible, the Torah and every other religious book in the world. Likewise, most major religions — certainly, to take the most obvious examples, Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism — can be compared to Nazism because they have all been used to justify the call for exterminating certain other groups of people at one time or another.

If Wilders had called for the eradication of Muslims, there would be a better argument for prosecuting him. But to be prosecuted for questioning the validity and repercussions of a group’s beliefs seems to be overreaching the intent and the extent of hate laws, certainly by Canadian standards, in order to prevent a violent backlash by those offended.

No religion should be allowed to prevent criticism of its tenets or its followers’ actions by threats or ad hominem attacks.

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On a related theme, it’s certainly disappointing to see that Italian atheists have been refused the right to run ads on public transit reading, “The bad news is that God doesn’t exist. The good news is that you don’t need him.”

A Reuters story says that the Italian Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics was told the ad could not run because it violated an ethics in advertising code. The ad had come under fire from right-wing politicians and at least one bus driver had said he would refuse to drive a bus with the ad on it.

“It’s strange that in a country where ads depicting near-naked women wearing skimpy lingerie is permitted on buses that we can’t run ads about atheism,” the Union’s Giorgio Villella said.

Similar ads have already run in London, Barcelona and Washington. And the good news is that the Freethought Association of Canada is attempting to raise money to run an ad stating, “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” on Toronto Transit Commission vehicles.

The association is attempting to raise $6,000 through the website Atheistbus.ca. The campaign in London which originally aimed to raise £5,500 ended up raising more than £144,000.

Religious figures in Toronto interviewed by the Globe and Mail didn’t raise any objections. And city councillor and TTC vice-chairman Joe Mihevc, a former Christian theologian, told the Globe, “What better place to have one of the key theological, philosophical debates of our time but on public transit?”

I agree with Mihevc, but I’m also willing to bet that religious acceptance of the ads will be a lot more grudging if the proposal moves from the theoretical to the concrete.