Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 81
May 17, 2017
Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible. Become a member today!
The Main Events
The Global Madness of Blasphemy Laws
For most of those who are reading this, laws against blasphemy seem like anachronistic, vestigial restrictions on free expression that no longer apply in our modern world. Recent months have reminded us, however, that blasphemy laws are very much a part of the contemporary human experience, and the consequences of violating them can range from absurd to horrifying. Several secularists and dissidents have met grisly ends this year, including Pakistani student Mashal Khan, beaten to death last month by a mob of fellow students who were angry over allegations of blasphemy, and Indian student H. Farook, murdered by a gang of militants over postings to social media about atheism.
The Center for Inquiry has made combatting blasphemy laws around the world a central part of our mission. We even have a special program dedicated to rescuing secular writers and activists in need of escape from imminent threats to their lives. In recent weeks, we have taken on the crisis on several fronts.
Blasphemy is the focus of the latest issue of Free Inquiry, CFI’s magazine of secular humanist thought. Making its way to newsstands and subscribers now, this issue features a powerful and sobering cover piece by someone who knows a thing or two about the consequences of blasphemy restrictions: Flemming Rose of Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which ran the “Danish cartoons” of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005, which were deemed such an offense to religious sentiments that they sparked violent protests across the Muslim world. Rose warns about the international threat of states’ blasphemy laws and how governments are stirring up rage among the people, inciting them to carry out acts of murder such as those that took the lives of Khan and Farook.
The issue also includes an important report by Mirjam van Schaik on the machinations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the diplomatic body that seeks to push blasphemy laws beyond borders and into international law.
Blasphemy also became a topic of concern in the west, when beloved actor and humorist Stephen Fry, a longtime advocate of secular causes, became the subject of an investigation by Irish authorities for allegedly committing blasphemy in 2015, when he said some unpleasant things on television about the biblical God’s psychotic behavior. Eventually, the investigation of Fry was dropped, with Irish police citing a lack of outraged victims of Fry’s blasphemy.
CFI Board Member Richard Dawkins cleverly stepped into the fracas by reiterating his own “blasphemy” to an Irish newspaper, and dared the authorities to arrest him over it when he next came into the country. He later explained, “I wanted to increase the pressure to repeal this law – partly because the existence of a blasphemy law in a civilised western country like Ireland is taken as an encouraging precedent by some of those countries in the Middle East and Africa, where they have a blasphemy law and it really is enforced.”
Of course, CFI’s diplomatic and international advocacy efforts never stop. For example, CFI President and CEO Robyn Blumner and our public policy director Michael De Dora are signatories on a new petition from the Index on Censorship calling on Denmark to scrap its blasphemy law. Whether these affronts to human rights emerge in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ireland, or Denmark, and whether they are enforced by the state or by the rage of the mob, we will continue to fight for free expression, for the simple idea that ideas don’t need rights. People do.
Trump’s Religious Privilege Theater
During the past couple of weeks, the Trump administration took one clumsy step backward for secularism, but that didn’t stop an encouraging step forward at the state level.
On May 4 (which weirdly was both the National Day of Prayer and Star Wars Day), President Trump signed his “religious liberty” executive order, through which he claimed to be loosening the restrictions on campaign endorsements by churches and other tax-exempt organizations and providing “relief” to companies that don’t want to take part in the contraceptive mandates of the Affordable Care Act because of religious exemptions.
CFI denounced the move as a “cynical pander to the religious right” and noted that despite the president’s boasts, his order is mainly symbolic. “While this executive order won’t accomplish much in practical terms,” said Michael De Dora in our official statement, “it sends a signal that Trump is looking to reward his conservative evangelical base. But this political payback is divisive and dangerous, blurring the line between church leadership and political operatives.”
As a positive sign of our impact, however, the Center for Inquiry and Michael were both called out by name during a House hearing on the Johnson Amendment, with Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi asking that our statements be put into the official congressional record.
Meanwhile in Oregon, both houses of the state legislature passed a measure that would allow Secular Celebrants, such as those trained and certified by CFI, to solemnize marriages in the state. CFI began this effort in Oregon in 2015 with a bill that passed the state House, worked on similar legislation in Ohio, and have won crucial court victories for Secular Celebrants in Indiana and Illinois. On May 11, the Secular Coalition for America and its Oregon state chapter were successful in securing its passage through the Oregon House and Senate, and the bill is expected to be signed by the state’s Democratic governor.
News from HQ and the CFI Community
CFI Welcomes 2017 Summer Interns
The movement to advance science, reason, and secularism is alive with energy among campus groups and student activists. One of the most inspiring aspects of being a part of the Center for Inquiry is how the CFI internship program gives some of those young leaders the opportunity to take their passion and talents beyond the campus and into the broader world, helping them to learn new skills, develop crucial connections, and earn real-world experience in organizing and advocacy.
Last week, we announced our Summer Outreach Interns for 2017.
First is Vicki Smith of Central Michigan University’s Dogma-Free Society, who says, “I’ve spent my college years getting to know myself and the different issues secular and humanist organizations are up against; now I’m ready to take the next step and see what I can do to promote a secular society.”
Next is Andy Ngo of Portland State University and the Freethinkers of PSU. You might remember Andy’s video report of CSICon 2016, in which he discusses his religious background and journey to skepticism.
And working from our Executive Offices in Washington, DC will be legal intern Jaskirat Singh, who has just finished his second year at George Washington University Law School and Elliot School of International Affairs, studying for a JD and MA in Security Policy Studies. Jaskirat has a background in international human rights work, having previously interned for Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.
We look forward to getting to know and working with our new colleagues.
See Richard Dawkins, On Tour in the U.S. Now
Richard Dawkins is here! And there’s still time to get your tickets to see him in live conversation with notable guests, as he comes to the United States for four special engagements, starting this Thursday in L.A.!
- On May 18 in Los Angeles, Dawkins will be joined in conversation by satirist Adam Felber, best known for appearances on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! and as a writer for shows such as Real Time with Bill Maher.
- In Boulder, CO, on May 22, Prof. Dawkins will take the stage with best-selling author and actress Annabelle Gurwitch.
- On May 24 in Washington, D.C., Dawkins joins another great mind of evolution, Jerry Coyne, best-selling author of Why Evolution Is True.
- And in Miami on May 27, you can witness a meeting few would have predicted, as Dawkins sits down with Pulitzer Prize–winning humorist Dave Barry.
Time and tickets are running out. Don’t miss your chance to witness these unscripted conversations with one of the greatest scientific minds of our time. Buy your tickets now.
CFI Highlights on the Web and in the Media
- CFI’s investigative guru Joe Nickell is profiled in a really fun short video by Great Big Story, a new media initiative supported by CNN. “Everything is obvious after it’s been explained,” says Joe.
- Richard Dawkins is interviewed by The Times, where he discusses religion, his legacy, and in particular his view of the moral status of animals. “There is a speciesist belief that somehow they are only animals, they don’t feel pain,” he says. “But pain doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of thing you need intellect to experience.”
- At HuffPost, Ronald Lindsay, CFI’s research fellow and former boss, critiques The Benedict Option, the book by conservative thinker Rod Dreher that argues for Christians’ withdrawal from secular society. “What’s so special about recent events that has caused him to decide that now’s the time to sound retreat?” asks Ron. “Same-sex marriage. For Dreher, same-sex marriage is unendurable.”
- CFI Legal Director Nick Little provides secular perspective in a piece at VICE on a Christian funeral home’s unwillingness to cremate the body of a gay man.
- George Ongere, director of CFI Kenya, is interviewed by Humanist Voices about what inspired his work on behalf of reason and against superstition in Africa. “There needs to be a change in mind and thinking,” he says. “Humanism promises this kind of change for Africans to abandon blind faith and focus on the realities of life.”
- Several outlets covered CFI’s response to Trump’s “religious liberty” executive order, including HuffPost and the Columbus Dispatch (which also features comment from CFI Northeast Ohio’s Monette Richards). Plus, CFI was attacked by the forever-aggrieved Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for our “militant secularism.”
- Bertha Vazquez updates us on the progress of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) with developments in Alabama, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Now available online from Skeptical Inquirer and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry:
- Don’t miss the timely cover feature from the latest Skeptical Inquirer, in which David J. Helfand serves as your guide to “Surviving the Misinformation Age.”
- James Randi shares some examples of pseudoscience hucksterism and shows how an uncritical news media parrots baseless claims about useless products.
- Craig A. Foster and Sarenna M. Ortiz look at how the false vaccine-autism link is promoted through the misuse of irrelevant research, where science is given lip service but its actual conclusions are ignored.
- Massimo Polidoro explores the enduring mystique around fairies, magical winged humanoids that, much like UFOs, always seem to be very poorly photographed.
- Joe Nickell surveys the myths and mysteries of the Australian territory of Queensland.
- Omar Meriwani reports on the rise of satellite TV channels in the Arab world that get around state-controlled media but promote religious superstition.
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.
Upcoming CFI Events
- “An Evening with Richard Dawkins” in Los Angeles with special guest Adam Felber.
- Physics professor Will Kinney talks to CFI Western New York about the implications for life in an ever-expanding universe.
- Author and actress Annabelle Gurwitch, who will be on stage with Richard Dawkins in Boulder on May 22, joins CFI Los Angeles and CFI Orange County to talk about her new book, Wherever You Go, There They Are.
- “An Evening with Richard Dawkins” in Boulder, CO, with special guest Annabelle Gurwitch.
- Marissa Postler, a new member of the Wyoming City Council (and an atheist), speaks to CFI Michigan about “leading with reason.”
- “An Evening with Richard Dawkins” in Washington, D.C., with special guest Jerry Coyne.
- Lauri Lebo, on the board of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education association, speaks to CFI Pittsburgh.
- Dr. Gale Burstein speaks to CFI Western New York about HPV vaccines in an event with the Buffalo March for Science.
- Kathie Dello, associate director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, speaks to CFI Portland about climate change and the impact of the Trump administration’s policies.
- “An Evening with Richard Dawkins” in Miami, FL, with special guest Dave Barry.
- CFI Tampa Bay hosts Toni Van Pelt for a presentation on attempts to change the Florida state constitution.
Everything we do at CFI is made possible by you and your support. Let’s keep working together for science, reason, and secular values. Donate today!
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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net.