Wednesday, 5 February 2014

How the Catholic Church has protected child abusing priests.

Below are two chapters from Freedom From Religion by Noel McGivern which provide very clear evidence of how the Catholic Church has put protecting its interests before children abused by priests.

Chapter Six

 Child Abuse 

One of the most disturbing questions in religion is why loving parents would remain part of an organization which has leaders who have actively protected child abusers. It is fair to point out that paedophilia is by no means unique to religion. The BBC has, in recent times, been rocked by the terrible revelations about how the late Jimmy Savile, a radio DJ and popular television presenter rampantly abused young girls, and occasionally boys, for many years. Other radio and television personalities have been accused and, in some cases convicted of similar crimes. The crimes have been just as serious and the harm just as great as those Catholic priests have been guilty of. However, there are key differences between the BBC and Catholic Church. The BBC does not behave as a moral guardian of Britain or the world; it doesn’t claim spiritual authority over 1.3 billion people; it is not a primary human identity. Any organization can have paedophiles in it but what sets the Catholic Church apart is how actively it sought to protect them and itself. Throughout history churches have claimed the right to define what is good and evil. The treatment of the child abuse scandals has shown that not only is the Catholic Church completely unsuited to this task but, worse than that, it has been the belief in the goodness of priests that has provided a cloak for many of the most terrible of acts. Cardinal Seán Brady, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (Archbishop from 1996, Cardinal from 2007) has a history that demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic Church on this matter. In March 2010 Brady acknowledged that in his role as Bishop’s secretary in 1975 he had attended separate meetings where two victims of the paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth had been asked to sign an oath of silence as part of a Church enquiry into claims against the priest. The justification given for this oath was that it protected the integrity of the enquiry. What it did was to put the protection of the reputation of the Catholic Church above any due legal process and above the rights of the victims. “I didn’t have any decision-making power in it,” said Cardinal Brady. “The reason for the oath was to give it credibility and strength in law and robustness against any challenge because he was going to use the evidence which this inquiry would produce to take disciplinary action. That inquiry got under way. “In the space of two or three weeks he had the firm reasons which he wanted to remove Father Brendan Smyth and he immediately set out to Kilnacrott Abbey (where Smyth was based) and did so. That’s on the record.” This claim does not stand up to scrutiny. For a start the idea that Brady did not have a decision making power is nonsense. He had the power to decide to report Symthe to the police. The locations of Symthe’s crimes were such that he could have reported him either to the Northern Irish Police (The Royal Ulster Constabulary) or to the Police in the Irish Republic (The Garda Síochána). Not only could Brady have reported Symthe but that is what he should have done. His failure exemplifies one of the greatest moral failings of religion; the belief that religion is more important than human beings. Brady is responsible for what he failed to do. His belief that he followed canon law does not remove that responsibility. It demonstrates how harmful it can be to put religious rules before the interests of people and, in this case, children. That failure had serious consequences; Symthe went on to offend again. Yet in an interview with the Daily Mail on March 15th 2010 Brady claimed. ‘I did act, and act effectively, in that inquiry to produce the grounds for removing Father Smyth from ministry and specifically it was underlined that he was not to hear confessions and that was very important.’ : The truth is more children were abused because Brady and other figures in the Catholic Church set loyalty to their church above that to any civil authority and more importantly they put that loyalty before the protection of children. Symth was not arrested until 1991(sixteen years later) when he was charged with the abuse of four siblings on the Falls Road in Belfast. No one knows how many children he abused in the period between the “inquiry” and his arrest. He skipped bail and went on the run ending up at Kilnacrott Abbey in County Cavan in the Irish Republic owned by the Norbertine religious order he was a member of. The delays in his extradition to Northern Ireland led to the Irish Republic's Fianna Fail/Labour coalition government collapsing in 1994. It is to the credit of the then leader of the Irish Party Dick Spring that he forced the government to an end over the appointment of Harry Whelehan the Attorney General (a political post) to a senior judicial post. Spring’s concern was that the appointment put Whelehan beyond parliamentary scrutiny. An allegation was made by a member of the Dáil (Irish lower house) that the delay was due to the influence of the then Irish Primate Cardinal Cahal Daly. This was denied and, to be fair, the accusation does not seem credible for one simple reason. The Catholic Church had no need to put pressure on the government. The Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Albert Reynolds was a Conservative Catholic leading a Conservative Catholic political party. The 1937 constitution had enshrined the role of the Catholic Church and they had, and still largely have, a control of the school system. The reluctance of Harry Whelehan to extradite a priest to the largely Protestant Northern Ireland, and from Irish to British jurisdiction was predictable but wholly lacking in principle. It put politics and specifically the protection or an Irish Catholic identity before justice and the protection of abused children. It became a critical factor, though not the only one, that led to the rift between the Catholic Church and a large part of the Irish population. Smyth was eventually imprisoned and died of a heart attack, shortly after commencing his sentence Meanwhile the story of child abuse continued to play out in Northern Ireland. Throughout the long history of the Northern Irish “Troubles” the East Belfast district of Ballyhackamore was largely, through not entirely unaffected by the violence. The area had a certain kudos, as the childhood home of the author C.S. Lewis, and was immortalized in Van Morrison songs such as Cyprus Avenue and Madame George. There were a number of bombings and shootings but it didn’t go though the intense turmoil experienced in other parts of the city. Ballyhackamore was socially and religiously mixed. A large number of the residents were from the professional and business classes. While largely Protestant it did have a sizeable Catholic minority who lived side by side with them on amiable terms. In the mid 1970s a new curate was appointed to the Catholic Church of St Colmcilles. Fr Joe Steele, (Michael Joseph Steele), was in his mid thirties and set about making an impact. He organized discos in the parochial hall and set up a gym club for young parishioners. This even attracted an involvement from a small number of non Catholic kids. Steele cultivated the image of the ideal priest. However he had a very disturbing agenda. He inveigled his way into the hospitality of a family with adolescent children, where he became a frequent dinner guest. We can only speculate that the family felt privileged that the young popular priest gave them so much of his time. But what we can say, with certainty, is they paid a very heavy price for their hospitality. In 1991 three, young adult, siblings accused Steele of abuse in front of his parishioners in his new parish in Newtonards. That must have taken great courage and the victims had every right to expect the church to support their interests. Their concern was to prevent Steele from being allowed to work with children. They simply didn’t want others to go through what they had gone through. The church failed them. The Bishop’s immediate response was to order Steele to return to the headquarters of The Holy Ghost Order, of which he was a member. This was in Dublin, in the Irish Republic, and therefore outside the legal jurisdiction where he had committed the crimes. That Order at some point decided to export this paedophile to England. It is beyond comprehension how they could have thought that was OK. To simply send a paedophile as far away as they could, where more children would be vulnerable was moral bankruptcy. There can be no justification for such a callous lack of concern for potential victims. Yet it is a pattern which is found in the case of paedophile priest after paedophile priest. It may not have been the official policy of the Catholic Church but it looks like it was the de facto policy. It appears to have been implemented without informing either ecclesiastical of legal authorises at the receiving end of why the priest was being exported. Steele was eventually found five years later, while working as a priest in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham. He had been spotted by a sister of one of his victims. Once again he returned to Dublin and, then no doubt persuaded by the knowledge of the Irish Governments extradition of Smyth, agreed to give himself up the RUC. In his first trial it was shown that he had abused the girls regularly over a period of five years. In total, on that occasion Steele pleaded guilty of sexually molesting two boys and three girls between the ages of nine and fifteen years of age. In a later trial he admitted to offences going back to 1967. He had committed many offences against both girls and boys. His sentencing on these charges was halted when he was declared dead from a brain tumour in January 2013. The question this raises is how did a priest with a largely affluent and well educated congregation get away with this for so long? I’m going to return to the subject of Joe Steele but first I’m going to address why priests, in Ireland, North and South got away with abuse and then how their power has been challenged in recent years. The desire for something that is seen as special is can be very strong in humans. Religions exploit that desire. Most religions, (there are a few exceptions such as the Quakers), create a special order of people, or in some cases, orders of people. They are the ordained and are usually treated with a degree of reverence. From Buddhist monks to the local Evangelical pastor this applies. One of the great dangers of religion is these people are given a special degree of trust and respect. They are seen as having a special knowledge and a direct route to the divine, or whatever the revered idea at the heart of the religion is. They are assumed to be morally better than other people. This is a symbiotic process because it is not just a case of the priest enjoying this status but also of the congregation reinforcing it. The Shaman, the Indian mystic, the pastor and priest all fulfil a desire to have a religious message conveyed by someone of a special status. In the Roman Catholic Church there is belief in apostolic succession. Catholic ordination is claimed to have been derived in an unbroken line from the twelve apostles and therefore from Christ himself. This means the priest is the inheritor of a sacred legacy. He is seen as having the power to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. That alone makes a priest a very powerful figure. He is the keeper of a mystery. The priest also has a high social status within the community. He is seen as a trusted professional like a doctor, lawyer or teacher. Other professionals, within his religion, would see him as not just sharing that status but, because of his spiritual role, as have a pre-eminent status. That has meant a reluctance to question him because to do so would be to both question his spiritual and professional integrity. I often tweet on the topics I am writing about. I get frequent abuse from believers. The level of abuse I’ve had from Catholics on this issue has been very high indeed. They seem to desperately want to bury the issue. However, one of the strongest voices against the abuse came from the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, when in July 2011 he attacked the Vatican over interference in an inquiry into clerical abuse of children in the diocese of Cloynes. Here are excerpts from his speech. Because for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual-abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an Inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic…as little as three years ago, not three decades ago… Cloyne's revelations are heart-breaking. It describes how many victims continued to live in the small towns and parishes in which they were reared and in which they were abused… their abuser often still in the area and still held in high regard by their families and the community. The abusers continued to officiate at family weddings and funerals… In one case, the abuser even officiated at the victim's own wedding… Cardinal Josef Ratzinger [Then Pope Benedict XVI] said: ‘Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church.’ As the Holy See prepares its considered response to the Cloyne Report, as Taoiseach, I am making it absolutely clear, that when it comes to the protection of the children of this State, the standards of conduct which the Church deems appropriate to itself, cannot and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic. Not purely, or simply or otherwise. CHILDREN.... FIRST. The Vatican’s response was to deny that it had interfered in the inquiry. However, even if there was no direct interference for the Vatican, it is beyond question that elements within the church did seek to obstruct it. The simple truth is that again and again the Catholic Church has put its own interests first and only addressed the real harm when it has been forced to do so. This story has played out across the globe. What happened in the Irish Catholic Church happened in the United States, Australia and South Africa and many other places. The Catholic Church, and other religions, including Buddhists need to face up to the fact that the position of clergyman, minister, monk and in some cases nun has been used for cruel forms of abuse.   

 Chapter Seven


 I knew Fr Joe Steele. I should say I was not a victim of his sexual abuse. Though I had not known what he had been doing at the time, when his trial was reported in the papers in 1996 (I had been living in England for many years by this time) I immediately knew who some of his victims had been. It had always been obvious that there was at least one family he was especially close to. The parish was wealthy enough to provide a large house for each of its two priests. One was on the famous Cyprus Avenue (Ironically in close proximity to the residence of the Reverend Ian Paisley). That occupied by Steele, who was the more junior priest, was a large semi-detached house, in the grounds of the church and the primary school. Yes, Fr Michael Joseph Steele, one of the most notorious of paedophile priests, in the Irish Catholic Church, lived in the grounds of a primary school. My recollection, from something he had said, is he had chosen it rather than share the large Cyprus Avenue address with the other priest. It seems very clear that he had contrived a situation where he could be close to children and away from the gaze of the his senior colleague. It was to that house that, at the age of fifteen, I went to in distress on a wet night. My mother had died a couple of years before and I couldn’t cope with my father’s manic depression. I needed an adult to talk to. I needed someone I felt I could trust. I was one of the groups of teenage boys who used the weight training facilities Fr Steele made available in his Gym sesssions. That was why he seemed a natural person to turn to in my distress. He had appeared to be understanding. I have no idea if he had any sexual interest in me but it did later cross my mind that the fact he knew that the weight training had made me strong and physically confident may have deterred him. Steele may have ironically armed me against him. Back in the 1970s ideas such as emotional intelligence had no popular currency. Yet even then I had expected empathy. Instead of that expected understanding of why I was distressed over my father what I met from Steele was an astounding emotional blankness. At fifteen I didn’t have the words to explain such a complete absence of empathy. What I did understand was that he left me in no doubt that he had no interest in helping me. Even at fifteen I knew there was something wrong. Steele could play a part delivering his homilies and, no doubt, he had a formula for confessions but he had no comprehension as to how to deal with real human distress. The contrast between the public man and his apathetic response to me stunned me. It was the first time in my life I ever began to question the value of religion. In hindsight it was extremely fortunate that it completely destroyed my confidence in Steele. I was certainly no stranger to priests. I was taught by a number of them. The school I attended could not have been better connected to the Catholic hierarchy. The Headmaster was Fr Joseph Conway, the brother of Cardinal William Conway. He basked in the formal title of ‘President of the College’ but I even recall one of his fellow priests calling him by his nick name, Joe Boss. The school was not very large and he knew his pupils. I recall once being a caned, on my palms, by him, for getting into a fight. I was struck by the irony of being violently punished for violence. The school was in the parish of St Colmcilles. One of the priests who taught me often took services in the church. What he and the other priests who taught me knew about Steele I don’t know. The idea that they would not have put the interests of the boys they taught, many of whom were potential victims of Steele, first, seems unthinkable. It may be that Steele fooled some very bright men but I find it hard to escape the possibility that if a pupil had told the teachers at the school, of abuse by him, they simply won’t have believed it. The school did nothing to control teachers who repeatedly practiced corporal punishment. One Latin teacher, (a lay teacher, as most were), who we nicknamed “The Weed” would stand beside us as we declined a verb and demand we held forth our palms, when we faltered. He’d raise his leather strap as high as he could and bring it down, with all the force he could muster, landing four sharp slaps, two on each hand. It caused stinging bright red marks and we could do nothing but vigorously shake our hands to ease the terrible burning sensation. We considered ourselves fortunate if a number of others had been punished before us, as we knew the later swings of his strap carried less power. This cruelty was justified by Proverbs 13:24, which is often paraphrased as “Spare the rod; spoil the child.” It was, in fact, a remarkably stupid teaching strategy. If the approach had worked it would have done so as a deterrent. A strapped boy would have shown improvement. I know of no evidence that it improved anyone’s learning. I was and still am moderately dyslexic. In adulthood I’ve tried to learn the words of poem or song I have loved and have not been able to recall more than a line or two. I still can only rarely write a sentence without needing to correct it; if someone tells me their telephone number I can’t repeat it back to them. The numbers will jumble in my head, unless I slowly write them down. My brain is agile when it comes to making connections and I have no difficulty in grasping and countering an argument but learning by rote is simply not a skill I possessed then or possess now. The ability to think, was eventually to get me a place at university, but was useless for remembering Latin declensions. I got strapped day after day, and year after year, for an inability that was not my fault. It was punishment for the sake of punishment and I cannot escape the perception that it was punishment for the joy of punishing. Those of us who were strapped at the beginning of the academic year were invariably still being strapped at the end of it. We were strapped for being lazy and stupid but what could conceivably be more stupid than to have continued year after year to do something that had no result? All the beating in the world could not have given me the skills I did not have. How stupid and lazy is it to not question a teaching strategy that fails, fails and fails again? It is hard to imagine how anyone could have had a more stupid and lazy approach to teaching than that of The Weed. He deserves to be addressed by no other name, than that. He used the strap as a substitute for intelligent teaching methods and didn’t question its qualifications for the task. He showed no respect for the victims of his mindless cruelty. While being regularly strapped had no effect on my learning it did, however, have one important outcome; it beat every last trace of Roman Catholicism out of me. That is the only thing I thank The Weed for. When I was fifteen this punishment eased off and I began to question my treatment. The myth of a religion of love made no sense to me. It had been contradicted every time the strap had fallen. My anger at what had happened to me gradually grew. I abandoned the religion at the age of sixteen and have never wanted to call myself a Roman Catholic or be in any way associated with that church in the years since. That was, however, far from the end of my journey with religion and spirituality. Even if I were not eventually to become an Atheist a religion that treated me so cruelly would have forsaken any right to a claim on me. I more than once had the experience of a teacher who expounded on the theme of how loving and forgiving God was, and yet could not grasp that beating me for my incapacity to learn by rote was cruel and a the denial of every principle of love. Jesus supposedly said “By their fruits do ye know them”. The fruits I found in Roman Catholicism were stupidity and cruelty. I do not mean by that that the school was poor academically. Far from it; in spite of the cruelty it had some excellent teachers and excellent academic results. It is an irony that one of the best of those teachers was a priest by the name of Fr John Forsythe. We called him Bruce after the Television entertainer Bruce Forsyth. He protested there was a difference. He had an “E” for excellence at the end of his name. He had not been long out of the seminary, when he taught us, and brought a keen understanding of textual criticism to his lessons. When I began later to dissect the Bible my memories of his lessons gave me a good starting point. I left the school as soon as I could and did my “A” levels at a further education college. I do not call myself an Ex-Catholic. I never joined Catholicism but I left as soon as I was able to. It is not an institution I would have ever voluntarily joined or recommend to anyone else. The Catholic Church presumes to teach morality yet had no comprehension of the harm it was doing. The futile vindictive punishments where bad enough but worse was the contempt they signified towards the pupils. That told boys so very clearly that they’d not be believed if they reported sexual abuse by a priest. That was not the intention of the school’s brutal disciplinary regime but what other outcome could there have been? I have no reason to believe other than that, John Forsythe was, and is, a decent and intelligent man. I hope he would have acted effectively had he been told of abuse by Steele. The problem is that religion demands that loyalty to it comes first. It claims sacred authority for that loyalty. The clergy are very dependent on it, especially where it provides not just their income but their housing, (I recall Forsythe stating that teaching priests are required to forego a high percentage of their income to the church). The church could have brought great pressure to bear on a priest who made statements that were seen to damage its interests. The Catholic Church wants to see child abuse by priests and nuns as simply an issue of some very bad priests and nuns. What it needs to understand is that the nature of religion compounded the problem. It allowed priests to have a status that placed them above suspicion. It fostered a myth that celibacy meant purity. It had schools that enforced authority by beating children, and taught that authority figures should not be questioned. Men like Symthe and Steele will have understood the esteem in which priests were held and seen themselves as untouchable. They had every reason to, as the Catholic Church did a great deal to defend and enable them.  

Freedom From Religion  is available as  book and kindle on Amazon.    It is available on other ebook formats, nook, epub,  ibook etc from:

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Reviews of my book Freedom from Religion.

 Reviews of Freedom From Religion  by Noel McGivern


5.0 out of 5 stars If you read "The God Delusion" - Read this... 14 Nov 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Amazon Verified Purchase
This is a `must read' for atheists and a `should read' for theists. Noel McGivern starts each concise chapter from the position of the religious apologist and forensically dissects their arguments to expose the flaws. Even if you already have a good repertoire of responses to common tropes like "what about the evil atheists" or "Religion's not the problem, it's political", McGivern's approach adds another level of clarity. I particularly liked the way he argues against attempts to decouple religious identity from religious belief as so often happens in media reports about sectarian conflicts.
The book is structured in short self-contained chapters which render it useful for quickly locating an argument for a particular apologetic, so especially for those new to debating the odds about religion it would be an invaluable resource and reference work.
Freedom from Religion also tackles, albeit superficially, philosophical and theological concepts of ontology epistemology and the problem of evil sufficiently well to give a springboard for further study to those so inclined and the book is liberally supplied with citations to sources of greater depth. The same is also true of the treatment of creationism vs. evolution which generated my only minor quibble in that there were a couple of generalisations about evolutionary theory that raised my eyebrows somewhat. But this is not intended as a science primer and the book more than succeeds in its primary function of highlighting why freedom of religion should also entail freedom from religion. Put it on your bookshelf next to Dawkins and Harris.

5.0 out of 5 stars The 5th Horseman 13 Nov 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Amazon Verified Purchase
I have read both The God Delusion and God is not Great. I agree with the previous review that this book is not only on a par, but better as it is far easier to read.

I particularly like the clinical way the author takes each point and dissects them piece by piece. The usual outcome is that the patient (religion) is terminally ill.

I would dare any theist to read this book and still have complete faith in their delusion.

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read 12 Nov 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Amazon Verified Purchase
Thoroughly enjoyed reading Freedom from Religion. Each chapter is succinct and to the point and demonstrates how harmful religion is.

Easier to digest than 'The God Delusion' and more concise than 'God is not Great', Noel McGovern's book deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dawkins and Hitchens' work.

The chapter (7) on the author's personal experience with Catholicism gives a poignancy and authenticity to his views throughout the text.

Using quotes from religious texts to evidence how contradictory, hypocritical and unpleasant they are will make uncomfortable reading for even the most devout theists.

The only minor criticism is that one or two of the chapters are a little too short, but that's only nit-picking. A thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking read.

5.0 out of 5 stars Absolute must read November 17, 2013
By bruce
Format:Paperback|Amazon Verified Purchase
Noel McGiverns Freedom from Religion for me is invaluable because it's mainly a
recounting of decades of Noel's personal and cultural wrestle with religious abuse.
Beautifully written, an absolute must read. Hopefully a blueprint for many more personal accounts to come.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Press Release for Freedom from Religion



Groundbreaking book delivers a powerful manifesto for freedom
In ‘Freedom from Religion,’ author Noel McGivern boldly presents a well argued case for why walking away from religion would be beneficial to individuals and society.

ENGLAND – Author Noel McGivern publishes a groundbreaking work that he explains is a manifesto for freedom, titled “Freedom from Religion.” He declares that this is a human right often forgotten by those who only defend freedom of religion. The claims of religion are presented and then forensically dissected by a powerful prosecution case. However, this is not simply an account of religion from the outside. The author draws on his own religious and spiritual experiences and explains why he rejected them.

This book brings an original perspective on why religions cannot escape responsibility for the violent acts carried out in their name. It explains how the religious identities that fuel such conflicts are often fostered by religious teaching in early childhood or result from a later desire to assert that identity and why the refusal of religions to acknowledge this is so dangerous to the world.

With knowledge of one worst of the predators, he examines the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic Church over child abuse. This case for the bankruptcy of religion is furthered by a compelling case for why the Catholic Church and Christianity in general are responsible for creating the circumstances that allowed the Holocaust. Through the use of a source in Saudi Arabia, he shows how the treatment of women in Islam demonstrates how religious claims are used to justify abuse.

There is also a sense of fun when we are told what a dog can teach us about human religious belief and how what’s behind wallpaper shows the absurdity of believing that everything is meant to be. The ridiculousness of the Noah’s ark story is explored in detail, down to calculations of much food would be needed for the lions.
Starting from the simplest of examples McGivern builds a case that shows how nonsensical the case for treating Creationism and Intelligent design as sciences is.

Not just beliefs and practices but the logic at the heart of religious beliefs is exposed. Why the idea of God and belief without evidence make no sense is skillfully explained. The case of the MMR, measles, mumps and rubella, scandal where belief was put before evidence, at the cost of children’s health, is given as an example of how religious thinking infects a wider society.

“Freedom from Religion” will arm those who argue against religion with powerful arguments and will challenge anyone who claims books like the Bible and Qur’an deserve to be treated as sacred. This may be the most challenging book many believers have ever read. It sets a penetrating gaze on the harm of religion in order to proclaim one simple principle: The right to walk away from religion.

For more information on this book, interested parties may log on to


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 Soon available in ebook and paerback in Amazon, and other outlets.

About the Author

Noel McGivern was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1962, and left at the age of 19 for a degree in politics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. A major reason for leaving Belfast was his desire to be free from the religious identities imposed by that divided society. He spent many years seeking the truth at the heart of religion and spirituality, eventually reaching the conclusion that such beliefs are often barriers to human and political progress. He embarked on a study of how religion affects individuals and society. This book, sometimes funny, and at others deeply serious, is the outcome of that.

Freedom from Religion * by Noel McGivern

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Position of Women in Saudi Arabia.

How Enslaved Are Saudi Arabia?

This is  an extract from the  Shadow Report for CEDAW prepared by 'Saudi Women for Reform' Saudi Arabia in December 2007. 

I was originally sent a copy of this report  by a Saudi dissident  who managed to get out of the country  to pursue post-graduate study, but was reported to the Saudi Authorities for her Atheism.  She'd been reported by her own family, the Saudi Government removed her funding and  she ended up having to seek asylum.  

A copy of the final  Official report is available  at  it gives a more diplomatic assessment and couches cruelty in  more polite terms that the victims do. However  even reading that you could be in no doubt of the position of Saudi women. Here I have highlighted key points that can leave no one in any doubt as to how enslaved Saudi Women. 

What follows is not my writing but the report.  While since it was written women have been given limited voting rights in local elections the position of women  has not changed in any meaningful way.

The Shadow Report for CEDAW
Prepared by 'Saudi Women for Reform'
Saudi Arabia
The Executive Summary
December 2007

This shadow report tries to balance the official report submitted by the Saudi Arabian (SA) government, which was prepared confidentially. The shadow report is also prepared secretly mainly for security reasons. The women working on this report are a group of women concerned with public issues and active in women's rights. They don't belong to any official umbrella and work independently. They call themselves 'Women for Reform'. Therefore, if there are any flaws in this report it is because it is not the work of an institution. Working under an NGO was not possible since this type of institutions is not available in SA.
The reservations of SA on the CEDAW are mainly about 'all what controvert Islamic law', i.e. that SA will follow just what conforms to Islamic laws. This concept is very obscure and inaccurate, which was, thankfully, commented on by the CEDAW committee to the government. It is important to note that Islam incorporates many schools of thought that adopt different stands according to their interpretation of the sacred text in regard to women and other social issues. In Saudi Arabia there are citizens who adhere to the four Sunni schools: Maliki, Shafei, Hanafi and Hanbali, as well as the Shii schools and Ismaelis, in addition to many Sufi orders. But officially, SA adopts the Hanbali School only as the state's jurisprudence, and acknowledges the remaining schools but not their interpretations of texts.
What is important for women is to accept and acknowledge the differences in religious interpretations, a method that could facilitate the implementation of the CEDAW articles. Some of these controversial issues affect women's empowerment and participation in public life, such as the face cover and mixing with the other sex.
The principle that is ruling in SA is imposing the guardianship of a male over the woman all her life. Guardianship is linked to the inferior look to women and her traditional role in society and family. It belongs also to parts of our cultural heritage, traditions and customs practiced in the Arabian Peninsula.
According to the first report of the Saudi 'National Society for Human Rights': 'The denial for an adult woman to act on her behalf, in some times, except through a guardian or an agent, is harming her a lot, and is deepening the inferior look to women and to their legal and constitutional capacity. That harm extends to her right to file a law-suit. Her education, work, public activity and movement they are all relying on her male guardian or mahram (a relative who is not allowed to marry her such as a father, brother, son, uncle, nephew, grandfather, or father-in-law) regardless of his age, education and regardless of her age or qualifications'.
Linked to the issue of 'the guardian' many laws are breached and the Saudi woman is exposed to exploitation, blackmailing, plagiarism, violence, preventing her from getting married, and more, in addition to the humiliations a woman feels when demanding a male mahram to consent to her vital needs in order for the state to recognize them. This relationship holds many contradictions which will be clarified in details in the full report and briefly below:
Article 2
In answering the query about how far in practice there was an implementation of equality between men and women, it is sufficient to say that the status quo is a continuous discrimination against women practiced not only by society but by the whole government's institutions and employees. There is no sign of an attempt to stop that, prevent it or punish the perpetrators. According to our knowledge, there is no legal text that punishes a person who discriminates against women. Discrimination is part of the general system, regulations and some explanatory legal circulations.
There are absolute NOT Do's for women, and there are other NOT Do's except with a mahram that could clarify the general situation. Here are some examples only:

1. Absolute prohibitions:

• Not allowed in all the government's departments including the administration of women's education, and public institutions such as the Department of Social Insurance. Accordingly women's access to recourses is limited and some times denied the right, or abused by men who provide such services.

• Not allowed to issue an official document that combines the mother's identity information with her children's.

• Not allowed to drive a car.

• Not allowed into many shops and public service stores such as video shops, music shops, children's barber shops, travel agencies, or foreign labor recruitment offices (such as drivers).

• Not allowed to ride any game while accompanying a child in a public place such as a Mall.

• Not allowed to ride any boats in public parks.

• Not allowed to use gym rooms in hotels nor having designated hours.

• Not allowed into any sport clubs (all male), sport halls, or attend sport games.
2. Prohibited except with a Mahram or guardian:

• Not allowed to schools, universities, postgraduate studies except with permission from a guardian.

• Not allowed to travel abroad except with a guardian's permission. If a woman does not have a guardian: a father or a husband or brother, then her SON will be her guardian.

• Not allowed to work except with a guardian's permission.

• Not allowed to take a car that she owns out of the country unless she has a permission of the minister of interior or the governor.


• Not allowed into restaurants or cafés except with a mahram.

• Not allowed to stay in hotels or furnished flats without a mahram.

• Religious discrimination occurs in the two Holy Mosques. In Makkah's Holy Mosque women's share of the main space surrounding the Kaaba, which is the holiest place, is about one seventh of the inner circle of the mosque (the circumambulation area), the remaining area is open to men's prayers only.

• In Madina's Holy Mosque, women are not allowed to reach the Rawdah al Sharifah (the holiest part of the mosque) except for a small part of it, a few hours a day, whereas it is open for men the whole time and the remaining area of the Rawdah.

• Not allowed to have an operation without the consent of a guardian, especially when it is a gynaecological operation.

• Not allowed to enter a hospital for delivery except with a guardian's approval, nor she can be discharged from hospital or prison without a male guardian's signature.

• Not allowed to register her baby's birth notification. Who can register it is only the father, or a male relative over 17 years old.

• According to the regulations of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA), a woman is not allowed to open a bank account in the name of her son or daughter except with the father's consent, nor is she allowed to carry any transactions on her child's behalf even if it is she who is depositing money in it.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Bieber Fans Show the Roots Of Religion

One way to understand religion is to look at the adoration of celebrities like Justin Bieber. His fans often feel like they have a real relationship with him in very much the same way as Christians see themselves as having a personal relationship with Jesus. It is probable that the early spread of Christianity was very like how the popularity of celebs spreads today in that believers worship the image they had of Christ and not reality. This may seem like a fanciful idea and therefore needs to be justified. This account of Justin Bieber fans from December 2011 is a highly illuminating place to start.

The Beliebers had gathered that night for a buyout, a unique form of Justin Bieber fandom and one of the reasons why he consistently posts huge CD sales despite the fact the majority of his fanbase came out of the womb with iPod earbuds on. In a buyout, Beliebers descend in a biblical swarm on a store that sells Justin Bieber CDs. They buy out the entire stock, two or three copies per girl if they've got the cash. Of course these die-hards already have all of Justin's music, so the CDs are donated to charity after the buyout, usually a local children's hospital. Buyouts are happening all over the country now, to celebrate the release of Justin's new Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe.
At about 8:00pm a pair of older girls mounted a wall in front of the tittering crowd, shouting like generals marshaling an army. This isn't really a metaphor: The buyout was organized via Twitter and Facebook by a Justin Bieber fan group called BieberArmy, which consists of four longtime fans with a popular Bieber fansite and 340,000 Twitter followers. Stephanie, a 19-year-old Bieber Army leader shouted out two ground rules for the evening: 1) Buy as many Justin Bieber CDs as possible and 2) "don't freak out" if Justin Bieber showed up. "Just don't attack him," she stressed.

Bieberanity, like most religions, requires collective acts of worship and demonstrations of faith. Beliebers express their loyalty and devotion by the number of CDs they purchase. The CDs are the alms a good Christian Moslem, Hindu of Buddhist should give. They invest them with a deep value, just as many Christians invest the giving of a Bible or perhaps (depending on which side of the reformation they favour)  a crucifix or picture of the Virgin Mary with deep value.  The Bieber CDs, like these Christian items are perceived to be a comfort and benefit to the sick. The required altruism is an act of submission to the faith.  That same submissiveness is most marked in religions that require believers to give 10% of their income. When we pay for something we make a commitment.

The giving on behalf of the faith makes a statement of its power and status.  It says we have the resources to give and the command over our followers to also get them to do so. 
Let’s return to the account of the buy out.

Things got weird outside after the buying was done. The organizers suddenly halted the mob outside a cafe half a block away. One organizer named Cher revealed that they'd heard some girls hadn't given up the CDs they bought for charity: "If everyone doesn't put their CDs in the bag, Justin's not coming," she warned, holding a giant trash bag full of most of the girls' CDs.
After a minute of awkward silence, three or four girls emerged from the back of the crowd and sheepishly dropped their CDs into a big bag to be donated to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"This is a buyout, not a meet and greet," explained another organizer. "If this was for you to meet Justin I would have labeled it a meet and greet."
"There are people in a hospital right now who can't afford this because of their surgery!" said Cher.

Here we see the use of morality to assert authority over the group. Backsliders are shamed and brought into line. We are very familiar with this approach by those in religious authority. The similarity is found in another significant way.

Bieberanity like other religions is both a rejection and development of earlier religions. It proclaims the uniqueness of the Deity Justin. We find that Islam does not deny its common Abrahamic origins with Christianity and Judaism but claims it arose when Muhammed received a direct message from God. Buddhism arose out Hindu asceticism but again claims to be an uninfluenced realisation. Buddhists claim that reaching the point of true enlightenment is an experience which is beyond influence. Christ, born into Judaism, is said to have not only have been directly influenced by God but to have been God.

We could go back to Elvis starting in the 1950s, the Beatles in the 1960s and then into the 1970s with stars like David Cassidy, or better still the boyish Donny Osmond and you can see the origins of Bieberanity worship. Teenage girls screamed and swooned. They were the mothers and grandmothers of Beliebers and they ate, studied (or failed to concentrate) and slept longing for the benediction of their idol(s).  Their daughters and granddaughters like the Moslems, Buddhists and Christians mentioned above see their faith as very different from the previous ones. Differentiating your religion or pop idol from other ones is a key characteristic of religion and central to Bieberanity.

Perhaps when we wonder at the origins of religion we should look at how teenage girls treat their idols and ask if it is really very different from religious belief. 

Both religion and the collective following of a idol are largely (though not exclusively) about group identity. This is used as a means of social control, with the group demanding conformity from its members. It seems to  matter little when the object of adoration is Justin or Jesus, devotion is an important source of religious feeling.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Open Letter to @Ginab0beena

Open Letter to @Ginab0beena

Dear Gina

You have changed.

You burst into to my timelines a bit over a year ago earnestly discussing a teddy bear’s picnic with your friend. I couldn’t resist displaying my knowledge of Winnie the Pooh, not expecting a response. Who replied I don’t recall but I was drawn into the exchanges.  I grew to love your tweets. Not just because you shared my concerns about the harm of religion but because you could so skilfully sum up your experience in a few words.     
The topics you tweeted on ranged from work, dog sitting, the wealthy dunks at a regatta to shoes.  Shoes always featured a lot.  You tweeted about being in and out relationships.  In so many ways your tweets were  just about being young and alive. One running theme was your plan to travel.  You could not wait for the days to pass.  You longed to kick the English dust from one of your many pairs of shoes.

But something has happened to you, Gina, something more profound that anyone could have predicted.  Your recent tweets have moved me so very deeply. If I believed in Hell, I’d say you were tweeting from there.  Some of your tweets are painful to read and must be so much more painful to tweet.  Yet you tweet with such clarity and compassion.  More than that, you show so much strength and a desire to find a way forward. Any yet you remain Gina, in so many ways.

Something has changed Gina. You have started to record the condition of the children in Cambodia in a way that breaks my heart. You are putting what you see in plain but very powerful words.

Gina, you make me want to help. I do not believe I am alone in that. Who could not be moved by your account of a three year old child eating rotten fruit from a bin or horrified by a mother telling you how her two year old child was raped on the streets?  

We need to decide on the best way to help and, as I say, I will certainly contribute and  I am certain that many others will contribute too.  You have said there is a charity you have seen and you want to check it out further. Please give us details  about it. We will raise a fund to help.

Gina, look after yourself.



Monday, 19 September 2011

Why Abdullah Fandi al_Shammari should be spared

In January2005 I received the worst phone call of my life. It was telling me that my sister had been stabbed to death by a man she'd had a relationship with. Nothing could ever have prepared me for news like that, or for the effect it would have on who I am, and my life.

I had had a good deal of experience of grief: the loss of my mother from cancer, the death of my grandparents, a school friend who'd died in a road accident, a number of friends who died of overdoes or intentional suicide. I had also known the victims of violent death. I'd even had the experience of finding , someone I shared a house with dead. So I can, with experience, say that the death of a loved one, by violence is vastly worse than any of these experiences.

I was, in short, to experience a level of pain I could not have imagined. Though it would have been impossible for me to have done so I was burdened with the irrational feeling that I should have been able to protect my sister. I had a feeling of guilt which I knew made no sense but would not leave me. For about five years I could not have honestly answered yes to the question "Are you OK?" because I was not OK and could not even conceive of ever feeling OK again. I had times when the pain was so great that my whole torso ached with pain for days on end.

And yet I am arguing against the execution of Abdullah Fandi al_Shammari who was convicted of murder. The first point is that had my sister's killer faced execution it would not have lessened my pain in any way. It would, in fact, have added to the burden. I say this because waiting for the execution would have caused me to be constantly aware of my sister's killer. It would have also introduced the uncertainty of waiting for an unknown execution date. My grief was hard enough to deal with without introducing the idea that I could have only had "closure" after an execution.

Execution does not deter murder. If it did the murder rate would be lower where there was a death penalty. As the link shows the USA with a death penalty has 5.22 homicides/murders per 100,000 population. In the UK without it the figure is 1.57. This correlation between societies with a death penalty and a high murder rate is repeated again and again across the globe.

In a jurisdiction where there is a death penalty the state's act of intentional killing lowers respect for human life. It most clearly does nothing to make for a society safer.

I argue that the life of Abdullah Fandi al_Shammari should be spared because I am convinced that executions lead to a more violent society.

Abdullah Fandi al_Shammari is due to be beheaded in Saudi Arabia eight days from the writing of this blog post.