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Atheism in the movies: Night Train to Lisbon

Pink Humanist editor BARRY DUKE recommends Night Train to Lisbon to atheist cinefiles for its strong anti-religious and anti-fascist plot.

I reckon that one of the greatest leaps forward in the positive portrayal of atheism in popular culture was the creation by American animator and filmmaker Seth MacFarlane of Brian, the dog in the Fox cartoon sitcom, Family Guy. The urbane and cynical Brian frequently serves as the voice of reason in the series. He is unashamed about his atheism and expresses his sceptical views openly and frankly.brian

But he’s not the only character in the series who regularly offends the religious right. Stewie Griffin is contemptuous of religion too, as this quote indicates:

“Stay away from the church. In the battle over 
science versus religion, science offers credible evidence for all the serious claims it makes. The church says, ‘Oh, it’s right here in this book, see? The one written by people who thought the sun was magic?’ I for one would like to see some proof that there is a God. And if you say ‘a baby’s smile’ I’m going to kick you right in the stomach.”

Brian, I was pleased to discover, features in a comprehensive list on the Internet of atheist and agnostic characters in film and on TV.

I consulted the list to see whether Amadeu Inacio de Almeida Prado, a key character in the 2013 movie, Night Train to Lisbon, was mentioned. Sadly not. This, to my mind, is a major oversight, and I’ll explain why.

We are introduced to Prado, played by Jack Huston in an astonishing scene set in a strict Catholic school in Lisbon at a time when Portugal was firmly under the heel of the fascist dictator Salazar. To an audience including teachers, priests and his father, a prominent pro-Salazar judge, he delivers a graduation speech that leaves them stunned and horrified. Many get up and leave in protest.

His speech contains this powerful passage:

The poetry of the divine word is so overwhelming that it silences everything and every protest becomes wretched yapping. That’s why you can’t just put away the Bible, but must throw it away when you have enough of its unreasonable demands and of the slavery it inflicts on us. It is a joyless God far from life speaking out of it, a God who wants to constrict the enormous compass of a human life – the big circle that can be drawn when it is left free – to the single, shrunken point of obedience. Grief-ridden and sin-laden, parched with subjugation and the indignity of confession, with the cross of ashes on our forehead, we are to go the grave in the thousandfold refuted hope of a better life at His Side. But how could it be better on the side of One who just robbed us of all joy and freedom? . . .

In His omnipresence, the Lord observes us day and night, every hour, every minute, every second, He keeps a ledger of our acts and thoughts, He never lets us alone, never spares us a moment completely to ourselves. What is a man without secrets? Without thoughts and wishes that only he, he alone, knows? The torturers, of the Inquisition and of today, they know: cut off his retreat, never turn off the light, never leave him alone, deprive him of sleep and silence: he will talk. That torture steals our soul means it demolishes the solitude with ourselves that we need like air to breathe. Did the Lord our God not consider that He was stealing our soul with His unbridled curiosity and revolting voyeurism, a soul that should be immortal?

Who could in all seriousness want to be immortal? Who would like to live for all eternity? How boring and stale it must be to know that what happens today, this month, this year, doesn’t matter: endless days, months, years will come. Endless, literally … How would it be to be us in eternity, devoid of the consolation of being someday released from the need to be us? We don’t know, and it is a blessing that we never will. For one thing we do know: it would be hell, this paradise of immortality.

The full speech, contained in Pascal Mercier’s novel, Night Train to Lisbon, was posted online by Susana Paco who wrote: “This is a must-see movie, with an amazing view of my beloved city and an amazing storyline. The rise and fall of the main character, Amadeu de Prado, a freethinker in the dictatorship era in Lisbon, is breathtaking.”

Mercier is pseudonym of Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri, who retired early from a chair in Berlin to write novels. His major academic work, The Craft of Freedom, is a study of free will.

The plot of Night Train to Lisbon is a simple one. Raimund Gregorius, played by Jeremy Irons, above, is a stuffy, middle-aged, divorced classics master at a grammar school in the Swiss city of Berne whose life undergoes a sudden transformation after he prevents a young Portuguese woman from committing suicide by throwing herself off a bridge.

He loses contact with her after the suicide attempt, but learns that she was headed back to Portugal. On a whim, he decides to abandon his school and travel to Lisbon to find the woman and learn more about the author of a book she’d lost after her attempted suicide. That book was written by the gifted Prado, who had become a doctor. What follows is an intricate historical detective story, which, through a series of flashbacks to Prado’s youth, provides a chilling insight into what life was like under Salazar’s vicious regime.

I was gripped throughout by the plot and sat enthralled for the entire 111 minutes of the movie – a movie I would have never have bothered to watch had I first read the damning reviews it received after its release.

For example, Rex Reed, writing for the Observer, said: "Night Train to Lisbon is too long (almost two hours) and too confusing, with too many characters to keep up with, played in the present and in flashbacks, by different actors of two different ages – all of them boring. It’s a slow, ponderous film, directed at a snail’s pace by Bille August and punctuated by pompous exchanges.”

Not a word, mark you, about Prado’s moving speech or the important anti-fascist message the film conveys.

Geoffrey Macnab, of the Independent was slightly kinder. “In its lesser moments, the film feels like a European art-house adaptation of a Mills and Boon novel or a Saga holiday commercial, but it is beautifully shot and packed with cameos from big-name actors.”

But David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter was scathing. “Every car is a sleeper on the stunningly tedious Night Train to Lisbon, a load of old windbaggery in which people keep remarking what a fascinating story is being told, yet they fail to make any kind of a case for it. Adapted from an apparent bestseller by Swiss author Pascal Mercier, and directed by Bille August with a steadfast rejection of imagination or style, this is an antiquated throwback to the lumpy English-language Europuddings that mostly died out in the 1990s, RIP.”

His bottom line? “Take the last train to Clarksville, the midnight train to Georgia – anything but this wheezing locomotive.”

My bottom line? Critics are frequently far less smart than they like to imagine.

From the archives: Flame and Fortuyn

THE assassination of Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands in early May, 2002, sent a kind of shiver through Europe, and yet his avowed wish to halt immigration and his criticism of Muslims was seen by some as racism. Lively Internet 
discussions stopped just short of flame wars. People thronged Dutch streets, wondering what had happened. 
ANDY ARMITAGE, in the summer, 2002, edition of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist, looked at whether a new populist right was challenging traditional pigeonhole politics.

Unless you live in the Netherlands, you may have forgotten who won the elections there. You may not even care. But you will remember who came second: it was the party of the flamboyant, maverick, openly gay, right-wing . . . Oh, doesn’t the journalese just flow? And didn’t the media hacks love it?

For Pim Fortuyn, the outspoken shaven-headed, cigar-smoking leader of a new vibrant party, will be remembered long after the election. Would the result of the election have been the same had he not been assassinated by a lone gunman? Would the Pim Fortuyn List have been way down the list? Or was the Netherlands – and Europe – ready for a man like Pim Fortuyn?

Pim Fortuyn

While his party was among the several “new populist” movements that Europe has seen springing up recently, Fortuyn did not embrace the tradition of being so far to the right as to fall off the edge of anything that is decent, the way some politicians do, as if to prove their macho credentials. Indeed, traditions were not part of Fortuyn’s makeup.

And could the man be racist who once told a television audience: “I’ve nothing against Moroccans – after all, I’ve been to bed with so many of them”?

Did the media like him so much because they, too, couldn’t stick a simple badge on him, because he created a frisson in their collective keyboard? Because he was like one of those optically illusory images that seem less clear-cut the closer you look? Because he was one of those figures who excite because of their very ineffability?

Certainly, it was not easy to dismiss him as merely a right-winger (who happened to be gay), any more than the British National Party was able, on its website, to dismiss him as merely a homosexual (who happened to hold some views it would agree with). No, the BNP’s obituary writer was clearly uncomfortable.

“Most members and supporters of the BNP have admittedly not been able to reconcile Mr Fortuyn’s private life with his outspoken political views. However we all agree that he was a man of principle and we agreed with his views about negative effects of the flood of asylum seekers into western Europe and the observation that our very European way of life which we have developed over millenia [sic] is now under threat from people with a very different outlook on life from a cultural and religious perspective.”

Just to make the point that real men don’t like queers, the next paragraph was written, presumably, so as to show no sympathy for people who don’t conform to the notion of red-blooded heterosexuality:

“The BNP extend its [sic] deepest sympathies to Mr Fortuyn’s immediate family and his colleagues who are now in a state of shock and grief.” I take it we’re meant to read “blood family” into the use of that word “immediate”.

However, the above makes the point that, whether one is BNP or a columnist on the Guardian, one does find it difficult to put Fortuyn into a convenient box – which probably says a lot for the way we think when the label sticks out more than the person. It perhaps tells us about the national psyche of other countries, too: you can’t imagine the public outpouring of grief in Britain for a newbie politician – shaven head or no shaven head.

Fortuyn’s murder caused a flurry of Internet activity on the gay discussion groups, not least on that of the Equality Alliance, where there was a deluge of postings after a letter appeared in the Guardian written by Terry Sanderson, Gay Times columnist and spokesperson for GALHA.

“While we in no way support Pim Fortuyn’s ideas on immigration, or see any connection between immigrants and social decay,” wrote Sanderson, “we do share the concerns he expressed about Islam and its antipathy to liberalism.” He went on to talk about how Muslims in Britain have called for the death penalty for queers – but Sanderson’s big “sin” was in saying that, in “accommodating the Muslim community” in the UK, we have to “confront Islam’s attitudes to women, democracy and human rights in general”. The word “accommodating” got up some people’s noses.

Were they not already part of Britain? someone asked. Only when they’ve been accommodated, wrote another. Argument raged over whether some posters of messages were being too black and white in their attitudes towards Muslims: there were moderate Muslims who have liberal attitudes towards gays and lesbians. Others weighed in with the opinion that, if Muslims truly believed in their holy book, the Koran, they could not tolerate gays in society.

GALHA received some comments from members in the Netherlands, two of which the group has made available to G&LH.
Tony Thorne, who moved from London to Amsterdam last year to be with his partner, Roger Knight, is a former GALHA committee member. He emailed a friend who had emailed him just before the assassination – but Thorne saw his friend’s email after the death of Fortuyn, and replied:

“Fortuyn was different, a right-winger, a highly intelligent professor of social science who, I think, was misusing his intellect. Highly charismatic, he pandered to the instincts of race and nationalism in a way that misdirects the passions of the less well educated in an increasingly peripatetic world and which in the last century led to two world wars, the Cold War of ideologies and the untimely deaths of millions.

“Everyone, quite rightly, saw a powerful leader in the making and one person, quite wrongly, decided to take him out before he could bring his influence to bear on the national stage.”

Thorne goes on to reflect views that, in one form or another, and over several days, found their way onto the Equality Alliance discussion list:

“Some things he said made sense, like his observation of Islam as a backward religion. But all religions similarly enslave their adherents – so why attack just one unless it was to obtain the maximum political advantage and the least amount of fallout from his (mainly ‘Christian’) supporters? I don’t agree that anyone should hate Muslims as such but they should denounce their religion for its more extreme teachings and those that carry them out – and those of other religions too.”

And another GALHA member in the Netherlands, Hans Hoekzema, wrote before the election:

“This country’s politics has been on a psychotic roller coaster for the last half year. Not just the rise and demise of a flashy comet politician, but also the regular political parties have lost track for some time already. The complacency of wealth and welfare seems to have blown this country’s consensus, taking off like a hot air balloon, now labelled as ‘cartel-democracy’.”
It was easy to stick Jörg Haider and Jean-Marie Le Pen into a box conveniently marked “right-wing, fascist, therefore not to be taken seriously” (even though both of them are more complex than popular media allow us to believe).

It’s harder to pin a one-size-fits-all badge on a man like Fortuyn, of whom a schoolteacher queuing to sign a condolence book said: “There were so many things that couldn’t be said in our country, and it took someone with Pim’s courage and charisma to say them.”

Fortuyn had no time for neo-Nazis. Non-whites were welcome in his party. But his “crime” in the eyes of many was that he said his country could take no more immigrants. And, like many readers of this magazine who may consider themselves politically opposite to Fortuyn in some areas, Fortuyn attacked Islam for its intolerance to gay people.

A poster outside Rotterdam’s town hall before the election said, “Sleep well, Pim. Because of you, Holland will stay awake.”

Theo van Gogh

On November 2, 2004 – two years after Fortuyn’s assassination – well-know Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, 47, was brutally murdered in Amsterdam by 26-year-old Muhammad Bouyeri, a Dutch-Moroccan national who grew up in the city. Van Gogh’s death came shortly after his collaboration with Aayan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born member of the Dutch Parliament, on a 10-minute film entitled Submission. Van Gogh, a friend of Pim Fortuyn, was honoured as a champion of free speech at a large public memorial service and afterwards cremated.

Greece edges closer to equality, despite 
Orthodox Church’s hysterical opposition

Couples kiss during an Athens gay pride parade. In 2014, activists organised a "kiss-in" during a church service run by Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus who threatened to excommunicate politicians supporting same-sex unions. Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Back in 2013 the Orthodox Church in Greece went on the offensive against same-sex civil partnerships. The leading Greek bishop, Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus went as far as to warn lawmakers that they risked incurring the wrath of God – and would be excommunicated – if they voted in favour of legalising same-sex partnerships.

In a letter describing homosexuality as “an insult to God and man”, the bishop pleaded with the country’s then deputy Prime Minister, Evangelos Venizelos, not to condone gay unions, saying “I beseech you from the heart not to proceed. You will deny yourself the blessing of the most just Lord whose help and protection we daily need as much personally as nationally during these critical times for our country."

The 57-year-old former monk, a prominent figure in Greece’s powerful Orthodox Church, threatened to excommunicate any MP who endorsed gay civil following condemnation of Athens’s failure to do so by the European Court of Human Rights.
“For the church fathers, homosexuality is the most disgusting and unclean sin,” he ranted in a nine-page missive.“[Such relationships] are an insult against God and man . . . an unnatural aberration not even observed in animals.”

Greek politicians sensibly ignored the bishop’s tantrum, and it was announced this autumn that a new draft bill is to be tabled in the Greek parliament that will allow same-sex couples to choose civil partnership in order to cohabit and enjoy full rights as married couples.

However, they won’t have the right to adopt children. Adoption by same-sex couples will be discussed in the future, according to the Ministry of Justice.

In August 2014, during discussions about the long-awaited vote for an anti-racism bill, several Metropolitans voiced their opposition to the bill which sought to criminalise hate speech against, among others, homosexuals. In particular they were outraged that the bill made provision for increased penalties for civil servants (members of the clergy included) who engage in hate speech in the course of their duties.

Seraphim accused the then Greek PM Antonis 
Samaras of “selling his soul for a few extra months 
in office”, criticised the draft law for “the introduction of other sexual orientations and other gender identities” and compared homosexuality to paedophilia and bestiality.

The Metropolitan of Gortyna, Ieremias, citing Bible passages, called homosexuals “dogs”, and protested the fact that, under the new bill, “several prophets and saints would be regarded as racists”. At the same time, the Metropolitan of Konitsa Andreas rejected the bill under the claim that it aims to “cover the perversion that is homosexuality”.

The religious reaction eventually resulted in Antonis Samaras accepting the church’s objections and articles relative to the protection of homosexuals were dropped from the bill. Moreover, the PM reassured the religious leaders who disapproved of the bill that, “as long as he is in office, there’s no way the parliament will expand civil unions to same-sex couples”.

But in September 2014, provisions on the criminalisation of hate speech towards LGBT individuals were approved. However, civil unions for same-sex couples were not. The criminalisation of LGBT-oriented hate speech led to another furious reaction by Metropolitan Seraphim who called the law “an oppression of the Greek Justice system” and “the cancellation of the freedom of speech” imposed by “the nationalistic system and the New World Order instructors”.

On May 12, 2015 Greece saw the first survey ever showing majority support for same sex marriage at 56 percent while 35 percent opposed it.The survey was based on 1,431 respondents and was conducted by Focus Bari. A very high percentage of respondents (76 percent) agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society while 70 percent agreed that civil partnerships should be extended to gay couples.

However respondents remained sceptical about adoption by same-sex couples with only 30 percent supporting it while 56 percent opposed it. Only 14 percent believed that homosexuality is a mental disorder and 54 percent stated that stricter laws should exist to punish homophobic crimes (hate speech in particular).

The clerics’ stance came days after the Strasbourg-based tribunal ruled that Athens was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Although Greece has passed legislation recognising civil partnerships among couples of opposite sexes it remained the only EU country apart from Lithuania to refuse to extend that right to same-sex couples.

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, right. waves as he poses with his partner, Belgian Gauthier Destenay, after their wedding ceremony at Luxembourg's city hall, May 15, 2015.

At least two Greek politicians are known homophobes. In August 2014, Nikos Nikolopoulos, MP, wrote an insulting tweet on his personal Twitter account commenting on the marriage of Luxembourg’s PM Xavier Bettel to his partner. In it, he said “From Europe of nation countries, to Europe of . . . faggots – the President of Luxembourg got engaged to his lover”.

The tweet outraged many Greeks, who asked for an intervention by Antonis Samaras and complained about the fact that they have to put up with seeing people in power attacking the homosexuals. Nikolopoulos’ statement reached the earsof Luxembourg’s PM who replied to the tweet by saying that the relations between Luxembourg and Greece were perfect and would not be affected by an isolated politician.

Tasos Neradgis, a New Democracy MP, also took part in the dispute over the inclusion of same-sex couples in the civil union law and made similar comments. After comparing homosexuality to bestiality and paedophilia, he added that civil unions for homosexuals “have no place in our country”.

Meanwhile, the Greek Reporter website recently revealed that Greece and its capital Athens are at the top of the LGBT community’s list as a choice of holiday destination in a study released at the 2015 World Travel Market in London.
Research data released by the leading global travel networking association Out Now Business Class (ONBC) ranks Greece 9th on a list of 10 leading country destinations and Athens 9th in the top 10 European city destinations for 2015.
The US, France and Australia top the country list while Amsterdam, London and Paris were named as the most preferred cities.

Humanist Aid for Uganda

The UK LGBT Humanist charity the Pink Triangle Trust, which publishes The Pink Humanist, recently provided funding for the Ugandan Humanist organisation HELU to build a classroom.

Here HELU’s Publicity Secretary AYELLA COLLINS 
describes the organisation, its aims and activities.

Humanist Empowerment of Livelihoods in Uganda (HELU) is a programme established in 2009. Its first project was to empower vulnerable girls, including rape victims and child mothers. The programme operates in Gulu, a district in Northern Uganda. Gulu experienced war between government forces and a rebel group called the Lord’s Resistance Army for two decades, and since 2007 Gulu has been a post-conflict zone.

Post-conflict zone status birthed an idea to start up a humanist organisation in 2009. This was made possible through funding from a Norwegian humanist group.

The Empowering Vulnerable Girls project serves to teach girls skills that include tailoring, hairdressing, baking and confectionery, basic farming, training in business management and income-generating activities.

A vocational training centre and a demonstration farm are in place to provide training and alternative shelters for those denied rights to own land. It also provides temporary shelter for any LGBTI discrimination victims and for those accused of witchcraft.
Most of the beneficiaries have children. To keep the kids busy while the mothers attended classes a pre-school was established.

In January 2015 an American charity KidsHeartKids provided funding for two classrooms. A third classroom in now being constructed. We also undertake the following activities:

• Human rights and advocacy training.
• Training/workshops on humanism.
• Training for business management and income-generating activities.
• Basic farming.
• Counselling and guidance and corporate social responsibilities.