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Meet Björn Ulvaeus, Swedish Humanist

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ONE of Sweden’s best-known cultural figures is a member of the Swedish Humanist Association (an IHEU member organisation).

Björn Ulvaeus is universally recognisable as one of the four members of the pop supergroup ABBA. But with the dawning of the 21st century Ulvaeus began attracting attention for his outspoken views about religion. In 2006, in an interview with the Chairman of the Swedish Humanist Association, Christer Sturmark, for the magazine Humanisten, Ulvaeus said:

“I have noticed how religion is becoming a power in politics, and is also competing with the scientific way of thinking. That worries me. I have always been a huge friend of ‘the Enlightenment’ and of science. When I saw irrational, religious conservative values and hostility against science influencing society, I searched for an organisation dealing with these questions.

“I miss those days when people believed in science and common sense, as they did in the fifties and sixties. Now fundamentalism and contempt for science seem to be spreading. I believe that religion should be totally separated from the state. That’s not the way it is today, not even in Sweden.

“For hundreds of years we have struggled to achieve a secular society, and now we seem to be going backwards. I find it quite astonishing that more women don’t stand up to these questions.

“I believe that religious faith schools are highly dubious. I also think that it’s absurd that organisations that have secular aims, for example the Swedish Humanist Association, don’t get the same government grants as organisations that hold services. Perhaps we should start holding gatherings where we pay our respect to Voltaire!”

Ulvaeus, who joined the Swedish Humanist Association in 2005, added: “Contempt for science may have arisen because science hasn’t been able to solve many of our basic problemsI also believe that the atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction show that science can be used in evil ways.”

Addressing the issue of religious fundamentalism, this he said might be due to globalisation, and the fact that many people feel insecure in a rapidly changing world. “In crises of identity people often turn to their religious origins.”

Ulvaeus described himself as “an agnostic, leaning towards atheism. I don’t have, and I think I cannot have, a clear view of God’s existence. I do not believe in the god that is described in the Middle East religions or in any other religions for that matter.”

Asked where he thought the dividing line was between freedom of religion and freedom of speech and human rights, Ulvaeus replied: “I am so incredibly tired of giving respect to a lot of delusions and crazy ideas just because they are regarded as religious. Private faith should, of course, be respected, but it can’t be allowed to influence society or other people. Where do you draw the line between superstition and religion? If you bear in mind that we are living on a small planet in a solar system at the edge of a small galaxy at the edge of the universe, it might be a slight exaggeration to state: ‘We have the answer!’

“All religions claim to be the correct and genuine one. It’s just too much for me. I think it’s important that you should be able to criticise and analyse religions, the same way that you can criticise opinions and values. Religious people must learn to cope with that.”

He added: “The UN declaration on human rights must always take precedence over religious beliefs or cultural differences. It seems to me that this isn’t explicitly stated by our politicians today. Some values must be universal, like human rights and the equal worth of every human being. I believe that politicians in Sweden are too cautious in emphasising this, probably out of fear of being regarded as discriminating against non-democratic cultures.

Ulvaeus explained why he decided to take a stand against religious extremism. “This is our time’s absolute most important issue, a pure issue of survival. The increase of religious extremism is highly dangerous, yet so few dare to question the basis for these ideas – faith. I’ve felt for a long time that I ought to do something, but I’ve held back because of fear of what reactions it would raise if I came out and said something. My family or I could be a target for some madman, but then … I couldn’t keep quiet any longer.”

He continued: “I have always been fascinated by the phenomenon of religion. It includes so many people, the majority on the globe. Religions have such great influence on politics and social progress that they naturally must endure the same criticism, the same scrutiny, the same discussion as all other ideologies or outlooks on life – it goes without saying. I’m extremely tired of how you should feel respect towards a mass of delusions just because they’re called religion!”

What does he think the worst thing is about religion?

“That with religion’s help you can indoctrinate people to believe that they will go to paradise if they carry out suicide attacks against the innocent. And what we’ve seen up to now is presumably nothing compared with what could come.”


Describing his own path to humanism, Ulvaeus (above, left, in ABBA's heyday) revealed that he had “a short flirtation with religion in my youth, when I studied the Bible. When I was about 15 I read Dan Andersson’s novel David Ramm’s Heritage, about a young man, David, who was pondering over existential and religious questions. When I read that novel, I thought I would also like to be a brooder and severe. But it was merely a pose. The school and the music started to take over my life and I didn’t have time trying to be severe and pondering.”

In the ABBA song “Thank you for the Music”, originally featured on the group’s fifth studio album ABBA: The Album (1977), one can see a blossoming of Ulvaeus’ humanism. “…Thanks for all the songs, words and tunes, who needs religion?”

Explaining the thinking behind that lyric, Ulvaeus said “I thought we could do what John Lennon did in ‘Imagine’ and sneak in a statement. Lennon wrote ‘Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, no religion too.’ It is sung in churches and nobody objects to the wish for a ‘world without religion’.

“I wrote the Swedish version of ‘Thank you for the Music’ with Niklas Strömstedt, and we were both prepared for the fact that it would cause reactions. But not one single complaint has been made! Not one single letter of complaint!”

In a later interview published in Dagens Nyheter Ulvaeus said “Jesus is just a myth to me and Jesus himself is just a mythical figure.”

“I am interested in the role of religion in a secular society and marvel at how people can have faith in something that no-one has ever been able to prove exists. I just cannot indulge in a belief in ‘something’ or ‘someone’.”

Ulvaeus has not always questioned religion in quite the same way as he does now.

But the 9/11 terrorist attacks served as a wake-up call. “It was then, that I realised, that people with subjective experiences and revelations that had no basis in reality wanted to assume power over others in the name of religion.

“We see that religious forces are now penetrating the political arena. Religion should not control people’s lives, whether they be Christians or Muslims.”

Despite his harsh criticism of organised religion Ulvaeus thinks that ceremonies with a religious background have their place.

“Many people cling to religious traditions – even when they do not believe in God.”

New documentary exposes the despicable tactics of homophobic Western evangelicals in Uganda

shinnersEARLY in 2014, the Freethinker reported that British evangelist Paul Shinners, left, had travelled to Uganda at the end of 2013, and, at a religious rally, commended the Ugandan Government for its stand against homosexuality.

At the time, Uganda was on the brink of approving what became internationally known as the “Kill the Gays” Bill, and Shinners told a mass audience that Uganda “would be blessed” for enacting such a law.

When the Freethinker broke the story, which led to protests outside Shinners Cornerstone Café in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, the evangelist flatly denied that he had ever promoted anti-gay sentiments in Uganda and, via the local press, threatened legal action against the Freethinker and bloggers Melanie Nathan and Daniel Law, who also relentlessly pursued Shinners.

Finally, Daniel Law succeeded in uncovering a video showing Shinners delivering his hateful message, and the Freethinker carried a piece on June 27, 2014, headed Finally Nailed! The Lying Paul Shinners”.

But this was not the end of the story. Daniel Law decided that the time had come to produce a documentary to expose the activities of Western evangelicals in Africa, and appealed for funds for his project.

When his target was reached, he spent months gathering material for his documentary, Exporting Hate: The Story of Western Christian Evangelicals in Uganda, and this summer he announced here that it is available for purchase, and pointed out that “homosexuality is illegal in approximately 80 countries around the world. Half of these countries belong to the Commonwealth and had these laws implemented in British Colonial times. One such country is Uganda.

“In recent years Western Christian Evangelicals have turned to the developing world to spread their hateful anti-gay sentiments, as their views are no longer tolerated by the majority in their own countries. Their actions have lead not only to anti-gay legislation, but extremely high levels of homophobia among the public in these nations that are a target of the homophobic propaganda.

“By raising awareness of this issue pressure can be put on those Charities that help fund the anti-gay Pastors in Uganda. A number of UK Registered Charities are deeply involved and often take trips to Uganda with their tax free income to speak at anti-gay rallies and help reinforce the homophobic propaganda and hateful rhetoric.

“This film documents the daily struggle faced by members of the LGBT community in Uganda who are fighting great odds to reclaim and protect their human rights. I will be filming another project highlighting the struggles of LGBT individuals in the UK, who have fled persecution in Africa and now fight for the rights of their fellow countrymen. They face an uphill battle going through the asylum process in a country that in most cases is responsible for the hatred and persecution they are fleeing.

“By donating you will help finance the distribution of this film and future projects. You can choose a number of rewards including a copy of this film and a copy of my next project.”

Pink Triangle Trust welcomes the support of Sophie in ’t Veld

sophie2SOPHIE in ‘t Veld has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2004, representing D66, the Dutch social-liberal party. This summer she became a patron of the Pink Triangle Trust, the UK based charity which has been promoting Humanism and LGBTI rights for 23 years.

Currently, she is the Vice-Chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and a member of the Civil Liberties, Justice & Home Affairs Committee, of which she is the ALDE spokesperson. She is also a substitute member of the Economic and Monetary Affairs and Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee.

In ‘t Veld founded and currently co-chairs the European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics, she is co-chair of the European Parliament Working Group on Reproductive Health, HIV/AIDS and Development and is Vice-President of the LGBTI Intergroup.

In 2011 In ‘t Veld was named winner of the prestigious Irwin Prize of Secularist of the Year at a ceremony in London hosted by the National Secular Society for her work as chair of the European Parliamentary Platform for Secularism in Politics (EPPSP).

She is an ardent advocate of the separation of religion from politics and campaigns on a number of issues where this is relevant.

She has supported campaigns aimed at improving the rights of women and gay people, and in 2011 protested to the President of the European Parliament, Jercy Buzek, about his invitation for the Pope to address a plenary session of the parliament.

She argued that the parliament chamber was not the place for religious messages to be delivered, writing: “The plenary session in this assembly discusses and decides policies for all 500 million European citizens, regardless of their belief, faith or religion. It is wholly inappropriate for plenary meetings to be used as a podium for religious messages.

“The European Parliament Platform for Secularism in Politics has repeatedly invited you, as President of this House, for an exchange of views on the implementation of Treaty article 17, regarding the relation between the EU institutions and churches and non-confessional organisations. So far you have not found the opportunity to attend one of our meetings, and you recently cancelled a date that had been set well in advance.

“In view of your invitation to the Pope, we feel it is even more urgent to have a debate on the place of churches and religious organisations within the EU institutions.

“The European Union has to defend the rights of every citizen, regardless of their religion or belief. Freedom of religion is an individual right, it is not a collective privilege. Freedom of religion can only be safeguarded if the EU institutions do not favour certain groups over others. All beliefs and convictions must be heard, including secularist voices.”At present Sophie is campaigning to have the rights of all couples – including those in civil partnerships – recognised across borders of the EU.”

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: “We are proud and pleased to honour Sophie in ‘t Veld in this way. It is good to have such an energetic and determined voice for secularism and justice for all in the European Parliament. The issue of religion and its place in a multi-cultural and multi-faith Europe is becoming urgent, and so Sophie’s work will become increasingly important. The NSS intends to do all it can to support her.”

PTT Secretary George Broadhead said: “We are delighted to have the support of such a staunch secularist and defender of LGBTI rights. Another of our esteemed patrons, Lord Cashman, CBE, stood down as an MEP last year. He was President of European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI issues and it is great that we now have the Vice-President of this group in his stead.”

Isle of Man marriage equality: Peter Tatchell sets the cat among the pigeons. Stuart Hartill reports

TatchellBACK in 1991 the staid and conservative ceremony at Tynwald Field (the Isle of Man’s equivalent to the Queen’s opening of Parliament in the UK) became very lively when an
OutRage! demonstration called on the island to decriminalise homosexuality. Tynwald Week has never been so interesting since.

At least, not until this year, when Peter Tatchell (who actually missed the 1991 demo) visited the island to help move things on.

Peter spoke as the guest of Isle of Man Freethinkers, to launch a Manx campaign for marriage equality and the speedy introduction of an Equality Bill. When we originally invited him it was understood the Bill would be introduced before the next General Election in 2016.

Only two weeks before he arrived, we learnt it had been moved to a “reserve list”. This means it only reaches the House of Keys (Manx Parliament) should other scheduled Bills be dropped at the last moment. The quiet mothballing was hidden deep from public scrutiny, within a long written answer to a parliamentary question. Not any more though.

In fact, we had stirred up a media shit-storm by the time Peter landed on the evening of Tynwald Day. The next morning our guest was doing the rounds of local radio stations. The day after he had a private meeting with Alan Bell, the Chief Minister, reported back to and was further briefed by the IoM Freethinkers and local gay activists – and there was still a day to go before he actually addressed a public meeting.

The next night, that meeting was packed out by an encouragingly broad cross-section of interested people. Peter – nominally only booked to give a talk on his lifetime of campaigning – linked significant events in this with local concerns. Well primed by members of Manx Rainbow Association, the local gay group, he outlined a history of late-20th-century Manx homophobia little known outside the local gay community (excepting my previous attempts to relate it here)

Peter particularly praised the efforts of Chris Shea, a sole Manx campaigner for gay rights in the late 1980s who not only suffered abuse and violence from the general public but even more so from a Manx police force which, at the time, was led by a protégé of James Anderton. Quite understandably, in recent years Chris has retired from campaigns which are now led by younger gays (equally energetically but to far less open hostility). This meeting marked the first time anyone outside a tiny and insular gay community has ever applauded his astonishing bravery, and possibly the first time most in the room had even heard of it.

With Peter’s speech over, the floor was open for questions and comments, which came in abundance. In particular, Lee Vorster, of Manx Rainbow Association, castigated government for breaking promises over the Equality Bill made to his face by politicians, and also their reluctance to follow the UK in “upgrading” from civil partnerships to full marriage equality.PeterTatchell in Peel

Paul Beckett, a local human rights advocate responsible for the abolition of Section 38 (the island’s equivalent to the infamous Thatcher era Section 28) , was next up. He pointed out that just as Section 38 had been quietly and cynically dropped into a Bill meant to decriminalise homosexuality, so the only barrier to full marriage equality was a clause similarly quietly dropped into a 2011 Bill meant to modernise marriage law by allowing ceremonies in venues other than churches or registry offices

This (surprisingly, perhaps, for the first time) introduced a binding definition of marriage in Manx law as an arrangement between one man and one woman. As Paul said, it would be five minutes work to legally draft, debate and pass an amendment in the Keys. More time than that is spent on prayers in the House each morning.

One excuse used by the politicians for the delay of such changes is that the Attorney General’s Office can afford only one employee to draft all new Manx laws. Andrew Dixon, my predecessor as chair of the IoM Freethinkers, promptly offered to crowd-fund one to draft the Equality Bill, if that was honestly the only obstacle.

Other questioners included schoolkids who wanted to know how to fight prejudice in the classroom (to my certain knowledge, the next day headteachers at two of the island’s four secondary schools were asked by pupils to establish diversity forums), Christians grumbling that they were now being ridiculed just as gays used to be (oh, how we laughed at that) and an elderly woman who asked for – and was duly and politely given – an explanation of the difference between civil partnership and full marriage (because, as she rightly said, everyone else she knows is too embarrassed to admit they don’t know either).

At the invitation of Peter Karren, Member of the House of Keys and the sole politician to attend the meeting, the next day Peter Tatchell had a tour of the Tynwald building and was introduced to other politicians.

This caused him to be interviewed again in depth for local radio and press, which in turn meant his visit, and the elusive Equality Bill, became headline news in a week when government had planned to publicise other matters.

The next week, as debate raged on the island, I was asked by the northern editor of the Guardian to help her sound out local feeling on marriage equality. Primed with pages of useful contact details, she then arrived, spent two full days researching and interviewing, and delivered a report which put a big and scary gay cat amongst all our political pigeons.

What next? Who knows? But when politicians come crawling for votes next year, any who hold up the Bill will get a lot of doors slammed in their faces. In 1991 – or even 10 years ago – it would have been the liberalisers getting that treatment. I am proud to say that the rowdy, headline-hogging antics of the Manx humanist group I now chair had a lot to do with that.

Editor's note:

THREE decades after it was decriminalised in Britain, sex between consenting male adults was still punishable by life imprisonment on the Isle of Man. Until the law changed in 1992, gay men regularly complained of being harassed by police – their lives torn apart when they were forcibly outed by the courts.

According to a report in The Independent, shortly before the island’s 1,000-year-old Parliament, the Tynwald, voted to bring the jurisdiction in line with the rest of the civilised world, 21 men had been rounded up accused of gross indecency at a public toilet.

In the atmosphere of the time, two men killed themselves – one after making a tearful appearance in court, the other after the police went to his home. They were among half a dozen who took their own lives as a result of discrimination, campaigners say.

18 isleman gay1 cfb

Things began to change for the better when the ban was lifted. But in 2013, the tiny Irish Sea territory, home to some 85,000 people, was forced to face up to its recent history again when two young women – Kira Izzard and Laura Cull, above – were told by a local Independent Methodist minister they could not rent a house from him because they were in a same-sex relationship.

Despite international outrage over the incident and condemnation from the Chief Minister, Alan Bell, it emerged that the island’s failure to bring in an Equality Act meant that such blatant discrimination was entirely legal.

Bell has long stood up for gay rights on the island and after the story broke, promised to speed up the passage of the Equality Act, which will finally outlaw discrimination not just against same-sex couples but all minorities. “The island went through a difficult time 20 years ago,” he said, “when we had to fight hard to decriminalise homosexuality, and then over the years we have brought our legislation up to date, culminating two years ago with civil partnerships being introduced. We have moved a long way”.