Bulletin # 100 (23 July 2002)



Time to celebrate! - 100 issues of the Rationalist International Bulletin

Discovery: Fossilized sensation - man is 7 million years old!

Richard Wiseman joins Rationalist International as Honorary Associate

South Africa: The bloody season of cruelty

Pakistan: Village stones "blasphemist" to death

USA: No First Amendment shield for Church

India: Fire trial of chastity

Germany: Buttocks of destiny


Time to celebrate!

100 issues of the Rationalist International Bulletin

We invite you to visit our archives and watch history in progress. Since its technically modest beginnings in November 1998, the Rationalist International Bulletin has come a long way. Today, 44 months later, we celebrate the 100th issue in English language! “Rationalist International Bulletin is widely recognized as the best web based journal of its kind in the world”, writes Dr. Bill Cooke in Open Society, the journal of New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, serving New Zealand’s non-religious community since 1927.

Meantime, the Bulletin has spread its wings over a major part of the globe. Reaching many thousands of organizations and individuals across the lines of rationalism, atheism, humanism, secular humanism, freethought and skepticism, it is read, discussed and thought about by a growing worldwide community of progressive thinkers and courageous fighters for a better tomorrow. We have identified direct subscribers in 98 countries from China to the USA, from Norway to Ghana, from Bangladesh to Australia (and there are many more, whose whereabouts are unknown to us). Many receivers forward the Bulletin to the members of their organization, to friends and colleagues, post it in their web sites and re-print its articles in their journals. Occasionally, one comes across Danish, Finnish, Japanese, Russian or Arabic translations of its articles. To combat the dangerous and destructive influence of irrationalism, traditionalism, fanaticism, religion and superstition, there is growing interest and much need for rationalism beyond all borders and across all language groups.

In 2001 we launched a Spanish edition of the Bulletin, extending its immediate effect to South America. A German edition followed soon.

Now, we do the next step:

Voilà! Rationalist International proudly presents the French edition of the Bulletin!

If you read French, you are welcome to join the new edition by sending a blank e-mail from your address to Rationaliste-subscribe@yahoogroups.com


Discovery: Fossilized sensation - man is 7 million years old!

The French scientists who dug out his nearly complete skull in the central African Chad region, named him "Toumai”, a name often given to children born close to the dry season. Soon they found that they had discovered a fossilized sensation: Toumai has been living here about seven million years ago – far earlier than previous estimations date the beginning of human life.

The discovery of Sahelanthropus tchadensis (Toumai’s formal name) has created a revolution in the young science of Palaeoanthropology and is considered the most important fossil finding in living memory. The little skull shows a surprising mixture of primitive ape-like and advanced human-like features. Clearly distinct from apes and hominids, humans and their precursors, it has been given a new genius name and a new species name. Sahelanthropus tchadensis is about one million years older than the so far earliest known members of the human family and provides evidence about human life close to the time of split between chimpanzees and humans. “The divergence between chimp and human must be even older than we thought before”, said Prof. Michel Brunet from the University of Poitiers, who led the discovery team.

Molecular biological studies confirm that the divergence occurred in a time frame between five and seven or eight million years ago.


Richard Wiseman joins Rationalist International as Honorary Associate

We are very pleased to announce that Dr. Richard Wiseman has joined Rationalist International as an Honorary Associate.

Dr. Wiseman is a high profile specialist on the psychology of the paranormal, conjuring, and deception. For the past ten years, he has tested psychics, mediums, firewalkers and even allegedly psychic animals. Dr. Wiseman has published four books and over sixty academic articles about his research and frequently appears in the media. He has investigated some of Britain’s best-known hauntings.

Richard Wiseman began his working life as an award-winning magician and currently heads the Perrott Warrick Research Unit at the University of Hertfordshire, England. This Unit carries out skeptical research into evidence relating to the paranormal and promotes the public understanding of science. In November 1999, Dr. Wiseman was awarded Britain's first Readership in the Public Understanding of Psychology.


South Africa: The bloody season of cruelty

Once more it is over, the season of gruesome and bloody rituals in the name of tradition. Sunday, 14 July was the last day of the initiation period, which is still "celebrated" among the black population in many rural parts of South Africa. The season's balance according to police records is shocking: 24 teenaged boys died on the threshold of manhood as a result of botched circumcisions and brutal beatings. For many others the nightmare is still on. More than hundred victims had to be hospitalized with gangrene and septicemia. One victim lost his penis because of gangrene; another had to suffer amputation of his penis, again another amputation of both his legs. But even all those who escaped the onslaught without major physical damages may bear the scars of their "great day" in their minds till the end of their lives.

The initiation schools open every year in early June. When after six weeks participation in the preparatory classes all chants and all details of the rituals are studied, the day of the barbaric act comes. The initiates, teenaged boys who are forced to undergo this cruel rite of passage to manhood, are completely at the mercy of the circumcisers. They can kill them by carelessness and lack of knowledge about the high risk of infection, using blunt and unsterilised knives for the crude operation. But not only carelessness reigns these days. It is the season of cruelty, of suppression and submission, of sadistic triumph of the powers of tradition. Many circumcisers hurt their victims deliberately and beat and even torture them to force them into submission or to punish them for a forgotten word in the chants or a little lapse during the rituals.

This year, police in the village Mafikeng in the North of the country, reported the strange and macabre case of a 77-year-old man, who was obviously forced to participate in the initiation classes and to undergo circumcision. In the process, he was tortured to death.


Pakistan: Village stones "blasphemist" to death

Zahid Mehmood may not have understood what was happening to him. One fine evening, he was dragged out of his little house and stoned to death in front of 300 villagers. His "execution" had been ordered by a cleric, who found him guilty of blasphemy against the Quran and the Prophet. Zahid had written his own name into copies of the Quran in place of the name of Prophet Mohammed, claimed the cleric. According to the police, Zahid had earlier been officially charged under the draconian blasphemy law of Pakistan. But his had been one of the rare cases, which end with an acquittal. This was mainly due to a medical certificate about his mental instability.

Scene of the ghastly murder in the name of Allah was a village in Pakistan's central Punjab province. The police registered a case against the 300 villagers present during the gory act and finally arrested 29 of them for active participation in it.

Only recently the former army captain Yousaf Ali was shot dead by a fellow prisoner in a jail in Lahore, after he appealed against a death sentence for blasphemy [see Bulletin # 99]. Last week, an Islamic cleric ordered his followers openly to kill visiting US navel engineer Faraz Jawed, a Pakistani by birth, who had criticized the cleric during a prayer meeting for attacking the US and the Pakistani government. Jawed escaped.


USA: No First Amendment shield for Church

In a historical ruling, the Roman Catholic Church has been stripped from the First Amendment shield, behind which it had been hiding child-abuser-priests from the grip of the law.

The First Amendment grants a right of confidentiality to religious communities in order to protect religious freedom. Using this right, the diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, refused for nearly one decade to turn over incriminating documents about Rev. James Silva, requested during inquiries and independent court cases of nine former members of his parish, who had been abused by Silva during their childhood. Cases by 40 victims of other priests of the diocese Providence have been blocked the same way. Courts used to accept the convenient escape route. But this seems to have changed now.

“By no elastic stretch of the most fertile imagination can one rationally conclude that such information or any such communication deserves or merits confidentiality as expressions of religious freedom”, wrote Justice Robert D Krause in his ruling.

Justice Krause’s decision was welcomed all over the USA. It marks a watershed in the case of Leland White against Rev. James Silva and the diocese of Providence, one of the longest and hardest fought legal cases against a priestly child abuser. Lawyer Leland White has been fighting for nine years to establish the crimes of Rev. Silva, who abused him, then a 14-year-old boy, as the parish priest of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1970.


India: Fire trial of chastity

The police have arrested 10 people in Indore, the commercial capital of the Indian state Madhya Pradesh, for forcing a young woman to undergo agni pariksha, the fire test of chastity. The victim's husband, now one among the arrested, being a video photographer, the entire procedure of the medieval trial has been documented on video.

While the Hindu priest is chanting mantras, 26-year-old Sangeeta Sauda is paraded in front of the crowd. She has been bathed, treated with turmeric and put into a special pink and white striped saree in preparation of her ordeal. Now the onlookers watch her hands being covered with yellow turmeric paste and wrapped into sheaths of fresh peepal leaves. The priest takes two pairs of long tongs and fetches a red-hot iron rod from the fire, where it has been heated for one-and-a-half hours. The onlookers hold their breath, when it is laid into Sangeeta's hands. All eyes are on her, while she is clutching the glowing rod for fifteen never-ending minutes. Her face remains unmoved like that of a statue. Finally, the priest gives a signal, she drops the rod, and the crowd starts breathing again. Her hands are inspected by the community leaders. She has passed the fire test of chastity and is declared pure, after all of them are satisfied that there are no burns and blisters. Sangeeta had been forced by her own mother and other members of her family and her in-laws to undergo the trial, after she had gone alone for a pilgrimage to a nearby holy place without asking her husband's permission.

This primitive ceremony, which could be lifted straightly from the dark ages of witch-hunt in medieval Europe, is no rare exception. Fire trials are common among the Kanjars, a tribe living in communities in several towns of Madhya Pradesh and in Mumbai (Bombay). In these Kanjar communities, two, three fire trials would take place every year. The priest, who conducted the trial in Sangeeta's case, has done 31 such trials before, the last one in the nearby temple town of Ujjain six months ago.

In Ujjain, Sunny, a young man of 18 years, had been accused of an illicit relation with a local married woman. The community decided to find out the "truth" about his guilt or innocence by means of a fire trial. In Sunny's case, the priest used a different method: he put ten puris (wheat cookies baked out in fat) into a big pot with boiling oil, and ordered Sunny to draw them out with his naked hands. Sunny was lucky, too. He did not burn his hands and was pronounced "not guilty". These fire trials are not gender specific, equally men and women can be the victims.

Though 10 people have been arrested, it is still doubtful, if finally anybody will be convicted by a court of law. In a religious package, crimes and cruelties use to be very resistant against law. And victims like Sangeeta and Sunny, under the pressure of their community, would in most such cases insist that they have not been forced to undergo the trial but did so according to their own wishes.

In a recent public education campaign lead by Sanal Edamaruku, the volunteers of Indian Rationalist Association demonstrated and scientifically explained the "technique" of not getting hurt by red hot iron rod or boiling oil during religious ceremonies or "divine truth tests".


Germany: Buttocks of destiny

In the northern German village of Meldorf near Hamburg, an up to now unknown form of clairvoyance has come to public light: buttocks reading. The father and sole practitioner of the delicate art to reveal the future, is Ulf Buck, a 39-year-old blind man in a purple monk’s frock, who likes to spread a whiff of medieval Christianity in his candelabrum lit study room. The buttocks, he says solemnly, displays lines of destiny like the palm, but is of much stronger power of expression than the hand. By feeling the buttocks lines of his clients with his finger tips, he claims to be able to tell them everything about their character and their future, about success and career, family and sex life, health and happiness, even about their hidden artistic abilities. His clients, he says, are coming from all walks of life; they are cleaning ladies, secretaries or sometimes even prominent members of the community. And all of them appreciate his blindness, as it allows them to remain anonymous when presenting the secrets of their souls and lives engraved into their not-so-public body parts for inspection.

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Honorary Associates: Dr. Pieter Admiraal (The Netherlands), Prof. Mike Archer (Australia), Katsuaki Asai (Japan), Prof. Colin Blakemore (UK), Sir Hermann Bondi (UK), Prof. Vern Bullough (UK), Dr. Bill Cooke (New Zealand), Dr. Helena Cronin (UK), Prof. Richard Dawkins (UK), Joseph Edamaruku (India), Prof. Antony Flew (UK), Prof. Jim Herrick (UK), Christopher Hitchens (USA), Ellen Johnson (USA), Prof. Paul Kurtz (USA), Lavanam (India), Dr. Richard Leakey (Kenya), Iain Middleton (New Zealand), Henry Morgentaler (Canada), Taslima Nasreen (Bangladesh), Steinar Nilsen (Norway), Prof. Jean-Claude Pecker (France), James Randi (USA), Prof. Ajoy Roy (Bangladesh), Dr. G N Jyoti Shankar (deceased, USA), Barbara Smoker (UK), Prof. Harry Stopes-Roe (UK), Prof. Rob Tielman (The Netherlands), David Tribe (Australia), Barry Williams (Australia), Richard Wiseman (UK) and Prof. Lewis Wolpert (UK)

Sanal Edamaruku, President of Rationalist International, can be contacted at Edamaruku@rationalistinternational.net