It is a really special moment for me and you are a very special audience. You are a special audience because it is one of the first times that I have the opportunity to speak to some American people directly. This morning, I read that 53% of American citizens wouldn’t vote for an atheist president and I understood that you are even more special as an audience than what I thought before.
Dear atheists, secularists, freethinkers or, like some would say, heretics, witches, and those with whom I am going to burn in hell, thank you for your invitation and thank you for being here. You represent hope.
My name is Inna Shevchenko, I am born in Ukraine, living in exile in France. I am a feminist and human-right activist and the leader of the International women’s movement FEMEN. This movement was born in a dictatorial Ukraine, within a sexist culture and at a time when society was very apolitical. These were the reasons for creating FEMEN’s topless tactic that became our trade mark, recognised internationally. Appearing topless with slogans painted on our bodies, as we transform them into political banners, we faced the most visible representatives of patriarchy: Putin, Berlusconi, the leader of the Russian Orthodox church Patriarch Kirill, some imams and many others. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Trump as a potential target of our peaceful humanist revenge.
For our activity we faced a lot of violence, political repression from several regimes and opposition from many institutions. We have been arrested, tortured beaten up and death threats have become part of our daily routine.
In 2012 our movement expended to a worldwide scale and today we are represented by brave FEMEN activists in 10 countries, mostly in Europe. After watching the Republican presidential debates, I have no doubt that America is the next place to open a branch and start our activity.
Our mission is to spot out the problems and to shine light on what is ignored or hidden on purpose. Our ideology is an absolute, a quest for an ideal society freed from the conceptions of inequality, in which one could consider himself as equal to any individual. We seek to overcome individual issues and cultural, national and religious specificities that are made to divide us and give priorities to one group over another. I am here to represent a feminist movement, therefore a humanist movement, therefore atheist movement. We believe, where religions begins, women’s freedom ends. We committed to oppose any exploitation or any domination of a group over another and therefore, we give a central place in or our fight to the opposition to religious institutions that are often the source of inequality and oppression towards women, towards people of other confessions, or those whom dare to question and think freely. Religions poison everything, as Christopher Hitchens told us.
Now, I am not a scientist that can argue efficiently that religions are not true, that religions are illusions. I am not a journalist, even though that is what I studied and I often enjoy writing, but I will still not attempt to share with you my investigations on religious institutions and religious leaders as they will not be enough. I am a political activist, and with our actions, we put in place a test for democracy: and we saw that religion is an obstacle to any democratic process. As an activist I will share with you my experiences and thoughts that were formed “on the ground”, while facing religious oppressive institutions with direct criticisms, and suffering the consequences.
Today I want to put an emphasis on our responsibility to criticise religion. I call you to go beyond saying “I am an atheist” but to feel responsibility to point out the evil sides of religions and to speak about the harm of religious institutions on society.
One of the last talks criticizing religion I gave was in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was speaking about the necessity to criticise religions, I was declaring that we should avoid falling into self-censorship by fear of being criticised in return or accused of being offensive. I couldn’t finish my talk because we heard Kalashnikov shots behind the door. Our conference was attacked by a religious fanatic moved by dogmas, a person for whom it is easier to kill than to face criticisms of his ideas. And yet, this is the reason why criticising religion is an emergency today. We are happy to live in a critical society, where we can question many ideas but yet, not all. Religions are ideas among many others, but the world (here I mean believers and often non-believers) treats religions as if their ideas were holy to everyone on earth. We observe a phenomenon of fear to criticise religions, including among many atheists and leftists who believe it is asocial.
I believe that this is the reason why many people have been killed or continue to live under death threats. Criticism of religions is not accepted yet globally as a manifestation of free speech. Criticisms of nationalism, of communism, socialism, feminism are accepted and became a common part of public debates, but not on religions. We will always be warned not to offend, as if it is fine that a socialist or a feminist is offended by a sexist speech but it is not fine to offend believers by criticising their ideas.
Some even dare to say that your freedom of expression ends once you start to offend others. I think that if you believe in freedom of speech with no offence to others, you don’t believe in freedom of speech at all.
Our great friends from Charlie Hebdo were killed because they were among the few who dared to laugh and criticise religions without compromises. They would not have been targeted if there were more magazines and newspapers publishing similar cartoons rather than censoring them. By censoring these cartoons, we censored the lives of 12 great individuals and progressive thinkers. I claim that this our common responsibility.
This massacre of progressive ideas is going on non-stop. And we are not talking about ISIS in Syria, we are not discussing about what is going on in Saudi Arabia or Iran… We are not remembering the past with its Inquisition and witch hunts. We talk about now and here. We talk about our conference in Denmark, Charlie Hebdo in France, American-Bangladeshi blogger Avijit Roy who was killed in February, we talk about Salman Rushdi, Taslima Nasree living under permanent death threats and many others like us. We talk about Mariam Namazie being banned from speaking about secularism on a campus in Britain as if she was there to promote a hate speech towards believers, we talk about numbers of events celebrating free speech that were banned or cancelled in order to protect feelings of believers and not to provoke religious extremists to take Kalashnikovs again. It is happening around you.
So, I need to ask, why should we remain silent if speaking out loud can save lives? If speaking out can protect our fundamental human rights?
I am calling you to criticize, to mock religion, and some of you will say “what about religious freedom”? Criticism of religion is not a denial of religious freedom. As we know there is no freedom of religion without freedom from religion. Criticism of religion is saying that in the same way believers have their convictions and freedom to carry them, unbelievers also do have their convictions and should have freedom to manifest them.
You have religious freedom and freedom of speech. Now, just because you have it doesn’t mean you are right. Be ready to face it.
Criticising religion, historically, has been a manifestation of freedom of expression and a requirement for the progress of our societies. In the 16th century, Machiavelli was criticising religion as one of the main sources of corruption and violence. To Machiavelli, religion was merely a tool, useful for a ruler wishing to manipulate public opinion. Voltaire, being a believer as some say, pointed out religious intolerance towards non-believers or followers of another religion.
And it is Voltaire who beautifully phrased “To know who rules over you, simply find out, who you are not allowed to criticise?” Do you have any idea?
And yes, they still rule over us in the 21st century. Shame on us. What we see today are religions acting as political institutions who dare to impose their rules and laws on the entire society, rather than religions that are here to give moral support to their followers, and this is what they falsely claim to be. Dennett, Harris and Hitchens have asserted that theist religions and their scriptures are not divinely inspired, they don’t serve a moral mission, but these religions are man made to fulfil social, biological, and political needs.
Religious institutions went deep inside our cultures but also penetrated our political and social and legislative systems.
You can be sentenced to death for atheism in 13 countries around the world today. In 39 countries you can be condemned to prison sentences for blasphemy, and 6 of them are Western countries. (Iceland, New Zealand, Denmark, Poland, Germany and Greece).
I believe blasphemy is a pure celebration of free speech. Blasphemy is a pure criticism of religion. However, “blasphemy” was invented as a fake crime by religious institutions to help them protect their religious privileges, superiority over criticisms, and to allow them to persecute anyone who refuses to follow them or remain silent. Don’t remain silent, blaspheme! We demand freedom of expression including criticism of religions, but religions intend to give us only one freedom: freedom from expressions.
While we still can not express our opinion on religions without being attacked and threatened, religions express their opinions on every aspect of our life: they dare to tell us how to dress, how to study, what to do with our bodies and with whom to sleep. Vatican’s anti-gay lobbying, the homophobic campaign that is taking place across the globe to ban marriages between same sex people ordered by the proclaimed rock-star Pope Francis illustrates his real intentions. With FEMEN we resisted the attempts of catholic movements to ban such a law by organising a campaign “In gay we trust”. We have been beaten up in the centre of Paris for this slogan.
They want to ban marriage between same sex people? What we want is to ban marriage between church and state, ladies and gentlemen.
Religious institutions today represent powerful machines that resist any criticism in the most violent way. They will use all instruments they have (unfortunately they have a lot) to ford-bid you to speak out. I know that religious institutions and dictatorial regimes often walk together, as they have the same nature. I experienced it myself in Ukraine. When we chopped down a wooden cross that was voluntarily installed by polish catholic activists in 2004 during orange revolution, Russian federal TV channel (moderated by Kremlin) shared a false information that I destroyed the memorial for victims of Stalinism. This is an example of how church and state work together and which methods they use to defend themselves.
It is also the strategy of religious institutions to transform any criticism against religion or religious ideas into a criticism of believers as persons. In this way, the person who dares to criticise a religion’s evil sides will be proclaimed “phobic”, offender or even racist (as if religions would have anything to do with races).
The other strategy used by religious institutions is to adopt the language of human rights to justify their intentions to oppress and control. Therefore, a rule saying that a woman must hide herself under a black religious dress will be explained as being part of “a woman’s right to decide for her own body” – which is an abnormal hypocrisy since at least a dozen of countries in the world officially oblige women to cover themselves in a way or another. They will deny women’s right to abort replacing it by their demand for “a right for life”. They will demand to punish free speakers as if they demanded for “a right not to be offended” (that doesn’t exist).
Political correctness is one of the main tools used by religious institutions today, and it was given to them by our governments. This constant demand of not being offensive penetrated the minds of many including leftists, free thinkers, atheists… This is a form of ideological dictatorship.
Charlston Heston said the best “Political correctness is a tyranny with good manners”. President’s Obama famous attempt to deny that ISIS is an Islamic group by officially changing the name of the organisation and brainwashing the society is a good illustration of it…
I call to oppose this. I call to stand up. Their methods are scary and violent, yes. But isn’t it scarier to give up and let them impose their rules on our society, on your life?
What should we all do? First, realise why we have to act today. To do that, simply ask yourself a question: Is it good for us?
Is it good that women are perceived as weak and submissive persons? Is it good for us that our children are terrified by a dictatorial God who will punish them for seeking liberty? Is genital mutilation good for us? I am asking you, is it good for us? Honour killings and stoning or blood sacrifices? Is it good that many believers suffer themselves from the repression of other religions’ institutions or become victims of religious terrorism? Is all this good for us?
All this should be said and spelt out. Criticism of religion should become “normal”, common part of public debates.
What is needed is to say the unsayable about religions. It is to neglect the demands for tolerance and threats of being labelled as “phobic” and oppose self-censorship. With these criticisms we can destroy the myth about religion being an “untouchable” idea… If criticism of religion is considered as something normal, the entire society will have benefits: both believers and non-believers. Free criticism of religion will guarantee the whole society freedom of beliefs and freedom of expression. It will guarantee peace for believers and non-believers, and it is a requirement for secularism. It is a base of democracy.
Criticism of religion is a right and we have to fight for it, as for any other right.
Being forced to flee Ukraine, living under death threats and still hearing Kalashnikov shots, I keep fighting for the day when religions will feel guilty for all the crimes committed against non-believers, believers, women, gays, against humanity. I fight for the day when the statement that one man is equal to 2 women will be erased from the Quran, the day when no one will read in the Bible that women should submit to their husbands, the day when Jewish men will stop thanking god for not being created as women in their daily prayers.
I fight for a day when religious leaders will stand on their knees not for praying god but for praying for forgiveness in front of humanity. I invite you to join this now.
Humanism bless America!