God does not exist!

Every time I go to the supermarket there is a guy selling socks in the parking lot. It’s not always the same guy, but he always says the same thing: “Hello, my friend…” and then elicits handouts with a combination of smiles, hand gestures and appeals to the goodness of god.

Sometimes I give him spare change. Once I gave him a banana, for which he seemed grateful. I’m sorry for his predicament (he’s likely a refugee from a war-torn place), but I try not to let myself become an easy target for people begging for money, either. Maybe this is a holdover from my New York days.

Today we had a brief conversation. It went like this: “Hello, my friend!”


“Ah, god is good, is he not?”

“No, he’s not. You should thank people who have helped you out, not god.”

“But doesn’t god help you, my friend?”

“He’s never done anything for me.”

“Why don’t you believe in god?” he asked.

“Because he doesn’t exist!” I said gleefully. I made sure to smile, too, so he could be sure that he was speaking to a happy atheist. (Maybe secretly I was hoping he’d take a swipe at me. To his credit, he didn’t.) Then we got in the car and drove off.

Later, I asked my wife if I’d been too hard on the man. She replied that he came from Africa and had seen who knows what horrors before embarking for Europe. He may have lost his family and possessions along the way. He’d probably come from a country where life was hell, and seen things that would make us shudder. My little quip wasn’t going to cause a breakdown in him.

Fair enough. I wasn’t going for that, anyway. I was just expressing mild outrage at the idea of a person who depends upon the kindness of strangers but can’t thank them directly. Instead, he thanks “god” – the same all powerful god, no doubt, who surveys his perpetually war-trashed African homeland with such an approving grin.

You can’t have one without the other, can you?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali


On the eve of Durban 2, it might be worth recalling the story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I just rushed through the last hundred or so pages of her autobiography, Infidel. It was a much different book than I had imagined, having approached it expecting a sort of female Christopher Hitchens–a snide wit ridiculing Islam, getting in a few punches below the belt for good measure. Of course, Hitchens is better than that much of the time, but Hirsi Ali is different altogether. She has a patient style, judicious even, and tells her tale bluntly. She is not angry with God (she is an atheist, so that would be contradictory), nor is she burning with rage against the Muslim world into which she was born. Her story is probably typical of many Somali women, except that her father was a high-profile revolutionary while she was growing up. Her genitals were excised at the age of six, as is the tradition of her clan. She was educated as a traditional Muslim, and even sympathised with the Muslim Brotherhood for a period while she lived in Kenya. She believed Islam was perfect and held the answers to all of life’s questions. Then something snapped, and she grew up.

She was betrothed to a man she had never met, and pretty much forced into marriage. The facade of tradition was already cracked, and while on a stopover in Germany (on her way to Canada to become her new husband’s property) she snuck into Holland, applied for refugee status, and was eventually accepted. She learned Dutch (which, from what I can gather, is her sixth language–after Somali, Swahili, Amharic, Arabic and English), studied political science, obtained a degree, and then began to wonder what to do with so much freedom.

Fast forward to Sept. 11, 2001. Hirsi Ali began to speak out about Islam, about how suicide terrorism is not the result of ignorance and poverty. She said the attackers were acting in perfect harmony with their faith. The more she spoke, the more people began to listen. She began to receive death threats, which she didn’t take seriously at first. Then, once a member of the Dutch Parliament, Hirsi Ali dedicated herself politically to the betterment of Muslim women’s lives. That was her bone to pick. She said the Prophet Muhammad would be considered a pedophile and tyrant in modern-day Holland, which some people didn’t like. The death threats began to get serious.

Then she made this film with Theo van Gogh:



Van Gogh was murdered in broad daylight in Amsterdam not long thereafter. He didn’t take the death threats seriously. Hirsi Ali was immediately whisked into hiding, shuttled from apartment to apartment, finally ending up in a motel in smalltown Massachusetts. At times even she couldn’t know where she was being hidden. She could not use a telephone or go online for any reason. She could not risk being traced. Her potential killers could be anywhere, ready at a moment’s notice to make good on their promise to cut her throat.

Even Hirsi Ali admits in her book that all this top-security mishaguss was a bit much. But she was a member of the Dutch government, so she got the star treatment. When she was finally allowed back in Holland, she was made to resign and had her citizenship revoked on a technicality. Her neighbors even complained that her presence made them feel unsafe. They rallied to kick her out of her home. So she became a refugee, again.

Long story short, she was offered a job in the United States, where she now lives and works. Her Dutch citizenship has been reinstated.

So why all the fuss? Ask the guys in Geneva.

Pope Condemns Witchcraft

The New York Times reports today that the Pope Benedict XVI was embraced by the people of Angola, in Africa. They further report that the crowd of faithful Angolans wasn’t the least bit fazed by the controversy surrounding the pope’s poo-pooing of condoms as a useful way to fight HIV (and various other STDs, unwanted pregnancy, etc…). Here’s the clincher, at least for me:  

“The only people who use condoms are those with no faith,” said Simba Teresa, a 45-year-old street vendor, trying to wave away the heat with a continuing flap of her hand. She said three of her five children had died as infants, a common story in a country with one of the worst child mortality rates in the world. “Faith is everything,” she said. “You put your life in God’s hands.”

Now, we live in a world where it is no longer able to claim absolute ignorance of certain things, namely that if you want to have sex without risking making babies–and therefore ending up with too darn many of them–you can put on a rubber. Unless you are a Catholic–no, wait…unless you are a Catholic living in an underdeveloped region of the world. Italy, for example, is home to Vatican City and a healthy majority of Italians still identify with being Catholics, but all of them have recourse to condoms (and, more importantly, use them). The ones who don’t aren’t supposed to be doing the nasty anyway.  So this just goes to show that while most mainstream Catholics will pay lip service to the pope, most of them realize he is full of hot medieval air when he says these things.

One thing the NYTimes article did not report that the Italian media did was Benedict’s plea to the Angolans to abandon their old time religion: witchcraft, animism and all, and get with the new. My guess is that he meant the Catholic Church, that big, democratic holy roller-rink of a faith. I, for one, don’t see much difference between the doctrine of transubstantiation and, well, lesser known forms of religious witchcraft.

Pope Benedict XVI, enemy of Africa

Pope Benedict XVI, in a plane on his way to Africa, had this to say about AIDS: ”You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms.”  The New York Times reports that there are about 22-million people in sub-Saharan Africa infected with HIV. The story is here.

At times I tell myself this man is joking. He seems to be a caricature of a cartoon of a pope. And then, when he has had his say, he appears genuinely distraught that his statements upset some people. I mean, who can be serious when they tell others to control themselves sexually through abstinence? The popes–who one might suppose have no experience, and therefore no real advice to offer–can’t even control their own men, so what other term is there for this but hypocrisy?