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The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 22, Number 2 (Summer 2006).
Last year, we saw the power of the people in the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, where corrupt governments were overthrown by sustained pressure from large sections of the population. Sadly, the Ukraine story has turned sour to a large extent, with the victorious government quickly splintering and the positive momentum for change fracturing. But, hopefully, in the long run, the Ukranian people will remember that they have the power to overturn unjust and corrupt rule.
More recently, we have seen a similar story unfolding in Nepal, where once again, a blatantly unjust ruler has seemingly been brought to heel. King Gyanendra assumed the throne after the murder of King Birendra and Queen Aiswarya in 2001. The killer was said to have been Crown Prince Dipendra, who died by his own hand during the bloodbath. However, there has been widespread skepticism about the official story of the deaths. In a short time, Gyanendra confirmed the worst fears about his suitability for the throne. In February 2005, he suspended parliament and sought a return to direct, autocratic rule.
Over the course of the next year, the king managed to squander whatever residual loyalty that may have been attached to his family. Maoist rebels have fought a long and bloody insurgency in the countryside and made massive advances in rural areas. The mainstream political parties, which for so long have fought the rebels, have recently made common cause with them against the pretensions of the king.
But the decisive contribution was made by the Nepalese people, particularly in the capital, Kathmandu, where curfews and harsh crowd-control methods, including rubber bullets, failed to force them into submission. This resistance has cost at least three people their lives. King Gyanendra finally submitted to the pressure and promised to recall parliament and restore democracy. Like the Ukraine, this story may very easily turn sour, but at the moment, we can simply admire the courage of the Nepalese people who refuse to submit to dictatorship.
The latest example of Opus Dei hypocrisy seems to have been widely ignored. Deeply wounded by the attack on their reputation in the bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, Opus Dei has been on a charm offensive, rolling out suitably telegenic faces in an attempt to show the human side of the organization. Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by the priest Josemaria Escriva de Belaguer (1902–1975), a sympathizer of fascism with a deep distrust of democracy.
Amid all the schmaltz, a magazine close to Opus Dei has published its own cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad. Studi cattolici published a drawing of Muhammad in hell and included a pun in Italian to the effect that authorities were too soft on Muslims. Needless to say, Muslim opinion in Italy was outraged, and even the papacy had to distance itself from the publication. The papal claim to disapprove of Studi cattolici’s behavior is rich, in light of its encyclical Dominus Iesus (2000—written by then Cardinal Ratzinger and now Pope Benedict XVI), which reiterates the supposed superiority of Catholicism to any other faith.
In the wake of the huge popularity of The Da Vinci Code, it comes as no surprise that the discovery of the lost Gospel of Judas should also excite interest. Indeed, the story of the Judas Gospel is potentially far more subversive of the Christian message than any speculation about Jesus’s lineage. The Gospel was discovered by an Egyptian trader and was first made available to Western scholars in 1983, but an unseemly squabble about its value meant it was consigned to a bank vault in Hicksville, New York, where it deteriorated significantly. That story in itself would make a good novel.
Unlike the much vaunted James ossuary (remember that?) of 2003, care seems to have been taken to ensure that the Gospel of Judas is not a fake. Carbon dating on five separate samples of the papyrus and the leather binding date the work to between 220 and 340 c.e. There is also a reference to this Gospel in Irenaeus, Against Heresies, which is usually dated to about 180 c.e.
The Gospel of Judas is generally Gnostic in tone and focuses on the Gnostic preoccupation of being rid of the things of the flesh that we might be brought closer to God, the author of all that is holy. In this vein, it turns the betrayal story on its head and renders Judas’s act heroic in the extreme. The job of ridding Jesus of his fleshly aspect was assigned only to his most devoted and learned disciple—Judas. The Gospel of Judas changes the history of early Christianity, according to Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels. So much of the Christian story rides on the betrayal of Judas, including the long history of anti-Semitism.
It is encouraging to see humanist organizations taking the initiative over the Muhammad-cartoons saga. After the first wave of Muslim outrage had subsided, a group of progressive and humanist organizations held a rally in Trafalgar Square in London to protest the intimidation of free expression. Participating organizations included the Rationalist International, the National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Association, and the Libertarian Alliance. About six hundred people heard speakers such as Dr. Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat human-rights spokesman, defend freedom of expression as a foundation stone of the open society.
One speaker, Maryam Namazie, declared that “Offensive or not, sacred or not—religion and superstition—Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Scientology and so on—must be open to all forms of criticism and ridicule.” If that sounds like too much, just try and think what the alternative would be like.
Bill Cooke is Asia-Pacific Coordinator of the Center for Inquiry and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is the author of the Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism, and Humanism.