On my little cul-de-sac in the cookie cutter community of Buena Park, I live comfortably with my neighbors. My faith, or lack of faith, is not a factor in the relationships I maintain. My neighbors know my household is an atheist household. It does not seem to matter.
My cul-de-sac has a home church. Granted, it is a little odd to have a home church in your neighborhood, but these days it is not unusual. We decline invitations to study the bible or worship with our deeply religious neighbors. It is not our way. They understand.
This tolerant approach to respecting the rights of others is a fundamental American trait. It is so natural to our way of life, that it fades to the background. It is important to me because in a tolerant America, my dreams may flourish. In an America that is intolerant, even intolerant in the name of Bushite fundamentalism, my dreams will wither. Fortunately, the issues I care about are waning under the loss of influence experienced by the Bush administration. Fundies are on the decline, attempts to legislate morality appear to have lost some steam, and acceptance of atheism is at an all time high. Yet, I will stay alert because vigilance is always required.
Is it odd that an Atheist would champion the cause of religious freedom? I don not think so. Despite the assertions of the New Atheist movement, religion and spirituality will always be with us. I believe that ensuring religious freedom, encouraging engagement, and most importantly, practicing tolerance, are the keys to assuring my ability to live free as an atheist.
Which is why the story of Uzbekistan pastor Dmitry Shestakov is so troubling. Shestakov is an unofficial pastor of the Full Gospel Church in Uzbekistan. I say unofficial because the Religious Affairs Committee does not recognize the pastors Pentecostals sect. Pastor Shestakov has been sentenced to four years of internal exile. Which translated from the Orwellian means, four years in a forced labor camp. His crime, essentially (from what I can tell anyway) the same as my cul-de-sac neighbor. It gives me the shivers.
Uzbekistan is a complex double land locked country with a ruined economy. It has little hope of moving away from the third world slums of a post Soviet client state. With a religious makeup of 88% Muslim and 9% Eastern Orthodox, it would appear Uzbekistan would at least be tolerant in the area of religion. This is not the case. In the name of suppressing Islamic fundamentalism, the government controls religion. Anyone who tries to worship outside the bounds sanctioned by the State is a criminal.
Uzbekistan is designed as a secular state. It touts its religious freedom in its state propaganda.
Freedom of worship is the citizens' right guaranteed by the constitution to profess or not to profess any religion. Any compulsion of a citizen in defining his religious convictions, deciding whether to profess or not, whether to take part in worship, religious rituals and ceremonies, or receive religious education is inadmissible. Involvement of minors in religious organizations as well as teaching them any religion against their will, or the will of their parents or custodians is inadmissible. The freedom of worship or any other conviction are subject only to the restrictions necessary to ensure national security and public order, and life, health, morals, rights and freedoms of other citizens. Foreign citizens and people without citizenship enjoy the freedom of worship and religion equally with the citizens of the Republic of Uzbekistan and bear the responsibility the law envisages for breaching the legislation on freedom of worship and religious organizations.
Yet with this statement in its constitution, it still manages to send its citizens to labor camps because they choose to worship outside the accepted state norm. What is the norm in Uzbekistan? With 88% Islam and a president named Islom karimov it is not hard to guess. And this is really my point. With a secular state formed with the intent of maintaining the status quo, it is easy to slip into repression. It is just as easy to slip into repression when faced with an external enemy like radical Islam. The United States' response was the Patriot Act and secret detention centers. At the moment radical Islam is the enemy...
With the Bush administration fueled by fundamentalist theology. With hundreds of millions of dollars funneled to religious organizations through Bush's Office of Faith Based Initiatives, and with yes man AG Alberto Gonzales using the full weight of DOT to protect the presidents hand-picked religious causes, I worry about protecting our freedoms, but most of all I worry about loosing them.
Atheists are lucky in Uzbekistan, their right to "not profess any religion" is protected in the same constitution that sends a pastor to jail for claiming his own. I guess that is lucky.