Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Maybe Jack and the Beanstalk Was Real

Feed me, Seymour!

This year, my wife planted some sunflower plants in front of our living room window. She said she gave them some vitamins, which must account for their tremendous size. The tallest one of them all, which stands directly behind my children in this photo, must be at least twelve feet in height, and it hasn't even bloomed yet!

But sadly, I am not even close to the world's record for the tallest sunflower. I did some checking on the Internet, and apparently some guy in the Netherlands got one to grow to over 25 feet! Then again, we'll see how much more this one has yet to grow.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Natural Conclusion of Atheism?

"What's the most you ever lost in a coin toss?"

I have not seen the movie No Country For Old Men yet, but I have watched a few scenes of it on Youtube, as well as reading some review and opinions on the film on various web sites.

One discussion in particular caught my attention, the topic being whether Anton Chigurh, the cold-blooded killer portrayed in the film by Javier Bardem, was an atheist. The discussion was raised by an e-mailer who opines that No Country For Old Men is:

"a modern classic, a deep meditation on the natural conclusion of atheism (the recklessly craven positioning of self for purposes of survival) and the believers who dare to exist for causes outside of self, an endeavor that "No Country" makes clear is noble indeed but corrosive to the soul."

As an atheist myself, I don't see it that way at all. While Anton Chigurh may be an atheist (apparently the novel by Cormac McCarthy on which the movie is based implies that he is), he definitely strikes me as being a sociopath. He feels absolutely no connection to his fellow human beings, going so far as to turn a gas station owner's clumsy attempts at making small talk with him into a potentially life and death situation.

Rather than being a "natural conclusion of atheism," Anton Chigurh is at best a possible outcome of atheism, and one that will be only chosen by a small few who reject the idea of civilization itself. And what do I consider civilization to be? The excerpts below from this post probably express it better than I ever could:

"Civilization is not a lifestyle, it is a way of thinking about our relationship to other people. In a civilized society, you act as though other people are as real as you are - that is, you assume that they feel pain like you do, and you endeavor to do unto others as you would have done to you. In a civilized society you believe that others have rights, just as you believe you do, and you attempt to extend them as justly and fairly as possible.

Civilization has existed in all of human history at one point or another - and if it has a definition, if you can sort out the societies that thought public beheadings were civilized from the ones that didn’t - it comes down to the notion that we have responsibilities towards other people, and th[at] other people have rights and responsibilities towards us."

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Attack of the Holy Water Spritzer

Sadly, my Mom has taken a turn for the worse lately, after having been active and independent for the last few months. She is suffering from anxiety and depression and has been abusing her supply of anti-anxiety and sleeping pills.

My brother Bobby and I resolved to bring her to a hospital with a detox facility and Nassau County Medical Center told my brother over the phone that they had beds available.

When my brother and I were standing outside of her apartment at the senior facility where she lives, one of her neighbors came outside and was walking to her car nearby. She told us she wanted to "bless" my Mom before she left for the hospital.

I had encountered this neighbor before at my father's funeral a couple of years ago. She is loud, short, talkative and very religious Greek Orthodox woman in her Eighties. At one point when I was standing near my dad's casket, she came up to me and kept telling me to "trust in the lord." As much as I wanted to chew her out, I knew she meant well, so I kept my annoyance and my status as an atheist to myself.

But when my Mom came outside to get in the car, the Greek Orthodox woman approached her, telling my Mom that she was going to bless her. And with that, the lady whipped out a pink colored water spritzer and started spritzing what was presumably "holy water" on my mom's chest while doing the sign of the cross. She then called Bobby and I over to "bless" us as well. Bobby obliged her, but I walked away shaking my head and laughing. "How absurd!" I thought. She called to me again, but Bobby told her, "Tommy's an atheist. He doesn't want to get blessed" or something like that. The lady ended up giving my mom the water spritzer and telling how when she was in the hospital, she "blessed" the doctor, the nurses and all the other hospital staff that were involved in whatever procedure she had done there.

With that, we all got in my car and drove off to the hospital.

So, just how effective was Greek Orthodox lady's holy water?

Well, after filling out the forms, meeting with the triage nurse, and then some other hospital employee, all of which took some two hours or more of our time, we were called for a third time for what we assumed was the last meeting before Mom was assigned to her bed. Instead, the man who called us informed us that the last available bed was taken a short while earlier. He explained to us that because the hospital was a public hospital, they had to assign the beds on a first-come first-serve basis.

In other words, the whole affair was an absolute waste of time. So now we have to wait and see if one of our other options, a private facility, will have a bed available for her on Monday morning.

Way to go Greek Orthodox holy water!

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Muslim Woman Denied French Citizenship - Encore

Last week I, among others in the blogosphere, commented on the case of Faiza Mabchour, a Moroccan immigrant whose application for French citizenship was denied because her "radical" practice of Islam was deemed to be incompatible with French values. Part of that radical practice of Islam was her wearing of a niqab, which is similar to a burqa, except that the niqab has an opening so that the wearer's eyes can be seen.

The New York Times has an article (registration required) that follows up with the Moroccan woman, only in this article she is called Faiza Silmi. The article quotes Fadela Amara, the French minister for urban affairs and herself a practicing Muslim of Algerian descent referring to the niqab as "not a religious insignia but the insignia of a totalitarian political project that promotes inequality between the sexes and is totally lacking in democracy."

As for Faiza herself, she claims that she abandoned the traditional Moroccan djelaba for the niqab because the djelaba "was not modest enough."

I don’t like to draw men’s looks,” [Faiza] said. “I want to belong to my husband and my husband only.”

Pardon my language, but I call bullshit on this. If a woman insists on wearing a niqab in a country where hardly any woman wears one, then she is guaranteeing that not only men, but just about everyone else, will look at her. This is not about dressing modestly. It is about making a public spectacle of oneself. "Oooh! Look at me! I'm so pious!" Dressing modestly means dressing in a way so as not to attract too much attention to oneself. Maybe Faiza Salmi should ditch the niqab and walk around wearing sweatshirts, baggy pants and drab colored head scarf.

Oh, any by the way, if these two pictures below are any indication, then djelabas totally rock!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Signs of a Thaw Between Israel and Syria

To anyone following the news in the Middle East, it is no secret that Turkey has been acting as a mediator in peace talks between Israel and Syria.

While the big sticking point of course is the status of the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 War, there are small steps that both sides can take to inch their way towards formal peace.

In my job as a trademark paralegal, I often correspond on behalf of our clients with intellectual property firms around the world. One irritant that firms who wish to file their trademarks in the Middle East is the Israel Boycott Declaration. I have not personally encountered this problem in my nearly eleven years in the field, though I have also not represented clients seeking to register their trademarks in Syria and Iraq, two Middle East countries that persisted in requiring applicants to submit an Israel Boycott Declaration.

An example of the information requested in a Declaration for trademark applicants in Syria asks such questions as: "Do you or any of your subsidiaries now or ever had a branch of main company factory or assembly plant in Israel? .... do you have or any of your subsidiaries now or ever had general agencies or offices in Israel for your middle eastern or international operations? .... what companies are you shareholders in their capital? State the name of each company and the percentage of share to their total capital---and the nationality of each one?"

It is illegal for United States companies to comply with Israel Boycott requests, and the U.S. Department of Commerce has a bureau "charged with administering and enforcing the Antiboycott Laws under the Export Administration Act. Those laws discourage, and in some circumstances, prohibit U.S. companies from furthering or supporting the boycott of Israel sponsored by the Arab League, and certain Moslem countries, including complying with certain requests for information designed to verify compliance with the boycott. Compliance with such requests may be prohibited by the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) and may be reportable to the Bureau."

But in a recent move, "Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji al-Otari approved on June 4, 2008 to exempt all new trademark, patent, industrial drawing and design applications from submitting the Israel Boycott Declaration requirement." The article does note though that "the effective date of the boycott declaration waiver was not decided by the Property Protection Department."

While a development like this is hardly the sort of thing to make the nightly news, in light of the backdoor peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, this does seem to signal a possible step forward by the Syrian government. I will keep an eye on this and see if a date is announced for when the boycott declaration waiver will take effect.

Monday, July 14, 2008

You Know You're Going to Have a Crappy Day

when the shuttle bus you board in the Broadway Mall parking lot to bring you to the train station starts to move before you have seated yourself, causing you to lose your balance as you are trying to sit down and get stabbed in the ass by the seat belt blade!

Yes, that is precisely what happened to me this morning as I endeavored to catch the 8:41 train out of Hicksville. As I reached down to check the seat of my pants while the bus was making its way to the station, I could feel the rip in my pants and my exposed underwear. When the bus got to the train station and all of the other passengers filed out, I moved up to the front seat and asked the driver, "Can you bring me back to my car please?"

He asked me if I forgot something, and I told him what had happened to me. Five minutes or so later, the bus driver had brought me back to the spot near where I had parked.

As I was stepping out of the bus, he asked me, "Do you want me to wait for you?"

I felt like saying to him, "Oh yeah, like I just happen to have an extra pair of pants in my car just in case of situations like this." But instead, I just told him that I had to go home and change.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

France Denies Muslim Woman's Citizenship Application

From the United Arab Emirates English language daily The National, comes this article about how a "deeply religious Moroccan woman has been denied citizenship because her radical practice of Islam has been judged by the highest court in the land to be incompatible with French values."

"The 32-year-old mother-of-three, identified in news reports as Faiza Mabchour, is the first person to be refused the right to become French on the grounds of cultural behaviour."

My first reaction to this is to shout "Way to go, France!" If an immigrant's religious beliefs put him or her firmly at odds with the values of the country to which he or she seeks to become a citizen of, it seems to be a matter of commonsense to deny the application.

My feelings about this are reinforced when compared to the way Belgium handles Malika El Aroud, an internet jihadist whom I blogged about here. As some of my readers may recall, "Malika El Aroud is allowed to advocate jihad against non-Muslims, including presumably the people of Belgium, while being subsidized by the Belgian taxpayers in her nefarious activities, all the while her identity in public being kept anonymous."

Again, my inclination is to support the decision of the French government with regard to Faiza Mabchour, though I think I need to give it further consideration. I would be interested to hear what you all think about this.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Religious Displays in the Public Workplace

Vjack at Atheist Revolution has a post here about atheism and religion in the workplace, and how the religious attitudes of one's co-workers or supervisors "who wear, display, or push their religious beliefs in the workplace can be a problem. "Hostile workplace" generally refers to a form of sexual harassment, but many atheist workers experience another sort of hostile workplace. Express their feelings about religion, refuse to participate in prayer meetings, or turn down enough church invitations, and they can be ostracized, harassed, or even fired."

Black Sun over at Black Sun Journal tackles the subject of religious propaganda being posted on public property in violation of the law, "especially when those messages are anonymous–where the perpetrator cannot be traced or held accountable. It’s clear that this kind of message is not even an advertisement for a particular church. Instead, the signs are an attempt to generically proselytize and induce guilt in members of other faiths or those, like myself, with no faith at all." Read Black Sun's post to see how he personally dealt with the situation.

As for myself, I faced a situation this past Friday that was sort of an amalgamation of the two. Though it was my day off from work, I went to the Nassau County Clerk's Office in Mineola to get a notary signature authenticated for a document that was needed for a trademark opposition in Bolivia.

At the Notary Public section in the County Clerk's Office, there were two women behind the counter. The one to the left was available, and called me forward. I handed her my paperwork and she left to go to the back of the office to look in a file cabinet for the information on the notary public to authenticate the signature.

While I was standing there waiting, my eyes drifted towards the other women behind the desk. She had finished helping the person she was dealing with while I was waiting to be called and was now alone at her workstation. She appeared to be an Indian woman in her late twenties or early thirties with a pretty face. But what ended up catching my attention was her work area itself. Perpendicular to the counter was a pillar that formed a wall in front of which sat her desk. On this pillar were displayed rather prominently a cross, a Christian calendar, and some other Christian materials, along with a small picture of an Indian man who presumably was her husband. I was a bit surprised to see such items displayed so conspicuously in a county office, particularly for an employee who conducted her work face to face with the public from her desk.

I continued to stand there waiting, because the employee helping me was having trouble finding the notary public's information in the county records. While standing there, I noticed the Christian Indian woman staring at the t-shirt I was wearing.

"What does that say?" she asked me smiling, her voice friendly. I turned to face her and let my arms hang to the side so that she could more easily read my shirt, which looked like this. She chuckled briefly and I explained to her that I got it in Florida after taking off from work to finish a scuba diving class. And with that, our interaction ended. The other woman returned to the counter and explained to me that even though the notary's stamp indicated she was qualified in Nassau County, New York State's records indicated that she was in fact qualified in Queens County, which made my trip there a waste of time. Well, it wasn't a total waste, because I also went to the Social Security office in Mineola to submit an application to replace my lost Social Security card. And my experience at the County Clerk's Office provided me with inspiration for this post!

But back to the main thrust of this post. Some atheists in my position might have taken offense at the County employee having Christian paraphernalia so prominently displayed at her workstation, particularly since her workstation was behind a counter where she interacts with the public. On further reflection though, I was not bothered by it. None of the items were of a proselytory nature. Rather, they seemed geared towards providing her with a measure of personal inspiration, and I personally do not see the need to begrudge her that.

Others might retort that if an atheist in her workstation had atheist materials prominently displayed, that it would result in a torrent of complaints and the atheist employee would be forced to take them down. Probably true. But I think there is a difference between having religious items on display that are of a personally inspirational nature in contrast with items that take a negative position against the beliefs of others. If the woman's work station displayed signs along the lines of "Get Right With Jesus or Get Left in Hell," there definitely would be a valid cause for complaint, and I am sure that she would be forced to remove them (unless maybe it was a county clerk's office somewhere in the Bible Belt). An atheist equivalent to this woman's work station at the Nassau County Clerk's Office would be a work station that contained inspirational quotes and materials of a secular humanist nature that made no disparaging references to religious belief.

I don't know if anyone, whether atheist or a follower of another religion, has or will complain about this particular lady's display of Christian paraphernalia at her workstation. Personally, I don't have a problem with it. Given the nature of her duties, I fail to see how her religious beliefs would put her in a position to discriminate against the general public. Rather than have a knee-jerk objection to the display of any religious belief in such a forum, I think it would behoove atheists and worshippers of other faiths to draw a distinction between literature and materials that are merely inspirational to the employee who displays them, and paraphernalia that is proselytory or condemnatory in nature.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

UPDATED: Scratch (Maybe) This Country Off My Travel List

One of my favorite English language publications in my International Media list in my sidebar is the United Arab Emirates daily The National.

The United Arab Emirates is the financial hub of the Persian Gulf region and has a large expatriate population. As noted by Expat Focus, "[t]he United Arab Emirates are generally recognised as the most cosmopolitan and "Westernised" of the Middle East countries and the expat population is growing rapidly. In fact, less than 50% of the population of the UAE are Arabs."

On the other hand, however, "95% of the population are Muslims and Islam is the official religion." Thus, while "alcohol is available to non-Muslims (with the exception of the Emirate of Sharjah where it is forbidden for all) it must never be consumed on the streets or offered to local citizens."

It is probably inevitable then that some tensions would arise between Western expatriates and tourists in the Emirates and the mores and customs of the local population.

One apparent problem is a growing number of complaints about topless women at UAE beaches. From the article in The National:

Public beaches in Dubai will soon have large signs warning women against topless bathing and indecent exposure contrary to the cultural values of the UAE.

Dubai Municipality said yesterday the decision followed repeated complaints from residents about nudity, mostly among tourists. Residents had complained that a growing number of women were sunbathing and swimming topless, municipality officials said.

An extreme example of this disregard for local mores is reported in this article, wherein:

A British sales manager caught having intercourse with a man on a public beach faces a jail term of up to six years.

Michelle Palmer, who is in her 30s, and the British tourist face charges of public indecency after a police officer who had previously warned the pair about their behaviour found them having intercourse on Jumeirah beach.

While a jail term of up to six years is unduly harsh for fucking on the beach, it is perfectly reasonable for the UAE to enforce standards of decency on their public beaches. After all, we don't permit such things on our beaches here in the United States.

But because we are talking about an Islamic country here, you know they can't help themselves from taking their prohibitions to the level of absurdity. To repeat, no one can fault the UAE for cracking down on indecent exposure on their public beaches, particularly those where children are present. But it is quite another thing to make it a crime for even married couples to kiss and hug in public. Again, from The National:

Couples arrested for kissing in public, a crime punishable by deportation, cannot plead ignorance of the law, a senior Dubai judge has warned.

Earlier this year, an expatriate couple arrested for kissing in a parked car narrowly avoided being deported after being found not guilty of a scandalous public act.

A passer-by noticed the couple, photographed them in the act and then reported them to the police.

“The man was planning to take his wife out to dinner for her birthday after a heated argument and he was apologising to her and kissed her. A man who happened to be walking by saw them and took their picture,” said their lawyer, Nabih Bader. The couple escaped with a stern warning from a judge.

As the excerpt from the article above shows, such a law is practically an invitation for busy bodies armed with cell phone cameras to go around snooping on couples and reporting them to the police. It is petty and vindictive.

It is not clear to me from the article how far the law in the UAE goes. I have e-mailed the author of the article and asked if it applies to circumstances such as if I were to greet my wife in a public place and give her a quick embrace and a kiss on the lips for at most a second or two. I also asked the author if it applies to married couples who hold hands together while walking on the beach. If that is indeed the case, then I definitely have no desire to visit the United Arab Emirates with my family as long as such a law is on the books and enforced. Hopefully the writer of the article will provide me with a reply, and if so, I will update this post with his or her response.

UPDATE: The writer of the article on public kissing being a crime in the UAE, Hani Bathish, was kind enough to favor me with a reply to me e-mail. Hani wrote:

"Well Tom, of-course there is considerable leeway afforded, especially to foreign nationals, I doubt anyone would raise a fuss over a couple holding hands in public, or even a peck on the cheek. The UAE, however, is still a deeply conservative culture so it always helps to keep that in mind when you are here.

Thanks for reading The National and taking the trouble to write, we greatly value any and all feedback from our readers on our stories."

Okay, so maybe I might be willing to visit the United Arab Emirates, though to be honest, I am not much of a desert person. I am not keen on visiting Las Vegas either. In conclusion, Western tourists and expatriates in the UAE should not act like obnoxious assholes, and the UAE should maybe lighten up a little on mild displays of public affection.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Beer in Baghdad

From The Independent,

Alcohol is openly for sale once more in Baghdad. All over the Iraqi capital, drink stores, which closed their doors in early 2006 when sectarian strife was raging, have slowly begun to reopen. Two years ago, al-Qa'ida militants were burning down liquor stores and shooting their owners. Now around Saadoun Street, in the centre of the city, at least 50 stores are advertising that they have alcohol for sale.

I have to admit I was at best guardedly optimistic about "the Surge". But this is just the latest indicator that things are beginning to improve in Iraq. Once Iraq's women are safe to walk the streets in shorts and low cut tops, Iraq will be ready to rejoin the ranks of the civilized nations of the world!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Kelantan State in Malaysia Sucks Again

In a previous post in my Malaysia Sucks* series, I referred to an article from the BBC about the state of Kelantan in Malaysia, where the ruling Islamist party is requiring the segregation of the sexes at supermarket checkout counters.

Now, from the Associated Press, via The Jakarta Post, the Kelantan state government "plans to compel Muslim government workers to pray five times a day as required by their religion, an official said Tuesday."

The article quotes "Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the chief minister of northeastern Kelantan state, [who] said Muslims who shirk their prayer obligations "'are not fearful of Allah and are susceptible to committing bribery and other sins.'"

But hold on there Tommy, how do you know Nik Nak isn't right? Maybe forcing Kelantan's civil servants to pray five times a day will make them more honest and efficient!

Okay, fine, let us examine the evidence then. Here is a link to Transparency International's annual Corruption Perception Index for 2007. From its web site, "Transparency International (TI) seeks to provide reliable quantitative diagnostic tools regarding levels of transparency and corruption, both at global and local levels." According to TI, "[t]he CPI ranks more than 150 countries in terms of perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys."

Now, assuming that TI's methodologies are accurate, we should expect that the least corrupt countries in its ranking system will be deeply conservative Muslim countries. However, when you click on the link above to the CPI for 2007, the ten least corrupt countries in the Index are: Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, and Norway. Not a single Muslim country appears in the top ten list. Heck, even the United States only ranks number 20. The best ranked Muslim country is Qatar, which comes in at number 32. As for Malaysia, its ranking is 43.

Interesting then that the top ten countries in terms of honesty and transparency are secular countries that are not Muslim majority. So, Nik Nak, maybe instead of forcing your civil servants to pray five times a day, maybe you need to look into more meaningful ideas for reform, like perhaps better salaries and education requirements? Maybe even send a fact finding team to Denmark, that country you hate because of those stupid cartoons, to find out how they manage to have an honest civil service without bowing to Mecca five times a day.

* To my Malaysian readers who might have stumbled upon this blog by googling "Malaysia Sucks", please note that I am not saying Malaysia sucks in its entirety. I have no doubt that Malaysia is a beautiful country filled with wonderful people. My criticism of Malaysia in these posts is limited to a narrow focus on issues of religious pluralism and womens' rights. As a Muslim majority country with a not insubstantial minority of Chinese and Indian non-Muslims, Malaysia serves as an important barometer for how well a Muslim majority country can protect and promote democracy and pluralism. I want Malaysia to be a successful country, and my barbs are aimed at those persons and forces in the country that seek to turn it away from the path of a tolerant and prosperous nation.

Interesting Article of the Day

From the Kuwait Times, did you know that the United States exports bull semen to Iran?

US exports to Iran - including brassieres, bull semen, cosmetics and possibly even weapons - grew more than tenfold during US President George W Bush's years in office even as he accused Iran of nuclear ambitions and helping terrorists. America sent more cigarettes to Iran, at least $158 million worth under Bush, than any other products.

Well, personally, I wouldn't feel too troubled if some of those crazy religious fundies get lung cancer from smoking our cigarettes. I just hope they don't figure out a way to use that bull semen against us!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

On Atheism and Stalinism

Ivan the Terrible: Pious Christian and Murderous Tyrant

One of the frequent counter-arguments employed by Christians against atheists who refer to the body counts racked up during the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the Medieval pogroms against the Jews, to name a few examples, is to point out the millions of people who were killed by atheistic regimes such as Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's Peoples' Republic of China.

To be fair, they do have a valid point. There are far greater forces for destruction in the world than religion, and the Soviet Union under Stalin is a perfect, if tragic, illustration of this fact. The truth is that it is not so much religion that is the problem as it is a matter of a totalitarian ideology that brooks no opposition or dissent, married to an overwhelming monopoly on force to carry out that ideology. That ideology can have either a religious or a secular basis.

But if one wants to hold up Stalin as a poster boy for the atrocities of atheism, one must also consider whether the blame should truly fall on atheism itself, or if instead if Stalin's atrocities were facilitated by a Russian culture that had historically been conditioned to obedience to absolutist dictators. In the case of Joseph Stalin, it is well known that the former seminarian was a great admirer of one of history's most notorious tyrants, Tsar Ivan the Fourth, better known as Ivan the Terrible.

One of my favorite books in my collection of books on history is Fearful Majesty: The Life and Reign of Ivan the Terrible by Benson Bobrick. It is a well written work and I recommend it for anyone interested in Russian history. The book also is the source of the information about Ivan the Terrible below.

In response to domestic opposition to his policies in the 1560's, Ivan created his own personal force known as the Oprichnina. Bobrick writes that "The Oprichnina became a state-within-a-state. It was an instrument of Ivan's will which paralleled the traditional bureaucracy...with its own ministries, treasury, council and so forth - but which actually existed to implement (not check, balance or modify by legalities or counsel) Ivan's desires."

Here is how the Oprichniki are described on page 198 of the hardcover edition of the book:

To staff his new court and administration and (as was soon apparent) to enforce the expropriation of land, Ivan assembled a sort of Praetorian Guard. Weirdly foreshadowing Hitler's SS, these Oprichniki, as they were called, donned black uniforms, displayed enigmatic or morbid insignia, and regarded themselves as a new form of religious sect with their own rites and customs. Whereas the SS sported a death's-head badge and a runic double-S flash, the Oprichniki rode on black horses and carried at their saddlebow a dog's head and broom as symbols of their determination to guard, day and night, the safety of their master and to sweep away all his enemies. No social contacts between them and the rest of the population were tolerated. Anyone could enlist...so long as he was willing to pledge himself to complete obedience to the tsar, and to faithfully execute all his orders. Their oath was almost a transcription of Matthew 10:37: "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."

This force would be unleashed on Ivan's enemies, real and imagined. Bobrick quotes one eyewitness, who recalls that:

"It was a pitiful and sorrowful spectacle of slaughter and killings. Every day, ten, twenty or more Oprichniki concealing large axes under their cloaks, rode about the streets and alleys. Each detachment had its own list of boyars, dyaki, princes and leading merchants. No one knew what his own guilt or alleged wrongdoing was supposed to be. No one knew the hour of his own death or even the fact that he had been condemned. Everybody went about their affairs as if nothing was the matter. Suddenly a band of killers would descend."

To make matters worse, the courts were prohibited from "convicting Oprichniki of any crime!" As a consequence of this policy, criminal bands would go on rampages garbed as Oprichniki, taking advantage of the fact that no one could "distinguish between bandits and the tsar's own men."

And what was Tsar Ivan doing while all of this was going on? From page 224:

In a profane parody of monastic life, he assumed the role of abbot over a community of Oprichniki brethren...The brethren went about in dark cassock habits and cowls of rough black serge, and divided their time between exhausting church services and atrocities.

The monastic "rule" was strict. Everyone was awakened at three in the morning for matins, which lasted until dawn. During the service, Ivan sang, read, or prayed - sometimes with such fervor that he bruised his brow from beating it on the ground. Occasionally he would confer with his advisers and "often the bloodiest orders were dictated at matin-song or during Mass," which followed at eight. At ten the brethren gathered for their first repast of the day. During the meal, Ivan stood and read occasionally from the lives of the saints or some other edifying work. Leftovers were distributed in the marketplace to the poor. The remainder of the afternoon Ivan spent on affairs of state, or in the company of a favorite, or in hunting forays in the woods. Not infrequently, however (and he was "was never so happy as then in countenance and speech"), he would descend into the dungeons to observe acts of torture. "Blood often splashes his face," goes one eyewitness account, "but he does not mind; indeed he is delighted, and to indicate his joy he shouts 'Hoyda, Hoyda!' - a Turkish word resembling "giddyup" or "let's go," used by Tatar horsemen to urge on their steeds.

While it is clear that Ivan the Terrible considered himself to be a pious Russian Orthodox Christian (indeed, he even fancied himself a theologian and sometimes engaged in debates with Catholic and Protestant representatives), it would be wrong to blame Christianity for his excesses. However, as Ivan was definitely not an atheist, I submit his reign as evidence that it is not atheism that leads to tyranny. In Ivan the Terrible's case, as it was with Joseph Stalin, tyranny and terror was the natural outcome when a ruthless ruler has at his disposal the apparatus of the state and few, if any, checks or balances on his use of power. Sadly, for Russia, this seems to have been a frequent recurrence throughout its history. Peter the Great, though he did not come anywhere near Ivan's savagery, was also able to bend the apparatus of the Russian state to ruthlessly carry out his personal agenda.

Thus, if one wants to argue that atheism is at fault for the atrocities of Stalin's dictatorship, I would argue that one must ponder whether Stalin's murderous regime would have been possible if Russia had not first produced a tsar like Ivan the Terrible.