Friday, 21 December 2007

Polly Toynbee: No one's trying to ban Christmas

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In today's Guardian British Humanist Association President Polly Toynbee blasts back at the ridiculous notion that atheists, secularists and humanists are trying to ban Christmas. It seems she was moved to write about this after one of her readers sent her a copy of the Christmas message by Rev Jules Gomes, chaplain of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, which read: "More Christians have been martyred for their faith in the last century than in any other period of church history. Yesterday's Herod is today's Richard Dawkins and Polly Toynbee, seeking the total extermination of all forms of Christianity. The great irony is that the greatest opposition to Christ comes from so-called broad-minded people who seek to ban Christmas so that people of other faiths are not offended."

As Polly proceeds to point out, this is all complete nonsense. The myth that secularists are trying to ban Christmas is becoming far more tiresome than that other famous myth you tend to hear at this time of year.

Let's face it, most people love Christmas, even if they don't believe/couldn't care less about the "true meaning". Which is something we've been stressing at New Humanist. As comedian Carrie Quinlan pointed out in our November/December issue, for most people these days Christmas is all about spending time with family, just as New Year is all about spending time with Alka-Seltzer. And the vast majority have no interest in renaming the holiday. As Michael Bywater wrote for our website, it's absurd to refer to it as anything other than Christmas. If there are people out there trying to rename it Winterval or Festivus, they may as well give up because it isn't going to catch on. All they're doing is providing the conservative press with ready-made scare stories.

So, no matter what Vanessa Feltz, Stephen Green, Nick Ferrari and all the rest may think (see Robin Ince on his TV confrontation with this delightful bunch), secularists aren't trying to ban Christmas. In fact, speaking on behalf of the New Humanist staff, we're very much looking forward to it. We're just putting the finishing touches to the January/February issue (Attenborough, Darwin, Zizek, torture, luxury, liberty – don't miss it) before dispersing to spend some quality time with friends, family, food and alcohol.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

The End of the World Cult – the debate continues

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Ben Anthony's documentary, The End of the World Cult, broadcast last week on Channel 4, has triggered a good deal of debate on web forums. The documentary told the story of the Strong City cult of New Mexico, and its leader Michael Travesser, who was formerly a Seventh Day Adventist Pastor named Wayne Bent. Michael believes he is the Messiah and has a worrying tendency to set dates for the end of the world that the members of his cult (including several children) readily buy into.

We're aware of at least three forums where users have been fiercely discussing the documentary – A Thinking Man, Vice Magazine and DigiGuide. There's a lot to get through, but watch out for input from someone who may be Travesser himself on Digiguide, strangely posting under his real name of Wayne Bent. Also look out for "Mr Rational" on Vice, who rationally declares the following: "I know who Michael Travesser is. He is the Son of God come to save this adulterous sinful generation from themselves. Those who will follow him are saved".

Ben's diary of his time in Strong City in the days leading up to 31 October this year, when Travesser predicted the world would end, appears in the Jan/Feb issue of New Humanist.

Robin Ince takes on Vanessa Feltz and Stephen Green

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Our latest web exclusive offering comes from stand-up comedian Robin Ince, who recounts the infuriating experience of "debating" the "de-Christianisation" of Christmas with Vanessa Feltz, Nick Ferarri and Stephen Green (he of the delightful Christian Voice) on an ITV talk show.

Personally I could think of few things worse than debating with Vanessa Feltz (if anyone out there wishes to torture me, you could do worse than force me to listen to her radio show), so full credit to Robin for even managing to get through it. As you'll see from his piece, he's slightly annoyed with himself for losing his temper with these people, but you can hardly blame him when he was faced with the likes of Feltz and Green spouting unsubstantiated nonsense about secularists and PC liberals ruining Christmas.

With that in mind, I'm off to protest against the indoctrination of children through use of the traditional school nativity...

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Is the Pope Catholic? The religious views of the new England manager

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If football truly is a religion, and Fabio Capello achieves the impossible and leads the England team to salvation, we may just have to recognise him as the high priest of the national game, the Holy Father of the FA. Which will be appropriate given the insight into his faith and politics provided by today's Independent.

You see, it turns out that England's new Pope is indeed a Catholic. Hardly surprising, you might say, given the fact that he's Italian, and what of it? Nothing much really, except that Capello has been known to make his views public on more than one occasion – and these views are just as conservative as his style of football.

In a job that saw Glenn Hoddle fired for claiming disabled people are being punished for misdemeanours in their past lives, any new incumbent might be well-advised to keep any controversial views on matters of heaven and earth under wraps. Which may prove difficult for Capello, who earlier this year proclaimed his support for the conservatism of Pope Benedict XVI: "I'm very Catholic and I am not at all in favour of the current [Italian] law on abortion. I like the Pope – for me now the Church needs a traditionalist turn. I am someone who prays twice a day, in the morning and evening, wherever I find myself".

In addition to backing God's notorious rottweiler, the soon-to-be England boss – a supporter of Silvio Berlusconi – has previously expressed his admiration for General Franco, the fascist Spanish dictator whose regime was responsible for the deaths of 200,000 people. On returning to Italy from a spell managing Real Madrid, Capello was full of praise for Spanish society: "In Madrid, I breathed a sparkling atmosphere, the air of a country in Europe making the greatest progress. When I returned to Italy it seemed I had taken two steps back. Spain in two words? Latin warmth and creativity regulated by a rigorous order. The order which comes from Franco."

So, with this in mind, should humanist football fans (yes, them) rethink any support they may have had for the appointment of Capello? We'll certainly be keeping an eye on what the new boss has to say on non-footballing matters (he's already a possible contender for next year's Bad Faith Awards), but in the dressing room perhaps an iron fist is just what's required to whip England's perennial underachievers into shape?

A nativity scene for modern Britain

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We all know the various Christian churches spend much of Advent moaning about how people are "forgetting the true message of Christmas", and how we secular types are devaluing their flagship festival in our desire to take time off work, eat, drink, and be merry. We also know they like to complain about depictions of Christmas scenes that don't fit the church-approved image of Jesus et al, such as the "sacrilegious" Red Bull ad we featured on this blog last week.

Considering this, it's probably fair to say that many Christians won't approve of the "Chavtivity" scene featured in this morning's Metro newspaper. The image, entitled "A Glasgow Nativity Scene", is being used widely on online Christmas cards and depicts Mary and Joseph as tracksuited "chavs" sitting in a smashed-up bus shelter while the baby Jesus lies in a Burberry-patterned pram. Mary sits smoking a cigarrette, while Joseph holds a pitbull terrier on a gold lead. The Three Wise Men are also depicted as chavs, and they come bearing gifts of booze, cigarettes and a stolen satellite box. Joseph also seems to appear on a "wanted" poster on the bus shelter notice board.

Elsewhere in the Metro, one reader, an E Mathieson of North Yorkshire, is displeased with secular encroachments on the festive season: "In these times of heightened religious inspection and introspection, I find myself faced with several issues of intellectual clarity and integrity. Is it not fair to ask all atheists to refrain from participating in all aspects of Christmas? Equally, given that December 25 is of no significance within the atheist calendar, should they not ask for the restoration of their denied right to work on that date?"

I'll throw that one out to readers of this blog...

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

AC Grayling blasts back at Theodore Dalrymple's attack on the New Atheists

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In the latest addition to our web-exclusive articles, regular New Humanist contributor AC Grayling has penned a response to Theodore Dalrymple's attack on the New Atheists from the autumn edition of the City Journal.

In his article Dalrymple (the pen name of the retired prison doctor and psychiatrist Anthony Daniels) accuses the New Atheists – among whom he includes Grayling – of failing to say anything new, and of underestimating the role of religion in culture and morality.

In his response, Grayling refutes Dalrymple's criticisms, arguing that "where we are now in historical terms owes far more to the struggle against religion than to the very nice [religious] music, buildings and paintings which jointly seem to exhaust Mr Dalrymple's idea of civilisation."

As always, please feel free to leave your comments on this post.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Indian judge summons Hindu gods to court

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The Hindu gods Ram and Hanuman have been summoned by a judge to help resolve a property dispute in Jharkhand, India.

The case concerns a 20-year long dispute over 1.4 acres of land that houses two Hindu temples. Local residents say the land belongs to Ram and Hanuman, while the temple priest Manmohan Pathak claims it belongs to him.

Having sent out summons by post to no avail, Judge Sunil Kumar Singh placed adverts in local newspapers, telling the gods "You failed to appear in court despite notices sent by a peon and later through registered post. You are hereby directed to appear before the court personally".

Although they are presumably risking legal consequences, the deities are yet to respond to the summons. Nevertheless, local lawyer Bijan Rawani defended the decision to order Ram and Hanuman to appear in court: "Since the land has been donated to the gods, it is necessary to make them a party to the case".

Mitt Romney: give religion a greater role in US public life

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney yesterday suggested he would give evangelical Christians a greater role in US public life if elected president, the Guardian reports.

In a speech aimed at winning over Christians suspicious of his Mormon beliefs, Romney attacked secular Americans who fight to defend the constitutional separation of church and state: "In recent years the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. . . [secularists] seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgement of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

Romney went on to advocate placing greater emphasis on religion in history lessons, and expressed support for the display of nativity scenes in public places. He also took time criticise low church attendance in Europe, lamenting the fact that "so many of the cathedrals now stand as the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too 'enlightened' to venture inside and kneel in prayer".

Romney has been leading the Republican polls for the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary – which both take place in early January – but has recently been losing ground to Mike Huckabee, who has marketed himself as a "Christian leader" to contrast with the Mormon Romney. As a result Romney has emphasised the fact that he believes in Jesus.

Just to dispel concerns that either of these men might end up becoming US president, it's worth remembering that national polls show Rudy Giuliani and John McCain to be the frontrunners for the Republican nomination.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Bad Faith Awards: Vote for the winner now

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After months of nominations, the time has finally come to decide who walks away with the coveted 2007 New Humanist Bad Faith Award.

To help you decide who will be crowned 2007's most scurrilous enemy of reason we've pulled together a shortlist of 10 runners and riders. Have a read, follow the links for more information on the nonsense they've been spouting, then place your vote in the poll at the top right of this page:
  • Chuck Norris: These days the martial arts legend seems to spend less time cracking skulls and more time lamenting the moral decline of Western civilisation. His weekly column on conservative Christian website WorldNetDaily is a goldmine of evangelical rantings, and his Bad Faith nomination comes by way of his declaration that if he was US President he would "tattoo an American flag with the words 'In God we trust' on the forehead of every atheist".
  • The Bishop of Carlisle: This Cumbrian prelate shot to fame when he suggested this summer's floods were God's punishment for Britain's liberal attitude to homosexuality.
  • Richard Dawkins: One heretic New Humanist reader even put forward rationalism's very own Dawkins, for turning "the 19th century's doubting of religious dogma into another kind of dogma". The cheek...
  • Westboro Baptist Church: That delightful bunch who picket the funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq, displaying such tactful signs as "God hates fags" and "God blew up the troops".
  • Archbishop Francisco Chimoio: Head of the Catholic Church in Mozambique who claims some European-made condoms are deliberately infected with HIV in order to quickly finish off the African people.
  • Dinesh D'Souza: Conservative author who said the following about the Virginia Tech massacre: "Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found".
  • General Sir Richard Dannatt: Chief of the General Staff, and self professed evangelical, who said: "In my business, asking people to risk their lives is part of the job, but doing so without giving them the chance to understand that there is a life after death is something of a betrayal".
  • Pope Benedict XVI: Clearly the bookies' favourite. Perhaps he should be excluded to give the rest a chance?
So there we have it. The poll is open until 16 December, and the winner will be announced in the January/February issue of New Humanist.

15-year-old girl lured into "vampire" cult

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A 15-year-old child prodigy studying at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri, was drawn into an underground cult of "vampires" as she struggled to fit into her new environment, a local newspaper reports.

LaCallia Wiggins was approached in August by a group who told her she'd been a vampire queen in a past life – a fact they could deduce from the shape of her ears. They told her they just needed to awaken her and she could be a queen again.

Over the next two months she hung out with the group – mostly composed of teenagers, but led by a man in his 20s – in their underground hideout, where they cut themselves, drank each other's blood and sucked each other's wounds. They also discussed an impending battle between good and evil.

On Halloween LaCallia was reported missing by her mother, having run away from home that morning. When she was found by police that evening, she said she was off to Springfield cemetery for her "awakening" ceremony: "You have to drink the blood of a vampire and they have to drink your blood".

On returning home she hissed at her mother and stepfather, calling them "humans", as well as hissing at the family dog. The newspaper reports that she has since calmed down and has been seeing a counsellor. However, LaCallia will not sleep with the light off and says she was received death threats from the vampires warning her that her tongue will be cut out.

While local police say they haven't noticed a problem with such a group in the area, the newspaper says that many elements of the girl's story check out. For instance, there is evidence of a dwelling in the drainage tunnel where LaCallia claims the vampires gathered.

Your chance to question Dawkins on the BBC website

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This Sunday (9 December) Richard Dawkins is appearing on the BBC website's Have Your Say programme, where readers will have their chance to question the author of The God Delusion.

Go to the Have Your Say section of the BBC site, where there are instructions for how you can take part.

Catholic priest forces Red Bull to pull "sacreligious" ad

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The makers of popular energy drink Red Bull have withdrawn an Italian TV commercial that pokes fun at the nativity story after an Italian priest complained that it was disrespectful to Christianity.

The advert – which we're pretty sure appeared over here years ago – features an extra Wise Man who comes bearing the gift of a can of Red Bull for the newborn baby Jesus. This was all too much for Father Marco Damanti from Sicily, who argued that "the image of the sacred family has been represented in a sacrilegious way. Whatever the ironic intentions of Red Bull, the advert pokes fun at the nativity, and at Christian sensitivity."

Presumably he was offended by the notion that Mary's boy child might fancy a little pick-me-up of caffeine, sugar and taurine after a tough night in the stables. He is also said to be offended by the use of animated angels to deliver the company's slogan of "Red Bull gives you wings" at the end of the advert.

To be honest, it sounds like it would have been easier if Father Damanti had just produced a short list of the things that don't offend him.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

GALHA Public Meeting: Did Christians steal Christmas?

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The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association are hosting a talk in London on Friday 14 December by Robert Stovold, author of the new pamphlet Did Christians Steal Christmas? He'll be discussing the pagan origins of the festive season.

All are welcome. It's taking place at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London on 14 December at 7.30pm. There's a £5 cover charge, which includes mulled wine and mince pies.

Monday, 3 December 2007

14-year-old Jehovah's Witness dies after refusing transfusion

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A 14-year-old boy from Seattle died last week after a judge ruled that he did have the right to refuse a blood transfusion. Doctors had predicted that Dennis Lindberg, who was suffering from leukemia, would have a 70 per cent chance of surviving the next five years if he underwent a transfusion.

In a hearing last Wednesday, Skagit County Superior Court Judge John Meyer ruled that Lindberg's decision was his own: "I don't believe Dennis' decision is the result of any coercion. He is mature and understands the consequences of his decision... I don't think Dennis is trying to commit suicide. This isn't something Dennis just came upon, and he believes with the transfusion he would be unclean and unworthy."

However the boy's birth parents, who do not have custody, believe their son was influenced by his Jehovah's Witness aunt. They had hoped Dennis would have the transfusion, and attended the hearing last week.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Just call it Christmas

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When our editor emailed New Humanist contributor Michael Bywater to invite him for a "Winterval" drink the other week, he triggered a fantastic rant on the absurdity of referring to the period as anything other than "Christmas".

With the onset of December we've published this on our website as part of our new web-only content, as it really did deserve a wider audience. Have a read and let us know what you think. What do you think of alternative names like "Winterval", and how should us heathens refer to Christmas? Leave your suggestions by commenting on this blog post. Should we even observe or celebrate it? Does anyone really care?

Also, make sure you let us know what you think by voting in the poll at the top right of this page.

Religion-free morality

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Time magazine's latest cover story tackles the question of what makes humans moral – and refreshingly there's not a religious explanation in sight. The piece, by Time senior writer Jeffrey Kluger, looks for answers in biology, anthropology and sociology to the question of why humans adhere to, or in many cases break, moral codes.

The only appearance from religion is in reference to the practice of shunning in order to enforce group morals: "Religious believers as diverse as Roman Catholics, Mennonites and Jehovah's Witnesses have practiced their own forms of shunning—though the banishments may go by names like excommunication or disfellowshipping".

It's an excellent article that doesn't even bother wasting time on the notion that we may have gained our morality from supernatural sources, or for that matter the idea that the only reason humans have acted morally throughout history is because they were told to do so by priests, Popes, clerics, holy books and so on.

Of course, it's not an article that would please religious readers. The GetReligion blog (slogan: "The press... just doesn't get religion") can't believe that a reputable publication like Time would cover morality without resorting to religious explanations: "To think that science ever could explain the why speaks of a curious certainty that science can solve life’s deepest mysteries through chemistry and brain waves and sociobiology. To publish an article that not only makes such triumphalist claims for science, but fails even to acknowledge millennia of religious thinking about these mysteries, is one of the most ridiculous stunts in journalism this year".

You learn something every day...

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In seeking items to post on this blog I come across a lot of nonsense (I'm not saying this is a bad thing), and today is no different. I'm not sure how I've managed in the past without knowing what a "demonologist" is. But it's OK, because thanks to this interview with "noted demonologist" Keith Johnson, now I know.

You see, a demonologist "is essentially someone who makes a study of the activity, nature and history of demons, and is at least somewhat skilled in the practical application of this knowledge to apply this knowledge".

Of course they are. How could I not have known that? It seems I am not alone in becoming recently enlightened, as apparently TV exposure has meant "the reality that the demonic realm is indeed a reality is receiving greater awareness. People who genuinely need assistance with demonic disturbances are finding out that they are no longer alone in their situations, and that there are some reliable sources to turn to for help."

With this in mind, I trust you will all sleep sounder tonight.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Catholic commentator Christina Odone in row over carol service speech

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Catholic journalist Christina Odone has pulled out of speaking at the Royal Commonwealth Society's annual carol service after her speech was rejected for being too polemical.

Odone, who regularly bemoans the "persecution" of the religious in British society (see our July editorial), had penned a speech on what she sees as the hostility shown towards those wishing to express their religion in Britain, claiming that "in a culture increasingly hostile to God and his followers, expressions of faith have become taboo". She had been asked to speak about "opportunities for all", and told that her speech could be "political and controversial".

Stuart Mole, the director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, told Odone the speech would not be suitable for the carol service, saying it was necessary to consider those of little or no faith who nevertheless might wish to turn up and hear a few carols. Instead Odone was asked to read a passage by Bertrand Russell, and needless to say she refused and pulled out of the event.

All this led to a heated exchange between Odone and Mole on this morning's Today programme, which you can listen to here (skip 20 minutes into the audio clip).

Also, if you do listen to the Today clip, let it run on after Odone to hear one of the least insightful pieces of sporting analysis you're likely to come across. A Professor Tom Cannon from the University of Buckingham's business school has "worked out" the four measures of success for judging who should become the next England football manager, a theory which basically boils down to "have they been successful in the past?" Thanks for that Prof.

Discussions featuring the New Atheists available on DVD

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The Richard Dawkins foundation is to sell DVDs of a discussion it held earlier this year between Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. The four agreed that all profits from DVD sales of the discussion would be donated to the Ayaan Hirsi Ali security fund. The DVDs will be available at the end of December priced $20. Visit the Dawkins site for more information.

The Dawkins foundation is also releasing a set of two DVDs featuring lectures by Hirsi Ali, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and more at the 2007 conference of the Atheist Alliance International. This will be available in the first week of December, and again profits will go to the Hirsi Ali fund.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Turkish publisher of God Delusion could be charged for inciting religious hatred

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The owner of Turkish publishing house Kuzey may be charged with inciting religious hatred for publishing Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. According to a report on the Guardian website, a Turkish prosecutor is considering whether to charge Erol Karaaslan as both the translator and publisher of the book, which has sold more than 6,000 copies in Turkey since its publication in June.

It seems the investigation was triggered by a complaint from a reader, who argued the book was an assault on "sacred values". If convicted Karaaslan could face up to a year behind bars.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Christina Martin: Why is it fine to mock disabled people, but off limits to joke about God?

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As a bi-monthly magazine we often find events occur that we'd love to cover, only for the opportunity to have passed by the time our next issue comes out. That's why we've added a new Web Exclusives section to the New Humanist website, allowing us to publish additional content to what you see in the magazine.

To get things started we've got comedian Christina Martin asking why jokes about disability are considered fair game in comedy, while jokes about religion can get you banned from venues and broadcasting channels.

Christina wrote a piece for us earlier this year where she told how her jokes about Jesus and the Pope had affected her chances of appearing on Paramount TV, who were seemingly too worried that she might offend Christian viewers. Yet, as she observes in her latest piece, time and again she hears comedians mocking disabled people to the sound of roaring laughter. Why is this considered fine, while jokes about God are seen as too likely to offend?

Have a read of Christina's piece and let us know what you think by commenting on this blog post. Do you think disabled jokes are becoming all too common in comedy? Or should no topic be off limits? Does religion get unfairly shielded from mockery, or is it wrong to poke fun at deeply-held beliefs?

Next up on Web Exclusives, we'll have the writer and critic Michael Bywater on the absurdity of referring to Christmas as "Winterval".

Friday, 23 November 2007

The Atheism Tapes: full interviews from Jonathan Miller's A Rough History of Disbelief

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The extended interviews from Rationalist Association president Jonathan Miller's BBC4 series Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief are available on YouTube, featuring the likes of Richard Dawkins, Arthur Miller, Daniel Dennett and Colin McGinn.

Simply search for "Atheism Tapes" (or follow the link above) to access the full list. To get you started, here's the first part of the interview with Dawkins:

NH contributor Stan Cohen on Comment is Free

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Regular New Humanist contributor Stan Cohen has a piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free site today, discussing Israeli academic Carmi Gillon's upcoming visit to London.

Gillon is the Hebrew University's vice president of external relations – but he is also a former head of the Shin Bet, the internal Israeli general security service. He occupied senior positions within the organisation from 1988-95, which, as Stan writes, "was the high point in Shin Bet's policy of torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees". In his piece Stan questions Hebrew University's wisdom in appointing someone with Gillon's track record, while at the same time Israeli academics claim "to be at the forefront of the struggle for justice for the Palestinians".

This ties in nicely with Stan's upcoming article for the January/February 2008 issue of New Humanist, when he will be discussing the return of torture.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Video of the US Dover Area intelligent design case

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Alan Watson at Humani has forwarded us this great resource for anyone interested in the intelligent design debate in America. Popular US science TV series NOVA have put online their 2-hour show on the 2005 federal court case over the teaching of intelligent design in the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania.

It was a landmark case in which the judge ruled that intelligent design had no place in science lessons. It originated when a group of parents sued the school district over a statement that the school board required teachers to read out in science classes whenever evolution was taught. This stated that evolution was a theory rather than a fact, and offered students a book on intelligent design, Of Pandas and People, if they were interested.

The film is split into handy 10 minute chunks, so dig in.

Missing American pastor resurfaces as small-town mayor

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Here's an amazing story. The pastor of a church in Hammond, Indiana who mysteriously disappeared in 1980 has resurfaced under a different name – and it turns out he's been the mayor of the small Arkansas town of Centerton for the past six years.

Don LaRose, who was pastor of the Hessville Baptist Church in Hammond, disappeared 27 years ago, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. He had previously claimed to have been abducted by a Satanic cult in 1975 for "blaspheming Satan", saying they had given him shock therapy to erase his memory before dumping him in Minneapolis.

An investigation by local Arkansas newspaper The Benton County Daily Record revealed this week that LaRose had been living in Centerton under the fake name Ken Williams, serving as mayor of the town since 2001. LaRose finally broke the news to his new wife of 21 years this week, telling her: "Our whole world is about to crash down because I am Don LaRose, and I am Ken Williams, sort of".

Speaking to the Daily Record on Tuesday, having finally broken his silence, LaRose attempted to explain his disappearance. He claims the same Satanic cult that abducted him in 1975 – who he now says are an "underworld" crime group – returned in 1980 and ordered him to disappear, threatening to kill his family if he did not cooperate.

Adopting the name and social security number of a Bruce Kent Williams, who had died in a car crash in New York state in 1959, LaRose says he drifted for several years before settling in Arkansas. Since becoming the mayor of Centerton as Ken Williams in 2001, LaRose has twice been re-elected.

LaRose, who now intends to resign as mayor, says he fears the publicity he has received this week could put his family in danger from the group that forced him to flee.

It has also been revealed that the website DonLaRose.com, which details his missing years, was set up in March this year by LaRose himself. He claims he did this in the hope of getting attention from police, who he says ignored him when he tried to report his alleged abduction in 1975.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Bad Faith Awards: last chance to nominate

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As many of you will know, since July we've been inviting nominations for our inaugural Bad Faith Awards, encouraging readers to put forward the men and women they feel have made the most outstanding contributions to talking nonsense about religion.

Nominations for the 2007 awards are set to close on 8 December, after which we'll run a poll on here to determine the overall winner. With this in mind, now's the time to put forward your nominees to join the existing field of bigots, charlatans and proselytisers. To do so, simply add a comment to this blog post, preferably with a web reference that backs up your choice.

As things stand, here's the current list of runners and riders:
  • Chuck Norris: These days the martial arts legend seems to spend less time cracking skulls and more time lamenting the moral decline of Western civilisation. His weekly column on conservative Christian website WorldNetDaily is a goldmine of evangelical rantings, and his Bad Faith nomination comes by way of his declaration that if he was US President he would "tattoo an American flag with the words 'In God we trust' on the forehead of every atheist".
  • The Bishop of Carlisle: This Cumbrian prelate shot to fame when he suggested this summer's floods were God's punishment for Britain's liberal attitude to homosexuality.
  • Fake witches: A woman in Harrogate was driven to suicide when she was unable to keep up payments to witches providing "astral protection" for £23.95 a month. Newspaper reports labelled them "fake witches", which suggests those real witches are out there somewhere.
  • Richard Dawkins: One heretic New Humanist reader even put forward rationalism's very own Dawkins, for turning "the 19th century's doubting of religious dogma into another kind of dogma". The cheek...
  • Westboro Baptist Church: That delightful bunch who picket the funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq, displaying such tactful signs as "God hates fags" and "God blew up the troops".
  • Archbishop Francisco Chimoio: Head of the Catholic Church in Mozambique who claims some European-made condoms are deliberately infected with HIV in order to quickly finish off the African people.
  • Pope Benedict XVI: Clearly the bookies' favourite. Perhaps he should be excluded to give the rest a chance?
So, it's a long field but someone's got to win. Keep the nominations coming by commenting on this post.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Comedy night featuring Robin Ince, Josie Long and more

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For those of you in London, our friend Robin Ince has just informed us of a new comedy night taking place on Wednesday 28 November at The Albany pub on Great Portland Street. In Robin's words:

"The School For Gifted Children will be a night of people enthusing about things they have found out about dinosaurs, nebulae, wig powder and that sort of thing, and some of it will be in song. It should be the best lecture you have ever been to, but all splintered and haphazard. It’s for people who like watching documentaries about ants with odd behaviour, books about rebellious librarians and who enjoy the idea of enthusiasm."

The first night features Josie Long, Ben Moor, Martin White, Darren Hayman, Dan Atkinson, Simon Munnery, Helen Zaltzman, Robin Ince and more. It's at The Albany (W1W 5QU) on 28 November, 7.45pm (show 8.15pm). Tickets are £7 and £5.

'Tis the season to read Dawkins

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They say the customer is always right, so non-believers can take heart from a graphic currently appearing on Amazon which puts all-time sales figures for Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion up against those of staunch critic Alister McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion.

Dawkins is currently trouncing McGrath 90% to 10%, which can only be a good thing for the forces of rationalism. We've displayed the graph here as apparently it comes and goes on the Amazon site, at one point being replaced by "Kylie v Spice Girls". I wonder how Dawkins would fare against them?

[Many thanks to blog reader Matt Robinson for sending this in. Reader input is always appreciated – if you spot any amusing or relevant items on the web, do send them in via the address on our website]

Monday, 19 November 2007

Anti-abortion agenda promoted during UN debate on death penalty

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A debate at the United Nations became sidetracked late last week after a group of mostly Muslim states, led by Egypt, attempted to introduce two anti-abortion amendments into the text of an EU-led resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.

Despite protests from the sponsors of the resolution that an amendment on abortion was not relevant to a debate over the death penalty, the Egyptian representative argued that since the resolution was aimed at protecting life, it was appropriate to include a reference to abortion. Representatives of Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, Kuwait, Mauritania, and Sudan called for a new paragraph to be added to the resolution that urged: "Member States to take all necessary measures to protect the lives of unborn children." The amendment was rejected in a recorded vote of 28 for, 83 against with 47 abstentions.

While it is thought the abortion amendment was introduced in an attempt to stall the resolution on the death penalty, the move reflects growing attempts to undermine abortion rights through UN channels. In the May/June issue of New Humanist Solana Larsen told how conservative anti-abortion pressure groups were increasing their presence at the UN, targeting delegates from the United States, Latin America and Muslim states. Last week the United States delegates, while voting against the resolution on the death penalty, voted in favour of Egypt's first amendment on abortion.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Arkady Babchenko on the Today programme

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This morning's Today programme featured an interview with Arkady Babchenko, author of One Soldier's War in Chechnya. Babchenko was an 18-year-old law student when he was drafted into the Russian army and sent to fight in the first Chechen war (1994-96), and he returned as a hardened veteran to fight in the second war (1999-2000).

Michael Binyon reviews the book in the November/December issue of New Humanist, calling it "a tour de force. A grim testament to the worst of wars".

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

The New Humanist cartoon controversy

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Richard Norman's cover story on the New Atheists from the new issue of New Humanist has attracted a great deal of attention online. The atheist biologist PZ Myers linked to it on his lively Pharyngula blog alongside his own comprehensive response, and the article was republished on RichardDawkins.net. Both postings have led to lively discussions from readers, many of which tie in to the debate over atheism and humanism triggered by Sam Harris's recent speech to Atheist Alliance International conference.

An interesting, and to us surprising, side issue has arisen in those discussions over Martin Rowson's illustration for Norman's article.

On Pharyngula and in two places on Richard Dawkins' site (here and here), some have accused the cartoon of bein offensive, and not just generally offensive to Dawkins and Hitchens – "This cartoon is aggressive and mean. I reserve fat jokes for people I truly despise." (Dr Benway, richarddawkins.net) – several readers have interpreted the depiction of Dawkins as homophobic. One poster kindly listed the reasons why he is offended:

"It is clearly trying to illustrate a link between the 'out' campaign for atheists and the campaign for gay rights (a valid link), by making Dawkins look like a figure of fun - a grinning limp-wristed effeminate. It is offensive on so many levels. It says 'look - Dawkins is funny because he is like a gay man'. In other words, gayness is something to laugh at. It is not offensive because it attacks Dawkins and Hitchens - that kind of cartooning has a long and distinguished history. It is offensive because of the way it does it." (Steve99, richarddawkins.net)

Ok, though he could of course have noted that the link to the campaign for gay rights is not something we invented, but an inevitable result of calling a campaign "Out". Richard Dawkins himself recognises this in this article.

Encouragingly, several participants in the discussion have leapt to the cartoon's defence, most notably one "Cartomancer". In one post he identifies himself as gay, and here's a selection of what he had to say:

"I thought the cartoon wasn't all that bad really. Grossly and exaggeratedly parodic perhaps, but then again that's what cartoons, and indeed satire in general, are for. I do not believe that Dawkins is being presented as a gay stereotype, rather his characteristic exuberance and sense of wonder are being exaggerated ... I see it as mildly affectionate even - portraying him as a daft, batty old uncle figure, a harmless, sandal-wearing innocent enthralled by the wonders of nature in a very child-like fashion. I would not see that as a terrific disservice to the man. It certainly makes a change from the shrill, ranting demagogue of popular myth." (Cartomancer, richarddawkins.net)

What do you think? Is the cartoon offensive, or even homophobic? Let us know by leaving your comments on this post and voting in our poll at the top right of this page.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

BHA launch secularism pamphlet

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Just back from the RSA, where the British Humanist Association launched its new pamphlet The Case for Secularism: A Neutral State in an Open Society with a lunchtime debate chaired by its president Polly Toynbee.

The debate was opened by philosopher David Papineau, a co-author of the pamphlet and member of the Humanist Philosophers Group, who put his case for a secular society as one intended not to cause differences, but rather to ensure that all citizens are free to practice their religion (or lack thereof) as they please, with the state favouring none. He presented secularism as a fair system, and one which encourages the loyalty of all groups to the state, since they have no need to fear that it is infringing on their religious autonomy.

There was little disagreement from the rest of the panel. Dr Indarjit Singh, director of the Network of Sikh Organisations began by saying he agreed 70-80% with Papineau, but warned that secularism and humanism are religions in their own right, in that they advocate a particular way of life. He expressed his view that we already live in a secular state, and reminded that it is important for all groups, religious or otherwise, to have the right to influence the state. He also warned that staunch advocates of secularism too often make big issues of the trivial, citing a debate he had yesterday on the BBC with a representative of the National Secular Society over the Sikh girl suspended from school for wearing a Kara bracelet.

The final speaker, Simon Barrow of liberal Christian think tank Ekklesia, agreed with Papineau that a secular society is not anti-religious, but rather provides institutions that are open to all. He warned that privileges harm and distort the egalitarian core of Christianity and believes the Church must be persuaded that letting go of privileges would not threaten their existence.

Copies of the pamphlet can be ordered for £5 inc UK postage from the BHA by calling 020 7079 3580 or mailing BHA, 1 Gower St, London, WC1E 6HD

German wins world light-heavyweight Chessboxing title

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It would be hard to dream up a stranger combination of sports, but try telling that to 37-year-old German policeman Frank "Anti-terror" Stoldt, who is this week celebrating becoming the light-heavyweight chessboxing champion of the world.

Contests consist of alternate rounds of boxing and chess, with wins coming by way of knockout or checkmate. After 11 rounds the fighter ahead on points in the boxing gets the decision. Stoldt defeated American David "Double D" Depto with a seventh round checkmate to take the title in front of 1200 fans in Berlin.

Chessboxing is administered by the World Chess Boxing Organisation (WCBO), whose slogan is "Fighting is done in the ring and wars are waged on the board". You can view a video of Stoldt vs Depto on the BBC website.

In the new issue of New Humanist Sally Feldman takes a look at chess and the various intellectuals, exiles, misfits and tyrants who have made the game their own.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Poll: Does a religious correspondent need to be religious?

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In the new issue of New Humanist, journalist Stephen Bates looks back on his time as Guardian religion correspondent, saying he's glad to be leaving behind the petty feuds, bizarre views and vicious power struggles of the religious world.

At the start of the article Bates identifies himself as a Catholic, and his successor at the Guardian, Riazatt Butt, has become the first Muslim to be appointed as religious correspondent by a national newspaper.

So in our latest poll we're asking whether it's necessary for a journalist to be religious in order to be a religious correspondent? Read Bates's article then cast your vote at the top right of this page. Feel free to elaborate by leaving comments on this post.

So does Jesus love porn stars?

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XXXChurch.com, a California-based ministry that aims to discourage people from watching and participating in pornography, has had an order refused for 10,000 Bibles emblazoned with the words "Jesus loves porn stars" after the publisher, the American Bible Society, deemed the words "misleading and inappropriate for the New Testament".

The ministry, which goes under the misleading slogan "#1 Christian Porn Site", hands out Bibles to those attending adult film conventions (they're due in London for one in 2 weeks, apparently) and had hoped the message would remind porn stars that "Jesus loves you regardless of your profession".

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Britney Spears offends Catholic Church

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As if she didn't have enough problems already, troubled pop star Britney Spears has gone and offended the Catholic Church with the artwork for her new album, Blackout. Two photos from the CD booklet show a scantily-clad Britney appearing to seduce a Catholic priest in a confessional booth, in one case sitting on his lap.

After bemoaning Britney's role in the celebrity gossip industry – "one more sign of a Western culture in moral decline" – an article on US website Catholic Online slams the singer for making a mockery of the confessional, "the place within a Church where a penitent confesses their sins and receives Sacramental absolution from the priest, acting on behalf of Jesus Christ through the Church".

It's not all doom and gloom though. The writer ends by hoping the pictures will lead to Britney's reformation: "One can only hope that Britney’s exposure to a confessional, even if meant to mock the Catholic Church, will be added to the mental images which occupy her sleepless nights during this troubled time in her life, as she struggles to regain custody of her children and make sense of the last few years. Perhaps the next time she approaches a confessional it will be to seek absolution and request a new beginning from the One who is able to give her the grace that she needs."

Church of England pleased with religious postage stamps

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It seems it doesn't take much to please the powers that be at the Church of England, who have today congratulated the Royal Mail for giving their Christmas postage stamp range a religious theme. Apparently they were unhappy that last year's set featured secular winter wonderland images, as Christian-themed stamps help "remind people of the true meaning of Christmas".

Now, I won't go on about this, given that ultimately it's a news story about postage stamps, but surely it's the job of the Church to "remind people of the true meaning of Christmas"? They must be getting a bit desperate if they're relying on stamps to do it for them.

Anyway, if you want to know what Christmas is really all about read comedian Carrie Quinlan's diary from the new issue of New Humanist.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Jehovah's Witness dies after refusing blood transfusion

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A mother died in a Shropshire hospital after refusing a blood transfusion when complications set in following the birth of her twins. Jehovah's Witnesses are forbidden from having blood transfusions, meaning doctors were powerless to save 22-year-old Emma Gough.

Terry Lovejoy, a spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses in Telford, said: "We share the family's very real grief".

Of course, he failed to acknowledge the completely avoidable nature of a death that leaves the newborn twins without a mother. Not that the doctors would have been wise to intervene. Across the Irish Sea, Dublin's Coombe Women's Hospital is currently pursuing a case against a Jehovah's Witness who has threatened to sue the hospital after she was given a blood transfusion following massive blood-loss during childbirth. The woman, who had lost 80% of her blood, told the court the transfusion was "like a rape". The hospital says it was only informed of the woman's objections "through a friend" who was also a Jehovah's Witness, and claims "constitutional rights to freedom of conscience and free practice of religion do not extend to enabling her to decline appropriate medical treatment."

Update: I've closed comments on this post as I keep having to moderate long, nonsensical comments which seem to contain long swathes of quotes from web pages, rather than original statements.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Westboro Baptist Church fined $10m

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The Westboro Baptist Church – that pleasant bunch of "God hates fags" fame – have been ordered by a jury in Maryland to pay $10.9 million in damages for picketing the funeral of Lance Cpl Matthew Snyder in 2006.

The Church, which consists mostly of relatives of leader Fred Phelps, has become well known for picketing the funerals of US soldiers who have died in Iraq, claiming God is exacting his revenge on the nation for its tolerance of homosexuality. During the pickets they carry signs displaying such tasteful slogans as "God hates fag enablers", "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God sent the IEDs". We featured them on the news pages of New Humanist back in March, shortly before Louis Theroux spent time with them for a documentary on BBC2.

The case was taken to court by Albert Snyder, Lance Cpl Snyder's father, whose attorney urged the jury to pass damages so high they would deter the Church from future picketing. Following the verdict Albert Snyder said: "I hope it's enough to deter them from doing this to other families. It was not about the money. It was about getting them to stop".

Let's hope it works.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The "New Atheists" on podcast

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This month's podcast from Institute of Humanist Studies' Humanist Network News features the "New Atheist" gang talking about organised freethought in the wake of Sam Harris's comments on the word "atheist" at the Atheist Alliance International conference. There's interviews with Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.

Daily Mail attacks humanist MP

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Well, here's the Daily Mail at its despicable best. Out of nowhere the paper's launched a stunning attack on Liberal Democract MP and prominent secularist Dr Evan Harris, dubbing him "Dr Death" for his support of stem cell research (or in Daily Mail-speak, "embryo experiments"), euthanasia and abortion rights.

Of course, the Daily Mail wouldn't stop at that. They also launch into him for his support of the National Secular Society - "Though of Jewish origin, he is an aggressive secularist, serving on the council of the National Secular Society and attacking anyone - particularly Christians - who allows their faith to influence their attitude towards abortion."

But why stop there? Why not attack Dr Harris personally? Why not hint at a link between Harris's support for abortion rights and the fact that his girlfriend works as press manager for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which provides abortion services.

As if that's not enough, it turns out Harris is also "a difficult loner", "awkward", "charmless", "eccentric", a "nerd", and he lacks "humour" and "social grace".

Unbelievable. Let's just hope Dr Harris takes being attacked by the Mail as a compliment.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Amis vs Morris

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Padraig Reidy over at Index on Censorship reports on an unlikely little spat that occurred last night between the novelist Martin Amis and the satirist Chris Morris. Amis was appearing alongside the journalist Andrew Anthony at the ICA to discuss the dangers of Islamism, but it was when the floor opened up to questions that things got really interested. Morris weighs in with some arguments of questionable quality – I'll hand you over to Padraig to relay the tale of this heavyweight bout.

Sam Harris responds to critics

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Sam Harris has responded to critics of the speech he delivered to last week's Atheist Alliance, clarifying his assertion that non-believers should stop describing themselves as "atheists". Writing on his website, Harris restates his point that "the use of a label invites a variety of misunderstandings that are harmful to our cause" and may put off non-believers who "have no interest whatsoever in joining a cult of such critics".

Expanding on his use of the word "cult", Harris makes an interesting point about the nature of the "New Atheism": "There is something cult-like about the culture of atheism. In fact, much of the criticism I have received of my speech is so utterly lacking in content that I can only interpret it as a product of offended atheist piety".

It's a stark warning, unlikely to endear Harris further to his critics. But I think he's right. When we ran our recent poll asking whether Dawkins and Hitchens are good for humanism, some of the comments we received displayed a "thou shalt not criticise Dawkins" mentality. One of the favourite points used by critics of the "New Atheism" is that it is dogmatic, and at times it seems like some atheists are playing into their hands.

Don't forget to vote in our latest poll on whether Harris is right - see the top right of this page.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Why can't this be true?

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In reporting yesterday that the actress Carly Pope would be appearing in the hit US TV show 24, Yahoo made a fantastic mistake and ran the story alongside a photo of Pope Benedict XVI. Naturally this, erm, cardinal error was quickly rectified, but just imagine if it was true. I bet the Pope could get those pesky terrorists to confess without the need for any of Jack Bauer's strong-arm torture tactics.

I really couldn't resist doing one of those "how it might look" mock-ups for this...

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Laurie Taylor on Radio Four discussing ghosts and witchcraft

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As many of you will know, our commissioning editor Laurie Taylor presents a weekly show on Radio Four – Thinking Allowed. Today's show (4pm) should appeal directly to New Humanist readers, as he'll be talking to social historian Owen Davis, who has written extensively about witchcraft and magic and whose latest book The Haunted focuses on the social history of ghosts.

Monday, 8 October 2007

New Humanist poll: Is Sam Harris right to reject labels like "Atheist" and "Humanist"?

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Following Sam Harris's speech to last week's Atheist Alliance International Conference in Virginia, our new opinion poll asks whether he was right to suggest that non-believers should discard the word "atheist", along with other labels such as "humanist", "secular humanist", "rationalist", "naturalist", "sceptic" and so on.

Harris argued that there is no need for the godless to define themselves by something they don't believe in, saying: "atheist is a term we do not need, in the same way that we don't need a word for someone who rejects astrology". He even goes so far as to say that using the term "atheist" could be counter-productive, running the risk of "squander[ing] the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues." Instead of forming organised groups under these labels, Harris suggests non-believers "should not call ourselves anything. . . We should go under the radar - for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them."

This stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by Richard Dawkins, particularly his US-based "Out Campaign", which encourages non-believers to "come out" and express their lack of faith by wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a giant letter "A" for "Atheist".

Let us know what you think by voting in the poll in the top right corner of this page? Do you agree with Harris in his rejection of these labels, or is it essential that atheists unite under a common label in order to take on the might of organised religion?

Once you've voted, please feel free to expand on your views by commenting on this post. If you're new to our site and blog, stay and have a browse around the main New Humanist site. There's articles from the past 8 years, and you can also sign up for a FREE trial copy.

New Humanist editor: How should we brand non-belief?

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Our editor Caspar Melville posted on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" site late last week with a piece on Sam Harris's suggestion that atheists should ditch the term "atheist", along with the endless list of other labels the godless tend to employ - "humanist", "secular humanists", "rationalists", "brights" and so on.

Harris's words stand in stark contrast to Richard Dawkins' US-based "Out Campaign", aimed at encouraging atheists to "come out" and admit their non-belief, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a big red "A" for Atheist. Dawkins was in the audience for Harris's speech to the Atheists Alliance International Conference, and afterwards said he was still thinking about his reaction to it. On Comment is Free our editor jokingly suggests he may be considering rebranding his "Out Campaign", and asks what "A" stands for if it no longer stands for "Atheist"? Needless to say Comment is Free's readers have weighed in with their suggestions. Take a look, it's all good fun.

Chat with God, he's great

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For anyone out there with too much time on their hands, here's something to have a little fun with. You can now talk live to God in an automated internet chat room. I had a natter with him and to be honest he's a bloody nice bloke. Told me his hobbies are "robots, computers and chatting online". Nice to know he keeps himself busy up there.

[Cheers Christina]

Our survey says...

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In lieu of any real poll in the near future, the British electorate can take great comfort in the fact that our survey on whether Dawkins and Hitchens are good for humanism is now closed and the results are in.

The Returning Officer (i.e. Blogger via myself) is pleased to announce that from a staggeringly high turnout of 5,350 people, the responses to the question "Are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens a good thing for humanism?" came in as follows:

Yes, it's time to get serious in our rejection of religion – 4,186 (78%)

Yes, they enliven the debate – 943 (17%)

No, their aggressive tone is unhelpful – 186 (3%)

No, they're a menace to humanism – 35 (0%)

So what does it all mean? No doubt pollsters will be debating this result for months on end, but in the meantime I'll offer one obvious observation – Dawkins and the Hitch have whipped up a real following, many of whom will passionately jump at the opportunity to defend them. Some will even take offence at any attempt to question their writings – just take a look at the many comments we received about this poll. What do readers think? Leave us your comments on this post.

Watch out for our next poll, launching later today...

Friday, 5 October 2007

To the power of ten

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I remember seeing this on TV when I was a kid and it blew my mind, still does. What I didn't know then was that it was made by Charles and Ray Eames, the famous designers. So trippy. So seventies. So cool, man.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

"We should not call ourselves athiests" - Sam Harris

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... the plot thickens. Just as Dawkins' launches his campaign to reclaim atheism, Sam Harris, another of the so-called New Atheists, appalls the Atheist Alliance International Conference audience with the "seditious proposal" that labels like atheist, secularist, humanist and sceptic are counter-productive and should be scrapped: "We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar - for the rest of our lives. And while there we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them." Perhaps he's going to start an in" campaign? Also in the audience that night was Dawkins himself who reportedly said "I think he was making a very interesting point, and I'm still thinking about my reaction to it."

This comes courtesy of our friends at Humanist Network News. read Duncan Crary's report, and listen out for their next podcast which will features interviews with Harris, Hitch, Dennett and Dawkins. The Washington Post have published and edited extract of Harris' talk, which has received 333 comments so far. We love a good fight we... um... humans.

What does 'A' stand for...?

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Well, what do we think of Richard Dawkins' Out campaign, encouraging atheists to be out, loud and proud about what they don't believe in (Guardian write-up here)? Judging by the response to the poll on the right I guess a lot of you agree it's a good idea. I'm not so sure, being a committed Marxist, Grouch that is, I have an aversion to joining clubs of any kind, and an even stronger one to T-Shirts with slogans. I'll keep you appraised of the discussion about it, first up Norman Geras who detects a certain... ahem... evangelism in the whole thing. Let us know what you think in the comment section.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

The 'mental' in fundamentalism

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A fascinating piece in Tikkun magazine argues that the inability to do "divergent" thinking - the kind of non-linear creative thinking which, in Salman Rushdie's phrase "allows newness to enter the world" - might be down to the lack of development of the sophisticated frontal lobe area of the brain. They cite some interesting evidence and ask some good questions like: "Do extremism and an unconditional adherence to religious dogma result from a failure of a portion of the frontal lobe to develop, or fully developed, to activate?" Shades of biological essentialism in the conclusion that fundamentalism has a biological explanation, perhaps, but ... it makes ya think (with the frontal lobes, obviously).

Friday, 28 September 2007

US Senate votes for plan to divide Iraq

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The US Senate this week endorsed a plan for a political settlement that would divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions, the Washington Post reports.

The plan, devised by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph R. Biden suggests a federal system for Iraq, with separate regions for Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations. It was approved in an overwhelming 75-23 vote, in a rare show of bi-partisan unity over Iraq. However, the Senate can not force President Bush to act on the vote.

Our September/October editorial warns of the dangers of partition, saying those calling for Iraq to be divided should remember the consequences of carving up India and Pakistan along religious lines.

Dawkins tricked into appearing in pro-Intelligent Design documentary

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A row is brewing over upcoming film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a pro-Intelligent Design documentary due for release next February. The film features interviews with Richard Dawkins and other prominent atheists, who claim they were led to believe they were appearing in a documentary called Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion, a debate about creationism and evolution.

It turns out the scientists were misled by producer Mark Mathis, whose finished product Expelled is based on the claim that scientists sympathetic to intelligent design are denied posts in universities. In an email Richard Dawkins told newspapers he would not have agreed to take part in the film had he known its true agenda, pointing out that "at no time was I given the slightest clue that these people were a creationist front".

PZ Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota and author of the science blog Pharyngula, is another scientist duped into appearing in Expelled. He has reproduced on his blog a letter from Mathis that clearly shows participants were asked to appear in Crossroads, saying "we are interested in asking you questions about the disconnect/controversy that exists in American between evolution, creationism and the intelligent design movement."

Having done the interview, Myers was surprised to later find out that he was appearing in a film called Expelled, with producers claiming that interviews with the likes of Myers and Dawkins show that "freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry have been expelled from publicly-funded high schools, universities and research institutions".

The report on this controversy in yesterday's New York Times included comments from the documentary's host, the actor and TV presenter Ben Stein. He told the paper he accepted the invitation to appear in the film because he "does not accept that evolution alone can explain life on Earth". He added that he believes the theory of evolution leads to racism and genocide, saying if it was up to him the documentary would be called "From Darwin to Hitler".

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Christian childrenswear warns unbelievers they're going to Hell

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Richard Dawkins' description of religion as child abuse riled a lot of people, but it'd be hard to view dressing children in this delightful range of clothing as anything else.

Sold on Amazon, the T-shirts carry the slogan "If you miss the Rapture, where in Hell will you go?". They're available in both adult and children's sizes, and there's even a baby grow version for parents who want to indoctrinate tots with the fear of God from the moment they enter the world. Follow the link to take a look for yourself. They're even available in pink.

[Cheers to Christina for that one]

Controversy over role of Islam in Pakistani cricket

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It's not often the opportunity arises to write about cricket on a humanist blog, but reports in the Indian press following the conclusion of the recent Twenty20 World Cup certainly deserve a mention. India beat bitter rivals Pakistan by five runs in Monday's final in Johannesburg, and post-match comments by losing captain Shoaib Malik attracted the attention of some Indian sports writers. Asked for his thoughts on his team's defeat, Malik said: "First of all I'd like to thank people back home and the Muslims around the world. We gave our 100%".

That Pakistan's players felt they were competing on behalf of all the world's Muslims probably came as news to the millions of Indian Muslims celebrating their country's first international trophy since 1983, not to mention Muslim fans and players from the world's other cricketing nations. And what of non-Muslim Pakistanis? For one, Malik's team-mate, the spinner Danish Kaneria, is a Hindu. As one Christian blogger on Pakistaniat.com said: "How about Hindu and Christian Pakistanis in the US, Canada and Gulf who supported the Pakistan cricket team? Don't we count?"

To those who have observed the Pakistan cricket team in the past few years, Malik's remarks came as little surprise. There have been visible signs of increasing Islamisation of the team, especially under Malik's predecessor Inzaman ul-Haq, who often thanked Allah in interviews and regularly led his men in public prayers. In 2005 the batsman Mohammad Yousuf announced his conversion from Christianity to Islam, with many suggesting pressure from team mates may have played a part in the decision. Under ul-Haq, Malik was part of a group of players who joined the conservative sect Tablighi Jamaat.

Political scientist Imtiaz Ahmed, a scholar of Islamic trends in the sub-continent, believes such outward shows of Islam by the cricket team reflect general developments in Pakistani society. He told the India Times: "You cannot see Malik's remarks in isolation. Pakistani society has undergone rapid Islamisation in recent years. Malik was merely playing to the gallery and telling them that though they had lost the finals, they were still good believing Muslims."

For an excellent analysis of the current political crisis in Pakistan, read Maruf Khwaja's piece in the current issue of New Humanist.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

US Anglicans will stop gay ordinations

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Bishops from the US Episcopal Church have agreed to maintain a moratorium on the ordination of gay clergy, raising hopes among Anglicans that their worldwide communion can avoid a devastating split. The agreement came at a six-day crisis meeting of US bishops in New Orleans, the early stages of which was attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

However, the Guardian's religion correspondent Stephen Bates reports that the decision may not be enough to prevent a split. The Bishops have only agreed to continue a moratorium and this does not amount to a permanent commitment. Conservative Anglicans, particularly from African churches, have been calling for the 2.2 million strong US church to be expelled from the communion, and traditionalists in the US are already making plans to set up their own church.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Fragments of Pope John Paul II's robe sold to the faithful

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Any GCSE history student knows the sale of relics helped trigger the Reformation back in the 16th century, so perhaps Catholics should be a little worried at the news that pieces of a robe worn by departed Pope John Paul II are being sold to believers.

The cassock has reportedly been cut into 100,000 pieces, and followers can apply to buy a slice by email, fax or post. The sale is being run by the Vicariate of Rome, which is promoting sainthood for the late Pope. Apparently demand is so high that priority is being given to the seriously ill, or to those praying for the sick.

The Vatican is said to be uneasy at the renewed sale of relics, a practice which was banned under Catholic canon law in wake of the Reformation. Bishop Velasio De Paolis, secretary of the Vatican's top judicial body, told one Catholic newspaper: "No one can say whether venerating relics aids prayer, it depends on the faith of the believer."

This story continues a trend we've been noticing recently, namely the classification of things which were never real in the first place as "fake". In the September/October issue we've got "fake witches" and "fake astrologers", and now we've got it in reference to relics. Convinced the robe fragments are real, the Polish priest in charge of John Paul's sainthood campaign nevertheless warned believers of the dangers of websites offering "false relics". The Times reports that last year a souvenir shop near the Vatican withdrew some specks of cloth supposedly belonging to John Paul from sale, admitting they were "third-class relics".

In the March/April issue of New Humanist Toby Saul reported on the fast-track beatification process being given to John Paul II, and looked at the criteria candidates need to fulfill. You need a miracle, apparently.

Monday, 24 September 2007

US teacher dismissed for urging pupils not to take Bible literally

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Steve Bitterman, a teacher at Southwestern Community College, Red Oak, Iowa, was fired after he urged his pupils not to take the story of Adam and Eve literally. Bitterman was teaching a western civilisation course and often used extracts from the Old Testament as part of his lessons, but urged students to look beyond a literal interpretation of what he views as an "extremely meaningful story", believing such a reading would miss much of the poetic, metaphoric and symbolic content. After class, he also made the mistake of referring to the story as a "fairy tale" during a conversation with a student.

The class was being broadcast to a second college in Osceola, Iowa, and it was a group of students from this class that reported Bitterman for "denigrating their religion". Bitterman's college has refused to comment on his dismissal, which it described as a "personnel matter".

Speaking to Iowa newspaper the Des Moines Register, Bitterman said: "I'm just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master's degree, a couple actually, have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job."

Clearly endorsing the good work of his former employers, he concluded: "From my point of view, what they're doing is essentially teaching their students very well to function in the eighth century."

If you're new to our site, stay and have a browse around the main New Humanist site. There's articles from the past 8 years, and you can also sign up for a FREE trial copy.

[Thanks Frank]

Leading Iranian dissident's open letter to UN Secretary-General

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Akbar Ganji, Iran's leading dissident, has written an open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemning both the United States' aggressive stance towards his country, as well as Iran's repressive internal politics. He writes that "the US can best help by promoting a just peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. . . A just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state would inflict the heaviest blow on the forces of fundamentalism and terrorism in the Middle East".

The letter, timed to coincide with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the UN in New York, is endorsed by over 300 public intellectuals and writers. Notable signatories include Charles Taylor, Noam Chomsky, JM Coetzee, Seamus Heaney, Eric Hobsbawm and Slavoj Zizek.

Burmese protests increasing

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Protests against the ruling military junta in Burma have been increasing in size over the weekend. Protests have been taking place since mid-August after the junta doubled fuel prices, and demonstrations involving Buddhist monks and nuns have been on the rise since monks were hurt in a crackdown on 5 September.

On Saturday 1000 marched in the city of Rangoon, visiting the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who has been under house arrest for much of the past two decades. Yesterday 20,000 monks and nuns marched in Rangoon in the largest protest for almost 20 years, and reports today suggest that as many as 30,000 have taken to the streets.

In our May/June issue the novelist Karen Connelly examined the resistance of Buddhist monks and nuns to the Burmese dictatorship, and asked whether Buddhism should be considered a form of humanism. She argues that while Buddhism is fatalistic, deeply misogynistic and riven with superstition, it also inspires resistance to tyranny and the fight for freedom.

Friday, 21 September 2007

A Blues Brother and the Little Green Men

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Here's a great story. In an interview this week with the Guardian to promote his new movie Dan Ackroyd, star of 80s cult comedy musical The Blues Brothers, talks about his belief in UFO sightings and alien abductions. Ackroyd is a "Hollywood consultant" for the Mutual UFO Network, or Mufon, and believes their website definitively answers the question of whether extraterrestrials have visited this planet. He believes there may be alien/human hybrids walking among us, and thinks some aliens with "malevolent purposes" may be "taking cows' lips and anuses for delicacies".

Perhaps even more bizarre than Ackroyd's conviction that aliens have visited is his reason for believing this. You see, he thinks it was "presumptuous" for humanity to abandon the idea that our planet is the centre of the Universe, and subscribes to the idea that aliens visit us precisely because we are the centre of the Universe: "They're visiting because this is the planet that produced Picasso, the atom bomb, penicillin. . . there are so many advances in science, art and culture."

But surely, asks the interviewer, they are more advanced than us if they are able to travel here? Not to worry, Ackroyd has the answer to this: "Oh, they have technology better than ours, but they didn't paint like Renoir, they don't dance like Mick Jagger, they don't write like Samuel Johnson or William Faulkner. They are envious of us. We have the most beautiful planet – the Rockies, the purple fields of the United States, the Lake District, the Pyrenees, the turquoise seas of the tropics. They don't have that. They may have gelatinous pools and they've got the technology to flip from planet to planet or dimension to dimension but, you know, Keith Richards didn't come from there."

I don't know about anyone else, but I love the idea of aliens coming to Earth just to see Mick and Keef.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

New Humanist poll: Are Dawkins and Hitchens good for humanism?

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We've added a nifty new feature to our blog, which you can see by allowing your eyes to drift ever so slightly to the right. From now on we'll be polling our readers on various matters of importance, starting with the crucial question of whether Messrs. Dawkins and Hitchens have helped to advance the cause of humanism. There's 4 answers to choose from - shift your vision over to the top right of this page and let us know what you think.

If you've found your way here from outside links and haven't come across us before, please take some time to have a look around our main website. It's full of great articles from the past 8 years, and you can also order a free trial copy of the print magazine.

Charities donate £450,000 to fight UK "witchcraft" abuse

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A report this morning on the BBC has revealed that the City Parochial Foundation and the Trust for London have donated £450,000 towards helping children who are accused of witchcraft and then abused by their parents or guardians during violent exorcisms. Last year, a government-funded report identified 38 such cases of abuse. The practice has followed some migrant communities to the UK, with cases being identified in different racial and religious groups. Often these practices are the result of a mixture of traditional beliefs and extreme revivalist Christianity.

The money is being given to Africans Unite against Child Abuse, the UK Congolese Safeguarding Action Group, The Churches Child Protection Advisory Service and The Victoria Climbie Foundation, and will help pay for more education, training and research.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The Senator who sued God

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Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers has filed a lawsuit against God in an attempt to prevent the big guy from making terrorist threats, which he claims are "credible given God's history". Chambers, in what Wired Blog calls a "fit of alliteration", also accuses God of causing "fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, ferocious famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects, and the like", although it appears his alliterative imagination ran a little dry for the last two.

In addition to God's directly destructive acts, the Senator also accuses him of dispatching his chroniclers in order to "disseminate in written form, said admissions, throughout the Earth in order to inspire fear, dread, anxiety, terror and uncertainty, in order to coerce obedience to Defendant's will."

Before the residents of Chambers' constituency of Omaha, Nerbraska begin impeachment proceeding against him, it's worth pointing out that there is method behind his madness. He filed the suit in order to highlight the absurd fact that Nebraska's constitution allows lawsuits to be filed for any reason, however ridiculous.

[Thanks Frank]

Object from space crashes in Peru

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Strange things afoot in the remote Peruvian town of Carancas, where hundreds of people have been taken sick after an object from space crashed to Earth at the weekend. The resulting crater has been spewing out some kind of fetid gas, and locals who flocked to see it have been taken ill with headaches, vomiting and nausea.

Could this be the beginning of the end? Are we finally under chemical attack from extraterrestrials hell-bent on wiping us off the face of the planet? Scientists think not. It seems the most likely explanation is a meteorite which on contact with the ground has caused a chemical reaction giving off toxins such as sulphur and arsenic.

So nothing to get concerned about then. It's when the red weed starts spreading over the crater that I'm going to start worrying...

Vatican removes all reference to McCanns' visit from website

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When the parents of Madeleine McCann flew out to Rome to visit the Pope, the world's media applauded the couple's unwavering faith and the graciousness of His Holiness in extending his hand to these grief-stricken parents in their time of greatest need. Pope Benedict XVI received Kate and Gerry McCann at the Vatican, blessed them, and assured them they were in his prayers.

You see, God's representative on Earth will always stand by his flock when the greatest tragedy befalls them. Unless, of course, suspicion should fall on them, in which case it becomes necessary to preempt a PR disaster. Apparently ignoring the worldly notion of innocent until proven guilty, the Vatican has removed all mention of the Pope's meeting with the McCanns from its website, just in case. As if it wasn't bad enough having the world's media turn on them amid a sea of speculation and unfounded rumour, the McCanns now seem to have been abandoned by the leader of their own religion. How very Christian of him.

Residency in country cottage available to female writer aged 40 or over

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If you're a female writer aged 40 or more, you may be interested in this exciting opportunity. The Hosking Houses Trust is seeking to appoint its third Writer in Residence, who will occupy the beautiful Church Cottage, situated by the river in the village of Clifford Chambers, two miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.

The Residency is for a woman who could use the opportunity to start or complete interesting or innovative work about any subject whatsoever, that might otherwise be postponed, abandoned or take a long time to complete. Preference will be given to those who have the reliable prospect of professional publication, broadcast, performance, influence or dissemination in any way.

The closing date for applications is Monday 29 October 2007. For full details visit the Hosking Houses Trust website.