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.