Monday, 30 July 2007

Nick Cohen responds to Johann Hari

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As we reported last week, Johann Hari recently wrote a highly critical review of Nick Cohen's book What's Left?, which was published in American journal Dissent.

It has not taken long for Cohen to pen his response to Hari, who he accuses of falsely quoting from What's Left? and giving a dishonest account of its contents.

[Thanks Padraig]

Catholic Church sends missionaries into cyberspace

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Online virtual reality game Second Life is set to be invaded by Catholic missionaries following instructions given in a Vatican-approved Jesuit journal. In an article in La Civiltà Cattolica, academic priest Father Antonio Spadaro urges the faithful to sign up for Second Life - a detailed virtual world where players create a digital version of themselves and lead a parallel existence - and carry out missionary work.

Apparently Second Life players allow their avatars (virtual selves) to get up to all sorts, including that great enemy of the Vatican - promiscuous sex. Therefore Father Spadaro advises that Catholics should travel through Second Life attempting to save the souls of anyone who may be allowing computer-generated pixelated characters to fornicate outside of digital wedlock. Other immoral acts being committed on Second Life include simulated gambling, cyber drinking and virtual drug-use, and the participants will all be the targets of the online missionary effort.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Event – Insight with Edna Fernandes: Religious fundamentalism in India

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On Thursday 2 August at the Frontline Club, London, New Humanist editor Caspar Melville talks to Edna Fernandes, author of Holy Warriors: A Journey into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism about why India, home of most of the world's major religions, also hosts almost every type of religious fanaticism.

The event costs £7 and is open to all. Simply visit the listing on the Frontline Club website and follow the links to register and book.

Holy Warriors is reviewed by Meera Nanda in the July/August issue of New Humanist.

Vatican warns of Islamisation of Europe

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The Vatican has once again warned of the Islamisation of Europe, and reiterated the need to protect the continent's "Christian identity". In an article in German weekly Sueddeutsche Magazin, the Pope's private secretary Monsignor Georg Gaenswein is quoted as saying: "Attempts to Islamise the West cannot be denied . . . The danger for the identity of Europe that is connected with it should not be ignored out of a wrongly understood respectfulness."

It has been a clear aim of Pope Benedict XVI to define Europe as Christian, and earlier this year he even teamed up with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to try and encourage the insertion of a reference to religion in any new EU constitutional treaty. Merkel even went so far as to state that Europe "should be connected to Christianity and God, since Christianity has forged Europe in a decisive way."

As Donald Sassoon pointed out in the March/April issue of New Humanist, perhaps the people of Europe don't want the continent to be defined as "Christian", or that matter "Islamic", but rather as a secular entity accommodating of all cultures and beliefs, where religion remains in the private sphere.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Shambo will be slaughtered [insert bull/cow based pun of your choice here]

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So, today is the day that Shambo the sacred bullock will finally be put down, although the monks at Skanda Vale temple, Carmarthenshire, aren't going to let him go down without a fight.

There've been enough cow/bull puns and gags cracked in the media over this to last us a lifetime, so I won't go down that path. Behind all this there is an interesting question of religious freedom, and it'd be good to hear what this blog's readers have to say about it. I guess it comes down to whether or not the bull actually poses a threat to any surrounding farms. If it's going to cause a TB outbreak then the religious angle is irrelevant - put it down. However if, as the community at Skanda Vale claim, Shambo isn't endangering Welsh agriculture then surely the authorities could have spared us this saga and just let it live? Shambo is clearly of great significance to his devotees, so if there is no risk of wider infection why can't the authorities just respect the community's wishes and spare him?

Then again, can we really have one rule for the average farmer in his field, and another for multi-faith communities in rural Wales?

What do people think?

[27 July update: following an operation involving 30 police officers, Shambo was removed from Skanda Vale and slaughtered. This whole saga must have cost us all quite a lot of money...]

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Norweigan princess makes contact with angels

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If you thought the British royal family was a bit weird, with Prince Charles talking to plants and all, they've just been outdone by Princess Martha Louise of Norway, who claims that she can read people's inner feelings and communicate with angels. She even plans to open an alternative therapy centre so she can pass her skills on to her parents' loyal subjects.

Perhaps our own lesser royals should be taking notes. If they're tired of the box-office Windsors like William and Harry getting all the press, claiming a few supernatural powers should thrust them into the limelight. How about Princess Anne raising the dead? Or Sophie of Wessex communicating with the spirits? Prince Andrew abducted by aliens anyone? It'd be a novel way for him to get to his golf games...

What's wrong with the pro-war left?

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If you were looking for a definitive summation of the British pro-war left and its discontents you could do worse than read Johann Hari's seriously scintillating review of (New Humanist contributor) Nick Cohen's book 'What's Left?'. As a anti-war, but pro-Orwell, leftie I've been waiting a long time for such a comprehensive response to the undeniably powerful, but in my view wrong, arguments of Cohen and Hitchens. Now it's here.

[Thanks to Danny P]

Philosopher Roger Scruton takes on Dawkins and Hitchens

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Do you know Roger Scruton? He's an British conservative philosopher – an unabashed lover of high culture and scourge of all things lily-livered liberals like me hold dear. I think I disagree with him about virtually everything, from multiculturalism to opera, politics to fox hunting. Thing is he's not only a nice man – I worked with him, sort of – and, though unabashedly conservative he is a very original and independent thinker and also writes beautifully. His recent book on the philosophy of conservatism was, almost, convincing, and now, writing in Prospect, he delivers what is the most powerful critique and challenge to the 'new atheism' yet. Taking Hitchkins' (®) "religion is the root of all evil"/"religion poisons everything" argument head on, he makes a powerful case for religion as myth and solution to rather than cause of violence. Some of it is persuasive, like this: "The experience of the sacred is not an irrational residue of primitive fears, nor is it a superstition that will one day be chased away by science. It is a solution to the accumulated aggression which lies at the heart of human communities." Scruton has issued a challenge to those of us who reject religion which we must answer in the next round of God books and humanist responses to contemporary religion. It's all very well when our opponents are half-wit creationists, bully-boy mullahs or whacked-out Scientologists but Scruton has now raised the bar considerably, and, yes, he does make the broad-stroke generalisations of the new atheists look a bit, well, exaggerated. We'll be picking this subject up in the next but one New Humanist in a major essay by a top British philosopher. Don't miss it (subscribe to make sure you get it)

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Bad Faith Awards 2007 - nominations now open

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Just to remind everyone, nominations are always open for the New Humanist Bad Faith Awards, launched in the July/August issue (see Parish News).

For those of you who haven't seen the magazine (and if not, why not? Request a free trial copy), the New Humanist Bad Faith Awards were launched to mark the death of right-wing US evangelist Jerry Falwell, who famously stated that "the idea that religion and politics don't mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country". The Awards will recognise those individuals making the most significant contributions to talking nonsense about religion. Early frontrunners have included Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, who recently likened the abortion rate in Scotland to "two Dunblane massacres a day" and bookies' favourite Pope Benedict XVI. We've even had a letter nominating Richard Dawkins (after all, this is a democracy).

We'll be printing the top nominees in each issue of the magazine, starting with the September/October issue (deadline 13 August). If you've come across a public figure expressing contemptible, irrational or just plain silly views on religious matters, nominate them by email to editor[at]newhumanist.org.uk, preferably with a supporting quotation or web reference. Alternatively you could do it by adding a comment to this post, or even by writing on the 'wall' of our illustrious Facebook group...

Monday, 23 July 2007

Comedian to religious: Can we have our planet back please?

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Has Marcus Brigstocke been reading New Humanist? I only ask because his simply wonderful monologue on Radio 4's The Now Show this past weekend was, in subject, rather similar to my editorial from the current issue (with a liberal dash of Dawkins). Granted, it was a lot funnier. And ruder about religion and in the end made me think that I should have got Marcus to write it. I urge you to have a listen. To do so go to the Now Show homepage, click on 'listen to the latest edition'. Either listen to the whole show- which is well worth it - or skip forward (its about 18 minutes in). [And Marcus, if you're reading, get in touch]

Election landslide for Turkey's Islamic AKP

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As expected, Turkey's ruling Islamic AKP party eased through yesterday's crucial parliamentary elections with 47% of the vote, which will translate into a majority of around 130.

The election was called following a veiled threat of a coup by the fiercely secular army, in response to the AKP's attempt to elect its foreign minister, Abdullah Gül, to the presidency. It remains to be seen how the army will respond to the AKP's victory, given that it is now expected to hold a referendum to reduce the quorum required for parliament to elect the president.

The AKP has long denied pursuing an Islamist agenda and, since coming to power in 2002, it has presided over a period of sustained economic growth and has begun entry talks with the EU. However the old secular elite, led by the army, has remained suspicious of the AKP and talk of a military coup has continued. The army's reaction to the AKP landslide should become clear over the next few months and, as Ahmet Altan warns in the current issue of New Humanist, the effects could be felt far beyond the Bosphorus.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Listen to Jonathan Miller on how humour makes us human

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On July 4th New Humanist held an event at the Royal Society of the Arts in London featuring Rationalist Association president Jonathan Miller, comedian Natalie Haynes and cartoonist Martin Rowson discussing how humour makes us human. A audio file of the entire event is now up on the RSA site, have a listen, its pretty good fun.

Use Harry Potter to preach Christianity, says Church of England

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Is there anything they wont try? Senior Church of England figures have this week suggested that the Harry Potter stories can be used to preach the message of Christianity. They've obviously changed their minds since they refused the use of Canterbury Cathedral as a filming location for the first movie due to fears that JK Rowling's story glamourised the occult and attracted children to witchcraft. Or maybe they've just realised that millions more children are reading Harry Potter than are reading the Bible, and that they'd better get in on the act. The Church of England's official publishers have produced a guide book, Mixing it Up With Harry Potter, which explains in 12 easy sessions how to evangelise using the novels.

According to the Archbishop of Canterbury Harry Potter is perfect because it is "great fun" and a serious examination of good and evil. Maybe, but so are hundreds of other fantasy tales and Hollywood blockbusters. Who knows, before long churches may be holding prayer sessions inspired by Pirates of the Caribbean and Bible classes based on The Terminator movies. Hasta la vista, Judas...

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The rise of Turkish Islamism

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Following on from yesterday's post about Turkish creationist Harun Yahya, it's well worth listening to this episode of Radio 4's Crossing Continents. With a view to the upcoming Turkish elections on July 22, presenter Tim Whewell travels to Kayseri in eastern Turkey, the stronghold of the ruling Islamist AKP Party and home to a growing Islamist elite. He finds that Kayseri is a world apart from the largely secular cities of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara, and hears how life in the city has changed since the AKP came to power. Worryingly, towards the end of the episode Whewell discovers that Kayseri's schools are becoming slowly Islamicised, with the local AKP Party, including its deputy chairman, advocating the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in science lessons.

With the Turkish elections just days away, it is worth referring to Ahmet Altan's piece in the current New Humanist, where he warns that the outcome could have fateful consequences for us all.

(thanks Frank)

New Humanist on Facebook

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For those of you who have joined in with the whole Facebook craze, why not join the fledgling New Humanist group? It's in its early stages at the moment, but hopefully it can become a place where you can all comment on the magazine and point us in the direction of interesting news, things worth blogging, and so on.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

An Islamic challenge to evolution

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Today's New York Times carries on article on the work of Adnan Oktar, AKA Harun Yahya, the Turkish author of Atlas of Creation, a creationist tome that has been distributed to academic institutions around the world. Standing at 800 full-colour glossy pages, the Atlas claims that creatures living today are identical to those alive in the fossil past, and that evolution is a "theory in crisis" that contradicts the Koran.

Yahya hit the news earlier this year when his book was distributed to instututions across France, and now it is being sent unsolicited to US scientists, universities, science museums and members of Congress. Taking into account the book's size and print quality, not to mention postage costs, the bill for Yahya's operation must be running into millions of dollars. However, the source of these finances remains a mystery.

Fortunately, the Atlas does not seem to be getting much of a reception from the scientists it has been sent to. Speaking to the New York Times, Kevin Padian, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, put it best: “I'm just astounded at its size and production values and equally astonished at what a load of crap it is.”

Monday, 16 July 2007

Spanish football club offends Christians with TV ad

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A Spanish Primera Liga football club have succeeded in offending the Catholic Church in their attempts to boost season ticket sales for the forthcoming season. Mid-table side Getafe have produced a TV commerical which depicts Jesus, Moses, Adam, Joan of Arc and others choosing to sacrifice themselves not for God but for their team. The 1 minute clip ends with a shot of Jesus dying on the cross, alongside words to the effect of "Above all else, my team".

Naturally the Catholic Church has rushed to denounce the advert, condemning it as "irreverent and blasphemous". Meanwhile, Spanish football analysts are suggesting that Getafe will require bigger signings than the Son of God if they are ever to eclipse their local rivals, Spanish champions Real Madrid.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Converts from Christ

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Replying to my previous post about all the wonderful people whom have been lost to the Lord recently, Laurence Boyce reminded me of a score for our side which I had completely forgotten. Jonathan Edwards- remember him? He was unique for so many reasons: a British athlete who was white, won medals and held world records and, ahem, was a devout Christian who refused to compete on a Sunday. He went on to present Songs of Praise, until suddenly resigning earlier this year. As Laurence reminds us, now his career in sport is over and he's had a moment to think about it all turns out, well, he doesn't really believe in God at all. He unloads it all in this great article in The Times. Choice quotes: “Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief” and

“If there is no God, does that mean that life has no purpose? Does it mean that personal existence ends at death? They are thoughts that do my head in." (Welcome to our world Jonathan, pull up a chair!)

His last words are priceless: "Just because something is unpalatable does not mean that it is not true.” Hossanah and amen to that. Laurence has written a great piece about Edwards on Facebook which, if you dare to risk signing up and being contacted by all the people you have spent most of your life avoiding, I urge you to read.

Simon Jenkins calls for Brown to disestablish church

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Simon Jenkins, a self-confessed "atheist who loves churches" (us too Simon), has a nice take on the Pope's theological surrealism ("who is this joker in Rome claiming supremacy via the greatest con in Europe's intellectual history, the 1870 Vatican council's intervention of papal infallibility"), and moves to a very elegant case for why Gordon Brown should follow through and disestablish the church of England. Its followed by the usual deluge of Comment is Free responses, if you have world enough and time...

Big losses for atheism

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After the recent triple whammy of losing Robbie Williams, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan to religion (why is it always the best, the finest minds, WHY!) comes the latest, possibly terminal blow for godlessness. Yes, folks, Tori Spelling has, after deep introspection and a rigourous session downloading a certificate from the internet, become a reverend. As reported in today's Guardian her first act as Rev Spelling was to unite Tony and Dex as life partners. The paper quotes her thus "True love is the ultimate, and pure love know [sic] no age gender or race." All of which goes to prove not only that we might as well pack up and join the Moonies - everyone's doing it - but also that Rev Spelling is crap at Grammer.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Former Jehovah's Witness starts support group for those leaving the religion

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Rachel Underhill claims that seven years ago she was forced to refuse a potentially lifesaving blood transfusion whilst undergoing a caesarian section during the birth of her twin daughters. Rachel, of Telscombe Cliffs, East Sussex, says the decision was taken for her by the dictates of the Jehovah's Witness hospital liaison committee.

Four years later Rachel was able to find a way out of the religion by faking an affair with an old friend, and she has been in the news this week after launching a support group for people wishing to leave the Jehovah's Witnesses - ex-Jehovah's Witnesses Reunited.

Her story provides an insight into the potentially damaging effects of a religion which encourages its adherents to forego the lifesaving benefits of modern medicine, while her support group is reminiscent of the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain, which was recently established to assist those wishing to renounce Islam.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Catholic school rejects boy for having surname "Hell"

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Poor Alex Hell, aged 5, is currently without a school after his local Catholic primary denied him a place because of his surname. The principal of St Peter the Apostle school in Melbourne, Australia took the decision following consultation with the parish priest, telling Alex's father: "You have made a rod for your son's back." To add insult to injury, the reason the family wanted Alex to attend St Peter the Apostle was because of surname-related bullying at his previous school. The school later agreed to offer the boy a place providing he used his mother's surname of Wembridge. Inevitably the family have told the school to "go to Hell", obviously using those exact words.

All this begs the question, what were the school worried about? Maybe they've been watching too many horror movies after Mass on Sunday afternoons? To see what almost certainly wouldn't have happened if young Alex had attended the school, see this trailer for classic 70s horror flick The Omen

Monday, 9 July 2007

Rise of religious fundamentalism: Tatchell talks to Joan Smith

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New Humanist contributor Peter Tatchell interviews columnist Joan Smith on the rise of religious fundamentalism across the world, and the need for a universal morality based on human rights

Friday, 6 July 2007

George Carlin with the final word on religion

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Pretty much sums up what we think from one of America's very best comedians. Caution contains strong language. Spoiler alert: if you want to continue believing in god don't listen.
[respect to Danny P]

Thursday, 5 July 2007

George Melly "a lovely man"

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The great English surrealist and iconoclast George Melly, singer, art critic, surrealist and all round mensch died today. He was an honorary associate of New Humanist and a great friend of our own Laurie Taylor. Tomorrow I'll post Laurie's favourite stories about george, but for now let's just pause to remember a lovely, original man.

Just added July 6th

Laurie Taylor recalls his friend George Melly
"The most remarkable thing about George was that though he was a brilliant writer and art critic he insisted on spending so much of his time touring around singing his heart out to anyone who would listen, not always that successfully... but with so much energy. He loved stirring things up, he was a true iconoclast. I remember once we were in Jersey doing a radio programme. He had already succeeded in alienating people there by loudly complaining about the 'rabbit droppings' on his fish (which were in fact capers). It’s a small place so this was enough to get him noticed. Then he managed to enrage the entire Island with a drug reference. A Jersey boy had recently been found to have written a letter asking someone on the mainland to send some cannabis, and got jail time. George made reference, on the radio, to Jersey's "wonderful drug laws, so much more liberal than Turkey's" (Midnight Express was just out then). Finally in signing off the programme he said that it had been made in collaboration with Radio Jersey, 'yup Jersey', he concluded, 'very good at collaboration!'"

Laurie concludes, "I remember most of all a trip I took on George’s famous debauched tour bus, round the beautiful valleys of central Wales. One afternoon we were passing through a particularly spectacular vista, and I couldn’t understand why the band around me was taking no notice of the wonderful scenery. All of a sudden the driver –who was also the bands drummer - pulled up , and everyone turned to look out of the window and broke into spontaneous and sustained applause. For George everything, even nature, was about performance. There was something about him which brought out the surreal in all of us. A lovely, lovely man."

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Brown to relinquish PM's right to choose bishops

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Could increased secularisation have arrived in the unlikely form of a committed Presbyterian Scot? In his first address to the Commons as Prime Minister, Brown outlined plans to give up the PM's right to have the final say on the appointment of bishops. The move forms part of an overall plan to reduce the vast constitutional powers held by the occupant of Number 10.
However, humanists, secularists, and anyone else outside of the Church of England should not get too excited just yet, as in the same speech Brown made it clear he still supports the establishment of the Church.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Scooter Libby's get out of jail free card

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Notorious US neo-con Lewis "Scooter" Libby has been spared his 30 month jail sentence by President Bush. Libby was sentenced last month for perjury and obstructing justice and, while he must still pay a $250,000 fine and spend two years on probation, he is no longer facing up to life inside.
The past year has seen the fall of several prominent neo-cons, including Libby, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld, and many commentators have predcited the demise of the ideology. Writing in the May/June issue of New Humanist the political philosopher Shadia Drury, a leading expert on neoconservatism, argued that the fall of leading neocons and the plummeting popularity of the Bush administration does not indicate the disappearance of the ideology from the American political landscape.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Floods are God's revenge, say bishops

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According to senior Church of England bishops, the recent floods that have devastated huge areas of England are God's revenge for our declining moral standards. The Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle has blamed the move to extend gay rights for the almighty downpours, telling the Sunday Telegraph that "Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want."
Backing up his colleague, the Bishop of Liverpool, Rt Rev James Jones, expressed his regret at society's poor understanding of meteorology: "People no longer see natural disasters as an act of God."
Read the full story here