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.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Ex-religious sought for TV documentary

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If any readers are former members of a religion, or are currently going through the process of leaving one, you may be able to help Isabel Cook, a television director currently developing a documentary idea for Channel 4.

The programme will follow one or more people as they take the brave step of leaving their religion, and Isabel is keen to talk to people who've been through or are going through this difficult process. It would be a very sensitive programme - led by the people who take part - and will, hopefully, not only help those involved but be an inspiration to others going through 'deconversion'.

If you have experienced this, Isabel would really like to hear your story. You would be contacting her in complete confidence and by doing so you will in no way be committing yourself to take part in the programme.

You can contact her on leavingmyreligion@yahoo.co.uk

Monday, 17 September 2007

Scottish student found guilty of terror offences

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A jury has today found Mohammed Atif Siddique, a student at Glasgow Metropolitan College, guilty of three terrorism offences. He was found guilty of possessing suspicious terrorism-related items, including videos of weapons use, guerilla tactics and bomb-making, and collecting terrorist-related information, setting up websites showing how to make and use explosives, and circulating inflammatory terrorist publications. He was also charged with breach of the peace, related to claims he showed fellow students images of suicide bombers and terrorist beheadings.

Recent months have seen several students convicted for terrorist offences, as cases related to new legislation on the glorification of terrorism begin to reach court. These cases highlight the question of when a combination of anger and curiosity should be seen to spill over into illegal activity. In a statement outside court, Siddique's lawyer said his client was only guilty of "looking for answers on the internet", just as millions of young people do every day, and in court his QC pointed out that the material he possessed was freely available to anyone on the internet.

It's been a busy day for news surrounding campus extremism. The government's Universities Secretary John Denham has today encouraged lecturers to back the government in tackling extremism in universities. In May this year the Universities and College Union voted to reject government recommendations to monitor their students, and today Denham has reiterated the government's view that this decision was misplaced, stating: "All we are trying to do is to make sure that everybody has the strength to ensure that people are not recruited to the sort of organisations which are promoting and organising violence of whatever sort."

Asked to comment on Mr Denham's remarks, the Universities and Colleges Union welcomed comments by Rick Trainor, president of vice-chancellors' union Universities UK, who in a speech earlier today said: "We do not believe that developing measures that focus on a particular group within our community achieves this goal. Rather, harmony is achieved by openness, tolerance and dialogue - which are, after all, central to university life."

In light of the UCU's decision and the recent surge in convictions, our September/October cover story takes a look at the question of radical Islam on campus, asking whether Islamist groups should be free to spread their ideas to students, or whether they should be banned from doing so. Are instances of radicalisation occurring at an alarming rate on campus, as cases like Siddique's may suggest, or are they occurring in numbers too small to warrant restrictions on freedom of speech?

Professor Charles Taylor on multiculturalism

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Writing today on the Guardian's Comment is Free site, Professor Charles Taylor makes some important points about multiculturalism, saying people need to stop "block-thinking" about Islam. By associating certain expressions of Islamic piety or culture, for example the headscarf, with one possible meaning, such as fundamentalism, we risk thinking of Muslims as one unified block, and so "make it harder for Muslims to stand out and criticise their own block thinkers", such as Osama bin Laden.

As Taylor says, "block thinkers on each side give aid and comfort to block thinkers on the other side" and help to strengthen Charles Huntington's controversial idea of the "clash of civilisations". Taylor concludes that we need to discourage block thinking and listen to "the crossover figures who can provide that urgently needed connection", for example the many who may be "deeply pious while being utterly revolted by gender discrimination or violence".

It's a point that ties in with our latest cover story on Islamic extremism in British universities. While there may be a problem with Islamist groups on campus, it is important to remember that such groups speak for the minority and do not warrant a hysterical reaction.

Rowan Williams: Charles should only be defender of the Anglican faith

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In a major interview with the Daily Telegraph this weekend, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams insisted that, on becoming king, Prince Charles should continue the monarch's role as "Defender of the Faith", i.e. the Anglican faith, rather than taking on the title "Defender of the Faiths".

Charles first expressed a wish to represent the multitude of faiths in 1994, and has since suggested that his coronation should be a "multi-faith" ceremony. Williams dismissed this idea, saying: "The acts of worship we perform have their integrity. I don't want to see amateurish messing around compromising what's going on".

Dr Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and a prominent secularist, condemned the archbishop's comments: "When Rowan Williams defends the role of the monarch of Defender of the Faith, he is not defending religious freedom in general, but instead trying to cling on to vestiges of an intolerant, anti-Catholic, Protestant fundamentalist and rather savage era of British history."

Of course Harris is correct to condemn the current status of the monarch as the "defender" of one faith, but do we really want Charles taking on the enhanced title of "Defender of the Faiths"? Surely we've already got enough clerics and self-appointed faith leaders speaking up on matters of religion and the state without King Charles wading in as well? From the humanist/secular perspective, perhaps the real issue here is that it's time the monarch ceased to have any involvement in matters of religion? It ties in with the argument for why we shouldn't have bishops, or any other religious figures, automatically represented in the House of Lords. I refer you back to Jake Bromberg's excellent discussion of this from the May/June issue of New Humanist.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Times columnist: stop shoving religion down my throat

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Columnist Carol Sarler has an enjoyable rant in today's Times, asking why the media pays so much attention to religious matters when, statistically, so few people seem to care any more: "It is a peculiar reversal of social logic that the decline in the practice of religion should be met with such a rise in reference to it".

Carol's confused why the media are so concerned with issues like the sexuality of priests, but also worried about the deference given to religion: "Good manners today disallow the questioning of a man's belief as sternly as they disallow jokes about it. . . It has become a sine qua non of courteous interaction that those of us without a religious bone in our bodies must defer to those who have". My favourite statement in the article is that "there are in Britain more practising anglers than practising Anglicans", a point I have made a mental note to make use of in the future.

There's only one problem with this article really. If everyone suddenly stopped going on about religion, the industrious staff at New Humanist would be out of a job without a penny to our names...

Post 9/11, the struggle against extremism lies much closer to home

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In the week of the sixth anniversary of 9/11, we've seen a series of bleak reports relating to the myriad of conflicts unleashed as a result of that day. The latest comes from the International Institute for Strategic Studies who, as today's Guardian reports, believe al-Qaeda has "revived, extended its influence, and has the capacity to carry out a spectacular strike similar to the September 11 attacks".

The report states that "the US and its allies have failed to deal a death blow to al-Qaeda; the organisation's ideology appears to have taken root to such a degree that it will require decades to eradicate". Obviously the key here is Iraq, which in 2003 was turned into a ready-made battlefield and recruitment ground for al-Qaeda, allowing it to expand and recover from the blows taken in Afghanistan.

Old ground, yes, but the reason I bring it up is because I'm currently reading George Packer's excellent book The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq. Whatever your views on the invasion of Iraq it's hard to deny that, had things been handled differently, something good might just have come of the whole thing. Packer's book highlights the naivety, complacency, and in many ways sheer negligence shown by Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney and co at a time when looting, power cuts, and general lawlessness were busy ruining any hope of progress in Iraq. The Assassin's Gate is by far and away the best thing I've read about the war and its aftermath, and should be read by anyone looking for a sensible opinion on the subject.

As it stands, al-Qaeda is well and truly back in business, and Europe's right on the frontline, as Timothy Garton Ash writes in today's Guardian. Stressing that Iraq is a sideshow in the larger struggle against terror, Garton Ash points out that much depends on winning the hearts and minds of young British Muslims who risk being sucked into Islamism. Encouragement can be drawn from recent high-profile defections from groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, but more must be done to ensure that young men are not pushed into the arms of extremists.

Along with Europe, Garton Ash views Pakistan as the other frontline in this struggle. As Maruf Khwaja writes in the new issue of New Humanist, with "Iraq and Afghanistan ruined forever" the fall of Pakistan to Islamists could mean disaster for us all.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Defections from political Islam

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Much has been written this week of the defection of Maajid Nawaz from Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir. Nawaz was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir UK's national executive, and spent 4 years in jail in Egypt for his membership of the party. Having returned to the UK last year following his release, Nawaz left the party two months ago and this week made his reasons public. He spent his time in jail studying Islam and reconsidering his Islamism, coming to the conclusion that the ideas and methods advocated by Hizb ut-Tahrir are invalid under Islam. As was reported last night on Newsnight during an extensive interview with Nawaz, he has now turned his attentions to persuading other members of Hizb ut-Tahrir to leave, and is publishing a series of papers on his blog arguing against the theological basis of Islamism. He told Newsnight that he takes responsibility for past recruitment of many young British Muslims to Islamism, and now wishes to speak out against it.

As our September/October cover story reports, there has been widespread debate over the recruitment activities of Islamist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir on university campuses. Indeed, Nawaz carried out such recruitment during his time as a student at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Some have suggested that Hizb ut-Tahrir should be banned, but the experience of Nawaz, and other high-profile defectors such as Ed Husain and Shiraz Maher, does not suggest that a ban is the way forward. They each drifted away from the ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir through their own studies of Islam, and now Nawaz hopes to help other members do the same. He has explicitly stated that he does not think Hizb ut-Tahrir should be banned, believing instead that "through the power of discussion and persuasion, eventually the party will fizzle out".

Tristram Hunt joins critics of Hitchens, Dawkins et al

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For the latest "critique" of the rationalist viewpoint, step forward TV historian Tristram Hunt, who's written a piece for today's Guardian attacking the "new atheist orthodoxy" with all the usual accusations of ignorance, arrogance, solipsism and sophistry. Tristram's particularly upset with the pride atheists take in the Enlightenment, which in his view had "its foundation in elements of the Protestant tradition" and was "intimately connected with non-conformist Protestantism".

Like so many others, Hunt chooses to depict atheism/humanism/rationalism as driven mostly by its "central pillars" - Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens - before basing his entire argument on Hitchens' view of the Enlightenment in his polemical bestseller God Is Not Great. So in Tristram's eyes Hitchens' uncompromising view that religion had little part to play in the Enlightenment becomes the view of all us atheists out there.

Meanwhile, Tristram's busy expounding his view that the Enlightenment was all thanks to Protestantism, showing particular fondness for the period's "flourishing Deism". Which of course isn't actually Protestantism at all.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Truth we can't afford

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Our friend at Index, Padraig Reidy, writes on the case of saudi-born billionaire Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz whose litigious responses to any hint (or suggestion of a hint, or no hint at all) that he may be linked to funding terrorism has small publishers, and many others, running scared. Of course there is still no case for rewriting British libel law, is there?

Monday, 10 September 2007

Government backs more faith schools

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The government has again reiterated its commitment to increasing the number of state-funded faith schools, releasing a joint statement with representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu groups.

The British Humanist Association's Education Officer, Andrew Copson has condemned the statement, saying ‘To expand state-funded faith schools is to increase discrimination in school admissions against pupils and their parents and to increase employment discrimination against teachers. It means more pupils will be segregated by religion and ethnicity and denied the right to a fully balanced education or to school with children from different backgrounds and learn with and from them.'

Worryingly the schools secretary Ed Balls, speaking at the launch of the statement in London, pointed out that faith organisations had "a long and noble tradition" in education, from medieval times, through the Reformation, to the present day. Now, I'm no expert on faith schools circa 1500-1700, but I can't imagine they spent the Reformation promoting the "interaction between different faiths and communities" that the government so hopes to gain from its faith schools agenda.

Comedians stop Christian group using their catchphrases to evangelise

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Lawyers representing the comedians behind The Catherine Tate Show and Little Britain have forced Christian Publishing and Outreach to withdraw posters that used catchphrases from the two shows. The offending posters featured tiresome, ubiquitous phrases like "Am I bovvered" and "Yeah but no but yeah" alongside Bible quotes, with the aim of attracting youngsters to attend church services. Clearly the comedians didn't appreciate their work being used by evangelical Christians, and the CPO have been forced to take the posters out of circulation.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Stop press: New Humanist not paying $5000 for articles to people who haven't written any articles

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We've just been alerted to the fact that our name and address is being used in one of those email scams where kindly individuals ask for your bank details so they can give you tidy sums of US dollars.

So if you do get an email from someone claiming to represent New Humanist or the Rationalist Association offering to pay you $5000 for an article you haven't even written, it's probably safe to say it's not us. We may be a charity, but we're not usually in the business of paying people large sums of cash for material that hasn't been submitted to us. Moreover, if we did run a competition for articles (which we have no plans to do), we'd be extremely unlikely to pay $5000 for an unpublished article which came third in the competition that we haven't run. Sorry folks, we're just not that generous.

Here's a copy of the offending email, just so you all know:

Greetings,

I would like to say that your article sent to us as been enlisted as the top best(3rd position)
and we hereby grant the sum of $5000 usd to you of a job well done. I would cordially be glad you
send to us your following details so that that payment can be sent to you.

Name:
Address:
Phone no(home and mobile):

Carlos Montes

The Rationalist Association Ltd
1, Gower St,
London
,
WC1E 6HD

The more silly belief systems the better, says Andrew Mueller

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New Humanist contributor Andrew Mueller has written a nice little piece on Comment is Free, suggesting that rationalists can benefit from the proliferation of eccentric, artificial belief systems.

Citing the example of the widow of US soldier Sergeant Patrick Stewart, who has been campaigning for the recognition of their Wiccan religion by the Department of Veteran Affairs, Mueller says rationalists need not be concerned by increased pandering to both mainstream religions and obscure sects. Rather, he suggests that the more belief systems gain recognition, the greater chance of reaching critical mass and the whole world of superstition collapsing "beneath the weight of its own foolishness".

Thursday, 6 September 2007

AC Grayling at the RSA, Thursday 13 September

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Regular New Humanist contributor AC Grayling is speaking next Thursday at the RSA to coincide with the launch of his new book Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights that Made the Modern West.

His lecture "will examine the drive towards greater independence and individual liberty and demonstrate how fragile and precious these rights are, especially in an age when democratic governments under pressure sometimes claim it is necessary to restrict rights in the name of freedom."

Date: Thursday 13 September, 1pm
Location: RSA, 8 John Adam St, London, WC2N 6EZ

The lecture is free of charge and all are welcome, though you must reserve a place. To do this visit the RSA website or contact the lectures department on lectures@rsa.org.uk or call 020 7451 6868.

In the meantime, here's a sample of Grayling's work in the form of his scathing review of John Gray from the last issue of New Humanist.

Dawkins on Hitchens

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The Times Literary Supplement have just published Richard Dawkins reviewing Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great. Sure, it's a love-in, but a readable and highly entertaining love-in. Worth a look.

Is Islamist extremism infiltrating our universties and public libraries?

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Yesterday's Newsnight picked up on a new report by the right-leaning Centre for Social Cohesion which suggests that public libraries in areas of London with dense Muslim populations have been inundated with copies of Islamist texts. Books by the key Islamist thinkers Sayed Qutb and Sayed Abdullah Maydudi, and the more recent terrorist sympathisers Abu Hamza and Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal were found in libraries in the Tower Hamlets borough.

The author of the report, Douglas Murray, said that the collections on Islam in these libraries were "warped towards one particular extreme interpretation of Islam", while the former Islamist Ed Husian expressed concerns that readers could be inspired by these teachings: "The worry is how many of those people - it might be a small number, but small enough to cause carnage - who are then prepared to literally act upon those teachings."

This story follows on from concerns over the influence of Islamism on university campuses, and raises similar questions over civil liberties. Should people be free to read about and even espouse these ideas, or are they so dangerous that they should be banned from public life? Our cover story for the new September/October issue takes a look at the question of Islamic extremism on university campuses. We speak to students and leading academics, and ask how universities should be dealing with the problem.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Film screening & discussion at the Curzon cinema, London: Deliver Us From Evil

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This Sunday (9 September) the Frontline Club and the Curzon cinema are co-hosting a screening of Deliver Us From Evil, producer/director Amy Berg's film about the American priest Father Oliver O'Grady, the most notorious paedophile in the history of the Catholic Church.

The screening at the Curzon will be followed by a panel discussion on whether the media's coverage of child abuse in the Catholic Church has been fair. This will feature Guardian religion correspondent Stephen Bates, Mike Jempson of the Mediawise Trust, commentator for The Tablet Clifford Longley, and David Niven, founder of Action Against Child Exploitation. The discussion will be chaired by New Humanist editor Caspar Melville.

Date: Sunday 9th September, 2pm
Price: £6.50
Location: Curzon Soho, 99 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 5DY

Tickets can be booked by visiting the Curzon website, or by calling 0870 756 4620.

In the new September/October issue of New Humanist, Francis Beckett reports on the efforts of survivors of abuse in British religious schools to make their cases, suggesting Catholics in the UK have been more successful than in the US in putting obstacles in the way of victims.

Nepalese airline sacrifices goats to fix plane

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With the clock ticking and passengers becoming restless over their broken-down and delayed flight to Hong Kong on Sunday, workers at Kathmandu airport took the only sensible option available to them and sacrificed two goats to Akash Bhairab, the Hindu god of sky protection.

Having consulted the Haynes manual for Boeing 757s under the section "unspecified faults", technicians brought the two goats out on to the runway and slaughtered them in front of the plane. This grisly piece of maintenance seemed to do the trick, as shortly after the plane successfully completed the flight to Hong Kong. Anyone out there with persistent car troubles should be taking notes - just make sure that next time you break down it's next to a farmer's field.

In other sacrificial news, animal rights activists are up in arms following the slaughter of the world's heaviest pig at Taiwan's annual Pig of God festival. The pig had been force fed sand and metal, reaching the horrific weight of 143 stone.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

London segregated by religion more than race, finds study

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A new study by the University of East London has found that London is more segregated by religion than race, showing that in some areas minority religions make up 80% of the population. While only 3% of Londoners live in areas classed as racially segregated, the study suggests that 25% live in areas segregated by religion.

At the same time, the authors of the study have suggested that such segregation is not always detrimental to those involved. Concentrated communities of Jews, Hindus and Sikhs are generally in better-off areas of the city, but areas with large Muslim populations tend to be in less affluent parts of London, such as Tower Hamlets and Newham.

Polly Toynbee on becoming president of the British Humanist Association

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Earlier this summer the British Humanist Association announced the appointment of journalist Polly Toynbee as their new president. Here she is on Radio Four's Sunday programme discussing why she took the role.

Prominent Nigerian humanist seeks assistance for study in UK

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Our friend Leo Igwe, Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, is looking to hear from anyone who may be able to assist him with funding/accommodation for studying for his PhD on African Humanism at the University of Leeds.

Leo proposes to research the struggles by African Humanists to express their thoughts, assert their identity, organise themselves and contribute to public debates, issues and development. At the same time he plans to use this opportunity to improve his language, writing and research skills.

In order to begin his first year, he will need to raise funding and find accommodation. Humanists in Nigeria face great obstacles in tackling superstition, and it would be a great help to their movement for Leo to come and research African humanism for his PhD.

If anyone feels they may be able to assist Leo in any way, please get in touch with us on webcontact@newhumanist.org.uk and we will put you in contact with him. Any help will be greatly appreciated.