Monday, 31 March 2008

Catholics lose lead in religious league table

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It's been widely reported that for the first time in its history the Catholic Church has lost it's position as the religion with the most adherents worldwide.

While for accuracy's sake it's worth pointing out that these (Vatican-produced) figures don't seem to distinguish between different branches of Islam (while making the distinction between Protestantism, Catholicism etc), they reveal that 19.2% of the world's population are Muslim compared to 17.4% Catholic.

Now, I'm not sure this story in itself is that surprising given the regions of the world where various religions are stronger and so on, but what really struck me were the comments by Monsignor Vittorio Formenti, editor of 'the Vatican's new statistics yearbook'. First let's point out that this doesn't seem to be a joke – this yearbook actually does exist, like a kind of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack for Catholicism. And secondly, let's have a look at what Monsignor Formenti had to say: "For the first time in history we are no longer at the top: the Muslims have overtaken us."

My first instinct here was to say "well, it's not a competition", but then I realised it kind of is, what with the race to convert heathens and so on. But I do like how he sounded like a football manager who'd just been overtaken at the top of the league. And like any good gaffer (it's a shame the Pope didn't make these comments), Formenti's backing the Church of Rome to bounce back in the population race, describing Africa as a "grand resource" for Catholicism. Wise words, as if they keep telling their adherents there not to use contraception, they might just get back in the game.

Friday, 28 March 2008

The Faith Roundup: a new occasional series

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In searching the web for stories for this blog, we tend to find that many headlines (and as a result, news stories) consist of someone putting their 'faith' in something or somebody else. Sports stories are the main offenders, but there are plenty of 'faith' stories from across the news spectrum.

Alongside 'faith' we're also fond of 'backing', i.e. the tendency for people to declare that they are 'backing' something or somebody else.

In the NH office we find the range of things that people find to 'back' or express their 'faith' in, as well as the banal nature of the resulting stories, both astounding and highly amusing so, while this has very little (or more accurately, nothing) to do with humanism, we've decided to back a new irregular blog feature – The Faith Roundup.

Each week (or from time to time, or seldom, depending on its popularity) we'll bring you a roundup of the best headlines involving 'faith' and 'backing'. We would have called it The Faith and Backing Roundup, but somehow it doesn't sound as catchy.

  1. Call to keep the internet faith despite downturn (Guardian, 26 March)
  2. Raikkonen has faith in his Ferrari (Sporting Life, 23 March)
  3. Massa has faith in Ferrari (Sporting Life, 22 March)
  4. Visa investors bolster my faith in future of plastic (Report on Business, 22 March)
  5. Capello puts faith in Becks (Sky Sports, 20 March)
  1. Beckham backs Capello to succeed (Sporting Life, 25 March)
  2. Peruvian president backs Beijing Olympic Games (China View, 28 March)
  3. Keane backs the modern player (Sky Sports, 28 March)
  4. Business backs 'bufoon' Boris (, 28 March)
  5. Pub backs bid to clear admiral's name (The Welwyn and Hatfield Times, 25 March)
We're very keen to hear readers' favourite faith and backing headlines, so if you've seen any good ones send them to us or leave them in a comment on this post.

Geert Wilders' anti-Islam film released online

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After months of anticipation, criticism, threats and counter-threats, right-wing Dutch MP Geert Wilder's controversial short film, Fitna, warning of the perceived "Islamisation of Europe" has finally been released online at video site LiveLeak.

You can read about its release in this story on the BBC website, which for anyone who doesn't want to watch the video provides a summary of what it contains.

Now the release has actually happened, it remains to be seen what the fallout might be. Wilders lives under constant police protection, and ever since he announced his intention to make Fitna the Dutch government has been taking measures to protect its offices overseas.

Opinion is greatly divided over Wilders and his film, so we're running a poll to gain an idea of what readers of this blog think. Here's the question, followed by the choice of responses. Vote at the top right of this page:

What is your opinion on the controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders and his decision to release the short film Fitna, which warns of the perceived "Islamisation of Europe"?
  • In releasing his film, Wilders is making a brave stand against Islamisation and mounting a necessary defence of Western values
  • Wilders is acting in a deliberately provocative manner and should be condemned for his actions. Free speech must be exercised with a degree of responsibility, which Wilders has failed to demonstrate
  • While I do not agree with the message of the film, I believe that free speech is paramount and so defend Wilders' right to release it
As always, your comments are encouraged - please leave them on this post.

Girl dies after parents choose prayer over medicine

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Well, here's a fairly grim story. An 11-year-old girl from Wisconsin has died from a treatable form of diabetes because her parents chose to pray for her rather than take her to a doctor.

Associated Press report that Madeline Neumann died on Sunday from diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition which police say would have involved at least a month of symptoms like nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness.

However, she wasn't taken to see a doctor because, as the girl's aunt (who incidentally tried to get the family to seek medical advice) explained, her mother "believes in faith instead of doctors".

The girl's mother, Leilani Neumann, recalling the lead up to her daughter's death, told reporters: "We just noticed a tiredness within the past two weeks. And then just the day before and that day (she died), it suddenly just went to a more serious situation. We stayed fast in prayer then. We believed that she would recover. We saw signs that to us, it looked like she was recovering."

Police are now investigating the circumstances surrounding the girl's death, although this does not seem to be of concern to Mrs Neumann: "Our lives are in God's hands. We know we did not do anything criminal. We know we did the best for our daughter we knew how to do."

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Expelled from Expelled: PZ story goes global

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I was delighted to read that PZ Myers' expulsion from a screening of pro-ID documentary Expelled has been the biggest story in the blogosphere over the past few days. You'll see that the press release is actually from the makers of Expelled, trying to twist the publicity their own way, but it's still great news, and a look at BlogPulse, which tracks the popularity of items in the blogosphere, shows that PZ's original post on the matter is currently the fourth most popular blog post in the world.

In keeping with this theme, I thought I'd share this blog post I found on New Scientist. One of their writers went to see Expelled in the States and in addition to panning the film itself – "The film was just silly, with virtually zero scientific content" – they describe a post-showing Q&A session with producer Mark Mathis. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the planted questions in the audience and attempts to silence challenging questioners.

While I don't doubt that some of the millions who must have been reading about this are backing the makers of Expelled, I think it's fair to say that many more people will now be aware of the double standards exhibited by the producers of a piece of creationist propaganda which is being widely panned by critics. Some are taking the 'all publicity is good publicity' line on this, but it seems far more likely that the terrible response this film is receiving, generally from individuals with far more credibility than its producers, will serve to further damage its already negligible reputation.

So, as we often like to do, we thought we'd set up an opinion poll on the matter. Do you think all this publicity could end up working in favour of Expelled? Place your vote at the top right of this page.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Aaronovitch and Toynbee on religion and the Embryology Bill

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The big news from our perspective over the Easter weekend has been the repeated calls from pulpits across the land to give MPs a free vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

We're becoming all too used to these attacks on science from religious leaders, who twist the facts and use ridiculous hyperbole to try and convince their congregations that cutting-edge scientific research that could eventually save millions of lives is somehow morally abhorrent. Take Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brien, for example, who describes research involving human-animal hybrid embryos as "monstrous", "grotesque", "hideous" and of "Frankenstein proportions".

I can find no better way to dismiss this than to quote Polly Toynbee in today's Guardian:

"Whatever the religious claims, the human fertilisation and embryology bill is not in some special moral category of its own. It allows scientists to use the outer empty shell of animal eggs, for lack of spare human eggs, in which to implant purely human DNA for 14 days, to derive stem cell lines which model a particular disease to be studied in the lab. The UK pioneers stem-cell research into Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, motor neurone disease and muscular dystrophy, as well as cancer, diabetes, strokes and infertility. Contrary to the cardinals' wilfully ignorant campaign of misinformation, no animal hybrid, no monstrous Island of Doctor Moreau chimeras loom. Forget spurious "thin end of the wedge" arguments: no further step can be taken without another act of parliament."

Not that Easter Sunday congregations were informed of any of this. Anyone listening to the likes of O'Brien who didn't have any other knowledge of embryology might have come away thinking the law could lead to the creation of a race of half-human/half-cow devil-worshipping entities ready to bring about the destruction of God's people. According to O'Brien, the idea that embryo research might lead to the curing of diseases is merely an "excuse" used by scientists to ensure they get the right to pursue their sinister activities. And it wasn't just Catholics getting in on the act. The Anglican Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, managed these words of wisdom from his pulpit: "Gender-bending was so last century; we now do species bending".

It's this sensationalist, misleading and distasteful tone that has irked David Aaronovitch, who in today's Times presents a fantastic case for why we must stand up to religious attempts to interfere in science and government legislation:

"Like most of the Godless (or Godfree), I have no desire to proselytise for atheism or to persuade people out of religions that may offer them comfort and companionship. But there is a growing shrillness and unpleasantness - yes, an unscrupulousness - about the way that some of the top faithful increasingly choose to conduct their arguments. This needs to be combated because, for all their talk of conscience, what Dr Wright and Cardinal O'Brien really seem to want is to tell the rest of us how to live."

Here's hoping the Government stands firm, rejects calls for a free vote and ensures the Embryology Bill passes because, as Toynbee points out "trying to make things better in the human here and now trumps imposing needless suffering on the sick for perverse doctrinal reasons."

Update: Well, scratch what I said above. Gordon Brown has just announced that he will allow Labour MPs a free vote on "controversial" elements of the bill. Which means that pressure from the Catholic Church has led to a situation where a piece of legislation vital to medical research might be rejected by a 21st century British parliament. We can only hope the religious lobby isn't strong enough to make this happen, but if you read Toynbee's Guardian piece, we can't be too sure of that. I suppose we can look forward to more political pronouncements in Sunday sermons, as religious leaders will clearly have realised they're on to something.

Dawkins goes undercover at screening of Expelled

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This is fantastic. Writing on his blog Pharyngula, the American biologist and outspoken atheist PZ Myers reports how he was prevented from entering a Minneapolis screening of Creationist propaganda documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. He was queueing up for what sounds like some kind of press screening when he was instructed by a security guard that one of the film's producers had let it be known that he must not be allowed into the film, and must leave the premises at once.

But the authorities didn't notice that PZ's wife and his guest were still in the queue, and they proceeded unhindered into the cinema. And this wasn't any ordinary guest. It was none other than Professor Richard Dawkins, going undercover to watch the very documentary he was last year misled into appearing in.

This story has grown pretty big on the internet over the Easter weekend, even making it into the NY Times. There's a huge list of web links here for anyone who wants to read more.

It's a great story on so many levels, with the irony of PZ being expelled from Expelled probably leading the field. After the screening Dawkins and PZ made a video discussing the incident:

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Get your shoes shined by a bishop this Easter

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With the exception of the bank holidays, for us heathens there's very little that's appealing about the Easter period. But if you live in the Midlands you can take advantage of Christian observances by having your shoes shined by a Church of England clergyman.

Clergy will be working as shoe shiners on the streets of Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester and Northampton for the next three days in what the Bishop of Birmingham described as "a small demonstration that people who follow Jesus are prepared to roll up their sleeves and serve their communities."

It's supposed to be inspired to be inspired by Jesus washing the disciples' feet at the Last Supper, but if that's the case surely the shining vicars should be encouraging people to whip of their socks and settle down for a proper foot cleansing session?

Would you let a bishop shine your shoes? Let us know by voting in the poll at the top right of this page. There are 5 options to choose from:
  • Yes, you've got to take advantage. I'll bring along every pair I own
  • Yes, I admire their commitment and will happily allow them to demonstrate it on my shoes
  • No, I'm not a Christian so it would be wrong to take advantage of their faith to get my shoes cleaned
  • No, as an atheist I find the very idea of taking part in something related to Easter deeply offensive. In fact, I'm working on the bank holidays purely as a protest.
  • No, I wear trainers.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Archbishop admits Christianity is just a story

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In a speech seemingly confirming what we've long suspected, that is, representatives of the Church of England probably don't really believe half the things they're supposed to, Rowan Williams this week stated that Christianity is just a story and admitted the religion is "vulnerable".

He was delivering a Holy Week lecture ominously named "Faith and Science" and while he took time to criticise Creationism ("slightly questionable science pretending to be theology") it sounds like he spent much of his time attacking the likes of Richard Dawkins, who he seems to have named "neo-Darwinists": "Science can be seduced into making exaggerated claims. Neo Darwinism of Dawkins' kind carries with it a rather subjective agenda ... It is as vulnerable as Christianity"

Still, at least he admitted his own position is pretty tenuous. And in the week when Christians recall a monumental event which may or may not have actually happened, but which shaped the following 2,000 years of human history, this seems somewhat appropriate. According to The Times, which unfortunately lacks a direct quote for this bit, Williams said that "Both Neo Darwinism and Christianity are telling stories ... Christianity acknowledges that fact, Neo Darwinism doesn't."

Well, just a couple of issues with that statement. The Times kindly explain that "Neo Darwinists argue that culture is subject to evolutionary forces which will eventually weed out religion", which presumably means Dawkins and his memes theory. Whether it's tenuous or not, I'm not sure advancing a theory is quite the same as telling a story. Saying someone rose from the dead, walked on water and turned some other water into wine is telling a story. But it's okay, because apparently Christians "acknowledge that fact". Try telling that to a lot of the Christians celebrating (is celebrate the right word?) Easter this coming weekend – like these sensible people, for example.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

AC Grayling hits back at John Gray on Comment is Free

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The attack on the "New Atheists" by John Gray in Saturday's Guardian has caused a fair bit of debate online, and New Humanist regular AC Grayling has responded to him on the paper's Comment is Free site.

Since Gray's article was actually just an extract from his book Black Mass (published last year, but due out soon in paperback), Grayling has responded in kind by directing Guardian readers to the damning review he wrote for this magazine last year.

Anyone interested in John Gray may wish to read Laurie Taylor's interview, also from New Humanist (where else?).

Monday, 17 March 2008

Web exclusive: Drinking with Kingsley Amis

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Ok, so not really drinking with Kingsley Amis, but we do have New Humanist regular Toby Saul's humorous look at inebriation, assisted by a copy of upcoming collection Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis.

The great novelist is often remembered for his drinking and, as Toby finds, he deserves equally to be remembered for his writing on drinking. Anyone who spent a significant amount of time writing columns on boozing for national newspapers gets our vote – perhaps it's time health conscious editors looked back on the example set by Amis and appointed a new generation of drink correspondents?

Here in the office we're enjoying reading about Amis's alco-journalism – for more great examples have a look at Alexander Waugh's review of Everyday Drinking on Book Forum.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

John Gray attacks the New Atheists

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Yesterday we reported Chris Hedges' attack on the "New Atheists", and sticking with the same theme today's Guardian features philosopher John Gray providing a similar analysis of what he terms "secular fundamentalism".

It's Saturday and I'm about to go out, but I thought I'd quickly blog it to give people something to mull over for the weekend. More to follow on Monday...

Friday, 14 March 2008

Expelled: Make it free, they still wont come

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To follow up on earlier posts about Ben Stein's pro-ID propaganda film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, I've just learnt via Pharyngula that a free showing in a Florida cinema, aimed at winning over state legislators, was a complete flop.

Not content with offering to pay schools around America to take their students to see the documentary, the organisers rented out an IMAX cinema (you know, the big ones with the massive screens) in downtown Tallahassee for $940 and laid on a free evening out for lawmakers. It seems this was an attempt to get involved in an ongoing Florida dispute over the inclusion of evolution on state science curricula, but it also seems to have been a complete failure, as a meagre 100 people turned up.

I guess this shows that there is such thing as a free lunch after all, but if it's completely unappetising no one will bother coming to the table in the first place.

Chris Hedges on the "fundamentalism" of the New Atheists

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It's interesting to see that Chris Hedges' new book is an attack on the New Atheists. Perhaps best known as a foreign correspondent, early last year Hedges published American Fascists, which compared the Christian Right in America to the early European fascist movements. Around that time, he wrote an article for New Humanist on the opening of the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Having attacked Christian fundamentalism, Hedges is now training his sights on what he perceives as "atheist fundamentalism" in his new book I Don't Believe In Atheists, which has just been published in America.

There's an intriguing interview with Hedges on Salon that I urge you all to read. He says he's only recently found the New Atheists on his "radar screen", but suggests that he finds them every bit as dangerous as the Christian right, putting his view that "Hitchens and Harris do for the neocon agenda in a secular way what the religious right does in a so-called religious way."

Hedges even expresses a fear that the religious right and New Atheism might one day join together in an attack on Islam: "What I worry about is that in a moment of collective humiliation and fear, these two strands come together and call for an assault on Muslims, both outside our gates and on the 6 million Muslims who live within our borders."

Much of this seems somewhat over the top, but it's certainly interesting that someone like Hedges would launch such an attack on the New Atheists. You only have to read the article he wrote for us last year to see that he would be in broad agreement with atheists on many issues – indeed, his views on the Christian Right should really mark him out as a potential ally for the New Atheists – but there's just something in the aggressive tone of Hitchens et al that's really troubled him.

Have a read of what Hedges has to say and let us know what you think. Is he right to accuse the New Atheists of fundamentalism, or is it outrageous and offence to compare them to the Christian Right?

Thursday, 13 March 2008

What's worse? 'Jesus' or 'Christ'?

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Just a short blog on something I read today in ShortList, a free magazine you can pick up outside tube stations in London on Thursday mornings.

In today's edition they had an interview with comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb (the guys from Peep Show), in which they discussed what you can get away with saying in BBC programmes. In addition to informing ShortList that you "can only get away with saying 'fuck' two or three times in a sketch show", Webb added that "with blasphemy you are allowed to say 'God' but you can't say 'Christ'. 'Jesus', but not 'Christ'."

Now, the reason I blog this is that, if it's true, it's an interesting little fact and I'd like to know why it's the case. In that wonderful arsenal of blasphemous terms, what's so bad about "Christ" compared to "Jesus"? Mitchell suggests it's because "Christ is his surname", though somehow I doubt this is the reason.

So, I'm putting two questions out there. Firstly, is this true? I had a go at finding out myself, but Googling "blasphemy" and the "BBC" together mostly just throws up loads of stuff about Jerry Springer the Opera and those delightful folks at Christian Voice. Secondly, is it worse to say "Christ" than "Jesus", and if so, why?

Answers on a postcard (or preferably in comments to this post)

Ranting bishop claims Christianity under attack from "gay conspiracy"

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One of Scotland's leading Roman Catholics believes that the "gay lobby" has mounted a "huge and well-orchestrated conspiracy" to destroy Christianity.

The Rt Rev Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell was delivering a lecture at a Glasgow Catholic school on Tuesday but reports suggest this quickly turned into something closer to a paranoid rant as he warned his audience that the gay rights movements had crept up on them unawares: "I want to ask you if you are able to see the giant conspiracy that's taking place before our eyes, even if we didn't see it at the time. I take it you're beginning to see that there is a huge and well-orchestrated conspiracy taking place, which the Catholic community missed."

Perhaps most shocking were his comments regarding Holocaust Memorial Day, suggesting that the presence of gay organisations at commemorations amounts to a clever publicity stunt: "The homosexual lobby has been extremely effective in aligning itself with minority groups. It is ever-present at the service each year for the Holocaust memorial, as if to create for themselves the image of a group of people under persecution. We neglect the gay movement at our peril."

Not that the bishop stopped at there. He also expressed his dismay at the recognition actor Ian McKellen receives for his gay rights work: "In this New Year's honours list, I saw actor Ian McKellen being honoured for his work on behalf of homosexuals, when a century ago Oscar Wilde was locked up and put in jail. It's a very small group of people, but very active and organised – and extremely indulgent. The opposition know exactly what they're doing. We don't."

It's not quite clear whether he was suggesting that McKellen should be locked up for being gay, but the implication certainly seems to be that jail would be preferable to a New Year's honour.

As if all this wasn't enough, Bishop Devine finished off by vowing to fight the "forces of secularism" and bizarrely comparing himself to that notorious star of Mad Max and director of The Passion of the Christ: "Like Mel Gibson, who said, 'I'm going to pick a fight', so am I."

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Hair straighteners advert offends Christians

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Now, this is really starting to get silly. A TV advertisement for hair straighteners (yes, hair straighteners) has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority because it risks offending Christians.

The ad for GHD straighteners featured "eroticised female imagery and an extract from the Lord's Prayer", and was deemed by the ASA to be in danger of causing "serious offence" to Christians.

A massive total of 23 people, including the Archdeacon of Liverpool, complained about the ad, which amazingly seems to be a sufficient percentage of the UK population to have something banned for the rest. Apparently they were particularly offended by a stylised cross-shaped letter 't' that appears in the end strapline "Thy will be done".

Fortunately for readers, the NH Blog is backing GHD Straighteners to bounce back from this setback and in a show of defiance we've tracked down a clip of the ad on YouTube for your perusal. Enjoy.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Deadly sins for the modern age

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As suspected, those good folks in the Vatican really are making it up as they go along. For the first time in Catholic history the seven deadly sins have been brought up to date to accommodate the perceived ills of the modern world.

To coincide with the Pope's condemnation of the secularised world's "decreasing sense of sin", the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano yesterday published seven new ones which, according to Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary (it "oversees confessions and plenary indulgences", apparently), take account of "new sins which have appeared on the horizon of humanity as a corollary of the unstoppable process of globalisation."

The new sins can be listed as follows:
  • Paedophilia
  • Abortion
  • Ruining the environment
  • Carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments
  • Allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos
  • Dealing or taking drugs
  • Social injustice that causes poverty or the excessive accumulation of wealth by a few
To make a couple of observations, it's good of the Catholic Church to have noticed that paedophilia's a bad thing, and I think it's worth highlighting the attack on science represented by two of the new sins – no doubt the Vatican's definition of "morally debatable scientific experiments" is broader than most.

Will the concept of 14 deadly sins take off? It seems unlikely, as the names aren't quite as catchy as Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed and Sloth. And does this mean there'll be a sequel to David Fincher's 1995 Oscar-nominated picture Seven, provisionally entitled Fourteen? Let's hope so...

Friday, 7 March 2008

Interview with Ben Stein of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

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I just thought I'd share this clip of what may be the least objective interview I've ever seen. It features Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly talking to Ben Stein, the star of pro-intelligent design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (you're more likely to remember him as the teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off).

We begin with an introduction from O'Reilly, who asks: "How did life on Earth begin? Religious people believe a higher power created the universe, secular progressives say all kinds of things, but God is not in the equation."

It's not really an interview as O'Reilly spends the entire time agreeing with Stein, at one point expressing his disgust that "you cant mention in biology class that there are theologians that believe there was a higher power responsible for the first life" and disdainfully pointing out that when he asks atheists like Hitchens how the universe began they have the audacity to say "we don't know yet".

By the end of it O'Reilly is ranting about persecution, "secular pinheads" and the "separation of church and state" (mockingly of course – just listen to the voice he uses when he refers to this). Have a watch:

Thursday, 6 March 2008

No limits? Introducing the Virtual Museum of Offensive Art

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In our latest web exclusive, Floris van den Berg introduces the Virtual Museum of Offensive Art, a new Dutch website dedicated to gathering together "art works that have caused social turmoil in the past, present and possibly in the future."

In his article, van den Berg asks why some art is considered offensive, and what role such a museum has to play in liberal, Western society.

Warning: following the links above may lead to links that may eventually lead to images that some people may find offensive...

What do you REALLY need in church?

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Guns, of course. The Christian Coalition in Georgia, USA has expressed its support for a piece of state legislation that would include churches in the places where citizens can legally carry a concealed firearm.

In case you're wondering why anyone would feel the need to make their religious observances while armed to the teeth, the Coalition's leader Jim Beck explained that "many of the state’s megachurches would like the option of using their congregants as an informal security force."

And why not? If you're going to gather thousands of worshippers together in one place, you may as well have them doubling up as a heavily armed paramilitary force.

This story is ultimately just another case of life imitating satire, as back in 1996 classic comedy show Brass Eye reported on the problem of guns in American churches:

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

New Humanist readers say you can't deny creationists a platform

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Last week, amid the controversy over a talk by Islamic creationists in a lecture theatre belonging to University College London, we posed the following question in a poll on this blog:

Following the Islamic creationist talk in one of University College London's lecture theatres, do you think creationists should ever be allowed to speak in university buildings?

294 people voted, and the results were as follows:
Yes: 76% (225 votes)
No: 23% (69 votes)

So a clear majority came down in favour of free speech. It seems readers of this blog are more uncomfortable with the idea of banning groups from speaking than they are with the idea of anti-scientific nonsense being espoused in university buildings. Which seems like a solid humanist view to us.

Iraqi youth becoming less religious

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The International Herald Tribune reports that, disillusioned by the daily violence that surrounds them, young people in Iraq are becoming less religious.

Over a period of two months 40 young people from five cities were interviewed, and their responses showed "a pattern of disenchantment ... in which young Iraqis, both poor and middle class, blamed clerics for the violence and the restrictions that have narrowed their lives."

Of course, this is anecdotal evidence and, as the Herald Tribune points out, "it is far from clear whether the shift means a wholesale turn away from religion. A tremendous piety still predominates in the private lives of young Iraqis, and religious leaders, despite the increased skepticism, still wield tremendous power."

Nevertheless, the study suggests that young people are far from impressed by the violent extremism that is often seen to prevail in today's Iraq. Many of the responses echoed the sentiments of Sara Sami, a high school student from Basra, who said "I hate Islam and all the clerics because they limit our freedom every day and their instruction became heavy over us. Most of the girls in my high school hate that Islamic people control the authority because they don't deserve to be rulers."

A tribute to Father Ted

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Stand-up comedian and New Humanist contributor Christina Martin emailed me pointing out that it's ten years since Father Ted came to an end (which sadly means it's also ten years since the death of its star, Dermot Morgan).

Christina forwarded me this excellent article from the Independent about the second annual TedFest that took place last week on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran islands off the west coast of Ireland (it won the right to be the official "Craggy Island" in a football match last year against its neighbour Inisheer). Now hundreds of fans flock to Inishmore every year for TedFest, to dress up as characters from the show and take part in the "Lovely Girls Competition" the "Craggy Island World Cup" and the "Song for Europe" contest.

Why am I blogging this? Well, Father Ted was gloriously blasphemous and this anniversary seems like a fantastic excuse to post a clip from one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. Here are Ted and Dougal protesting against a heretical French film, The Passion of St Tibulus, that has been condemned by the Pope and banned everywhere except Craggy Island. Genius.

Tripping on Mount Sinai

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New research by an Israeli academic suggests Moses and the Israelites may have been high on a hallucinogenic plant when they received the Ten Commandments. Benny Shanon of Jerusalem's Hebrew University says two plants in the Sinai desert have similar properties to plants used by Amazonian tribes to create the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca.

In the new issue of British philosophy journal Time and Mind, Shannon, who is a professor of cogntive psychology, writes "The thunder, lightning and blaring of a trumpet which the Book of Exodus says emanated from Mount Sinai could just have been the imaginings of a people in an altered state of awareness. In advanced forms of ayahuasca inebriation, the seeing of light is accompanied by profound religious and spiritual feelings."

Explaining his findings on Israeli radio, Shannon sought to justify his findings: "As far Moses on Mount Sinai is concerned, it was either a supernatural cosmic event, which I don't believe, or a legend, which I don't believe either. Or finally, and this is very probable, an event that joined Moses and the people of Israel under the effect of narcotics."

If it's all the same to you Professor Shannon, we think we'll stick with the myth explanation.

Even the Church of England knows establishment is indefensible

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There's a good piece by Theo Hobson on Comment is Free, who expands on the idea that the Church of England is only putting up some vague opposition to the repeal of the blasphemy law out of fear of losing what little power it still enjoys.

Hobson takes this idea further. Given that the Church has hardly tried to use the blasphemy law in the past century, what opponents of the repeal are really worried about is a loss of symbolic power. And the real key to this symbolic power is the Church's established status, something its hierarchy would be even more reluctant to give up, despite the fact that "most of the church knows that its establishment is indefensible. But there is an institutional refusal to admit it. There is a fear of looking foolish. A senior bishop who advocated disestablishment would open himself to the embarrassing question: then why are you presently enjoying a status that you think is wrong?"

He even points out that Rowan Williams was leaning towards pro-disestablishment in his pre-Archbishop days – something he quickly let go once he got the top job. Hobson says: "I think this has been his real weakness, the thing that opens him to the charge of cowardice (even more than the gay issue). Instead of trying to start a debate about the old church-state arrangement, which I think is an urgent question, affecting all of us; he fell into line with the evasive spirit of the institution."

This is the second time I've blogged about one of Hobson's Comment is Free articles, and I like what he has to say. His biography describes him as a "post-anglican", a campaigner for disestablishment and says that "for a few years now Theo has been trying to ‘come out’ as a post-ecclesial Christian theologian". Now, I'm not 100% sure what this means, but in a way it seems he's broadly in agreement with us humanists. Minus the God bit, of course.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Reasons why it's great being a Catholic saint...

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# 3643 in an occasional series: They dig up your body and put it on public display.

That's right – the body of the mystic monk Padre Pio, who died in 1968, has been exhumed so it can be displayed to his devotees for a few months in the southern Italian town of San Giovanni Rotondo.

Plain old Pio became Saint Pio of Pietrelcina after Pope John Paul II had him canonised in 2002. He attracts more prayers than any other saint.

According to Reuters it is said that Pio had the stigmata, "wrestled with the devil in his monastery cell ... predicted future events, [was] seen in two places at once, and [was] able to tell people their sins before they confessed them to him."

Quite a feat, I'm sure you'll admit. And he's doing pretty well in death too, apparently. A statement from the Catholic Church said his corpse is in "fair condition", especially his hands which "looked like they had just undergone a manicure".

Stars in your Reich

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So it turns out that the British government recruited an astrologer to try and second guess Hitler during the Second World War.

Files released by the National Archives show the Hungarian Ludwig von Wohl was hired by the wartime sabotage organisation, the Special Operations Executive, to study Hitler's stars in order to work out what advice the Fuhrer's own astrologer, Karl Ernst Krafft, was handing out.

Von Wohl claimed Hitler relied heavily on Krafft's predictions, and so persuaded top officials it would be of great value to learn the substance of these.

This doesn't mean the entire British intelligence services were duped, however - both and MI5 and MI6 were entirely unconvinced. One MI6 report stated "One of our senior officers comments that he cannot believe that anyone is going to re-employ this dangerous charlatan and confidence-trick merchant", while an MI5 officer said the only correct prediction Von Wohl made regarded Italy's entry into the war, a forecast made when it was "quite patent to anybody with the slightest knowledge of international affairs".

No doubt, however, Von Wohl was able to find out vital information about Hitler's character. He was a Taurean, which must have meant he had a "good sense of humour" and was "loving, creative romantic, sensual, very sexual, attentive, comforting, steady, cautious, harmonious, trustworthy, calm, stable, patient, easygoing, careful, dependable and honest"

Who ever said astrology doesn't work?

Monday, 3 March 2008

Russian election shock: God wins

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We all know who won the Russian election, and we also know who really won the election, don't we? But do we know who really really won? Michael Binyon does, and you can read about it in his cover story for our new issue: Russian Roulette. To whet your appetite I'll give you a clue: He's big, he lives upstairs and he moves in mysterious ways.

Tons more great stuff in the issue which we will be publishing online over the next few days - but we won't put everything on the website. For the full, beautifully designed, print version complete with original photography, why not subscribe now?

Farewell David Attenborough (sort of...)

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Tonight the last instalment of David Attenborough's wonderful series Life in Cold Blood is broadcast on BBC1.

In some respects it's a farewell, as the great man will no longer be making programmes on location. However, it's not all doom and gloom as he will still be making documentaries (including an upcoming series on Darwin, which is clearly something to look forward to). He just wont be travelling the world to film them, which is a bit of shame given that it's been suggested that Attenborough is the most well-travelled individual in human history.

Anyway, this seemed like a good opportunity to remind you all to read Laurie Taylor's interview with Attenborough from our January/February issue...

Faith schools favour middle class parents

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A story in yesterday's Observer confirmed suspicions that faith schools favour admitting children from wealthier backgrounds.

Rebecca Allen of London's Institute of Education has found that English faith schools "admit 10 per cent fewer poor pupils than is representative of the local area. Local authority schools, meanwhile, take in 30 per cent more and have a disproportionately deprived intake."

The statistics suggest that church schools are deliberately selecting children from middle class families, which helps to maintain their superior performance in league tables. Barry Sheerman MP, chair of the Children, Schools and Families select committee, said "It astonishes me that faith schools are so good at making sure they have fewer children."