Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Who needs a priest when you can just confess online?

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I'm immensely grateful to an anonymous commenter on an old post about the Catholic Church's seven new deadly sins, who has alerted me to a website where sinners can gather to confess online.

I Confess Myself markets itself as a place where you can "Let it all off your chest in a risk-free environment", and is basically a blog with 7 posts covering Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, Envy, Greed, Wrath and Pride. All you need to do is leave a comment on the relevant post to get those pesky sins off your chest.

A quick look through the confessions shows they range from the mundane – "I ate a McDonald's meal and now I feel sick" – to the downright callous – "I was so jealous of my friend being skinny that I kept pushing her to eat more until she got pudgy and then I made fun of her until she got an eating disorder."

Okay, so the website hasn't really taken off yet and, if you ask me, it's lacking some good old fire and brimstone qualities, but this didn't stop me thinking – imagine if the Catholic Church, with its 2,000 years of history, ended up being replaced by a blog.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

For this premium unleaded, may the Lord make us truly grateful...

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Fuel's in the news right now, what with the recently-ended Scottish refinery strike (advice to drivers "Don't panic". Cue mini-panic) and a convoy of truckers entering London to protest against rising diesel prices.

With this in mind, perhaps all those worried about petroleum-related matters should study the antics of Rocky Twyman (what a name) of Washington state, who last week held three separate "gas-station pray-ins".

Rocky's worried about rising "gas" prices in the States (perhaps he should try filling up over here) and has asked fellow motorists to join him in a simple call of "God, deliver us from these high gas prices."

And his efforts haven't gone unnoticed, at least here on Earth, with a representative of the group Consumer Watchdog saying:
"Given the complete inertia and silence of this White House on a crisis that has people feeling just hopeless, prayer is probably as good as anything. Frankly, I wish them luck."

[Thanks Christina]

Monday, 28 April 2008

Questionable ways to defuse a sectarian atmosphere...

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Given that Celtic vs Rangers is a football derby with a long history of sectarian rivalry, you'd think the players at the two Glasgow giants might see it as wise to rise above it all and stay out of matters relating to the respective merits of Protestantism and Catholicism.

But if you're Celtic's Polish goalkeeper Artur Boruc, it seems the appropriate way to celebrate keeping the championship race alive with a 3-2 victory over Rangers is to remove your jersey to reveal a t-shirt bearing a photo of the late Pope John Paul II alongside the slogan "God Bless the Pope".

Boruc's a pious chap - nicknamed "Holy Goalie" by Celtic fans - and this isn't the first time he's fanned the flames of sectarianism at the Old Firm derby. In 2006 he received a police caution for breach of the peace for allegedly making "obscene gestures and blessings" to the Rangers fans, and at the next derby he was abused by Rangers supporters after crossing himself before the match.

It doesn't seem Boruc's latest antics have landed him in too much trouble with manager Gordon Strachan who told reporters "He's not a bad lad, to be fair (the Pope). If it was 'God bless Myra Hindley', I might have a problem."

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Russian priest tricked into blessing a strip club

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A quick gem here courtesy of Christina Martin:

A priest in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk was tricked by the owners of a lapdancing club into offering a blessing for their fine establishment.

Father Nickolai, an Orthodox priest, was told that Studio 74 gentlemen's club was a training school for ballet dancers and only discovered later that it was a venue for a differing kind of dancing.

Despite the priest's outrage the club's owners are delighted, claiming the blessing is responsible for the fact that business is now booming: "Ever since we had this sacred act performed on our premises customers say they have experienced an entirely new atmosphere here and more people are coming in. The blessing seems to be working."

So nothing to do with the naked women, then?

Friday, 18 April 2008

Modern society to blame for Catholic priests' sex abuses

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Apologies for the lack of activity on this blog this week. Just thought I'd make a quick observation regarding the Pope's visit to the US. Much has been written of his non-apology for the sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests over there (not to mention elsewhere in the world).

The closest he came to apologising was to say that the scandal had been "sometimes very badly handled" by the Catholic Church, before going on to lay the wider blame on "the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today."

You see, it's all to do with "the values underpinning society". So nothing at all to do with the fact that the Catholic Church denies its clergy the right to explore their sexuality as consenting adults, then?

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Darwin's private papers now freely available online

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For anyone interested in Charles Darwin (which I'm assuming is a lot of you), the Darwin Online project have just now made his entire private papers (around 20,000 items) freely available on the internet.

I spoke to the project director John van Wyhe earlier this week, who told me he thinks the availability of this archive means "we might be on the verge of a new revolution in the study and appreciation of the work of Charles Darwin." Read my interview to find out what's in the archive (letters, original notes, experiments, news clippings, photos, Emma Darwin's recipe book, and so much more) and discover links to some of the best bits.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Now you can make your home smell like Jesus

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Regular readers will know we're big fans of novelty religious tat, supported by the efforts of stand-up comedian Christina Martin, New Humanist's tat-finder extraordinaire. And now Christina has discovered what could be the best piece of tat so far – Jesus-scented candles.

Bob and Karen Tosterud, of South Dakota, USA, concocted the "His Essence" candle from a list of ingredients provided by God/someone who wrote a bit of the Bible (delete as appropriate to your religious views) in Psalms 45. "It's a Messianic Psalm," explained Karen, "referring to when Christ returns and his garments will have the scent of myrrh, aloe and cassia."

So, inspired by this heavenly recipe, the couple did what any other sensible person would have done and produced a scented candle that apparently produces "a flowery, cinnamon aroma". For anyone wondering what the point of any of this is, allow Karen's husband Bob to explain: "You can't see him and you can't touch him. This is a situation where you may be able to sense him by smelling. And it provides a really new dimension to one's experience with Jesus."

This may bring a smile to the faces of us rationalists, but when you bear in mind that the Tosterud's have flogged over 10,000 of these candles at $18 a pop, it's hard not to feel that they're the ones who should be laughing, preferably en route to their local bank.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Presidential candidates could win by clamping down on porn

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Forget all the talk about Iraq or the economy: if the US presidential candidates really want to ensure victory in November's presidential elections, all they need to do is promise to make it harder for citizens to get their filthy hands on pornography.

Well, at least according to Morality in Media, a Christian group so determined to deny Americans the right to produce and peruse porn that it made it its sole aim. According to the good folks there, if the next US president were to "do all in his or constitutional power" to crack down on "hardcore pornographic materials ... proliferated in the form of videotapes and DVDs sold in sexually oriented and mainstream video stores, films distributed on cable, satellite and hotel TV systems, and still pictures and video disseminated on the Internet", they would have the "total support" of 75 per cent of American adults.

No doubt we can expect a shift in the focus of the campaign in the coming days...

Thursday, 10 April 2008

The day Ricky Gervais became an atheist

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American men's magazine Best Life has a short piece by comedian Ricky Gervais on how he became an atheist.

After saying how, at the age of 9, he was a massive fan of Jesus – "More than pop stars. More than footballers. More than God" – Gervais describes the day his 19-year-old brother, Bob, walked in just as he was drawing Jesus on the cross as part of his RE homework:

"There I was, happily drawing my hero when my big brother Bob asked, 'Why do you believe in God?' Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. 'Bob,' she said, in a tone that I knew meant 'shut up.' Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong, it didn’t matter what people said. Oh…hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist."

So, a fairly rapid conversion then. And Gervais goes on to describe the "gifts" that opened up to him as a result of his "newfound atheism":

"The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. Not a world by design, but one by chance. I learned of evolution—a theory so simple and obvious that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals, and us—with imagination, free will, love, and humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer, and pizza are all good enough reasons for living. But living an honest life—for that you need the truth. That’s the other thing I learned that day, that the truth, however shocking or uncomfortable, in the end leads to liberation and dignity."

Nice one, Ricky. And thanks for giving me a great excuse to put up a clip of the hilarious Genesis scene from stand-up show Animals:

Psychics under-fire both on- and off-screen

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It's really not a good time to be a psychic. As was reported in the Observer last weekend, in a month's time they face new Consumer Protection Regulations that will come into force following the repeal of the Fraudulent Mediums Act. To the untrained ear the repeal of such an act might sound like a step backwards for rationality, were it not for the fact that less than 10 people have been prosecuted under it in the past two decades. In fact, the old law provided protection for 'genuine mediums', though quite how they were defined is anyone's guess. Under the new regulations, this absurd protection is gone and the onus will be on mediums to prove that they have not exploited 'vulnerable' subjects.

As if this wasn't enough, TV watchdog Ofcom has just issued new regulations aimed at clamping down on premium rate phone-ins. Any digital channels that exist purely as a platform for running phone-ins would be shut down, as the regulations state that the "primary purpose of the programme must be editorial, and any commercial activity associated with the PRS [premium-rate services], such as generation of call revenues, must be secondary to that purpose." In addition to leaving many late-night viewers high and dry by wiping out dedicated quiz channels and adult chat programmes, the regulations will also put paid to any psychic channels.

Told you it was a bad time to be a psychic. Which I guess means it's a good time to be a rationalist.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Boom time for tat as New York prepares for Papal visit

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Readers of our print magazine will have seen Christina Martin's collection of religious tat - the Argod Catalogue - in the current issue, and in keeping with this theme we were delighted to hear that New York is currently experiencing an explosion in the sale of Catholic tat as it prepares for next week's visit of Pope Benedict XVI.

The New York Daily News reports that tat-mongers are cashing in on the Pope's visit by peddling high-class items like Papal bookmarks, coffee mugs, baseball caps, t-shirts and (our favourite) Benedict XVI cologne.

Catholic gift shop owner Neil Fusco took time off from counting his sacred cash to tell reporters that"Our Holy Father is coming, everyone is excited and every body wants a piece of him." And that wont be a problem at Neil's store – he's set up a cardboard cut-out of Benedict outside his shop so customers can stop off to have and have their picture taken with him. We're not sure if he's charging them for this, but we'd be disappointed in his tat-instincts if we found out that he isn't.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Church of England tells young people to listen to God for careers advice

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Anyone concerned about a perceived lack of direction in the youth of today can rest assured that this problem will be solved by the end of this week, when churches across the UK hold Vocations Sunday 2008.

The Church of England has come up with a five-session course entitled 'Get a Life!', aimed at encouraging 13-18 year-olds to think about their future career paths. Youngsters will be urged to listen to God's voice in choosing their careers, and the course will employ "fun activities, meaningful exercises, biblical parallels and specially written prayers to give young people a stronger understanding of their gifts and passions."

With all this in mind, I'm putting my neck on the line and predicting that unemployment in Britain will have disappeared by 2018.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Charlie Brooker on the pseudoscience infiltrating our schools

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Not for the first time on this blog, I'd like to salute Charlie Brooker, who in this week's instalment of his Guardian column trains his sights on Brain Gym – a series of exercises said to make children perform better at school, but which are widely regarded by experts as being based on little other than pseudoscience (it features an exercise called the "energy yawn", for example).

Watching a feature on Newsnight, Brooker was shocked to learn that Brain Gym ("educational kinesiology") is being widely used in British schools, having been endorsed by the government, despite the fact that it's been discredited by the British Neuroscience Association, the Physiological Society and the charity Sense About Science.

If you haven't heard about Brain Gym before it's worth reading Brooker's column just for that, but what we really love is his ability to eloquently sum up the concerns of rationalists regarding the prevalence of nonsense in modern society:

"Because we, the adults, don't just gleefully pull the wool over our own eyes - we knit permanent blindfolds. We've decided we hate facts. Hate, hate, hate them. Everywhere you look, we're down on our knees, gleefully lapping up neckful after neckful of steaming, cloddish bullshit in all its forms. From crackpot conspiracy theories to fairytale nutritional advice, from alternative medicine to energy yawns - we just can't get enough of that musky, mudlike taste. Brain Gym is just one small tile in an immense and frightening mosaic of fantasy."

Dawkins to appear in Doctor Who

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No doubt this is already big news across the web, but we were interested to hear that Richard Dawkins is to make a guest appearance in the new series of Doctor Who.

Writer and producer Russell T Davies, who is an atheist and a massive fan of Dawkins, says the show's crew were delighted to see Dawkins on set: "People were falling at his feet ... We've had Kylie Minogue on that set, but it was Dawkins people were worshipping."

Needless to say we can't wait to see this. There doesn't seem to be any news yet on what sort of character Dawkins is set to play, so we thought we'd run a poll. What character would you like to see Richard Dawkins play in Doctor Who?
  • Timelord
  • Cyberman
  • Good scientist
  • Evil scientist
  • God
  • He should be true to himself
Vote at the top right of this page.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Tony Blair calls for more faith

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So, last night our former Prime Minister made a speech declaring the aims of his new Faith Foundation, the reasons he thinks religion can solve the world's problems, and why all the religions are capable of getting along by uniting around "common values".

You can read all about Tony's big moment in the Westminster Cathedral spotlight through these reports on the Guardian and Independent. It's also worth checking out the Times' political sketch: "This was an important speech for Mr Blair, really his coming out speech as a Christian. The politician who did not do God no longer exists. In his place is a man who does God and does God big."

What particularly struck me was one of the reasons Blair gave for why politicians might not want to publicly express their religious zeal – because people might think they are "somehow messianically trying to co-opt God to bestow a divine legitimacy on your politics."

So Tony's clearly saying that he didn't seek "divine legitimacy" for his major decisions. This from the man who told Michael Parkinson that God will judge him over Iraq.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Humanist debating Embryology Bill on BBC News

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I've only just watched this, but it's very good. On the weekend when religious leaders made their pronouncements on the Embryology Bill, eventually persuading Gordon Brown to allow his MPs a free vote, our friend Andrew Copson from the British Humanist Association went on BBC News 24 to debate the matter with someone from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children:

AC Grayling on the Catholic assault on secularism

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Here's regular New Humanist contributor AC Grayling responding to the Catholic Church's, or more specifically Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's, ongoing attack on "aggressive secularism" and familiar claim that "what binds the British people together is their Judaeo-Christian heritage".

As usual with Comment is Free articles on this subject, Grayling's piece has received many comments (175 at the time of writing). It's always worth a flick through if you're seeking amusement.


Dawkins: Creationism on the rise among British children

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Let's hope this isn't the case. Answering audience questions following a debate with the Bishop of Edinburgh earlier this week, Richard Dawkins said that he thinks there has been an increase in creationist beliefs among young people in Britain:

"It is a very worrying trend, and I think a lot of it has come over from America and Australia. I have spoken to a lot of science teachers in schools here in Britain who are finding an increasing number of students coming to them and saying they are Young Earth creationists. Now this is a belief that the Earth is only 6000 years old, and it is such a staggering mistake that it is very concerning to hear this. It is no small error – it is equivalent to someone believing, despite the evidence, that the width of North America from one coast to the other is only 7.8 yards."

Thankfully this is only based on anecdotal evidence but still, it's fairly worrying if British teachers are beginning to encounter problems with this.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Madonna: Your soul chooses the gender of your kids

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Just a little morsel here relating to an interview with Madonna in Vanity Fair. It provides a nice insight into the increasingly bizarre spiritualist views of the Kabbalah-following singer. Following some nonsense about paparazzi-stalking of celebrities being the same as witchcraft in Africa, or something, we get her reprimanding the interviewer for 'choosing' to have sons instead of daughters ('Me' being Vanity Fair interviewer Rich Cohen in this transcript):

Madonna: Do you have a daughter?
Me: No, three sons.
[Madonna looks at me accusingly.]
Me: I didn't choose it—it just happened.
Madonna: Do you believe that? You think things just happen?
Me: I think that just happened.
Madonna: Mm-hmm.
Me: So who's making the decision?
Madonna: You are, you and your missus.
Me: About what kind of kids we want?
Madonna: You chose it. Your soul chose it.
Me: No. Do you believe that? That my insides wanted boys?
Madonna: Unconsciously. Yes.

For anyone who actually cares, the full Vanity Fair interview is here.

Parents charged with manslaughter after choosing to let faith heal their baby daughter

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Here's another grim faith healing story, following on from last week's news that an 11-year-old girl from Wisconsin had died from a treatable form of diabetes after her parents chose to pray rather than take her to a doctor.

Now, the Telegraph reports that a couple from Oregon are to be prosecuted for manslaughter after they allowed their baby daughter to die from a condition that doctors say could have been treated with antibiotics.

Carl and Raylene Worthington chose faith healing over medicine for their 15-month-old daughter Ava, who was suffering from bacterial bronchial pneumonia. Following her death they were arrested and charged, and face up to six years in prison if convicted.

The couple are members of the fundamentalist church Followers of Christ, which according to the Telegraph has been involved in controversies in the past over children who died in similar circumstances.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Local council in shock challenge to Catholic dogma

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In an unprecedented victory for rationalism, Catholic priests in the north east of England will from today be required to read out a disclaimer prior to delivering the holy sacrament of Communion.

The Metropolitan Borough of Gateshead have issued the new regulations as a concession to secularists concerned by allegations that Creationism has been taught to students at Emmanuel City Technology College, a Gateshead academy school run by Peter Vardy’s Emmanuel Schools Foundation.

In passing byelaw 08/04 (section 01), the borough council has made it mandatory for Catholic priests to forewarn their congregations that transubstantiation – the idea that at communion the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Christ – remains unsupported by solid empirical evidence.

Beginning with tonight’s evening masses, priests will be legally obliged to read out the disclaimer – the exact wording of which has been provided by the council – which reads as follows:

“Congregants should be aware of the gaps and/or problems in the Catholic theory of transubstantiation, including, but not limited to, the Protestant notion that the bread and wine are merely symbolic, the opinions of other religions on the life of Christ, and the lack of conclusive scientific evidence available to support this theory.”

Explaining the borough’s decision, Councilor Burt Blaydon (Con., Windynook), said: “The council feel it is important that borough residents realise that the Catholic version of Christianity is only a theory and not written in stone. This is not an attempt to cause offence, but equally we shouldn’t offend those members of the congregation who hold alternative views on the nature of bread and wine.”