Thursday, 31 July 2008

Tenuous New Humanist Batman link

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I saw The Dark Knight last night and was dying for an excuse to blog about it (Christopher Nolan has made the definitive action movie. Discuss), so I thought I'd draw your attention to the wonderful world of Christian film reviews. I can't remember if I've mentioned them before but what the hell, you can never have too much moralising over mass entertainment forms so let's dig in.

Both regular New Humanist contributor Christina Martin and myself are huge fans of these sites, one of the best being Christian Spotlight on Entertainment, which as Christina pointed out to me awards the fantastic "Moral Rating" to each film:
  • Excellent
  • Good (Nothing Offensive)
  • Better than Average (Slightly Objectionable)
  • Average (Somewhat Offensive)
  • Offensive
I think the best thing about this is that the "Average", which is presumably the norm, is conisdered to be "Somewhat offensive" and even something "Better than average" is seen as "Slightly Objectionable".

The site's reviewer for The Dark Knight, Jonathan Rodriguez, seems to have had a bit of trouble handling Christian Bale's troubled Batman and the late Heath Ledger's psychopathic Joker, for while giving the film a 5-star rating for "moviemaking quality" and assuring readers they "will not leave the theater disappointed", he dishes out a moral rating of "Offensive".

The reviewer clearly enjoyed the film, but just as you feel like you're reading a fairly standard review he drops the C-bomb with a vengeance, declaring that "The film hits on all sorts of different spiritual topics, and I could probably write a dissertation on them all."

Unfortunately it seems the thesis proposal will go unfulfilled, but he offers some closing thoughts on the untimely death of Ledger: "I urge all Christians to pray for Hollywood, for each and every performer they see, and to never stop. We may not be able to personally intervene when a celebrity is plunging headfirst into a downward spiral that may claim their life, but we certainly know the One who can."

You don't see that in Total Film, and likewise you don't see user comments like those on Christian Spotlight. Here's one from Adam, aged 21: "Personally, I found this film offensive to my moral spirit ... It detracted me from the Spirit of God, and that's just not OK, seriously."

Over on another site, the wonderfully named Hollywood Jesus, one reviewer (who also enjoyed the movie) wonders if the prevailing darkness in Batman's world is designed to give us some hope for our own. Not that he's convinced this will work: "The fact is, however, looking at something darker ... won't provide the hope that we really need. So where do we find a hope that we can count on? Hebrews 6:18-19 tells us."

To be honest, all this can simply be filed alongside some of the other inflated rhetoric that's accompanied the release of a film which, while you could choose to read it as a post-9/11 allegory, is, as NH contributor Natalie Haynes pointed out on Newsnight Review last week, essentially a very, very cool action movie.

And in case you're wondering what a film has to do to get a good moral rating from Christian Spotlight I'll give you a clue – they were big fans of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Birmingham Council bans atheist websites

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I'm a bit late with this one as I was away on Monday and Tuesday, but I see Birmingham City Council have caused a bit of a fuss by blocking employees from accessing websites relating to atheism.

Apparently the idea was to stop employees wasting time on websites unrelated to local bureaucracy, but council chiefs seem to have taken the opportunity to filter out a few "undesirable" topics – as well as atheism they've blocked sites promoting witchcraft, the paranormal, sexual deviancy and criminal activity.

For bloggers like myself this poses two problems – firstly I have to hope a sizeable chunk of my readers don't work for Birmingham Council, and secondly while I don't mind being lumped in with witches, devil worshippers and ghost hunters, I'm not too sure about sexual deviants.

The council hasn't stopped workers looking at sites relating to the major world religions, and the National Secular Society has threatened legal action. As the BBC explained, "under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, it is unlawful to discriminate against workers because of their religion or belief, which includes atheism."

For my own part I thought I'd put up a poll, as it's a while since we've had one. If you worked for Birmingham council, how would you deal with the blocking of atheist websites?
  • Support legal action - this is outright discrimination
  • Write a letter to local and national newspapers
  • Resign immediately
  • Do some work
  • Become a Christian - that way I can continue to while away the day on the internet without my favourite sites getting blocked
  • Join with the witches, Satanists and sexual deviants to form a bizarre and terrifying new cult
  • Set a topless picture of Christopher Hitchens as my desktop background
  • Personally I support this action. Atheism in the workplace must be crushed
Vote at the top right of this page

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

I didn't realise this was still going on...

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I know Monty Python's Life of Brian was controversial back in the '70s, but I really did think that battle had been largely won, especially given the fact we've finally wiped blasphemy off our statute books.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that the mayor of Aberystwyth, Sue Jones-Davies, is currently trying to lift a ban on showing the film in her town's cinemas, 29 years after church leaders recommended one to the local council.

Jones-Davies does have a vested interest – she was in the film as Judith Iscariot – and she's facing some resistance from Reverend Stuart Bell, Rector of Aberystwyth's St Michael’s Church, who sees no reason for allowing local residents to watch Life of Brian: “If it was an unpleasant film 30 years ago, then it remains an unpleasant film 30 years later."

And the Reverend Bell has good grounds for disliking the film, as he explained to the local paper: “I have not seen the film, nor have I any wish to do so."

Of course, this is a good excuse for a clip from Life of Brian, so here you go –

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Getting your alternative therapies from a genocidal maniac

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We were interested to learn that genocidal fugitive-turned-prisoner Radovan Karadzic has been practising alternative medicine in Belgrade under the alias Dragan Dabic (and sporting a rather impressive beard).

You have to feel sorry for his patients – it's bad enough that they were probably handing over their hard-earned cash for something that doesn't work, without them finding out that they were getting their healing herbs or "positive energy" from the world's most wanted war criminal.

Friday, 18 July 2008

James Randi on why the million-dollar challenge will end in 2010

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It's was a bit quiet on this blog last week as we were in the middle of moving our office around, but here's a little treat you may have missed. Many of you will be aware of James Randi's challenge, which offers a prize of $1 million to anyone who can prove they have paranormal abilities.

It's been going since the 60's (it started with a $1000 prize) and while many have tried, unsurprisingly no one has succeeded and our rational understanding of the Universe, or at least the fact that you can't speak to the dead or make things levitate, remains unaltered. Randi's decided to end the challenge in 2010 so the money can be put to more worthwhile uses, and we asked him to explain why.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Anti-Pope activists can give out condoms in Sydney

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Another quick update on the Pope's visit to Australia – last month we told how draconian new laws had been introduced for the duration of the Papal visit which would prevent protests and stop demonstrators from handing out condoms to pilgrims attending World Youth Day. Well, following an appeal, a New South Wales court has overturned the law and anti-Catholic protesters can now dish out prophylactics to their hearts content.

Sydney brothels offer 10% off for Catholic pilgrims

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A few weeks ago on this blog we told how market researchers were predicting a rise in custom at Sydney's brothels and strip clubs as Catholic pilgrims (and the Pope) descended on Sydney for World Youth Day.

Well, with that event beginning today one of our Australian readers has sent us an update – according to Melbourne newspaper The Age, Sydney's brothels have grabbed this commercial opportunity with both hands and offered Catholic pilgrims 10 per cent off whichever services they desire.

It was in The Age's "In brief" section, which unfortunately does not seem to make it on to the paper's website, but our reader kindly included the full story in his email:

"BROTHELS 10% off for pilgrims

IT'S proving difficult to prevent com­mercialisation of World Youth Day. Nearby brothels are reportedly offering 10% discounts to pilgrims on presentation of their WYD accreditation, while the Doncaster Hotel in Kensington, as the self-proclaimed "closest pub to the Pope", is running a "Pappy hour" with schooners available for $3.30.

They can hardly be blamed for cashing in, if the Catholic Church is not above commercialising the occasion. WYD merchandise includes coins, T-shirts, caps, stamps and minted memorabilia, all licensed by the church. Pilgrims are being encouraged to buy clothes lest people think them mere tourists. A catalogue exhorts them to purchase rosary beads with cruci­fixes made from West Australian iron ore and stainless steel WYD08 dog tags."

[Thanks Nigel]

Monday, 14 July 2008

Baptist church gives away an assualt rifle as a prize (for teenagers)

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It seems guns and US Baptist churches have a lot in common - a few months ago we reported on how Baptists in Georgia were appealing for the right to carry firearms in church, and now we hear of a church in Oklahoma that plans to give away an AR-15 assault rifle as a prize in a shooting competition for teenagers.

The competition will take place at Windsor Hills Baptist Church's Annual Youth Conference, which runs from today until Friday, and the leading young Christian hotshot will walk away well-armed thanks to a church benefactor who has kindly donated the AR-15.

For the non-gun-toters among you, Wikipedia tells me an AR-15 is a is a lightweight, air-cooled, gas-operated, magazine-fed, semi-automatic, centerfire, shoulder-fired rifle capable of delivering a cool 800 rounds per minute over an effective range of 550 metres.

The shooting competition is part of a whole host of events, including a volleyball championship, a "Crunch Revival"(does anyone know what one of those is?), a "Preacher Boys' competition", Youth Workers Golf and a basketball tournament.

There seems to have been some confusion over whether the gun-giveaway was actually going ahead, with some US media reporting that it had been cancelled, but the Church's own website assures teenage Christian gun enthusiasts everywhere that the weapon will still be available. But in case you're worried that giving a gun away to a young person may lead to something bad happening from the long list of bad things that can happen when a young person (or indeed anyone) has a gun, youth pastor Bob Ross has assured the media this is not the case:

“I don’t want people thinking ‘My goodness, we’re putting a weapon in the hand of somebody that doesn’t respect it who are then going to go out and kill'. That’s not at all what we’re trying to do.”

[Thanks to reader Paul Chana for putting us on to that story]

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Coming later this year - Religulous, with Bill Maher, by the director of Borat

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A friend of mine from the States has alerted me to a movie coming out in the autumn called Religulous – it's a documentary where Bill Maher travels the world trying to find out just why billions of people believe in God and associated religious matters. It's directed by Larry Charles, who directed Borat, and also worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and it looks hilarious.

Let's hope it comes out over here - given the comedy pedigree involved, I have high hopes it will. Watch the trailer and see what you think:

Thanks for the tip-off Alexis...

Stay tuned folks....

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Prepare for the television event of the year. On 5 October Pope Benedict XVI will kick off a six-day round-the-clock Bible reading marathon – and the whole thing will be transmitted live on Italian TV.

The Pope will start things off in St Peter's by reading the first 33 chapters of Genesis, before 12,000 volunteers keep it going in a Rome church. The Pope's segment will be beamed live on the top channel of Italy's state-funded network RAI, with the rest of the epic going out on the network's satellite education channel.

Wondering why the Pope's stopping at chapter 33 of Genesis, Guardian journalist John Hooper did a cheeky bit of research and looked up chapter 34, which begins:

"And Dinah the daughter of Leah, which she bare unto Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her."

Could this be a hint that Christians aren't so proud of their holy book, in its entirity, after all?

Dawkins on Islamic creationism

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My attention's been drawn to an article by Richard Dawkins on his website, where he amusingly takes apart the "evidence" presented in the Atlas of Creation, the 700-page tome of Turkish creationist Harun Yahya, AKA Adnan Oktar. Read Dawkins' piece to discover sea snakes posing as eels, Starfish disguised as Brittlestar and, best of all, a fishing lure (steel hook included) cast as a caddis fly.

We covered this new European creationism with an article by Peter C Kjaergaard in our May/June issue. He warns of rising creationism across the continent, fuelled by the work of Oktar who, as our picture shows, looks more like a B-rate Bond villain than the "scientist" he seems to claim to be. And a quick read of his Wikipedia page shows he's implicated in enough shadowy activity to keep 007 busy if he happened to enter a quiet period...

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

John Templeton dies aged 95

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John Templeton, founder of the annual Templeton Prize, died yesterday aged 95. A well-known businessman and philanthropist, in 1987 he founded the John Templeton Foundation to provide funding for those researching the Universe's "big questions".

The Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities has been awarded every year since 1972 and operates on the premise that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion, going as it does to the person who best exemplifies "trying various ways for discoveries and breakthroughs to expand human perceptions of divinity and to help in the acceleration of divine creativity." The prize money, which currently stands at £795,000, is regularly adjusted to ensure it remains higher than the amounts awarded for Nobel Prizes.

In his attempt to bring religion and science together, Templeton attracted much criticism, most notably from Richard Dawkins who, in The God Delusion, describes his prize as "a very large sum of money given ... usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion".

The Church of England's going t'dogs...

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Thought I'd offer a quick update on the Church of England's ongoing crisis – it turns out the Vatican's not very happy about it's decision to allow female bishops to be ordained, as it "signifies a breaking away from the apostolic tradition maintained by all of the churches since the first millennium, and is a further obstacle for reconciliation between the Catholic church and the Church of England."

My first thought was "didn't they split up almost 500 years ago" but apparently the Vatican says attempts at reconciliation had "up until now born fruit", that is up until the Church of England made moves to stop being explicitly sexist and homophobic.

Meanwhile, I learnt from the same article that there is such a thing as a "Catholic wing of the Church of England" and one of their number, the Rev Prebendary David Houlding, isn't very happy with the Archbishop of Canterbury:

"Rowan Williams is going to Lambeth with his own church in chaos. First gay weddings, and now women bishops. They [the archbishops of Canterbury and York] showed a lack of leadership. They made two very clear pleas to synod, to have some safeguards for us, and nobody listened. Williams will have no authority. The last thing he wanted was an ecclesiological row. I feel very sorry for him."

"First gay weddings, and now women bishops" – the Church of England's going t'dogs I tell you. Whatever next? Stay tuned for more news of this gripping saga...

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Charity comedy gig at the Bloomsbury theatre, this Sunday

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A quick note from New Humanist contributor and stand-up comedian Robin Ince - he's involved in a charity benefit gig this Sunday (13 July, 7pm) at the Bloomsbury Theatre, alongside Jo Brand, Jo Neary, Jo Enright, Tim Minchin, Ed Byrne, Milton Jones, Steve Merchant, Mark Steel, Mat Holness and Dan Antopolski.

They'll be raising money for William's Fund, which was set up in memory of William Dodd who sadly died of cancer aged 4 years and 9 months. The money will go to the Childhood Cancer Research Fund, so you'd be seeing a great night of comedy and sending some cash the way of an excellent cause.

Tickets are £20 (£15 concessions) and you can book them online.

Speaking of Robin Ince, why not read his obituary of the great American comedian George Carlin from our new issue.

Women bishops, super bishops and regular bishops

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It's usually pretty hard to follow the internal wranglings of religious organisations, as if you don't believe any of the stuff they do or have any experience attending their ceremonies and rituals the whole thing seems fairly confusing. But thankfully for all concerned I think I've managed to get a grip on the Church of England's female bishops saga, which I will now summarise for your consumption:

Some people in the Church thought, it being the 21st century and all, that it would be a good idea to allow women into the upper echelons of their administration. So, the Church of England's General Synod (that's the fairly liberal lot, not the all-new homophobic lot) had a very long debate which, according to the BBC, "saw one bishop in tears", and voted to allow members of half the human race to become bishops. Some people were really not very keen on this idea and had appealed for a new category of bishop – the "super bishop" – to be created for those who would not be able to face dealing with a woman when seeking, at the risk of coining a new word, bishoply services. However, the Synod rejected this idea and now the ball's in the court of the 1,300 Church of England clergy who have threatened to leave.

So there you have it – a victory of sorts for feminism, but in my view a real shame that there wont be people out there known as "super bishops".

Lots of female members of the Church of England were opposed to members of their sex becoming bishops. Our associate editor Sally Feldman has a term for such people – Gender Traitors – and conveniently you can read what she has to say about them in our new issue, which is online now.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Good day for God as Yorkshire Ripper shifts blame onto Satan

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A quick look at the Sun's website shows they're unhappy because Peter Sutcliffe, AKA the Yorkshire Ripper, is saying he's now "better" and could be released in the next eight years. But the real winner has to be God, who can sit back and watch arch-nemesis Satan take the blame. The Ripper famously claimed it was God who told him to embark on his gruesome killing spree, but after 27 years of reflection he's now pointing the finger at the Devil.

Fortunate, then, that Sutcliffe's in jail, as it seems unlikely his accomplice will ever be brought to justice.

Fancy a confession, mate?

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We all know you can find a wide range of counterfeit goods and bogus services on the streets of a big city, but how about fake religious officiants? Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano reports that authorities in the Holy See tried a man for impersonating a Catholic priest.

Apparently the man was trying to hear confessions in St Peter's Basilica, as Vatican Judge Gianluigi Marrone explained:

"Some time ago I had to deal with an unusual case - a fake priest. He was caught by surprise in the basilica while he was trying to take his place in a confessional. He was wearing clerical garb, but the expert eye of our (basilica) personnel didn't need much to sense something strange in his behaviour."

That's as much information as there is, so we can only speculate as to whether the imposter proved to be as good as the real thing.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Celebrating Darwin and Lincoln...

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I learnt something I feel like I should already have known today, namely that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day –12 February 1809.

To celebrate, US magazine Newsweek has got in there six months early with a Charles and Abe cover story - "Who was more important: Lincoln or Darwin?". OK, so it's a spurious premise and one that irritates atheist blogger PZ Myers ("Of course, this being our brain-dead media, it can't actually discuss them as independent people who made their own unique contributions to the world, it has to turn it into a horse race ... It's a glib and superficial bit of tripe"), but does this really matter? I've been reading it during my breaks today, and it's actually quite an enjoyable article. If you want to take in their individual "unique contributions", pick up a book on one or the other (there's thousands to choose from).

Have a read yourself and see who they decide was better. Yes it's a bit ridiculous, but no harm done.

Bad week for secular Britain - now Lord Chief Justice says sharia law could have a place in UK

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First we have the news that at least 40 faith schools are teaching creationism in science lessons (via a report on More4 news) and now we wake up to discover that Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, thinks that sharia law could have a place in the UK legal system.

Phillips, who is the most senior judge in England and Wales, told an audience at the East London Muslim Centre that sharia could play a part in settling divorce cases and other family disputes:

"There is no reason why sharia principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution. It must be recognised, however, that any sanctions for a failure to comply with the agreed terms of mediation would be drawn from the laws of England and Wales."

While Phillips wasn't advocating the establishment of sharia courts in the UK, it seems his comments will reignite a debate that many hoped had gone away following the furore over the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments earlier this year.


Christian couple ban swearing and gambling from North London pub

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Here's an amusing story from the, err, Daily Mail. A devout Christian couple have been sacked as landlord and landlady of the Kings Head in Islington after they banned punters from swearing and gambling on the horse racing inside their establishment. As if that wasn't enough they added Bible questions to the pub quiz and, astonishingly, took down the pub's dart board and replaced it with what one local described as "some kind of calligraphy".

Unsurprisingly thirsty regulars who hadn't already been barred by the couple chose to seek their beer-fix elsewhere, and owners Oakfield Taverns moved quickly to remove Krista and John Fleming, who took over at the pub last September.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Stephen Green asks BBC to pay his costs after losing Jerry Springer blasphemy case

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Stephen Green of Christian Voice – who claims to be facing bankruptcy after losing his bid to bring blasphemy charges against the BBC over the screening of Jerry Springer the Opera – has launched a desperate bid to avoid financial ruin by suggesting that licence-payers should pay his costs.

He was due to pay a total of £90,000 to the BBC and TV producers Avalon this week, but failed to deliver, adding that he would have to go bankrupt if he paid up. He's even written to BBC director-general Mark Thompson and John Thoday of Avalon asking them to waive the costs, and set up an online petition in the hope of encouraging them to do so.

Christian Voice feel that since Mark Thompson earns £750,000 a year, and the "BBC spends millions on inflated salaries for celebrities, rebranding logos and the news and on channels hardly anyone watches" then it would be perfectly fine to let Green off paying costs he was ordered to pay by the High Court after attempting a challenge to free speech under an archaic blasphemy law which, thankfully, has since ceased to exist.

Needless to say lots of people would quite like to see Green pay up, and a counter-petition has been launched to try and make sure he does. There's also a Facebook group.

I wouldn't want to publicly encourage a campaign to ensure a man goes bankrupt, but I can't stop you visiting those links...

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Hitchens undergoes "waterboarding", admits it's torture

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Here's a proper bit of journalism - following his earlier claim that "waterboarding" doesn't amount to torture, but rather "extreme interrogation", New Humanist honorary associate Christopher Hitchens agreed to let some scary-looking ex-special forces guys in balaclavas try it out on him for his latest Vanity Fair assignment.

The video's up on the VF website, as is Hitchens' article on the experience. As you'll see he doesn't last very long, and he now admits that waterboarding is most certainly a form of torture.

For more on America's continuing use of torture in the "war on terror", read Stan Cohen's column from our January issue.

Civil liberties to be reduced for Pope's visit to Sydney

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A few weeks ago we reported on how this month's Catholic World Youth Day (Papal visit included) is set to cause a rise in visits to Sydney's brothels and strip clubs, but now we've learned of a far less amusing knock-on effect courtesy of Reuters (via our friend Christina Martin).

Fearing a bout of protests and anti-Catholic messages, the Australian authorities have given Sydney police extra powers to clamp down on anyone "causing annoyance or inconvenience to participants in World Youth Day". One group is planning on handing out condoms to those attending the Papal extravaganza (Reuters say it's the Catholic Church's Woodstock, so naturally we need to start calling it "Popestock"), but under the new powers they could face arrest and a fine of 5,000 Australian dollars.

Civil liberties campaigners are unhappy, including Anna Katzmann of the New South Wales Bar Association, who said the measures are "repugnant for two reasons. First of all the government has by-passed the normal parliamentary scrutiny...and secondly they are an unreasonable interference with people's freedom of speech and movement."

Good luck to the protesters, we say, especially with handing out those condoms. If the story about increased demand for prostitutes holds true, they might just come in handy...

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

BHA's response to Christina Odone's claim that faith schools are under threat

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Some of you may have noticed in the news that Catholic journalist (and regular outspoken critic of humanism/secularism/atheism/anything godless) Christina Odone has written a pamphlet claiming faith schools are under threat from "a government … aligning itself with a stridently secularist lobby".

Which, of course, is nonsense – I'll hand you over to our friend Andrew Copson, of the British Humanist Association, to explain why (he's written a response on the Guardian's Comment is Free).