Thursday, 31 January 2008

Banned: MySpace deletes world's largest atheist group

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Social networking site MySpace, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, has sparked controversy by deleting the world's largest online atheist group following complaints from people who find atheism "offensive".

"Atheist and Agnostic Group" boasted 35,000 members until it was deleted on 1 January for the third time in as many years. It was founded in 2004 by Bryan Pesta, an assistant professor at Cleveland University who established it as a social network "specifically for godless people."

The group was closed down for the first time two years ago after an organised campaign by Christians persuaded MySpace to delete it. It was eventually restored and MySpace promised to protect it. This time, despite a petition from 500 users and repeated emails to customer services, MySpace seems reluctant to reverse its actions.

Pesta is understandably furious, particularly given the treatment Christian groups have received in the past: “When the largest Christian group was hacked, MySpace’s Founder, Tom Anderson, personally restored the group, and promised to protect it from future deletions.”

Last April the atheist group won the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy's Excellence in Humanist Communication Award and the chaplain, Greg Epstein, has expressed his displeasure at MySpace's actions: “It is an outrage if Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the world’s largest social networking site tolerate discrimination against atheists and agnostics – and if this situation goes unresolved I’ll have little choice but to believe they do.”

The decision has caused much debate on the Richard Dawkins website, where users have been discussing what action should be taken against MySpace. Suggestions include:
  • Is there someone we can contact to complain?
  • Should Professor Dawkins continue to support and promote these sites in the light of what has happened ??
  • I'll be deleting my account at the end of the day when I get home.
  • My account is now closed! My personal protest!
  • But isn't Myspace just for ridiculous wankers anyway?
  • Create multiple accounts and tag all of the as Atheist
  • Fuck 'em I've no use for these social network sites anyway
Pulling all this together, we thought we'd run an opinion poll to see what people think should be done about this. Get your vote in at the top right of this page:

Also, check out Bill Thompson's web exclusive article "Facebook knows I'm an atheist", where he wonders what the consequences might be of letting social networking sites know about your unbelief.

Texas may sanction creationism "degree"

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Buried in the middle of a story about attendances at Kentucky's Creation Museum is something even more shocking – the state of Texas may be about to approve an online master's degree in science education provided by the Texas-based Institute for Creation Research. The "degree", which has already been given preliminary approval by a Texas state advisory group, is now awaiting the final go-ahead from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Needless to say, bona fide scientists are unimpressed with this development. Alfred Gilman, dean of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center told the Dallas Morning News: "The latest round of so-called creation science truly scares me and all of my colleagues here at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Approval of this sort of nonsense as science in Texas will have a significant negative impact on our ability to attract the best minds to the state. How can Texas simultaneously launch a war on cancer and approve educational platforms that submit that the universe is 10,000 years old?"

As for museum attendances, well, who ever said Americans weren't interested in science? According to the Baptist Press, in its first eight months Kentucky's creation museum has surpassed all expectations, drawing in 300,000 visitors eager to be taught how the Earth is just thousands of years old and how dinosaurs once roamed the land alongside men.

Apparently all the media attention the "museum" received – hardly any of it complimentary – helped raise its profile and attract thousands more visitors than expected. Based on this, one could certainly present a case for just ignoring these people in future in order to avoid giving them and their nonsensical ideas any free publicity. However, as far as we're concerned we find them far too amusing to stop.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Plane makes emergency landing after pilot insists on speaking to God

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Now, if someone thinks they can communicate with God that's fine, but most people would probably prefer if they didn't try to this while co-piloting a transatlantic flight.

Passengers on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to London received a shock when their plane made an emergency landing at Shannon airport in Ireland, after which they witnessed their co-pilot being carried into the cabin in restraints saying that he wanted to "talk to God".

The landing occurred after the crew declared a medical emergency and, helpfully, one passenger was happy to describe the scene to a news agency:

"He [the co-pilot] was very, very distraught. He was yelling loudly at times. He was swearing and asking for God and very distressed. He basically said he wanted to talk to God."

[Thanks Frank]

Scottish Christians fear pagan summer camp

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In yet another clash between Christianity and Paganism, Ekklesia reports on the reservations held by some Christians towards a three-day pagan gathering to be held in north-east Scotland this summer.

The Pagan Federation plans to hold its first ever summer camp this July in Inchberry near Fochabers, an event which will be open to "all witches, druids, shaman and other pagans of good". It will feature an "opening ritual", workshops, talks and, according to organiser Joanne Campbell, opportunities for pagans "to get together and socialise with friends and like-minded people".

All sounds pretty harmless, you might think? Not so, says Rev Graham Swanson of nearby Elgin Baptist Church: "I have grave concerns and reservations about this event taking place. As a Christian I believe the Bible warns us about dabbling in such things as witchcraft."

Oooh, scary.

Ad featuring lustful nuns and naked man offends Catholics

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Catholics in Boston have taken offence to a gym advertisement that depicts a group of feisty nuns admiring a naked man in a life drawing class.

According to the Boston Herald the advert, which runs in the latest issue of Boston magazine, "depicts heavily made-up nuns, in habits, sketching a physically fit man, shown from behind. One of the lustful-looking sisters is depicted with her habit hitched up."

A list of offended organisations includes the Catholic League, the Archdiocese of Boston and the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, and reactions from offended individuals include "Disgusting" and "Disgraceful".

I managed to track down a pic of the ad which you can view here, but to accompany this post I preferred the Boston Herald's photo of South Boston resident Isabelle Paull seeing the ad and looking all offended. Her opinion? "It's wrong".

"Anonymous" group plans day of protest against Scientology

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A group calling itself "Anonymous" has been waging an internet war against the Church of Scientology and, to prove it is more than just a group of computer hackers, has called for a day of protests outside Scientology centres across the world on Sunday 10 February.

The group has been posting videos on YouTube attacking the Church, as well as launching hacking attacks on Scientology websites.

In the latest video, a computerised voice assures viewers that "Anonymous" is not a "group of super-hackers":

“Among our numbers you will find individuals from all walks of life–lawyers, parents, IT professionals, members of law enforcement, college students, veterinary technicians and more. Anonymous is everyone and everywhere. We have no leaders, no single entity directing us…”

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Pope's at it again...

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Benedict XVI seems to be on a mission to rile scientists at the moment, at least if his latest comments on the "seductive" powers of science are anything to go by.

Addressing a meeting of academics sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pope warned that “in an age when scientific developments attract and seduce with the possibilities they offer, it's more important than ever to educate our contemporaries' consciences so that science does not become the criteria for goodness.”

He added that research is required "into anthropology, philosophy and theology" in order to discover “man's own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going”.

Apparently this is because "man is not the fruit of chance or a bundle of convergences, determinisms or physical and chemical reactions."

Perhaps someone ought to have a quiet word with him?

Web Exclusive: Facebook knows I'm an atheist

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In our latest web exclusive article, technology writer Bill Thompson reveals how millions of social networkers are identifying themselves as atheists on Facebook, and asks what the consequences of this might be.

There's been a lot written recently on whether Facebook users are risking their privacy by giving too much information away (see Tom Hodkinson's recent attack in the Guardian on the people behind the site), and Bill's article provides an atheist take on all this. Are the self-identified godless networkers leaving themselves open to snooping from both advertisers and the CIA, or are they doing their bit to help raise the profile of atheism?

Could there be proof to the theory that we're ALL psychic?

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So asked this week's Mail on Sunday. We'd say probably not, but this doesn't seem to be the opinion of Dr Chris Roe, a parapsychologist at the University of Northampton. Apparently a "parapsychologist" is someone who studies "the evidence for psychological phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis, that are inexplicable by science" and, while it's news to us that British universities employ people to study such things, Dr Roe thinks he may have found evidence that up to 85 per cent of people possess clairvoyant powers.

Amazingly Roe's work has even attracted the attention of eminent scientists, including Professor Brian Josephson, a Nobel-prize winning physicist from Cambridge University, who told the Mail: "The experiments have been designed to rule out luck and chance. I consider the evidence for remote viewing to be pretty clear-cut."

It's all very odd, as are the experiments Roe has been carrying out, which sound like something from A Clockwork Orange:

"Dr Chris Roe places a pair of enormous fluffy earphones over the head of a blonde 20-year-old woman. He carefully slices a ping-pong ball in half and tapes each piece over her eyes. Then he switches on a red light that bathes the woman in an eerie glow, and leaves the room. After a few moments, a low hum begins to fill the laboratory and the woman begins smiling sweetly to herself as images of distant locations start to pass through her mind. She says she can sense a group of trees and a babbling brook full of boulders. Standing on a boulder is her friend Jack. He's waving at her and smiling. She begins to describe the location to Dr Roe. Half a mile away, her friend Jack is, indeed, standing on a boulder in a stream."


Dawkins is third most prolific internet Briton

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Anyone who doubts the work of Richard Dawkins in raising the profile of atheism ought to look at this piece of research, which has found that the God Delusion author is Britain's third most prolific internet personality.

Online identity firm Garlik have recently launched "QDOS", a system which measures an individual's internet status based on four factors – popularity, impact, activity and individuality. The British top ten consisted almost entirely of musicians, the sole exception being Dawkins at number three. This means his internet profile is far greater than the likes of David Beckham, JK Rowling and Gordon Brown.

Now, come people might disagree with Dawkins' approach, but no one can deny his contribution to getting the arguments for atheism out into the mainstream.

Keep up the good work Richard.

Hitchens debates Intelligent Design at Stanford University

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Rationalist heavyweight Christopher Hitchens took on prominent Intelligent Design proponent Jay Richards in a debate at Stanford University on Sunday. It was hardly a fair contest pitching the Hitch against Richards, whose links with the ridiculous Discovery Institute preclude him from being taken seriously by pretty much anyone, and if reports are anything to go by it seems the atheist champion didn't take long to floor the arguments in favour of ID.

Informed by chair Ben Stein, who narrates the upcoming ID "documentary" Expelled, that each speaker would have 14 minutes for opening remarks, Hitchens remarked "I can't imagine it'll take me 14 minutes to demolish intelligent design, as I refuse to call it."

Round one to the Hitch. And after Richards had reeled off the regular "scientific" arguments for design, our man decided to weigh in with a killer question:

Hitchens: “Do you believe Jesus Christ was born of a virgin? Do you believe he was resurrected from the dead?”

Richards: "Yes"

Hitchens: “I rest my case. This is an honest guy, who has just made it very clear [that] science has nothing to do with his world view.”

Nice. Let's hope a video of this appears on YouTube before long – I can assure you we'll post it on here when it does.

Islam's scientific golden age

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Today's Daily Telegraph has a nice piece by Jim Al-Khalili on the forgotten scientific geniuses from the early centuries of Islam. It looks at how, while Christian Europe languished in what some historians view as the "Dark Ages", the Islamic world, with Baghdad at its centre, became the driving force behind advances in philosophy, astronomy, medicine and mathematics.

One figure mentioned is abu Uthman al-Jahith who, between 781-869AD may have preceded Darwin in speculating that environment influences the development of species. In his Book of Animals al-Jahith wrote: "Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring."

The article tells how this period of Islamic scientific discovery began around 813 when the caliph of Baghdad, al-Ma'mun was instructed by Aristiotle, in a dream, to "seek knowledge and enlightenment", and offers possible explanations for why this golden age drew to a close from the 13th century onwards.

This reminds me of an article we had this time last year by Abdelwahab Meddeb, who wondered why the openness and intellectual dynamism of the early years of Islam did not end up influencing the politics and culture of the Islamic world in the same way the Enlightenment did centuries later in Europe.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Galileo and the popes

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The Guardian's Science Podcast has started a new feature: Thought from the Pod will be a regular slot based on the Thought for the Day model only with reason in place of the spurious religious wittering. The first one is on this week's, and features New Humanist editor Caspar Melville talking about what the current Pope's attitude to Galileo tells us about the strained relationship between religion and science.

Beauty pageant judge rejected for being a witch

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A prospective judge for a Canadian beauty pageant has been rejected because of her interest in tarot cards and reiki, which organisers view as witchcraft.

Stephanie Conover, who is the reigning Miss Canada Plus ("Celebrating Women with Real Curves") was invited to be a judge for the upcoming Miss Toronto Tourism pageant on 2 February, only to find herself rejected after submitting her biography to the organisers.

Speaking to the Toronto Star Karen Murray, the pageant's director, explained her reason's for rejecting Conover: "We just got her bio a week ago and we don't agree with it. We want someone down to earth, not someone into the dark side or the occult".

Not that Murray objects to these practices on rational grounds. Rather, it seems that Conover was rejected because her beliefs don't fit the God-fearing stance of the pageant organisers. In a letter to the Miss Canada Plus group last week, Murray and another organiser outlined their objections to Conover appearing as a judge: "We need a judge who has an upright reputation and we would be proud to introduce to the audience ... Our board of directors has eliminated her as a judge as tarot card reading and reiki are the occult and is not acceptable by God, Jews, Muslims or Christians. Tarot card reading is witchcraft and is used by witches, spiritists and mediums to consult the dark world ... We hope that Stephanie Conover will turn from these belief systems and will repent from her practice of them."

Conover, who is now considering challenging the pageant organisers under human rights laws, was keen to defend her practices from accusations of evil, telling the Toronto Star "I was fuming. They said tarot cards are the occult and that I use them to commune with dark forces. They're completely benign. I use them for healing, to give guidance."

Sounds like nonsense v nonsense to us...

Creationists to start an "academic" journal

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Guardian science correspondent James Randerson reports on his blog how the creationist nutters at Answers in Genesis have set up the Answers Research Journal, "a professional peer-reviewed technical journal for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework."

They've clearly identified a gap in the market, as there can't be many other academic journals providing "scientists and students the results of cutting-edge research that demonstrates the validity of the young-earth model, the global Flood, the non-evolutionary origin of 'created kinds', and other evidences that are consistent with the biblical account of origins."

If you're wondering what's in store for readers of the Answers Research Journal, James has picked his favourite piece of "research" from the inaugural issue, which details the origins of HIV: "Since the corruption of creation, the corrupted retrovirus, HIV, and various leukemia viruses turn off the entire immune system, leaving the body open to devastating infections. These examples may provide clues to the origin of viruses and how some may have been created during Creation Week by design and how some have been corrupted as a result of the Fall."

Glad they've cleared that up.

Fortune tellers under fire in Afghanistan

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An interesting piece appeared on Reuters yesterday, detailing how the fortunes of Afghani soothsayers have fluctuated since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

The fortune tellers, whose presence in the country dates back to the days of Alexander the Great, were banned under the Taliban but have rekindled their activities in recent years. Methods include palm reading and dice reading, and practitioners peddle their services outside mosques and shrines. Their main customers are said to be older women seeking family advice.

Business may be booming, but now religious elders are fighting back against the soothsayers, who they say are dangerous charlatans. Dozens were recently cleared from the area surrounding the Hazrat Ali shrine in northern Afghanistan, with the shrine's head, Qari Mohammad Qasim, stating "Islam does not permit the practice of fleecing simple people".

Mohammad Ihsan Seaqal, Imam of a Kabul mosque, expanded on Islamic objections to soothsayers: "Fortune telling is not permitted in Islamic law. It has been mentioned clearly [in the Korann] that this is against Islamic values. Fortune tellers are misusing the sacred religion for their personal advantage."

However, there may be on opening for these Afghani mediums. Malulawi Qari Mohammad Qasim, prayer leader at the Hazrat Ali shrine, explained that while "Forecasting and foretelling is against Islam", if the soothsayers "recite the Koranic words for the good of people without doing business, it is alright in Islam."

Friday, 25 January 2008

Afghan journalist sentenced to death for blasphemy

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A big story this week has been the death sentence handed out to a 23-year-old Afghan journalist for publishing an article said to be critical of the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran.

Padraig at Index on Censorship has sent us his article on the case, which gives all the details and describes the reaction of human rights organisations both in Afghanistan and around the world.

New Humanist event: How to Repair Democracy in Britain

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Our editor, Caspar Melville, is chairing an event at the RSA next Thursday entitled "How to Repair Democracy in Britain".

It will feature Professor Stein Ringen, who writes about liberty in our current issue, Andrew Tyrie MP and Paul Skidmore, McConnell fellow of public policy at Princeton University and Demos Associate.

It's taking place next Thursday, 31 January at 1pm at the RSA, 8 John Adam St, London. It's free and open to all, but you will need to book online via the RSA website.

All dogs go to heaven, says man who wrote book

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For reasons that may later become apparent, we've recently been trawling the web for bizarre, tenuous and downright silly religious products. With this in mind, may I introduce you to Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates, a book explaining that all dogs do in fact go to heaven.

The book's author, Gary Kurz, quite rightly picks up on the fact that no one likes to lose a pet and then goes on to show, quite falsely, how "we can replace the grief with joyful anticipation and hope, if we understand that there is a plan for them."

A radio interview on the website tells us that Gary was disappointed when even his local pastor's wife denied that there is such a thing as "doggy heaven", so he decided to research the matter himself. He even went to the Library of Congress and, amazingly, found "there was nothing substantial written on this subject".

So, thankfully, Gary took matters into his own hands, did "about six months research" and can now "say, without any doubt, there is a pet afterlife". Seeking clarification, the radio interviewer asks "So when the hamsters pass away, we will see them again?". Gary is happy to assure us we will, "unless they're scurrying around with their new friends".

He's since released a sequel, Cold Noses II: Examining More Evidence, and together these books will, among other things, "prove that animals do indeed have souls".

Who are we to doubt him?

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Poll: Should parents fake faith to get their children into schools?

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There's a bit of a debate going on at the moment, much of it in the pages of The Times, as to whether it's acceptable for parents to pretend to be religious in order to get their children into faith schools. Earlier this month the newspaper reported that the Catholic Church in Britain had seen a dramatic rise in baptisms of children of school-going age – a phenomenon that has been dubbed the "Year-Five Epiphany".

Conservative leader David Cameron yesterday defended such parents, saying “I think it’s good for parents who want the best for their kids. I don’t blame anyone who tries to get their children into a good school. Most people are doing so because it has an ethos and culture. I believe in active citizens.”

The issue was discussed on last night's Newsnight, which posed the question: "All parents want to ensure they are getting the best education they can for their children, but is lying about your faith a step too far? And is David Cameron right to condone it?"

And now, in today's Times, "God correspondent for The Oldie magazine") smugly compares herself to the "Prodigal son's older brother" as she bemoans how opportunistic parents are invading her Catholic religion in order to get their children into decent schools: "Lots of prodigals [are] returning to the fold these days, and miraculously it's always when they have children. I've lost count of the Catholics I know who were ostentatiously anti-clerical a few years ago but who have rediscovered the charm of Mass attendance once they have children and find that baptism and churchgoing are pre-requisites for a church school."

What does she expect? If the government of a broadly secular country continues to hand the education system over to religious organisations, of course parents are going to do all it takes to get their children in to the best schools. It's not as if any of these people actually want to sit through two hours of tedium every Sunday, it's just that they don't have any real choice. My parents had to do it to me and, while it meant the quality of my childhood Sundays were dramatically reduced, I ended up working for this publication, so it clearly didn't convert me. I'm not sure any of this makes it right, but given the current situation it's bound to happen.

That's my view anyway. I'll throw Newsnight's question out to the readers: Is pretending to be religious to get your child into a good school a step too far? Have your say by commenting on this blog post and voting in the opinion poll at the top right of this page.

Dawkins proclaimed the Messiah

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Last week the New Humanist sports desk (which may or may not exist) got all excited about the appointment of Kevin Keegan as the new Newcastle manager and decided to run a poll asking who the Messiah really is. The results, from 715 votes, were as follows:

Kevin Keegan – 5%
Jesus of Nazareth – 7%
Brian – 33%
Fabio Capello – 3%
Wayne Bent – 0%
Richard Dawkins – 40%
Alan Shearer – 2%
David Icke – 6%
Tom Cruise – 11%

So there you have it. The true Messiah is an arch-rationalist biologist who wouldn't even dream of entertaining the notion of things like Messiahs, closely followed by a character from a 1970s comedy film whose mother assured us he most certainly wasn't the Messiah. Newcastle fans will be disappointed to see that Keegan was narrowly beaten by Jesus Christ, but even he was unable to surpass Tom Cruise. To be honest I'm not even sure what Cruise was doing on there – isn't he just a regular Hollywood actor?

Catholics unhappy with sale of relics on Ebay

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The sale of "holy relics" on Ebay has angered a Catholic activist group, who say placing such items on the internet auction site violates the rules of the Church.

The Los Angeles based International Crusade for Holy Relics, which despite its lofty name seems to consist of someone called Tom Serafin "and a handful of others, including a Russian archbishop and a retired FBI agent", have been complaining to Ebay for the past ten years about the sale of "first-class relics", i.e. human remains. For example, earlier this month one seller was offering a "wheat-coloured envelope fastened with a red wax seal said to contain the remains of the Apostle Bartholomew".

Serafin also objects to the sale of Eucharist wafers "and similar highly sacred items", so much so in fact that he urges Catholics to boycott Ebay via his website and bombard the site with emails informing the company how angry they are. A look at the website shows that Serafin has cleverly integrated his objection to the sale of relics with objections to genuinely offensive items such as racist material.

It doesn't seem like Serafin is getting anywhere with his campaign, however, and he seems to be running out of patience with the auction site: "Ebay is like a big monster. You can't even beat a conscience into them."

In case you're wondering why Catholics object so much to the sale of relics, here's a Father Mark Weisner to explain: "Just as you would not go around selling portions of one of your beloved deceased for money, for the church these [saints] are our family members."

Well, it's a shame they didn't have these same feelings back in the sixteenth century when Martin Luther nailed his objections to the doors of his local church. It could have saved everyone a lot of trouble...

Is there Christ on Mars?

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I'm sure you've all seen the hype surrounding the image of a "figure" strolling the surface of Mars, captured by Nasa's spacecraft Sprirt. Unsurprisingly there's been loads of web chatter surrounding what the "figure" might be (Bigfoot, garden gnome, Osama Bin Laden) and, guess what, some think it might be Jesus or the Virgin Mary.

They really will claim anything, won't they?

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Most tasteless gimmick ever?

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How about this for a terrible piece of marketing? The Mr President hotel in Belgrade, Serbia has come under fire from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League for offering guests the chance to stay in its "$200-a-night Hitler suite, where a portrait of the uniformed German dictator, with a swastika on his arm, hangs on the wall over the king-sized bed."

The hotel, whose rooms are all named after world leaders past and present, also offers Stalin, Castro, Thatcher, Bush and Tito suites. Quite how they though they could get away with the Hitler suite (and the Stalin suite for that matter) is anybody's guess, though apparently the manager says Hitler's is the most popular room in the hotel.

Westboro Baptist Church will picket Heath Ledger's funeral

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The Westboro Baptist Church have announced plans to picket the funeral of Australian actor Heath Ledger, who died yesterday aged just 28.

The Church, who have become infamous for saying God is enacting his revenge on America for its acceptance of homosexuality, and for picketing the funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq, announced on their website that they will picket the actors funeral because he "promoted homosexuality" by starring in Brokeback Mountain.

With this in mind, it's worth repeating the words of Mariana Hyde from her Guardian showbiz blog: "Further comment feels unnecessary, other than perhaps to wonder whether the "church" will ever realise that their continued existence is the most eloquent argument against the existence of any deity. And then to accept the answer would be a no."

Laurie Taylor on apocalyptic religions and the French trouble with the veil

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Our commissioning editor Laurie Taylor's Radio 4 show, Thinking Allowed, steps firmly into New Humanist territory today as he talks to Nicholas Guyatt, author of Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans are looking forward to the end of the world. We reviewed Guyatt's book back in July last year, and he'll be discussing apocalyptic cults with Laurie this afternoon.

His other guest will be Joan Wallach Scott, author of Politics of the Veil, who'll be discussing the the controversy over the wearing of the veil in France.

It's on Radio 4 at 4pm today, but if you miss it you can also listen again online or download a podcast.

Jesus appears in potato salad

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Could this be the most ridiculous "religious figure in appearing in food" story yet? Fox News reports, in an entirely unsceptical way, how a Pastor Renee Brewster of Florida discovered Jesus in a potato salad she made for church.

Pastor Renee tells the moving story of how her ten-year-old granddaughter drew her attention to this miraculous Spud-u-Christ – allow Fox to explain:

"It was her 10-year-old granddaughter who made her give the potato a second look. 'My granddaughter said Granny did you see that in the middle? I said what?' And taking a closer look she saw the cross with Jesus in the middle. 'It’s remarkable. Even when I cut the good part off the cross ended up being shaped like a tomb from long ago.'"

Apparently Pastor Brewster had been apprehensive about making the salad, as someone called Sister Frankie usually does the deed: “I was hesitant about making the potato salad because Sister Frankie makes the potato salad at church and I said Lord if it’s not for me to make potato salad then send me a sign.”

And so he did. But it seems she actually disobeyed him and went ahead and made it anyway, as her husband, Bishop Brewster is on record as saying: “It was good. It was the best you ever made ... it was almost as good as Sister Frankie's.”

This is fine though, because, as Fox says, "The potato did more than feed them physically. It nourished them spiritually and helped reinvigorate their mission." Thank Christ for that.

In other God-related food news, how about a faith-based diet? Gwen Shamblin, founder of Tennessee's Weigh Down Workshop, has developed a weight-less programme that works by the principle: "Let God tell you when you're hungry and when to stop eating". Which could prove problematic if he kept appearing in your potatoes.

[Thanks for those Christina]

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

UK police hand out Scientology booklets in schools

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This weekend's Sunday Times reported that police officers in Britain have been handing school children material produced by the Church of Scientology as part of efforts to discourage drug use.

The paper says that officers from the Metropolitan Police have attended meetings in the South East organised by the Church, aimed at establishing links with "community leaders". At these, representatives of Scientology briefed the police about its "Say No to Drugs" campaign and handed out information packs.

During school visits, police have been distributing booklets on behalf of Say No to Drugs which praise Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, describe not just illegal drugs, but prescription drugs, as poison, and recommend controversial Scientology-linked charity Narconon as the best way to recover from drug addiction. The Sunday Times says a million of these booklets are distributed every year.

Anyone who is undecided as to whether they want their children to receive life advice from Scientology should probably watch the information video below, which has recently resurfaced after someone managed to record it on a hand-held camera while watching it at a Scientology introductory session. Just watch the presenter towards the end of the clip, when the guy's telling him about the US government and mind control. If you ask me, not even he looks convinced, and he's supposed to be selling it...

Ban Islamist speakers to prevent spread of extremism, goverment urges universities

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The government will today recommend that violent Islamist speakers should be banned from speaking on university campuses, while suggesting that the struggle against extremism should not be allowed to stifle free debate among students.

In updating existing guidelines on tackling extremism, the government seems keen to state that it does not wish to ban open debate around the issues of Islamism and terrorism. The higher education minister Bill Rammell, while acknowledging that campus extremism is a "serious but not widespread" problem, stressed that "It is legitimate and permissible for people to research the origins of violent extremism, even in some circumstances to say that actually we can understand how that leads people to certain courses of action. But I think it is very clear when you look at ... the views they articulate, there is a line at which you move from analysis an understanding towards outright advocacy of violent extremism."

And it's this that the government seem less willing to compromise on. It has reiterated its view that extremist speakers should be banned from campuses, and has even recommended that universities should share information with each other on speakers who may pose a risk. It has also repeated the suggestion that tutors should monitor their students for signs of extremism and report them to the police if necessary - something that lecturers' unions have said would be tantamount to spying on students.

The new guidelines also advise universities to think twice before providing separate prayer and washing facilities for Muslim students in order to prevent the spread of extremist views in a segregated environment.

We reported on the issue of Islamism on campus back in our September/October 2007 issue, and at that time concluded that it is essential that free debate is allowed to flourish among university students. While university tutors will welcome the government's commitment to this in today's updated guidelines, it seems that the controversy over suggestions that staff should "spy" on students is likely to continue.

The updated guidelines mark another stage in the government's reassessment of its strategy for dealing Islamist extremism. As Dave Rich reports in the current issue of New Humanist, since 2006 the government reduced its dealings with the Muslim Council of Britain and looked for alternative ways of engaging with British Muslims. As you'll see from Rich's article, it seems they're finally getting things right in this area.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Lest we forget...

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Okay, so it's from about six years ago, but we just watched this in the office and think everyone else should too. It's Ali G interviewing a group of religious leaders on his American show, and to be quite frank it's absolutely hilarious. Just watch the Catholic priest's face when he's asked why most nuns also work part time as strippers.

Dawkins in a whirl

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Scenes I wish I'd witnessed #437 in an occasional series – Richard Dawkins demonstrating what a Whirling Dervish does:
In response to a comment by novelist Sophie Kinsella that she had been "rushing around like a Dervish", Richard Dawkins said, "Dervishes don't rush... they whirl." He then rose, outstretched his arms, crouched down and began to spin around at a snail's pace fixing his eye rather hypnotically on Kinsella: "Very slowly, like this."

From Mariella Frostup's column in yesterday's Observer

Witchcraft and the African Cup of Nations

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Africa's flagship football tournament opened in Ghana last night, and we were interested to read how the Cup of Nations has often been blighted by accusations of witchcraft, or juju.

Apparently the continent's football confederation has worked hard to eliminate witchcraft from the tournament but, as this year's competition kicks off, it is still considered a potential problem.

One Algerian news site, in an article entitled "What you need to know to watch the African football Cup of Nations" describes two past incidents when accusations of black magic caused controversy during matches:

"A brawl was sparked before kick-off in a 2003 qualifier between Uganda and Rwanda as Ugandan players tried to prevent the Rwandan goalkeeper Muhamud Mossi lighting a 'mysterious substance' in his goalmouth. The offending item was removed at half-time by the Ethiopian linesman Lema Mesfin, who ostentatiously crossed himself before picking it up.

"Benin 's involvement in the finals for only the second time means juju could become a significant issue after various Togolese officials and fans blamed witchcraft for their surprise 4-1 defeat to Benin, a setback that cost them their place in this year's finals."

And it seems witchcraft has already been employed at this year's tournament. A group of Ghana fans attending last night's opener against Guniea carried a "juju pot" containing a mixture of leaves and liquid, explaining that "its presence at the stadium will scare away all devils". One of the group, Kojo Saaka, denied any evil intentions, telling reporters that the pot "rather brings luck and peace".

Ghana won 2-1, so the pot certainly didn't do any harm. Perhaps England fans ought to be taking notes.

Prince Charles fond of "proper fundamentalism"

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Yesterday's Sunday Telegraph was kind enough to draw our attention to a previously private letter in which Prince Charles expressed his favourable views towards religious fundamentalism.

Writing in 1996 to Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister of Malaysia who later expressed the view that Jews "rule the world by proxy", Charles said he understood the "frustrations" Muslims experience "as a result of apparent Western misunderstanding and misrepresentation. I have, for a long time, despaired of the ignorant and thoroughly evil 'role' of the tabloid media in deliberately misrepresenting Islam and reducing everything to the level of the absurd."

He followed this up by declaring that he saw the appeal of "proper fundamentalism" in "a world, in my part of it at any rate, which is increasingly without meaning, without roots, without a spiritual dimension and which worships the God of Technology."

The letter ends with the words "There is much to be done", which only serves to make one thankful that Charles isn't actually in a position to do anything.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Scientology's perfectly reasonable property portfolio

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The New Yorker has an excellent article on the extensive range of Hollywood properties owned by the Church of Scientology. As you will see by reading the piece, there is absolutely no agenda behind this, they're just big fans of real estate and they've got a bit of cash to splash. Nothing wrong with that. No, really.

Why Saudi women can't drive...

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Our attention has been drawn to a report on Saudi Arabia by the UN's Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which contains the responses from a Saudi delegation to various questions posed by the Committee.

It's fairly heavy going (if you're feeling ambitious it's available online), but we were struck by a section towards the end where the delegation helpfully explain why women are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabia:

"With regards to the issue of driving, in the early stages of Islam, there were no cars, and women rode camels or donkeys, and participated in all walks of life. This was history, and could not be forgotten. The matter was not related to Sharia. However, the problem was not related to the laws of the State, it was a matter for society. When people and the mentality were ready, then women would be allowed to drive cars. Once there was a need for women to drive, then it would be permitted. The Government was worried about women, and this was why those who were responsible were against the idea of women driving cars."

Which clears that issue up.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

What's a Messiah?

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The surprise appointment of Kevin Keegan as Newcastle United's new manager has been accompanied by copious use of the words "Messiah" and "saviour". Even the club's official website broke the news under the headline "Geordie Messiah to be unveiled as new manager." Newcastle's fans are now labelled "disciples", the appointment represents a "second coming" (or third, to be precise), and Keegan is expected to become the "saviour" of a club without a major trophy since 1955, despite the fact that his greatest achievement last time around was blowing 12 point Christmas-time lead at the top of the Premier League. According to Gary Lineker, Newcastle have not one Messiah, but two – he turned to Alan Shearer on Match of the Day last night with the words "from one Messiah to another".

All this got us thinking, what's the actual definition of a "Messiah", and how does it fit those myriad individuals labelled as such by the media, themselves, or in certain cases, holy books?

The Free Online Dictionary defines "Messiah" as "One who is anticipated as, regarded as, or professes to be a saviour or liberator". Which given Newcastle's current league position may just prove to be true of Keegan by the time the season draws to a close in May. The OED goes with "liberator of oppressed people or country", which may not fit "King Kev" quite so well. The Geordie fans may have had a tough 50 years, but we're not so sure they fit the criteria for an "oppressed people".

To help reach a decision on Keegan's anointed status, we thought we'd pose a question to readers of this blog. Who's most deserving of the title "Messiah"? Choose from the following and cast your vote at the top right of this page:

Creators of Intelligent Design movie will pay people to see it

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A few months ago we reported how Richard Dawkins had been tricked into recording interviews for Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a documentary film intended to promote the Intelligent Design agenda to the American public.

Now, as the film approaches its April release date, it seems its creators are so confident in the quality of their product that they are willing to pay people to go and see it in order to ensure a successful opening weekend.

Christian schools are being offered cash "donations" for every child they deliver to showings of Expelled, which it is hoped they will do by organising compulsory school trips. Parents would be expected to stump up for the price of a ticket, while the school receives at least $5 for every ticket stub they hand back to the filmmakers. The film gets more viewers, the school gets more cash, the kids get intellectually misled, and everyone's a winner. Except for human progress, obviously.

It all smacks of desperation, of course. And having watched the trailer, it looks suitably dreadful. You'd have to give me more than $5. Call it $50 and we can start talking...

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Dinesh D'Souza: Winner of the 2007 Bad Faith Award

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The publication of our January/February issue saw the coronation of Dinesh D'Souza as 2007's most scurrilous enemy of reason, after he walked away with our prestigious Bad Faith Award having scooped an astonishing 22% of the public vote.

In a field crowded by heavyweights like the Bishop of Carlisle, Chuck Norris and Pope Benedict XVI, D'Souza came from nowhere to seize the award ahead of many of the world's leading bigots, charlatans and proselytisers.

Who is Dinesh D’Souza, and what could he possibly have done to claim 525 votes, compared to runner-up the Pope’s meagre 415? Indian-born D’Souza is well known in the US, where his conservative Catholic commentary is tiresomely ubiquitous, particularly his view that the “cultural left” was responsible for 9/11, since it has “fostered a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies”.

His success in the poll is probably related to the publication of his most recent book What’s So Great About Christianity – a both-barrels attack on the “New Atheists” – and his frequent denunciation of atheists and liberals. Here’s a sample: “The religious tribe is made up of people who have an animating sense of purpose. The secular tribe is made up of people who are not sure why they exist at all. The religious tribe is composed of individuals who view their every thought and action as consequential. The secular tribe is made up of matter that cannot explain why it is able to think at all.”

Attention now turns to those individuals who will be looking to wrest the Bad Faith Award from D'Souza's clutches when the 2008 version is presented at the end of this year. We're already inviting readers to make nominations, which you can do by adding a comment to this blog post or emailing us on Early frontrunners must surely include new England boss Fabio Capello for his outspoken support of Franco and the Pope, and Tom Cruise for his increasingly bizarre cheerleading on behalf of Scientology. We were amazed Cruise wasn't nominated last year, but his latest rant on behalf of the religion must surely catapult him into the running.

In the meantime, all that remains is to extend our congratulations to this year's winner. Well done Dinesh, we will be making a donation of £20 or less to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science on your behalf.

Pope pulls out of university visit, Vatican newspaper condemns Harry Potter

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The Pope has cancelled his visit to Rome's La Sapienza University following a widely reported protest from academics and students who were unhappy with his views on the 1633 conviction of the astronomer Galileo for heresy. The Vatican announced last night that it had been "considered opportune to postpone" the visit.

Meanwhile, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper, has launched an attack on everyone's favourite boy wizard in an article entitled "The double face of Harry Potter". The article, by Edoardo Rialti, a professor of literature at Florence University, concludes that "Despite the values that we come across in the narration, at the base of this story, witchcraft is proposed as a positive ideal".

It must be noted that, in a stunning commitment to free debate, the newspaper has run a parallel article in favour of Potter, which declares that Harry "carries the reader from the vision of a selfish man towards a vision of a man guided by moral values, the choice of good sacrifice, friendship, love".

The Daily Telegraph reports that "the Vatican line on JK Rowling's teenage wizard has hardened considerably since Pope Benedict XVI ... succeeded Pope John Paul II". Which seems fair enough. After all, the Pope is really the head of a government, and governments need to have "lines" on things. However, we're still waiting for the heads of the major G8 governments to announce their own Potter policies.

It does seem that the Catholic Church has chosen a strange time to attack Harry Potter. Didn't all this happen last year? The next film's not even out for a few months. And anti-Potter policies are a bit old hat anyway. Even the Church of England gave up the whole "it promotes witchcraft" idea and declared Harry to be a good thing, presumably after realising that children prefer him to Jesus et al. Expect the Catholic "line" to soften some time in the next six centuries...

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Italian scientists protest against visit from Pope

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Academics at a leading Italian university are protesting against a planned visit from the Pope due to his views on the 1633 trial of Galileo for heresy. The great astronomer was convicted and made to renounce his acceptance of the Copernican system, that is, the outrageous view that the Earth orbits the Sun.

In 1990 Pope Benedict, or Cardinal Ratzinger as he was then known, declared that "At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just."

Tutors and students at Rome's Sapienza University are refusing to forgive the Pontiff for these words, with 61 scientists signing a letter to the university rector stating that Thursday's planned Papal visit is "incongruous" and that his views on Galileo "offend and humiliate us".

The protestors are also unhappy that the visit, during which the Pope will deliver a speech to open the university's academic year, would undermine "the secular nature of science" and the institution's acceptance "students of every belief and ideology".

In addition to the scientists' letter, students have organised four days of protest against the visit, which will include hosting an "anti-clerical meal of bread, pork and wine" and greeting Benedict with loud pop music and banners reading "Knowledge needs neither fathers nor priests".

This isn't the first time the Pope has clashed with academics. Just last week he ordered the removal of an astronomical observatory from his summer residence in order to make more room for receiving diplomats, and in 2006 he sacked the Vatican's chief astronomer, George Coyne, after he criticised the Pope's support for Intelligent Design.

Darwin Day Lecture with Tim Lewens and Richard Dawkins - Book now

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Tickets are still available for the annual Darwin Day lecture at University College, London on Tuesday 12 February. This year's lecture will be given by Tim Lewens, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and author of Darwin, an acclaimed "philosophical introduction to Darwin". He'll be lecturing on the subject "Charles Darwin: a philosophical naturalist", and the session will be chaired by none other than Professor Richard Dawkins.

So, that's Tuesday 12 February, 6.30-8pm in the Darwin Lecture Theatre, University College London, Gower St, WC1. Tickets can be obtained from the British Humanist Association by calling them on 020 7079 3580. It's £5 for BHA members, and £7.50 for non-members. For more information you can email

Monday, 14 January 2008

Podcasting Darwin

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This is me on the Guardian Science Podcast talking about the cover story of the current issue - Dinner With Darwin. Have a listen. There's also interesting stuff about probability, GM Food and an innovative website which nags you into being more green (with the wonderful tagline "changing the world one lazy-assed mouse click at a time"). Presented by the Guardian science team Alok Jha and James Randerson, nice chaps both. Hopefully more collaboration to come.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Anglican gay campaigner steps down, admits defeat

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In an interview with the New Statesman, the head of the Anglican Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) discusses why he is stepping down after nearly 30 years in the job.

Reverend Richard Kirker believes the Anglican community has actually moved backwards in its attitude toward gay clergy: "The situation is appalling. Life for gay priests is immeasurably worse than when I started doing this job ... It is now official policy to ensure that gay people who don't give a commitment to celibacy are not selected for ordination."

In many ways, Kirker blames liberal Anglicans for allowing the vociferous anti-gay elements the the communion to step up their campaign, saying "Robert Runcie and Rowan Williams both betrayed their ideals in exactly the same way – by being supportive in private but not saying so in public. Our enemies, those who hate us, scent this weakness and they exploit it."

He also admits to the New Statesman that he is unconvinced by the government's continued handover of public services to religious institutions: "Questions need to be asked about what these faiths projects are actually preaching, and there is an urgent need for research on the amount of public money being ploughed into homophobia via indiscriminate support for faith institutions."

Wise words.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Ex-Chelsea striker Mateja Kezman wants to become a monk

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Football fans may remember Mateja Kezman, an early Abramovich signing at Chelsea (£5m, 7 goals) who was quickly sold on to Atletico Madrid. Well, according to today's Sun (via BBC football gossip) the former Serbian international may give up football to become a monk. Apparently Kezman, who now plays for Turkish side Fenerbahce, spends "as much time as he can thinking of God and reveals that the only vice he has is tattoos. But he is becoming less obsessed with them, thanks to the good Lord's help."

Which is a perfectly valid reason to become a monk, obviously. Reading this reminded me of the story of former Argentina goalkeeper Carlos Roa (he was between the sticks when they beat us on penalties at France '98) who, believing the world would end on the Millennium, refused to discuss a new contract with his club Real Mallorca, instead retreating to an Argentine farm to await the Apocalypse. (That last link's well worth following for a piece on when religion gets in the way of football.)

Will repeal of the blasphemy law lead to dissestablishment?

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Writing on Comment is Free, "post-Anglican" reformist Theo Hobson suggests that the possible repeal of Britain's archaic blasphemy law could eventually lead to the abolition of the equally archaic established Church of England.

Hobson says that since "the blasphemy law exists to defend this official church in particular, not Christianity in general", removal of the law could be seen as "another belated chapter in the demise of our established church".

He goes on to state that "the Church of England was instrumental to the emergence of our liberal political tradition", which is something many humanists may not agree with (AC Grayling, for one), but adds that 9/11 made him realise that it "was suddenly necessary to affirm secular liberalism, and to end the old narrative of Anglican privilege, to affirm the basic principle of liberalism, that all must be treated equally, irrespective of religious belief. The established church was suddenly standing in the way of the renewal of our national identity. It was no longer a pretty relic, but an ugly hindrance."

Let's just hope Hobson's right. Though it must be noted that circumstances have changed slightly from yesterday. The Government is whipping Labour MPs to oppose Evan Harris's amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill as, surprise surprise, they want to discuss it with the Church of England first. However, fearing a backbench rebellion, the Government has promised to bring forward its own plans to abolish the law (after it's consulted with the Bishops, obviously).

So, if today's Commons proceedings do mark the beginning of the end for the blasphemy law, maybe next we can move on to dumping the Bishops out of the House of Lords. And then who knows? It could be next stop disestablishment.

At least we can dream...

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Time to abolish Britain's blasphemy law

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Both the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society are calling on supporters to write to their MPs in support of a new move to repeal Britain's archaic blasphemy laws.

MPs Dr Evan Harris (Lib Dem), Frank Dobson (Lab) and David Wilshire (Con) have tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that would abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, and this will be considered by MPs tomorrow (9 January).

A letter published in today's Daily Telegraph makes the case for repealing the law: "As the Law Commission acknowledged in 1985, when it recommended repeal, it is uncertain in scope, but lack of intention is no defence, and the law is unlimited in penalty.

This, together with its chilling effect on free expression and its discriminatory impact, leaves it in clear breach of human rights law. In the end, no one is likely to be convicted under it."

The letter is signed by a host of honorary associates and distinguished supporters of the Rationalist Association, the BHA and the NSS, including Richard Dawkins, RA President Jonathan Miller, philosopher and regular New Humanist contributor AC Grayling, historian David Starkey and author Philip Pullman. It's even been signed by former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, with the letter pointing out that "the Church of England no longer opposes its abolition on principle".

The BHA have set up a campaign page with instructions on how to easily email your local MP. By doing so you can help to show MPs just how much popular support there is for abolishing this archaic piece of legislation. It is best to act now, as the amendment is being tabled in the Commons tomorrow.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Dating advice Christian-style

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Here's a little gem that was sent to me by Christina Martin this afternoon – Dating Tips for the Christian Man and Woman. Admittedly it's from the more evangelical, hardcore end of the Christian spectrum, but there's some great stuff in there for us humanists to chuckle at.

To get us started, there's some good news and bad news. You see, for anyone out there seeking love, "the battle rages on in our flesh to remain pure and holy while we are dating". That's the bad news. "The good news is that we have help through the Holy Spirit who guides us and we know that Jesus has overcome the world! We don't have to face the battle alone."

Just in case the Holy Spirit fails to deliver its guidance to you directly, it also seems to have provided it to the good people at in the form of some handy tips. In addition to such helpful points as "Brush your teeth" and "Wear deodorant", these include the following:
  • "Choose to keep your relationship on a friendship level. The longer you can remain 'just friends', the better your relationship will be if you decide to get married at some point." (So basically don't have a relationship at all?)
  • "Don't pray together alone as a couple too early in your relationship. Prayer is so very important in any relationship so please don't misunderstand this point. When you pray with someone of the opposite sex that you care about you begin to build a level of intimacy that can often lead to trouble." (So prayer leads directly to sex, then?)
Next they advise you not to kiss, "at least until you are engaged to be married ... even kissing once you are engaged can be very dangerous". And with good reason (the squeamish should look away now): "When men become sexually aroused a large amount of blood flows to the genitals. If ejaculation does not occur; the build up of blood can become painful. That just can't be a good thing for anyone! Ouch!"

Indeed. So to help deliver you from temptation, they advise you to "include another couple" in your relationship, which almost sounds like an evangelical, sexless version of swinging.

And finally, they advise you to "ask yourself 'what would Jesus do?' and then do it!" In which case don't believe what you read in The Da Vinci Code, presumably.

[Thanks Christina]

Church of England Ltd: Independent financial and spiritual advice

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Ever conscious of its waning influence in the religious sphere, the Church of England has turned its attention to more worldly matters, launching a campaign to advise people on how to handle spiralling debt.

The campaign document "A Matter of Life and Debt" (see what they've done there) includes a ten-point check list aimed at alerting people to signs that they may be spending more than they can afford. The BBC describes the document as "a combination of practical tips with some reassuring prayers and biblical guidance".

So, while Catholics pray to rid their religion of paedophile priests (see below), it seems Anglicans will set about praying to get themselves out of the red. Not that they're stopping there – the document also contains a prayer "for a just and lasting solution" to international debt.

Prayers can stop paedophile priests, says Vatican

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Catholics worldwide will now be expected to pray "in perpetuity" in order to cleanse the Church of paedophile priests, The Times reports. An instruction sent to bishops by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, head of the Vatican Congregation of the Clergy states, according to The Times, that "every parish or institution should designate a person or group each day to conduct prayers for the Church to rid itself of the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy".

So there you have it. This is obviously going to work, so there's almost certainly no need to worry about this problem any more. Case closed, I'd say.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Benazir Bhutto: a reality check

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Writing in Time magazine, the historian William Dalrymple offers an interesting contrast to some of the hagiography that has appeared in the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last week.

While acknowledging that the killing of a "secular, liberal, pro-Western leader" will lead to increased chaos in Pakistan, Dalrymple points out that in power Bhutto colluded in human-rights abuses, presided over an inept administration, allowed the secret service to arm jihadis in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and failed to deliver the liberal reforms she promised.

Above all Bhutto was an autocrat, "a feaudal landowner ... with the sense of entitlement this produced". This, says Dalrymple, is a major part of the problem in Pakistani democracy, which "is really a form of elective feudalism". Thus, while the industrial, military and landowning classes look out for one another's interests, they do not do much for the poor: "The government education system barely functions in Pakistan, and for the have-nots, justice is almost impossible to come by. This pushes the poor into the arms of fundamentalists."

Rather than seeing the struggle against the jihadists as a battle between the forces of secularism on the one hand, and the forces of an "irrational for of 'Islamo-fascism'" on the other, Western commentators need to realise that "much of the Islamists' success in Pakistan and elsewhere comes from their ability to portray themselves as champions of social justice, fighting Westernised elites – like Benazir Bhutto."

Thus, concludes Dalrymple, while "Bhutto was a brave, gutsy, secular and liberal woman", she was also "a central part of Pakistan's problems, not a solution to them".

An interesting take, and one worth bearing in mind when considering her legacy.

Obama and Huckabee win Iowa caucuses

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Barrack Obama and Mike Huckabee emerged victorious from their respective caucuses in Iowa yesterday and, as Jeff Sharlet points out in the Revealer, participants in the public meetings came down in favour of the two most religious candidates.

In the Republican contest Baptist minister Hucakbee gained 34 per cent of the vote, trouncing his nearest rival Mitt Romney, who polled 25 per cent (and it's worth pointing out that Romney is a Mormon who's been courting the evangelical wing of the party).

Meanwhile, Barrack Obama got 37.5 per cent of the Democratic vote, with John Edwards taking second place on nearly 29.75 per cent, just pushing Hilary Clinton into third with 29.47 per cent.

According to Sharlet, Huckabee's victory is "the most obvious sign that the Holy Ghost power still matters in power politics", while "Obama's victory should be read as almost as big an indicator that [Americans] are living in a deeply religious moment."

This contrasts with the view of the political commentator Bill Press, who as I reported yesterday sees in the lack of unity among the Religious Right evidence that Christian conservatives are no longer the dominant force in US politics.

It's worth remembering that the Iowa results are hardly reflective of wider opinion in the US. After all, it's a state with a large population of devout Christians, with 40 per cent of Republican voters coming from the religious right. Indeed, according to yesterday's news media entrance polls, 45 per cent of those voting for Huckabee described themselves as "born again", while 55 per cent of those saying religion mattered to them a "great deal" also voted for the Baptist minister. The big name Republicans less driven by religion, such as Rudy Giuliani and John McCain will be looking to make up ground in contests in the more "liberal" states, as will Democrats like Clinton and Edwards.

So, it's clearly too early to tell whether matters of faith will come to dominate the November election, but these early developments suggest the religious views of candidates are unlikely to disappear from campaign rhetoric. All eyes now turn to New Hampshire, which goes to the polls in its primaries next Tuesday.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Is the US Religious Right in decline?

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As Americans finally begin the long process of selected who will run in November's presidential election, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Religious Right was alive and well, especially given the emphasis placed on religion by candidates from both parties in speeches and debates.

Not so, says political commentator and author Bill Press in a column for today's Detroit News, who declares that "No matter who becomes the next president ... the American people have already won a great victory – with the total disintegration of the once all-powerful religious right."

Citing the fact that the myriad leaders of the Religious Right have failed to fall into line behind one particular Republican candidate, Press boldly declares that "religious right is dead", "tolerance is back" and that "we don't have to worry so much about efforts to turn the United States into a Christian nation".

If Press is correct, then clearly this is great news for secularists everywhere. But perhaps he's being a little premature in making this declaration of victory. Just a quick look at William Hill's odds for the November election shows the Mormon Mitt Romney ("In recent years the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning") at 10/1 to win, and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee (creationist who markets himself as "a Christian leader") at 14/1. Meanwhile in Iowa, where 40 per cent of Republicans are of the Religious Right, Huckabee is odds-on to win today's Republican caucus. While this does not reflect wider US opinion, neither does it suggest the death of the Religious Right.

Even the Democratic frontrunners have been keen to stress their religious credentials, with Hilary Clinton pointing out the importance of her Methodist faith and Barrack Obama emphasising his "personal relationship" with Jesus.

While the Religious Right may have lost a great deal of its past unity, it's perhaps a little early to be pronouncing the triumph of American secularism. Battles are still being waged across the states over abortion and evolution, and it's worth remembering that in Pete Stark the country still only has one "openly non-theist" congressman. As Laurie Taylor has pointed out before in this magazine, American atheists are less likely to be accepted, publicly or privately, than any other minority group. Meanwhile, as David Belden writes in the January/February issue of New Humanist (watch this space, it'll be online very soon), evangelicals are becoming more and more influential at all levels of the US military – a development which should worry all but the most ardent born-again Christians.

So, as the countdown begins to the end of the Bush era – putting aside the nightmare scenario of a Huckabee victory in November, of course – we can at least look forward to a US President less driven by evangelical forces. However, it seems there may be some way to go before we can safely dance on the grave of the Religious Right.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Back from holiday, but what did we miss?

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So, the holiday is over and most people are returning to work. As the New Humanist Blog storms back into action, it's worth asking ourselves what we missed over the festive break.

Well, no one stole Christmas, for a start. This seemed to worry many people in the run up to the big day (including such luminaries as Vanessa Feltz and Stephen Green), but I checked on the 25th and everything seemed to be in place. Not that this prevented outbreaks of seasonal bad will, least of all in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where rival broom-wielding Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic priests brawled over Christmas cleaning rights inside one of Christianity's holiest shrines.

Back on these shores, Rationalist Association honorary associate David Starkey "angered royalists" (i.e., the Sunday Express) when he suggested that the Queen is poorly educated and uninterested in culture, telling the Guardian: "I think she's got elements a bit like Goebbels in her attitude to culture. You remember: 'Every time I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver.' " Naturally these comments angered the right-wing press, the Express, which devoted its leader to a dismissal of the historian that in earlier times would surely have involved a call for his head. Unfortunately it seems they don't publish their leader's online, but here's the accompanying article, unsensationally entitled "Historian Nazi Slur on Queen".

Meanwhile, the NH blog has continued to be overrun by members of the Strong City cult, after we ran a post about Ben Anthony's documentary The End of the World Cult. The cult's leader Wayne Bent, AKA Michael Travesser, AKA The Messiah is unhappy with the way Ben represented him in the documentary, and has subsequently dispatched his followers to flood message boards where the cult is being discussed. You can see what has been left on our blog by reading the comments on this earlier post. Some seem to be from Bent's young followers, which is a little disturbing to say the least.

Finally, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto seems to have further confirmed the grim forecast for Pakistan's future made by Maruf Khwaja in our September/October issue. With January elections looking increasingly unlikely and violence continuing across the country, we can only hope that Maruf was wrong in his prediction for the nuclear-armed state: "If the slide continues, Pakistan hasn't much mileage left".

And with that I wish all our readers a sincere, if slightly unfortunately positioned, happy new year.