Friday, 29 February 2008

Richard Branson: Bigger than Jesus?

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Richard Branson is a better role model for children than Jesus, according to a survey out today. The Virgin Group boss – and author of Screw It Let's Do It (see pic) – came in second place below "a family member", while JC could only manage third place.

Before Christians rush off to swap their crucifixes for high-speed Virgin broadband and cans of Virgin Cola (do they still make that?), they may wish to take solace in the fact that their man was able to beat Princess Di (6th) and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (7th).

Plus, Branson himself must see Jesus as a role model. After all, he did name his company after his mum...

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Geert Wilders: Troublemaker or defender of free speech?

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A great deal has been written in the past few months about Geert Wilders, the right wing Dutch MP who is preparing to release a ten minute film on what he believes to be the "terrible things" contained within the Koran – a text he regularly refers to as "fascist" and thinks should be banned in the Netherlands.

Despite various death threats and warnings from the Dutch government, who have already made plans for evacuating their foreign embassies if it all goes the way of the Danish cartoon controversy, Wilders has insisted on releasing his film and will do so in March.

The latest news is that a death threat has been made against him on a website with links to al-Qaeda, reported by a Dutch newspaper as reading: “In the name of Allah, we ask you to bring us the head of this infidel who insults Islam and Muslims and ridicules the Prophet Mohammed.”

The reason I'm blogging about him is I've just seen a video of a TV interview with him in English, which was the first chance I've had to see him in action, if you will. Personally I found it hard to sympathise with someone acting in such a deliberately provocative, even dangerous manner in order to further his own political agenda (he's anti-immigration). It also seems like he's presenting a very simplistic view on Islam, somehow believing he can convincingly write-off the world's second largest religion in ten minutes.

Yet again it raises important questions about freedom of speech (it seems to be free speech week on the blog). What do people think about him? Is he a dangerous troublemaker or a hero of free speech? Have a look at this interview and leave some comments...

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Poll: Should creationists ever be allowed to speak in university buildings?

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Following on from the controversy over last night's Islamic creationist talk in a UCL lecture theatre, we thought we'd set up a poll asking whether universities should ever allow such organisations to use their facilities?

Do you think universities should be happy to let creationists speak at events, if only to see them have their arguments torn apart by the scientifically-minded people who would surely outnumber them on a British campus, or do you believe (as was the case with UCL) that universities, in the name of free speech, have no choice but to provide student societies with buildings to host their events, regardless of whether they want to invite speakers who propagate such nonsense?

Alternatively you may believe that universities should never allow their facilities to be used by people advocating a "theory" that completely denies empirical evidence uncovered through decades, even centuries of hard work by scientists who may even have worked within the very same buildings. Does the need for a university to uphold science and reason outweigh the need to allow free speech for all?

Let us know by placing your vote at the top right of this page, and leaving your comments on this post.

Steve Jones on creationism

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As part of the debate over the Islamic creationist event at UCL (see post below), the Telegraph also had a piece by Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics at UCL (who participated in our recent Dinner with Darwin feature).

He writes how, while he objected to the lecture being held in the Darwin lecture theatre, he could not object to the event itself taking place: "UCL, the Godless College of Gower Street, insists (just as all religions do) on freedom of speech, so they are welcome to their meeting. We biologists choke, though, on the idea of such buffoonery in the Darwin Building; instead, it has been moved to a theatre used to teach medieval history."

[Note his labelling of UCL as "the Godless College of Gower Street". Since we, along with the British Humanist Association, are also situated on Gower Street, I hereby declare it to be "Godless Street"]

For anyone in search of an excellent put-down to use against creationism, it may be worth remembering Prof Jones's closing statement: "The idea that life began by magic a few thousand years ago is entirely absurd - yet believers, of whatever persuasion, insist on its truth. This does no harm to science, but to my secular eyes seems to do immense damage to religion itself."

Indeed.

Islamic creationists lecture at UCL

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Last night, University College London played host to a lecture by Dr Oktar Babuna and Ali Sadun Engin, who may be more familiar to readers of this blog as two of the people behind Harun Yahya, a catch-all pen name for the writings of the "Science Research Foundation", a Turkish Islamic creationist group.

The lecture, organised as part of the university's student Islamic society's Islam Awareness Week, was originally destined to take place in UCL's Darwin Lecture Theatre, but was moved following protests from students and academics.

As Damian Thompson, author of Counterknowledge, pointed out on a Telegraph blog yesterday, the student society had marketed the lecture as providing "an insightful view into the reality of evolution and the shaky grounds upon which several of the theories are based.”

He then showed just how "insightful" the folks at Harun Yahya can be by quoting from one of their books, The Dark Clan, which explains that evolutionary science is inspired by “a dark clan behind all kids of corruption and perversion, that controls drug trafficking, prostitution rings”. Evolution is the “greatest deception in the history of science”.

Now, many readers will no doubt be shocked that such counter-intellectual nonsense could be allowed to be expressed within the walls of one of our finest educational establishments. But should it have been banned? It's not as if the university was actively sanctioning the lecture – it was merely providing one of it's student societies with a venue to host an event. As free thinkers we can quite rightly oppose the encroachment of creationism into our education system, but can we really condone denying its advocates a platform altogether?

I'm not quite sure what my own view is on this, and I'd be fascinated to hear what the blog readers think – please leave your comments on this post.

Also, I've been unable to find any reports of what actually happened last night at the lecture – if there's anyone who went to it please get in touch (either by comment or email) and let us know what was said, whether there was an open forum for questions etc...

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Turkey to undertake revision of key Islamic text

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A Turkish governmental department is carrying out a radical revision of the Hadith, Islam's second most sacred text, the BBC reports.

The Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned theologians at Ankara University to reinterpret the collection of sayings – believed to have come from the Prophet Muhammad – to bring them more in line with modern society.

Some Muslim theologians believe certain sayings in the Hadith – the key source for Sharia law – were never uttered by Muhammad, but rather introduced hundreds of years later, and feel that others need to be viewed in the context of their time. They are also concerned that some can be used to justify more fundamentalist elements of Islam, such as the oppression of women.

Felix Koerner, an advisor to the project, explained these concerns to the BBC: "Unfortunately you can even justify through alleged hadiths, the Muslim - or pseudo-Muslim - practice of female genital mutilation. You can find messages which say 'that is what the Prophet ordered us to do'. But you can show historically how they came into being, as influences from other cultures, that were then projected onto Islamic tradition."

Meanwhile, Professor Mehmet Gormez of the Department of Religious Affairs gives an example of a hadith that must be viewed according to contemporary circumstances: "There are some messages that ban women from travelling for three days or more without their husband's permission and they are genuine. But this isn't a religious ban. It came about because in the Prophet's time it simply wasn't safe for a woman to travel alone like that. But as time has passed, people have made permanent what was only supposed to be a temporary ban for safety reasons."

This move by the Turkish government is unprecedented, and some commentators are comparing it to the Protestant Reformation – a view that Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey from the Chatham House think tank, presented to the BBC:

"This is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation. Not exactly the same, but if you think, it's changing the theological foundations of [the] religion. ... They are trying to fashion a new Islam. ... I cannot impress enough how fundamental [this change] is."

Hear Dawkins take on Madeleine Bunting

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The Guardian website has a podcast of a debate between Richard Dawkins and Catholic columnist Madeleine Bunting which is well worth listening to. Suffice to say our man comes out on top. We particularly enjoyed the bit where he asks Bunting if she believes in the Virgin birth – she says she's unsure and that this makes her an "agnostic Catholic". Yes, one of those.

Bibleman: Taking the fun out of the superhero genre

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May I introduce you to the least inspiring superhero of all time – Bibleman. Watch him "fight injustice with the word of God", tackling the arch villians of Fear, Disrespect, Laziness, Rage and Disobedience. In addition to videos there are also toys and, for any children with particularly cruel parents, a live-action tour.

In this clip, watch Bibleman battle one of his greatest foes – Doubt. Clearly Bible verses are insufficent weapons against the forces of evil, as our hero doubles up with some kind of knock-off lightsabre (does George Lucas know about this?)...



Needless to say, there's already a parody of Bibleman out there courtesy of American sketch show MadTV – take a look at Bibledude.

[Thanks Rob]

Religious wars may not be the shape of things to come

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A fascinating article here by Alan Wolfe writing in the Atlantic, discovered via our favourite website, Arts and Letters Daily.

Responding to predictions that the 21st century will be one dominated by wars of religion (as suggested by the Economist last autumn), Wolfe argues that, despite evidence for growing religiosity, the global trend is still toward secularisation.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Cardinal forces Catholic hospital to adhere to his ethics code

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The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has come under attack from medical organisations for putting pressure on a private Catholic hospital to introduce a new code of ethics, the Independent reported this weekend.

In 2006 Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, who is patron of the St John and St Elizabeth hospital in north London, ordered the hospital to devise a new code of ethics that would be more in tune with the Catholic stance on abortion and contraception. The code was introduced last December, triggering several resignations from the hospital's board. The Cardinal has now asked all members of the old board to resign "in light of the recent difficulties" in order to enable the new chairman Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank "to begin his office with the freedom to go about ensuring the future well-being of this Catholic hospital."

The British Medical Association has publicly criticised the Cardinal's actions, pointing out that they would mean staff at the hospital would be forced to follow two contradictory codes of ethics – as well as the Catholic code doctors would still be obliged to adhere to the General Medical Council's code, which states that doctors must not let their own beliefs interfere with the care of patients.

Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, told the Independent: "It really does put doctors in a very difficult position. We don't believe they can follow two codes of ethics."

Friday, 22 February 2008

Alcohol content of crisps shocks Muslims

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If you're wondering why it's been so quiet on the blog this week, we've been hard at work producing the March/April issue of New Humanist, which comes out the first week in March. There's loads of great stuff in there, details of which will be revealed in due course.

In the meantime, prepare yourselves for the shock story of the day – senior British Muslims are deeply troubled to learn that Walkers' crisps contain traces of alcohol. According to The Times a small amount of alcohol is used in the production process "as a chemical agent to extract flavour".

Shuja Shafi, chair of the Muslim Council of Britain's food standards committee, was quick to express his discomfort at the news: “Certainly we would find it very offensive to have eaten food with alcohol.”

Despite the outrage, Walkers were unmoved by demands to include a warning on crisp packets, with a spokesperson saying “There is not enough room on the packaging to list things beyond allergy-causing ingredients that can make people ill. A minimal amount of alcohol is used to extract the flavour of some crisps.”

[Thanks Christina]

Monday, 18 February 2008

Catholic Church calls for more exorcists

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The Catholic Church in Australia is facing a massive shortage of exorcists – and hundreds of priests are to be trained to help plug the deficit. Church leaders are blaming a rise in Satanism for the increasing demand for exorcisms.

One Brisbane-based priest, who is the only qualified exorcist in the whole of Queensland, told Australia's Sunday Mail that he has seen a shocking rise in demonic possessions along the Gold Coast:

"Being possessed by a demon is terrifying in one's mental and emotional life. Some of these manifestations are extremely powerful, causing people to be plagued by disturbances. They hear voices and see hideous creatures in their sleep. There has been a recruitment of pagan practices, and it's sheer poison. The Gold Coast is not good at all. I do far more exorcisms there than Brisbane."

The Church has now vowed to "fight the devil head-on" by training hundreds of new exorcists. Father Gabriele Amorth, 82, the Pope's Exorcist-in-Chief, recently announced a new initiative to ensure every Catholic diocese has a group of trained exorcists, saying: "Too many bishops are not taking this seriously and are not delegating their priests in the fight against the devil. You have to hunt high and low for a proper, trained exorcist."

As for the Brisbane priest, who asked the Sunday Mail not to name him for "fear of reprisals", he remains troubled by the threat of possession: "We are not very plentiful and certainly need more of us to cope with the big occult following that is emerging today. It's frightening what can happen when you invite entities into your life which are not meant to be part of God's world."

He provided the newspaper with one example of someone carelessly inviting these entities into their life: "He said one woman he had met had been plagued by demonic manifestations since taking part in a playground witch game as a child."

[Thanks Christina]

Friday, 15 February 2008

Baby Bible Bashers

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Last night's Channel 4 documentary Baby Bible Bashers really didn't make for pleasant viewing. It introduced us to three child evangelists and their despicable parents as they pursued their mission to convert the world's sinners.

First up – and arguably the "star" of the show – was seven-year-old Samuel Boutwell from Mississippi, who is forced by his parents to stand on street corners urging sinners to repent. We first meet him as he preaches outside his local abortion clinic and we follow him on a road trip to New York, where he hopes to convert those urban heathens. As his Baptist minister father observes, "more people means more sinners. Fact". Needless to say the people of New York prove somewhat unreceptive to the sight of a child preaching fire and brimstone, and his father comes in for some abuse from passers-by. Unable to understand why the urban populace refuses to repent, Samuel eventually breaks down crying.

In case there was any doubt where this child acquired his religious zeal, an interview with his father informs us that, when he was three, Samuel asked him if he was going to Hell. Mr Boutwell responded by asking him if he had ever "sinned against God". Samuel didn't know the answer, so his father asked "have you ever disobeyed your mother?". Samuel answered in the affirmative, so he was kindly informed that yes, if he didn't mend his ways he would burn in Hell for eternity.

Next we meet nine-year-old Terry Durham from Florida, who became the world's youngest ever minister when he was ordained at the age of six. His grandmother, and his followers, believe he has the power to heal everything from the common cold to cancer, while his father seemed more interested in ensuring he becomes a millionaire on the back of his son's work.

Finally it was off to Rio de Janeiro to be introduced to 12-year-old Ana Carolina Dias. She's been preaching since the age of three, and her father has ensured that she's become a national sensation. "My father is everything to me", she tells us. So much so that he shares a bed with her every night while her mother sleeps in another room.

The whole experience was grimly fascinating and left you feeling nothing but contempt for the parents. The fact that the children themselves all seemed quite sweet made it all the more difficult to watch them have their childhoods systematically stolen from them.

Just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about, I've tracked down a clip of Samuel on YouTube. There are more clips on the Channel 4 website.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Valentines Day cancelled in Saudi Arabia

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It probably wont come as much of a surprise to hear that the authorities in Saudi Arabia have clamped down on the sale of red roses and other items related to traditional Valentines Day displays of affection.

Florists and gift shops were visited yesterday by officers from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and ordered to remove any scarlet coloured items. Reuters reports that this is not unusual, as the strict Islamic state sees Valentines Day as promoting relations outside of wedlock, an offence punishable by law.

Meanwhile, for anyone who didn't already think Valentines Day was tacky enough, take a look at this delightful "Jesus loves you" e-card. As it says, he may not "pass out pretty cards" or "hand out fancy gifts" on Valentines, but this doesn't seem to discourage some of his followers from disseminating crap online cards.

Local council pay psychic to evict ghost from house

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This is truly unbelievable. Easington Council in County Durham have paid half of a £120 fee for a psychic to "exorcise a supposed poltergeist" from one of its council houses.

The occupants, the Fallon family, had reported banging in the loft, items flying across rooms and doors slamming in their faces. They had the police round to have a look and, unsurprisingly given their tendency to investigate and detect things that have actually happened, they found nothing. So the Fallons hired the services of psychic Suzanne Hadwin and asked the council to pick up the bill.

Easington Council agreed to pay half the £120 fee, which they have justified by saying it amounts to much less than they would have had to pay to house the Fallons, who had insisted they would leave if the "ghost" remained, in emergency accommodation. A spokeswoman for the council defended the action, saying: "This is the first time we have had to take such a measure. However, the tenants were extremely distressed at the time and we therefore believed it was the most appropriate course of action."

It seems that on her way to the bank the psychic found time, between the fits of laughing, to talk to local paper the Sunderland Echo, telling them that she had "used her Russian spirit guide and some angels to help rid the property of evil, which she said was linked to the murder of a woman in the house years earlier".

Now, if this was my local council I'd be completely outraged by this. Not sure what I'd do mind, but I'd at least send a sternly worded email or something. If there are any readers who live within Easington Council, I urge you to do something and let us know by commenting on this post.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Rowan Williams: Adapting to survive

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Our friend Andrew Copson at the British Humanist Association has a piece on the Archbishop of Canterbury on the Guardian's Comment is Free site. It was published on Darwin Day yesterday, so the Guardian's web editors gave it an evolutionary slant – fearing the irrelevancy of his own Church in modern Britain, Rowan Williams has adapted to speak up for the rights of all religions, in order to protect the special status of the Church of England in British law.

"Jesus" cosmetics offend Singapore Catholics

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Complaints from local Catholics have prompted Topshop stores in Singapore to withdraw a range of cosmetics. The "Lookin' Good for Jesus" collection, from US-based company Blue-Q, includes a "Virtuous vanilla" lip balm and a "Get Tight with Christ" hand and body cream. The "Lookin' Good for Jesus" branding depicts Jesus standing tall while being admired by two attractive (albeit cartoon) women.

One offended individual, Grace Ong, 24, was happy to explain to a local newspaper why she was offended: "Why would anyone use religious figures to promote vanity products? It's very disrespectful and distasteful."

[Thanks Christina]

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Archbishop's Sharia comments are a blow to the established church

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Writing in today's Daily Telegraph, Janet Daley offers an interesting take on the ongoing row over Rowan Williams' comments on the potential use of Sharia law in the UK. In Daley's view "the messy overlap between matters of state and of faith" caused by the established status of the Church of England has been highlighted by Williams' comments:

"He has laid bare the question that should never have been asked if the prevailing fuzzy compromise between established church and state was to remain tenable: how can a revealed religion officially accept that its position is subservient to secular law? Answer: it can't - not without surrendering its understanding of absolute truth."

Time for disestablishment then?

Monday, 11 February 2008

Archbishop stands by his position on Sharia

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Today saw the latest development in the Rowan Williams/Sharia law row, as the Archbishop of Canterbury defended last week's statement that the introduction of some aspects of Sharia law into the UK is "unavoidable".

Addressing a biannual gathering of the Church of England's general synod, Williams said he felt his comments had been exaggerated and taken out of context but also admitted that he must "take responsibility for any unclarity in either that text or in the radio interview and for any misleading choice of words that's helped to cause distress or misunderstanding among the public at large, and especially among my fellow Christians.''

However, he refused to express regret for raising the issue, saying that he does not believe it is "inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues about the perceived concerns of other religious communities, and to try and bring them into better public focus."

The speech seems to suggest that, in his position as the head of the established church, Williams sees himself as a de facto spokesperson for all religious groups in the UK: "Part of both the burden and the privilege of being the church we are in the nation we're in is that we are often looked to for some coherent voice on behalf of all the faith communities living here. And that is a considerable privilege, and I hope we can use it well - however clumsily it may have been deployed in this instance. If we can attempt to speak for the liberties and consciences of others in this country as well as our own, we shall I believe be doing something we as a Church are called to do in Christ's name, witnessing to his Lordship and not compromising it."

Williams once again reiterated that he was not advocating "parallel jurisdictions" in Britain, but was rather looking to open up a debate around the issue.

I invited comments on this issue last week and received plenty, so I'll send out the call again – thoughts, people...

Protests against Scientology take place around the world

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The anti-Scientology organisation "Anonymous" held its international day of protest yesterday, with groups of masked protesters turning up outside Scientology centres around the world.

"Anonymous" has been conducting an online "war" against the Church of Scientology over the past few weeks, a campaign that has involved hacking, Google bombing and posting videos on YouTube encouraging people to join in with yesterday's protests.

According to reports, protests took place in a number of North American cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, and in other cities across the globe. Here in London, just a stone's throw from our own offices, masked protesters gathered outside the Scientology centre on Tottenham Court Road (you can see photos of this here).

For our own part, we can't really understand why people would protest. We regularly walk past the Tottenham Court Road centre, and think it is most kind of those nice, clean cut, young men in suits to offer us free personality tests...

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Archbishop of Canterbury advocates Sharia law for UK

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For reasons known only unto himself, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, today decided to state live on Radio 4 that he would support the introduction of Sharia law into the UK for issues such as divorce and financial affairs.

He believes that giving British Muslims the option to use Sharia law to settle such matters is "unavoidable" and would help social cohesion, meaning Muslims no longer have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".

Williams wasn't advocating the wholesale introduction of Sharia into Britain, but rather expressing his view that it could prove beneficial to Muslims in certain legal areas: "It would be quite wrong to say that we could ever license a system of law for some community which gave people no right of appeal, no way of exercising the rights that are guaranteed to them as citizens in general. But there are ways of looking at marital disputes, for example, which provide an alternative to the divorce courts as we understand them. In some cultural and religious settings they would seem more appropriate."

The government and other political parties moved quickly to distance themselves from Williams' comments, with Gordon Brown's spokesman saying the prime minister "believes that British laws should be based on British values".

Humanists and secularists have also responded critically to the comments. Hanne Stinson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said: "Fundamental to the principle of equality before the law that the same rights and processes of law be available to all and this automatically rules out any possibility of delegating the rights of some citizens to unaccountable religious authorities. Singling out certain groups for separate treatment will also surely undermine work towards good relations and social cohesion rather than assist it."

While it's obvious Williams isn't suggesting that Britain suddenly drops its centuries-old legal tradition in favour of Sharia, it seems he really should have thought twice before coming out with this live on national radio. Quite why he decided to make these comments, with all the backlash and far-right cries "told you so" he must have known they would provoke is anybody's guess. Just another example of why bishops should stay out of politics really...

Thoughts people?

Florida legislators prepare to rein in teaching of evolution

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Three leading Florida state legislators are preparing to challenge new state science education standards which will make the teaching of evolution compulsory for the first time in Florida's history.

The standards, set to be approved by Florida's Board of Education on 19 February, will ensure all middle and high school students are taught about evolution and natural selection in science classes. Three Republican legislators are unhappy with these guidelines, as they believe evolution should be explicitly referred to as a "theory" and not fact. One of the three, state Senator Stephen Wise, believes creationism should be taught alongside evolution. State Representative Marti Coley, who believes in intelligent design, told the Miami Herald that evolution "is technically a theory. Let's present it for what it is."

The three, who also include future state House Speaker Dean Cannon, have said they will be willing to use the powers of the state Legislature, which can override the Board of Education, to ensure the word "theory" is inserted into the standards.

The standards have been exercising creationists ever since they were proposed last October. One Florida Department of Education employee even sent round an email calling on fellow Christians to oppose the guidelines, as they would be "a COMPLETE contradiction of what we Teach them at home."

This religious challenge to science education has alarmed the man who carried out the review of Florida's standards. Professor Joseph Travis, dean of Florida State University's Arts and Sciences College, told the Herald: "If you use the word theory to imply that scientists think evolution is just a hypothesis and is not real, that gives an incorrect impression."

Saudi police arrest American businesswoman for drinking coffee with a man

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Today's Times reports on the arrest of a 37-year-old American businesswoman in Saudi Arabia for the heinous crime of sitting in a Riyadh branch of Starbucks with a male colleague.

The woman, who lives in Jeddah with her husband, was visiting her company's Riyadh offices when a power cut forced her and her colleagues to visit Starbucks to use wireless internet. She was sat in a curtained booth with her male business partner when officers from Saudi Arabia's Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice arrived and arrested her, accusing her of committing a "great sin".

She was then taken to a nearby prison where, according to the Times, she was "interrogated, strip-searched and forced to sign and fingerprint a series of confessions pleading guilty to her 'crime'."

Eventually appearing before a judge she was told "You are sinful and you are going to burn in hell". Her husband, a prominent businessman, was able to secure her quick release through his political contacts and the woman has now pledged to stay in Saudi and challenge its repressive laws.

Recognising the part played by her husband in her release, she acknowledged that other female victims of the Saudi regime are not so fortunate, saying “I was lucky. I met other women in that prison who don't have the connections I did.”

Campaign against psychic scammers launched in Dundee

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The Office of Fair Trading has launched a new initiative in Dundee aimed at tracking down and convicting fraudulent psychics who target their victims through the mail.

Trading standards officers have placed blue "Scamnesty" bins in community buildings, where members of the public are being urged to dump any scam mail they receive. The OFT will then then use the letters to help them track down those behind the scams, which also include bogus prize draws, sweepstakes, lotteries and medical cures.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Wikipedia entry condones 1930s Pope's backing of Franco

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Les Reid of the Belfast Humanist Group has drawn our attention to historical inaccuracies in the Wikipedia entry for Pope Pius XI, whose stance towards various fascist dictators in the 1930s have made him a controversial figure for historians.

In reference to Pius XI's relationship with Spain in the 1930s, Wikipedia reads:

"The republican government which had come to power in Spain in 1931 was also strongly anti-clerical, secularising education and expelling the Jesuits from the country. This encouraged Catholics to support the military coup against the Republican government in 1936 led by General Francisco Franco. The Republicans responded by murdering priests and nuns.[citation needed]

"Pius XI gave support to Franco and the Nationalist forces in the Spanish Civil War of 1936 – 1939. The Pope distinguished Franco from the totalitarian, anti-religious fascists like Hitler and Mussolini, seeing him as an old-fashioned authoritarian Catholic conservative. In any case, Pius XI concluded a Nationalist victory was necessary for the Church’s sake."

I'm sure many of you will agree this makes for a somewhat interesting interpretation of the Spanish Civil War, Franco and his relationship with the Vatican. Was he really an "old fashioned authoritarian Catholic Conservative"? Was a Nationalist (some would say Fascist) victory "necessary for the Church's sake"?

It looks to us like someone's been editing this Wikipedia entry in order to whitewash over a few shameful episodes in the history of the Catholic Church. If there are any readers out there who are into editing Wikipedia and who know a lot about this period, you may want to make some changes to this article. To use Wikipedia-speak, it seems fair to say the neutrality of this entry could be contested.

As always, thoughts welcome through comments on this blog entry...

Texas Baptists call for more fire and brimstone

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For those of you who think American evangelicals already harbour an unhealthy obsession with the fires of Hell, it may come as some surprise to hear that Southern Baptist preachers are being urged to place more emphasis on warning their congregations of the ultimate dangers of sin.

At a three-day "Empower Evangelism" conference Pastor Bob Pearle, president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, urged preachers to up their game in warning sinners of the eternal punishment that awaits them on the other side. Speaking to Reuters, he explained the reasons behind this:

“A lot of times today, it seems that in the modern church you don’t find as much preaching on heaven and hell. [But] the whole thing that we’re about is preparing people for when they stand before God in judgement. There are still many, many Southern Baptists that faithfully preach what the Bible teaches about heaven and hell. But you have a lot of them that are a little hesitant about talking about that, about talking about sin, about talking about judgement.”

If this blog does have any Southern Baptist readers, be warned, your Sunday mornings may be about to become even less cheerful. I'd leave the kids at home if I was you...

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Muslims protest Wikipedia entry

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Wikipedia has become the subject of an online petition from Muslims, who are unhappy with images included in the entry for the Prophet Muhammad.

Some Muslim users have taken offence to the inclusion of images from medieval manuscripts, which feature representations of Muhammad. The online petition has received more than 80,000 signatures and emails have been sent to Wikipedia demanding the images be removed. The call for users to sign the petition puts the case as follows:

"In Islam picture of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and other Humans are not allowed. But Wikipedia editors are showing illustrations with face illustrated and face is veiled or white washed. But still they are offensive to Muslims. I request all brothers and sisters to sign this petitions so we can tell Wikipedia to respect the religion and remove the illustrations. "

Despite the protests, Wikipedia has refused to remove the images. A message in the site's FAQs section explains its stance: “Since Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with the goal of representing all topics from a neutral point of view, Wikipedia is not censored for the benefit of any particular group.”

Christian group hold "funeral" for Richard Dawkins

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You may not have thought it possible, but here's a group capable of rivalling the wretched Westboro Baptist Church. The Ministry of Pilgrim Baptist Church (or King of Terrors Ministry) run the website Preaching Your Funeral ... Before You Die, which produces videos of mock funerals for figures they believe have betrayed their Lord's teachings. The website gives their mission statement as follows:

"Preaching your funeral before you die is a dramatization of what will happen when individiuals die rejecting Christ. We Live in a generation that has grown cold toward God, We feel it takes something radical to show mankind who die rejecting Jesus Christ, their fate! If you are currently rejecting Christ, and have not sought forgiveness of your sin from him, then sadly Hell is a reality for you if you were to die in this state."

The group have already produced a video marking the actual death of actor Heath Ledger, which rehashes the Westboro Baptist Church line about Brokeback Mountain, and this has been followed up by the Dawkins video, which features the group's "preacher" urging the God Delusion author to repent before burning an effigy of him in a field. This last scene is accompanied by screams that seem to have been lifted from a bad 80s horror movie. Have a look at the video below.

The group's website claims their next "funeral" will take place this Friday for the American comedian and gay activist Rosie O'Donnell, who in their words "has proven to be one of the most wicked human beings to ever walk the earth, with her open support and lifestyle of homosexuality."


Campaigning for a truly Christian America

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Found this little gem on PZ Myers' Pharyngula blog. Let's call it a campaign video for US evangelical presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, though I'm not sure he'd agree...

Monday, 4 February 2008

Rationalism needs you: "Psychic surgeon" demonstrating his "ability" in London tonight

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We received a rallying call over the weekend from Julia Atkinson at the website Bad Psychics, who is urging all rationalists to attend a demonstration by "psychic surgeon" Gary Mannion in London tonight.

He'll be demonstrating his ability, or power, or whatever you want to call it at 7pm at St James' Church, Piccadilly, in an event being billed as follows:

"Gary Mannion is a 19 year old Indigo Child with amazing psychic and healing gifts. Working with his Spirit Surgeon, Abraham, Gary will demonstrate Psychic Surgery on some willing members of the audience. These operations, which are completely safe and painless, are non-evasive, and require no surgical instruments, or removal of clothing. Whilst working, Gary will talk about how he and Abraham ended up working together, and how Psychic Surgery works."

Now, I'm no expert, but it seems that Abraham is a ghost, and together he and Gary are able to heal people without the need for such inconveniences as drugs or invasive surgery. According to Bad Psychics, he even claims to have healed terminal cancer.

So, in response to this nonsense, Julia at Bad Psychics is calling for any rationalists who might be in the area with an hour to spare to pop in to St James' Church (very odd that it's happening in a church) and cast their sceptical eye over Mannion's "procedure".

Could be interesting.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Man watches porn on nun's computer

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In no way is it childish and immature to find the following story amusing:

"HAMILTON, N.J. — A civilian State Police employee was accused of sneaking into a church to look at pornography on a nun's computer. Police arrested Thomas G. Findler Wednesday and charged him with burglary and theft. Authorities said Findler had been sneaking into Grace St. Paul Episcopal Church in the night over the last three weeks to look at pornography. Wednesday morning, a church custodian found Findler, who worships at the church, on a nun's computer. The custodian chased him out, right into a police officer who happened to be nearby. Findler works in a local office for the state police. Reached Thursday morning, Findler's father said his son was not home."

BBC programme Watchdog suggests genuine psychics do exist

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In an otherwise informative feature on psychics fleecing credulous members of the public for thousands of pounds, BBC Watchdog presenter Julia Bradbury came out with the extraordinary statement "Of course, there are genuine psychics out there as well." (See the YouTube video below)

What? Did the presenter of the BBC's flagship consumer awareness programme just suggest that it's possible to find real psychics with real psychic powers who can provide you with real information?

On this week's edition, the presenters backtracked slightly in response to letters questioning Bradbury's bizarre statement. Co-presenter Nicky Campbell declared that "proving the authenticity or otherwise of all psychics is slightly outside our area of expertise, but it seems to us that there is a big difference between someone who reads your tea leaves at the village fête and someone ... who tries to snaffle hundreds of pounds so she can 'fix your aura'."
(You can see this on BBC's iPlayer by following this link and scrolling to 11mins, though I think it might only be available to UK viewers).

Well, you can kind of see their point I suppose, but only if these innocent village fête "psychics" are only selling their "services" as a bit of fun, and a bit of fun for charity at that. They're clearly not as bad as those involved in mega-scams, but there's still plenty of people raking in small sums at a time by claiming various supernatural abilities. You only have to take a stroll along Brighton seafront in summer to see those people in action and, in my books, they're still involved in scams.

Oh, and Watchdog didn't really retract Bradbury's "genuine psychics" statement, did it?