Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Jewel of Medina: Free speech or deliberate controversy?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I've been aware of the impending publication of Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina, a romantic novel based on the story of the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride Aisha, for some time, and never really knew what to make of it.

The US publication was cancelled by Random House, who were advised that "the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community" and "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment", but it was picked up by Gibson Square, a small, independent UK publishers owned by Martin Rynja. Then, just this weekend, Rynja's home in Islington was firebombed in what is believed to have been an attempt by Islamic extremists to kill him because of his plans to publish the novel. (This happened 20 years to the day since the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, although this appears to be a coincidence).

Rynja has long been a defender of works others have tried to censored, having published such recent works as OJ Simpson's If I Did It and Alexander Litvinenko's Blowing Up Russia, and this seems to have been his motivation behind publishing Jewel of Medina, as he explained earlier this year:
"In an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear. As an independent publishing company, we feel strongly that we should not be afraid of the consequences of debate."
Rynja has been widely applauded for his stance, not least by Jo Glanville on Comment is Free:
"Rynja's support for free speech is proving to be exceptional, as is his courage in standing up to bullies, at a time when other publishers will surrender at any intimation of legal action - particularly from litigious Saudis. Rynja, who trained as a lawyer, has shown that capitulation need not be inevitable. I can only hope that the shocking attack on his office will not dim his determination - but he will need support."
It's hard to disagree, but one of my first thoughts with controversies like this is always "But is the book/film/cartoon actually any good?" This was my problem with Geert Wilders' anti-Islam short film Fitna - Wilders had set out purely to court controversy, and in the process produced something of next to no intellectual value. In short, it was rubbish. Controversy for the sake of controversy.

So what about Jewel of Medina? Obviously it hasn't been released so very few people have read it, but Random House's decision to drop it was influenced by the words of Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin, who after reading a proof wrote to the publishers, calling the book a "very ugly, stupid piece of work", adding "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography."

Which makes you think - if you're going to enter such sensitive territory, or as Spellberg put it "play with a sacred history", isn't there a more sensible way of doing it than publishing what, if you take Spellberg's word for it, sounds like it might be a trashy romance? (Though Jones has disputed everything Spellberg said and demanded an apology.) But then I read New Humanist contributor Kenan Malik in The Times, who looks at this controversy in light of that over The Satanic Verses 20 years ago:
"What the differing responses to the two novels reveal is how Rushdie's critics lost the battle but won the war. They never prevented the publication of his novel. But the argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case - that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures - is now widely accepted. In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised. ... There will always be extremists who respond with fire. There is little we can do about them. The real problem is that their actions are given a spurious legitimacy by liberals who proclaim it morally unacceptable to give offence."
And it was Malik's final paragraph that really helped make up my mind:
"It is everybody's business to ensure that no one is deprived of their right to say what they wish, even if it is deemed by some to be offensive. In a plural society it is both inevitable and important that people offend others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held clashes are unavoidable and these should be dealt with openly rather than suppressed. Important because any kind of social progress requires one to offend some deeply held sensibilities. 'If liberty means anything,” as George Orwell put it, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear'."
So after much consdieration, here's what I think. Whether or not a book is good enough for publication is an editorial issue for the publishers. Once they have made that decision, they have the right to go ahead and publish it. If any groups then try and censor it on the grounds of offence, in this case with threats or acts of violence, then the argument is no longer about the quality of the book, but rather about free speech. In light of this weekend's events at the home of Martin Rynja, it is in all our interests that Jewel of Medina does not fall victim to would-be censors.

God Delusion features in Family Guy storyline

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Just a quick note, mostly because I like Family Guy. I've just learned via Richard Dawkins' website that the God Delusion plays a part in a new episode (for the uninitiated, Family Guy's an American animated sitcom, a la South Park and The Simpsons). Apparently Brian the dog falls in love with a woman when they both reach for a copy in a bookshop.

As people have pointed out on the Dawkins forum, Family Guy are a bit behind South Park, who two years ago featured Dawkins in an episode in which he rid the world of religion, erecting science in its place, and also found time to have a passionate relationship with the town's transgendered teacher, Mrs Garrison.

However, I'm not convinced by some of the other comments on the Dawkins forum, for example "This is a huge step for atheism". As I said, I just like Family Guy.

US readers can watch the whole show here, but for the rest of you here's a (very) short clip:

Do vicars have worldly employment rights?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

We'd have had the Church of England down as fairly decent employers - short hours, free biscuits ... you get the picture. Plus your overall boss would be the Archbeard, who seems like a nice enough guy. But it turns out the Diocese of Worcester has been trying to sidestep giving its clergy protection under regular employment law by claiming the buck stops at an infinitely higher desk.

Rev Mark Sharpe, Rector of Teme Valley South in Worcestershire, claimed "he had been subject to constant abuse while his vicarage was infested by mice and frogs, with dangerous heating and electrical systems", and went to the Bishop of Durham to complain. It seems he got as far as the Bish, but was told "I'm sorry but you're not employed by the diocese, you have no legal relationship with the diocese and as such you're not entitled to any form of grievance management process".

Rev Sharpe says this is because "The cliche is we're employed by God", and has been pursuing a compensation case against the diocese in an ongoing tribunal. No decision has been reached yet, but Sharpe claims a recent admission by the diocese that he "had the status of a worker for the purposes of this claim" could set a precedent for all clergy to have the same rights as other workers in the future.

[Thanks Christina]

It's the placebo effect, stupid...

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Yesterday I blogged, derisively, on research carried out at Oxford University that seems to show that having religious faith helps you to endure pain. I'm thankful to Tom Rees at the BHA Science Group blog for stepping in to throw some scientific light on the whole thing (in my post I linked to the Daily Mail, so enough said there).

Rather than try and paraphrase the science, I'm sure Tom won't mind me quoting him directly (and nicking his diagram - sorry!):
"It turns out that the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC) - shown in the little graphic above - is the bit that lights up in the Catholics who felt less pain as a result of their Madonna-induced rapture. Because the RVLPFC is known to play a role in the reassessment of the emotional evaluation of experiences, the researchers propose that the religious state leads to a reassessment of the pain, giving it new more positive meaning and so making it less, well, painful.

"No doubt that's true. But before any religious believers ... get too excited about the wonders of religious belief, it should be pointed out that the RVLPFC is in fact the bit of the brain that drives your response to any kind of placebo - including, for example, your common-or-garden sugar pills ... In other words, as far as pain relief goes, you can substitute the mystery of the trinity with a good old-fashioned sugar pill and some kind words from the GP. They work the same way."
As a non-scientist, I smelled Templeton cash, silly-sounding methods (giving 12 Catholics and 12 atheists electric shocks while looking at paintings) and a quote from the Bishop of Durham claiming the research as a justification for his own religion, and jumped to conclusions. But here we have the truth -the experiment wasn't that dodgy and, as far as pain's concerned, religious faith can be a handy placebo. But so can many other things.

[Thanks Tom]

Now Ahmadinejad seems to accept Israel's right to exist

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Following on from yesterday's news that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently accepted that there might be "a few" gay people in his country, I learn from another news release from Peter Tatchell (which he actually wrote for Comment is Free) that Ahmadinejad, in the same interview where he changed his tune on homosexuality, also suggested that he would be willing to accept the existence of Israel.

He was asked the question "If the Palestinian leaders agree to a two-state solution, could Iran live with an Israeli state?", and here's what he said:
"If they [the Palestinians] want to keep the Zionists, they can stay ... Whatever the people decide, we will respect it. I mean, it's very much in correspondence with our proposal to allow Palestinian people to decide through free referendums."
That's quite a turnaround on previously saying that Ayatollah Khomeini was wise to say that Israel should "be wiped off the map". And the surprising thing is that the media failed to pick up on these latest comments. The original article from one of the interviewers didn't even highlight this as one of the main points. Did Ahmadinejad's comments merely slip through the net or is there, as Tatchell wonders, a deeper anti-Iran, pro-Israel bias in the Western media?

Either way, they were significant words from a man more famous for sweeping, bellicose rhetoric. As Tatchell points out, we should now be looking for signs that Ahmadinejad meant what he said:
"He ought be pressed by world leaders, and Israel, to repeat them and to clarify them. His statement might, and I emphasise might, be evidence that Iran is open to some negotiation on the future of the Israeli state."
Accepting (well, sort of) the existence of gays and Israel in one interview. Could the Iranian president be softening? We'll certainly be keeping an eye on him.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Electro-shock horror: religion relieves pain, say scientists

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I'm not quite sure what's going on in the science labs of Oxford University, as if this story's anything to go by standards really seem to slipping. Researchers at the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind (funded, unsurprisingly, by the John Templeton Foundation) have found evidence to suggest that having faith can help believers endure pain better than non-believers.

And how could they possibly have discovered such a thing? By getting 12 Catholics and 12 atheists into the labs and subjecting them to electro-shock treatment while they studied Sassoferrato's Virgin Annunciate, a 17th century painting of the Virgin Mary, and Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine, a 15th century non-religious painting.

The volunteers had to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 100, and the Catholics reported 12 per cent less pain after they had looked at the painting of the Virgin Mary, while brain scans showed that "the neural mechanisms of pain modulation had been engaged", something that didn't happen with the atheists.

The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, who you may know from his statement "Gender-bending was so last century; we now do species bending" in relation to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, was delighted with the findings, telling newspapers he was not surprised by the results:

"The practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are. It can affect the patterns of your brain and your emotions. So it comes as no surprise to me that this experiment has reached such conclusions."

So there you have it. Next time you visit the dentist, just ask for a picture of a virgin to look at while they're whipping out your wisdom teeth. Just make sure you specify that you want a picture of the Virgin Mary, or you could land yourself in a lot of trouble.

Philip Pullman pleased with attempts to censor his work

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Bestselling children's author Philip Pullman has expressed his delight at the fact that his novel Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass in the US) was the fourth most challenged title in the US in 2007, according to the American Library Association.

The Association received over 420 formal complaints about the novel, which challenged it over its "religious viewpoint". The complaints coincided with the religious outrage over the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, which involved the American Catholic League mounting a campaign against the film and calling for a boycott. They even produced a 31 page document entitled "The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked", designed to persuade Christian parents not to allow their children to see the film.

Writing for the Guardian, Pullman describes his delight at hearing of the high number of challenges to his work, many of which were made in the hope of having his books removed from public libraries:
"My immediate and ignoble response was glee. Firstly, I had obviously annoyed a lot of censorious people, and secondly, any ban would provoke interested readers to move from the library, where they couldn't get hold of my novel, to the bookshops, where they could ... Because they never learn. The inevitable result of trying to ban something – book, film, play, pop song, whatever – is that far more people want to get hold of it than would ever have done if it were left alone. Why don't the censors realise this?"
He then goes on to explain how the tendency to censor art is one of the reasons for his dislike of organised religion:
"In fact, when it comes to banning books, religion is the worst reason of the lot. Religion, uncontaminated by power, can be the source of a great deal of private solace, artistic inspiration, and moral wisdom. But when it gets its hands on the levers of political or social authority, it goes rotten very quickly indeed. The rank stench of oppression wafts from every authoritarian church, chapel, temple, mosque, or synagogue – from every place of worship where the priests have the power to meddle in the social and intellectual lives of their flocks, from every presidential palace or prime ministerial office where civil leaders have to pander to religious ones. My basic objection to religion is not that it isn't true; I like plenty of things that aren't true. It's that religion grants its adherents malign, intoxicating and morally corrosive sensations. Destroying intellectual freedom is always evil, but only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good."
No doubt there will be more fuss when the second and third parts in the His Dark Materials trilogy are made into films in the coming year. But if the would-be censors really dislike his work so much, they ought to think twice before they whip up another controversy and inadvertently send a large chunk of extra cash his way.

Guardian interview with the Italian comedian who "insulted" the Pope

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

You may remember a couple of posts earlier this month regarding Sabina Guzzanti, the Italian comedian who at one point was facing prosecution for insulting the Pope (she said his views on homosexuality will land him "in hell, tormented by queer demons - not passive ones, but very active ones.")

The case never got off the ground when it turned out the law against "offending the honour of the sacred and inviolable person", a hangover from the 1929 Lateran Treaty between the Vatican and Mussolini, had actually been removed in the 1980s.

The reason I bring this up again is the Guardian have an interview with Guzzanti, in which she discusses Berlusconi, his control of the Italian media, Italian freedom of speech and, of course, her criticism of the Pope and the influence of the Vatican in her country:
"What I was speaking about were the politics of the Pope. It's not as if I'd shot off my mouth on theological issues. It is the Pope who should have respect for our political institutions. At the point at which he gets involved in politics I have every right to criticise him for his political activity. Second, I am not even in agreement with the general principle. I believe that in a democracy there is no right not to be offended. I think that anyone ought to be free to say whatever he or she likes at any moment. If someone says things that are offensive, gratuitous and stupid, one has to assume there will be others able to demonstrate that what you said was offensive, gratuitous and stupid."

Could Palin family wedding bells save the Republican campaign?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Seriously, I only intended to blog about Sarah Palin once today, but it seems that every time you log on to a news website something new and even more ridiculous pops up. Take this from the Sunday Times – apparently Republican campaign managers are hoping for the marriage of Palin's 17-year-old pregnant daughter Bristol and her fiancĂ© Levi Johnston to take place just before the 4 November election, thereby shutting down the campaign trail and gaining priceless publicity points as Americans prepare go to the polls.

Of course, this matrimonial revolution would be televised, as one "McCain insider" pointed out: “It would be fantastic. You would have every TV camera there. The entire country would be watching. It would shut down the race for a week.”

And in the words of another source: "What’s the downside? It would be wonderful. I don’t know that there has ever been a pre-election wedding before.”

As the Sunday Times piece says, Obama "has already declared Bristol’s private life off-limits as far as his campaign is concerned." It's a shame the same can't be said of the Republicans.

Stop press: There are gay people in Iran (but only a few)

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Via a news release from Peter Tatchell, I was intrigued to learn that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has just told American news show Democracy Now that there are indeed some gay people in Iran: "There might be a few people who are known. In general, our country would not accept it."

But President Ahmadinejad, didn't you say only last year that there are no gay people in your country?
"I didn’t say they don’t exist; I said not the way they are here. In Iran, it’s considered as a very unlikable and abhorrent act. People simply don’t like it. Our religious decrees tell us that it’s against our values, and all divine laws, actually, believe in the same. Who has given them permission to engage in homosexual acts? It’s considered as an abhorrent act. It shakes the foundations of a society, the family foundation. It robs humanity. It brings about diseases."
While this doesn't exactly amount to a huge advance, prominent gay rights campaigner and New Humanist contributor Tatchell does see in Ahmadinejad's words some signs of progress:
“This about-turn shows that Iran realises its gay-denial stance has been widely condemned and ridiculed. The fact that the President has moderated his ‘no gays’ position since last year is evidence that global gay protests are having an impact on the regime in Tehran.”
However, Tatchell goes on to dispute Ahmadinejad's claim that in Iran "people are free to do what they like in their private realms" and that there is no death penalty for Iranian homosexuals:

“This is complete nonsense. Iranian law stipulates the death penalty for homosexuality, whether in public or private. People suspected of being gay have their homes raided. Private, discreet gay parties have been busted by the police and the party-goers arrested, tortured and flogged. Years ago, some of those arrested at private parties simply disappeared. They were never seen again. It is presumed they were secretly executed.”

You can see the interview with Ahmadinejad through the Democracy Now website.

Obligatory Monday morning Sarah Palin post

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

It's 4 days since I last blogged about Sarah – have you missed her? Thought not, but here's a little something I found this morning – novelty t-shirt website Skreened are selling this lovely item for anyone wishing to walk around with Palin's mug on their chest. "Intelligent design?" Geddit? It's a bit of a cheap shot, but I thought I'd pass it on.

If you're looking for something a little more serious, yesterday's Los Angeles Times had a piece on Palin and religion, pointing out how Palin the governor has often been careful not to push her beliefs too far in the political arena.

Meanwhile I watched the first debate between Obama and McCain at the weekend – it was something of a dead heat, but it left me looking forward to more. We'll certainly be watching closely when Palin goes head to head with Joe Biden on Thursday. Given Biden's views on creationism ("I refuse to believe the majority of people believe this malarkey"), it's a shame there are slightly more pressing issues for the candidates to deal with.

To whet your appetites, here's the first debate in full – unless you have a spare 90 minutes, you may wish to dip in and out:

Adnan Oktar's trillion dollar "challenge"

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I say "trillion dollar", but that's just for the snappy headline – Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar, who really can't stay out of the news at the moment, has actually offered 10 trillion Turkish Lira, or £4.4 trillion, (so about $8 trillion) to any scientist "who produces a single intermediate-form fossil demonstrating evolution".

But before any of you scientists out there rush off to collect your fossil samples in the hope of becoming one of the richest people on earth, let us consider for a second the small catch in all this. Paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, zoologists and to all intents and purposes the entire credible scientific community agree that the fossil record confirms that evolution of species by means of natural selection. Adnan Oktar does not. He produced a very large and very expensive book with lots of pictures, arguing that the fossil record disproves evolution. Therefore, if you show him anything from the fossil record, he will just say you're wrong.

If Oktar, as he claims, wants to debate with with scientists like Richard Dawkins on a sensible, intellectual level, he may wish to avoid undermining such claims by issuing ridiculous challenges like this. I mean, once you start getting the trillions involved, it begins to look a bit like a schoolyard argument.

Update: PZ Myers at Pharyngula has come up with a nice idea – use Oktar's supposed trillions to sort out the world economy:
"The US government should immediately send a plane to pick up Mr Oktar, bring him to our country, and take him on a guided tour of the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History, accompanied by Niles Eldredge, Kevin Padian, Jerry Coyne, Sean Carroll, and the entire scientific staff of those museums. Afterwards, they can accept the check from Mr Oktar, run down to the local bank and cash it, and use one trillion dollars to resolve the current financial crisis, seven trillion can be sunk immediately into the American educational system, and they can send the change left over to me as a reward for coming up with this brilliant plan."

Friday, 26 September 2008

Some things are just too weird...

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Yesterday we learnt all about Pedobear, that pesky "pedocultural icon" I've been accused of inadvertently supporting, but what about Popebear?

Pictured are a series of bears, dressed up as Pope Benedict XVI, available from German manufacturer Hermann Teddy Bear. Apparently they cost €180 each. There's not really much else to say about them, except that Christina Martin sent them to me and I thought I'd share them.

[NB - any resemblance between Pedobear and Popebear is purely coincidental]

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Obama answers Nature magazine's science questions; McCain declines

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Found via Pharyngula, here's some quality US election-related reading for you all. In a special election feature, American magazine Nature sent a list of 18 questions to the Obama and McCain campaigns, canvassing the candidates' views on various scientific matters, including climate change, evolution, stem cell research, nuclear weapons and more.

Obama accepted the challenge, and answered all the questions at length, while John McCain declined (although Nature have pieced together answers based on what he's said in the past). The answers are in two parts - Part one includes evolution, stem cell research and others, and Part two features, among other things, emissions targets, coal-fired power stations and nukes.

It's lengthy stuff, so I'll leave you to read them yourselves, but to give you a preview here are the answers to the question: "Do you believe that evolution by means of natural selection is a sufficient explanation for the variety and complexity of life on Earth? Should intelligent design, or some derivative thereof, be taught in science class in public schools?"
Obama: I believe in evolution, and I support the strong consensus of the scientific community that evolution is scientifically validated. I do not believe it is helpful to our students to cloud discussions of science with non-scientific theories like intelligent design that are not subject to experimental scrutiny.

McCain: He said last year, in a Republican primary debate: "I believe in evolution. But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also." In 2005, he told the Arizona Daily Star that he thought "all points of view" should be available to students studying the origins of humanity. But the next year a Colorado paper reported him saying that such viewpoints should not be taught in science class.
Hmmm - we'd love to hear Sarah Palin's answer to that one.

Christian Voice: 20th century progress to blame for 21st century knife crime

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

You have to love Stephen Green and his minions over at Christian Voice. They're like a very British version of the Westboro Baptist Church – God doesn't quite hate everything, but he's sure pissed off about a lot of things. If Christian Voice aren't out protesting Gay Sunday at London Zoo, or issuing mock apologies to Richard Dawkins, they're holding forth on the causes of Britain's social ills.

This week, Stephen has suddenly worked out what's behind knife crime:
"I have realised ... that the spate of knife and gun crime amongst the young has come just 40 years after the 1968 implementation of the Abortion Act 1967. In the Bible 40 years seems to speak of testing and judgment (Jonah 3:4). Much more evil was sown in the sixties as well, and I believe we are now reaping the results."
Fortunately for the party in government, Stephen was able to expand on this by placing an advertorial in parliamentary magazine The House, a copy of which was given to every delegate at the Labour Party conference. It turns out knife crime is not just the fault of abortion. It's also down to divorce, teenage sex, female employment, the abolition of the death penalty, Gay Pride and the repeal of the blasphemy law ("A nation which has just legislated that Christ may be blasphemed is not one which can expect to enjoy His blessing").

On a more serious note, in some of his less rabid words (there aren't many) Green seems to take the line a lot of commentators have been taking (minus the wrath of God angle), namely that absent fathers and the breakdown of the "traditional" family are to blame for knife crime. It's a view feminist writer Elizabeth Wilson challenges in our current issue – have a read.

It's nice to get linked to, but it does have its downside

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

One of the great things about the internet is that when you write something you can get linked to and referenced all over the web, meaning your work reaches people beyond your core audience. For example, if I get a feature in our magazine, the fact that it's also published on our website means it can end up being read by lots of other people in addition to the subscribers to New Humanist.

As I say, great. But naturally, from time to time you get taken completely out of context, and your words get used for the opposite purpose to that you intended. Take my article in the current issue, in which I tried to give a picture of what the masked anti-Scientology protesters Anonymous are all about. I attended one of their London protests with fellow New Humanist contributor Christina Martin, and we bumped into one demonstrator wearing a pantomime bear suit. Here's how I reported this in my article:
"One of the first protesters I approached, a young man dressed in a pantomime bear outfit, had a straightforward answer for why he was there. 'It’s just a really good way to spend a weekend. To be honest with you, it’s just a really good laugh.'"
All seems fair enough doesn't it? He was wearing a bear suit, protesting Scientology, but he wasn't really serious about it. But, put this in the hands of anti-Anonymous blogger Tom Newton, and this is what you get:
"[Paul Sims] describes the early part of the hate demonstration, where he unwittingly discovered Anonymous' unofficial mascot PEDOBEAR ... The bear costume is none other than PEDOBEAR, a PEDOCULTURAL ICON which makes light of child molestation (the bear suit is supposed to make a heinous act of criminal sexual penetration into a 'joke'). As the boy dressed as a PEDOPHILE EXPLAINED: 'It’s just a really good way to spend a weekend. To be honest with you, it’s just a really good laugh.' A 17 year old boy dressed up as a PEDOCULTURAL ICON is a 'good laugh'? I disagree. In fact, I find PEDOBEAR and SIMULATED CHILD PORN to be disgusting. Any expert on child predators will tell you that anyone claiming this is 'satire' is giving you a weak rationalization. The manner in which they defend their sick materials suggests as much. It makes sense; nobody wants to admit to being totally sick and depraved."
Well, that's not what Christina and I saw at the protest and, while I'd like to thank Mr Newton for taking the time to link to my work, I'm afraid I have to point out that there was no reference to paedophilia in the time we spent talking to the person in the bear suit. Most people at these protests wear disguises, because they say they don't want the Church of Scientology knowing their identities, and while most wear V for Vendetta masks, some wear other disguises, such as bear costumes.

Anonymous does have something of a life of its own online, and admittedly Pedobear is one of their running gags (their hackers have actually targeted paedophiles in the past), but there was no indication the person we met was dressed as a "pedocultural icon" (as great a term as that is Mr Newton), that he was "totally sick and depraved", or for that matter that he was 17 years old. Oh, and there was definitely no "simulated child porn", and he certainly wasn't making "a heinous act of criminal sexual penetration into a 'joke'". So, once again, thanks for the reference, but next time quote me in context.

Like I say, the internet's great isn't it?

As Gordon Brown struggles, is this really what he needs?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Noooo, don't hang around with her. I just saw this on the front of the Evening Standard at lunchtime and had to report back. Here's Sarah Brown, wife of beleaguered PM Gordon, posing with Sarah Palin at a charity fundraising dinner in New York.

Come on Sarah, your husband's got enough problems as it is, without you being snapped alongside crazed fundamentalists. Anyway, it's definitive proof that Sarah Brown doesn't watch the videos I put up on here, that's for sure.

Progress, of sorts: Catholics to be allowed to take the throne

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

For those of a republican bent, this news isn't exactly earth-shattering, but it's progress nonetheless. The government is planning legislation that would allow Catholics to take the throne of the United Kingdom, in a move that would mark another blow to the establishment of the Church of England.

For over 300 years the monarchy has been the sole preserve of Anglicans, with even those marrying Royals being effectively required to convert to the Church of England, lest their sweetheart should lose their coveted place in line to the throne (this happened most recently with Autumn Kelly, who converted before she married Peter Philips, in order to preserve his crucial 11th place in the queue).

Well, no longer, at least if the government's proposals go ahead. And in another victory-of-sorts, this time for feminism, first-born daughters of Royals would no longer be leapfrogged in the line by their younger brothers.

Okay, so it's not that big of a blow to the establishment, but with the blasphemy law gone earlier this year it suggests the cracks keep forming.

One minor problem though – according to the Guardian, "sources said No 10 would like the legislation to be passed quickly in a fourth term." As a Labour fourth term is about as likely to happen as me converting to Catholicism, marrying a Royal, then converting to Anglicanism and entering the line of succession, none of the above is likely to happen either. Sorry for the false hope.

Archbeard to the rescue: With a nod to Marx, Rowan Williams condemns City bankers

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

The Church of England has already issued a special Prayer for the Current Financial Situation ("Lord God, we live in disturbing days: across the world, prices rise, debts increase, banks collapse, jobs are taken away, and fragile security is under threat"), but you know things are really getting serious when the Archbishop of Canterbury pops up in the Spectator in order to slam the actions of investment bankers.

To be fair to the Archbish he's not saying anything unreasonable, repeating what many more qualified writers have said elsewhere over the past week or so – there's been a lack of regulation, banks have played with large-scale debt solely for their own gain, it's the ordinary people who will suffer in the end. But it's the last paragraph of his piece that will really raise eyebrows, where he likens the trust people have placed in the power of the "market", as if it has a life of its own, to a kind of economic fundamentalism, and suggests that in his critique of capitalism Karl Marx may have had a point:
"Fundamentalism is a religious word, not inappropriate to the nature of the problem. Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves; he was right about that, if about little else. And ascribing independent reality to what you have in fact made yourself is a perfect definition of what the Jewish and Christian Scriptures call idolatry. What the present anxieties and disasters should be teaching us is to ‘keep ourselves from idols’, in the biblical phrase. The mythologies and abstractions, the pseudo-objects of much modern financial culture, are in urgent need of their own Dawkins or Hitchens. We need to be reacquainted with our own capacity to choose — which means acquiring some skills in discerning true faith from false, and re-learning some of the inescapable face-to-face dimensions of human trust."
The phrase "In urgent need of their own Dawkins or Hitchens" also caught our eye. Could Williams be suggesting the New Atheists have played a valuable role in critiquing certain other "mythologies and abstractions"?

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has also weighed in on the issue, saying "We find ourselves in a market system which seems to have taken its rules of trade from Alice in Wonderland."

Taking your rules from stories? Whatever next.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

News from Iran: it's all good

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Over at Normblog you can find a link to an LA Times interview with that perennial joker, Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Apparently everything is just fine there, despite the carping. In fact, "In Iran," he says, "Freedom is absolute."

[Last year, lest we forget, we uncovered an exclusive extract from the President's very own blog]

In defence of fields: Robin Ince responds to Andrew Mueller's rock festival hatred

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Here's a new concept for this site – guest blogging. And a bloody good concept too, even if we do say so. Stand-up comedian and friend of the magazine Robin Ince spent much of the summer gigging at outdoor festivals and, having earlier read Andrew Mueller's condemnation of them in our May/June issue, felt it was time to respond. Over to Robin...
“Rock festivals have in common with religious faiths that they are organised dementias, collective determinations to ignore logic. The entire prospectus is a monstrous falsehood.”

The words of ex-music journalist Andrew Mueller, who saw his dreams turn to bitter dust in the ’90s. Backstage at Reading in 1996 he realised that festivals with Weezer and free beer just didn’t provide the kicks he had imagined, and concluded that they were rubbish.

As Mueller was typing out his bad-tempered and dated body punch to the ethos of festivals, I was preparing to play one almost every weekend for two months. From Glastonbury (pictured here, in good weather) to the End of The Road festival, here was I, a 39-year-old who should have been readying myself for gout, instead facing the demise of my toes from trench foot.

My experience of festivals seems very different to Mueller’s, but then, once I finished my set of shouting about Richard Littlejohn and the human genome, I wandered around the festivals rather than hiding with the hangers-on, powdered-up PR people and free booze.

“Beneath the stupid hats lurks less diversity of thought, culture and race than you’d find at a BNP picnic.”

Since 1996, ridiculous headgear has experienced a startling drop in sales. Glastonbury still has the occasional jester’s hat or Julian Cope beacon of felt, but more often than not it is being worn by Julian Cope.

As for cultural diversity, I have found myself in fields talking to two evolutionary biologists, a Burnley scaffolder, a 16-year-old girl and her grandmother who ran a seaside cafĂ© and a soldier who had been serving in Afghanistan. There is some truth that it is not a totally culturally diverse, as you very rarely find music loathers at festivals – except, I imagine, at V Festival, where they specialise in booking loathsome bands, so that no one is left out.

It is true that I noticed more of a left-wing bent at these festivals than the average high street might hold, but why the hell not? As the mass media continues its lurch to the right in print and on screen, what’s wrong with an occasional weekend where you aren’t constantly waiting for someone to puncture the air with, “the country is full and it’s the nignogs that have brought over all these knives”

They are also joyous reminders that the teenagers of today are not all the celebrity obsessed, blind consumerists that television executives insist they are. At Reading it was suggested I might dumb down a bit, but I didn’t and found you can still do jokes involving 19th century literature, religious fundamentalism and Pythagoras and not have one bottle of urine thrown at you.

Even sun worship and muddy nudity has declined. The days when a woman would lie in a stone circle masturbating, and screaming if anyone tried to cover, her are gone. I think that was Glastonbury 1998.

There are still some annoying levels of new ageism dotted around the fields. Just because I like watching lo-fi alt country music in a field doesn’t mean that I also believe that water has a memory.

I am sure that you can seek out a festival full of ugly caterwauling, limited imagination and hemp clowns’ shoes, but this was not my experience. The one thing that might sum up the people who gathered at the multifarious festivals was their failure to neatly fit into the stereotypical image of the festival goer, apart from the man in the loin cloth who was screaming and caked in mud. For a moment, I thought Stephen Green had come to Glastonbury.

Robin Ince

Dawkins' website fights back following Turkish ban

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I've just been over at the Dawkins website and it was good to see they've been taking the fight to Islamic creationist Adnan Oktar, mostly through the medium of translation.

On the one hand, someone has translated an interview with Oktar into English, after it appeared on the website of German magazine Der Spiegel a couple of days ago. In the interview, Oktar claims there is "clear proof" in fossils of the stability of species, that "Darwinism has been deceiving humankind for 150 years", that "all terrorists – even those who consider themselves to be Muslims – are actually Darwinists and atheists", and that next year, Darwin's bi-centenary and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, will "be a worldwide celebration of the collapse of Darwinism".

And in a further response to the Dawkins site being banned in Turkey someone has translated "Venomous Snakes, Slippery Eels and Harun Yahya" (Dawkins' entertaining dissection of Atlas of Creation, written earlier this year) into Turkish.

See Sarah Palin annointed by a "witch-hunting" pastor, and other frightening things

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

That's right everybody, it's Sarah time once again (well, it is 2 days since I last mentioned her). Via a blog by Max Blumenthal at The Nation, I wanted to give you all the opportunity to watch Sarah Palin receiving a blessing (see pic, right), designed to protect her from witchcraft, from Kenyan pastor Thomas Muthee, who is famous for having liberated his hometown of Kiambu from an evil witch, Mama Jane.

He appeared at Sarah Palin's former church, the Wasilla Assembly of God, in May 2005, when she was preparing to run for Governor of Alaska, and by skipping to around 7 minutes in the video below you can see the bit where Muthee brings Palin to the front (she left the Church in 2002, but that hasn't stopped her going there plenty of times since). He then prays over her, delivering some rather scary words.



I've done my best to transcribe it, but some bits are difficult to hear:
"Let's pray for Sarah. Come on, Halleluja, come on raise up your hands. Talk to God about this woman. We declare favour from today. We say favour, favour, favour, we say grace, my God. [Palin appears at the front]. We say grace be rained upon her in the name of Jesus. My God, you make room, you make ways in the desert, and I'm asking you today. We are asking you, as the body of Christ in this valley, make a way for Sarah, even in the political arena. Make a way my God. Bring finances her way, even for the campaign, in the name of Jesus. And above all, give her the personnel, give her men and women that will buck her up in the name of Jesus. We want righteousness in this state, we want righteousness in this nation, because you say ... [inaudible] ...

"Our father, use her to turn this nation the other way around. Use her to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers. So that the curse that has been along can be broken, in the name of Jesus. Father we thank you today. We're come against every hindrance of the enemy standing in her way today, in the name of Jesus. In the name of Jesus. Every form of witchcraft is what you rebuke, in the name of Jesus. Father, make her way now, in Jesus' name. Amen." [Palin returns to seat].
The Pastor Muthee video was known about before, but it's only just resurfaced. And Palin has previously spoken, in Wasilla Assembly of God, about how his blessing was "awesome", saying how she believes he may have helped her become Governor:
"As I was mayor and Pastor Muthee was here and he was praying over me, and you know how he speaks and he’s so bold. And he was praying 'Lord make a way, Lord make a way.' And I’m thinking, this guy’s really bold, he doesn’t even know what I’m going to do, he doesn’t know what my plans are. And he’s praying not 'oh Lord if it be your will may she become governor,' no, he just prayed for it. He said 'Lord make a way and let her do this next step'. And that’s exactly what happened. Very very powerful, coming from this Church."
You can actually see that speech from Palin on YouTube, included below, which includes an unnerving moment where she appears to nod along to the following words from another preacher:
"There were some things, about the natural resources of the state [Alaska], there are some things that God wants to tap into, to be a refuge for the lower 48. And I believe Alaska's one of the refuge states, come on you guys, in the last days. And hundreds of thousands of people are going to come to this state to seek refuge and the church has to be ready to minister to them."
Hockey Moms for America everybody!

Ruth 'Opus Dei' Kelly quits the cabinet

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

It was revealed overnight that Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly is to leave the cabinet, and if, as she insists, the decision is simply related to her desire to spend more time with her family then someone really should have had a word with her about timing. It probably wasn't the best idea for this news to come out the day after our beleaguered PM delivered conference address his great comeback speech (or appeal for a stay of execution, depending on your opinion).

But naturally Kelly's dodgy timing means speculation is rife as to the real reasons. Could it be because Blairite Kelly is unhappy with Gordy's overall performance or, and this is where the story concerns we godless, could it be because she can't accept various government measures that have conflicted with her devout Roman Catholicism?

Famously, Kelly is a member of the shadowy Catholic organisation Opus Dei and earlier this year she was a high-profile opponent of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which various clergy opposed with such considered comments as "of Frankenstein proportions", "grotesque", and "Gender-bending was so last century; we now do species bending".

Did the successful passage of this bill, along with the Brown's overall performance, play a part in Kelly's decision to quit? The official line, of course, is no – Kelly insists it was "purely a family decision" and that the news wasn't supposed to come out until Brown announced his cabinet reshuffle, which is expected next week.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

New Zealand sceptic offers cash to TV psychics

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

In a move reminiscent of James Randi's $1 million dollar challenge, New Zealand sceptic Stuart Landsborough has offered NZ$100,000 to the producers of despicable-sounding TV show Sensing Murder if the psychics involved can pass tests he has devised to verify their "powers".

The show seems to involve psychics from the Sylvia Browne school of giving bereaved families false hope for the purposes of profit and gain, and Landsborough hopes to put an end to its macabre nonsense by exposing the psychics as frauds.

Producer David Baldock has declined Landsborough's offer, which would involve the psychics taking a challenge that has long been open to New Zealand psychics. To prove their ability, they have to locate two pieces of a promissory note for the $100,000, hidden within a 100 metre radius of Landsborough's Puzzling World Centre in the Southern Lakes region of New Zealand.

Baldock declined because he believes the test is "set up like a finding a needle in a haystack approach", but reassured reporters of the abilities of Sensing Murder's psychics. They have never solved any cases, but he says new leads have been passed on to police and claims that, while he isn't sure if they are talking to dead people, "what I do know is that something extraordinary is going on".

Hopefully none of you will want to know this, but you can sometimes see Sensing Murder on Living TV, that home of other such classics as Most Haunted, Derek Acorah's Ghost Towns, The Psychic Detective, Scream Team and I'm Famous and Frightened.

Republican supporters step up dirty tricks

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Having helped to destroy John Kerry's 2004 campaign with the infamous Swift Boat smear campaign, some of the Republicans' more zealous supporters have been stepping up the dirty tricks against Barack Obama, as Richard Silverstein reports on Comment is Free.

28 million voters in swing states, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, have received, via inserts in newspapers, DVDs of Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, a scaremongering documentary that suggests Islamists could take over the United States and, funnily enough, that the Republicans are the party best equipped to counter this threat.

Of course, these DVDs haven't been produced by the McCain campaign, but by the Clarion Fund, a non-profit organisation promoting "national security through education". The group's founder, Raphael Shore, has already broken election law by endorsion John McCain on his website – something non-profit organisations are forbidden from doing. The DVDs have also been distributed by the Republican Jewish Coalition, a lobbying group that takes a hardline on terrorism and US support for Israel.

Meanwhile, Jewish voters have been receiving calls "informing" them of Obama's links to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Hamas, and his plans to "call for a summit of Muslim nations and exclude Israel".

As with the smears on Kerry, and the other attacks on Obama we've seen this year, the groups responsible aren't directly linked to the Republican Party, but it doesn't take much scrutiny to see that these organisations might not be entirely renegade. As Silverstein's Guardian piece points out, some of the telemarketing has been done by a company called Research Strategies, whose founder Chris Wilson is "a top Republican consultant and friend of, you guessed it, Karl Rove."

Expect more stories of dirty tricks in the run up to the election. Obama's well prepared for them though – ever since the primaries he's had a website, Fight the Smears, dedicated to doing just that.

There's a serious point in all this...

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I think I've seen it all now. My morning trawlings have led me to this video promo for American lawyer Geoff J Henley's contribution to the New Atheist canon Beyond Reasonable Doubt: A Lawyer's Case for Disbelief in God.

Here's a brief synopsis of Henley's book:
"After handling thousands of civil and criminal cases, former prosecutor Geoff Henley takes on the world’s biggest culprit: God. In Beyond Reasonable Doubt, the attorney applies accepted legal precepts to scripture with devastating results for religion. Much like science has confounded religion’s depiction of the natural word, Henley shows how well-settled common law principles undermine religion’s claims that a just God exists. Whether you are a skeptic or a believer, a layman or a lawyer, you will not want to miss this pointed analysis of myths, the Bible, the Koran and Anglo-American law."
And here's how Henley chose to market it:



Well, it is the internet. But it's not just an excuse for Henley to make some videos featuring girls in bikinis. Oh no. As he explained to one religious news site, there's a proper message and everything:
"My goal is to integrate skepticism into popular culture. When we watch commercial TV, read newspapers, attend weddings and sporting events or drive through our neighbourhoods at Easter, religion all gets a free plug. But to find something about scepticism, you have to go look for it on the Internet or at a bookstore."
Which, of course, is why he also made this video:

Monday, 22 September 2008

All human history in 67 drawings and one word

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk



As you may know New Humanist is lucky enough to able to draw on the talents of one of the very best satirical cartoonists- Martin Rowson. Martin has been doing our covers for several years now, and usually has at least a couple of other illustrations in each issue (like this one, from a piece by Dave Belden about the evangelical take-over of the US army). Soon we will be adding a gallery function to the website so we can gather all his brilliant drawings in one place, but in the meantime...

Here's the drawing he did for the most recent issue that is taken from his most recent book, Fuck: The Human Odyssey, published today. And here you can visit the Gallery who are flogging the originals to see the whole book. Fucking wonderful.
(NB Martin can write too- see this piece about Hogarth)

Report on Islamic attempts to suppress free speech at the UN

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Many of you will be aware of the ongoing controversy over efforts by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an influential organisation with 57 member states, to ensure that "religious defamation" is forbidden during discussion at the United Nations' Human Rights Council.

Many Islamic countries deem the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which turns 60 in December, unacceptable and claim to adhere instead to the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, a document whose key free speech clause reads as follows: "Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the shari'ah."

Every year since 1999 the OIC has succeeded in passing a resolution on "Combating the Defamation of Religions" in the Human Rights Council, and in March this year an amendment was passed which means the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression (an individual supposed to report instances where free speech is stifled in UN member states) to "report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination."

In the past year many non-religious organisations and Western governments have begun to wake up to what is happening, and concern has been expressed widely that the OIC are trying to introduce a prohibition against blasphemy that is sanctioned by international law. With this mind, I want to turn your attention to an important new report by Austin Dacey (whose new book we reviewed recently) and Colin Koproske, produced for the Center for Inquiry, in which they analyse the issue in detail, warning of the dangers this poses for free speech, and offer recommendations for the HRC.

For anyone new to this issue the report is well worth reading, as it tells the full story in detail and will give you a real sense of what's at stake here.

[Thanks to Ophelia sending us the report]

Funnily enough, Sam Harris is unimpressed by Sarah Palin

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Yes, more Palin, but I'll make it quick. In the latest issue of Newsweek, the prominent American atheist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, spells out why the rise of Sarah Palin unnerves him ("if anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could").

Of course we wouldn't have expected Harris to be out campaigning with a "Hockey Moms for America" sign, but his assessment of Palin might just be the most strongly-worded we've seen so far:
"Every detail that has emerged about Palin's life in Alaska suggests that she is as devout and literal-minded in her Christian dogmatism as any man or woman in the land. Given her long affiliation with the Assemblies of God church, Palin very likely believes that Biblical prophecy is an infallible guide to future events and that we are living in the 'end times'. Which is to say she very likely thinks that human history will soon unravel in a foreordained cataclysm of war and bad weather. Undoubtedly Palin believes that this will be a good thing—as all true Christians will be lifted bodily into the sky to make merry with Jesus, while all nonbelievers, Jews, Methodists and other rabble will be punished for eternity in a lake of fire."
I wonder if Harris and Matt Damon have ever met? I'm sure they'd enjoy a beer together.

Tom Cruise is back ... and he's brilliant

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

If you were to name two things this blog doesn't believe in, resurrection and Tom Cruise would have to be on your shortlist. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I went to see the new Ben Stiller comedy Tropic Thunder at the cinema on Saturday and witnessed the resurrection of Tom Cruise's career.

Yes, that's right, I saw Tom Cruise in a comedy film and thought he was brilliant. Tropic Thunder's about a group of over-serious actors who get caught up in a real conflict with a drug cartel while filming a war-movie on location in South Vietnam. Tom Cruise plays the balding, overweight, foul-mouthed studio executive who's bankrolling the war movie and he's absolutely hilarious. Just to balance things out I'm also including the infamous Scientology video, so we remember what Cruise is also capable of.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Evangelicals haven't been this excited since Reagan

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

More hot from news from the wire:

I just got off the phone with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family (reviewed in the next NH), editor of the excellent Revealer site and a veteran evangelical watcher. I was trying to persuade him to write something about US politics and religion after we know who will be the next Prez, but I also asked about how it feels in the US at the moment in relation to the elections, and what he told me I feel I really should pass on:

As a (albeit Obama-sceptical) Democrat he was worried. Why? Because the evangelicals are excited about Palin and very motivated to deliver a Republican victory – having been completely uninterested before Palin popped on the scene. How motivated? They haven’t been this exited since Reagan, Jeff told me. Then he corrected himself. In fact they haven’t been this excited since William Jennings Bryan ran for president in 1896. (Bryan, you will recall, was the man who attacked Darwinism in the Scopes trial, and was a supporter of Prohibition).

Then Jeff recalled how only six months ago American "experts" were suggesting that the old Moral Majority Religious Right coalition, who provided the ground support for Reagan and Pat Robertson, was dead – about the same time that they were promoting Lehman Brothers as a cast iron investment. They were as accurate on the first as on the second.

With McCain, the presumptive most-powerful-man-in-the-world, as no more than an “avuncular figure”, it's all about Palin, who has unleashed latent evangelical commitment. Dormant networks are coming back to life, and newly fired-up activists are back out in the field.

Put it like this, Jeff said: what Obama activists don’t understand is that youth and enthusiasm isn’t enough. Imagine the scenario: a young Harvard student, an Obama activist, goes down to Ohio to get the vote out. He takes a van down to the local old folks home, tries to persuade them to get aboard and then has to check the whereabouts of the polling station on his iPhone, since he doesn't know the area. Contrast this with the McCain/Palin activist. A local resident, politicised since the days of Robertson and Falwell, from the local area, active in church and welfare, they go every week to the old folks home with doughnuts and comfort. They know the residents and they know where the polling station is. Which one is more likely to win the vote? Multiply this scenario, say, one hundred thousand times and . . . You don’t need to be Robert Peston to figure out the result.

Jeff also had a word of warning for Obama supporters in terms of religion – remember, he cautioned, that rather than overturning Bush’s faith-based social initiatives Obama has pledged to increase them. Either way you look at it these are dark days for American secularism.

No matter who wins, hopefully I can persuade Jeff to write something about the winner, and what they will owe the religious lobby after 4 November. Meanwhile let me refer you to James Crabtree’s (pre-Palin) analysis of the role of religion in the election – he never fell for the line that the Religious Right was a busted flush.

Richard Dawkins's website banned in Turkey – courtesy of Harun Yahya

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Back in our May/June issue, Peter C Kjaergaard reported on the efforts of Adnan Oktar, AKA Harun Yahya, the shadowy Turkish creationist responsible for sending the lavish and absurd Atlas of Creation to science professors and teachers around the world.

He's also well-known for going through the Turkish courts in order to have websites shut down that are critical of him, and he may have just achieved his greatest victory by having Richard Dawkins's official website blocked there. Earlier this year he tried, and failed, to have The God Delusion banned in Turkey, but no doubt he'll see this as a valuable consolation prize. His office has claimed the courts blocked the site because it "violated" Oktar's personality, as his press officer explained:
"We are not against freedom of speech or expression but you cannot insult people. We found the comments hurtful. It was not a scientific discussion. There was a line and the limit has been passed. We have used all the legal means to stop this site. We asked them to remove the comments but they did not."
As the Guardian points out, Turkey's restrictions on free speech are on ongoing obstacle to its attempts to join the EU and banning Dawkins's website is unlikely to do this any favours. As for the Dawkins site, they've responded in the perfect way – by putting a banner at the top of the homepage that reads "Banned in Turkey".

Breaking news, Friday Noon: I just got off the phone with Seda Aral, who works for Adnan Oktar at what they call the Science Research Foundation in Istanbul. She invited me out to Istanbul to interview Mr Oktar (I'm tempted, if only so I can see the Bazaar), and we had a little chat about the age of the earth (she said he is not a Young Eather, he just does not accept that species evolved), Oktar's take on EU membership (he's pro apparently) and why he got Dawkins's site banned. She says that Dawkins.net had numerous offensive comments about Mr Oktar on it. They informed the site of this and asked for the posts to be removed but got no reply. Oktar then felt they had no other option than to use Turkish law, which is very strict about offensiveness to get the site banned. Here's what she says about it:
"Istanbul’s Sisli 2nd Criminal Court of Peace has banned the site in Turkey on the grounds that Adnan Oktar’s personality was violated by this site. The court reached the decision to ban the site on September 3. A lawsuit is filed for the damages of mental anguish against Richard Dawkins in the amount of 8000 YTL (about 4000 Euro)".
Hmmm. Throughout our very pleasant conversation she emphasised that though there is a biggish gulf between what Mr Oktar and New Humanist argue, he is a very open and respectful sort of chap and would welcome debate (he famously invited Dawkins to debate him, something that the good prof has vowed not to do). I suppose the question is should those of us who "believe" in evolution bother to give any time or the "oxygen of publicity" to creationists, or just ignore them? What do you think - let us know in the poll on the right Caspar Melville, editor.

Italian comedian won't be prosecuted for insulting the Pope

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Last week we reported on the plight of Sabina Guzzanti, the Italian comedian who was facing prosecution for suggesting the Pope's views on homosexuality might result in him spending eternity "in hell, tormented by queer demons - not passive ones, but very active ones."

The latest news is that the Italian Justice Minister, Angelino Alfano, has decided to block the case saying he has "decided not to authorise it, knowing well the stature and capacity of the pope for forgiveness."

Which gives the impression it's all to do with the Pope's honour, and nothing to do with not using a treaty signed by Mussolini in order to stifle free speech. The Vatican has backed the Minister's decision, as a spokesperson explained to an Italian news agency:
"The justice minister's decision was wise. The Pope's authority is far too superior to be dented and, in his magnanimity, he considers the case closed."
He's willing to accept a legal decision made by the Justice Minister of a sovereign state. Is there no limit to his magnanimity?

Thursday, 18 September 2008

AC Grayling: Discuss creationism in history lessons, but keep it out of science

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Creationism continues to be the issue of the moment – on top of his debate with Steve Fuller on this website, AC Grayling has followed up on the Michael Reiss controversy by writing a piece for Comment is Free in which he argues that, while there should be no place for teaching about creationism in science lessons ("no one suggests astrology should be taught alongside astronomy"), there is a place for its discussion in history lessons. But, crucially, this would only work in secular schools, where there is no chance that teachers would pass off creation myths as objective truths.

Grayling's posts always get them going on the Comment is Free forums – head over and get involved.

Have Anonymous trained their sights on Sarah Palin?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I know this blog is in danger of becoming obsessed with Sarah Palin, but let's enjoy her while we can because, at the risk of declaring political allegiance to a party in a country I don't even live in, with any luck she'll be out of the spotlight come 5 November. In the meantime I intend to write about her, and use pictures of her next to pictures of semi-related things, at every opportunity.

The latest news concerns the work of some hackers, who've managed to expose the fact that Palin has been using a Yahoo email account to conduct some of her gubernatorial business, which is naughty because it allows her to avoid the transparency that goes with using her official email address. The hackers have kindly posted details of this on the whistleblowing website Wikileaks.

Now, this wouldn't be of any direct interest to us were it not for the fact that the hackers concerned are said to be "loosely affiliated with the group Anonymous", the internet pranksters better known for the actions against the Church of Scientology. You're likely to have come across them in the form of their masked protests outside Scientology centres around the world (Christina Martin and I visited one of their London protests and made a podcast), but their original hardcore were trolls and hackers devoted to bringing down Scientology website.

Has this hardcore now turned its attention to Palin? If so, can we expect masked protests outside the White House if McCain wins in November?

Australian cleric revamps Christian faith

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Here's one that'll win the faithful over – controversial Australian cleric Francis MacNab, who runs St Michael's Uniting Church in Melbourne, has launched a new campaign to overhaul the Christian faith by making it "more believable, realistic and helpful in terms of the way people live."

How does he plan to do this, I hear you ask? It seems he intends to start by telling the faithful that Jesus was "just a Jewish peasant", Abraham didn't exist, Moses was a mass murderer (so it seems he, unlike Abraham, did exist) and the Ten Commandments are "too negative".

He's promoting this new interpretation with the aid of a AU$12,000 marketing budget, and further reading reveals he's supplanting the Christian faith with what appears to amount to deism:

"We have given up that idea. He's no longer the God up there, an interventionist God. We can all feel a presence beyond ourselves and are trying to get in touch with the presence better than ourselves. It's trying to bring a more humanitarian understanding."

[Thanks to reader Greg Hirtzel for sending this in]

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Alaskan blogger has personal experience of Sarah Palin's views on dinosaurs

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Here's a fascinating morsel that came to us through an email drawing our attention to Philip Munger, who runs the blog Progressive Alaska. The email was pointing out that Munger "can address a number of aspects of Gov. Palin's record", and it contained the following quote attributed to him:
"One thing that hasn't gotten much attention is Palin's apparent belief in creationism. Around June 1997 she told me she thought the Earth was about 6,000 years old and that people and dinosaurs walked the Earth at the same time. In 2002 or 2003 (I know it was Nov. 11 since it was at a Veterans Day event) I asked her about this again since my kids and her kids were in the same school district and I was concerned about creationism being taught as if it were a form of science. This time she didn't answer directly, but said that it didn't matter since 'the Lord is coming soon.'"
That should answer some of Matt Damon's questions about Palin...

Michael Reiss resigns over creationism comments

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Michael Reiss last night resigned as the Royal Society's director of education, following the row caused by comments he made suggesting teachers should be prepared to debate creationism in science lessons.

According to The Times
, Reiss agreed to step down after officers in the Royal Society decided that the comments had damaged his reputation. A statement from the society read:
“Some of Professor Michael Reiss’s recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society’s director of education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the society’s reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the society, he will step down immediately as director of education — a part-time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full-time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.”
Reiss had always argued that his comments had been misinterpreted. While it was widely reported that he had suggested creationism should be taught in science lessons, Friday's controversial speech to the British Association Festival of Science actually addressed the question of whether science teachers should be prepared to address the issue, were it to be raised by pupils.

Reiss has not commented on his resignation, but reaction from the scientific community has been mixed. Professor Robert Winston, who has himself recently criticised the hard anti-religious line taken by atheists like Richard Dawkins, believes the treatment of Reiss has been harsh:
“I fear that the Royal Society may have only diminished itself. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science — something that the Royal Society should applaud.”
However, Phil Willis MP, chairman of the Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, who will today hear the Royal Society's explanation for his resignation, believes the society has acted correctly:
“It is appropriate for the Royal Society to have dealt with this problem swiftly and effectively, rather than provoking continued debate. I hope the society will now stop burying its head and start taking on creationism.”
So, has Michael Reiss been treated fairly? As a report in today's Guardian points out, it's not the first time he's waded into the creationism debate. Last year he edited a book, Teaching about Scientific Origins: Taking Account of Creationism, in which he also suggested teachers should be prepared to discuss creationism, which raises the question of why those who loudly called for his dismissal this week didn't do so some time ago.

On the other hand, it seems Reiss was clearly paying more attention to creationism than many other scientists deem appropriate, and they would argue that made him ill-suited to be director of education at the Royal Society.

Either way, the poll at the top of this page is pretty pointless now.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Meet the new sensation in British satire... Christian Voice

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Yes, that's right. Stephen Green and his cronies at Christian Voice seem to have shifted away from their work as a homophobic, extremist evangelical pressure group in an attempt to become Britain's answer to American spoof news site The Onion. Well, that's if this press release apologising to Richard Dawkins, designed to emulate the Church of England's apology to Charles Darwin, is anything to go by:
"Professor Dawkins, 67 years (give or take a month or two) from your birth, Christian Voice owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. (We are not sure that is good English, but please forgive us for that as well.) ...

"'Above all, we now realise, that contrary to your being a complete waste of space and a descendant of apes, you are actually made in the image of God. We realise that although you are still stupid, that is simply because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and that your eyes are blinded and your ears will not hear any contrary view. In short, we now see you are a sinner in need of the saving, life-transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ."
Hilarious, isn't it? But at least it makes you think that some of them might possess something approaching what we'd refer to as a sense of humour. And then you realise that they spent Sunday picketing London Zoo's annual "Gay Sunday" event:
"It was not long before the Parks Division of the Metropolitan Police asked us to stop giving out leaflets because they were causing some homosexuals 'alarm and distress' contrary to Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Apparently, the limits on freedom of speech stop in 'the Met' at the point when homosexuals are having their feathers ruffled.

"We stood our ground and the police backed down, giving each of us a 'stop and search' notice instead (although no-one was searched) and warning us not to go inside the Royal Park (where it seems anything more than breathing needs Her Majesty's permission). So we praised God for His intervention and carried on leafleting and evangelising.

"There were fewer homosexuals going in than last year, and although they had a discount, this time they had no fenced-off areas. But this meant the full depravity of the homosexual lifestyle was imposed on everyone, and the effect on children at this family venue formed the substance of our hard-hitting leaflet to which 'the gays' took such offence.

"We had some good conversations again, and we just pray that the seed of the word of God will have taken root in someone's heart. The leaflet also attacked evolutionism, and as the Zoological Society of London is a hotbed of Darwinism it confronted man's arrogance in more ways than one."

A lovely bunch, aren't they?

[Thanks Christina]

Monday, 15 September 2008

British Humanist Association to sue exam agency after humanism excluded from RE syllabus

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Religion and education - that's the theme on this blog today. In an unprecedented and important move, the British Humanist Association has mounted legal action against the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) following its decision to reject the inclusion of humanism on a religious education syllabus, which would have allowed for the study of humanist ideas in the RE GCSE in the same detail as Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

OCR, a leading exam board, had decided earlier this year to include humanism in its RE GCSE, but the QCA's regulator, Ofqual, rejected the decision, saying it would have allowed for the study of humanism without the need to study other religions, as explained by a spokeperson quoted in the Guardian: "The subject criteria for the GCSE in religious studies require the study of one or more religions. These criteria were created by experts following extensive consultation."

The BHA believe the QCA's decision is discriminatory, as their Director of Education, Andrew Copson explained upon launching legal proceedings:
"The study of Humanism alongside religions as an example of a non-religious worldview is recommended by the Government and QCA's own National Framework for RE. Its inclusion contributes to making the study of RE more meaningful for the vast majority of young people who are not religious, and also introduces invaluable perspectives on the big questions of life from which all pupils benefit ... We have now issued legal proceedings against the QCA's decision, as we believe that it is unlawful - contrary to their own subject criteria and to human rights law. It threatens to turn back the progress of recent decades towards a more inclusive, educationally valid and objective subject of RE and is a real kick in the teeth for all who have worked for that progress."

Creationism in schools row rumbles on

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Last week we reported on comments made by Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, in which he suggested that discussion of creationism shouldn't necessarily be excluded from school science lessons.

Unsurprisingly Reiss's comments caused some outcry among the scientific community, and over the weekend the debate has rumbled on in the papers, with calls being issued for Reiss to be dismissed from his post at the Royal Society.

None of this has been helped by the fact that Reiss is an ordained Church of England minister, with the Nobel Prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto saying he never agreed with Reiss's appointment: "I warned the president of the Royal Society that his was a dangerous appointment a year ago. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be."

Kroto's words were echoed by a fellow Nobel Prize winner, Sir Richard Roberts, who called outright for his Reiss's removal: "I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates - which would be sent to the Royal Society - to ask that Reiss be made to stand down."

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins focussed on the fact that Reiss is a man of the cloth: "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch."

A major issue in all this centres on what Reiss may or may not have actually said – was he suggesting that creationism should be taught, as part of the science curriculum, or was he saying that teachers should be prepared to debate ths issue if pupils raise questions relating to creationism? In a letter to the Guardian today, Reiss claims he was misrepresented and points out that he meant the latter, criticisng the paper for reporting on his comments under the headline "Teach creationism, says top scientist":
"Your headline (Teach creationism, says top scientist, September 12) misrepresents the views of myself and the Royal Society. The society believes that if a young person raises the issue of creationism in a science class, a teacher should be in a position to examine why it does not stand up to scientific investigation. This does not put it on a par with evolution, which is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth from its beginnings and for the diversity of species.

"Evolution is rightly taught as an essential part of biology and science courses in schools, colleges and universities across the world. Creationism, which has no scientific validity, can be discussed in a science class if it is raised by a pupil, but should in no way be seen as comparable to evolution or any other scientific theory which is backed up with evidence."
The issue of creationism in class is a difficult one. Critics such as Kroto, Roberts and Dawkins are understandably wary of religious ideas being allowed anywhere near school science labs, especially at a time when creationist organisations and proponents of Intelligent Design are stepping up efforts to shoehorn their ideas into science curricula. But if we take Reiss at his word (and if you read the blog posted on the Guardian last week, it's clear he wasn't suggesting creationism should be taught), then wasn't he just pointing out that the classroom should be a forum for free and open debate, and teachers must be ready to enter discussion with their pupils, and put them right when the views they bring from home clearly contradict the overwhelming evidence for evolution? Isn't this part of the aim of education?

As for whether a clergyman should hold such a position at the Royal Society, this forms a part of the wider issue of the relationship between science and religion. As the Church of England argues in today's apology to Darwin, it sees no difficulty in reconciling Christianity with evolution. If Reiss loses his job over his comments, does this mean religious people should not be allowed to hold eminent scientific positions?

Difficult issues, and we'd love to get a sense of what our readers think. Leave your comments and take part in our poll: What are your views on Michael Reiss's comments on creationism in schools? Choose from these four options –
  • Outrageous – creationism has no place in schools and he should be removed from his post
  • Irresponsible – no one wants to stifle debate, but his comments risk encouraging the encroachment of creationism into schools
  • Misunderstood – his sensible comments on free debate were misrepresented by hysterical media
  • Brave – In a scientific community hostile to religion, he has made a stand for open debate
Place your vote in the poll at the top right of this page.