Friday, 31 October 2008

Bad Faith Awards 2008: Podcast nominations from PZ Myers and Robin Ince

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The gathering forces of irrationality will be quaking in their boots once more with the return of the New Humanist Bad Faith Awards, and this year we have a special treat in the form of our Nominations Podcasts.

We've recorded a selection of well-known rationalists explaining who they nominate for outstanding service to unreason and religious delusion this year, and we'll be putting these online in the days leading up to Wednesday 5 November, when a poll will appear on this blog allowing you to play your part in making ’08 a special year for one deluded fantasist.

With election fever growing by the day, we're kicking off the podcasts with an American theme. The other day, across several thousand miles of fibre optic cable, the US biologist PZ Myers, who you will all know from his excellent blog Pharyngula, kindly gave up some time to tell me why he's nominating John McCain's running mate Sarah Palin. While we can but hope that the lovely Sarah will be consigned to a footnote of history by the time our poll goes online, I'm sure you'll agree she's placed herself firmly in the Bad Faith running during the short time the world has known her:

Click here to hear PZ Myers nominate Sarah Palin


Meanwhile stand-up comedian Robin Ince (organiser of our Nine Lessons comedy event) has chosen to nominate a US right-winger who we've all known for quite some time. It goes without saying that Ann Coulter deserves to be nominated for an award like this every year, but Robin's putting her forward this year having spent a portion of 2008 struggling his way through a paperback copy of her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism, which suffice to say has left him slightly infuriated:

Click here to hear Robin Ince nominate Ann Coulter


We have 7 more podcast nominations to come at the beginning of next week, from contributors including Independent columnist Johann Hari, Atheist Bus Campaign maestro Ariane Sherine and comedians Natalie Haynes and Nick Doody. Keep checking back here to listen, and to ensure you don't miss out you can:
Have your say when the poll appears here on Wednesday 5 November. We're still open to nomination suggestions, so let us know who you think deserves the Bad Faith accolade by commenting on this post.

Adnan Oktar and Turkey's internet censorship

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Here's a good piece I've just been sent by our friend Padraig at Index on Censorship, which sheds a bit more light on the issue of internet censorship in Turkey.

Of course you all know of this problem through Atlas of Creation author Adnan Oktar's successful move to have Richard Dawkins' site banned in Turkey. Laws intended to censor obscene content have given the Turkish state wide-ranging powers to block web content, and Oktar and his lawyers have taken full advantage of this. But it's not just Oktar moving to have websites blocked, and the current laws pose a huge threat to freedom of expression in Turkey. As one expert quoted by Index says, "It’s like having a huge library and finding an error on a page in one book and closing down the entire library."

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Obama on the Daily Show

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Not really relevant to this blog, but in the spirit of US election fever here's a clip from Obama's hilarious interview with John Stewart on last night's Daily Show:

When atheism meets US politics

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As humanists/atheists/secularists in the UK we have plenty of battles to fight, but it's always worth reminding ourselves of the greater difficulties our colleagues across the Atlantic have in getting non-religious beliefs accepted in public life. Famously there's only one "openly non-theist" member of Congress, in the form of California Representative Pete Stark, and now a Congressional race in this year's elections is highlighting just how controversial atheism can be in the US.

Incumbent Republican North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole (wife of former Presidential candidate Bob) has spent the past two months "accusing" her Democratic opponent, Kay Hagan, of being an atheist (which she actually isn't) and associating with a group called the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, after she attended a fundraising event in September where one of the hosts (Hagan says there were over 40 hosts) happened to be a member.

US blogger Hemant Mehta, aka the Friendly Atheist, is excellent on the details of this, but in short Dole has launched into a vicious smear campaign which, in addition to containing outright lies, including doctored audio of Hagan supposedly declaring "There is no God", has had at its centre the notion that an atheist can not be considered fit to hold public office in the United States. (I've included one of Dole's smear ads below).

If this says a great deal about the position of atheism in the US, what is potentially even more telling is the extent to which Hagan has seen it necessary to refute the "allegations". She is a Christian, so of course she would want to make it clear that she has been misrepresented, but in a long statement yesterday she talked at length about her religious beliefs, as if to say that they do make her a better candidate than if she was an atheist:
"I have taught Sunday school. I’m an elder in this church, where the Hagan family has attended for over 100 years. I go on mission trips. I was raised going to Sunday school and church every week. And I raised my children that way. On Christmas Eve, we attend the 11:00 evening service, then early on Christmas mornings, my children and husband and I go to the Bell House and cook breakfast for the residents there. My family, my community and my church are the anchors of my life."
I think this is telling because it shows the extent to which Hagan feels she needs to distance herself from atheism in order to continue as a credible candidate. Ideally these sorts of allegations could just be met with an answer along the lines of "I'm not an atheist, but so what if I was?" I think that would work here, where we have plenty of atheist politicians, and I guess this shows the greater difficulties humanists in the US face. They've offered their support to Hagan in this race, largely as a reaction to the despicable tactics of Dole, so here's hoping next Tuesday sees the removal of at least one politican who seems to think atheists barely deserve their place in society.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The Chiller from Wasilla

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Great nickname for Palin, isn't it? Only one man could have come up with that, and his name's Christopher Hitchens. It's from his latest attack on the McCain-Palin ticket, this time for their contemptuous attitude towards science.

He goes on to reference the myriad frightening elements in Palin's religious background, many of which have already covered on this blog and elsewhere, but it's well worth reading because, whether you like him or not, few people can dish out a journalistic chinning quite like the Hitch:
"This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just "people of faith" but theocratic bullies. On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity."
And this isn't the first time Hitchens has attacked Palin in recent weeks – in one piece I haven't linked to before he takes the Matt Damon line, wondering about her views on creationism and wishing to ask "How many years old does the Republican nominee for the vice presidency of the United States believe the Earth to be?" Since Palin's so shielded that it's impossible to get these answers, the Hitch has a suggestion – the media should stop covering her completely until the Republican Party puts her up for a press conference.

Clerical ignorance returns to the Embryology debate

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The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is up for debate in the House of Lords tomorrow, and unsurprisingly the perennially ignorant head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, has taken the opportunity to once again air his stunningly ill-informed opinions on the matter.

Earlier this year he described the Bill, which will allow scientists to use empty animal eggs in order to conduct stem cell research with human DNA, as "monstrous", "grotesque", "hideous" and of "Frankenstein proportions"; statements surpassed in their ignorance only by the Anglican Bishop of Durham, who said "Gender-bending was so last century; we now do species bending".

Now Cardinal O'Brien has written an "open letter" to Gordon Brown, expanding his scaremongering commentary to another aspect of the Bill, which would allow the use, for stem cell research, of cells taken from incapacitated adults and children on the basis of presumed content. Sure, there's a sensible debate to be had here, as with that over whether consent should be presumed in the case of organ donation, but let's have a look at the emotive hyperbole O'Brien instead chooses to employ:
"Such behaviour was last seen under the Nazis. Following the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945, the full horrors of the Nazi's atrocities were revealed to a shocked world. The hideous savagery of their experiments convinced the civilized world that such practices must be outlawed forever. I am appalled that you are promoting a Bill which seeks, by stealth, to create a regime where extracting tissue and cells from human beings no longer requires their consent or involvement.

"I am staggered that you would endorse legislation, which describes the creation of embryos from a person without their consent as 'non-invasive' and which enshrines the concept of 'presumed consent' in UK law. This legislation would set a nightmarish precedent, by allowing scientists to experiment on those lacking capacity - in the absence of explicit consent - largely as they see fit. I urge you to amend Schedule 3 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill as a matter of great urgency and human decency."
As I said, there is a sensible, informed debate to be had. But you can't have that debate with someone who compares a Bill clearing the ground for potentially life-saving research to the horrors of Nazism. Fortunately, Cardinal Keith O'Brien won't be in the House of Lords tomorrow. However, 26 Anglican bishops will be (assuming they all turn up). But I guess that's a debate for another day.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Norris family values

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If I had to name my favourite ranting evangelical, it'd have to be Chuck Norris. Given that he's basically the toughest guy ever, he's a worthy adversary, and his weekly column for conservative website WorldNetDaily is pure gold. We nominated him for last year's Bad Faith Award, which in a twisted fashion is a gesture of our love, and that was before his hilarious (and I mean actually hilarious - they even play on the Facts phenomenon) endorsement of Mike Huckabee, which I've included at the end of this post.

And now I come across this extract from his latest book, Black Belt Patriotism: How to Reawaken America, in which he reveals that the creationist nonsense he enthusiastically broadcasts in his column landed his nephew in a spot of trouble at school:
"My nephew Andrew Cox, who is a strong young Christian man, was in the fifth grade when his teacher, a young lady who had graduated from the University of Berkeley, told the class to write a report about evolution. Andrew said he couldn't do that because he didn't believe in evolution. He went on to say that he believed God was our Creator and creator of the heavens and the earth. The teacher gave him an “F,” instead of allowing him to write about what he believed in based on his own convictions. Rather than believe that he was a glorified ape, he believed that he was a child of God made in His image. He is in Army Intelligence now, serving our country in Iraq."
What has the world come to when a teacher with a university education gives you an "F" for handing in a science essay lacking any basis in scientific fact? I despair, I really do. And I'm glad I have Chuck Norris to despair with me.

[Found via Pharyngula]

This speaks for itself...

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An evangelical vision of an Obama presidency

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American readers certainly will, but I'm sure many of you will be familiar with James Dobson and Focus on the Family, a particularly distasteful anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-(extra-marital) sex, anti-gambling Christian Right organisation. (If you're wondering what they're in favour of, try prayer in school, corporal punishment and Intelligent Design.)

Of course they're not known for their tact, but with a week to go until the US election they have may have just surpassed themselves by releasing a "letter" from a Christian from the future (2012 to be precise), in which the correspondent describes the changes that have occurred under an Obama presidency. As the preamble to the letter states, in the minds of Focus on the Family these are "changes that are likely or at least very possible if Senator Obama is elected".

And what are they? Well, some of the changes would probably be considered positive by many voters – he redresses the right-leaning balance on the Supreme Court, which then declares same-sex marriage a constitutional right (even though Obama is against it).

But then things get silly. Very silly. As far as Focus on the Family are concerned, if Obama wins the next four years will basically see gay people take over America. Here are some of the more ridiculous predictions:
  • "The Boy Scouts no longer exist as an organization. They chose to disband rather than be forced to obey the Supreme Court decision that they would have to hire homosexual scoutmasters and allow them to sleep in tents with young boys."
  • "Homosexuals are now given special bonuses for enlisting in military service"
  • "The Supreme Court in 2011 nullified all Federal Communications Commission restrictions on obscene speech or visual content in radio and TV broadcasts, and television programs at all hours of the day now contain explicit portrayals of sexual acts"
So that's the Christian fantasy of homophobic moral outrage out of the way. How about some good old-fashioned fear-mongering? Obama's withdrawal from Iraq leads to genocide, and his reversal of the Bush policy of denying captured terrorist suspects basic human rights mean that "Since 2009 terrorist bombs have exploded in two large and two small U.S. cities, killing hundreds, and the entire country is now fearful, for no place seems safe."

As if this wasn't enough Russia, just to test Obama, invaded and occupied Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. Still not enough? How about this?
"In mid-2010 Iran launched a nuclear bomb which exploded in the middle of Tel Aviv, destroying much of that city. They then demanded that Israel cede huge amounts of territory to the Palestinians, and after an anguished all-night cabinet meeting, Israel’s Prime Minister agreed. Israel is now reduced to a much smaller country, hardly able to defend itself, and its future remains uncertain."
Returning to domestic policy, Obama also introduces an NHS-style public healthcare system. Great, you may think. But here's what happened:
"Because medical resources now must be rationed carefully by the government, people over 80 have essentially no access to hospitals or surgical procedures. Their “duty” is increasingly thought to be to go home to die, so that they don’t drain scarce resources from the medical system. Euthanasia is becoming more and more common."
This has turned into a long post – as I worked through the letter I just kept finding more and more gold that had to be shared. Given the length of this post you may think you've seen it all, but I recommend you read the original document as trust me, there's more.

I only really have one question for the deluded fantasists at Focus on the Family – when's the movie coming out? Because having read the synopsis, it sounds like it'll be a good one.

[Found via Friendly Atheist]

Monday, 27 October 2008

Has Dawkins been saying Harry Potter is bad for kids?

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A quick look at some headlines from the weekend would lead you to believe so, with the Daily Mail proclaiming that "Atheist Richard Dawkins warns Harry Potter could have 'negative effect on children'." But that's not really what he said. Rather, he was talking to More4 News about the issues he's looking to cover in his next book, which will be aimed at children.

He says he thinks stories about witches and the like are "anti-scientific", which in the strictest sense I guess they are as they certainly aren't "scientific", and that he has often wondered whether they have a "negative effect" on children. He hasn't said he thinks they have a negative effect, just that he would like to look into it:
"The book I write next year will be a children's book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking. I haven't read Harry Potter, I have read Pullman who is the other leading children's author that one might mention and I love his books. I don't know what to think about magic and fairy tales."

"I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know. I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I'm not sure. Perhaps it's something for research."

See, he's hardly denouncing JK Rowling and all her works. He's merely saying he's interesting in something and might cover it in his next book. You could maybe say he's reading a bit too much into it, and that we shouldn't spoil the magic for children by insisting on rationalism at all times, but to say he's been suggesting myths and fairytales should be placed on the top shelf out of the reach of kids would be misleading to say the least.

This is the same man who made a guest appearance in Doctor Who, after all.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Apocalyptic visions in a 1950s style

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One of our readers was good enough to send this to me, so I thought I'd quickly share it. A Kansas City website, The Pitch, has a fantastic weekly section called "Studies in Crap" where their "Crap Archivist" digs up some old, crazy book from a second hand shop and offers up a rundown of what's in there.

I'd never come across this before, but what a great idea (it's not dissimilar to Robin Ince's The Book Club comedy night). And this particular entry is great, as it's a summary of a 1954 book entitled My Vision of the Destruction of America Atop Empire State Building by A.A Allen (self-published, funnily enough).

For the full synopsis, read the page from The Pitch, but the basic story is that Allen was an End Times evangelist, and one day he went to the top of the Empire State Building, where God revealed to him exactly how the destruction of the United States would come about. Then he wrote a book about it. And self-published it (it's unknown whether Random House were interested).

As I say – follow the link and read the piece, but in short the destruction of America involves the Statue of Liberty standing in the Gulf of Mexico and being given a cup by God with a sword in it. Then she drinks from the cup, which is apparently not a good sign, and then the sword has disappeared, which is definitely bad as Allen knows that the "sword merely typified war, death, and destruction". Then there is a black cloud and white vapour and America is done for. And some of the people to blame include homosexuals, atheists and intellectuals, so it's good to know some things never change.

Brilliant. I think I'll be checking in on "Studies in Crap" in future – thanks to Gus for sending it in.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Vintage Stephen Green

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Time for just a quick morning post while we continue finishing the next issue of New Humanist, and where better to seek out some quick material than the words of Stephen Green. He thinks we should bring back the death penalty and, surprise surprise, he definitely thinks we should bring it back for Anthony Morley, the chef who has just been given a life sentence for murdering and eating parts of his gay lover. Here, in all its glory, is Stephen's reasoning:
"In the Christian understanding, upon which our laws are or should be based, the death penalty was given to mankind for perpetuity under God's covenant with Noah. That covenant was sealed with the sign of the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-13). I don't like the idea of putting a man to death any more than the worst humanistically-minded liberal. But the other day I saw a glorious rainbow and it reminded me that God's institution of the nation state and of true justice is still in force. We need to remember that putting a properly-convicted murderer to death is a righteous act, not something to be ashamed of."
Stephen's been busy recently – he had a go at the Atheist Bus Campaign, thinks Andrew Lloyd Webber isn't making an Any Dream Will Do-style talent show for Jesus Christ Superstar because he's scared of Christian Voice, and thinks that sex education for Scouts means leaders are grooming them for sex.

We're waiting to hear what he thinks of our Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows – if you're reading Stephen, you in part inspired Robin Ince to organise them when you wound him up on ITV last year. So thanks for that.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

54 grand in a day – we salute the Atheist Bus Campaign

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This mock-up picture of the Atheist bus may have appeared four times on this blog in the space of a day, but when you've raised £54,238 in a 35-hour period you deserve that kind of coverage. Not that we're the only place you can read about this astonishing campaign to put ads reading "There's probably no god – now stop worrying and enjoy your life" on the sides of London buses. The story's been all over the papers (a Google News search brings up 69 results, but to name a few it was in the Guardian, Telegraph, Sun, and even the Washington Post), and it's been on the TV and radio.

Amazing. We congratulate Ariane Sherine, the BHA and everyone involved in the Atheist Bus Campaign. And as we said yesterday, one of the best things about it is that it's pissed off Stephen Green of Christian Voice. Our friend Andrew Copson from the BHA was even on Radio 5 late last night arguing about this with Green (skip to 5 mins 20 secs) – topic "should atheists advertise their beliefs on the side of buses".

It's worth a listen as needless to say Andrew wins the day. We just have one question - why do the BBC bring Stephen Green on to a radio show as the "Christian Voice" he claims to be? As I've said before, this raging homophobe is the closest thing we have in this country to Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, and you wouldn't invite them on to the radio.

Ariane Sherine's written the diary for the forthcoming issue of New Humanist, so watch out for that in the coming weeks.

You can still donate to the campaign - follow this link to do so

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Atheist Bus Campaign receives the ultimate accolade...

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You know you're doing something right when you get an arsey response from Stephen Green:
"How funny that Richard Dawkins is so scared of the threat which evangelical Christianity poses to atheism and his beloved Darwinism that he has to fund a campaign to attack God. He really is the nearest thing atheists have to an evangelist while his belief in non-belief is held with a fervour which many religious people would do well to emulate, so long as they don't make themselves look as inept as he so often does, poor man ... The atheist advertisers will have to be quick or the bendy-buses will be off the road in Boris's purge, taking the anti-God message with them. Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large."
But it's not offensive or an "attack on God" at all, is it Stephen? It's a nice positive challenge to the hell fire message you like to preach, merely encouraging people to chill out a bit and live their lives. Telling gay people they're doomed to unbearable pain forever – now that's offensive.

For our part, we're still waiting to hear what he thinks of our Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows (follow that link for ticket details) – if you're reading Stephen, you in part inspired Robin Ince to organise them when you wound him up on ITV last year. So thanks for that.

Click here to donate to the Atheist Bus Campaign

Quick atheist bus update...

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We're busy producing the next issue of New Humanist (I'm proofing things as I write this) but I just wanted to give you a quick update on the Atheist Bus Campaign, because what's happened since midnight last night is extraordinary. The target was £5,500, which Richard Dawkins agreed to match, but they hit that at 10am. Right now it's up to £20,882, but that's rising every time I click refresh on the donation page. The higher the amount gets, the more time and more buses there'll be displaying the positive message of "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life", so do get involved and donate some cash.

Click here to donate to the Atheist Bus Campaign

Congratulations to Ariane, the BHA and everyone involved in the campaign.

What they mean by "values voters"

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I have an American friend who rightly dislikes the way in which the media (especially the British media) go and seek out the most stupid, reactionary Americans and then paint them as representatives of a significant voter bloc in the upcoming election.

I agree with him, and that's why I wanted to mention that before I posted this video, although to be honest the idea that there might just be one other person like this woman out there scares me slightly. Tracy is what they call a "values voter" – her husband's a working man who's struggling economically and is unsure who to vote for, but she's behind the McCain-Palin ticket all the way, because all that matters to her is which candidate "has the most faith in the Lord". So basically she's a Palin fan. And she's praying for her husband because he still hasn't decided who he'll vote for. And she's not worried about their financial situation because God will take care of it. Oh, and she doesn't like Obama's name:

Tracy: I can't imagine a President of the United States being named President Obama. I really have a problem with that and I'm not the only one.

Q: Because that means what to you?

Tracy: His background. A mother that was atheist. Huh, that really gets to me. A father that was a Muslim. That should get to everyone.

Here she is, in all her glory:


Support the Atheist Bus Campaign and see atheist ads on London buses

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When comedy writer and journalist Ariane Sherine joked back in June on Comment is Free about atheists chipping in to get ads on London buses to counter those with the off-putting Bible quotes ("When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"), she didn't think the idea would actually take off. Indeed, as she says in our forthcoming diary (you'll have to wait for that one), she only called the bus ads company for a quote so she had the punchline for her article.

Four months later and Ariane, with the support of the British Humanist Association and a certain Professor R. Dawkins, has just officially launched the Atheist Bus Campaign. Here's the deal – for £5,550 you can put an ad on 30 London buses for 4 weeks, which if you do the maths means the campaign needs 1,100 people to donate £5 each. And just to make things even better, Richard Dawkins has agreed to match all contributions up to £5,500, so if you all raise that amount the campaign will have £11,000 – that's two rounds of 30 buses for 4 weeks.

And the slogan? Well, as you can see in the mock-up above they're keeping it bright and positive, nicely countering those Bible ads, and it reads "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life".

Great, isn't it? You can donate right now by visiting the fundraising page – at the time of writing they're over halfway there after just 10 hours, so you can help push it further towards that magic £5,500 mark. If you want to learn more or show some additional support (on top of donating, of course) then visit the campaign's website and join their Facebook group.

The campaign's had loads of media coverage today (and as I hinted at above we've got some more coming up), having already been featured in the Guardian, the Telegraph and The Times, as well as on BBC News 24 and various radio stations.

If you're still wondering whether to get involved, I think it's best I leave you with Richard Dawkins' endorsement of the campaign:
"Religion is accustomed to getting a free ride – automatic tax breaks, unearned 'respect' and the right not to be 'offended', the right to brainwash children. Even on the buses, nobody thinks twice when they see a religious slogan plastered across the side. This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think – and thinking is anathema to religion."

Monday, 20 October 2008

Yet again psychics profit from tragedy

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Just a quick post, but I had to share this. Two "investigators" have produced a drawing of the man they say kidnapped Madeleine McCann (he's called Steve or Stav), and have revealed that, after he'd tracked her for days, she was taken to an apartment, smothered with a pillow and dumped in a landfill.

And how do they know this? They're psychics. Disgraceful. And the sad fact is that some in law enforcement are actually taking this seriously.

Getting to the root of the financial crisis, with Melanie Phillips

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You might have heard about this financial crisis we're currently in the middle of, and you may also have thought you knew some of the reasons for it – reckless bankers, greed, deregulation. It's a shame, then, that you're completely wrong. But that's what you get if you neglect the views of Melanie Phillips, who has just revealed the true reason for the crunch – atheism:
"I see this financial breakdown, moreover, as being not merely a moral crisis but the monetary expression of the broader degradation of our values – the erosion of duty and responsibility to others in favour of instant gratification, unlimited demands repackaged as ‘rights’ and the loss of self-discipline. And the root cause of that erosion is ‘militant atheism’ which, in junking religion, has destroyed our sense of anything beyond our material selves and the here and now and, through such hyper-individualism, paved the way for the onslaught on bedrock moral values expressed through such things as family breakdown and mass fatherlessness, educational collapse, widespread incivility, unprecedented levels of near psychopathic violent crime, epidemic drunkenness and drug abuse, the repudiation of all authority, the moral inversion of victim culture, the destruction of truth and objectivity and a corresponding rise in credulousness in the face of lies and propaganda -- and intimidation and bullying to drive this agenda into public policy."
Oh, and Phillips is also a fan of Sarah Palin, who "stands against the tide of secular nihilism in the culture wars":
"I don’t much care whether Palin believes in a hundred ridiculous things before breakfast -- because what she stands for is a defence of bedrock western moral values against the nihilistic onslaught. Although like many others I do not like the way she has used her family on public platforms, the fact remains that the reason the image of her cradling her Down’s Syndrome baby Trig was so electrifying was that she was making the most explicit statement possible that, in a society which has so lost its respect for human life that it believes it is actually a progressive act to destroy unborn lives 'on demand' (and Obama actually opposed anti-infanticide legislation in the Illinois state senate) she stands for a culture of life against our culture of death, which sees no innate value in human life and will destroy it with increasing abandon if it is not deemed to be ‘useful’ enough."
We all know Phillips writes some ridiculous things, but backing Sarah Palin as the figurehead of Western Civilisation? Surely she doesn't really mean that? Does she?

Friday, 17 October 2008

Podcast: Robin Ince introduces Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

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As many of you will be aware, there's a real treat in store for atheists this Christmas in the form of comedian Robin Ince's three-night celebration of science and rationalism, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. It's taking place at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London as a benefit for the Rationalist Associaton on the 18 and 19 December (both sold out), and also at the gigantic Hammersmith Apollo on 21 December (you can still get tickets for that here). The show's going to be fantastic, featuring a host of Britain's leading comedians, musicians and scientists including, but not limited to, Stewart Lee, Mark Thomas, Phill Jupitus, Josie Long, Ben Goldacre, Richard Dawkins and some very special guests.

One of the other great things about the show is the reason Robin was moved to organise it – last year he ended up on a TV "debate" on "Who's taking the Christ out of Christmas?", alongside Vanessa Feltz, Nick Ferrari and the lovely Stephen Green of Christian Voice. The whole thing left Robin so enraged that, after writing about it for our website, he set to work organising a godless extravaganza for this Christmas. Yesterday we recorded Robin explaining all this, and we've now uploaded it as our second ever podcast. Follow the link below to listen.

Listen to Robin Ince introducing Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

To make sure you don't miss any future New Humanist podcasts (we've a few up our sleeves in the coming weeks), sign up to our podcast RSS feed.

History and controversy in Oxford as a woman prepares to lead Islamic Friday prayers

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At 1pm today, the city of Oxford will play host to an historic moment as a woman leads Friday prayers before a congregation of men and women at Wolfson College, the first time this has happened in Britain.

Professor Amina Wadud, visiting scholar at the Starr King School of the Ministry, Berkeley, California, will lead the Friday prayers and deliver a sermon at the start of a conference organised by the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford. The last time Wadud did a similar thing, in New York in 2005, Mosques refused to host it, meaning she had to do it in an Anglican Church, and she received death threats.

The idea of a woman leading prayer is extremely controversial, as many Muslims believe it is prohibited by the sacred texts of Islam. With this is mind, protests are expected in Oxford today and there will be strong security surrounding the event.

The chair of the Muslim Education Centre is Taj Hargey, who was involved with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Speaking to the media, he has sought to dismiss the arguments against a woman leading prayer, suggesting outspoken opponents represent the strongly conservative strands of Islam:
"Our situation is simple. The golden rule of the Koran is that whatever is not expressly prohibited is permitted. Literalists interpret the Hadith [the sayings of Prophet Muhammad] as implying a woman should never lead a community. But even within the Hadith there is a woman called Umm Waraqa whom the Prophet allowed to lead prayers in a household and to teach her neighbour. Though it recognises biological differences between men and women, the Koran absolutely specifies gender egalitarianism. The people opposing this are the Wahhabi, Deobandi; misogynistic segments of Islam. They don't believe in the innate equality of men and women."
However, Mokh-tar Badri, vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain, takes issue with Hargey's stance:
"With all respect to sister Amina, prayer is something we perform in accordance to the teachings of our Lord. It has nothing to do with the position of women in society. It is not to degrade them. This is something divine, not human. We do it the way it has been ordained by God. Women can lead prayers before other women but before a congregation of men and women, a man must lead. This is not confined to Islam. Catholics don't appreciate female priests."
Readers familiar with Islamic groups in this country probably wont be surprised to learn that Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain also seems opposed to today's events, having said "We have no dealings with Taj Hargey. His organisation has no affiliation with mainstream groups in this country."

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Palin's Oval Office

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In the spirit of keeping up the Palin blogging, given we should only have a few more weeks of her (touch wood I'd say, if I wasn't a professional rationalist), I thought I'd share this with you having just stumbled on it on Pharyngula while I was reading about the creationism story I reported below.

There have been so many great spoofs about Sarah since she hit the stage 6 weeks ago, but I have to say I really like this one. Someone's knocked up an interactive photo of what Palin's Oval Office would look like if she eventually became President - I've included a non-interactive still, but pay it a visit (it's worth having your sound on), click on items all around the room, and see what happens. It says at the bottom they'll be updating it every day until the election too.

Science education under threat in Texas

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While we seem to have had our fair share of creationism rows in the UK this year (the Michael Reiss affair being the most recent), it's sometimes worth remembering that such nonsense doesn't really make too many inroads into our education system (or the scientific branch, at least).

It's something I was reminded of when reading this story about Texas, where the Board of Education has just set up a committee to review science curriculum standards. Not a bad idea, you might think – get a bunch of experts together to have a look at the way science is taught in your state, then they can make a few recommendations and you'll end up with a better curriculum. But, of course, there's a catch. The only reason this committee has been set up is because an ID/creationist faction on the board is trying to scuttle new standards that would reinforce the importance of teaching evolution.

So who's on this committee? Well, there are three genuine scientists, but they're joined by three creationists/proponents of ID, one of whom is Stephen Meyer, one of the founders of the Discovery Institute. Yes, that's right, the Discovery Institute. That organisation that tries to make ID credible by pretending it's nothing to do with religion per se and producing "peer reviewed" "research".

When you compare that to a Reverend/Scientist suggesting it might be appropriate to discuss creationism in class if pupils ask questions about it, you realise our creationist problem is nothing compared to what people are having to battle with in some parts of the US. And battling against it they are – for any readers in the US, there's a petition you can sign (sorry readers in the UK and elsewhere, you'll have to sit this one out. But you can join me in wishing them good luck).

[Found via Pharyngula]

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Hitchens on Palin and McCain

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Whenever I'm looking for an amusing and effective denunciation of a right wing religious American figure, I tend to seek out the views of a certain Christopher Hitchens (see him on Falwell, the day after that awful man departed this earth).

So when Sarah Palin hit the scene (we haven't mentioned her for a bit, have we?) I went straight to YouTube in search of the Hitch's views on everyone's favourite lipstick-wearing small-town hockey-pitbull from Alaska and was disappointed to find nothing at all. Surely he'd been on Fox News taking on some conservative commentator who thought she would be the saviour of America, at least until the real Saviour turns up (during her lifetime, of course)?

But no – the Hitch seemed decidedly quiet on the matter. Until now, that is. He's written a piece for Slate in which he urges Americans to vote for Obama, on grounds that are nicely summarised in the standfirst: "McCain lacks the character and temperament to be president. And Palin is simply a disgrace."

And if you're wondering what he has to say about Palin, here you go:
The most insulting thing that a politician can do is to compel you to ask yourself: "What does he take me for?" Precisely this question is provoked by the selection of Gov. Sarah Palin. I wrote not long ago that it was not right to condescend to her just because of her provincial roots or her piety, let alone her slight flirtatiousness, but really her conduct since then has been a national disgrace. It turns out that none of her early claims to political courage was founded in fact, and it further turns out that some of the untested rumors about her—her vindictiveness in local quarrels, her bizarre religious and political affiliations—were very well-founded, indeed. Moreover, given the nasty and lowly task of stirring up the whack-job fringe of the party's right wing and of recycling patent falsehoods about Obama's position on Afghanistan, she has drawn upon the only talent that she apparently possesses.

Some goodies from the ex-Muslims' conference

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Following on from yesterday's post on our visit to the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain's first ever conference on "Political Islam, Sharia Law and Civil Society", there are now lots of goodies for you to read and watch on the web. I'll give you a rundown and then you can click away.

The Council have put all the video footage from the day on their website, which includes all three debates, Nick Doody's comedy set and Richard Dawkins' dissection of Harun Yahya's "arguments" for creation. They've also written a brief report on the day and put up some photographs.

Richard Dawkins also wrote his report on the conference on his web forum on Saturday, in two parts. Read part 1 followed by part 2.

There's loads of great content in the videos, but in embedding one in this post I just had to go with Nick Doody's fantastic stand-up set:

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

"Gay tattoo" vicar makes another half-hearted apology

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In a column for the Northern Echo, a Darlington-based local paper, the Rev Peter Mullen (he of "Let us make it obligatory for homosexuals to have their backsides tattooed with the slogan sodomy can seriously damage your health" fame) has made another attempt at an apology following the one he made a week ago. I'll let you read it yourself, but one passage from his column will help to illustrate my feeling that he hasn't quite got the hang of this sincere apology business:
"One might say that what was once a mortal sin is now only a lifestyle choice. And the love that once dare not speak its name now shrieks at us in high camp down every high street. This situation is what some homosexualist campaigners constantly claim under their doctrine of “rights”. It is the reason also that they are so annoyed with me – because I repudiate their “rights” argument – which is in any case not Christian but secular."

There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger, says Fisher Price doll

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This has to be the most ridiculous row you're going to hear about this year – a Fisher Price Little Mommy Cuddle 'n Coo doll (pictured) has been withdrawn from sale in the US, and people over here are calling for it to be banned, because it sounds like it says "Islam is the Light".

It's one of those dolls that makes baby noises – you know the ones, they coo, giggle, spout nonsensical words – and it was the way in which a Fisher Price spokesman had to try and refute the claims of promoting Islam that really made me laugh. I'll quote from the Telegraph:
A spokesman for Fisher-Price insisted that the doll was not pushing pro-Islamic messages, adding that the sound some parents were hearing was caused by an accidental distortion of the doll's soundtrack.

"The Little Mommy Cuddle 'n Coo dolls feature realistic baby sounds including cooing, giggling, and baby babble with no real sentence structure," a spokesman said. "The only scripted word the doll says is 'mama'. There is a sound that may resemble something close to the word 'night', 'right', or 'light'. Because the original soundtrack is compressed into a file that can be played through an inexpensive toy speaker, actual sounds may be imprecise or distorted."

Hilarious. But there's nothing like a doll proselytising for Islam to whip up the xenophobes. As you can see, I first read about this in the Telegraph, but I couldn't write about this without first checking in on the Daily Mail, particularly the comments left by readers. The article headline is "The talking Fisher Price doll that 'preaches pro-Islamic message to toddlers'" (would they have preferred an anti-Islam message?) and here are some of my favourite comments (some from the Sun too):

"It won't be one of the CHRISTmas gift I give to my Granddaughter." (Mail)

"Another social engineering ploy." (Mail)

"Of course this doll should be removed from all shops! If we, in England, are being forbidden from displaying our own flag at times in case of causing offence, why should this be any different?' (Sun)

"Simple. Don't buy the doll and boycott Fisher price toys. Good advert for them at this time of year though!!" (Mail)
And my personal favourite . . .
"whats the big fuss the bbc do it [promote Islam] on a daily basis" (Mail)
Update: Here's an AP video report on this, and it includes a bit where you can listen to the doll. In fairness it does sound a bit like "Islam is the light"... [Thanks to the reader going by the name of HolyPrepuce! for the link]


Vatican bank safe from financial crisis

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Last week the Pope was busy telling us that money is an illusion, that "money disappears, it's nothing" (a fair point, you might think given the current crisis, but not when Papal logic leads to this argument: "Whoever builds his life on this reality, on material things, on success ... builds his house on sand. Only the word of God is the foundation of all reality").

But Pope Benny would say that, safe in the knowledge that his own cash (the Vatican's got loads of it, even if it is an illusion) is sitting pretty in the Institute for the Works of Religion, the Vatican's very own bank, which has just announced that all its deposits are safe from the effects of the global banking crash. Fair play to them, in that they seem to have stayed away from the reckless tactics that have landed other banks in trouble, but could they please clarify, given their rumoured $4bn in deposits, whether money is an illusion or not? I'm confused and in need of Papal guidance.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Debating political Islam and Sharia, with a bit of Dawkins and some comedy thrown in

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If you're wondering why this blog has been a bit quiet, it's because we were out of the office on Friday at Conway Hall, attending the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain's first ever conference, entitled "Political Islam, Sharia Law and Civil Society" (not that this explains yesterday's lack of action).

Speakers in the three main debates included prominent ex-Muslims such as Maryam Namazie and Mina Ahadi, and a host of journalists, writers and campaigners including AC Grayling, Johann Hari, Ibn Warraq, Hanne Stinson and Joan Smith. Our very own Caspar Melville chaired the first debate – a discussion on apostasy in Islam and the limits of free speech. There was some discussion of the importance of free speech to a plural societies, and to what extent that should, or should not, be limited in order to avoid offence.

In the afternoon the discussion turned to Sharia law, and there was firm opposition to its application in the UK, particularly in light of the fact that Sharia courts are already operating in civil cases. Johann Hari spoke passionately on this subject, citing instances where the use of Sharia by judges in Germany has led to decisions greatly to the disadvantage of the women involved (you can read Hari on this here). Following this debate the hall adopted (unanimously, strangely enough) a resolution against the use of Sharia law in Britain.

There was a bit of light relief just after lunch when the comedian Nick Doody delivered a fantastic stand-up set (he wrote about this in our Sep/Oct diary), and following the Sharia debate Richard Dawkins gave a presentation based on his article from earlier this year, in which he tore to pieces the "evidence" provided by the Turkish creationist Harun Yahya in his Atlas of Creation. Of course, there was a serious message behind Dawkins' eloquent and amusing dissection of Yahya's propsoterous arguments – we have to remain vigilant against the encroachment of creationism into science, and the best way to fight against it is through education.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Why can't the Republicans bring up Obama's pastor problem?

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Because of Sarah, of course. Time has a good article on Palin and religion, pointing out that if she had it her way the campaign, in addition to saying their opponent pals around with terrorists, would bring up the small matter of Obama's firebrand ex-pastor, Rev Jeremiah Wright, at every possible opportunity. The campaign has claimed it would be inappropriate, but that hasn't stopped it with the "terrorist" accusations. As Time point out, "McCain's current sensitivity is much more related to his running mate's own pastor problems than to any newfound campaign honor code."

They don't want to encourage any further digging into Palin's religious background, which has already yielded tales about her views on the age of dinosaurs, videos of her receiving protection from witchcraft, and suggestions that she may agree with her former church's commitments to converting Jews to Christianity and helping gay people "overcome" their homosexuality.

Update: As if enough ridiculous things about Palin haven't popped up, it now turns out that Princess Diana was Palin's 10th cousin. And, even better, Franklin D Roosevelt was her 9th cousin. I guess that means Palin is just who America needs to sort out the economic crisis.

Extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland

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As the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill continues its passage through Parliament, the Labour MP Diane Abbot has tabled an amendment that would extend the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

Currently, abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland in exceptional circumstances (i.e. it's practically illegal) and every year thousands of women face the emotional and financial cost of travelling to Britain for private abortion (since 1967, over 80,000 women have done this). As Liberal Conspiracy reports, the same amendment was blocked by the government earlier this year as Gordon Brown didn't wish to alienate the nine Democratic Unionist Party MPs who offered their support to the controversial vote on 42-day detention for terror suspects.

Yesterday, forty Northern Irish women representing the Alliance for Choice group met Abbott at Westminster to lobby MPs to support the amendment. As one might expect given the sectarian character of Northern Irish parties, the political establishment is strongly opposed to extending abortion rights, but pro-choice groups argue that this does not adequately represent the wishes of the country's women. Women seeking abortion, as well as those lobbying for abortion rights, can be subject to harassment and intimidation from opponents. As an Alliance for Choice spokesperson told a meeting on Tuesday, the effects of the current laws can be devastating:
"The poverty of some women in NI also impacts on the numbers of late abortions in Britain. The time it takes some women to find enough money to have an abortion means that women from here are three times more likely than British women to have abortions after 20 weeks. However, thousands of others are forced to continue pregnancies they find intolerable. This includes women pregnant as a result of rape and sexual abuse"
The amendment is sure to face stiff opposition, and pro-choice groups are encouraging people to write to their MPs and sign petitions. Details are at the end of the Liberal Conspiracy article.

[Thanks Padraig]

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Rowan Williams on Dawkins, Grayling et al ... via Dostoevsky

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This morning's Guardian has an interview with the Archbeard, Rowan Williams. It's mostly about the book the Archbish has written on Dostoevsky (serious stuff, forcing interviewer Stuart Jeffries to ditch his question "who would win a beard-off between him and Dostoevsky?"), but in the closing paragraphs the discussion turns to the New Atheists, and Williams' assertion in his book's preface that their critique of religion will be tomorrow's sociological curios. "But aren't they thinking you're the sociological curio?", Jeffries asks:
"They undoubtedly are. The answer is not to say, 'Let's once and for all have the religious reply to it,' it's to go on patiently saying, 'Look, what is it that Christians who are not cheap or trivial are saying?' and work from there rather than the surface level. In [Dostoevsky's novel] The Idiot, Prince Myshkin says, 'When I hear atheists talk about Christianity, I don't recognise what they're talking about.' I often feel when I read Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens that this isn't quite it. I thought it might not do any harm to put down a marker about that and say: 'Here is a form of Christian engagement with the world and with the complexities of human experience that may be radically wrong but is not cheap or glib and any critique has to deal with this just as much as it has to deal with a southern baptist.'"
He also reserves a bit of sarcasm for Jeffries' assertion that New Humanist contributor AC Grayling won a debate against Rabbi Julia Neuberger entitled "We'd Be Better Off Without Religion": "'Oooh,' says Williams, going all Frankie Howerd again, 'I bet God's worried. 'Damn, I'd better retire.'"

However, Williams does enjoy fraternising with the atheist gang – he invited Grayling to the launch of his new book, and with reference to Dawkins he says "There's something about his swashbuckling side which is endearing." Dawkins and his wife attended a party at Lambeth Palace last year, though the reason may come as a surprise: "They were absolutely delightful. My son wanted to meet Mrs Dawkins. She was in Doctor Who. She played an assistant when Tom Baker was the Doctor."

See, he's all for a few drinks with the enemy. As Jeffries jokes in his article "It can only be a matter of time he goes on the lash with Hitchens."

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

What a difference a day makes

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Yesterday, the word was that Rev Peter Mullen, the Church of England vicar who said on his blog that it should be "obligatory for homosexuals to have their backsides tattooed with the slogan sodomy can seriously damage your health and their chins with fellatio kills", was of the following opinion on the controversy over his actions:
"I wrote some satirical things on my blog and anybody with an ounce of sense of humour or any understanding of the tradition of English satire would immediately assume that they're light-hearted jokes. I certainly have nothing against homosexuals. Many of my dear friends have been and are of that persuasion. What I have got against them is the militant preaching of homosexuality."
24 hours, stories in most newspapers, items across the blogosphere and a ticking off from his Bishop later and this is what he has to say:
"I did not intend to cause any upset but I realise that the remarks were injudicious and I have caused offence. I want to issue an apology. I did not intend to cause offence when I made some joking remarks about homosexuals. I was not actually meaning to criticise individual homosexual persons, but the promoters of gay culture. However, my remarks have caused offence and for this I am sorry and make a full and complete apology."
Well, it's a step in the right direction, but "promoters of gay culture"? The next step would be for him to clarify exactly what he means by that. Either that or just go and join Christian Voice.

Update: Here's an idea – a satirical news site reports that, following Mullens' blog posts, the Church of England have "agreed to a reciprocal arrangement" for their clergy to receive tattoos: "We arrived at 'full of shit' after an extensive public consultation. Other popular suggestions were 'Ever so creepy' and 'I'm hard for Jesus'." [Thanks for the link Maria]

Check out Sarah Palin's Facebook page

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The web spoofs just keep on popping up – some joker has put together a Facebook page for Sarah Palin, and suffice to say it contains some amusing elements. She's married to "A Snowmobile Guy", her religion is "Jesusologist", her political views are "None - I'm not very political", she added Katie Couric as a friend and removed her 3 hours later, and groups she's a member of include “Evolution Schmevolution” and "MILFs for Jesus".

She also has some funny messages from other well-known figures on her "wall":
Vladimir Putin wrote ... "Sup girl? Thanks for adding me, yo. I seen how you be starin' at me from across the water. What don't you sail that fine phat ass over here?

John McCain wrote ... "Hey! You’re a woman, right? Are you busy for the next four years?"

Bristol Palin wrote ... "Mom, I've narrowed it down to 2 names. 1) Twix. 2) Spatula. Which one do you like better?"

Barack Obama wrote
... "Thanks for all your help, and keep up the good work! Hahaha! LOL!"

Jesus Christ wrote ... "You like me. We get it. Seriously, though, tone it the fuck down. WTF."
Unfortunately it's not an actual Facebook page, so you can't go on and add her as a friend as I initially tried to do. But still, it's pretty funny, and it's not as though Palin's completely anonymous on Facebook-proper. Should you feel the need, you can go and join such groups as "I have more foreign policy experience than Sarah Palin", "Excuse me, but has anyone else noticed that Sarah Palin is insane?" or "My Pet Rock Is More Qualified Than Sarah Palin To Be Vice President".

And in the name of balance you could always join "
Sarah Palin for Vice President (One Million Strong for Sarah)".

Human evolution has slowed down, says Steve Jones

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In a lecture to be delivered tonight at UCL, the geneticist Steve Jones (who contributed to our "Dinner with Darwin" feature earlier this year) will say that modern human population and reproductive patterns mean the evolution of our species has slowed dramatically.

The lecture is entitled "Human evolution is over", and this is how the media have been framing Jones' findings, although he's not quite saying that the process has stopped completely. Rather, he says that several factors have led to a slow-down, most strikingly the huge fall in the number of fathers over the age of 50, particularly in Western societies:
“Every time there is a cell division, there is a chance of a mistake, a mutation, an error. For a 29-year old father [the mean age of reproduction in the West] there are around 300 divisions between the sperm that made him and the one he passes on – each one with an opportunity to make mistakes. For a 50-year-old father, the figure is well over a thousand. A drop in the number of older fathers will thus have a major effect on the rate of mutation.”
Other factors are the increased life expectancy of humans, which has lowered the capacity for natural selection, and the sheer size of the human population:
"Humans are 10,000 times more common than we should be, according to the rules of the animal kingdom, and we have agriculture to thank for that. Without farming, the world population would probably have reached half a million by now – about the size of the population of Glasgow. Small populations which are isolated can evolve at random as genes are accidentally lost. World-wide, all populations are becoming connected and the opportunity for random change is dwindling. History is made in bed, but nowadays the beds are getting closer together. We are mixing into a global mass, and the future is brown."
You can listen to a recording of Jones discussing this on the Today programme this morning.

Jewel of Medina released in US

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Just a quick follow-up post on the controversy over Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina, the romantic novel about the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride Aisha that recently led to the firebombing of the home of Martin Rynja, owner of UK publishers Gibson Square.

The book has just been released in the United States by Beaufort Books, seemingly because, in light of the firebombing, they figured it might be a good idea for more than a handful of people to have read the book, as Beaufort's president, Eric Kampmann, explained:
"We felt that... it was better for everybody... to let the conversation switch from a conversation about terrorists and fearful publishers to a conversation about the merits of the book itself."
Reports say the British release is "in limbo", but with the book now out in the US reviews are already appearing. The LA Times seem to have got in there first, and here's what they have to say:
"The Jewel of Medina is a second-rate bodice ripper or, rather, a second-rate bodice ripper-style romance (it doesn't really have sex scenes). It's readable enough, but it suffers from large swaths of purple prose. "
So, worth all the fuss then?

Update: Read what Ayaan Hirsi Ali, herself a victim of extremist outrage, has to say about the Jewel of Medina controversy. Since the book came out she's been reading it quickly and has "barely found a trace" of anything that could be considered offensive to Muslims. She applauds publishers for their bravery in stepping up and publishing the book, but she's not impressed with Jones' "poorly written" effort:
"Ms Jones does not condemn Mohammed for having sex with Aisha at the age of nine. The sex scene is not described graphically and its conclusion for Aisha is described by Ms Jones as something Aisha always wanted. All the behavior considered immoral and misogynistic in the modern day Western attitudes that offends Muslims are repeated in the novel and affirmed. Rather than being a challenge to Islam, The Jewel of Medina is a pro-Islamic, Pro-Mohammed novel and could easily serve as propaganda material for any Muslim organization promoting the idea that Muslim women must not only accept the position that Islam ascribes to them but should also view that inferior position as a gift from God."

Monday, 6 October 2008

How not to blog – by a Church of England vicar

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Wow, this is shocking to say the least. The Guardian reports that Reverend Peter Mullen, chaplain to the London Stock Exchange, is facing disciplinary action over the content of his blog, which contained comments about homosexuals and Muslims that were, well, distasteful to say the least.

The blog's no longer online, but it's too late anyway as the key quotes have survived and made it into the news. Here's a rundown:
On homosexuality – "Let us make it obligatory for homosexuals to have their backsides tattooed with the slogan sodomy can seriously damage your health and their chins with fellatio kills."
On the Hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) – "They usually manage to stampede and slaughter quite a few hundred of their co-religionists. Just imagine for a moment what a field day the BBC and the leftwing press in England would have if anything even remotely as bad as that happened in Vatican Square at Christmas or Easter." (He also referred to any possible deaths as "agreeable carnage")
On Muslims in general – "[They] certainly lend themselves to ridicule: sticking their arses in the air five times a day. How about a few little choruses, 'Randy Muslims when they die/Find 70 virgins in the sky'?"
Apparently the Bishop of London was alerted to all this back in June, merely promising to "have a word", but now he's probably wishing he's taken further action at the time. As for Rev Mullen, he seems unrepentant. You see, he was just indulging in some "light-hearted jokes" in the grand "tradition of English satire":
"I wrote some satirical things on my blog and anybody with an ounce of sense of humour or any understanding of the tradition of English satire would immediately assume that they're light-hearted jokes. I certainly have nothing against homosexuals. Many of my dear friends have been and are of that persuasion. What I have got against them is the militant preaching of homosexuality."

Comment on Paul Heelas's "What lies beneath"

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We've just updated our main site's homepage (bye bye picture of Sarah and the Velociraptor), and it's now pointing people to Paul Heelas's piece from our current issue, in which he argues that even humanism could do with a spiritual angle. We've had lots of letters about this article, but we'd still love to hear what more of you think. That's what this post is for – leave your comments below.

Sarah Palin: Poet of the Northern Tundra

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I'm doing it again, aren't I? I've already blogged about Sarah once today and I was going to leave it be, but then Caspar (our editor) sends me two more amusing pieces and I really can't help but share them with you.

I wrote the other day about Palin's steady (but often nonsensical) platitudes, but that was before I realised she was actually reciting her own poetry. Thankfully, Slate have put me right on that one:

"Challenge to a Cynic"

You are a cynic.
Because show me where
I have ever said
That there's absolute proof
That nothing that man
Has ever conducted
Or engaged in,
Has had any effect,
Or no effect,
On climate change.

(To C. Gibson, ABC News, Sept. 11, 2008)
See. She's actually a poetic genius. Or as Hart Seely puts it in the Slate piece:
"In campaign interviews, the governor, mother, and maverick GOP vice presidential candidate has chosen to bypass the media filter and speak directly to fans through her intensely personal verses, spoken poems that drill into the vagaries of modern life as if they were oil deposits beneath a government-protected tundra."
Let's have another example:
"Haiku"

These corporations.
Today it was AIG,
Important call, there.

(To S. Hannity, Fox News, Sept. 18, 2008)
As if this wasn't enough, Slate's Kitty Burns Florey also takes a look at Palin's grammar, and needless to say it's amusing.

Last Palin post of the day? Let's see what happens between now and 5.30.

We love this site...

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You may have noticed from reading this blog that we're US politics buffs in the New Humanist office, which gives us good reason to share this site we just found via Normblog.

270 to Win has the full electoral maps for every Presidential election in US history (yes, including the 1860s, Lincoln fans) as well as, and this is the real winner, an interactive map of this year's election. It's already filled in based on opinion polls (in the current view, pictured here, Obama-Biden are on 265 and counting), but you can highlight the states in red or blue, thereby working out what might happen in various eventualities.

Enjoy (though if you've a job to do, be careful you don't waste your entire afternoon).

Journalists can't get near her, but now you can interview Sarah Palin

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In the world of internet notoriety, you haven't really made it until someone's designed a webpage that automatically generates what you might say in given situations (or in general). George Bush has got one, Julie Burchill has one, and now, perhaps inevitably, someone has designed one for Sarah Palin.

Therefore, I was able to ask Palin why Americans should elect John McCain. Here's what she told me:
"McCain has done, that has worked in Iraq that John McCain and I think it was AIG, important call there, though, because of the public trust. And that contract that should be wiped off the bat. When he offered me the position, as his running mate, that we work together on this. I think God's will has to exercise all options out there on the verbiage that Senator McCain chose to use them. So we have got to have nuclear weapons, what can we do about it. No way, not Americans. We do not have to stand for that. I see our country being able to go back and look at that as more opportunity."
Thanks to reader Maria for sending that in "Just to encourage you to keep up the Palin content on your blog". Don't worry Maria, we plan to keep on talking about Sarah right up until November 4th, after which point we can hopefully stop. She's just been too good for us – our blog's seen a bigger "Palin bounce" than John McCain, and unlike his it's still going strong. To be honest, if she didn't already exist we'd have had to create her. Now there's a scary thought.

No, no, no...

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Is Scientology on the verge of snaring itself an unlikely new recruit? If you believe what you read in the, err, celebrity gossip columns of the Sunday tabloids, troubled singer Amy Winehouse could be about to jump on board in order to try the Church's Narconon drugs rehabilitation programme. Here's the word on the grapevine, or what "a source" told a journalist:
“She had a call from the celebrity branch of the Church Of Scientology. She thinks they got her number through one of the American music producers who worked on her Back to Black album. They told her they wanted to help her beat drugs and could tailor-make a programme so she wouldn’t have to go to a residential centre. She liked that idea because her husband Blake is out of prison soon and wouldn’t want to be away from him when he’s finally freed.”
Hmm...

How to deal with crazy emails...

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I'm sure lots of you will already have seen this, but I stumbled across it this morning so thought I'd share it quickly. When you step on religious toes, you're bound to get the odd rambling, crazy email from raging fundamentalists. One option is to simply hit the delete key. Or you could read it out on national TV, as Richard Dawkins does here:

Friday, 3 October 2008

The week's final Palin post

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Thanks to Harry Hanbury of the American News Project for sending us his short film "Palin's Apocalypse", in which he asks why no journalist who's had access to the VP candidate has asked her if she believes in the End Times, the Anti-Christ and lots of other scary Apocalyptic stuff. Like Matt Damon with her views on dinosaurs, Hanbury says these matters are pretty important, given she could be Vice President and all.

The film takes a look at Palin's past statements, the churches she's been a member of, the beliefs of Pentecostals, and speculates what exactly she might believe in. Have a look for yourself:

YouTube, Islam and freedom of expression

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YouTube regularly gets accused of giving in to censorship requests from religious organisations, from Scientology to Catholicism. The latest controversy has been generated by the website seemingly acquiescing in a request to remove a video by Pat Condell, "Welcome to Saudi Britain". In doing so, they also suspended his account.

Condell's short, ranting monologues criticising organised religions and their adherents in no uncertain terms have achieved great popularity among atheists around the world (though I must admit, I'm not a fan), and this latest video focusses on the news that Sharia courts are operating in the UK and urges people to sign a petition calling for the banning of Sharia. He is critical of Saudi Arabia and its form of Islam, saying "we all know that that entire country is mentally ill", and it is thought this might be the reason for YouTube removing the clip.

Funnily enough, this coincides with a story I spotted online, which says the chairman of the Kuwaiti Human Rights Society has called on YouTube "to delete all derogatory statements about Islam and Muslims from the site".

Palin's steady platitudes

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Well, I woke up this morning looking forward to seeing the aftermath of a Joe Biden demolition job, but it wasn't to be. Check the news and the consensus is that, while Biden won, Palin held her own.

I've just been watching the debate on the BBC website, and it's hard to disagree. It's clear expectations weren't exactly high following Palin's embarrassing interview with Katie Couric last week, and many agree this helped to make last night's performance look better than it actually was.

Beacause here's the point – Palin doesn't really answer questions properly. She just reels off folksy nonsense (lots of "you betchas" and "darn rights"), and half the time it's difficult to even work out what she's talking about. I'll give you an example that relates to her religious beliefs, as it's most relevant to this blog. While neither candidate said they support gay marriage, they did address the issue of rights for same-sex couples. Here's what Biden said:
"The fact of the matter is that under the constitution, same-sex couples should be able to have visitation rights in the hospitals, joint ownership of property, life insurance policies, etc ... In an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple"
And here's what Palin said:
"If there's any kind of suggestion at all from my answer that I would be anything but tolerant of adults in America choosing their partners, choosing relationships that they deem best for themselves. You know, I am tolerant, and I have a very diverse family and group of friends, and even within that group you would see some who may not agree with me on this issue, some very dear friends who don't agree with me on this issue. But in that tolerance, also, no one would ever propose, in a McCain-Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital, or contracts being signed, negotiated between parties. But, I will tell Americans straight-up that I don't support defining marriage as anything but between one man and one woman, and I think through nuances we can go round and round about what that actually means, but I'm being as straight-up with Americans as I can in my non-support for anything but a traditional definition of marriage."
See what I mean? It's hard to get a straight answer from her, and she seems to lack any in-depth political knowledge. For anyone who expects that from someone who might end up being President, rather than mere populist platitudes, Biden clearly won the day.

Another telling exchange occurred, as Michael Tomasky points out, when the moderator asked them for their views on Dick Cheney's vice-presidency, which has seen him expand the position's powers and argue that it's part of the legislative branch. While Biden delivered a spot-on answer, it was the one question Palin wasn't prepared for and she stumbled through it embarassingly.

I've found the Cheney part of the debate on YouTube – it'll give you a good idea of what I'm talking about:



Update: Palin did make one clear gaffe - she repeatedly referred to US General David McKiernan, who's played a significant role in Iraq and Afghanistan, as General McLellan, who history students will know was commander of the Army of the Potomac in the opening year of the American Civil War. It seems Biden kindly ignored the gaffe, rather than opting to correct Palin.