Monday, 21 December 2009

Robin Ince interviewed at the end of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

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Here's the man himself, Robin Ince, talking to us backstage at the end of his magnificent 6-night Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People celebration. He talks about why the shows are so important, what he hopes people can take away from them, and why they'll be back next year. He also talks about how annoying the media misrepresentation of the opening night's Johnny Ball climate change denial episode has been. Enjoy.

Watch the rest of our backstage videos on our YouTube channel.

Dara O Briain backstage at the Apollo Nine Lessons show

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Told you Nathalie filmed practically everyone - here's Dara O Briain!

Watch all the rest on our YouTube channel.

Al Murray backstage at the Apollo Nine Lessons show

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As promised, we were backstage last night at the grand finale of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, which took place at the 3,500 capacity Hammersmith Apollo. And what a night it was – the orchestra was beefed up to a full 25-piece group, and some stellar names were added to the bill, including Mark Steel, Dara O Briain and Al Murray, who delivered a hilarious take on science, God and bacon as the Pub Landlord. Here he is talking to us backstage:

All our backstage video was filmed by social media expert Nathalie McDermott, who kindly gave up a few of her evenings to help us out. She deserves a huge thank-you - I'm sure you'll all agree with us that she's produced some fantastic backstage content. You can view all the videos at our YouTube channel - Nathalie managed to record practically everyone on the bill, including Dara O Briain, Stewart Lee, Alan Moore, Brian Cox and loads more. Do check it out.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Censorship row at Index on Censorship

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The campaigning magazine and organisation Index on Censorship, the most reliable and pugnacious monitor of abuses against freedom of expression, has become involved in an internal censorship row of its own. It came about when they published an interview in their December issue with Jytte Klausen, author of The Cartoons That Shook The World, about the fact that Yale, who published the book, declined to include the very cartoons the book was about. A clear and pretty stupid act of censorship which we, and Index, denounced.

Now a similar row has erupted inside Index over the decision taken by their board (with one dissension) not to republish any of the cartoons to accompany the interview with Klausen. Unusually Index have made this debate public - first by publishing a statement by chair Jonathan Dimbleby explaining why they did not include the cartoons (it comes down to staff safety) and second publishing a response from the dissenting member of the board (who was not at the meeting in question), Kenan Malik, deploring the decision.

Being the editor of a magazine that makes critical and satirical comments about many religions, and having written a book on the subject this year, I know too well what a thorny issue this is - staff safety does matter, as does the question of context. I can't say for sure what I - or my board - would do in these circumstances. But for a magazine whose very mission is to oppose censorship, who are publishing a piece precisely about the craven way in which Yale dropped the cartoons from a book where they would have clearly been relevant, on the basis of the possibility of a threat and no more (as Kenan points out), just seems... well very worrying. In particular it will provide grist to the mill of fuckwits who bang on about liberal double standards and cowardice (you can just feel the 'You couldn't make it up' headlines being mocked up by hacks countrywide) and threatens to damage the reputation of a very important organisation at a time when we need them most.

I wonder if the Index board read the statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship (they should have as it was cross posted on the Index site. Specifically this bit:
"The incident at Yale provides an opportunity to re-examine our commitment to free expression. When an [academic] institution of such standing asserts the need to suppress scholarly work because of a theoretical possibility of violence ['somewhere in the world'], it grants legitimacy to censorship and casts serious doubt on their, and our, commitment to freedom of expression in general, and academic freedom in particular."
This is precisely Kenan Malik's point and I wonder if in this case a different, dare one say braver, stand on this kind of issue wouldn't have provided a better example. If Index won't take a stand against implied threats for perfectly legitimate acts, who will?

I hope that it doesn't blow up and get ugly (though I fear it might), and I commend them for making this public.

(... although this is a serious matter I couldn't help but be amused by what Dimbleby implies in this sentence: "The idea that no-one except a handful of like-minded anoraks would notice their appearance in Index seemed to us to be at best naïve." Which means that someone within Index tried to justify the publication of the cartoons on the basis that no one but a few anoraks (meaning their own readers) would notice.)

Stewart Lee backstage at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

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Told you we filmed lots of backstage clips – here's Stewart Lee talking about why he's so keen to be involved with Robin Ince's rational Christmas celebrations, and why Johnny Ball was entitiled to express his views on climate change:

You can see all our other backstage videos by visiting our brand new YouTube channel.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Rapper Baba Brinkman rounds up last night's Nine Lessons show

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After the Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People show at the Bloomsbury Theatre last night, we grabbed Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman, who's on the bill performing bits of his wonderful Rap Guide to Evolution, and asked him to sum up the night's proceedings using a spot of freestyle rap. Here's the brilliant result:

Alan Moore backstage at last night's Nine Lessons show

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We managed to catch up with legendary graphic novellist Alan Moore before the show last night - here he is explaining why he joined the bill, why we need rational celebrations like Nine Lessons, and demonstrating his amazing outfit:

Johnny Ball backstage at last night's Nine Lessons show

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As promised, we've now uploaded a series of videos taken backstage at last night's Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People – you can check them all out by visiting our YouTube channel, where you can see Alan Moore, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Chris Addison and more. But to get you started, here's controversial man of the moment Johnny Ball discussing what happened on the opening night, when he was booed off stage for questioning man made climate change (and overrunning by 13 minutes!):

Theological Christmas pop quiz

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Is the meaning of Christmas:

a) a spiritual male God sending down sperm so a child would be born?


b) the power of love in our midst as seen in Jesus?

(Taken from the words of the vicar of St Matthew-in-the-City Church in Auckland, NZ, in this very, very funny Christmas outrage story over the pictured billboard. You have to go and read it.)

Nine Lessons Round Two - a denial free evening

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So, the second Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People show took place last night, minus the previous evening's climate change denial controversy (which has even made it into today's Sun and Daily Mail). Johnny Ball played it safe this time, albeit with a nod to earlier events ("It's cold outside - must be climate change"), while one of the clear highlights has to have been graphic novel legend Alan Moore explaining the rational basis for his worship of a second-century Roman snake god named Glycon. I've nicked this pic of Moore taken by Mr Skeptics in the Pub Sid Rodrigues from the side of the stage (sorry Sid!) - maybe you can just make out his fantastic pink robe/ magical overcoat, which he explained was fashioned from a handmade Indian sari, specially for his daughter's wedding.

We were backstage filming lots of short interviews with the acts, which we'll be posting this afternoon – we have interviews with Moore, Johnny Ball, Richard Herring, Stewart Lee, Jo Neary, Josie Long, Simon Singh, Chris Addison, Brian Cox... everyone, basically. So check back here later to dip into those. In the meantime, here's a round-up of what people have been saying about last night's show on Twitter - there's a very lively hashtag going for the show, #GodlessChristmas, so be sure to use that if you're tweeting about it.
Am assuming that calling a show with Alan Moore "Godless" is the epitome of irony. (@Mikey_X)

Very much enjoying #godlesschristmas. John Otway was hilarious and Johnny Ball behaved himself. (@melstarrs)
Johnny Ball's reputation redeemed with better judged Galileo routine this eve. Excellent show with so many highlights. (@class_war)
Excellent first half-hard to pick a best bit, though seeing Alan Moore was a privilege. How are they going to follow that? (@sarlitchin)

Regardless of what Johnny Ball said yesterday, I still prefer his optimism to Monbiot's 'fuck humanity' column this week. (@JamesGraham)

#GodlessChristmas an absolute triumph so far. Huge banter in green room. Just heard Alan Moore say "that was when I was on acid... (@njhamer - member of the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra)
So, as you can see, Alan Moore was the major talking point. Remember - come back this afternoon to see our interview with him backstage.

Remember : there are still some tickets available for Sunday's show at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo. That bill includes Richard Dawkins, Al Murray, Dara O Briain, Mark Steel, Shappi Khorsandi, Brian Cox, Jim Bob from Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and, yes, Johnny Ball, so get your tickets now to make sure you don't miss out.

[Photo credit: Sid Rodrigues]

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Odd-Ball: Nine Lessons and Carols gets off to a bizarre start

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Well, last night saw an eventful start to this year's run of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. As a flustered Robin Ince opened proceedings, fresh from worrying when the first act was going to turn up, the audience were treated to a fantastic first half featuring Chris Addison (arrived 90 seconds before he was due onstage), Shappi Khorsandi, Simon Singh, Richard Wiseman, Jo Neary and many more, which was rounded off with surreal punk legend John Otway performing his Top Ten science-homework-based hit Bunsen Burner (here he is doing it on Top of the Pops, complete with Richard Blackwood intro). A very special mention here has to go to the BHA Choir, who stepped up to provide some fantastic, entirely unrehearsed, backing singing (and dancing) on the back of about half an hour's notice. They've only been together for a few months, and have never performed on a stage as large as last night, so they deserve to be feeling very pleased with themselves this morning!

After the interval, things continued in a similar vein, with hilarious sets from Richard Herring, Josie Long and  Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman, and a cautionary tale from Ben Goldacre on the truth behind the MMR vaccine scare. But then, not so long after Mr Bad Science himself addressed the crowd, things took a turn for the, well, weird as Johnny Ball, the man responsible for introducing a whole generation of British children to maths and science, took to the stage. To begin with, he treated us to a Butlins Redcoat / Northern stand-up / children's TV science presenter intro, but soon followed this with a George Formby-influenced climate change denial song, which segued into a lecture on the "fallacy" of man-made climate change (it's the spiders and insects wot did it, y'see). After overrunning by more than 10 minutes, he left the stage to boos, jeers and a slow hand clap, in what has to be the most surreal moment we've seen at our Godless Christmas shows. You can see what comedy site Chortle had to say about it here. It's even ended up as a news story on the Daily Telegraph website.

Suffice to say, the festive atmosphere had changed somewhat by the time Ball left the stage, and it fell to Peter Buckley-Hill to pull everyone back from the denialist brink with a fun song about what would happen if he had no letter "x" (one for the "x"-denialists, maybe?). The recovery task was then completed in stunning fashion by Dara O Briain, who tagged a few minutes of incredible Ball-related improvisation on to his set. No doubt this, for many people, was the highlight of the night (I know it was for me). Rounding off the evening, we had the legendary Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden bringing down the house with their hilarious song "Peace and Quiet".

So, that was just the first night, and already we have some major talking points! We do it all over again at the Bloomsbury tonight, and with Ball scheduled for a reappearance, who knows what could happen? And if spiders causing climate change wasn't weird enough, tonight there will be an appearance by graphic novelist Alan Moore, who "worships" a Roman snake deity named Glycon. What more could you want from a "rational celebration for Christmas"?

There's a lot of online chatter surrounding the shows, especially on Twitter using the hashtag #GodlessChristmas, so if you're into that than please come and get involved - remember to use the hashtag, and be sure to follow us (@NewHumanist). We're going to have some special treats from backstage later this week too, so keep following the blog and Twitter to make sure you don't miss out.

And finally, if all this has whetted your appetite and you don't have tickets for the Bloomsbury shows, remember there are still some tickets available for Sunday's show at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo. That bill includes Richard Dawkins, Al Murray, Dara O Briain, Mark Steel, Shappi Khorsandi, Brian Cox, Jim Bob from Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and, yes, Johnny Ball, so get your tickets now to make sure you don't miss out.

And with that, I'm off to prepare for tonight. It's turning into quite a week...

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Intelligent Design textbook sent to UK schools

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A few days ago we received an email from a concerned reader, who just so happens to be the librarian at a school in Wales. Here's what he had to say:
This morning I received through the post a "review copy" of a "textbook" titled Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism, from Hill House Publishers. The publicity sheet accompanying it states the book "promotes enquiry-based based learning, encouraging students to participate in the process of discovery, deliberation and argument that scientists use to form their theories... The textbook is ideally suited for use in the classroom and for teachers who wish to increase their understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of modern evolutionary theory."

The publicity sheet is produced by an organisation called "Truth in Science", based in Cambridge, UK. Intrigued, and suspicious, I Googled them along with the title of the book, to be directed to a website accompanying the book hosted as part of a "program" called The Centre for Science and Culture, hosted by the Discovery Institute. According to the website, the CSC, amongst other things, "supports research by scientists and other scholars challenging various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory" and "supports research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design". The Discovery Institute describes itself as a "nonpartisan public policy think tank", but in fact promotes a heavily right-wing libertarian agenda with Christian fundamentalist leanings.

Immediately all became clear. The "textbook" is in essence a vehicle for smuggling in the idea of intelligent design by the back door. The claim that it ‘increase[s] ... understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of modern evolutionary theory’ is, to put it politely, verging on the disingenuous.

As both a school librarian entrusted with helping teachers shape the minds of young citizens and promote critical enquiry, and as a citizen concerned with the quality of public education in this county, I am worried that this book, which will have undoubtedly been sent to other schools, might be taken at face value and find its way into libraries and classrooms.

I’d therefore be grateful if you could help spread the truth about this book, both to illustrate one of the underhand ways in which proponents of intelligence design – who include, it appears from the publicity sheet, some scientists holding senior posts in respectable academic institutions – seek to propagate their beliefs, and to assist librarians, teachers and others interested in promoting a proper understanding of science and society.
So, it seems that the American creationists at the notorious Discovery Institute, in association with their British disciples at "Truth in Science" (you really need the inverted commas when you write their name), have adopted what we might call the "Adnan Oktar method" of sending your material to as many educational establishments as possible in the hope that a few of them might be gullible enough to place it in the libraries. Of course, it's to be hoped that most school librarians are as vigilant as the reader who emailed us, but as he says, it's still possible that some copies might slip through and this pseudoscience will end up in school libraries. So, let's make sure it's widely known that "Truth in Science" are using these tactics, so that schools know how to spot this kind of nonsense when it crashes through their letterbox – the British Centre for Science Education are aware of the matter, and are asking people to let them know if their local schools have been receiving the book.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Sing with the BHA Choir

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Tomorrow sees the start of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, our six-night Godless Christmas extravaganza at the Bloomsbury Theatre and the Hammersmith Apollo (there are still tickets for the Hammersmith show). Suffice to say we're very excited about this, and since we're feeling all seasonal (in a distinctly irreligious way), now seems like a great time to plug the British Humanist Association's Choir, which will be appearing at a couple of the shows.
The BHA Choir are Britain's first humanist choir, and they meet every Tuesday evening at the BHA building in Gower Street, London. All are welcome, and I'm reliably informed that if you go along you'll get to "perform a range of music in a relaxed environment including pieces written specially by resident composer William Morris". For more information, contact the BHA.

The choir even have a festive single, "Gathering Round the Fire", out now, with lyrics and music by William Morris and choir member Jess Smith – you can download it via Amazon.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Free speech is not for sale

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Things are hotting up in the campaign to reform England's archaic and unfair libel laws with the launch today of the Libel Reform Campaign which brings together three organisations who have been working separately on the issue up til now - PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. For the past year PEN and Index have been working on the issue and in November released a report which makes ten very clear recommendations about how the law should be changed so that it can no longer be used as a way to bully dissenters into silence. Meanwhile Sense About Sense galvanized support for Simon Singh in his libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association, through the Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign. They have now pooled their resources (and got funding from the Open Society Institute) in the new campaign - which is using the strapline Free Speech is Not For Sale.

Today's launch at the Law Society in Central London featured an appropriately diverse line-up of scientists, performers and secularists (many of whom, I was glad to see, have written for New Humanist and/or will be performing at Nine Lessons). after intros from John Kampfner for Index, Jonathan Heawood for PEN, and Tracey Brown from Sense About Science (doesn't seem quite right to refer to them as 'SAS') the big-name guests were asked to say a few words about why they supported the campaign and sign a petition. Dara O Briain was up first, followed by Simon Singh, Raymond Tallis, Alexei Sayle, Richard Wiseman, Anthony Grayling, Dave Gorman, Robin Ince, Marcus Chown, Jim Al Khalil, Edzard Ernest - each were pleasingly pithy and many very funny, including the lawyer who spoke at the end (didn't catch his name but he is representing Peter Wilmshurst in his libel case) who said of the notorious Justice Eady, with pointed sarcasm, "Far be it from me to criticise one of the best legal minds this country has. He [Eady] has forgotten more law than I will ever know."

Lib Dem MP (and staunch secularist) Evan Harris spoke at the end about the political prospects - and was quite upbeat about the possibility of getting a commitment to libel reform into election manifestos for all three parties (he said once one of them puts it in the rest are likely to follow just in case it's a vote winner). Justice Secretary Jack Straw has made positive noises, although whether he will be in a position to do anything much about it remains to be seen.

Needless to say the Rationalist Association strongly supports the idea of reform, and the sensible ideas laid out in the Index/PEN report.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Can you help raise funds for a Ugandan girls football team?

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In the past few years, British and international humanist groups have been very active in supporting secular education in Africa, particularly in Uganda (see our own Mustard Seed Secular School appeal). Since October, the Central London Humanist Group (CLHG) have been raising funds for Emitos Girls Humanist Football Club, a Kampala-based football team for girls aged 12-20. Of course, Emitos FC is about much more than success on the pitch – its aims, as explained by CLHG, are as follows:
  • Build confidence and self esteem among young girls and to help them build their careers as future leaders. The players develop confidence, express their unique talents and compete with boys for the same opportunities. It encourages the attitude “If I can play football, what else can I achieve?"
  • Deepen the girls' understanding of the humanistic values and principles such as the importance of reason, self discipline, achievement and courage, and controlling one’s own destiny. This will help the players to transform their lives as young women and the societies they come from.
  • Train girls in management and leadership skills. Through experience managing tournaments, matches and their role in the team, the girls learn to manage the activities in life more widely.
  •  Educate girls on issues of sexual and reproductive health. The players are at an age particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and good need health education is needed to avoid unsafe sex and early pregnancies.
  •  Help girls to stay in school for longer. Girls football is such an interesting and exciting adventure in Uganda, which one would not like to miss. Hence, while at school, football makes every moment of their lives precious and exciting.
  • Help girls learn to socialise with other adolescents from other schools. This will teach them to deal with the challenges they encounter in their adolescent life. They need to share everyday life experiences with friends and to belong to significant communities of interaction, inquiry, work and play.
The CLHG are aiming to raise £3,700 for Emitos, which will help buy everything from balls and boots to workshops on reproductive heath and HIV/AIDS. If you'd like to donate, you can do so via this fundraising page. And if you're based in London, you can also help by attending a book sale tomorrow evening (Wednesday 9th) at Amnesty's Human Rights Action Centre in Shoreditch, 4-9pm. There'll be an excellent selection of second hand books to choose from (we've sent a stack from the NH office), as well as several signed copies of new books including The Atheist's Guide to Christmas by Ariane Sherine, Against the Faith: Some Deists, Sceptics and Atheists by Jim Herrick and On Humanism by Richard Norman, which have been donated by their authors.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Noah's Ark Zoo Farm expelled from British zoo association

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After I wrote about the insidious creationism on display at Noah's Ark Zoo Farm near Bristol at the end of the summer, the story moved on somewhat – in October the focus shifted from creationism to allegations that the zoo had been breeding animals for the Great British Circus, which is the last circus company in Britain to use live animals in its productions.

As a result of the allegations, Noah's Ark was suspended from the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria (BIAZA), which had previously defended the zoo when it came under fire over creationism. And now the BBC reports that the zoo has been expelled from BIAZA, which has released the following statement:
"The reasons for termination are due to a refusal to provide BIAZA with information when requested and entering into an arrangement with the Great British Circus, which contravenes the Animal Transaction Policy, despite having been warned of possible consequences.

"Council believes that the behaviour of NAZF has brought the association into disrepute and that there has been a breakdown of trust between BIAZA and NAZF, and this has unfortunately resulted in a parting of the ways."
Responding to the expulsion, the zoo says it will return its tigers to their owner, who also owns the Great British Circus. In a statement, owner Anthony Bush said:
"We were given the tigers by Lynctrek, a private breeding centre. The owner of this company also owns The Great British Circus. The tigers we were donated never performed in a circus. One had been trained to work in films and did a promotional video. However, we have decided to give the tigers back and concentrate on our extensive collection loved by visitors. My whole aim, since I started Noah's Ark in 1998 has been to treat animals with care, kindness and absolute respect. We also endeavour to breed endangered species and contribute to conservation."

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Nigerian evangelical sues humanists for obstructing her "anti-witchcraft" activities

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Earlier this year, we reported in our print edition on the violent disruption of a conference on Witchcraft and Children's Rights organised by the Nigerian Humanist Movement in Calabar, Nigeria. The meeting was invaded by more than 200 supporters of the Liberty Gospel Church (there's a YouTube video here), a ministry responsible for shocking persecution of Nigerians it suspects of "witchcraft". The Nigerian humanists, led by their fearless director Leo Igwe (pictured here), have been campaigning to publicise the activities of Christian churches responsible for such activities – many of those accused of witchcraft are children, and whole families have had their homes destroyed and been driven from their villages as a result.

The Liberty Gospel Church's leader, Helen Ukpabio, has taken exception to the humanist campaign – she was behind the attack on the conference in July, and we learn this week from Igwe that she is now suing him for supposedly violating her Christians rights by campaigning against her persecution of "witches". In a press release distributed to members of the International Humanist and Ethical Union this week, Igwe explained:
"Helen applied to the Federal High Court in Calabar for the enforcement of her fundamental rights. She claimed, among other things,that the conference on Witchcraft and Child Rights, held on July 29 in Calabar – which her members disrupted – and the arrest of her church members on the said date constituted an infringement on their rights to practice their christian religious belief relating to witchcraft. She asked the court to issue perpetual injunctions restraining me and others -
From interfering with their practice of christianity and their deliverance of people with witchcraft spirit.
From holding seminars or workshops denouncing the christian religious belief in witchcraft
From arresting her and her church members etc.
Helen asked the court to order that I, the Akwa Ibom state government, Sam Ituama, CRARN [Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network] and Gary Foxcroft [of charity Stepping Stones Nigeria] pay her 200 billion naira (800,000 US Dollars) as damages for unlawful and unconstitutional infringement on her rights to belief in God, Satan, witchcraft, Heaven and Hell fire and for unlawful and unconstitutional detention of her two church members."
As the recent Channel 4 documentary Return to Africa's Witch Children (UK viewers can still watch on 4OD) highlighted, the violent persecution by fundamentalists of those accused of witchcraft is a widespread and horrific problem in Nigeria and throughout Africa. Humanist campaigners such as Igwe, along with charities such as Stepping Stones Nigeria, are bravely standing up to these abuses, and they deserve all the support we can give them. Igwe faces a court hearing on 17 December and he intends to fight the case brought against him by Helen Ukpabio, as he explained in the press release:
"It is obvious that Helen Ukpabio is a crook. She has transformed her so called Liberty Gospel Church into a criminal gang. Helen and her church members want evade arrest and prosecution by all means. Otherwise how could one explain the reason behind these frivolous allegations and trumped-up charges. Particularly how does one explain why this so called woman of God has gone to court asking that I pay her damages (who should actually pay each other damages?), after her church members under her directive, disrupted our conference, beat me up, stole my bag and made away with other personal belongings. Helen Ukpabio should be ready to face justice and answer for her crimes. She should be ready to pay damages to thousands of children who have been tortured, traumatized, abused and abandoned as a result of her misguided ministry. Helen should be ready to pay for the damage she has done to many homes and households across Nigeria through her witchcraft schemes and other fraudulent activities. She should be ready to pay compensation to all care givers and child rights advocates who have been attacked, harrassed and robbed by her gangs and goons.
So, whatever the mischief this vicious woman and her rag tag ministry are planning, I am convinced that at the end of the day, reason, justice and human rights will prevail."
We'll endeavour to provide more information on the case here as and when we receive it from Igwe.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Brits 2, Scientologists 0

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It's nice to see the Brits sticking it to the Scientologists - first I read how English Heritage have turned down an application from the cult's supporters to place a blue plaque on a building once occupied by founder L Ron Hubbard in London's Fitzroy Street, and then I read this story on how Winston Churchill's descendants are threatening legal action over a Scientology poster (pictured) which uses the wartime PM's image. The poster was aimed at recruiting new Scientologists to work, funnily enough, at the same Fitzroy Street building for which English Heritage denied the blue plaque.

Churchill's grandson, the former Tory MP also named Winston Churchill, explained how he had asked lawyers to write to the Church on his behalf:
"Gordon Wise at [law firm] Curtis Brown has written the Scientologists a letter protesting, on my instructions. Predictably, nothing has been received in return. The family finds it very offensive that an organisation not only as controversial, but some might say as disreputable, as the Church of Scientology should be trying to use my grandfather's likeness and quotes in furtherance of their recruiting.

"We have strong objections to the implication that our grandfather, if he were alive, would have something to do with Scientology. In fact, he wouldn't have touched an outfit like that with a bargepole. I can't represent too strongly how much we resent the suggestion that he would. They have no right, or permission, to use his name or likeness, and I hope they now respect my grandfather and his family's wishes."

There a couple of choice quotes there that I'm sure we'll be reusing in the future. And as for the blue plaque, the Telegraph report that prospective plaque suspects must have been dead for at least 20 years, and have made an "important positive contribution to human welfare or happiness". A source involved in the decision to deny Hubbard a plaque said:

"The decision was on the grounds that he wasn't well known or well respected enough. Controversies surrounding him come into the well-respected bit. The committee was not divided on this, I think."

The Scientolgists, of course, dispute the decision but, sadly for them, an English Heritage rule states that no application can be reconsidered until ten years after rejection. In the meantime, perhaps Hubbard's followers can console themselves with our representation of how his blue plaque might have looked.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Back from the dead?

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You'll no doubt have seen the story, reported around the world this week, of Rom Houben, a 46-year-old Belgian who is said to have been conscious for 23 years while doctors believed him to be in a coma. You may have read quotes attributed to Houben, such as "I will never forget the day they finally discovered what was wrong. It was my second birth", and wondered who is the woman in the photos, who holds Houben's hand while he supposedly types his messages into a special computer.

It was the presence of this woman – Houben's "helper" – that set alarm bells ringing among sceptics, including James Randi, who suspected that a discredited technique known as "facilitated communication" was being used to produce the words attributed to Houben. On our website we have just published a piece by Nicholas Pearson, in which he examines the Houben story and explains the contrioversial history of facilitated commuinication. Here's how he describes the technique:
"The main point of contention is the use of Houben’s “helper”, as this appears to be a case of “Facilitated Communication” (FC), a controversial technique that has previously been used with profoundly autistic children and other communicatively-impaired individuals. In facilitated communication the facilitator supports the arm of an incapacitated person while using a keyboard or similar device to spell out words and sentences. In cases involving autistic children this was found to be due to the ideomotor effect – the facilitators were typing, unaware of their own unconscious movement. The same phenomenon has been investigated and found to be responsible for dowsing and Ouija boards."
Pearson's article is an important reminder of the need for scepticism when we encounter stories of apparent "medical miracles" in the press. You can read the whole piece over on our main website.

Mark Steel added to Nine Lessons bill, HMV Hammersmith Apollo, 20 December

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We're pleased to announce that comedian Mark Steel has just been added to the bill for Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People at HMV Hammersmith Apollo on Sunday 20 December. We're looking forward to seeing Steel to bring a spot of angry socialism to the godless proceedings at Hammersmith. He wasn't on the bill last year, but he did make a contribution to our advent podcasts series – why not revisit that and hear his suggestion for an annual celebration of the life of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, in place of the Baby Jesus.

Steel joins a fantastic bill that already features Richard Dawkins, Al Murray, Dara O Briain, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden, Simon Singh, Richard Herring, Robyn Hitchcock, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Brian Cox, Shappi Khorsandi, Baba Brinkman, Martin White's Mystery Fax Machine Chamber Orchestra, all hosted by Robin Ince.

Tickets are selling fast, but there are still some available – if you haven't already booked, be sure to do so now to avoid disappointment. Tickets are priced £25 or £27.50, and are on sale now from the box office on 08448 444 748 or via the Ticketmaster website. The show is produced in association with the Rationalist Association and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Mustard Seed Secular School in Uganda.

With 5 nights at the Bloomsbury Theatre already sold out, this is your last chance to see Nine Lessons this year – with a line-up like this, you wouldn't want to miss out, would you?

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Boots' cynical stance on homeopathy

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There's something of a backlash taking place online against Boots today, after their professional standards director Paul Bennett admitted before a parliamentary committee yesterday that the chain sell homeopathic remedies because they sell, even though they know there is no scientific evidence that they actually work. Here's the key quote from the Daily Telegraph's report:
"There is certainly a consumer demand for these products," [Bennett] said. "I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious. "It is about consumer choice for us and a large number of our customers believe they are efficacious."
Bennett was speaking before House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, as part of a parliamentary investigation into the evidence behind homeopathy. The committe heard evidence from scpetics such as Dr Ben Goldacre, Edzard Ernst and Tracey Brown of Sense About Science, as well as advocates for homeopathy. You can read the Guardian's live blog (well, it was live yesterday) from the hearing for a full recap.

As I said, Bennett's comments have stirred up lots of criticsim of Boots online, including this excellent open letter from the Merseyside Sceptics Society, which I think sums up the argument rather well. Here's a snippett:

We call upon Boots to withdraw all homeopathic products from your shelves. You should not be involved in the sale of ineffective products, because your customers trust you to do what is right for their health. Surely you agree that your commitment to excellent patient care is better served by supplying only those products whose claims can be substantiated by rigorous scientific research? Or do you really believe that Boots should be in the business of selling placebos to the sick and the injured?

The support lent by Boots to this quack therapy contributes directly to its acceptance as a valid medical treatment by the British public, acceptance it does not warrant and support it does not deserve. Please do the right thing, and remove this bogus therapy from your shelves.

As the Merseyside Sceptics point out, as the leading pharmacy in Britain, a lot of people trust Boots, and the chain itself boasts a commitment to "providing easy access to quality healthcare services". By putting a product on its shelves, Boots immediately lends that product a degree of credibility. This is demonstrated by what Robert Wilson, chairman of the British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers, told the committee yesterday:

"Boots are a very important retailer, they sell a great deal of these products. If these products don't work beyond the placebo effect, why do people keep buying them?"
It'll be interesting to see how Boots respond to the criticism - this is certainly a story to keep an eye on.

PZ Myers profiled in New Scientist & do atheists need rituals?

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We're pleased to see that all that godless blogging has earned PZ Myers – whose blog Pharyngula is the world's most popular atheist blog by quite some way – a profile in New Scientist. And a very good profile it is, too. As we know from the times we've spoken to PZ (recording podcasts, for example), he's a softly-spoken and extremely friendly fellow, and nothing like the intolerant hardline atheist his opponents would like to paint him as. That's exactly how PZ comes across in the New Scientist profile, and in the process he expresses a sentiment I think we can all get behind:
Myers's inflammatory acts and language would lead one to suspect him of being overtly aggressive, yet in person he is soft spoken and his views seem rather measured. While he affirms the right of atheists not to respect religious differences, he adds, "We don't want that to lead to the point where you can say, 'You don't have to respect people being different at all.' That isn't true. I think diversity is a great thing. Disrespect for ideas, great. Disrespect for people, not so great."
Meanwhile, over on Pharyngula, PZ also touches on one of the big debates that's always raging within humanism – the extent to which non-religious movements should resemble, or provide a replacement for, religion (or that matter, whether they should even amount to anything that could be called a movement). PZ was addressing the issue in relation to the work of Greg Epstein, who is Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. He's the subject of this profile in the Boston Phoenix, which suggests that the conciliatory approach he takes in his new book Good Without God: What a Million Nonreligious People Do Believe could be more successful than the combative approach of the "new atheists" in gaining greater acceptance for non-belief,. particularly in the US. As a humanist chaplain, Epstein believes that humanism, if it is to be successful, must retain some of the ceremonial and organisational aspects of religion, saying such things "don't exist because God said so; they evolved because people needed them. Even if we're honest about religion, we're still going to need those human inventions."

PZ Myers, unsurprisingly, disagrees with this view, as he explained to the Phoenix:
"I think it is very, very nice of Greg Epstein to want to ape religion, and maybe there will even be some people who find his ideas appealing. However, I'd remind him that just as we can be good without god, we can also be good without rituals, good without sacraments, [and] good without priests and chaplains. . . . I can appreciate that he's offering a small step away from the old superstitions, but we can go so much further."
It's a debate we've covered lots of times at New Humanist, and no doubt it will continue to crop up again and again. Do you think the godless need chaplains and rituals, or should we be ditching that kind of thing altogether? Share your view by commenting on this post.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Theos release lengthy report on creationism in the UK

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Via Andrew Brown's Guardian blog, I was interested to learn that the Christian think tank Theos has just released a major report (PDF) looking at the creationism in the UK. The full document (PDF) is a lengthy 152 pages, although both Brown's blog and the summary on the Theos website give a sense of the findings it contains.

Theos commissioned the "independent ethnographic research agency" ESRO to carry out the study on their behalf, and the finished report draws on "50 in-depth interviews with creationists and other evolution sceptics". One of its major findings is that creationism in this country in no way resembles a coherent movement. In fact, the use of the word "movement" is entirely out of place:
"This implies a unity where there is, in fact, only divergence and disunity. On issues as broad as the interpretation and importance of Scripture, the philosophy of science, the geological age of the earth, the relationship between science and faith, and even the central question of descent with modification, there is considerable disagreement."
I don't think that this will come as a surprise to anyone who has had some experience with British creationism. While there are some large (certainly well-funded) American organisations such as the Discovery Institute and the ludicrous Answers in Genesis, we (thankfully) don't have anything comparable here in the UK. And there's certainly no ideological unity – for example one of Britain's better-known creationists Anthony Bush, the proprietor of Noah's Ark Zoo Farm near Bristol which I wrote about earlier this year, advocates his very own “creation plus evolution” theory. He told me his "paradigm is radical" – others might argue he's making it up as he goes along.

The report also suggests that, while many secluar opponents of creationism paint opponents of evolution as "anti-science", this is not strictly the case, as many have an active interest in science and try to reconcile the two. It also, perhaps unsurprisingly for a Christian think tank, argues that the way to argue against creationism is not with the use of "fierce rebuttal and public derision in the mode of Richard Dawkins". Creationists, the report suggests, are eager to engage in debate:
"The evolution-sceptical community is not really what reputation would make it. Listening carefully – knowing who ‘creationists’ really are and what they really think – is a first step to understanding the roots of their antagonism. In time, this understanding could undergird strategies which improve public engagement with science."
This, of course, sounds reasonable enough. But it's preceeded by the usual caricature of aggressive secularists shouting down what they see as stupid creationists, which as always misunderstands the stance of Dawkins and other scientists. Just because Dawkins won't take the stage in debate with such people (he famously said it would look better on their CV than his), doesn't mean he's unwilling to enagage with them. His new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, is all about laying out the incontrovertible evidence for evolution for anyone who may have their doubts about it. And having read it myself recently I have to say that, if anyone reads it properly and still comes away a creationist, then no kind of engagement is going to change their mind.

Are you your brain?

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Our cover story this issue sees the great British polymath Raymond Tallis rail against the reductionist way in which neuroscience is viewed as the key to understanding human behaviour. One of his specific targets is the notoin of the 'social brian' that is underpinning research into social policy. Matt Grist, who runs the 'social brain' programme at the Royal Society for the Arts in London, has now answered back.

What do you think? Comment below.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Picking the wrong target

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I have to say I was amused to see that Monsignor Franco Perazzolo of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture has been passing comment on New Moon, the latest film in the teenage vampire saga Twilight. Here's what he had to say:
"Men and women are transformed with horrible masks and it is once again that age-old trick or ideal formula of using extremes to make an impact at the box office. This film is nothing more than a moral vacuum with a deviant message and as such should be of concern."

Of course, we're used to the Vatican denigrating anything with a supernatural slant (well, except for Christianity), for instance Harry Potter or, most recently, Hallowe'en. But in the case of Twilight, the Catholic Church seems to have picked the wrong target – I have to admit I don't know much about the series, but from what I've read and heard, its major underlying theme is one of teenage abstinence, influenced by author Stephanie Meyer's devout Mormon faith.

Okay, so I imagine the Catholic Church probably isn't massively keen on Mormonism, but you'd think they'd be happy with a series of bestselling books and blockbuster films that gets behind one of its own favourite messages.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Europe is dying! Quick make more babies

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Over at Comment is Free, my response to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's lecture last week suggesting we are all too selfish to make enough babies to preserve Western European culture. Just so you know.

Pope Tour 2010: Kiss My Ring

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When we heard back in September that Pope Benedict XVI is set to grace Britain next year, we realised that, with the entourage and stadium masses, there's a certain rockstar quality to a Papal visit. So we decided that, like all good stadium rock tours, Pope Tour 2010 needs a snappy title (you know, in the same way U2 have the 360° Tour and the Rolling Stones had the A Bigger Bang Tour). This led to a fun afternoon on Twitter, as we invited our followers to send us their suggestions - you can see the best ones in this blogpost.

But it didn't stop there – New Humanist contributor Roger Davidson (who as a writer and illustrator often provides us with his own drawings to accompany his pieces) loved the suggestions for tour names, and decided to turn them into tour posters – we have four in total, but with up to a year to go until Benedict lands on these shores, we thought we'd put them out one at a time. Here's the first – you can get a bigger version by clicking on it.

Vote rationally with Skeptical Voter

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If you're the type of voter who likes to pay attention to the candidates, rather than just the parties they represent, then you may be interested in a new online initiative called Skeptical Voter, which has just been set up in the wake of the controversy over the government's sacking of its chief drug advisor Professor David Nutt, after he stated that scientific evidence suggests that ecstasy and LSD are less dangerous than tobacco and alcohol, and that drugs legislation should be driven by scientific research rather than politics.

The aim of Skeptical Voter – which has been set up by the sceptical writer and campaigner Richard Wilson (author of Don't Get Fooled Again: The Sceptic's Guide to Life), editor of sceptical podcast The Pod Delusion James O'Malley and computer scientist Craig Lucas – is to build a wiki containing the views and track records of as many existing MPs and prospective candidates as possible in relation to evidence-based policy making. Of course, this is a huge task, but in the space of just a couple of weeks Skeptical Voter has made great progress thanks to the collective effort of online volunteers. It already contains an extensive list of entries, but they still need plenty of help – if you're interested in contributing to the wiki, or in suggesting questions that should be put to candidates in order to most effectively discover their views on science and evidence-based policy, then get in touch with them here.

Just to give you a quick example of what a good resource Skeptical Voter has the potential to be, let's take a look at the entry for an MP who is firmly in the humanist camp – Dr Evan Harris of Oxford West and Abingdon. There's already an extensive entry for him in the wiki, and by reading it you can learn about his record on the abolition of blasphemy, abortion, the MMR vaccine, evidence-based drugs policy and creationism. As things stand, none of the other candidates in his Oxford constutuency are in the wiki, but hopefully (and with some input from you, the sceptical public) by the time the 2010 election comes around you will be able to browse all the main candidates for a given constituency and, should you choose, make a decision how to vote based on their record on science and evidence.

So, why not take a look at Skeptical Voter for yourselves, follow the team behind it on Twitter and, if you're keen, get involved with helping to expand it. It would surely be no bad thing if the electorate starting paying more attention to what the individual candidates are all about, rather than just the colour of their rosettes.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Adnan Oktar presents video commercial for New Humanist

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This is the best thing we've seen in a long, long time, if not ever – in response to our exposé, "Sex, flies and videotape: the secret lives of Harun Yahya" in the September/October issue, Turkish creationist Yahya, aka Adnan Oktar, analyses a copy of New Humanist in an edition of his online TV programme (it has English subtitles):

Truly wonderful, isn't it? He's basically provided us with our very own infomercial. And, speaking of our Oktar exposé, we've just added a Turkish version - Adnan Oktar'nin gercek yuzunu gormek icin, buraya tiklayin

Lastly, don't forget that Oktar is one of the nominees for our 2009 Bad Faith Award, which you can vote in at the top right of this page. The Pope's currently leading, but surely this video has raised Adnan's chances?

The return of the Atheist Bus Campaign

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The Atheist Bus Campaign is back on our streets, although this time it's not actually taking place on buses – billboards have gone up in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast featuring children alongside the slogan "Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself", highlighting the tendency to label children with their parents' religions before they've even had a chance to think for themselves. In the background, mixed up with terms like "Muslim Child", "Christian Child" and "Buddhist Child", are more unlikely terms such as "Post-modernist Child", "Anarchist Child" and "Marxist Child".

Richard Dawkins, who co-sponsored the campaign when it launched last year, said:
‘We urgently need to raise consciousnesses on this issue. Nobody would seriously describe a tiny child as a 'Marxist child' or an 'Anarchist child' or a 'Post-modernist child'. Yet children are routinely labelled with the religion of their parents. We need to encourage people to think carefully before labelling any child too young to know their own opinions and our adverts will help to do that."
You can read campaign creator Ariane Sherine introducing the billboard phase over at Comment is Free.

The billboards are on display for the next two weeks at the following locations: London – Old Street roundabout; Cardiff – 42 Merthyr Road; Edinburgh – Portobello Road, Piershill; Belfast – 74-76 Great Victoria Street / Bruce Street.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Free anti-vax conspiracy theory with every tube journey

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On the way home from work last night, as I sat on London's Piccadilly Line, a man briefly sat next to me who seemed a little on edge. He was fidgeting and looking around, which I have to say was starting to annoy me (not that, as a London commuter, I'd have said or done anything about it), but he didn't stay for long. Having boarded at Holborn, he stood up again at the next stop, Covent Garden and, as he disembarked, he set about covering all the empty seats in the carriage with plastic folders, each containing a CD-R and a three-page A4 leaflet.

Naturally, my rationalist alarm bells began to sound, and I quickly grabbed one to take a look. And, unsurprisingly, I wasn't disappointed. For, while those around me were flicking through their evening papers or staring blankly into space, I was busy learning about an inter-governmental plot to eliminate 92 per cent of the global population using the current swine flu pandemic.

How, and indeed why, would they go about doing a thing like that? Well, here's the how:

"Please do not accept Tamiflu or Relenza or any other anti viral drug, or any current or future vaccines recommended by our own government, the world health organization (WHO) or any of their agencies.

Please this is urgent. We strongly believe a very high percentage of these anti viral drugs and vaccines contain receptors and triggers designed to receive and activate within the host a second swine flu virus to be released at the end of this summer and during the autumn throughout the northern hemisphere and the rest of the world.

Like a Trojan horse, hidden within the anti virals, Tamiflu, Relenza, and vaccines Pandemrix and Focetria are receptors and triggers and we believe your chance for survival will be as any normal seasonal flu virus if you avoid taking these drugs and instead take alternative medicines advised by your Doctor. Four to ten days is normally required for your own body’s natural defences to counter the virus.

We believe the second swine flu virus will have a mortality rate of 100% for those who have consumed these swine flu receptors and triggers."

And here's the why:

"Their motive, we believe the world's governments are struggling to prevent the ice caps from melting due to global warming and to mitigate the substantial damage to the ozone layer. The true extents of both these global problems we believe have been deliberately under reported.

In response to the above current situation, they have initiated two major plans.

Their plan A, involving thousands of terra-forming aircraft flying secret missions every day of the week all around the world cannot keep the world cool enough at the current green house gas emission rate. (see "chem trails" and “geoengineering” on the internet, turning blue sky's silvery white to reflect some of our sun’s heat back into space and weather control).

Their plan B, the world's governments have secretly agreed amongst themselves to cull over 6 billion people to achieve their "sustainable" human population of 500million.

Their justification, the existing world's population would all be dead had the terra forming planes not done their work over the last 10 years. In other words, we have been living on borrowed time and in their minds the cull is more a sacrifice than genocide.

Special batches of anti viral drugs and vaccines with very low percentage of receptors and triggers are being sent to areas around the world selected by post codes/zip codes and where it has been deemed by their governments for more people to survive and live."

(Well, at least the world's governments tried a Plan A against global warming before resorting to Plan B of wiping out more than 90 per cent of the world's population...)

The rest of the leaflet contains the usual conspiracy theorist blending of statistics and pseudoscience, and frankly it's all a little out of date, as it states that the deadly second virus was set to be released "at the end of this summer", so either the great anti-viral genocide involves a delayed reaction, or the fears of the conspiracy theorists have proven unfounded. I'll let you decide which one it is. The CD enclosed with the leaflet even contains a longer, eight-page, version, which proceeds to involve Hurricane Katrina, Middle East wars, the banking system, the Black Death and just about anything else you can think of in the conspiracy. The Illuminati aren't explicitly mentioned, but presumably they are the global rulers responsible for it all.

The leaftlet also states that the HPV vaccination, which protects young women against the virus that causes cervical cancer, is being used in the same way. I have to say I wasn't all that familiar with the anti-vaccination lobby (if you can call it that) until recently, and I actually learned more about it after AIDS denialism became a big issue for us this autumn. Although the anti-vax movement and AIDS denialism aren't entirely linked, they do have many similarities, so if you'd like an insight into the psychology involved I advise you to read Seth Kalichman's excellent piece on "How to spot an AIDS denialist" in our current issue. This passage from his piece seems particularly relevant here, as you could largely just substitute AIDS denialism for anti-vaccination:

"AIDS denialists are therefore a mixed bag of rogue scientists, pseudoscientists, conspiracy theorists, and snake-oil salesmen. There are also vocal AIDS denialist activists, primarily HIV positive people who are in deep denial of their diagnosis and seek the insulating bubble offered by AIDS denialism. So, what can we do about AIDS denialism? There will always be crazy people who say crazy things. AIDS denialists only do harm when people listen to them. The best defence against AIDS denialism is improved public understanding of science and medicine. We all need to know how to recognise cranks and crackpots and their sinister rhetorical devices."

The leaflet I found on the tube was clearly from the crazy conspiracy theorist wing of the anti-vax movement, but they're not the only people spreading this kind of false information. There may not be many people out there ready to believe in a plot to cull six billion people, but there are plenty who are ready to believe that vaccinations do more harm than good. It is therefore, as Seth Kalichman says in relation to AIDS denial, essential that people are given the knowledge to indentify the anti-vaccinations movement as dangerous and lacking a scientific basis.

And if you see any of these leaflets on the Underground, do everyone a big favour and remove them to the nearest bin.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Young Freethought blog

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If you're a budding atheist writer, then you might like to try getting involved with Young Freethought, a new blog designed to encourage debate about atheism and free thinking among young people. It only launched a few weeks ago, but it's already seen contributions from a variety of young writers, covering topics such as religion and science, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Nietzsche and the Large Hadron Collider.

Young Freethought invites submissions from anyone under the age of 21 so, if you're young enough and fancy trying your hand at a spot of godless blogging, why not take a look at the site and get in touch with the editors?

And, even if writing isn't for you, be sure to stay up to date and read the blog.

Harun Yahya 'refutes' New Humanist exposé

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I had a week off last week, which in my line of work often means a week living in blissful ignorance of the activities of the world's fantasists and charlatans. Of course, the return to work always results in some swift reminders of their existence, and this morning was no different – waiting in my inbox was a link to this step-by-step refutation of our September exposé of leading Muslim creationist Adnan Oktar, aka Harun Yahya.

The piece – "Sex, Flies and Videotape: The Secret Lives of Harun Yahya" by Halil Arda – has been read by tens of thousands and linked to by websites around the world, and we were already well aware that it had been noted in Oktar HQ (it's been mentioned before on one of his websites, and we had a surge in requests for copies from Istanbul). But now his people have gone all the way and issued an 8-point response which runs to more than 4,200 words, about 500 words more than the exposé itself. You should go and take a look for yourself but, to summarise, we're branded "an atheist and Darwinist magazine" that is "in trouble probably due to the extraordinary, real and scientific evidence submitted by Mr. Adnan Oktar to Darwinism". Furthermore, Oktar's books and the works of his Science Research Foundation are respected around the world because of "the information they contain, their wise language and esthetic [sic] design", and his work "intellectually destroys all materialist and atheist philosophies". And as for Halil Arda's assertion that Oktar is essentially the leader of an Islamic sex cult? Well, according to the refutation, "members of the SRF community are made up of 40-45 years old, married people who have regular family and business lives."

Well, it's nice to be noticed, isn't it? The big question now has to be how this affects Oktar's chances of winning our 2009 Bad Faith Award. Returning from holiday today, I noticed that Pope Benedict XVI has stormed ahead in the poll (see the top right of this page), currently holding a stunning 33% of the vote. Yet when the poll opened 10 days ago, our in-house bookies Paddy Gowers installed Oktar as the 7/2 favourite. Could this refutation of our exposé actually be a late piece of covert electioneering on Oktar's part?

It's not too late to vote in the Bad Faith Awards - read a rundown of the shortlist, and then place your vote using the poll at the top right of this page.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Shoddy Sewell in Sunday Times Shocker

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At first I was going to blog about last week's Sunday Times and the ludicrous article in it written by one Dennis Sewell that drew a straight line from Darwin, via eugenics and (surprise, surprise) Hitler, to the columbine school shootings. Then I thought I wouldn't bother. But on the tube this morning the bloke next to me was reading a copy of Sewell's book from which he cribbed the article - The Political Gene: How Darwin's ideas changed politics - and he was scribbling in the margin furiously and I almost leaned over and spoke to him but it was my stop so I didn't so this post is what I would have said to that bloke:

"I haven’t read the book," I’d have admitted, "but judging by the excerpt I read in the Sunday Times at the weekend, that really is one of the shoddiest and least convincing arguments I've read in quite some time- what were the Times thinking? For example,” I'd have continued, "Sewell seems to think he has discovered something profound about Darwinism by proving that the Columbine killers thought they were following Darwin's precepts [cleansing the world of the unfit] and one of them was wearing a T-Shirt with "Natural Selection" on it. Since when," I'd continue, “does the fact that a murderer says they did it for this or that reason mean that the reason - in the case Darwin - bears any responsibility? Suicidal murderers have been known to misinterpret some of the more complex elements of evolutionary biology, and some have even been insane. Sewell quotes "Denver lawyer Barry Arrington" thus: 'There cannot be any doubt that [Dylan] Harris was a worshipper of Darwin and saw himself as acting on Darwinian principles.', and treats this revelation as some kind of supporting evidence. But what is it evidence of? That a Denver attorney thinks this is the case? Sure. That Harris thought he was following Darwin's ideas? Perhaps. But it says absolutely nothing about Darwin or Darwinism (whatever that is, as if believing unquestioningly in gravity should be known as Newtonianism), let alone proving that the killings happened because of those ideas.

"Sewell''s implication is clear," I would yell (I'd have lost it by now), "Darwin's ideas lead inexorably to mass murder. But this is like blaming Jodie Foster for Ronald Reagan being shot (John Hinckley was doing it for her), or perhaps more pertinently blaming God for all the murder committed in his name. Of course Sewell - a Catholic apologist - would never do that! In fact he manages to skirt around the subject of religiously inspired violence altogether- he finds space for murders committed in the name of quite a few European thinkers of a certain, existential bent - Nietzsche, Camus, Gide - but nary a mention of murder perpetrated in the name of religion. He similarly makes much of the Natural Selection T-shirt as if somehow the shoot-em-up video game which it references was a faithful rendering of On The Origin of Species in digital form."

By this point the man on the train would have left hurriedly I’m sure. In any event you should read this tripe and see if it is the shoddily argued, polemical nonsense I say it is.

[PS: The shame of it is there is a good book waiting to be written about eugenics, which certainly is in some ways the dirty little secret of late 19th and early 20th century Darwinism and humanism - but this clearly ain't it. For now I just wish I knew if the bloke was scribbling in the margin because he agreed with the argument, or because he, like me, thought it was shoddy bunkem. If you are that bloke, let me know]

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

UN urged to dump defamation of religion treaty

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The Rationalist Association has joined more than 100 other organisations in signing up to a statement urging the UN member states not to support a binding treaty against "defamation of religion". Read it here. Since 1999 the UN has continuously passed a series of non-binding resolutions, but now moves are afoot - pushed by countries keen to protect themselves from criticism for human rights abuses - to turn this into a binding permanent treaty. Its coming to a head now: A preliminary vote on the resolution is expected before the end of November, and a
final plenary vote in mid-December.

This is why we have joined with hundreds of other groups - religious and not - to urge the UN to abandon the notion of religious defamation altogether. As the statement says: "Such resolutions provide international support for domestic laws against blasphemy and 'injury to religious feelings', which are often abused by governments to punish the peaceful expression of disfavored political or religious beliefs and ideas."

We can only hope someone pays attention.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Bad Faith Awards 2009: the polls are open

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Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly):

Who should win the 2009 Bad Faith Award? Vote now using the poll at the top right of this page - see shortlist below for more on the challengers.

Ladies and gentleman, the time has come. For months now, nominations have been pouring in for those most deserving of our prestigious Bad Faith Award, presented each year to the person deemed to have made the most outstanding contribution to the cause of unreason.

Last year saw a runaway victory for erstwhile US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin (oh those halcyon days, when she was a mere election and a heart attack away from the nuclear codes). Of course, Palin was always a frontrunner in that contest (Bad Faith, that is), but this year's poll may well be more closely contested. Drawn from nominations we've received online, by email and by post, as well some of our own based on another year of tackling the forces of irrationalism in the pages of New Humanist, here's the shortlist, in alphabetical order, of the 10 enemies of reason ready to battle it out for the ultimate prize:

Adnan Oktar, aka Harun Yahya: The Islamic world's leading creationist charlatan will be looking to go one better than last year's second place finish, when he polled a staggering 1,091 votes on the back of his attempt to have Richard Dawkins' website banned in Turkey. Oktar must fancy his chances this year though – back in 2008, we mostly knew him as the producer of slapdash creationist literature, but in 2009 the stakes have surely been raised by his exposure in our own pages as the leader of what essentially amounts to a creationist sex cult. If you're looking for a good reason to vote Oktar, look no further than the many comments left by his minions on this blog post.

Anjem Choudary: This man surely represents Islamic extremism at its most ludicrous. He's the self-styled "judge" of the "Shari’ah Court of the UK", and a former leading member of Omar Bakri Muhammad's banned extremist organisation Al-Muhajiroun. Earlier this year he tried to restart that organisation with a meeting at London's Conway Hall, which is somewhat ironically the home of British freethought, using his heavies to try and enforce a spot of Sharia-style gender separation on the building. He recently called off a planned march to demand Sharia law for the UK, having earlier revealed on his website how Trafalgar Square would look once Britain is under Islamic rule: he'd replace Nelson's statue with a clock, while down the road Buckingham Palace would "be converted into a beautiful mosque".

Anthony Bush: Proprietor of Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, the creationist zoo on the outskirts of Bristol which we investigated in the September/October issue of New Humanist. Has grand designs for "Creation + Evolution", his very own theory for how life on earth developed, telling New Humanist: "Our paradigm is radical, but may, as Galileo’s did, take many years for people to take seriously." But it's not just creationism that has put Anthony in the media spotlight – it was alleged in October that Noah's Ark breeds animals for Britain's last live-animal circus, and that the head of a tiger which died in childbirth was stored in a freezer at the zoo. Noah's Ark has just been suspended from the British zoo association, pending an investigation into the allegations.

The British Chiropractic Association: An unusual candidate, since the Bad Faith Award is generally aimed at individuals, but there was no way we could leave out the organisation which has arguably done more than any other to put the problem of Britain's illiberal libel laws in the public eye. Unintentionally, of course – the BCA are currently trying to sue science writer Simon Singh for libel, after he described as "bogus" their claims that chiropractic can treat childhood conditions like colic and asthma. Extra credit must surely go to them too for accidentally appearing to libel Singh back via a foolishly premature press release.

Cormac Murphy O'Connor: As he prepared to make way for Vincent Nichols as Archbishop of Westminster, the former head of the Catholic Church in England bid us all farewell by branding atheists as "not fully human".

Dermot Aherne: Ireland stepped back in time a few centuries earlier this year when a law was passed making blasphemy a crime punishable with a fine of €25,000. As the Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Dermot Aherne was the man responsible for introducing it. For the inside story on why the law was passed, read Newton Emerson's view in our September issue.

Damian Thompson
: Telegraph blogger and editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald is no fan of atheists. In fact, he doesn't seem to be a fan of anything, unless it's Catholic (and even then, only if it's conservative and backed by Pope Benedict XVI). We've had our own run in with him before over God Trumps ("politically correct atheist cowards", I believe he called us), and he recently described Richard Dawkins as "vicious and crazy" for having the audacity to criticise the Catholic Church. The blogger The Heresiarch, who nominated Thompson for Bad Faith, hit back by pointing out that "Thompson's house style of triumphalist, sneering, ultra-papalist camp ... does more damage to the image of Catholicism than Richard Dawkins ever could". Thompson was also nominated by sceptic Richard Wilson on account of the opinions he expressed in blog posts such as this. And, just as I was compiling this list, Damian shored up his claim to the Bad Faith Award by declaring a wish to burn an effigy of national treasure Stephen Fry on a bonfire.

Pope Benedict XVI: The Pope was up for the award in 2007, but failed to make the shortlist in 2008. Having stated in March that AIDS "is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, and that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems", could 2009 finally be his year?

Terry Eagleton and Karen Armstrong: An unusual double nomination, this – one's an ex-trainee nun and a scholar of religion, the other's a combative Marxist literary critic. The link is that both have written books this year criticising the New Atheists and mounting what some might call a more sophisticated defence of religion – see Richard Norman's piece on the subject in our current issue, and Laurie Taylor's interview with Eagleton from our July issue ("God didn't create the world. He loved it into being. Now what that means, God knows, but that's exactly what Aquinas was saying"). As a result, the two academics have been nominated for the Bad Faith Award by "Valdemar" for "attacking Enlightenment values from the well-padded comfort of Enlightenment institutions". Ouch!

Tony Blair: Another repeat nominee. Last year our former PM was put forward on account of his round-the-world interfaith quest, and that's something he's continued this year, in between making millions from after-dinner speeches and consulting roles with global corporations. And trying to bring about peace in the Middle East. Oh, and trying to become President of Europe. What's probably earned Tony his nomination this year is a speech he made in October, in which he suggested that the major world religions should work together in the face of "an aggressive secular attack from without".

So, there you have it – it's a strong shortlist, and there's sure to be some fierce competition between now and the New Year, when we will announce the person (or organisation) who has been crowned 2009's most scurrilous enemy of reason. You can place your vote now using the poll at the top right of this page.

To help get things moving, we've once again asked our in-house rationalist bookmakers Paddy Gowers to price up the runners and riders for the Bad Faith Award:

Adnan Oktar 7/2 F; Pope Benedict XVI 8/1; British Chiropractic Association 10/1; Anjem Choudary 10/1; Damain Thompson 12/1, Anthony Bush 14/1, Dermot Aherne 16/1, Cormac Murphy O'Connor 25/1, Tony Blair 40/1, Terry Eagleton & Karen Armstrong 50/1.