Friday, 30 October 2009

Now the Vatican's having a go at Hallowe'en

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Is it just me, or is this year a bumper one for religious attacks on Hallowe'en? In the past month, we've had Methodists in Derry trying to ban an annual Hallowe'en carnival that sounds like lots of fun (music, magic shows, fireworks ... you know, all the evil stuff), and Christians in Leicestershire informing local residents that "Celebrating Halloween means we are siding along with the Devil and all his works." And of course, those are just the ones I've noticed and put on this blog.

And now? Well, things have just gotten serious. How, I hear you cry, could things get more serious than Christians in Leicestershire posting leaflets about the evils of Hallowe'en? By the Pope getting involved, that's how. Or the Vatican, at least. An article in today's edition of the official Vatican rag, L'Osservatore Romano, channelled in this case through the Daily Mail, declares that "Halloween has an undercurrent of occultism and is absolutely anti-Christian".

According to the Mail, this follows several previous Vatican warnings, including one last year from Aldo Bonaiuto, head of the Catholic Church's anti occult and sect unit:
"Halloween pushes new generations towards a mentality of esoteric magic and it attacks sacred and spiritual values through a devious initiation to the art and images of the occult. At best, it gives a big helping hand to consumerism and materialism."
I suspect many of this blog's readers attach little credibility to the Vatican, but I bet you'll all be taking it a lot more seriously now you know it has an "anti-occult and sect unit"...

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

After Fry and Hitch, Dawkins takes on the Catholic Church

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Last week, I wrote about the debate I attended on whether "The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world", in which Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens, presenting the case for the prosecution, comprehensively battered their way through Anne Widdecombe and Nigerian Archbishop John Onaiyekan's feeble defences (money quote goes to Hitch, who called the Church hierarchy "a small band of sinister virgins").

Now it seems Richard Dawkins didn't fancy being left out of the game, as in his contribution to the Washington Post's On Faith column, he picks up where Fry and Hitchens left off. Offering his views on the Vatican's offer to disaffected Anglicans, he begins:
"What major institution most deserves the title of greatest force for evil in the world? In a field of stiff competition, the Roman Catholic Church is surely up there among the leaders. The Anglican church has at least a few shreds of decency, traces of kindness and humanity with which Jesus himself might have connected, however tenuously: a generosity of spirit, of respect for women, and of Christ-like compassion for the less fortunate. The Anglican church does not cleave to the dotty idea that a priest, by blessing bread and wine, can transform it literally into a cannibal feast; nor to the nastier idea that possession of testicles is an essential qualification to perform the rite. It does not send its missionaries out to tell deliberate lies to AIDS-weakened Africans, about the alleged ineffectiveness of condoms in protecting against HIV. Whether one agrees with him or not, there is a saintly quality in the Archbishop of Canterbury, a benignity of countenance, a well-meaning sincerity. How does Pope Ratzinger measure up? The comparison is almost embarrassing."
He continues in a similar vain, and I urge you to read the full piece. Dawkins, of course, has a point (admit it, if you had to choose, you'd join the C of E rather than follow Benedict and his boys), and he's very funny with it, especially when he states that, in opening its doors to Anglicans, "the Roman Catholic Church, is dragging its flowing skirts in the dirt and touting for business like a common pimp". His tone, however, has not impressed Catholic Herald editor and Telegraph blogger Damian Thompson who, under the heading "Richard Dawkins's latest attack on the Catholic Church is vicious and crazy. The man needs help", declares:
Richard Dawkins’s latest attack on the Catholic Church is worthy of a dribbling loony on the top of a bus. He calls the Church “the greatest force for evil in the world”, “an institution where buggering altar boys pervades the culture” and describes it “dragging its skirts in the dirt and touting for business like a common pimp”. (Pimps in skirts – that’s a new one.) And all in The Washington Post.

The peg for this piece? The Pope’s offer to make special arrangements for Anglicans converting to Rome, a matter I would have thought was none of Prof Dawkins’s business. But I’m not going to bother to argue with any of his points, because these are the ravings of a man who appears to have lost all sense of proportion. Seriously: is there something wrong with him?

Fortunately, the irony of Thompson referring to an opinion piece as "vicious and crazy" was not lost in the blogosphere, with the Heresiarch (I think that's his real name...), who runs one of my favourite blogs Heresy Corner, articulating what anyone who knows Thompson's work was thinking. Here's a sample:

Thompson's house style of triumphalist, sneering, ultra-papalist camp - in which he is joined, day after day, by a claque of equally mean-spirited groupies and hangers-on - does more damage to the image of Catholicism than Richard Dawkins ever could. I've never been as offensive about any Christian as Damian manages to be, virtually every day, about his fellow Roman Catholics who happen to have different views to his about the liturgy, or politics, or the status of Joseph Ratzinger as the greatest being to occupy the throne of St Peter since the days of Gregory the Great. His reaction to the prospect of Anglo-Catholic defections to Rome has been very much in character: catty, obsequious towards the Vatican, vainglorious, snidely dismissive of both Rowan Williams and the "liberal" (by his standards) Catholic hierarchy in England, and crudely self-promoting.

Great work - pay Heresy Corner a visit and read the rest.

Why not have a flutter on who's next to jump the Scientology ship?

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I learn via Damian Thompson's blog (not a blog with which my interests often converge, it has to be said), that bookmakers Paddy Power, who seem to pride themselves on taking bets on bizarre subjects, have opened a market on which celebrity will be the next to leave the Church of Scientology. This follows yesterday's news that a French court had convicted and fined the Church's French operation for fraud, as well as the news that the award-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis (writing credits include Crash and Casino Royale) has decided to leave the Church.

So who's worth a punt? Well, here are the odds:

9/4 John Travolta
3/1 Katie Holmes
4/1 Lisa Marie Presley
6/1 Jason Lee
8/1 Priscilla Presley
10/1 Chaka Khan
12/1 Nancy Cartwright
14/1 Brandy
18/1 Beck
25/1 Kirstie Alley
50/1 Tom Cruise

You'll notice John Travolta is the favourite, which is perhaps unsurprising given the rumours that have circulated ever since the death of his son Jett earlier this year.

To this, all I can say is come on John - we loved you in Grease, we loved you even more in Pulp Fiction. Face/Off was great and, you know what? Some of us even loved you in Broken Arrow. And we'll love you even more if you do this.

As for the others, by all means put a couple of quid on Cruise at 50/1, but I wouldn't hold your breath...

New issue, events and all that..

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The new issue of New Humanist was finally put to bed last night – watch out for it next week, with great content including Raymond Tallis on the rise of neuro-nonsense, Seth Kalichman on how to spot an AIDS denialist (one for the editors of the Spectator, perhaps?), Jewel of Medina author Sherry Jones on the dangers of self-censorship, Barry Cryer sharing gags with Laurie Taylor, Sally Feldman on the fossil-finding pioneer Mary Anning, and much, much more.

Meanwhile, to set the blogging waggon going again, here are a few notices I've been meaning to blog while we were deep in production. The Centre for Inquiry London are hosting some more of their excellent scpetical events at Conway Hall, Holborn this autumn. First up (tomorrow night, actually), is CFI provost and philosopher Stephen Law in debate with author of The Dawkins Delusion (I believe RD calls his type "fleas") Alister McGrath, on the subject "Does The Natural World Point To God?". That's tomorrow night, Thursday 29 October, at Conway Hall, 7-9pm.

Then next, on Saturday 7 November, 11am-3pm at Conway Hall, there's Monsters from the Deep:
"Dr Charles Paxton, a scientist from the University of St Andrews, is one of the country’s most qualified cryptozoologists, and he will be running both a lecture and workshop on monsters from the deep – mythical and real. Dr Darren Naish is a researcher at The University of Portsmouth, who will talk about the ‘prehistoric survivor paradigm’ and what it means (or doesn’t mean) for ’sea monster’ sightings. An interactive sceptical odyssey"
Tomorrow's debate is £5 on the door, and Monsters from the Deep is £10, or £5 for students (booking details on the CFI site), but if you're a New Humanist subscriber or a member of any of the other humanist organisations, you can get in for free.

In further event news, as part of their One Law For All campaign against Sharia law, the Council of Ex-Muslims are holding a rally in Central London on Saturday 21 November, to mark Universal Children’s Day and International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women:
Confirmed speakers: Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Mina Ahadi, ‘AK47,’ Fari B, Roy Brown, AC Grayling, Rahila Gupta, Johann Hari, Marieme Helie-Lucas, ‘Lilith,’ Houzan Mahmoud, Cris Mccurley, Maryam Namazie, Taslima Nasrin, David Pollock, Fariborz Pooya, Terry Sanderson, Muriel Seltman, Issam Shukri, Selina aka ‘Jus1Jam,’ Sohaila Sharifi, Bahram Soroush, Peter Tatchell and more…
Full details are on their website. And in the run-up to that rally, leading Council for Ex-Muslims campaigner Maryam Namazie will be answering online questions every day about Sharia law.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Agnostics ponder atheist invitation

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In a gesture which dramatically parallels the recent “come-and-join-us” invitation from the Pope to disaffected Anglicans, the Rationalist Association has opened its door to thousands of can’t-quite-decide agnostics. A spokesperson for the RA (publisher of New Humanist) pointed out that many agnostics had been unhappy for years about the manner in which their uncertainty about God’s existence played into the hands of religious apologists.

New recruits to the RA were given some reassurances. “We are,” said the spokesperson, “not at all averse to agnostics maintaining some traditional forms of speech, such as ‘You can’t help feeling that there is something up there’, but obviously they’ll be expected to gradually forsake their uncertainty about who made the world.”

In a further gesture of conciliation, the spokesperson confirmed that new recruits would not initially be expected to recognise the infallibility of Richard Dawkins.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

US skeptic Michael Shermer puts Bill Maher straight on vaccinations

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Here's something that's well worth a look – following on from my coverage of Bill Maher's receipt of the Atheist Alliance International's 2009 Richard Dawkins Award, and the controversy that has caused because of Maher's anti-science views on some issues, especially vaccinations (he's been "advising" people not to get a swine flu jab), I think you'll enjoy reading top US skeptic Michael Shermer's open letter to Maher, which tries to set the comedian straight on the issue of vaccines:
"Vaccination is one of science’s greatest discoveries. It is with considerable irony, then, that as a full-throated opponent of the nonsense that calls itself Intelligent Design, your anti-vaccination stance makes you something of an anti-evolutionist. Since you have been so vocal in your defense of the theory of evolution, I implore you to be consistent in your support of the theory across all domains and to please reconsider your position on vaccinations. It was not unreasonable to be a vaccination skeptic in the 1880s, which the co-discovered of natural selection—Alfred Russel Wallace—was, but we’ve learned a lot over the past century. Evolution explains why vaccinations work. Please stop denying evolution in this special case."
That's just a sample, so be sure to read the rest. Here's hoping Maher takes notice of it - he does apparently think of himself as a skeptic, after all.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Fry & Hitch v the Catholic Church

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Last night, I went along to the Intelligence Squared debate on whether "the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world" at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. It was a fairly grand affair, not least because of the impressive venue, and Intelligence Squared had assembled quite a panel to thrash out the issue. Speaking for the motion were Archbishop John Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria and Anne Widdecombe, the Conservative MP and outspoken Catholic convert. Speaking against the motion were Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, and Stephen Fry, who is well known for his humanist views (in fact, Laurie Taylor interviewed him about this in New Humanist a few years ago). The debate was chaired by the journalist Zeinab Badawi.

First to speak was Archbishop Onaiyekan, who told the 2,000-strong crowd that the Church is indeed a force for good in the world. It provides hope and salvation to hundreds of millions, even billions, around the world, especially in the developing world where it is one of the major sources of humanitarian aid. And it plays a vital role, the Archbishop told us, in the fight against the global AIDS epidemic - 26 per cent of its humanitarian work is concerned with AIDS.

Sadly for the Archbishop, you could see Hitchens and Fry scribbling down notes as he reeled of what essentially amounted to a series of platitudes about how lovely the Catholic Church is, especially when he told us about all its great work in fighting AIDS. Because, as Hitchens demonstrated as he followed the Archbishop to the mircophone, anyone aruguing against the idea that the Catholic Church is a good thing holds a series of trump cards with which they can swiftly end the debate. After a few introductory pleasantries, Hitchens launched into a full list of the Catholic Church's historical crimes against humanity, framing them as either things it has already apologised for, or things it ought to apologise for in the future. Here's the list, as jotted down in my notes: The Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-semitism, treatment of women, missionaries (especially the knock-on wiping out of native American populations), slavery, the treatment of Gallileo, child abuse, collusion with the Nazis, collusion with Mussolini, collusion with the Croatian Ustasi, collusion with Franco, the sale of indulgences, the treatment of homosexuals, and, of course, the policy on the use of condoms and their "inability" to prevent the spread of HIV.

Quite a list, of course, and I'm sure you can spot the major trump cards. And as if all that wasn't enough, Hitchens rounded off with what has to go down as the sound bite of night, referring to the hierarchy of the Church as a "small band of sinister virgins". If it had been a boxing match, the referee would have stepped in at this point and stopped the fight, but instead we were treated to the spectacle of Anne Widdecombe trying to defend the record of the Church, beginning with her view that Hitchens had just reeled off the longest list of misrepresentations she had ever heard. Focussing in particular on Hitchens' accusations that the Church colluded with the Nazis, she said that he ignored the 1,000s of Jews rescued by the Catholic Church during the Holocaust. She then tried to argue that recourse to examples from history is misleading, as we "have to measure against the standards prevailing at the time". So you can't blame the Church for the Inquitisition, because torture was pretty popular back then. And, even better, Widdecombe asserted that, while paedophilia is one of the worst crimes a person can commit, Hicthens seemed to think the Catholic Church should have had some kind of "unique insight". Quite the contrary, Anne suggests – until the 1990s, child abuse wasn't frowned upon by society as heavily as it is today, and so we have to judge the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal in that context. Don't, Anne told us, "expect the Catholic Church to have acted uniquely". Widdecombe then went on to remind us of the billions of pounds in aid that the Church pours into Africa, and stated that the Catholic Church is the sum of all its members, not just the hierarchy (the Archbishop had said that too). Anne also took the opportunity to make an ill-advised point that, while listening to Hitchens, she had hoped that we could get through the whole thing without mentioning condoms, but, oh no, he couldn't help mentioning condoms. Unsurprisingly, this provoked plenty of jeers from the audience.

Finally, Stephen Fry took the floor and, in characteristically polite and erudite fashion, he proceeded to kick the life out of the Catholic case (can you do this in polite and erudite fashion?). Naturally, he started with a line from Oscar Wilde, telling us that "on an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure." The reason for this, he said, is because he genuinely believes that the Catholic Church is not a force for good. He did, however, point out that his problem is not with the individual believers, whose freedom of belief he holds as "sacrosanct as any article of faith", but with the organisation. There's an interesting point here, because as I mentioned, both Widdecombe and the Archbishop made the argument that the issue is not about whether the hierarchy of the Church is a force for good, because the Church is not just an organisation, but the sum of all its followers. On this point, the religious and secular are arguing from completely different angles. Most secularists don't have any problem with religious people per se, but rather with organised religion. So for secularists a debate over the issue of whether the Catholic Church is a force for good has to be about the Catholic Church as an organisation, and this is precisely what Fry and Hitchens focussed on. For the pro-Church side to argue that it's not about the organisation, but it's members, is to sidestep the issue of the organisation's many crimes.

Picking up where Hitchens left off, Fry resumed the attack on the historic crimes of the Church, saying that the essential message it preaches – that outside the Church there is nothing – has been used to excuse it from all its crimes. He focussed on the current Pope's protection of child abusers in his previous guise as Cardinal Ratzinger, as well as the fact that he is not just content with saying condoms are forbidden, but chooses to go further and spread the clear lie that they actually make the AIDS epidemic worse. And moving on to the Church's views on homosexuality, Fry noted that "the strange thing about the Church is that it is obsessed with sex", adding that he finds it bizarre for him, as a gay man, "to be called a pervert by these extraordinarily sexually dysfunctional people." With that, all that was left was for Fry to deliver a fitting final knock-out blow, asking what Jesus himself would make of "the wealth, power and self-justification of the Catholic Church".

A Q&A session followed the main debate but, as sadly is so often the case, they didn't really add a great deal (I really wish the people who scramble for the chair's attention would actually ask questions, rather than taking the opportunity to make their own points). They did lead to some wonderfully muddled attempts to explain theology from Widdecombe ("It is no more possible for a women to represent Christ at consecration as it is for a man to represent the Virgin Mary"), but what was really needed was for someone to confront the Archbishop with the condoms issue, which unfortunately didn't happen.

So, it was a comprehensive defeat for the Catholic side, which even lost the audience vote heavily. At the beginning of the night 678 people voted for the motion (Catholic Church is a force for good) and 1,102 against it, and this got even worse as a result of the debate itself – at the end of the night 268 voted for and 1,876 against. As I said earlier in this post, there are just certain trump points that can't be disputed, particularly in my view the Catholic stance on condoms. One of the main points the Archbishop and Widdecombe used to defend the Church was that it pumps billions in aid into Africa. Unfortunately for them, no amount of money can outweigh the destructive effects of discouraging Africans from using condoms in the face of a catastrophic AIDS epidemic. And the fact that the Church adds to this by spreading the lie that condoms make AIDS worse renders its position completely indefensible.

Having said all this, while the atheist side really had its "A" team on show in the form of Fry and Hitchens, I really don't think the Archbishop and Widdecombe represented the best defenders the Catholic Church could have offered, and they did a poor job in the face of some exemplary debating by their opponents. I'd have liked to have seen a real Catholic heavyweight on show – couldn't they have invited the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols (we were in Westminster, after all)? At least he could have put up a fight.

And there was me worrying about the creationism...

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Back in September, I wrote about the insidious creationism on display at Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, a Biblical zoo aimed at kids on the outskirts of Bristol. Do have a read of my piece if you haven't already - some of it's fairly shocking, they promote young-earth creationism there and everything. None of it though, is quite so shocking as this:

"A zoo in North Somerset has admitted many of its animals are on loan from the owner of a controversial circus.Noah's Ark Zoo near Bristol breeds tigers and camels for the Great British Circus - the only UK circus which still uses tigers in its shows. It has been keeping the arrangement secret from visitors and from the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA). Professional group BIAZA said it would investigate the allegations."
Oh, or this:
"Acting on a tip off the animal campaign group, the Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS), filmed secret footage at Noah's Ark. It revealed that some of the staff at the zoo were unhappy about the links with the circus. The undercover researcher, working for CAPS, also discovered the zoo had buried a tiger carcass on its land instead of sending it off for incineration as the law demands. Anthony Bush, the owner of Noah's Ark, said he has since dug the tiger up and corrected his mistake."
There's a more detailed and gory report of this in the Daily Mail, and the story was featured on the regional BBC show, Inside Out West, last night. You can watch that on iPlayer.

And to think that when I went there in August I was worrying about the creationism...

Friday, 16 October 2009

Look, no, really, Hallowe'en IS evil...

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Okay, so first we had a Methodist minister in Derry trying to have the city's annual Hallowe'en carnival banned and now we have this – a monthly magazine published by nine churches in Leicestershire this month includes a letter warning parents of the dangers of allowing their children to participate in any 31 October festivities. The letter, "Halloween Isn't a Treat - Don't be Tricked" concludes that "Celebrating Halloween means we are siding along with the Devil and all his works."

Suffice to say, some residents in the Vale of Belvoir, Leicestershire, (presumably those who are managing to contain their laughter) are a little offended by this, but the magazine's editor has defended the message:
"The letter was written by a member of a local Christian group. It had been approved by a team vicar before being published and if people didn't like then that is their opinion. It is a warning that Halloween can be dangerous. It is a slippery slope and it opens doors for sinister things.''

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Intriguing development in Simon Singh libel case

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In what appears to have been a mistake on their part, the British Chiropractic Association this morning published a press release on their website which stated that it "was maliciously attacked by [Simon Singh] in the Guardian newspaper". This quickly spread around the internet, with both Jack of Kent and Index on Censorship reporting on it. Before long, the wording on the BCA website was changed, with the press release now saying that "the BCA was libelled by Dr Singh".

So what is the significance of this? Well, Jack of Kent says that the suggestion that Singh acted with malicious intent is "a shocking and serious (and indeed defamatory) accusation, which the BCA have never before made and has not been any part of their case to date". He has written to both the BCA and their PR company for clarification of what was meant in the now-removed press relase, so it's well-worth keeping up to date with his blog for further news. The word online is that this latest development could have legal implications for the BCA's case - here's the latest tweet from Jack of Kent:
"This was the day the BCA case came to an end. @SLSingh only now needs to threaten to countersue. The BCA cannot justify that clear meaning."
It seems fair to say that the plot has thickened...

Update: Read Jack of Kent's latest blog post on the significance of the BCA's press release - "It may be that Simon refuses to counter sue and allows the BCA case to continue with their case. That is entirely a matter for him. But, in my view, the moment he chooses to do so will surely be when this case ends. That really was a misconceived press release."

Derry methodists try to ban city's Hallowe'en festival

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Every year, the city of Derry has a Hallowe'en carnival - it lasts two days, and as you can see from the website, there are " magic shows, movies and live music, and of course the spectacular carnival parade and jaw dropping fireworks over the River Foyle."

You're probably thinking that sounds like lots of fun, that it sounds like the perfect event for families to enjoy. You might even be thinking that, in a city that has unfortunately had its share of sectarian conflict, it's exactly the kind of event that all communities can get behind and have a good time.

But sadly, if you're thinking any of those things, you are in fact evil. Because Rev Jonathan Campbell of Newbuildings Independent Methodist Church in Derry says that the seemingly harmless celebrations "make evil look innocent". So Rev Campbell has launched an online petition against the carnival, on the grounds that Hallowe'en is "one of the two major days for Satanists" and "God's word clearly condemns and warns people about celebrating or glorifying Hallowe'en or the occult" (is Hallowe'en mentioned in the Bible?). The wording of the petition will, of course, explain all:
"In light of the warnings of scripture, we call upon [Derry City Council] to scrap the Carnival. It makes evil look innocent and glorifies that which the word of God strongly condemns. It encourages people to get involved in Satanism and brings a curse upon the city. Families are encouraged to be a part of the carnival. Little children are being led astray. We have heard reports of people having sex openly in the streets during and after the parade. These are the reasons why we cannot stand by and do nothing. As old Luther once said - 'Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.'"
If Rev Campbell fails in his mission to ban the residents of Derry from having some Hallowe'en fun, he can at least console himself with the fact that his actions have earned him a nomination for our coveted Bad Faith Award – a reader, Sid, left a comment on our nomination post earlier, so the Reverend will be in contention when voting commences later this year. We wish him the best of luck.

You can still get your nominations in for the Bad Faith Awards - leave a comment on this post.

On sale now: Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. Hammersmith Apollo, 20 December

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As of 9am this morning, tickets are on sale for the Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People show at the HMV Apollo Hammersmith on Sunday 20 December. With 5 nights at the Bloomsbury Theatre already sold out, we've added this final night at the Apollo due to popular demand.

Hosted, of course, by Robin Ince, it will feature Richard Dawkins, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden, Simon Singh, Richard Herring, Robyn Hitchcock, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Brian Cox, Martin White's Mystery Fax Machine Chamber Orchestra, the BHA Choir, plus some Very Special Guests which we'll be announcing on here later.

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.

This will be the final chance to see Nine Lessons this year, so book now to avoid disappointment. And if you can't make it to London for the shows, perhaps you can make one of the dates on the tour of Robin Ince's School for Gifted Children - see our post on that for further details.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Simon Singh wins leave to appeal

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At long last, there is some very good news regarding Simon Singh's libel defence – he has just this morning been granted leave to appeal following a hearing before Lord Justice Laws at the Court of Appeal.

Index on Censorship's Padraig Reidy, who was in court, writes:
"In a scathing rebuttal of Mr Justice Eady’s previous judgement in the case, Lord Justice Laws said Eady had risked swinging the balance of rights too far in favour of the right to reputation and against the right to free expression. Mr Justice Laws described Eady’s judgement, centred on Singh’s use of the word “bogus” in an article published by the Guardian newspaper, as 'legally erroneous'.

Laws also pointed out that Eady’s judgement had conflated two issues — the meaning of the phrases complained of, and the issue of whether the article was presented as fact or fair comment.

Laws said there was 'no question' of the 'good faith' of Singh in writing the article, as the matter was 'clearly in the public interest'."

The ruling means Singh will now be able to mount a full appeal against the British Chiropractic Association's libel suit.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Hitchens on the consequences of Egypt's irrational pig cull

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I'm a little late on this story, but it still seems well worth noting. Earlier this year, I blogged about how the Egyptian government had initiated a mass cull of pigs in an entirely scientifically unjustified attempt to contain swine flu (some suggested the decision was less about swine flu, and more about Islamic views on pigs and a government desire to damage the livelihoods of Egypt's Coptic Christians, many of whom farm pigs).

The reason I bring this up is that I've just spotted this piece by Christopher Hitchens, in which he describes seeing the consequences of this cull:
"It is this crazy action that has shifted the Cairo trash scene from the awful to the near-calamitous. It was alleged by the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, on the basis of no evidence whatever, that the swine themselves were the carriers of the so-called 'swine flu.' (Several friends and relatives of mine have already caught and recovered from this mild infection; everybody knows that actual encounters with pigs have absolutely nothing to do with it.) As a consequence of the pig massacre, the streets of Cairo have become almost unlivable, and the Christian garbage collectors, locally called the zabaleen, have been robbed of their livelihood. 'They killed the pigs, let them clean the city,' as one former garbage collector and pig man, Moussa Rateb, was quoted as saying of the Egyptian authorities."
The pigs, you see, used to eat a great deal of Cairo's waste. Now the city is overrun with the stuff. Be sure to read the rest of the Hitch's piece - it's surely a great example of can happen when religious doctrine, combined with bad science, is allowed to determine public policy.

Geert Wilders wins appeal against ban on entering UK

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The right-wing, anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders has today had his ban on entering the UK overturned by the asylum and immigration tribunal. The ban was imposed back in February by the then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, in order to prevent Wilders attending a screening at the House of Lords of his film Fitna, which juxtaposes text from the Koran with newsreel footage of violence perpetrated by jihadists.

A Home Office spokesperson described the decision as disappointing, saying:
"The government opposes extremism is all its forms. The decision to refuse Wilders admission was taken on the basis that his presence could have inflamed tensions between our communities and have led to inter-faith violence. We still maintain this view."
So does this mean we can now look forward to a visit from Wilders? I wrote at the time that I found the whole banning affair regrettable, as it gave Wilders the status of a free speech martyr, which is something he quite frankly doesn't deserve (this is, after all, a man who would like to have the Koran banned in Holland). Even people who find his politics and his film Fitna repulsive (I happily include myself among those people) were forced to support him in relation to the government ban on the basis of free speech, which gave him a handy surge in publicity and allowed him to present himself as the great defender of Western values he likes to believe he is. In short, the government played into his hands.

Personally, I'd like to think we've heard the last of Wilders in Britain. It's right that he's no longer banned from the country, but wouldn't it be nice if he decided it wasn't really worth coming here
after all (or at least decided that if he does come, it'll just be for a quiet week in the Lakes or something).

Sadly, I don't think that's the man's style.

Update: And there we have it - he's on his way this Friday. Something for us all to look forward to, then...

The Science of Scams with Derren Brown

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Illusionist and arch sceptic Derren Brown is behind a new initiative, Science of Scams, which I think you might enjoy. Several months ago, a team of sceptics released seven videos on to the internet, each appearing to demonstrate a paranormal phenomenon. Now they're releasing the antidote - a series of videos, fronted by Brown, in which the science behind each one is revealed. Two have been released so far – the Psi Wheel and Ghost on Film – with five more to follow. Keep checking the website to catch them (the next one is out on Friday). Here's the Psi Wheel to get you started:

Next hearing in Simon Singh's libel defence takes place tomorrow

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The next hearing in science writer Simon Singh's ongoing defence against the libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association will take place tomorrow (Wednesday 13 October) at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. This is Singh's third application to appeal against Mr Justice Eady's May ruling on the meaning of the word "bogus" in the Guardian article which prompted the BCA to begin libel proceedings, with two previous applications having already been turned down.

With a view to tomorrow's hearing, the legal blogger Jack of Kent, who has been following the case closely from the outset, has taken the opportunity to provide a summary of events so far – it's well worth reading if you feel like you need to catch up on what's happened. He also offers his view on whether there is any likelihood of Singh succeeding at this latest hearing:
Will Simon succeed in this application? The fact that this is his third bite of this cherry suggests, in general terms, that he will not. The Court of Appeal does not lightly reverse rulings by the High Court in preliminary hearings in any case.

Nonetheless there is some chance of success here, though in my view less than 50:50.

More importantly, for Simon to take this case to the European Court of Human Rights for a ruling on whether in his case the UK government has - by allowing libel law to exist in this illiberal state - failed to afford protection to his right of free expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, he has to exhaust every domestic remedy.
Members of the public are, of course, free to show their support for Singh by observing the hearing in court tomorrow – Jack of Kent will be tweeting info on timings when it's available tomorrow, so make sure you're following him if you plan to go along.

Meanwhile, we were interested to see that the Charities Commission have dismissed a complaint made to them about Sense About Science, which appeared to object to their excellent Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science campaign (started, of course, in reaction to Simon Singh's libel battle). As you can read about in full on the Sense About Science website, the Commission wrote to inform them that a complaint had been made, and asked them to confirm that the charities funds were not being used to fund Singh's defence and that the Libel Laws campaign is in keeping with the charity's charitable aims. In reply, Sense About Science pointed out that they were not surprised to hear about the complaint, as they were already aware of discussions happening in online forums about how they could be reported to the Charities Commission over the libel campaign. They then go on to answer the questions put by the Commission, who were clearly satisfied – last week they wrote to Sense About Science to inform them that the case had been closed.

If you haven't already added your name in support of Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science, you can do so now at the Sense About Science website.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Bill Maher on the swine flu vaccine

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Last week, I blogged about how the Atheist Alliance International had given its annual Richard Dawkins Award to the comedian Bill Maher, and how this had caused a spot of controversy among online skeptics due to Maher's irrationalist views on medicine, particularly immunisation. Just to follow up on that, here's a video of Maher appearing on US TV, less than a week after receiving that award, declaring that he "would never get a swine flu vaccine or any vaccine."

Maher's opinions leave the blogger behind the Respectful Insolence blog amazed that the AAI could give their Dawkins Award to Maher:

"He's an anti-vaccine, quackery-supporting font of flaming moronicity every bit as bad as Ken Ham, Michael Behe, or any flak from the Discovery Institute. His views on medicine are every bit as much ideology driven as any view on evolution from a creationist. Indeed, the vitalism from which Maher's germ theory denialism derives is every bit as much a mystical, religious viewpoint as that of the worst hard core young earth creationist. And he's the 2009 recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award. Good going, AAI."

Now those are strong words.

Dawkins v Bill O'Reilly

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We all know Richard Dawkins won't give creationists the pleasure of "debating" with them ( "it will look better on your CV than mine"), but it seems that wise rule doesn't completely prevent him from tackling idiocy head-on – here he is appearing recently on Fox News with the odious Bill O'Reilly, and not for the first time:

So Jesus's teachings were good, so there's no need to think evolution is true, okay?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Debate on Satire and Offence, tonight, Free Word Centre, London

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If you're in London and fancy taking in a debate this evening, why not head to the shiny new Free Word Centre on Farringdon Road, where our editor Caspar Melville and cartoonist Martin Rowson will be discussing free speech and offence with blogger Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes), as part of the Free Word Festival:
In the Festival's final debate, Martin Rowson, leading cartoonist and author, Caspar Melville, editor of New Humanist, and Guido Fawkes discuss the impact of the growing sensitivity to offence on political debate.
The debate's in the lecture theatre at the Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, 6.30pm-8.30pm, and if you need an added incentive, the word from the inside is that there'll be a bit of wine going round too. It's free, so all you need to do is book via the Free Word website now.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Debate on Ernst Bloch's Atheism in Christianity, Saturday 17 October

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If you're in London and in the mood for some serious philosophy on Saturday 17 October, then why not head to Birkbeck College, where the intellectual book publishers Verso are hosting a debate on Ernst Bloch's Atheism in Christianity, which they have just reissued (and which Owen Hatherley has just reviewed in our current issue).

The debate will be chaired by George Pitcher, Religion Editor at the Telegraph, and the panel will feature Peter Thompson (Director, Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies, Sheffield), Jane Shaw (New College, Oxford), Ben Morgan (Worcester College, Oxford) and Eric Kaufmann (Birkbeck).

The debate will take place on Saturday 17 October, 3-5pm, in Room B35 at Birkbeck College, London.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

See Robin Ince's School for Gifted Children on Tour this autumn

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Many of you, quite rightly, have asked if we'll be taking our Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows outside of London this year – the answer is not this year, although it is something we're considering for the future.

However, we do have the next best thing or, more accurately, something just as good – we've teamed up with Robin again as media partners for a tour of his School for Gifted Children comedy and science shows, which is what Nine Lessons and Carols started from in the first place. The show is travelling to six venues around England through October, November and December, so those of you unable to make it to London for Nine Lessons may like to consider getting hold of some tickets.

It's hosted by Robin, with Josie Long, Simon Singh and Gavin Osborn appearing at all the dates. There'll be various special guests too, including Ben Goldacre and Richard Wiseman. Here's a list of the dates, along with links to the venues which you can follow to buy tickets:

23 October: Cambridge Junction
25 October: Bath Komedia
29 October: Brighton Komedia
7 November: Folkestone Literary Festival
19 November: Norwich Arts Centre
9 December: Lowry, Salford

And if you're still hoping to see Nine Lessons in London, watch out for our announcement of an additional date at a major venue in the coming days.

Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People is a sell out – but a new date will be announced soon

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The big news today is that all tickets for the return of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, our Christmas collaboration with Robin Ince at London's Bloomsbury Theatre, have now been sold. They were for 15-19 December, with stars including Richard Dawkins, Richard Herring, Chris Addison, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, John Otway, Barry Cryer, Johnny Ball, Robyn Hitchcock, Josie Long, Andrew Collins and many more.

But if you didn't manage to get tickets, don't despair. We'll soon be announcing an additional show at a major London venue, featuring some of the above and some surprise guests.

Watch this space (plus Twitter, Facebook, our newsletter... just watch various New Humanist-shaped spaces, okay?)

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Is it okay to write on the Alpha Course ads?

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It's interesting to see that someone was arrested for criminal damage in London Bridge station for ticking "No" on the "Does God exist?" Alpha Course adverts that have been popping up around the country recently (pictured). A lot of the people discussing this in online forums (for example here on Bad Science) seem outraged by this, and there even seems to be a feeling that the individual was targeted by the police because they were writing on a religious advertisement.

As you can read in the Bad Science thread, the arrested individual emailed the National Secular Society to inform them of their plight, and argued that the advert was "inviting members of the public to participate by ticking the appropriate box", and so he did so by ticking "No". He was given the choice to pay an £80 fine, or challenge the charge in court. In the email to the NSS he says he is "left with little choice but to ask that this matter be dealt with by the court".

I'd be interested to know what readers make of this. Apparently six police officers were in attendance, which seems excessive, but surely writing on a poster in a train station is vandalism, no matter how stupid the poster might be? Is writing on this really any different from if someone had written all over an atheist bus ad back when they were running? (Incidentally, does anyone know if that ever did happen?) Of course, the Alpha ad is in the form of a questionnaire, so it is asking for it a little bit, but it should be pretty obvious that you're not actually supposed to fill it in.

And lastly, aren't we all a little bit old for defacing adverts in train stations with marker pens? (Unless of course the culprit was a minor, in which case don't they deserve a clip around the ear from their mother?)

These are just my own thoughts - I'd be interested to know what everyone else thinks....

[Update - Reading through the debate about this on Bad Science, I think this comment by "Warumich", who says they used to work for British Transport Police, pretty much sums up the issue.]

Monday, 5 October 2009

Controversy as Bill Maher wins American atheist award

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An interesting controversy has broken out in the US following the announcement that comedian Bill Maher will receive the Atheist Alliance International's 2009 Dawkins Award, which is presented annually for this reason:
"The Richard Dawkins Award will be given every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins."
It's worth clarifying that the award is not given by Richard Dawkins, but is rather named in his honour by Atheist Alliance International, which is a coalition made up mostly of US atheist groups, along with a few others from around the world (none of the UK secular or humanist groups are members).

Maher, of course, was behind the 2008 comedy, religion-mocking, documentary Religulous, which came out here earlier this year, and it's for that reason that the AAI decided to present him with the Dawkins Award. However, Maher, while standing alongside atheists and rationalists on questions of religion, has some fairly unorthodox views on health care and medicine. Most notably, he blames poor diet for the poor health of many Americans, and argues that the answer is not modern medicine. This post at the Respectful Insolence blog helpfully points out some of Maher's past comments on the subject (there are many more in that post, too):
  1. "I'm not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic."
  2. "A flu shot is the worst thing you can do."
  3. "Well, I hate to tell you...but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there's ten times the likelihood that you'll get Alzheimer's disease."
  4. "A flu shot just compromises your immune system."
So, you can see why some free thinkers are having trouble with the idea of Maher winning an award which, in previous years, has been awarded to such sceptical heroes as James Randi, Ann Druyan and Daniel Dennett. PZ has blogged about this on Pharyngula, and he points out that Maher "is being given this award for making a movie this year that clearly promotes atheism and mocks religion, and that's all that is being endorsed," adding:
"Let's be clear about something else. This is atheism: we have no dogma, we have no infallible leaders, everyone is naturally flawed, and we recognize that within our ranks there is a huge diversity of opinion. Our strategy for dealing with these ideas is the same as the scientific approach — constant, relentless criticism. There is no Atheist Supreme Leader. There is no Atheist Pope. There is no Godless Ruling Council, no Atheist Inquisition, no Freethought Dogma."
It's an interesting controversy, as it raises the question of, if there is indeed something we could refer to as an atheist "movement", then what exactly is it for? If an organisation called the Atheist Alliance International has an annual award, then perhaps that award is purely for contributions to promoting atheism, in which case releasing a documentary called Religulous in cinemas around the world would seem like a good reason for winning it. But the AAI itself says the Dawkins Award is in part presented to those who promote "increased scientific knowledge", and the Maher quotes I included above demonstrate why he hasn't achieved much in that department.

I think this demonstrates why the groups operating in this country tend to talk about humanism, or rationalism, or freethought, or secularism, rather than just atheism – because all atheism means is not believing in a god. You can be an atheist and still believe lots of other unsubstantiated nonsense - this Maher controversy shows that. If we're promoting scepticism, critical thinking and a secular state we should do it under a banner of more than just atheism, because there are often many more important things as stake than simply the rejection of religion.

To throw this out to comments, what I'm asking is whether there is such a thing, or should be such a thing, as an atheist movement, and if so what would such a thing stand for?

Thursday, 1 October 2009

BHA Holyoake Lecture, Manchester, 13 October: Steve Jones on "Is Evolution Over?"

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If you're in the North West, you may be interested in attending the BHA's Holyoake Lecture in Manchester on 13 October. It's being given by UCL geneticist Steve Jones, who will ask "Is human evolution over?", a question with which he hit the headlines when he lectured on the same subject in London last year.

The event, which will be chaired by Guardian science correspondent James Randerson, takes place at 6pm on 13 October at Friends Meeting House, Mount Street, Manchester. Tickets are available through the BHA website.

Kids need religious certainty, right?

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In the current issue conservative Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton makes the case for teaching children to have faith, before allowing them to doubt. We published it to provoke you all, as is our way, and it seems to be working - we've been asked to create a forum for responses. Therefore if you are infuriated, perplexed or, indeed, delighted by Roger's argument, let us know here.

You can find the more than 130 comments on Danny's piece, a few of which take on Scruton, here.

Free word(s)

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The new Free Word centre in the old Guardian newsroom in Farringdon, London, is celebrating its launch with a series of free events, including three debates focusing on free speech and offence based on a series of books published by Seagull Books.

It kicks off on October 7th at 6.30 with a debate featuring Kamila Shamsie (whose book is about Islam and Offence), Salil Tripathi and Irena Maryniak discussing religion and offence. On October 8th at 7.00 philosopher Brian Klug unravels the politics of Jewish identity outlined in his new book Offence – the Jewish case. And on October 9th at 6.30 Martin Rowson and me (Caspar Melville) will be talking about satire and offence and trying to remember what we said in our books.

All events are free but you need to book. More info and bookings details.

The new happy-go-lucky atheism

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Our mate Natalie Haynes has a piece in today's Times which name checks the flag-wavers for a new fun and upbeat kind of rationalism - Ariane Sherine, Robin Ince and... me. Crikey, I must have been letting my fundamental cynical misanthropy slip. Of course she is right that what we are trying to do - Ariane with her new book (for which incidentally, Paul the news editor and I have written a very silly kind of Dickens parody thingy), Robin with his brilliant 9 Lessons Shows (conflict of interest alert, they are benefits for the Rationalist Association, ie us) and we at New Humanist - is inject some wit and (shudder...) fun into our sceptical enquiries into the meaning of life, Christmas, belief and other mysteries of this nature we call human. Exhibit A.

Nice one, Nat.

Dawkins on the Colbert Report

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It's TV hour on this blog – I've given you an arch irrationalist below in the form of Glenn Beck, so by way of apology here's Richard Dawkins appearing on last night's Colbert Report. I'm afraid I can't get the embedding function to work, but just click on this link and watch it on the Comedy Central website.


Glenn Beck does atheism

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Here's some fun for you - many of you will be aware of Glenn Beck, the new poster-boy of America's ranting right-wing cable news channel Fox News. He's become famous because he makes some of Fox's other "star presenters" – Bill O'Reilly, for example – look like shining examples of sanity.

I just discovered via the Friendly Atheist that Beck has trained his sights on atheists. I'm sure it's not the first time, but since I've never seen him tackle the subject before, I thought I'd share it on here. And if you've never had the misfortune of seeing him in action before, it'll be a handy introduction to his incoherent rantings. Basically, atheists are to blame for all America's problems, or something: