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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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.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Creationist zoo suspended from British zoo association

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When I was writing about the insidious creationism on display at Noah's Ark Zoo Farm near Bristol, I asked Miranda Stevenson, director of the British and Irish Association of Zoos (BIAZA), why a zoo with such an anti-scientific agenda had been allowed to become a member of her organisation. Citing free speech as a reason not to exclude them on account of creationism, she told me that the main concern of BIAZA is animal husbandry and welfare:
“Our primary concern is how zoos manage their animal collections – that they comply with reputable, modern standards of husbandry and welfare. Initially Noah’s Ark didn’t meet many of those criteria, but we mentored the owners and their staff for three years, welfare improved and the zoo became a full member in 2007.”
That was in August, and since then an undercover investigation by the Captive Animals Protection Society has revealed that animal welfare standards at Noah's Ark may not be as they seem. It is thought that the zoo may have been breeding animals, including tigers and camels, for the Great British Circus, the last circus in Britain to use live animals in its shows, although the zoo has denied that is the case. In addition, it was discovered that the body of a tiger which died during childbirth at the zoo was disposed of in a way that contravenes animal disposal regulations - its paws, head and skin were removed, the carcass was buried on owner Anthony Bush's land, and the head was revealed to have been kept in a freezer at the zoo.

The news seems to have caused BIAZA to reconsider their position on Noah's Ark Zoo Farm's welfare standards, as a local newspaper this week reported that the zoo has been suspended by the association pending an investigation into the revelations.

However, the zoo's website makes no mention of the suspension, with BIAZA still included in a list of its memberships.

[Thanks @djhanks]

Al Murray and Dara O Briain added to Nine Lessons at Hammersmith Apollo

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Very exciting news regarding the final night of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People at the HMV Hammersmith Apollo on Sunday 20 December – we can now announce that the special guests that night will be Al Murray aka The Pub Landlord and Dara O Briain.

We've also added Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman, who'll be performing his Rap Guide to Evolution, which received glowing reviews at this year's Edinburgh Festival. Take a look at his website to find out more.

It's going to be quite a show - Murray, O Briain and Brinkman are added to a bill that already features Richard Dawkins, Barry Cryer and Ronnie Golden, Simon Singh, Richard Herring, Robyn Hitchcock, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Brian Cox, Shappi Khorsandi, Mark Steel, 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?

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Praying on public transport

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Are your newspapers, novels and MP3 players failing in their bid to keep you sane on the morning commute? If so, help is thankfully at hand courtesy of the Rt Rev Christopher Herbert, who has compiled the book Pocket Prayers for Commuters, meaning you can now enlist God's assistance in surviving that rush hour stress. And why is the big man himself so keen to help? Well, from what the Reverend says, it's because he's stuck on that packed train with you:
"Suppose that God himself is actually present with you, waiting to be discovered - the still, small voice hidden inside all the turbulence that you and your fellow-commuters face each day? It is not a fanciful thought."
Nope, not fanciful at all...

[Thanks Christina]

Customers who bought Palin's book also bought...

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Just now, I stumbled across the page for Sarah Palin's forthcoming, already-bestselling, autobiography Going Rogue: An American Life. The thing about the page that I picked up on, and made a brief observation about on Twitter, was that the price is $9, knocked down from $28.99. That's quite a discount for a book that's not even out yet - no wonder it's already a bestseller.

However, as @rjstelling pointed out to me on Twitter, the most striking thing on that Amazon page is actually the list for what "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought". I've added a screengrab here, but for a truly frightening insight, I urge you to go and take a look at all 27 items for yourself...

Talking to ashtrays with Tom Cruise and the Scientologists

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When it comes to putting the boot into Scientology, things really seem to have opened up in the past couple of years. Famously litigious, the Church of Scientology always tended to meet criticism with legal threats (it even sent one to New Humanist in relation to this piece back in the day). But now, its attempts to silence the critics look more and more futile, as revelations from the inside and attacks from the outside occur with increasing frequency.

A lot of credit has to go to the Anonymous protest movement, which hit its peak in 2008 (I wrote about one of their London protests for the magazine), as its role in proliferating anti-Scientology material on the web helped to render pointless the Church's attempts to silence isolated critics, while the protests outside Scientology centres around the world put the issue in the public eye. Since then, we've seen various revelations, including a massive exposé by Florida newspaper the St Petersburg Times this summer, which drew on first-hand accounts from former leading members to paint a shocking picture of the widespread abuses that occur within the Church. Add to this the Church's legal defeat last week in a French fraud case, and I think we can say that things haven't being going that well for Scientology recently. The Church is famous for founder L Ron Hubbard's "fair game" strategy for ruthlessly silencing potential enemies, but these days it's Scientology itself that's fair game.

It's against this backdrop that I read with grim fascination this interview with former Scientology employee Marc Headley in New York magazine Village Voice. Headley worked for 15 years at Scientology's secret headquarters outside Los Angeles, and he's now told his story in his new book Blown for Good: Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology (next on my to-do list - ask for a review copy). Amazingly, as a young employee there in 1990, Headley was chosen as the perfect person on whom Tom Cruise, fresh from his success on Days of Thunder, could practice his "auditing" skills (in Scientology, "auditing" is a bizarre one-on-one psychological evaluation performed on members. That's the best description I could come up with - if you read the Wikipedia you'll be none-the-wiser). So what happened in Headley's auditing session with Scientology's diminutive leading man? Over to Village Voice for that one:
Headley says that Cruise took him through something called the "Upper Indoctrination Training Routines," or "Upper Indoc TRs," in the abbreviation-filled jargon of Scientologists.

And what did those entail?

"You do a lot of things with a book and a bottle," Headley says. "It's known as the book-and-bottle routine." Cruise, he says, would instruct Headley to speak to a book, telling it to stand up, or to sit down, or otherwise to move somewhere."

You do the same with the bottle. You talk to it. You do it with an ashtray too," he says. "You tell the ashtray, 'Sit in that chair.' Then you actually go over and put the ashtray on the chair. Then you tell the ashtray, 'Thank you.' Then you do the same thing with the bottle, and the book. And you do this for hours and hours."
There's more in the Village Voice piece, which you should go and look at for yourself. The Cruise-related madness has the celeb-factor, but Headley also has lots to say about the more sinister things he observed during his time in Scientology, including the violence perpetrated by Church boss David Miscavige against employees, which we first heard about in the St Petersburg Times exposé, and the lengths the Church is willing to go to in order to stop members speaking out. Interestingly, Headley also says that Scientology has about 10,000 members worldwide – a figure somewhat lower than the 10 million claimed by the Church itself.

Fascinating stuff – I can't wait to see what else Headley reveals in his book.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

How to spot an AIDS denialist

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When I got taken in by an AIDS denial film a while back, in amongst the scoldings from outraged rationalists (including Ben Goldacre) I got this message from one Seth Kalichman: "You have no reason to feel bad about this. AIDS denialists are very convincing. They are a mix of narcissists and conmen. I think I know these guys and what makes them tick as well as anyone can. It is extremely easy to buy into their crap."

Kalichman is the author of Denying AIDS, a definitive account of the global AIDS denial movement. While researching the book he went undercover and met many of the key players, including Peter Duesberg (that's undercover-Seth on the right with Duesberg in the picture). And he proves he does know these guys well, in the piece he kindly wrote for New Humanist exposing the sinister tactics of the denialists, as well the motives of this strange band of shysters and victims. It's a brilliant piece. I urge you to read it.

Has Dinesh D'Souza proven there is life after death?

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American readers will know all too well who Dinesh D'Souza is, while readers here in Britain may remember that he was the recipient of our inaugural Bad Faith Award in 2007, having said "Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found".

Basically he's an Indian-American conservative Catholic commentator, whose bibliography includes such titles as What’s So Great About Christianity (clue: in his view, a lot) and The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. And now he's written a book entitled Life After Death: The Evidence, in which he claims to draw "on some of the most powerful theories and trends in physics, evolutionary biology, science, philosophy, and psychology" and "shows why the atheist critique of immortality is irrational". Or, in other words, and as title suggests, provide the scientific evidence for an afterlife.

Well, if the book's from the Ronseal Woodstain school of doing exactly what it says on the tin, it must be quite a read, I'm sure you'll agree. With that in mind, we can turn to a review of Life After Death: The Evidence by Jerry Adler in Newsweek. Has D'Souza finally put paid to the age-old argument of where we all go when we leave this life behind. To give you an idea, here's Adler's summary of one of D'Souza's arguments:
"D'Souza turns to his advantage one of the atheists' favorite arguments, God's apparent tolerance for human suffering. Precisely because evil so often goes unpunished in this world, he asserts, the moral code must reflect another reality, in which souls are judged, punished, or rewarded after death. 'The postulate of an afterlife enables us to make sense of this life,' he writes. It worked for Dante, didn't it?"
Probably not time to start planning for eternity just yet, then...

The continuing rise of Islamic creationism

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In the past week or so, two leading US newspapers have run pieces on the continuing rise of creationism in the Islamic world. Observing that Muslim countries regularly come bottom of polls monitoring the percentages of people who accept evolution, both the Boston Globe and the New York Times point out that Muslim creationism rarely comes in the "young-earth" form characteristic of Christian fundamentalists, as the creation mythology in the Koran allows for the belief that six days in which God created the Universe are metaphorical, and that each day could represent millennia. And for some Muslims, the idea of animals evolving isn't problematic either – it's only when the thorny issue of where humans came from arises that evolution is completely cast aside.

In both pieces, we're reminded of how science education across the Islamic world omits any reference to evolution – in Turkey, creationism has been on the rise for decades, in Lebanon evolution has been left off the curriculum since the mid-'90s, while teachers will often ignore advice to teach about evolution in Egypt and Pakistan. And even the media is busy representing the facts – from the Boston Globe, we learn that Al Jazeera's Arab language site (not their English site, mind) reported the recent discovery of the fossil Ardi, or Ardipithecus ramidus, thought to be the oldest known human ancestor, under the headline "Ardi Refutes Darwin's Theory":
"American scientists have presented evidence that Darwin's theory of evolution was wrong. The team announced yesterday that Ardi's discovery proves that humans did not evolve from ancestors that resemble chimpanzees, which refutes the longstanding assumption that humans evolved from monkeys."
And of course, no article on Islamic creationism is complete without a mention of Adnan Oktar, aka Harun Yahya. The New York Times even points out, worryingly, that "most of the biology teachers in Indonesia use Mr Yahya's creationist books in their classrooms". While the Boston Globe does point out that Oktar is "easy to lampoon", and does mention the fact that he is currently appealing a conviction in Turkey for running a criminal organisation, both newspapers do seem to present Oktar as someone serious about his creationism, someone who even writes his own books on the subject, as would befit a man with such apparent influence around the world. But, as we know from the major expose of Oktar we ran in our September issue, the creationism is little more than a sideshow. As a former member of Oktar's organisation told us:
“There is a group of followers who are commissioned to write the books. For every book, they will take a few key sources written by Christian creationist authors, mostly from the US. They plagiarise the chapters and paragraphs that agree with their creationist approach. Then they add the photos, a few ayat from the Koran, and sometimes a bit of a commentary. None of the ideas belong to Oktar.”
As Halil Arda's profile of Oktar showed, he is the leader of a cult, and the creationism matters only in so far as it helps to raise his profile. This is something worth remembering next time you see him cited as a "leading" Islamic creationist. Say what you like about the "young earth" creationists we're used to hearing about across the Atlantic, but at least some of them have actually written their ludicrous books and websites themselves.

Monday, 2 November 2009

When is a biopic not a biopic?

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Perhaps one answer to the question posed above could be "when it doesn't depict its own subject". I'm sure you can imagine what I'm talking about - just picture Walk the Line, but without all the bits (i.e. most of the film) where Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash, or Raging Bull minus Robert De Niro's devastating portrayal of the boxer Jake LaMotta. The reason I say this is the Guardian are reporting that a big-budget Hollywood biopic of the Prophet Muhammad is set to go into production in 2011, produced by Barrie Osborne, who was behind The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

According to Reuters, who broke the story over the weekend, Alnoor Holdings, a Qatari media company, are behind the planned English-language production, which will have a budget of $150 million. Osborne told Reuters that the film would be an "international epic production aimed at bridging cultures" which would "educate people about the true meaning of Islam".

Of course, what you're all wondering at this point is how on earth a biopic of Muhammad will make it past the planning stage, given what tends to happen whenever someone tries to depict the Islamic prophet. The answer, as I implied above, is that in this biopic of Muhammad, Muhammad himself will not be depicted at all.

So, is a biopic still a biopic if it doesn't feature the person who it's supposed to be a biopic of? I think that's an issue we can thrash out in the comments - let me know what you think.

That aside, one thing this production will surely achieve is to further solidify the culture of self-censorship that has surrounded Western depictions of Islam, and depictions of Muhammad in particular, ever since the Danish cartoons controversy in 2005. As it happens, in the new November/December issue of New Humanist we have the journalist and author Sherry Jones writing about precisely this topic – since it's so relevant here, I thought I'd put it online as a preview of the new issue. As I'm sure many of you will know, Sherry was on the receiving end of this kind of censorship last year when Random House pulled out of publishing her novel The Jewel of Medina, in which the central character is Aisha, the third wife of Muhammad. The novel has never been published in this country, after the home of Martin Rynja, whose publishing firm Gibson Square was going to release it, was firebombed by Muslim fanatics (they were jailed earlier this year).

In her piece for New Humanist, Sherry warns how self-censorship, in relation to her own work and subsequent cases (including Yale University Press's decision to publish Jytte Klausen's book about the cartoons crisis without including the cartoons), harms not just the authors themselves, but the very principle of free expression.

Do share your views by leaving a comment on this post.