Friday, 30 January 2009

Four more years (until President Palin?)

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Regular readers will know I enjoyed blogging about Sarah Palin during the US election, and that deep down I really miss her. It's nice, therefore, to know that she should be back in action in time for next presidential election. She's set up a Public Action Committee designed to raise funds for . . . well, that's not clear just yet, but if it's not for a run at the Presidency then we don't know what it's for:
SarahPAC believes America's best days are ahead. Our country, founded on conservative principles and the fight for freedom, must confront the challenges of the 21st century with integrity, innovation, and determination.

SarahPAC believes the Republican Party is at the threshold of an historic renaissance that will build a better future for all. Health care, education, and reform of government are among our key goals. Join us today!
If you're reading Sarah, if I'm still blogging here in four years' time, I'll be here to blog for you (or rather, about you).

More toys preaching on behalf of Islam...

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Do you remember a truly absurd story from several months ago, when a Fisher Price doll that makes baby noises was withdrawn from sale because parents in the US were complaining that it was actually saying "Islam is the light"?

To be honest you're probably better off if you've forgotten about it, but I'm going to remind you because I've just seen this story about a woman in Indiana who thinks her daughter's Nintendo DS "Baby Pals" game is also preaching that "Islam is the light".

Funnily enough, this same parent was one of those who complained about the Fisher Price doll after buying one of those for her daughter, and now she seems to have entered a bizarre state of "Islam is the light" paranoia which will involve her checking all her children's toys for subliminal Islamic messages:
"Not just my daughters' toys but we have a son too. Now I feel like I need to listen to all of his little toys to make sure they're not saying it."
Of course, the toys have actually been saying this and we are not just dealing with a bizarre manifestation of the deeply ingrained cultural/religious prejudices of a single individual...

The Spirit on Ward C

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Ah, the modern hospital – a symbol of the power of the scientific method, of the triumph of rationalism over superstition. At least you'd think so:
HOSPITAL managers have called in an exorcist after shaken workers complained they are being terrified by a GHOST.

Spooked staff at Derby’s new Royal Hospital claimed a black-clad figure wearing a cloak was stalking wards and corridors.

Now chiefs at the £334million NHS site are to summon a local priest to see off the “spirit”.

Okay, so I know this report is from the Sun (although it's in the Telegraph too, and was apparently also mentioned on the Today programme) but I'm reminded of the credulity with which newspapers often approach stories like this (I recently read Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World, in which he constantly despairs at such credulity, seeing it as damaging and insulting to the public's intelligence). Take, for example, this line from the Sun report:

Experts said the spirit could be the ghost of a Roman soldier killed on the spot where the original hospital was built in the 1920s. Developers ignored protests and covered over part of one of Ancient Britain’s main Roman roads.
Experts? I know people like reading this nonsense, but at least approach it with a bit of sly scepticism. Although if we're talking credulity, this is nothing compared to the words of Debbie Butler, the hospital's senior manager – yes, senior manager – in an email to staff:
"I’m not sure how many of you are aware that some members of staff have reported seeing a ghost. I’m taking it seriously as the last thing I want is staff feeling uneasy at work. I don’t want to scare anyone any more than necessary, but felt it was best I made you all aware of the situation and what we are doing about it. I’ve spoken to the Trust’s chaplain and she is going to arrange for someone from the cathedral to exorcise the department."
Still, at least the Sun's "artist's impression" of the ghost shows that not everyone's taking this seriously. Update: And hats off to the Guardian for definitely not taking it seriously.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Leave Bart out of it...

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Oh dear. We know Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, is a Scientologist, but we had to just hope that the two would never mix.

But no. In lending her voice to "robocalls" promoting a Scientology event (I suppose we'd just call them "automated calls" in Britain, but I like the way that name evokes memories of robot renegade cops), Cartwright briefly plays the legendary yellow tearaway, saying:
"What's happening man, this is Bart Simpson [laughs] ... Just kidding. Don't hang up. This is Nancy Cartwright and this is a very special phone call to you. I'm now auditing on New OT VII and have been asked to speak at the Flag World Tour Event on January 31st in the Grand Ballroom, Hollywood and Highland Centre . . . It's going to be a blast man [laughs] ... See you there man!"
Apparently top brass at 20th Century Fox, who make The Simpsons, weren't too pleased at Bart's voice being used on behalf of Scientology, and today they issued this statement:
"The Simpsons does not, and never has, endorsed any religion, philosophy or system of beliefs any more profound than Butterfinger bars."
So I guess we just have to hope it doesn't happen again. Don't expect that Scientology Simpsons episode any time soon though. Thankfully we have South Park for that.

Here's the robocall audio if you want to hear it:


From protecting freedom to protecting religion

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In his column yesterday in the Indie Johann Hari picks up a story about the way that the remit of the UN special rapporteur on human rights has had his job description changed, under pressure from Islamic countries, Pakistan in particular - a re-emphasis which, Hari notes, changes the role from " condemning the people who wanted to murder Salman Rushdie, [to] condemning Salman Rushdie himself".

These are worrying developments in the run up to Durban II, the United Nations conference on racism and xenophobia, which will (confusingly) be in Geneva in April. The Organsiation of Islamic States are gearing up to try and pass resolutions aimed at limiting the right to criticise religion there. We have veteran UN watcher Ian Williams writing this up for March's New Humanist. Stay tuned.

Worship at the Church of Maradonna

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Last year, when I was writing a piece for New Humanist to coincide with the Olympics, I became somewhat wary of making big comparisons between sport and religion. "I'm tired of reading banal arguments based on something being a bit like something else," one sociologist warned me. Another sociologist (it must have been sociology season) explained that sport does resemble religion, but only in a Durkheimian sense.

I was reminded of this while reading this article in the Metro on the tube this morning, as the 120,000 members of La Iglesia Maradoniana, the Church of Maradonna, seem to have adopted sport as religion in far more than a Durkheimian sense. This congregation quite literally worship Diego Maradonna – Argentianian legend, contender for greatest footballer of all time (okay, so maybe Pele was the greatest and Maradonna the most "naturally gifted"), and he of the "Hand of God".

Of course, it's hard not to view the whole thing as a joke, although the congregants claim it's 100 per cent serious. The Church's headquarters is in Maradonna's home town of Rosario, 300km from Buenos Aries. They meet up properly twice a year – for their Messiah's birthday and on the annual anniversary of the 1986 World Cup quarter final defeat of England (perhaps unsurprisingly, the Church has 1,500 Scottish members) – and they have a set of Ten Commandments, one of which is, quite brilliantly, "Do not mention the name Diego in connection with any one club".

At the meeting the Metro reporter attended, the congregation was even treated to a telephone message from the man himself, taking time out from his new job as Argentina national coach, who declared that "God will be with us again and He will give us another victory like 1986."

So is it for real? The co-founder, HernĂ¡n Amez says so: "Religion is about feelings and we feel football. I've been doing this for ten years now and it's not just a bit of fun, it's a religion."

Which brings me back to Durkheim. The sociologist I met with last year explained how sport can be seen to resemble a religion when it leads to "collective effervescence", and it seems there's plenty of that to be had at La Iglesia Maradoniana.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Help create the ultimate Christian Voice Drinking Game

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I'm definitely a Twitter fan now – after I posted on there about Stephen Green's latest ASA defeat, discussion over his rabid press releases led one of the users who follows New Humanist, @MerseyMal, to suggest creating a Stephen Green/Christian Voice drinking game. You know the kind - you watch the film Withnail and I, you drink every time they do; you watch Sky Sports Soccer Saturday, and whenever the presenters say certain phrases you drink some beer.

This one would involve drinking every time one of Stephen Green's stock homophobic/generally intolerant phrases came up in a Christian Voice press release. I have no idea how this would actually work, but I thought it might be fun to get readers involved in coming up with the rules by commenting on this post. If we can put together an amusing and viable set of guidelines, I'll write them up properly and post them on the blog.

To get things started blogger James Graham suggested, via Twitter, naturally, that I should make some "wordles" out of Green's vile yet endlessly amusing press releases. I've included my favourite as the pic in this post, but you can see the others I made here. Based on these, it seems stock "trigger words" will include "God", "Sex", "Evil", "condoms" and "Homosexuals" (do we think Stephen might be a little bit obsessed with something?).

So, leave your suggestions as comments to this post and we'll see what we can come up with. You never know, we could create a student drinking phenonemon, which we know Stephen Green will hate. Or if it doesn't work we'll at least get to spend some time poking fun at Green, which we know he'll also hate.

We simply can't lose.

Please read with discernment...

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Via the Friendly Atheist, I was amused to learn that LifeWay Christian Stores, an online Christian book store, has started placing "Please read with discernment" warnings alongside the listings for certain titles in their stock.

Which titles I hear you ask? Could LifeWay be encouraging their customers to proceed with caution when they encounter frightening messages of fire and brimstone? Not exactly - they're much more concerned with any Christian authors who fail to toe the evangelical line. Here's what their website has to say:
"We want you to know that the authors of books marked Read with Discernment may have espoused thoughts, ideas, or concepts that could be considered inconsistent with historical evangelical theology.

However, we are making these titles available to our customers (along with the background and additional insight offered here through Read With Discernment) because we believe the books do present content that is relevant and of value to Christians and/or because pastors, seminary students, and other ministry leaders need access to this type of material, strictly for critical study or research to help them understand and develop responses to the diversity of religious thought in today's postmodern world. Our prayer for you is that in whatever you read, you place the material under the magnifying glass of scripture and read with discernment, asking God to reveal His truth to you..."
And there was me reading books with the "magnifying glass" of rationalism. I've really got to stop doing that...

ASA censures Stephen Green over HPV vaccine claim

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The Advertising Standards Agency is really becoming the scourge of Stephen Green's life (although the constant homophobic rage he's in can't be good for him either), and naturally we're feeling really sorry for him.

You see, while he was busy trying to get the Atheist Bus Campaign investigated for misleading the public, he was actually being investigated for actually misleading the public in a rather harmful manner. Last year, Green's Christian "Lone" Voice organisation placed an ad in the New Statesman that claimed that widespread use of the HPV vaccine, which is set to protect future generations of women against cervical cancer, will lead to an increase in teenage infertility. Green also made the same claim in relation to teenage pregnancy, abortion and the spread of sexual transmitted infections.

Following a complaint that these claims were misleading and could not be substantiated, the ASA investigated and, despite Green arguing that he (sorry, Christian Voice) was only expressing an opinon, has just issued the following decision:
The ASA noted Christian Voice's response. We considered, however, that the claim "Every government initiative, including the HPV vaccine, will increase it [teenage infertility]" was a statement of fact that was a matter open to substantiation. We noted the webpage submitted by Christian Voice, but we did not consider that that webpage in itself was sufficient to support the claim. Because we had not seen robust, scientific evidence that the HPV vaccine caused infertility in teenagers, we concluded that the claim had not been substantiated and was misleading.
In terms of technicalities, the ruling states that Green breached guidelines on "Principles", "Substantiation" and "Truthfulness" (how very un-Christian of you, Stephen) and the ASA has banned the ad from appearing again and has "told Christian Voice not to repeat the implied claim that the HPV vaccine would result in teenage infertility."

So it's nice to see that a claim of "there's probably a link between the HPV vaccine and infertility, so better to just leave teenage girls exposed to cervical cancer" is considered much more misleading and harmful (i.e. actually misleading and harmful) than a claim of "There's probably no God". For the second time in precisely one week – sorry Stephen.

Harold Blackham, founder of the BHA, dies aged 105

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On 23 January Harold Blackham, one of the architects of modern humanism, died aged 105.

A prolific writer, speaker and activist, Blackham played a key role in the founding of both the British Humanist Association and the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and was an honorary associate of our own organisation, the Rationalist Association.

You can learn more about Blackham's life by reading the obituary on the New Humanist website.

Put two and two together and get cancer...

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I was sceptical about joining Twitter but, 2 days and 197 New Humanist followers later, it all seems to be going pretty well. And I might have missed this story if it wasn't for NH contributor Kenan Malik and Bad Science writer Ben Goldacre "both twittering" about it. It's the latest Daily Mail "something lots of us enjoy regularly might give you cancer" scare story, this time involving the one of the nation's favourite drinks. And they're really sure about this one – a case eloquently made by Leicester University researcher Dr Marcus Cooke:
"Although there’s no evidence at all of a link between caffeine and cancer, we’re putting two and two together and saying: caffeine can induce these changes and it has been shown that these changes are elevated in leukaemia patients."
And the Mail headline to support that? "Coffee may raise child cancer risk: New evidence that caffeine could damage babies' DNA".

You might enjoy reading the link Ben Goldacre posted in relation to this on Twitter, from Mail spoof The Daily Quail.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Why Darwin and religion will never get on

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The very cool Jerry Coyne (he's a proper scientist and he can write beautifully) has a wonderful, long review essay in The New Republic that very carefully and meticulously goes through the arguments for why evolution and religion are or could be compatible - as made in two recent books by scientist believers Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller - before reaching the only conclusion that seems really tenable: "Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works."

[Find out why Jerry Coyne thinks Darwin would have enjoyed Woody Allen's Sleeper]

Time for Lords reform?

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Having followed the cash-for-influence scandal over the past couple of days, I find myself hoping that we'll now see House of Lords reform move back up the political agenda. Once again we're reminded of just how unaccountable the Lords are, especially given the fact that, as was famously the case with Jeffrey Archer, the accused Lords will in all likelihood keep their titles even if they are found to have broken the law.

In my own view this scandal demonstrates the need for a fully elected and accountable second chamber (after all, MPs are subject far stricter rules than Lords), and at the very least it shows that previous reform hasn't gone far enough. The government published a new white paper on the issue last summer, proposing an 80 or 100 per cent elected House, but little has happened since.

If Lords reform does make a comeback, there could a welcome secular angle too. As we pointed out in New Humanist a while ago, if criminals being allowed to keep their peerages appears archaic, it almost seems ultra-modern compared to the presence of 26 Church of England bishops in the upper house. A new debate over reform would be a great opportunity to push for the removal of these holy relics, although the last white paper proposed that the bishops would only be reduced in number, not ousted, if reform results in a part-elected, part-appointed Lords.

All the more reason to support the fully-elected option, then.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Telling Attenborough to burn in hell? A bit harsh don't you think?

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Okay, so we wouldn't expect creationists to see eye to eye with the great David Attenborough, but surely it's a bit harsh to send him letters telling him he's going to burn in hell? But that's what happens, as Attenborough has revealed in an interview with the Radio Times. Apparently some hardcore creationists get a bit upset when he doesn't "credit" god for the natural wonders featured in his programmes (this had me thinking of having to add "© God" under all the photos in National Geographic), so they take out their green pens and send him a nasty letter. If they're sending this stuff to Attenborough, just imagine the letters Richard Dawkins must receive.

It seems the Radio Times interview touches on religion and science, which Attenborough discussed in detail in his interview with Laurie Taylor for New Humanist this time last year. If you've never read it, why not take a look now? And this gives me a nice opportunity to use my favourite Martin Rowson/New Humanist cartoon again, which accompanied the Attenborough interview and the Dinner with Darwin feature from the same issue (we were starting nice and early and celebrating 199 years of Darwin).

New Humanist all of a Twitter

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We're not exactly Technophobes here at New Humanist, what with our blogging, podcasting and all, but the massive popularity of Twitter was something that eluded us for a while. But no longer - we've just signed up to Twitter this morning, and now we're looking for your advice on how we should be using it.

I have to admit, it's all a bit confusing when you first join. What can you do with 140 character updates? We'll start by posting updates on stories we're following at New Humanist, as well as updates on what we're up to here. But we're really interested in what our readers think we should be posting on Twitter. Now we've signed up, what would you like to see from us?

And, right now, we need some friends! Christina Martin's already following us, but having signed up just 20 minutes ago, our list of followers is looking a little bare. Come on, get involved. Then help bring us up to speed on how exactly this Twitter phenonemon works.

Here's the link to our Twitter feed.

The Carnival on Modern Liberty

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Here's something you all might like to get involved with – to coincide with the forthcoming Convention on Modern Liberty, a major conference on civil liberties taking place across the UK on 28 February, the excellent Liberal Conspiracy blog have launched the Carnival on Modern Liberty, the aim of which is to encourage coverage of civil liberties issues in the blogosphere and get them out to a wider readership.

One of the bloggers behind the initiative, James Graham, was kind enough to mention New Humanist as a blog he'd like to see involved, and it was nice to see one of our recent posts linked to in yesterday's first edition of the Carnival. It's well worth heading over to Liberal Conspiracy and checking it out - the big issues in the first edition are freedom of information, with the battle over MPs expenses here and Obama's loosening of Bush's restrictions in the US, data protection, and a round-up of civil liberties-related news from around the web.

Next week's edition of the Carnival will be hosted on the Our Kingdom blog. If you've been blogging on civil liberties and would like a mention, you can submit your posts here.

Friday, 23 January 2009

UK evangelicals send Obama a Bible

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It goes without saying that the rise of Barack Obama has resulted in a fair bit of bandwagon jumping, but the award for Most Tenuous Attempt to Link Your Own Work With That of America's New President may have to go to the Evangelical Alliance, a UK organisation, for a press release they sent out this morning.

I blogged yesterday about the clear lack of significance in there being no Bible at Obama's second swearing-in, but the Evangelical Alliance, who I imagine read all my writing, clearly disagree. They seem happy enough with Obama's Christian credentials but, in order to avoid a repeat of the lack of Bible, they've sent the him a little present in the post:

“We are sending him a copy of the Bible in case he is ever Biblically caught short again. We are delighted that President Obama takes justice and the alleviation of poverty very seriously, so we will send him a Bible that focuses on these issues that are so close to his, and God’s, heart.”
Deserving winners of the bandwagon award, don't you think?

Catholic Herlad editor attacks humanist MP

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At New Humanist, we know from personal experience that when something winds up Catholic Herald editor Damian Thompson, he writes a snide post on his Daily Telegraph blog. When he took exception to the Muslim card in our popular God Trumps game, he called us "chickens" and, hilariously, "politically correct atheist cowards".

Now he's trained his sights on the Liberal Democrat MP and prominent humanist Dr Evan Harris, whose office contacted Thompson with the intention of updating him on the private members' bill he's just introduced to change the Act of Settlement, a move which, if successful, would remove the bar on Catholics taking the throne.

You might think this was a measure Thompson, as a prominent British Catholic, would like to support. But you'd be wrong. You see, even though he agrees with what Harris is trying to do, he couldn't possibly back him because he disagrees with the MP on another issue – abortion. Except it's not a case of agreeing and disagreeing – as far as Thompson's concerned, Harris's strong pro-choice stance makes him, well, evil:

You know something? Catholics don't want to be liberated from this constitutional discrimination by a politician who advocates an end to the requirement that any abortion requires the consent of two doctors, arguing that the "procedure" can carried out by a nurse or even in the home.

I know I speak for many Catholics when I say that this man disgusts me. He is wrong about nearly everything, and wrong in a particularly nauseating fashion, too: self-righteous, humourless, self-important.

I had a phone call from his office yesterday, with the news that "Dr Evan Harris MP" wanted to brief me on his initiative, as if it was supposed to be some sort of honour. I said I couldn't imagine anything worse than talking to such an appalling character.

Oh, and did I mention that the post was entitled "Evan Harris, let me tell you where you can shove your attempt to reform the Act of Settlement"?

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Has the lack of a Bible at Obama's "second inauguration" been overplayed?

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At the risk of throwing cold water on things, is there a chance that the whole issue of the fluffed oath at Barack Obama's inauguration, and the subsequent rerun in the White House, has been slightly overplayed?

Could it be that a desire for a story (as if there weren't enough of those around on the day the first black US president was sworn in) has made something out of nothing, even leading to Obama having to take a couple of minutes out from his first day on the job to retake the oath (talk about having enough to be getting on with). After it all, it seems to have been Fox news that started the "debate" over whether he was legally president in light of the fluffed oath.

And now that Obama has taken it properly, we have a new debate over the implications of there being no Bible involved the second time around. We've had atheist bloggers claiming it shows the lack of emphasis the new president places on religion, while opponents argue it could damage his relationship with religious Americans.

But let's face it, the lack of a Bible doesn't really demonstrate that much, does it? The official word from the administration is that there wasn't a Bible at hand and, to be honest, the last thing likely to have been on Obama's mind as he set about cleaning up after the Bush presidency would have been sending a subtle message about religion by deliberately forgoing the use of a Bible while taking the second oath. Although, as the Heresiarch points out in some measured analysis, it seems unlikely this would have happened in the Bush White House.

We know that Obama is a Christian, however much fervent atheists and evangelical Christians on both sides would like to argue to the contrary. But we've also seen major signs that he's a moderate, tolerant Christian, who seems determined not to let religion be a divisive issue in America. With that in mind, far more important than the lack of a Bible at the second swearing-in was this nod to atheists in his inaugural address:
"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Chris tians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."
Now that definitely wouldn't have happened under Bush.

Why religion and sport should never meet. . .

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I found this through the Guardian's excellent weekly YouTube sports videos round up, and I just wanted to share it quickly as it's very funny. It's Kurt Warner, quarterback for the NFL team Arizona Cardinals, who just made it the upcoming Superbowl (sorry, almost lost myself too for a moment there), trying to draw a picture of God, for some reason. It almost makes you understand why Islam forbids depictions of its holy figures. It's not because they're offensive, it's just because you'd get sports stars drawing rubbish pictures of Mohammad:

Anglican home improvements

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We love Love Life Live Lent, the Church of England's annual attempt to make the period leading up to the celebration of death by crucifixion and resurrection seem extra fun. Just look at the website, it's so happy and fun with the pretty cartoon house and trees, and the acid house smiley face...

A couple of years ago they tried to brighten up the annual fast (is it even that any more?) by organising clean, inoffensive comedy nights ("The Laughing Sole"), and encouraging people to get involved through modern methods like texting and Facebook. Last year, one of the organisers' suggestions for really getting in touch with the 40 days and 40 nights was "Cooking or eating cuisine you haven’t tried before", thereby seemingly defeating the point of Lent entirely, and that was followed by a bunch of bishops and vicars shining people's shoes on the streets.

So what's in store for this year? Well, it seems the big idea is for people to convert sections of their houses into "prayer dens". And if that doesn't sound appealing enough in itself, you'll really be raring to go when you've read the suggestions for where in the house this should be:
"A corner of one room; an understairs cupboard (it has been tried!); a shelf; a corner of a shed or garage; or make a 'prayer den', using furniture and blankets!"
That's right. Get into Lent this year by squeezing into your understairs cupboard and saying a few prayers. And, as Christina Martin pointed out when she sent me this story, just imagine getting the estate agent's tour when the house is sold: "Two bedrooms, en suite bathroom, south facing aspect…oh and a prayer room under the stairs".

I mean, I'm no Christian, but I preferred Lent when it was a period of self-deprivation leading up to a nice healthy round of flagellation.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Sorry Stephen Green, the Atheist Bus ads are not misleading

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Remember the other week when Stephen Green filed a complaint with the Advertising Standards Agency, arguing that the Atheist Bus ads were misleading the public by claiming that there is "probably no god"? Well, the ASA has today announced that it wont be investigating the complaint, saying:
"The ASA council concluded that the ad was an expression of the advertiser's opinion and that the claims in it were not capable of objective substantiation. Although the ASA acknowledges that the content of the ad would be at odds with the beliefs of many, it concluded that it was unlikely to mislead or to cause serious or widespread offence."
Better luck next time, Stephen. Maybe you'll win one of your madcap court cases/complaints one of these days. That is, if you don't completely bankrupt yourself first.

Tom Cruise signs Anonymous mask

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Could this be seen as a sign of a rapprochement between the Church of Scientology and its masked nemesis Anonymous? At last night's Berlin premiere of Tom Cruise's Hitler-assassination-attempt movie Valkyrie, an Anonymous protester managed to get his V for Vendetta mask autographed by the man himself, who even threw in a peace symbol for good measure.

Okay, so it doesn't really demonstrate anything, though you have to give Cruise credit for dealing with the episode in such good faith. And the guy from Anonymous must be delighted – to my knowledge none of their number has managed to get that close to Cruise before. Here's the video:

Italian Catholics urge caution over Facebook

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It seems the Catholic Church hasn't quite worked out its stance on social networking technology. Just days after the Pope launched his very own YouTube channel, Archbishop Pompili from the Italian Episcopal Conference has attacked the popularity of networking sites like Facebook.

Of course, the Catholic objection to Facebook centres on a view that believers risk prioritising their online relationships over God and so on, but it seems the Archbishop has inadvertently come up with the perfect term for what Facebook can bring about in its more enthusiastic users – "online egocentrism".

I couldn't agree more. But then again I'm also on Facebook, which makes me a hypocrite. And you wouldn't see that in the Vatican.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

What could have been...

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Many of you will have voted in our Bad Faith Awards poll at the end of last year – if you weren't one of the 5,563 that did, where were you? The full results appear in our current issue and, given the historic nature of today, we thought we'd put them online as a brief and terrifying reminder of what could have been.

33 per cent of you voted for Sarah Palin, and I don't know about you, but I miss her. But she'll be back, providing the 2012 Republican campaign can raise enough cash for her wardrobe. And if she decides to run for the main prize, we'll have a whole two years to blog about her antics...

Bunch of dougnuts

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The anti-abortion movement rarely does itself any favours, does it? On few occasions has this been better illustrated than by this absurd story about how Krispy Kreme doughnuts ended up being accused of covertly promoting abortion after they innocently offered customers a free doughnut to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama.

So how did this happen? Well, Krispy Kreme made the mistake of using the word "choice" as part of its offer in the following sense:
"Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. (NYSE: KKD) is honoring American's sense of pride and freedom of choice on Inauguration Day, by offering a free doughnut of choice to every customer on this historic day."
Apparently, and this may be news to pretty much everyone, you can't use that word any more, as the American Life League kindly explained:
The unfortunate reality of a post Roe v. Wade America is that "choice" is synonymous with abortion access and celebration of 'freedom of choice' is a tacit endorsement of abortion rights on demand. President-elect Barack Obama promises to be the most virulently pro-abortion president in history. Millions more children will be endangered by his radical abortion agenda. Celebrating his inauguration with "Freedom of Choice" doughnuts – only two days before the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to decriminalize abortion – is not only extremely tacky, it's disrespectful and insensitive and makes a mockery of a national tragedy. A misconstrued concept of "choice" has killed over 50 million preborn children since Jan. 22, 1973. Does Krispy Kreme really want their free doughnuts to celebrate this "freedom.""
Madness. Sheer, unadulterated, surely-only-Stephen-Green-could-have-come-up-with-this madness. Of course, any self-respecting multi-national company would simply ignore such an absurd accusation, right? Unfortunately not. Krispy Kreme (and this is the bit that really makes PZ despair over at Pharyngula), promptly changed the wording of their offer, removing the reference to "American's sense of pride and freedom of choice" and adding the qualifying statement "The Inauguration Day promotion is not about any social or political issue."

So, just to qualify, there's a movement that wishes to make the word "choice" a taboo, and yes you did just read about a row over a doughnut promotion that was accused of offering subliminal support for the right to abortion.

A humanist spin on inauguration day

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As Barack Obama prepares to be sworn in as US President this afternoon, an advertisement placed in the Washington Post by the American Humanist Association will emphasise his non-religious upbringing. Here's what their Executive Director Roy Speckhardt had to say about the ads:

"We hear so much these days about how traditional religious family values are necessary for raising moral children who can grow into accomplished adults. But we humanists have known for a long, long time that ethical humanist values build character. The number of moral and accomplished humanists is legion. We've been honoring the greatest of them every year since 1953 at our annual conferences. Now Barack Obama has given us the opportunity to share this truth with those from around the country who come to our nation's capital to share in the inauguration experience."

They're not denying the Christianity Obama has turned to as an adult. All they're saying is that, in a country where many would view a non-religious upbringing as more-or-less Satanic, it didn't seem to do their soon-to-be 44th president any harm.

Monday, 19 January 2009

It's me, morally unsound Mario. . .

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Many of you will know comedian Christina Martin's work for New Humanist (our immensely popular God Trumps were hers), but you might not have come across her blog, so this seems like a great opportunity to give it a plug. You see, Christina is rather fond of Christian reviews (she know lots of amusing film review sites) and she's now uncovered a Christian video games review site. I wont give too much away, as you can go and read her own very funny post, but I do want to share a couple of things on here.

It's not hard to understand why anyone, Christians included, would have a problem with some of the more violent video games such as Grand Theft Auto, at least in the sense that it's better if kids don't get to play a game in which you can, among many other things, run over prostitutes in order to get back the money your character just gave them. However, could anyone really have a moral issue with cutesy cartoon games like Super Mario? The reviewers Christina unearthed do. Here's an extract from a review of Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games:
Nudity/Sexual Content – “There is nothing offensive in this category, but I do want to mention that Princess Peach and Daisy do wear some high cut shorts”
For anyone interested in learning more about the glamorous princess and her short shorts, I've included a picture. And the reviewers take similar issue with the female golfers in Tiger Woods PGA Tour '08:
Nudity/Sexual Content – “Characters clothing is sexy or accentuates their sexuality. Many of the female golfers wear tight fitted clothing”
Terrible, isn't it?

Fear not - an orb is watching over Obama

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An important press release arrived in our inbox this morning from Findhorn Press, publishers of such life-changing books as Ascension Through Orbs and In Tune With the Moon 2009. To summarise, anyone concerned about what the US presidency might hold for Barack Obama can stop worrying right now, because he has an orb watching over him. Here's how we know this:

Is an Orb watching over Barack Obama? Recently Alan Steinfeld took a photograph of Alex Grey's portrait of Obama, when he looked at the image he realized that there was an Orb to the side of Obama's head at exactly the same level as the Earth symbol in the painting over Obama's forehead! When we received that photograph, we sent it on to Diana Cooper [author of Ascension Through Orbs], who immediately responded, 'Wow that is stunning. Archangels Gabriel and Uriel with Spirits'. It would certainly seem that Obama is being watched over at this time!

Whether every Orb 'type' image that appears on a digital photograph is actually an over-lighting entity no one can say for certain but Diana Cooper & Kathy Crosswell have now viewed thousands of Orb images and due to their skill and experience have been able to identify the over-lighting being in many of these.
So basically someone took a photo of a painting and saw an orb. Seems fair enough to us.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Taking things a bit far?

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Last year I wrote (and made a podcast) about the anti-Scientology movement Anonymous. There were quite a few silly things going on at the protest I attended in London, but nothing to rival what one young man, who can only be fairly described as an idiot, has just done in a "raid" on a Scientology centre in New York. Basically, he smeared himself in vaseline, then covered his body with pubic hair clippings and finger nail cuttings (if you follow the previous link you can watch a video, if you really want). Then he barged his way into a Scientology centre, then got arrested.

The future of direct action? Pretty unlikely I'd say. In my article on Anonymous I argued that, despite the surreal, light-hearted nature of their protests, many of the participants seemed serious and informed in their opposition to Scientology. However, had I met someone covered in the pubic hair of several people, my conclusion may have been slightly different.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Would Kaka's £500,000 a week belong to Jesus?

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What happens when football, perhaps the most materialistic of all modern concerns, comes face-to-face with old-fashioned religious piety? It's a question that bears asking in light of Brazilian superstar Kaka's proposed move to the so-called "richest club in the world", Abu Dhabi-royalty-funded Manchester City.

The word is that City are set to shell out £100m for the AC Milan midfielder, before paying him a weekly wage of £500,000. City are currently languishing two points above the Premier League relegation zone, with threats to break into the "Big Four" having faded months ago, so a move there would be the most materialistic of all materialistic moves.

And why might this be a problem for Kaka? Well, you may remember him as the player who revealed a stylish "I belong to Jesus" t-shirt (pictured) at the end of Milan's victory over Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final. He's a born again Christian who donated his 2007 Fifa World Player of the Year trophy to the controversial Sao Paolo Reborn in Christ Church, of which he is a member.

He's often reiterated his belief that "faith ... decides whether something will happen or not", and yesterday his representatives were saying he "wouldn't do anything based on money". But if he does go to City, which according to the BBC is "close" to happening, the only thing that will have decided it will be money.

If Kaka stays at Milan – a far more successful club where he has won the Champions League and many other honours – then perhaps his faith will have decided what happens. Though the fact that he already takes home around £9 million each year may of course also play a part.

Plaigarising religion writer on the Colbert Report

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Yesterday I blogged, and lots of you commented, about Neale Donald Walsch, the US religion writer who's in trouble for nicking a sickeningly sweet story about a kindergarten Christmas play from someone else and putting on his blog. Well, now I learn through the Friendly Atheist that Stephen Colbert was joking about this in an amusing new section of his show called "Yahweh or No way". Here's the clip:

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Best ever excuse for plagiarism?

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An article in the New York Times reports (and first reported here) on the plight of BeliefNet blogger and bestselling religion author Neale Donald Walsch, who's had to withdraw his blog after being busted for passing off a ten-year-old story about a boy's Christmas school play as his own anecdote, i.e. a story about his own son.

Unfortunately for Walsch it was noted that the exact same story (essentially a nauseating tale about some children holding hands in a way that spelled out "ChristWas Love", even though it actually said "Christmas Love") had appeared a decade ago in a piece by writer Candy Chand. Not a particularly interesting story in itself (do we really care if religion writers go round copying this kind of thing from each other?), but a subesequent apology involved Walsch coming up with the greatest excuse for plagiarism that any of us are ever likely to see:
All I can say now -- because I am truly mystified and taken aback by this -- is that someone must have sent it to me over the internet ten years or so ago. Finding it utterly charming and its message indelible, I must have clipped and pasted it into my file of "stories to tell that have a message I want to share." I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized...and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience. I am aghast at how improbable this sounds, even to me, yet I can find no other explanation for how this story came out of my mouth in Candy Chand's words.
Brilliant. Why can't people just accept when they've been rumbled?

Monday, 12 January 2009

The end for Catholic proselytism?

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The following line in this story, headed "Pope: Children are not their parents' property" caught my eye just now:
"In his homily, Benedict said parents should also refrain from 'moulding (their children) on the basis of their own ideas and desires'."
Does this mean Pope Benny wants Catholic parents to stop bringing their children up as Catholics, instead allowing them to find their own way in life? Will we now see the closure of all those Catholic schools?

No. He was actually arguing that parents should have their children baptised and bring them up as Catholics, whether they themselves are religious or not. That is, ensure they're moulded with someone else's ideas, but not necessarily their own.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Christian Voice lauch complaint over Atheist Bus Campaign

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It was no surprise to see it reported on the BBC that Stephen Green has lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Agency over the Atheist Bus Campaign and its slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Green thinks the slogan breaks ASA guidelines, saying "Advertisements are not allowed to mislead consumers. This means that advertisers must hold evidence to prove the claims they make about their products or services before an ad appears."

Here's Stephen's logic - since you can't provide evidence for there being no God, you're misleading consumers, probably or no probably. But it wouldn't be misleading to say there is a God, as he explains:

"There is plenty of evidence for God, from peoples' personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world. But there is scant evidence on the other side, so I think the advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it."

Green's complaint has elicited a fantastic response from the British Humanist Association's chief executive Hanne Stinson, who told the BBC:
"I've sought advice from some of our key people here, but I'm afraid all I've got out of them so far is peals of laughter. I am sure that Stephen Green really does think there is a great deal of evidence for a God (though presumably only the one that he believes in), but I pity the ASA if they are going to be expected to rule on the probability of God's existence."
So they're not taking Green seriously then? Which brings me to my usual question on this matter - why is the BBC still taking him seriously?

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Glastonbury loses the plot

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No, nothing to do with Eavis booking Jay-Z last year. This one's about the actual town of Glastonbury, where some residents have been hysterically spouting pseudoscience in response to the council kindly providing the town centre with free Wi-Fi internet. They're blaming the wireless for a variety of medical problems - headaches, dizziness, rashes and even pneumonia - and, as the Telegraph reports, have left the science bit to some true professionals:
"Some healers even hold that electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) generated by the wi-fi system are responsible for upsetting positive energy fields of the body, which are known as chakras, and positive energy fields of the earth, which are known as ley lines.

"There are now calls for the project, the first of its kind in Britain, to be "unplugged" and for wi-fi masts in the centre of the Somerset market town to be removed just seven months into its experimental run.

"Meanwhile soothsayers, astrologers and other opponents of the wi-fi system have resorted to an alternative technology - known as "orgone" - to combat the alleged negative effects of the high-tech system."
Of course, no actual scientific evidence has ever shown that Wi-Fi signals affect health. Apparently some Glastonbury residents are claiming the signals have lowered the levels of the hormone melatonin in their bodies - something biologist PZ Myers quickly debunks on Pharyngula: "This is nonsense: melatonin really doesn't do everything, the pineal [gland that produces it] is not going to be particularly responsive to random radio frequencies, and these kooks don't even have a way to assess melatonin levels."

Sadly, it seems real science is unlikely to dissuade those trying to have Glastonbury's free network removed, as highlighted by the absurd activities of one opponent:

"Matt Todd has started building small generators which he believes can neutralise the allegedly-harmful radiation using the principles of orgone science. The pyramid-like machines use quartz crystals, selenite (a clear form of the mineral gypsum), semi-precious lapis lazuli stones, gold leaf and copper coil to absorb and recycle the supposedly-negative energy.

'I have given a number of generators to shops in the High Street and hidden others in bushes in the immediate vicinity of the antennae. That way you can bring back the balance,' said Mr Todd.

Orgone science was developed by the Austro-Hungarian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who claimed all living matter contains a biological energy. Mr Todd added: 'The science hasn't really got into the mainstream because the Government won't make decisions which will affect big business, even if it concerns everyone's health'."

"The science hasn't really got into the mainstream". You really couldn't make it up (although he actually has). It would all be hilarious if there weren't so many people out there thinking like this. As PZ rightly points out on his blog, the journalists have clearly gone after the more leftfield residents of Glastonbury, but you really do have to despair when New Age pseudoscience and paranoia leads to a sizable movement that could have free wireless internet (which most people would love) removed from a town. As you'll see if you read the Telegraph article, even local Conservative MP David Heathcoat Amory is backing the protesters.

Where's Carl Sagan when we need him?

Don't miss RA President Jonathan Miller on death, tonight, 9pm, Radio 4

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Just a quick note to let you know that our president Jonathan Miller's new radio programme The Line Between Life and Death airs tonight on Radio 4 at 9pm. Here's the synopsis from the website:
Jonathan Miller explores the complex questions that arise from trying to define death. He asks what it means for something to be alive so that it can die, what counts as death for different species and, if we pass a genetic inheritance on to our children, does this mean that we are in some sense immortal? Jonathan also considers the consequences of there being no actual definition of death in UK law for medicine and ethics and why even if we avoid all risks to life we will all eventually die.
[Thanks to Ted Duke]

Religion makes you nicer...

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... or so says Theodore Dalrymple in the Jan/Feb issue of New Humanist. In an article likely to enrage many humanists and atheists Dalrymple (the nom de plume of retired prison doctor Anthony Daniels who is a prolific polemicist and frequent contributor to the Telegraph, Spectator, New Criterion and City Journal - yes, you guessed it, he is not a socialist) rebukes atheists for their "adolescent" attitude to religion and says religious people are "by far the best and nicest" people he has met.

What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment here. We should not let this go unanswered.

Christmas in Hubbardland

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Okay, so Christmas is over, but my friend took this photograph during a recent trip to LA. I deem it too good not to share. You might need to click on the photo to see it bigger and read the sign.

They've given you a bad prayer there. . .

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Can you have a bad prayer? By this I don't mean an evil prayer, whatever one of those might be, but rather a prayer of questionable literary value. Poet Carol Rumens seems to think so, describing the Church of England's latest "Prayer on Being Made Redundant" as containing "flaccid scraps of free verse, [that] actually create a sense of impoverishment – the impoverishment of the English language."

She's got a point. Surely they can do better than:

'Redundant' – the word says it all –



without purpose,

surplus to requirements.'

If there is a God listening, you might imagine they have a penchant for decent poetry. And, if we focus on the more profane purpose of cheering people up, this effort, as Rumens points out, is fairly unlikely to do the trick.

All in all, they've given their followers a bad prayer.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Searching the web the Catholic way

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Google's a bloody good search engine, isn't it? What a shame, then, that I won't be using it any more. Not now that I can switch to Catholic Google, a stunningly unnecessary new resource which conveniently undermines the free flow of information that so defines the internet by "[producing] results from all over the internet with more weighting given to Catholic websites and [eliminating] the vast majority of unsavoury content, such as pornography."

As a review of the site sent to me by Christina Martin points out, the search engine's tailoring/censorship mechanism means, for example, that in a search for "birth control" the first results that come up are Catholic pages warning against its use. Alas, the review also points out that Catholic Google isn't so great at weeding out porn sites, as the reviewer found by searching for "Kim Kardashian sex tape" (yeah, I had to look her up on normal Google too - she's an American "socialite" apparently).

So, I've done a bit of testing myself. A casual search for "sex" keeps things nice and Catholic – the first result is to "Sex Kills, Become Catholic and Live Forever", with "Morals and Marriage: The Catholic Background to Sex" coming in second. "Porn" brings up no results whatsoever, compared to normal Google's whopping 249,000,000. Unfortunately for the Vatican, when it's not thinking about sex the search engine isn't so great at routing out potentially embarassing material. My search for "pope nazi" (I was thinking of Pius XII) amusingly brought up the current Pope's Wikipedia page as the first result, while a search for "Catholic child abuse" returns lots of material related to the child abuse scandals.

So how does New Humanist fare? Sadly, Catholic Google seems to see little threat in our content, with a search for "New Humanist" returning similar results to a normal Google search.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Church removes "horrifying" crucifix

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The contradictions at work in this story are wonderful – the vicar of a church in Sussex has ordered the removal of a statue of the crucifixion on the following grounds:
"The crucifix expressed suffering, torment, pain and anguish. It was a scary image, particularly for children. Parents didn't want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying. It wasn't a suitable image for the outside of a church wanting to welcome worshippers. In fact, it was a real put-off. We're all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross."
The words of Rev Ewen Souter of St John's Church in Horsham, a vicar in a religious movement which centres on the execution of its key prophet in exactly the manner represented in that statue, and whose internationally-recognised logo is a minuature version of that particularly brutal method of execution. Oh, and did I mention that they pretend to drink that prophet's blood in Church on Sundays (in this case it's definitely pretend, even to them, as St John's is Anglican)? Now that's really something to scare the kids with.

Atheist Buses finally on the road

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I'm just back from the launch of the Atheist Bus Campaign, which took place this lunchtime in a heated marquee beside London's Albert Memorial. As you can see from our picture, an Atheist Bus (or, more accurately, a bus displaying the campaign's ad) was parked by the marquee and, along with Richard Dawkins (seen here posing with aforementioned bus), speakers included campaign creator Ariane Sherine, BHA president Polly Toynbee, Father Ted writer Graham Linehan, philosopher AC Grayling and comedian Robin Ince.

As Ariane explained at the launch, the campaign was originally only intended for London buses, but the incredible £135,000-plus raised on the JustGiving site means the campaign has been rolled out across the UK – 200 bendy buses in London, 600 buses in other UK cities, 1,000 panels on London Tube trains and two LCD video screens on Oxford Street will carry the slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The Tube panels have an added surprise, featuring quotes from Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, Katharine Hepburn (see that one here) and Douglas Adams. Richard Dawkins unveiled the ad with the Adams quote, which is of course also featured in The God Delusion:

"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"

Atheist buses have already been spotted on the streets of London, and now many more sightings will occur around the UK. Do let us know if you've seen one by commenting on this post.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Rational New Year

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If there is one term that has always annoyed me at this time of year, it's "detox". You know - after the excesses of Christmas etc etc, it's time to "detox" our bodies by buying and consuming pricey products from our local health stores. It goes hand-in-hand with that other irritating perennial - the New Year's resolution. "Detox" had to be nonsense, didn't it? Okay, so cutting back on the booze and giving up the fags might not be a bad idea, but could drinking fancy water, taking loads of vitamins, using special face soaps (sorry, "cleansing lotions"), or for that matter the amazing "detox foot patches" shown here, really make a scrap of difference?

Not according to research carried out by Sense About Science, a charitable trust with the admirable aims of "promoting good science and evidence in public debates". In compiling their "Detox Dossier", published today, they found the following:
1) No two companies seem to use the same definition of ‘detox’.

2) Little, and in most cases no, evidence was offered to back up the detox claims.

3) In the majority of cases, producers and retailers contacted by the young scientists were forced to admit that they are renaming mundane things, like cleaning or brushing, as ‘detox’.

4) They range in price from £1-2 for a detox drink to £36.95 for detox bath accessories.
Not surprising at all, but great to see these things exposed (Sense About Science has also previously done some debunking of the pseudoscientific claims made for products like shampoo). I particularly liked this example, given in a BBC website report on the research:

"One researcher investigated a Garnier face wash which claimed to detoxify the skin by removing toxins. The "toxins" turned out to be the dirt, make-up and skin oils that any cleanser would be expected to remove, she said."

This is purely anecdotal, but all this reminds me of a person I used to work with (not at New Humanist, I might add), who used to proclaim the wonders of "detox", pomegranates, magic diets and all the rest. That same person was also paying for a course in how to perform Reiki. . .

Update: Thanks to reader Andy for pointing out that Bad Science author Ben Goldacre has of course written extensively on the nonsense that is detox. In fact he was on the Today programme this morning taking on someone from a company that makes something called "Detox in a Box". Read his blog on this and hear extracts from the Today programme here.

Internet rumour and the death of Jett Travolta

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The tragic death of John Travolta's son Jett has, perhaps inevitably, generated a great deal of macabre online speculation, especially among members of the anti-Scientology protest group Anonymous. The basic outline, as Damian Thompson also points out, is as follows:

Jett Travolta was known to have had "a history of seizures", and his death in his bathroom on Saturday is reported to have occurred as a result of a seizure. Notoriously the Church of Scientology, of which the Travoltas are members, is opposed to psychiatry and any related drug treatments, which would include drugs used to treat seizures.

In the wake of Jett's death this link has been doing the rounds – it leads to a page from a celebrity gossip site, seemingly from 2007, in which a blogger predicted that Jett Travolta would die by the end of 2008. In addition to this Michael Pattinson, a former high-level Scientologist, has written an article entitled "What Scientology will probably do about the tragic death of Jett Travolta", in which he suggests, based on his own extensive knowledge, how the Church will handle the news, the grieving Travolta family and subsequent rumours. In additon, this article from an Anonymous site provides further speculation on Jett's death and Scientology's record in opposing psychiatric treatment.

I certainly agree with Damian Thompson on this one. It's not pleasant to be browsing all this speculation about the death of someone's child, but this has the potential to be a major story and there are questions that need to be asked. Whether we'll see them answered remains to be seen.