Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Pot, kettle?

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Imagine our delight when we read this story in today's Guardian - the Catholic Church in America has banned the use of reiki in Catholic institutions, branding it "unscientific" and "inappropriate". The Conference of Catholic Bishops has warned that reiki, an alternative therapy involving the channelling of "energy" from the therapist to the patient, "lacks scientific credibility" and also risks exposing people to "malevolent forces", a notion which is of course hugely credible and strongly supported by scientists, particularly those working in Malevolent Forces and Evil Spirits research departments around the world. Here's a paragraph from the new guidelines:
"A Catholic who puts his or her trust in reiki would be operating in the realm of superstition, the no man's land that is neither faith nor science. Superstition corrupts one's worship of God by turning one's religious feeling and practice in a false direction."
Unfortunately, New Humanist was unable to find a reiki practitioner to comment on the scientific credibility of the Vatican stance on condoms and the spread of HIV...

[Thanks Christina]

Update: One of our followers (though not in a cultish way) on Twitter, @krypto, has kindly passed us a link to the full reiki guidelines released by the Conference of Catholic Bishops. It's a six page PDF which, as Krypto said to us, "Wraps itself up in knots trying to differentiate spiritual and natural healing".

Nick Cohen Orwell prize rant

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New Humanist contributor Nick Cohen blew his top at the Orwell Prize debate yesterday, excoriating the judges for omitting Martin Bright (who Cohen says was sacked by the Prime Minister from the New Statesman, and now writes for the Spectator) and including right-wingers Peter Oborne and Peter Hitchens. Peter Hitchens was in the audience and responds. It's all quite funny. Check out the video over at Picked Politics

Friday, 27 March 2009

Too busy to blaspheme?

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... Let us do it for you. Inspired by this story New Humanist have decided to offer a computerised blasphemy service. For just £3.99 a month (plus handling fee and insurance) we will programme our supercomputer to utter up to 3 godless curses a month on your behalf. Choose from our exclusive menu of oaths, curses, railings against religionists or call one of our heathen consultants to devise your own sacriligious swearwords about your favourite god, saint or religious organisation.

Just like our friends at Infomation Age Prayer we will be offering "state of the art text to speech synthesizers to voice each blaspheme at a volume and speed equivalent to typical person blaspheming. Each curse is voiced individually, with the name of the subscriber displayed on screen."

Caspar Melville, editor of New Humanist says, "this is a major step forward in computer-aided cursing, and really helps to bring sacrilege firmly into the 21st century. I urge everyone to sign up- it also makes a wonderful gift for Easter."

[thanks to Christina]

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Common sense on pregnancy advice

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It never really occurred to me, until I read this story this morning, that you can't really advertise condoms on British TV. But now I know the rules – no condom ads before the nine o'clock watershed, except for on Channel 4, where they can show them from seven (but Hollyoaks is on at 6.30, so to me this means they're missing a key demographic).

However, the encouraging news today is that regulators look set to relax these rules – condom adverts will be able to be shown on all channels before the watershed, and pregnancy advisory services, including those who can help with abortion, will also be free to advertise on TV.

So teenagers, who are most in need of this kind of advice, will be more likely to see it advertised on TV. Common sense, don't you think?

Simon Blake of sexual health service Brook agrees:

"Young people tell us TV is an important route through which they get a huge amount of messages about sex. So clear, honest, factual advertising about services which provide honest messages is clearly going to be part of shifting the balance away from this over-sexualised media."

But of course there's always an opposite view. Usually a more emotive, less helpful one. Enter John Smeaton, national director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, who informs us that the changes would "further commercialise the killing of unborn children".

The new rules haven't been decided on yet – these suggestions are to form part of a public consultation which will end on 19 June, which could lead to changes to advertising codes in a variety of areas.

Of course, one imagines we'll be hearing plenty from the Christian right (in so far as it exists in this country) in the meantime. Incidentally, I was only saying the other day that Stephen Green of Christian Voice has been very quiet of late (his last "press release" was dated 11 February). Could this be the story that sees him re-enter the fray?

Lastly, speaking of condoms, there was an amusing take on the matter on Charlie Brooker's new show Newswipe last night (which I urge you to watch on BBC iPlayer) - "in case you're wondering, the Catholic method is to remove the condom and then bury the head of your penis in the sand."

Spot on.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Is religious belief innate?

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Last Saturday I attended a day of talks based around the theme "God in the Lab", hosted by the Centre for Inquiry UK. One of the talks was by Dr Justin Barrett from the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, who discussed the idea that children are biologically disposed to believe in God.

Barrett was on this morning's Today programming, discussing the idea with biologist (and New Humanist contributor) Professor Lewis Wolpert. You can listen again to that online.

The blogger from the blog No Double Standards was actually at the CFI event producing live updates, so you can catch up with information on all four talks by visiting that site.

Monday, 23 March 2009

BHA refute attack by Daily Mail

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If you picked up Saturday's Daily Mail (and let's face it, why wouldn't you?), you may have noticed an article entitled "How cash meant for promoting faith is going to an organisation that campaigns AGAINST Christianity", which suggested that a government grant given to the British Humanist Association (who we work closely with and, indeed, share our building with) had been used to fund an aggressive campaign against Christianity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the article misrepresented the BHA in practically every sentence (i.e., the article was wrong, i.e. it was a shocking piece of journalism). In order to set the record straight, the BHA have put up a step-by-step refutation on their website. I recommend you read it – as well as being a a great example of how to deal with shoddy journalism, it's also an excellent guide to the tabloid art of fact-twisting.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Lords debate Darwin

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Yesterday the House of Lords marked the Darwin celebrations with a 'debate' moved by Baroness Hooper, designed to call attention to the great man and his works. The event, which was attended by members of Darwin's family, tempted a gaggle of m'lords to the dispatch box to deliver eulogies to the great scientists and the legacy of his ideas. The tone - as you can read for yourself in Hansard - was fairly convivial, despite the fact that several of the Lords on show, like Lord Birt, are avowed atheists and three (count 'em, three) Bishops were slated to speak. As is to be expected in this day and age each of the Bishes praised Darwin fulsomely, emphasised how rapidly the C of E accepted evolution and claimed that there was no contradiction between Darwinism and religion. Well they would, wouldn't they? The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds even goes so far as claiming that in the New Testament Jesus "celebrates the scientific observations of his own day". Later on The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells helpfully reminds us that the Bible is not composed of "essays in biology or the natural sciences" but rather "stories". The Bible is "a poem not a treatise". The Prelate does a valiant job of making the case for religion as fiction but then appears to falter. Hansard thus records... "I am sorry, I have lost my place. I was on cracking from until then." Bless.

Of course none of the Bishes pass up the opportunity to warn that Darwinism itself is in danger of becoming a ideology, and joining in the currently fashionable game of Dawkins-bashing (now seemingly almost as popular as bashing the bishop). It fell to Lord Birt, cool rationalist that he is, to suggest that the importance of Darwin was that he "thought the unthinkable: that the world was not created in seven days; that species... were not fixed in time. Darwin" he continued, "ushered in the era of rationalism. The challenge for humanists and for other children of Darwin is to create a world based on respect both for nature and for each other, a world where science and evidence displace prejudice and bigotry, a world based on ethical values which aim to maximise the sum total of humans happiness here on earth." Well said, m'lord.

He finished with this thought: "One of the most intellectually thrilling experiences that I have had for many years was an evening last [year] at the University of London where young comedians and scientists offered deadly and arresting critiques of modern events and mores. I felt I had glimpsed a better, more rational future." What could he have been talking about?

Thursday, 19 March 2009

AC Grayling politely rebukes an attempt to reconcile religion and science

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In our current issue, AC Grayling reviews Questions of Truth by John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale, a collection of essays that claims to address 51 "Questions About God, Science and Belief". Suffice to say, Grayling wasn't a fan (one star was awarded in the print magazine).

Polkinghorne is a particle physicist-turned-theologian who won the Templeton Prize (which rewards attempts to reconcile religion and science) in 2002, while Nicholas Beale is a former student of Polkinghorne who, while he describes himself as a "social philosopher/management consultant" in real life, manages Polkinghorne's website and blogs about religion and science in his spare time.

On top of dissecting the text itself, at the end of his review Grayling outlined his problem with the fact that the book was receiving a launch at the Royal Society (an event which happened on 2 March): "Polkinghorne dishonours the Royal Society by exploiting his Fellowship to publicise this weak, casuistical and tendentious pamphlet on its precincts, and the Royal Society does itself no favours by allowing Polkinghorne to do it."

Beale must have picked up on Grayling's review, and in particular his comments about the Royal Society, as he wrote to him questioning his objections to that event and inviting him to a similar event coming up at the Royal Institution on 1 April, which will be chaired by historian of religion Stewart Sutherland. I've reproduced Beale's email to Grayling below, followed by Grayling's fantastic response. Enjoy.

Beale to Grayling
Dear Professor Grayling

Apart from anything else, I wonder you reconcile endorsement [sic] by Nobel Laureates, Onora O'Neill chairing the launch discussion and two other FRSs happy to share the platform, with your "discreditable ... scandal" tropes; and whether you think it is consistent with a real commitment to truth to conceal these points from your readers?

You may be interested to know that we have another somewhat similar event at the Royal Institution on the evening of April 1 (7pm-8:30), chaired by Stewart Sutherland FBA - who also attended the "scandal" at the RS. If you feel capable of engaging usefully on these issues, you would be more than welcome to attend, and contribute to the discussion.

Yours sincerely

Nicholas Beale

PS FWIW Martin Rees agreed to the launch discussion at the RS because I asked him - he knew about the book for a while and (as explained in the book) checked the "debunked" Appendix A. But then how can his understanding of these issues be compared to yours? Videos of this event are on YouTube, available through the www.questionsoftruth.org website.
Grayling to Beale
Dear Mr Beale

There is an informal fallacy of logic known as the argumentum ad verecundiam, the appeal to authority, and you persist in committing it. It is a matter of indifference how many Nobel laureates attended the launch of your pamphlet: my point is that there are hundreds of churches and church halls up and down the country, and theological colleges, and cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, and temples, all the detritus of our anciently superstitious past still purveying their competing nostrums to the present, where you could quite suitably peddle your wares: but there is one Royal Society, which is the nation's premier institution of science, dedicated to enquiry premised on public and repeatable testing of evidence, ready to change its mind in the face of counter evidence, and knowing what would falsify its hypotheses. It should not have entertained the launch of your pamphlet, and it is doubtless your trading on the Rev. Polkinghorne's fellowship that enabled you to make use of the place for your purposes.

The scandal resides in the fact that this was comparable to the premises of the Royal Society being used to promote astrology, healing with crystals, or worship of the Norse gods. For as your pamphlet yet again shows – it being familiar stuff, save for your novel but bizarre attribution of free will to nature as an "explanation" of natural evil – religious apologists are not in the same business as scientists, but wholly in the business of metaphysical casuistry: twisting, interpreting, rationalising, cherry-picking, appealing to ignorance and special pleading. It is very sad stuff you drag into the light again; if it did not rest on a continuum whose nether end lies in murder - heretics at the stake, fundamentalists wearing suicide bomb vests - it would be comic.

It is clear that I have touched a nerve with you, as your blog and your now writing to me shows; but having devoted enough attention to your views I have no wish for further correspondence, so however stung you feel by knowing that others think ill of your insinuating your superstitions into scientific institutions in the hope of some credibility rubbing off on them, there is no need to write again to tell me so.

Yours sincerely

Anthony Grayling
Beale has continued to write about this on his own blog, so you can follow any further developments there. In the meantime, let us know what you think of this exchange by commenting on this post.

Bloggers can write, say bloggers

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Over at the Harry's Place blog they picked up the issue raised by Stephen Howe's review concerning the issue of whether bloggers can write (good books):

It starts with some very interesting observations from stalwart David T: "The secret of successful blogging is to develop a personal, sometimes confessional relationship with your readers. We interact, and react to each other, and to the facts and political moods, as they shift. Reading a book is essentially a solitary occupation. Blogging is communal". He also adds this: "There’s another, often forgotten golden rule of blogging. Don’t blather on for too long." Well said David. But that's not the end of the fun. There are 97 comments, displaying the full range of internet discussion styles - from flatulantly ad hominem ("Howe is a stopper who has exchanged his balaclava for birkenstocks and is angling for an editorial position at the Independent") to amusingly piquant ("Most bloggers can write. But in an awful lot of cases, they really shouldn’t.").

Well worth a visit, and greetings to our saucy friends at HP.

Defamation of religion dropped from Durban II draft declaration

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The working group preparing for Durban II, the UN's anti-racism conference set to take place in Geneva next month, have removed references to both defamation of religion and the Middle East from the draft declaration, a move which may encourage the United States and EU member states, who had threatened to boycott the conference, to resume their involvement.

Israel and Canada have already pulled out, believing Arab states would use the conference to attack Israel (the US and Israel walked out of the first attempt, actually in Durban in 2001, for similar reasons), and the US and EU had threatened to join them unless the declaration was amended. Politicians from the EU, including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, have welcomed the changes, with Kouchner telling the French parliament "it would seem that precise improvements have been made." However, as this report shows, it is as yet unclear how the US will respond to the amendments.

Veteran UN-watcher Ian Williams writes about Durban II in our current issue (it was written before the US threatened to pull out earlier this month, so events have moved on slightly), and he argues that boycotts are not the way forward. The attempts to prevent defamation of religion are indeed worrying, he says, but it is essential that the UN remains the forum for debate on such issues – "it is as wrong to debar discussion of the proposals as it would be to accept them". Have a read and see if you agree with him.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

So why did New Scientist pull that article?

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Now that some of the hysteria has died down over the removal from the New Scientist website of a piece on how to spot hidden religious agendas in science books, it's worth taking another look at the story.

News of the article's removal earlier this week triggered some strong reactions in the blogosphere, with many suggesting the magazine had caved in to creationist complaints. At the time I suggested that bloggers ought to stop and think for a moment – New Scientist had clearly received a legal complaint about the article, and had therefore had to remove it while that matter was addressed. This was surely a far more plausible explanation than them trying to avoid offending creationists.

And so it proved. Later on Monday New Scientist changed the message on the pulled article's URL, confirming that it had indeed been removed for legal reasons. Apart from that, the magazine has remained silent on the matter, no doubt because they're restricted by Britain's shockingly litigant-friendly libel laws.

So now the big question is who exactly has taken legal action against New Scientist? Fortunately, the internet means nothing ever really disappears, so the original article has been preserved for posterity in various places – here and here, for example. In the piece Amanda Gefter, a member of the magazine's editorial staff, simply describes the tell-tale signs that help you spot when a "science" book has a religious agenda. For example, use of a phrase like "scientific materialism" is a big give-away, as is the use of the words "Darwinism" and "Darwinists".

There's nothing anyone can sue for there – you need to be mentioned in the article for a start, and only two people are actually named at all. One is Denyse O'Leary, a Canadian writer and blogger who defended Intelligent Design in her 2004 book By Design or Chance, and the other is James Le Fanu, a British GP and writer who, while he is not a creationist, has criticised the theory of evolution and scientific "materialism". The only other thing mentioned specifically in Gefter's piece is the preposterous pro-ID documentary Expelled, and thankfully you can't get sued for implying that films are rubbish.

So, by a process of elimination, either O'Leary or Le Fanu must have taken action against New Scientist, and since O'Leary personally pointed out on Monday that it wasn't her who complained, it would appear the complaint came from Le Fanu. The article suggests he has "religious motives" for criticising science in his latest book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, a book which has received uncomplimentary reviews by none other than Amanda Gefter in the New Scientist, and New Scientist editor Roger Highfield in the Daily Telegraph.

I wouldn't like to speculate as to the exact nature of Le Fanu's complaint, but since a reading of the New Scientist article shows that there's nothing in it that's libellous or even particularly controversial, I imagine the truth will come out soon enough. We'll certainly report it on here when it does.

On another note, now we know that New Scientist wasn't just pandering to creationists, will all the bloggers who said it was be coming forward to retract? Of course, we know the answer to that one, and for that reason I think this controversy has highlighted a fundamental problem with the blogosphere – it makes it very easy for people to jump to conclusions, and for those conclusions to be spread around the internet, without any real requirement for bloggers to admit when they get things wrong. Some very good blogs with very large readerships launched unwarranted attacks at New Scientist on Monday, which meant "news" of a respected science magazine caving into creationism spread very quickly. Something like this wouldn't be quite as bad if bloggers were as quick to admit they're wrong as they are to claim they're right. I think this is something all bloggers (and I do include myself in this) should bear in mind.

Shocking witchhunts in Gambia

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Amnesty International have today released news of what seems to be a government-sponsored witchhunt in Gambia. They say as many as 1,000 people accused of being witches have been rounded-up in villages by witchdoctors and taken to detention camps. Once there "they are forced to drink unknown substances that cause them to hallucinate and behave erratically. Many are then forced to confess to being a witch. In some cases, they are also severely beaten, almost to the point of death." Amnesty say that at least two people are known to have died from drinking the substance.

The witchdoctors seem to be operating under government orders. They have been visiting villages along with members of Gambian President
Yahya Jammeh’s personal guard, and were invited into the country after the death of Jammeh's aunt earlier this year, which he believes was brought about by witchcraft.

Amnesty are also calling for the release of
Halifa Sallah, a prominent government opponent who was arrested after writing about the witch doctors in an opposition newspaper.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Pope says condoms worsen Aids epidemic

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We all knew he was thinking it, and now he's said it – on his first visit to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI has told journalists 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".

And some people say Africa needs more religion. The Pope's comments require worldwide condemnation. The Vatican is clearly a malign force in the fight against the Aids epidemic. If his words are heeded (and there are over 135 million Catholics in Africa), then they will contribute to the deaths of literally millions of people, as well as the continued uncontrollable spread of HIV. We will watch with interest to see if world leaders, and indeed any other religious leaders, speak out to condemn the Pope.

This serves to demonstrate what secular organisations are up against in Africa. It shows why secular projects, such as the Mustard Seed Secular School in rural Uganda, which readers of New Humanist have been supporting since 2006, are so crucial. You can learn more about Mustard Seed on the New Humanist website.

Can bloggers actually write?

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Blogs are now a significant part of our reading lives (I'm including you since you are now engaged in reading a blog). They're where we get our fresh information, guidance on the debates around key issues and, for many of us, a place to build communities of interest. But what of the actual writing on blogs – is it any good? Does it stand up to comparison with the kind of writing you find in 'old' (what bloggers like to call 'dead tree') media?

Historian Stephen Howe, for one, is sceptical. In a review for New Humanist of two recent books written by political bloggers - Liberal Fascism by National Review Online blogger Jonah Goldberg, and The Liberal Defence of Murder by Lenin's Tomb author Richard Seymour - he finds that in the transition to the printed page all the faults of those with 'blogorrhea' are starkly revealed: sloppy research, cheap name-calling, historical immaturity, overstatement, distortion, factual errors and near-endless repetition. Compared to the short-attention-span ever-scrolling world of the blog, where repetition isn't so easily spotted, and consistency matters little, Howe reminds us that "Books are supposed to be a bit different. People pay real money and give up precious shelf-space for them. They are supposed to have some enduring value, however slight."

So can bloggers translate to the printed page? Should they even bother? Are there any books out there written by bloggers which suggest that Howe is wrong? If so please let us know in the forums.

Wall Street Journal does Adnan Oktar

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What next? The FT? Today's Wall Street Journal features a piece on Islamic creationist guru Adnan Oktar, in which leading Turkish scientists lament the prevalence of anti-Darwinist views in their country, describing it as "depressing". It also provides an interesting glimpse into the troubles faced by those who openly oppose Oktar, in the form of Edip Yuksel, whose book on the man, The Cult of the Antichrist, is yet to find a publisher.

Monday, 16 March 2009

What's going on at the New Scientist?

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Last week we had Turkey's leading science magazine being forced to spike a story on Darwin, but could we now have a similar story somewhat closer to home? The blogosphere is awash with news that the New Scientist have pulled a piece from their website entitled "How to Spot a Hidden Religious Agenda", in which their book reviews editor Amanda Gefter explains the key signs she looks out for when deciding if a "science" book is in fact a creationist tract. At the URL where the article was, all that remains is the message, "New Scientist has received a complaint about the contents of this story. It has temporarily been removed while we investigate. Apologies for any inconvenience", along with the 643 comments the article must have received before it was pulled.

The Skepticism Examiner give details of what was in the article, including what must have been the opening paragraph:
"As a book reviews editor at New Scientist, I often come across so-called science books which after a few pages reveal themselves to be harbouring ulterior motives. I have learned to recognise clues that the author is pushing a religious agenda. As creationists in the US continue to lose court battles over attempts to have intelligent design taught as science in federally funded schools, their strategy has been forced to... well, evolve. That means ensuring that references to pseudoscientific concepts like ID are more heavily veiled. So I thought I'd share a few tips for spotting what may be religion in science's clothing."
So what's the story behind this? PZ Myers is unimpressed, calling it "ridiculous":
"I am troubled by the apparent knee-jerk retraction of a legitimate article that is critical of creationism simply because there was a 'complaint' (I'd also be concerned if a creationist article was yanked with such ease—more speech, not less speech, is the answer to the idiocy of these yahoos). I hope New Scientist isn't going to be catering to the whims of popular, uninformed nervous nellies. That kind of timidity is not appropriate to a journal that has 'Scientist' in its title."
Could the New Scientist really be catering to creationist whims? Could it really have reacted to a few creationist complaints by pulling an article? Let's be honest, this has to be seen as pretty unlikely. Anyone out there accusing them of cowardice or suggesting that the creationist hordes now hold sway over one of the world's most respected science magazines (and people are suggesting this – just Google blog search "New Scientist creationism", and look at posts like this) should probably stop and think for a moment. Perhaps the complaint was of a legal nature, in which case the magazine will have a policy of removing the piece while it is investigated. By a "complaint about the contents of this story", the New Scientist won't just mean that someone wrote in and said they disagree because creationism is actually right. In all likelihood the "complaint" will have had legal implications that will have had to have been addressed by removing the article, at least temporarily. It's what any publication would have to do.

Anyhow, if the New Scientist is so scared of creationists, why is it currently carrying this article on the Turkish magazine controversy?

Update: The message at the article's URL has actually changed now to:

"New Scientist has received a legal complaint about the contents of this story. At the advice of our lawyer it has temporarily been removed while we investigate. Apologies for any inconvenience."

As I said earlier - less a case of caving in to creationism, more a case of sensibly heeding legal advice.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Ibrahim Moussawi: is he in or out?

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The Daily Mail seems to be proclaiming victory in its campaign to have Ibrahim Moussawi, a Lebanese journalist with links to Hezbollah, barred from coming to the UK to speak at a university seminar later this month. He was due to speak at London's School of Oriental and African Studies on 25 March, but today the Mail's website reports that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has denied him a visa for the visit.

Some of you might remember me blogging about this story last month. The Conservative Party, the Mail and the right-wing Centre for Social Cohesion all appealed to the government to apply the same logic to Moussawi that they used when excluding anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders in February. They clearly had a point, albeit one slightly contradicted by their clear desire to see Moussawi excluded, which arguing for Wilders' right to free speech.

At the time I argued that all these people (and I include the preposterous Westboro Baptist Church in that) should be allowed in, and that these banning orders were beginning to become rather embarrassing for our government. If Moussawi has indeed been banned (and that's not entirely clear, as this report from yesterday saying he's been given a visa shows), then it's hardly a proud moment for British free speech.

Arguing about "new humanism"

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The March 2009 issue of The American Spectator features a piece entitled "The New Humanism" by the philosopher Roger Scruton, in which he unfavourably compares what he calls "new humanism" with the passive, noble "old humanism" of his parents and others of their generation. In Scruton's view, "new humanism" is "self-consciously 'new'" (he compares it to New Labour), and is characterised by an obsession with God, or rather the non-existence thereof. He even gives our humble magazine a mention as one of the main proponents of this "new humanism":
"It has its own journal, the New Humanist, and its own sages, the most prominent of whom is Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and vice-president of the British Humanist Association. It runs advertising campaigns and letter-writing campaigns and is militant in asserting the truth of its vision and its right to make converts. But the vision is not that of my parents."
He then goes on to use the "enjoy your life" aspect of the Atheist Bus Campaign slogan, "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life", to illustrate his view that the "new humanism" is characterised by irresponsible hedonism.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this isn't a view of humanism, new or otherwise, that we share with Scruton (for the record, our magazine may be called "New Humanist", in fact it has been since the early '70s, but this doesn't mean we claim to promote something called "new humanism". That's Scruton's label, not ours). So our editor, Caspar Meliville, did one of the things Scruton claims we do best – he wrote a letter. More precisely, he sent The American Spectator a letter in response to Scruton, which they've now published on their website. You can read it all on their site, but here's the second half, which I think is an excellent statement of what we try to do with New Humanist:
"Scruton uses the example of one particular ad campaign on a bus, to paint us all as trivial hedonists who are uninterested in "man as an ideal," faith, hope, charity, belief or how to improve the world. He is absolutely right that we can be light-hearted (the bus campaign was successful precisely because the message was so simple and uplifting) and scathing – our God Trumps parody card game mines religious beliefs for laughs – but we also devote a lot of space in New Humanist to serious critical analysis of ideas (those of our 'sages' like Richard Dawkins as well as of believers), exploration of scientific and artistic endeavour, and discussions of what makes a sound secular basis for moral judgements and the good life (Our wide range of contributors include many of the world's leading thinkers on these subjects like Stephen Lukes, Amartya Sen, Paul Heelas, AC Grayling and Conor Gearty). During my tenure as editor I have published articles on all these issues as well as appreciations of, for example, Goethe, Mozart, Francis Bacon as well as photographers, film makers and musicians who cast light on the human condition provide stirring examples of human achievement.

In addition to supporting this wide-ranging human-centred content readers of New Humanist have recently raised over £25,000 to support a secular school in rural Uganda – proving, I would argue, that we are not the hedonist, nihilists Scruton paints us. It is true that we are all wary of dogma, that it is harder for us to articulate what we collectively believe in than what we are not prepared to believe (we are after all advocates of free thinking), but trying to define that difficult bit – the shared values that underpin our common inheritance and destiny- is part of the fun, and what New Humanist seeks in its small way to do."
Have a read of both pieces and let us know what you think. You'll also see that on the same page as Caspar's letter there's another response to Scruton from philosopher Stephen Law, who heads the UK branch of the Center for Inquiry.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Atheist complaints make Christian bus ad 4th most complained about of all time

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The Guardian website reports that the Advertising Standards Agency will not be taking action against the Christian Party bus advertisements – which state "There definitely is a God. So join the Christian party and enjoy your life" – as the Christian Party's status as an actual political party means the ads are classed as "electioneering material", and therefore outside of the ASA's remit.

What's perhaps more interesting about this Guardian story is the fact that the ASA have received over 1,000 complaints about the Christian Party ad, making it the fourth most complained about campaign that the ASA has ever had to deal with (the Atheist Bus Campaign received a mere 326 complaints). According to the Guardian, "People complaining about the Christian party advert believe the claim "there definitely is a God" is misleading because it cannot be substantiated, while some individuals have also objected that the advert is offensive to atheists."

So it seems that when it comes to bus advertising, atheists are more easily offended than the religious. Seems like a bit of an own goal really – isn't complaining to the ASA about bus ads the kind of thing people like Stephen Green get up to? Can't we just stand by free speech instead of indulging in tit-for-tat advertising complaints?

Our own Laurie Taylor on Stand-up with the Stars

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As part of the Comic Relief festivities, Radio 4 has been running Stand-up with the Stars, in which four of their presenters – Evan Davis, Libby Purves, Peter White and our very own Laurie Taylor – have been training to deliver stand-up comedy sets, under the watchful eyes of professional stand-up mentors.

Laurie has been mentored by Shappi Khorsandi (who has also contributed to New Humanist in the past), and you can listen to his performances (as well as the others', of course) by visiting the Stand-up with the Stars site.

You can then do your bit for charity by voting for Laurie to win (although it's your democratic right to vote for any of the others, but why would we advocate that?). The numbers to call are on the site, but I'll give you Laurie's here - 09011 32 34 03.

Be swift – lines close at midnight tonight (Weds 11 March). The winner will be announced on The Now Show on Friday.

Turkish government body accused of censoring science magazine over Darwin

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The editor of leading Turkish science magazine Bilim ve Teknik (Science and Technology) has been removed from her post after she attempted to lead with a story on Charles Darwin in the latest issue. The magazine is published by a Turkish government agency, the Scientific and Technological Research Council (TÜBİTAK) and, according to Nature, the council's vice-president, Ömer Cebeci, stepped in at the last minute to ensure that Bilim ve Teknik's March issue did not include the Darwin cover story. The article was dropped from the magazine and, as you see in the picture here (which comes from this Turkish report on the story), the Darwin cover was replaced with one on global warming. In a subsequent interview with Turkish paper Milliyet, the magazine's editor, Çiğdem Atakuman, confirmed that she had lost her job over the matter.

Unsurprisingly, a row has now broken out over science and censorship in Turkey, with leading scientists calling for Ömer Cebeci to resign as vice-president of TÜBİTAK. Evolution is a hugely controversial issue in Turkey which, as many of you will be aware, is home to the notorious Islamic creationist Adnan Oktar, AKA Harun Yahya. If this is a sign that the anti-evolution lobby is influencing the decisions of Turkey's scientific research council, then it is very worrying indeed.

[Thanks Alistair]

Afghan journalist given 20 years for blasphemy

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Worrying news via our friends at Index on Censorship. You may remember we reported, over a year ago, on the plight of Sayed Parvez Kambakhsh, a young Afghan journalist who was sentenced to death for blasphemy, after he downloaded and sent to friends an article from an Iranian website which allegedly contained criticism of the Qur'an and the Prophet Muhammad.

Kambakhsh was subsequently able to appeal against the death penalty, but it has now emerged that he was been given a 20 year prison sentence instead. The media were not informed of the verdict, and the news only seems to have come to light in the form of a letter Kambakhsh's brother sent to the Kabul Press:

"Unfortunately, one month ago the Supreme Court of Afghanistan confirmed a twenty-year prison sentence for Afghan Journalist Sayed Parwiz Kambakhsh. The Court did not inform either the public or the press of this dubious action. It was confirmed behind closed doors without the presence of Kambakhsh, his lawyer, members of his family, members of international human rights organizations, observers from the U.S. government, which is pouring billions of dollars and tens of thousands of American soldiers into Afghanistan, or members of the public or media. Kambakhsh has never experienced a jury of his peers. His trials for blasphemy have all been held in secret. We, Parwiz’s family, just found out about this sentence today. There was no difference between this Supreme Court trial and the unjust four-minute Mazar provincial trail, where Parwiz was sentenced to death."
This case surely raises disturbing questions about what kind of legal system the West is helping to prop up in Afghanistan. It's not exactly what those who welcomed the fall of the Taliban nearly eight years ago had in mind.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

God Trumps Part II

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Ever since we published our hugely popular God Trumps cards back in November, we've been inundated with requests to produce a follow-up. We were even accused of leaving people out – where, wondered the Orthodox Christians, were they in all this? Were they, perhaps, not as worthy of parody as the Catholics? And why, wondered the Satanists, were we supposing that only those goody-two shoes popular religions who shunned human sacrifice merited a mention? From Methodists and Mormons, to Jedis and Jains, the complaint was the same: what about us?

So, we now bring you 12 more faiths and their foibles in God Trumps Part II. Enjoy.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Christian Bale on Tom Cruise

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What would a ranting self-regarding transatlantic thesp make of a ranting self-regarding Scientologist thesp? Find out in this latest example of the mash-up. Warning: there are rude words [Thanks David]

Friday, 6 March 2009

Adnan Oktar follower disrupts Vatican's evolution conference

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An update on the Vatican's evolution conference, via the excellent Heresy Corner blog. I mentioned the other day that Turkish creationist overlord Adnan Oktar has been sending conspiracy theorist press releases in relation to the conference, but I didn't realise he'd managed to get a representative on the inside. It turns out someone called Oktar Babuna had made it into the opening session, and he stood up and interrupted, calling for evidence of transitional fossils, such as "monstrous animals with no wings for example, single wing, little bit wing that shows incomplete organs".

As the Reuters faith blog reports
, the incident was filmed by another of Adnan Oktar's acolytes,
Dr Cihat Gundogdu (apparently they've both been at the conference, armed with both Italian and English copies of the preposterous Atlas of Creation). I've added the video at the end of this post. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Oktar et al are now presenting this as an example of "Darwinists" silencing the truth, rather than a heckler at a conference being made to shut up.

In related news, Adnan Oktar made what I suspect must be his British TV debut last night in Andrew Marr's documentary Darwin's Dangerous Idea (UK readers can still catch it on iPlayer). It's not clear whether he appears in some of the other installments in the series, but all he got last night was a cameo at the beginning. You see a clip of him in his office, hear a quote from him in which he blames 9/11 on Darwin, and see Marr cruising round the Bosphorous, depicting Istanbul as Creationist HQ International. For a moment I thought Marr was set to interview the man, but it seems his BBC researcher's quite rightly realised the futility of this.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

There's probably no God...

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...but there's certainly a thing called luck.

Click that link and watch the video. Unbelievable. I know it's on the BBC, but it's hard not to think it's a hoax.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Red religion

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A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of talking to the Russian philosopher Michail Ryklin. He's an incredible guy - he was a student of Derrida, has translated everyone from Adorno to Foucault into Russian, and has written books on Bahtktin, Dostoyevsky, and the scandal around the Caution:Religion! exhibition (which affected him very personally as you can read here). Michail's latest book is called Communism as Religion: The Intellecutals and the October Revolution. In it he looks at what drew thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Walter Benjamin and Arthur Koestler to communism and how they lost their faith. Read our exclusive interview here. Pay particular attention to what he says about the contemporary scene in Russia, as it echoes the sentiments expressed by historian Orlando Figes in today's Guardian about the 're-Stalinisation' of Russia.

C of E bringing back the Holy Sacraments, via Twitter

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Just a quick one. Some of you will know I've been following the Church of England's Lent tweets on Twitter, in which they tell followers how to mark Lent with "simple acts of generosity and thoughtfulness in the real world". Last week they helpfully told us to give up our places in queues to other people, and now they're giving the following advice:
"Make a list of things you want to say sorry to God for, say sorry - then get rid of the list."
Sounds a little like confession to me. You know, one of the Holy Sacraments, those things they got rid of in the Reformation....

Wednesday morning novelties

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Looking back over my recent posts, things have been pretty serious on this blog lately – civil liberties, free speech, the UN, extremism... Absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I'm also a fan of the ridiculous, which is why I'm happy to bring you news of a Harvard Business School study into internet pornography consumption in the United States.

And why should this be of interest to this blog? Well, it turns out that the states with the highest porn downloads per capita are those generally considered to be the most religiously conservative. Utah, home of Mormonism, leads the way with a cheeky 5.47 internet users per 1,000 subscribing to smut-peddling web domains, closely folowed by the residents of Alaska, where 5.03 in a 1,000 are regulars on salacious sex sites. Sadly, just how many of those Alaskans have dowloaded a copy of the Sarah Palin spoof porno Who's Nailin' Paylin is unknown. Also prominent in the titillation top ten are Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, while bringing up the rear with paltry levels of porn consumption are north eastern states like New Jersey and Connecticut. However, the bottom two states are actually mid-western states – Montana and Idaho – while the third lowest state is Tennessee, which goes contrary to all the things I've written above about conservative Southern states consuming more porn, and perhaps goes to show that the study shows no actual trends at all.

Still, it was good while it lasted, wasn't it? And it gives me an opportunity to show you the t-shirts all of the above can go out and buy once they're finally done downloading all that porn. Although one suspects that anyone keen to make that big a deal out of this has probably secretly left a download going on their computer at home, even while they're out modelling these t-shirts.

And finally, in a completely unrelated matter, I just want to share this Ebay auction that Christina Martin forwarded to me. Explanations on a postcard, please.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Vatican conference on evolution begins in Rome

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We've already had the Church of England apologise to Charles Darwin for "misunderstanding" his work 150 years ago, and now the Catholic Church (which admittedly never dismissed him) are getting in on the "evolution and religion are compatible" act by hosting a five day conference on why, well, evolution and religion are compatible. It's taking place at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University and, as the BBC report, it will see the American biologist Francisco Ayala explain why Intelligent Design is deeply flawed because "The design of organisms is not what would be expected from an intelligent engineer, but imperfect and worse. Defects, dysfunctions, oddities, waste and cruelty pervade the living world".

The Catholic Church has never really gone in for creationist nonsense in modern times and, while it's tempting to poke fun at this, it's actually quite nice to see the world's largest Christian church lending a bit of support to some scientific fact (it does amount to progress, after all). Not that they could resist having a go at atheists in the process. AP report that day one of the conference has seen Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (AKA the rebranded Inquisition), telling the audience that the idea that the theory of evolution disproves the existence of God is "absurd".

But, naturally, for any wisdom on this subject we must turn to the words of the Turkish creationist overlord Adnan Oktar, AKA Harun Yahya, who today issued a press release dismissing the conference, and threw in a startling prophecy for good measure (all block capitals are Oktar's own):
"Darwinists, unable to put up with the defeat, strived to keep the Darwinist dictatorship alive by continuing with their lies through demagogy methods, dismissing anti-Darwinist professors from schools and universities and keeping the state’s senior institutions under pressure. THEY HAVE EVEN TAKEN THE PAPACY UNDER THE PRESSURE OF DARWINIST DICTATORSHIP and OCCUPIED THIS INSTITUTION, as a consequence of which the Pope was forced to advocate a deviant opinion like the reconcilability of evolution with the explanations in the New Testament . . . Darwinist dictatorship has OCCUPIED all religious institutions, schools, universities, professors, educators and almost everyone in the states’ senior institutions. However, this dictatorial regime will not last for long, for, by Allah’s leave, the SECOND COMING OF JESUS (PBUH), HAS COME CLOSE."
Wise opinions.

Christian think tank plays down Christian "persecution"

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A handy rule in life (as we've discovered in the past) is that if you're annoying Damian Thompson, you're probably doing something right. And so it proves with Christian think tank Ekklesia, who have just been called "the smuggest think tank in Christendom" by Thompson after their co-director Jonathan Bartley made some rather sensible suggestions regarding those Christians who claim they're being persecuted in modern Britian.

Writing on the Guardian's Comment is Free site, Bartley points out that accusations of secular persecution of British Christians have little basis in reality. They're fuelled by activist conservative Christian groups such as the Christian Legal Centre who deliberately pursue them (stand up those behind the praying nurse affair) and an appetite for such stories in the right wing tabloid press (stand up the Daily Mail):
"Their agenda is a desperate attempt to win back, or at least try to maintain, many of the special privileges and exemptions that Christianity previously enjoyed, but which society is no longer willing to grant. Their argument is that since Britain is a 'Christian country', their faith, and its adherents, should have special recognition and dispensation."
Of course, it's time we stopped hearing about these ridiculous manufactured tales of persecution, and Bartley seems to have a very sensible idea of how this might be avoided – a little bit of old-fashioned compromise:
"We need mediators, not agitators. So here's an offer to the secularists. When the next controversy emerges, and the usual suspects begin to shout and cry, rather than fuelling their frenzy, let's work together and offer to facilitate some reconciliation, and a way forward. If nothing else, it'll show that perhaps everyone isn't out to get them after all."
I don't really think secularists are the problem in all this, but I certainly agree with the sentiment. And if it means the Daily Mail can't run sensationalist "PC-gone-mad" stories, then everyone wins. Except the Mail, obviously.

US pulls out of Durban II

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The United States have pulled out of Durban II, the United Nations' conference on racism due to be held in Geneva on 20-24 April. The first conference, which actually was held in Durban in 2001, saw the United States and Israel walk out after Arab nations proposed a resolution equating Zionism with racism. Both Israel and Canada have already pulled out of Durban II, but the Obama had given some indication that the US might take part. However, the US confirmed it would not be involved amid signs that the conference would again focus on Israel, in a manner which some Jewish groups say amounts to little more than outright anti-Semitism.

The United States have also expressed concern about an expected attempt by Islamic states, under the umbrella of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, to push through a resolution condemning "defamation of religion", which has been widely interpreted as an attempt to introduce a blasphemy sanction into international law (we've reported on this previously on this blog).

Interestingly, we actually have a piece on this by veteran UN-watcher Ian Williams in the new issue of New Humanist, which is now on its way to subscribers. Williams argues that both the boycotters and those they are opposing risk destroying a process that could lead to some real progress. I'll blog it once I put it online later this week.

Monday, 2 March 2009

A godless, rational nation?

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It's nice to wake up today to Christian think tank Theos telling us something we already know – Britain's not really that religious, we tend to overwhelmingly agree that evolution is true (buying into scientific fact - whatever next?), and we're not exactly a hotbed of raving creationist nonsense.

Theos have produced the report, entitled "Faith and Darwin" to coincide the start, tomorrow, of a Vatican conference on religion and science (more on that later). So what does it tell us? Well, from a survey of 2,060 people, 89% reject Intelligent Design and 83% reject creationism as explanations for the origin of life, while 37% agreed that "humans evolved by a process of evolution which removes any need for God". Meanwhile, 17% identified themselves as creationists.

Like I said, it's not exactly telling us anything new. But it does become more interesting when you look at the regional breakdown. As the Guardian point out, and illustrate in this interactive map, the most "godless" region according to the survey is the east of England, where 44% said evolution removes the need for God and a mere 16% identified themselves as creationists.

But it would be unwise to conclude from the map that we do not have a problem with creationist belief in this country – in London, 20% of respondents said they were creationists. As Theos point out, this is likely due to the proliferation of more conservative forms of religion, such as Pentescostalism, in the capital. So, while we can be pleased that creationism isn't a huge problem, we certainly can't sit back and relax. As the figures for London suggest, one effect immigration can have is a rise in the numbers holding conservative religious views (this was what Michael Reiss was getting at in his controversial speech on creationism in schools last year). It's an issue for our education system to ensure that children from religiously conservative families, who may have emigrated from countries where evolution is not widely accepted or understood, learn about it in school, in far greater detail than they currently do (I was barely taught anything about it when I was at school, and that was less than 10 years ago).

If the Theos figures are correct and 17 out of 100 people in Britain are indeed creationists, then our education system really needs to address that. It may seem like a small number when compared to, say, the United States, but it's still 17% too many.

The birth of a movement?

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Saturday's Convention on Modern Liberty (of which New Humanist was a partner organisation) certainly had an activist feel to it – there were frequent outbreaks of applause, occasional cries of "hear hear" from over-zealous audience members, and many of the speakers talked of how the day marked the beginning of a popular movement to reclaim the civil liberties lost in the past decade or so. The lofty ambitions at play were nicely summarised by one of the organisers, Henry Porter, who noted in yesterday's Observer that "Perhaps, rather grandiosely, I wanted to evoke the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, where delegates met to address problems in the government of the new United States of America and came away with the US Constitution." Likewise, the "Why?" section of the Convention website declared "We are making Modern Liberty a convention not a conference. We want to bring as many people together to see what common ground can be reached in defence of our freedoms."

So did Saturday see, as the headline of Porter's Observer piece stated, "the birth of a great movement for liberty"? The numbers were certainly impressive. According to the Observer, 1,500 people attended the London conference, while simultaneous gatherings were held in Belfast, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester. The vast array of speakers and sessions in London means I can't report on everything that was said but, just taking the sessions I attended, there were stark warnings on the erosion of civil liberties from Shami Chakrabarti, Nick Cohen, David Davis, Dominic Grieve, Will Hutton, Helena Kennedy, Vince Cable, Alan Rusbridger, Andrew Gilligan and Philip Pullman, to name just a few. The numbers involved shows that there is clearly a great deal of public concern over issues such as ID cards, the database state, surveillance, terror detention laws, control orders and freedom of the press, and the atmosphere of opposition towards the current government at the Convention (which I imagine included many people Labour could have counted as firm supporters ten years ago) suggests that civil liberties may be one of the reasons (though clearly not one of the main reasons) why we'll see a change in government next year.

However, whether this really marks the birth of a popular movement in defence of civil liberties is another question. It's a matter I thought was well addressed in the final session of the day, entitled "How do we secure modern liberty?" The point was raised that while the Guardian-reading types in the Convention hall may see this as a major issue, what of the wider electorate? I was very impressed by the up-and-coming Labour candidate for Streatham Chuka Umunna, a rare Labour contributor to the Convention who outlined his intentions to bring issue of civil liberties into the political mainstream – basically, you have to highlight these issues and make people (and the tabloid press) care about them in the same way they care about issues like the economy.

This, I think, is the real challenge for all those at the Convention, especially the many politicians I saw speak over the course of the day. And it was something David Davis stressed in the final key note address – in an appeal to his party, he asked them to ensure that they keep their promises on civil liberties (scrap ID cards, reverse terror detention laws) when, in all likelihood, they come to power next spring.