Thursday, 30 April 2009

Swine flu to kill 400,000 pigs ... indirectly

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I don't want this to become a dedicated swine flu blog, since there's no shortage of places you go to read about that right now, but one element of Parmageddon, aka the Aporkalypse (both ©Ben Goldacre) I haven't mentioned yet is the inevitable crossover with the anti-porcine religions. First we had news that Israel's ultra-orthodox Jewish health minister had declared that Israel "will use the term Mexican flu in order not to have to pronounce the word swine", which was quickly followed an Italian Imam declaring that the flu outbreak confirms what the Koran says about pigs being unclean.

And now things have really got bad for Porky and pals, with the Egyptian government taking the decision to initiate a mass cull of all the country's pigs in order to stave off swine flu – a decision which has led to riots by members of the country's Coptic Christian community, many of whom make a living from farming pigs.

It seems like a clear case of Bad Science meets Religion, since, as The Times points out, scientists have been stressing all week that the mutated H1N1 flu virus which is now passing between humans is not present in pigs and can not be caught from contact with pigs or pig meat.

A blasphemy law for Ireland?

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There's troubling news from Ireland this week, with the government proposing to insert a "blasphemy" clause into a new Defamation Bill, which would read:
“A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000.”
So what exactly would they define as "blasphemous matter", I hear you ask. According to the Irish Times, it would be any material “that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.”

The bill is still making it's way through the Irish parliament, so it's as yet unclear how this blasphemy clause will fare. Interestingly, the Irish Republic already has a constitutional prohibition against blasphemy, which declares that “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent material is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law”, but, as the Irish Times informs us, in the one legal case in which that clause was cited the Irish Supreme Court decided that it was impossible to say “of what the offence of blasphemy consists”.

So as we wait to see how this pans out, let's have an Irish view on the matter courtesy of my predecessor at New Humanist, Padraig Reidy. Not only is he a fully fledged Irishman, but he also now works for Index on Censorship, which makes the issue of censorship and blasphemy something of a specialist subject. In this piece on the Index website, he reminds us that the Irish bill is the latest development in a worrying global trend towards outlawing blasphemy and the criticism of religion.

Panic in the streets...

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On my way into work this morning, I saw a man walking down the street in a blue surgical mask. Now, New Humanist is not based in Mexico City. We are based in central London. So far, one person from London has been diagnosed with swine flu. According to the Guardian he, like the other four Britons to have caught it, has recently returned from Mexico and is responding well to treatment.

So, what could possibly compel someone, in a city where one person, yes one person, has been diagnosed with an illness they caught abroad, to walk the streets (he was walking past Holborn station, by the way) in a blue surgical face mask? Presumably headlines such as:

"Hundreds of Brits 'will get swine flu in weeks' and pandemic could strike 40% of us" Daily Mail, 29 April

"One step away from a pandemic: WHO chiefs say mass swine flu outbreak is 'imminent'." Daily Mail. 30 April

"It just got worse: Bug pandemic now imminent" The Sun, 30 April

"Concern over UK antibiotic shortage" Daily Express, 30 April (this has to be my favourite. Antibiotic shortage? For a flu virus?

Or how about an opening sentence like this:

"KILLER swine flu is on a terrifying rampage across Britain, with more cases confirmed yesterday." Daily Express, 30 April

Is it any surprise, in the light of coverage like this, that the odd person will panic and wear a face mask, even though it's completely unnecessary and probably ineffective? And is it any surprise, as I saw on BBC London news the other night, that some people with private GPs will go and try to stock up on Tamiflu, just in case?

It leaves you crying out for a Ben Goldacre Bad Science column on the subject really, doesn't it? Interestingly, as he writes in today's Guardian, he's been approached loads of times by the media this week to go on various shows to denounce swine flu as all "hype". But he hasn't done that, because it's not all hype. It's actually hard to say what impact swine flu will have, as it is with any disease. But the media have whipped the public into a frenzy so many times with regards to potential pandemics in recent years that we no longer know what to believe. As Goldacre writes, the fact that so many editors have turned to someone like him to denounce swine flue as hype is interesting, "because not only have the public lost all faith in the media; not only do so many people assume, now, that they are being misled; but more than that, the media themselves have lost all confidence in their own ability to give us the facts."

So swine flu may become a pandemic, or it may not. But in the meantime, it may be worth considering this fact. According to government statistics, around 12,000 people die each year in England and Wales as a result of regular, seasonal influenza. But you don't see people in surgical masks on the streets of London because of that, do you?

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Faith schools must teach proper sex education

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Our friend Andrew Copson, director of education and public affairs at the British Humanist Association, had a piece on Comment is Free yesterday arguing that faith schools must not be allowed to teach sex education in their own way (i.e. teaching against homosexuality and sex before marriage), as has been proposed in new government plans. Not only does the evidence show that sex education helps to improve the health and wellbeing of young people (as opposed to teaching abstinence, which is shown to acheive the opposite), but, as Andrew says, it's also what young people themselves want.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The homeopathic swine...

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Of course, this had to happen. No sooner have the press whipped us all into a pandemic frenzy over the outbreak of swine flu, than the quacks step up with their helpful alternative remedies to this pesky H1N1. That's right – we learn via Ben Goldacre, he of Bad Science fame, that the good folks at Helio Homeopath have set up a page on their website advising on homeopathic remedies to the virus. We doubt readers of this blog are big fans of homeopathy, but just in case you have been to Mexico recently and are feeling a bit dodgy, we recommend you consult an actual doctor, because homeopathy doesn't work.

Meanwhile, as we observed the attempts to encourage everyone to worry about swine flu yesterday, we decided it was necessary to put a new spin on the famous Atheist Bus Campaign slogan, as you can see in the picture on this post.

(Pic created using the Atheist Bus slogan generator)

Monday, 27 April 2009

Deliberate attempt to manufacture controversy pays off yet again...

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Stories like this are just so predictable – an Italian game designer has made a beat 'em up video game in which various pixelated figures from the major world religions (yes, one of them is Muhammad) slug it out to the death and, guess what, the aforementioned video game designer has managed to cause a handy little non-controversy that will drive loads of extra traffic his way.

So, the designer deliberately makes a game featuring Muhammad, Jesus et al, and a few papers, like the Metro, get on the phone to some religious "representatives" who are all to happy to explain just how offended they are by it all. And what are we left with - a perfectly designed controversy in which everybody involved is a winner. The games designer gets his publicity, as do the religious groups invited to comment, and the newspaper's story spreads around the web, helped in no small part by bloggers like me who want to hold forth on the stupidity of it all.

Pretty tiresome, I'm sure you'll agree. Although some credit has to go to the designer for his brazen attempt to claim that a) he isn't just doing it to piss people off, and b) that behind the game there is some sort of profound lesson to be learned:
This game is not intended to be offensive towards any religion in particular. Its aim is to push the gamers to reflect on how the religions and sacred representations are often instrumentally used to fuel or justify conflicts between nations and people.

The game contains a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. If you feel that such a depiction would be offensive, we ask that you play the censored version of the game in which the character's face has been removed. Or better yet, don't play the game at all.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

UN anti-racism conference descends into farce

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The UN's Durban II conference against racism began in Geneva yesterday, and it quickly descended into farce as the EU states, including Britain, staged a planned walk out when the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, launched an attack on Israel, accusing it of racism and questioning the fact of the Holocaust. Here's what he said:
"Following world war two, [powerful states] resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless, on the pretext of Jewish suffering and the ambiguous and dubious question of the Holocaust .... and they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive racists in Palestine."
The conference was already being boycotted by several countries, including the US and Israel, due to concerns that Islamic states would attack Israel, and also push on with their attempts to outlaw defamation of religion at the UN. Yesterday's events are a huge setback for the UN, which hoped the new Durban conference would draw a line under the debacle of the last one, which ended in a similar walkout.

In our March/April issue we asked veteran UN-watcher Ian Williams to preview the Durban II conference - at the time boycotts were already seeming likely, but he expressed hope that both the boycotters and the Islamic states could find a way of sitting down to a sensible discussion in Geneva, and avoid further undermining the credibility of the UN. Sadly, this clearly did not prove to be the case.

Friday, 17 April 2009

A Night of 400 Billion Stars, Bloomsbury Theatre, 29 June – on sale now

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Just a quick note to let you know that tickets for our next comedy show collaboration with Robin Ince, "A Night of 400 Billion Stars", are now on sale at the Bloomsbury Theatre website. The show's on the 29th June, and tickets are £20 (£15 concessions):
Night of 400 Billion Stars (and maybe some string theory): a celebration of astronomy, physics and other scientific distractions

in association with New Humanist magazine

Monday 29 June, 7.30pm, Bloomsbury Theatre, London.

Another night of scientists, musicians and comedians with Simon Singh, Marcus Chown, Ruth Padel, Martin White, Gavin Osborn, Helen Keen, Chris Addison, Christina Martin, Peter Buckley Hill, Lucy Porter, AL Kennedy, Darren Hayman and hosted by Robin Ince. Further guests will be announced at newhumanist.org.uk. Proceeds will go to the Rationalist Association.

Tickets: £20 (£15 concessions)

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Official body explains why bus ad complaints were knocked back

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Here's a nice bit of reading - the Committee of Advertising Practice, which is part of the Advertising Standards Agency, have an article on their website explaining why they chose not to pursue the complaints lodged against the Atheist Bus ads and the subsequent Christian "There definitely is a God" ads. It's a proper article, i.e. not an official ruling or anything, and it's great to see an official body like this explaining themselves in this way. You certainly have to congratulate them on the final paragraph:
It should be heartening to those who have watched this story play out in the media to see that the ASA has not wasted its time and resources in trying to investigate and arbitrate on whether God exists. As long as advertiser’s opinions are expressed within the bounds of taste and decency, the ASA is unlikely to have cause to act. Surely it is much more important for the ASA to concentrate on ensuring consumers are protected from misleading ads and establishing a level playing field for business? Probably. No, definitely. Amen.

Night of 400 Billion Stars, Bloomsbury Theatre, 29th June

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We have some very exciting news, and you can say you heard it here first. Following on from the huge success of our Nine Lessons and Carols shows last December, Robin Ince and New Humanist have organised another comedy, music and science extravaganza for the 29th June at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London:
Night of 400 Billion Stars (and maybe some string theory): a celebration of astronomy, physics and other scientific distractions

in association with New Humanist magazine

Another night of scientists, musicians and comedians with Simon Singh, Marcus Chown, Ruth Padel, Martin White, Gavin Osborn, Helen Keen, Chris Addison, Christina Martin, Peter Buckley Hill, Lucy Porter, AL Kennedy, Darren Hayman and hosted by Robin Ince. Further guests will be announced at newhumanist.org.uk. Proceeds will go to the Rationalist Association.
Tickets will cost £20 (£15 concessions) and go on sale this Friday via the Bloomsbury Theatre website. Demand is likely to be high, so be sure to check in there as soon as you can on Friday to book your seats.

Update: Chris Addison has now been added to the bill.

Stephen Green's back ... to complain about Corrie

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Recently I've been asking where Britain's favourite ranting evangelical bigot Stephen Green has gone – the last time he updated his website was to complain about Kent police promoting homosexuality, or something, and that was back in February. But now he seems to be back, having taken time out from what must be a busy Easter schedule to moan to the Daily Express (yes, I check all media) about a character in popular soap Coronation Street making a comment about religion being untrue, or something.

According to the Daily Express, Corrie veteran (I'm dying to use the term "housewives' favourite" here, but I'm not sure it quite applies) Bill Roach's character Ken Barlow stated during the Easter Sunday episode that the religious force their views on "vulnerable people", and threatened to tell his grandson "the truth" about religion.

Cue the Daily Express attempting to stir up a spot of moral outrage. According to them, a staggeringly high figure of "dozens" have complained to Ofcom, and the paper's backed this up by copying and pasting a few comments left on the ITV message boards, including statements from such luminaries as “charley26” and “Johnandy”. Which leaves the paper with just one actual named offendee to quote in this feeble attempt to create the next "Ross-Brand" controversy – Stephen Green:
"I was both shocked and appalled by what I was watching on TV, let alone on Coronation Street and on Easter Sunday. What is it about Christianity that is so scary for these people. I don’t know if they do it out of ignorance or antipathy but it is not the kind of example television should be setting."
You'd expect this to also be on the Christian Voice website as a longer "press release", but Green still hasn't updated that since February? What's going on? Perhaps he's been watching too much Coronation Street...

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

So where was the Stewart Lee religion episode?

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I missed Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle last night, and was particularly keen to see it having read in the TV guides that the topic of the latest instalment was set to be "Religion". Imagine, therefore, my surprise (you could also say I was "shocked" and "stunned") when I went on BBC iPlayer this lunchtime and found that last night's episode was in fact entitled "Comedy". A late switch, on account of not wanting to offend Christians on Easter Monday? It certainly seems so – this TV review from the Times even says "Religion" was on last night, presumably because the reviewer actually watched a preview tape instead of the broadcast itself. There's only really one way to learn the answer to such questions – Wikipedia. And here it is - in the entry for Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, under "Episode 5: Comedy", we have the following: "NOTE: This episode was intended as the last in the series of 6 but was transmitted as the 5th episode, moving the original 5th episode titled 'Religion' to the the last position. This change of order relates to the original date for broadcast of the 'Religion' episode falling on Easter Bank holiday Monday."

Wow, the BBC really has become over-sensitive since the Ross-Brand silliness.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Leave my [Durkheimian] religion alone

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Everyone knows that football is a religion, in a purely Durkheimian sense of course. I'm a follower, and I'm also a firm advocate of religious freedom. This weekend couldn't be a better example – Friday's Good Friday, one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, but on the same day millions of Muslims will head to the mosques. What's more, the Jewish festival of Passover starts tomorrow, the Jewish Sabbath is on Saturday, and then it's the even-holier-than-Good Friday Easter Sunday on Sunday. Meanwhile, millions of football followers up and down the land will gather for worship on Saturday and Sunday. Some may worship false idols – the day before Christians celebrate the resurrection of their Messiah, yet another Geordie Messiah will attempt to perform a great miracle – but they're entitled to do so all the same. Surely all would agree that people are free to do all of the above in the same country and the same time is a great positive?

Wait, what's that? The new head of the Catholic Church in England wants to ban football on Easter Sunday? Well that's shattered my idealism.

Update: It just occurred to me - does the Most Rev Vincent Nichols have a problem with any Easter Sunday sport, or just football? Because Sunday's the fourth day of the Masters - does the Catholic Church also want to annoy legions of golf fans?

Monday, 6 April 2009

Why Madeleine Bunting is wrong, part 27

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In today's Guardian Madeleine Bunting, she of the vaguely leftie Christianity, has another go at the New Atheists because they've ruined Easter and made church attendance plummet or maybe they haven't. Leastways the Guardian in their infinite wisdom asked me to respond. So I did.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Evangelical insights

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Ever wondered what life might be like at the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, the "largest and fastest growing Christian Evangelical university in the world"? Well Kevin Roose, a student at the rather more liberal Brown University did, so he went and spent a term there and wrote a book about it. And then Esquire magazine bought an extract from it, and then the New Humanist blog linked to it.

It's well worth a read, especially for the insight into what the author describes as the university's "agenda-driven classes", in which "professors aren't teaching new knowledge so much as teaching students how to think about the world around them." It's almost hard to believe that the young people involved are of college-going age - imagine paying your tuition fees for the pleasure of zero intellectual inquiry. And of course the content is standard evangelical fayre - homosexuality is evil, abortion is evil, evolution is evil, a woman's role is in the home.

Anyway, have a read.

Ryklin on re-Stalinisation on the radio

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Michail Ryklin who is interviewed in depth about his latest book in the current issue, appeared on Radio 4's Thinking Allowed programme this week, discussing one aspect of his compelling thesis - that Russia has fallen back in love both with religion and Stalin. Listen here.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Laurie Taylor gets spiritual

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Our very own commissioning editor Laurie Taylor visits the apocalypse with a bizarre array of end-timers

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Fundie talking heads

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Here's something you may enjoy, sent to us by a couple of people on Twitter. A bunch of thespian heathens in the US got together and produced this talking heads clip, with the words lifted wholesale from online Christian fundamentalist forums: