Friday, 29 May 2009

Christian Party claims it can stop the BNP - but it can't

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After Stephen Green and Christian Voice, the Reverend George Hargreaves' Christian Party is probably our favourite evangelical Christian pressure group – after all, how could you not be amused by a fundamentalist Christian political party led by a man who, during a period in which he says he "fell away from the Lord", wrote the timeless pop classics "So Macho" and "Cruising" for never-to-be-forgotten pop chanteuse Sinitta. "So Macho" was a huge gay anthem in its time, and Hargreaves himself has said it was intended "for women to dance round their handbags to and for the gay scene to go mad to on poppers", adding "I was never gay, but I had a lot of lovely friends in the gay scene."

Of course, since those heady days Hargreaves, aided by his royalties from those anthems, has spent his time preaching that homosexuality is a sin and campaigning for a more Christian Britain. He was behind the recent Christian response to the Atheist Bus Campaign, but our favourite political move of his has to have been when he campaigned for the dragon to be removed from the Welsh flag on the grounds that:
"Wales is the only country in history to have a red dragon on its national flag. This is the very symbol of the devil described in The Book of Revelation 12:3. This is nothing less than the sign of Satan, the devil, Lucifer that ancient serpent who deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. No other nation has had this red dragon as its ruling symbol. Wales has been under demonic oppression and under many curses because of this unwise choice."
So, you can see why we love him. But only when he's unlikely to impact on serious issues. But, as the political blog Harry's Place reports, Hargreaves has just launched a London billboard campaign encouraging voters to choose the Christian Party as a way of preventing the BNP making gains at next week's European elections. The boards, pictured above, have been placed in areas with large black Pentecostal populations, and claim (in very poor English, as MediaWatchWatch pointed out) that voting Christian Party is the best way of stopping the BNP. But as Harry's Place points out, this is most certainly not the case – all an increased vote for the Christian Party would do is dilute the vote of other parties with realistic prospects of standing in the way of of the BNP.

Harry's Place also suggests that Hargreaves real intention is "to cynically exploit the fear of electoral gains for the BNP in order to get him into the Euro Parliament", and that, with regards to gay rights, women's rights, and the rights of non-Christians, a vote for him would not be so different from a vote for the BNP:
"The Christian Party would use Hargreaves’s seat as a megaphone to attack human rights legislation that gave women control of their own bodies, single women their autonomy, and which protected lesbians and gay people from unfair discrimination. Non-Christians would be made to feel alien: the Christian Party’s manifest begins with a call for ”A Christian Europe”. Isn’t that the BNP’s job half done?"

So is God back?

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In our latest issue, Caspar Melville talks to Economist editor John Micklethwait and Economist Washington Bureau Chief Adrian Wooldridge about their new book God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World (published by Allen Lane). As Caspar writes, it's a book that secularists and humanists, many of whom hold firm to the idea that the onset of modernity tends to herald the decline of religion, need to sit up and take notice of:
"The challenge is threefold. First in line is the secularisation thesis, the argument that religion simply fades away as a natural consequence of modernisation. Not true, argue Micklethwait and Wooldridge. Modernity doesn't usher in secularisation, it actively promotes religious pluralism. They then train their sights on the equally popular notion that religion contaminates all those who subscribe to its bogus myths and stories. Not true, argue Micklethwait and Wooldridge. Religion brings out both the best and worst in man, and secularists need to come to terms with the positive role religions have played in providing meaningful care and support for the oppressed as well as in the nurturing of aspirations for political freedom from Poland to Burma to El Salvador. Secularists should therefore recognise the corollary of these two facts. While it is perfectly appropriate to demand that religionists should accept the separation of church and mosque from state as a guarantee of freedom of conscience for all, secularists should play their part by accepting that religion is here to stay."
What do you think? Is God back (or did he never go away), and is he here to stay? Read Caspar's interview and share your views by commenting on this post.

A bad week for Scientology?

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Quite some time ago now, I reported on how Wikiscanner, which locates the IPs of those making edits to Wikipedia, had found that edits to pages concerning Scientology had been made from computers linked to – you guessed it – Scientology. To be fair to Scientology (and it's not often you'd hear me say that), it was hardly a major scandal – the Vatican and the Mormons were caught at it at the same time, and everyone knows people favourably edit their own Wikipedia pages. But in their quest to maintain a reputation for objectivity, the people behind Wikipedia have just banned any edits from IP addresses belonging to the Church of Scientology, which, according to IT news site The Register, "marks the first time Wikipedia has officially barred edits from such a high-profile organization for allegedly pushing its own agenda on the site".

Former Scientologist turned high-profile critic Tory Christman, who I actually met when I reported on an anti-Scientology protest last year, says she was involved in Scientology's web operations prior to leaving the Church in 2000, and although this predates the emergence of Wikipedia, whe explained the methods she was involved with to The Register:
"The guys I worked with posted every day all day. It was like a machine. I worked with someone who used five separate computers, five separate anonymous identities ... to refute any facts from the internet about the Church of Scientology."
Meanwhile, this week has seen the Church of Scientology in France go on trial for fraud in a case which could see it banned across the Channel. It is accused of exploting vulnerable people for commercial gain – here's the lowdown from the BBC:
"The woman at the centre of this case says she was approached by church members in Paris more than 10 years ago, and offered a free personality test. But, she says, she ended up spending 21,000 euros ($29,400, £18,400) on lessons, books and medicines she was told would cure her poor mental state.

Her lawyers are arguing that the church systematically seeks to make money by means of mental pressure and the use of scientifically dubious 'cures'.

A lawyer for the church, Patrick Maisonneuve, said: 'We will contest every charge and prove that there was no mental manipulation.'"

The case is expected to finish in June.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

New Humanist editor on identity politics and offence

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Index on Censorship have just published a piece by our editor, Caspar Melville, in which he examines the emergence of identity politics and the impact it has had academia, the idea of offence and the limits of free speech.

The article is an extract from Caspar's book Taking Offence, which is published as part of Seagull Books' Manifestos for the Twenty-First Century series.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Which Pope are you?

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Have you ever laid in bed at night wondering how you'd run the Catholic Church? Or do you have genuine ambitions of taking the reins over in Vatican City? If so, you ought to have a go at Which Pope Am I?, our all-new Papal personality test devised by Christina Martin, comedian, writer and creator of our hugely popular God Trumps cards. Now you can find out whether you're destined to reign with an iron fist, split the Church in two, save the world, or go down in history as just plain weird. You can let us know which Pope you come out as by commenting on this post.

Click here to play Which Pope Am I?

This is the launch of our new website toy - expect lots more quizzes in the future (we're very excited about them, you see)

Interview with New Humanist editor

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Alexandra Bell, who writes for The Alligator, an online Oxford student magazine, recently interviewed our editor Caspar Melville about New Humanist and all things humanist – our history, how we select our content, and our approach to religion, humanism and, of course, Dawkins and Hitchens. If you'd like to read it the interview's online now.

London humanist group seeks new venue – can you help?

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The Central London Humanist Group are looking for a new venue in London at which to hold their popular meetings, talks and debates. Can you help? Here's a message from their treasurer Clive Wilson:
The Central London Humanist Group is expanding fast and we need a place to meet. Our recent event with Caspar Melville from the New Humanist attracted 40 people but we had to pay over £100 for the room. We are looking for a venue in central London which can accommodate about 50-100 people which is either free, or cheaper than our current costs. Can anyone help? We are particularly interested with a venue which has wheelchair access. At the moment we put on one event a month. They are usually talks or debates but we have also put on films.
If you can help, just email me at paul.sims[at]newhumanist.org.uk and I'll put you in contact with the CLHG.

Threats to atheist student societies

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Student newspaper the National Student reports that atheist societies at Leeds and Southampton universities have been faced with violent threats, vandalism, and student union opposition towards their events, with one student receiving a face-to-face death threat during Leeds University Atheist Society's "Rationalist Week '09", which was held back in April. The same event was also subject to vandalism.

At Southampton, the Atheist Society have just managed to host a debate on the limits of free speech, following months of opposition from the university Muslim Society, which objected to the atheists' plan to show Geert Wilders' film Fitna as part of the event. They claimed the Atheist Society planned to stir up religious hatred, while the society insisted that it was intended as a means of stimulating a debate around free speech. The debate eventually went ahead at the end of April, but only on the condition that the society hired secuirty guards and that there was a police presence at the event.

The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies was established last year to provide national support to societies, and their press office Chloƫ Clifford-Frith told the National Student:
“Student Unions may feel pressured to automatically side with religious groups because of the current trend, and religious groups are increasingly demanding immunity from having their ideas discussed. It should be noted that in both incidents neither of the Muslim Societies were actually even being targeted for criticism.”
The influence of religious student groups is something I've been aware of since I was at university a few years ago. At my university there was a large Christian society which appeared to enjoy a good deal of influence, and it certainly leaned towards the fundamentalist end of the scale. Honestly, I'd never met a born-again Christian, let alone a creationist, until I arrived at university, and suddenly I'd met loads. Of course, this is just my observation – whether or not religious student groups do enjoy added influence and privileges is an open question, but it's one that certainly seems worth looking into.

[Found via MediaWatchWatch]

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

GM foods: dream or nightmare?

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Writing in our new issue, science journalist Angela Saini argues that campaigns against genetically modified crops have prevented us from embracing what could prove the only rational alternative to mass starvation:

"GM crops have the potential to be agricultural heroes, yet instead of embracing them, scaremongering and twisted facts have turned transgenic crops into the X-Men of the food world - misunderstood and vilified, when they could be helping us."

Of course it's a controversial argument, and in the spirit of free thinking we invited the Soil Association, who have campaigned against GM, to write a response. Their policy campaigner Emma Hockridge duly obliged, and I've just posted it on our website. She argues that GM crops have produced none of the benefits claimed by their proponents, and have in fact led to rising prices and increased application of unsustainable and environmentally damaging agricultural methods. The future she says, lies not with GM but with the worldwide adoption of sustainable farming systems.

What do you think? Have a read of both articles and let us know by leaving a comment on this blog post.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Ida fever

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We're in the eye of the storm of fossil mania at the moment - last week Colin Tudge's new book The Link came out on the same day as the Guardian splashed with the discovery of this new 47 million year-old fossil, even making a picture of the young primate skeleton their pull-out centrefold. Talk of 'missing links' has been growing louder ever since. To be fair the Guardian never actually definitively said that Ida was the missing link – the answer to whether she was or not was, according to David Attenborough's lead article, "yes and no", and science correspondent James Randerson repeated the same thing on the same page to hammer home the point. I suppose it was silly of any of us to assume that the title of the book, and the the documentary film that will be screened in the UK next week, voiced by Attenborough himself - The Link - had anything to do with the claim that Ida was the missing link. She might just be the link that we hadn't heard from for a while but we were sure was doing fine and would get in touch when she had a moment.

In fact this synchronicity in the UK is only a small part of a truly global hype-fest that has been running of several years, and involves millions of pounds, absurdly restrictive embargoes, and a great deal of PT Barnum-style flim flam. In an exclusive piece for New Humanist Kenan Malik tells the tawdry tale, and considers the consequences. Read it.

Comment here if you feel like it.

Jack of Kent on the Advertising Standards chiropractic ruling

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As promised yesterday, here's the link to legal blogger Jack of Kent's take on the Advertising Standards Agency's ruling against the Edgware chiropractors who claimed they could help with childhood colic and learning difficulties.

As I suspected, the ruling wont have any direct implications for Simon Singh's ongoing legal battle, but Jack of Kent has raised a couple of interesting questions. He points out that the regulatory body for chiropractic, the General Chiropractic Council, has a requirement in its Code of Practice for chiropractors to only "publicise their practices or permit another person to do so consistent with the law and the guidance issued by the Advertising Standards Authority". So, in light of the new ASA ruling, the British Chiropractic Association's promotion of chiropractic as an effective treatment for colic and other childhood problems would appear to be in breach of the General Chiropractic Council's Code of Practice.

Jack of Kent points out that "the British Chiropractic Association should urgently clarify its positon on the treatment of colic" and, if they continued to claim chiropractic is an effective treatment, they would seemingly be in breach of their own regulatory body's rules. Surely this would then make things difficult for them in relation to suing Simon Singh, as Jack of Kent concludes:
"It would render odd that the British Chiropractic Association still wishes to litigate in respect of its promotion of chiropractic for the treatment of colic when such a promotion by its members would now seemingly be a breach of their professional obligations..."

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Advertising Standards ruling on chiropractic appears to back up Simon Singh's view

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A new ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency on an ad placed by Edgware-based chiropractors Dr Carl Irwin and Associates is of great interest given the ongoing legal battle between Simon Singh and the British Chiropractic Association. The ASA have adjudicated following a complaint relating to this advertisement placed in a magazine:
"Dr Carl Irwin and Associates CHIROPRACTORS. Back, Neck, Shoulder, Arm and Leg Pain, Sports Injury, Joint Problems, IBS, Colic, Learning Difficulties, Cranial Treatment for Mothers and Babies. To discuss any area of your health with our Doctors, call for a FREE Consultation."
Having seen this ad, the person complaining raised the question of whether "Dr. Carl Irwin and Associates could substantiate the implied claim that their therapies could successfully treat some of the conditions mentioned, in particular IBS, colic and learning difficulties".

And here's what the ASA, which upheld the complaint, said:
"We considered that, whilst some of the studies indicated that further research was worth pursuing, in particular in relation to the chiropractic relief of colic, we had not seen robust clinical evidence to support the claim that chiropractic could treat IBS, colic and learning difficulties."
This was following the submission of evidence from the chiropractors, who have also had to agree not to refer to themselves as "doctors" in future advertising. The final ruling from the ASA was as follows:
The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Dr. Carl not to refer to the treatment of IBS, colic and learning difficulties in future.
This ruling clearly supports the view expressed by Simon Singh in his Guardian article on chiropractors, as it was in relation to the BCA's claims that they can treat childhood problems like colic that Singh made his disputed claims about chiropractic.

However, while this is interesting, I'm unsure whether an Advertising Standards Agency ruling can actually have any implications for an ongoing legal case. The legal blogger Jack of Kent, who has been spearheading the campaign in support of Simon Singh, said earlier on Twitter that he plans to blog on this story this evening, so I suggest you check in on his site later, and I'll also link to it tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Pope causing Carla to lose her faith...

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According to the Daily Telegraph, Carla Bruni is so upset with the Pope's stance on condoms and Aids in Africa that she has begun to lose her faith, telling a French women's magazine:
"I was born Catholic, I was baptised, but in my life I feel profoundly secular. I find that the controversy coming from the Pope's message – albeit distorted by the media – is very damaging. In Africa it's often Church people who look after sick people. It's astonishing to see the difference between the theory and the reality. I think the Church should evolve on this issue. It presents the condom as a contraceptive which, incidentally, it forbids, although it is the only existing protection."
It's perhaps testament to this bizarre marriage of celebrity and political power that I was at first inclined to adopt a sneering stance - "The Pope's turning Carla Bruni atheist - in the modern world, that's a pretty seismic theological event" – but then I realised that the First Lady of a predominantly Catholic country had publicly criticised the Pope, which actually is a big deal.

Get ready to befriend the Pope on Facebook

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Here's some good news, courtesy of The Times' Faith Central blog - "A papal profile on Facebook. 'The Pope meets you on Facebook' is due to go live on May 24th".

Of course, it's bound to be Benedict XVI himself sat at a laptop dealing with all the friendship requests. And when all you heathens (who I trust are already fans of New Humanist on Facebook) send friend requests to His Holiness, the fact that Christianity is an evangelising faith will mean he has no choice but to accept.

[Unfortunately I was unable to find a picture of the current Pope at a computer, so instead I've included this fantastic picture of his predecessor]

Video of Simon Singh meeting

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The full video of Monday's meeting in support of Simon Singh vs the British Chiropractic Association is now online:



[Credit: YouTube user "TheJujuStatue"]

"How to spot a hidden religious agenda" piece reinstated to New Scientist website

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You may remember that back in March there was a brief internet controversy over the removal of a piece on the New Scientist website entitled "How to spot a hidden religious agenda", in which their book reviews editor Amanda Gefter explained the key signs she looks out for when deciding if a "science" book is in fact a creationist tract. At the time bloggers queued up to accuse New Scientist of caving in to pressure from creationists, with leading atheist blogger PZ Myers writing that he hoped "New Scientist isn't going to be catering to the whims of popular, uninformed nervous nellies."

Analysing the situation at the time, we pointed out that in all likelihood New Scientist had removed the piece because there had been a legal complaint – removing an article would be the standard response of any publication in such circumstances (hence the fact that you can only currently read Simon Singh's Guardian piece on chiropractic via a Russian website). Looking at who was mentioned in the New Scientist article, we worked out, largely by a process of elimination, that the legal complaint was likely to have come from the British GP and writer James Le Fanu, who the article suggests had "religious motives" for criticising science in his book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves. Funnily enough, that book had recently received uncomplimentary reviews from both Amanda Gefter and New Scientist editor Roger Highfield.

The article has now returned to the New Scientist website, and the accompanying editorial notes confirm that we were right about Le Fanu being the source of the complaint. Here's what it says at the top of the piece:

This article was temporarily taken down on legal advice after New Scientist's editor, Roger Highfield, received a letter from a law firm on behalf of James Le Fanu, the GP and author of the book Why Us? Following discussions, New Scientist has now reinstated the article accompanied by a comment from Dr Le Fanu.

There are now a few paragraphs at the end from Le Fanu in which he argues that Gefter's "specific allegation against myself of covertly promoting ‘pseudoscientific concepts' in pursuit of a hidden religion agenda is unfairly prejudicial to my reputation." He then goes on to state:

"Ms Gefter's supposition that there is a genre of science books written by creationists ‘disguising their true views' is, I would suggest, a mirage invoked to condemn by association those like myself who draw attention to the limits of science and its exclusively materialist explanations and theories. I believe that the New Scientist should do more to examine such ideas to promote the spirit of open and intellectual enquiry."

So that's the end of that, then. Here's hoping that next time a respectable publication like New Scientist has to pull an article in this manner, bloggers aren't quite so quick to jump to unlikely conclusions. I think it's safe to say New Scientist wont be catering to creationist whims any time soon.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Simon Singh hopes to appeal chiropracty libel ruling, but can't confirm yet

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I'm just back from a packed meeting in the Penderel's Oak pub in central London, where what must have been at least 200-300 people braved the smell of Wetherspoons burgers and a serious lack of space to turn out in support of science writer Simon Singh, who as you know is currently embroiled in a worrying libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association.

The breaking news from the meeting is that Simon, who spoke in front of the huge crowd, is hoping to appeal the preliminary ruling on the meaning of "bogus treatments" passed by Justice Eady on 7 May, but is not yet in a position to confirm this. He is still working on his response with his legal team, and hopes to be able to announce his next move by 28 May. What he was able to say at the meeting is that if he does mount an appeal it will have been in part influenced by the overwhelming support he has received from the public, who in addition to turning out this evening have signed up to internet groups in enormous numbers. While mounting an appeal is risky because he may lose, he gave three reasons why it is the right option - 1) he might win, 2) he wants his day in court to talk about what the Guardian article actually meant, and 3) most importantly this case is about broader issues than the validity of chiropractic - it is "about the need to be able to write about issues fairly and reasonably without being intimidated". It is something that matters for all journalists, and ties into the wider issues concerning British libel law. He ended by extending his thanks to the legal blogger Jack of Kent, who has supported him ever since this started and has provided some excellent coverage of the case.

Singh was the last to speak at the meeting, and before him we heard from a series of well-known defenders of free speech and rationalism. First up was comedian and broadcaster Dave Gorman (who has been speaking up for Simon on his blog) who told the crowd that if two professions should benefit from questioning, it's science and journalism. The idea of not being able to question something for which there is no evidence affects us all. An interesting point Dave made is that prior to hearing about Singh's plight he had no idea that chiropractic was an alternative therapy - he thought it was mainstream medicine, so at least people are learning that this is not the case because of the BCA case.

Next we heard from Nick Cohen, who elaborated on the fact that Singh's case forms a part of the wider problem - something he calls "the great under-recognised scandal of our time" - of the ability of English libel law to "stifle debate and stop good men and women asking difficult questions". He pointed out that this has impact beyond our shores, and cited examples of "libel tourism", most notably those of Roman Polanski suing Vanity Fair and Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz suing the American writer Rachel Ehrenfeld for accusing him of links to al-Qaeda. Cohen said that libel is supposed to stop damage to the reputations of people of good character, but is being used for opposite ends - British law, through the internet, is claiming global jurisdiction and "dubious people are using it to silence people". He finished by saying he hopes Singh's case and the following it has attracted might just provide the impetus for a campaign to reform our outrageous libel laws, because "Britain should be a beacon of liberty, not liberty's enemy".

The last to speak, before the physicist Brian Cox introduced Singh, was Liberal Democrat MP and scientific campaigner Dr Evan Harris. He emphasised the need to ensure that science is evidence based, and that there is free scientific discourse. It is essential that strong language can be used to criticise what some powerful groups and individuals do. He said he hopes Singh fights on and that we get a big campaign around the case, as it has the potential to lead to a great victory for science and free discourse.

Jewel of Medina unlikely to be published in UK

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Just days after the men who firebombed the home of Martin Rynja, owner of publishers Gibson Square, were found guilty, we learn that the book they were so angry about, The Jewel Of Medina by Sherry Jones, is still without a UK publisher and seems unlikely to get one any time soon.

This worrying news comes via Jones's own blog, in which she describes the attempts to get the book published in this country in the wake of the attack on Rynja's home:

'After Gibson Square’s publisher announced, a couple of weeks after the arson attempt, that he was indefinitely postponing publication of “The Jewel of Medina” — following in the footsteps of Random House in the U.S. — I awarded world English publication rights to Beaufort Books, my U.S. publishing house whose publisher and small staff have supported my book unwaveringly, despite hate male, lawsuit threats, and Mr. Choudary’s own assertion that not only I, but my publishers, might deserve to die.

Beaufort publisher Eric Kampmann and associate publisher Margot Atwell headed to the London Book Fair in April with a full display of “The Jewel of Medina” and confidence that they would find the right distributor to supply stores in the U.K. with the book. But — no. Everyone, it seems, is too afraid.'

All of which means that the erstwhile firebombers can head to jail safe in the knowledge that they achieved their objective when they tried to murder Rynja and his family last year. They may have failed to burn his house to the ground, but they managed to stifle free speech. As Kenan Malik argues in his new book From Fatwa to Jihad, "in the two decades between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the pulling of The Jewel of Medina [Ayatollah Khomeini's] fatwa has effectively been internalised".

Ruth Padel elected Oxford professor of poetry

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Ruth Padel, Charles Darwin's great-great-granddaughter, has just been elected Oxford's first female professor of poetry, which has to be the perfect opportunity to our Darwin anniversary piece from earlier this year, which featured an introduction from Ruth alongside four poems from her book Darwin: A Life in Poems.

Also, Ruth will be appearing at A Night of 400 Billion Stars (And Maybe Some String Theory), our evening of science, comedy, poetry, and song, on Monday 29 June at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London. Tickets are still available via the Bloomsbury website or by phone on 020 7388 8822. You can also join the event page on Facebook.

Friday, 15 May 2009

How The Light Gets In: A Philosophy Festival at Hay, 22-31 May

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The Guardian Hay Festival kicks off on Thursday (in so far as a literary festival in a pretty market town can ever really "kick off"), and those of you heading to the Welsh border may be interested to learn that at the same time the town will play host to How The Light Gets In – a philosophy festival independent of the literary festival.

The full programme is on the festival's website but, to point out some New Humanist contributors among the packed line up, you can see AC Grayling and Kenan Malik on Saturday 30 May discussing "Dreams of Utopia" with Ruth Levitas, Alex Prichard and Susan Neiman, while on a lighter note you can catch Robin Ince and Philip Jeays (whose song "Death Bed" was featured in our Advent podcasts from last year) providing some music and comedy later that evening.

Interestingly sociologist Steve Fuller appears earlier in the week to discuss "The Life and Death of the Enlightenment", although unfortunately not in conversation with Grayling, which is a shame as, in light of their debate over Intelligent Design in New Humanist last year, we suspect they would have had a few disagreements on the Enlightenment.

Other names appearing at How The Light Gets In include Simon Blackburn, Will Hutton, Michael Nyman and Julian Baggini. It runs from 22-31 May.

Show your support for Simon Singh in central London on Monday

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Those of you within reach of central London might like to attend the Support Simon Singh and Free Speech meeting taking place at the Penderel's Oak pub, High Holborn, at 6.30pm on Monday (18 May), which will address the issues surrounding the ongoing libel case against him by the British Chiropractic Association. It will be chaired by Chris French, editor of The Skeptic, and speakers will include Nick Cohen, Dave Gorman and Evan Harris MP, as well as Simon himself.

There's a Facebook event where you can confirm your attendance, and if you can't make it you can still show your solidarity by joining this Facebook group.

Meanwhile, the case has had some good attention in the media, with The Economist running this piece, and the New Scientist looking at it on their site.

Go forth and multiply

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First they need to get married. Then they need to throw away the condoms. But once couples in Poland (of the heterosexual variety, of course) have done that they can enjoy the secrets of great sex courtesy of . . . well, a celibate priest from a Franciscan monastery near Krakow.

Yes, that's right. In a front page story almost made for a New Humanist blogger to read on the train into work, today's Guardian tells the story of Father Ksawery Knotz and the publication of Seks, his "Catholic Kama Sutra", intended to inform couples that "Every act – a type of caress, a sexual position – with the goal of arousal is permitted and pleases God. During sexual intercourse, married couples can show their love in every way, can offer one another the most sought-after caresses. They can employ manual and oral stimulation."

Of course the obvious question is why would a celibate priest know anything about sex, and Father Knotz's is fantastic: "I talk with a lot of married couples and I listen to them, so these problems just kind of sit in my mind."

Yeah, we bet they do Father. Wonder if he's read Michael Bywater Aristolean analysis of internet porn from our latest issue?

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Blogs or books, which is better? There's only one way to find out...

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A while back we published a piece by Stephen Howe which was rather savage about two books written by bloggers, and suggested that the writing on the internet is too often shallow and vitriolic and that bloggers shouldn't be allowed to write books (to paraphrase rather crudely). Blogger Owen Hatherley, who has a new book out, responds in the current issue, counter-blasting that Howe's "lofty" view is out of date, and even suggesting Howe suffers from blogophobia.

Now, in a deeply humanist twist, Howe blasts back by arguing that ... he pretty much agrees with Hatherley – new media has tons of democratic potential, but it still needs to live up to that. Thus New Humanist solves another intractable global crisis. Well done us!

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Come join us on Facebook

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Just a quick note to let you all know that we've just set up a Facebook page, and we'd like you to come and join. It'll supplement what we do on this blog and our Twitter feed, and hopefully become a lively place for discussion (you'll be able to post your own links and comments there too).

Two-thirds of terror suspects released without charge

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When I was in Blackburn researching my article in our latest issue on the government's policies for preventing Islamic extremism, a widely held concern among the local Muslims I spoke to was that, for all the high-profile terror arrests made since 9/11, the vast majority of suspects have ended up being released without charge. This has happened several times in the East Lancashire area – police raids have attracted national media attention which lasts a day or two, with headlines about the terrorist plotters in our midst, and then a few days or weeks later the suspects are released. Naturally, the process of release without charge rarely attracts the same attention as a juicy police raid.

The statistics reported on the Guardian website today will do little to allay these concerns. Between 2001 and 2008, only 340 of 1,471 people arrested under terror legislation have been charged, of whom 196 were subsequently convicted (although it's important to note that these figures only go up to 31 March 2008, and since then there have been further convicitions in high-profile trials such as the transatlantic airline plot).

Such figures have important implications for the government's strategy for addressing the issue of homegrown extremism among British Muslims. People I spoke to in Blackburn felt that disproportionate emphasis is being placed on the issue – money, time and effort is being devoted to stopping Muslims becoming terrorists, when it should really being spent addressing genuine socio-economic difficulties. As one local community activist said to me: "The actions of four individuals on 7/7 have come to define two million people. Now everything Muslim-related is extremism-related. So if I'm sick, or my child isn't surviving childbirth, that in some way will be extremism-related? If you're a Muslim organisation looking for funding, it has to be about extremism."

If you take the actions of all those convicted, this still amounts to the actions of around 200 people (although the statistics do also include a handful of animal rights extremists) coming to define two million people in Britain. Such a high rate of release without charge will not help with the engagement work being carried out a local level in places like Blackburn, as it will only serve to increase resentment against the authorities, which in turn can only serve to benefit those looking to prey on the grievances of young people in order to radicalise them.

Of course it's a difficult one for the authorities, and those dealing with these issues in the local council and the police that I spoke to in Blackburn stressed that, since terrorist arrests have happened in the area in recent years, they have worked hard to communicate with local communities and build up a relationship of trust. Such work is indeed important, but it is also important that the police get it right when they make high-profile terror arrests. No one expects them to do so every single time, but there is a worrying gap in the statistics between arrest and convictions.

Competing for James Randi's million dollar prize

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I've made some ill-considered sports bets in the past, but I've always had more chance of winning than those brave psychics who step forward to try and claim James Randi's famous million dollar prize, available to anyone who can prove, under agreed, controlled scientific conditions, the validity of their paranormal "abilities".

I mention this because I've just been reading this piece by Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, who was last week involved in carrying out preliminary testing on the TV psychic Patricia Putt, who has recently come forward to try and claim the million dollar prize. French has been involved in such tests relating to the Randi prize in the past, and in the Guardian piece he describes the processes involved in testing Putt's psychic "powers". It's all very odd, but also very fair – I'm sure you wont be surprised to learn she failed the test.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

John Maddox RIP

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In April Sir John Maddox, former editor of Nature and an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association and contributor to New Humanist, died age 83. Here is a tribute by his successor at Nature Philip Campbell.
Read John's review from 2003 Nurturing Science.

Little Atoms podcast with Simon Singh

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Our friend Padraig Reidy, who presents the online radio show Little Atoms with Neil Denny, sent us the link to the latest edition, which is of particular interest given that it features Simon Singh's first interview following the court ruling in the British Chiropratic Association libel case we reported on yesterday. In the podcast Singh talks about the implications of the ruling and what he might do next - it was recorded on Friday, at which time he suggested he would probably appeal against the ruling, although he planned to think about it over the weekend. Have a listen - he also talks about his book on alternative medicine Trick or Treatment, co-authored with Edzard Ernst, which has just come out in paperback.

Monday, 11 May 2009

What next for Simon Singh?

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We were extremely concerned to hear that the British Chiropractic Association have been successful in the first stage of their legal action against science writer Simon Singh, brought because of a piece he wrote for the Guardian last year (long since removed from the Guardian, although it can still be found elsewhere online). At the preliminary hearing on Thursday, judge Sir David Eady ruled that Singh's description of chiropractic treatment for childhood conditions such as colic as "bogus" was intended as a statement of "fact" (as the BCA argued) rather than a statement of "comment" (as Singh argued). The implication of this is that, under British libel law, the onus is now on Singh to prove that the BCA was being deliberately dishonest in promotic chiropractic treatments. Eady also awarded costs of £23,000 to the BCA.

This now places Singh in an extremely difficult position with regards to what he should do next. The best source we've found on this is the blogger Jack of Kent, who was watching in court on Thursday. Here's how he explained things at the time:
The ruling means that, as it stands, Simon Singh would have to prove at full trial that the BCA were being deliberately dishonest. This is not only extremely difficult but it was undoubtedly not Simon Singh's view in the first place. The BCA, as with many CAM practitioners, may well be deluded, irresponsible, and sometimes rather dangerous; but calling their promoted treatments "bogus" was not an express statement of their conscious dishonesty.
To follow up on this, Jack of Kent has now set out a list of three options for what Singh can do next – proceed to trial, appeal Thursday's ruling, or settle out of court with the BCA. I urge you to read them. If you want to show your support for Singh, you can join this Facebook group (which I was delighted to see has almost 3,000 members). And regardless of how this case ends, it has shown once again the desperate need for reform of Britain's libel laws.

Bozza on the government's ludicrous banning policy

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I just wanted to share this quickly, in order to follow up on last week's news of who was on Jacqui Smith's "least wanted" list of people barred from entering Britain. Ever since Geert Wilders was banned back in February, we've argued that preventing controversial figures from coming to Britain is not the right approach for a democracy with a supposed commitment to free speech. The government's release of the list of who it has banned, consisting mostly of people who never even tried to come here in the first place, exposed just how ridiculous the policy is, and no one has made this point more effectively than Boris Johnson in this morning's Daily Telegraph. Love him or hate him, the man can write, and in this case he's spot on. In my opinion, here's the money quote:
The world is full of loudmouth media berks with views that we would all like to keep to themselves, but we can't ban them all from entering Britain.
I strongly urge you to read the full piece.

Caption competition

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This photo was sent to us by a reader, Mick, following his recent trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. Come on people, let's have some suggestions for captions...

[Thanks Mick]

Help stop Ireland's blasphemy law

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Calling our Irish readers – if you're concerned about the proposed blasphemy law we reported the other week, you should head over to this new website set up by the people at Atheist Ireland. It's a blog with news and views about the proposed legislation, and a place from which to coordinate opposition to this threat to free speech in Ireland. You can get involved with the debate, or contact Atheist Ireland to find out how you can help.

Friday, 8 May 2009

An Aristolean analysis of internet porn

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Here at New Humanist, we like to think we offer you a wide (some might say eclectic) range of journalism, criticism and commentary. It's for this reason that you can read the post below, which takes a series look at issues of integration and British identity, on the same page as the post you're currently reading.

Some weeks ago, during one of our editorial meetings, a senior member of our editorial team (who shall remain nameless), informed us that they had recently heard that a website called Pornhub had just been named (by experts, one imagines) the world's number one free porn site, which happened to coincide nicely with them learning about a new book which argues that pornography is popular art. All of which left us with one option really – to call our expert on classical tragedy, Michael Bywater, and allow him to offer an Aristolean analysis.

So click here to read The Art of Phwoar, but be warned, it may (does) contain a classical critique of explicit behaviour.

The problem with identity

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The new Gallup Coexist Index poll published yesterday, "A Global Study of Interfaith Relations:
With an in-depth analysis of Muslim integration in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom" (full PDF here) provided plenty for headline writers to get to grips with, and the breadth of information the poll provides is highlighted by the fact that the Guardian could report it under the headline "Muslims in Britain have zero tolerance of homosexuality, says poll", while The Times ran with "British Muslims have more faith in UK than Britons, study finds".

So what did the poll show? Comparing the attitudes, and economic circumstances, of both Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain, France and Germany (in Britain they surveyed 500 non-Muslims and 1,001 non-Muslims), Gallup did indeed find that on issues of gender and sexuality, the Muslims polled in Britain were far less liberal than non-Muslims, as well as less liberal than their counterparts in France and Germany. So while 58 per cent of British non-Muslims said they find "homosexual acts" morally acceptable, 0 per cent of Muslims said they did, compared to 35 per cent in France and 19 per cent in Germany. Similarly, only 3 per cent of the British Muslims said they found sex outside of marriage acceptable, compared to 48 per cent in France.

At the same time, the poll reveals that British Muslims, as The Times chose to highlight in their headline, identify more with Britain and have more confidence in its institutions than the non-Muslim majority. 77 per cent of Muslims said they identify "very" or "extremely" strongly with Britain, compared to 50 per cent of non-Muslims, while 76 per cent of Muslims said they had confidence in the British judiciary, compared to 55 per cent of non-Muslims.

Meanwhile, the poll throws up some worrying statistics on the social and economic well-being of Britain's Muslim population. Asked to gauge their current standard of living, 21 per cent of British Muslims said they were "suffering" (a far higher figure than any other group polled in all three countries), while only 38 per cent said they were currently employed, compared with 62 per cent of non-Muslims.

So what are the implications of all this? Having just written our latest cover story on the impact of the government's policy for tackling radicalisation among Britain's Muslims, I read the results of this poll with great interest. For my article I visited my home town of Blackburn, Lancashire, which has a 20 per cent Muslim population, to find out how the goverment's Preventing Violent Extremism policy is being received locally. What I found ties in to both the issues of economic well-being and morality covered by the poll.

The news that Muslims are found to be less tolerant than non-Muslims towards issues like homosexuality comes as little surprise, but it certainly poses problems for social cohesion. Huge progress has been made on sexual tolerance in the past 15-20 years, and that is not going to be rolled back because of religious interests. But the fact that many Muslims might have a problem with that is something that will need to be dealt with through education and dialogue – there's no point taking a "deal with it or leave Britain" attitude (sounds a bit close to BNP-speak really, doesn't it?), while at the same time you can't simply dictate to Muslims from on high what they can and can't think. This was a problem I found some people in Blackburn had with the preventing extremism policy – when the government suggests widening the definition of "extremism" from something closely related to terrorism to something that could cover homophobia, or advocating Sharia, the policy, as the chairman of the local council of mosques told me, "has broadened so much that any activity you do could be taken as extremism."

What I found in Blackburn is that those working in the community feel that the government should place more emphasis on addressing issues of poverty, education and health, rather than on flagship schemes for tackling extremism. And this ties in with what the Iranian-American writer Reza Aslan argues in his new book How to Win a Cosmic War – Global Jihadists rely on creating a "master narrative" for disaffected young Muslims, in which "the global grievances to which they have been exposed are connected to the local grievances that they themselves experience every day". It therefore follows that if you can address those local grievances, you can break that link between local and global, you can reduce the likelihood of young people turning to extremism.

When I interviewed Aslan, he talked about the need for a strong sense of British national identity among Muslims, comparing their situation with that of Muslims in America, who are generally well-integrated and well-off, and we discussed the problems we have with national identity in this country – in short, no one even really knows what British national identity is. In this sense, the figures on identity from the Gallup poll are encouraging. If, as the results suggests, British Muslims identify strongly with British democracy, then the task of developing a coherent national identity might not be as difficult as many fear. At the very least, the fact that non-Muslims scored significantly lower in this respect highlights the fact that this issue of British identity is a problem for all of us and not just for ethnic minorities, as is often implied.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Just when we thought we might have something to agree with the Vatican on...

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Seldom do we have a reason to agree with the Vatican, but we were only saying in the NH office the other day that their alleged attempts to block the filming of the latest Dan Brown adaptation, Angels and Demons, might be an attempt at censorship that we can all get behind. After all, they described The Da Vinci Code, the first film in the series, as "an offence against God", and if "God" for the religious can be seen to represent all that is decent and good, then we're inclined to agree with them.

But now we learn from the Telegraph that Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano has reviewed Angels and Demons, and described it as a "harmless entertainment which hardly affects the genius and mystery of Christianity".

Perhaps we should let our own film critic Fred Rowson (if you've never read his reviews why not dip in here) loose on the film when it hits the screens this Friday.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

US teenager successfully sued teacher who criticised creationism

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The Guardian reports that Christian teenager from California has won a court case against a high school teacher who referred to creationism as "superstitious nonsense". Chad Farnan, a student at Capistrano Valley high school, alleged that his former European history teacher James Corbett had made a series of comments that were "derogatory, disparaging and belittling regarding religion and Christianity in particular". In the end only the comment in which Corbett expressed his "unequivocal belief that creationism is superstitious nonsense"

In his 37-page ruling, Judge James Selma found that this comment violated the establishment clause of the first amendment of the US constitution, which is widely seen as preventing both the promotion of, and expression of hostility towards, religion among government employees. Selma ruled that Corbett's comment amounted to "improper disapproval of religion in violation of the establishment clause".

The judge stressed that his ruling also implied that promotion of religion is forbidden in schools, ensuring that education could function "free of the strictures of any particular religious or philosophical belief system".

Update: As one reader kindly pointed out, the teenager, Chad Farnan, has his own website on which he is proclaiming his victory over his teacher. Have a look - oh dear.

More pig news

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Just for a moment, I want you to imagine being the only pig in Afghanistan. Because that's the role played by this poor porker, who's just been quarantined in Kabul Zoo in order to reassure visitors they wont catch swine flu from him/her. To be fair to the zoo staff, they don't actually think the pig is a danger, but they point out that many visitors wont have the required knowledge about swine flu and so may be worried they can catch it when they see the pig.

At least this pig, a gift from a zoo in China (why, with the whole animal kingdom to choose from, would you send a zoo in Afghanistan a pig?), has ended up with a better deal than the 400,000 pigs in Egypt, which look set to be culled by order of the government. But there's no doubt pigs have been getting a raw deal from the religious during this swine flu outbreak. Which leaves me thinking - maybe it's time humanists stood up for our porcine pals?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

They shall not pass...

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Remember the bans on Geert Wilders and the Westboro Baptist Church earlier this year? Well Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has just published the full list of those banned from entering the UK, and it reads like the guestlist for the world's most ill-advised dinner party. I can picture it now – there's Wilders tucking into some canapes, having an awkward just-met conversation with Hezbollah militant Samir Al Quntar and Hamas MP Yunis Al-Astal. Across the room, Fred Phelps is enjoying a glass of bubbly with ex-Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Stephen 'Don' Black and Russian skinhead supremos Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky. Meanwhile, the true gooseberry in the room is Jewish extremist Mike Guzovsky. Surrounded by Islamist extremists and neo-Nazis, this is one party where he's really struggling to fit in.

But on a serious note, this list poses some interesting questions for free speech advocates. Let's face it, those on the list hardly make up a desirable bunch, and we could certainly manage perfectly well without hearing what any of them have to say. But as I've said on here before, this idea that the Home Secretary acts as some sort of gatekeeper, deciding what views are acceptable and then keeping out any foreigners who don't hold to them, is incredibly discomforting. We should have some confidence in our ability to argue back against these people. It's not often that I find myself agreeing with Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain, but what he is quoted as saying in the BBC article on this is spot on: "If they step over the line and break the law, it's at that moment the law should be enacted, not beforehand. If people are keeping their odious views to themselves, that's their business. We should not be in the business of policing people's minds."