Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Night of 400 Billion Stars

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You can't really start reviewing something your magazine was involved in (it was brilliant, of course), but just a quick note to say what a great night we had last night at the Bloomsbury Theatre for Night of 400 Billion Stars (And Maybe Some String Theory), our latest science, music and comedy extravaganza. Compere Robin Ince was on top form as always (with lack of sleep and an intake of strong Somerset cider over the weekend at Glastonbury only adding to his incredulity at the world's stupidity - Natasha Kaplinsky's love of expensive honey, anyone?), and we were treated to some great (loosely science-based) stand-up from Chris Addison, Lucy Porter, Josie Long, Christina Martin and Peter Buckley-Hill, some science/comedy from Helen Keen and AL Kennedy, science from Marcus Chown and Simon Singh, and music from Martin White's horn ensemble, Gavin Osborn and Darren Hayman.

There was far too much to mention here, but I thought I'd recount a couple of things that tied in with my own current mini-obsession with all things Apollo/NASA. AL Kennedy, in a wonderful set that combined stand-up with proper science readings, read from a essay by Penn Jillette in which he describes the awe he experienced when he went to Cape Canaveral to watch a space shuttle launch. It seems that the essay isn't online, as it's from a Penn & Teller book called How to Play in Traffic, but I did find an extract in this blog post:
“It’s 3.7 miles away, and your looking at this flame and the flame is far away and it’s brighter than watching an arc welder from across a room[….] The fluffy smoke clouds of the angels of exploration spill out of your field of vision. They spill out of your peripheral vision.

“You don’t exactly hear it at first, it almost knocks you over. It’s the loudest most wonderful sound you’ve ever heard. […] You can’t really hear it. It’s too loud to hear. It’s wonderful deep and low. It’s the bottom.

“This is a real explosion and it’s controlled and it’s doing nothing but good and it makes your unbuttoned shirt flap around your arms. It’s beyond sound, it’s wind. It’s a man-made hurricane.”
It made me really want to go and see a shuttle launch. The other NASA related thing I learned last night came via Darren Hayman's song about Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon. He became an artist after he came back from the Apollo 12 mission, and much of his work consists of paintings of the moon. He's the only artist to have been to the moon. I've included a painting above called "Mother Earth", which I found in this gallery of his work. Do go and take a look.

Another highlight of the night for us was seeing our shiny new God Trumps cards make their public debut. We handed out a few cards to members of the audience, and Robin Ince played a quick game with them from the stage. His Agnostic card (Weapon of Choice: Undecided) proved impotent in the face of the formidible Satanist card. Don't forget, you can make sure you get your hands on a pack by subscribing to New Humanist. It's the only you can get them – part one is free with our July/Aug issue, and part two with the Sept/Oct issue.

Finally, we will be organising another series of Godless Christmas shows in collaboration with Robin Ince this December. The dates aren't confirmed yet, but keep checking back here for news on how to get your tickets.

Thanks again to all the performers and everyone who came last night. We look forward to more when we steal Christmas again later in the year.

Friday, 26 June 2009

A grave mistake

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I'm only doing this for the headline, really. A vicar has come under fire after tennis fans parked their cars on top of graves in the grounds of St Mary's Church in Wimbledon Village. The church charges £20 for a day's parking close to the All England Championships, with proceeds going to charity. Photos of cars parked between tombstones have proved embarrassing for Rev Mary Bide, although according to the Sun she tried to defend herself by arguing "the parking was on graves from the 18th and 19th centuries, and that the descendants of those buried there were not traceable".

We'd be interested to know the cut off point for when it's acceptable to park on a grave - if they died 50 years ago? 100 years ago? What about those eternal souls?

Thursday, 25 June 2009

When the Church becomes the bailiff

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In times of rising debt and economic hardship, it's understandable that the religious might turn to their faith for support. The sympathetic ear of a priest, and any advice they may have, might make it all seem better, at least for a little while. It is, of course, what they're there for – isn't it?

Not so if you're one of the estimated 100 million members of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has just signed a deal with the Russian Federal Court Marshals Service to instruct congregants that they face an eternal life of hellfire if they don't pay back their debts on time.

"Priests will say that unpaid debt is the same as theft in Christianity", explained a spokesman from the Court Marshals Service, which is struggling to stay on top of the 26 per cent of Russian families with outstanding debt. And it seems they're now planning to try and get the Muslims and the Buddhists on side too (you can't make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca if you're in debt, and debt gives you bad karma, apparently).

Could this be further evidence of the increasing cooperation between the Russian church and state that Michael Binyon wrote about for us last year?

[Thanks Christina]

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Florida newspaper's Scientology exposé

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If you haven't already seen Florida newspaper the St Petersburg Times' brave and unprecedented exposé of Scientology, we strongly urge you to take a look. In a three part special report, the paper draws on the first-hand accounts of former senior Scientologists Mike Rinder, Mark C. "Marty" Rathbun, Tom De Vocht and Amy Scobe, who are the highest ranking members of the Church to ever defect and speak out about the inner workings of the secretive organisation.

The result is a hugely detailed report which seems to confirm many of the accusations levelled at the notoriously litgious Church since it was formed in the 1950s. It includes allegations that Scientology leader David Miscavaige regularly hit memebers of the Church's staff, as well as details regarding the death of 36-year-old Scientologist Lisa McPherson while in the Church's care in 1995.

This is a brave piece of journalism from the St Petersburg Times, and the paper deserves the plaudits it has been receiving from around the world.

Monday, 22 June 2009

June podcast

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Here's an easy way to listen to the latest New Humanist podcast, in which Caspar Melville talks GM food with Angela Saini, new economy hype with Kevin Doogan and internet porn with Michael Bywater. Also, all our old podcasts are now back online - you can access them here, where you can also download the latest.




Friday, 19 June 2009

The return of the pod

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It's been a while since we last podcasted, but we're back now. In the first in a new regular series, editor Caspar Melville talks to some of the contributors to the current issue of New Humanist magazine. First up is science journalist Angela Saini, who discusses the pros and cons of GM food, followed by Kevin Doogan, who talks about the misleading idea of the new economy. Finally, Caspar talks to Michael Bywater, who's caused a bit of a stir with his contribution to our new issue, in which he offered a classical analysis of the videos available at leading online filth emporium Pornhub.






Click here to download the podcast, and sign up to our RSS feed

Note: Regular readers/listeners may notice that all our old podcasts have disappeared. This is because the site hosting them closed down, taking them with it. However, our new hosts, Libsyn, will transfer them all to there, so they're by no means lost. Once they're up I'll post a reminder, as you'll remember there were some real gems which are well worth hearing again, especially our advent podcasts starring Ricky Gervais, Richard Dawkins, Dara O'Briain, Tim Minchin, Stephen Fry and many many more.

Also, I don't have access to a player I can embed in this post just yet, but will update when I do.

Play God

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It's a very exciting Friday afternoon in the NH office, as we've just taken delivery of boxes of God Trumps cards – that's right, actual packs of our fabulous God Trumps game, which previously appeared online and in the magazine.

To lay your hands on your very own limited edition pack, you'll need to subscribe to New Humanist. Then you, along with all our existing subscribers, will get the first 12 cards, plus a special God Trumps box, with you July/August magazine, and the remaining 12 cards with your September/October issue. Then you'll have a full set of God Trumps, just like I have on my desk here.

To make sure you don't miss out, why not subscribe online right now?

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The battle of Conway Hall

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You may have read in today's papers about last night's aborted debate on Sharia law at London's Conway Hall, which the Guardian report as having in fact been an attempt to relaunch the extreme Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun, which disbanded back in 2004. What you may not have realised about this story is that the venue in which it occurred, Conway Hall, is in fact the historic home of British secularism, humanism and free thought – it's where we have our AGMs, and it's where the BHA hold their annual lectures and big events.

So this morning we tracked down Giles Enders, chair of the South Place Ethical Society, which owns the hall, to hear the full story of what happened there last night. Here's what we learnt – SPES had received a booking from a woman named Sami Khan, who was representing an organisation called the Global Issues Society. Khan booked the main hall for a debate on Sharia Law v British Law, which Enders understood would pit hardline Muslims against those of a more liberal persuasion. As people began arriving for the event, Enders says it became apparent that the hardliners had turned up, but not the liberals. We now know these "hardliners" to have been the would-be members of a reformed Al-Muhajiroun, led by controversial cleric Anjem Choudary. (As it happens, Choudary's "liberal" debate opponent was to be Douglas Murray, who runs the hardly-liberal, somewhat right-wing Centre for Social Cohesion - more on him later.)

Choudary and his supporters arrived at Conway Hall complete with their very own team of bouncers, who they placed on the doors and at the bottom of the stairs which lead to the main hall's gallery. It turns out their purpose was to enforce a Sharia-style system of gender segregation in the home of Britsih free thought, with the downstairs part of the whole reserved for men, and women confined to the gallery. The first Enders knew about this was when members of the Central London Humanist group also began arriving at the hall for their own meeting, which was due to take place in Conway Hall's library. But as that is upstairs, male members of the group were being refused access by Choudary's heavies. There were also female members of the press being refused entry to the main hall. At this point Enders intervened and attempted to explain that the Global Issues Society had booked the event as an "open meeting" and, besides, gender segregation would not be accepted at Conway Hall. At this point, it seems appropriate to recount what Enders told us earlier:
"These thuggish bouncers wouldn’t allow anyone in, so I said we would call the police. But the police took forever to come, so in the end I had to send our maintenance man across to the police station to get them. It became extremely aggressive in the foyer – somebody got hurt and was bleeding. I said to the bouncers that I run this bloody hall and what I say goes and they pushed me away. They wouldn’t even allow me in the hall, so I went round the side way and got on the stage, and made an announcement through the mic that the meeting was not to take place. After I said this I stood on the stage with all the chanting mob screaming at me in Arabic, and pointing fingers like guns at me. Then they then cut the mic I was using, as one of their people was operating the sound control box. Then the main speaker [Choudary] got hold of a radio mic and started shouting in Arabic. So I grappled that off him, and then I sat on the stage."
With the meeting cut short, the arguments spilled out on to the square outside the hall. Around 30-40 police turned up as, at this point, did Douglas Murray who, says Enders, "barged his way into the main hall. I asked him to leave, as I’d already thrown out the opposition. I had to call in a couple of police to make him leave."

So the big question is why a controversial Islamist group, whose stated aim is to turn Britain into an Islamic state governed by Sharia law, was allowed to attempt its relaunch in the centre of British humanism and free thought? In addition to the fact that SPES were led to believe the event would be a two-sided debate on Sharia law, the answer is simple. Conway Hall is run according to principles of free thought and free speech – indeed Enders describes as one of "the last homes of free speech in this country". As he told us, recent groups meeting at Conway Hall have included some supporters of the North Korean regime, a Stalinist meet-up group and, most recently, "a kinky group of Devil worshippers":
"As long as there is no trouble, and people pay, we don't interfere with them. But what we do interfere with is when something is advertised as an open meeting and then they want segregation. There must be open access – we can't have race discrimination or sex discrimination. This is the law of the land."
Choudary and his followers crossed that line, so Enders wrestled the mic from his hands and ended the meeting. We salute Giles "The End" Enders, the Hardman of Humanism.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Support the BHA on sex education and primary science education

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The British Humanist Association is currently involved in consultation with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority over two key areas concerning education which you can help support.

It is proposed that Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, which includes sex and relationship education (SRE), would be made compulsory in both primary and secondary schools. The BHA supports the proposals, although there are two key areas of contention. Firstly, it is proposed that "Parents, carers or guardians should continue to have the right to withdraw their child from SRE". The BHA is arguing against this:
"There is a large and growing body of opinion amongst health care and educational professionals which sees compulsory SRE in all schools as vital in tackling issues such as the increase in sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. We believe it is crucial that PSHE, including SRE, become a statutory part of the National Curriculum and be treated like any other National Curriculum subject – with no parental right of withdrawal. Children and young people’s right to education about themselves and others in the context of PSHE should be paramount."
Secondly, the QCA propose that "Governing bodies should retain the right to determine their school’s approach to the sex and relationship education (SRE) aspect of PSHE, so that it can be ‘... delivered in line with the context, values and ethos of the school’." Again, the BHA is contesting this, as it would "allow faith schools to water down the entitlement. The BHA website lists a number of ways in which you can help with this campaign, which include writing to your MP and participating in the QCA public consultation.

The BHA is also involved in consultation with the QCA on a review of the primary curriculum, following the publication of a report which recommends a curriculum composed of six key areas, one of which would be "scientific and technological understanding". While welcoming the report, the BHA has expressed concern about the failure to mention evolution or natural selection in the proposed scientific curriculum area:
"The BHA believes that the theory of evolution – arguably the single most important idea underlying the life sciences today – must be included in the primary curriculum. The wealth of new educational resources on evolution available for children of primary school age demonstrates their ability to grasp the simpler concepts associated with it, anda basic understanding of evolution will help lay the foundation for a surer scientific understanding at key stage 3. With 2009 being the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the omission of evolution from the primary curriculum is scandalous."
Again, the BHA website lists several ways in which you can help with the campaign.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Anglican cool

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I'm going to come out and say it – if I was an Anglican, I'd be a "traditionalist". Not because of the religious conservatism or anything like that, but rather because of their reactions to stories like this, as will become apparent at the end of this post.

Over the weekend the Daily Telegraph ran a story on how a new Church of England book entitled Ancient Faith, Future Mission, published as part of the ongoing "Fresh Expressions" initiative, proposes a multitude of (unintentionally) amusing ways in which the Church can attempt to reach out to a younger audience. They include using YouTube in church, beat poetry Psalm recitals and "U2charists" – services with U2 songs instead of hymns, because if you really want to get down with the kids it's best to do it by using the music of a band that peaked in the mid-1980s. Perhaps best of all, the book suggests worshippers say prayers "for the corporate world, for influential CEOs who oversee billion-dollar industries". And there's even an example:
"We pray for John Chambers of Cisco Systems, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Dr Eric Schmidt of Google Inc, H Lee Scott Jr of Wal-Mart Stores and others who have already made commitments to justice."
Brilliant. And what do the "traditionalists" think of all this? Enter the Rev David Houlding, prebendary at St Paul's Cathedral:
"All this is tosh. It's just a passing fad, irrelevant, shallow and pointless. There's no depth to it and it's embarrassing because it'll make people think that we're eccentric and silly."
Well said, sir.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Islamic states continue to undermine free speech at the UN

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Writing for Index on Censorship, Roy Brown, who represents the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the UN, reports on the latest attempts by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which represents 57 Islamic states, to stifle free speech in relation to Islam and the activities of Islamic states.

Following on from their successful, and disturbing, efforts to pass resolutions on "combating defamation of religion" in the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, members of the OIC last week launched attacks on Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As Brown reports, the attack on La Rue was unprecedented, as members of the OIC told him he "lacked competence" and had "exceeded his mandate" in advising the Human Rights Council on its work:
What had this respected lawyer done to incur such anger? In his report to the council he had failed to give priority to reporting on “abuses” of the right to freedom of expression (read: expressions of Islamophobia), the hot new requirement in his mandate forced through by the OIC in 2008. He had instead begun his three-year term by reporting on serious violations of freedom of expression: the 60 journalists murdered in 2008, and the 929 reported attacks on media professionals. He also addressed the links between extreme poverty, access to information and freedom of opinion and expression. In other words, he had been doing his job.
While there is opposition to such activity from states such as the United States, Canada, the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands, Brown says "the voices of reason are now in a minority at the Human Rights Council". The OIC, backed by China, India and Russia, had only the week before helped to stifle criticism of Sri Lanka over the end of the war against the Tamil Tigers. Meanwhile, the High Commissioner for Human Rights was criticised by Pakistan for mentioning gay rights in a report, on the grounds that the Human Rights Council "has no agreed policy on homosexuality".

As Brown explains, all this has disturbing implications for free speech at the UN:
What is at stake here is more than limits on freedom of expression. What we are seeing is a direct challenge to the ability of the Human Rights Council and other UN human rights mechanisms to deal effectively with human rights abuse. When freedom to collect information and express opinions is restricted, then the ability to expose corruption, discrimination and human rights abuse is fatally weakened. Could this possibly be the real objective of the Islamic states and its allies?

Return to sender

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We rediscovered this while tidying up the New Humanist office – if anyone has ever received a wittier piece of returned mail, I can't wait to hear about it.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Angels with Gloria Hunniford

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I once applied online for tickets to a Mock the Week recording, and ever since I've been receiving emails every few days offering me tickets to what can only be politely described as recordings for crap shows (I didn't get the Mock the Week tickets, presumably because that's a good show). Now this would usually be of no interest to this blog – after all, everyone gets pointless emails so why should you care about mine? But I really do feel the need to share the details of my latest invitation to join a student audience – for Angels with Gloria Hunniford. Here's the lowdown:
ANGELS

Hosted by the ever-popular Gloria Hunniford, Angels investigates the phenomenon of Angels and Angelic power.

The series uses dramatic reconstructions to tell stories of real life angelic experiences; each is uplifting and inspiring acting as the perfect tonic for today’s turbulent times. A panel of experts, including angel expert Glennyce Eckersley, discuss the evidence in a bid to discover if there really are ‘Angels All Around Us’.

The show will be recorded at the Sky Studios in Osterley, West London at 7.15pm this week - on Wednesday 10th, Thursday 11th, Friday 12th, Saturday 13th & Sunday 14th June. Booking is now open so if you would like to join Gloria in the studio, then apply now!
Sounds like that show needs a rational audience. If you happen to have way too much time on your hands you could always apply. Surely there'll be plenty of tickets going begging? Unless of course the entire population has undergone a collective lobotomy, and no one's bothered to tell me about it.

Also, I naturally felt compelled to look up "angel expert" Glennyce Eckersley – according to her website she's the author of An Angel at my Shoulder, Angels and Miracles, Children and Angels, Saved by the Angels and Teenangel. And how did she become an "angel expert", I hear you ask? Well, it turns out that her previous career in cancer research just wasn't for her, so she turned to the more vital pursuit of producing bestselling, definitely factual, material on angels.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Jesus the "dead person" British people would most like to meet

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I have to say I wondered if this had to be a joke – according to the Daily Telegraph a new poll has found that 1 in 3 British people, if given the chance to meet any "dead person" from history, would most like to meet Jesus, followed closely by Princess Diana. Jade Goody came in 44th place with 5.5 per cent of the vote.

The poll has been "conducted to launch Primeval Series 3 on DVD", so it seems reasonable to assume that it was conducted scientifically, with minimal error margins. To be fair, I can understand why people would like to meet Jesus – even atheists must have a few questions to throw his way.

The BNP's EU gains in perspective

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As a Lancastrian now living in London, I suppose I can be thankful that I've not woken up this morning to find that I'm now represented in Europe by a BNP member. Sadly, the same can not be said for the rest of my family, who as North West residents will now be represented by BNP leader Nick Griffin, in addition to 3 Conservatives, 2 Labour, 1 UKIP and 1 Liberal Democrat. (At least being white means my family can have the full eight MEPs the North West is allocated. If you're one of the approximately 8 per cent of non-white people in the region then presumably you only get seven MEPs now – it's hard to imagine Nick Griffin standing by to address your concerns on the Common Agricultural Policy.) In addititon to the North West, the BNP have also won a seat in Yorkshire and Humber, which will be held by a delightful-character named Andrew Brons – click his name for more info, but he's a former chairman of the National Front.

So what does all this mean? First of all, as a card-carrying Northerner I feel duty bound to emphasise that this is not just a case of racist Northerners voting BNP while the rest of the country carries the torch of tolerance. Let's remember that there's a BNP member of the London Assembly, as well as several local counicllors in Essex. The BNP may have only won seats in the North West and Yorkshire, but their figures weren't dramatically lower elsewhere – they got 132,094 votes (8 per cent) in the North West, but also 101,769 (4.4 per cent) in the South East and 86,420 (4.9 per cent) in London. So we're not dealing with an exclusively Northern problem.

It seems the BNP have made gains for three clear reasons. Two of them are linked – voter apathy leading to low turnout (33 per cent voted in the North West), and disillusion with mainstream parties leading to votes for minor parties. As many analysts are pointing out, many of the BNP's votes have come from traditional Labout supporters who are clearly disillusioned with that party in the wake of the expenses scandal and Gordon Brown's crumbling authority. Thirdly, proportional representation, as is used for the EU elections, makes it much more likely that small parties will gain seats (this is something those advocating PR for our national system, and I include myself in that, need to acknowledge). The BNP's number of votes in the North West and Yorkshire has not actually gone up since the last elections in 2004 (in the North West they're down by 3,765 votes), but a lower turnout means they required fewer votes to reach the percentage needed to win a seat. Just a few thousand extra voters turning out to vote for anyone other than the BNP would have prevented them from getting in.

As Sunny Hundal points out in his excellent Comment is Free piece on this subject, while waking up to two BNP MEPs is hard to stomach, there are reasons why we should not be overly disheartened. Hundal suggests that a shift in approach by those opposing the BNP would help to lower its support at future elections and expose the party for what it really is. I agree, and was particularly struck by this point:
"[BNP gains] may stop Labour ignoring its traditional working-class origins, now so comprehensively stomped over that they're migrating to other parties in droves. This is not an indictment of high immigration and multiculturalism, as no doubt some will call it, but of a centralised party ignoring local concerns."
I've long found the general tone (and I must emphasise the word general here) of anti-BNP campaigning somewhat patronising towards those it is targetted at. The approach of the main parties, which Hundal dubs "anti-BNP gesture politics", usually amounts to little more than "don't be stupid and vote for them, they're stupid and racist". This is not enough – it is the responsibility of those parties (usually Labour) to make a convincing case for why people should not vote BNP. This involves both actively dismantling the myths propogated by the BNP, and selling their own policies to an increasingly sceptical electorate. As Hundal says, this has to involve a focus on local concerns. BNP success tends to occur in areas where both a white majority and a large non-white, usually Muslim, minority are living alongside (but separate from) one another in challenging socio-economic circumstances – Burnley, which is often considered to be the BNP's North West stronghold, is a prime example of this.

It seems to me that there are parallels between how we should approach Islamic extremism in these areas and how we might go about approaching far-right extremism. For our current cover story I looked into how local people had responded to the government's Preventing Violent Extremism policy in by hometown of Blackburn (10 minutes down the road from Burnley). In my piece, I conclude that the key to preventing extremism seems to lie not in constantly addressing the issue of Islamic extremism head-on, but rather in addressing the more pressing (some might say more real) concerns of Muslims living in multicultural former mill towns like Blackburn and Burnley – high unemployment, low incomes, poor education, poor health, poor housing, and so on, and also the issue of integration between the different communities. If those issues are addressed, then it follows that young Muslims would be less likely to be disillusioned and turn to extremism. Perhaps the same could be said for those who have voted BNP, who in many cases experience the same socio-economic difficulties as their Muslim neighbours. If mainstream parties could make the case, at a local level, for how they would address those difficulties, and address them when in power, then they too would be less likely to turn to extremism, this time of the far-right variety.

One other excellent point I'd like to pick up on is that made by blogger Sarah Ditum, which Hundal reiterates in his CiF piece. Our right-leaning tabloid press will probably now condemn the election of two BNP MEPs, but aren't they the same papers that constantly remind their readers of the threat posed by immigrants and asylum seekers?

And finally, perhaps we can take heart from the BNP's previous performances in elected office. Staying in Blackburn, allow me to tell you what happened the one and only time a BNP councillor was elected there. Robin Evans was elected to the Mill Hill ward back in 2002, but he didn't last all that long. First it was revealed that, after standing on a platform of family values, he had walked out on his wife and 10-year-old child to set up home with a 21-year-old colleague. Then, he eventually left the BNP to become an independent "national socialist" after denouncing his fellow BNP members as "drug dealers and football hooligans". It was also reported that Evans had some trouble following council business, saying of the budget: “This is all mumbo jumbo. I don’t understand a word of it.”

As this list shows, BNP members have consistently proven themselves unfit for elected office. Let's hope that, in their five years in the European Parliament, Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons prove this yet again.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Ivor Russell

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We are very sorry to learn of the death of Ivor Russell, a longtime member of the Rationalist Press Association Board. He was a Board member for several decades and was chairman for a period. His professional life related to engineering and architecture and he was involved in the building of many impressive projects. His personal life centred in Wales with his family and his much worked garden. He was a convivial colleague and a steadfast rationalist. – Jim Herrick

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Simon Singh announces plan to appeal, as campaign launches to keep libel laws out of science

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Science writer Simon Singh has today announced that he will appeal against Mr Justice Eady's preliminary ruling on the meaning of the word "bogus" in the Guardian article over which is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. In a detailed piece on the Sense About Science website, Singh explains why he was taken this decision:
"I have ... said that my application to the Court of Appeal will probably fail, but applying to the Court of Appeal remains the least worst option, which is why I have decide to choose this option. Let me explain further why I believe it is a path worth pursuing. I would argue at the Court of Appeal that Mr Justice Eady did not pay enough attention to the context of the article. Elsewhere in the article I suggest that some chiropractors have ideas above their station, wacky ideas and are fundamentalists, which implies a community that has deluded and eccentric elements, rather than dishonesty. Even if the English Court of Appeal rejects my application and will not revisit the ruling on meaning then I can take the next step and lodge an appeal at the European Court of Human Rights. This could be the place that ultimately decides on the meaning of the article.

I still believe that my article was reasonable, fair and important in terms of informing parents about the lack of evidence relating to chiropractic treatment for some childhood conditions. While there is still the slightest chance of defending my rights as a journalist then I am determined to continue with this legal battle. Indeed, I look forward to the opportunity to discuss the evidence for chiropractic in court."
To coincide with Singh's decision to appeal, the charity Sense About Science have launched Keep Libel Laws Out of Science, a campaign for an urgent review of Britain's illiberal libel laws to ensure that they can not be used to stifle free scientific debate:
"Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

The English law of libel has no place in scientific disputes about evidence; the BCA should discuss the evidence outside of a courtroom. Moreover, the BCA v Singh case shows a wider problem: we urgently need a full review of the way that English libel law affects discussions about scientific and medical evidence."

The campaign has over 100 signatoires from the worlds of science, journalism, publishing, comedy, literature and law. Our editor Caspar Melville has signed on behalf of New Humanist and our parent charity the Rationalist Association, saying:

"What has happened to Simon Singh was all but inevitable given the anachronistic and patently unfair UK libel laws. Reform of British libel law is, or should be, the highest priority for all those who value freedom of expression. The tradition of rigorous debate that has done so much to enrich our public and scientific culture is ill served by a legal framework which favours those with the deepest pockets, and discourages full and frank public debate. With the spirit of reform in the air, free thinkers of all political stripe now have the opportunity to rally round and tackle this unfortunate hangover from Britain's deferential gentleman's club culture."
You can add your name to the campaign at the Sense About Science website – every extra name can make a difference, as SAS explain: "This statement has been sent to the Department for Culture Media and Sport, No 10 and the Department of Justice on Thursday 4th June and with every additional 1000 names we will be sending the statement again to Government until there is a commitment and a timetable from the parties for the necessary legislation."

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Dial-an-Imam service launches in UK

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For British Muslims, religious advice is now just a phone call (or email) away thanks to an Egyptian service which aims to counter the views of Islamic extremists. The BBC reports that the El Hatef, or Islamic Helpline, "set up in Egypt eight years ago to counter radicalism by bringing the minds of the nation's best Islamic scholars to bear on people's doubts and questions about their religion", is launching in the UK, as its backers have "singled out Britain as the country most urgently in need of the service".

Callers can ask any question they like, with many of those who have called the Egyptian version seeking clarification on matters of sex and what is permitted in Islam. Questions are dealt with by scholars at Al Azhar University, one of the world's leading centres for the study of Sunni Islam.

In the BBC video embedded below, a scholar deals with the question of whether there is a conflict between UK law and Sharia law, and what Muslims should do if there is. His answer – that there is no conflict whatsoever – fits in so perfectly with the government's counter-extremism agenda that I briefly wondered if the service had recieved UK government funding to launch over here. It appears it hasn't – which is probably good thing, because, as I found when I looked into the issue for our current cover story, the government has received enough criticism for that agenda as it is, without having to defend funding Egyptian dial-a-cleric hotlines.

Angels & Demons: the film of the year?

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Yes, we know Angels & Demons has been out for a few weeks, but we were so keen to hear our film reviewer Fred Rowson's take on it that we were willing to wait until he was able to send us his review. And we think it was worth it – here's the opening:
Rome. Helicopters. Religious iconography. Surely it's got to be the glorious opening sequence of La Dolce Vita? Well, not any more, because with Angels & Demons, Howard, Hanks and Brown have swept aside that little picture, turning it into a cinematic footnote.
Could Fred really think Angels & Demons is potentially the greatest film of all time? Read his review and find out...

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Faith leaders ask government to reconsider on faith schools

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In a letter to today's Times, leaders from nine different religious denominations have called on the government to "eradicate two forms of discrimination that breach human rights and are religiously offensive, yet are currently enshrined in the Equality Bill". Both forms of discrimination relate to faith schools – specifically their freedom to reject children and staff from the "wrong religion":
"Many faith schools maintain a religious ethos without this discrimination, particularly voluntary controlled schools and academies. We question what sort of faith requires other schools to discriminate against children and teachers. Our motivation is religious: we take seriously the command to love our neighbour as ourselves and believe that means we must not segregate our children from each other. Creating educational ghettos smacks of weak faith and is a poor recipe for social harmony."
The letter has been produced in association with the Accord coalition, a multi-faith campaign against the discriminatory practices of faith schools, of which the British Humanist Association is a founding member. Accord's chair, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, outlined the coalition's aims back in our Nov/Dec issue – have a read if you're unfamiliar with it.

Creationist ad campaign suggests atheism leads to murder

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Here's something to make you wonder what all the fuss was about over the competing Atheist and Christian bus campaigns, with their colourful fonts and "enjoy your life" slogans. I initially thought this was a new campaign having seen it on this blog, but it turns out PZ Myers had blogged it yesterday in response to the shooting this weekend of abortion doctor George Tiller. It's a campaign from a few years ago by US creationist group Answers in Genesis, which is responsible for Kentucky's preposterous Creation Museum, which suggested that atheism (or perhaps even just accepting that evolution is true) leads to gun-toting maniacs gunning down good God-fearing, Garden of Eden-believing Christian fundamentalists. Since I've never seen it before, I'm guessing some of you also won't have, so it seems worth sharing here.

And if the pictured billboard wasn't quite enough for you, Answers in Genesis also produced this delightful video starring the same kid:

Monday, 1 June 2009

US hotel pulls out of hosting Wilders-starring conference

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Here's an interesting piece of news from the States, discovered strangely enough, via a website named Taiwan News (although it does appear to have come from AP). The Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee pulled out of hosting a conference on "Understanding the Jihad in Israel, Europe and America" this past weekend due to security fears. The conference was due to be held by right-wing US journal New English Review, with the controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders appearing as the star guest, alongside a selection of US opponents of Islam (you can see the full event programme online, which should give you an idea of event's political leanings – it's unlikely Wilders will have felt out of place).

It seems that concerns over security prompted the hotel to cancel the event, with manager Tom Negri telling local newspaper The Tennessean
"We canceled the group for both the safety and the health of our guests and employees here at Vanderbilt hotel", while choosing not to elaborate any further. The journal's editor, Rebecca Bynum, has hit back at the hotel, saying "We find it interesting that even without a specific threat that the fear of violence is so great that they would decide to cancel our event." Meanwhile, a message appeared on the online conference programme stating:
New English Review's first annual symposium, “Understanding the Jihad in Israel, Europe and America," will be held at an secure, undisclosed location. Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel succumbed to intimidation and cancelled hosting our event. Nothing else has changed.
The event went ahead over the weekend.