Friday, 31 July 2009

Simon Singh refused right to appeal

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

In breaking news via the legal blogger Jack of Kent, we learn that Simon Singh has failed in his written application to the Court of Appeal for permission to appeal May's preliminary ruling on the meaning of the word "bogus" in his Guardian piece on chiropractic, over which the British Chiropractic Association are suing him for libel.

According to Jack of Kent, Singh will now have the option of making an oral application before the Court of Appeal.

More details here when we know them.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Guardian angels: bad at their jobs

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Yes, it's too easy, but this quote from the Pope regarding his recent wrist-breaking tumble is just too good to not share. It comes, as do most Pope stories, via God Trumps creator Christina Martin:
"Perhaps the Lord wanted to teach me more patience and humility, give me more time for prayer and meditation. Unfortunately, my own guardian angel did not prevent my injury, certainly following superior orders."
Okay, so he's probably joking, but we love the idea of God handing the Pope, his 82-year-old representative on Earth, a lesson by breaking his wrist. Even by the standards of the Old Testament, that's vindictive. Did he owe him money or something?

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Simon Singh's chiropractic piece published en masse

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Following the lead of COSMOS magazine, New Humanist today joins in a coordinated effort to publish Simon Singh's Guardian piece on chiropractic. We've published it on the New Humanist website – it has been edited to remove references to the British Chiropractic Association, who are currently suing Simon for libel over the original Guardian piece. As that original article is part of an ongoing legal case, there is no option but to edit out that section in this instance. Nevertheless, the piece retains Simon's key concerns about the validity of chiropractic in treating a wide range of conditions, and the potential medical dangers related to such practices.

Today's mass publication is being coordianted by Sense About Science as part of the Keep Libel Laws Out Of Science campaign, and it is hoped that a large number of publications and blogs across the world will join in with this move to demonstrate that bringing legal proceedings against a science writer will not lead to the closing down of free debate.

The Skeptic website has been keeping track of places where the piece has already been published - hopefully they will continue to update that over the course of today.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Do we need atheist summer camps?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

The folk over at the Guardian's Comment is Free Belief section asked our editor Caspar Melville to share his thoughts on Camp Quest, the summer camp for "the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view" which is taking place in the Somerset countryside this week – an event the papers have deemed so unusual as to deserve its own news stories.

While here in the New Humanist office we're more than happy to welcome a summer camp that counterbalances the more common Christian camps (it ties in closely with our ongoing debate on how non-religious parents should go about countering religious education), we find ourselves asking a more general question – do we Brits really do summer camps?

It's an issue Caspar addresses in his CiF piece, and one many will surely have opinions on. Let us know what you think.

Monday, 27 July 2009

How did Cain and Abel have kids?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Here's an amusing little clip I found via the Friendly Atheist – a Catholic priest, who seems to be played by a young Edward Norton, on Fox News in the States asking "theological" questions posed by the public. Unfortunately for him, it doesn't take much to stump him – watch as he struggles to deal with the question "If God created Adam and Eve and they had Cain and Abel, with who exactly did Cain and Abel create children with? In other words, how did Adam and Eve's kids have kids?"

It's a miracle minefield

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

In these times of rising unemployment, spare a thought for Father Tomislav Vladic, of Medjugorje in Bosnia, who's just been defrocked by the Pope for being the chief promoter of his town's holy shrine, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared over 40,000 times since 1981 – which by my humble atheistic calculations works out an impressive 3 or 4 times a day.

Of course, normally you'd expect promoting a holy shrine to attract the Holy Father's favour, but unfortunately for Vladic Mary's appearances at Medjugorje have not been verified by the Catholic Church – in the words of the Daily Mail, "three commissions failed to find evidence to support the visionaries' claims".

We all know the Pope loves a good supernatural miracle, but only when it's a real supernatural miracle. With this in mind, the people of Rathkeale in Limerick ought to be careful – as we reported earlier this month, pilgrims have been flocking to a Mary-shaped tree trunk there, but the apparition has not received the approval of the local priest, who told the press:
"The Church's response to phenomena of this type is one of great scepticism. While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition."
Now it's one thing getting a ticking off from a priest, but if the good folk of Limerick aren't careful they'll have the Pope weighing in as he has by defrocking Father Vladic. Although it has taken him 28 years to do anything about that...

Friday, 24 July 2009

Competition time: what's your Bible/breakfast cult moniker?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Fiona Russell Powell's non-interview with bizarre cult pandrogyne industrial rocker Genesis P-Orridge in the current issue has sparked a new game in the New Humanist office – combine your favourite book of the Bible with your favourite breakfast food (must take the same hyphenated form as "P-Orridge") to create your very own meaningless cult moniker.

So far ours are –

Deuteronomy S-Hredded Wheat

Leviticus C-Heerios

Over to you – the best one wins a pack of God Trumps.

Leave your comment on this blog post to have your entry counted.

Tat vending

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

One of our Twitter followers sent us a link to this photo, published on Boing Boing. Let's hope they don't install any of these at sacred Catholic sites, or thousands of tat vendors worldwide could be out of work.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Buy one get one free on weddings and Christenings

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

You really do have to love the Church of England's attempts to increase its "relevance" – it comes up with newfangled ideas to pull itself back from the brink of its dwindling attendances, and usually just ends up attracting the ridicule of not only secularists, but also its own ministers. One recent example was a suggestion to introduce "U2charists", using U2 songs instead of hymns, and today we have a plan to introduce 2-for1 wedding and baptism ceremonies for couples getting married who have already had children.

The idea would be to baptise the kid/kids at the end of the wedding ceremony for a combined fee of £272, thereby providing a ready-made audience and a handy opportunity for all the family to (unwittingly in the case of the juniors) affirm their commitment to God. Of course, this brings with it the small problem of the Church seeming to sanction the idea (sin, some might say) of having children outside of wedlock, something Bishop Stephen Platten, chair of the liturgical commission which came up with the idea, has sought to downplay:
“This does not mean the Church is changing its teaching. This is a way for the Church to reinforce its commitment to marriage. The Church has always attempted to meet people where they are. But it has also tried to teach something of what it believes the Christian faith to be.”
But it seems plenty of Platten's colleagues disagree. If you read the Times article you'll see lots of quotes about how baptisms should be on Sunday and sex is for marriage and suchlike, but for us it's all about what the Bishop of Fulham, the Right Rev John Broadhurst, had to say:
“It is a pity they have not put in a funeral for grandma as well. What are they playing at? It seems trendy, and it reveals a complete lack of awareness of the reality of what goes on in parishes. I do not understand why they want to do it.”
We hope the Bishop is patting himself on the back, because that first sentence is pure comedy gold.

Religious history

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Could the next battle over faith and education in the US be fought in the history classroom rather than the science lab? The Texas state education board, which has previously looked at introducing Intelligent Design and creationism into the science curriculum, has appointed a panel to review the state history curriculum, and that panel includes two fundamentalist Christians known for campaigning to have the role played by Christianity in US history emphasised in education.

David Barton, who founded Christian heritage group WallBuilders, says pupils should be taught that the US constitution was written on the basis that "there is a fixed moral law derived from God and nature", that "there is a creator" and "government exists primarily to protect God-given rights to every individual".

Meanwhile Barton's colleague on the review panel, Reverend Peter Marshall, who the Guardian report says preaches that "Hurricane Katrina and defeat in the Vietnam war were God's punishment for sexual promiscuity and tolerance of homosexuals", has told the Wall Street Journal "We're in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it." In his submission to the board of education, he stressed that the role of religion in US history is currently underplayed in the history curriculum:
"In light of the overwhelming historical evidence of the influence of the Christian faith in the founding of America, it is simply not up to acceptable academic standards that throughout the social studies (curriculum standards) I could only find one reference to the role of religion in America's past."
Of course, all of this would be to ignore the fact that historians of early US history have long debated the degree of religiosity among the framers of the constitution. When I studied this at university, the consensus appeared to be that the 55 delegates at the Philadelphia Convention held as wide a range of views on religion as they did on political philosophy. But to state this would be to assume that men like Barton and Marshall actually have any interest in genuine historical debates.

It's not even like anyone with any knowledge of US history would wish to downplay the role played by religion. But as Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, which opposes the Religious Right, is quoted as saying in the Guardian, Barton and Marshall are trying to present a view of US history which bears no relation to reality:
"I don't think anyone disputes that faith played a role in our history. But it's a stretch to say that it played the role described by David Barton and Peter Marshall. They're absurdly unqualified to be considered experts. It's a very deceptive and devious way to distort the curriculum in our public schools."
If fundamentalists have indeed shifted their focus from science curriulums to history, it is to be hoped that leading US historians will speak out and help prevent children being taught a vastly distorted view of their own history.

Blasphemy is now illegal in Ireland

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I have just learned via Atheist Ireland that the Irish President, Mary McAleese, has this morning signed the Defamation Act into law, which includes clauses which create the offence of "blasphemous libel". RTE reports that, following a meeting with the Council of State yesterday, McAleese decided not to refer the act to the Supreme Court to consider its constitutionality.

So from now on it is technically a crime in Ireland to produce or say anything "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage." Doing so could incur a fine of up to €25,000.

Atheist Ireland have promised to put out a blasphemous statement, offensive to all religions in Ireland, in order to test the law - more details on that soon.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Church. Now think free.

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Jeremy Stangroom, whose new book Does God Hate Women? (co-authored with Ophelia Benson), is out now, sent us this lovely photo taken in Toronto. It's a view of Church Street – take a closer a look and see if you think the church's neighbours are trying to say something.

Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Irish blasphemy update

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

It's a while since I blogged about the ongoing fight against Ireland's new blasphemy law, so here's an update. Atheist Ireland, who are spearheading the campaign, have written a letter to the President of the Irish Republic, Mary McAleese, asking her to consider whether the sections of the new Defamation Act concerning blasphemy are constitutional. The letter follows the President's decision to convene a meeting of the Irish Council of State today to discuss the Defamation Act. This is a rare move in Irish politics (this is only the 27th time it has happened in the history of the Republic), and it is the first step in referring a law to the Supreme Court in order to consider its constitutionality.

As things stand, Ireland's blasphemy law is far from being a done deal.

Kekorations

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

This is a very quick post to pass on this story from the Telegraph, just sent to me by Christina Martin, which comes under the following headline:

Vicar's underwear used for bunting

A village fete has been forced to replace bunting with pairs of pants, including the vicar's, after the budget for the event was cut.
And that is indeed the story. The fete in Langton Herring, Dorset, was short of cash, so they decided to use the vicar's – and other villagers' – smalls instead. Here's fete committee member Amanda King to explain:
"We all thought that life is a bit of pants these days so how appropriate to fly pants instead of bunting."
It strikes me as fortunate that the organiser are polite, rural C of E'ers, as a slightly different form of that metaphor could have resulted in something more unsavoury than the parson's undies adorning the streets of Langton Herring...

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

You can't please everyone...

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Unless you've been asleep for the last 41 years (and that sleep would have to have been on Mars or something), you'll know that 40 years ago yesterday Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon, an event I'm sure I'm not alone in being intensely disappointed to have missed, on account of being entirely unconceived at the time. I've thoroughly made up for it in recent weeks, though, by watching a multitude of space/moon documentaries and getting into countless Wikipedia loops concerning the Apollo programme and all things space-related (I recommend the Wikipedia approach, but be warned – once you start, you won't be stopping for a while).

While carrying out my "research", I came across the thorny issue of religious references and the Apollo space programme. I was reminded of this again yesterday when I paid a visit to Times religious correspondent Ruth Gledhill's Articles of Faith blog. The issue initially arose in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission, which saw Frank Borman, James Lovell and Wlliam Anders become the first men to orbit the moon, and in the process witness an "Earthrise" – the view of the Earth rising from behind the moon. Broadcasting footage of this back to Earth live on Christmas Eve (the mission took place from 21-27 December 1968), the astronauts each read in turn from the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis, with Anders opening with the words "We are now approaching lunar sunrise and, for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you," and Borman closing with the words "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth." (You can see the broadcast on YouTube). At the time, this became the most viewed television broadcast in history.

Not everyone was inspired by this, though. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the founder of American Atheists who was once referred to as "the most hated woman in America", filed a lawsuit against NASA for violating the First Amendment separation of church and state, with the aim of having astronauts, as government employees, banned from making religious prouncements from space. The case was eventually thrown out by the Supreme Court on account of a lack of jurisdiction in space, but it had a knock-on effect for astronauts in future Apollo missions. On landing on the moon on 20 July 1969, Buzz Aldrin performed communion using bread and wine given to him back on Earth (thereby making communion bread and wine the first food and drink to be consumed on the moon). But, as the Aldrin quote from this Christian blog shows, NASA requested that he keep this act a secret, which Aldrin later revealed was due to Murray O'Hair's Apollo 8 lawsuit:
“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.’ I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute Deke Slayton had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly…Eagle’s metal body creaked. I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”
I'd be interested to hear what readers of this blog make of this story. Personally, reading about this recently, I was a little disappointed to hear that the standard Earthly squabbles over religion and state had ended up playing a small part in the story of the Apollo programme. I actually saw the Apollo 8 Genesis reading for the first time as part of a documentary the other week, and I have to say it struck me as immensely inspiring, whether you view Genesis as fact or allegory. Surely it would take an incredibly cold form of rationalism not to be moved by the first three men to orbit the moon relaying such a message to everyone back on Earth on Christmas Eve? Besides, in that instance surely Genesis is far more powerful as allegory, since a literal interpretation would be somewhat undermined by the wider events of the Apollo programme?

As for Buzz Aldrin's communion on the moon, it is perhaps best that he wasn't allowed to broadcast that to the whole world, but it's hard to object to what he did in private. If ever someone should be allowed the opporunity to take a moment to carry out their own personal religious observances, surely it's when they've just landed on the moon? As such, his words back to mission control just before he carried out the communion strike me as far more inclusive and inspiring than they would have been had he been allowed to broadcast his own Christian ritual:
"Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, whoever or wherever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the last few hours, and to give thanks in his own individual way."
For those of you who are feeling, as I did, somewhat unimpressed by the story of Murray O'Hair's humbug response to the Apollo 8 mission (a mission which gave us the first pictures like this, after all), here's a little something to show you that it wasn't only organised atheists who were unimpressed by the Apollo programme. A cutting from a North Carolina newspaper, the Daily Times, which is on the Space Programme Archive (PDF), shows that some fundamentalist Christians were unhappy with the moon landing, with one man telling the paper:
"Man ain't supposed to be there. I've been to shopping centers and everybody is scared because God didn't intend the moon landing. God didn't intend man to set foot on the heavenly bodies."
Anyway, given the fascinating coverage there's been on the Apollo 11 anniversary, I think that's enough from me on the matter. Do share your thoughts on this issue though – were atheists right to stand up to the religious messages of Apollo astronauts, or was it a step too far? Here's the Apollo 8 Genesis clip to help you decide:

Monday, 20 July 2009

God Trumps on the radio

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

A game of God Trumps took place on Radio 4 yesterday, as creator Christina Martin and NH editor Caspar Melville appeared on the Sunday show to discuss the release of our exclusive blasphemous card packs. Those of you who prefer not to be up at 7am listening to Radio 4 on a Sunday morning can listen again via BBC iPlayer [UK only, we're afraid]. Simply follow this link to the Sunday show and flick to 30mins 50secs to hear Caspar and Christina.

Remember, if you want to get your heathen hands on a pack of God Trumps there are only two ways – by subscribing to New Humanist, or by buying our current July/August issue and then the September/October issue from your nearest branch of Borders (part one of God Trumps are on the front of the current issue, and the second part will be on the next issue). God Trumps are not sold separately from the magazine.

Vatican-sponsored news

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

In a piece in this morning's G2, the Guardian reveal that life at L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper, is . . . pretty much like life at any small newspaper, really. Okay, so it's hardly the scoop of the year when you put it that way, but it's an interesting story nonetheless, because it describes how the paper's editor, Gian Maria Vian, has set about making it "present in the cultural debate" - a directive he received straight from Benedict XVI when he was appointed in 2007.

Mostly this seems to involve running articles which say things you wouldn't quite expect a Vatican paper to say, but are actually not that controversial. Just last week the paper, to roughly summarise, ran pieces stating that Oscar Wilde and Harry Potter are quite good, despite their respective penchants for men and witchcraft. And it even climbed aboard the Michael Jackson bandwagon by declaring that the departed King of Pop was a legend who would "never die" in the imaginations of his fans.

The paper's liberalised editorial direction (apparently it was really boring before Vian came along) has led to many changes in the way it operates, with Vian even appointing a female journalist to fulfil the Pope's desire for L'Osservatore to find "more space for women". We also learn that Benedict either has a keen eye for newspaper design, or doesn't like to deal with too many words, as Vian reveals that he expressed a desire "to see a few more pictures in it".

And Vian's a bit of a gag man too – during a recent interview with an American magazine he quipped: "It's my publisher, the owner, who is infallible, not me".

With jokes like that, we could almost offer him a column in New Humanist.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Pagan plod

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

We all know the Daily Mail loves to publish stories designed to outrage the religious, stirring up the idea that believers, especially Christians, are becoming marginalised in an increasingly secular Britain. And we all know that those stories are usually nonsense, and as such we give them as little attention as they deserve. But every now and then the Mail comes up with a story that seems custom-built to outrage secularists. Take this story from yesterday – "Police officers who practise witchcraft to get Pagan Police Association and their own religious holidays". Outrageous! Surely this is religious privilege and political correctness gone mad, etc, etc...

Except, of course, you need to attach as much credibility to stories like this as you do to those warning of runaway secularism. For just that reason, I hadn't really bothered paying much attention to the story, despite seeing a few examples of 140-character outrage on Twitter. But then this morning I was reading the blog Heresy Corner, and noticed that the blogger there, The Heresiarch (his real name, of course), had done a nice demolition job on the story. He always does a good job of demolishing nonsense like this, so I thought I'd share this one with you.

Basically, the "story" is a non-story. The Mail even gives that away itself in the 9th line when, in the same sentence in which they imply that pagan rozzers will be given festivals like Halloween and the solstice off, they also state "these will have to come out of their annual leave". Which, of course, everyone with a job is entitled to.

Besides, it's hard not to side with the main pagan police officer featured in the article when you learn that "he is a heathen – which means he worships Norse gods including hammer-wielding Thor, one-eyed Odin and Freyr, the god of fertility who is equipped with a huge phallus." Because at the very least that's much cooler than reading the Daily Mail, isn't it?

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Michael Reiss: teach atheism in schools

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I'm sure you will all remember the Reverend Michael Reiss and last year's furore over his suggestion that science teachers should be ready to address questions about creationism if they come up in class. He outraged secularists throughout the land and lost himself his job as director of education at the Royal Society with those comments, but he could be about to anger the opposite camp with this article in this morning's Independent, in which he argues, alongside his colleague at the Institute of Education John White (who's a BHA philosopher), that atheism should become part of the national curriculum.

Of course it's a perfectly reasonable argument – if you're going to teach children all about comparative religion and belief, you should also teach them about humanism and non belief. Here's a snippet:
"What kinds of learning might be required? Young people should think about whether they live in a divine world or a godless one. This points to discussing the standard arguments for and against the existence of God and such questions as the likelihood of life after death. But they also need to discuss whether human lives can have any meaning or point outside a religious framework. And whether people can live a morally good life that is not dependent on religious belief. Historical perspectives are also important, especially the impact of non-religious ideas on intellectual and artistic life over the last 250 years."
This is hardly likely to cause as much controversy as Reiss's creationism comments, but we're sure some Christians out there will be shocked to read a Church of England priest arguing for the teaching of non-belief. To me, it seems to reinforce the view that Reiss was treated a little harshly last year. His views on teaching atheism, alongside his comments on creationism, suggest that he is a firm advocate for the free exchange of ideas – free thinking, you might say.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Forgive me Father Rooney, for I have sinned

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

We all wonder what else we could have grown up to be, and it seems superstar footballers are no different. Wayne Rooney, in a characteristically revealing insight, suggests he could have been a man of the cloth:
"I haven't a clue what else I would have done. I wasn't really the best in school. I always enjoyed RE, so maybe a priest."
Picture it for a moment. Maybe he could have even been Pope? Actually, forget it. It just wouldn't work, would it?

[Thanks Christina]

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Is progress an illusion?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

One of the big complaints that critics like Terry Eagleton and John Gray have of Dawkins is that he is naive if not willfully blind to believe in the idea of moral progress. How can you seriously look at the world and believe that things have got or even could get better. Well lookee here - Steven Pinker provides some quite compelling evidence that we are nicer, and the world far less violent, than it used to be.

Humanism for kids?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

In our new issue, Danny Postel discusses his attempts to provide his children with some "humanist" reading material, partly as a counterbalance to the Christian texts (and religious services) their mother, a Catholic, has introduced them to. But Danny's attempts to find some humanist reading raised some interesting questions. What exactly constitutes "humanist" reading? He found some books specifically packaged as "humanism for kids", but were they any good? Could best approach to "humanist parenting" be to expose children to a wide (and contradictory) range of philosophies and world religions, thus highlighting that none may represent the objective truth? And, in the end, does "humanism for kids" simply represent indoctrination in just the same way as "religion for kids"? Is humanist parenting ultimately about raising free thinkers, the price of which being that free thinking could lead children to making choices you don't like?

Read Danny's consideration of all these questions, and let us know what you think by commenting on this post. If you're a parent, we'd love to hear your views and experiences.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Tackling Terry Eagleton

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

For our new issue, we sent our commissioning editor Laurie Taylor to Dublin to interview Terry Eagleton, arch-tormentor of the New Atheists. As you know, he has harsh words for Dawkins, Hitchens et al, but amid this Laurie uncovered a startling revelation:
"Listen. If Dawkins has emancipated people, freed them from the religious closet as it were, then all credit to him. Loath as I might be to compare Dawkins to Jesus Christ, in this he resembles the heroic figure in the New Testament who comes to sweep away all the fetishism and sickness and cynicism of the neurotic religionists."
Read Laurie take Eagleton to task on theology, Marxism and "Ditchkins", then leave your comments on this post.

[Photo: Cliona O'Flaherty]

Irish atheists vote for blasphemous statement

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Atheist Ireland, which is leading the fight against Ireland's new blashemy law, held its first AGM on Saturday, and those in attendance voted to put out a blasphemous statement to test the law within days.

At the meeting a message of support was read out from Richard Dawkins, who warned that a medieval blasphemy law will damage Ireland's 21st century reputation:
“One of the world’s most beautiful and best-loved countries, Ireland has recently become one of the most respected as well: dynamic, go-ahead, modern, civilised – a green and pleasant silicon valley. This preposterous blasphemy law puts all that respect at risk. It is a wretched, backward, uncivilised regression to the middle ages. Who was the bright spark who thought to besmirch the revered name of Ireland by proposing anything so stupid?”
Atheist Ireland say they are finalising the wording of the statement, which will be done in the next few days. You can stay up to date at their blasphemy website, or by joining this Facebook group.

Update: In the meantime, Irish Independent columnist Ian O'Doherty does a nice job testing the new law with a blasphemous statement of his own - Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Scientologists all included.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Why Ireland needs blasphemy

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

So, as a commenter on one of my earlier posts points out, in the week that Ireland passes a 21st century blasphemy law, the Virgin Mary turns up in Limerick to show her approval. In the form of a tree stump.

That's right - even the BBC are reporting on this "miraculous" event, as more than 2,000 people sign a petition to save the stump, which was discovered in the grounds of Holy Mary Parish Church in Rathkeale as workmen cut down trees on Monday. Noel White, chairman of the Rathkeale Community Council Graveyard Committee, explained the significance of the find:

"One of the lads said look, our Blessed Lady in the tree. One of the other lads looked over and actually knelt down and blessed himself, he got such a shock. It was the perfect shape of the figure of Our Lady holding the baby."

But, says the BBC, "the Catholic Church's hierarchy in Ireland also feels dubious about the tree stump, according to Limerick diocese spokesman Fr Paul Finnerty":

"The Church's response to phenomena of this type is one of great scepticism. While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition."
Of course this is understandable – the Catholic Church only approves genuine Marian apparitions, like those at Lourdes, or Fatima, or Tepeyac, or Laud, or La Salette, or Banneux, or Beauraing, or Pontmain . . . you get the picture.

So just in case you were wondering why Ireland needs blasphemy, now you know. And we can start with what Christina Martin wrote when she sent me the tree stump story:

"Mary looked like that?! No wonder she was a virgin".

And speaking of blasphemy, Michael Nugent, who is spearheading Atheist Ireland's response to the law, has an opinion piece on the matter in today's Irish Times, in which he argues that Ireland should be building an open, secular society, not passing medieval blasphemy laws.

If you're in Ireland and want to get involved in opposing the law, you can go along to Atheist Ireland's AGM tomorrow (Sat 11th) at Wynn’s Hotel,Dublin from 2pm-5pm.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Religious pamphleteers try reverse psychology

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

So I picked this leaflet up on the train this morning - it was clear that either secularists had started counter-leafleting the Christians outside stations (the natural progression of counter-bus-advertising perhaps? Soon to be followed by counter-sandwich-boarding?), or the Christians had discovered reverse psychology.

Naturally it was the latter. You open the leaflet up, and it explains that, actually, being a religious fanatic is a good thing, because "being consumed by anything in our lives qualifies us for the title fanatic". It then goes on to explain that "This pamphlet (for instance) was handed to you by a genuine religious fanatic" (and they wonder why people cross the road to avoid them).

And if you consider yourself just plain old "religious", you may be sorry to hear that's not enough:
"The religious fanatic who handed you this pamphlet wants you to know that there is a BIG (as in huge, large and vast) difference between being 'religious' and having a relationship with God (who loves us lots). God wants us to look to him as number one, before anything or anyone else ... to find our security and self worth in God alone."
And presumably once you've found that relationship with God, you can start handwriting leaflets with a black felt tip pen, photocopying them and handing them out at train stations.

So which particular group of "fanatics" (or solitary "fanatic") produced this leaflet? That honour goes to Jews for Jesus, who aim to convert Jews to Christianity (lucky them). It's worth looking at their website, as it explains who they are while also offering you this hilarious gag:
Sometimes people ask us, "How long has Jews for Jesus been around?" We love that question because it gives us the chance to grin and say: "Since 32 A.D., give or take a year."
Ah those Jews for Jesus - such jokers!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Blasphemy law passed in Ireland

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Breaking news from Ireland, and it's not good. The Dáil has just voted to make "blasphemous libel" a crime which carries a fine of up to €25,000, as part of the new Defamation Act. As reported previously, this will outlaw any statement or publication "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage."

I learnt the news via Michael Nugent on Twitter, and he's just passed me this link to a short news piece on RTE. Apparently there was no debate on proposed amendments to the section of the Bill covering blasphemy, which included amendments proposing scrapping the idea completely. The law will now be finalised in the Irish upper house, the Seanad, tomorrow morning at 10.30.

Nugent is chair of Atheist Ireland, which had earlier said it would put out a blasphemous statement to test the law if it passed. We'll keep you informed on what happens with that.

Meanwhile, we'd like to reassure our Irish subscribers that our new issue is currently on its way to them, complete with your free packs of highly blasphemous God Trumps cards. Now they could prove a test to the new law.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Graham Linehan on the Irish blasphemy law

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Yesterday I wrote about the proposed Irish law against "blasphemous libel", which is being voted on in the Dáil tomorrow, and in my post I included a quote the Observer had from Father Ted creator Graham Linehan, who had spoken to them about it along with his co-writer Arthur Matthews. After putting this out on Twitter, I received a tweet back from Graham saying that the quote in the Observer wasn't exactly in his words, and he kindly offered to answer some questions from me. Here's what he said:
New Humanist: Are you surprised by the government's attempt to outlaw blasphemy? How aware were you of the pre-existing clause against blasphemy in the constitution?

Graham Linehan: I suppose every country has odd, silly laws from the dawn of time that no-one ever got around to changing. What's unusual here is the attempt to actually bolster backward, backwoods thinking. It's very important to smack down every attack on free speech and secularism when they appear, because religious fanatics are getting louder and crazier and more violent, and capitulating only energises them.

NH: How would a blasphemy law have affected your work over the years – would Father Ted have been made?

GL: It might have had a greater effect on our work with Chris Morris. In 'Ted' we tried to avoid attacking basic tenets of belief because we wanted the show to be big and silly and fun ... we weren't interested in being bad boys. But a law like this would have made it much more difficult for the show to be broadcast in Ireland, and it took long enough for it to be shown as it was.
There is a scene in 'Tentacles of Doom' where Dougal outlines his difficulties with Catholicism to a visiting Bishop and basically accidentally rips apart the whole basis of it. I wonder whether that would have to go from future broadcasts.

NH: What can people do to help oppose the law? And if it does pass, how can they carry on opposing it?

GL: Well, I like Mick Nugent's idea of testing the law with a blasphemous statement, but it would have to be worded carefully so that it doesn't dismay normal believers who just want to get on with their lives without bothering others with their beliefs. I suspect these people are in the majority and they should be brought on board, because a blasphemy law makes fools of them as much as it makes fools of the Government.
Michael Nugent is chair of Atheist Ireland, who are spearheading the opposition to the law, which will be voted on in the Irish parliament tomorrow. Irish readers can help oppose it by writing to their Dáil representatives, and you can all show support by joining this Facebook group and following the campaign on Twitter. Atheism Ireland's AGM, which is open to the public, takes place next Saturday from 2pm-5pm at Wynns Hotel, Dublin.

Update: Read Michael Nugent's piece for Index on Censorship on why the proposed law is reactionary, silly and dangerous.

Misleading creationism question included on GCSE biology paper

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance examination board has come under fire after a question was included on its GCSE biology paper asking students to outline how creationism is used to explain the origins of life. According to the Daily Telegraph, the question presented four "theories of how new species of plants and animals have developed" – Darwinism, Lamarckism, Intelligent Design and Creationism – and asked pupils to match them with a one sentence definition. Creationism was defined as "fossils of all the different kinds of animals appear suddenly in the rocks, with no evidence of ancestors", while the correct answer for Intelligent Design defined it as a theory based on the "complicated way in which cells work".

A spokesperson for the AQA admitted that the question could be seen as misleading, but defended the decision to ask a question that mentioned creationism and ID:
"Merely asking a question about creationism and intelligent design does not imply support for these ideas. Neither idea is included in our specification and AQA does not support the teaching of these ideas as scientific.

"In the examination question, information was given to candidates and they were asked to relate evidence to conclusions. The use of the term 'theory' was intended in its common, everyday sense. However, we accept that in the context of a science examination this could be misleading and we will be addressing this issue for any future questions."

But James Williams, lecturer in education at Sussex University and a leading expert on the encroachment of creationism into education, has criticised the AQA for appearing to suggest that creationism and ID are scientific "theories":

"This gives an unwarranted high profile to creationism and intelligent design as ideas of equal status with tested scientific theories. I was alerted to the question by concerned biology teachers in schools who were dismayed that such a question could be set by an examination board."

I actually saw James Williams give a lecture on this subject at a recent BHA conference on Darwin – he's very good on how we should develop science education in Britain in order to keep pseudoscience out of the classroom. The lecture is on YouTube - it's well worth watching if you can spare a bit of time:

Palin's book to come in "standard" and "Christian"

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Sarah Palin - remember her? This blog became Palin central for a while last year (35 or so posts were about her), but from pretty much the moment Obama won the election she's seemed like ancient history.

But now she seems to be trying to reverse the fact that she's Palin into insignificance (sorry) – just this weekend she bizarrely announced her early resignation from her position as governor of Alaska, and now I learn via the Friendly Atheist blog that she is working on an autobiography, for which she is rumoured to have received an advance as large as $7 million.

But she's not just working on one book. Oh no. She will produce one version for publishing giant HarperCollins, and another "special edition" for Christian publishing house Zondervan, "that may include supplemental material on faith".

The Friendly Atheist is asking which version will sell the most – he thinks the Christian version, and it's hard to disagree. I mean, if it includes the inside track on that anti-witchcraft blessing, I might even have to get my hands on a copy.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Jackson apparition in California tree

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I've steered clear of Michael Jackson posts since he died, partly due to saturation, but also due to having nothing to add, but it seems I've well and truly broken my duck today, as I can't help sharing this story as well as the post below. Found via Ship of Fools on Twitter (who are also responsible for this inspired Stephen Green / Ahmadinejad lookalike), I give you an apparition of Michael Jackson in the stump of a tree in Stockton, California.

Now, I can kind of (kind of) understand why someone might think, or at least want to think, that Jesus or Mary had appeared to them in a baked potato or a can of dog food or whatever, but Michael Jackson? The man may have known his way around a tune, but banal miracles like this have tended to be the preserve of Biblical figures.

Anyway, have a look at the log and see if you can see the resemblance to the late King of Pop. Also, while I'm at it, I may as well share my personal favourite Jacko Sun headline from last week:
"Funeral snub for buddy Bubbles"
That is all.

Update: Actually, just one more thing - it turns out that isn't the only apparition story. His ghost's been wandering round Neverland too.

Phelps clan to picket Jacko funeral

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Is anyone else beginning to find the Phelps family as boring as they are reprehensible? Because guess what? They'll be picketing Michael Jackson's funeral when it takes place tomorrow, after declaring him to have been a "filthy, adulterous, idolatrous, gender-confused, nationality-confused, unthankful brute beast".

Sure, they like their adjectives, but I'm bored with them now.

Utter, utter madness

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I now remember seeing this on Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe last year, but for some reason I pretty much instantly forgot about it. But then Christina Martin sent it to me over the weekend, so I include it now for anyone who's never seen it. It's like an '70s US Christian fundamentalist version of Rainbow, and it manages to make that show look both a) good and b) not weird. If you have a spare 10 minutes of your life that you feel you can dispose of (just remember, you never get them back), then why not have a watch?

Ireland moves closer to blasphemy law

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

It's looking increasingly likely that Ireland will suffer the indignity of adopting a blasphemy law in 2009 (yes, this is, amazingly, the 21st century) after the Irish parliament's Justice committee last week voted to move ahead with the legislation, which would impose a maximum €25,000 fine for anyone found "guilty" of committing "blasphemous libel". The legislation was proposed by Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, and blasphemous material, according to the Irish Times, is defined as anything "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion; and he or she intends, by the publication of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage." It is intended to back up a clause against blasphemy which is already present in the Irish constitution. Now that the bill has passed the committee stage, the Dáil is set to vote on it this Wednesday, 8 July.

Irish readers will be pleased to know that secular groups are organising resistance to the bill, in a campaign spearheaded by Atheist Ireland, which is chaired by writer Michael Nugent. Speaking to the Observer this weekend, he condemned the proposals as illiberal and archaic:
"It is silly because it revives a medieval religious law in a modern pluralist republic, and it makes Ireland seem like a backward country. People need protection. Ideas do not. Ideas should always be open to criticism and ridicule. If the law is passed, we will be immediately testing it by publishing a blasphemous statement."
And Nugent has acquired some heavyweight support for the campaign, with two of Ireland's greatest blasphemers, Father Ted creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, both speaking out in opposition to the law. I originally included the quote from Linehan used by the Observer here, but Linehan got in touch with me on Twitter saying they hadn't quite used his words, and he gave me a short Q&A interview, so I've included that instead (which is also in this post):
New Humanist: Are you surprised by the government's attempt to outlaw blasphemy? How aware were you of the pre-existing clause against blasphemy in the constitution?

Graham Linehan: I suppose every country has odd, silly laws from the dawn of time that no-one ever got around to changing. What's unusual here is the attempt to actually bolster backward, backwoods thinking. It's very important to smack down every attack on free speech and secularism when they appear, because religious fanatics are getting louder and crazier and more violent, and capitulating only energises them.

NH: How would a blasphemy law have affected your work over the years – would Father Ted have been made?

GL: It might have had a greater effect on our work with Chris Morris. In 'Ted' we tried to avoid attacking basic tenets of belief because we wanted the show to be big and silly and fun ... we weren't interested in being bad boys. But a law like this would have made it much more difficult for the show to be broadcast in Ireland, and it took long enough for it to be shown as it was.
There is a scene in 'Tentacles of Doom' where Dougal outlines his difficulties with Catholicism to a visiting Bishop and basically accidentally rips apart the whole basis of it. I wonder whether that would have to go from future broadcasts.

NH: What can people do to help oppose the law? And if it does pass, how can they carry on opposing it?

GL: Well, I like Mick Nugent's idea of testing the law with a blasphemous statement, but it would have to be worded carefully so that it doesn't dismay normal believers who just want to get on with their lives without bothering others with their beliefs. I suspect these people are in the majority and they should be brought on board, because a blasphemy law makes fools of them as much as it makes fools of the Government.
If the law does pass on Wednesday, Atheist Ireland have declared that they will launch a calculated challenged to it by publishing a statement intended to blaspheme all the religions in Ireland, from Christianity to Islam.

You can keep up to date with the opposition campaign at this dedicated website, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. With the vote happening on Wednesday, the campaign have been urging people in Ireland to contact their Dáil representatives, so that's one way in which Irish readers can do their bit.

[Sources: MediaWatchWatch, Observer]

Friday, 3 July 2009

Zeal or no zeal?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Are you bored of old-fashioned TV game shows where boring hosts offer boring contestants the chance to win boring cash prizes? If so, you could be the perfect viewer for Penitents Compete, a new Turkish game show in which an imam, a Greek Orthodox priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk will attempt to convert 10 atheists to their faiths. Anyone who converts will be rewarded with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Tibet or Mecca, depending on the faith they choose. The show is being marketed with inspiring slogans like "We give you the biggest prize ever: we represent the belief in God" and "You will find serenity in this competition".

Now, we're all for people trivialising religion in this manner, but don't the producers realise that New Humanist has already come up with a way to choose the best religion? It's simple - you just play a game of God Trumps. And we don't just give you four faiths to choose from – God Trumps has 24, covering everything from Methodist to Satanist, Agnostic to Zoroastrian. And we're giving packs away with the next two issues of New Humanist – make sure you subscribe to avoid missing out.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Get your God Trumps

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

If this blog has seemed quiet lately, it's because we've been finishing off our July issue, which is now with the printers and due out next week. Inside you'll be able to read Laurie Taylor tackling Dawkins' biggest critic, Terry Eagleton – he flew out to Dublin to interview him, and we can assure you he didn't let him off lightly. There's also insight into an Afro-Cuban drumming cult, Fiona Russell Powell tracking down cult rocker and "living work of art" Genesis P-Orridge (never heard of him before? Me neither – but here's a good place to start), Jonathan Rée assessing the legacy of Isaiah Berlin, our special summer humanist quiz, and much much more.

But it's what's on the outside of the magazine that people are talking about this time – due to popular demand, we've produced limited edition packs of our metaphysical card game God Trumps and there's only one way to get them – subscribe to New Humanist. The first 12 cards and a special box are mounted on the cover of the July issue, and the second 12 will be mounted on the September issue. Don't miss out - subscribe to New Humanist today.