Friday, 28 August 2009

Noah's Ark Zoo Farm - insidious creationism in the UK

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This week, the creationist Noah's Ark Zoo Farm near Bristol hit the headlines after the British Humanist Association appealed to various public bodies to stop endorsing it, and warned that local children are being taken there on educational visits.

I actually visited the zoo earlier this month, and have written a feature on it for our forthcoming September issue. We've just put it online, so have a read and let us know what you think? Is the zoo a threat to public understanding of science? Is it a sign of a rising British creationism? And if so, what should be done about it?

Let us know by commenting on this post.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Bad Faith Awards 2009: It's time to get nominating

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It's that time of year once again folks – we need you to put forward your nominations for our annual Bad Faith Award, where we recognise the person who has made the year's most outstanding contribution to talking unadulterated (and often destructive) nonsense about matters of religion.

Last year over 5,500 of you voted, with more than 1,800 choosing the eventual winner, Sarah Palin. At this time last year most of us were blissfully ignorant of the existence of Palin, but by late September she'd emerged as the firm favourite to take the Bad Faith crown, if not the US vice-presidency.

So who will it be this year? We need you to let us know who you think deserves to be known as 2009's ultimate enemy of reason by leaving a comment on this post. We'll then whittle all suggestions down to a shortlist that we'll put to the public vote, with the victorious irrationalist announced in the January issue of New Humanist.

Let the nominating commence...

Sebastian Faulks in Islam row

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The author Sebastian Faulks has apologised for comments he made regarding Islam and the Koran after they were published in an interview he gave to the Sunday Times magazine this weekend. He was speaking about his forthcoming novel A Week in December, which features a character drawn into an Islamist terrorist cell, and offered his impressions of the Koran after reading it as part of his research, saying he "found it very disappointing from a literary point of view" and lacking an "ethical dimension". Faulks, a Christian, added:
"Jesus, unlike Muhammad, had interesting things to say. Muhammad had nothing to say to the world other than, ‘If you don’t believe in God you will burn for ever’. ... It’s a depressing book. It really is. It’s just the rantings of a schizophrenic. It’s very one-dimensional, and people talk about the beauty of the Arabic and so on, but the English translation I read was, from a literary point of view, very disappointing."
Faulks' words were picked up by various other papers (such as the Mail, which suggested he was "risking Muslim fury") and now he has issued an unreserved apology for any offence he may have caused in a piece for the Daily Telegraph:
"While we Judaeo-Christians can take a lot of verbal rough-and-tumble about our human-written scriptures, I know that to Muslims the Koran is different; it is by definition beyond criticism. And if anything I said or was quoted as saying (not always the same thing) offended any Muslim sensibility, I do apologise – and without reservation."
He also carlified his suggestion that the Prophet Muhammad might have been schizophrenic, telling the Guardian:
"While I believe the voice-hearing of many Old Testament prophets and of John the Baptist in the New might well raise psychiatric eyebrows today, it is absurd to suggest that the Prophet, who achieved so much in military and political – quite apart from religious – terms, can have suffered from any acute illness. Only a fully cogent and healthy person could have done what he did."
Of course, Faulks' efforts to apologise and clarify his words will lead to suggestions that he is self-censoring, mindful of the Muslim reactions to Rushdie's Satanic Verses and, more recently, Sherry Jones' The Jewel of Medina. However, he has told the Guardian that he had "overstated" during the Sunday Times interview:
"If such an overstatement is taken out of its heavily nuanced context, then pulled out of the printed article and highlighted, it can have a badly distorting effect. I blame myself more than the reporter – or whichever subeditor thought it was good idea to pull out the more undigested bits and try to make a silly season scandal ... I unreservedly apologise to anyone who does feel offended by comments offered in another context."
If this is the case, is Faulks not right to set the record straight? Or is he merely playing into the hands of those who would like to suppress any criticism of Islam? Let us know what you think.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Atheists - looking after pets in a post-apocalyptic world

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Here's a very funny site sent to me by a Twitter follower - working on the premise that, when Jesus sweeps them away in the Rapture, Christians won't be able to take their pets with them, a group of atheists in the US have come up with a novel solution. Since they'll be left behind in the post-Rapture nightmare that will be Earth, members of Eternal Earth-Bound Pets will take care of Christians' pets for them – for a pre-Apocalyptic fee, of course. Here's some of the info from their site – "The next best thing to pet salvation in a Post Rapture World":
You've committed your life to Jesus. You know you're saved. But when the Rapture comes what's to become of your loving pets who are left behind? Eternal Earth-Bound Pets takes that burden off your mind.

We are a group of dedicated animal lovers, and atheists. Each Eternal Earth-Bound Pet representative is a confirmed atheist, and as such will still be here on Earth after you've received your reward. Our network of animal activists are committed to step in when you step up to Jesus.
They claim they're serious - just look at their FAQs, not to mention the bit where they take Paypal payments. It costs $110 for one pet, plus an added $15 per additional pet requiring post-Rapture care. However, Eternal Earth-Bound Pets say they are "not equipped to accommodate all species and must limit our services to dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, and small caged mammals."


[Via @woundedgenius on Twitter]

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Sex - Catholic Univeristy style

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This morning my attention was drawn, via Twitter, to a fascinating article on the Catholic University in Washington DC, and the attempts of its hierarchy (and a few particularly zealous undergraduates) to clamp down on the sex lives of its students. Pretty much anything you can think of is banned - sex, masturbation, condoms – but this doesn't mean it's all effectively enforced. Plenty of students are disobeying and fighting back – particularly interesting is the section on the campaign to make sure there are plenty of condoms knocking about on campus.

And if you enjoy that piece, you should also read this follow-up article. The University's rules used to imply that sexual assault was banned in the same way as consensual sex, which suffice to say attracted a good deal of negative publicity, not least in the article mentioned above. Now they've clarified their position - tough on sex, but even tougher on rape.

[via @athinkingman]

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Apologies, plus Hitchens on Yale's cartoons self-censorship

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I have to apologise for the lack of action on this blog of late – a week off and the fact that I'm now holding the fort here while writing a piece for our next issue (more on that nearer the time) means it's been all quiet on the blogging and Twitter front, but I'll try and get on top of it in the next few days.

Anyway, enough excuses – one of the things I missed while I was away was a controversial decision by Yale University Press to go ahead and publish a forthcoming book on the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy – The Cartoons that Shook the World by Jytte Klausen – while deciding not to reproduce the cartoons that the book is about. The move came after Yale, mindful of past incidents concerning the cartoons, took the decision to "consult extensively with experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields, as well as leading scholars in Islamic studies and Middle East studies". In a statement, Yale said:
"All confirmed that the republication of the cartoons by the Yale University Press ran a serious risk of instigating violence, and nearly all advised that publishing other illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad in the context of this book about the Danish cartoon controversy raised similar risk."
Suffice to say the decision has provoked outrage, not least from Christopher Hitchens who, in a piece published yesterday on Slate, points out the absurdity of Yale suggesting that their publication of a book could amount to "instigating violence".

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Early warning: the return of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

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We're delighted to announce that this December will see the return of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, our rational Christmas celebration hosted by Robin Ince. This year the shows are taking place over 5 nights from 15-19 December at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London (and a night at the Hammersmith Apollo TBC).

We're just finalising the acts with Robin, so I can't give you names, but take it from us that it'll be a fantastic show, with a line-up to rival last year's, which included Richard Dawkins, Ricky Gervais, Dara O'Briain and Jarvis Cocker.

Tickets for the Bloomsbury shows are already on sale, so book now to ensure you don't miss out.

Proceeds from the shows will go to the Rationalist Association.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Reconciling religion and science ... and then losing a debate in the Metro

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On my journey into work this morning, I was amused to read the 60 Second interview in the Metro. Usually it's a quick chat with a celebrity with a new perfume to plug, or something like that, but today it's with Oxford biologist Dr Andrew Parker. Now a quick search for Dr Parker online shows he's been involved in some fascinating work, such as this research which uses fossils to learn about the evolution of the eye.

Great stuff. But now Dr Parker, who is a fellow of Green Templeton college (the Templeton aspect referring to the late John Templeton, of handing out cash to those willing to reconcile religion and science fame) has written a book called The Genesis Enigma: Why The Bible Is Scientifically Accurate, in which he argues that "Not only is the sequence of events in Genesis scientifically correct but some of the events themselves are really quite precise, which would have been impossible for a human to know at that time. You have to conclude that either the author made extremely lucky guesses or something strange was going on: divine inspiration."

The book is the subject of the Metro's short Q&A interview - it's not usually a format that lends itself to a debate, but whoever conducted it with Parker decided to pull no punches, and as a result managed to expose the gaping holes in his arguments with ease. I recommend you go and read it and see for yourselves, but for what it's worth here's my favourite part:
Q: You say the second ‘Let there be light…’ refers to the evolution of the eye but you edited out the rest of the line, which clearly refers to the Sun, Moon and stars. There’s no mention in Genesis of the evolution of the eye.

A: Um, OK. I’ll probably have a look at this in more detail again. The first page of the Bible doesn’t spell out the eye but it doesn’t spell out any of the science in detail
Now, if Parker's being torn apart in a Metro 60 Second Q&A session, imagine how he'd fare against Dawkins or Grayling...