Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A special Christmas message from Richard Wiseman, from backstage at Nine Lessons

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Here, in the latest of our videos from backstage at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, psychologist Richard Wiseman has a special festive message for all you viewers out there:

He's only joking, of course. Or is he....?

Catch up with all our other videos from backstage on our YouTube channel.

Science on tour: Robin Ince's Uncaged Monkeys, with Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh

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Brian Cox on stage at Nine Lessons
and Carols for Godless People 2009
If you've missed this year's Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows, or you're crying out for more, then you may be pleased to hear that Robin Ince is taking a science show, Uncaged Monkeys, on tour in May, featuring Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh. Here are the dates:

Sun 3rd April 2011 Glasgow King's Theatre

Sun 1st May 2011 Oxford New Theatre
Mon 2nd May 2011 Ipswich Regent
Tue 3rd May 2011 Nottingham Concert Hall

Thur 5th May 2011 Birmingham Alexandra Theatre
Fri 6th May 2011 Manchester Apollo
Sat 7th May 2011 Newcastle City Hall
Sun 8th May 2011 Aberdeen Music Hall
Mon 9th May 2011 Cardiff St David’s Hall

Wed 11th May 2011 Cambridge Corn Exchange
Thur 12th May 2011 Bristol Colston Hall
Fri 13th May 2011 Basingstoke Anvil
Sat 14th May 2011 Edinburgh onefifty at EICC
Sun 15th May 2011 Reading Hexagon
Mon 16th May 2011 London Hammersmith Apollo
Tue 17th May 2011 LONDON Hammersmith Apollo EXTRA DATE
Tickets are on sale now via the venues. It's sure to prove popular, so book now to avoid disappointment.

Should atheists be talking to believers?

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Around the time of the Pope's visit to the UK, I wrote a couple of posts on here (notably this and this) in which  I questioned the tone of the Protest the Pope campaign and the debate around Catholicism and the Pope. As I expected, it divided opinion – some people shared my concerns, while others felt anger and indignation were entirely appropriate responses to the actions of the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy.

An unexpected outcome of my posts was an invitation from the Central London Humanist Group to take part in a small round table discussion with representatives of Catholic Voices, an organisation set up to argue the Catholic case during the Papal Visit. Having wondered whether the differences between humanists and the religious could be debated in a calmer manner, it seemed like an interesting offer, so I agreed. I wanted to see how such an event might work, and whether it would feel like a useful exercise. All we did was debate some areas of disagreement – condoms, gay adoption and faith schools – for a couple of hours, then have a drink before going our separate ways. It was interesting but, while I planned to write something for our new issue, and it got a mention in the Catholic Herald, I expected that to be the end of it. I certainly didn't expect it to prove controversial, and I was surprised when Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society singled me out for criticism in a piece on their website entitled "The Vatican will not changed by persuasion, it has to be forced".
"Mr Sims is the kind of humanist who likes to compliment himself on being “moderate”, on taking the “middle ground” and not being one of the “aggressive atheists” of which his holiness so strongly disapproves.

He doesn’t like people being disrespectful to those they oppose. He is obviously of the opinion that something can be achieved by debating and negotiating with Catholic Voices. What exactly is to be achieved is not quite clear, because talking to the head of Opus Dei about any prospect of “change” in cruel Vatican teachings is an activity surely worthy of King Canute."
Leaving aside the fact that, while I do perhaps have opinions you could call "moderate", I don't tend to go around complimenting myself on them, what struck me about this was the suggestion that talking to believers in this way is a waste of time, and possibly counterproductive. I've responded to this with a piece in the new issue of New Humanist, in which I suggest that, while dialogue between believers and non-believers may not necessarily lead to concrete change on the big issues, talking to each other cordially (I explore the idea of "civility", which has been pursued in other contexts, such as dialogue over Israel-Palestine) might just help both sides to better understand where the other is coming from, and maybe even help to cultivate possible areas of agreement.

If you could find a few minutes to go and read what I have to say, I'd be very interested to hear what you think. I know that many of you will disagree, but, in my opinion, therein lies the strength of humanism – it's in no way a homogeneous "movement" that sticks to a party line. We all have different ideas about where we stand on religion and the changes we'd like to see to bring about a fairer, more secular society, and we're generally eager to debate them.

Indeed, we like to think we provide you with a wide range of viewpoints in New Humanist. Take the current issue – if you don't like my "accomodationism" (I'll call myself one, thereby pre-empting the first commenter to do so), read of Ophelia Benson's review of Karen Armstrong's new book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Would it surprise you to learn she didn't like it?

Monday, 20 December 2010

More Godless video treats – Ed Byrne and Chris Addison

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In this season of excessive consumption, we're really spoiling you with our backstage videos from the Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows, which have two more nights (21 and 22 December) of their seven night run to complete (today's our day off). Uploaded since I last blogged on Saturday are videos of Chris Addison, who was looking forward to addressing our peaceful godless audience on what is usually the toughest night of the year for stand-ups (think pre-Christmas drunken audiences), Adam Rutherford, who talks about his annual trip to church with his family on Christmas day, and Ed Byrne, who we were delighted to welcome to his first ever performance at the Nine Lessons shows. Here's his video:

The good news for anyone with tickets to the remaining two shows is that Ed is coming back to those, so you can look forward to that. Here are the line-ups for the remaining two (and the first five, which are now, of course, events of Godless Christmas past).

Look out for more videos by checking back here, following us on Twitter (@NewHumanist) and keeping up to date with our YouTube channel, where you can view everything we've uploaded so far, including all the videos from last year. As well as those mentioned above, so far this year we've had Al Murray, Richard Herring, Josie Long, Ben Goldacre and Mitch Benn. Still to come we have Stewart Lee, Robin Ince, Nick Doody, Jim Bob and many more. Hope you're enjoying them.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Al Murray backstage at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

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Snowed in? Why not make yourself a nice hot drink and sit back and enjoy our exclusive backstage videos from Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, which we're leaking out to you over the next few days. So far we've had Ben Goldacre, Richard Herring, Adam Rutherford, Josie Long and Al Murray, who talks about his interest in humanist issues, including the Protest the Pope campaign, as well as his new BBC Four documentary series about Germany. Here he is:

Watch this space for more videos in the coming days (or follow us on Twitter). Also, for anyone with tickets for the show tonight, rest assured that the show will go on despite the weather.

(All vids by Nathalie McDermott)

Friday, 17 December 2010

Exclusive backstage video from Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

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We're about to head off to the third night of this year's Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, but just before we do we're delighted to be able to bring you the first two of our videos from backstage at London's Bloomsbury Theatre, recorded by the brilliant Nathalie McDermott (@natmc on Twitter).

We have loads of videos in the bag, which we'll Wikileak out over the course of the next few days, but to get you started we have comedian Richard Herring taking on the minor issue of the reality of love, and Ben Goldacre, who Nathalie grabbed fresh from the stage, where he'd just delivered what he claims will be one of his final rants about his arch poo-lady nemesis, the TV I'm-A-Celebrity jungle nutritionist Gillian McKeith. Asked where he stands on taking the Christ out of Christmas, Ben delivers a few lines that we may just have to adopt as our seasonal message:
"I'm fine with Christ in Christmas. I'm glad of Christ in Christmas. I never really understood the anti-God thing, and that kind of stuff. Secular, yeah. I'd like to take Christ out of government, I'd like to take Christ out of policy and politics, but I'd never, ever like to take Christ out of Christmas."
If only the likes of the Daily Mail, Eric Pickles and Lord Carey would take that on board!

Here's the video, for your viewing pleasure. Watch this space (or keep checking us on Twitter @NewHumanist or directly on our YouTube channel) for more videos in the coming days, featuring Al Murray, Stewart Lee, Ed Byrne, Josie Long, Mitch Benn and many more.

Baba Brinkman DVD recording on Monday

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Rapper Baba Brinkman, who is currently appearing each night at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, has asked us to let you know about a special show he's doing in London on Monday 20 December, when he will be recording a DVD of his Edinburgh shows from this year, The Rap Guide to Human Nature and Rapconteur (you can find out more about both shows on his website, and read a review of the Human Nature show here).

The show is at the Alley Cat on Denmark Street (tube: Tottenham Ct Rd), 6-9pm, and tickets are £10. Full details on the Facebook event page.

For those of you who've never seen Baba, check out this video of him performing his Rap Guide to Evolution at last year's Nine Lessons.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Bad Faith Award 2010 - who took the crown?

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Almost 7,000 of you voted in our poll to choose this year's winner of our annual Bad Faith Award, which goes to the person deemed to have made the most outstanding contribution to the cause of unreason in the past 12 months. It was a tight poll - the top two were separated by only a handful of votes, but we can now announce who won. Step forward Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, head of the UK Islamic Sharia Council, for suggesting in an interview with the Samosa blog that rape cannot be committed within marriage.

Take a look at the article from our new issue to read more, and see how the other candidates fared.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Out tomorrow: Jan/Feb issue with *free* Godless Christmas DVD

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We've just taken delivery of the January/February issue of New Humanist, which comes with a very special free gift – a one-hour DVD of comedy, science and music recorded at the very first run of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People in 2008, featuring Robin Ince, Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Richard Herring and many more.

The issue hits the newsstands tomorrow, 16 December, and will be on sale in over 1,300 stores around the UK, including selected branches of WH Smiths and independent newsagents. You can find details of where to buy a copy on our distribution page. The DVD is also on its way to all subscribers, and will be given to new subscribers while stocks last (along with God Trump, making a gift subscription the perfect Christmas present for heathen friends and family) - you can subscribe easily online for just £21 a year.

There's plenty to get stuck into in the new issue – why are we so fascinated by the monster myth, should we talk to believers, is love a dangerous delusion, and much more – but in the spirit of the times we've leaked one of our favourites on to our site to get you started. To mark the forthcoming 25th anniversary of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard's death, we threw Michael Bywater a stack of his books and asked him to tell us what made the flame-haired prophet tick. As you will see, it was an interesting experience – here's a sample:
"So what’s egregious about Dianetics? Never mind that it’s bollocks. We’ve dealt with that. Why is it more bollocks than Christianity? Why is it such a mad idea that we are actually the – I’ve probably got this wrong but it’s late and because of reading Dianetics I think I may have gone mad – invisible spirits of Thetans from a different galaxy, struggling with an accretion of spiritual vegetative matter which needs to be removed with constant application of money and a thing called an e-meter which doesn’t actually do anything except cost over $4,000, which is a pretty good return on a sort of Wheatstone bridge made from around £20-worth of components you could get from Maplin? And when that’s all done, you’re in the clear and can go on to some kind of new life."
The answers, to some extent, await you in the full piece. Enjoy.

On the first day of Godless Christmas...

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Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, our now-annual rational Christmas extravaganza, returns tonight for a sold out seven night run at London's Bloomsbury Theatre, featuring nightly performances from Robin Ince, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman and Jo Neary, with special guests including Al Murray, Richard Herring, Chris Addison, Josie Long, Alan Moore and many more (see the full line-up for a nightly guide to who's on).

For those of you wondering what Nine Lessons is all about, or to help get you in the mood if you're coming to a show, we recommend reading Stephanie Merritt's excellent piece on the rise of rational, sceptical comedy from our November/December issue, in which she speaks to Robin Ince, Josie Long and Al Murray about comedy's response to pseudoscience and unreason.

We'll be working backstage at this week's shows to bring you some exclusive video content from the performers – take a look at our YouTube channel to watch the videos from last year's shows. As a preview, here's our interview with Robin Ince at end of the final show last year:

Watch this space for updates and video content throughout Nine Lessons, which runs from 15-22 December, and be sure to follow us on Twitter (@NewHumanist) if that's your thing. If you are using Twitter at Nine Lessons, please add the #GodlessChristmas tag.

Also, if you're attending, look out for us in the lobby, where you'll be able to buy a copy of our latest issue, which comes with a free one-hour DVD of the 2008 shows. We'll also be handing out leaflets for our special prize draw, in which the first prize is a meal for two at London's famous Gay Hussar, at which cartoonist Martin Rowson will come along and draw you and your companion while you eat, with you keeping the finished artwork. Quite a prize, we're sure you'll agree, so be sure to pick up a flyer at the theatre.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Debunking Winterval and the War on Christmas

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During his UK visit, the Pope repeated the myth
of the War on Christmas
Kevin Arscott, who writes the Angry Mob blog (one of the several excellent blogs concerned with debunking the tabloid press, in particular the Daily Mail) has just published an extended essay in which he traces the origins of the "Winterval" myth, and how it developed into the now-annual narrative of a "War on Christmas" waged against Christianity in the name of multiculturalism and political correctness.

Arscott shows how the myth has been constantly repeated and distorted by the national and local media over the past decade, with even government ministers getting involved, despite having very little basis in reality. It's a lengthy essay, but it's worth reading as it will hopefully serve as definitive evidence that there is not a concerted effort each Christmas to "air-brush the Christian faith out of the picture", as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey suggested recently. And as Arscott points out in his conclusion, debunking tabloid myths such as Winterval is important, as they are part of a wider pattern of disinformation and scapegoating in the tabloids:
"It is important to remember Winterval – even if the myth now dies off – as an example of what a poorly-regulated, agenda-driven media can do with a simple concept. If the media are prepared to repeat, as fact, something that was so blatantly a complete lie right from the beginning, then imagine that they apply the same treatment to a huge amount of the stories that feed into the same narratives. The stories about 'Cafe owners being forced to remove extractor fan '”because smell of frying bacon offends Muslims”' or swimming pools being blacked out to appease Muslims are just two examples of the myriad of stories that are based on shameless lies. Like Winterval they will live-on as complete untruth not only because the tabloid press will repeat them, but also because they have already entered the consciousness of those that want to believe that Muslims really are trying to take over Britain" 
 The essay is available to download as a PDF via Arscott's blog.

Is this man set to become a free speech martyr?

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I suspect I'm not the only person experiencing a spot of far-right hatemonger déjà vu on account of the news that the (not-quite) Qur'an burning Florida pastor Terry Jones may be prevented from making a planned visit to Britain next February. The home secretary, Theresa May, has said she is "actively looking" at the possibility of banning Jones, who is scheduled to address as meeting of the anti-Muslim far-right English Defence League in Luton, which, as the Guardian reports, she has the power to do if Jones' "presence in the UK could threaten national security, public order or the safety of citizens, or if she believes his views glorify terrorism, promote violence or encourage other serious crime."

We have, of course, been here before when, in 2009, the then home secretary Jacqui Smith banned the far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders from visiting the UK to attend a screening of his anti-Muslim film Fitna at the House of Lords, at the invitation of UKIP peer Lord Pearson of Ranoch. The ban on Wilders, which was later overturned, proved highly controversial even among those who oppose his politics, as it was viewed by some as an attack on freedom of expression. The Home Office stated that Wilders' visit would "threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK", but opponents of the ban argued that as long as he wasn't threatening or inciting violence, he had the right to come here and express his views, however distasteful they may be.

The visit of Terry Jones presents a similar problem. He says he is coming to talk about "the evils of Islam", which is something, as we see with the EDL, is something people are legally entitled to do. But the argument for banning Jones does seem stronger than that for banning Wilders last year, as EDL rallies have a history of turning violent. In a petition to the home secretary, the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate make a convincing case for preventing the visit:
"...Pastor Jones wants to give a speech attacking Islam at an EDL rally in Luton. The EDL emerged in Luton in May 2009 and its first demonstration ended with 250 people going on the rampage through a predominantly Asian area of the town. Since then it has become a national organisation and is the single biggest threat to social cohesion in this country today.

Pastor Terry Jones’s presence in Luton will be incendiary and highly dangerous. He will attract and encourage thousands of EDL supporters to take to the streets, and cause concern and fear among Muslims across the country. Only extremists will benefit from his visit and, as we know, extremism breeds hatred and hatred breeds violence. For these reasons we are asking you to prevent Pastor Terry Jones from entering the UK."
Speaking to the Today programme this morning, Jones himself protests that he has no intention of inciting violence, saying that he would come bearing a "positive message" (his definition of "positive message" would appear to differ from most people's). Meanwhile, on Comment is Free, John Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and a seasoned anti-fascist campaigner, argues in favour of a ban:
"The refusal to ban the pastor of a hitherto obscure church with a following of fewer than 50 people does not represent a mortal blow to the debate about the merits of Islam. How many people can quote a single sermon of Jones's? How many can recount a single innovative theological, political or social contribution from him on this issue? Jones has nothing to offer except lighter fuel and malign intent.

But we know what sits on the other side of the debit sheet. Mass disorder. Communities divided on racial and religious lines. Intolerance. Violence. Entire towns rent asunder. Over the top? Just ask those people who live and work in those communities where the EDL roadshow has already rolled into town. They'll tell you. And they'll tell you what they think of the idea of a repeat appearance with Jones in tow."
It's a difficult issue – on the one hand, a combination of the EDL and the man who made the headlines worldwide for threatening to burn the Qur'an, speaking in a town with a large Muslim population, does seem like a recipe for trouble. On the other, it's hard to avoid the feeling that Theresa May would be giving Jones the publicity he craves by excluding him, making him a free speech martyr for those that share his extremist views. Is it not better to just let him come, on the logic that he will make far fewer headlines, and be denied the status of the silenced messenger, that way? He's already had far more publicity than he deserves on account of his aborted Qur'an burning stunt – do we really want to be giving him more on this side of the Atlantic?

But then again, if Jones comes to Luton and there is some serious trouble, then he and the EDL will make even more headlines, and the home secretary will have to explain why she didn't take the opportunity to stop it in the first place.

Not quite sure where I stand on this one – I'd be very interested to hear what people think. Please share your views in the comments.

Friday, 10 December 2010

L Ron Hubbard panto to play in Scientology's backyard

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A scene from the American Stage Theatre Company's
production of A Very Merry Unauthorized
Children's Scientology Pageant
It's Christmas, which means it's panto season. But while here in the UK we're stuck with Aladdin and Cinderella, the lucky people of St Petersburg, Florida can enjoy a production of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, a satire on the life of L Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology, by Kyle Jarrow and Alex Timbers, that first ran off-Broadway in 2003.

As 2003 pre-dates my own interest in the wacky world of Scientology, I'm sorry to say I had no knowledge of the play, so imagine how much I enjoyed reading all about it just now, with the added bonus of the fact that it is to be staged in a theatre just down the road from Scientology's Clearwater headquarters. The production is the work of St Petersburg's American Stage Theatre Company, and a quick look at their site provides a helpful synopsis of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant:
"A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant begins with six children gathering on a cold winter night to rejoice in telling the story of L. Ron Hubbard during their holiday pageant. A narrator notes, 'Today we relate the life of L. Ron Hubbard: Teacher, author, explorer, atomic physicist, nautical engineer, choreographer, horticulturist and father of Scientology!' And so begins what Variety called, 'A breezy one-hour show that is equal parts adorable and creepy, hilarious and unsettling, making it way more compelling than your average holiday entertainment.' Learn about Scientology and its creator in musical form, including special appearances by many of the churches greatest practitioners as puppets and the possible arrival of the almighty Xenu himself."
Sounds like fun, doesn't it. It certainly beats seeing that guy who used to play that guy in Emmerdale dressed up as Widow Twankey. But, I hear you cry, how on earth did the fiercely-litigious Church of Scientology allow it to happen? Well, I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that they tried their best to stop it. Forgive me if for once I allow Wikipedia, that "Wiki-" of more innocent times, to explain:
"Early in the production of the play, John Carmichael, president of the Church of Scientology in New York, found out that a theatrical production involving Scientology was in the works. After showing up unannounced to a rehearsal, Carmichael sent a letter to the play's New York producer, Aaron Lemon-Strauss, citing his concerns at the possibility of being ridiculed. In the letter, Carmichael also pointed out the church's many past lawsuits. Alex Timbers was quoted as saying: "We've been told that the letter is a precursor to a lawsuit." Carmichael visited the artistic staff a total of three times to voice his concerns before the play's debut. After this occurrence, Jarrow and Timbers' attorneys advised them to insert the word "Unauthorized" into the title of the play. This was done to avoid potential litigation from the Church of Scientology. In an interview with The New York Times, Carmichael later stated: 'These folks have a right to write whatever play they want... but they've sunk to clichés'."
Excellent. And now, as the St Petersburg Times reports, the American Stage company are looking forward to performing it on Scientology's home turf. Artistic director Todd Olson explains:
"I'm not religious myself. I'm not vested one way or another. But I do think it's a healthy sign if we can talk about these things in an artistic and a theatrical way and hold the mirror up to things and look at them in a lighter sense. We should be able to laugh at ourselves no matter who we are."
Well said, sir. And if this has piqued your interest in the crazy world of Scientology, you'll be pleased to hear our forthcoming Jan/Feb issue features the inimitable Michael Bywater marking the 25th anniversary of L Ron's death. That's on sale next Thursday, 16 December.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Anonymous, Wikileaks and the age of online activism

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Anonymous activists turn out to protest against
Scientology in London in 2008
It's interesting to see that a group of hackers calling themselves "Anonymous" have launched attacks on Visa and Mastercard, in what they say is an act of revenge for the companies' refusal to take payments on behalf of the controversial Wikileaks site. The hackers, as part of what they are calling "Operation Payback", launched DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks against the sites and succeeded in disrupting some of their online services, although a statement from Mastercard said "There is no impact on our cardholders' ability to use their cards for secure transactions globally." Anonymous have threatened to target other companies that have withheld their services from Wikileaks – the payment service Paypal stopped transactions for the site last week and has experienced DDoS attacks – and have suggested they might attack Twitter, alleging that it has censored the hashtag #WikiLeaks, although this has been denied by the social networking site. Twitter has, however, suspended one of the accounts used by Operation Payback, which the BBC suggested this may be a related to a message that linked to credit card details.

While Anonymous has been involved in numerous online activities since it emerged in 2006-7 – ranging from pranks such as "YouTube Porn Day" (basically uploading porn to YouTube) to support for the Iranian election protests in 2009 – it is best known for its campaign against the Church of Scientology, which began in 2008. Beginning with DDoS attacks on Scientology websites, the campaign expanding from an internet hacking operation to physical protests outside Scientology centres around the world, with hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of masked protesters turning out at the peak of the campaign.

The whole point of Anonymous is that it is ultimately a label for a leaderless, loosely-coordinated collection of activists – it doesn't exist as an organisation, there is no membership in the traditional sense and there are no clearly-defined aims. (Today's Daily Mail calls Anonymous "a shadowy international group", which displays a real lack of understanding.) Those involved can range from pranksters and hackers in it for the sport, to highly-principled activists. Anyone can get involved and say that they are doing what they are doing on behalf of "Anonymous".

But if there is one unifying principle for those calling themselves Anonymous, it is internet freedom. Reporting on a London protest against Scientology in 2008, I found a strange mixture of principle and pranks among those in attendance, but the one idea that seemed to bind them together was free speech. The initial DDoS attacks on Scientology websites had begun as a result of the Church's removal of leaked videos from YouTube (you may recall the now-infamous Tom Cruise video), and anger over internet censorship had spread to those protesting on the streets, with one masked activist telling me:
“What really got me was when the cult of Scientology tried to censor what people were putting on YouTube. Freedom of speech is the thing that makes the internet what it is, so that pissed me off enough to do a bit of research and realise that I can help destroy an evil cult and have some fun at the same time.”
It is here that we can begin to trace the connection with Wikileaks, as some of the now-notorious site's early activity involved the leaking of documents considered highly sensitive by the secretive Church of Scientology, including details of the high-level training courses that cost members hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Wikileaks and Anonymous, then, are natural allies. Indeed, you could perhaps go so far as to say they are part of the same movement (it would be interesting to know how far there is a crossover between those involved). While Wikileaks has a figurehead in the form of Julian Assange, as he pointed out in his Q and A with Guardian readers last week, the site is founded on the principle of anonymity:
"This is an interesting question. I originally tried hard for the organisation to have no face, because I wanted egos to play no part in our activities. This followed the tradition of the French anonymous pure mathematians, who wrote under the collective allonym, "The Bourbaki". However this quickly led to tremendous distracting curiosity about who and random individuals claiming to represent us. In the end, someone must be responsible to the public and only a leadership that is willing to be publicly courageous can genuinely suggest that sources take risks for the greater good. In that process, I have become the lightening rod. I get undue attacks on every aspect of my life, but then I also get undue credit as some kind of balancing force."
As Scientology has found in its battle with Anonymous, it is extremely difficult to tackle a faceless, web-based adversary – the time-honoured tactic of suing critics was of no use without names or faces to attribute to those new adversaries. Governments are now experiencing the same problems with Wikileaks – US public figures such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, who have focussed on the perceived need to silence Assange, show a profound misunderstanding of the new online activism. Whatever happens to Assange as a result of his recent arrest, it is unlikely to affect the flow of documents from Wikileaks, because it does not exist in the same form as the traditional state or organisational actors that pervade the worldview of someone like Sarah Palin.

Whatever your view of the "Cablegate" saga and the ethics of Wikileaks, it is clear that this form of activism is here to stay. While "Anonymous" can be connected to concrete campaigns such as the Scientology protests, or the DDoS attacks on Mastercard and Visa, to view it as a kind of "organisation" or "movement" in the traditional sense misses the point entirely. It is perhaps best understood as an "idea" – that the internet, as a domain of free-flowing, uncensored information (which is to be protected at all costs) can be used by disparate, at best loosely connected, individuals to undermine powerful state and corporate actors behind an unprecedented cloak of anonymity. It is a powerful idea (one that Wikileaks is a part of), and it remains to be seen how the states and organisations of the old world will be able to adapt to it.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Merry Christmas, everyone

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The sign translates as "we reject Satan and all his works and
all his empty promises"
Danish pastor John Knudsen, who runs the Løkken Free Church in Vendsyssel, has a bit of a problem with elves, which he says are “poltergeists that come from the devil and make children sick”. Therefore, he has done what any sensible person in his situation would, and hanged one of Santa's Little Helpers (in effigy, presumably he was too slow to catch a real one) from the roof of his church, along with a sign reading “we reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises”.

That pesky Satan and his empty promises... Anyway, this is a tough one for we secular sorts - we're supposed to be waging a War on Christmas, and this looks a lot like an act of war against Christmas, but at the same time Knudsen is a Christian pastor who says he loves Christmas. Frankly, I just don't know what to think.

[Via @Heresy_Corner on Twitter]

Friday, 3 December 2010

Oh come on Stephen, surely even you can't be serious this time?

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What's affronting Stephen Green's moral conscience this week? A new mosque under construction in the dome of St Paul's? Satanist sacrifices on the spot where Thomas Beckett was martyred? Babies being declared gay by midwives the moment they exit the womb?

Actually. it's worse. Tesco are selling a Twilight advent calendar:
"It’s sickening to see the message of Jesus Christ being hijacked to peddle a brand like Twilight, which to all intents and purposes proclaims an anti-religious cult. Twilight may be fiction, but it is dangerous to mix-up such a story in the minds of impressionable children with that of the Nativity."
Oh, the humanity! Does this guy even believe what comes out of his own mouth any more? I'm seriously beginning to wonder whether, in the parlance of our times, he's simply in it for the lulz.

[With thanks to David Craggs for the tip off]

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People 2010: your nightly guide to who's appearing

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Many of you who are attending this year's run of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People at London's Bloomsbury Theatre have been asking who is performing on which nights. So here is the show-by-show breakdown, as it currently stands. However, as with previous runs of Nine Lessons, all details are subject to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Note also that the names are listed in no particular order – this isn't the running order.

If you are attending, and Twitter's your thing, the hashtag for this year will be the same as last - #GodlessChristmas. All shows are completely sold out (except Brighton Dome, 12 Dec), but there will be a certain number of standing tickets available each night – enquire at the Bloomsbury Theatre on the day about those.

Compère Robin Ince and the house band, Martin White's Mystery Brass Machine Orchestra, will be on stage each night, and there's the chance of special guests on some nights. Current line-ups as follows:

12 December (Brighton Dome): Chris Addison, Baba Brinkman, Dara O Briain, Isy Suttie, Matt Parker, Richard Herring, Simon Singh, Gavin Osborn, Josie Long, Jo Neary, Helen Arney, Stephen Grant, Frisky and Mannish

15th December: Al Murray, Josie Long, Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Helen Arney, Mitch Benn, Ed Byrne, Shappi Khorsandi, Adam Rutherford, Chris Cox, Richard Herring, Joanna Neary, Jim Bob, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Robyn Hitchcock, Nick Doody

16th December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Isy Suttie, Richard Herring, Helen Arney, Barry Cryer & Ronnie Golden, Josie Long, Jim al-Khalili, Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Wiseman

17th December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Isy Suttie, Richard Herring, Helen Arney, Josie Long, Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Wiseman

18th December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Isy Suttie, Richard Herring, Helen Arney, Josie Long, Frisky and Mannish, Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Wiseman

19th December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Isy Suttie, Josie Long, Gavin Osborn, Marcus du Sautoy

21st December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Alan Moore, Gavin Osborn, Peter Buckley-Hill, Mark Miodwnik, Lady Carol, BHA Choir, Josie Long, Marcus du Sautoy, Ed Byrne

22nd December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Alan Moore, Gavin Osborn, Peter Buckley-Hill, Mark Miodwnik, Lady Carol, Barry Cryer & Ronnie Golden, BHA Choir, Ed Byrne

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Bishop bashes Christian persecution complex

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Further to my previous post on former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey's ludicrous "Not Ashamed" campaign against the non-existent "War on Christmas" and other perceived acts of oppression against Christians in Britain, it's important to emphasise the fact that many Christians agree with secularists and humanists on these matters. Indeed, plenty of Christians online, such as the eChurch Blog blogger, for example, have been pointing out that they're, well, ashamed by the "Not Ashamed" campaign.

It was via eChurch Blog that I was alerted to an excellent contribution by the Bishop of Croydon, Nick Baines, to Channel 4's Thought-for-the-Day-alike TV slot 4Thought.tv, in which he points out that Christians are not a persecuted minority in the UK. If only some his colleagues, like Lord Carey and Michael Nazir-Ali, who is also supporting "Not Ashamed", would take his arguments on board.

Do take a moment to watch the Nick Baines video – it's a nice reminder that the "War and Christmas" and other such nonsense are generally, as I suggested in a comment on the earlier post, the preserve of tabloid rags and the more conservative fringes of British Christianity, who seem to have a wish to reclaim Christmas as something purely for Christians. In their eyes, loss of brand exclusivity appears to equal persecution.

War on Christmas: am I missing something?

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Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, along with the conservative Christian group Christian Concern (formerly Christian Concern For Our Nation) has launched a new campaign called "Not Ashamed", with the stated aim of helping "Christians respond to various challenges to the Christian foundation of our society, by being visible and vocal about our confidence in Jesus Christ". And what are those challenges? Allow the Daily Mail to explain:
"Britain has become ashamed of Christmas, former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey declared yesterday.

He said Christmas cards are censored, school nativity plays stripped of Christian content and Christmas decorations banned in the campaign to block the festival out of the calendar."
Censored Christmas cards. Banned Christmas decorations. Nativity plays stripped of content. What is this dystopian society in which we live? I must have dozed off for a while, as I appear to have missed its formation. (But then again, it is the curse of humanity to sleepwalk into our own oppression.)

Of course, the reason that I, along with many of you, I'm sure, have missed the foundation of totalitarian anti-Christian Britain is because nothing of the sort has happened. But try telling that to Lord Carey. He won't be letting this one drop any time soon:
"The attempt to air-brush the Christian faith out of the picture is especially obvious as Christmas approaches. The cards that used to carry Christmas wishes now bear “Season’s greetings”. The local school nativity play is watered down or disappears altogether. The local council switches on 'winter lights' in place of Christmas decorations. Even Christmas has become something of which some are ashamed. Do we really want to consign the Christian faith and the churches to the sidelines when they continue to give so much to our society? And do we really want to rebrand Christmas, empty it of its meaning, and ignore its significance for us today?"
But it isn't happening. When are campaigners like Carey – and members of the government like Eric Pickles – going to take a look around them and finally admit that there is no widespread movement to ban Christmas. Lots of non-religious people (I'd wager the majority) even quite like it. I know I do. Some might even (whisper it...) confess that they quite enjoy hearing the odd carol, and find the local nativity scene (yes they still exist) quite endearing. Sure, there are Season's Greetings cards and the like, but I guarantee that your local card shop will have plenty of religious ones too. It's called catering to a diverse market – Christmas is a Christian festival, yes, but it's also a mid-winter celebration (whose history stretches back to pagan times) that means lots of different things to lots of different people. But one thing we can all agree on is that it's an enjoyable time of year, whether you include the baby Jesus or not. Banning it would be a really bad (and quite frankly bizarre) thing to do.

In fact, can you all please just take a moment to vote in this poll. Would you like to ban the Christian version of Christmas? The result will be about as objective or convincing as any of the evidence Lord Carey, Eric Pickles and Christian Concern like to present for the so-called "War on Christmas", so perhaps once the scores are in we can offer it as definitive evidence that this clamp down on Christmas has no basis in reality.

Now, you'll have to excuse me for a moment. There's a star on top of the tree across the road that I need to go and destroy....

The author of the Angry Mob blog is currently compiling a dossier on the War on Christmas myth - I look forward to seeing that when it's finished.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Hitchens interviewed by Paxman

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Jeremy Paxman interviews
Christopher Hitchens on Newsnight
For anyone who missed it, I thought I'd share the iPlayer link for Jeremy Paxman's extended interview with Christopher Hitchens, which was broadcast on Newsnight yesterday. Hitchens talks candidly about religion, history, politics, writing and, of course, his cancer. It's highly recommended viewing. Here's a quote that stood out for me, when Paxman asked him about the conflict with Islamism:
"I refuse to be told what to think, or how, let alone what to say or write. But certainly not by people who claim the authority of fabricated works of primeval myth and fiction, and want me to believe that these are divine. That I won't have. That's the original repudiation. The first rebellion against mental slavery comes from saying, this is man-made, it's not divine."
[Unfortunately BBC iPlayer is only available in the UK, but it does seem to have made it on to YouTube as well]

Monday, 29 November 2010

Happy Christmas (War is Over): don't worry Tiny Tim, this man will save the day

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After ending the War on Christmas, does
the Nobel Prize await Eric Pickles?
It's almost December, and that means there's a war on. A War on Christmas. In fact, as readers of this blog, many of you will be secularists and humanists, and some of you may even be (gasp...) "politically correct". Which means you're the ones waging this War. You know that Christmas tree with the twinkling lights standing proudly in your local town centre? Yes, that one. It's lovely isn't it, and cheers people up on these cold, bitter winter days. So why do you persist in your desire to jump into the cockpit of your heathen F-16 and blow that tree away?

Thankfully, a new hero has risen to end this conflict and bring about peace in our time. His name is Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and he is here to tell us that this War Ends Now. For too long has the boot of secularism stamped on the joys of the nativity, while the clenched fist of political correctness delivered punch after punch to the face of advent. The verdict of history has been passed on those dark times, and 2010 will be remembered as the year the star of Bethlehem was allowed to shine brightly once more. Have no doubt that this is so, for our hero has spoken:
"We should actively celebrate the Christian basis of Christmas, and not allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity and the importance of the birth of Christ. The War on Christmas is over, and likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous deserve to be in the dustbin of history.
We live in tough financial times, but there's no need for town halls to play Scrooge. It is councils' financial interests to draw in shoppers to their town centres at Christmas given the benefits of packed car parks to councils' coffers. Shoppers want to see Christmas lights, Christmas trees, Carol Services and nativity scenes, and councils should not hesitate in supporting them." 
Has a more important press release ever been issued from the corridors of government? Christmas has been saved, and don't listen for one moment to those who would have you believe that the War in which we all fought so bravely was a tabloid-constructed exercise in "tedious nonsense".

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Is religion a force for good in the world? Hitchens and Blair go head to head in Toronto

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Blair and Hitchens prior to their debate in Toronto
This is a guest post by Matthew Adams, who watched Christopher Hitchens debate religion with Tony Blair in Toronto last night

When it comes to flying I am, to paraphrase Martin Amis, a nervous passenger but a confident drinker and Valium swallower. Yet despite this fact, when I heard that on 26 November Christopher Hitchens was to debate Tony Blair in Toronto, Canada, about whether or not religion is a force for good in the world, I found myself idly looking up flights. Would it really be too far to go for an evening’s entertainment? And what if I could make it an evening’s reportage? No matter. The flights were too expensive, and I was too slow on the uptake: the debate had sold out before I had had time even mentally to pack my bags. But what a line-up: Hitchens versus Blair. An atheist and secular internationalist (and arguably the greatest man of letters on either side of the Atlantic) against a Catholic and nominally secular former Prime Minister, admired by Hitchens for his “principled” stance on the political touchstones of Kosovo and Iraq. It looked set to be a fascinating evening. And, from the garret in which on my laptop I watched events unfold, so it proved.

The event took place under the auspices of the Aurea Foundation, whose founder, the rasping and lightly befuddled Peter Munk, informed us that he wants to use these debates in order to “elevate the quality of discussion” regarding “issues of vital importance to us all”. After about fifteen minutes of this kind of talk, Christopher and Tony (as they referred to one another throughout the evening) took to the stage. Christopher, who is suffering from metastasized cancer of the oesophagus, looked frail and, occasionally, in pain. But he also looked angrily suspicious, and possessed of a revving and playful hostility. Blair, by contrast, looked almost egregiously healthy, bobbing into the arena with an apologetic grin and a pair of arms so slung as to appear in perpetual readiness for a gesture of reluctant affirmation (“fair’s fair”, they kept wanting to say).

The debate kicked off with Hitchens, who used his opening speech to make the claim – persuasively – that the metaphysical claims of religion were incompatible with the motion that religion could be a force for good. Adducing the much vaunted example of Cardinal Newman (on the grounds that he is claimed as a “moderate”), Hitchens insisted that the claims made by the Cardinal in his Apologia contained “a distillation of what is implied and involved in the faith mentality” – this being, pace Fulke Greville, that religion creates us sick and asks us to be sound; that it offers both a warrant and a mandate for genital mutilation; for misogyny; for the coercions of heaven and hell; and that it is predicated on a messianic ideology that, today, is about to meet with apocalyptic weaponry.

Blair’s rather flaccid response to this was to point out all of the charitable work that has been done by religious groups around the globe; to insist that while religion can be bad, it can also be good; and to opine that faith answers a “profound spiritual yearning”. Not, I think you’ll agree, a knockdown retort. But stay a while. For it turns out that, while religion can induce us to commit acts both decent and wicked, it is only the good acts that are indicative of the “true face of faith”, encapsulated for Blair by the (non-Christian) precept of the Golden Rule.

I do not think I do a disservice to the former Prime Minister when I say that his argument as it developed throughout the debate never really reached the dizzying heights that this opening salvo seemed to promise. Indeed, to Christopher’s numerous and incisively posed objections – that the best way to eradicate poverty was to oppose the religious warrant for the subjection of women; that secular charities do the work for its own sake and not as a way of proselytizing; that to be a force for good religion would have to give up its supernatural claims – Blair did not have much to offer other than to say that prejudice and persecution are not only particular to religion and that, since “we cannot drive faith out of the world” we must “see how we can make it a force for good.”

This seems an extraordinary position for any believer to adopt, let alone a Catholic (and at no stage in the evening did Blair sound like one of those). One wonders, in fact, quite what it is that he does believe. To a question from the audience about the need for faith as a source of morality he supplied the cryptic fatuity: “For some people humanism is enough. But for some people it isn’t.” When asked about the role that religion plays in social divisions in sub-Saharan Africa he said that the faith-based children he knew talked not of confessional differences but of their “common love of humanity”, and when asked to transpose this question to the territorial claims of Israel and Palestine his response was to aver that “religion has created these problems and must play a part in resolving them.”

Christopher’s response to this kind of confusion was refreshingly direct (“You cannot say that God’s intervention in territorial debates isn’t inscribed in the texts themselves”), and a reaction of his to Blair’s insistence that true religion lies in a nebulous and pan-confessional love of humanity was superb: “Common humanism is not made easier by the practice of religion . . . Tony seems to like religious people best when they’re largely non-practising.” In fact, nearly all of the best lines went to Christopher, as is evident from his précis of Blair’s dismayingly shifting position: “Religion could be a good thing after all. Sometimes. We think.” Again on the same subject: “So now it seems some people of faith are ok. I appear to have bargained one our greater statesmen of the recent past down a bit!” Now on the temporal constraints of the debate: “[notice] All the things Tony keeps defending himself from that I haven’t had the chance to bring up.” And finally on an absurd comment of Blair’s about inter-faith dialogue in Northern Ireland: “I never like to miss out on a chance to congratulate someone on being humorous, if only unintentionally so. It’s very touching for Tony to say that he recently went to a meeting that bridged a religious divide in Northern Ireland – well, where does the religious divide come from? Four hundred years and more, in my own country of birth, of people killing each other’s children, depending on what kind of Christian they were? And sending each other’s children, in rhetoric, to hell? And making Northern Ireland a place remarkable in Northern Europe for unemployment, for ignorance, for poverty . . . and for them now to say “maybe we might consider bridging this gap”? Well, I should bloody well think so.”

This probably makes it seem as though the evening belonged to Hitchens (which it did), but this is not to suggest that the debate lacked interest. One especially compelling moment was supplied when a questioner asked each speaker which of his opponent’s arguments he found the most unsettling. Hitchens simply said that he agreed with the proposition that things would not necessarily be all right were religion to go away. Blair’s response was the more interesting. Throughout the debate he had made much of the idea that the good that is done by the religious is done because of religion, with the corollary that any evil that had been enacted had been enacted in the name of religious belief. Hitchens challenged Blair on this point on a number of occasions, but it was in his response to the question from the floor that Blair gave his most interesting and most revealing reply. The affronts to human rights that are contained within holy texts are, he argued, to be historicised. Muhammad, for example, was probably not bad for his time. But we need to move on, and it is no longer acceptable for “bad believers” just to pick from their texts the bits that they like. No. What believers must do now is boil religions down to their “essence”. Christianity can be boiled down to the life of Christ and, in making that reduction, the task of the Christian now is “to explain Scripture in a way that makes sense to people in the modern world.” Well, quite. But on what authority can the bits of Scripture that we don’t like simply be ditched? And what about modern Christians who do like those injunctions?

It is always difficult to determine, with events such as these, who won. The numbers at the start of debate were, for Blair, rather less than encouraging: 22% for the motion; 57% against; 21% undecided. I should say that they did not much improve. (The BBC report that Hitchens won by a margin of two to one.) He lacked the rigour and the incisiveness of Hitchens, and he never adequately addressed Hitchens’s points about the moral problems that are posed by the very idea of a morality whose provenance is divine. But one does not really go to debates like these for the results. Rather, one goes for the debate. It is an achievement of the secularism to which both men lay claim that it could take place at all.

Matthew Adams is a freelance writer and critic, and has contributed to the Spectator, Times Literary Supplement, Guardian and Literary Review

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Wish I could write like Neal Ascherson

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I've known journalist Neal Ascherson by reputation for ages, and knew he was an expert on Russia, Scottish Nationalism and many other things, but I didn't really know his writing that well. Then I got given a copy of RRyszard Kapuścińsky's magnificent book on the last days of Haile Selassie - The Emperor - with an introduction by Ascherson. It was so expertly written and elegant and knowledgeable. He set the career of Kapuścińsky, surely one of the greatest ever journalists, in context lucidly and beautifully. I vowed to read everything I could get my hands on by Ascherson. So today, idly clicking around the LRB website, I found a review of The Climate of Treason by Andrew Boyle, a book about about the Cambridge spies, written by Ascherson back in 1980. Not only is it the clearest summary of the whole Philby/Burgess/Blunt business I've read - something I remember but only vaguely from my young life - it contains the most persuasive argument for why the posh traitors did what they did. Inevitably, given this is the most English of English establishments we are talking about, it's about both class and guilt:
"Birth, the accident of birth in the privileged upper tenth of a caste society, imprisoned these men in a cell with the gnawing rat of guilt. Nothing they could do in life would efface the original sin of that unfair birth - except rebirth. Not just the Communist faith but the actual existence of the Soviet Union - isolated, hated, mysterious - glowed to them across Europe as a second chance for themselves as well as for humanity."
[Pretty bloody good, huh? I love that "gnawing rat of regret"!].

Also embedded in this essay, unobtrusively and completely as part of the overall argument rather than as a gratuitous or self-regarding insertion, Ascherson tells the story of his own "unhappy brush" with the secret service, when they tired to recruit him (about the time that photo was taken I should think). It's a wonderfully economical, and hilarious passage, that ends with these few, funny, wise and telling lines:
"I was summoned to meet D. in his home. After a silent but delicious dinner, D. asked me to sit next to him on the sofa. I supposed that I was at last to be put in the picture, but D. merely grasped me tightly and wordlessly by the penis. I extracted myself and ran away, and after some days of great confusion, wrote to say that perhaps I was not mature enough for this service."
Note to self: get Ascherson to write something  for New Humanist...

What would cartoonists know about drinking?

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Ink & The Bottle a new exhibition at the lovely Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury, London, looks at our abiding love affair with booze over the last 150 years, through the (bleary) eyes of cartoonists, including our very own Judy Walker. This  is one of her Sun cartoons from 1985 [NB her brief was to parody male attitudes]. Open daily until 13 Feb 13. Details on the Museum website.


Crowdfunding evolution

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Rapper Baba Brinkman, who returns to Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People for a second year running next month, is currently working on a series of videos for his peer-reviewed hip-hop album The Rap Guide to Evolution, which he performed snippets from at last year's Godless shows. Recognising the Rap Guide's potential for bringing science to a new audience, the Wellcome Trust provided a grant for the video project but, in order to bring it to completion, Baba is looking for your help. I'll let him explain:
The challenge we face now is finding additional funding to support this project. The Wellcome Trust grant is enough (barely) to film and edit the videos, but we want to take them to the next level by weaving in original animation, digital effects, and high-quality nature footage licensed from sources like the BBC. Imagine a four-minute short film, part Eminem-style rap music video, part David Attenborough-style nature documentary, illustrating themes such as the common descent of all human beings from African ancestors and the processes of natural and sexual selection that shaped our bodies and minds and the rest of nature. We are making twelve such videos, one for each song on the CD. My hope is that these videos will be used by Biology teachers the world over to make evolution accessible to their students, as well as offering an entertaining entry point into Darwin's theories for non-Scientists in general.

The solution? A new concept called "crowdfunding", which allows you to pre-buy the DVD we are making before we are finished making it, contributing to the production value and ultimately the potential impact of the finished product. Together with SPL Productions, I have partnered with a website called "Crowdfunder" to run a campaign to raise an additional £10,000 to increase the production value of these videos. If we can hit our target in 60 days, the end result will be something amazing. If we fail to hit the target, the money is all returned to the funders and we fall back on the Wellcome Trust grant, which will still be enough to complete a good finished product, just one with a lot less mojo.

If you like the project and want to support it, there are various rewards attached to different levels of funding. £10 gets you a download of the finished videos, £20 gets you a DVD, and £30 buys you immortality: we will put your photo in one of the videos, representing a branch on the human family tree.  You can also book me for a performance if you contribute enough (click the above link to find out my going rate, slightly discounted).
You can find out more on Baba's crowdfunding site, where he explains how it will all work. Here's a preview video of the project - looks like it's shaping up nicely. If you're a fan, it'd be great if you could get involved.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

UN moves a step closer to condemning free speech

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After Islamic and African countries successfully passed an amendment removing reference to sexual orientation from a United Nations resolution that condemns summary execution last week, there's more bad news from the UN, as the Social, Humanitarian Cultural Affairs Committee of the General Assembly yesterday voted in favour of a non-binding resolution condemning the "vilification of religion".

This is the latest development in an ongoing effort by Islamic nations to curtail criticism of religion through the UN (the resolution previously referred to "defamation of religion"), and Reuters report that it is expected to be ratified by the General Assembly next month. The latest vote by the committee saw 76 countries in favour, 64 against with 42 abstentions, which suggested support for the resolution has narrowed since the previous vote last year, which was 81-55 with 43 abstentions. The text says the General Assembly:
"urges all States to provide ... adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from vilification of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general."
Morocco submitted the text on behalf of Islamic nations, which make up the bulk of those which voted in favour (you can see the full roll call by downloading/opening a larger version of the image included in this post). Other countries voting in favour include China, North Korea and Russia. While the resolution would not require member states to legislate against "vilification of religion", it is widely seen as an attempt to prevent criticism at the UN and lend international legitimacy to the punitive blasphemy laws in operation in many Islamic states (hence campaigners have called it an "international blasphemy law"), which are often used to restrict the freedom of non-Muslims. Opponents, including the UK, US and other Western governments, condemn the resolution as an attempt to clamp down on individual freedom, while protecting governments from criticism. They say it distorts the principle of human rights, applying them to states rather than individuals. Addressing the committee, US envoy John Sammis voiced his government's concerns:
"The resolution still seeks to curtail and penalize speech. The changes ... unfortunately do not get to the heart of our concerns – the text's negative implications for both freedom of religion and freedom of expression. We are disappointed to see that despite our efforts and discussions on this resolution, the text once again seems to take us farther apart, rather than helping to bridge the historical divides."

The UN General Assembly will vote on the resolution when it meets in Mexico in December.

Royal assent

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Attending the Church of England General Synod yesterday, you might have thought the Queen, in her role as Anglican head honcho, would be too busy worrying about parochial matters (the Church's continuing implosion, bishops laying into her family and the "event we shall not mention") to spare a thought for we merry godless. But in her speech at Church House, she took time, while heaping praise on the religious, to point out that atheists are alright too:
"In our more diverse and secular society, the place of religion has come to be a matter of lively discussion. It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue and that the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation depend on the contribution of individuals and groups of all faiths and none."
Well, it's nice to be noticed. Perhaps now we can move ahead with plans for that established state atheist movement. That is what we all want, isn't it?

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Pope's condom comments apply to women

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Breaking news just now is that the Pope's spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, has said that Benedict XVI's remarks regarding the use of condoms, which some had suggested may have only applied to gay prostitutes at risk of transmitting HIV, do in fact cover women as well (an Italian translation of the Pope's interview with Peter Seewald had used the feminine for "prostitute", while the German original used the masculine):
"I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine. He told me no. The problem is this ... It's the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship. This is if you're a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We're at the same point."
This helps to clear up some of the confusion over the meaning of the Pope's remarks – it would seem that some of the headlines concerning a "U-turn" were a little premature, but there does appear to have been a change in tone from an organisation that has long given the impression that it is opposed to condoms in all circumstances.

Interestingly, it would seem the debate over meaning extends to the Vatican itself. In an intriguing blogpost, Catholic journalist Damian Thompson suggests that an internal battle is taking place within the Church between liberalisers who would like to see the stance on condoms relaxed and conservatives who are fiercely opposed to any such change.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Intelligent Design: pseudoscience or a challenge to evolution?

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Michael Behe
As I've reported, prominent American Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe is in Britain this week, conducting a nationwide speaking tour hosted by the new Glasgow-based Centre for Intelligent Design. He's speaking at Westminster Chapel this evening, but his first task today was a debate with the Royal Society's former Director of Education, Michael Reiss, which I've just got back from now.

Hosted by Premier Christian Radio, which will broadcast it this coming Saturday, the debate was entitled "Darwin or Design? Intelligent Design: pseudo-science or challenge to Darwinian evolution?", and took place in (deep breath...) Charles Darwin House in central London, with Premier's Justin Brierley as moderator.

The debate began with Behe providing an outline of arguments for why he thinks Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution in science lessons (he famously gave evidence for the defence in the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover federal court case in Pennsylvania, in which Judge Jones ruled that it could not be). The basis of his argument is something called "irreducible complexity", which you can easily read more about via a quick Google search, but to summarise what he said in the debate, he sees it as irrational for science to reject what he repeatedly termed "other minds" (i.e. God/gods) as explanations for phenomena and events. It is, he says, a "fundamental facet of rationality" to discern the existence of other minds. He claims that "life reeks of design" – one of his main examples is the bacterial flagellum – and says that when the parts of something appear to be arranged in order to perform a function, it is rational to infer design. As, in his view, evolution has not been proven to be a definitive explanation, Intelligent Design should be taught alongside it in schools. He suggested that a rejection of the teaching Intelligent Design represents solipsism on behalf of scientists.

Listening to Behe put this case, one observation I made was that a frequent tactic he employs is to cite examples from credible scientists who do not support Intelligent Design in order to back up his arguments for it. So we are provided with quotes from Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, in which he says that the study of living things gives the appearance of design, as well as a list of articles from the journal Cell which have the word "machine" in their title (e.g. "protein machines"). Other scientists cited by included the biologist Douglas J Futumya, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, and Richard Lenski, conductor of the famous E. coli long-term evolution experiment. Of course, none of those scientists would claim that their work points in any way to Intelligent Design, but Behe takes their words or work out of context and uses them to add credibility to his own arguments.

Michael Reiss followed Behe, and opened by saying it was a pleasure to have the chance to debate these issues with him. Beginning with the issue of science and Intelligent Design, he said that science makes no mention of God, and operates without presuming anything regarding the existence or otherwise of a deity – science only studies objective physical reality. He suggested that there is nothing wrong, philosophically, with pointing to the existence of a deity to explain things that we don't know about the universe, but said that in his view it is somewhat premature. He predicted, while admitting it was only a personal prediction, that 30 years from now most of the arguments made for Intelligent Design will have been dispelled by the findings of conventional science. Concluding with the question of education, Reiss argued that in the UK we should address religious questions around origins in RE classes, while leaving science teachers to deal with science. He doesn't think teachers should be prohibited from answering questions posed by pupils which may relate to ID or creationism, but he certainly doesn't think these things belong on the science curriculum (this, of course, is the view that led to Reiss stepping down from his role at the Royal Society in 2008).

There followed a discussion between Behe and Reiss, in which Brierley posed questions to them both. Much of this revisited ground covered in the initial remarks, but some points are worth noting here. Brierley brought up the issue of the Dover Case, and Reiss pointed out that while, in principle, it would be possible for an individual to conceive of ID as a theory without appeal to religion, in reality its proponents are, almost without fail, card-carrying Christians. He joked that ID advocates clearly "evolved from their creationist ancestors". Responding, Behe suggested that religion is irrelevant – what matters is whether the proposition is true. He claims that he arrived at ID not because of his religion (he's a Catholic), but because his work in biochemistry led him to that position.Reiss then made the interesting point that Intelligent Design is a broad camp. Darwinian evolutionists and ID's more moderate advocates – he suggested Behe is one of those – often don't differ on the processes involved in the development of life. It's only when you get to the question of beginnings – I assume he means the question of how life originated – that the two camps really start to disagree. But those questions are about metaphysics, not science, and so do not belong in the science classroom.

The final section of the event involved questions from the floor, and I was able to pose one myself. I asked Reiss why he views debating with an Intelligent Design advocate such as Behe as a useful exercise. Richard Dawkins tends to take a "no platform" approach to creationism and ID – indeed he had turned down the offer of participating in this event, describing it as a "publicity stunt" and saying he believes in “never giving creationists the oxygen of publicity by sharing a platform with them”. Why, I asked, does Reiss feel differently. He replied by saying that he would refuse to debate with some people, but believes debating with Behe is respectable and interesting – where life came from is an important issue. He added that he is concerned with education (he is currently Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education), and is not comfortable with the notion that some ideas are off limits. Brierley also asked Behe how he feels about being labelled a "creationist" by Dawkins – he suggested it is a rhetorical technique used to duck the issue, like branding advocates of public health care "communists".

As one final point, I was intrigued by Behe's answer to one of the last questions from the floor, which concerned the future of ID. Behe invoked the work of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who developed the notion that scientific revolutions occur as a result of "paradigm shifts". As the evidence in their favour mounts, scientists are eventually required to accept ideas that they previously would have rejected out of hand, resulting in a paradigm shift and a scientific revolution. Behe appeared to suggest that, one day, a paradigm shift would lead to the general acceptance of ID as the best explanation for life on Earth. Responding, Reiss – with a nod to how unlikely he clearly feels this is – pointed out that, if ID turned out to be true, the implications would be so profound as to make the paradigm shifts Kuhn was writing about seem like ripples on a pond.

So, that's a (fairly lengthy) summary of what I heard at the event today. I'm very interested to hear what people make of it all – please do share your views in the comments? If anyone else was at this event, or has seen Behe in other locations during the tour, it'd be good to hear from you.