Friday, 26 February 2010

Dawkins forum closure: the true reason

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As has been widely reported, Richard Dawkins has been at the centre of a spot of controversy over some technical changes currently underway at his website, where plans to replace the online forum with a new system has infuriated volunteer moderators and left users bemoaning the death of the web’s liveliest atheist community.

The moderators have accused website developer Josh Timonen of adopting some arbitrary and high-handed tactics in his implementation of the changes, causing Dawkins to step in and defend his man from the abuse levelled at him by some (You can read the view of one moderator here, and Dawkins's response to the criticism here).

However, here at New Humanist we are able to bring you the real reason for the closure, having chanced upon this post at Christian website

"For years we warned atheists that we would take down their site entitled, by the power prayer.

The atheists laughed and said prayer did not exist. They cursed us and said there was no God. I warned them time and again, and now, we see the true power of God as he has closed their sinful site,"

So there you have it. And if you're wondering why they hate Dawkins so, here it is:
"For those of you who do not know, Richard Dawkins is one of the worst offenders before God. He promotes bestial relations. He thinks that a “less evolved” human man and a monkey woman had sexual relations to create us."
A fairly accurate summary of The Selfish Gene, wouldn't you say?

Update: Okay, so it turns out the Christian website is a spoof (thanks Jared). Still funny though, and to be fair we've seen plenty of non-spoof evangelical statements even more ridiculous than that, so you can see how it got us!

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Encouraging day in court for Simon Singh

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We're hard at work here producing our March issue, but I must take a moment to report that science writer Simon Singh experienced a very encouraging day at the Court of Appeal yesterday, in a pre-trial hearing on the meaning of words in his 2008 Guardian article for which the British Chiropractic Association are suing him for libel.

Before dipping into the positives, it's worth repeating some cautionary words from Singh himself, who last night pointed out that "we are still at a preliminary stage of identifying the meaning of my article. It could easily take another two years before the case is resolved". However, all the accounts from yesterday's hearing suggest the case could finally have taken an encouraging turn. The hearing was presided over by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley, which Index on Censorship calls "one of the most high-powered panels of judges ever to preside on a single case", and according to legal blogger Jack of Kent, "the British Chiropractic Association's case received a sustained battering by three of the most senior appeal judges in England, all of whom made favourable reference to the need for scientific debate".

The panel reserved judgement until a later date, but accounts from those present in court suggest that they were sympathetic to Singh's case. Encouraging words came from the Lord Chief Justice, who stated that he was "surprised" that “the opportunities to put this right have not been taken”, for instance the BCA not taking up the offer of a right to reply in the Guardian. According to Index on Censorship, he stated that “At the end of this someone will pay an enormous amount of money, whether it be from Dr Singh’s funds or the funds of BCA subscribers.”

One of the key moments of the day seems to have come when the BCA's barrister was asked "What if Simon Singh had said there was no reliable evidence?" [in the article Singh wrote "not a jot" and replied "We wouldn't be here today." To this, Lord Justice Sedley replied "isn’t the first question as to whether something is evidence that it is reliable?"

So, some good news at last from the frontiers of British libel law. And to further brighten your day, I'd recommend Index editor John Kampfner's Guardian piece on the news that the culture, media and sport select committee's report on Press Standards, Privacy and Libel suggests the political tide may be turning in favour libel reform, with its chair John Whittingdale stating a desire to “to correct the balance which has tipped too far in favour of the plaintiff”.

On the Singh case, I strongly recommend you read Padriag Reidy's piece for Index and Jack of Kent's blog, as both were present in court yesterday. And if you find that you need filling in on the background of the Singh v BCA case, you should read Jack of Kent's latest Bad Law column for The Lawyer magazine, which provides an overview of the case's history.

[Pic: Simon Singh at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People 2009, photo by Des Willie]

Monday, 22 February 2010

What would you say to ET?

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This year is the 50th anniversary of SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – and to mark the occassion science writer Paul Davies' new book The Eerie Silence looks at the history of the so-far unsuccessful search for intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, and assesses its future prospects. The book's out in March, but having devoured our press copy in a matter of days, I can confirm that it's a fascinating read – we loved it so much we're running an extract in our March issue, so look out for that.

Davies is chair of SETI's Post-Detection Taskgroup, which I can only describe in entirely unscientific terms as possibly the coolest committee you could imagine – it's job is to work out what to do if (or when, for the optimists) we finally discover a signal from outer space. So if we're going to respond, the Taskgroup would play a major role in deciding what to say.

But there's no need to feel entirely left out – to coincide with the anniversary, the book and National Science and Engineering Week, Davies' publisher Penguin are running a competition where you can suggest the 40-word message you would transmit to an intelligent civilisation elsewhere in our Galaxy (as I learned from Davies' book, the idea of ever sending a message beyond the Milky Way is pushing it a little). 5,000 message will be sent out into space on 12 March during Science and Engineering Week, and the 50 best messages, chosen by a judging committee, will appear on the Penguin website, with the authors winning copies of The Eerie Silence.

So, if you fancy yourself as a potential Galactic Representative (don't we all...), go and submit your message over at the Penguin site, where you can also see the messages suggested by a few famous faces.

Of course, there's a school of thought that says we might like to consider whether we should be responding to ET at all, for fear of hastening our own destruction. After all, have all those sci-fi films taught us nothing? What do you think?

The end for state-funded homeopathy?

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Sceptics are celebrating this morning following the publication of the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee's long-awaited evidence check report on homeopathy, which recommends that the NHS should stop funding it (it currently spends £4 million per year) and that the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority should no longer allow medical claims to be made for homeopathic products.

There's a comprehensive summary of the report over at David Colquhoun's DC Science blog, which makes for pleasing reading. For my own part, I'll leave you with the words of committee chairman Phil Willis MP:

“This was a challenging inquiry which provoked strong reactions. We were seeking to determine whether the Government’s policies on homeopathy are evidence based on current evidence. They are not.

“It sets an unfortunate precedent for the Department of Health to consider that the existence of a community which believes that homeopathy works is ‘evidence’ enough to continue spending public money on it. This also sends out a confused message, and has potentially harmful consequences. We await the Government’s response to our report with interest.”

Don't we all.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Guerrilla protest against Boots' sale of homeopathy

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Following on from the 10:23 homeopathic overdose campaign, I was interested to read this post by a blogger, who goes by the name of Skepticopathy, who has decided to take up some guerilla tactics in the campaign to have pharmacy giants Boots rethink their sale of homeopathic medicine. Having noticed that Boots have point of sale material attached to their homeopathy shelves "explaining" the quack treatment to customers, the blogger decided to write his own version of the information as follows:
"Scientists have devised a technique called the Randomised Controlled Trial, which corrects for errors in thinking, placebo effects and other biases.

Through these trials, scientists have been able to reliably demonstrate that, when all sources of error are removed, homeopathy does not work.

Boots know this, but will take your money anyway. If you rely upon homeopathic treatment you may not get better, but at least Boots will profit from your purchases."
As he explains on his blog, Skepticopathy then turned this into a flyer in the size and style of Boots' own, and slipped them into the plastic holders on the homeopathy shelves.

You can find out more on his blog, where he's even made the flyer available to download (not that you'd want to get any mischief like that, of course).

Government U-turn on sex education for all

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Over the past year, the British Humanist Association have been campaigning hard to ensure that the government's Children, Schools and Families Bill will make it compulsory for all state-funded schools to teach sex and relationships education in line with the national curriculum, and would not allow faith schools to vary the message according to the "ethos" of their schools.

But an amendment tabled by Schools Secretary Ed Balls, which the Catholic Education Service are claiming credit for securing, would allow faith schools to teach sex education in a “in a way that reflects the school’s religious character”, which the the BHA and other groups that have been campaigning on the matter are warning would catastrophically dilute the legislation. For instance, it would leave religious schools free to express misleading views on contraception and discriminatory views on homosexuality.

Andrew Copson, the BHA's Chief Executive, said:
"The Government’s amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill effectively provides an opt-out for faith schools from teaching full, comprehensive and objective Sex and Relationships Education. This is a U-Turn from the original commitment in the Bill which put a duty on schools to teach SRE in ways that promote equality, diversity and rights, in ways that are sensitive to the children’s backgrounds, rather than the schools."
And Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who heads the Accord Coalition of religious and secular groups opposed to faith schools, also expressed his disappointment:
"It is astonishing that the government plans to deny young people of their right to accurate, balanced PSHE and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), and allow state funded schools to teach the subject from one religious viewpoint. By taking this position, Ed Balls is implicitly condoning homophobia in schools and undermining attempts to tackle homophobic bullying. After Labour has done so much for equality, this looks like a 21st century Section 28."
Speaking to The Times, however, a spokesperson for the epartment for Children, Schools and Families denied that this was the case:
“It is a complete misrepresentation of the Bill to say that it effectively reintroduces Section 28. Faith schools cannot opt out of statutory sex and relationships education lessons when it comes into effect in September 2011. Schools with a religious character will be free, as now, to express the views of their faith, but they cannot suggest their views are the only ones.”
The amendment is debated in parliament this coming Tuesday (23 February), and the BHA are urging people to write to their MPs to ask them to vote against it. You can use the BHA's email system, which provides a template, to do this.

Andrew Copson of the BHA has written about this on Comment is Free.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Pope for Thought for the Day?

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The Guardian reports that the BBC are in talks with the Vatican to have the Pope appear on Thought for the Day when he comes to the UK in September for the Liturgical Mystery Tour. And they seem keen to secure his signature – they've even despatched director general Mark Thompson (or should that be he's despatched himself?), who is a devout Catholic, to Rome to lead the negotiations.

For many British secularists, a combination of Thought for the Day and the Pope would represent a two-for-one on bêtes noires, giving further credence to the notion that the BBC will go to any lengths to accommodate religious voices. It's an ongoing debate, and one on which both sides have distinctly contrasting opinions – just last week, secularists were complaining of too much religion on the BBC, while at the same time the Church of England's general synod was complaining that there isn't enough.

So what do you think? We thought we'd put it to a poll – is the BBC right to tap up the Pope for Thought for the Day?

a) Yes – if you can't get Jesus (and let's face it, who can?), he's the next best thing.

b) No. Just, no.

Vote at the top right of this page.

Get behind a campaign for an elected House of Lords

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One of our readers has drawn our attention to the Power 2010 campaign, which invites the public to vote for reforms they'd like to see politicians get behind in the run-up to the general election. There's a long list to choose from, and the public vote closes in 5 days' time. Once it closes, Power 2010 will actively campaign for MPs and candidates to pledge their support for the top five reforms emerging from the poll.

There are lots of worthy issues up for nomination, such as proportional representation and scrapping ID cards, but one issue that might be of particular concern to our readers currently sits in fifth place – a fully elected second chamber. I'll leave you to weigh-up the democratic arguments surrounding appointed versus elected legislatures yourselves, but the key point for humanists is that a fully elected House of Lords would mean no more guaranteed places for 26 Church of England bishops (you can read the arguments against the Lord Spiritual in our piece on the matter from a couple of years ago).

So, this most secular of proposals is in fifth place with 4,315 votes. But its place in the Power 2010 campaign is by no means secure – at the time of writing it is a mere 104 votes ahead of an English nationalist proposal to "Forbid Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs from voting on matters that affect only England".

Shall we see if we can't keep the Lords issue in the top five? Vote now at the Power 2010 website.

Update: the fully elected second chamber option has now moved up to third place with 4,670 votes. If you haven't already voted, do so and help keep it there.

The Big Libel Gig - an evening of comedy & science, London, 14 March

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If you're a fan of our Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows, you may want to hurry and get tickets to The Big Libel Gig, a night of comedy and science Robin Ince has put together in aid of the Libel Reform campaign. It's taking place at the Palace Theatre, London on Sunday 14 March, and will star Dara Ó Briain, Tim Minchin, Marcus Brigstocke, Robin Ince, Ed Byrne, Shappi Khorsandi, Professor Brian Cox, Simon Singh, Professor Richard Wiseman, Dr Peter Wilmshurst and Dr Ben Goldacre.

Tickets appear to be selling very quickly, so act now to avoid disappointment. They are available online, but word on Twitter is that it's best to call 0844 412 4656 at the moment.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Paul Kurtz at Conway Hall, Saturday 27th February

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Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz is coming to London later this month, when he will deliver a talk at Conway Hall entitled "New Directions for Secularists and Humanists". The talk takes place at Conway Hall on Saturday 27 February at 11am, and is free and open to all. Further details are available at the CFI London website.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Rapping evolution in the Bible Belt

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Last week we received a fascinating email from rapper Baba Brinkman, one of the stars of December's Nine Lessons shows, all about his recent experiences performing his Rap Guide to Evolution in Texas and Missouri. We found it so interesting, we asked him if we could republish it on our blog. Here it is:
Fellow Bipeds,

Last week I did my first tour of the Southern USA with the Rap Guide to Evolution, performing in Houston, Texas and Springfield, Missouri. Brace yourselves. Controversy was brewing from the start when I got a "conditional" invitation to perform at Missouri State University, co-sponsored by the departments of Biology, Psychology, and Bio-medicine.

The condition was that I had to "tone down the creationist jabs", and it was imposed by the head of the Biology dept, who felt it would be a turn off for the non-science audience if their beliefs were attacked from the outset.

The primary offending material was of course the chorus of the song Natural Selection: "The weak and the strong, Darwin got it goin' on / Creationism is dead wrong!", plus the song's third verse with the line: "If there is a personal god, then he's been jerkin' off".

I must admit I was a bit indignant about this at first. I didn't mind dropping the third verse from the song, which I often do for the sake of pithiness anyway, but the chorus? How could a Biology dept not stand behind the statement that creationism is dead wrong? Was it my presentation that was controversial, or evolution itself? And even if they disagree, isn't it condescending to sanitize it for them? To see how the British react to the song, check out this video from the Cambridge Darwin Festival last July (a soft audience, I concede).

So here's what set me straight. My first stop of the tour was in Texas, where I did two different lunchtime shows at two campuses of Houston Community College. For the first show I did a mix of Canterbury Tales and Evolution, omitting the song Natural Selection along with a few other chapters as a necessary abridgement, and the show was an unmitigated success. Then on my second day in Houston I stepped to the stage in front of a packed crowd of over a hundred college students and bit the bullet. My cries of "creationism is dead wrong!" were met with incredulous (and mostly hostile) stares, and the call and response part at the end: "When I say 'creationism is...' you say 'dead wrong!" was virtually all call and no response. The half dozen or so brave souls who joined in at first quickly realized that a hundred of their peers were staring them down and their weak cries of "dead wrong..." quickly tapered off. In comedy parlance I "died on my ass", and then spent the next hour clawing my way back from oblivion.

To my credit and theirs, by the end of the show I had won them back and got a hearty round of applause, and I even got respect after the show from a few avowed fundamentalist Christians for the gutsy freestyle part of Performance, Feedback, Revision, in which I mocked: "My friends at home were all skeptics / Like: 'You're rapping about evolution in Texas? / You must have a death wish / Man, you're gonna get lynched!' / Why? No religions get disrespected / Unless they're specifically un-scientific." But talking to a number of the students after the show, the common theme was "great performance, but you almost lost me with that opening piece". Even more to the point is the fact that I did lose quite a few of them, since about fifteen people indignantly walked out in the first ten minutes.

Contrast that once again with the response I get in England. For instance, here's a version of Performance, Feedback, Revision that I did in front of 3,500 skeptics at the Hammersmith Apollo in December, part of Robin Ince's comedy variety show "Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People" which was recently aired on BBC4:

So what did I do in Missouri? I decided that the "condition" imposed on my show was actually a pretty sensible adjustment, but what should I do with the song? Skip it? Water it down to something vague like "alternative theories are dead wrong"? Like a good academic I opted for strategic obscurantism, substituting specific individuals for the debunked theory as a whole. The Missouri State University students were treated to the first ever performance of Natural Selection where the chorus went: "The weak and the strong, Darwin got it goin' on / William Paley was dead wrong... Richard Owen was dead wrong... Etc". To my mind this preserves the strength of the statement without foreclosing on my opportunities to raise consciousness in the ensuing hour, and only the most historically astute creationists will get the dig. Think of it as a form of phenotypic plasticity, allowing the show to adapt to diverse environments rather than face local extinction. At least, that's what I told myself. What do you all think: sell-out or gracious compromise?

Oh, and by the way, the Missouri show was better received than I had imagined at my most optimistic. They even had me autographing CDs and flyers afterward! I fear the South no more.

Tonight I fly to Australia for twenty seven performances of the Rap Guide to Evolution at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, starting Friday. And yes, those Aussie festival-goers will be getting the wild-type, with extra vigor.

All my best,

Fascinating, we're sure you'll agree. If you want to learn more about Baba and his work, take a look at his website and blog. And here he is rapping about Nine Lessons for us after one of the shows back in December:

Friday, 12 February 2010

Happy 201st birthday, Charles

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Today's the 12th of February which, had he lived, would have been the 201st birthday of Charles Darwin, of natural selection fame. It always seems like a good time to remind people of one of our favourite New Humanist features, "Dinner with Darwin", which we ran back in 2008. That was the big man's 199th birthday (you could say we were getting in there early before last year's 200th birthday celebrations), so we asked four leading science writers – Steve Jones, Jerry Coyne, John van Wyhe and James Randerson – what they would say to him if they could join him at the dinner table.

That issue of the magazine also contained Laurie Taylor's interview with David Attenborough, so it was something of a natural history special – on the cover, which is my favourite of all the covers we've had in my time here, we ran this lovely cartoon by Martin Rowson.

A fitting birthday tribute, wouldn't you say?

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The return of Expelled

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I genuinely thought we'd drawn a line under the ludicrous Intelligent Design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. It's two years since it came out in the US, to great mockery and zero acclaim (10 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes - this Wikipedia page should explain the rest). For my own part, I spent a hilarious afternoon watching the film in our office, as it was featured in a debate on science and film that we hosted at the Cambridge Film Festival. If you have any interest in what I thought of it, I live-blogged the whole grisly experience.

Is Expelled not, therefore, a closed issue? Not if the folk at Premier Christian Media (you may have come across their Premier Christian Radio station before) can help it. They've organised a screening and debate (billed as the UK premiere, which, given the fact that it was shown at the Cambridge Film Festival, it isn't) to be held at Imperial College, London on Saturday 27 February:
"Justin Brierley, presenter of Premier's faith debate show "Unbelievable?", will be your host for the day, and there will be representatives from both the Christian and Secular arenas who will be debating EXPELLED after the screening. Guest speakers include Dr. Alastair Noble (Former Inspector of Schools) and Dr. Vij Sodera (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) who advocate intelligent design and Prof. Keith Fox (Biology, Southampton University) and Prof. Thomas Dixon (History of Science, Queen Mary London University) who advocate Darwinian Evolution."
You have to love the idea of "advocating" evolution, don't you? Reminds of the time I spent advocating gravity a few years ago. Anyway, I thought the debate was worth mentioning in case any of you fancied going along. No doubt the "advocates" of evolution could use some support in the audience, although you would have to pay £5 which, as a fee for seeing Expelled, is at least £5 too much.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

That's not a knife...

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Just a quick one on the remarks by Sir Mota Singh QC, the retired judge who yesterday stated that Sikhs should be allowed to carry their Kirpans – ceremonial daggers – in public places. Naturally, the story has led to lost of chatter in the blogosphere, including this post by Sunny Hundal at Pickled Politics, who warns that some secularlists can come across as anti-religious when responding to issues such as this. Hundal suggests issues such as this should be dealt with through "local decisions based on local conditions", rather than through court decisions which lead to blanket bans or the daggers being allowed across the board.

Since it's become quite a big story, I thought I'd put my view and invite comments on the matter. I'm an atheist and a secularist and I would never, as Hundal suggests some atheists would, want to prevent someone expressing their faith unless there was a good reason. The issue of Sikh Kirpans seems to me to be one where surely we could reach some kind of compromise. The Sikh religion says that adherents must carry a kind of knife. But British law doesn't allow people to walk around with knives. So how about we meet halfway, and Sikhs be allowed to carry a version of the Kirpan that couldn't realistically be used as an offensive weapon. We could call it the "Mick Dundee test" – if all you'd think when you saw it was "That's not a knife...", rather than "Oh no, better start running..." then there's no problem.

So that's my view. Seems like a decent compromise to me. In the BBC article about Mota Singh's comments, there is mention of a case where a Sikh boy was banned from wearing his Kirpan at the Compton School in Barnet. In that instance, the school offered to compromise by offering "the option of wearing a smaller knife, welded into a metal sheath" – that'd certainly pass my Mick Dundee test – but the boy's parents declined and removed him from the school. That seems like a shame to me, as the only way we're ever going to avoid problems with issues like this is through compromise. We can't realistically let school kids carry anything with which they could stab each other.

And before you ask, no I'm not trying to ban compasses from maths lessons. With that, I'll open this to the floor.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Robin Ince's School for Gifted Children with Stewart Lee & Alan Moore

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Here's one for the Nine Lessons fans out there – on Monday 29 March Robin Ince returns to the Bloomsbury Theatre with his School for Gifted Children variety show, which Chortle once dubbed "the geekiest comedy night in Britain". And the line-up is as eclectic and star-studded as ever, featuring Stewart Lee and legendary graphic novelist Alan Moore, who amazed us all at Nine Lessons with his rational explanation for his worship of a Roman snake-god (our backstage interview with him is embedded at the bottom of this post). Also confirmed for the show are Jim Bob, Jo Neary, Bridget Christie and Kevin Eldon.

So that's 7.30pm on Monday 29 March – tickets cost £18.50 (£15 concessions) and are available from the Bloomsbury Theatre website.

Photo: Stewart Lee at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People 2009, by Des Willie. View the full gallery on our Fickr site.

Cherie Blair under fire for sparing religious man jail

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The National Secular Society have lodged an official complaint against Cherie Blair with the Office for Judicial Complaints, after she appeared to let a man off with a suspended sentence for assault on account of him being "a religious man". Cherie was sitting as a judge – under her professional moniker Cherie Booth – in Inner London Crown Court, and heard the case of Shamso Miah of Redbridge who, having just been to the Mosque, decided to indulge in the highly religious activity of getting into an argument with a man in a bank queue, before punching him in the face and breaking his jaw. And when the man had the tenacity to chase Miah outside and demand to know why he had been punched, he punched him again.

Miah pleaded guilty to actual bodily harm, but was spared jail and given a suspended sentence by Cherie, who said:
“I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before. You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”
So, just so we have this clear, if you have any plans to punch anyone in the face, it's probably a good idea to go to a place of worship first, and tell the judge you're a religious person. But what if you're an atheist? If we're following Cherie's logic, you'd be heading straight for the slammer.

Naturally, the National Secular Society objected to this and lodged the complaint, with president Terry Sanderson saying “This seems to indicate that she would not have treated a non-religious person with the same latitude. We think this is discriminatory and unjust.”

Update: A lively debate has broken out about this story online since earlier this morning. The Guardian's Andrew Brown wrote a rather unfair piece accusing NSS president Terry Sanderson of wishing to make religious belief a mark of bad character:
"In Sanderson's world, judges should say things like 'Although you have no previous convictions, you are none the less a follower of Pope Benedict XVI and so unable to tell right from wrong. I therefore find myself compelled to impose a custodial sentence.'"
If Brown could identify a time when Sanderson has suggested this, then fair enough. But he never has, and so the assertion is unfair and utterly ridiculous. Indeed, we have a piece by Sanderson in our current issue in which he points out that he's entirely indifferent about religion. He just wants it left out of public life. There's a lively comment thread on Brown's article, should you feel moved to join in.

A further debate around this issue centres on the issue of whether or not Booth's words amount to discrimination. When the story broke, legal blogger Jack of Kent – well known for his insightful analysis of the Simon Singh / chiropractic case – immediately called foul. The NSS state that the ruling "seems to indicate that she [Booth] would not have treated a non-religious person with the same latitude. We think this is discriminatory and unjust." However, Jack of Kent (who, in fact, has now commented on this post) and other legally-minded folk have pointed out that unless there is evidence of a case where a judge has imposed a heavier sentence on an atheist on account of their lack of religious belief, and thus implied lack of good character, then this can not be seen as discrimination. It is common for defence lawyers to point to their clients' good character when arguing for a lenient sentence, and this may involve reference to their group affiliations, including religion. Of course, there is an interesting debate to be had as to whether judges should be accepting religious belief as an indication of good character (which as the BHA have pointed out, it clearly isn't always). It seems that, rather than discrimination, is the real story with regards to Cherie's ruling.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Pope Tour 2010: what do you think?

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Ever since the Pope's Liturgical Mystery Tour of the UK was first mentioned last year, and finally confirmed this week, we haven't quite known what to make of it. As the editors of an iconoclastic Godless magazine, we're inclined to look forward to Benedict XVI's arrival on these shores this coming September, as he'll provide us with a wealth of material and a ready-made source of fun. We've already had lots of fun with our tour names and Roger Davidson's tour posters, another of which we're giving you here.

But at the same time, we fully accept the counter-argument – he's a homophobe, his Church shelters child abusers, he has actually said that condoms exacerbate the HIV problem in Africa, he meddles in our politics by condemning our equality laws. Those are the very reasons he won our 2009 Bad Faith Award. Why is our government embracing the man by offering him a state visit? Wouldn't we usually expect them to condemn someone with his views? Yet, to add insult, the fact that it's a state visit means we'll all be footing the bill, to the tune of £20 million. That's why the National Secular Society have set up a petition against the visit, arguing that if he wants to come, he can pay for it out of the Vatican's substantial coffers. (And we couldn't fail to spot EasyJet cleverly/cynically exploiting this by putting out a press release saying he could fly with them for free.)

So, we decided to put it to a poll.
What do you make of the Pope's forthcoming visit to the UK?

a) It's going to be great. Open-season on the Pope. A Pope-bashing extravaganza.

b) It's an utter disgrace. How dare our government invite this homophobic bigot to our country? And expect me to pay for it.

c) It's fine. With 4 million Catholics in the UK, it's only fair that they should have their head honcho over once-in-a-while

d) Whatever. It's only a man in a dress. Just don't ask me to foot the bill.
To place your vote, use the poll in the top right of this page.

Disaster-hit Haiti ripe for Scientology expansion

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In the immediate aftermath of the Haiti earthquake two weeks ago, it was widely reported that Scientologists – who Tom Cruise infamously stated are the only people who can help at the scene of an accident – were descending on the country to provide their own brand of assistance. Indeed, celebrity Scientologist John Travolta personally flew some of them in with his Boeing 707.

Now, admittedly the Scientologists did turn up with medical supplies, rations and doctors but, given the fact that L Ron Hubbard taught that Scientologists should exploit disaster and bereavement with a view to aquiring new recruts, and that Scientologists have a history of delivering "Touch Assists" (basically healing by touch) on the scene of past disasters like 9/11 and the 2005 tsunami, you'll be able to see why the Church's intervention in Haiti hasn't met with universal acclaim.

And now we learn that Scientology is in Haiti to stay, with a spokesperson telling The Times “I have no doubt that in some form or other there will be a church of Scientology here". This doesn't exactly help with claims that Scientology's Haiti operation is an entirely selfless affair – after all, there's nothing quite like a humanitarian disaster to help kick start a conversion drive. Although you have to wonder what one of the world's poorest countries really has to offer a religion that costs truth-seeking followers hundreds of thousands of dollars as they tread the path to enlightenment. One hopes they're not looking for new employees – if my interview with ex-worker Marc Headley is anything to go by, no level of desperation would turn that into a wise career choice.

Update: Gawker has a first-hand account from someone who travelled to Haiti on a Scientology plane. It seems they've generally been getting in the way and in some cases putting people in danger - at one point they seem to have given food to people who were due to go into surgery. Definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Gay conversion in the UK

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There was an excellent article in yesterday's Independent, in which journalist Patrick Strudwick described the experience of going undercover in the murky world of "sexual reorientation", in which therapists of dubious repute set about trying to "convert" gay people to heterosexuality. It's something that's more commonly associated with the US, but as Strudwick reveals, it appears to be thriving here in the UK too.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's a strong evangelical Christian element. Strudwick had sessions with two therapists, and one of them in particular, who he calls Lynne, mixes religion in with her entirely predictable explanations for homeosexuality (neither of which apply to Strudwick) – child abuse and a "difficult birth" ("Often [with homosexuality the birth] is quite traumatic, the baby was put into intensive care and because of the separation from the mother there can be that lack of attachment").

Lynne is a member of the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (Strudwick has since reported her to them) and, perhaps most shockingly, she suggests that a local NHS GPs surgery refers "patients" to her for treatment, although she says it is best to say you need treatment for "anxiety and depression". When Strudwick phones the surgery in question, one of the partners tells him they do not refer people for reorientation therapy.

Concluding his research, Strudwick asked UCL psychiatrist Professor Michael King to comment on the practices of the two therapists he dealt with. Here's what he said about Lynne:
"This is grossly improper practice. She's imposing prayer and using evidence-free techniques. The whole approach towards the subject of sexual abuse is extremely unprofessional. Leading [and] suggestion in a therapeutic situation is the absolute antithesis of what an exploration of sexual abuse should be about. It's the base of many of these false memory syndromes. She should not be able to get referrals from a GP. Her membership of the BACP should be immediately revoked."
It really is an excellent article - I urge you to go and read the whole thing.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Pope confirms UK Tour as he hits out at UK equality

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In a letter to his bishops in England and Wales, reported by Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill on her blog, Pope Benedict XVI has confirmed that he is coming to Britain in September, in what will be the first ever state visit by a Pontiff. And in the letter, he appears to make a thinly-veiled attack on proposed equality legislation, which would prevent religious organisations from discriminating against potential employees based on their sexual orientation (no doubt the Lords and Church of England Bishops who opposed the legislation in the House of Lords last week will be pleased to have the Pope's support):
"Your country is well known for its firm commitment to equality of opportunity for all members of society. Yet as you have rightly pointed out, the effect of some of the legislation designed to achieve this goal has been to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs. In some respects it actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed. I urge you as Pastors to ensure that the Church’s moral teaching be always presented in its entirety and convincingly defended. Fidelity to the Gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others – on the contrary, it serves their freedom by offering them the truth. Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society. In doing so, you are not only maintaining long-standing British traditions of freedom of expression and honest exchange of opinion, but you are actually giving voice to the convictions of many people who lack the means to express them: when so many of the population claim to be Christian, how could anyone dispute the Gospel’s right to be heard?"
So, he'll be here in September to tell us to stop violating natural law with our equality. Here at New Humanist, it's hard not to look forward to the visit, simply because it'll provide us with so much content. We've already had a lot of fun with the idea of Pope Tour 2010, encouraging readers to come up with rock tour-esque names for the Papal visit. One of our writers, Roger Davidson, even drew some tour posters using the names – now seems like a good time to use another of those, so here's The Liturgical Mystery Tour.

But while we're having some fun with Benedict's visit, it is worth pointing out that it's a state visit, and will therefore be funded by the taxpayer. The National Secular Society are promoting a pettition to the Prime Minister to demand that the Catholic Church pays for the visit itself:
"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to ask the Catholic Church to pay for the proposed visit of the Pope to the UK and relieve the taxpayer of the estimated £20 million cost. We accept the right of the Pope to visit his followers in Britain, but public money would be better spent on hard-pressed schools, hospitals and social services which are facing cuts."
So, September's going to be an interesting month, at least in my line of work. We'll have more Pope Tour posters nearer the time.

None dead in mass homeopathic overdose

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The mass homeopathic overdose, organised by the 10:23 campaign, went ahead on Saturday morning, and it appears everyone involved lived to tell the tale. Hundreds of sceptics gathered at various locations around the country, many of them outside branches of Boots, and at 10:23am downed entire packets of homeopathic pills. With the exception of an amusing remark reported in the Observer from Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who quipped that one "swallower" hurt their thumb while opening the pill bottle, there were no reports of casualties.

But while they may not have succeeded in taking their own lives (that was the aim, wasn't it? Or am I missing something?), the 10:23 campaigners have succeeded in raising awareness of the inefficacy of homeopathic medicine, and the double-standards of leading pharmacists who happily stock them while admitting that they don't work. The campaign has received a huge amount of media coverage – it's been in the broadsheets (Telegraph, Guardian, Times) the tabloids and even on BBC News. Martin Robbins, one of the campaign organisers, told me they're delighted with the response:
"We're absolutely thrilled with the amount of media interest we managed to generate, not just across the British media but from places all around the world, as far afield as Brazil and New Zealand. The reaction has been great fun to watch too. In New Zealand for example homeopaths were forced to admit that their remedies have nothing in them, to the amusement of the local media. We really hope that this will encourage more people to ask awkward questions of their local Boots pharmacist!"
And with the House of Commons select committee on science and technology due to recommend a reappraisal of £4 million per year spent on homoepathy by the NHS, this may not be the best time to be a homeopath. Indeed, the trigger for the 10:23 campaign was Boots' professional standards director admitting to the select committe that there is no evidence to support the efficacy of homeopathy.

The photo I've used here is from the 10:23 Campaign's Flickr gallery, which you can peruse for more pics. And if you want to hear more about Saturday's event, why not have a listen to the latest edition of the sceptical Pod Delusion podcast, which features interviews with Simon Singh, Evan Harris and Dave Gorman, who were all present at the London "overdose".