Wednesday, 31 March 2010

How will you be voting?

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With the general election coming up (on 6 May, by all accounts), we decided our March/April issue was a good time to look at what the three main parties had to offer our readers. As there are no manifestos out just yet, we've pulled together what we know about the parties' positions in some key areas – education, extremism, science, constitutional reform and moral issues – and spoken to some commentators in an effort to find out if there's a natural home for the humanist/sceptical voter. There's also a list of questions you could ask your candidates, if you'd like to assess their credentials on these issues.

Have a read of the article, and let us know what you think. Do you think there's a natural political home for humanists? Do you think there should be? Do you think there should be a (controversial this one) humanist party? Or should we be shifting away from the idea of parties, and looking more closely at our individual candidates. Let us know by commenting on this post.

Down with self-esteem

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You may not agree with Theodore Dalrymple's politics (well I don't, perhaps you do) but he really is one of the best and most prolific writers and always worth reading, not least because he writes so damn well. In this brilliant piece he draws on his experience as a prison doctor in the UK to make the subtle but telling distinction between self-esteem (a shallow sense of self-importance) and self-respect (a vital aspect of character one has to work for). He really is the best kind of modern moralist. Read his provocative piece for us from January last year too.

He's not the Messiah, just a very boring boy...

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Last night I watched a documentary on More4 called A Long Weekend with the Son of God, all about Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop, a 48-year-old Russian man who's managed to bag himself 4,000 followers who believe he's the second coming of Christ. They live together in a village community in deepest Siberia, where they go about their lives according to the teachings of Torop, or Vissarion, as he is known within the cult (sorry, community).

Vissarion's every word is recorded in an ever-growing collection of comprehensively-indexed, leather-bound gospels, which appeared to already stretch to far more pages than the original Bible. Which makes you wonder, what does a man with so much to say have to, well, say? Not a great deal, as it turns out. At one point a female follower looked to the good books for guidance on how to cope while her husband was away, only to find some cryptic words about how Vissarion can make up more laws when required. And when we finally meet Vissarion, things don't become any clearer. There are no profound parables from this incarnation of Jesus, just long, drawn out platitudes intoning followers to be "Righteous" and seek "the Truth, delivered in painfully slow monotonous sentences. Those expecting deep philosophical insights from the Second Coming need not apply. Perhaps as a godless heathen I protest too much, but if you ask me Vissarion isn't the Messiah, just a very boring boy.

If there was anything interesting to learn from the cult, it wasn't coming from their Messiah. It was certainly intriguing to see the hyrdid religion Vissarion had created for his followers, but we didn't learn much about that from his on-screen appearances. It's a strange mixture of old-fashioned Christianity and new-age paganism, with lots of dancing and singing in circles, which at time made parts of the documentary look like scenes from the Wicker Man (albeit without the sex and human sacrifice). To Vissarion's followers, Earth is a Gaia-like, sentient organism that man has brought to the brink of ruin, and they're pulling it back in their own small way through their subsistence farming and veganism.

What wasn't entirely clear was what cult-leader Vissarion was getting out of it all. There is obviously the submission of his loyal followers to his eternal wisdom, but usually when you look closely at cults, the leaders' rewards are often of the more earthly, sex-and-cash variety. We did at one point see a disciple deny that new members must hand over all their worldly possessions but, while Vissarion did have a slightly nicer house than the others, he didn't seem to be living in luxury. And while he did have a young wife, he didn't seem to have laid sexual claim to the rest of his female followers.

He did, however, have his very own quad bike. Perhaps he was happy with that. Each Messiah to his own, I guess.

If you're in the UK, you can watch A Long Weekend with the Son of God on 4OD.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Humanity's extra minute

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Physicist Lawrence Krauss is co-chairman of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the journal which, ever since 1947, has documented how close humanity is to bringing about its own destruction using the Doomsday Clock. It's a simple concept – midnight on the clock means Armageddon, and the sponsors move the time either further from or closer to midnight depending on how close they think we are to Armageddon (of the very secular variety).

In January, the sponsors took the decision to give us an extra minute, moving the time, which since 2007 had stood at five minutes to midnight, back to six minutes to midnight. So, for our March issue, we asked Krauss to explain what we had done to to earn this extra minute. In a fascinating piece he does just that, while also taking time to warn us against complacency by including eight myths that can lead to people thinking the world is safer than it actually is.

Once you've read the piece, please share your thoughts by commenting on this post.

See Baba Brinkman's "Rap Guide to Evolution" live in London

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Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman, the man behind the fantastic rationalist anthem Off That (which has now passed 21,000 views on YouTube), is coming to London to perform his Rap Guide to Evolution at the Greenwich Theatre on 26 April. Tickets are £10 on the theatre webiste, but you might like to take advantage of a special offer price of £5 available through the Evening Standard.

Baba rocked audiences at our Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows with a few snippets from the Rap Guide to Evolution, so if you liked that then this is a great chance to catch the full show – it was originally commissioned by Birmingham University microbiologist and Rough Guide to Evolution author Dr Mark Pallen, who subsequently vetted the script, making it, as Baba joked at Nine Lessons, the first rap show to be peer reviewed. If you haven't seen Nine Lessons, here's a video of Baba performing one of the tracks, "Peformance Feedback Revision", at the Hammersmith Apollo last December:

[Photo by Des Willie]

Phillip Pullman: "No one has the right to live without being shocked"

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This video of Phillip Pullman speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival is doing the internet rounds this morning, as well it might. Challenged by a Christian audience member on the "offensive" title of his new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scounderel Christ, Pullman delivers a wonderfully succinct explanation of what freedom of speech is all about:

Government counter-extremism strategy alienating Muslims

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A report by the parliamentary communities and local government committee has criticised the "Prevent" strand of the government's counter-terrorism strategy, suggesting that it sends out a confused message that risks alienating the Muslim communities it is designed to engage with. Under Prevent, government funds are channelled into local projects with the intention of promoting community cohesion at the expense of the message of would-be promoters of extremist Islam, thereby reducing the numbers of young Muslims turning to extremism and, in the worst-case scenario, seeking to emulate the four British Muslims who bombed London's transport network in July 2005.

Committee chairwoman Dr Phyllis Starkey told the BBC that it iss "very difficult to measure" what positive impact, if any, Prevent is having, with the strategy particularly undermined by a widespread perception that it is used by the authorities as an opportunity to spy on Muslim groups and communities. The committee has recommended that the government commission an independent investigations into allegations of spying.

Starkey also points out that the mixing of counter-terrorism work with community engagement sends out a mixed, confused message, and suggests that the two should be separated, with the Home Office covering the prevention of terrorism, and the Department for Communities covering community-cohesion (at the moment, Communities covers both):
"We agree that a targeted strategy must address the contemporary al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist threat, but we do not believe a government department charged with promoting cohesive communities should take a leading role in this counter-terrorism initiative."
Writing for New Humanist this time last year, I looked into the impact of Prevent in my hometown of Blackburn, where a quarter of the population of Muslim. The views of those I spoke to there about Prevent were very similar to those reported by the parliamentary committee today, with Muslims exhibiting a profound mistrust of counter-terrorism work dressed up as community engagement. Prevent was seen as a "carte blanche painting of the community as potential terrorists", and there was a sense that government funds only end up being allocated to Muslim groups willing to conduct their work under the guise of preventing extremism – in the wake of 7/7, "everything Muslim-related is extremism-related". To some, Prevent money was dirty money, and to accept such funding would involve compromising your integrity, perhaps even betraying those around you. This, of course, was not helped by the widespread view that the primary aim of Prevent is to spy on Muslims.

Judging by the conclusions of the communities and local government committee, these perceptions are not just confined to Blackburn, but are present throughout Britain, wherever Prevent funds have been allocated. In terms of preventing terror attacks, it's hard to know how successful Prevent has been – since there have been no attacks here since 7/7, perhaps it has worked. But we have no way of knowing that. But, as I wrote last year:
"If we are to view PVE [Prevent] not just as a means of tackling extremism but as a way of addressing the social malaise affecting Britain's multicultural towns, it seems clear that it is not working - if a policy aimed at Muslims has the effect of alienating Muslims, how can it be seen as a success?"
It seems clear that the mixing of counter-terrorism and community engagement is problematic, and that has been recognised by the committee. If Labour stays in power after the election, it'll be interesting to see if they follow the committee's advice and rethink the strategy. If the Conservatives win the election, it seems there will be some change, with their shadow communities secretary Caroline Spellman telling the BBC that a "complete review" is needed:
"We need a complete review of the Prevent strategy, with an emphasis on removing the confusion between counter-terrorism and cohesion work, shifting the emphasis to funding groups which bring communities together and ensuring compatibility with fundamental rights and freedoms."
Of course, given the confused nature of Labour's work with Muslim organisations, with various groups falling in and out of favour over the years (for instance the Muslim Council of Britain), it'll be interesting to see which groups the Conservatives decide to throw their support behind if they form the next government.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Screenwriter apologises for Battlefield Earth

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It's always good to see someone throw up their hands and admit they were wrong, so hats off to Hollywood scriptwriter JD Shapiro who, in an amusing piece for the New York Post, has apologised for penning the script for Battlefield Earth, the 2000 Scientology-inspired science fiction film often recognised as one of the worst things ever to be committed to celluloid.

Shapiro, who gamely accepted the Razzie award for worst film of the decade last month, says the final product was far worse than anything he'd envisioned when he wrote the script, but he nevertheless begins by apologising to anyone who has seen Battlefield Earth, which starred John Travolta and was based on a story by Scientology creator and sci-fi writer L Ron Hubbard. He was never a Scientology member himself, and he suggests that part of his motivation for flirting with the organisation was a crush he had on a female member of the infamous Sea Org. It doesn't seem like that particular venture proved successful, and he concludes the article by reflecting on how Battlefield Earth has affected his romantic fortunes in the 10 years since:
In the end, did Scientology get me laid? What do you think? No way do you get any action by boldly going up to a woman and proclaiming, "I wrote Battlefield Earth!" If anything, I'm trying to figure out a way to bottle it and use it as birth control. I'll make a mint!
As I said, very funny, and always good to see someone admit they were wrong! Read the full piece on the NY Post site.

Are fundamentalist families taking over? Come and discuss our cover story at the RSA

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We're co-hosting an event at London's RSA on 15 April featuring Eric Kaufmann, who we interviewed for our current cover story, "Battle of the babies". Kaufmann will be talking about his new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, which looks closely at demographic data which suggests that the number of fundamentalists of all stripes is set to increase greatly in the coming decades, just as falling birth rates among secularists and the moderately religious look set to bring about a decrease in their numbers.

At the RSA on 15 April, at 6pm, Kaufmann will be discussing this with our commissioning editor Laurie Taylor. If you found our cover story interesting, this is your chance to come and hear more from Kaufmann, and ask him any questions you may have (it's already generated some lively debate on this blog). The event is free and open to all, but you do need to register at the RSA site for a ticket - in our experience these events at the RSA can fill up quite quickly, so it's a good idea to do that now to avoid disappointment.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Last supper goes pop

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A music video that recreates some of the great paintings of the past, made relevant to us primarily for the Last Supper at the beginning. Rather good [via VSL]

Need contraception? Better hope your pharmacist believes in it then...

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Oh dear. The BBC reports that the General Pharmaceutical Council, a new regulatory body for pharmacists that is set to replace the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, has decided to retain a "conscience clause" that permits pharmacists to refuse to supply customers with medicine and products that they object to on grounds of their religious beliefs. Such products are, of course, contraceptives. Apparently further consultation is due before the code of conduct is adopted later this year, but it seems pharmacists will be able to refuse to supply products like condoms and the Pill providing that they tell you where to find the nearest pharmacist who doesn't want to restrict your reproductive freedom because of their beliefs.

Utter madness.

Pope implicated in US abuse cover-up

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As the Catholic child abuse scandals rumble on, the Vatican's claim that Pope Benedict XVI knew nothing of the shameful and widespread cover-ups, and the related attempt to portray him as the apologetic, forgiving Pontiff who can restore the Church's moral authority, look increasingly tenuous.

Following allegations that he knew of the assignment of an abusive priest to a new parish in Bavaria when he was Archbishop of Munich, the New York Times today reports on how the Pope, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger in the mid-'90s, may have been aware of, or possibly involved in, the decision to not defrock a Wisconsin priest, Rev Lawrence Murphy, who was known to have abused children at a deaf school between 1950 and 1974.

The details of the Pope's involvement are sketchy, although the involvement of the Vatican's current Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who at the time of the Murphy decision in 1996 was Ratzinger's right hand man at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition), seems much clearer. According to the New York Times report, Bertone stopped proceeding to defrock Murphy after the priest personally wrote to Ratzinger "protesting that he should not be put on trial because he had already repented and was in poor health and that the case was beyond the church’s own statute of limitations". Files seen by the paper, which have come to light as part of an ongoing lawsuit by abuse victims against the Archdiocese of Milqaukee, despite Vatican attempts to keep them secret, contain no reply from Ratzinger.

So, while there is no evidence that the Pope himself authorised a decision not to defrock the abusive priest, this latest report appears to further undermine claims that Ratzinger played no role in covering up child abuse. We know that letters were sent directlt to him by an abusive priest asking for proceeding against him to be stopped. We don't know that Ratzinger himself read the letters, but they certainly passed through his department. What we do know is that Ratzinger's second-in-command, Cardinal Bertone, who is now the Vatican's Secretary of State, did act on the appeal made by Murphy in his letters.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the horrific scandal of child rape and its concealment has infected every level of the Catholic Church, from parish priests who committed it all the way up to leading Vatican officials who tried to ensure the abuse was never made public (or indeed, made into a matter for secular legal authorities). There's not yet any clear evidence of an individual case that the Pope himself helped to cover up, but the scandal seems to be getting closer to his door with every new media report. In any case, we've long known about Ratiznger's 2001 letter to bishops ordering them to handle abuse allegations "in the most secretive way", on pain of excommunication. All the while, we in Britain are gearing up to welcome the Pope here in September as the head of a nation state – indeed one whose Secretary of State has today been directly linked with a cover-up. This is just one of the reasons why the Protest the Pope coalition are preparing a warm welcome for Ratzinger when he comes to these shores (for more reasons, see here). In fact, the coalition is holding a protest outside Westminster Cathedral this Sunday, if you're interested – visit their website for more details.

Priests who have lost their faith

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Absolutely fascinating piece of research just published by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, featuring in-depth interviews with five priests who have lost their faith in God. Just like the disillusioned priest in Bergman's Winter Light (played by Gunnar Björnstrand, right), these pastors find themselves unable to believe the very things it is their job to tell their congregations. The stories are both worrying and moving. Reading these evidently decent fellows agonizing about their own hypocrisy and narrating their intellectual and emotional struggles with belief is psychologically fascinating - but seeing them say things like they can't reveal their new-found atheism because they need the job, or would miss the sense of community, is a stark reminder of the damage done by religion as an institution and the deep cynicism of those who think it's fine to tell the people that Jesus is the son of God, was born to a virgin and rose from the dead, when they themselves know this to be absurd. Download the 28-page report as a pdf, and read Dennett responding to comments from readers here.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Join us for more comedy and science with Robin Ince, Brian Cox and Marcus Brigstocke

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We're pleased to be helping promote another cracking night of science, music and comedy hosted by Robin Ince, this time featuring pop physicist Brian Cox, comedian Marcus Brigstocke, science writer Adam Rutherford and singer-songwriter Gavin Osborn. More names will be added to the bill in coming weeks too.

It's one of Robin's School for Gifted Children nights ("the geekiest comedy night in Britain", to borrow a line from comedy website Chortle) and it's at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London on Friday 7 May. Tickets are on sale now at the Bloomsbury website, priced £18.50.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Government gets behind libel reform

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Fantastic news reaches us this morning from the corridors of power – Index on Censorship reports that Justice Secretary Jack Straw has this morning announced that the government will look to address the issue of libel reform in the next parliament. Here's what he's proposing:

• The current multiple publication rule will be replaced with a ‘single publication rule.’ This will ensure that claimants in libel proceedings cannot bring a case against every publication or download of a story repeating the same claims – for example, when an article published by one outlet is held on an online archive. Instead, claimants will only be able to bring a single action, within one year of the date of the original publication. The interests of people who are defamed will be protected by giving the court the power to extend this period where necessary.

• Consideration will be given to a statutory defence to protect publications that are in the public interest. This will help address the ‘chilling effect’ that the threat of libel proceedings can sometimes have on investigative journalism, which occurs when media outlets and NGOs are cautious about publishing important information due to the threat of legal action.

• The Government will also move to prevent the growth of ‘libel tourism’ – when foreign claimants use English courts to make libel claims against foreign publications outside the EU which can be accessed in the UK. This will include asking the Civil Procedure Rule Committee to consider tightening the rules where the court’s permission is required to serve defamation cases outside England and Wales. This will help head off inappropriate claims at the earliest stage and stop them from reaching court.

So, it looks like the Libel Reform campaign, to which we have given our backing (in the form of our parent charity, the Rationalist Association) is proving successful. Of course, there is a slight catch in the Labour government declaring its intentions to address libel reform in the next parliament – with the polls pointing to us having a Conservative government by May, what we need now is a commitment from the Conservative Party to address libel if it does indeed form the next government. It's a reason to continue supporting the Libel Reform campaign (they're in parliament this morning on a mass lobby of MPs). And, as I've just spotted legal blogger Jack of Kent saying on Twitter, it's a very good reason to get on to your local Tory candidates (indeed, all your candidates) and ask them if they support reform.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Can you help with our online media?

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New Humanist is looking for a volunteer (that means no money) to help us with our social media content. You need to be able to record and edit podcasts (Audition or Audacity), edit and upload video content, be set up to work from home with occasional travel to central London, have a genuine interest in and be full of ideas about rationalism, humanism, science and scepticism, know your Simon Singhs from your Daniel Dennetts, be familiar with New Humanist content and activities (including our existing audio and video output), understand (but be suitably sceptical about) Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets and be very nice.

Interested? Send us an email:

Are fundamentalist families taking over?

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In our latest cover story, Caspar Melville talks to political scientist Eric Kaufmann, whose new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? dives deep into demographic data to provide a worrying projection – the birth and retention rates among religious fundamentalists (which includes everything from Amish to Islamists) are far greater than those among both moderate religious people and secularists, meaning the influence of fundamentalism could be set to increase greatly in the coming decades.

This is, of course, not the full story, as will become clear when you read the interview. For instance, to take a common misuse of demography committed by those on the right who suggest Europe is destined to become "Eurabia", such as Geert Wilders and Melanie Phillips, Kaufmann points out that suggestions that birth rates mean Muslims will one day outnumber non-Muslims in Europe are false. Demographers predict that Muslims in countries like the UK, Holland and Germany will make up between 10 and 15 per cent of the total population.

So, while it makes for scary headlines, Kaufmann's is a greatly nuanced argument, but one that poses a real challenge for both secularism and moderate religion. It is certainly another nail in the coffin of the secularisation thesis. The main purpose of this post is to provide a place for people to comment once they have read the interview. So, if this has attracted your interest, go and read the full piece, and then share your thoughts by commenting on this post.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Off That (Rationalist Anthem)

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This is a moment we've been anticipating for weeks - when rapper Baba Brinkman, one of the stars of last year's Godless Christmas shows, asked us to put together some images for his new rationalist anthem, "Off That", we wasted no time in passing on the best of our archive to videographer Tommy Nagle, who has just this afternoon turned in the mindblowing finished product.

I won't waste any more of your time with my words, except to say that, thanks to Baba, Tommy and producer Mr Simmonds, from now on when someone asks us what we stand for, we might just tell them to start by watching this.

If you'd like to download the audio track for your MP3 players, you can do so using this link. And if you'd like to watch the video in HD, you can do that on Facebook.

Friday, 19 March 2010

What is the Tony Blair Faith Foundation for?

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Given his track record on God few were surprised when Tony Blair set up his Faith Foundation once he left office. But what, exactly, is it for? We asked Ruth Turner, the chief executive, and she explains it in Leap of Faith.

Convinced? Let us know by posting your comments here

Catholic sex abuse, cartoons and the dangers of religious privilege

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Following on from yesterday's post on the question of the current Pope's responsibility for the Catholic child abuse scandals, I recommend you read the ever-excellent Johann Hari's latest Independent column which, in light of the reactions to the arrest of extremists accused of plotting to kill the Scandinavian Muhammad cartoonists, and allegations that the Pope may have had knowledge of an abuse cover-up in Germany, warns of the dangers of affording excessive respect to religions and exempting them from the criticism applied to all other ideas. It is, Hari argues, a situation which leads to otherwise reasonable individuals becoming apologists for child abusers and would-be axe-wielding murderers.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Pope and the Catholic child abuse cover-ups

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In the last year, Catholic child abuse scandals rarely seem to have disappeared from the headlines. In Ireland, the Ryan Report and a later enquiry by a Commission of Investigation threw much light on the horrific abuse perpetrated by priests there, along with the disgraceful lengths taken by senior Catholics to cover-up the crimes of their subordinates. Writing about these reports in our magazine in January, Laurie Taylor described the abuse he both witnessed and was subjected to at a Catholic boarding school here in England in the 1940s.

At the centre of all this lies the question of Pope Benedict XVI's responsibility. In February he described the abuse in Ireland as a "heinous crime" and condemned the way in which Irish bishops handled the allegations. Just yesterday, to mark St Patrick's Day, he wrote an open letter which he hoped would "help in the process of repentance, healing and renewal". But at the same time, Rome is often seen as dodging responsibility for the scandals, most recently (and bizarrely) in the form of its chief exorcist suggesting that the child abuse is the result of Satan being at work in the Vatican.

In the last week allegations of Catholic child abuse have come from across Europe, with those emerging from the Pope's native Germany posing a particular challenge to his reputation. It is alleged that the Pope, when he was Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, may have known that a paedophile priest was resassigned to another parish, where he was able to abuse again. The Pope's official spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, has dismissed this as a failed attempt to link Benedict with the abuse scandals, while the Archdiocese of Munich has moved to point out that he knew nothing about the priest's reassignment, and that the diocese's then-vicar general Gerhard Gruber "takes full responsibility for the wrong decisions". Meanwhile, the Pope's older brother, Georg Ratzinger, has admitted to, and apologised for, slapping pupils when he was choirmaster of a boarding school in Regensburg, Bavaria, and failing to act against violent acts perpetrated by others, but denied knowledge of sexual abuse that is alleged to have taken place there.

So should Pope Benedict XVI bear some of the responsibility for the child abuse scandals? In a damning article, even by his own standards, Christopher Hitchens argues that he must. The piece, published on Slate, is titled "The Great Catholic Cover-Up" and, in a sign of the case Hitchens presents, is subtitled "The Pope's entire career has the stench of evil about it". Hitchens argues that Benedict bears both individual and instiutional responisbility. With regards to the Munich allegations, Hitchens quotes a former employee of the Vatican Embassy in Washington, Rev Thomas Doyle, who suggests that Ratzinger, as a "micromanager", is likely to have known about the abusive priest's reassigment. Of course, this is not firm evidence that the Pope had knowledge of it, but much more concrete is Hitchens' case for the instituional responsibility he bears. As is well-known, in 2001 the previous Pope made the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (which is often referred to as the modern incarnation of the Inquisition), then led by Cardinal Ratzinger, responsible for investigating the child abuse allegations. As Hitchens points out, the Congregation handled this task in the following manner:
"In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture. The accusations, intoned Ratzinger, were only treatable within the church's own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden. Charges were to be investigated "in the most secretive way ... restrained by a perpetual silence ... and everyone ... is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication." (My italics). Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble. And this is the church that warns us against moral relativism!"
And having set out his evidence, Hitchens concludes with his verdict on the man more than a billion people are meant to view as God's representative on earth:
"The Roman Catholic Church is headed by a mediocre Bavarian bureaucrat once tasked with the concealment of the foulest iniquity, whose ineptitude in that job now shows him to us as a man personally and professionally responsible for enabling a filthy wave of crime."
As I said, damning words, even for Hitchens.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A ludicrous example for why we need libel reform

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As the campaign for reform of English libel law continues to gather pace, this story on the Telegraph website provides a nice illustration of why change has become so necessary. In what would surely represent the most ludicrous incidence of libel tourism to date, reports in the Danish press suggest that Saudi lawyer Faisal Yamani plans to come to London to pursue his libel case against the 11 Danish newspapers that published the the Muhammad cartoons back in 2006. Given that Muhammad lived and died in the 7th century, you could at this juncture legitimally ask who could possibly have been libelled by the cartoons. Well, in Yamani's view that would be more than 90,000 supposed living descendants of Muhammad. And if you're wondering why he thinks this would be a matter for our courts, it's because the cartoons were published by the papers on their websites, and so were accessible in this country.

Yamani had initially hoped to pursue the case in the Danish courts, but they ruled it was not actionable. It's worth pointing out that there is no indication at this stage that he will be able to do so in London, but the Danish justice minister appears to be taking the prospect seriously, having complained to the European Commission.

As Padraig Reidy points out on the Index on Censorship blog, it seems somewhat unlikely that we will actually see this case pursued in the English courts, but the fact that it is even being talked about is surely a sign that things need to change.

Ireland to hold referendum on blasphemy

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Here's some positive news regarding the blasphemy law passed in Ireland last year – the justice minister Dermot Ahern, who attracted a great deal of criticism for introducing it, has indicated that a referendum will take place later this year on whether to remove it. The referendum would allow Irish voters to choose whether to amend the Republic's constitution to remove a clause proscribing blasphemy. Ahern maintains that he only introduced last year's legislation in order to bring the law in line with this constitutional clause.

Atheist Ireland, which has spearheaded the campaign against the blasphemy law, welcomed the news:
"Atheist Ireland thanks everyone who has helped to make the campaign against this new law as effective as it has been to date. It is now important we maintain the pressure on this issue to ensure that the referendum happens as proposed and, more importantly, that it is won.

We reiterate our position that this law is both silly and dangerous: silly because it is introducing medieval canon law offence into a modern pluralist republic; and dangerous because it incentives religious outrage and because its wording has already been adopted by Islamic States as part of their campaign to make blasphemy a crime internationally."
If it goes ahead, the referendum will take place in the autumn, alongside another planned referendum on children's rights.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Regrowing the city

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When I commissioned this article on the group of radical dreamers known as the Situationists, I got the impression that some of my colleagues thought it was a bit arcane and irrelevant. Didn't they just spend a lot of time drifting around Paris thinking pie-in-the-sky thoughts about impossible cities of the future where people could be really free? ButI went ahead anyway. And I was glad I had watching Julian Temple's brilliant documentary on the catastrophic demise of Motor City, Requiem for Detroit, shown on BBC2 this Saturday. In his powerful treatment of the story of how a major city was destroyed by the self-satisfied myopia of the American auto industry who thought the good times would never end, Temple provides a fascinating coda which details how the post-industrial landscape is being taken back - both by nature (plants sprouting in the empty houses and factories) and through the ingenuity and creativity of city gardeners and artists. Nothing would have made Guy Debord and the other Situationist dreamers happier, or better proved that their poetic radicalism can serve as a pragmatic model for building better worlds. [The image here is Contant's "symbolic representation of New Babylon" his never created ideal city] If you are in the UK you can see Requiem for Detroit here

Monday, 15 March 2010

What kind of an animal is man?

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Is there a contradiction between being a humanist and being a Darwinist? Raymond Tallis doesn't think so, and using the example of the finger he points to what makes us special. But there are many who are critical of humanism's so-called "speciesism". Is thinking that we are higher than other animals akin to a kind of racism? We sent John Appleby to explore the borderlands between man and beast where he meets some strange species of anti-humanism, elephants with post-traumatic stress disorder and a philosopher with the heart of a border collie.

Let us know what you think by posting a comment here

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Urge the Bishops to support Lords reform

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A few weeks ago, I blogged about the Power 2010 campaign, and the attempt to find the top five political reforms favoured by the electorate. At the time a poll was open to determine the five, and I urged you to get behind the proposal for a fully elected House of Lords – in my personal view a worthy political cause in its own right, and one particularly relevant to humanism in that it would lead to the removal of the 26 unelected Church of England bishops from the second chamber.

In the end the proposal made the Power 2010 top five (it came in third, in fact), and so the campaign is now calling on politicians to pledge their support for Lords reform, along with the four other top issues – electoral reform, scrapping ID cards, a written constitution and a proposal to only allow English MPs to vote on exclusively English issues.

The British Humanist Association is a partner of Power 2010 and, along with the liberal Christian think tank Ekklesia, they're inviting people to support the Lords pledge by writing to the 26 Bishops, as members of the Lords, to urge them to get behind the democratic reform of the second chamber, and "call on them to engage positively with democratic renewal rather than burying their heads in the sand". You can do this easily via the Power 2010 website.

I wonder if the Bishops will go for it? You never know – after all, this is one set of turkeys that's actually quite keen on Christmas...

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Creationist corner

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I thought I'd share a couple of creationism-related links I've come across today. First up, here's an interesting little piece from the Telegraph on the annual field trip taken by students from the late US evangelist Jerry Falwell's Liberty University to the Natural History Museum in Washington DC. It's a trip that has its basis in a know-your-enemy style philosophy – in order to defeat the evolutionists, the creationists first need to know what the evolutionists think. In the words of the univeristy's paleontology teacher: "In order to be the best creationist, you have to be the best evolutionist you can be."

Following on from that, last week I blogged about the way in which creationists in the US have been looking to ally their cause with that of climate change denialists, in order to avoid accusations that theirs is a religiously-motivated campaign (the aim is to make it seem like it's about the science, not religion). It looks like this is working both ways, because this morning I read this Washington Post blog post on how global warming deniers are mimicking creationists. They want schools to teach both sides of the "controversy" in science lessons that mention global warming, just as creationists want to see creationism and / or ID wheeled out every time evolution is mentioned in lessons. In South Dakota, the state legislature has even passed a resolution calling on schools take this "balanced" approach.

We'll continue to watch this creationism/climate denial crossover with a keen eye. Wonder if we can expect the AIDS denialists to get involved at some stage?

Adventures in woo

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We've just taken delivery of our new issue, which should be on its way to subscribers as I write. As a little sample, we've published our commissioning editor Laurie Taylor's Endgame column, in which he recounts a traumatic trip to a health farm he took earlier this year. It was a holistic world of chakras, auras and life force energy, and like a true rationalist Laurie lasted just a couple of hours.

And in a woo double-bill, this seems like an appropriate place to reproduce this news story from the new issue:

One chakra short of a guru?

What with one thing and another it’s not always easy to find a good guru when you need one, so New Humanist was delighted to come across a copy of EnlightenNext, which describes itself as “The magazine for evolutionaries” and is available for a modest £4.95.

This is not, however, a magazine concerned with such small-scale evolutionary matters as the latest fossil finds. It is aimed at those who want to live at the “very leading edge of evolution” itself. People, that is, who are sufficiently advanced to be able to bring “a new spiritual and moral paradigm into the heart of 21st-century culture”.

And – well, you’ve guessed it – to become one of those leading edge people you’ll need paid help from experts. You might, for example, favour Ken Wilber, who offers “integral coaching” and asks, “Are you serious about unfolding in a whole new way?” Because if you are, then Ken asks, “Where do you want to grow?” and promises that he’ll help “build the muscles to get you there”.

If that sort of growing doesn’t sound fast enough to fit into your busy life then you might prefer the “accelerated growth” offered by Saniel Bonder and Linda Groves-Bonder. The Bonders tell us that “The HEART” is our “human-divine essence” and that they “transmit whole-being nutrition through many means to help you find HEART-strength in these turbulent times”.

But even the Bonders seem small beer compared to Doctor Don Beck, a “rare Integral Design Engineer” who leads the way “in defusing and refocusing the dangerously high energy in global hot spots”. Yes, wherever there’s dangerously high energy around, Doctor Beck is on call: “In Israel/Palestine, Russia, Mexico, Chile, Latin America, South Africa and South Chicago” he is “on the ground and in the thick of it”.

One last word of advice though. Before you decide to move to the leading edge of evolution it might be a good idea to check your mucoid layers. These, according to the Arise and Shine advertisement, are the “long dark rubbery ropes” which people expel towards the end of 40 days of fasting. There’s a helpful picture of some black ropey looking objects and even though we’re no expert on these matters, from the look of them they’re definitely better out than in. Not that we want to be too dogmatic. As Avona Carttier, who runs the mucoid cleansing business, reasonably says: “If these mucoid layers are left inside your body, that’s your business. If you want to get rid of them that’s our business.”

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

An insight into home-schooling

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Last week, I reported on the forthcoming grand opening of the New Life Academy in Hull, a fundamentalist Christian private school which will use the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum (something the school's website cheekily claims is "OFSTED approved", even though OFSTED doesn't "approve" curricula).

In that post, I quoted a passage from an ACE science textbook, which pertained to the existence, or not, of the Loch Ness Monster:
"Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all."
Informative stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. I was reminded of this this morning when I read this San Francisco Chronicle article, from the Associated Press, about the textbooks used by home-schooling parents in the US. Home-schooling is extremely popular with fundamentalist American parents, who see it as a useful way of avoiding exposing their children to corrupting influences, such as science. But as the article points out, not all parents who home-school do so for religious reasons, and some of those have been shocked to find that the bestselling home school science textbooks tend to have an anti-scientific bias. For instance, we learn that in Biology: Third Edition, from Bob Jones University Press (a quick Google shows Bob Jones is a fundamentalist college in South Carolina), the introduction states the following:
"Those who do not believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God will find many points in this book puzzling. This book was not written for them."
And then later in the book, young biologists are told that "Christian worldview ... is the only correct view of reality; anyone who rejects it will not only fail to reach heaven but also fail to see the world as it truly is."

When the majority of the 1.5 million Americans who receive home-schooling doing so because of their parents' religious views, that's a lot of children deprived of a proper science education. I'd be interested to know if there's a similar situation here in the UK.

Monday, 8 March 2010

So how vulnerable is Scientology?

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When I interviewed Scientology defector Marc Headley for our January issue, I suggested it may be open season on the Church of L Ron Hubbard, with the work of online protest group Anonymous and the testimonies of former members helping to break down the wall that has long surrounded the fiercely litigious cult.

Then a story in the Washington Post last week suggested the Church was fighting back – it has hired a trio of respected investigative journalists to compile a report on the practices of the St Petersburg Times, the Florida newspaper renowned for its fearless coverage of Scientology's activities, the most recent example being last year's "Truth Rundown", a powerful exposé of the endemic violence at the heart of the Church's operations. The investigative trio is headed by Steve Weinberg, who used to run Investigative Reporters and Editors, a body dedicated to “improving the quality of investigative reporting”. Weinberg told the Washington Post he was paid $5,000 to edit the study (“I could certainly use the money these days”) but denied he was compromising his principles by taking it on, saying he “tried to make sure it’s a good piece of journalism criticism, just like I’ve written a gazillion times.” For his part, St Petersburg Times' editor Neil Brown doesn't seem too concerned, saying “I ultimately couldn’t take this request very seriously because it’s a study bought and paid for by the Church of Scientology,” but still, perhaps it isn't time to declare open season just yet.

Having said that, the latest journalistic exposé of the Church's mistreatment of its workers comes right from the top, with Saturday's New York Times featuring a piece on Christie King Collbran and her husband Chris, the latest ex-employees to the blow the whistle on the culture of violence, repression and negligible wages. It also features quotes from Headley, the film director Paul Haggis, who left last year, and former high-ranking official Marty Rathbun, who was at the centre of the St Petersburg Times report.

Interestingly, we learn towards the end of the piece that Christie King Collbran is still a Scientology believer – she just doesn't support the way the Church is run by top boss David Miscavige (who is named by many defectors as tyrant-in-chief). This is an intriguing element emerging from the testimonies of ex-Scientologists, with several claiming that they stand by the teachings of L Ron Hubbard, beleiving it has been corrupted by Miscavige. That's the position of Rathbun, who provided the foreword to Headley's book. It's incredible, given the experiences they simultaneously recall in their testimonies, and something I'd be fascinated to read more about.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Leeds University Students' Union refuses to allow student society to show Fitna

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If you've been reading this blog today, you might have seen that I've been engaged in a strong debate on the post below about the merits of right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who's in town today to show his anti-Islam film at the House of Lords.

Funnily enough (perhaps they'd been reading my earlier post, I don't know), just this afternoon I received an email from the secretary of the Leeds University Atheist Society telling me about how Leeds University Students' Union banned the society from screening Fitna at an event. The screening had been organised as part of an event entitled "Fitna: The Big Debate", which was to consist of a screening, followed by a debate on the issues it raises. So the motives for screening the film can't be called into question – this was not to be a one-sided event, and you can't really debate something if nobody has seen it. In this respect, the case is reminiscent of what happened with Jytte Klausen's book The Cartoons That Shook The World, the book about the Danish Muhammad cartoons in which the publisher Yale refused to include the Danish Muhammad cartoons.

But try telling that to the Leeds Student Union authorities, who told the Atheist Society that this attempt to hold a reasoned debate about a controversial issue contravened the University's "freedom of expression policy", which reads as follows:
“[the university] tolerates a wide range of views, political as well as academic, even when they are unpopular, controversial or provocative” and “the University has an explicit duty in law to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students, employees and visiting speakers. This duty includes a responsibility to ensure that the use of University premises is not denied to any individual or group on the grounds of the belief or views of that individual or any member of that group or on the grounds of the policy or objectives of the group.”
As the Atheist Society's Norman Ralph said:
“The entire situation is ridiculous. The university campus should be a bastion of free speech where we can openly debate controversial issues. Failure to do so only leads to a rise in extremist views."
It certainly looks like a huge own goal by the student union, and also by the student Islamic societies who were apparently behind the complaints. Rather than taking the opportunity to argue against the pernicious implications made about Muslims in Fitna, they have chosen to close down free debate. As another member of the Atheist Society, Nicola Jackson, points out, it risks making people "think they do have these [extremist] views and are just trying to limit the people that know."

This is an interesting story to come up, given the time I've put in to arguing against Wilders' views today. Just before the email from the Leeds students came through, I'd put my arguments against Fitna in a comment on the previous blog post. It seems appropriate to repeat them below, in a slightly tidied up version. Basically I think the film is a repulsive and misleading piece of propaganda, and it is essential that it (and by extension the political views of Geert Wilders) is challenged. But people can't do that if they haven't seen it.

So congratulations to Leeds Student Union for closing down what would no doubt have been a very challenging, but ultimately a very constructive and positive, debate.

Here's what I wrote about Fitna earlier:
"The implications the film makes are wrong. It is a typical piece of propaganda, which explores a complex issue entirely from one side, in the crudest manner possible. There is not a single point in the entire 17 minutes where an alternative viewpoint is offered. If this was a documentary on TV, it would be slated for this. Even a polemical journalist, if they are any good at what they do and have confidence in what they're saying, would acknowledge counter-arguments.

So Fitna is nothing but crude propaganda. And let's look at what it's saying. The most obvious criticism, and one that's been said in many, many places, is that it's a standard piece of cherrypicking. You could sit down and make the same thing with a Bible. Throughout the film, every Muslim we see is an extremist, from the terrorists, through the preachers, to the young girl who says she hates Jews. Not one bit of the film recognises that not all Muslims think like that. The implication of the film is that all Muslims are extremists, or potential extremists, or at the very least acquiescent in extremism. This is false.

And the big implication of Fitna is that Muslims are taking over the Netherlands and Europe. There is a scene headed "The Netherlands in the Future", which implies that one day in the future, Holland will see Saudi-style executions, stonings etc. To support this view, Wilders uses graphs of demographic statistics, and implies that the Muslim population in Holland and Europe is growing exponentially. The future bar for Europe grows until it is off the screen, implying that the Muslim population will continue to grow until it is in the majority. (Wilders' political statements also imply this). In this, Wilders is certainly wrong. Demographic projections suggest the Muslim population of Europe will be at around 10-15 per cent by 2050. It is common for those who talk of Eurabia to misrepresent demographic data."

Geert Wilders to show Fitna film in House of Lords today

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Geert Wilders, fresh from success for his far-right Freedom Party in Dutch local elections this week, arrives in Britain today for a screening of his anti-Islam film Fitna in the House of Lords, at the invitation of Lord Pearson of Ranoch, the leader of UKIP. Well, what a glorious moment in the history of the world's oldest Parliament that will be. For those of you who might have missed out on the existence of Fitna (and well done if you have), it's a short film juxtaposing Islamist atrocities with some choice verses from the Koran. You might summarise the plot as follows: the existence of terrorism + the presence of some violent lines in the Koran = cause to be very afraid of Muslims. (If you really feel the need to watch it, just Google it and have a look at online.)

With a general election looming in the Netherlands in June, the Freedom Party's acquisition this week of its first local government seats, in The Hague and the town of Almere, suggests that Wilders could play a key role in determining the nature of the country's next coalition government. He could even end up as Prime Minister, say some. But a useful counterpoint is provided by an Amsterdam-based writer, Mark Fonseca Rendeiro, on Comment is Free, who says that Wilders' gains are not as significant as the headlines suggest – Dutch politics has a long history of short-lived successes for parties from the far-right and far-left, and other parties, such as the Greens and a moderate conservative party, made big gains in this week's poll (but don't provide the shock headlines like Wilders).

Protests are expected outside Parliament by Muslim and anti-fascist groups. If you have any interest in reading more of my view on Wilders, his brand of politics and his self-appointed status as a "free speech martyr", I've written about it in more detail on this blog on several occassions in the past, most recently in this post. But on this occassion I'll leave you with one point – there'll be a counter-march in support of Wilders in London this afternoon. By the English Defence League.

That, surely, tells us what we need to know about Geert Wilders.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

US creationists adopt climate change denial

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There's a piece in the New York Times describing how some US creationists have widened their campaign to have "criticism" of evolution taught in schools to asking for dissenting views on man-made global warming to also be taught. Last year the Texas Board of Education, in the words of the NYT, "adopted language requiring that teachers present all sides of the evidence on evolution and global warming", and now a bill is passing through the Kentucky legislature that would "encourage teachers to discuss 'the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,' including 'evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning'."

It's an interesting development for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, it suggests creationists are trying to strengthen their chances of success by marrying their cause to one less explicitly associated with religion. They've run into trouble in the past, most famously in the 2005 Dover Case, in which a federal judge ruled that a Pennsylvania school district was violating the separation of church and state by requiring teachers to read out a disclaimer before teaching about evolution. By joining evolution denial with climate change denial, it seems creationists hope to avoid this accusation – it's not about religion, they can say, but about scientific "controversy" in general.

It's also interesting for the fact that proponents of one kind of scientific denialism seem to also be the proponents of another. It's not as though one necessarily follows on from the other – just because you think CO2 emissions aren't causing a greenhouse effect (or any other aspect of climate denial) doesn't mean you would think life on earth didn't evolve through natural selection. Which might suggest that someone who thinks both of these things has a mindset disposed towards distrusting what is presented to them as scientific fact, however strong the evidence – a denialist mindset, if you will. I wouldn't be surprised to find the same people claiming that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, or any other common kind of denialism.

On which note, whenever I find myself writing about denialism, of any kind, I always make sure I link to Seth Kalichman's piece on AIDS denialism, written for our November issue last year. Of course many aspects of it are specific to AIDS denial, but I think you can read it as a beginner's insight into all kinds of scientific denialism. As he says towards the end, "all denialism is entrenched in conspiracy thinking".

The Hitch Commandments

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In his latest piece for Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens reviews and revises the Ten Commandments.

Well, it was only a matter of time, wasn't it?

Fundamentalist school to open in Hull this year

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Update: When I was blogging about this earlier (see original post below), I was struck by a claim made on the New Life Academy's website for the Accelerated Christian Education technique:
"New Life Academy is a school that operates using the ACE system of individualised learning. OFSTED approved, and with an excellent track record, it means the school may look quite different at times to a main stream school, but produces excellent results."
What struck me was the phrase "OFSTED approved". Really? To my knowledge OFSTED only inspects schools, and doesn't "approve" anything per se. What could New Life Academy mean by this? Do they mean that the school itself "is OFSTED approved, and with an excellent track record"? Since the school isn't open until September, and therefore can't have a "track record" in anything, this statement clearly can't relate to the school.

In which case, it must relate to the Advanced Christian Education curriculum. But OFSTED doesn't "approve" curricula, does it? I went away and did some research, and was confirmed in my initial suspicion. OFSTED does not provide approval, and as far as I can establish does not have record of the New Life Academy. And even if it did, that is beside the point, as the statement on the school's website is implying that the Advanced Christian Education curriculum is approved by OFSTED. Which simply can't be true, because OFSTED doesn't approve curricula.

Quite a misleading claim for a school to make, wouldn't you say?

Original post - From September of this year, residents with a spare £2,000-a-year in the Hull area will be able to ensure their children receive an education according to a curriculum "written from the literal Bible Creation base" by sending them to the New Life Academy, a new private school which will use the controversial Accelerated Christian Education technique. Under ACE, the “core curriculum is an individualized, Biblically-based, character-building curriculum package”, which in plain English means that the children are taught individually rather than together in classes, in what critics say basically amounts to learning by rote.

It's a technique already used in other private Christian schools in the UK, as well as many more in the US, and while the Hull school's prospectus (PDF) throws little light on what's involved, it does contain the a clear clue in stating that it will achieve its aims by "giving a Christian perspective on academic subjects". In short, schools that use ACE teach creationism – take a look at the science curriculum on the American ACE website, and how it sets youngsters up for glowing careers in the sciences by teaching them "the facts of Creation as presented in the Bible" and the wonders of "Geologic changes after the Flood". And when they're a bit older they can learn how "attributes essential to life are seen in relationship to the Bible and biblical Creation" and all about "the perfection of God's design for the universe". All of which they learn in "their own learning station", which you might argue ensures that they simultaneously miss out on both a proper education and the character-building experiences that come with interacting with other children.

If you want to read more about ACE, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start. This quote from education researchers D. Flemming and T Hunt seems to sum up what goes on in these schools:
"If parents want their children to obtain a very limited and sometimes inaccurate view of the world — one that ignores thinking above the level of rote recall — then the ACE materials do the job very well. The world of the ACE materials is quite a different one from that of scholarship and critical thinking."
Of course, the New Life Academy (whose founders must have been delighted with this puff piece in their local paper) is a private school, so there's no cause for outrage at the encroachment of creationism into our state education system, but it's worth knowing that these things are out there. There was some controversy about ACE last year when it emerged that the curriculum's International Certificate of Christian Education qualifications had been recognised by a government agency as equivalent to international A-levels. The agency in question, the National Recognition Information Centre, pointed out that curriculum content was outside its remit. Reporting on it at the time, the Guardian quoted a passage from an ACE textbook, about the Loch Ness Monster, no less:
"Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all."
Just an example of the kind of knowledge that's on its way to the city of Hull.

Anti-abortion tactics in the Deep South

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With the exception of the rosary-swinging nuns that hang around with their miniature plastic foetuses outside the BPAS building round the corner from our office once a week, I generally feel like we have a relatively reasoned approach to the abortion debate in this country. (And to be fair, even those nuns don't have much to say for themselves. They just put their mini-foetuses on the pavement and recite the odd Bible passage.) I know this isn't exclusively the case, and we do have some who take an extreme approach, but on balance we're better off than most countries in this respect.

This is something worth reminding ourseleves of when we see stories such as this in today's Guardian, which tells of shocking new tactics being used by anti-abortion campaigners to target African-American women in the Deep South. Here's a snippet, which quotes Georgia Right to Life's Catherine Davis:
"The abortion industry is targeting the black woman," she said. "There is no lynch mob wearing white sheets and hoods. What they've done is take off the hoods and put on suits and say: let's go and kill the black people. It's cloaked itself by talking about choice. But the industry has targeted the black community. If people were put on the endangered species list then certainly black children would be there because more are aborted than at any time in history."
You can read the rest of the story at the Guardian.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Is this really a free speech issue?

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The MediaWatchWatch blog reports, via the Liverpool Daily Post, that a 59-year-old "militant atheist", Harry Taylor, is on trial for "three counts of religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress" after repeatedly placing anti-Islamic and anti-Christian cartoons in the prayer room at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. If convicted, he could face a jail sentence.

MediaWatchWatch suggests it would be a blow to free speech if Taylor was convicted, saying:
"The fact that this case has gone to court is bad enough, but if Taylor gets prosecuted then it surely won’t be long before the Archangel Gabriel blows his horn and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse come galloping down a street near you."
I thought I'd blog about this myself, as I'm really not convinced that this is a free speech issue. I'm just not sure the right to criticise, satirise, ridicule and insult religious belief should really extend to deliberately putting cartoons of pigs excreting sausages labelled Qu'ran (one of several Taylor left) in a room where adherents to a religion go to quietly, and privately, practise their faith. And not only do it once, but on three separate occassions. I think there's certainly a case for saying that the aim of that it is to "harass, alarm or distress" religious believers by making them feel uncomfortable in an environment where they have gone precisely to be able to feel comfortable practising their faith in a busy public building.

Here, in case you're wondering, is Mr Taylor's justification for what he did:
"The airport is named after John Lennon and his views on religion were pretty much the same as mine. I thought that it was an insult to his memory to have a prayer room in the airport."
He says that in placing the cartoons he was just practising his own religion of "reason and rationality", which is certainly a new way of looking at rationality.

Ultimately, I'm not sure what I think with this. If free speech has its limits at the point where it becomes something like harassment, surely Taylor's behaviour was fairly close to that line? But at the same time, it hardly seems like something worthy of a jail sentence. Certainly at the age of 59 he should have known better (and for that matter have better things to be doing with his time). If he had an objection to the airport prayer room on account of his own "religion of reason and rationality", why didn't he express it rationally and write a letter?

I'm opening this one to the floor.