Friday, 29 January 2010

Geert Wilders: martyr of truth?

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Writing on the Telegraph website, Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion, describes the plight of far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders, who has just gone on trial for group insult of Muslims, as one that "will have unparalleled significance for the future of Europe. It is not just about whether our culture will survive, but whether we are even allowed to state the fact that it is being threatened."

Murray portrays Wilders as a kind of martyr of truth – indeed, the piece is headlined "Geert Wilders: on trial for telling the truth". In Murray's view, Wilders is warning against the Islamification of Europe while the rest of us bury our heads in the sand, and he is being prosecuted for daring to do so.

Of course, this isn't the first time Wilders has been hailed as a free speech martyr – a similar thing happened when he was banned from this country by then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith last year. At the time, I wrote that this was regrettable. He shouldn't have been banned – that was a foolish decision, and one that played into the hands of the far right, who could then present him as a champion of free speech. It was a decision that forced many who find his politics of division repulsive to speak out in defence of his right to enter the country. All this for a man who would have the Koran banned in his home country (free speech indeed).

The decision to prosecute him in the Netherlands appears similarly foolish. As with the (later overturned) ban on him coming here, the authorities are resorting to misguided legal tactics when they should be arguing against the man's politics. In the process they strengthen his case, win him votes, and force those who would otherwise oppose him to speak out in support.

So his legal troubles, both past in the UK and present in the Netherlands, do pose a challenge for free speech. But is he really, as Murray suggests, "on trial for telling the truth" about the creeping Islamification of Europe? For his controversial film Fitna, he cobbled together horrific scenes of the aftermath of terrorist attacks and acts perpertrated by violent Islamic extremists, and interspersed them with lines from the Koran. The message of the film was one entirely devoid of nuance – Islamic extremists who will commit violent acts exist, inspired by lines in the Koran, which is the holy book of Islam, which is therefore an inherently violent religion. Therefore that religion has no place in European society and therefore, by extension, neither do the people who follow it. Forget that there are over 1.5 billion of those people in the world - they are all tarred by extremism by association. So what should you do? Vote for Wilders and his "People's Party for Freedom and Democracy", of course. Because what would they do? Well, here are a few choice items from their 2005 manifesto:
  • An immigration ban of five years for immigrants from non-western countries. Foreign residents will no longer have the right to vote in municipal elections.
  • A ban of five years on the founding of mosques and Islamic schools; a permanent ban on preaching in any language other than Dutch. Foreign imams will not be allowed to preach. Radical mosques will be closed and radical Muslims will be expelled.
  • Introduction of minimum penalties, and higher maximum penalties; introduction of administrative detention for terrorist suspects. Street terrorism will be punished by boot camps and denaturalisation deportation of immigrant offenders.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? That's because we have a party with some broadly similar policies in the UK. And note this idea of "non-western" – I wonder how that would effect potential immigrants from Australia and New Zealand?

And just like other far-right politicians, Wilders feeds on the fallacious idea that an ethnic and cultural minority (5 per cent in Holland) is growing at such a rate that it will become the majority in the forseeable future. Hence the following statements
"Take a walk down the street and see where this is going. You no longer feel like you are living in your own country. There is a battle going on and we have to defend ourselves. Before you know it there will be more mosques than churches!"
"Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe. If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time. One century ago, there were approximately 50 Muslims in the Netherlands. Today, there are about 1 million Muslims in this country. Where will it end? We are heading for the end of European and Dutch civilisation as we know it. Where is our Prime Minister in all this?"
For those who wish to see "Islamification" and extremism everywhere they look, this is an appealing message, and one the BNP is currently thriving on promoting in this country. But for those of us looking to confront the problem of extremism, while at the same time negotiating the complex and challenging issues of immigration and integration, and with that the de-facto segregation that exists in some of our towns and cities, it is not a message we should be taking seriously. Geert Wilders is being wrongly prosecuted, but not, as Douglas Murray suggests, for telling the "truth". He is being prosecuted for promoting a message of division and separation, in which religion plays the role traditionally reserved for race. It's a message that, in a democracy, he should have the right to promote, and therefore I oppose his prosecution in the same way that I would oppose the prosecution of Nick Griffin over his party's manifesto. We should be arguing against such people, not hauling them before the courts.

But I accept Wilders' postition as a free speech martyr reluctantly, and reject any notion that he is a martyr of "truth".

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Stephen Baldwin on creationism

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I thought I ought to share an exchange I was alerted to on BBC Radio Five Live between actor-turned-evangelical preacher Stephen Baldwin, who was recently evicted from Celebrity Big Brother, and presenter Richard Bacon. You can listen to the show on the BBC iPlayer, where you need to flick to 44 minutes to hear Bacon challenge Baldwin on his creationism. It's hardly high-level stuff, but it's good for a laugh – "If we came from monkeys, why are monkeys still here?" asks Baldwin, leading Bacon to put in a sterling effort trying to explain why that's a fallacy. Baldwin doesn't like it, either.

As I said, hardly high-level stuff, but as Bacon admits from the outset, he's not an evolutionary biologist.

Warning: most things cause cancer

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A very quick one this – someone has very wisely put together a Facebook group which lists, with links, everything that the Daily Mail has at some point stated will give you cancer. From babies to barbecues, constipation to crayons, they're all going to get you.

I've no idea how new or original the group is, but it's the first time I've seen it and it is very good.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Against reductionism

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Little did I know when I made my first tentative approach to the brilliant doctor-professor-philosopher-poet Ray Tallis to ask him if he might consider writing something for New Humanist that he would end up writing not one, but two brilliant, erudite and very funny pieces decrying the current fashion for to trying to locate the source of everything in the brain. As someone who has used neuroscience in his professional work as a gerontologist, and believes it offers real benefit in the treating of conditions like Alzheimers, he is uniquely placed to skewer the overblown and reductionist claims made on behalf of brain sceince. Last issue he concentrated on the way neuroscience was being wheeled in to social policy; this time he concentrates on the (he says futile) search for the 'God Spot'. Follow the links in the article to read responses from two of the researchers he calls out - Sam Harris and Bruce Hood.

NB Tallis' latest book Michaelangelo's Finger; An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence is out in March from Atlantic. It's all about pointing, apparently.

Who needs God?

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In our new issue, Tom Rees discusses the results of his research into the causes of religious belief, which suggests that there is a strong correlation between income inequality and religiosity. Here's a sample:
"We’re still a long way away from a universal theory to explain why some parts of the world are more religious than others. But the research linking societal stress and income inequality to high levels of religion at least helps to explain some conundrums that have perplexed sociologists. Why is the USA so religious, despite being the epitome of modernity? Well, largely because of the higher levels of stress faced by its citizens, compared with the relatively worry-free lives led by people living in the bosom of the European welfare state. It also helps to explain the blossoming of religion in Russia and other parts of the old Soviet bloc, which occurred against the backdrop of a sharp decline in living standards and the crumbling of the old certainties provided by the monolithic communist state."
Read the full piece, and let us know what you think by commenting on this post.

Westboro Baptist Church to picket Twitter (yawn...)

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Shall we make this the last time we mention the Westboro Baptist Church? As if we didn't all already have them marked down as ridiculous enough, they've now announced that they're going to picket the San Francisco headquarters of Twitter. I wonder why that could be? Is it because:

a) "Twitter is a company which lends itself to mass communication. Why in heaven's name would the great publishers at WBC NOT picket this place? They have a duty to God just like every other person to serve God and to use ALL their resources in their service to him. So we come with hearts of love and joy to humbly suggest they GET ON THAT TASK!" [that's from their site, if you didn't guess]


b) everyone's talking about Twitter at the moment, so if the Westboro Baptist Church announce a plan to picket it then all those people will start blogging and tweeting about it, thereby giving the Church the publicity they so desperately crave...

Damn, I'm playing into their hands. And not for the first time. Well consider this the last – I'm playing my Joker Card, and then I'm done with them.

Charlie Brooker on Anjem Choudary

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The other week, I blogged about that ludicrous publicity-seeker Anjem Choudary, and how everyone had played into his hands by getting into a moral panic over his threat to stage a protest march in Wootton Bassett, particularly the government, who gave his Islam4UK group some much-desired street cred by banning it under terrorism legislation. I mean, I even played my Joker card.

I think the final word on the matter can go to Charlie Brooker, who in last night's edition of the fantastic Newswipe delivered the perfect overview of the entire, well, publicity stunt. You can watch it on iPlayer – of course, you should really watch the whole show, because it's bloody brilliant, but if you're in a rush flick to 1:43.

Serbia, Islam and The Jewel of Medina

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In our November/December issue, novelist Sherry Jones warned of the dangers of self-censorship, in light of her own experiences with her novels The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina. In the piece, she pointed to Serbia as an example of how to avoid the pitfalls of such censorship:
"In Serbia, where the memory of life under Slobodan Milosevic is still strong, people spoke out en masse against attempts by Muslim officials to stop publication of my books there. More than a year later, both The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina sit near the top of the Serbian bestseller list, and people live in confidence that their right to free speech is stronger than ever. Can we in the US and the UK say the same? Or can any thug with a can of petrol and a match – or the mere idea of such a thug – now dictate to us what we can and can’t read?"
This caught the eye of Simon Garnett, who edits the online magazine network Eurozine. He wrote us a response, in which he suggests that there could be more to the Serbian support for Jones' novels than a straightforward love of free expression. Here's a sample:
"While the memory of Milošević may indeed be strong in the minds of Serbians, the fact is that a thorough and mainstream reappraisal of Serbia's responsibility for war crimes, the largest single victim group of which was Muslim, has yet to take place. Were that book to be written, it would be unlikely to reach the top of the bestseller list. Instead, there exists a derivate and commercialised media agenda in which scandal sells. Just as Muamer Zukorlić [head of Serbia's Islamic Community] imitated the language of injured religious sensibilities ubiquitous since the Danish cartoon controversy, so the Serbian public imitated the western secular backlash. If the former was an exercise in fundamentalist PR, the latter was an exercise in ersatz politics in a country yet to address the real issues of its recent past."
I sent Garnett's piece to Jones, and she responded as follows:

"I wonder if Mr. Garnett has travelled to Serbia, as I did last September, and talked to people there about The Jewel of Medina, or with the journalists who covered the controversy, or with Aleksandar Jasic, my Serbian publisher? The situation regarding the withdrawal, then resumption of publication of my books in Serbia is much more complex than Mr Garnett indicates in this column.

He is entitled to his opinion, of course. If he is correct and the Serbian people need to come to terms with past wrongs toward Muslims, I am doubly encouraged by the strong sales of my books in that country. I have always envisioned The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina as bridge-builders between Muslim and non-Muslim cultures."

Obviously this is a matter that requires some knowledge of Serbian society and its politics, but since we've clearly sparked a debate between Jones and Garnett, we thought we'd throw it out to readers as well. If you have anything to add to the matter, please do so by commenting on this post.

Join the fast-track to sainthood with a spot of self-flagellation

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In the papers today, we learn that in a new book on Pope John Paul II, entitled Why He Is a Saint, Vatican official Monsignor Slawomir Oder reveals that the late Pontiff used to regularly whip himself as penitence. It is thought that the revelation will help boost his claim to sainthood:
"In his closet, among his vestments, there was hung on a clothes hanger a particular kind of belt which he used as a whip," Oder writes.

Update: Which had me thinking, what other methods might get you bumped up the Saintly pecking order?

Let's get a commitment to libel reform in the party manifestos

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The Libel Reform campaign, which launched back in December, is calling on people to sign a new petition urging politicians to throw their support behind legislation to reform Britain punitive libel laws. The aim is to get beyond 100,000 signatures (it's on 14,040 as I write this) and encourage parties to include a commitment to libel reform in their election manifestos. Members of the Libel Reform coalition – Index on Censorship, Sense About Science and English PEN – are meeting with Justice Secretary Jack Straw this Thursday to discuss the issue.

So, sign the petition, write to your MP to urge them to support the campaign and tell everyone you know to get involved too. If you have a blog, then blog it; if you're on Twitter, tweet it ... you get the idea.

For further encouragement, here's a message from Simon Singh and Sense About Science:
"You know we joined up with free speech organisations to form the Libel Reform Coalition in December and that we have been working hard with many of you to highlight the impact of England's libel laws from my own and Peter Wilmshurst's cases to the chilling effect on medical journals and science blogs and other writing. This has begun to focus political and legal minds on the problem but we now have very little time to go before election manifestos are published. We need a commitment in those manifestos. Many of the politicians we've met don't dispute that the libel laws are unfair and against the public interest, but they won't commit to changing them."

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Latest on Nigerian humanist Leo Igwe's legal fight

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In a news story in our current issue, we report on worrying news from Nigeria, where fearless humanist campaigner Leo Igwe recently arrested. To provide context, I'll start by reproducing that news story:
"Disturbing news from Nigeria. On 5 January, Leo Igwe, head of the Nigerian humanists and IHEU representative in West Africa, was arrested along with his father in a dawn raid by Nigerian police and held without charge. He has subsequently been released but as we go to press we hear that his brother Uche is in custody, held by the notorious State Security Services. Details are sketchy but the arrests appear to be politically motivated. Accompanying police on the first raid was Dr Edward Uwa, a university lecturer who has been accused of raping ten-year-old Daberechi Anongam. The Igwe family have been prominent in the campaign to try and bring Uwa to book, and it seems that the arrests could be retaliation for this."
As he has stated on the IHEU website, Igwe and several of his family members were charged according to a petition by Uwa, which alleged that they "conspired, murdered and attempted to conceal the murder of one Mr. Aloysius Chukwu who died in September last year. According to family sources, Mr. Chukwu died in a local hospital after a brief illness."

We have just now received an update on the situation from Igwe, which reads as follows:
Yesterday, I was at the police station in Umuahaia and met with the officers handling the case of fictitious murder charge brought against me and my family members.

For the third time the complainant Ethelbert Ugwu did not bring the witnesses. Instead, he turned up with a lawyer who helped him package his lies and excuses. Earlier he claimed that the witnesses couldn't report at the station because some of the suspects went and threatened them after their release!

Later he said some of the suspects had bribed the witnesses. They told him to bring the witnesses by Thursday so that they could wrap up their investigation.

Before leaving the station, we met with the Deputy Commissioner of Police(DC), James Ogbonna. One of the officers told me the complainant knew the DC very well. So I was not surprised when as we entered the office of the DC and I was introduced, he started harassing me. He said, "Look very soon we will charge you to court." He asked the police officers investigating the case to hurry up and charge the matter to court. I was calm and didn't utter a word because I didn't expect that stupid remark from him and obviously he spoke like one who had been settled (bribed) by the complainant. When we left the office, I went straight to the police officers handling the investigation and registered my concern and disappointment. I told them I never expected the DC to make such a pronouncement over a case that was under investigation. But the officers laughed and told me not to worry or panic, because according to them, what the DC made was a 'political statement'. A political statement indeed! Well I told them I would include the DC's statement in my report to human rights groups. But they pleaded with me not to do so. It was shocking to see how police officers trample and toy with the dignity of people; with truth, justice and fairness just because they have been paid to do so. And this is particularly the case when you present yourself as an ordinary person without any 'connections' or you don't join those 'innocent' people who come around to settle them shaking, begging and panicking in order not to be made 'guilty'. I was outraged and dumbfounded by the lack of integrity and professionalism in the way police officers go about their work. (In fact one of them told me that he would be leaving very soon to join the EFCC!! [Economic and Financial Crimes Commission])

Government equality amendments defeated in the House of Lords

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Last night, the House of Lords voted against a government amendment to the Equality Bill which would have clarified the circumstances under which religious organisations are able to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of their sexual orientation. The amendment would have ensured organisation can only discriminate when a job vacancy is either for a "minister of religion" or for another role that exists to "promote or represent the religion or to explain the doctrines of the religion". The turnout in the Lords was huge (the largest since 42-days terror detention was voted down in 2008) and the Church of England "Lords Spiritual" (seen here being whipped into shape by Rowan Williams) were actively involved in arguing for wide-ranging discrimination, with Archbishop of York John Sentamu telling the House:
"You may feel that many churches and other religious organisations are wrong on matters of sexual ethics. But, if religious freedom means anything it must mean that those are matters for the churches and other religious organisations to determine for themselves in accordance with their own convictions. Where are the examples of actual abuses that have caused difficulties? Where are the court rulings that have shown that the law is defective? If it ain't broke, why fix it?"
So, if religious freedom means anything, it means the right to discriminate against people. Glad we're clear on that one. Always nice to see Archbishops standing up in our legislature in 2010 and arguing that people should be treated differently because of their sexuality. All the more reason for campaigning to get the Bishops out of the Lords, surely? I look forward to attending the Labour Humanists' debate on the matter on Thursday.
The British Humanist Association, who have been busy lobbying on the issue, have expressed their disappointment, with Chief Executive Andrew Copson saying:
"Everyone else is required to treat gay people without discrimination. What the Christian churches fought for and won were special exemptions from that law so that they can treat lesbian and gay people unkindly, unfairly, and discriminate against them. The House of Lords has shamed itself by conspiring in this sort of immorality. We regret it and we hope that those fair-minded parliamentarians and those Christians who have campaigned against this exemption are given a fairer hearing in the future stages of the Bill and that this disgraceful injustice is reversed. Britain has always been a country with more freedom of thought and religion than most but it is a terrible thing to claim that this should mean that laws that apply to everyone else and which are designed to protect vulnerable people should contain within themselves special provisions so that religious people who don’t wish to, do not have to obey them. Our concern should be with the people denied jobs and a livelihood in their chosen profession by the discrimination against them, rather than with securing the right of those who discriminate against them to carry on doing so."
Update: Writing on Comment is Free, NSS president Terry Sanderson describes the debate as "the poorest and most ill-informed I have ever heard in the House of Lords", and urges a continued fight against religious discrimination.

Number of faith schools to increase under the Tories

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If you're of a mind to vote with your non-belief in the coming General Election, it appears you may struggle to pick between Labour and the Conservatives on the issue of faith schools. Speaking yesterday, the Tory leader David Cameron suggested that his government would encourage an increase in the number of faith schools:
“I think faith schools are an important part of our system, I support them and I would like if anything to see them grow. I think faith organisations bring often a sort of culture and ethos to a school that can help it improve and I’m a strong supporter personally and politically.”
As part of their education policies, the Conservatives have proposed the introduction of "free schools", which would be run by independent organisations, including faith groups.

Meanwhile, a column by Julia Llewllyn on the hypocrisy fostered by the faith schools system appears in the Daily Mail, of all places. I can't say I agree with it all, as she seems to blame the parents as much as the system, but it certainly highlights the bizarre nation of the education system we have in this country, where people who otherwise couldn't care less are sitting in churches every Sunday for the sake of a school place. Imagine trying to explain the situation to an outsider – that what parents do in this country is get up on a Sunday morning and pretend to be Christians for a couple of hours so that when their children reach the ages of four and 11 the local vicar will recommend them for a place in a publicly-funded school. Utterly ridiculous. But something which sadly looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Do humanists need chaplains?

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A piece by John Crace in the Guardian combines an interview with Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University, with discussion of whether "humanist chaplains" are about to become a fixture in this country. Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA, is quoted, and says that while there is a need for non-religious pastoral care, for example in hospitals and prisons, the word "chaplain" is a little problematic:
"It's not ideal. Then Muslims, Jews and Buddhists aren't that happy with it either, yet they still have chaplains because people understand what they do. It's become a shorthand description of a job. You just have to strip away its religious connotations and accept that different chaplains can cater for different world views."
Of course, this ties into that ongoing debate over whether humanism should resemble religion in any way (and this isn't the first time Epstein's name has come up here in relation to it). So I'll throw it out to comments – should humanist chaplains join the ranks of Christian chaplains, Muslim chaplains, Jewish chaplains and all the other chaplains in our public services? Or should we be scrapping the lot and replacing them with counsellors? And what's the difference between a chaplain (especially a humanist chaplain) and a counsellor anyway?

Answers on a postcard (blog comment).

Monday, 25 January 2010

Blogger brings in police to silence another blogger

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A worrying story has broken online today regarding an incident last November, when the Christian student blogger Seismic Shock, was visited at his home by West Yorkshire Police, in relation to posts he had written regarding Anglican Vicar Stephen Sizer. As Padraig Reidy at Index on Censorship explains, Seismic had alleged that Sizer had "associated with Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites". The police, visiting the blogger following a call from Sizer, insisted they were only there for an "informal chat" but, as Seismic Shock explains in a guest post on Harry's Place, the visit still resulted in censorship:
"The sergeant made clear that this was merely an informal chat, in which I agreed to delete my original blog ( but maintain my current one ( The policeman related to me that his police force had been in contact with the ICT department my previous place of study, and had looked through my files, and that the head of ICT at my university would like to remind me that I should not be using university property in order to associate individuals with terrorists and Holocaust deniers (I am sure other people use university property to make political comments, but nevermind)."
 Index on Censorship asked West Yorkshire Police for their side of the story, and they responded today as follows:
“As a result of a report of harassment, which was referred to us by Surrey Police, two officers from West Yorkshire Police visited the author of the blog concerned. The feelings of the complainant were relayed to the author who voluntarily removed the blog. No formal action was taken.”
Naturally, this news has caused concern around the blogosphere – are the police really willing to intervene to solve disputes among bloggers? Sizer seems to think so - as Index point out, he's even been gloating to an Australian blogger about his new-found ability to call on the law:

Dear Vee,

You must take a little more care who you brand as anti-semitic otherwise you too will be receiving a caution from the police as the young former student of Leeds did recently. One more reference to me and you will be reported.


A quack explains what sceptics really believe

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By all rights, this should really be ignored, but it's just too funny. Mike Adams is an American who calls himself the "Health Ranger" and is the editor of a ludicrous "alternative health" site called "Natural News". Now, Mike is a little miffed that an online sceptic campaign stopped him from winning a "Shorty Award", a meaningless gong voted for by Twitter users. He was nominated in the health category, and when people spotted that he was in the lead, the online sceptical masses (for we are strong...) set about making sure that skeptical blogger Dr Rachel Dunlop won instead.

So, presumably in an attempt at revenge, Mike decided to sit down and write an article called "What 'skeptics' really believe about vaccines, medicine, consciousness and the universe". In doing so, he succeeded in writing perhaps the least intelligent and informed thing that has ever appeared on the internet (and, I mean, have you seen the internet?). Just look at the opening paragraph:
"In the world of medicine, "skeptics" claim to be the sole protectors of intellectual truth. Everyone who disagrees with them is just a quack, they insist. Briefly stated, "skeptics" are in favor of vaccines, mammograms, pharmaceuticals and chemotherapy. They are opponents of nutritional supplements, herbal medicine, chiropractic care, massage therapy, energy medicine, homeopathy, prayer and therapeutic touch."
 Believe it or not, that's just Mike warming up. You should see the rest of it. Hilarious.

Watch Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People online

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So, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People was on TV on Saturday night, re-christened (shudder!) Nerdstock by the BBC (who decided to take a Dara O Briain joke from the show and really run with it). If you missed the broadcast, it's now available to watch on the iPlayer, and you can even download it if you like (though be warned, it is 818mb in size). There's also info on the BBC website on when to see repeats on BBC Four (this Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday).

For those of you outside of the UK, who will be unable to access iPlayer, it appears that some naughty people have uploaded the show to YouTube. Not sure how long that'll stay up though!

Let us know what you thought of the show by commenting on this post. What did you think of the name the BBC gave it?

Thursday, 21 January 2010

The British Government stance on Defamation of Religion at the UN

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Many of you will be aware of the ongoing fight at the UN agianst the Organisation of Islamic Conference's attempts to push through a resolution against "defamation of religion", which many see as an attempt to introduce a ban on blasphemy into international law. We learn, via an email circulated by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, that the issue came up in Parliament last week, and were pleased to see that the British government is standing firmly against any such resolution.

The issue was raised in a question posed by Lord Patten, and answered by Foreign Office minister Baroness Kinnock. By way of giving credit where it's due, here's the full exchange, reproduced from Hansard: 
"Question: Asked by Lord Patten 

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their stance on the resolution promoted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference before the United Nations General Assembly on the defamation of religion. [HL1038]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead): The Government share the concern of the Organisation of Islamic Conference that individuals around the world are victimised because of their religion or belief. We all need to do more to eliminate religious intolerance and to ensure that those who incite hatred or violence against individuals because of their religious beliefs are dealt with by the law.
But the Government cannot agree with an approach that promotes the concept of "defamation of religions" as a response. This approach severely risks diminishing the right to freedom of expression. We believe that international human rights law already strikes the right balance between the individual's right to express themselves freely and the need for the state to limit this right in certain circumstances. International human rights law provides that only where advocacy of religious hatred constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence should it be prohibited by law.

We believe that the concept of "defamation of religions" puts in danger the very openness and tolerance that allows people of different faiths to co-exist and to practise their faith without fear. It risks changing the focus of international human rights law from examining how countries promote and protect the right to freedom of expression to censoring what individuals say. If this happened, people might feel unable to speak out against human rights abuses or hold their government to account. It is also inconsistent with the international human rights legal framework which exists to protect individuals and not concepts or specific belief systems.

For this reason the UK, along with our EU Partners and other like-minded countries, voted against the resolution put forward by the Organisation of Islamic Conference at the 64th session of the UN General Assembly on Combating Defamation of Religions."

Catch Nine Lessons rapper Baba Brinkman in London this weekend

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One of the highlights of our Godless Christmas shows was seeing Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman (pictured here onstage, by our photographer Des Willie) take the stage each night and bring down the house with his peer-reviewed hip hop take on Charles Darwin and the theory of natural selection. You can see him below freestyling for us in one of our backstage videos from the Bloomsbury Theatre.

So, if you enjoyed Baba at Nine Lessons (or like what you see in our video), we thought you might like to know that he's in London this coming weekend, performing another of his shows, The Rebel Cell, in collaboration with UK rapper Dizraeli. Here are the details:
"A politically charged rap fable, which has been described as ‘8 Mile meets 1984’, The Rebel Cell is the result of a collaboration between BBC Slam Champion Dizraeli and Baba Brinkman, creator of the award-winning Rap Canterbury Tales, and this year’s Rap Guide to Evolution.

The Rebel Cell is set in 2013, in a not-so-distant dystopian future England, where civil liberties are a thing of the past and Glastonbury is a Guantanamo-style prison camp for those brave enough to fight against it.

Engaging directly with today’s culture of political tension in which one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, The Rebel Cell is an irreverent political comedy that asks challenging questions about human rights and the rule of law."
The Rebel Cell is on at the Greenwich Theatre this Friday and Saturday (22/23 Jan) and tickets are available through the theatre website.

Also, remember that you can catch the Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People show from the Hammersmith Apollo, including Baba Brinkman, on BBC Four this Saturday at 9:45pm.

And here's that video of Baba backstage at the Bloomsbury in December:

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Homeopathy by numbers

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By way of an update to my post on the forthcoming 10:23 homeopathy overdose event, I must share this excellent post from The Times' science blog, in which mathematician Matt Parker addresses the maths behind the levels of dilution involved in creating homeopathic "remedies". It's utterly unbelievable, and the contexts Parker places the numbers in are great. My favourite being: "There is actually not enough matter in the entire known Universe to make the homeopathic equivalent of a single paracetamol pill." It's a fun read, and the perfect introduction to the reasons why homeopathy is utter nonsense. Enjoy!

In other news, 10:23 has received coverage today in both The Times and the Daily Telegraph.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Scientology: life on the inside

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Towards the end of last year, I interviewed Marc Headley, a former Scientology employee who has recently told his story in his book Blown for Good: Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology. Headley worked at Scientology's International Base in California and he reveals that, behind the razor wire protected perimeter, the Base is home to a world of violence, intimidation and low-wage labour. It's a grimly fascinating story, and one in tune with other testimonies that have emerged from the heart of Scientology, including the devastating exposé that appeared in the fearless Florida newspaper the St Petersburg Times last year.

In my conversation with Headley, I was able to talk in detail about his story, and the interview appears in the new issue of New Humanist, which has just come out this week. I've just put the article online – have a read and let me know what you make of it by commenting on this post.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Your very own blasphemous wallpaper

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Having received literally a few requests, and since you have been very good, our January gift to you is a big version of Martin Rowson's backdrop for Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People [don't forget it's being shown on BBC this Saturday - Note it is on at 9.45 not 9.00 as originally billed] featuring God and Dawkins engaged in a non-verbal debate about existence. Simply save it to your computer and set it as your desktop wallpaper - it is sized to fit nicely on most screens. We particularly urge those of you who work in the Vatican or for Islam4UK to stick it on your work desktop - for the crack like.

Anjem Choudary: a serious man?

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Last week I blogged about the government's ban on the Islamist group Islam4UK, which is (was?) led by the self-styled Shariah judge Anjem Choudary. In my post I suggested the ban was unnecessary and counter-productive, because when you look at what Choudary and his followers get up to, their activities seem to generally amount to attempts to get as much publicity as possible by being as ludicrous as possible. Therefore, a ban is only going to a) get them more publicity, and b) encourage them.

And I have to say my view wasn't altered by an interview with Choudary which appeared in yesterday's Sunday Times. I recommend you read the whole thing (the interviewer Camilla Long, who Choudary insists on calling "Audrey", takes just the right tone with the man), but here, as a sample, is his answer to how he would go about imposing Shariah law on the UK:
"Public awareness and possibly a military coup.”
 That's it, I'm playing my Joker card...

Sceptics to put alternative remedies to the test with national homeopathic overdose

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If it turns out that homoeopathic medicine works, Saturday 30 January is going to go down as a dark and deadly day in the history of British scepticism. For at 10:23am that day, more than 500 sceptics around the country will swallow an entire bottle of homeopathic pills in order to "demonstrate that these 'remedies', prepared according to a long-discredited 18th century ritual, are nothing but sugar pills". But what if the sceptics are wrong? Well, it could be rationalism's very own Kool-Aid moment...

Of course, the participants in the "10:23 Event" have no such concerns, given the fact that any "active" ingredient present in homeopatic remedies has, as this handy factsheet provided by the organisers explains, been diluted to as little 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1% of the whole by the time it reaches the shelves of retailers.

The 10:23 Event is being organised by the Merseyside Sceptics in protest against the continuing sale of homoeopathic remedies by high-street pharmacist Boots (it was Merseyside Sceptics, you may remember, who put out an excellent open letter to Boots on the issue last November).

If you'd like to get involved with 10:23, you can contact the organisers via the website, or get in touch with your local Skeptics in the Pub group, who will be taking part (info on where to find them here). You can also follow what's happening with 10:23 by following the campaign on Twitter, and using this Twitter hashtag.

And if you do take part, you'll be joining science writer and alternative medicine debunker Simon Singh, who has kindly lent the organisers an extract from his book Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, in which he explains why homeopathy isn't just harmless nonsense.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Grayling and Todorov: Head to head on the Enlightenment

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It seems that some of you loyal readers have noticed that we haven't sent this months's New Humanist yet, judging by the guy who just called the office and said "Where the HELL is my New Humanist". We were far too polite to mention that we don't believe in hell, and instead assured him, as I am assuring you lot, that the magazine in the post and should be with you - if you are a subscriber that is (and if not sort that out) - any day now. What you won't know yet is that the cover story is a discussion between two top philosophers – AC Grayling and Tzvetan Todorov – about the legacy of the Enlightenment. The subject is not new, but they are both such clear and lucid speakers that they make it sound fresh and have fascinating debates about Rousseau, deism, science, human rights and Mars. In the magazine we published a 2,000 word edited version, which we'll put online next week. But to tide you over until your magazine comes, and as a special treat, we have just published the full transcript of the discussion – which took place on 7 Dec 2009, marking the publication of Todorov's brilliantly readable new book In Defence of the Enlightenment. Read the discussion here.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

MPs move to condemn Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill

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We're pleased to learn, via Peter Tatchell, that Labour MP Harry Cohen has tabled an Early Day Motion in the Commons condemning the Ugandan bill that would criminalise homosexuality in the country, making certain same-sex acts punishable by the death penalty. The Early Day Motion "calls on the British Government and the European Union to press the government of Uganda not to proceed with its Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which violates the equality and non-discrimination provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter of Human and People's Rights." You can ask your own MP to support the motion by writing to them via the Write To Them website – Tatchell provides a template you can use about hallfway down this post.

The Early Day motion coincides with a report in today's Guardian, which states that Ugandan president Yoweri Musaveni has told his party that the proposed law has become foreign policy issue, and indicated that the law may be watered down in order to deflect international outrage. James Nsaba Buturo, minister for ethics and integrity, has suggested that the death penalty provisions may be dropped. However, Frank Mugisha of the organisation Sexual Minorities Uganda warns that even a diluted bill would still contain "a lot of discrimination".

In our forthcoming issue (out later this week), we publish the following letter from Tatchell which explains the proposed law and what you can do to help prevent its passage. We urge you to read it and take the recommended action:
"Uganda is gripped by a homophobic witch hunt, encouraged by local Christian leaders and funded by US evangelical ministries. The result is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which is currently before the Ugandan parliament, and threatens to introduce a law more draconian than that of Saudi Arabia or Iran.
It proposes the death penalty for two classes of same-sex acts. First, for “aggravated” homosexuality, which is defined as gay sex with under 18s or disabled persons and gay sex by a person in authority or by a person with HIV, even if they use a condom. Second, for “serial” homosexual acts, those who have same-sex relations more than once.

Pat Robertson: Haiti earthquake caused by a "pact with the Devil"

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When humanitarian tragedy strikes, you can always rely on a religious fundamentalist somewhere to come out and say something very, very stupid about what might have caused it. US evangelical Pat Robertson steps up to the plate by stating live on TV that the Haitian earthquake, which is thought to have killed tens of thousands of people, was caused by a "pact with the Devil" made by its people in the 18th century while they were under French rule. Here it is, if you can be bothered to give the man the time of day (I was tempted not to blog it, but I see it as part of my job to highlight idiocy):

I suppose one positive you can take from the video is that a disaster relief number is on display, which at least means Robertson doesn't think the people of Haiti's "pact with the Devil" excludes them from recieving humanitarian aid. On which note, if the man's words of riled you and you would like to help the victims of the earthquake, visit the Disasters Emergency Committee website.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Something to reignite any latent disestablishmentarianism...

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Writing on Comment is Free, the Guardian's Leo Hickman has a piece guaranteed to stoke some good old-fashioned diestablishmentarianism in even the most easy-going secularist. It's all about the secret prayers said before every parliamentary session. Of course, members only participate if they want to, but the following prayer is read out before every session regardless:
"Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed. Amen."
 For his own part, Hickman doesn't really take issue with the parliamentary prayers, arguing that "the fact that it's voluntary and not conducted in sight of the public completely dissipates the need to take any possible offence that religion is still being intertwined with our state apparatus." He has a point, but I'm sure lots of people will disagree – aren't the prayers a sign that, while Britain is largely secular, an archaic situation endures where religion is indeed "intertwined with our state apparatus"? This may seem fairly harmless when prayers are being said before parliamentary sessions, but what about the 26 bishops who sit in the second chamber of our legislature? Or the fact that our (admittedly nominal) head of state is also the head of a national church? Hickman does go on in his piece to say that in a secular state the Queen shouldn't be "Supreme Governor" of the Church of England, but aren't prayers in parliament a symptom of that anachronism, rather than, as Hickman suggests, a "rather quaint bit of living history"'?

Not that I'm really being critical of the columnist's secularism – I disagree that the prayers are merely quaint and harmless, but I'm in complete agreement with everything else he says. Most of his column is devoted to a bizarre and anachronistic (yes, that word again) row currently taking place in the Cornish town of Helston, where a local resident, Pat Woodhouse, who is considering standing for the town council, has spoken out in opposition to the fact that Christian prayers are read out by a chaplain before every council meeting. Woodhouse told the local paper:
"Let's face it, we are supposed to be politically correct now. If anyone really took offence they could criticise the council. It isn't right. With respect to the reverend who opens the meeting with a prayer, is it politically correct to only have Christian prayers at the beginning of the meeting?"
 Perfectly reasonable, don't you think? Anyone attending a Helston council meeting, or even sitting on the council, who was of another faith, or none, might feel somewhat excluded by the Christian prayers read out before the meetings. Perhaps they might feel like they were intruding on a slightly Christians-only affair? Therefore, the council should stop the practice of prayers before meetings, in order to make itself more inclusive. Helston's former mayor Paul Phillips, however, disagreed:
"I don't know if Helston councillors have any other beliefs (than Christianity). I think it (the comment) is disgraceful. This country fought two world wars on Christian principles. It is up to the mayor to choose their chaplain and if the mayor is of a Christian background then it is natural he or she will choose a Christian chaplain."
 Harsh words. And the current mayor of Helston, Niall Devenish, wasn't feeling much more reasonable:
"As far as I was aware the UK is a Christian country so I was therefore surprised at this comment."
The mayor's words, I think, sum up the problem – the fact that we have an established church, with the Queen as its Supreme Governor, and 26 Bishops in the Lords, and all the rest, means that whenever someone wishes to defend an archaic and exclusive practice such as Helston's pre-council prayer, they can simply state that Britain "is a Christian country". Which, strictly speaking, it is. But it isn't, really.

So, disestablishment, anyone? Of course a good way to start would be by booting the Bishops out of the Lords as part of the ongoing, if stalled, Lords reforms. If it's an issue that interests you, then you may like to go along to the debate on the issue being held by the Labour Humanists on 27 January in the Houses of Parliament – more information on that here.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

See Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People on TV – 23 January at 9pm on BBC 4

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As we probably hinted back in December, the Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless Christmas show at the Hammersmith Apollo on 20 December was filmed by the BBC, and it's now been confirmed that it will be broadcast on BBC 4 at 9pm on Saturday 23 January. So put it in your diary, phone, Sky+ it or whatever it is we all do these days, and sit back and enjoy performances from Robin Ince, Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Richard Herring, Simon Singh, Gavin Osborn, Barry Cryer, Shappi Khorsandi, Johnny Ball and many more (it's a 75-minute version of 3-and-a-half hour show, so we don't know exactly who's in it). Based on a very funny joke on the night from Dara O Briain, which the BBC seem to have decided to take and run with, the show will be broadcast under the name Nerdstock: Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, so look out for that name in the schedules.

Pictured here is Martin Rowson's backdrop for the show, which was on display at various points during the evening – we wonder if it'll make it through BBC standards?

Government bans Islam4UK

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Let's get this straight – Islam4UK, which has just been banned by the government, is an utterly ludicrous organisation. In the past year it has announced, and then subsequently cancelled/failed to hold events with names like "March for Sharia" and "Jesus4Shariah". It has taken over Conway Hall, the home of British free thought, using its heavies to try and impose Sharia-style gender apartheid on the building for the duration of an event. Its leader, Anjem Choudary, who is also the self-styled judge of the "Shari’ah Court of the UK", has revealed his plans for London's landmarks once the UK becomes an Islamist state (presumably under his competent guidance), with Nelson's Column disappearing in favour of a large clock, and Buckingham Palace facing conversion into "a beautiful mosque" (pictured here). For all these reasons, we nominated Choudary for our 2009 Bad Faith Awards in which, following voting in December, he received a meagre 232 votes, or 3 per cent of the whole (to put that in perspective, 7,037 people voted, 2,282 of whom voted for the eventual winner, Pope Benedict XVI).

So far, so ridiculous. But then, last week, Choudary and his Islam4UK goons made their most deliberately controversial move to date – the announcement of a plan to march in protest against the war in Afghanistan through Wootton Bassett, the Wiltshire town where residents regularly turn out to observe the repatriation of soldiers who have died in Afghanistan, as their bodies are driven from nearby RAF Lyneham to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. Choudary stated that marchers would carry 500 coffins through the town in representation of Muslims killed in the war (as one wag noted, each Islam4UK follower would presumably have to carry about 10 coffins coffins to make up that number).

Cue, unsurprisingly, lots outrage, driven in no small part by the tabloid press (The Sun pointing out that Choudary is on benefits, and such like). The government joined in too, with Gordon Brown condemning it and Alan Johnson stating he would back measures to stop the march taking place. Meanwhile, counter-demonstrations were announced by groups such as Muslims for Secular Democracy. And then, just like with their Sharia march and "Jesus4Shariah", Islam4UK announced that the Wootton Bassett march wouldn't be taking place after all.

Because why would they bother? As Choudary himself stated, simply announcing a plan to march had "successfully highlighted the plight of Muslims in Afghanistan" (or rather, highlighted the existence of Islam4UK). Put in different terms, Choudary appears to have perfected the art of what we might call "The Fred Phelps Approach", after the tactics used by the equally ludicrous homophobic Westboro Baptist Church in the US, who picket the funerals of dead US soldiers in order to "highlight" the punishment apparently being inflicted on America by God because of its tolerance of homosexuality. Westboro's efforts, led by "Pastor" Fred Phelps, have earned them worldwide infamy, on a scale Choudary and his henchmen could only dream of. But their use of provocative tactics have earned them plenty of publicity here in the UK.

Clearly, it's difficult to fault a large part of the outrage surrounding Choudary's planned march – how can you expect the relatives of soldiers, or the people of Wootton Bassett, or soldiers themselves, to react? And it's inevitable that the tabloid press will fuel the disgust. But what we might expect is that our government wouldn't jump on the bandwagon and provide the desired publicity-boost for Islam4UK. Which is precisely what it has achieved by this morning announcing that the organisation will be banned under anti-terrorism legislation. Because here's a question – you're a crazed, publicity-hungry extremist dedicated (or so you claim) to toppling the established order in your country. The government are wondering whether to a) let you get on with your ridiculous schemes OR b) Ban you. Gag you. Make you a proscribed, illegal (did I mention BANNED) organisation. Which do you choose?

There's no need to answer that, of course. By banning Islam4UK, the government have played right into the hands of Anjem Choudary, who you can rest assured will be feeling rather pleased with himself this morning (it's a double-win too, with five of his supporters convicted in court yesterday over their "baby-killers" protest against returning troops in Luton last year). Just look at his website – he's already playing his "Crusade Against Islam4UK" card. And let's not forget that the government has already tried banning one of Choudary's organisations, Al-Muhajiroun back in 2005 (it was led at the time by another of the tabloids' favourites, the equally ridiculous Omar Bakri Muhammad). That ban really worked, didn't it?

When it comes to supplying the oxygen of publicity to ludicrous extremists, our government has surpassed itself in the past year. The banning of Islam4UK is reminiscent of last year's controversy over the banning of various foreign nationals deemed to be extremists, including the far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders, US shock-jock Michael Savage and – yes, you guessed it – the Westboro Baptist Church. In each case, all the government succeeded in doing was providing each of them with a handy badge of honour. Wilders – a man who would ban the Koran in his native Holland – even became a poster-boy for free speech.

So what should be done when someone like Choudary announces a plan designed to cause controversy and attract maximum publicity? It certainly isn't easy, as clearly there was a compelling case for putting obstacles in the way of any march through Wootton Bassett, which would have caused a great deal of upset and would possibly have led to violence. But somehow the authorities need to strike a balance between maintaining public order and ensuring that groups like Islam4UK aren't given the publicity they crave. The government certainly needs to stop banning such groups, because that is precisely what they are hoping for when they hatch their half-baked plans (the fact that Choudary cancelled the Wootton Bassett march, saying it had already served its purpose, says it all really).

On that note, I'll leave you with David Mitchell's thoughts on the matter, from his Observer column last weekend:
The other great boon of that state of affairs [freedom of speech] – still nominally this state of affairs, let's not forget – is that we can reply. We don't have to show the slightest respect for other people's views – just for their right to hold them. Respect, after all, must be earned. It's only freedom of speech that's a right. When someone says something which you find stupid or offensive, you can say something back. You can tell them to fuck off. They don't have to, but they've still been told.

Maybe that's not your idea of utopia – millions of people screaming: "Fuck off" at each other – but it beats banning it, making an opinion against the law.
 Blunt, yes, but perhaps it's something we can all get behind.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Free Fringe Benefit, Bloomsbury Theatre, 19 January

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If you enjoyed our Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows before Christmas, you may be interested a benefit show at the Bloomsbury Theatre next week, in aid of the fantastic Free Fringe that takes place in Edinburgh each summer. In 2009 the Free Fringe, which was started by comedian Peter Buckley-Hill in 1996, put on 176 free shows during the Edinburgh Festival, and the organisers are looking to raise funds in order to ensure it can continue to grow.

The Bloomsbury benefit, on Tuesday 19 January, features stars of Nine Lessons Robin Ince and Stewart Lee, plus other great names like Brendon Burns, Lucy Porter, Rufus Hound, Kevin Eldon and Peter Buckley-Hill. Tickets are £20 (£15 concessions) and are available from the Bloomsbury Theatre website.

[Photo: Stewart Lee backstage at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, by Des Willie]

Exclusive: New Humanist news editor in shock agreement with Vatican newspaper

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Apologies for the lack of action in these parts recently - a combination of religious holidays (of which we take full advantage, of course) and a Nine Lessons-enforced delay to finishing the new magazine really cut into the time available for blogging. But we're back in the game now, mark our words.

So by way of a gentle reintroduction, let's start with a little something I read on the Telegraph website this morning. As you may be aware, stories from the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, often get quoted as the Pope's official word on a matter – it's where we get stories like "Pope condemns Harry Potter" and the like. Of course, stories from the paper aren't really direct reflections of the Pope's views, although it would be quite surprising if L'Osservatore suddenly came out and endorsed the work of well-known critics of Christianity such as Christopher Hitchens or Satan.

But still, mainstream papers always enjoy letting us know what L'Osservatore is saying, especially in relation to popular culture, so it was with great interest that I followed a link to a Telegraph story on the paper's review of James Cameron's 3D blockbuster Avatar. What could they have possibly found to object to in Avatar – were they uncomfortable with a spot of inter-species loving? As it turns out, no. Here's what they had to say:
"It has a great deal of enchanting, stunning technology, but few genuine or human emotions. Its significance is in its visual impact rather than in the story, and in its messages, despite the fact that they are hardly new. Cameron, concentrating on the creation of the fantasy world of Pandora, chooses a bland approach. He tells the story without any profound exploration."
They also state that the film has "a rather facile anti-imperialist and antimilitarist parable which doesn't have the same bite as other more serious films."

I saw Avatar in the Imax last week and loved every mind-blowing visual second, but the post-film pub chat with my friends pretty much amounted to "that was stunning". There wasn't much to be said about the story. So I have to say, I agree with L'Osservatore Romano. Which I suppose, if we wan't to make spurious extrapolations, means I agree with the Pope. So if I happen to run into him when he's in town later this year (he needs to collect his 2009 Bad Faith Award from our office, anyway), it'd probably be a good idea to chat about the lack of substance in James Cameron's Avatar. And when we quickly run out of anything to say about that, maybe we can move on to condoms in Africa...

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Evict the Bishops? A public debate on the future of the House of Lords

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The Labour Humanists have asked us to help put the word out about a debate they're hosting in the Houses of Parliament entitled "Should the bishops be evicted from the House of Lords?", featuring David Aaronovitch, Polly Toynbee, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens (Bishop of Leicester and Convenor of the Lords Spiritual), Jonathan Bartley (Co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia) and Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Slos. It takes place on Wednesday 27 January at 7.30pm in Committee Room 10, Houses of Parliament, and is free to attend – all you need to do is be sure to book online first.

Labour Humanists have put together a great panel, and it should be a fascinating debate on a subject we've covered in the past in New Humanist. Here's the blurb from their website:
The UK is the only Western democracy that has clerics in its parliament as of right. With reform of the House of Lords currently a hot topic, Labour Humanists are hosting an open debate on whether it is time to evict the "Lords Spiritual."

Is their presence in the House of Lords unsupportable in a country where less than half of the people belong to Christianity, far less, the Church of England? Those opposed would point out these clerics are all men, they are unrepresentative and - despite their claims - they have no special insight or universally accepted morality to bring to the debate. They also point out that this is unfair on those of other faiths, and those of no faith. If we are to have religious leaders in our legislature, then should we not also have Islamic, Jewish, Sikh and Scientologist leaders in there too, by right?

Yet their supporters would say that as non-aligned members, their activities in the Upper House are not subject to a whip, and can be a force for good. Their presence in the Lords, supporters claim, is an extension of their general vocation as bishops to preach God's word and to lead people in prayer. Bishops provide an important independent voice, and spiritual insight to the work of the Upper House; and are a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.
 Remember, it's free, but you have to book first.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Irish atheists test new blasphemy law

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Having just returned to work from celebrating the birth of the Baby Jesus, or winter solstice, or something, we're pleased to see Atheist Ireland ringing in the New Year in heretical style with the release, as promised, of their blasphemous statement, designed to test the new Irish blasphemy law, which came into effect at midnight on New Year's Day. The statement takes the form of a List of 25 Blasphemous Quotes, which feature words from figures as varied as Jesus, Muhammad, Frank Zappa, Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins and Björk.

The new law makes "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted" a criminal offence, punishable by a fine of up to €25,000. The aim of Atheist Ireland's list is to draw attention to the ludicrous new law as part of Atheist Ireland's campaign to have it repealed. Alongside the list, they have condemned the new law as follows:
"From today, 1 January 2010, the new Irish blasphemy law becomes operational, and we begin our campaign to have it repealed. Blasphemy is now a crime punishable by a €25,000 fine. The new law defines blasphemy as publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted.

This new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. And it is dangerous because it incentives religious outrage, and because Islamic States led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level."
For your perusal, here's the full list of 25 blasphemous statements – of course as a UK blog we're legally clear to publish them, but if you're an Irish blogger you can play your part in challenging the law by republishing them on your site:
List of 25 Blasphemous Quotes Published by Atheist Ireland

1. Jesus Christ, when asked if he was the son of God, in Matthew 26:64: “Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” According to the Christian Bible, the Jewish chief priests and elders and council deemed this statement by Jesus to be blasphemous, and they sentenced Jesus to death for saying it.

2. Jesus Christ, talking to Jews about their God, in John 8:44: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” This is one of several chapters in the Christian Bible that can give a scriptural foundation to Christian anti-Semitism. The first part of John 8, the story of “whoever is without sin cast the first stone”, was not in the original version, but was added centuries later. The original John 8 is a debate between Jesus and some Jews. In brief, Jesus calls the Jews who disbelieve him sons of the Devil, the Jews try to stone him, and Jesus runs away and hides.

3. Muhammad, quoted in Hadith of Bukhari, Vol 1 Book 8 Hadith 427: “May Allah curse the Jews and Christians for they built the places of worship at the graves of their prophets.” This quote is attributed to Muhammad on his death-bed as a warning to Muslims not to copy this practice of the Jews and Christians. It is one of several passages in the Koran and in Hadith that can give a scriptural foundation to Islamic anti-Semitism, including the assertion in Sura 5:60 that Allah cursed Jews and turned some of them into apes and swine.

4. Mark Twain, describing the Christian Bible in Letters from the Earth, 1909: “Also it has another name – The Word of God. For the Christian thinks every word of it was dictated by God. It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies… But you notice that when the Lord God of Heaven and Earth, adored Father of Man, goes to war, there is no limit. He is totally without mercy – he, who is called the Fountain of Mercy. He slays, slays, slays! All the men, all the beasts, all the boys, all the babies; also all the women and all the girls, except those that have not been deflowered. He makes no distinction between innocent and guilty… What the insane Father required was blood and misery; he was indifferent as to who furnished it.” Twain’s book was published posthumously in 1939. His daughter, Clara Clemens, at first objected to it being published, but later changed her mind in 1960 when she believed that public opinion had grown more tolerant of the expression of such ideas. That was half a century before Fianna Fail and the Green Party imposed a new blasphemy law on the people of Ireland.

5. Tom Lehrer, The Vatican Rag, 1963: “Get in line in that processional, step into that small confessional. There, the guy who’s got religion’ll tell you if your sin’s original. If it is, try playing it safer, drink the wine and chew the wafer. Two, four, six, eight, time to transubstantiate!”