Friday, 30 April 2010

New Humanist at How the Light Gets In philosophy festival

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We're involved in two events at How The Light Gets In, a philosophy and music festival in Hay-on-Wye from Friday 28th May to Sunday 6th June. The festival website has the full programme, featuring events with lots of big names, but here's the info on what we're doing. Our editor Caspar Melville is giving a talk in the aptly named "Talk Tent" on Sunday 30 May at 11:30am on "Being Human, Being Humanist":
How do humanists look at the value of life? Is living well without the comfort of a personal God and a transcendental worldview terrifying, or liberating? Editor of the combative New Humanist magazine Caspar Melville looks for answers without illusion."
"Combative" - we like it. If you fancy going along, you can book tickets on the website for just £4 each. Caspar's also doing another event, which is linked more closely to his earlier vocation as a music journalist. He'll be in converasation with DJ Ewan Pearson at 7pm on Sunday 30 May:

"Rave academic and editor of New Humanist Caspar Melville talks to intellectual DJ Ewan Pearson about beats and being, records and reason, ecstasy and existentialism, before Pearson’s highly anticipated DJ set."

Leave your miaow miaow at home kids...

Thank God for Melanie Phillips!

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The only person who is going to be more pleased than us to find that Melanie Phillips has finally gurgitated her very own God book (it's called The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power [love those capitals, so dramatic] and is published by Encounter Books larded with glowing reviews from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and neocon William Kristol) will be our friend comedian Robin Ince, who I'm sure could do with a fresh stock of Mel magic to keep the comedy fires stoked. Luckily for Robin our Mel has seen fit to précis her argument in this week's Spectator, so for you, Robin, and the rest of you, here is a choice nugget and a link:
"Scientific triumphalists may realise that what they saying about the origin of the universe is ludicrous. Yet they persist because of their fear of the alternative explanation – God."
I promise the rest of it is just as good (incredible as it may seem she has discovered the intimate link between environmentalism and anti-Semitism, who knew?, and thinks that Britain is, not to mince words, a tinsy bit broken). Enjoy

The only question now is who do we get to review it? Ideas gratefully received in the comments.

Tim Minchin on the Pope

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There are quite a few ways that you can view the Catholic child abuse scandal and the question of the Pope's responsibility. You might think, for example, that there are unanswered questions regarding what the Pope knew, but that by focussing on him we risk letting the real culprits off the hook. Maybe you agree with Catholic commentator Damian Thompson, who says that Pope Benedict XVI has done more than anyone else in the Church to root out the abusers? Perhaps you just want to see the Pope come clean, tell us what he knew, and open up his Church to the same legal scrutiny we would expect secular organisations to receive?

Or, you could adopt the line taken by Tim Minchin in his catchy new number, "Pope Song". be warned: it contains some rather choice language.

So, which line are you taking?

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Christian relationship councillor denied appeal

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Gary McFarlane, the Bristol relationship counsellor who lost his job for refusing to provide counselling to gay couples, has today been refused leave to appeal against an earlier judgement which ruled that his sacking did not represent unlawful religious discrimination. It was McFarlane's case that prompted Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, to call for such cases to be heard only by judges with "proven sensitivity and understanding of religious issues".

Today's Court of Appeal ruling, by Lord Justice Laws, represents a powerful rejection of such special religious privileges, and a staunch defence of equality before the law. Here's a key extract:
"The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary. We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens; and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law; but the State, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.

So it is that the law must firmly safeguard the right to hold and express religious belief; equally firmly, it must eschew any protection of such a belief's content in the name only of its religious credentials. Both principles are necessary conditions of a free and rational regime. As I have shown Lord Carey's statement also contains a plea for a special court. I am sorry that he finds it possible to suggest a procedure that would, in my judgment, be deeply inimical to the public interest."
You can read the full judgement online. Welcoming the ruling, Naomi Phillips of the British Humanist Association said:
"Lord Justice Laws’ decision shows Lord Carey’s statement for what it is – a desperate cry from those unrepresentative few who are trying to retain the kind of privileges for religion that have no place in our modern, liberal and democratic society. A clear message has been sent out, that there can be no 'opt out' from the law for those individuals, such as this counsellor, who do not wish to treat people equally on the basis of their religious beliefs."

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Cartoons in the prayer room: free speech or harassment?

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Over at Index on Censorship, I've put one side of the argument over the conviction of Salford-based atheist Harry Taylor for leaving anti-religious cartoons in the prayer room at Liverpool John Lennon Airport. He received a suspended prison sentence of six months, 100 hours of community service, £250 costs, and a five-year ASBO, and some commentators have argued that this represents the introduction of a new blasphemy law by the back door. That's the line taken by Ophelia Benson, editor of the excellent Butterflies and Wheels website, who provides the counter-argument for Index. She argues the conviction is disturbingly illiberal and representative of the creeping censorship that surrounds the criticism of religion in our society.

My piece argues that secularism involves a balance between the right to criticise and insult religion and the rights of religious believers to go about their worship without harassment. Looking at what Harry Taylor did, I find it hard to agree that he was simply exercising his right to free speech. To me, it seems as though he crossed the blurred line between free speech and harassment, or certainly came close to doing so. I argue that we need to pick our free speech battles carefully, and this isn't one of them.

I'm very interested to know what people think – I expect a lot of you will disagree with me. Head over to Index and have a look at what Ophelia and I have to say, and then have your say by leaving a comment here.

Live fast, vote Christian

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Just over a week to go until the election and if you haven't made your mind up yet, forget "Bigot-gate" or the leaders' debates, because we've found the only manifesto you'll be needing next week – the Christian Party's.

Let's take a look through their policies. Of course, it's not all good news. On education, they'd "Ensure that proper balanced teaching and debate occurs in schools around the concepts of ‘Evolution’ and ‘Creation/Design in the universe’" and "Ensure that chastity before marriage and faithfulness within marriage - as the best and safest sexual practice - will be taught as an integral part of any sex education curriculum". And their "Respect for the human person" looks a lot like the anti-Ronseal Woodstain, in that it's designed to do the opposite of what it says on the tin.

But one policy jumps out at us as truly the Christian thing to do. If elected, the Christian Party would increase the motorway speed limit to 90mph. It's what Jesus would have wanted.

Fire up those engines, we're on the highway to Heaven.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Fun and games at the Foreign Office

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Launch Benedict brand condoms. Bless a civil partnership. Open an abortion clinic. These ideas, revealed by the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, came from a brainstorming session to prepare for the Pope's forthcoming visit to the UK.

Had the Telegraph got hold of some minutes from one of our editorial meetings? Not exactly. It turns out some civil servants at the Foreign Office got a bit carried away, came up with some "comedy" suggestions for giving the Pope a warm welcome and (here's the cardinal error) wrote them down.

Good to see they're taking Pope Tour 2010 as seriously as we are.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Why libel must be kept out of science

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Following on from Simon Singh's victory yesterday in his long-running libel dispute with the British Chiropractic Association, here's Ben Goldacre in the Guardian looking back at the case, and explaining why free speech can be a life and death issue when it comes to medical science.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Breaking news: British Chiropractic Association drop libel case against Simon Singh

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There's good news spreading across the internet like a cloud of volcanic ash through British airspace this morning – the British Chiropractic Association has dropped its libel case against Simon Singh, after the Court of Appeal recently ruled that Singh could defend comments he made about chiropractic in a 2008 Guardian article on the grounds of "fair comment".

With Simon Singh stating recently that the "action has cost £200,000 to establish the meaning of a few words", the decision to try to sue Singh could prove extremely costly for the BCA, who will now be expected to pick up the cost of this lenghty legal case.

Now the case is over, let's remind ourselves of what Singh wrote about chiropractic in the Guardian article:
"You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments."
More news on this when it emerges.

Update: The Times have a quote from Simon Singh, in which he expresses his intention to pursue the BCA for legal costs:
“It’s a huge relief to suddenly have this whole thing disappear. I’m still getting my head around it. I’ve got stacks of paperwork here in my office, relating to chiropractic and legal documents, and I don’t have to look at it as of today. I don’t know whether I’ll stick it in the attic or burn it.”

He said he would be pursuing the BCA for his legal costs. “The issue of costs is still outstanding. I suppose it will cost the BCA upward of £300,000, and I want to make sure they end up paying my legal costs, which will be over £100,000. It could be that I don’t get that money back: that explains why people don’t fight libel cases.”

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Hitchens on the case against the Pope

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Here's a video of Christopher Hitchens speaking to US news channel MSNBC about what he sees as the legal case against Pope Benedict XVI. (Found via

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Catholic child abuse and the Pope: links update

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As I seem to be constantly coming across new pieces on the Catholic child abuse cover-up, the question of the Pope's involvement, and the idea of mounting a legal challenge when he comes to the UK, here's a round-up of those I've read since I blogged about it this morning. Some are new since then, others I just hadn't read at the time.

Also, don't forget to vote in our poll at the top right of this page: Do you think the Pope should face legal action over the Catholic child abuse cover-ups?
  • "How much did the Pope know?" – Canadian current affairs magazine MacCleans provides a balanced overview of the abuse scandal and the question of the Pope's possible involvement in cover-ups.
  • "The Pope should stand trial" – Following The Times' misrepresentation of his desire to see the Pope face prosecution over the abuse allegations, Richard Dawkins sets the record straight on the Guardian, saying "there is a clear case to answer".
  • "Vatican scoffs at Dawkins idea of arresting Pope while in Britain" – Reuters report that Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi has described the suggestion of a legal challenge as a "bizarre idea", saying "I think they should look for something more serious and concrete before we can respond to it. The pope’s visit is a visit of state, and so it would be very strange if during a state visit the person who is invited to make a state visit is arrested.”
  • "Catholics may just have to sit out this anti-Papal media frenzy" – Catholic blogger Damian Thompson, an outspoken defender of Benedict XVI, declares himself "bored" with the speculation regarding the Pope. Moreover, he believes that "badly researched" journalism is deflecting attention away from the real culprits: "As I’ve said before, bishops who were responsible for paedophile cover-ups – and there are plenty – can count themselves lucky that major newspapers have assigned reporters to these stories who know as much about the Catholic Church as I do about electrical engineering, and screw up accordingly. Listen, no one is going to arrest the Pope, so can we drop the fantasising, please?"
  • "Arrest the Pope? I rather think we should" – Writing in The Times, Libby Purves says that, despite her reservations about the New Atheists, she welcomes the idea of arresting the Pope. "This thing needs airing properly," she says, "if the good bits of world Catholicism are to survive."

Halal comedy in Pakistan

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Comedian Shazia Mirza has a nice piece on the Guardian about her experiences performing stand-up on tour in Pakistan, and what the authorities there (not to mention the Pakistani Taliban insurgents) deem acceptable topics to tell jokes about. "Be careful, it's best you only do halal comedy," Mirza was told. She points out that there is no such thing, and that she proceeded to do the exact opposite.

It's very interesting – go and see for yourselves.

So should the Pope face arrest in the UK?

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As discussion continues over the proposal to mount a legal challenge to the Pope's forthcoming visit to the UK (or Dawkins' proposal to personally arrest the Pope, if you go with the Sunday Times' interpretation), we thought we'd run a poll to gauge our readers' views on the issue. Here's the question and the choice of answers, followed by an outline of the competing views surrounding this issue, which we've used to put together this poll.

You can place your vote at the top right of this page.
Do you think the Pope should face legal action over the Catholic child abuse cover-ups?

a) Yes. This cover-up appears to go to the very top and its perpetrators must face justice.

b) Yes. While it's unlikely the Pope will end up in the dock, suggestion of a legal challenge during his UK visit will draw attention to the extent of the cover-up.

c) No. This looks like atheist posturing. We need to join with Catholics in calling on the Vatican to come clean on this issue, and talk of arresting the Pope will just alienate them.

d) No. This is about many individual, horrific cases of abuse spread over decades. It is a distraction to try and attribute responsibility to one man.
Of course, the issue isn't one of whether Richard Dawkins will be marching Pope Benedict XVI to a police station this September, but rather whether there is a legal opening for holding the Pope responsible for the child abuse cover-ups. This was outlined by Geoffery Robertson QC in the Guardian on Good Friday, no less. Robertson suggests that, as international law "now counts the widespread or systematic sexual abuse of children as a crime against humanity", there is a possibility that Benedict, as the man who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, ordered that cases of child abuse be concealed from secular authorities on pain of excommunication, could be tried on that basis. The daft image of Dawkins himself arresting the Pope stems from the idea that, if an arrest warrant could be obtained for Benedict in this country, an arrest could be carried out when he arrives on these shores in September.

A further intruguing angle to all this is that, in order for a warrant to be obtained, it would first have to be demonstrated that the Pope is not entitled to diplomatic immunity as the head of state of the Holy See. So, reading between the lines, the idea of a legal challenge as put forward by Robertson, Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and solicitor Mark Stephens is less about the unrealistic prospect of physically putting the Pope in the dock, and more about drawing attention to the twin issues of the abuse cover-ups and the Vatican's anomalous statehood by raising the unlikely possibility of prosecution.

There have of course been lots of arguments made against this idea. In an excellent post, the Heresy Corner blogger demonstrates the implausibility of the whole idea, while pointing out that talk of arresting the Pope distracts from the real issues at stake. "There were bishops and Vatican officials whose actions were more reprehensible," he writes. "Yet who are escaping the intense scrutiny reserved for the man at the top." Meanwhile, Catholic barrister Neil Addison, who writes a blog on the law and religious freedom, dismisses suggestions that the Vatican's statehood can be challenged:
"The legal status of the Vatican as an independent state may be regarded by some as ridiculous and it can be described as anomalous but it is nevertheless a legal fact and it is frankly fatuous for a lawyer to suggest otherwise."
Robertson's suggestions, Addison says, have their basis less in his legal expertise, and more in his personal prejudices against the Catholic Church:
"Normally I wouldn't comment on an article or Blog written by another person because, at the end of the day, we are all entitled to our own opinion but when a Lawyer writes an article or Blog and invokes the law then people are entitled to assume that they are quoting the law accurately not just engaging in personal prejudice and polemic masquerading as legal fact."
Another angle comes from Sam Leith in the Evening Standard, who suggests that the involvement of the so-called New Atheists is a distraction, which will put Catholics off joining in calls for the pepertrators of abuse and the cover-ups from being held to account:

"Many of us take the view that Pope Benedict is a very bad hat.His organisation, on his watch, systematically covered up child-rape on an institutional scale, and we'd like to see him answer to a rather more robust court than his own conscience.

But Dawkins and Hitchens leading the charge against him muddies the waters.They had a philosophical beef with the Pope before they had a legal one, and they will appear to many people to be acting in their roles as professional atheists with books to promote.

It's not metaphysics that are the primary problem here but child molestation. What we really need is believing Catholics, and lots of them, to be making the case for the Pope's arrest."
So, we've tried to feed these differing viewpoints into our poll answers. Vote at the top right of this page.

Update: Writing on Comment is Free, Richard Dawkins has set out the reasons why he believes the Pope should face legal action.

Natalie Haynes on soap operas and the classics

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Just a quick one to let you know that New Humanist contributor Natalie Haynes' documentary on how Greek tragedy has come to influence modern TV soap operas, OedipusEnders, is broadcast on Radio 4 this morning at 11:30am.

If you can't catch it this morning, it'll be available on the BBC iPlayer for the next 7 days.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Arresting the Pope

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If you happened to pick up The Sunday Times yesterday, you could easily have could come away with an exciting new view of the author of such popular science classics as The Selfish Gene, Unweaving the Rainbow and The Greatest Show on Earth. "Dawkins: I will arrest the Pope", a headline in the paper declared, suggesting that, when the Pontiff arrives on these shores this September, the former Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University would personally stroll over to the Papal Plane, kick in the door, rough up a few Swiss Guards, present an arrest warrant and slap a pair of handcuffs on Benedict XVI, hauling him off to the slammer to face charges for his alleged role in covering up the abuse of children by errant Catholic priests around the world.

It's an exciting image, isn't it? But if your bullshit detector didn't go off as soon as you read the headline, you might like to take it for its annual service. Dawkins himself was quick to point out on his own website that the headline was grossly misleading and did a disservice to both himself and the Times journalist behind the piece. The Times has since changed the headline on its website and, while the story is still interesting, you'll need to drop that image of Dawkins personally nicking the Pope. The truth of the matter is that Christopher Hitchens has suggested the possibility of mounting a legal challenge to the Papal Visit, and has been exploring it along with Dawkins and the lawyers Geoffery Robertson and Mark Stephens.

This, of course, raises the question of whether this is a wise move. Is it a media stunt, or is there a serious possibility of challenging the Pope's visit on the grounds of his possible legal responsibility for Catholic child abuse? To what extent should the Pope himself even be held responsible?

For detailed analysis of all these questions, I recommend this excellent post over at Heresy Corner, which really skewers the issue nicely.

Kenan Malik on the fantasy of 'Eurabia'

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Writing for Norwegian publication Bergens Tidende, Kenan Malik examines the argument presented by political scientist Eric Kaufmann in his new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? In the book, Kaufmann draws on demographic data to suggest that high birth rates among fundamentalists of all stripes will lead to an "emerging 'culture war' between fundamentalists of all faiths and those who back the secular status quo," which "fundamentalists are poised to win because fertility differences based on theology do not fade like those based on ethnicity."

To get a better idea of Kaufmann's argument, read the interview with him from the current issue of New Humanist. While Malik does not place Kaufmann alongside right-wing "Eurabia" critics such as Mark Steyn, Christopher Caldwell and Melanie Phillips, who view Islamic immigration and demography as pointing towards a future, majority-Muslim Europe, he believes Kaufmann makes a similar mistake to them in placing too much emphasis on demography:
"Secularism and fundamentalism are not ideas stitched into people’s DNA. They are not born so. Secularist ideas and religious beliefs are like any values: people absorb them, accept them, reject them. A generation ago there were strong secular movements within Muslim communities and fundamentalism was a marginal force. Today secularism is much weaker, and Islamism much stronger. This shift has been propelled not by demographic trends but by political developments. And political developments can also help reverse the shift."
We headlined our Kaufmann interview "Battle of the babies", but for Malik the battle between secularism and fundamentalism is not one of babies, but ideas.

Read Malik's piece in full on his website.

If you're interested in seeing this subject debated in more detail, we're hosting an event this Thursday (15 April) at the Royal Society of Arts in central London featuring Kaufmann and Dominic Lawson, who reviewed Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? for the Times. It'll be chaired by Laurie Taylor, and free to all – you just need to book at the RSA website. If you can't make it, the debate will be audiostreamed live on the RSA site.

Friday, 9 April 2010

All three parties committed to libel reform

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Some excellent news regarding the Libel Reform campaign – Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve has today announced his party's commitment to reform if they win the forthcoming General Election:
"The Conservative party is committed, if elected, to undertaking a fundamental review of the libel laws with a view to enacting legislation to reform them. This reform could best be done by means of a separate Libel Bill and this is the preferred approach for us."
With Labour's Justice Secretary Jack Straw having committed to libel reform back in March, and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg having done so in January, this means all three main political parties have now expressed a commitment to reforming Britain's unjust, plaintiff-friendly libel laws.

It's a high-point for the hugely successful Libel Reform campaign (to which we, as the Rationalist Association, are signed up as supporters) but, as an email from the campaign points out, this is only the beginning:
This would not have happened unless 48,000 people like you backed our campaign, turned up to our public meetings, Big Gig and lobby of Parliament. With the decison by three of the most important judges in the land on Simon Singh’s case last week extending your right to fair comment, and a commitment to our politicians to reform the rest of our unjust libel laws, we’re on the cusp of radical and long-awaited reform.

Yet, it won’t be easy. On Tuesday, an attempt to cut lawyers’ fees failed in the House of Commons. We know that some libel lawyers will oppose reform every step of the way. It’s a lucrative business with some cases costing £3 million in lawyers’ fees. The vested interests are huge. We need your support not just now, but more importantly in the next few months when we see how our newly elected politicians propose to reform the law in the next Parliament.

So, please continue to support the Libel Reform campaign (if you haven't already signed the petition, now would be a good time) and here's hoping that whichever party forms the next government stands by its commitment.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Ku Klux Klan distances itself from the Westboro Baptist Church

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Here's an amusing item doing the rounds online this afternoon – the Arkansas chapter of the Ku Klux Klan have, for reasons at present known only to themselves, felt moved to publish a disclaimer on their website pointing out that they are nothing to do with the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, who you may remember by virtue of their persistent "God Hates Fags" picketing of the funerals of US soldiers, who they believe are killed by virtue of God taking his revenge on America for its toleration of homosexuality. Here's the text of the disclaimer:

News Release


NOTE: The Ku Klux Klan, LLC. has not or EVER will have ANY connection with The "Westboro Baptist Church". We absolutely repudiate their activities.
Of course I was sceptical at first, but I did a little web checking and it does seem that this appears on the genuine website for the Arkansas KKK (here's the link, but note that it will take you to a KKK website, so if you'd rather not give them a hit you may like to just take my word for it).

When the Ku Klux Klan is repudiating your activities, your bigotry truly has gone off the scale. Not that that will bother the Westboro gang, of course.

Is abortion now an election issue?

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While personally I feel there's much for us to envy in the US political process, I've always been thankful that here in Britain abortion doesn't play the prominent role in public debate that it does across the Atlantic. It's always felt like a far more settled issue here, and in my view it's testament to the mature attitude we take towards the abortion debate that it isn't used as a vote-winning issue by politicians, as it is in the US.

This doesn't mean I think debate around the issue should be closed – it comes up from time to time in Parliament, as it did during the passage of the Embryology Act in 2008, and there tend to be MPs on all sides who agree and disagree with the abortion laws. But my perception was that in Britain abortion is not used as an election issue, as a way to win votes from people who feel strongly about it, one way or another.

For that reason, I don't think I'm alone in feeling a little uneasy with the interview David Cameron has given to the Catholic Herald, in which he answers a reader's question on whether there should be a reduction in the abortion time limit (currently 24 weeks into pregnancy) as follows:
“I think that the way medical science and technology have developed in the past few decades does mean that an upper limit of 20 or 22 weeks would be sensible.”
Cameron does say that he thinks abortion is an issue, along with euthanasia, on which MPs should be given a free vote, but I am still uncomfortable with the fact that he has chosen to reveal his personal view on the matter in an interview given to a religious newspaper during an election campaign with the intention of winning religious votes. I just hope this isn't a sign that abortion is set to become a bigger political issue in this country. If, when answering the question, Cameron didn't intend to make it a political issue he seems to have failed – the story has made the front page of the Daily Telegraph, as well as the Daily Mail.

This isn't to say Cameron has been alone in courting the faith vote – Gordon Brown has been giving it a good go too, declaring last week in an Easter message on the Number 10 website that:
"The Christian churches are the conscience of our country, always ready to bear witness to the truth and to remind us of our responsibilities to what the Bible calls ‘the least of these’. I am incredibly grateful for all that you do to ensure our public square is more than a place of transaction and exchange and remains always, as it should be, a place of shared values and social justice."
If you're feeling like there's little to choose between the parties when it comes to the role of religion in public debate, you may be interested to read the piece I wrote for our current issue on how a humanist might go about voting. One of the conclusions I came to while working on that was that it's time we all started paying more attention to our individual candidates, and where they stand on issues we might care about (I was thinking from a humanist perspective when writing the article, but obviously this can apply to all issues). In the article you're find a list of 10 questions you could ask your candidates in order to gauge their stance on issues pertaining to humanism, secularism and freethought, adapted from lists provided in the BHA's election manifesto and the Skeptical Voter website. Do let us know if you put them to your candidates, as we'd be fascinated to know what kind of answers you receive.

PS - Speaking of Skeptical Voter, now the election campaign has kicked off, they've been experiencing a spike in the number of people contributing to their wiki, which catalogues the positions of as many MPs and candidates as possible on various issues. But in order to make it as comprehensive (and so as useful) as possible, they need more people to get involved. One way you can help is by passing on any relevant answers you receive from candidates. And if you're very keen, you can get involved with updating the wiki. Contact details are available on the website.

An open letter to the British Chiropractic Association

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Following on from Simon Singh's victory last week at the Court of Appeal, where he won the right to defend himself against the British Chiropractic Association's now-infamous libel suit on grounds of fair comment, the legal blogger David Allen Green has published an open letter to the BCA on his Jack of Kent blog, urging them to cut their losses and settle the case now, rather than fight on and risk an even more expensive defeat.

Here's a choice quote:
"One hopes the BCA will have learned their lesson on this.

The claim should never have been brought, but one can see why the BCA hung on until the Court of Appeal decision.

The BCA can still extract itself with some dignity now the procedural advantage has been lost."
Read the full letter at the Jack of Kent blog.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Compulsory sex education falls victim to parliamentary wash-up

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The process of parliamentary "wash-up", in which uncontroversial bills are rushed into law in the week before Parliament is dissolved for a General Election, has led to the removal of some important aspects of the government's Children, Schools and Families Bill, which is among the bills passing through this week. The Bill will no longer ensure that all state-funded schools have to provide pupils with Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), or provide for the inclusion of evolution on the primary science curriculum.

The British Humanist Association had lobbied hard for the inclusion of these aspects, and its Chief Executive Andrew Copson has expressed his dismay at their removal. On sex education, he said:
"Good SRE is known to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections, as well as equip young people with the language and tools to be clear about personal boundaries, understand appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and know who to talk to when they need help. For older children it helps them resist pressure, make safe choices and challenge misleading and inappropriate messages about sex in the media. It makes a hugely significant contribution to young people’s health and well-being. There was massive support for its implementation from health professionals, teachers, parents and young people themselves. The loss of these subjects as core parts of the curriculum is catastrophic."
Writing on his own website, the Schools Secretary Ed Balls has published an open letter to the Conservatives' Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove, who he blames for standing in the way of compulsory SRE, evolution in primary schools, and other aspects of the bill.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

As the election is finally called, what's in it for humanists?

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If you've been anywhere near the TV, internet or any other media this morning, you'll already know that the General Election has been called for 6 May (unless you've only just climbed out of bed and switched on your computer, and your homepage is New Humanist, in which case I salute you). With this in mind, I won't clog up your life with any more election chatter, except to point you in the direction of our look at how a humanist might go about voting.

Actually, asking you to read a full piece on humanism and the election probably does count as clogging up your life with more election chatter but, hey, it is election season after all...

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Simon Singh wins appeal on meaning

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Science writer Simon Singh has this morning won his appeal on the meaning of his 2008 Guardian article on chiropractic, which has been the subject of a long-running libel suit by the British Chiropractic Association. Last year, Mr Justice Eady ruled that Singh's assertion that the BCA "happily promotes bogus treatments", such as the use of chiropractic to treat childhood asthma and colic, was presented as fact rather than opinion, meaning Singh would not be able to fight the case on the grounds of fair comment.

Now, following an appeal that has lasted close to a year, the Appeal Court (a particularly high-powered panel consisting of Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley) has ruled that Eady "erred in his approach", and Singh will now be able to move forward and fight on grounds of fair comment.

Singh described the ruling as brilliant, while pointing out that "It is extraordinary this action has cost £200,000 to establish the meaning of a few words." For their part the BCA appear to remain defiant, putting out a press release (PDF) which asserts that they have followed legal advice throughout, and suggests that they will fight on:
“We are of course disappointed to lose the appeal, but this is not the end of the road and we are considering whether to seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court and subsequently proceed to trial. Our original argument remains that our reputation has been damaged. To reiterate, the BCA brought this claim only to uphold its good name and protect its reputation, honesty and integrity”.
It'll be interesting to see what happens next. Will the BCA now look to settle, or will they fight to the bitter end, with Singh in a far stronger position with his fair comment defence? As the Lord Chief Justice said when the case was before the court last month, whatever happens “At the end of this someone will pay an enormous amount of money".