Thursday, 29 July 2010

Gove on atheist free schools - missing the point?

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Speaking before the education select committee yesterday, education secretary Michael Gove suggested he would welcome the opening of atheist free schools under the new Academies Act. Referring to Richard Dawkins' remarks during a recent web chat with users of the website Mumsnet, in which he responded to a suggestion that atheists use the new legislation to set up schools by saying he liked the idea of a free-thinking school, Gove told the committee:
"One of the most striking things that I read recently was a thought from Richard Dawkins that he might want to take advantage of our education legislation to open a new school, which was set up on an explicitly atheist basis.

"It wouldn't be my choice of school, but the whole point about our education reforms is that they are, in the broad sense of the word, small 'l', liberal, that they exist to provide that greater degree of choice."
He later told reporters "If Professor Dawkins wants to set up a school we would be very interested to look at an application."

As many commentators have pointed out, the Academies Act is likely to lead to an increase in the number of schools controlled by religious organisations. With this in mind, it would appear Gove was hoping to placate critics of the legislation by effectively saying, don't worry, religious groups are going to set up schools, but you can too if you like.

But isn't Gove missing the point? When I blogged about this following Dawkins' Mumsnet chat, I tried to get a sense of what readers thought of setting up free schools in the name of non-religious philosophies, such as "atheist", "humanist" or "freethinking" (you can see reader comments here, and the results of our poll here). Opinions varied, of course, but the overall impression was one of opposition. Humanists and secularists don't, on the whole, seem to favour taking advantage of the coalition's reforms in this way. While some think it might be time to take an "if you can't beat them..." approach, many feel doing so would represent an inadvertent endorsement of a system humanists and secularists have spent years opposing.

I think this is where I stand too – we already have a situation where, in many cases, the children of Catholic parents go to Catholic schools, the children of Church of England parents to to Church of England Schools, the children of Muslim parents go to Muslim schools, and so on. The answer, from an atheist perspective, is not to add to the problem by sending the children of atheist parents to atheist schools. We currently have an education system that encourages segregation along religious lines, and we should be campaigning for this to be replaced by a system that encourages integration. This view is summed up well by the BHA's chief executive Andrew Copson, in his response to Gove's comments yesterday:
"The BHA campaigns for totally inclusive schools for children of all faiths and none. In our view, many inclusive community schools are already more or less humanist in their ethos and values. If compulsory collective worship was ended and RE became universally objective, fair and balanced, community schools would indeed be humanist in all but name, open and accommodating to all."
I'm looking to cover this in the next issue of the magazine, so reader comments would be greatly appreciated. Where do you stand on this issue? Do you welcome Gove's comments? Should atheists now look to use the provisions of the Academies Act? Or should we oppose the idea of any school set up in the name of a particular religion or philosophy?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Priest in the dog house for delivering Pooch-arist

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Breed pictured - not actual dog
I've been to a few church services in my time (I know - I'll tender my resignation in the morning), and it's often (well, occasionally) occurred to me that delivering the Holy Communion, or Eucharist, or Sacrament of the Table, or Blessed Sacrament, or The Lord's Supper – you know, the bit where they have some cardboard-like bread and wine, which to Catholics actually the body and blood of Christ, but to Anglicans only represents said body and blood – must be a bit of a minefield.

Think about it – how is the poor priest supposed to know who's eligible to take it? As I understand it, you have to be confirmed, but it's hardly like they make you prove that you have been when you reach the altar. Yet a cursory Google search tells me that this isn't always necessary. The Catholic Church, apparently, is much stricter, but even then I'd be interested to know how they would go about halting any would-be sacramental imposters. Anglican churches, in my experience the Church of England, have always struck me as representing something of a free-for-all – even I've knocked back a couple of Eucharists, and I've been a godless heathen for pretty much as long as I can remember.

But there must be some rules, even in the Anglican church. What is the priest supposed to do if a new face comes forward to take communion? What if a known atheist steps up? Or a teenager suspected of being too young? And what if a dog tries to take the Eucharist? It's a serious question, because it's what Reverend Marguerite Rea of St Peter's Anglican Church, Toronto had to deal with recently, when one of her parishioners, Donald Keith, arrived at the altar with his beloved German Shepherd, Trapper. Her answer was to give Trapper his bread and wine, in what she says was a "simple church act of reaching out" to Keith during his first service at the church.

Unfortunately for the Reverend, however, others didn't agree. One parishioner complained to the archdiocese, and Rea has since had to apologise, with her area bishop, Patrick Yu, saying "I can see why people would be offended. I have never heard of it happening before. I think the reverend was overcome by what I consider a misguided gesture of welcoming."

As I said – a minefield.

(PS - I love how even the BBC report struggles to take this one seriously. "Canine controversy", "Bone of contention" – great stuff)

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Councillor John Dixon on the "Stupid Scientology" saga

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I've been away for a few days, so I missed this – the Humanist & Secular Liberal Democrats' website has an exclusive piece from John Dixon, the Cardiff councillor facing disciplinary action for calling Scientology "stupid" on Twitter, in which he shares his thoughts on the case and the subsequent publicity it has attracted. Have a read over at the HSLD site.

Maldivan journalist faces police charges for "atheism"

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A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the tragic case of Ismail Mohamed Didi, a 25-year-old Maldivan who apparently committed suicide following the negative and abusive reaction he received to his admission that he was an atheist and not a Muslim believer.

By way of an update, I wanted to draw your attention to another story emerging from the Maldives, this time involving a 37-year-old journalist, Ismail Khilath Rasheed, who was arrested for allegedly attempting suicide, and subsequently charged with, in his own words, “attempted suicide by overdozing [sic] on less than a gram of hash oil, atheism and homosexuality.”

It appears that Rasheed has a history of criticising the Maldivan state religion in his writing – it is a legal requirement for citizens of the Maldives to be Muslims – and he has since written to Amnesty International to request help in seeking temporary asylum.

As with the case of Ismail Mohamed Didi, Rasheed's predicament serves as a reminder of difficulties faced by so-called "apostates" in countries where the state dictates the religion of its citizens. It would seem that the Maldives has a particularly poor record in this respect, so it's to be hoped such cases continue to attract international attention.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Councillor in trouble for calling Scientology "stupid" appears on Newsnight

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Following on from yesterday's story about the Cardiff councillor facing disciplinary action for referring to Scientology as "stupid" on Twitter, here's the man himself, John Dixon, appearing on Newsnight last night (video via Index on Censorship). Good to see this worrying case getting some wider publicity beyond all the web action it has generated.

(As a little side note, look at how uncomfortable Kirsty Wark seems when she has to deliver the news that something "became a trending topic on Twitter today". You can't really blame her – I use Twitter every day, but I still cringe myself when I see/hear old media using web jargon like this, as though they expect their wider audience to have a clue what they're talking about. It's why I decided to copy the New York Times when its style editor advised against using the word "Tweet" in the newspaper, and incorporate the same rule into the style guide for our print magazine. I think Twitter's great, but I think we do need to remember that the overall number of users isn't that great compared to the numbers watching Newsnight, for example. All these Twitter-generated news stories that keep appearing in old media must be baffling for some people – I'm not saying don't run them, but they need to be framed in a way that isn't off-putting for those who know nothing of Twitter. Anyway, rant over - it's one for discussion anyway!)

New commenting system

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We're trialling a new comments system, Disqus, which we hope might make for a more lively and user friendly commenting experience. This is a post on which to test it out - by all means post your thoughts on this here and give it a go. You can still post without having a login name - you just need to give your email address, which won't be displayed or used for anything else – but you can also post using Twitter, Disqus, Yahoo or OpenID.

Let me know of any problems you experience and I can look into them.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Evangelicals in Iraq - just what we need

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"Since the US occupation took hold, American evangelicals have established not only schools, but printing presses, radio stations, women's centers, bookstores, medical and dental clinics, and churches in northern Iraq, all with the blessings and assistance of the Kurdistan government. Many of these efforts were funded in part by US taxpayer dollars, channeled through Department of Defense construction contracts and State Department grants"

Scary piece by Michael Reynolds from the ever readable Alternet

Polly Toynbee on the academies bill

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The Con-Lib coalition's Academies Bill made it safely through its first reading in the Commons yesterday, despite warnings from opponents that it is being rushed through, and that it will lead to an increase in the number of faith schools. It looks set to be become law next Monday, so you could certainly argue that, for a significant reform to the schools system, the legislation will not have received an ample amount of scrutiny.

Writing in today's Guardian the British Humanist Association's president Polly Toynbee outlines why this bill is bad news for the education system. She provides lots of reasons, many of which aren't directly relevant to humanism, but she pays plenty of attention to what the reforms mean in relation to faith schools:
Faith schools are likely to boom, in this most secular of nations. An ICM poll for The British Humanist Association – of which I am president – finds 72% of people concerned at academies being set up by religious organisations. So far 273 faith schools are bidding to become academies, free to teach creationism or any nonsense they like. In the Lords, Baroness Murphy described one example: "Take the case of the Ebrahim Academy in Whitechapel, an academy school for boys … The school day begins with tahfeez, which is reciting the Qur'an and getting the pronunciation right, which takes up half the day. Then the national curriculum takes up the second half of the day. It is a state-funded, tax-funded madrasa for the Islamic faith."
Read on at the Guardian website, where there is, of course, a lively comments thread.

Welsh councillor in trouble for calling Scientology "stupid" on Twitter

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When Cardiff councillor John Dixon visited London last year to buy a wedding ring for his wife to be, a stroll past the "Dianetics and Life Improvement Centre" on Tottenham Court Road (just round the corner from our office, as it happens) prompted him to make the following quip on Twitter:
“I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”
A relatively innocuous statement, wouldn't you say? And when you consider the history of the Church of Scientology (just have a look at some of our past pieces on them here, here and here), you might be tempted to observe that a) "stupid" doesn't really cover the half of it, and b) a Welsh councillor making a quip about them on Twitter ought to the least of their worries.

After posting this initial message, and another one on discovering that a Scientology Twitter account had started "following" him – “Just realised the Scientologists are following me. Quick everyone, pretend you’re out” – Dixon presumably thought no more of it and carried on looking for the wedding ring.

What he almost certainly didn't anticipate was that six months down the line, in December last year, the Church of Scientology would make a complaint against him to Wales' public services watchdog. Dixon is now facing a disciplinary hearing and, according to this report on Wales Online, the watchdog said he "is likely to have breached the code of conduct for local authority members". A date has yet to be set for the hearing and Dixon has said he will not comment until proceedings are complete.

This story is a worrying reminder of the Church of Scientology's determination to pursue its critics whenever possible, no matter how trivial the "offence" committed against it. It has prompted a show of support for Dixon on Twitter, where many users are currently attempting (successfully, at the time of writing) to make the tag "#StupidScientology" into a "trending topic" which, for those of you who are (for better or worse) unversed in Twitter-speak, would mean it would be one of the most talked about subjects on the site in the UK today. If you're a Twitter user, why not go and take a look?

[The photo used here is one I took across the road from the Scientology centre on Tottenham Court Road when I visited a protest by "Anonymous" there in 2008]

Monday, 19 July 2010

What can we learn from Islamic dating websites?

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In our current issue, we have a piece by Theodore Dalrymple in which he considers what we can learn about the lives of young Muslims in Western countries by looking at what may initially seem like an unusual source – the ads posted on Islamic marriage sites.

Have a read, and share any thoughts you may have by commenting on this post.

Friday, 16 July 2010

A PR tip for the Vatican

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When updating your list of most serious crimes against church law, or "delicta graviora", in order to make it possible to hand out tougher punishments to those involved in the sexual abuse of children, why not undermine an otherwise positive step and cause widespread offence by implying that the ordination of female priests constitutes an equally serious crime?

Update: To be fair, perhaps we shouldn't be too critical. As this post from a blogger on the Catholic publisher Ignatius Press's blog points out, the two things are not so different, as ordaining women represents a form of "spiritual abuse":
"A key problem here, in a nutshell, is that while everyone with a working conscience knows how horrible and vile are the sexual molestation and abuse of children, not everyone takes nearly as seriously the grave spiritual harm caused by the attempted ordination of women. This is especially true when the "ordination" is done by an actual bishop; it is a betrayal of the most serious sort, a violation of his holy orders and, ultimately, of the sacred calling granted to him by God. It is, put frankly, spiritual abuse."
Oh dear.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Ask your MP to oppose the expansion of religious academies

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The British Humanist Association are appealing for help in resisting the passage of the Con-Lib government's Academies Bill, which receives its first reading in the Commons this coming Monday, 19 July. As the BHA have been pointing out ever since the proposed legislation was announced, it seems clear that an increase in the number of academy schools will lead to an increase in the number of schools run and controlled by religious organisations.

Now the BHA are asking people to write to their MPs to encourage them to properly scrutinise and perhaps oppose the legislation. Their concerns are as follows:
1. If a state-maintained ‘faith school’ becomes a religious Academy, it will no longer be required to follow the national curriculum. This could lead to some schools teaching their own version of religious education, personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education and to an increase in schools teaching creationism.

2. Unlike the current situation, schools will not have to undertake extensive consultation with their local authority, parents or local people before becoming an academy. A school could therefore become a religious academy without local people being fully able to give their views.

3. The Bill forces a ‘faith school’ automatically to become an independent school with that religious character if they become an Academy. This removes the possibility for state-funded faith schools to choose to become inclusive Academies.

4 .As it stands it includes no provision to prevent inclusive community schools adopting a religious character when converting to Academy status. This means more ‘faith schools’.

5. The Government has made clear that it does not intend to prevent religious academies from discriminating in their admissions, giving preference to the children of parents with particular beliefs. As the number of religious academies increases, there will be fewer and fewer places for children whose parents are of the ‘wrong’ or no religion.

6. Many maintained ‘faith schools’ are not currently permitted to discriminate on religious grounds against staff. The Bill contains no safeguards to ensure that such schools, when converting to Academies, cannot begin discriminating in their recruitment and employment policies.

7. A number of fee-paying independent religious schools have already registered their interest in becoming Academies, which would give them complete powers over the curriculum while unburdening them from the need to raise their own funds.
As this is one of the coalition government's first major initiatives (and it was a key part of the Conservative manifesto), it appears keen to rush it through parliament. It is essential that the bill receives, at the very least, proper parliamentary scrutiny (as all bills should).

It's easy to write to your MP – just use the BHA's automated email system. Your email can make a difference, as MPs need to be aware that many people oppose this expansion in religious influence in the state education system.

The consequences of apostasy

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News reaches us of a disturbing story from the Maldives, which serves as a reminder of the freedom of belief enjoyed by those of all religions and none here in Europe. Ismail Mohamed Didi, a 25-year-old air traffic controller who worked at the airport in the Maldives capital, Malé, was found hanged from the airport's control tower this week, having apparently committed suicide.

As this report from a Maldives news site shows, it appears Didi's suicide was prompted by ostracisation he received after admitting to his atheism, in confidence, to some colleagues. This news spread, prompting a hostile reaction from his fellow workers, and even resulted in Didi being investigated by his employers. As an email sent by Didi to a humanitarian orgainisation at the end of June shows, the situation seems to have become so bad that he was seeking asylum in the UK:

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: ismail mohamed
Date: 25 June 2010 09:30
Subject: a plea for help

Dear sir,

I’m a 25 year-old Maldivian living in Male’. I have been working as an Air Traffic Controller at Male’ International Airport for almost 7 years now.

I started becoming disenchanted with Islam around 5 years ago and am now an atheist. During my transformation, and even now, I am quite the idealist, and when i was confronted about two years back by a couple of my colleagues about my aversion from the daily practices of Islam, i somewhat foolishly admitted my stance on religion.

I had asked them to keep it a secret from the rest of our workforce at ATC, although i now realize i should have known better. It did not take long for everybody at work to find out and since then, i have faced constant harassment in my work environment.

An atheist is not a common feature at all among Maldivians and the word has spread like wildfire since then. It has now come to the point where everyone I know, including my family, have become aware of my lack of belief.

In a society that has always been proud of their religious homogeneity, you can imagine what i am being put through. I have been subjected to numerous consultations with religious scholars and even my closest friends are not allowed to see me.

My company has already begun investigating a complaint regarding me, collecting testimony from fellow workers about my apostasy.

Just 3 days ago, i received two anonymous phone calls threatening violence if i do not start openly practicing Islam.I am at my wit’s end now. I have been trying for sometime to secure employment abroad, but have not yet succeeded.

The only other alternative i can think of is to flee the country to seek asylum elsewhere. I have already written an e-mail to your organization, and am anxiously waiting for a reply. I found your e-mail address on facebook. I am in dire need of assistance and know of no one inside the country who can guide me.

I would have already left the country if i was sure i could meet the required burden of proof in an asylum claim. I would like to know if you would be able to help me in anyway should i travel to the U.K to seek asylum and what my chances are of making a successful claim.

Thank you for your consideration

Ismail Mohamed Didi
It's an upsetting story, and serves as a reminder of what so-called "apostates" are up against in certain countries, particularly those were Islam is the state religion, as it is in the Maldives, where the constitution states that "a non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives".

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Opinion poll data on burqa bans

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Just as an addition to yesterday's post on the proposed ban on the wearing of the full Islamic veil in public in France, it's well worth taking a look at this opinion poll data from the excellent Pew Global Attitudes Project. As part of their Spring Global Attitudes survey, Pew asked participants for their view on banning the burqa. Among respondents in Western Europe, majorities favoured a ban – 82% in France, 71% in Germany, 62% in Britain and 59% in Spain. However, in the US, just 28% said they would be in favour of such a ban.

It's interesting to note this disparity between the US and Europe – presumably Americans' firm commitment to religious freedom, as enshrined in the first amendment of the constitution, means they reject the idea of prohibiting people from wearing an item on account of their religion (not to mention Americans' distaste for government banning anything). In this respect, France and America, two countries with strong, constitutional commitments to secularism diverge greatly – for French supporters of the ban, it would represent a defence of secularism as something that protects citizens from religious oppression, while for American opponents, banning the burqa would violate the secular principle of defending religious freedom through state neutrality. (Of course, these are general assumptions based on the poll, and I'm not ignoring the fact that there will be people of all positions in these countries.)

Clearly, the burqa debate goes to the heart of how we define secularism, and how we view the right of government to intervene in matters of conscience and individual choice (I wholeheartedly recommend Martha Nussbaum's New York Times piece for more on this). As such, it divides opinion among humanists and secularists, and we have had some excellent comments on the post I wrote about this yesterday – if you'd like to join the debate, I'd recommend posting your comments on that rather than starting a new thread here, as it's always best to keep the discussion in one place.

[Image: Pew Global Attitudes Project]

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

France moves closer to burqa ban

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As expected, French MPs have this afternoon voted in large numbers to pass a law outlawing the wearing of the full Islamic veil in public. If passed by the French senate in September, and then ratified by France's Constitutional Council, the law would leave women facing a €150 fine for wearing the burqa, while men found guilty of forcing women to wear it would face fines of €30,000 and a year in jail.

The ban has the backing of President Sarkozy, who said last year:
"The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom."
As things stand, we're planning a proper consideration of this subject in the next issue of New Humanist, in which we'll look at both sides of the argument. As with the bans under consideration in other European countries, such as Belgium and Spain, it will be interesting to see how the French ban, if passed, stands up to legal challenges, particularly in European courts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the French police union has already expressed concern over how officers will be expected to enforce a ban.

As a prelude to covering this in the next issue, I'd be interested to know what readers make of bans on the full veil. Is it right that liberal, Western democracies should draw certain cultural lines of this nature, in order to protect the rights of women? Or does a ban violate the rights of women in relation to a key Western secular value – the right to express their religion as they see fit, so long as it does no harm to others? In Sarkozy's view, the veil does not represent an expression of religious freedom, but rather the oppression of its wearer by a men. What do you make of that interpretation?

A great deal has been written about this online this week. Here are some links to dip into:
This isn't an easy issue – personally I feel as though I need to read a great deal more before I could place myself as firmly for or against. Please do share your views with us by commenting on this post – I think it would be a very useful exercise to gain a sense of what humanists/atheists/secularists (and anyone else) have to say about this.

Update: I also should have linked to this 2008 New Humanist piece by Joan W Scott, in which she considered the political reasons for France's ban on head scarves in schools.

Quantum physics and esoteric Hinduism - a physicist responds

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Some of you will remember that our May/June issue featured a piece by Hindu council director Jay Lakhani, who wrote that his academic background in physics had led him to conclude that quantum physics supports his non-materialist, esoteric Hindu religion.

We knew at the time it would prove controversial, and of course our readers didn't disappoint, sending us lots of letters and responding in a lively thread on the blog. To follow this up, we published a page of responses in our current, July/August issue, alongside a response piece, entitled "Lakhani gets his science wrong", from US-based physicist Mano Singham. I've just put Singham's piece online, so have a read and share any thoughts on this post.

Paul the Psychic Octopus - an Islamic view

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As you all know, by far the biggest story to emerge from the 2010 World Cup was the rise of Paul the Psychic Octopus, who successfully predicted the result of every single Germany game, and the outcome of the final between Spain and Holland. Or, as we established via Twitter speculation, successfully managed to fix the result of those matches through a series of backhanders (back-tentaclers?) that either went unnoticed or were ignored by the footballing authorities.

So I was interested this morning to stumble across an Islamic perspective on Paul in the form of this column from the Saudi Gazette (which, when my local newsagents have sold out, I am forced to read online – thankfully, there's no paywall, yet).

Here's their take on the slimy sage:
"Even more bizarre than the soothsaying cephalopod with the ‘100% track record’ is the reaction of the supposedly ‘objective’ media and readers across the world, who have lapped up the shenanigans of the ‘oracle’ octopus and its rivals – a parakeet called Mani and a 700-kg crocodile called Harry in Darwin, Australia – without a murmur of disbelief or protest.

It makes one wonder: Is the world going through a period of collective mental regression to the Period of Ignorance (Jahiliyah) where superstition and soothsaying reigned supreme? Have we become so desensitized by systematic exposure to the occult and ‘supernatural’ – thanks to the popularity and consequent social acceptability of magicians (Harry Potter) and vampires (movies like Twilight and Eclipse) – that the slow slide back has gone largely unnoticed, and we now consider the weird, ‘wonderful’?"
Crikey. And there was me thinking we were all just having a bit of fun, when all along we were undergoing "mental regression". Oh keepers of Oberhausen Sea Life Centre, what have you done?

Monday, 12 July 2010

Russian artists convicted for inciting religious hatred

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To update on this morning's post, the Russian artists Andrei Yerofeyev and Yuri Samodurov have today been found guilty of inciting religious hatred and fined for setting up the "Forbidden Art" exhibition at Moscow's Sakharov Museum in 2007.

Russian philosopher Michail Ryklin wrote about the trial, which began last April, in New Humanist at the end of last year. Samodurov has a previous conviction for inciting religious hatred as a result of his involvement in the 2005 "Caution: Religion!" exhibition along with Ryklin's late wife, the artist Anna Alchuk. In an earlier piece for New Humanist, Ryklin recalled how the pressure of that trial and subsequent conviction led to her tragic suicide.

It's still Caution: Religion!

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After a trial lasting 14 months, Yury Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, the curators who have been charged with inciting religious hatred for staging the Forbidden Art exhibition at the Sakharov Center in Moscow in 2007, will find out today if they are going to jail.

Read Mikhail Ryklin's powerful piece about the persecution of everyone involved in the 2005 exhibition Caution: Religion!, by fanatical religious nationalists, which led, he says, to his wife's untimely death. We can only hope the judge refuses pleas to punish them in the name of Jesus.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Help stop the stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani

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As has been widely reported in the press (it's the cover story of today's Times), a 43-year-old Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, faces being stoned to death for conducting "illicit relationship outside marriage", a "crime" which she denies and for which she has already received 99 lashes.

Amid a growing international campaign to demand her release, politicians and public figures from around the world have spoken out against the abhorent sentence, including former US presidential candidate John Kerry and the EU foreign affairs high representative Baroness Ashton. The British government has said that the stoning would "disgust and appal the watching world". Writers such as AC Grayling and Philip Pullman have backed the campaign, as have many actors and celebrities.

You can help by calling on the Iranian government to release Ashtiani, and end the use of the barbaric medieval "punishment" of stoning. There are various online petitions gathering thousands of signatures - the Times mention this and this in today's paper, while the Huffington Post website has been promoting this.

Unlikely comparison of the day: Christopher Hitchens and Malcom X

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I particularly liked this as I'm in the middle of reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X at the moment – Jewish cultural magazine Tikkun have a nice piece that looks at "What Christopher Hitchens and the New Atheists can learn from Malcom X". At first it seems like an odd comparison – what could the legendary black Muslim firebrand possibly have in common with an old-Trotskyite English-turned-American atheist polemicist? But as Be Scofield points out in the Tikkun piece, the similarities are fairly clear:

Like X, Hitchens systematically deconstructs the logic of that which he is resisting by pointing out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies within many religious institutions and their texts. He also does a brilliant job of describing the inevitable and disturbing conclusions that must be reached if many of the religious doctrines are taken to be as literally true.

Both men are also known for their fiery rhetoric. Malcolm’s most infamous public statement came when he said “Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad,” in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Just two days after the death of Ronald Reagan Hitchens called him a “cruel and stupid lizard.” He refers to Mother Theresa as “The Ghoul of Calcutta,” and wishes “there was a hell for the bitch to go to.” And in reference to her beatification he said, “The old bitch got it anyway.” Al Sharpton is a “vulgar clown,” and Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright is a “racist thug.” These sorts of remarks and both of their tendencies toward absolutism appeal to the emotional, knee jerk instincts within many of us.
So what can Hitchens and co learn, as the piece asks, from the life of Malcolm X? Well, it's considered in some detail by Scofield, so I'll let you take in the piece for yourselves, but you won't be surprised to hear that it relates to the ideological evolution Malcolm X experienced towards the end of his life, when he shifted from hatred of the "white devil" to occupy a less divisive position.

Could atheists learn from this, and move from hostility towards religion to take a more accomodating approach? I'll let you debate that one...

Animation of David Harvey's RSA talk

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Here's a a diversion that's both fun and informative – Marxist geographer David Harvey, who is interviewed by Laurie Taylor in our current cover story, spoke recently at the Royal Society of Arts about Marxism and the financial crisis, and the clever folk at the RSA have turned it into a short animation as part of their RSAnimate series:

If you enjoyed that, there are plenty more on the RSA's YouTube channel. Go and have a look – you might just learn something in the process too!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Prayer Companion - Twitter for nuns?

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News reaches us of a fascinating invention developed by the Interaction Research Studio at Goldsmiths, University of London – the Prayer Companion. It's a "tabletop appliance with a small screen on the top" (pictured), which serves the following purpose:
"Short sentences about the news or peoples' feelings move continuously across the screen depicting live and up-to-date events. The sentences are taken from a wide range of global news sites as well as websites where people can write about their experiences and emotions."
So who would have a use for such a device? Why, Nuns of course! The Prayer Companion is being used by the Poor Clares nuns from St Joseph's in York – nuns who "otherwise abide by medieval traditions" – to keep up to date with current events and ensure their prayers remain topical and relevant to the modern world. And it seems they're finding it useful – they've even given it a nickname, "Goldie", which we can only assume stems from their admiration for the jungle and drum and bass DJ of the same name.

Joking aside, though, the story behind the invention is rather fascinating – as this article explains, the Prayer Companion is an interesting example of the use of modern web technology, such as RSS and social networking, to solve an age-old problem, in this instance how to keep the nuns up to date with events without intruding excessively upon their ascetic lifestyle. Simply giving them a laptop and letting them loose on Twitter would hardly have achieved those aims, so it seems the researchers have found the perfect compromise. And judging by the photo above, the nuns seem happy with the results.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Encourage your MP to oppose collective worship in schools

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Following on from last week, when they suggested it might be a good idea for the coalition government to abolish collective worship in schools as part of the "Great Repeal" initiative, the British Humanist Association are today asking people to write to their MP to urge them to support an Early Day Motion suggesting just that, which has been tabled by Julian Huppert MP. The Early Day Motion “calls on the Government to repeal the requirement for compulsory worship in schools and to encourage schools to hold educational assemblies that will include all children.”

It's easy to write to your MP to suggest this kind of thing – you can even do it via the BHA website.

More criticism of homeopathy

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Writing his "Doctor's Diary" in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, GP James Le Fanu (who you may remember from a legal dispute with New Scientist magazine last year) declared that "There is something suspicious about the orchestrated campaign against the "nonsense on stilts" of homoeopathy, as it was described at this year's BMA Conference, which then urged its (very modest) £4 million of NHS funding to be withdrawn."

Unsurprisingly, this prompted no small amount of online discussion among sceptics, and it's been followed up by two excellent response pieces on the Telegraph's own site. First there's this piece by Telegraph blogger Tom Chivers, who can often seem like a lone voice for scepticism at that particular newspaper, in which he takes apart Le Fanu's arguments, which include anecdotal evidence for homeopathy's efficacy ("argumentum ad populum", as Chivers points out) and the idea that other parts of the NHS are trying to get their hands on homeopathy's funding and real estate – "One or both of these claims might be true – I have no idea (although the idea of august medical bodies beefing for corners like Marlo and Avonout of The Wire is not one I had previously entertained)."

Then there is this piece by Martin Robbins, who runs the Lay Science blog and was one of the organisers of the 10:23 overdose protest against homeopathy earlier this year. Robbins points out that there is nothing "suspicious" about the campaign against homeopathy on the NHS – it's simply a result of many people's refusal to accept the public funding of a treatment for which no convincing scientific evidence has ever been produced, which is hardly surprising when you consider that any such evidence would necessarily force us to reconsider what we understand to be the laws of physics.

Both pieces are well worth reading – with homeopathy under fire like never before (the BMA's members voted last week to recommend that the NHS stops funding it), more of this kind of quality debunking will be needed in the coming months as supporters of homoepathy mount their defence.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Did the baby sling drive forward human evolution?

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In our new issue, evolutionary archaeologist Timothy Taylor, author of the forthcoming The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution (published by Palgrave later this year), argues that the invention of the baby sling by prehistoric humans led to the development of the modern human brain by allowing babies to remain helpless for longer and develop outside of the womb – effectively, the invention lengthened the human gestation period.

As Taylor points out:
"I am not the first researcher to point out the practical importance of the baby sling, but I am going further in arguing that its genetic reverb on our emergence was pivotal, changing the algebra of the biologically possible."
So what do you think? Read Taylor's article, and let us know by commenting on this post.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Great Repeal - here's one for humanists

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You may have noticed this morning that the Con-Lib coalition's initiative of the day is a website, Your Freedom, through which members of the public can suggest "unnecessary" laws passed by the previous government that they think should be stricken from the record as part of what's being called a Great Repeal Act. Once you submit your idea to the site, other users can rate it and leave comments. Just think of it as government by Facebook.

So, how has the scheme, which is being spearheaded by Deputy PM Nick Clegg, been going so far? Well, if you look at the "top rated" ideas, you can see that many people are taking it seriously, with top suggestions at the time of writing including repealing the unpopular Digital Economy Act, legalising prostitution and simplifying the tax system.

But naturally, any well-meaning online initiative such as this is open to abuse (I wonder, for example, how long it was live before someone suggested repealing the murder laws?), and I'm pleased to report that the jokers out there haven't disappointed. So we now find ourselves in a situation where the government is being petitioned to "Ban necro-bestiality" ("I don't want to have to worry about what some pervert might do to my cat when it dies"), and for "Keane to be declared enemies of the state and hunted down by Jesse Ventura like ‘The Running Man’".

There are also, of course, suggestions that lily-livered lefties such as myself will find somewhat unsavoury (so far I've spotted several "bring back hanging" suggestions, one for getting rid of gun restrictions, an appeal to castrate paedophiles and one to repeal the Race Relations Act) but, hey, I guess that's (online) democracy for you.

So as a humanist, what could you suggest (if banning necro-bestiality isn't enough for you, obviously)? Well, the British Humanist Association are suggesting that people put forward the idea of scrapping compulsory collective worship in state schools. Here's why:

  • It forces young people to pray or worship in other ways, regardless of their personal beliefs
  • It does not respect children’s and young people’s rights to freedom of religion or belief
  • It does not recognise the plurality of beliefs in the UK
  • The system whereby you can opt your child out of religious worship is deeply flawed in theory and practice
  • Under 16s can’t opt-themselves out without their parents’ permission
  • Inclusive assemblies are a better alternative and contribute more to well being and development.
So if you do fancy getting involved in the Your Freedom (it seems as though it's proving very popular, as the website is unable to cope with the traffic it's getting at the moment), and you're looking to strike a blow for secularism, that's something you could suggest.