Friday, 27 August 2010

Baptisms for the Dead - bad for your back

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You really do learn something every day in this job. When I first came across this story, entitled "LDS Church sued for baptism for the dead injury", about a man suing the Church of Latter-day Saints (AKA the Mormons) for injuring his back while performing around 200 "baptisms for the dead", my first thought was, had this man been baptising corpses?

Sadly it turns out the circumstances weren't quite so bizarre, although depends how you view the practice, which I now know involves baptising the living as proxies for those that have died without first being baptised.

I can honestly say that, when I woke up this morning, I had absolutely no idea that such a thing existed. But now I do. It turns out Mormons are big fans of baptisms for the dead, and the poor fellow that put his back out, Daniel Dastrup of Las Vegas, was performing them en masse in the summer 2007. Now, these baptisms are the kind that involve fully immersing the subjects in water, so ploughing through 200 of those in one day is bound to put some strain on you. Throw in the fact that some of the baptees (if it isn't a word, it should be) weighed close to 250 pounds, and you've got the perfect recipe for a bout of holy lumbago.

Which is precisely what Dastrup says he got – and it doesn't seem as like it was a price he was willing to pay for the souls of the dead. He is, says the Salt Lake Tribune, "suing the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for, among other things, medical expenses, future loss of earning capacity and loss of household services."

It remains to be seen whether he'll win, but either way we all learned a valuable lesson. Didn't we?

Thursday, 26 August 2010

New Humanist in the shops - send us your pics for a chance to win a DVD

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Now that we're on sale in over 1,300 shops around the UK, we'd love to see the evidence. That's why we're challenging you to send us your pictures of New Humanist reaching all corners of the country (and all the bits in between too).

It could be a photo of the magazine on the shelves in your local store, or a post-purchase picture of it next to a local landmark. You could even get a local nun or imam to pose with a copy, or take a snap of it in one of your area's key religious locations.

Wherever the magazine is ending up, we want to see it, and there are prizes to be won in return. We have three DVDs of the 2008 Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People show to give away, featuring Robin Ince, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Richard Herring, Richard Dawkins and many more. We'll give one DVD to the most imaginative, one to the funniest and one to a random winner drawn out of some kind of hat, or bucket or something.

So, get out and buy your new issue of New Humanist, and send us your pics – you can do so on Twitter (to @NewHumanist), via our Facebook group, or by email to editor[at]newhumanist.org.uk. I've included my attempt here to get you started – surely you can do better than that?

New Humanist now on sale in 1,300+ stores nationwide

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

Find a stockist near you using our distribution list (PDF, 270KB)

Hallelujah and rejoice! As of this morning, 26 August, the Sep/Oct issue of New Humanist has gone on sale in over 1,300 stores, including selected branches of WH Smiths and independent newsagents all over the UK.

To mark our launch into these stores, all newsstand copies of the September issue come with a very special free gift – part one of our hit blasphemous card game God Trumps (part two will be free with the November issue). Plus, if you buy a copy, you’ll see details of a special subscription offer for new subscribers only.

With shops all over the country stocking New Humanist, you’ll have no problem finding a copy near you. You can search for your nearest store by downloading our distribution list (PDF, 270KB) and searching for your town or the first part of your postcode.

So what's in the new issue? With Pope Benedict XVI due in Britain later in September, we’ve asked a specially-selected panel to tell us what they would tell His Holiness if they could have an audience with him during the Papal Visit. Get a copy of the magazine to read what Richard Dawkins (sneak peek - "Go home to your tinpot Mussolini-concocted principality and don't come back"), Philip Pullman, Claire Rayner, Ben Goldacre, Ralph Steadman and many more would have to say.

The issue also features interviews with stand-up comedian Stewart Lee ("Religion is just a convenient peg for people like Stephen Green to hang their hatred on") and the House of Lords' "philosophical plumber" Mary Warnock ("I find it extraordinarily irritating when people treat the bishops in the Lords, or the clergy in general, as moral experts").

Plus there's a debate on burqa bans between Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Kenan Malik, a major essay on the crisis facing humanitarian aid, a look at the dangers facing those speaking up for honest science in China, and much, much more.

So, if you've never tried a copy of the magazine, now's your chance. And if you're already a reader, it's easier than ever before to pick up your copy. It's a little while since New Humanist has been on the shelves, so tell your friends, spread the word, and help make the independent, not-for-profit magazine for free thinkers a big success on the national newsstands
.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Claudy bombings and Catholic Church complicity

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The revelation that the Catholic Church colluded with senior police and the British government to protect Father James Chesney (pictured) from prosecution for his role in the 1972 Claudy bombings in Northern Ireland, which killed nine people, shames all those involved (many of whom are now dead), and will surely lead to increased criticism of the Church at a time when it is already under fire for alleged child abuse cover-ups. Indeed, the action taken to protect Chesney has a familiar ring to it – the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal William Conway, worked with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British government's Northern Ireland office to secure Chesney's safe transfer from his Northern Irish parish to a parish in Donegal in the Irish Republic.

While I will leave the detailed analysis to commentators with deeper knowledge of the story, I find myself wondering whether critics should resist the urge to tie this revelation into their wider criticism of the Church. It is, of course, shcoking to learn that senior Church figures colluded to protect a suspect in a terrorist atrocity, but it seems important to point out that this occurred in the complex context of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, at the height of The Troubles, when the hands of very few of the key players remained particularly clean. The news is an appalling indictment of those in charge of the Church in Ireland at that time, along with their apparent co-conspirators in the RUC and the British government, but to what extent can critics claim that responsibility lies with the Catholic Church as a whole today? Is it any more responsible than the British government of today?

The historian in me is certainly talking here, but I do think it's important to proceed with caution. However, it would be easier to defend the Catholic Church if there was a sense that its hierarchy learns from past mistakes. While the report into Claudy says there was a cover-up involving government, police and Church, and the Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Paterson, has apologised, the head of the Irish Church, Cardinal Shaun Brady, has denied that his 1970s counterpart was involved in a conspiracy, saying "The actions of Cardinal Conway or any other Church authority did not prevent the possibility of future arrest and questioning of Fr Chesney." Brady's view conflicts with that of the report, and the defensive tone feels familiar from the approach Church figure have been known to take to allegations of child abuse cover-ups.

And while Father Chesney was protected from the law almost 40 years ago, evidence from Africa suggests that Catholic leaders have helped to shield criminals from justice much more recently. Richard Wilson wrote about this in our May/June issue, describing how Catholic priests that participated in the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-'90s were moved to parishes in Europe to avoid prosecution. It's a trend that has continued elsewhere in Africa, as Wilson wrote:
"When, in 2005, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for the leaders of Uganda’s brutal Lords Resistance Army, local Catholic clergy were quick to denounce the move as a threat to peace, and (without a hint of irony) a “western” imposition. Since then, the Archbishop of Gulu, Jean-Baptist Odama, has led a vociferous campaign against the indictment of LRA leader Joseph Kony, whose crimes include, as it happens, the large-scale sexual enslavement of children."
Wilson argued that the Catholic Church today clearly has a case to answer here – until it does, and gives a sense that events like the protection of Father Chesney are a thing of the past, it is hard to speak out in its defence.

I'd be interested to hear what others think about this - let me know by commenting below.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Buy New Humanist in a shop near you

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We're very excited to announce that from this Thursday, 26 August, New Humanist will be on sale in more than 1,300 stores across the UK, in selected branches of WH Smiths and independent newsagents. To mark our launch into these stores, all newsstand copies of the September issue come with a very special free gift – part one of our hit card game God Trumps (part two will be free with the November/December issue). Plus, if you buy a copy, you’ll see details of a special subscription offer for new subscribers only.

With shops all over the country stocking New Humanist, you’ll have no problem finding a copy near you. You can search for your nearest store by downloading our distribution list (PDF, 270KB) and searching for your town or the first part of your postcode.

So what's in the new issue? With Pope Benedict XVI due in Britain later in September, we’ve asked a specially-selected panel to tell us what they would tell His Holiness if they could have an audience with him during the Papal Visit. Get a copy of the magazine to read what Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, Claire Rayner, Ben Goldacre, Ralph Steadman and many more would have to say. The issue also features interviews with stand-up comedian Stewart Lee and philosopher Mary Warnock, a debate on burqa bans between Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Kenan Malik, a major essay on the crisis facing humanitarian aid, a look at the dangers facing those speaking up for honest science in China, and much, much more.

Friday, 20 August 2010

NHS homeopathy vacancy prompts sceptical shenanigans

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Depending on your outlook, it could be an amusing time to be working in the HR department at the NHS trust of Tayside, which is currently advertising a vacancy for a "Specialty Doctor in Homeopathy" at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. This opening, which comes, as plenty of people have been quick to point out, at a time of impending NHS cuts, carries a salary of £36,807 to £68,638 in exchange for a whopping 8 hours of work per week.

Naturally, news of the vacancy quickly spread among online sceptics, prompting several people to submit applications for the post. It seems the first person to do this was science blogger David Briggs, and the amusing sample he posted from the application became a hit online. Here's a snippett:
"My biochemistry degree means that I am familiar with such vagaries as Avogadro’s constant, but given the extremely attractive salary (at least compared to scientific research), I’m sure I could be convinced to overlook the fact that homeopathic remedies with a potency over 12C contain zero molecules of active ingredient whatsoever."
It's no surprise that this idea quickly caught on, with many more following suit – sceptical blogger Zeno has created a useful list of them in his post on the story. Applicants include the pharmacologist and alternative medicine critic David Colquhoun, who stressed that his experience debunking homeopathic claims would leave him well placed to mislead patients in his new role, and science writer Simon Singh, who reports on Twitter that the Trust seem to be taking his application seriously – they've sent him some more forms that he has to return next week.

It'll be interesting to see how this pans out – it's open to applicants until 6 September, so presumably we'll find out after that whether any sceptics have made it through the first stage, Hardly likely, but still, it's another excellent sting by sceptics in the campaign against government funding for homeopathy and its promotion as medicine by pharmacists such as Boots. And like the 10:23 mass overdose, it's a fine source of amusement too.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Dawkins documentary raises worrying questions about faith schools

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Richard Dawkins's documentary, Faith School Menace?, was broadcast last night on More4 (you can watch online here), and its contents have raised some serious questions about the role played by faith schools in British education. Perhaps most eye-catching of all was the discovery that some school are presenting creationism to pupils as scientific fact, albeit in RE lessons, with Dawkins meeting a 60-strong year 10 science class at a Muslim secondary school who all believed the Qur'anic creation story.

In response to this, the Guardian Comment is Free Belief desk have commissioned Erfana Bora, a science teacher at a Muslim school in Leicester, to explain why she doesn't see a problem with children being taught scientific and religious explanations with equal weight. It's fine, she says – the kids learn about scientific explanations in science lessons, and then head off to religion lessons to be taught the creation stories:

So, what's the problem? In Bora's view, it's no different from what happens in a regular, non-religious state school:
"The funny thing is that pupils in state schools are taught the same curriculum content in science lessons – and ask the very same questions. Pupils with a faith background will learn the lesson content in a state school while holding their own viewpoints – and will then attempt to integrate two worldviews – inevitably reaching differing points of "belief equilibrium", as it were. Pupils in faith schools do exactly the same."
Well, in my view, that's not entirely correct. At the non-religious secondary school I attended (thanks to the collective worship law we still had to endure the odd prayer in assembly, but that was about it), what we were taught in science was never contradicted/balanced out by outlandish creation myths in RE lessons, which were at best comparative religion and ethics lessons delivered with minimal enthusiasm, for at most an hour a week, by a teacher who usually taught another subject (I remember having the same teacher for German and RE for one year, which was odd). The fact that the lessons treated all religions equally meant we would never be likely to come away applying much weight to the creation myths we'd learned about (if we ever even did learn about creation myths – in my memory it mostly amounted to learning basic facts about religious practices, such as what all the garments a priest wears are called, or what the five pillars of Islam are, or why a Sikh carries a dagger). Throw in the lack of conviction with which the teacher approached all this, and you hardly have the ideal conditions for producing budding creationists.

Compare this to a religious school, where in RE a particular religion might be taught as the literal truth, by a teacher full of faith and enthusiasm, for several hours each week. Staying with the subject of Islamic schools, I'm reminded of the example of the Ebrahim Academy in East London, cited by Baroness Murphy in the House of Lords (see this Polly Toynbee piece), where half the school day is apparently taken up with Qur'anic studies. Creation myths are likely to carry much more weight for those pupils than they did at my school. Faith schools may not, in general, be going so far as to teach creationism in science lessons, but what children are taught from the national curriculum in science lessons is being actively undermined by what is taught in religion classes, and by the overall emphasis on faith in the life of the school.

Erfana Bora disagrees. In her view, after learning both science and religion "Pupils then do, literally, make their own minds up as to what they believe". She says pupils in her science class ask her all kinds of questions, such as "Do humans really share a common ancestor with apes?". But, interestingly, she doesn't say how she answers such questions. Does she tell them that, yes, humans almost certainly share a common ancestor with apes, or does she say that while scientists argue that this is so, the Qur'an says that it is not? This is important, because if it's the latter then it's a classic case of "teach the controversy", even where there isn't one. The implication that education is about allowing children to make their own minds up may sound honourable, but it is misleading.

Of course, in some areas education is about coming to your own conclusions on subjective matters, but it is also, in many ways, about children learning objective facts from adults that know them. And yes, I'm aware that evolution by natural selection is not, strictly speaking, a fact. But for the purposes of schoolchildren asking the question "Do humans really share a common ancestor with apes?", the answer is, to all intents and purposes, "yes". To answer differently would be intellectually dishonest. My guess would be that Bora would tell students that scientists would say yes, but Qur'anic scholars would say no. And in an environment where they are constantly in contact with, under the authority of, and looking up to Qur'anic scholars, on which side of this "controversy" are the pupils likely to come down?

This kind of intellectual dishonesty is encouraged by the faith schools system, and it appears that creationism is being taught in some British schools. It is why Richard Dawkins encountered a class of 60 15-year-olds who all believed that the theory of evolution is false. In light of Dawkins's findings in the documentary, the British Humanist Association is calling for a parliamentary enquiry into the teaching of creationism and the wider impact of faith schools. They have also launched a new fundraising drive for their campaigns on this matter – find out more on their website.

Share your thoughts by commenting on this post.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Talk about a bad day at the office...

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From the Moscow News website:
"Prosecutors in Samara Region [of Russia] are taking a high-flying businessman to task for forcing his employees to go on Scientology courses. The director of electronics company RosKabelSvyaz Lev Syrolev was threatening to sack faithless workers, but now faces charges for using extremist material."
And you thought your bosses gave you a hard time...

Dawkins's faith school documentary on More4 tonight

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In case you didn't know already, Richard Dawkins has been working on a documentary entitled Faith School Menace?, which is broadcast tonight at 9pm on More4. Here's the official blurb:
"The number of faith schools in Britain is rising. Around 7,000 publicly-funded schools - one in three - now has a religious affiliation.

As the coalition government paves the way for more faith-based education by promoting 'free schools', the renowned atheist and evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins says enough is enough.

In this passionately argued film, Dawkins calls on us to reconsider the consequences of faith education, which, he argues, bamboozles parents and indoctrinates and divides children.

The film features robust exchanges with former Secretary of State for Education Charles Clarke, Head of the Church of England Education Service Reverend Janina Ainsworth, and the Chair of the Association of Muslim Schools, Dr Mohammed Mukadam.

It also features insights from child psychologists and key players in faith education as well as insights from both parents and pupils.

Dawkins also draws on his own personal history as a father, arguing that the government must stop funding new faith schools, and urges society to respect a child's right to freedom of belief."
Apparently there's an interview with Dawkins about this in The Times today. Of course, the Times paywall means I can't link to it or read it myself without going out to buy a copy (for the record, I'm not having a go at them – my views on that matter are undecided), but the folks at eChurch Christian Blog have a few lines from the interview. Perhaps most interesting is what Dawkins has to say on the subject of non-religious parents who go along with the system in order to send their kids to faith schools, which are often perceived as the best in a local area. It more or less sums up my view on faith schools:
“I don’t want to cast any blame on them. It’s hypocrisy that is imposed on them by a ridiculous and unjust system. It’s something that taxpayers shouldn’t be tolerating.”
Presumably the documentary will be available to watch online on demand if you miss it tonight.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Biblical law in Scotland?

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Could judges in Scotland soon be basing their rulings on the Bible? You could be forgiven for thinking so if you'd read this article in Sunday's Herald, headlined "Law chief urges Scots courts: consult the Bible in judgements". It reports that Lord Mackay, a former Lord Chancellor, is fronting a campaign by the Scottish Bible Society, of which is Honorary President, to send a Bible to every court in Scotland, along with a pamphlet entitled "The Bible in Scots Law: A Guide for Legal Practitioners", which states:
“The Bible is a unique resource as the foundational source book for Scotland’s legal system. The SBS is pleased to have the opportunity to donate a Bible to courts so that it is readily available for reference in any case which may arise in future.”
So presumably coveting your neighbour's brand new gas barbecue and matching patio table and chairs is set to be restored to its rightful position as one of Scotland's gravest crimes? And what of all the joys contained within the Book of Leviticus, my personal favourite being Chapter 19, Verse 19, which basically amounts to a sanction against putting things that are pretty much the same, but a bit different, in the same place:
"Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee."
No more linen and woollen jumpers for Scots then? Well, not exactly, because, as with so many of these things, this is essentially a bit of a non-story. Mackay may be a former Lord Chancellor, but his current official position, Lord Clerk Register, is merely honorific, and has been since the early 19th century. As president of the Scottish Bible Society, he's perfectly entitled to send a copy of the Bible to every court in Scotland. We have a free (i.e. uncensored) postal service, after all. If I wanted, I could go out and buy a few hundred copies of David Icke's latest and send them to every court in England. It doesn't mean anyone's going to pay any attention. Unless Scottish judges suddenly start invoking Bible passages in their rulings, my guess is that we don't have anything to worry about.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Ann Widdecombe is a fan of Noah's Ark Zoo

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In her Daily Express column (look, it's a quality paper, okay...), Ann Widdecombe lambasts the BHA for speaking out against the awarding of a "Learning Outside the Classroom quality badge" to the creationist Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, near Bristol:
"The zoo has put on such an imaginative and educational display that the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom has issued it with a mark of recognition. Those who run the zoo have established workshops which cover the national science curriculum but do not include discussion of religion and do not promote the extreme creationist view that the world was created 6,000 years ago. In other words it is a moderate, education-focused organisation that challenges children’s minds and produces evidence from fossils.

The British Humanist association says the award is inappropriate merely because the zoo concentrates on creation. In short the British Humanist association does not believe that children should be allowed even to discuss creation or to be exposed to any evidence that might support it."
Now, I'm not sure this would make any difference to Ann's argument, but I have a sneaky suspicion she hasn't actually been to Noah's Ark Zoo Farm. I have, and I've had a good look at what the former government minister describes as "an imaginative and educational display" (one example is pictured above). You can see the photos I took and have a read of what I had to say about it all in my piece from last year.

Also, Ann says the zoo does "not promote the extreme creationist view that the world was created 6,000 years ago". She isn't wrong - nowhere in the zoo does it say the Earth is 6,000 years old. But it does say it's only 100,000 years old. I suppose that is a bit less extreme, being 94,000 years closer to the generally accepted figure of 4.6 billion years.

For more on the zoo's proprietor's "science", have a look at this brief interview he gave me.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Is agnosticism the only sensible choice?

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This isn't entirely new, so some of you may have come across it already, but I just wanted to link to this excellent essay by Ron Rosenbaum on Slate, "An Agnostic Manifesto", in which he argues that agnosticism is the thinking person's philosophy in the face of what he sees as the excessive certainties of both atheism and theism. In Rosenbaum's view, both theists and atheists (particularly so-called "New Atheists") tend to hold that the origins of the universe either can, or eventually will, be explained, while only agnostics have the humility to admit that we may never know, or that perhaps it can not be explained at all.

Have a read and see what you think. I have to say Rosenbaum makes a rather convincing case – no doubt agnosticism will be considered as part of the debate on the future of atheism that we're co-hosting with the RSA and the Guardian in September. Maybe a greater sense of agnosticism would allow us to move the current, increasingly polarised "God debate" on from the (perhaps ultimately fruitless) question of whether something we might call "god" exists, and concentrate on things like the excesses of the organised religion and fundamentalist sects, and state-sanctioned religious privilege – because in the end, those are the tangible issues that really matter to humanists and secularists, aren't they?

Just putting it out there – share your thoughts by commenting on this post.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

One way of dealing with bigotry

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It's hard to know how to deal with a bunch of publicity-seeking bigots like the viciously anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church (although by "church", they actually mean one deranged man and his extended family). Do you ignore them, starving them of the oxygen of publicity, or do you mount a counter-protest to their ludicrous-yet-horrifically-offensive pickets of US soldiers' funerals, ensuring as many people as possible are aware of their rabid and absurd homophobia ("-phobia" really seems too mild in this case)?

The fellow in this photo appears to have found a way of combining both those tactics – he's mounted a counter-protest, but he's telling you to ignore them. With great brevity.

Perhaps it's an approach we in the UK should consider for our own bigots, like Stephen Green?

[I found this photo via Anton Vowl on Twitter – unfortunately I couldn't trace it back to its source (here's the link), hence there's no credit for the photographer. But if anyone has any idea where it came from, let me know]

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

After New Atheism: Where now for the God debate?

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We're pleased to announce that registration is now open for a debate we're hosting with the RSA on 21 September entitled "After New Atheism: Where now for the God debate?"
"Since the publication of 'The God Delusion' in 2006, the debate over the role of religion in society has become dominated by the so-called New Atheists - Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling - and the frequently defensive responses from those trying to defend faith from an attack they claim to be crude and simplistic.

The arguments have often been entertaining, but have we learnt anything?
Whatever your take on God is it time the debate moved forward and took a different tone?

If so, who might be its guiding lights?

A panel of expert commentators - Orange prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, philosopher Roger Scruton and humanist historian Jonathan Rée - discuss the future of the God debate in a session chaired by broadcaster Laurie Taylor."
It takes place at the RSA's central London building at 6pm on 21 September – it's free and open to all, but limited space and expected high demand mean it'd be wise to book your seats now via the RSA website.

Apparently, this is what passes for "thought"

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Last month, to what you might call minor media interest, Channel 4 launched 4Thought.tv, a daily five-minute religious slot that was mooted as a TV version of Thought for the Day. We were even told that the "films will give voice to a plethora of beliefs and opinions", with the implication that 4Thought.tv would draw on a more varied crop of metaphysical ponderers than Thought for the Day, with even – shock of all shocks – atheists welcome to contribute.

So far, the slot seems to have delivered what was promised, with the few I've seen featuring Christians, Muslims and, yes, even atheists, but to be honest it only really piqued my interest when I heard that Stephen Green of Christian "Lone" Voice (now, as you can see, shorn of beard) was set to appear. What were Channel 4 thinking? (Except, perhaps, that lots of outraged people would blog about it and drive viewers to their online viewing service by linking to it, as I am about to do.)

Would anyone like to hazard a guess as to the subject Green chose to hold forth on for his five minutes of shame? I'll give you a clue – he seems to spend every waking hour thinking about it. Yes, that's right, homosexuality. I don't know if you've noticed, but he's not a fan. And he manages to combine this with his other bêtes noires – Islam. He was on last night – you can watch it on YouTube, if you can stomach it, but here are some sample lines:
"Anyone who says that homosexual activity isn't prohibited in the pages of the Bible is having a laugh."

"I'm Stephen Green, I'm national director of Christian Voice, which is a Christian lobby group."

"Homosexuals can never be one flesh, so they have to press into, like, sexual duty parts of the body that aren't designed for that."

"There is something inherently destructive about the homosexual lifestyle."

"We are seeing a homosexualisation of society, but not reproducing ourselves except in the Muslim population."

"In 30 years our dying civilisation is going to be taken over by a stronger one and the obvious candidate is Islam and the gays aren’t going to like it much living under that system."
So there you have it – in 30 years, there's going to be a big war between The Gays and The Muslims, or something. This, apparently, is what passes for "thought". Well done, Channel 4. I think we're all diminished by the fact that this was on TV last night, but I feel I'd be more annoyed if I was a Christian. Once again Stephen Green, who represents the most minor, bigoted and embittered section of Christianity in this country (if indeed he represents anyone, other than his own fixations), has been allowed by a national media outlet to present himself as a spokesperson for a significant number of British Christians. Look at the words he uses in his introduction – he calls himself the "national director of Christian Voice", which makes his organisation sound like a large national network, and describes it as a "Christian lobby group", as though it lobbies on behalf of Christians in the UK, rather than a tiny, obsessively homophobic, extremist minority. I think this is the worst aspect – I'm familiar with Christian Voice through doing this job, but I doubt most people would have a clue what it is, unless they're fans of Stewart Lee and followed the ludicrous campaign against Jerry Springer the Opera. Therefore, when they see this man pop up on national TV saying he lobbies on behalf of Christianity, they might think the version of Christianity he goes on to espouse is in some way representative of the majority. If TV and radio stations insist on handing this man a soapbox, they should at least make it clear that he speaks for very few people other than himself.

You can probably tell by the length at which I've gone on that this is a particular source of annoyance to me. Please feel free to join me in this in the comments.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Noah's Ark Redux: counter-educational school trips

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It must be about a year since I took an eye-opening trip to Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, the creationist zoo on the outskirts of Bristol. Eye-opening, not in the sense that it opened my eyes to the truth behind the origins of life on Earth, but rather because it showed the extent to which people are willing to overlook insidious pseudoscience in order to admire some cute furry animals.

When I was there, the place was heaving with families ooh-ing and aah-ing at everything from alpacas to zebras, while seemingly ignoring or simply failing to spot the informative signs explaining the age of the Earth (100,000 years), why rhinos have very little hair (“it is likely that God’s earliest design for the rhino had both nose horns and hair, but these were lost in some species later”) or the reason birds sing (to "praise their maker", of course). It was the middle of the summer holidays, so there were no school trips when I visited, but dotted around the indoor picnic areas was plenty of evidence that such trips do take place during term time, with thank-you letters from teachers and students adorning the walls alongside explanations of why humans are clearly not in any way related to apes.

Not long after we published my account of a day at Noah's Ark Zoo, a scandal emerged that was, in a lot of ways, much more shocking than its subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to promote creationism to children. Undercover members of the Captive Animals Protection Society found evidence that the zoo had a breeding arrangement with the Great British Circus, the last remaining UK circus to use tigers, and that the remains of a tiger that died at the zoo had been buried on site, rather than disposed of in accordance with the law.

The allegations led to the expulsion of Noah's Ark Zoo Farm from the professional body for zoos, the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria (BIAZA), which you might have thought would have put paid to the zoo's prospects as a desirable destination for "educational" school visits. But try telling that to the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom, an educational charity which seems unwilling to let the peddling of pseudoscience and a tarnished ethical record get in the way of recommending venues for the Learning Outside the Classroom “quality badge” which, as the Times Educational Supplement reports, is a government kitemark designed to assist teachers in choosing suitable places for school trips.

This is, of course, something the British Humanist Association have taken exception to, with their education officer James Gray telling TES:
“It is entirely inappropriate that it should support an establishment that advances creationism and seeks to discredit a wide variety of established scientific facts that challenge their religious views. Teachers and parents look to the council for assurance that children will experience high-quality educational visits that meet the relevant government guidelines. Awarding this zoo a quality badge risks exposing hundreds of children to anti-scientific dogma.”
As I reported in my own piece last year, Noah's Ark's proprietor Anthony Bush maintains that the zoo keeps its creationism out of the school trip programmes it provides, and therefore that his creationism and his promotion of his zoo as a venue for school visits are separate issues. It's an interesting viewpoint – the workshop leaders won't talk about their zany views, so it doesn't matter that the kids will spend the day surrounded by signs informing them that “Eating meat was allowed after the Flood” but “Before this most people might have been veggies", and that “All the people in the world come from Noah’s sons Shem, Ham and Japheth. Caucasian from Japheth, Semitic from Shem, and Negroid/Mongoloid/Redskin from Ham.”

And as for Council for Learning Outside the Classroom? Well, their deputy chief executive, Elaine Skates, doesn't seem to see the problem:
“We believe that an important aim of learning outside the classroom is allowing children and young people access to education that challenges assumptions and allows them to experience a range of viewpoints.”
Ah yes, that old canard of "teach the controversy", even where no such controversy exists. If taking kids to a creationist zoo is what passes for challenging their assumptions and exposing them to range of viewpoints, then perhaps it really is time to despair.

What do we all think? Comments, as ever, are greatly appreciated.