Thursday, 28 October 2010

Humanism in action in Malawi

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Some very encouraging news reaches us from Malawi, where the Association for Secular Humanism has been campaigning for the release of Malawians convicted and jailed after being accused of practising witchcraft. These efforts were reported in the Guardian earlier this month, and they appear to have paid off. George Thindwa of the ASH informs us that he met with Malawi's Director of Public Prosecution, who has agreed to consider the release of prisoners held for witchcraft:
"The good news that the DPP communicated to ASH was that our appeal is in order and consideration will be made. He therefore requested ASH to provide a full comprehensive list of all those convicted of witchcraft as soon as possible. He further asked ASH to cover those that are on remand as well so that consideration could be done together with those convicted."
Thindwa is hoping the prisoners will be released in early December. Belief in witchcraft is widespread in Malawi, so the news that the government may be withdrawing its support for the persecution of accused "witches" represents a major success for the ASH. There is still plenty of work to be done, though – the persecution is not the preserve of the state, as the story of the women in this photo demonstrates. According to the Thindwa, "they were detained as witches by a witchdoctor for a month so that he could administer some concoctions on them to clear them of their so called witchcraftly. They had to pay for the services."

Why young people should be educated together

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When our editor, Caspar Melville, and his old English teacher, Jim Mulligan, came up with a plan to speak to a group of comprehensive school pupils about their views on faith and religion, it sounded like a great idea. We're used to hearing what policy-makers and interest groups think is best for young people in terms of school and religion, but what about the youngsters themselves?

I didn't know what to expect from the final product – it's not an easy task speaking to a big group of opinionated teenagers for a couple of hours and writing it up into a finished article – but when it was handed to me for copy-editing, it didn't disappoint. Jim visited Haverstock School in north London (if you recognise the name, think "Miliband brothers"), where, after sending his own sons there, he has been a governor for the past five years, and sat down to talk about faith, religion, identity and ethics with 16 volunteers studying for A Levels or GCSEs in religious studies.

Haverstock is an entirely non-denominational state school (a Business and Enterprise College to be exact) with a hugely diverse student body – there are pupils from 70 ethnic backgrounds, 25 per cent of them coming from families of refugees or asylum seekers. I won't bother you with my scene setting much more – I will leave you to read the piece itself – except to say that in my view, this is the most heart-warming argument against faith schools you're likely to read this year. These 16 teenagers from a north London school beautifully illustrate why young people from different background should grow up and be educated alongside each other, and not be separated on the basis of their parents' religious beliefs.

(Of course, this ties in with the debate we've been hosting about whether humanists should take advantage of the system to establish a humanist school – don't forget to read that debate and vote in our poll.)

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

US anti-abortion tactics in the UK

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The Independent report that 40 Days for Life, a Texan evangelical anti-abortion group, have been picketing Marie Stopes House in London, the flagship clinic of family planning provider Marie Stopes International, handing leaflets to women entering the clinic and, according to clinic staff who have spoken to the Independent, filming some women and staff as they enter.

Abortion is, of course, an emotive issue, and there are legitimate debates to be had about it, but the emergence of these kinds of tactics in the UK is a worrying development. Women seeking an abortion do not need reminding that they have made a difficult decision, and for protesters to confront them when they are at their most vulnerable amounts, in my view, to intimidation. They are entitled to make their arguments against the legal status of abortion, but they should do so without intervening in individual cases, where women and their partners have made a personal and private decision, which may have been the most difficult thing they have ever had to do. This kind of intimidation is, of course, rife in the US, and has at times been taken to violent extremes – it would be very sad if things took that turn here, and replaced what in my view is, on the whole, a fairly mature debate on the issue.

The points I make here were made far more eloquently Aaron Gouveia who, along with his wife, was confronted by anti-abortion protesters outside a clinic in Massachusetts recently. The couple had taken the painful decision to go through  with an abortion after their child was diagnosed with Sirenomelia, a rare congenital deformity which, doctors told them, gave the child zero chance of survival. As Gouveia explains in this moving post, he was angered by the protesters intimidating his wife as she entered the clinic, so he confronted them and exposed their cowardice. He filmed it on his phone, and the video has had many views on YouTube:

Creationism's UK tour - should opponents engage or ignore?

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A month ago, we predicted that the new "Centre for Intelligent Design", which opened in September in Glasgow, would be worth keeping an eye on. And so it has come to pass. I received a press release from the Centre this morning promoting a UK lecture tour by Michael Behe, the American biochemist and prominent Intelligent Design advocate who they're calling a "world renowned scientist":
All of us are interested in the question of origins. Ever since Darwin’s landmark book On the Origin of Species, the question of design has been controversial. Didn’t Darwin’s theory settle the design question once and for all? Isn’t design in the natural world merely apparent rather than real?

Not all scientists agree with this view. Professor Mike Behe is one of the most prominent among those who have questioned whether random mutation and natural selection really do have the fabulous creative power usually attributed to them. His carefully-argued work inDarwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution has proved controversial, but it has by no means been refuted as is often claimed.

So where does the truth lie in this important matter? Is it Darwin or Design? Rather than rely on second-hand opinions about this fascinating field, we invite you to come along to one of Professor Behe’s lectures - and find out for yourself.
Those of you who are familiar with the ID movement in the US will know that Behe is one of its leading figureheads. He was a witness for the defence in the 2004 Kitzmiller v Dover federal court case in Pennsylvania, in which Judge John E Jones III, in the process of ruling that Intelligent Design could not be taught as science in US public schools, dismissed Behe's trademark "irreducible complexity" argument for Intelligent Design, saying "We therefore find that Professor Behe's claim for irreducible complexity has been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers and has been rejected by the scientific community at large."

Of course, the last few words there, "rejected by the scientific community at large", are key, but this doesn't seem to prevent the continued march of creationism and ID, which thanks to the Centre for Intelligent Design will now gain increased publicity in the UK. And herein lies the problem for opponents of psuedoscience like ID. Behe's lecture tour runs from  20-27 November, taking in venues in Cambridge, London, Glasgow, Leamington Spa (in, sigh, a school, albeit in the evening) and Belfast, concluding with a day conference on the 27th at Oxford Brookes University – should opponents of ID be booking places at these events to ensure the scientific case is represented, or should we ignore them, on the grounds that it's better not to give credibility to these pseudoscientific views by engaging with them? (If it's the latter, I have, of course, already undermined that by writing this post.)

I'm really not sure what I think. Should I go along to a London event, for instance? Should I be encouraging readers to join me? Let's have a debate - share your views in the comments and vote in the poll below.

Update: there's a campaign against the Centre for Intelligent Design called Fake ID - full details here.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Against humanism - Mary Midgley argues it's an 'ism' too far

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For New Humanist free thinking means being prepared to critically examine all arguments, including those you think you agree with. It also means taking the arguments of your opponents at their strongest. This is why we publish articles like moral philosopher Mary Midgley's case against humanism. Not because we are against humanism but because we think arguments for humanism will be all the better for being sharpened against those of the very best opponents. Some people don't like this – like the subscriber who called to cancel today because he thought we just weren't bellicose enough – and some people do, like the subscriber who sent us this message:
"Great issue. I loved 50% of it, and violently disagreed with the other 50%. Perfect journalistic balance."
Do have a read of the piece, and let us know what you think.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Are we seeing the rise of Christian apologetics in history?

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Last night, the Royal Society's annual Prize for Science Books was awarded to Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane, which came in ahead of the five other shortlisted titles.

One of those titles was God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science by James Hannam, a history book which earned its nomination for a major science prize due to the revisionist light it claims to throw on the development of science in the medieval period. But did it deserve it? Not according to historian Charles Freeman, author of The Closing of the Western Mind, who has written a point-by-point analysis of its many flaws, exclusively for New Humanist.

Freeman charges that this survey of medieval science and philosophy is skewed in favour of Hannam's Catholicism and that his scholarship "comes nowhere near the high academic quality that we should expect from a major institution such as the Royal Society." Freeman's list of charges is long - Hannam ignores important areas of study, characterises Renaissance humanists as "reactionaries" and offers a distorted picture of the 16th century and paints a rosy and wholly inaccurate picture of the Catholic Church as the cradle of scientific innovation and intellectual freedom.

Interestingly, Freeman suggests that God's Philosophers is representative of a wider trend for Christian apologetics in history, with several historians, including Hannam, making the argument that "Christianity brought civilisation". Others include David Bentley Hart, author of Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. and Rodney Stark, whose book The Victory of Reason has been criticised by Freeman elsewhere. Given that contemporary culture wars are often fought over conflicting interpretations of history, this is clearly a trend that's worth watching.

You can read Freeman's full analysis of God's Philosophers here (be warned it is long and comprehensive), and feel free to add your comments at the end of the article.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Shocking homophobic hatred in Uganda

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Frankly, "homphobia" seems like too mild a word for this, as what we're really dealing with here is persecution and pure hatred. A Ugandan newspaper called Rolling Stone (nothing to do with the magazine, obviously) has published a front page "story" headlined "Hang them: 100 Pictures of Uganda's Top Homos Leak", along with the names and addresses of those 100 people. According to the Washington Post report, since it was published on 9 October, at least four of them have been attacked, with others forced into hiding.

As the Washington Post notes, this follows the international outrage last year over proposed Ugandan legislation which would have criminalised homosexuality and introduced the death penalty for some same-sex acts. That legislation never became law, thanks in large part to international pressure, but Uganda remains a dangerous place to be gay. As Telegraph blogger Tom Chivers points out, the American evangelical Scott Lively has a lot to answer for regarding this hatred, having exported his homophobia and ideas regarding "gay therapy" to the country and, in the process, inspiring the anti-gay legislation.

Amidst this hatred, Ugandan gay activists, such as Sexual Minorities Uganda, and grass-roots humanists are bravely fighting for tolerance – they deserve our full support.

November issue now on sale in 1,300+ stores nationwide

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Our new November/December issue is now on sale in stores across the UK, in selected branches of WH Smiths and independent newsagents, together with part two of our very special free gift –  our hit card game God Trumps.

In our cover story, Francis Beckett outlines his proposal for Britain's first avowedly humanist state school, suggesting that it's time secularists made use of the education system as it stands and provided an antidote to religious schools. He's looking to hear from anyone interested in getting involved in such a project. Meanwhile, Rabbi Jonathan Romain of the Accord Coalition warns against the idea, arguing that humanists must be careful not to fall into the faith school trap.

Also in the new issue, Stephanie Merritt speaks to Al Murray, Robin Ince and Josie Long as she traces the rise of godless, sceptical comedy, Isabel Hilton reports on Tibet's search for a secular alternative to the Dalai Lama, Jonathan Rée reveals Nietzsche the punk philosopher, Laurie Taylor meets Telegraph thunderer Simon Heffer and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Harry Kroto talks bucky-balls and belief. There's also a match report on the Papal Visit and Protest the Pope demonstrations, and much, much more.

With over 1,300 stores stocking New Humanist nationwide, 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.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Time to start an atheist school? Your chance to get involved

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Back in June, during a web discussion on the Mumsnet site, Richard Dawkins caused a bit of a stir when he suggested that he liked the idea of taking advantage of the government's academies legislation to start an atheist free school, or, as he would prefer to call it, "a free-thinking free school". This was followed a month later by education secretary Michael Gove saying that he would welcome such a move.

As we have found through reader discussions, this is an issue that divides humanist opinion greatly, with some holding that humanists should work within the system and actively demonstrate the advantages of a secular, free-thinking school, and others insisting that it would represent an endorsement of the faith school system.

Of course, this has all been discussion so far, and nothing more. But what if it actually happened? In our new issue, education journalist Francis Beckett outlines his proposal for Britain's first avowedly atheist and humanist state school, which he first mooted in the Guardian last month. As he explains, when he wrote the Guardian piece he wasn't entirely serious, but since then he has changed his mind. He has heard from many people who would support the idea and even become actively involved, spoken to the government advisers who could help make it happen, and he now thinks that the idea could become a reality. In his New Humanist article, he outlines the kind of school he envisages – secular, inclusive, firmly rooted in the local community – and explains how it could happen. What do you think? If you're interested in getting involved in such a project, you can contact Francis c/o

However, as Francis acknowledges, there are many humanist and secularist objections to this idea, and we asked Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who, as head of the Accord Coalition, campaigns for inclusive schools and an end to the discriminatory practices of faith schools, to put the case for the opposition. In his piece, he warns humanists against falling into the faith school trap and endorsing a divisive system.

So, what do you make of all this? You can let us know your straightforward stance by voting in the poll below, but we're also keen to hear your more detailed thoughts. In order to keep the discussion in once place, we've closed comments on this post, but just head over to main article by Francis Beckett and join the discussion thread there.

The November/December issue of New Humanist will be on sale in over 1,300 stores nationwide from tomorrow (Thursday 21 October), featuring the faith schools debate, a look at who won the Pope wars, the story of the rise of godless comedy, and much more.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Quote of the day

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I've just realised that I haven't really blogged about Christine O'Donnell, the US senatorial candidate for Delaware and Tea Party wildcard (something else I haven't blogged), which is rather surprising given that she currently appears to be on a mission to out-Palin Sarah Palin, who I spent much of this period in 2008 blogging all about.

You'll have no doubt heard about O'Donnell – she hit the headlines recently on account of her past admission that she "dabbled in witchcraft", but "never joined a coven", as well as for her, well, interesting views on science, having once said that "American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains".

The reason I bring her up today is that she may have just gone one better. Debating with her Democratic opponent Chris Coons in front of, wait for it, an audience of legal scholars and law students, O'Donnell asked the following:
"Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?"
 If you're unfamiliar with US politics (you're allowed to be - you may not be American, and you almost certainly aren't running for the US Senate), take a quick look at Wikipedia. Not the best error for a candidate to be making, I'm sure you'll agree. And it gets better. When Coons explained that the separation of church and state is provided for in the First Amendment of the US Constitution – the very first point in the Bill of Rights – O' Donnell responded:
"You're telling me that's in the First Amendment?"
 Oh dear. Suffice to say, this story is doing the rounds on the web this afternoon.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Government: stop giving tax breaks to Scientology

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Anti-Scientology protesters tell it how it is
With the Comprehensive Spending Review due on Wednesday, this is set to be a contentious week in British politics. So, in the interests of harmony, I thought I'd start the week off with something you're unlikely to see much off this week –a quote from a cabinet minister that we can pretty much all get on board with:
"Tolerance and freedom of expression are important British values, but this does not mean that the likes of Church of Scientology deserve favoured tax treatment over and above other business premises. The Church of Scientology is not a registered charity, since the Charity Commission has ruled that it does not provide a public benefit. Nor are its premises a recognised place of worship. Councils may award charitable relief. They should take into consideration the Charity Commission's rulings when weighing up whether to do so. I do not believe the majority of the public would want their own council to be giving special tax breaks to such a controversial organisation."
That's communities secretary Eric Pickles telling Saturday's Guardian why he thinks local councils (here's looking at you, City of London and Westminster) should stop giving tax breaks to the Church of Scientology.

Now, back to being polarised. As you were.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Interfaith dialogue for atheists?

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Keith Kahn-Harris, who writes for us from time to time, has a piece on Comment is Free in which he argues that humanists and atheists should play a more active role in interfaith dialogue, with plenty to be gained for all sides. He takes the example of the recent Papal Visit, and wonders how it might have different against backdrop of greater dialogue between believers and non-believers:
"If there were more established relations between prominent atheists and Catholic leaders, who knows how the papal visit might have gone? If there were established channels to communicate how disturbing many non-Catholics find, for example, the church's attitude to Aids in Africa, then there would be less need to shout them from the rooftops. In fact, if there was a more civil conversation then the many Catholics who are opposed to the church's teachings on contraception could be heard more prominently. Embattled religious groups tend to turn in on themselves, strengthening fundamentalist forces. Maybe a Catholic church that didn't see itself as at war with atheism would be a Catholic church within which liberal forces could rise."
 What do you make of this? Is Kahn-Harris right, or is interfaith dialogue the last thing atheists should be getting involved with?

Catholic schools should be able to turn down children of unmarried couples, says priest

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Writing in The Tablet, Catholic priest Father Ashley Beck suggests that children of married parents should have priority over the children of unmarried parents in the allocation of places at Catholic schools. After suggesting it is a sensitive issue, he says:
"But if a couple is not in any kind of married relationship, they are not living according to Catholic teaching. Parents in this position should not, as a matter of justice, displace married parents if a school is popular.” 
 That the marital status of parents would even be a concern in relation to a child's school place, and therefore their future prospects, is further evidence of the bizarre impact faith schools have on our state education system (Beck told the Daily Telegraph that in his parish he personally doesn't endorse applications from parents "just casually living together"). Thankfully, a certain degree of sanity does prevail – schools aren't allowed to ask about marital status (it seems Beck would like these restrictions lifted) and, in a letter to The Tablet, Oona Stannard of the Catholic Education Service argues against the priest:
"To say that those pupils whose parents are married should be given precedence over those who are not almost leaves me speechless.

Is Fr Beck suggesting that the child is responsible for the parent or that their education and nurturing of faith is less deserving than a child of married parents?”
As I say, a degree of sanity. But you can't help pointing out that there would be a really simple way of avoiding silly debates such as this – leave parents' religious beliefs or lack of them out of the school system. Of course, this is what the British Humanist Association campaign for, and their education officer James Gray has responded to Beck's assertions:
"It is deeply unjust to suggest that state-funded schools should turn children away based on their parents’ personal circumstances. Fr Beck’s views are completely out of step with modern Britain - the public has chosen to reject insular and intolerant religious agendas.

Whatever the official view of the Catholic Education Service, it’s clear that senior figures within the Catholic Church view our state-funded education system as a means to impose a hardline moral code on children and families. Fr Beck’s comments have given us a glimpse of the kind of discrimination we may see if the government continues to increase the influence of religious groups in our schools."
Well said – sadly it probably won't be the last time the BHA have to say it. Do leave your thoughts in the comments – a Bad Faith nomination for Fr Beck, perhaps?

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Campaign to get Cliff Richard to Christmas Number One - time to call Rage Against the Machine?

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To mark Cliff Richard's 70th birthday today, the Christian blogger Archbishop Cranmer has launched a campaign to get "Little Town", the veteran crooner's version (cover? remix?) of the carol "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" to number one this Christmas:
"Remember when Christmas used to be about Jesus and festive Number Ones? Mistletoe and Wine? When a Child is Born? Saviour's Day? Mary's Boy Child? Yes, there have been quite a few more 'secular' hits, but at least they were genuinely 'popular' - that's the free market for you.

And then along came Simon Cowell and X-Factor, with a manipulated four-year Christmas dominance which was ended last year by the democratic protest of Rage Against The Machine's 'Killing In The Name'.

And Mr Cowell's been even more cunning this year by making every week leading up to Christmas an iTunes download week, just to get his x-factorholics used to downloading an interminable stream of plastic karaoke covers, all culminating in another mushy Christmas release.

We can't engineer a white Christmas, but we can certainly try to make 25th December 2010 just like the ones we used to know."
As the blurb points out, this is of course an attempt to emulate the Facebook campaign that sent Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" to number one last Christmas. It's all good fun, but I'm sure many of you will feel a little nauseous at the thought of another holy Christmas number one for Sir Cliff.

It certainly has you wondering whether secularists should be launching a counter-campaign – what could be this year's "Killing in the Name"? There's already a campaign to get John Cage's "4:33", described as "4 minutes and 33 seconds of avant garde silence", to number one, but surely we could come up with something a little more sacrilegious to take on Cliff's carol?

One thing to bear in mind with a counter-campaign is that Cliff, as Archbishop Cranmer explains, has, very kindly, agreed to donate the download proceeds from "Little Town" to the Alzheimer's Research Trust. So any secular challenge would ideally have a charity angle too – and then if it turned into a competition between the two, all the better, because charities would be benefiting.

So what songs do you think would make the perfect antidote to Cliff's "Little Town" at Christmas number one? (Though I imagine lots of you, after all the Rage v X Factor hype last year, would prefer none of this to happen. In a way I'm with you, despite having just written this blogpost!)

The fight against "aggressive atheism" - coming to a church near you

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We're used to hearing accusations of "aggressive atheism" from the tabloids, online commentators and the more vocal opponents of the so-called "New Atheism", but from the pulpit? It's anecdotal evidence of course, so not necessarily a sign of a wider trend, but nevertheless it's interesting to read this piece by Sue Blackmore, about a christening she attended last Sunday in a church in Dorset:
"A charming elderly gentleman, whom my parents had long known, proceeded to the lectern to lead us in prayer. I wish I'd paid more attention, for I cannot now remember how he led up to the fateful words asking God to help us in the fight against 'the rise of secularism and the aggressive atheists'."
 So it seems the idea is spreading – it's amazing what the publication of a few books and the odd outspoken opinion can do, isn't it? Blackmore was, naturally, a little taken aback my this, and she had a word with the gentleman afterwards:
"Coffee and tea being served in the smart new kitchen corner, I took my chance to ask him what he meant. And he meant it as a fight all right. But the really scary thing was what he thought we wicked secularists were up to – we apparently want to prevent him worshipping, destroy his faith and banish Christianity from the face of the earth. I explained that I don't want to stop him worshipping or destroy his faith."
 I'd be interested to know what you all make of the spread of this "aggressive atheism" idea. Personally I'm not always on board with what the "New Atheists" have to say, and the tone in which they say it, but presenting arguments doesn't really fit my definition of "aggression". What do you think? Should atheists be looking to dispel the idea of "aggression" by appearing as reasonable as possible? Or is the onus on the religious to stop misrepresenting what is a very reasonable argument? Perhaps you're happy to be considered "aggressive", on the grounds that it's the response religion requires?

Just throwing those questions out there, really - do share your thoughts.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

War on Halloween: is it Biblical correctness gone mad?

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Update, 30 October 2012: This one really does come around every year. BBC News reports that the Catholic Church in Poland has warned believers against participating in the "cult of death" that is Halloween. "This kind of fun, tempting children like candy," explains the the archbishop of Szczecin-Kamien, "also poses the real possibility of great spiritual damage, even destroying spiritual life." He added that the "irresponsible and anti-Christian fun" of Halloween introduces young people to a "world of darkness, including devils, vampires and demons" in the name of "fun".

 Original post:

 As we well know, a favourite among some Christians, along with the tabloid press, is the idea that there is some kind of atheist "war on Christmas", in which the godless heathens, backed by the wider "PC Brigade", mount an annual campaign to ban Christmas and have it renamed "Winterval" and "Festivus" and say "Season's Greetings" to one another and all sorts of awful things. It is, of course, a nonsense, but that doesn't stop the accusation being wheeled out every year, most recently by Pope Benedict XVI during his UK visit.

If atheists were waging war on Christmas, Christians would have my full support – I mean, trying to discourage people from enjoying perfectly harmless things is wrong, isn't it? So with that in mind, I wonder why the Catholic Church in Britain, in a bout of what I'm going to dub "Biblical Correctness Gone Mad", appears to be endorsing a similar "War on Halloween"?

The Catholic Herald reports that the Church has given its backing to a campaign called "Night of Light", which aims to "reclaim Halloween for God so that it is transformed from a night of darkness into a great Christian festival once again". Perhaps I'm naive, but personally I didn't realise that anyone really did consider Halloween a "night of darkness" any more – isn't it just a bit of fun? Well, if the "Night of Light" campaign has a say, fun will the last thing kids will be having on 31 October. Over to the Catholic Herald:
"Catholic parents are being advised to celebrate Halloween by dressing up their children as popular saints instead of witches and devils.

They should kit out their youngsters to look like St George, St Lucy, St Francis of Assisi or St Mary Magdalene rather than let them wear costumes that celebrate evil or occult figures, according to a campaign endorsed by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

Nor should pumpkins have menacing or scary faces carved into them, according to a website link provided by the bishops’ conference, but must wear smiley expressions and have crosses cut into the foreheads."
The initiative has prompted the Catholic Herald to open a debate on its site, in which it asks:
"But can smiley pumpkins and saints’ costumes really change Halloween? Or is it an embarrassing attempt to give a Christian veneer to a thoroughly pagan event?"
Err, the latter perhaps? The ridiculous thing is, no one seriously thinks Halloween is even a pagan festival any more (ok, maybe a few people do, and frankly I quite like that). It's the 21st century now, and 31 October is just an excuse for people, young and old, to dress up in silly costumes and act a bit foolish. Trying to discourage it on the grounds of "evil" and the "occult" just makes the Catholic Church look a bit silly, to answer the Catholic Herald's question. (I'm looking for a Halloween-tailored synonym for "Scrooge", if anyone has a suggestion.)

Can't we just let people have their fun? There's no war on Christmas - now call off the witch-hunt and stop this war on Halloween.

You can't commit rape within marriage, says head of UK Islamic Sharia Council

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Of course, one interpretation of the above headline would leave you wondering why someone had bothered to state the obvious. Of course you can't commit rape within marriage – it's illegal. Sadly, this isn't what Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, president of the London-based Islamic Sharia Council, means – speaking in an interview with Chaminda Jayanetti of the Samosa blog, which I found via Pickled Politics, he outlined his, well, interesting views on sexual assault:
"I asked Sheikh Sayeed whether he considered non-consensual marital sex to be rape.

'No,' he replied. 'Clearly there cannot be any ‘rape’ within the marriage. Maybe ‘aggression’, maybe ‘indecent activity’.'

He said it was 'not Islamic' to classify non-consensual marital sex as rape and prosecute offenders, adding that 'to make it exactly as the Western culture demands is as if we are compromising Islamic religion with secular non-Islamic values.'"
The Islamic Sharia Council is not an official court, but it is able, as with other Sharia courts in the UK (Sayeed told the Samosa there are 16 around the country) to provide arbitration for the resolution of civil disputes between consenting parties, who most often are married couples. And it's surely a cause for concern that someone holding these views is able to provide this service in 21st century Britain. Sayeed does point out that he doesn't condone a husband having sex with his wife "if it happened without her desire", but he doesn't view it as a rape. It's more a case of bad manners, it seems:
“Because within the marriage contract it is inherent there that man will have sexual intercourse with his wife. Of course, if he does something against her wish or in a bad time etc, then he is not fulfilling the etiquettes, not that he is breaching any code of sharia – he is not coming to that point. He may be disciplined, and he may be made to ask forgiveness. That should be enough.”
Sayeed's comments raise serious questions over whether Sharia tribunals should be allowed to provide arbitration in the UK. And even if they are, should such a body really be led by a man who holds such views? Sunny Hundal of Pickled Politics thinks not:
"I’m sorry but regardless of his interpretation of Islamic law – British law is clear that even within marriage, a man does not have automatic right to have non-consensual sex with his wife. Such a stance is in blatant contradiction of British law. The head of the Sharia Council needs to resign."
And in the meantime, I think it's fair to say Sayeed has earned himself a nomination for the New Humanist Bad Faith Award.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Claire Rayner - talking sense

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We are very sad to hear of the death of Claire Rayner, nurse, campaigner and agony aunt author of more than 90 books, and longtime friend and supporter of New Humanist and honorary associate of the Rationalist Association. Claire had been ill for some time, but she was always willing to help out and support us, and she always responded to invitations even if she couldn't come - she'd call the office and say really nice supportive things in her smoky voice. Here's something typically forthright and funny she wrote for us in 2003. She was an all-round straight talking no bullshit sort of person, with a practical empathy that made millions seek out her advice. This gem pretty much sums here up: "She told her relatives she wanted her last words to be: 'Tell David Cameron that if he screws up my beloved NHS I'll come back and bloody haunt him.'" (BBC)

So long, Claire.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Conor Gearty wants to hear from you about human rights

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Human rights expert, and sometime contributor, Conor Gearty has got an interesting new project. For 20 weeks he will be publishing an essay on rights on his website, every Monday. He wants people to comment, critique and produce additional examples through the site, to which he will respond every Friday. Its all leading up the LSE's Festival of Ideas in Feb 2011, and a book that will include the best of the comments and reader ideas. Get involved.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The New Atheism debate, continued...

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Is it "new", is it "shrill", is it "over"? Ever since The God Delusion there's has been an avalanche of debate and discussion about the kind of forthright non-belief epitomised by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

We at New Humanist have published plenty of New Atheist type arguments, as well as critiques from humanist and other perspectives. Judging by the feedback we get the non-religious community (if there is such a thing) is pretty evenly split about whether public expressions of religion requires a blunt and unapologetic response, or whether such an uncompromisingly tone is in the end off putting.

We debated the drawbacks of New Atheism at a recent event at the RSA (you can listen it in full here), and editor Caspar Melville wrote a piece for the Guardian, criticising New Atheism and suggesting a move beyond, which triggered a huge response – more than 400 comments on the Guardian website, hundreds more on Richard Dawkins' website. Not all of them were complimentary. See how Caspar responded to his critics, and, just published today, read Ophelia Benson's case for why he was wrong.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

New Humanist needs you – to nominate this year's enemies of reason

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As many of you will be aware, each year since 2007 New Humanist has handed out the Bad Faith Award, which recognises the individual (or organisation) making the year's most outstanding contribution to irrationalism and superstition. The list of past winners is an ignominious one – in 2007 US Christian conservative Dinesh D'Souza took the award, in 2008 it went to the peerless Sarah Palin, while last year we passed over all pretenders and handed it straight to God's representative on Earth, Pope Benedict XVI.

We're currently producing the November issue of the magazine, in which we'll be announcing the shortlisted nominees for the 2010 award, after which a poll will open on this blog to determine the winner. But first, we need your help – who do you think should be nominated for the 2010 Bad Faith Award? Over the course of the year we've been including a "Bad Faith Nominee" quote in the news pages of each issue, which means that thus far there are nominations for Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, for attributing earthquakes to "women who do not dress modestly", our heir to the throne Prince Charles for suggesting that the world is suffering from an "inner crisis of the soul", and now-twice-nominated Stephen Green for his contribution to Channel 4's, in which he seemed to suggest that in 30 years society will have been "taken over" by "Islam and the gays".

But that is by no means a definitive list. We need you to tell us who you would like to see receive Bad Faith Award. Who (or what - we'll consider organisations too) has made the most egregious contribution to the enduring prevalence of unreason in 2010? Simply submit your nomination by leaving a comment on this post. Think creatively - I'm sure lots of you will want to nominate the Pope but, while we'd give some thought to awarding it to the same person as last year, it'd be good to think beyond the obvious choices.

To get you started, I'm going to nominate former Tory MP and current Strictly Come Dancing star Ann Widdecombe on account of her enthusiastic support for Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, the ludicrous creationist zoo near Bristol.

Happy nominating! Oh, and remember to include your reasons, with a link if possible.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The censored "Where's Muhammad?" cartoon

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Last week, I blogged about the bizarre decision taken by several US newspapers to reject an edition of Wiley Miller's cartoon strip Non Sequitur, which made a joke about the extent of the fear of publishing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The joke was that publishers are now so worried that they won't even publish something which hints at depicting Muhammad, even if it doesn't actually depict him. The editors of "upwards of 20" papers responded by refusing to publish the cartoon.

The reason I return to the story is that MediaWatchWatch now have a copy of the cartoon, which I've reproduced here (you might need to click on it for a larger version). Are you offended? There's a giraffe licking a woman's ice cream, so I apologise in advance to ice cream and hygiene lovers.

By all means leave your best suggestions for why this cartoon is offensive in the comments below.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Faking your religion

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Yesterday's Independent had an interesting piece by Andrew Penman, author of a new book School Daze: Searching for Decent State Education, in which he explains how, despite being an atheist, he pretended that he was a Christian in order to get his children into a Church of England primary school.
"My mitigation is this: whose fault was it that we had to go to church to get our son into the local primary school? I didn't choose the selection criteria that meant that half the places were reserved for churchgoers, thus discriminating against local families who did not follow this particular brand of religion. This was not a situation of my choosing. I went to church under duress, because that was the only way to be sure of a place, even though that school was literally the other side of the road from our house. I didn't pretend to be a Christian for several years because I wanted to offend anyone, or because I thought it was fun – I promise you it wasn't. I did it because I wanted my son to attend the local state primary school. Is that too much to ask?"
Nevertheless, Penman's confession appears to have offended many Christians, with "odious, despicable, hypocrite" being some of the names he says he has been called since his book came out. Extraordinary really, given that thousands of parents every year must be doing the same thing. Of course it's hypocritical for an atheist to go to church for such functional reasons, but it's a hypocrisy forced on parents by the faith schools system. That anyone would be surprised by Penman's book or article shows that we're not being open and honest about the effect this system has. I know people who have done the same as Penman – my parents did more or less the same thing, give or take my mum's vague attachment to Christianity, to get me into a church school. My dad, who is very much an atheist, certainly told the local vicar some metaphysical white lies, as did, I imagine, many of my friends' parents. Whenever I complained about having to go to church on Sunday morning, I was always told it was so I would be able to go to a good secondary school (which in the end I didn't go to, so my parents owe me a few Sunday mornings, I'd say).

Imagine if someone unfamiliar with our system asked you to explain it:
"How did you get your child into their school?"

"Well, all I had to do was get up early every Sunday for seven years and pretend to believe that a man was born of a virgin before later going on to rise from the dead, and the place was theirs".
Leaving aside all the other arguments about faith schools, when you have a situation that absurd, surely it's time for a rethink?