Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Hitchens interviewed by Paxman

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Jeremy Paxman interviews
Christopher Hitchens on Newsnight
For anyone who missed it, I thought I'd share the iPlayer link for Jeremy Paxman's extended interview with Christopher Hitchens, which was broadcast on Newsnight yesterday. Hitchens talks candidly about religion, history, politics, writing and, of course, his cancer. It's highly recommended viewing. Here's a quote that stood out for me, when Paxman asked him about the conflict with Islamism:
"I refuse to be told what to think, or how, let alone what to say or write. But certainly not by people who claim the authority of fabricated works of primeval myth and fiction, and want me to believe that these are divine. That I won't have. That's the original repudiation. The first rebellion against mental slavery comes from saying, this is man-made, it's not divine."
[Unfortunately BBC iPlayer is only available in the UK, but it does seem to have made it on to YouTube as well]

Monday, 29 November 2010

Happy Christmas (War is Over): don't worry Tiny Tim, this man will save the day

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After ending the War on Christmas, does
the Nobel Prize await Eric Pickles?
It's almost December, and that means there's a war on. A War on Christmas. In fact, as readers of this blog, many of you will be secularists and humanists, and some of you may even be (gasp...) "politically correct". Which means you're the ones waging this War. You know that Christmas tree with the twinkling lights standing proudly in your local town centre? Yes, that one. It's lovely isn't it, and cheers people up on these cold, bitter winter days. So why do you persist in your desire to jump into the cockpit of your heathen F-16 and blow that tree away?

Thankfully, a new hero has risen to end this conflict and bring about peace in our time. His name is Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and he is here to tell us that this War Ends Now. For too long has the boot of secularism stamped on the joys of the nativity, while the clenched fist of political correctness delivered punch after punch to the face of advent. The verdict of history has been passed on those dark times, and 2010 will be remembered as the year the star of Bethlehem was allowed to shine brightly once more. Have no doubt that this is so, for our hero has spoken:
"We should actively celebrate the Christian basis of Christmas, and not allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity and the importance of the birth of Christ. The War on Christmas is over, and likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous deserve to be in the dustbin of history.
We live in tough financial times, but there's no need for town halls to play Scrooge. It is councils' financial interests to draw in shoppers to their town centres at Christmas given the benefits of packed car parks to councils' coffers. Shoppers want to see Christmas lights, Christmas trees, Carol Services and nativity scenes, and councils should not hesitate in supporting them." 
Has a more important press release ever been issued from the corridors of government? Christmas has been saved, and don't listen for one moment to those who would have you believe that the War in which we all fought so bravely was a tabloid-constructed exercise in "tedious nonsense".

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Is religion a force for good in the world? Hitchens and Blair go head to head in Toronto

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Blair and Hitchens prior to their debate in Toronto
This is a guest post by Matthew Adams, who watched Christopher Hitchens debate religion with Tony Blair in Toronto last night

When it comes to flying I am, to paraphrase Martin Amis, a nervous passenger but a confident drinker and Valium swallower. Yet despite this fact, when I heard that on 26 November Christopher Hitchens was to debate Tony Blair in Toronto, Canada, about whether or not religion is a force for good in the world, I found myself idly looking up flights. Would it really be too far to go for an evening’s entertainment? And what if I could make it an evening’s reportage? No matter. The flights were too expensive, and I was too slow on the uptake: the debate had sold out before I had had time even mentally to pack my bags. But what a line-up: Hitchens versus Blair. An atheist and secular internationalist (and arguably the greatest man of letters on either side of the Atlantic) against a Catholic and nominally secular former Prime Minister, admired by Hitchens for his “principled” stance on the political touchstones of Kosovo and Iraq. It looked set to be a fascinating evening. And, from the garret in which on my laptop I watched events unfold, so it proved.

The event took place under the auspices of the Aurea Foundation, whose founder, the rasping and lightly befuddled Peter Munk, informed us that he wants to use these debates in order to “elevate the quality of discussion” regarding “issues of vital importance to us all”. After about fifteen minutes of this kind of talk, Christopher and Tony (as they referred to one another throughout the evening) took to the stage. Christopher, who is suffering from metastasized cancer of the oesophagus, looked frail and, occasionally, in pain. But he also looked angrily suspicious, and possessed of a revving and playful hostility. Blair, by contrast, looked almost egregiously healthy, bobbing into the arena with an apologetic grin and a pair of arms so slung as to appear in perpetual readiness for a gesture of reluctant affirmation (“fair’s fair”, they kept wanting to say).

The debate kicked off with Hitchens, who used his opening speech to make the claim – persuasively – that the metaphysical claims of religion were incompatible with the motion that religion could be a force for good. Adducing the much vaunted example of Cardinal Newman (on the grounds that he is claimed as a “moderate”), Hitchens insisted that the claims made by the Cardinal in his Apologia contained “a distillation of what is implied and involved in the faith mentality” – this being, pace Fulke Greville, that religion creates us sick and asks us to be sound; that it offers both a warrant and a mandate for genital mutilation; for misogyny; for the coercions of heaven and hell; and that it is predicated on a messianic ideology that, today, is about to meet with apocalyptic weaponry.

Blair’s rather flaccid response to this was to point out all of the charitable work that has been done by religious groups around the globe; to insist that while religion can be bad, it can also be good; and to opine that faith answers a “profound spiritual yearning”. Not, I think you’ll agree, a knockdown retort. But stay a while. For it turns out that, while religion can induce us to commit acts both decent and wicked, it is only the good acts that are indicative of the “true face of faith”, encapsulated for Blair by the (non-Christian) precept of the Golden Rule.

I do not think I do a disservice to the former Prime Minister when I say that his argument as it developed throughout the debate never really reached the dizzying heights that this opening salvo seemed to promise. Indeed, to Christopher’s numerous and incisively posed objections – that the best way to eradicate poverty was to oppose the religious warrant for the subjection of women; that secular charities do the work for its own sake and not as a way of proselytizing; that to be a force for good religion would have to give up its supernatural claims – Blair did not have much to offer other than to say that prejudice and persecution are not only particular to religion and that, since “we cannot drive faith out of the world” we must “see how we can make it a force for good.”

This seems an extraordinary position for any believer to adopt, let alone a Catholic (and at no stage in the evening did Blair sound like one of those). One wonders, in fact, quite what it is that he does believe. To a question from the audience about the need for faith as a source of morality he supplied the cryptic fatuity: “For some people humanism is enough. But for some people it isn’t.” When asked about the role that religion plays in social divisions in sub-Saharan Africa he said that the faith-based children he knew talked not of confessional differences but of their “common love of humanity”, and when asked to transpose this question to the territorial claims of Israel and Palestine his response was to aver that “religion has created these problems and must play a part in resolving them.”

Christopher’s response to this kind of confusion was refreshingly direct (“You cannot say that God’s intervention in territorial debates isn’t inscribed in the texts themselves”), and a reaction of his to Blair’s insistence that true religion lies in a nebulous and pan-confessional love of humanity was superb: “Common humanism is not made easier by the practice of religion . . . Tony seems to like religious people best when they’re largely non-practising.” In fact, nearly all of the best lines went to Christopher, as is evident from his précis of Blair’s dismayingly shifting position: “Religion could be a good thing after all. Sometimes. We think.” Again on the same subject: “So now it seems some people of faith are ok. I appear to have bargained one our greater statesmen of the recent past down a bit!” Now on the temporal constraints of the debate: “[notice] All the things Tony keeps defending himself from that I haven’t had the chance to bring up.” And finally on an absurd comment of Blair’s about inter-faith dialogue in Northern Ireland: “I never like to miss out on a chance to congratulate someone on being humorous, if only unintentionally so. It’s very touching for Tony to say that he recently went to a meeting that bridged a religious divide in Northern Ireland – well, where does the religious divide come from? Four hundred years and more, in my own country of birth, of people killing each other’s children, depending on what kind of Christian they were? And sending each other’s children, in rhetoric, to hell? And making Northern Ireland a place remarkable in Northern Europe for unemployment, for ignorance, for poverty . . . and for them now to say “maybe we might consider bridging this gap”? Well, I should bloody well think so.”

This probably makes it seem as though the evening belonged to Hitchens (which it did), but this is not to suggest that the debate lacked interest. One especially compelling moment was supplied when a questioner asked each speaker which of his opponent’s arguments he found the most unsettling. Hitchens simply said that he agreed with the proposition that things would not necessarily be all right were religion to go away. Blair’s response was the more interesting. Throughout the debate he had made much of the idea that the good that is done by the religious is done because of religion, with the corollary that any evil that had been enacted had been enacted in the name of religious belief. Hitchens challenged Blair on this point on a number of occasions, but it was in his response to the question from the floor that Blair gave his most interesting and most revealing reply. The affronts to human rights that are contained within holy texts are, he argued, to be historicised. Muhammad, for example, was probably not bad for his time. But we need to move on, and it is no longer acceptable for “bad believers” just to pick from their texts the bits that they like. No. What believers must do now is boil religions down to their “essence”. Christianity can be boiled down to the life of Christ and, in making that reduction, the task of the Christian now is “to explain Scripture in a way that makes sense to people in the modern world.” Well, quite. But on what authority can the bits of Scripture that we don’t like simply be ditched? And what about modern Christians who do like those injunctions?

It is always difficult to determine, with events such as these, who won. The numbers at the start of debate were, for Blair, rather less than encouraging: 22% for the motion; 57% against; 21% undecided. I should say that they did not much improve. (The BBC report that Hitchens won by a margin of two to one.) He lacked the rigour and the incisiveness of Hitchens, and he never adequately addressed Hitchens’s points about the moral problems that are posed by the very idea of a morality whose provenance is divine. But one does not really go to debates like these for the results. Rather, one goes for the debate. It is an achievement of the secularism to which both men lay claim that it could take place at all.


Matthew Adams is a freelance writer and critic, and has contributed to the Spectator, Times Literary Supplement, Guardian and Literary Review

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Wish I could write like Neal Ascherson

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I've known journalist Neal Ascherson by reputation for ages, and knew he was an expert on Russia, Scottish Nationalism and many other things, but I didn't really know his writing that well. Then I got given a copy of RRyszard Kapuścińsky's magnificent book on the last days of Haile Selassie - The Emperor - with an introduction by Ascherson. It was so expertly written and elegant and knowledgeable. He set the career of Kapuścińsky, surely one of the greatest ever journalists, in context lucidly and beautifully. I vowed to read everything I could get my hands on by Ascherson. So today, idly clicking around the LRB website, I found a review of The Climate of Treason by Andrew Boyle, a book about about the Cambridge spies, written by Ascherson back in 1980. Not only is it the clearest summary of the whole Philby/Burgess/Blunt business I've read - something I remember but only vaguely from my young life - it contains the most persuasive argument for why the posh traitors did what they did. Inevitably, given this is the most English of English establishments we are talking about, it's about both class and guilt:
"Birth, the accident of birth in the privileged upper tenth of a caste society, imprisoned these men in a cell with the gnawing rat of guilt. Nothing they could do in life would efface the original sin of that unfair birth - except rebirth. Not just the Communist faith but the actual existence of the Soviet Union - isolated, hated, mysterious - glowed to them across Europe as a second chance for themselves as well as for humanity."
[Pretty bloody good, huh? I love that "gnawing rat of regret"!].

Also embedded in this essay, unobtrusively and completely as part of the overall argument rather than as a gratuitous or self-regarding insertion, Ascherson tells the story of his own "unhappy brush" with the secret service, when they tired to recruit him (about the time that photo was taken I should think). It's a wonderfully economical, and hilarious passage, that ends with these few, funny, wise and telling lines:
"I was summoned to meet D. in his home. After a silent but delicious dinner, D. asked me to sit next to him on the sofa. I supposed that I was at last to be put in the picture, but D. merely grasped me tightly and wordlessly by the penis. I extracted myself and ran away, and after some days of great confusion, wrote to say that perhaps I was not mature enough for this service."
Note to self: get Ascherson to write something  for New Humanist...

What would cartoonists know about drinking?

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Ink & The Bottle a new exhibition at the lovely Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury, London, looks at our abiding love affair with booze over the last 150 years, through the (bleary) eyes of cartoonists, including our very own Judy Walker. This  is one of her Sun cartoons from 1985 [NB her brief was to parody male attitudes]. Open daily until 13 Feb 13. Details on the Museum website.

 

Crowdfunding evolution

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Rapper Baba Brinkman, who returns to Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People for a second year running next month, is currently working on a series of videos for his peer-reviewed hip-hop album The Rap Guide to Evolution, which he performed snippets from at last year's Godless shows. Recognising the Rap Guide's potential for bringing science to a new audience, the Wellcome Trust provided a grant for the video project but, in order to bring it to completion, Baba is looking for your help. I'll let him explain:
The challenge we face now is finding additional funding to support this project. The Wellcome Trust grant is enough (barely) to film and edit the videos, but we want to take them to the next level by weaving in original animation, digital effects, and high-quality nature footage licensed from sources like the BBC. Imagine a four-minute short film, part Eminem-style rap music video, part David Attenborough-style nature documentary, illustrating themes such as the common descent of all human beings from African ancestors and the processes of natural and sexual selection that shaped our bodies and minds and the rest of nature. We are making twelve such videos, one for each song on the CD. My hope is that these videos will be used by Biology teachers the world over to make evolution accessible to their students, as well as offering an entertaining entry point into Darwin's theories for non-Scientists in general.

The solution? A new concept called "crowdfunding", which allows you to pre-buy the DVD we are making before we are finished making it, contributing to the production value and ultimately the potential impact of the finished product. Together with SPL Productions, I have partnered with a website called "Crowdfunder" to run a campaign to raise an additional £10,000 to increase the production value of these videos. If we can hit our target in 60 days, the end result will be something amazing. If we fail to hit the target, the money is all returned to the funders and we fall back on the Wellcome Trust grant, which will still be enough to complete a good finished product, just one with a lot less mojo.

If you like the project and want to support it, there are various rewards attached to different levels of funding. £10 gets you a download of the finished videos, £20 gets you a DVD, and £30 buys you immortality: we will put your photo in one of the videos, representing a branch on the human family tree.  You can also book me for a performance if you contribute enough (click the above link to find out my going rate, slightly discounted).
You can find out more on Baba's crowdfunding site, where he explains how it will all work. Here's a preview video of the project - looks like it's shaping up nicely. If you're a fan, it'd be great if you could get involved.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

UN moves a step closer to condemning free speech

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After Islamic and African countries successfully passed an amendment removing reference to sexual orientation from a United Nations resolution that condemns summary execution last week, there's more bad news from the UN, as the Social, Humanitarian Cultural Affairs Committee of the General Assembly yesterday voted in favour of a non-binding resolution condemning the "vilification of religion".

This is the latest development in an ongoing effort by Islamic nations to curtail criticism of religion through the UN (the resolution previously referred to "defamation of religion"), and Reuters report that it is expected to be ratified by the General Assembly next month. The latest vote by the committee saw 76 countries in favour, 64 against with 42 abstentions, which suggested support for the resolution has narrowed since the previous vote last year, which was 81-55 with 43 abstentions. The text says the General Assembly:
"urges all States to provide ... adequate protection against acts of hatred, discrimination, intimidation and coercion resulting from vilification of religions, and incitement to religious hatred in general."
Morocco submitted the text on behalf of Islamic nations, which make up the bulk of those which voted in favour (you can see the full roll call by downloading/opening a larger version of the image included in this post). Other countries voting in favour include China, North Korea and Russia. While the resolution would not require member states to legislate against "vilification of religion", it is widely seen as an attempt to prevent criticism at the UN and lend international legitimacy to the punitive blasphemy laws in operation in many Islamic states (hence campaigners have called it an "international blasphemy law"), which are often used to restrict the freedom of non-Muslims. Opponents, including the UK, US and other Western governments, condemn the resolution as an attempt to clamp down on individual freedom, while protecting governments from criticism. They say it distorts the principle of human rights, applying them to states rather than individuals. Addressing the committee, US envoy John Sammis voiced his government's concerns:
"The resolution still seeks to curtail and penalize speech. The changes ... unfortunately do not get to the heart of our concerns – the text's negative implications for both freedom of religion and freedom of expression. We are disappointed to see that despite our efforts and discussions on this resolution, the text once again seems to take us farther apart, rather than helping to bridge the historical divides."

The UN General Assembly will vote on the resolution when it meets in Mexico in December.

Royal assent

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Attending the Church of England General Synod yesterday, you might have thought the Queen, in her role as Anglican head honcho, would be too busy worrying about parochial matters (the Church's continuing implosion, bishops laying into her family and the "event we shall not mention") to spare a thought for we merry godless. But in her speech at Church House, she took time, while heaping praise on the religious, to point out that atheists are alright too:
"In our more diverse and secular society, the place of religion has come to be a matter of lively discussion. It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue and that the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation depend on the contribution of individuals and groups of all faiths and none."
Well, it's nice to be noticed. Perhaps now we can move ahead with plans for that established state atheist movement. That is what we all want, isn't it?

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Pope's condom comments apply to women

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Breaking news just now is that the Pope's spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, has said that Benedict XVI's remarks regarding the use of condoms, which some had suggested may have only applied to gay prostitutes at risk of transmitting HIV, do in fact cover women as well (an Italian translation of the Pope's interview with Peter Seewald had used the feminine for "prostitute", while the German original used the masculine):
"I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine. He told me no. The problem is this ... It's the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship. This is if you're a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We're at the same point."
This helps to clear up some of the confusion over the meaning of the Pope's remarks – it would seem that some of the headlines concerning a "U-turn" were a little premature, but there does appear to have been a change in tone from an organisation that has long given the impression that it is opposed to condoms in all circumstances.


Interestingly, it would seem the debate over meaning extends to the Vatican itself. In an intriguing blogpost, Catholic journalist Damian Thompson suggests that an internal battle is taking place within the Church between liberalisers who would like to see the stance on condoms relaxed and conservatives who are fiercely opposed to any such change.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Intelligent Design: pseudoscience or a challenge to evolution?

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Michael Behe
As I've reported, prominent American Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe is in Britain this week, conducting a nationwide speaking tour hosted by the new Glasgow-based Centre for Intelligent Design. He's speaking at Westminster Chapel this evening, but his first task today was a debate with the Royal Society's former Director of Education, Michael Reiss, which I've just got back from now.

Hosted by Premier Christian Radio, which will broadcast it this coming Saturday, the debate was entitled "Darwin or Design? Intelligent Design: pseudo-science or challenge to Darwinian evolution?", and took place in (deep breath...) Charles Darwin House in central London, with Premier's Justin Brierley as moderator.

The debate began with Behe providing an outline of arguments for why he thinks Intelligent Design should be taught alongside evolution in science lessons (he famously gave evidence for the defence in the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover federal court case in Pennsylvania, in which Judge Jones ruled that it could not be). The basis of his argument is something called "irreducible complexity", which you can easily read more about via a quick Google search, but to summarise what he said in the debate, he sees it as irrational for science to reject what he repeatedly termed "other minds" (i.e. God/gods) as explanations for phenomena and events. It is, he says, a "fundamental facet of rationality" to discern the existence of other minds. He claims that "life reeks of design" – one of his main examples is the bacterial flagellum – and says that when the parts of something appear to be arranged in order to perform a function, it is rational to infer design. As, in his view, evolution has not been proven to be a definitive explanation, Intelligent Design should be taught alongside it in schools. He suggested that a rejection of the teaching Intelligent Design represents solipsism on behalf of scientists.

Listening to Behe put this case, one observation I made was that a frequent tactic he employs is to cite examples from credible scientists who do not support Intelligent Design in order to back up his arguments for it. So we are provided with quotes from Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker, in which he says that the study of living things gives the appearance of design, as well as a list of articles from the journal Cell which have the word "machine" in their title (e.g. "protein machines"). Other scientists cited by included the biologist Douglas J Futumya, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, and Richard Lenski, conductor of the famous E. coli long-term evolution experiment. Of course, none of those scientists would claim that their work points in any way to Intelligent Design, but Behe takes their words or work out of context and uses them to add credibility to his own arguments.

Michael Reiss followed Behe, and opened by saying it was a pleasure to have the chance to debate these issues with him. Beginning with the issue of science and Intelligent Design, he said that science makes no mention of God, and operates without presuming anything regarding the existence or otherwise of a deity – science only studies objective physical reality. He suggested that there is nothing wrong, philosophically, with pointing to the existence of a deity to explain things that we don't know about the universe, but said that in his view it is somewhat premature. He predicted, while admitting it was only a personal prediction, that 30 years from now most of the arguments made for Intelligent Design will have been dispelled by the findings of conventional science. Concluding with the question of education, Reiss argued that in the UK we should address religious questions around origins in RE classes, while leaving science teachers to deal with science. He doesn't think teachers should be prohibited from answering questions posed by pupils which may relate to ID or creationism, but he certainly doesn't think these things belong on the science curriculum (this, of course, is the view that led to Reiss stepping down from his role at the Royal Society in 2008).

There followed a discussion between Behe and Reiss, in which Brierley posed questions to them both. Much of this revisited ground covered in the initial remarks, but some points are worth noting here. Brierley brought up the issue of the Dover Case, and Reiss pointed out that while, in principle, it would be possible for an individual to conceive of ID as a theory without appeal to religion, in reality its proponents are, almost without fail, card-carrying Christians. He joked that ID advocates clearly "evolved from their creationist ancestors". Responding, Behe suggested that religion is irrelevant – what matters is whether the proposition is true. He claims that he arrived at ID not because of his religion (he's a Catholic), but because his work in biochemistry led him to that position.Reiss then made the interesting point that Intelligent Design is a broad camp. Darwinian evolutionists and ID's more moderate advocates – he suggested Behe is one of those – often don't differ on the processes involved in the development of life. It's only when you get to the question of beginnings – I assume he means the question of how life originated – that the two camps really start to disagree. But those questions are about metaphysics, not science, and so do not belong in the science classroom.

The final section of the event involved questions from the floor, and I was able to pose one myself. I asked Reiss why he views debating with an Intelligent Design advocate such as Behe as a useful exercise. Richard Dawkins tends to take a "no platform" approach to creationism and ID – indeed he had turned down the offer of participating in this event, describing it as a "publicity stunt" and saying he believes in “never giving creationists the oxygen of publicity by sharing a platform with them”. Why, I asked, does Reiss feel differently. He replied by saying that he would refuse to debate with some people, but believes debating with Behe is respectable and interesting – where life came from is an important issue. He added that he is concerned with education (he is currently Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education), and is not comfortable with the notion that some ideas are off limits. Brierley also asked Behe how he feels about being labelled a "creationist" by Dawkins – he suggested it is a rhetorical technique used to duck the issue, like branding advocates of public health care "communists".

As one final point, I was intrigued by Behe's answer to one of the last questions from the floor, which concerned the future of ID. Behe invoked the work of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who developed the notion that scientific revolutions occur as a result of "paradigm shifts". As the evidence in their favour mounts, scientists are eventually required to accept ideas that they previously would have rejected out of hand, resulting in a paradigm shift and a scientific revolution. Behe appeared to suggest that, one day, a paradigm shift would lead to the general acceptance of ID as the best explanation for life on Earth. Responding, Reiss – with a nod to how unlikely he clearly feels this is – pointed out that, if ID turned out to be true, the implications would be so profound as to make the paradigm shifts Kuhn was writing about seem like ripples on a pond.

So, that's a (fairly lengthy) summary of what I heard at the event today. I'm very interested to hear what people make of it all – please do share your views in the comments? If anyone else was at this event, or has seen Behe in other locations during the tour, it'd be good to hear from you.

Do the Pope's remarks on condoms justify the media reaction?

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Pope Benedict XVI's remarks on the use have condoms have generated worldwide headlines since they were first reported on Saturday, but has the significance of his words been exaggerated? As I blogged yesterday, experienced Catholic journalist Pia de Solenni has pointed out that the Pope has not endorsed the use of condoms, but rather pointed to a very specific example – that of a male prostitute – where the use of a condom to prevent the spread of HIV would be preferable to unprotected sex. As the Guardian report this morning, the Vatican has moved quickly to clarify this, with the Pope's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi saying:
"Aids cannot be solved only by the distribution of condoms. At the same time, the pope considered an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality represents a real risk to the lives of others. In this case, the pope does not morally justify the exercise of disordered sexuality, but believes that the use of condoms to reduce the risk of infection is a 'first step on the road to a more human sexuality', rather than not to use it and risking the lives of others."
So in so far as it is a departure from a wholesale rejection of condom use, it is progress, but only in a very limited sense. This view is further reinforced by this piece by Catholic theologian Janet E Smith on the website of Ignatius, the publishers of Peter Seewald's book Light of the World, which contains the Pope's remarks. In her analysis, Smith says:
"We must note that the example that Pope Benedict gives for the use of a condom is a male prostitute; thus, it is reasonable to assume that he is referring to a male prostitute engaged in homosexual acts. The Holy Father is simply observing that for some homosexual prostitutes the use of a condom may indicate an awakening of a moral sense; an awakening that sexual pleasure is not the highest value, but that we must take care that we harm no one with our choices. He is not speaking to the morality of the use of a condom, but to something that may be true about the psychological state of those who use them. If such individuals are using condoms to avoid harming another, they may eventually realize that sexual acts between members of the same sex are inherently harmful since they are not in accord with human nature. The Holy Father does not in any way think the use of condoms is a part of the solution to reducing the risk of AIDs. As he explicitly states, the true solution involves 'humanizing sexuality'."
According to this view, the Pope's words are entirely in line with his teachings on homosexuality, and do not impact on the Church's general stance on condoms (Smith uses the rather tasteless analogy of robbing a bank – if you insist on doing it, it's at least better to use an unloaded gun). In which case, where does this leave those (both Catholics and non-Catholics) who hope to see the Church reverse what is viewed as a grossly destructive attitude towards condoms and contraception? It would seem that this story is something of a false alarm, but perhaps there is some encouragement to be taken from the Pope's willingness to engage with the issue at all. It's certainly an improvement on his disastrous remarks during his trip to Africa in 2009, when he suggested that condoms may exacerbate the Aids epidemic. Perhaps this is a sign that the Vatican is open to change in relation to these issues, although given the limited scope of what he says in the Seewald interviews, campaigners may not be holding their breath just yet.

What do you think? Is this a false alarm, or is it a sign that the Church is open to change? Share your views by commenting below.

If you're interested in further reading around this issue, the Catholic Herald have an interesting piece on the other things that the Pope says to Peter Seewald in the new book, on subjects including child abuse, climate change and the perceived secular "intolerance" of religion. You may also like to read the full excerpt on condoms, available at the Ignatius website.

True grit: Bishop of Lincoln blesses county's gritters

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Jack Frost, as depicted in the existential
art house classic Jack Frost (1997)
Remember the chaos caused by last winter's big freeze? Perhaps some of it could have been avoided if every region of Britain had access to a spiritual leader as innovative as the Bishop of Lincoln, who is set to bless the county of Lincolnshire's fleet of gritters for the eighth year running.

On 7 December the Right Reverend Dr John Saxbee will conduct the blessing, which entails reading prayers at gritter depots, for the final time, as he prepares for retirement in January. He will be hoping his successor continues the tradition, as he suspects the blessings may have had a very real effect on road safety in Lincolnshire:
"These annual 'Blessing of the Gritters' events have coincided with a dramatic reduction in the number of fatalities on Lincolnshire's roads. Perhaps that is not a coincidence, and as I look to my retirement in January I hope and pray that driving carefully and arriving safely will continue to matter to all who use our road network in the years ahead."
Meanwhile, rumours abound that pagan worshippers of Jack Frost are working on spells to counteract Saxbee's salty incantations...

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Condoms: what the Pope actually said

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Further to yesterday's news that the Pope had suggested condom use could be acceptable in certain circumstances to prevent HIV infection, I just wanted to share something I came across via the Times' religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill. It's a blogpost by Catholic journalist Pia de Solenni, who used to work for the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano, which broke the news yesterday. De Solenni has provided the full English version of what the Pope told journalist Peter Seewald in relation to condoms, including this key passage:
"There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality."
In de Solenni's analysis, this means:
"...he’s not endorsing condoms. He’s saying that it could be the first step of a particular individual to realize that their action is wrong. His example of a male prostitute is very particular. The Church doesn’t believe that male prostitution is a good thing; so it’s not going to endorse anything that would facilitate the behavior even if it’s ostensibly with the good intention of protecting one’s self or another. That good intention doesn’t change the nature of the behavior itself."
So this may not represent the major departure that some headlines have portrayed it as. The Vatican is still clearly opposed to condoms, but some may see it as a sign of progress that the Pope is prepared to acknowledge that there is any circumstance where their use may be acceptable. One interesting aspect of this is why the Pope has chosen to make these remarks now - is it an indication that a further liberalisation is possible?


What do you make of it all? Do share in the comments.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Has the Vatican softened its stance on condoms?

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According to the BBC, in a long-awaited interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald, which is due to be published as a book on Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI has suggested that the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV may be acceptable "in certain cases". The Vatican newspaper has published extracts today, including his response to the question of whether the Catholic Church is "fundamentally against the use of condoms". He said:
"It of course does not see it as a real and moral solution. In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality."
While this hardly represents an endorsement of condoms (and other forms of contraception), it still represents a major shift the Pope's message on this issue. What do you make of it? Is it a sign that the Vatican is open to change, however slow that change may be? Or is it a minor concession that pales in significance when placed alongside the Church's overall policy on condoms?

Please do share your thoughts in the comments.

Friday, 19 November 2010

UN vote removes reference to sexual orientation from resolution condemning summary execution

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The Social, Humanitarian Cultural Affairs Committee of the UN General Assembly has voted to remove reference to sexuality from a resolution which condemns the use of "extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions".

For the past ten years the resolution has included sexual orientation among a list of reasons why people are targeted for summary execution, with other examples including ethnicity and language. But the amendment, sponsored, according to Reuters, by Morocco and Mali on behalf of African and Islamic countries replaces the words "sexual orientation" with "discriminatory reasons on any basis".

Reacting to the passage of the amendment, Cary Alan Johnson, Executive Director of International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said:
“It essentially removes the important recognition of the particular vulnerability faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people - a recognition that is crucial at a time when 76 countries around the world criminalize homosexuality, five consider it a capital crime, and countries like Uganda are considering adding the death penalty to their laws criminalizing homosexuality.”
The full list of how countries voted is as follows:

In favor of the amendment (79): Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belize, Benin, Botswana, Brunei Dar-Sala, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, China, Comoros, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United Republic of Tanzania, Uzbekistan, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Opposed to the amendment (70): Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bhutan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Micronesia (FS), Monaco, Montenegro, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Timor-Leste, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela

Abstain (17)
: Antigua-Barbuda, Barbados, Belarus, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Colombia, Fiji, Mauritius, Mongolia, Papau New Guinea, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Vanuatu

Absent (26)
: Albania, Bolivia, Central African Republic, Chad, Dominica, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Honduras, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Marshall Island, Mauritania, Nauru, Nicaragua, Palau, Sao Tome Principe, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Togo, Tonga, Turkey, Turkmenistan

Homosexuality? That would be an ideological matter, says Cardinal

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It seems we can cast aside all questions as to what determines a person's sexuality – it turns out it's an ideological matter. At least according to retired Catholic Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, who appears to be making a sadly-all-too-late-play for our Bad Faith Award (the poll is already up and running) with these remarks from his forthcoming autobiography:
"The ideology of homosexuality – as often happens to ideologies when they become aggressive and end up being politically triumphant "becomes a threat to our legitimate autonomy of thought: those who do not share it risk condemnation to a kind of cultural and social marginalisation.
The attacks on freedom of thought start with language. Those who do not resign themselves to accept 'homophilia' ... are charged with 'homophobia'. Is it still permitted ... to be faithful and consistent disciples of the teaching of Christ ... or must we prepare ourselves for a new form of persecution, promoted by homosexual activists, by their ideological accomplices, and even by those whose task it should be to defend the intellectual freedom of all, including Christians?" 
I was struck by the reference to "language". It'd be interesting to know what kind of language Cardinal Biffi  (who has a record of expressing controversial opinions) now feels he is unable to use.

Should ritual slaughter be banned?

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In his latest Independent column, Johann Hari argues that the rise in the use of ritually slaughtered meat in Britain should not be tolerated, and that it's time the practice was banned on animal welfare grounds. He says standing up to an unnecessary, cruel practice such as ritual slaughter must not be seen as an attack on the rights of religious minorities:
"It is true that, at the moment, there is a frightening rise in real bigotry against Muslims and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Jews. Some people who object to the rise of halal meat try to fit it into a preposterous narrative where Britain is somehow being "taken over" by the 4 per cent of its population who are Muslim, presumably via the Protocols of the Elders of Mecca. I have written many articles against this resurgent bigotry, and I can see why some people would be shy about anything that would look like piling on.

But the only consistent position is to oppose viciousness against these minorities, and to oppose viciousness by these minorities. The proponents of halal and kosher meat are choosing to inflict terrible and unnecessary pain on living creatures every day. It would be condescending to treat them as victim-children who are exempt from moral debate – and it would be a betrayal of the real victims here: the sentient creatures having their throats cut."
 This ties in with a piece we published in our September issue, in which retired physiologist Harold Hillman suggested that, based on the evidence he saw while studying the effects of electrical torture on humans during his career, the stunning practices used in non-ritual slaughter may cause as much pain for the animal as ritual methods. The scientific argument presented by Hillman is open to question – and several people have questioned it – but behind that is an argument which I think is important, and is in keeping with Hari's. Hillman concludes that if humanists and secularists (and indeed anyone) is going to oppose ritual slaughter (which personally, I think we should), it must be on the basis of science and animal welfare, and not simply because halal and kosher methods have their origins in religion. We should only oppose, and seek to prohibit, religious practices when they come into conflict with other values which we deem more important.

Of course, there are lots of arguments surrounding this. Is animal welfare more important than religious freedom? Is it not slightly hypocritical to stand up to religious slaughter, yet stand by and allow many other forms of non-religious animal cruelty (battery farming comes to mind)?

What do you think? Do share your thoughts in the comments.

Proof at last

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Okay, it's time for us to come clean. Here at New Humanist, we never really doubted that Heaven was real. And now we know - Fox News have all the proof you'll ever need:

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Quiz a creationist

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The British Centre for Science Education, which campaigns against the teaching of creationism and intelligent design, have provided a handy list of questions audience can ask leading ID-proponent Michael Behe during forthcoming UK speaking tour, which is organised by the new Glasgow-based Centre for Intelligent Design. The tour starts in Leamington Spa on Saturday (20 Nov), before heading to venues in London, Glasgow, Belfast, Cambridge, Bournemouth and Oxford.

Here are the first three questions, to give you an idea:
1) What is the difference, if any, between Intelligent Design and any other God-of-thegaps reasoning? In particular, between ID and the famous watch/designer argument put forward in 1800 by the theologian William Paley?

2) Why have Prof Behe’s own departmental colleagues issued a statement saying that “intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific”? And why have the UK National Guidelines and Scottish Qualifications Authority made similar statements?

3) Why is Prof Behe speaking on this tour in three churches and no science departments?
I'll be attending an event myself on Monday afternoon in London, when Behe is debating with the bioethicist Michael Reiss (who stepped down from the role of Director of Education at the Royal Society in 2008 after suggesting that teachers should be prepared to tackle questions on ID and creationism in science lessons), so maybe I'll print out a copy of the questions and take them along - it'll be interesting to see if any other audience members end up using them.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Are atheists/humanists excluding ethnic minorities?

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On Comment is Free, Alom Saha has a piece in which he asks whether the atheist/humanist "movement" (if indeed it is possible to talk of such a thing - one for the comment thread, maybe) does enough to reach out to ethnic minorities because, in his opinion, as it stands it is a predominantly-white affair:
"While black and Asian people may not be actively excluded from atheist and sceptic gatherings, the lack of black and Asian people as speakers or audience members might be one reason why many black or Asian people feel such events are not "for them". So, even if there's no deliberate exclusion, there is accidental exclusion. Perhaps some people are genuinely unaware of this, but perhaps others are just hoping the problem does not really exist."
This isn't the first time Saha has put forward this argument at the Guardian – he recently asked why there aren't more members of ethnic minorities attending "skeptic" events (a "movement" with significant overlap with atheism/humanism) – and while he may indeed have a point in terms of numbers, I'm inclined to say he's being a little harsh on humanist organisations, as well as the white, male "leaders" he identifies. As a publication, New Humanist is slightly different from a group organising meet-ups and talks – we're not necessarily catering to a "community", except perhaps for a readership who share common interests – but the concerns of our magazine, as well as the diversity of the people who write for it and the people we meet as a result, hardly suggest that we are inadvertently excluding ethnic minorities. And some of the most committed campaigners I have met have been former Muslims who have first-hand experience of the excesses of religion and possess a frame of reference for their unbelief that is probably lacking in someone such as myself, who has never really had any religious affiliation worthy of the name (the former Catholics I have met tend to be similarly committed).

Saha points out that some black and Asian people feel that "coming out" and self-identifying as atheist would be an uncomfortable, even risky, step to take. He is surely right about this, but he goes on to suggest that the atheist "movement" needs to do more to reach out to those people. It's always possible to do more, of course, but I don't think humanist groups are failing to do this, and there's only so much that they can do. If it is to become less taboo for atheists from, say, Muslim backgrounds to speak openly of their non-belief, then change will ultimately have to be driven from within those communities. Humanist groups can help by remaining open and inclusive (something which, I would argue, comes very easily to humanists) and, hopefully, as more and more people from ethnic minorities get involved, the knock-on effect will be that like-minded peers will feel more comfortable joining them.

What do you think? Do humanist/atheist groups need to do more in this area? If so, what could they do? Please share your views by commenting on this post.

Christian doctor dismissed from adoption panel for refusing to recommend gay couples loses tribunal

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Sheila Matthews, the Christian doctor who, as we reported on Monday, lost her job on the Northamptonshire Council Adoption Panel after asking to abstain from cases involving same-sex couples, has had her case dismissed by an employment tribunal in Leicester.

Matthews, in the latest case backed by the Christian Legal Centre, had alleged that her dismissal represented discrimination against her Christian beliefs. But in concluding the hearing, regional employment judge John MacMillan said she had no case:
"The complaints of religious discrimination fail and are dismissed. This case fails fairly and squarely on its facts. In our judgement, at least from the time of the pre-hearing review, the continuation of these proceedings was plainly misconceived... they were doomed to fail. There is simply no factual basis for the claims."
 Matthews was asking the tribunal to refer her case to the European Court of Justice, and speaking outside court she indicated that she may continue to pursue the matter:
"Everything is open to be considered, I'm not making any sort of decisions right now. We need to mull everything over very carefully. I wouldn't have brought the case if I felt we were destined to fail."

USB - the sign of the Devil?

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Over on his Lay Scientist blog at the Guardian, Martin Robbins has the bizarre story of a Brazilian evangelical cult leader, Welder Saldanha, banning his followers from using USB connections on their computers, because the universal symbol for the technology "is a trident, which is used to torture souls".

Robbins asks whether the story could be a spoof – it's hard to tell when it comes to the pronouncements of the more wacky evangelicals. You certainly have to wonder, especially when you get to the bit about how the members of the Paz do Senhor Amado cult can connect devices to their computers in lieu of USB. They're allowed to use Bluetooth, because:
"Blue was the colour of the eyes of our saviour Jesus Christ".
 Spoof or no spoof, you have to admit that's just brilliant.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Your last chance to see Nine Lessons this year - in London or Brighton

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Due to popular demand, we have now added one final date, Wednesday 15 December, to this year's otherwise-completely-sold-out run of the heathen Christmas extravaganza Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People at London's Bloomsbury Theatre.

Featuring Robin Ince, Richard Herring, Simon Singh, Shappi Khorsandi, Ben Goldacre, Mitch Benn, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Jim Bob and the Martin White Mystery Brass Machine Orchestra, tickets are on sale now via the Bloomsbury Theatre website, and are sure to sell out quickly. Buy now to avoid disappointment – this really is your last chance to get tickets for the London run this year.

Tickets are also on sale for the first ever Nine Lessons show outside of London, at the Brighton Dome on Sunday 12 December, featuring Dara O Briain, Baba Brinkman, Isy Suttie, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Richard Herring, Simon Singh, Gavin Osborn, Josie Long, Jo Neary, Helen Arney, Stephen Grant, Frisky and Mannish and Martin White's Little Brass Band. More details at the Brighton Dome website.

The Royal Wedding: the New Humanist pledge

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You may have noticed that this morning plans for a royal wedding have been announced. If you're the sort of person with no interest in such things, your next few months of media consumption is going to represent one almighty nauseating experience. That's why we at New Humanist would like to invite you to come and join us – if you read our magazine and website, you'll be safe from royal wedding hysteria. We promise we won't even mention it*. That is, unless the Windsors finally reveal themselves to be humanity-controlling lizards**.

* Except for this one time
** Or present some other challenge to the prevailing order of world affairs

Monday, 15 November 2010

Atheist blogger jailed in West Bank

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Index on Censorship report that Palestinian atheist blogger Waleed Al-Husseini, has been arrested and imprisoned in Qalqilya in the West Bank for posting his non-religious views on his blog The Light of Reason (Arabic) and a Facebook page entitled "Allah". You can learn more about Waleed and his work in this blogpost by Egyptian blogger Marwa Rakha, who includes a quote from his Blogger profile:
"My dear visitors, I am seeking the truth. In my writings, I am not trying to twist facts to the favor of my arguments. I am just posing questions that many of us do not dare to ask and I urge you to be honest with yourselves while attempting to find the answers. We are not two parties at war against one another. We will not be dragged into a futile attempt to prove who is the fittest by discrediting each other. If someone can refute my arguments and prove the fallacy of my logic, I will listen and respond rationally. I will not mock his opinions or manipulate words to prove my points. I am not an enemy of Islam or Muslims; after all, we are all seeking the same thing – the truth. To be more precise, I know I am not the Muslim's best friend. I am not against Islam in particular, I am just a human being who is tired of watching the world collapse around us because of religions and religious strifes. It is ironic how Islamic scholars contribute such wars and destruction to the lack of faith. My dear believer, I urge you to use the brains you were given to seek your own truth instead of lazily relying on the misleading pacifying translations and interpretations of others. I have faith in you! I know you will not settle for fake half truths that were clearly manipulated to serve the best interest of those who promote them. I hope you are a truth seeker not just someone who is looking for a validation for what he believes to be the truth."
 A petition calling for his release has been launched by the Arabic-speaking Irreligious Coalition, with the aim of securing 7,000 signatures. There is also a Facebook page dedicated to freeing Waleed. Do sign up and help spread the word.

"Much of the population" against gay adoption, claims Christian barrister

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In the latest example of court action backed by the Christian Legal Centre (which has also been seen recently complaining about media bias in favour of pagans), Dr Sheila Matthews, who used to sit on the Northamptonshire Council Adoption Panel, is to ask an employment tribunal to refer her case to the European Court of Justice. Matthews claims she was forced off the panel because of her Christian beliefs, and argues that her opposition to gay adoption is based on her medical opinion, which she says should take precendence over the equality laws:
“I understand that legislation permits same sex couples to adopt and they are positively encouraged to apply, but I have professional concerns, based on educational and psychological evidence, of the influences on children growing up in homosexual households and I feel this is not the best possible option for a child.”
 The case will sound very familiar to those used to reading about the Christian Legal Centre's frequent court battles against what they allege to be the increased marginalisation of Christian beliefs, but what's particularly striking about this story is a startling statement by the CLC's Barrister and CEO, Andrea Minichiello Williams:
"It cannot be right that a doctor of such standing is forced from her role on an adoption panel, just because of her professional and Christian views. Much of the population, and many studies, would agree with her professional and personal standpoint. Most professional opinion on this issue happens to fit closely with the Christian view. Yet Christians are being increasingly excluded from the public square and this can no longer go unnoticed."
So, apparently "much of the population" are against gay adoption. Surely that would come as news to the millions of people Williams appears to be speaking on behalf of? And that's without even getting into her claim regarding "most professional opinion". It'd certainly be nice to see her evidence...

Update: As eChurch Blog points out, this is not the first time Dr Matthews has been in court over a clash between her ethical views and her medical responsibilities. In 1999 she was sued, unsuccessfully, by a woman who claimed she had told her it was too late, at 14-and-a-half weeks, to have an abortion.

Dawkins reads out his hatemail

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Via the Friendly Atheist, I enjoyed watching this video of Richard Dawkins answering questions posed by users of Reddit.com, which ends with a sublime couple of minutes of him reading out some of the hatemail he receives from opponents. Have a watch - his answers to the questions about evolution, genetics and religion are very interesting, but if you find that all too demanding for a Monday morning, the fireside hatemail reading begins after 11 mins 30secs. It's worth it, if only to hear the Professor read the line "I read your book about the Bible - it is [sic] totally sucks ass". Enjoy.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Is Paganism a dangerous cult? The Daily Mail investigates...

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Paganism: an artist's impression
You may remember that the other week, in a bout of Biblical correctness gone mad, the Christian Legal Centre complained about the BBC's coverage of pagan Halloween celebrations, branding it unhealthy to present them as "mainstream" (I'm sure you won't miss the irony of those words coming from an organisation that is hardly "mainstream" itself).

Luckily for us all, the Daily Mail's "Femail", Britain's least women-friendly women's supplement, is on the case, and looking to inject some sense into the issue by posing the question "Pagans are on the march - but are they harmless eccentrics or a dangerous cult?" Of course, at that point most of us would simply answer "the former" and move on, but that's why we're not editing tabloid newspapers. Instead we get an almost-2,000 word article, which begins with a photo of a near-naked woman (for the mouthpiece of Britain's conservative moral conscience, the Mail is rather partial to photos of scantily-clad women) kneeling on a pentacle in front of some fire, with Mike Judge of the Christian Institute telling us that acceptance of Paganism is "political correctness gone mad". "What have pagans ever done?" he asks. "Historically, they produce unstable, violent societies – is that what we want?" Ah yes, because there's the crux of the issue – there's never been any violence in Christian societies, but if we become too accepting of pagans in Britain they'll take over like the Vikings tried to and organise our society around hitting each other with axes or something..

What follows is mostly lots of evidence for pagans being, yes, harmless eccentrics, but the occasional line seems designed to wake the discerning Mail reader from their slumber. Should we worry that "a young girl clutching a teddy" was seen at the Weymouth Samhain (Halloween) celebrations, we're asked, before a historian tells us we shouldn't. But then, things get truly scary:
"Astonishingly, around 100 members of the Armed Forces now classify themselves as pagans, and a further 30 as witches."
That's right – 0.0337% of Britain's armed forces (0.0006685% if we only count regulars) are pagans or witches. Astonishing. With paganism spreading at those incredible rates, there must be someone to blame?
"So why are Britons reaching out to ancient divinities? Is paganism filling a spiritual void left by the marginalisation of Christianity?"
Yes, you guessed it. Secularism is to blame. Do you see what happens when you marginalise Christianity? 33 out of every 100,000 of your soldiers end up being a pagan. But we still haven't got our heads around the issue – the historian tells us they're harmless, a Church of England spokesperson refuses to comment, and someone from the Cult Information Centre suggests some pagans are brainwashing people. How can we possibly make a clear judgement amidst such conflicting opinions? As the Daily Mail writer knows, there's only place we can turn to:
"Keen to find out more about the pagans in our midst, I post messages on several pagan social networking sites on the internet."
Good old Facebook to the rescue. But the people on there seem to think pagans are fairly harmless. So who to give the last word to in all this? Probably best to find a proper, sinister-sounding witch:
"I belong to a coven in Cornwall. We do hold moots in graveyards. Paganism demands that we find the bones of our ancestors in order to commune with their spirits. We drink the ancient honey beer mead, and carry out midnight vigils, dancing round the graves. Sometimes we’ll have the Stag Lord there, with his antlers, representing the Celtic divinity. Believe me, paganism is going from strength to strength in Britain. It will take over as newer religions like Christianity die out."
So a dangerous cult, then. Glad we got to the bottom of that. Now if only I could find out if paganism causes cancer...

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Your chance to save the world using your mind or something

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Many of you, I'm sure, will associate 11/11 with Armistice Day, and an opportunity to honour those who have served in conflicts past and present. But did you know that, this year, it's an opportunity to save the world for the future too? Because:
"On 11-11, 2010, one million people across the globe will mentally project a unified vision of a new paradigm for our species... a new reality.  The very real physics that connects human consciousness with molecular structure will be harnessed en masse during the largest scale simultaneous manifestation transmission in recorded history."
What? Are you saying that doesn't make sense? You should take your enquiries to the New Reality Transmission (follow the "Learn More" links on the site), who say that all thinking positive thoughts (this is what it seems to amount to) at some point today at the same time will help us avert "2012 cataclysms" (they mean the End of the World, I think, rather than the Olympics) and bring about "a new age of harmony for our species". And "a growing body of scientific studies from around the world confirms that these spiritual ideas may have a firm theoretical ground in physics", so it's backed up by science, right?

Sadly, it's happening at 11:11pm Eastern Time in the US, so most of us Brits will be in bed and unable to help. 2012 cataclysm it is, then...

Adnan Oktar: pundit for hire?

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We like to keep tabs on our old friend Adnan Oktar, AKA Harun Yahya, so we were pleased to come across this recent offering from his website. Clearly not content with running his very own creationist sex cult, he seems to have taken to offering up commentary on celebrity relationships. In a bizarre video, we see Oktar tell us what he thinks of an agreement between Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt on who would look after their children if they separated.

Next week: Cheryl or Dannii? Oktar on the X Factor fashion wars.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Another push for the Libel Reform campaign

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The Libel Reform campaign, which published its report Free Speech Is Not For Sale a year ago, is encouraging bloggers to help with a fresh push to add names to the petition for reform, which currently has 53,000 signatures. It's been a successful year for the campaign, with Britain's illiberal libel laws gaining more prominence in the national debate and all three parties committing to reform during the election campaign earlier in the year. The coalition government now plans to announce a Draft Defamation bill in the New Year, and renewed pressure from the Libel Reform campaign could help ensure that the bill goes far enough.

Science writer and libel survivor Simon Singh is spearheading the campaign, and he's asking bloggers to help spread the word and drive the petition forward. Here's a message from him:
The Mass Libel Reform Blog – Fight for Free Speech!

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition.

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.
If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.
We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform.
Simon Singh
So there you have it – do join in and spread the word, and add your name to the petition if you haven't already.

Bible proves there's no need to worry about climate change, says US congressman running for key energy chair

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Noah: God told him it was a one-off
One of the likely knock-on effects of last week's Republican victory in the US mid-term elections is that the impetus for the US to take firm action against global warming will dwindle even more than it already has in the year since last year's failed Copenhagen summit. Quite how much it dwindles remains to be seen, but it seems fair to assume that the environmental cause would not be boosted if Illionois Republican congressman John Shimkus manages to secure the position of chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

As Salon point out, Shimkus has previously stated in Congress that the words of God to Noah in the Book of Genesis indicate that climate change is nothing to worry about:
Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though all inclinations of his heart are evil from childhood and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done.

As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.
 That passage (Genesis 8, verses 21-22), Shimkus told a congressional hearing in March 2009, shows that we can all relax:
"I believe that is the infallible word of god, and that's the way it is going to be for his creation... The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood."
As Salon say, this would almost be funny, if Shimkus wasn't running for a position where he could play a key role in determining US government energy policy. He's up against several other prominent Republicans, so watch this space (and perhaps check the Bible for signs that he won't succeed).

Here's the video from March last year.

Humanist advertising campaign launches in America

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The American Humanist Association yesterday launched the largest atheist advertising campaign in history, with $200,000 going towards billboards and bus banners in major cities, as well as newspaper, magazine and TV advertisements throughout the country. The campaign, called "Consider Humanism", juxtaposes quotes from religious texts with quotes by well-known humanists.

For instance, on the subject of violence, the AHA campaign compares the following:
Islam: I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.” Qur'an (8:12)

Humanism: “The American Humanist Association, in support of the creation of a global community, affirms the aim of avoiding the use and distortion of creeds, beliefs, ideologies, and worldviews as a justification for violence (or even for the threat of violence) in pursuit of a goal” AHA Resolution on Global Community and International Affairs, 2008
 And on women's rights, these two quotes are contrasted:
The Bible: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” I Timothy 2 (New International Version)

Humanism: “The rights of men and women should be equal and sacred—marriage should be a perfect partnership.” Robert Ingersoll, in a letter dated April 13, 1878
The AHA acknowledges that the chosen quotes are examples of the more extreme statements contained in religious texts, as the campaign is intended as a challenge to religious fundaemtalism, as its executive director Roy Speckhardt explains:
“It’s important that people recognize that a literal reading of religious texts is completely out of touch with mainstream America. Although religious texts can teach good lessons, they also advocate fear, intolerance, hate and ignorance. It’s time for all moderate people to stand up against conservative religion’s claim on a moral monopoly.”
In addition to all the other exposure, a TV ad airs during major national news programme NBC Dateline this Friday, November 12, so the campaign is sure to become a talking point across the Atlantic. What do you think of it? Is it likely to have an impact? Will the religious claim offence? Are they right to focus on extreme quotes from religious texts? How does it compare to the humanist advertising campaigns we've had here in the UK, which posed less of a direct challenge to religion?

As ever, thoughts appreciated in the comments.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

One more cup of coffee for the road?

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Coffee: anti-gay marriage
You'll likely have seen the news yesterday that five Church of England bishops are to resign and convert to Catholicism, on account of what one of the five, Bishop Newton, describes as the Church of England "more lax attitude towards moral issues: the whole question of blessing gay marriage ... abortion, and life and death issues".

It is, of course, a further sign of the extent to which the Anglican communion is tearing itself apart over issues like gay marriage and female clergy, as well as the suitability of the Catholic Church for those opposed to liberalising reforms (the bishops are taking the Vatican up on an offer it made to disaffected Anglicans last year). 

But what really struck me about the story was the bizarre coffee-based simile used by one of the defectors, Bishop Burnham, to describe his soon-to-be-former employer:
“The Church of England has decided that it can make its own mind up about what it can do. There are signs it is forgetting and losing a sense of where it came from. If Costa Coffee, every time you went to a branch, did something different and you didn’t know what the product was, they would go out of business. We have got to the stage now in the Church of England where there are so many different products that you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
 I don't know about you, but I absolutely insist upon the proscription of gay marriage with my mid-morning espresso...