Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A special Christmas message from Richard Wiseman, from backstage at Nine Lessons

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Here, in the latest of our videos from backstage at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, psychologist Richard Wiseman has a special festive message for all you viewers out there:

He's only joking, of course. Or is he....?

Catch up with all our other videos from backstage on our YouTube channel.

Science on tour: Robin Ince's Uncaged Monkeys, with Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh

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Brian Cox on stage at Nine Lessons
and Carols for Godless People 2009
If you've missed this year's Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows, or you're crying out for more, then you may be pleased to hear that Robin Ince is taking a science show, Uncaged Monkeys, on tour in May, featuring Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh. Here are the dates:

Sun 3rd April 2011 Glasgow King's Theatre

Sun 1st May 2011 Oxford New Theatre
Mon 2nd May 2011 Ipswich Regent
Tue 3rd May 2011 Nottingham Concert Hall

Thur 5th May 2011 Birmingham Alexandra Theatre
Fri 6th May 2011 Manchester Apollo
Sat 7th May 2011 Newcastle City Hall
Sun 8th May 2011 Aberdeen Music Hall
Mon 9th May 2011 Cardiff St David’s Hall

Wed 11th May 2011 Cambridge Corn Exchange
Thur 12th May 2011 Bristol Colston Hall
Fri 13th May 2011 Basingstoke Anvil
Sat 14th May 2011 Edinburgh onefifty at EICC
Sun 15th May 2011 Reading Hexagon
Mon 16th May 2011 London Hammersmith Apollo
Tue 17th May 2011 LONDON Hammersmith Apollo EXTRA DATE
Tickets are on sale now via the venues. It's sure to prove popular, so book now to avoid disappointment.

Should atheists be talking to believers?

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Around the time of the Pope's visit to the UK, I wrote a couple of posts on here (notably this and this) in which  I questioned the tone of the Protest the Pope campaign and the debate around Catholicism and the Pope. As I expected, it divided opinion – some people shared my concerns, while others felt anger and indignation were entirely appropriate responses to the actions of the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy.

An unexpected outcome of my posts was an invitation from the Central London Humanist Group to take part in a small round table discussion with representatives of Catholic Voices, an organisation set up to argue the Catholic case during the Papal Visit. Having wondered whether the differences between humanists and the religious could be debated in a calmer manner, it seemed like an interesting offer, so I agreed. I wanted to see how such an event might work, and whether it would feel like a useful exercise. All we did was debate some areas of disagreement – condoms, gay adoption and faith schools – for a couple of hours, then have a drink before going our separate ways. It was interesting but, while I planned to write something for our new issue, and it got a mention in the Catholic Herald, I expected that to be the end of it. I certainly didn't expect it to prove controversial, and I was surprised when Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society singled me out for criticism in a piece on their website entitled "The Vatican will not changed by persuasion, it has to be forced".
"Mr Sims is the kind of humanist who likes to compliment himself on being “moderate”, on taking the “middle ground” and not being one of the “aggressive atheists” of which his holiness so strongly disapproves.

He doesn’t like people being disrespectful to those they oppose. He is obviously of the opinion that something can be achieved by debating and negotiating with Catholic Voices. What exactly is to be achieved is not quite clear, because talking to the head of Opus Dei about any prospect of “change” in cruel Vatican teachings is an activity surely worthy of King Canute."
Leaving aside the fact that, while I do perhaps have opinions you could call "moderate", I don't tend to go around complimenting myself on them, what struck me about this was the suggestion that talking to believers in this way is a waste of time, and possibly counterproductive. I've responded to this with a piece in the new issue of New Humanist, in which I suggest that, while dialogue between believers and non-believers may not necessarily lead to concrete change on the big issues, talking to each other cordially (I explore the idea of "civility", which has been pursued in other contexts, such as dialogue over Israel-Palestine) might just help both sides to better understand where the other is coming from, and maybe even help to cultivate possible areas of agreement.

If you could find a few minutes to go and read what I have to say, I'd be very interested to hear what you think. I know that many of you will disagree, but, in my opinion, therein lies the strength of humanism – it's in no way a homogeneous "movement" that sticks to a party line. We all have different ideas about where we stand on religion and the changes we'd like to see to bring about a fairer, more secular society, and we're generally eager to debate them.

Indeed, we like to think we provide you with a wide range of viewpoints in New Humanist. Take the current issue – if you don't like my "accomodationism" (I'll call myself one, thereby pre-empting the first commenter to do so), read of Ophelia Benson's review of Karen Armstrong's new book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Would it surprise you to learn she didn't like it?

Monday, 20 December 2010

More Godless video treats – Ed Byrne and Chris Addison

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In this season of excessive consumption, we're really spoiling you with our backstage videos from the Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows, which have two more nights (21 and 22 December) of their seven night run to complete (today's our day off). Uploaded since I last blogged on Saturday are videos of Chris Addison, who was looking forward to addressing our peaceful godless audience on what is usually the toughest night of the year for stand-ups (think pre-Christmas drunken audiences), Adam Rutherford, who talks about his annual trip to church with his family on Christmas day, and Ed Byrne, who we were delighted to welcome to his first ever performance at the Nine Lessons shows. Here's his video:

The good news for anyone with tickets to the remaining two shows is that Ed is coming back to those, so you can look forward to that. Here are the line-ups for the remaining two (and the first five, which are now, of course, events of Godless Christmas past).

Look out for more videos by checking back here, following us on Twitter (@NewHumanist) and keeping up to date with our YouTube channel, where you can view everything we've uploaded so far, including all the videos from last year. As well as those mentioned above, so far this year we've had Al Murray, Richard Herring, Josie Long, Ben Goldacre and Mitch Benn. Still to come we have Stewart Lee, Robin Ince, Nick Doody, Jim Bob and many more. Hope you're enjoying them.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Al Murray backstage at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

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Snowed in? Why not make yourself a nice hot drink and sit back and enjoy our exclusive backstage videos from Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, which we're leaking out to you over the next few days. So far we've had Ben Goldacre, Richard Herring, Adam Rutherford, Josie Long and Al Murray, who talks about his interest in humanist issues, including the Protest the Pope campaign, as well as his new BBC Four documentary series about Germany. Here he is:

Watch this space for more videos in the coming days (or follow us on Twitter). Also, for anyone with tickets for the show tonight, rest assured that the show will go on despite the weather.

(All vids by Nathalie McDermott)

Friday, 17 December 2010

Exclusive backstage video from Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People

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We're about to head off to the third night of this year's Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, but just before we do we're delighted to be able to bring you the first two of our videos from backstage at London's Bloomsbury Theatre, recorded by the brilliant Nathalie McDermott (@natmc on Twitter).

We have loads of videos in the bag, which we'll Wikileak out over the course of the next few days, but to get you started we have comedian Richard Herring taking on the minor issue of the reality of love, and Ben Goldacre, who Nathalie grabbed fresh from the stage, where he'd just delivered what he claims will be one of his final rants about his arch poo-lady nemesis, the TV I'm-A-Celebrity jungle nutritionist Gillian McKeith. Asked where he stands on taking the Christ out of Christmas, Ben delivers a few lines that we may just have to adopt as our seasonal message:
"I'm fine with Christ in Christmas. I'm glad of Christ in Christmas. I never really understood the anti-God thing, and that kind of stuff. Secular, yeah. I'd like to take Christ out of government, I'd like to take Christ out of policy and politics, but I'd never, ever like to take Christ out of Christmas."
If only the likes of the Daily Mail, Eric Pickles and Lord Carey would take that on board!

Here's the video, for your viewing pleasure. Watch this space (or keep checking us on Twitter @NewHumanist or directly on our YouTube channel) for more videos in the coming days, featuring Al Murray, Stewart Lee, Ed Byrne, Josie Long, Mitch Benn and many more.

Baba Brinkman DVD recording on Monday

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Rapper Baba Brinkman, who is currently appearing each night at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, has asked us to let you know about a special show he's doing in London on Monday 20 December, when he will be recording a DVD of his Edinburgh shows from this year, The Rap Guide to Human Nature and Rapconteur (you can find out more about both shows on his website, and read a review of the Human Nature show here).

The show is at the Alley Cat on Denmark Street (tube: Tottenham Ct Rd), 6-9pm, and tickets are £10. Full details on the Facebook event page.

For those of you who've never seen Baba, check out this video of him performing his Rap Guide to Evolution at last year's Nine Lessons.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Bad Faith Award 2010 - who took the crown?

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Almost 7,000 of you voted in our poll to choose this year's winner of our annual Bad Faith Award, which goes to the person deemed to have made the most outstanding contribution to the cause of unreason in the past 12 months. It was a tight poll - the top two were separated by only a handful of votes, but we can now announce who won. Step forward Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, head of the UK Islamic Sharia Council, for suggesting in an interview with the Samosa blog that rape cannot be committed within marriage.

Take a look at the article from our new issue to read more, and see how the other candidates fared.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Out tomorrow: Jan/Feb issue with *free* Godless Christmas DVD

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We've just taken delivery of the January/February issue of New Humanist, which comes with a very special free gift – a one-hour DVD of comedy, science and music recorded at the very first run of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People in 2008, featuring Robin Ince, Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Richard Herring and many more.

The issue hits the newsstands tomorrow, 16 December, and will be on sale in over 1,300 stores around the UK, including selected branches of WH Smiths and independent newsagents. You can find details of where to buy a copy on our distribution page. The DVD is also on its way to all subscribers, and will be given to new subscribers while stocks last (along with God Trump, making a gift subscription the perfect Christmas present for heathen friends and family) - you can subscribe easily online for just £21 a year.

There's plenty to get stuck into in the new issue – why are we so fascinated by the monster myth, should we talk to believers, is love a dangerous delusion, and much more – but in the spirit of the times we've leaked one of our favourites on to our site to get you started. To mark the forthcoming 25th anniversary of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard's death, we threw Michael Bywater a stack of his books and asked him to tell us what made the flame-haired prophet tick. As you will see, it was an interesting experience – here's a sample:
"So what’s egregious about Dianetics? Never mind that it’s bollocks. We’ve dealt with that. Why is it more bollocks than Christianity? Why is it such a mad idea that we are actually the – I’ve probably got this wrong but it’s late and because of reading Dianetics I think I may have gone mad – invisible spirits of Thetans from a different galaxy, struggling with an accretion of spiritual vegetative matter which needs to be removed with constant application of money and a thing called an e-meter which doesn’t actually do anything except cost over $4,000, which is a pretty good return on a sort of Wheatstone bridge made from around £20-worth of components you could get from Maplin? And when that’s all done, you’re in the clear and can go on to some kind of new life."
The answers, to some extent, await you in the full piece. Enjoy.

On the first day of Godless Christmas...

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Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, our now-annual rational Christmas extravaganza, returns tonight for a sold out seven night run at London's Bloomsbury Theatre, featuring nightly performances from Robin Ince, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman and Jo Neary, with special guests including Al Murray, Richard Herring, Chris Addison, Josie Long, Alan Moore and many more (see the full line-up for a nightly guide to who's on).

For those of you wondering what Nine Lessons is all about, or to help get you in the mood if you're coming to a show, we recommend reading Stephanie Merritt's excellent piece on the rise of rational, sceptical comedy from our November/December issue, in which she speaks to Robin Ince, Josie Long and Al Murray about comedy's response to pseudoscience and unreason.

We'll be working backstage at this week's shows to bring you some exclusive video content from the performers – take a look at our YouTube channel to watch the videos from last year's shows. As a preview, here's our interview with Robin Ince at end of the final show last year:

Watch this space for updates and video content throughout Nine Lessons, which runs from 15-22 December, and be sure to follow us on Twitter (@NewHumanist) if that's your thing. If you are using Twitter at Nine Lessons, please add the #GodlessChristmas tag.

Also, if you're attending, look out for us in the lobby, where you'll be able to buy a copy of our latest issue, which comes with a free one-hour DVD of the 2008 shows. We'll also be handing out leaflets for our special prize draw, in which the first prize is a meal for two at London's famous Gay Hussar, at which cartoonist Martin Rowson will come along and draw you and your companion while you eat, with you keeping the finished artwork. Quite a prize, we're sure you'll agree, so be sure to pick up a flyer at the theatre.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Debunking Winterval and the War on Christmas

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During his UK visit, the Pope repeated the myth
of the War on Christmas
Kevin Arscott, who writes the Angry Mob blog (one of the several excellent blogs concerned with debunking the tabloid press, in particular the Daily Mail) has just published an extended essay in which he traces the origins of the "Winterval" myth, and how it developed into the now-annual narrative of a "War on Christmas" waged against Christianity in the name of multiculturalism and political correctness.

Arscott shows how the myth has been constantly repeated and distorted by the national and local media over the past decade, with even government ministers getting involved, despite having very little basis in reality. It's a lengthy essay, but it's worth reading as it will hopefully serve as definitive evidence that there is not a concerted effort each Christmas to "air-brush the Christian faith out of the picture", as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey suggested recently. And as Arscott points out in his conclusion, debunking tabloid myths such as Winterval is important, as they are part of a wider pattern of disinformation and scapegoating in the tabloids:
"It is important to remember Winterval – even if the myth now dies off – as an example of what a poorly-regulated, agenda-driven media can do with a simple concept. If the media are prepared to repeat, as fact, something that was so blatantly a complete lie right from the beginning, then imagine that they apply the same treatment to a huge amount of the stories that feed into the same narratives. The stories about 'Cafe owners being forced to remove extractor fan '”because smell of frying bacon offends Muslims”' or swimming pools being blacked out to appease Muslims are just two examples of the myriad of stories that are based on shameless lies. Like Winterval they will live-on as complete untruth not only because the tabloid press will repeat them, but also because they have already entered the consciousness of those that want to believe that Muslims really are trying to take over Britain" 
 The essay is available to download as a PDF via Arscott's blog.

Is this man set to become a free speech martyr?

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I suspect I'm not the only person experiencing a spot of far-right hatemonger déjà vu on account of the news that the (not-quite) Qur'an burning Florida pastor Terry Jones may be prevented from making a planned visit to Britain next February. The home secretary, Theresa May, has said she is "actively looking" at the possibility of banning Jones, who is scheduled to address as meeting of the anti-Muslim far-right English Defence League in Luton, which, as the Guardian reports, she has the power to do if Jones' "presence in the UK could threaten national security, public order or the safety of citizens, or if she believes his views glorify terrorism, promote violence or encourage other serious crime."

We have, of course, been here before when, in 2009, the then home secretary Jacqui Smith banned the far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders from visiting the UK to attend a screening of his anti-Muslim film Fitna at the House of Lords, at the invitation of UKIP peer Lord Pearson of Ranoch. The ban on Wilders, which was later overturned, proved highly controversial even among those who oppose his politics, as it was viewed by some as an attack on freedom of expression. The Home Office stated that Wilders' visit would "threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK", but opponents of the ban argued that as long as he wasn't threatening or inciting violence, he had the right to come here and express his views, however distasteful they may be.

The visit of Terry Jones presents a similar problem. He says he is coming to talk about "the evils of Islam", which is something, as we see with the EDL, is something people are legally entitled to do. But the argument for banning Jones does seem stronger than that for banning Wilders last year, as EDL rallies have a history of turning violent. In a petition to the home secretary, the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate make a convincing case for preventing the visit:
"...Pastor Jones wants to give a speech attacking Islam at an EDL rally in Luton. The EDL emerged in Luton in May 2009 and its first demonstration ended with 250 people going on the rampage through a predominantly Asian area of the town. Since then it has become a national organisation and is the single biggest threat to social cohesion in this country today.

Pastor Terry Jones’s presence in Luton will be incendiary and highly dangerous. He will attract and encourage thousands of EDL supporters to take to the streets, and cause concern and fear among Muslims across the country. Only extremists will benefit from his visit and, as we know, extremism breeds hatred and hatred breeds violence. For these reasons we are asking you to prevent Pastor Terry Jones from entering the UK."
Speaking to the Today programme this morning, Jones himself protests that he has no intention of inciting violence, saying that he would come bearing a "positive message" (his definition of "positive message" would appear to differ from most people's). Meanwhile, on Comment is Free, John Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham and a seasoned anti-fascist campaigner, argues in favour of a ban:
"The refusal to ban the pastor of a hitherto obscure church with a following of fewer than 50 people does not represent a mortal blow to the debate about the merits of Islam. How many people can quote a single sermon of Jones's? How many can recount a single innovative theological, political or social contribution from him on this issue? Jones has nothing to offer except lighter fuel and malign intent.

But we know what sits on the other side of the debit sheet. Mass disorder. Communities divided on racial and religious lines. Intolerance. Violence. Entire towns rent asunder. Over the top? Just ask those people who live and work in those communities where the EDL roadshow has already rolled into town. They'll tell you. And they'll tell you what they think of the idea of a repeat appearance with Jones in tow."
It's a difficult issue – on the one hand, a combination of the EDL and the man who made the headlines worldwide for threatening to burn the Qur'an, speaking in a town with a large Muslim population, does seem like a recipe for trouble. On the other, it's hard to avoid the feeling that Theresa May would be giving Jones the publicity he craves by excluding him, making him a free speech martyr for those that share his extremist views. Is it not better to just let him come, on the logic that he will make far fewer headlines, and be denied the status of the silenced messenger, that way? He's already had far more publicity than he deserves on account of his aborted Qur'an burning stunt – do we really want to be giving him more on this side of the Atlantic?

But then again, if Jones comes to Luton and there is some serious trouble, then he and the EDL will make even more headlines, and the home secretary will have to explain why she didn't take the opportunity to stop it in the first place.

Not quite sure where I stand on this one – I'd be very interested to hear what people think. Please share your views in the comments.

Friday, 10 December 2010

L Ron Hubbard panto to play in Scientology's backyard

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A scene from the American Stage Theatre Company's
production of A Very Merry Unauthorized
Children's Scientology Pageant
It's Christmas, which means it's panto season. But while here in the UK we're stuck with Aladdin and Cinderella, the lucky people of St Petersburg, Florida can enjoy a production of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, a satire on the life of L Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology, by Kyle Jarrow and Alex Timbers, that first ran off-Broadway in 2003.

As 2003 pre-dates my own interest in the wacky world of Scientology, I'm sorry to say I had no knowledge of the play, so imagine how much I enjoyed reading all about it just now, with the added bonus of the fact that it is to be staged in a theatre just down the road from Scientology's Clearwater headquarters. The production is the work of St Petersburg's American Stage Theatre Company, and a quick look at their site provides a helpful synopsis of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant:
"A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant begins with six children gathering on a cold winter night to rejoice in telling the story of L. Ron Hubbard during their holiday pageant. A narrator notes, 'Today we relate the life of L. Ron Hubbard: Teacher, author, explorer, atomic physicist, nautical engineer, choreographer, horticulturist and father of Scientology!' And so begins what Variety called, 'A breezy one-hour show that is equal parts adorable and creepy, hilarious and unsettling, making it way more compelling than your average holiday entertainment.' Learn about Scientology and its creator in musical form, including special appearances by many of the churches greatest practitioners as puppets and the possible arrival of the almighty Xenu himself."
Sounds like fun, doesn't it. It certainly beats seeing that guy who used to play that guy in Emmerdale dressed up as Widow Twankey. But, I hear you cry, how on earth did the fiercely-litigious Church of Scientology allow it to happen? Well, I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that they tried their best to stop it. Forgive me if for once I allow Wikipedia, that "Wiki-" of more innocent times, to explain:
"Early in the production of the play, John Carmichael, president of the Church of Scientology in New York, found out that a theatrical production involving Scientology was in the works. After showing up unannounced to a rehearsal, Carmichael sent a letter to the play's New York producer, Aaron Lemon-Strauss, citing his concerns at the possibility of being ridiculed. In the letter, Carmichael also pointed out the church's many past lawsuits. Alex Timbers was quoted as saying: "We've been told that the letter is a precursor to a lawsuit." Carmichael visited the artistic staff a total of three times to voice his concerns before the play's debut. After this occurrence, Jarrow and Timbers' attorneys advised them to insert the word "Unauthorized" into the title of the play. This was done to avoid potential litigation from the Church of Scientology. In an interview with The New York Times, Carmichael later stated: 'These folks have a right to write whatever play they want... but they've sunk to clichés'."
Excellent. And now, as the St Petersburg Times reports, the American Stage company are looking forward to performing it on Scientology's home turf. Artistic director Todd Olson explains:
"I'm not religious myself. I'm not vested one way or another. But I do think it's a healthy sign if we can talk about these things in an artistic and a theatrical way and hold the mirror up to things and look at them in a lighter sense. We should be able to laugh at ourselves no matter who we are."
Well said, sir. And if this has piqued your interest in the crazy world of Scientology, you'll be pleased to hear our forthcoming Jan/Feb issue features the inimitable Michael Bywater marking the 25th anniversary of L Ron's death. That's on sale next Thursday, 16 December.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Anonymous, Wikileaks and the age of online activism

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Anonymous activists turn out to protest against
Scientology in London in 2008
It's interesting to see that a group of hackers calling themselves "Anonymous" have launched attacks on Visa and Mastercard, in what they say is an act of revenge for the companies' refusal to take payments on behalf of the controversial Wikileaks site. The hackers, as part of what they are calling "Operation Payback", launched DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks against the sites and succeeded in disrupting some of their online services, although a statement from Mastercard said "There is no impact on our cardholders' ability to use their cards for secure transactions globally." Anonymous have threatened to target other companies that have withheld their services from Wikileaks – the payment service Paypal stopped transactions for the site last week and has experienced DDoS attacks – and have suggested they might attack Twitter, alleging that it has censored the hashtag #WikiLeaks, although this has been denied by the social networking site. Twitter has, however, suspended one of the accounts used by Operation Payback, which the BBC suggested this may be a related to a message that linked to credit card details.

While Anonymous has been involved in numerous online activities since it emerged in 2006-7 – ranging from pranks such as "YouTube Porn Day" (basically uploading porn to YouTube) to support for the Iranian election protests in 2009 – it is best known for its campaign against the Church of Scientology, which began in 2008. Beginning with DDoS attacks on Scientology websites, the campaign expanding from an internet hacking operation to physical protests outside Scientology centres around the world, with hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of masked protesters turning out at the peak of the campaign.

The whole point of Anonymous is that it is ultimately a label for a leaderless, loosely-coordinated collection of activists – it doesn't exist as an organisation, there is no membership in the traditional sense and there are no clearly-defined aims. (Today's Daily Mail calls Anonymous "a shadowy international group", which displays a real lack of understanding.) Those involved can range from pranksters and hackers in it for the sport, to highly-principled activists. Anyone can get involved and say that they are doing what they are doing on behalf of "Anonymous".

But if there is one unifying principle for those calling themselves Anonymous, it is internet freedom. Reporting on a London protest against Scientology in 2008, I found a strange mixture of principle and pranks among those in attendance, but the one idea that seemed to bind them together was free speech. The initial DDoS attacks on Scientology websites had begun as a result of the Church's removal of leaked videos from YouTube (you may recall the now-infamous Tom Cruise video), and anger over internet censorship had spread to those protesting on the streets, with one masked activist telling me:
“What really got me was when the cult of Scientology tried to censor what people were putting on YouTube. Freedom of speech is the thing that makes the internet what it is, so that pissed me off enough to do a bit of research and realise that I can help destroy an evil cult and have some fun at the same time.”
It is here that we can begin to trace the connection with Wikileaks, as some of the now-notorious site's early activity involved the leaking of documents considered highly sensitive by the secretive Church of Scientology, including details of the high-level training courses that cost members hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Wikileaks and Anonymous, then, are natural allies. Indeed, you could perhaps go so far as to say they are part of the same movement (it would be interesting to know how far there is a crossover between those involved). While Wikileaks has a figurehead in the form of Julian Assange, as he pointed out in his Q and A with Guardian readers last week, the site is founded on the principle of anonymity:
"This is an interesting question. I originally tried hard for the organisation to have no face, because I wanted egos to play no part in our activities. This followed the tradition of the French anonymous pure mathematians, who wrote under the collective allonym, "The Bourbaki". However this quickly led to tremendous distracting curiosity about who and random individuals claiming to represent us. In the end, someone must be responsible to the public and only a leadership that is willing to be publicly courageous can genuinely suggest that sources take risks for the greater good. In that process, I have become the lightening rod. I get undue attacks on every aspect of my life, but then I also get undue credit as some kind of balancing force."
As Scientology has found in its battle with Anonymous, it is extremely difficult to tackle a faceless, web-based adversary – the time-honoured tactic of suing critics was of no use without names or faces to attribute to those new adversaries. Governments are now experiencing the same problems with Wikileaks – US public figures such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, who have focussed on the perceived need to silence Assange, show a profound misunderstanding of the new online activism. Whatever happens to Assange as a result of his recent arrest, it is unlikely to affect the flow of documents from Wikileaks, because it does not exist in the same form as the traditional state or organisational actors that pervade the worldview of someone like Sarah Palin.

Whatever your view of the "Cablegate" saga and the ethics of Wikileaks, it is clear that this form of activism is here to stay. While "Anonymous" can be connected to concrete campaigns such as the Scientology protests, or the DDoS attacks on Mastercard and Visa, to view it as a kind of "organisation" or "movement" in the traditional sense misses the point entirely. It is perhaps best understood as an "idea" – that the internet, as a domain of free-flowing, uncensored information (which is to be protected at all costs) can be used by disparate, at best loosely connected, individuals to undermine powerful state and corporate actors behind an unprecedented cloak of anonymity. It is a powerful idea (one that Wikileaks is a part of), and it remains to be seen how the states and organisations of the old world will be able to adapt to it.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Merry Christmas, everyone

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The sign translates as "we reject Satan and all his works and
all his empty promises"
Danish pastor John Knudsen, who runs the Løkken Free Church in Vendsyssel, has a bit of a problem with elves, which he says are “poltergeists that come from the devil and make children sick”. Therefore, he has done what any sensible person in his situation would, and hanged one of Santa's Little Helpers (in effigy, presumably he was too slow to catch a real one) from the roof of his church, along with a sign reading “we reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises”.

That pesky Satan and his empty promises... Anyway, this is a tough one for we secular sorts - we're supposed to be waging a War on Christmas, and this looks a lot like an act of war against Christmas, but at the same time Knudsen is a Christian pastor who says he loves Christmas. Frankly, I just don't know what to think.

[Via @Heresy_Corner on Twitter]

Friday, 3 December 2010

Oh come on Stephen, surely even you can't be serious this time?

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What's affronting Stephen Green's moral conscience this week? A new mosque under construction in the dome of St Paul's? Satanist sacrifices on the spot where Thomas Beckett was martyred? Babies being declared gay by midwives the moment they exit the womb?

Actually. it's worse. Tesco are selling a Twilight advent calendar:
"It’s sickening to see the message of Jesus Christ being hijacked to peddle a brand like Twilight, which to all intents and purposes proclaims an anti-religious cult. Twilight may be fiction, but it is dangerous to mix-up such a story in the minds of impressionable children with that of the Nativity."
Oh, the humanity! Does this guy even believe what comes out of his own mouth any more? I'm seriously beginning to wonder whether, in the parlance of our times, he's simply in it for the lulz.

[With thanks to David Craggs for the tip off]

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People 2010: your nightly guide to who's appearing

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Many of you who are attending this year's run of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People at London's Bloomsbury Theatre have been asking who is performing on which nights. So here is the show-by-show breakdown, as it currently stands. However, as with previous runs of Nine Lessons, all details are subject to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Note also that the names are listed in no particular order – this isn't the running order.

If you are attending, and Twitter's your thing, the hashtag for this year will be the same as last - #GodlessChristmas. All shows are completely sold out (except Brighton Dome, 12 Dec), but there will be a certain number of standing tickets available each night – enquire at the Bloomsbury Theatre on the day about those.

Compère Robin Ince and the house band, Martin White's Mystery Brass Machine Orchestra, will be on stage each night, and there's the chance of special guests on some nights. Current line-ups as follows:

12 December (Brighton Dome): Chris Addison, Baba Brinkman, Dara O Briain, Isy Suttie, Matt Parker, Richard Herring, Simon Singh, Gavin Osborn, Josie Long, Jo Neary, Helen Arney, Stephen Grant, Frisky and Mannish

15th December: Al Murray, Josie Long, Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Helen Arney, Mitch Benn, Ed Byrne, Shappi Khorsandi, Adam Rutherford, Chris Cox, Richard Herring, Joanna Neary, Jim Bob, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Robyn Hitchcock, Nick Doody

16th December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Isy Suttie, Richard Herring, Helen Arney, Barry Cryer & Ronnie Golden, Josie Long, Jim al-Khalili, Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Wiseman

17th December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Isy Suttie, Richard Herring, Helen Arney, Josie Long, Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Wiseman

18th December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Isy Suttie, Richard Herring, Helen Arney, Josie Long, Frisky and Mannish, Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Wiseman

19th December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Isy Suttie, Josie Long, Gavin Osborn, Marcus du Sautoy

21st December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Alan Moore, Gavin Osborn, Peter Buckley-Hill, Mark Miodwnik, Lady Carol, BHA Choir, Josie Long, Marcus du Sautoy, Ed Byrne

22nd December: Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Chris Addison, Matt Parker, Baba Brinkman, Jo Neary, Alan Moore, Gavin Osborn, Peter Buckley-Hill, Mark Miodwnik, Lady Carol, Barry Cryer & Ronnie Golden, BHA Choir, Ed Byrne

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Bishop bashes Christian persecution complex

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Further to my previous post on former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey's ludicrous "Not Ashamed" campaign against the non-existent "War on Christmas" and other perceived acts of oppression against Christians in Britain, it's important to emphasise the fact that many Christians agree with secularists and humanists on these matters. Indeed, plenty of Christians online, such as the eChurch Blog blogger, for example, have been pointing out that they're, well, ashamed by the "Not Ashamed" campaign.

It was via eChurch Blog that I was alerted to an excellent contribution by the Bishop of Croydon, Nick Baines, to Channel 4's Thought-for-the-Day-alike TV slot 4Thought.tv, in which he points out that Christians are not a persecuted minority in the UK. If only some his colleagues, like Lord Carey and Michael Nazir-Ali, who is also supporting "Not Ashamed", would take his arguments on board.

Do take a moment to watch the Nick Baines video – it's a nice reminder that the "War and Christmas" and other such nonsense are generally, as I suggested in a comment on the earlier post, the preserve of tabloid rags and the more conservative fringes of British Christianity, who seem to have a wish to reclaim Christmas as something purely for Christians. In their eyes, loss of brand exclusivity appears to equal persecution.

War on Christmas: am I missing something?

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Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, along with the conservative Christian group Christian Concern (formerly Christian Concern For Our Nation) has launched a new campaign called "Not Ashamed", with the stated aim of helping "Christians respond to various challenges to the Christian foundation of our society, by being visible and vocal about our confidence in Jesus Christ". And what are those challenges? Allow the Daily Mail to explain:
"Britain has become ashamed of Christmas, former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey declared yesterday.

He said Christmas cards are censored, school nativity plays stripped of Christian content and Christmas decorations banned in the campaign to block the festival out of the calendar."
Censored Christmas cards. Banned Christmas decorations. Nativity plays stripped of content. What is this dystopian society in which we live? I must have dozed off for a while, as I appear to have missed its formation. (But then again, it is the curse of humanity to sleepwalk into our own oppression.)

Of course, the reason that I, along with many of you, I'm sure, have missed the foundation of totalitarian anti-Christian Britain is because nothing of the sort has happened. But try telling that to Lord Carey. He won't be letting this one drop any time soon:
"The attempt to air-brush the Christian faith out of the picture is especially obvious as Christmas approaches. The cards that used to carry Christmas wishes now bear “Season’s greetings”. The local school nativity play is watered down or disappears altogether. The local council switches on 'winter lights' in place of Christmas decorations. Even Christmas has become something of which some are ashamed. Do we really want to consign the Christian faith and the churches to the sidelines when they continue to give so much to our society? And do we really want to rebrand Christmas, empty it of its meaning, and ignore its significance for us today?"
But it isn't happening. When are campaigners like Carey – and members of the government like Eric Pickles – going to take a look around them and finally admit that there is no widespread movement to ban Christmas. Lots of non-religious people (I'd wager the majority) even quite like it. I know I do. Some might even (whisper it...) confess that they quite enjoy hearing the odd carol, and find the local nativity scene (yes they still exist) quite endearing. Sure, there are Season's Greetings cards and the like, but I guarantee that your local card shop will have plenty of religious ones too. It's called catering to a diverse market – Christmas is a Christian festival, yes, but it's also a mid-winter celebration (whose history stretches back to pagan times) that means lots of different things to lots of different people. But one thing we can all agree on is that it's an enjoyable time of year, whether you include the baby Jesus or not. Banning it would be a really bad (and quite frankly bizarre) thing to do.

In fact, can you all please just take a moment to vote in this poll. Would you like to ban the Christian version of Christmas? The result will be about as objective or convincing as any of the evidence Lord Carey, Eric Pickles and Christian Concern like to present for the so-called "War on Christmas", so perhaps once the scores are in we can offer it as definitive evidence that this clamp down on Christmas has no basis in reality.

Now, you'll have to excuse me for a moment. There's a star on top of the tree across the road that I need to go and destroy....

The author of the Angry Mob blog is currently compiling a dossier on the War on Christmas myth - I look forward to seeing that when it's finished.