Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Confused political statement of the week: Gingrich warns of atheist Islamist threat

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Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives who is said to be considering entering the race to be the Republicans' presidential candidate next year, used a speech at an evangelical church last weekend to warn of the greatest threat facing America in the coming decades – atheist Muslim extremists. Speaking at Pastor John Hagee's Texas megachurch (for a little sense of Hagee's credentials, see this piece), Gingrich told the congregation:
"I have two grandchildren - Maggie is 11, Robert is 9. I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."
An interesting notion, I'm sure you'll agree. By all means discuss it in the comments – I'd hang around myself, but we have a Caliphate Strategy Meeting in the New Humanist boardroom in half an hour.

Richard Dawkins: "in so far as the general public ever uses the word fact, evolution is one"

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Richard Dawkins (who, we should note, celebrated his 70th birthday over the weekend), is interviewed in a Q&A with the German magazine Spiegel, to mark the release of his book The Greatest Show on Earth in Germany, where it has been given the rather more confrontational title The Creation Lie: Why Darwin is Right.

It's well worth taking a look at the full interview, but one particular section stood out to us here in the New Humanist office, as Dawkins delivers the perfect response to the standard contention that evolution is only a theory:
"There was a time when people thought the world was flat. Then it became a hypothesis that the sun was the center of the universe, and then there was the hypothesis that even the sun was not the center of the universe. In the ordinary language sense of the word "fact," is it a fact that the earth orbits the sun and the sun is part of the Milky Way galaxy. There's never a hard and fast line when something ceases to be a hypothesis and becomes a fact. You realize with hindsight, that something has become a fact. Philosophers of science, of course, will say that nothing ever becomes a true fact, that everything is just a hypothesis that can never be adequately proven and that we could all wake up one day and discover that everything was just a dream. But in so far as the general public ever uses the word fact, evolution is one."
Read the interview in full at Spiegel.

Bible insufficiently anthropomorphic, say animal rights campaigners

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Noah: inclusive saviour of God's creatures,
or just another speciesist shipbuilder?
While the Bible may be one of the bestselling books of all time, it has its fair share of critics, from followers of other religions, to atheists stunned by the sheer brutality of the Old Testament, to those with little interest in endless lists of who begat who.

Now a fresh group is getting in on the Bible bashing, with the animal rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals suggesting that Christianity's holy text is "speciesist". Responding to news that the latest New International Version will use more gender-inclusive language, PETA vice president Bruce Friedrich, who is a Catholic, told CNN that the book will continue to use language discriminatory towards animals:
“When the Bible moves toward inclusively in one area ... it wasn’t much of a stretch to suggest they move toward inclusively in this area. Language matters. Calling an animal 'it' denies them something. They are beloved by God. They glorify God. God’s covenant is with humans and animals. God cares about animals. I would think that’s a rather unanimous opinion among biblical scholars today, where that might not have been the case 200 years ago."
Friedrich would like animals to be referred to as "he" or "she" rather than "it", but Biblical scholars seem somewhat baffled by the suggestion, with David Lyle Jeffrey of Baylor University telling CNN:
"In gender-inclusive Bible translation the generic terms for humankind, let's say, are then replaced with an emphasis on he or she. Instead of the generic he, you say he and she. I don’t quite see how that would work with animals. Do we need to know the gender of the lion Samson slew? What would it give us there? You could try to specify that, but you would be doing so entirely inventively if you did. It's not in the original language. ... Nothing is made of it in the story. When you get to the point when you say, 'Don’t say it, say he or she' when the text doesn’t, you’re both screwing up the text and missing the main point you addressed."
So it would appear PETA are fighting a losing battle over Biblical speciesism, unless they take it upon themselves to put out a translation of their own. But in the meantime, they might do well to take a second look at the Bible – when a book features a talking snake in the very first section, it seems a little odd to complain about the lack of anthropomorphism.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Blackburn schools to teach humanism in RE

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For an idea of the bizarre and confused way in which education and religion meet in this country, you need look no further than the SACREs, or Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education – committees made up of representatives of religious groups (which includes humanists), local councils and teaching associations, which help to determine the content of the Religious Education syllabus in their local authority's schools.

The reason I mention them is because of a story I just came across via the National Secular Society concerning the news that Blackburn with Darwen (which is where I grew up incidentally) will be adding humanism (a term entirely interchangeable with atheism, in the Lancashire Telegraph's report) to its RE syllabus from September, following a review by the local SACRE. Interestingly, given the recent debate over the extent to which Census data influences policy, the report suggests the decision was influenced by the fact that over 10,000 people in the area answered "None" to the religion question on the 2001 Census, with Fiona Moss of the organisation RE Today, which has advised on the new syllabus, pointing to the need to include all groups:
“We really must recognise that some people do not believe in God and do not have a religious background. We have to make children aware of non-beliefs. We want to support children to engage and enthuse them about RE to become good citizens in Blackburn and the world. The aim is for them to be confident wherever they settle.”
The council's school improvement officer, Dot Thompson, is pleased with the new syllabus, describing it as "imaginative and creative", although not everyone in the area is happy. Salim Mulla, chair of Lancashire Council of Mosques, argues that humanism has no place on the curriculum, suggesting, it would seem, that teaching it would wrongly give children the idea that not subscribing to the religion of their parents is an option:
“We believe it is important to have faith values whether that is Christian, Islamic or any other religion. The values are very, very important. I don’t think the non-God aspect should be introduced into the curriculum. I don’t think it is right. People are born into faiths and are brought up in that faith and that’s how it should stay. The non-faith beliefs send a wrong message to the children and confuse them.”
Meanwhile, the local paper's weekly Christian columnist Rev Kevin Logan (whose views on evolution once drove me to sending a letter to the paper when I was reading it during a visit to my parents) welcomes the move, albeit with something of a backhanded compliment:
"It is quite a change but it is completely right to recognise atheism and humanism. They are religions like any others. It is just that people worship man instead of a god. I am certainly not worried about Christianity. It can stand against any belief and come out in a good light."
Not the most sophisticated debate, then. And just to ensure the level is maintained, the paper have added a handy poll on the issue, which asks you to answer "yes" or "no" to the question "Should atheism be taught to primary school children?" I'll leave you to decide whether to get involved in that one.

Britain still "nominally Christian", say Christians

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The religion question as it appears on the Census
With Sunday's census having passed without incident, as household surveys tend to, the issue of whether the religion question throws up skewed results (71.8 per cent selected "Christian" last time, in case you've somehow missed that) will fade into the background until next year, when the results are released. But before you all put down your biros and move on, I thought I'd share news of one final opinion poll, which I learn of courtesy of a press release from Premier Christian Radio.

Premier commissioned the polling organisation Comres to carry out a survey around the question "To which of the following religious groups do you consider yourself to be a member of?", with the 2,064 adult respondents given the choice of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Other, Prefer Not To Say and None. The results were as follows: 56 per cent selected Christian, 35 per cent None, 2 per cent Muslim, 1 per cent Hindu and 1 per cent Jew, with 2 per cent saying they would prefer not to say. Less than 1 per cent of those surveyed were Sikh or Buddhist. (The poll data doesn't seem to be online yet, either on Premier's site or Comres, but I'll link if it does appear.)

So what does this tell us? Premier's press release announces, somewhat underwhelmingly, that "The UK Remains Nominally a Christian country" although Premier CEO Peter Kerridge seems pleased, saying "Over half of the UK consider themselves to be a Christian - whether practising as such, or by having a close affiliation with Christian values and beliefs". Perhaps so, if you take the Comres poll to be be definitive. But really, the only conclusions that we can really draw from the Census debate of  recent weeks concern the difficulties (you might even say impossibilities) of obtaining an accurate picture of religiosity through demographic surveys. If you ask a different question, you get a different answer – a YouGov poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association asked "Are you religious?" and found 65 per cent of respondents said "No", while Premier's poll has 56 per cent identifying as Christian. The 2001 Census, with the question "What is your religion?", found 71.8 per cent to be Christian, yet when the respected British Social Attitudes Survey [PDF] asked "Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?", 50.7 per cent chose "No religion" and 43 per cent one of the "Christian" options.

Humanists and secularists campaigning around the Census religion question say it is a major problem because the government makes policy decisions based on the data collected. Religious campaigners, such as the think-tank Theos, dispute the extent to which this is the case with regards to the religion question, but, whatever the reality, it's well worth pressing the point that the government should be careful not to draw too many conclusions from the religion data, given the disparities between surveys using different questions. Perhaps that's something religious and non-religious groups can actually agree on – by all means have a go at measuring religiosity, but make sure you treat the results with adequate scepticism (unless, of course, you're of the opinion that the government has no business asking questions like this in the first place)

Friday, 25 March 2011

"If nothing’s sacred, then we aren’t sacred either": Howard Jacobson speaks up for scepticism at the Index Freedom of Expression Awards

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Howard Jacobson
Last night, I attended Index on Censorship's annual Freedom of Expression Awards, where a selection of very worthy winners and nominees were honoured for their fearless defence of free speech in the face of some of the world's most oppressive regimes. Not all of the winners, who you can read about in detail on the Index website, were at liberty to attend and accept the honour in person – the Law and Campaigning Award went to Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been missing since April 2010, and was accepted by his wife Geng He in an emotional video message, while the Special Commendation award was presented to the 42 prisoners of conscience who remain imprisoned following protests over the result of Belarus's election on 19 December last year.

One of the highlights of the evening was the keynote address by Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson, who delivered a rousing (and very entertaining) defence of free speech and scepticism. Stressing the need to criticise and hold nothing sacred, he continued:
"For our part — we who possess that power – we must not exempt ourselves from the universality of our scorn. If nothing’s sacred, then we aren’t sacred either. Nor, by the same logic, is any principle. “Objection, evasion, cheerful mistrust, delight in mockery,” Nietzsche said, “are signs of health.” “Everything unconditional,’ he went on, “belongs to pathology.” So we are trapped in a contradiction of our profession’s making. Mockery — sacred; unconditional attachment to mockery — pathological."
That's merely a sample – read the full speech over at Index.

"Defamation of religion" finally dropped by Islamic states at the UN

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The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva
Yesterday, Islamic states finally gave up on their long-running efforts to introduce the condemnation of "defamation of religion" into United Nations human rights standards. Members of the 57-state Organisation of the Islamic Conference have won support from many African and Asian states, including China, North Korea and Russia, for a series of resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in the last 12 years, with Western and Latin American countries fiercly opposing the measures, which have been widely viewed as attempts to stifle criticism of the oppressive blasphemy laws in place in many Islamic states.

Last week, we reported on a shift in emphasis, with Islamic states channeling their efforts into introducing a resolution "Combating incitement to hatred against believers", with the notion of "defaming" the religion itself left out. Yesterday, Western and Latin American states backed the new resolution, which, say Reuters, "condemns any advocacy of religious hatred that amounts to incitement to hostility or violence against believers and calls on governments to act to prevent it".

Progress, for sure, but as the International Humanist and Ethical Union noted last week, the proposed resolution does not recognise the issue of hatred and violence against non-believers who, in the word's of IHEU's Roy Brown, are "at equally great if not even greater risk than believers in far too many parts of the world."

There's an ominous message, too, at the end of the Reuters piece, with diplomats from Islamic states having "warned the council that they could return to campaigning for an international law against religious defamation if Western countries are not seen as acting to protect believers".

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Crucifixes in classrooms – the debate continues

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Over at the Guardian, CiF belief editor Andrew Brown welcomes last week's decision by the European Court of Human Rights to overturn an earlier decision against the display of crucifixes in Italian classrooms, calling it "obviously a victory for common sense, which only fanatics would disapprove". He says that "the idea that human rights legislation should be used to prevent children from being exposed to a crucifix is a profoundly totalitarian and superstitious perversion of one of our civilisation's best inventions", and concludes "a theologically neutral state takes no position on the question of which gods exist, or, if you like, which conceptions of God (if any) correspond to reality". Therefore, if I am following Brown's logic, it is not the role of governments or courts to determine which religious symbols children should or shouldn't be exposed to in schools, and on that basis the previous decision of the ECHR on crucifixes in schools was profoundly illiberal.

Although many secularists would disagree, I expect plenty would not find this position too unreasonable. Unfortunately Brown's argument with respect to the ECHR case misses the point – this was not about an individual instance of a school displaying a crucifix, and secularists campaigning all the way to the courts to ensure that no European school could do so ever again, but rather a piece of Italian legislation that requires a crucifix to be displayed in every classroom in every Italian school, regardless of whether the school is religious or not. Thus, this is not a case of "a theologically neutral state tak[ing] no position on the question of which gods exist", but the government of Italy (a state whose constitution has been secular since 1985) imposing a symbol of Catholicism on every classroom in the country.

Of course, there's clearly a whole argument to be had here about whether it would be right for the European courts to be able to impose a vision of secularism on individual states, but perhaps I'll leave that for others to tackle.

Humanist MP puts pressure on government over creationism in free schools

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Pupil's atwork depicting "Creation" at the Bethany School, Sheffield,
a Christian Schools Trust school considering applying to become a free school
Yesterday, we reported on how the Department for Education had moved to dispel fears over creationism in free schools, saying ministers "will not accept any proposal where there are concerns about the people behind the project", after a piece in our current issue prompted the British Centre for Science Education to write to the education secretary, Michael Gove.

What isn't clear is exactly how ministers will go about doing this, and this was a point raised by the Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert, a supporter of the British Humanist Association, yesterday when he asked the following formal parliamentary question:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Education what his policy is on (a) ensuring that free schools are not permitted to teach creationism outside the religious education curriculum and (b) requiring evolution to be taught as a science in such schools."
Responding, the schools minister Nick Gibb said:
"Academies and free schools will benefit from having freedom over the curriculum they deliver. However, we have been clear that creationism should not form part of any science curriculum or be taught as a scientific alternative to accepted scientific theories. We expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. Under the Government's planned reforms to school inspection, there will be stronger focus on teaching. Teachers will be expected to demonstrate that their subject knowledge is secure. If creationism is being taught as a scientific fact in science or any other areas of the curriculum outside denominational RE and collective worship, this would be noted in the Ofsted report."
It seems clear that the government are against the teaching of creationism, but what still isn't apparent is exactly how it will be prevented. Yesterday's DfE statement implied free schools that intend to teach creationism will be prevented from opening in the first place, yet Gibb's reply to Huppert suggests that such schools will need to be rooted out through Ofsted inspections after they have opened. And where does the government stand on Intelligent Design, or on what religious groups such as Nottinghamshire's Everyday Champions Church, which hopes to open a free school, might teach children outside of science lessons, such as in RE classes or after-school clubs?

And the sheer scale of the free schools reforms make it hard to be confident about the government's ability to safeguard science education. "It is difficult to see," says the BHA's chief executive Andrew Copson, "how the government will ensure that the potentially thousands of existing and new schools, lifted out of the National Curriculum altogether through its Academies programme, will teach what is probably the most important idea underlying biological science."

As James Gray points out in our current issue, there's no reason to think the government wants creationism to be taught in the new schools – the real issue is whether it has the time or expertise to keep it out. Clearly, defenders of proper science education will need to keep the pressure on Gove and the DfE, as the assurances given so far leave too many questions unanswered.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Religion becoming extinct?

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The "most shared" story on the BBC News website as I write concerns a mathematical study, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, which suggests that religion could eventually become extinct in nine countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Using a nonlinear dynamics model, the research team – Daniel M. Abrams, Haley A. Yaple, and Richard J. Wiener – analysed census data from those countries covering the last hundred years. Explaining how the model works, Wiener told the BBC:
"The idea is pretty simple. It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there's some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not."
With the religion study (if I'm following this correctly!), the team set parameters for the utility of being non-religious in the countries chosen (high utility) and found, through the modelling, that the numbers of non-religous people will continue to grow, while religious affiliation will continue to fall "towards extinction". Wiener points out that it's a piece of mathematical modelling, rather than a accurate picture of the future of religiosity in those countries, although he does think that it may provide an indication of future trends:
"It's interesting that a fairly simple model captures the data, and if those simple ideas are correct, it suggests where this might be going. Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out."
Beyond the maths, and the hyperbolic use of the term "extinction", what this study really seems to be saying is that, in countries where the trend in the last century has been towards secularisation, religiosity will continue to fall. It's not the most surprising suggestion, although it could be seen as a welcome boost for the beleaguered secularisation thesis, given that some demographic studies suggest the world is facing a growth in religiosity in coming decades (see our interview with demographer Eric Kaufmann from last year).

"States can, and must, regulate behaviours": Vatican tells UN what it thinks about "sexual orientation"

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What follows is a statement made today by the Permanent Representative of the Holy See to the United Nations, Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, during a debate about "sexual orientation" at the UN Human Rights Council. For me, it sums up everything that's wrong about the Vatican's position on homosexuality and gay rights – it's confused, it's incoherent, and it appears to show a greater concern with the perceived "persecution" of those who wish to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexuality, than it does the very real, and often brutal, persecution of those who do not conform to the religious definition of "human sexuality".
'Mr. President, the Holy See takes this opportunity to affirm the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings, and to condemn all violence that is targeted against people because of their sexual feelings and thoughts, or sexual behaviours.

We would also like to make several observations about the debates regarding “sexual orientation”.

First, there has been some unnecessary confusion about the meaning of the term “sexual orientation,” as found in resolutions and other texts adopted within the UN human rights system. The confusion is unnecessary because, in international law, a term must be interpreted in accordance with its ordinary meaning, unless the document has given it a different meaning. The ordinary meaning of “sexual orientation” refers to feelings and thoughts, not to behaviour.

Second, for the purposes of human rights law, there is a critical difference between feelings and thoughts, on the one hand, and behaviour, on the other. A state should never punish a person, or deprive a person of the enjoyment of any human right, based just on the person’s feelings and thoughts, including sexual thoughts and feelings. But states can, and must, regulate behaviours, including various sexual behaviours. Throughout the world, there is a consensus between societies that certain kinds of sexual behaviours must be forbidden by law. Paedophilia and incest are two examples.

Third, the Holy See wishes to affirm its deeply held belief that human sexuality is a gift that is genuinely expressed in the complete and lifelong mutual devotion of a man and a woman in marriage. Human sexuality, like any voluntary activity, possesses a moral dimension : it is an activity which puts the individual will at the service of a finality; it is not an “identity”. In other words, it comes from the action and not from the being, even though some tendencies or “sexual orientations” may have deep roots in the personality. Denying the moral dimension of sexuality leads to denying the freedom of the person in this matter, and undermines ultimately his/her ontological dignity. This belief about human nature is also shared by many other faith communities, and by other persons of conscience.

And finally, Mr. President, we wish to call attention to a disturbing trend in some of these social debates: People are being attacked for taking positions that do not support sexual behaviour between people of the same sex. When they express their moral beliefs or beliefs about human nature, which may also be expressions of religious convictions, or state opinions about scientific claims, they are stigmatised, and worse -- they are vilified, and prosecuted. These attacks contradict the fundamental principles announced in three of the Council’s resolutions of this session. The truth is, these attacks are violations of fundamental human rights, and cannot be justified under any circumstances.'
The Vatican presents itself as a great upholder of human rights, yet here, in the UN, its representative appears to suggest that it would be acceptable for a state to punish someone on account of consensual sexual "behaviour". The statement condemns violence, it must be acknowledged, but in his second main point the Archbishop says "certain kinds of sexual behaviours must be forbidden by law". The implication here seems to be that states should be allowed to forbid gay sex. Are we to assume that a non-violent sanction, such as a prison sentence, would be acceptable?

It would be interesting to hear how Catholics loyal to the Vatican would defend this.

Government: creationism can not be taught in free schools

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Nottinghamshire's Everyday Champions Church, which has applied
to open a free school
The Department for Education have moved to dispel concerns that academies established under the new free schools legislation will be able to teach creationism as science, after we revealed in the current issue of New Humanist that a Nottinghamshire Pentescostal Church, Everyday Champions, had applied to set up a free school with the intention of teaching evolution "only alongside the Biblical creation account".

The New Humanist article, by James Gray, prompted the British Centre for Science Education, which campaigns against the incursion of creationism and Intelligent Design into science lessons, to write to the education secretary, Michael Gove, seeking assurance that creationist groups will not be allowed to exploit the reforms to the schools system. Citing Gove's previous suggestion that he would not allow “inappropriate faith groups using this legislation to push their own agenda”, the BCSE highlighted their concerns about the application by the Everday Champions Church:
"The ECC proposal is already a cause célèbre among creationist churches, and others are preparing to follow where ECC is leading. ... This is part of a concerted attack on science education by committed believers in biblical inerrancy and literalism. We cannot believe that it is your intention to advance their clearly articulated agenda, but if you allow such people to establish their own schools, using public money, it will be the unavoidable consequence of your policies."
In a statement yesterday, a spokesman for the DfE stressed that free schools would have to meet "high curriculum standards", saying:
"The education secretary is crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact. Ministers have said they will not accept any proposal where there are concerns about the people behind the project." 
While it is not known whether the ECC application will be rejected (the DfE won't comment on individual cases), the DfE statement seems to indicate that the church will struggle to meet the required standards. Quoted in the James Gray's New Humanist piece, John Harris, an ECC member who also runs a "creation science" website, appears to make it clear that the proposed school would not teach science to the standards expected of existing state-funded schools:
“We have no intention of not teaching evolution in the school, but my recommendation would be to not teach it as fact or science. Evolution should not be taught in science lessons – it’s a theory and as religious as any other theory. If you’re going into a classroom and saying, ‘We come from monkeys’ but without any evidence, don’t call it science.”
Even if the ECC application is rejected, the DfE and the New Schools Network, which advises potential free school founders, will need to remain vigilant. Another group troubling science campaigners is the Christian Schools Trust, which represents around 50 private Christian schools, some of which are known to teach creationism. The CST is considering involvement in the free school system, and its national team leader, Graham Coyle, has said that "if CST schools that have a creationist outlook want to become free schools, that’s a challenge for them to take up."

Monday, 21 March 2011

Libya, intervention and humanism

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Is intervention against Muammar Gaddafi
morally justifiable?
While I wouldn't expect anyone to reach for my blog posts for expert opinion on events in North Africa (many thousands of words have been expended in recent days by people with far greater knowledge and expertise), it seems strange to go on covering other subjects here while ignoring the issue. Like many of you, I'm sure, I've followed the weekend's events in Libya with a great sense of discomfort, so I'd like to offer some of my thoughts and encourage you to share yours in the comments – I think there's a humanist angle from which to view the notion of international intervention in crises such as Libya, so I'll try and outline that as a perspective we can debate on this blog.

The crisis that has been unfolding in Libya asks a profound question of globalisation, namely: is globalisation merely an amoral growth in global interconnectedness for the purposes of trade and commerce, or does it come with an added moral responsibility for all of us who operate in a globalised world? As the global economic community grows, does a social community grow with it? Does our circle of empathy, the imagined community with which we feel affinity, extend beyond our own locale or nation to include all "global citizens"? If we engage in trade and commerce with the people of Libya, do we also have a moral responsibility to stand alongside them when they are subjected to brutal oppression by their government? Why should globalisation entail one but not the other?

Humanism, as a philosophy that involves a view that there are certain universal values that can, and should, be shared by people of all cultures, seems to me to be particularly well-suited to a globalised world. In this sense, the United Nations can be seen as an expression of humanism, as the very concept of an international organisation like the UN involves a recognition that different cultures can have underlying values that they share, even if they often diverge in many other respects, not least in terms of prevailing religious beliefs. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948, in which those governments voting in favour acknowledged that all humans have the right to freedom of speech and belief, and the right to be free from fear and want, represents perhaps the most succinct expression of this great humanist principle.

From this perspective, intervention in Libya can be viewed as a humanist endeavour. Through Resolution 1973, the United Nations Security Council has voted to take action in order to ensure the protection of Libyan civilians from the brutal actions of Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. Unlike Iraq, this does not involve a handful of governments taking action without the consent of the UN – while certain key players such as Russia and China abstained from voting for the resolution, action to protect the Libyan people is being taken with the consent of the security council and with the support (at least initially) of Libya's neighbours in the form of the Arab League and, it would appear, a great number of Libya's people. If globalisation is to be more than a system of commerce, is Resolution 1973 not an expression of its human face?

Yet, despite all of the above, I can't help feeling deeply uncomfortable with what has been occurring in the wake of Thursday's UN vote. Nationalism, at least in my view, is not a position that sits comfortably with a humanist philosophy, in so far as it generally tends to involve a sense of national and cultural superiority that is incompatible with a belief in universal values, but national sovereignty is a geopolitical reality. The United Nations is a means for achieving international cooperation in a globalised world, but it is underpinned by a recognition of the sovereignty of individual member states. What business, then, do other states have intervening in the internal politics of Libya? And while the principle of humanitarian intervention may be an expression of universal values, those values are by no means universally accepted, and it could be argued that to enforce them militarily is a form of cultural, even humanistic, imperialism.

These are all complex questions, and I am in no way suggesting I have the answers. I just want to put the questions out there and see what others think, really. Surely one of the big mistakes with Iraq and Afghanistan was an unwillingness among those in power to stop and properly consider questions like these. Before I throw this open to comments, I'll end by summarising my current thoughts on events in Libya. While remaining deeply conflicted, I came to find myself in favour of international intervention in the form of a no-fly zone, particularly as Gaddafi moved closer to brutally crushing the uprising last week. It seemed clear that he was slaughtering civilians (and would only continue to do so in the wake of reclaiming the east of the country), and, with broad international support for intervention, including from the Arab League, declining to take action when the circumstances seemed to allow it would, I thought, have been an abrogation of responsibility.

But now that action has begun, I feel increasingly uncomfortable. Like many people, I think, I assumed, perhaps naively, that a no-fly zone involved a somewhat passive form of intervention – remove Gaddafi's ability to deploy air power through the threat of force, rather than by actually attacking him. But the action Britain, alongside the US, France and others, has been taking clearly goes beyond this, and seems to have become a military campaign to topple Gaddafi. Presumably that would amount to protecting civilians, given that Gaddafi himself is ordering the attacks on them, but it seems to go beyond what was authorised at the UN. Moreover, we know from past experiences in Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq that bombing on this scale, despite assurances of "accuracy", tends to involve civilian deaths – in a mission that, by definition, is designed to prevent civilian death, that is an uncomfortable fact to deal with.

Ultimately, and again I think I'm of the same view as many here, I just can't avoid feeling that this represents a complete failure to learn the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq. I'm aware of the argument that we can't let past failures prevent us from doing the right thing, but have we (Britain? "The West"? "The international community"? - events like these raise many questions about our own identities) properly considered what we are getting into here? What happens once Gaddafi is toppled? Libya is a country with serious tribal divisions, and the uprising has not just been a simple case of the majority of the population campaigning for the overthrow of a tyrant. To call it an uprising at this stage seems insufficient – Libya is in a state of civil war, and intervening on one side of a civil war is a tricky and dangerous business. What if civil war continues after Gaddafi has gone? How sure are we that the rebels we have thrown our support behind are absolutely in the right? The UN resolution was about protecting civilians, not overthrowing Gaddafi, so if civilians are still dying after he has gone, the international coalition will still have a responsibility to protect civilians. Whose side do they intervene on then? What if the rebels begin reprisals against Gaddafi supporters?

I would suppose that there is only so much that can be done from sea and air before troops need to be sent in (something that has not been authorised), and if that happens then the intervention will have become a cause for grave concern. At present, I can accept intervention as a necessary step (you could say a necessary evil), but there are far too many unknowns to be able to support it entirely. If intervention can be over and done with this week, I think it might go down as the correct course of action, but if it drags on, particularly at the present level of intensity, it will only serve to feed the narrative of Western imperialism towards Muslim countries. These are very worrying times, and when I walk past a newsagent and see triumphant headlines about "Our Boys" hitting out at "Mad Dog" Gaddafi, under photos of huge explosions, I feel deep discomfort, not to mention an unwanted sense of déjà vu.

So, those are just my thoughts – please do share yours.

65 per cent non-religious: opinion poll exposes flaws in census religion question

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The religion question as it appears on the England & Wales census
A YouGov poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association (results in Excel document) has found that 65 per cent of respondents identify as non-religious when answering the question "Are you religious?" By contrast, when asked the question "What is your religion?" in the 2001 census, 71.8 per cent of the public in England and Wales identified themselves as Christian.

Humanists have long campaigned for a change to the census question, which is considered more leading than alternative questions, such as that used in the YouGov poll, and, having been unable to secure a change, the BHA have been urging the non-religious to ensure they tick "No religion" in this week's census.

As Winston Fletcher points out in the current issue of New Humanist, the 2001 census result belies the evidence provided by other surveys of British religiosity, including the Church of England's own statistics. This latest poll further highlights the inaccuracy of the census results – of 1,896 adults surveyed by YouGov in England and Wales, only 29 per cent answered "Yes" to "Are you religious?", compared with 65 per cent answering "No". Furthermore, just 48 per cent of those who identified as "Christian" said they believed in Christ and the resurrection, while 63 per cent of all respondents said they had not attended a place of worship in the last year. In fact, 20 per cent of people said they had never attended a place of worship. By contrast, when asked the census question by YouGov, 61 per cent ticked a religious answer.

In a separate poll commissioned by the Humanist Society of Scotland (results in Excel), 56 per cent of respondents answered "No" to "Are you religious", compared with 35 per cent answering "Yes". When asked the Scottish census question, ‘What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?’, 42 per cent answered "None".

Friday, 18 March 2011

European Court of Human Rights overturns earlier ruling against crucifixes in schools

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Overturning a unanimous decision taken in 2009, the European Court of Human Rights has today ruled that Italy can retain a law that requires a crucifix to be displayed in every classroom in all state schools.

The initial judgement, which held that European states have "a duty to uphold confessional neutrality in public education, where school attendance is compulsory regardless of religion", was taken by a panel of seven judges after a mother, Soile Lautsi, pursued the case on the basis of her children's rights to be educated according to her non-religious beliefs. The ECHR ruled that right was protected by Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Subsequently, Italy, with the support of the Vatican, asked for the case to be referred to the 17-judge Grand Chamber of the ECHR, and was backed by ten other Catholic and Orthodox states (the European Humanist Federation refer to them as a "Holy Alliance"), along with 38 right-wing members of the European Parliament. Today's judgement, which has taken nine months following the court hearing last June, gives states a larger "margin of appreciation" in the interpretation of human rights than previously thought, which the EHF say gives them control "not only over how but even whether they protect some human rights". This, argue humanists and secularists, is worrying, as it "marks a retreat from universal human rights, especially for matters relating to sensitive topics – such as wearing religious symbols or the right to reproductive health – on which individual states stand out against the broad consensus in Europe".

Perhaps the one consolation for humanists is that the court didn't accept Italy's claim that the cross is not a religious symbol, but rather an "ethical symbol" that:
"evoked . . . non-violence, . . . the primacy of the individual over the group and the importance of freedom of choice, the separation of politics from religion. . . [carrying] a humanist message which could be read independently of its religious dimension . . . it was perfectly compatible with secularism and . . . could be perceived as devoid of religious significance."
Responding to the judgement, which can be read in full here, David Pollock of the EHF said:
“This highly regrettable judgement retreats from the clarity of the initial ruling that the State and its institutions must be impartial, not favouring one religion or belief over another. This principle is particularly important when the State is addressing school pupils, since they are not only immature and impressionable but also a captive audience.
The idea that the crucifix is a harmless cultural item flies in the face of common sense. It is a portrayal of the execution of Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian religion. It is a very powerful image and potentially a highly disturbing one to put before children. It is the image of a man being tortured to death. And the explanation for this horrific event is scarcely less disturbing: it is that he is being tortured because they, the children, are wicked and sinful. This is itself, of course, a religious doctrine, not a fact.
However, the ruling runs so contrary to the established direction of educational policy in the Council of Europe and the OSCE and to the proclaimed secularism of the EU that it is unlikely to have a lasting effect. Europeans are voting with their feet, leaving the churches and giving little value to religion.”
Meanwhile, some religious commentators have welcomed the ruling. One writer who seems particularly pleased is Cranmer, the conservative Anglican blogger, who says:
"Aggressive secularists and atheist busybodies should not be free to demand that their sensitivities should trump everybody else's freedom of religion.

The Cross of Christ is symbolic not only of faith, but of the value system which underpins our culture and traditions, our law-making and jurisprudence. The Cross symbolises our civil values of tolerance, affirmation of our responsibilities and rights, the autonomy of our moral conscience vis-à-vis authority, human solidarity and the refusal of any form of discrimination. The Cross is the very foundation of Europe’s secular values."
As always, please do share your thoughts in the comments.

UN considers "Combating incitement to hatred against believers" resolution

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Further to the long-standing efforts of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to introduce a UN resolution condemning "defamation of religion", widely seen by human rights organisations as an attempt to close down criticism of the oppressive, often brutal, blasphemy laws in operation in many Islamic states, we learn from the International Humanist and Ethical Union that a new move is underway to introduce a resolution "Combating incitement to hatred against believers".

IHEU point out that this is step towards a satisfactory alternative to a resolution condemning defamation of religion, in that it separates criticism of religion from inciting hatred, which the Islamic states had previously packaged together as though the former necessarily leads to the latter. As they noted in a letter to the president of the UN Human Rights Council, "All States are surely opposed to incitement to hatred or violence by anyone, against anyone, and for any reason".

However, the proposed resolution only covers believers, and makes no mention of non-believers. As IHEU's Roy Brown points out in the email we received, this is insufficient, as in many places "Non-believers are the subject of legal sanctions including the death penalty for their non-belief. They are at equally great if not even greater risk than believers in far too many parts of the world."

IHEU are now calling on governments to either ensure that scope is widened to include non-believers, or reject the resolution.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Controversy over "gay conversion" app for iPhone

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The Exodus app depicted on
an iPhone screen
A petition has been launched to encourage Apple to remove an app from the evangelical "gay conversion" organisation Exodus International from its online store. Exodus describes itself as "dedicated to equipping and uniting agencies and individuals to effectively communicate the message of freedom from homosexuality" and maintains that the "reorientation of same sex attraction is possible". It says the app, through which people can access "current news, information and resources" will allow it to "reach a broader demographic and readily provide information that is crucial for many seeking hope and encouragement".

The petition, begun by Truth Wins Out, "a non-profit organization that fights anti-gay religious extremism", calls on Apple to stop supporting the app, which it rated as "4+" on account of containing "no objectionable content", and had received almost 6,800 signatures at the time of writing. The petition letter is addressed directly to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and reads:
"Apple has long been a friend of the LGBT community, opposing California's Proposition 8, removing the anti-gay Manhattan Declaration iPhone app, and earning a 100% score from the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index. I am shocked that this same company has given the green light to an app from a notoriously anti-gay organization like Exodus International that uses scare tactics, misinformation, stereotypes and distortions of LGBT life to recruit clients, endorses the use of so-called "reparative therapy" to "change" the sexual orientation of their clients (despite the fact that this form of "therapy" has been roundly condemned by every major professional medical organization), and targets vulnerable, suicide-prone LGBT youth with the message that their sexual orientation is a "sin that will make your heart sick" and a "counterfeit," contributing to and legitimizing the ostracism of these youth from their families.

Your company would never allow a racist or anti-Semitic app to be sold in the iTunes store, and for good reason. Apple's approval of the anti-gay Exodus International app represents a double standard for the LGBT community with potentially devastating consequences for our youth. This is unacceptable, and I urge you to take a strong stance against homophobia by removing this dangerous "ex-gay" iPhone app from the store."
As this piece points out, Apple has previously removed apps following protests from users, so it will be interesting to see if it acts on this petition.

What do you think?

[Found via Tom Chivers and Patrick Strudwick on Twitter]

Atheists in dispute with US Army over cancelled Dawkins-starring event on Fort Bragg base

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 Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is embroiled in a dispute
over a cancelled non-religious festival
American atheist and secular organisations, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, are embroiled in a dispute with the US Army over the last-minute cancellation of Rock Beyond Belief, a non-religious festival that was set to take place in Fort Bragg, North Carolina on 2 April.

The event, which was to feature talks and performances from a host of well-known non-believers, including Richard Dawkins, rationalist rapper Baba Brinkman, blogger Hemant Mehta and writer Dan Barker, was the brainchild of Sgt. Justin Griffith, who began organising it after a Christian festival, Rock the Fort, run by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was staged at Fort Bragg last September, endorsed and in-part funded by the military. After highlighting the fact that the event was a violation of the First Amendment of the US constitution, which requires government neutrality on issues of religion, Griffith obtained a promise that a non-religious event could be staged at Fort Bragg on the same scale, that is, on the base's main parade field with the capacity for thousands of spectators.

Sgt Justin Griffith proudly
displays his atheist credentials
However, on 1 March Griffith received a letter [PDF] from the Garrison Commander, Colonel Stephen J Sicinski, informing him that the event would be moved to a smaller, 700-capacity venue on the base, and would receive no funding from the army. Furthermore, the Colonel stated that "all advertising materials should indicate by disclaimer that there is no endorsement by Fort Bragg, the US Army, or the Department of Defense", despite the fact that the Rock the Fort event had been presented as being endorsed by military authorities. This would appear to contradict assurances given to the Freedom From Religion Foundation by Lieutenant Colonel Nelson Van Eck Jr, in a letter [PDF] received on 17 February, that "with regards to support to future events comparable to the Rock the Fort event, Fort Bragg continues to be willing to provide the same level of support to comparable events proposed by non-federal entities."

The cancellation of Rock Beyond Belief was announced on 4 March by Griffith, who stated that Fort Bragg "placed so many restrictions and unexpected changes that we are completely unable to put on the Rock Beyond Belief festival". Citing the unequal treatment afforded to a non-religious event, he added:
"Additionally, the lack of similar financial support from government-controlled funds prevents us from actually putting on an event. We were not able to utilize the same system of funding that the Evangelical Christians did, nor were we presented with any alternative (or that there was a problem in this area before March 1st)."
Richard Dawkins
Now, amid consideration of a legal challenge backed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (whose founder Mikey Weinstein was featured in New Humanist in 2008), would-be performers at Rock Beyond Belief have been issuing "statements of intent", which Fort Bragg have apparently been telling journalists they never received (or, says Griffith, actually asked for in the first place). Taking the lead is Richard Dawkins, who declares:
"I wish to put clearly on record my strong intention to attend, and speak at, the Rock Beyond Belief festival at Fort Bragg, now sadly cancelled because of (blatantly discriminatory) lack of support from the officer commanding Fort Bragg. ‘Statement of intent’ is putting it mildly. I was hugely looking forward to it, and it was, indeed, my main reason for travelling all the way from England, at my own expense. I also announced my intention to accept no honorarium, so keen was I to support the festival. The suggestion that the festival could not have filled a large hall is absurd. Even when talking on my own, I regularly draw enthusiastic crowds by the thousands, especially in the so-called ‘bible belt’ where beleaguered non-believers flock to hear somebody articulate what they have long thought privately but never felt able to speak."
This is a story that seems set to run on, particularly if it does enter the US federal court system, so we'll keep up to date with it and pass on the news. In the meantime, do share your views in the comments.

Republicans in US Congress reject notion of global warming in unanimous vote

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Republicans on the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee have voted unanimously against an amendment acknowledging the scientific view that the Earth's temperature is rising. Proposed by Democrat Henry Waxman, the amendment [PDF] stated:
"Congress accepts the scientific finding of the Environmental Protection Agency that 'Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.'"
The vote came amid debate over a Republican bill "To amend the Clean Air Act to prohibit the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from promulgating any regulation concerning, taking action relating to, or taking into consideration the emission of a greenhouse gas to address climate change, and for other purposes", which also saw Republicans reject an amendment recognising the public health threat posed by climate change.

While partisan divisions – particularly pronounced in the US at present – will clearly have played their part in the Republicans unanimous rejection of Waxman's amendment, events in the Energy Committee will be viewed as worrying evidence of the prevalence of anti-scientific thinking among many on the political right, and the intransigent position of many towards taking decisive action against climate change.

Still, if a witty riposte can possibly be seen as consolation, at least Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, had the last laugh, telling the committee:
“I rise in opposition to a bill that repeals the scientific finding that pollution is harming our people and our planet. However, I won’t rise physically, because I’m worried that Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating.”

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

East End Gay Pride cancelled amid concerns over EDL link

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One of the anti-gay leaflets that appeared
recently in London's east end
A gay pride march scheduled to take place in London's East End on 2 April has been cancelled today amid concerns over an organiser's links to the English Defence League. Yesterday, Imaam, a group which represents gay Muslims, revealed that Raymond Berry, one of the organisers of East End Gay Pride, was last year involved in a dispute with the Rail and Maritime Trades Union, of which he is a member, over his involvement with the EDL, as well as the Stop the Islamification of Europe and No Sharia in Britain groups. With concern having been expressed elsewhere over other organisers' links to the EDL, the conclusion reached by Imaan was that the gay pride event was being framed in specifically anti-Muslim terms:
"In light of all the evidence of Mr. Berry’s political involvements, the apparent associations of some of the other organisers and their collective contempt for our communities we can do nothing but conclude that their calling for “East End Gay Pride” is motivated primarily by their political desires to build groups and alliances founded on their anti-Muslim and anti-Islam bigotry and that East End Gay Pride is – in his terms – just a furtherance of Mr. Berry’s stated aims to create anti-Muslim political movements."
This was a view shared by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who this morning called for East End Gay Pride to be postponed, and revealed that his group Outrage! was opposing the event:
"OutRage! is not supporting East London Gay Pride, following the revelation of links between some of the organisers and the right-wing English Defence League (EDL). I have also withdrawn my personal support. We fear the march will be exploited and hijacked by the far right to create divisions and stir up intolerance against Muslim people.
OutRage! opposes both homophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. All forms of intolerance are wrong. The gay, Muslim, Jewish, Asian and black communities know the pain of prejudice and discrimination. We should stand together, united against hate. Let's celebrate East London's multicultural diversity. Don't let bigotry divide us. Together, we can defeat the hate-mongers."
The row over East End Gay Pride comes against a backdrop of homophobic activity linked to Islamic extremists in the East End, with the appearance of a series of Muslim anti-gay stickers in the area having prompted the organisation of the march. The East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre, meanwhile, was criticised recently for hosting a homophobic speaker, Abdul Karim Hattin, who delivered a talk entitled "Spot the fag". However, while Tatchell says the mosque "must bear some responsibility for previously stoking homophobia", he warns against associating the campaign against homophobia with the campaign against Islam:
"The vast majority of British Muslims are not fundamentalist fanatics. They don't support hate preachers. Although most of them do not approve of homosexuality, they do not discriminate or harm LGBTI people. We must be very careful to distinguish between Muslim people in general and the extremist minority who oppose democracy and human rights and who want to establish a clerical dictatorship."
Raymond Berry resigned from East End Gay Pride yesterday, and this was followed this afternoon with the announcement of its cancellation by the remaining organisers, who blamed the opposition from other gay rights groups:
“In a day and age where the LGBT community of East London should be working together to combat hatred of any nature, we have found it shocking that OutEast and Rainbow Hamlets have continuously set out to divide the community. Internet forums have proved this to no end.”
I'm interested to hear your views on this. Were gay rights groups such as Imaan and Outrage! right to oppose the march over links to the EDL, or do you agree with the organisers that the cancellation of the march is a victory for anti-gay prejudice in East London? How blurred is the line between criticism of extremist views within Islam and prejudice and discrimination towards Muslims? This is an issue I tackled in a short column in the current issue of the magazine, which I've just put online as it seemed relevant to this post. My conclusion in that piece is that, in speaking out against extremism and defending the right to criticise religion, we must choose our allies carefully. It would seem to me that is the principle applied by Peter Tatchell and others who have spoken out against East London Gay Pride.

What do you think?

An "anti-Christian foreign policy"?

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Cardinal Keith O'Brien
The head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, caused a bit of a stir this week with his comments on the government's decision to increase aid to Pakistan to £445 million. Expressing outrage at the manner in which aid is granted to a country where the Christian minority is subject to increasingly visible levels of persecution, O'Brien said:
“To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy.

This reality is both shocking and saddening. In countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, Christians face violence, intolerance and even death because of their beliefs.”
Unsurprisingly, the Cardinal's comments have proven controversial. The idea that Britain would pursue an "anti-Christian foreign policy" is surely wide of the mark, and the Cardinal's views could be interpreted as implying that the government should somehow be pursuing a "pro-Christian foreign policy" instead. As the Church Mouse blogger points out, in a nuanced post on the story, "it seems a little parochial to only be concerned with the Christians who are suffering persecution". Coming at this from a secular perspective, surely the government's foreign policy should be neither pro nor anti any religion, but rather anti-persecution in all its forms?

Nevertheless, O'Brien's comments shouldn't be dismissed entirely out of hand - what is happening to Christians (and indeed atheists, and anyone else who dissents from the conservative Sunni forms of Islam) in Pakistan, apparent most recently in the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the country's only Christian cabinet minister, and numerous prosecutions under punitive blasphemy laws, is extremely troubling. The Cardinal is right to ask whether the government, in increasing aid to the country, is expressing concerns about this violent repression of non-Muslim minorities. But, as Church Mouse notes, perhaps his remarks would have been welcomed more widely if he had made it an issue of human rights in general, rather than Christian rights in particular.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Advertising company steps forward to allow "censored" BHA census ad

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The BHA's Census Campaign
ad on a VMG screen in London
Advertising company VMG Global have begun running the British Humanist Association's "If you're not religious, for God's sake say so" census campaign ads on their digital advertising screens in shopping centres after expressing bewilderment at the manner in which the slogan was perceived as "offensive".

As was widely reported, the ads were rejected for display in railway stations by CBS Outdoor, after it was advised Committee of Advertising Practice that the slogan could cause "widespread and serious offence", and a bus campaign was subsequently launched by the BHA using an alternative message. Now VMG Global have stepped forward, with a spokesperson saying:
"VMG are delighted to help the BHA in its Census campaign by running the original, uncensored ads on our shopping centre screen network. We cannot see anything objectionable in the advertising copy. How this could cause anyone serious offence is a mystery to us."
The ads can now be seen in shopping centres on digital panels managed by VMG, with locations including London West One, Ipswich, Tunbridge Wells and Poole. And on this very subject, our editor, Caspar Melville, was in the Guardian on Saturday, asking whether advertising companies should be taking it upon themselves to police the boundaries of free speech. Do take a look.

Will free schools be able to teach creationism as science?

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Pupil artwork depicting "Creation" at the Bethany School
in Sheffield, which is applying to be a free school
Ever since their inception, free schools have been a cause for concern for secular campaigners. As the flagship part of the government's schools reforms, education secretary Michael Gove has enthusiastically espoused their virtues, while seeking to dispel suggestions that the freedom afforded to the new academies will allow for the teaching of controversial topics such as creationism. Speaking to Andrew Marr last year (before the government was elected), Gove said "you cannot have a school which teaches creationism", while Rachel Wolf, head of the New Schools Network, which advises groups interested in setting up free schools, has said that groups planning to teach creationism in place of evolution would be told that they "can't become a free school".

But are the safeguards sufficient? Writing in our current issue, James Gray investigates religious groups looking to set up free schools, and discovers that there are organisations on the road to establishing free schools which have every intention of undermining the teaching of evolution. It's an important article, and I urge you to take a look and share your comments.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Christian group launches petition against equality legislation

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The CCFON petition as it appears online
It's been a little quiet here for the past few days, as we've been preoccupied with moving office. But now I'm installed in my new spot in South East London, how about we get things started again with an update on the now tiringly-familiar story surrounding claims by conservative Christian groups that Christians are being persecuted as a result of equalities legislation. Now, following the High Court decision concerning Owen and Eunice Johns, the Derby couple deemed unsuitable as foster carers on account of their views on homosexuality, one of those groups, Christian Concern For Our Nation (CCFON), has launched what it's calling an "Equalities and Conscience Petition", with the aim of encouraging the government to change the current legislation. Here's the text introducing the petition:
"Recent Equalities legislation and its interpretation in the courts has led to several individuals who hold to mainstream Christian teaching being barred from different areas of public life and employment, running counter to our country’s long heritage of Freedom of Conscience, and creating a serious obstacle to the Christian community's full and active involvement in the Big Society initiative.

We call on the Prime Minister to act decisively to address this situation, securing the change necessary to ensure that the law provides a basis for widespread involvement in serving society whilst properly upholding the dignity of every individual, including those who seek to live with integrity to Christian conscience and teaching."
Given that, as I reported in my last post, David Cameron recently expressed his support for the High Court ruling in the Johns case, and said that "Christians should be tolerant and welcoming and broad minded", it seems unlikely that the CCFON petition will come to anything. And the campaign has attracted criticism from liberal Christians, with the think tank Ekklesia joining the British Humanist Association in rejecting the notion of anti-Christian persecution. Responding to the petition, Ekklesia's co-director, Simon Barrow, said:
"The judgement in the recent Johns foster case was very clear. It described claims of anti-religious discrimination as a 'travesty of the reality' and 'wrong as to the factual premises on which they are based.' The judges added that 'No one is seeking to de-legitimise Christianity or any other faith or belief. ... No one is seeking to give Christians, Jews or Muslims or, indeed, peoples of any faith, a second class status. On the contrary, it is fundamental to our law, to our polity and to our way of life, that everyone is equal.'
It is this equality which some vociferous campaign groups are disputing. They want a privileged status in law for their own particular prejudices, using arguments which many other Christians find misplaced, misguided and offensive. Far from ‘defending Christianity’, petitions like this bring it into disrepute."
It would seem that this issue is set to run and run, although you would hope that, considering how consistent judges have been in rejecting the conservative Christian claims in these cases, groups like the Christian Legal Centre, the Christian Institute and CCFON might finally realise the equality legislation is here to stay. As always, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts – I was particularly struck by the claim  in the petition that "individuals who hold to mainstream Christian teaching being barred from different areas of public life". Is this really the case? Can CCFON and the CLC really be seen to represent mainstream Christianity?

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Cameron backs High Court foster carers judgement

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It's interesting to note that the Prime Minister expressed his support for the position taken by the High Court last week in relation to Derby City Council's wish to turn down as foster carers Owen and Eunice Johns, a Pentecostal Christian Couple with strong views on homosexuality. The court judged that it would be legal for the council to reject the couple if they applied to become carer, and David Cameron was asked about the case during a visit to Derby yesterday. "This matter was decided by a court in the appropriate way, Cameron said, "and I think we should rest with the judgement that was made." On the subject of whether Christianity is compatible with tolerance of homosexuality the Prime Minister, who pointed out that he is a church-goer, added: "I think Christians should be tolerant and welcoming and broad minded."

If the conservative Christian groups that throw their weight behind cases such as this had hoped that a Conservative-led government might prove sympathetic to their cause, Cameron's words will come as a disappointment. The Christian Institute, for their part, are unhappy, with their spokesman, Mike Judge, saying:
“The Prime Minister has waded in on one side of a deeply controversial case, and suggested that Christians who share the Johns’ beliefs are automatically intolerant, unwelcoming and narrow-minded. One can disagree with homosexual behaviour without harbouring any hostility to homosexual individuals. Disagreement is not hatred. The remark will disappoint millions of orthodox Christians who hold the same views as the Johns. They will be surprised that the Prime Minister has taken a swipe at them for believing that sex is only for marriage.”
From the secular perspective, on the other hand, it is encouraging to see that the Prime Minister is unsupportive of the efforts of socially-conservative Christians, spearheaded by the Christian Legal Centre, to secure exemptions from equality legislation and claim Christians are being persecuted by laws which prevent them from citing their beliefs in order to discriminate on the basis of sexuality.

We discuss this issue with Naomi Phillips of the British Humanist Association in the latest New Humanist podcast, which you can listen to using the link below (or find other ways to download and listen here). Naomi joins us at 5:59.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

New Humanist Podcast March 2011

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We're pleased to announce the long-awaited return of the New Humanist podcast – it's been a while, but we're now back and we'll be bringing you a podcast (20 mins or so in length) every month, featuring interviews with New Humanist contributors and friends, music, comedy, and discussions of the latest news from the world of faith and faithless.

I've just published the March episode, in which you can hear me and our editor, Caspar Melivlle, talk to science journalist Angela Saini, author of the new book Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, about the meeting of science and religion in a booming India (0:54), discuss the case of a Derby couple turned down as foster carers on account of their views on homosexuality with the BHA's Naomi Phillips (5:59), and consult psychologist and ghostbuster Richard Wiseman for some help tackling a pesky poltergeist.

There's also music from Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People star Helen Arney, as we bring you an exclusive preview of the new hip-hop remix of her song Animals, produced by Mr Simmonds, featuring vocals from Professor Elemental (16.39). That's released on Geek Pop's Geek Like Me EP on 11 March.

Our podcast music was composed by Andrea Rocca, exclusively for New Humanist.

You can listen using the embedded player below, or by subscribing via RSS or email. We're also on iTunes - just search for "New Humanist" in the store and select the podcast subtitled "The podcast for godless people". If you'd like to download the full file directly, you can do so via our podcast page, where you can also find the full archive of the podcasts we published during 2008-9, including the advent podcasts starring Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Robin Ince, Dara O Briain, Richard Dawkins and many more.

[We apologise that the quality of the audio isn't as high as we'd like it to be in places – our audio recorder is on its last legs and we'll be replacing in time for the next episode.]

Friday, 4 March 2011

Oh, for God's sake: BHA census campaign ads deemed too "offensive" for railway stations

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

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly):

One of the rejected Census Campaign ads
The definition of "offensive" appears to have widened significantly with news that the British Humanist Association has had a series of adverts rejected by companies owning advertising space in railway stations on the grounds that they could "cause widespread and serious offence". The proposed ads were intended to promote the BHA's Census Campaign, which is encouraging non-religious people to tick the "None" option when asked "What is your religion?" in this month's census. Since it launched, the campaign's slogan has been "If you're not religious, for God's sake say so" and the posters, which you can view in full on the BHA website, were to continue with the theme. The adverts, say the BHA, were rejected by the companies for two reasons: "they were concerned that the use of the phrase ‘for God’s sake’ would cause widespread and serious offence and they also did not wish to take adverts relating to religion."

As one of our readers pointed out to me on Twitter, the idea that such companies don't "do God" seems a little unlikely – remember the saga of the Alpha Course ad that was defaced in London Bridge? And on the subject of offence, have we really reached a point where "for God's sake" is seen as capable of hurting the delicate sensibilities of Britain's commuters? Where does this leave, for example, the "OMG where did you get that..." clothes campaign that I'm sure many of you have seen on your travels (there's an example of that here)? Or Vodafone's "Everyone loves an OMG moment" campaign (mentioned here)?

The BHA, for their part, are unimpressed, as their chief executive, Andrew Copson, explains:
"It is a little tongue-in-cheek, but in the same way that saying 'bless you' has no religious implication for many, 'for God’s sake' is used to express urgency and not to invoke a deity. This censorship of a legitimate advert is frustrating and ridiculous: the blasphemy laws in England have been abolished but we are seeing the same principle being enforced nonetheless."
How the revised slogan will look on London buses
The BHA is to go ahead with an advertising campaign on buses, which will run in London, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham, Cardiff and Exeter from today, but, on the advice of the Committee of Advertising Practice, the slogan has been changed to "Not religious? In this year's census say so".

Of course, as Andrew Copson points out, the campaign is not about dissuading "those who hold strong religious beliefs from holding them", but rather ensuring that the census presents a more accurate picture of religiosity in Britain. As Winston Fletcher highlights in his piece in the new issue of New Humanist, the last census, with its leading "What is your religion?" question, saw 71.8% of respondents say they were Christian, a figure that is contradicted by numerous other surveys on the country's religious make-up. Yet the 71.8% figure is consistently invoked by policy makers to back up the increasing role for religious organisations in the provision of public services.

What do you make of the rejection of the BHA's ads? Does it represent the return of blasphemy restrictions by the back door? Or is "for God's sake" really too much to encounter on a great British rail journey? Do share your thoughts in the comments.