Thursday, 28 April 2011

The BHA Conference annual conference – featuring Pullman, Grayling, Toynbee and many more

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Manchester's Hilton Deansgate, venue for the 2011
BHA Conference
This year, the British Humanist Association's annual conference takes place at the Hilton Deansgate in Manchester, running from Friday 17 June until Sunday 19 June. Under the suitably ambitious heading "The Meaning of Life", the BHA have put together a fantastic line-up, with the possible highlight being a rare opportunity to see novelist Philip Pullman, who will receive a special award for services to humanism. Other contributors include Peter Atkins, Julian Baggini, Chris French, A C Grayling, Natalie Haynes, Stephen Law, Richard Norman, Mark Vernon and BHA President Polly Toynbee.

Tickets for the conference, which also includes entertainment on the Friday night from comedian Robin Ince and “Egghead” C J De Mooi, and a gala dinner on the Saturday evening, cost £156 and are available via the BHA website. To help spread the cost, the BHA are offering a pay-by-instalments option over three months – you'll need to sign up for that this week (before the end of April) though, so bear that in mind. See the site for more details.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

See the late Pope's blood – and learn more about relics in our new issue

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Arm reliquary of the Apostles
(Germany, c. 1190), NB: does not
contain blood of previous Pope
I'm sure many of you will have been as intrigued as I was by the news that the Catholic Church extracted and preserved a few phials of Pope John Paul  II's blood as he lay on his deathbed, for use as part of a relic which will go on display this Sunday to mark the late Pontiff's beatification. Here's a snippet from the Guardian's report on the definitely-not-at-all-grisly affair:
"The Vatican said doctors had taken a quantity of blood from the pontiff while he lay dying, which had been sent in four containers to the blood transfusion centre at the Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome. Two "remained at the disposal" of his private secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz, who was later made a cardinal and the archbishop of Krakow.

The remaining two phials stayed in the hospital where they were "devoutly safeguarded by the nuns" who work there as nurses. Both had been put into reliquaries: ornate relic containers that are usually made with precious metals and stones."
Of course, the creation of relics is a practice as old as the Catholic Church itself, and it's something we cover in the latest issue of New Humanist, with historian Charles Freeman reminding us of the cruelty and exploitation that lay behind the artistic beauty of medieval reliquaries. It's a subject we'll be hearing lots about it in the coming months, with the British Museum's exhibition set to display a stunning array of medieval relics in its Treasures from Heaven exhibition, which opens on 23 June.

The new issue of New Humanist is out now in stores across the UK, in selected branches of WH Smiths andindependent newsagents – just enter your postcode on our homepage to find your nearest stockist.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

A quick straw poll on that thing that's happening this Friday

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A lizard: almost certainly not involved in the thing
that's happening this friday
Way back when it was announced last year, I made a solemn pledge to you, the readers of this blog, that, unless the protagonists turned out to be shape-shifting, humanity-manipulating lizards, I wouldn't mention that thing that's happening this Friday.

Which is why, in this post, which is clearly an act of pledge-breaking (something I hear is fashionable these days), I will only refer to that thing as "that thing that's happening this Friday". I suppose the reason I'm broaching the issue at all is that, working here on my own in the New Humanist office, on the first day of this three-day void, this non-week bracketed by non-events, I'm looking for reassurance that I'm not alone.

You see, spending the past week back at home with my parents, surrounded by people I generally consider to be level-headed, I was asked on more than one occasion whether I was looking forward to that thing that's happening this Friday. "Oh, you're heading back to London tomorrow," one well-meaning friend pointed out. "You must be excited about seeing that thing that's happening this Friday." At which point I realised that I had stepped, unwittingly, into the realm of Schadenfreude. "No," I replied. "To be honest I hope it rains."

A completely unreasonable position, I fully admit, and one that I'm happy to reverse. I don't hope it rains. I for one would quite like to enjoy my day off work, even if it won't involve watching that thing that's happening this Friday. But it's certainly trying having to spend the week in a land that seems to have entirely taken leave of its senses, with even newspapers that should know better veering perilously close to the sycophancy, and quite rightly, and amusingly, attracting the ire of their readers for doing so. I don't know why, but I'd naively assumed that most people really didn't care about it – from what I've seen and heard in the past week, it turns out I may have been wrong.

Which brings me to the point of what may prove one of my more pointless blog posts. Chatting to my dad – a man who is rather fond (perhaps even too fond) of his line about not singing the national anthem at the cup final because even if he believed in God he wouldn't want him to save the Queen – about the national fawning frenzy, he told me how he likes to irritate his work colleagues by pronouncing himself a "republican atheist". They don't like that one, apparently.

Which got me thinking (and I'm not claiming for a moment that this wasn't obvious) – those two labels must surely converge on a regular basis. Perhaps the reason the thing that's happening this Friday didn't really invade my life until I took last week off was because I spend most of my days running this website, conversing with an audience largely uninterested in that kind of thing.

So, just as a little experiment, and mostly to keep me entertained as I work on my own here in the void, I thought I'd conduct a quick straw poll. Please do share your thoughts and, whatever you're up to this coming weekend, I hope the sun shines and you have a good one. Honest.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Council awards teenage counselling contract to Catholic charity

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Following the news this week that the Salvation Army has been awarded government funding to provide vital services to victims of sex trafficking, a fresh controversy has broken out over the decision of Conservative-led Richmond Council, in West London, to award a contract for counselling young people in the area's schools to the Catholic Children's Society, a London-based organisation which withdrew from adoption services after the 2007 Equality Act prevented adoption agencies from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

While Councillor Christine Percival, cabinet member for education, youth and children’s services at Richmond Council, has said that the CCS bid for the contract, which is worth £89,000, was "way better than anyone else's" and that she has "no concerns that they will not carry out an excellent job", Councillor Stephen Knight, who leads the Liberal Democrats on Richmond Council, expressed concern as to whether a Catholic charity is suitable for providing counselling that will cover sex and relationship issues:
"Counselling services for young people have to address issues such as contraception, unwanted pregnancy and homophobic bullying and the appointment of a religious group to provide these services on behalf of the Council is totally inappropriate. Most young people facing these issues simply won’t want to seek help from counsellors required by their employer to 'uphold the Catholic ethos'."
Counselling services in Richmond were previously provided by the locally-based secular chairty Off The Record, which lost out to the CCS in bidding for the new contract.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Should Qur'an-burning be an offence?

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Pastor Terry Jones
In a provocative piece on the New Statesman website, blogger Dan Hodges suggests that "If you burn a Quran you should go to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect your £100."

Hodges is responding to the news this week that a BNP candidate, Sion Owens, was arrested in South Wales after footage emerged of him setting fire to a copy of the Qur'an. He was charged with a public order offence, which was subsequently withdrawn by the Crown Prosecution Service, although investigations are apparently ongoing. The Owens case, which follows the recent violence in Afghanistan prompted by a book burning conducted by controversial Florida pastors Terry Jones and Wayne Sapp, raises serious questions about free expression, but Hodges argues that free speech should not include the right to burn the Qur'an:
"Those who defend Quran burning on the basis of free speech miss the point. For starters, it's not free. It requires someone to go out, buy a book, buy petrol, (not even cheap at the moment, never mind free), light them, film them, then distribute the proceedings to whatever little clique they call their friends, or more widely on Youtube or some other "social" media. This is an overt, conscious action, motivated by malign intent. It is not the product of open, free-spirited discourse, but an aggressive, premeditated, provocation.

Nor is it actually speech. It's not opening a dialogue or building an argument. Quite the opposite. It's a deliberate act of destruction; the destruction of a dialogue and argument constructed by others. If you don't like Islam, fine. Write a book about why. Don't burn one."
He continues by arguing that the potential consequences of Qur'an burning, i.e. violent reprisals by Islamic extremists, should ensure that doing so is a criminal offence:
"It's not just the action, it's the consequences. We know what Quran burning leads to. In the last couple of weeks it's resulted in innocent people being murdered and maimed. It's increased the threat to British and western troops serving overseas. It's boosted the Taliban and other terrorist organisations.

If our laws are not for preventing people from deliberately engaging in actions and activity that incite others to murder, propagate international terrorism and lay the seeds of civil disorder, what are they for?"
Hodges' argument is in stark contrast to a piece in our next issue (which we've just sent to the printers) by Padraig Reidy, news editor of Index on Censorship magazine. Padraig argues that, while book burning is clearly a stupid and provocative act, we should not allow the behaviour of a few senseless individuals to lead to the erosion of the vital human right of free expression:
"Ultimately, it is the perpetrators of murderous violence who must be blamed for murderous violence (in a civilian setting, that is). While rioters may well have held the Qu’ran dear, this is not a reason for killing. As philosophy writer Nigel Warburton pointed out on Index on Censorship’s Free Speech Blog: “no idea or object should be sacrosanct from criticism or ridicule, and we should be clear that we condemn violence far more than we condemn the expression of offensive views.”

Afghanistan’s President Karzai has sought the prosecution of Jones and Sapp, but, admirably, US authorities have not for a moment suggested this could be a possibility.

The Kabul slaughter was horrific. But it should only strengthen our resolve in defending free speech, both from and for book burners."
What do you make of these arguments? Are you with Padraig on this, or do you agree with Hodges that a line should be drawn with deliberately inflammatory acts like Qur'an burning? Share your view by answering the poll below, and please do discuss at length in the comments.

I've phrased the poll question as "Should it be a criminal offence to burn the Qur'an in public?", with "public" intended to cover broadcasting the act on YouTube and so on, as Sion Owens did. I've set the answers to "Yes", "No" and "Not sure" to keep things straightforward, but you can discuss which laws would cover it and so on in the comments.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Catholic publisher pulps books after erroneously stating Church backing for contraception

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The cover of YouCat
Nuova Citta, an Italian Catholic publishing house, has had to make an embarrassing withdrawal after its translation of a new Catholic catechism book for young people, YouCat ("extraordinary and gripping": the Pope), stated that Church teaching permits the use of articificial contraception such as condoms rather than the "natural family planning" methods favoured by the Vatican.

The book consists of questions and answers on the catechism, and the original German version of YouCat asks whether married couples can "regulate conception", the answer being and emphatic "Yes". In the erroneous Italian translation, the question became one asking whether couples can "use contraceptive methods", with answer remaining in the affirmative.

The publishers had printed 45,000 Italian copies of the book, with between 15,000 and 16,000 already sold. Rev. Joseph Fessio, head of Ignatius Press, which is publishing YouCat in English, described the misprint as "an embarassment".

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Humanists protest as government hands funding for protecting trafficked women to Salvation Army

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The British Humanist Association has expressed concern following the news that £6 million of government funding for the provision of services to victims of sex trafficking has been awarded to the Salvation Army.

Funding for the Poppy Project, which has been run for the past eight years by the secular charity Eaves Housing, is worth £2 million per year and will now be directed through the Salvation Army, which list one of its charitable aims as "to reach people with the Christian gospel through evangelism". As the BHA point out, the charity has previously told parliament that it would find it "impossible" to be "religiously neutral" in the provision of public service, while its website states that "The Salvation Army believes that homosexuality can be properly considered only in the broader context of a biblical understanding of human sexuality in general", which "treats such practices as self-evidently abnormal". Gay people are excluded from joining the Salvation Army, unless they are prepared to live "a lifestyle built upon celibacy and self-restraint".

The Salvation Army is quoted in the Guardian as saying that it will "provide holistic care for all those who come under the auspices of our care", but Naomi Phillips, head of public affairs at the BHA, sees the redirection of government funding from secular to religious hands as a worrying development:
"It is deeply concerning that the government has considered it appropriate to stop contracting with an organisation specialist in working with victims of sexual trafficking, motivated solely with regard to the well-being of those women, and handing over control of those services to a church motivated by a clear mission to evangelise.
"These services are provided for some of the most vulnerable women imaginable, who will now have little choice other than to have a service provider that is allowed by law to discriminate and proselytise in the way they provide that service, and which itself is vocal in its inability to remain religiously neutral, even when providing vital services. What is the government thinking?"
The BHA's concerns reflect those it has expressed over the wider issue of the government's much-mailigned "Big Society" initiative, which it fears will lead to more and more funding for public services directed into the hands of religious organisations.

Staying with the subject of care for victims of sex trafficking, it's well worth returning to an article we carried in New Humanist in 2009 by Rahila Gupta, in which she contrasted the quality care being provided by Eaves Housing with that provided by a religious organisation, Churches Against Sex Trafficking in Europe (CHASTE), and warned against relying on unaccountable faith-based groups to protect the human rights of vulnerable women.

At the time, Gupta pointed out that there was already inadequate funding for secular charities in this area, leaving women with no option but to seek the assistance of religious groups like CHASTE and the Salvation Army. With the government's redirection of funds away from Eaves Housing this week, the situation appears to have become even less satisfactory.

Monday, 11 April 2011

French burqa ban comes into force

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France's ban on the wearing of full-face coverings in public – aimed at preventing women from wearing the burqa – comes into force today, with campaigners promising to defy the ban and risk prosecution. Under the new law, men found to be forcing women to wear the burqa will face a fine of €30,000 and a year in prison, while women themselves will risk a €150 fine and compulsory "citizenship classes".

The ban, which opponents are planning to protest against in Paris today (two women have already been arrested, according to the Telegraph), has proven highly controversial, with embattled President Nicolas Sarkozy accused of courting votes from the far-right, and it remains to be seen how firmly it will be enforced. The press agency AFP carry a quote from the deputy head of a police union, who expressed his reservations about imposing the law:
"The law will be infinitely difficult to enforce, and will be infinitely rarely enforced. It's not for the police to demonstrate zeal. If [women] refuse, that's when things get really complicated. We have no power to force them. I can't begin to imagine we're going to pay any attention to a veiled woman in a sensitive area, where men are proud."
It's an issue that tends to divide opinion among humanists and secularists, both inside and outside of France, with views split between those who would welcome sanctions against what they see as a symbol of the religiously-justified oppression of women, and those who oppose the state interfering with religious freedom and the basic right of citizens to dress how they please. We carried a debate on the issue in New Humanist in September last year, around the time that the law was passing through the French parliament, in which Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argued in favour of a ban and Kenan Malik against, which is well worth revisiting now for a clear outline of the arguments. We polled online readers alongside this, asking whether Britain should follow suit and introduce a ban, and found a more-or-less 50/50 split in opinion.

Now that France has actually introduced the ban, it'd be interesting to know whether opinion has shifted. Perhaps it's something we can debate in the comments below. To offer my view, I've always been opposed to the idea of banning the burqa. It may carry uncomfortable connotations for women's rights and social inclusivity, but the notion of the state imposing a ban on an item of clothing seems to me to be draconian and profoundly illiberal. I was particularly struck by the "citizenship classes" that women breaking the French law will be required to attend – the idea that citizens failing to conform to a state-endorsed form of French identity can somehow be "reeducated" into doing so serves to highlight the confused nature of the debate over national identity in contemporary Europe. There seems to be an assumption within governments (including here in Britain, highlighted by David Cameron's remarks on "state multiculturalism"and the need to promote a stonger "British" identity) that national identity is something that can be imposed from above, rather than something which develops organically. Of course governments can, and will, try to promote greater social integration, but attempts to do so negatively, as France has through a sanction on the burqa, seems likely, to me, to only increase division and resentment.

What do you think? Please do share your thoughts below.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

A humble act of hubris? AC Grayling's secular bible

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AC Grayling, photographed by Des Willie
Some of you may have noticed that philosopher AC Grayling has been in the news a lot this week, on account of the publication of his latest work The Good Book: A Secular Bible. It's a bold project, and one that is, not unexpectedly, attracting criticism from religious commentators. Indeed, Grayling himself recognises the scale of ambition involved in putting together a non-religious bible, and he discusses it with Matthew Adams in an interview for the New Humanist website:
"I acknowledge the fact that it does look tremendously hubristic, but it’s certainly done – and I don’t want to come across as a sort of Uriah Heep here – in a spirit of great humility. After all, most of what’s in it comes from really great writers. Most of it isn’t me.”
So, is Grayling's Good Book an act of hubris or humility? Take a look at the full interview and see what you think (although you will, of course, need to pick up the book yourself to properly decide).

The release of The Good Book coincides with the news that Grayling will be taking over the presidency of the British Humanist Association from July, succeeding Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee, who has held the position since 2007.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Bishops will survive in reformed House of Lords

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Deputy PM Nick Clegg
It seems odd to have two posts in a row about the House of Lords, but in a way the previous post is useful in highlighting why the news contained in this one is so disappointing.

It is reported in today's Times (which is of course behind a paywall, but the New Statesman have blogged the details) that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is set to compromise with the Conservatives on the issue of reform of the House of Lords.

Clegg had hoped to reform the House into a fully-elected chamber, but it now appears that he will accept a system whereby 80 per cent of members are elected and 20 per cent appointed into a 300-member House. He has also, apparently, accepted that a number of places will be reserved for Church of England bishops, who currently hold 26 seats in the Lords (the Daily Mail say Clegg settled on this "after bowing to pressure from the Church of England", although it's not clear exactly what that pressure entailed).

This will, as the New Statesman put it, ensure that Britain "will remain the only semi-theocracy in the western world".

Friday, 1 April 2011

Humanist concerns "entirely met" by House of Lords prayers

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Relevant: the House of Lords
Lest you should think that the House of Lords is an archaic institution in dire need of reform, we really should bring you up to date on the discussion held there yesterday on the subject of the Anglican prayers read at the start of each day by one of the 26 Church of England bishops that hold seats in the House.

Commencing proceedings was Lord Roberts of Llandudno, who stood to pose a key question:
"To ask the Chairman of Committees what consideration can be given to widening the scope of House of Lords Prayers into devotions encompassing other Christian traditions and the faiths that are represented in the House."
There followed a conversation which, particularly at a time of major public service cuts and British involvement in a new foreign conflict, was clearly so crucial that a failure to find time for it in the highest chamber of the British legislature would have represented an abrogation of democratic responsibility. You will need to consult that great record of parliamentary proceedings, Hansard, for the full transcript, but, to give you a sense of the significance of the occasion, we reproduce here a sample of the discussion that ensued:
"The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, the Prayers read at the beginning of each Sitting of the House are read by one of the Lords Spiritual. The Lords Spiritual sit by virtue of being representatives of the established church, and the Prayers reflect that. Any changes to alter the Prayers would need to be considered by the Procedure Committee and agreed to by the House. There are currently no plans to alter the arrangements for Prayers.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: In Wales, we do not have an established church, but is it not time for Prayers in the House, including the present Prayers, to reflect the diversity of the different faiths and denominations that we have not only in the House but in the United Kingdom? Is this not an opportunity for us to consider having a minute of silence and reflection in addition to the Prayers?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, the practice of Prayers in the House is believed to have started in about 1558, and was common practice by 1567. The present form of Prayers probably dates from the reign of Charles II. Recent changes to the form of Prayers included allowing a choice from a range of Psalms, which was agreed by the House in 1970, and again in 1979, and one or two other minor changes. It might be a little premature to consider changing them now.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: As a Welsh non-conformist, like the noble Lord, may I assure the Minister that many of us are wholly satisfied with the timeless sentiments and superlative prose of the present Prayers? However, may I ask the Bishops' Bench to consider one little matter as an act of fellowship and togetherness-that at the end of Prayers we all repeat the Grace, as happens in the other place?

The Chairman of Committees: I would need to discuss the latter point with the Bench of Bishop but I entirely agree with what the noble Lord said in the first part of his question. I do not believe that there is anything in the Prayers which could possibly be seen as offensive to members of other religions".
This demonstration of the indispensable relevance of the House of Lords in 21st century Britain was marred only by a point raised by Lord Hughes of Woodside, who deigned to question the very necessity of conducting prayers in the House:
"My Lords, I declare an interest as an honorary vice-president of the British Humanist Association. Without commenting on the established church, I will say that my personal preference is that we should not have Prayers at all. If we have to have an opening ceremony in which religion may play a part, will the Chairman of Committees make sure that the views of humanists are properly taken into account?"
An extraordinary, impertinent request, you will no doubt agree, which can only leave us thankful for Lord Elton, son of Godfrey Elton, 1st Baron Elton, who rose to settle the matter and, it might be argued, defend the very dignity of the mother of all parliaments:
"My Lords, may I assure my noble friend that the concerns of humanists are entirely met by prayers by Christians in this Chamber every day?"
The baron is, of course, quite right. The concerns of humanists – particularly their concerns over the privileged position of religion in British public life – are most adequately met by the Christian prayers conducted in parliament at the beginning of each day. To suggest otherwise is, surely, to take leave of all rationality.

Scientology to be taught in Religious Education lessons

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Dianetics, the key founding text of
Scientology, may may soon be taught in schools
as part of a radical education overhaul
Children as young as four will be taught about Scientology from September, New Humanist can reveal, as a local authority unveils major changes to religious education in primary schools.

Education bosses in Blackburn, Lancashire, have overhauled the RE syllabus to ensure "non-mainstream" beliefs are taught, as part of a major shake-up to be introduced from September in each of the 28 primary and secondary community schools in the borough.

Education chiefs stressed that children will continue to learn about the six major faiths - Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism.

But they will also be taught Scientology - the belief that, 75 billion years ago, an evil intergalactic overlord named Xenu brought billions of people to earth, arranged them around a volcano, and killed them using thermonuclear weapons.

According to one of the council’s advisors it will allow children to become "citizens in Blackburn and the world" and instill "confidence".

The overhaul follows an earlier decision to introduce humanism on to the syllabus – a move a local imam said would send the "wrong message" to children. The introduction of Scientology could prove similarly controversial, but those behind the move are keen to emphasise the benefits. Councillor Barb Holdrun, who sits on the area's SACRE, or Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education, said:
"We really must recognise that some people neither believe in the major monotheistic religions, nor subscribe to rationalistic worldviews such as humanism. An increasing number are attracted to philosophies considered alternative or niche, such as Scientology, and we have to make children aware of these 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.”
To create the syllabus the team reviewed the census results in 2001 which revealed that, although the borough has representatives from all of the six major faiths, as well as more than 10,000 who identified as non-religious, there were at least four people in the area who described themselves as Scientologists.

Update: In case it's not clear from the content (Barb Holdrun, anyone? Four people?), this story was published on the morning of 1 April 2011. Sources tell us the new syllabus was quietly withdrawn shortly after midday.