Friday, 27 May 2011

Backpedal of the week

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Brigitte Bareges
I saw this in the Metro on the way to work this morning and thought it was worth a quick post. Speaking in the French National Assembly on Wednesday, Brigitte Bareges, of Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, made the following contribution to a debate over gay marriage:
"So, in that case, why not unions with animals?"
Later, following an unsurprising backlash from gay rights groups, Bareges sought to clarify her words:
"I meant it as a joke. I am personally in favour of all types of sexual relations between consenting adults."
The one thing you could say in Bareges' defence is at least she spoke her mind, while her colleagues opted for the quiet approach – they opted to reject gay marriage in the vote on Wednesday evening.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Promotion of condom use increases risk of HIV infection, suggests theologian in Vatican newspaper

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Writing in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Catholic theologian Father Juan Perez-Soba, of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Rome, has suggested that the use of condoms does not decrease the long-term risk of HIV infection:
"The numerous campaigns that invite people to use the condom indiscriminately have instead demonstrated the contrary: By feeding the false belief that there is no danger, they have increased the possibility of infection. To present the condom as a solution to the problem is a grave error; to choose it simply as a habitual practice is to show a lack of responsibility in regard to the other person."
In the article, which appeared in yesterday's edition of L'Osservatore Romano, Perez-Soba also says that condom use within marriage can not be considered moral, as it prevents the "sexual act" from being a "fully conjugal act":
"An act is not truly unitive when it intentionally impedes the communication of the sperm and excludes the possibility of its reception in the mutual gift of the bodies of the spouses."
He added that, in cases where a husband or wife is HIV-positive, married couples should not use condoms, but rather practise abstinence:
"Faced with the insuperable possibility of infection, they can agree to adopt the decision to abstain from having sexual relations for reasons of health, as happens with other pathologies."

Outrage as government appoints anti-abortion group to sexual health panel

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Today's Guardian leads with the news that an anti-abortion charity, Life, has been invited by the government to join a new advisory forum on sexual health. The charity, which opposes abortion in all circumstances and favours abstinence-based sex education, will join the new forum while the pro-choice British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which was a member of the forum's predecessor, the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, has not been invited.

Explaining the inclusion of Life and the exclusion of BPAS, a Department of Health Spokesperson pointed to the need for "balance" on a panel which will include other pro-choice groups:
"To provide balance, it is important that a wide range of interests and views are represented on the forum.

Marie Stopes International and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have similar interests. We offered them shared membership but they declined, and after careful consideration we concluded that it was not feasible to invite both organisations."
While the inclusion of Life will shock many who favour abortion rights and comprehensive sex education, it is worth noting that it will be up against an array of well-respected sexual health organisations, with the rest of the forum consisting of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Association of Directors of Public Health, the British HIV Association, the Terrence Higgins Trust, Brook, the Family Planning Association, the Sex Education Forum and National Children's Bureau, and Marie Stopes International.

Speaking to the Guardian, Stuart Cowie, head of education at Life, expressed a desire to work together with the other groups on the panel:
"If we can be involved with other people in reducing [the number of abortions], then that fits with our charitable objectives and I don't think is unpalatable to anyone else, regardless of their position on when life begins."
However, others are sceptical about the impact anti-choice, abstinence-based approaches could have on the number of abortions. Simon Blake, the national director of Brook, which provides confidential sexual health advice for young people, pointed to the statistical success of the pro-contraception approach, which has led to a reduction in the abortion rate among under-18s, and warned against adopting regressive policies:
"Having made such massive progress, what we have to do is sustain that … and not go back to a time when the young had really poor sexual and relationship education and see a rise in teenage pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted infections as a result."
The profile of the anti-choice movement appears to have increased in recent months. As the Guardian point out, Life has also been invited on to a new Sex and Relationships Council, which was launched last week by education secretary Michael Gove, alongside the Silver Ring Thing, which encourages young people to make a pledge of abstinence until they are married. Three weeks ago, MPs voted in favour of a Ten Minute Rule Bill tabled by the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, which called for girls to receive abstinence based sex education in school. Alongside the Labour MP Frank Field, Dorries has also tabled amendments to the to the health and social care bill which would require women seeking abortion to receive counselling from an organisation that does not perform the procedures itself.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The End is still coming on 21 October, says failed Rapture pastor Harold Camping

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Harold Camping's 21 May prophecy came and went without
incident, but will 21 October pass so peacefully?
Despite causing worldwide hilarity on 21 May, California pastor Harold Camping clearly doesn't know when he is beaten. Demonstrating the persistence we have come to expect from a man who has predicted the end of the world on three separate occasions in the past three decades, Camping, whose latest doomsday came and went without incident on Saturday, has told followers that the world will definitely end on Friday 21 October. It's a date that already featured in his apocalyptic schedule – 21 May was the date for the Rapture, when good Christians would ascend to heaven, leaving the rest of us behind to face rule by the Antichrist, with the world ending properly on 21 October. Now, following a hasty reappraisal, Camping claims that Saturday was merely a spiritual Rapture (i.e., one where absolutely nothing changed) and says we will have to wait until October for the real fireworks:
"On May 21, this last weekend, this is where the spiritual aspect of it really comes through. God again brought judgment on the world. We didn’t see any difference but God brought Judgment Day to bear upon the whole world. The whole world is under Judgment Day and it will continue right up until Oct. 21, 2011 and by that time the whole world will be destroyed."
As the Church Mouse points out in an interesting post, Saturday was the world's first social media Rapture, with Twitter users boosting the worldwide media attention received by Camping and his followers. No doubt we can expect a fresh round of End Times gags five months from now.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Activist arrested as Saudi women prepare day of protest against driving ban

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An activist has been detained by police in Saudi Arabia after recording a video of herself driving a car in the eastern city of Khobar. Manal al-Sharif, 32, uploaded the clip to YouTube as part of a protest against the legal arrangement which effectively bans women from driving in the country, and it received more than 500,000 views before apparently being taken down (the link isn't currently working, although clips can be see through various news services such as al-Jazeera).

Saudi law does not specifically prohibit women from driving, but drivers require a licence issued within the country, which are not issued to women. Al-Sharif has started a campaign for women holding driving licences obtained in other countries to defy the ban from 17 June onwards, with Facebook and Twitter pages set up in support.

Doctor who recommended Jesus to patient to fight disciplinary proceedings with backing of Christian Legal Centre

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The Bethesda Medical Centre in Margate
Two months on from their defeat at the High Court in the case of Derby City Council's wish to turn down a Pentecostal Christian Couple as foster carers on account of their views on homosexuality, the Christian Legal Centre appear to have found a new cause célèbre in Dr Richard Scott, a Margate GP who is facing disciplinary action after recommending faith in Jesus during a consultation with a patient last year.

The patient, a 24-year-old man described as "in a rut and in need of help" in the Daily Mail's report (these are presumably the words of Scott, although it's not clear), apparently told his mother "He just said I need Jesus" after she asked him how the consultation had gone, and it was her complaint which left Scott facing an official warning from the General Medical Council.

The Bethesda Medical Centre in Margate, where Scott is based, has six Christian partners who state on an NHS website that "faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients". Speaking to the press, Scott has defended his decision to discuss religion with the patient:
"I only discussed my faith at the end of a lengthy medical consultation after exploring the various interventions that the patient had previously tried, and after promising to follow up the patient's request appointment with other medical professionals.
I only discussed mutual faith after obtaining the patient's permission. In our conversation, I said that personally, I had found having faith in Jesus helped me and could help the patient. At no time did the patient indicate that they were offended, or that they wanted to stop the discussion. If that had been the case, I would have immediately ended the conversation."
Scott now plans to appeal against censure by the GMC, and his rationale for doing so reflects that of the Christian Legal Centre, which has used a steady string of cases to make its argument about the perceived marginalisation of Christian views in public life:
"By appealing against the decision, it will go to a public hearing where the GMC may warn me or decide to take matters further. But it is worth the risk as I wanted to do this because there is a bigger picture.
I wanted to give confidence and inspiration to other Christians who work in the medical profession."
For its part, the GMC has pointed out that Scott breached its guidlines, with Chief Executive Niall Dickons saying:
"Doctors should not normally discuss their personal beliefs with patients unless those beliefs are directly relevant to the patient's care."
What do you make of this latest case? Should doctors be able to discuss faith with patients, or does doing so represent an abuse of their position? Share your views in the comments.

Update: As a commenter points out below, the description of the Bethesda Medical Centre on the NHS website is rather extraordinary (bold emphasis added):

Bethesda was a place in Bible where Christ healed a lame man and means literally 'house of mercy'
The 6 Partners are all practising Christians from a variety of Churches and their faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients and employees. The Partners feel that the offer of talking to you on spiritual matters is of great benefit. If you do not wish this, that is your right and will not affect your medical care. Please tell the doctor (or drop a note to the Practice Manager) if you do not wish to speak on matters of faith.
So it seems faith is something patients must opt out of at that surgery.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Controversy as report into US Catholic child abuse blames 1960s "deviance"

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A report into child abuse committed by Catholic priests in the United States, commissioned by Catholic bishops and conducted by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, has caused controversy over the conclusion that the high incidence of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s was linked to the social changes of the time.

Unveiling the report yesterday, the principal researcher, Karen Terry suggested the crisis had peaked several decades ago. "The increased frequency of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s was consistent with the patterns of increased deviance of society during that time. Social influences intersected with vulnerabilities of individual priests whose preparation for a life of celibacy was inadequate at that time."

In the report, which can be viewed in full as a PDF, this deviance is outlined as follows:
"The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in American society generally. This increase in abusive behavior is consistent with the rise in other types of “deviant” behavior, such as drug use and crime, as well as changes in social  behavior, such as an increase in premarital sexual behaviour and divorce."
By contrast, internal aspects of Catholicism, such as celibacy, are not considered to have played a key causal role:
"Features and characteristics of the Catholic Church, such as an exclusively male priesthood and the commitment to celibate chastity, were invariant during the increase, peak, and decrease in abuse incidents, and thus are not causes of the 'crisis'."
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which represents victims, has reacted angrily, describing the report as "garbage":
"Two academics, paid by bishops and using information from bishops reach the conclusions bishops desperately want to reach themselves.

The Catholic hierarchy wants us to believe that the abuse of children by clerics is ‘situational.’ It's not. It's systemic. And most important, the tragic continuing cover up of those crimes, by bishops, is even more systemic. But the bishops report will give them even more reasons to avoid tough questions and take decisive steps to make children safer, expose the truth, discipline wrong-doers and stop the abuse.

The document is yet another reminder of the sad, simple truth that keeps getting overlooked here: no institution can police itself, especially not an ancient, rigid, secretive, all-male monarchy. The report is a clarion call to police, prosecutors, lawmakers and judges to end decades of dangerous deference to church officials and start reforming secular laws so that those who commit, ignore and conceal child sex crimes can be held responsible for the devastation they cause."
While the report does not blame the Church for producing abusive priests, it is critical of the manner in which dioceses responded to the crisis. “What is clear to us was that in many cases the bishops did respond, but they were responding to their priests,” Terry told reporters yesterday. “They were looking to help the priest, to treat the priest, to help him overcome his sickness. What they did not do was focus on the victims and the harm to the victims.”

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Bishops to remain as government proposes House of Lords reform

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Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams addressing the
House of Lords
This afternoon, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has unveiled the government's plans for House of Lords reform in the House of Commons. As we anticipated in a piece on our site a few weeks ago, 80 per cent of the reformed House would be elected by the public, with 20 per cent appointed, and the Church of England would retain its foothold, with the number of bishops reduced from 26 to 12

The debate in the House of Commons is continuing as I write (at around 3:45pm), and you can tune in live via the BBC website. I'll link to some news articles when they appear later.

Please do share your thoughts in the comments.

Update: As the BHA have just pointed out, these proposals would actually increase the proportion of Bishops in the Lords. Currently there are 26 bishops out of 800 members, which is around 3 per cent, while under the reforms there would be 12 bishops out of 300 members, or 4 per cent.

Here's a report from the BBC, as well as the BHA's reaction to the news.

Islamic creationism on tour

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Notorious Turkish creationist (and aspiring
Bond villain) Adnan Oktar
Regular readers will know that we like to keep tabs on the activities of Harun Yahya, aka Adnan Oktar, the notorious Turkish author of the Atlas of Creation and apparent leader of what may be the world's only Islamic creationist sex cult.

So, with that in mind, I thought I'd pass on something I just read on Reuters, reporting on a trip to France by a group of Oktar's associates, who are peddling their leader's ideas in a 10-date pseudoscientific tour. In addition to holding conferences in Muslim centres in Paris and six other French cities, the group have visited a privately-run Islamic school. Reuters' Tom Heneghan explains:
At a Muslim junior high school in this north Paris suburb, about 100 pupils – boys seated on the right, girls on the left – listened as two Turks from Harun Yahya's headquarters in Istanbul denounced evolution as a theory Muslims should shun.

"We didn't descend from the apes," lecturer Ali Sadun told the giggling youngsters. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, he said, was "the scientific basis to defend atheism."
As is pointed out in the Reuters piece, France has had its run-ins with Oktar in the past. In 2007, the French Education Minsitry reacted to the distribution of the Atlas of Creation to French schools by instructing headteachers to remove the copies from circulation, a move which Oktar cohort Sadun likened to Nazi book-burning in this weekend's lecture.

While French secularism – laïcité – means the Harun Yahya network must confine their activities to private Muslim institutions, that's faint consolation for the educations of the 100 children present at the Paris lecture. "As a Muslim school, we're lucky to have people who give us tools for this debate," one teacher told them. "This is very important for you and for your pride."

Thursday, 12 May 2011

New campaign launches after school invites creationist preacher to revision day

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As part of new campaign, Creationism In Schools Isn't Science (CrISIS), launched with the backing of the British Centre for Science Education, the Christian think-tank Ekklesia and the National Secular Society, a group of leading scientists, educators and campaigners have today written to the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, urging him to clarify government guidelines preventing the teaching of creationism as science in British Schools.

The launch of CrISIS was prompted by Laura Horner, a parent of children at St Peter's Church of England School in Exeter. In March, Philip Bell, an evangelical preacher who runs the UK arm of the young-earth creationist organisation Creation Ministries International, was invited by St Peters to lecture at a revision day for GCSE RE pupils. When Horner complained to the school, she received a letter which described modern biology as "evolutionism" and Bell as a “scientist” who “presented arguments based on scientific theory for his case".

Speaking about the launch of CrISIS, Horner said:
"I was appalled to find out that my children had been exposed to this dangerous nonsense and I am determined that the Secretary of State for Education should urgently plug the loophole that allows creationists to do this.
What has happened in Exeter has serious implications for all existing state schools, but also because groups of creationists are known to be drawing up applications to run Free Schools, which would remove many checks and balances."
In the letter to Gove, the signatories, who include leading scientists like Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones and Simon Singh, as well as both religious and secular campaigners, call on the government to place clearer restrictions on the use of creationist speakers and learning materials in schools:
"Recently, the Department of Education has stated that you are ‘crystal clear’ that creationism has no scientific validity and should not be taught as science. Yet here we have a school presenting Creationism as a valid scientific position, and justifying this by reference to Religious Education. These events show that creationists are now openly using the RE syllabus to advance their claim to be offering a valid scientific alternative to established knowledge, from within the State funded school system.

Therefore, we believe that the guidelines need clarifying to prevent Creationism being presented as a valid scientific theory both in lesson time and outside of it in state funded schools, as we are aware that this is also happening in clubs in and out of school time. Given the nature of the internet, we also believe that the Guidance should state that websites which promote creationism as a valid scientific theory, like other unsuitable resources, should not be used. We believe this is necessary to protect the plain intent of the current Guidelines.

In addition, you will shortly have to deal with applications for Free School status from Everyday Champions Church (ECC), the Christian Schools Trust and for Academy status for St Peter’s among many others. Recent public statements from ECC and its associates suggest, if anything, an even more anti-scientific approach in its preferred teaching. This would suggest that the current Guidelines will need modification to reflect emerging practice."
A petition urging the government to clarify the guidelines has been launched, which you can add your name to here. There is a also a Facebook group. The full text of the letter sent to Gove can be seen below.

CrISIS Letter to Gove                                                                                                   

Latest news: Ugandan anti-gay bill could pass tomorrow

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Contrary to earlier reports, it now appears that the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill could pass tomorrow on the final day of the country’s current parliamentary session.

According to Associated Press, the bill was dropped from the agenda yesterday, but it now looks set to be debated tomorrow, with its author David Bahati saying he expects it to be passed.

The American academic and blogger Warren Throckmorton, who has closely followed the progress of the bill, was in contact yesterday with the Ugandan parliament’s PR manager, Helen Kawesa, who confirmed that it is likely to be deliberated on Friday:
"Helen Kawesa just told me that Parliament has adjourned but will reconvene on Friday to consider the remaining bills on the agenda. They will begin in the morning and work until all of the bills are considered. The intent is to address all bills. The AHB [Anti-Homosexuality Bill] is the last one and is the most vulnerable but with an all day session, it is possible for it to get a third reading. According to Kawesa, Friday is absolutely the last day however as the new Parliament is sworn in on Monday.

According to bill author, David Bahati, the Parliament will meet at 10am and address the remaining four bills on the current order paper. He declined to predict the response of the Parliament but felt sure that the bill would get a debate and discussion."
So there is a very real possibility that the legislation, which has previously included the death penalty for certain same-sex acts, will be passed tomorrow. If you haven’t already, be sure to join the 450,000 people around the world who have signed a petition calling on Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni to stop the bill.

Update: As a commenter points out, there is another petition with over 1.5m signatures - be sure to sign both.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Uganda's anti-gay bill will not pass this week – but could resurface later

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A quick post to update you on the situation with Uganda's bill criminalising homosexuality, which appeared set for deliberation in the country's parliament today. In a post on Comment is Free, Simon Sarmiento of the Thinking Anglicans website points out that the bill does not seem to be on the parliament's order of business, and so may not pass this week. However, Sarmiento adds that it could be carried over into the next session of parliament. So, while some encouragement can be taken from this news, clearly the bill isn't dead yet and it is important that supporters of human rights continue to voice their opposition. If you haven't already signed it, a petition calling on the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni to stop the bill can be found here.

It's well worth reading Sarmiento's piece in full, as he goes on to discuss the support given to the bill by the Ugandan archbishop Henry Orombi, who is currently boycotting the Anglican Communion over the issue of homosexuality.

Update: The Guardian are reporting that the bill has been dropped from the agenda for the current session of parliament, which ends this week, possibly as a result of international pressure.

Baba Brinkman's Rap Guide to Evolution videos to launch on 25 May

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Baba Brinkman performing at Nine Lessons
and Carols for Godless People 2009
You may recall a few occasions in the past when we've plugged Canadian hip-hop artist Baba Brinkman, usually on account of his regular appearances at our Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows and his fantastic "peer-reviewed" Rap Guide to Evolution.

Late last year, we mentioned a "crowdfunding" drive Baba was running to raise the money to complete a series of Rap Guide to Evolution videos – in Baba's words "part Eminem-style rap music video, part David Attenborough-style nature documentary, illustrating themes such as the common descent of all human beings from African ancestors and the processes of natural and sexual selection that shaped our bodies and minds and the rest of nature". The required £12,000 was successfully raised through crowfunding, adding to initial funding provided by the Wellcome Trust, and the good news is that the videos are now finished, and will be launched later this month. Building on interest from science teachers, the videos will be available online and accompanied by learning materials for use in explaining evolution to students.

The website – (not live yet) – will be launched on 25 May at an event at London's Prince Charles Cinema, which will feature previews of the videos, as well as performances by Baba and an introduction to the thinking behind the project. Tickets are priced £8/10 and are available from the cinema.

One the website is live, the videos will be released in series over the coming months. There are also plans for a DVD version in the autumn.

Here's a preview video that Baba released back when he was running the crowdfunding drive.

Homeopathy is morally wrong, says bioethics expert

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Why don't we start this morning with some wise words, courtesy of Dr Kevin Smith, a bioethicist at the University of Abertay Dundee? Writing in the current issue of the journal Bioethics, Smith hits out at the £1.5 million spent annually on homeopathy by the NHS in Scotland:
“Homeopathy is utterly implausible. Homeopathic preparations are so thoroughly diluted that they contain no significant amounts of active ingredients, and thus can have no effects on the patient's body. So it is hardly unsurprising that, despite a large number of studies having been conducted, there's no convincing evidence to support claims of effectiveness for homeopathy. Those who believe it works either do not understand the science, or are simply deluded. It is important to realise that homeopathy is not ethically neutral; it is wasteful and potentially dangerous, and conflicts with fundamental ethical principles. I argue that those involved with healthcare have a moral duty to take an active stance against homeopathy. For example, those responsible for healthcare funding should act to ensure that scare NHS resources are not allocated to the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital. Indeed, the closure of this facility would be welcome on ethical grounds."
 [Via @BHANews]

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Orthodox Jewish newspaper apologises for removing Hilary Clinton from White House photo

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Top: Di Tzeitung's page featuring the
doctored image. Clinton can be seen
on the right in the original (bottom)
A Brooklyn-based Orthodox Jewish newspaper, Di Tzeitung, has had to issue an apology after it digitally removed US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton from the photo of President Obama and his colleagues watching the raid on Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound in the White House Situation Room.

The newspaper has a "long standing editorial policy" of not publishing photos of women, based on a belief "that women should be appreciated for who they are and what they do, not for what they look like". "The Jewish laws of modesty," said the paper, "are an expression of respect for women, not the opposite."

Di Tzeitung, which is published in Yiddish and sold throughout the New York area, acknowledged that it "should not have published the picture" and apologised to the White House and the Department of State, stating that it should have followed the "fine print" from the White House which prohibited altering the photo. Photoshop had been used to remove Clinton, as well as a second woman, counterterrorism director Audrey Tomason.

Uganda's anti-gay bill could become law this week

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Violent homophobia is rife in Uganda, where last year
one newspaper called for gays to be hanged
A bill criminalising homosexuality, which caused international outrage when it was initially proposed in 2009, has resurfaced in the Ugandan parliament in recent days, and could become law as early as this week. The bill initially included the death penalty for certain same-sex acts and, while that aspect has now been dropped, with the bill's author, David Bahati, saying it is "something we have moved away from", any version adopted this week is likely to include harsh prison sentences, with one pastor, Martin Ssempa, proposing seven-year terms for gay Ugandans.

A Ugandan human rights organisation, the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, has called for the bill to be withdrawn, and has suggested (PDF) that its re-emergence may be intended to distract Ugandans from the government's recent suppression of opposition protests. This is a view shared by the author of the Gay Uganda blog, who urges international readers to speak out against the anti-gay bill in the context of Uganda's wider human rights issues.

The Ugandan parliament's session ends this week, meaning there may not be time for the bill's supporters to secure its passage, but Frank Mugisha, director of the gay-rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda, told Associated Press he believes it will pass if it is deliberated in the next few days.

An online petition calling on the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, to prevent the bill's passage has attracted more than 200,000 signatures from around the world. There is still time to add your name.

Violent homophobia is rife in Uganda, and the country has attracted international headlines on numerous occasions in recent years. Evangelical churches, influenced, some believe, by the homophobic doctrines of religious leaders from the US, play a key role in propagating hatred in the country, alongside the media, which is notorious for its vehemently anti-gay stance. Last year one newspaper published a list of 100 Ugandans, calling for them to be hanged for homosexuality, and in January of this year one of the men named, the leading gay rights activist David Kato, was beaten to death in his home in Kampala.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Steadman on Osama

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We were in touch with the great Ralph Steadman in his capacity as an honorary associate of
the Rationalist Association, and he sent us his take on the death of Osama bin Laden. Not
a bad email to receive, we're sure you'll agree.

An encounter with the Centre for Intelligent Design – debating creationism, ID and Holocaust denial

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What follows is a guest post by Keith Gilmour, a secondary school Religious and Moral Education (RME) and Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies (RMPS) teacher from Scotland who recently had an encounter with Alastair Noble, director of the Glasgow-based Centre for Intelligent Design, an organisation that science education campaigners have been watching closely since it was founded in the autumn of last year. For an insight into the frustrating experience of arguing with proponents of Intelligent Design, as well as the position from which the C4ID appear to be operating, I urge you to read on.
On Wednesday 20th April, I spoke at an event organised by the Humanist Society of Scotland for the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The topic was "The Threat of Creeping Creationism in Scottish Schools". This took place in the University of Edinburgh's Informatics Forum.

As a secondary school Religious and Moral Education (RME) and Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies (RMPS) teacher, I began my contribution with a summary of my school's curriculum, before going on to highlight some of the unsolicited ID and creationist material (books, DVDs, etc) that have been sent out to our school. Some had been addressed to the head teacher, some to the science department, and some to my own.

I next went on to explain that, to any teacher objectively exploring the existence of God with teenagers, evolution is a lot like the Holocaust – neither “disprove” the existence of God but both present significant challenges to traditional theistic beliefs. From the RMPS perspective, it is the responses that are worth considering. Theists can either add one or both of these unpleasant realities to the many other objections to the faith position and abandon their belief in God, or they can find ways of reconciling them with their belief in a loving Creator ("This may be the best of all possible worlds", "Part of a Divine plan", "God shares in the sufferings of His creatures", and so on).

Creationists and Holocaust deniers offer a third option. However, by requiring the rejection of overwhelming scientific/historical evidence, they rule themselves out of any serious discussion and neither should be invited into schools to talk to pupils. And they exclude themselves further through everything else that they have in common. Both object that a minority of highly educated people reject what 99 per cent of scientists/historians accept, and that this fringe group will eventually be proved right. (For Holocaust deniers see, for example, Paul Rassinier, Robert Faurisson, Arthur Butz and The Institute for Historical Review). Both are notorious for quoting experts out of context (to give the misleading impression their crank view has some serious support), for mischaracterising scholarly debate over details as a failure to agree even on the basics, and for seizing upon any mistake (however minor) to argue that the entire field of study is riddled with incompetence, ignorance and deception. Both rely on a kind of “book disproved by its missing pages” reasoning and are forever demanding “caught in the act” evidence before they'll believe a single thing (though usually only in this area of life). Both groups imagine themselves to be victims of a massive conspiracy that shuts them out of some imagined “debate” and both accuse their critics of misunderstanding them (like we think Holocaust deniers imagine no killings took place at all and evolution deniers believe nothing has evolved, anywhere, ever).

During the Q&A that followed the final speaker's talk (I had been on third out of four), Dr Alastair Noble, director of the recently-founded Centre for Intelligent Design, raised his hand and rather angrily informed me that many “scientists” defend Creationism and ID and that it had therefore been outrageous of me to liken creationists to Holocaust deniers. I responded by rhyming off a similar number of “historians” who can (and should) be labelled as Holocaust deniers, and again asked why either fringe group should be thought to have much in the way of credibility.

At this point, the Q&A moved on to other questioners, issues and speakers but, once outside, I intercepted Dr Noble and handed him a two-page article from BBC Focus Magazine entitled "Unintelligent Design". He stuffed this into his case, telling me he was most unlikely ever to read it and again how outrageous it had been of me to compare creationists to Holocaust deniers (a comparison I first came across in Michael Shermer's 1998 book, Why People Believe Weird Things). I raised many of the questions reproduced below, receiving satisfactory answers to precisely none of them. Dr Noble had been particularly irked by the panel’s one or two references to "ID-Creationism" and by my own insistence that ID was just William Paley’s “Argument from Design” for the 21st century – plus much bad science (and some mad conspiracy theory scepticism) thrown in for good measure.

As I understand it, creationism is based on an unwillingness (or inability) to move too far away from a literalist interpretation of scripture. Proponents of Intelligent Design claim not to be starting from this point, while continuing to work hand in glove with their creationist ancestors/cousins/fellow travellers. In contradistinction, they claim to be basing their attitude to science on the complexities it uncovers. Were it not for the company they kept and the tactics they employed, and if they could content themselves with letting science teachers stick to the facts unearthed, this would be respectable enough. Science teachers might even venture that some sort of fine-tuning intelligence or intelligences (aliens, perhaps) may or may not be responsible for all this complexity (DNA, the Goldilocks enigma, life from nonlife, the birth of the universe, etc) – that is, after all, the mainstream theistic view. But ID proponents cannot stop there. They want pupils to be told that "an intelligent designer" is what the evidence points to. And they do not want to accept that they have wandered from science into theology and philosophy. But no matter how furiously they insist otherwise, all that they are really doing is putting forward an updated version of the Argument From Design (i.e. that complexity implies a creator). The only change is the fact that they talk now about the complexity of computer software, instruction manuals and megacities, where Paley relied upon the complexities of a pocket watch.

The reason creationists and the ID crowd want this in a science class is that they presumably wouldn't, in that context, feel obliged to follow it up with the inevitable philosophical objections – "Who designed the designer?" (or, if you prefer, "Who programmed the programmer?"), "Why imagine only one designer?", "Why imagine the designer knows/cares we're here?", "How do we know the designer's not dead?", "Why the dithering, delays and design flaws?", "Why all the waste and horror?", "Isn't the Goldilocks planet just a lottery winner?", "Where is all this going, exactly?".

Following my encounter with Dr Noble, I now have a number of questions for him:
  • As well as being a proponent of Intelligent Design, does he also (perhaps separately) consider himself a creationist? Although they are coming at things from different angles, there is no reason he cannot be both.
  • During our post-debate discussion, Dr Noble objected to my suggestion that Intelligent Design growing out of Creationism was akin to the BNP having grown out of the National Front. Instead, he claimed a better analogy would be the IRA and Sinn Fein! Does he stand by this? And, if so, who is meant to be which?
  • Does he consider himself to be in 'coalition' with creationist groups?
  • Roughly what percentage of his beliefs does he imagine he might share with the average creationist?
  • If supernatural explanations can be considered suitable for Science classes, why not also History, Geography and Modern Studies?
  • Why does his website refer to both ID and Creationism as "theories"?
  • Does he agree with Michael Behe's definition of Science (shown, in court, to encompass astrology)?
  • Does he condemn the ludicrous 'Atlas of Creation'?
  • In what sense is "a supernatural designer" the "best explanation"? Or any explanation at all?
  • Dr Noble told me that the mind and the brain are not the same thing. What did he mean by this?
In addition, I would also appreciate answers to the questions raised, that same night, by my friend and colleague Professor Paul Braterman:
  • Why is the Centre for Intelligent Design promoting creationist materials such as Explore Evolution and Uncommon Descent?
  • Why is C4ID hosting the creationist Jonathan Wells as a summer school instructor?
  • Can Dr Noble honestly claim that his organisation's core mission has nothing to do with Creationism?
In summary, teenagers studying science in secondary schools simply do not need to be confused by the introduction of a theological/philosophical argument revamped by a pseudoscience (ID) quite happy to smuggle in nonsense like “irreducible complexity” while leaving the door open for the even more ridiculous pseudoscience of creationism. We would not invite a Holocaust denier into schools to address our pupils and nor should we be inviting creationist speakers (or allowing ID and/or creationist materials) in to undermine our Biology teachers. Pupils are too easily taken in by conspiracy theories as it is.
Alastair Noble's report on the event at the Edinburgh International Science Festival can be found on the C4ID website.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Agnosticism is...?

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In the current issue of New Humanist, Christopher Lane suggests that, in the grand tradition of Victorian thinkers like Charles Darwin, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer, we shouldn't be afraid of being uncertain. Agnosticism, he suggests, can serve as an antidote to both religious fundamentalism and "the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty".

We suspect there will be many New Humanist readers who would self-identify as atheists, and many who would self-identify as agnostics. Perhaps some would even suggest it is even possible to identify as both? We thought we'd run a poll to find out – simply tell us what "Agnosticism is..." by voting below. (You can leave a comment if you don't like the options.)

Bill on teaching abstinence in sex education passes first vote in Commons

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Conservative MP Nadine Dorries
Earlier this afternoon, a Ten Minute Rule bill proposing the teaching of abstinence to girls in sex and relationship education lessons passed its first vote in the House of Commons. The motion, entitled "Sex Education (Required Content)", was proposed by the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who is best-known for her anti-abortion stance, and reads as follows (it's easiest to search the page for "Dorries" to find it):
"That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require schools to provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity; and for connected purposes."
MPs voted 67-61 in favour of the motion, with a number of the ayes apparently coming from members of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. It's important to point out that it is immensely unlikely that Dorries' bill will become law, as this helpful BBC piece on Ten Minute Rule bills explains:
"If the bill is approved by the House at this first reading stage, it joins the queue of private members' bills waiting to receive a second reading.

The government will only rarely allow a ten minute rule bill to progress far enough to become law so MPs tend to use this procedure simply as a way of gaining publicity for a particular issue."
But while the motion probably won't reach the statute book, its success today illustrates the existence of a small group within parliament, spearheaded by Dorries, that aims to introduce socially conservative legislation, particularly in relation to sex and reproductive rights. Dorries, alongside the Labour MP Frank Field, has introduced amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill that would place new obstacles in the path of women seeking abortions, and she will no doubt take encouragement from today's vote on sex education.

Update: This piece by Sunny Hundal over at Liberal Conspiracy is worth reading for a view on what exactly Nadine Dorries is proposing, and what her long-term aims may be.

Update 2: The Guardian now have a report on this, quoting what Dorries used her ten minutes to tell parliament:
"Peer pressure is a key contributor to early sexual activity in our country. Society is focused on sex. Teaching a child at the age of seven to apply a condom on a banana is almost saying: 'Now go and try this for yourself'. Girls are taught to have safe sex, but not how to say no to a boyfriend who insists on sexual relations."
Of course, children are not (at least as far as we can ascertain) taught at the age of seven how to put condoms on bananas. Perhaps just one of the reasons why Chris Bryant MP, speaking against the motion, described it as "the daftest piece of legislation" he has encountered in the Commons.

Bin Laden's death was a Papal miracle, suggests Peruvian president

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Was Bin Laden's death a miracle?
As debate continues over the details of Osama bin Laden's death in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the president of Peru, Alan Garcia, has a novel suggestion regarding the date of the al-Qaeda founder's violent end. Noting that the assault on Bin Laden's compound took place on the same day as the beatification of Pope John Paul II in Rome, Garcia points out that the timing may not have been coincidental:
“I have said that his first miracle has been to remove from the Earth this demonic incarnation of crime, evil and hatred.”
Leaving aside the fact that the Catholic Church has already approved John Paul's first miracle (aiding the recovery of a French nun from Parkinson's), news of another miracle could be good, as that's precisely what's required to secure the late Pope's progression to the status of saint. However, it's not entirely clear where kill missions by special forces teams, or indeed the opinions of individual national presidents, stand in the Church's canonisation procedures. Indeed, judging by the Vatican's reaction to Bin Laden's death, it seems unlikely they will be seeking approval of the incident as a miracle of John Paul II. In a statement on Monday, the Pope's spokesman, Federico Lombardi, told the media:
"Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end. In the face of a man's death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred."
Which brings me to another aspect of the debate over Bin Laden. Some of the religious bloggers I read (the Church Mouse, for example) have expressed reservations about the jubilant tone taken by many towards news of his killing, pointing out that death is something that should never be celebrated. This is hardly an exclusively religious position – it was a well-known atheist, the magician Penn Jillette, who prompted the viral spread of a quote supposedly-but-not-actually by Martin Luther King ("I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy") after tweeting it to his 1.6 million followers in reaction to the news.

I'd be interested to hear your views on this – should we be happy that Bin Laden is gone, or is it morally wrong to welcome someone's death, no matter what crimes they committed while alive? Has "justice been done", has as been widely suggested, or is the shooting of a man who now appears to have been unarmed by definition an unjust act? Please do share your thoughts below.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Despatch from Phnom Penh

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Spotted in Phnom-Penh, Cambodia by ASH Smyth
Reader ASH Smyth spotted this sign in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – one for the British government to follow in its approach to religious organisations, perhaps?