Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Netherlands set to outlaw halal and kosher slaughter

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The lower house of the Dutch parliament today voted overwhelmingly in favour of a bill which would see both Jewish and Muslim forms of religious animal slaughter banned on grounds of animal welfare.

The bill was brought forward by the Party for Animals, which holds just two seats in the Dutch House of Representatives, but received cross-party support, with proponents arguing that ritual methods lead to increased suffering for animals. The legislation must now pass a vote in the Dutch Senate later in the year.

If the bill becomes law, Holland would join Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland as the fifth European country to legislate against religious slaughter, something which has prompted Britain's chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks to warn of a "domino effect". Others, meanwhile, would support a spread of such legislation – animal rights groups broadly back a ban, as do groups like the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society.

Thinking about the possibility of such a law being introduced here (which admittedly seems unlikely at present), I'm not sure it's something I'd find easy to support. In the past I've suggested that I'm against ritual slaughter (and I suppose I still am, in so far as I would like animals to be slaughtered as humanely as possible), but, having put some more thought into the matter, I'm not comfortable with the idea of pursuing a specifically religious practice in such a way, particularly when it is framed as a humanist issue.

If the humanist reason for wanting a ban on religious slaughter is animal welfare, then the implication is that animal welfare is a humanist issue. Perhaps so (one for you to debate in the comments). But if that is the case, then why should ritual slaughter be the only animal welfare issue pursued by humanists? The animal rights group VIVA state that, of the 900 million animals slaughtered for food each year in Britain, around 12 million are killed by Muslim or Jewish ritual methods. I think in order for me to want to throw my support behind a ban on ritual slaughter I'd have to be convinced that the suffering endured by that 1.3 per cent of animals at the moment of death is somehow greater than the suffering inflicted upon far greater percentages during the course of their lives through transport and living conditions. Otherwise, campaigning specifically on the issue of religious slaughter feels, for me, uncomfortably like scapegoating. As someone whose meat-eating involves plenty of ethical inconsistencies, I'm not sure I'm in a position to lecture a religious minority about theirs.

Interested in your thoughts - do share in the comments.

An interview with one of Egypt's hardline Salafi sheiks

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Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, spokesperson for Egypt's "Scientific Salafis"
We've just posted an article on our main site that we think is well worth a read. While must of the discussion surrounding the role of conservative forms of Islam in the future politics of Egypt has centred on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist movement, which arguably represents a more hardline strand of Islam, has also mobilised in order to stand in the country's forthcoming elections.

Austin Mackell, a freelancer currently based in Cairo, secured an interview for us with Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, the spokesperson of the "Scientific Salafists", and the result is a fascinating (and perhaps worrying) insight into the vision Islamic parties have for Egypt's democratic future:
"He begins with a clear statement that, while the liberal conception is that a person should be free so long as they don't harm others, Salafis believe that freedom should be limited by God's law. While they accept the democratic mechanism as a “tool” for governance, they reject it as a philosophical basis. This position, he argues, is justified by the second article of the Egyptian constitution, which was retained in the recent constitutional amendments, which states that the basis of the country’s legal system is Sharia. Al-Shahat extrapolates from this that therefore any law passed in Egypt must conform to Sharia. Democracy, he explains, is only acceptable to Salafis as a method for deciding between “variations” in interpretations of Islamic law."
 Read the full piece over on our main website.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Spectator Debate: "Secularism is a greater threat to Christianity than Islam"

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If you're looking to speak up for secularism, you may be interested in a debate the Spectator are hosting on Wednesday at the Royal Geographical Society in London, chaired by journalist Andrew Neil, entitled "Secularism is a greater threat to Christianity than Islam":
"Christianity may be under attack in Britain - but who are the aggressors? Britain’s Muslim population may be on the rise. But when women are banned from wearing a crucifix to work, or Christian teaching on sexuality is banned, is it the other faiths that are to blame? Or officials loyal to a civic religion? Our second debate asks if aggressive secularism has become the greatest enemy facing Britain’s Churches."
For the motion: Father Timothy Radcliffe OP; Professor Tariq Ramadan, Contemporary Islamic Studies, University of Oxford; Damian Thompson, Leader Writer, Daily Telegraph

Against the motion: Nick Cohen, Observer Columnist; Douglas Murray, Journalist, Author and Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society; Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director, Barnabas Fund

As you'll observe from the title and the blurb (which seems to take Christianity being under attack as a factual starting point), secularism is going to need as many friends in the audience as it can get, although you can surely expect Nick Cohen to mount a spirited defence from the stage. If you can make it, the debate starts a 6pm and tickets cost £30 (£20 if you're a Spectator subscriber). You can book via the Spectator website, or by contacting 0207 961 0044 or emailing, quoting "DEBATE 05"

Friday, 24 June 2011

Early-'90s Scientology propaganda video

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I just thought I'd share this video which is doing the rounds online. Apparently, it's a genuine Scientology propaganda film from the 1990s. Hilariously cheesy stuff:

Dorries' amendments to abortion regulations may pass without a vote

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Frank Field MP
Extraordinary news from the Liverpool Daily Post (via the Liberal Conspiracy blog), which today reveals that restrictions on abortion rights introduced as amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill by the Labour MP Frank Field and the Tory MP Nadine Dorries could be approved by the Department of Health without a vote in Parliament.

The amendments would prevent abortion providers, such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service or Marie Stopes, from providing counselling to women seeking abortion, instead requiring that women are offered counselling from "a private body that does not itself provide for the termination of pregnancies" or a "statutory body". Pro-choice organisations such as Abortion Rights have pointed out that the private bodies most likely to step forward to offering counselling under such circumstances would be groups with an ideological interest in preventing abortions from taking place.

The Liverpool Daily Post article states that the paper can exclusively "reveal the Department of Health (DoH) is exploring how to make the switch without a showdown on the Commons floor – by changing existing regulations".

As Sunny Hundal points out on Liberal Conspiracy, if you're outraged by this news, you may be interested in joining the pro-choice rally taking place in London on 9 July.

Take a look at a Scientology "enemies list"

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Here's a little something that might interest you. Mark "Marty" Rathbun is one of Scientology's most high-profile defectors, having been Inspector General of its Religious Technology Center (intriguingly he still believes in Scientology itself, merely viewing the official version as having been corrupted by the current leader David Miscavige), and since he left the Church he was been gradually spilling the beans (or at least portions of the beans) on his blog.

In his latest post, Rathbun has shared a PDF which he says is a document circulated by the Church's Office of Special Affairs (something he describes as "the Stasi-like intelligence network of the cult of Miscavige"), dated 22 January 2010, which lists all the people considered persona non grata at the grand openings of new Scientology facilities in the western United States. Basically, as other media outlets have been pointing out, it's a Scientology "enemies list".

Looking through it, in addition to famous names such as Hollywood defectors Paul Haggis and Jason Beghe, I was pleased to see that the list features three people who I've interviewed during my time at New Humanist – the seasoned Scientology-watcher Mark Bunker and ex-member Tory Christman, who were both interviewed in my 2008 piece on the rise of the Anonymous movement, and Marc Headley, another defector who told me his shocking, fascinating story last year.

I suppose the three of them deserve our congratulations – if you're finding yourself on one of Scientology's enemies lists, you must be doing something right.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Geert Wilders acquitted of hate speech charges

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Geert Wilders
Geert Wilders, the controversial leader of the Netherlands' anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV), has this morning been acquitted of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims, following a legal process that began in 2009.

Wilders was tried on the basis of numerous statements he made in the media between 2006 and 2009, including comments in which he called Islam "fascist", likened the Qur'an to Mein Kampf, described Dutch youths of Moroccan origin as "violent" and suggested that Muslim immigration is transforming "the Netherlands into Netherabia as a province of the Islamic super state Eurabia". The summons also cites the March 2008 internet release of Wilders' short film Fitna, which juxtaposes violent acts of Islamic extremism with verses from the Qur'an.

A first trial collapsed in 2010 over claims that the judges were biased against Wilders, and the second trial began in February this year. Announcing the acquittal in Amsterdam this morning, Judge Marcel van Oosten told Wilders that, while his comments were "gross and degenerating", they "did not give rise to hatred" and fell within the boundaries of free speech. "You are being acquitted on all the charges that were put against you," said Van Oosten. "The bench finds that your statements are acceptable within the context of the public debate." Referring to Fitna, Van Oosten added “You have spoken in a hurtful and also shocking way, [but] the court finds, in the broadest context, that you have to be able to propagate the message of such a film.”

Speaking outside the court, Wilders' declared his acquittal a "victory" for free speech:
"I'm incredibly happy with this acquittal on all counts. It's not only an acquittal for me, but a victory for freedom of expression in the Netherlands. Fortunately you're allowed to discuss Islam in public debate and you're not muzzled in public debate. An enormous burden has fallen from my shoulders."
Interested to hear your views on this story, so please do share in the comments. In the context of the court case, I would have to say I agree with the acquittal and share Wilders' view that it is good for free speech. I've never been comfortable with Wilders' status as a free speech martyr but, whatever your views on what he has to say (and I disagree with the man profoundly), arguments such as his should be confronted in debate, not in the court room.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Just 2 of 51 Miss USA contestants support teaching of evolution in schools (but the winner's one of them)

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Miss USA 2011 Alyssa Campanella
  (© Glenn Francis,
Beauty pageants aren't really something we cover here at New Humanist (I'm sure many of you have views on the sheer awfulness of everything they represent, which you can discuss in the comments), but I thought I'd share a little news from the Miss USA contest, which took place in Las Vegas (where else?) at the weekend.

Aficionados will have to forgive me if I get the format wrong here, but from what I can establish, in addition to the bits where a panel of older men and women sit in judgement of a selection of younger women based on their bodies and their looks (in swimsuits and gowns), there is also a bit where the women are judged based on their answers to a series of questions in an interview. Indeed, some of you may remember the contest attracting controversy in 2009, when the runner-up Carrie Prejean answered a question on the legalisation of gay marriage by stating that "marriage should be between a man and a woman".

It would seem that the organisers like to include a question that will provoke a spot of controversy (thereby generating articles and blogposts like this, you see), as this year each of the 51 contestants was asked whether evolution should be taught in American schools. The result? Only two of them offered unqualified support, with most of them opting for a "teach the controversy" approach.

However, there is some good news for science fans, as the winner (and thus Miss USA 2011), Alyssa Campanella of California, is a self-confessed "science geek" who, along with Alida D’Angona of Massachusetts, fully supports the teaching of evolution in schools.

So Miss USA is pretty and rational. Perhaps this beauty pageant malarkey isn't so wrong after all.*


Friday, 17 June 2011

AC Grayling resigns as BHA President before taking office

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In the first fallout from the controversy of his new college of the Humanities, philosopher AC Grayling, who was to become British Humanist Asscoation President as of 1 July, has resigned. The BHA have released the following statement:

Anthony Grayling, the President-elect of the BHA, has decided to step down from that position and not to take office as President on 1 July. In doing so Professor Grayling said, 'It was an honour to be named President of the British Humanist Association and I very much looked forward to working alongside the staff and trustees over the next two years to promote Humanism - a vitally important task in today's world. Unfortunately, I believe that controversy generated by activities in another area of my public life will make it difficult in the next two years for me to be the sort of President that I would like to be for the BHA and all its members and supporters. In deciding to stand down and let the Trustees of the BHA appoint an alternative President, I wish them all the best in their important task.'

Robert Ashby, Chair of the Trustees of the BHA, has responded, 'We thank Anthony Grayling for the concern he has shown for the BHA and its work and regret the circumstances that have led him to step down as our President-elect. His decades of work in the causes that humanists espouse – secularism in our public life, freedom and human rights at home and globally, science and reason in our struggle to know the universe and humanity in our treatment of ourselves and other people - remain of great value.'

Polly Toynbee, currently President of the BHA, will continue as President until a new President is appointed by the Trustees later this year.


Thursday, 16 June 2011

Your chance to own the rights to Intelligent Design propaganda movie Expelled

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You may remember a couple of years ago there was a lot of talk about a preposterous documentary called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, in which the former actor (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), gameshow host and Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein made the case for the teaching of Intelligent Design in American schools, mostly by drawing ludicrous Godwin-worthy links between Darwin and Nazism and suggesting that there is a sort of conspiracy which ensures that any scientists or teachers who question evolution are prevented from working in American universities and schools.

We all had plenty of fun with the film back in the heady days of its release. Biologist PZ Myers was barred from entering a screening in Minneapolis, while Richard Dawkins (who had been misled into appearing in Expelled) managed to get in. Meanwhile the film provided endless blog-fodder as we all sat back and enjoyed its inevitable failure. Critics, including renowned reviewer Roger Ebert, savaged it, and attempts to quite literally give the film away proved unsuccessful, as a free screening in Florida failed to fill a Tallahassee cinema. In fact, the film was so bad that even the old chestnut of "you couldn't pay me to see it" took on literal meaning, with the producers offering cash to schools that would take their children to see it.

With all this in mind, then, it may not surprise you to hear that the filmmakers behind Expelled, Premise Media Holdings LP, have filed for bankruptcy. This would be interesting in itself, but what makes it truly great is that one of the consequences of a film company filing for bankruptcy is that the rights to its films go up for auction. Yes, that's right – you (yes, you) could own the rights to Expelled, meaning that every time the film is screened in public you will earn a whopping ... well, let's face it, no one of sound mind is going to be showing this in public again, but there is surely something appealing about someone rational (or the Nazi evolutionist enemy, as those behind Expelled might say) getting hold of the rights. Perhaps the occasional creationist group will screen it, meaning you can make them pay you, and I'm wondering whether owning the rights would allow you to refuse to allow screenings or, even better, re-edit the entire thing. If anyone knows about film rights, please do elaborate in the comments.

The rights will be auctioned via this site between 21 and 28 June. Shall we open some preliminary bidding here? Just to remind you, this is a film that could genuinely stake a claim to being the worst of all time (have a look at my live blog from the day I watched it). What would you pay?

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Outgoing Peruvian president to say goodbye with giant Christ statue for Lima

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Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer statue
For those of us engaged in the noble pursuit of writing backhanded blogposts about the religious idiosyncrasies of world leaders, it's hard to overestimate the value of a figure like the Peruvian president Alan García, who first crossed my path in May this year, when he suggested that the execution of Osama bin Laden by elite US special forces could have been brought about through the miraculous intervention of the late Pope John Paul II, who was beatified on the same weekend.

Clearly García's a character, so it's a shame that the Peruvian constitution requires him to step down as president when his term ends this year. But before he goes, García, who was described as having a "colossal ego" in the US diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks, is planning something spectacular for Peruvians to remember him by – the erection of a 120-foot statue of Jesus Christ in the capital city Lima.

If you think that sounds familiar, you're not alone – architecture students from Lima are planning a protest, furious that their city is about to engage in such blatant plagiarism of Rio de Janeiro's skyline, where the Christ the Redeemer statue stands at a Messiah-worthy 130 feet. One architect has described García's scheme as an "excessive and authoritarian gesture", devoid of "aesthetic, historic or symbolic" value, which Lima's mayor, Susana Villarán, has expressed concern about "the integrity of the landscape of Lima's bay".

García, however, is unrepentant, saying the monument will "bless Peru and protect Lima" once it is unveiled on 29 June.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Fake Syrian blogger run to ground

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In a previous post I speculated on the existence or otherwise of the Gay Girl From Damascus blogger, supposedly kidnapped by Syrian forces, after several sharp readers drew attention to inconsistencies and implausibilities in the blog itself. Well now, as you will probably have heard, the Gay Girl in Damascus has been revealed to be a straight man with a beard in Edinburgh. If you are interested in his spurious post-modern justifications for his subterfuge you can read them here.

Kudos to all those who spotted this early on.

Terry Pratchett makes the case for assisted dying

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Terry Pratchett (BBC/KEO films)
Last night saw the broadcast of Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die, in which the Discworld author accompanies a motor neurone disease sufferer, Peter Smedley, on his trip to die at Dignitas in Switzerland. The documentary, which has caused controversy on account of its depiction of Smedley's final moments, has moved assisted dying to the centre of the national debate, and can be viewed online via the BBC's iPlayer service.

To coincide with the documentary, for our new issue we asked Pratchett to tell us why he supports a change in the law on assisted dying. Here's what he wrote for us:
"A short time ago I had to insist to a not very youthful journalist that during my early lifetime anyone who attempted to commit suicide and failed would face a criminal charge and be locked up, presumably to show them life was wonderful and thoroughly worth living. 

It would be nice to think that in the not too distant future someone will be incredulous when told that a British citizen stricken with a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease, and yet nevertheless still quite compos mentis, would have to go all the way to another country to die. They would ask for an explanation, and I’d be damned if I could think of one. Three decent, sedate and civilised European countries already allow physician-assisted suicide and yet, despite the fact that every indication is that British people understand and are in favour of assisted dying, if properly conducted, the government consistently turns its back on it.  A year ago I was told by a cabinet minister that it would never happen in Britain and I suggested that this was a strange thing to say in a democracy and got a black look for my pains. 

Initially, I thought the opposition was largely due to a certain amount of curdled Christianity. Despite the fact that there is no scriptural objection, Christian opposition came about in the 14th century when, because of religious wars and the Black Death, people were committing suicide on the basis that, well, as this world was now so dreadfully unpleasant, maybe it would be a good idea to make an attempt on heaven. Authority objected otherwise. Who would milk the cows? Who would fight the wars? People couldn’t be allowed to slope off like that. They had to stay and face their just punishment for being born. 

Even now I detect some echoes of that frame of mind; that affliction is somehow a penance for an unknown transgression. To hell with that! Every time the question of assisted dying is broached in this country there is a choreographed outcry, suggested overtones of Nazism and, of course, the murder of grandmothers for their money. And the perpetrators get away with it because the British have a certain tradition of bullying from the top down. “The common people are stupid and we who know better must make the decisions for them.”

Well, the common people are not stupid. They might watch god-awfully stupid reality TV and make a lot of noise in football grounds and they don’t understand, perhaps, the politics of Trident, but they are very clever about the politics of blood and bone and pain and suffering. They understand about compassion and, like my father, they are nothing if not practical about these things. He was incurably ill and saw no reason, given the absence of the hope of any cure, why he shouldn’t forgo any more suffering and head straight for the door. 

And people also understand that, especially if you don’t have much money, long-term care in the UK can be somewhat problematical at best. And yet the government sits there like an ancient Pope, hoping that it will all go away."
Terry Pratchett's piece on assisted dying is in the July issue of New Humanist, which we're just putting the finishing touches to today. On the shelves next Thursday, it also features Marcus Brigstocke, John Gribbin, AL Kennedy and John Berger – details on how to subscribe here.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The case of the missing Syrian blogger

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This morning we passed on a petition relating to Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari, the American-Syrian blogger known as Gay Girl in Damascus, who has been reported missing and is thought to be in he hands of the Syrian security forces. Since the news broke, however, doubt has been cast on many details of the story. No records of a person of that name can be found in the US, no one who knows her has surfaced to confirm her identity, and some have even suggested that the whole blog was a hoax, perhaps written by someone not even living in Syria, or even an example of "fictional blogging". Some of the accusations that the blog is fake have been made by Syrians who doubt the veracity of things that have been said on the blog.

All very rum. We are not Syrian experts here, so to untangle some of this we contacted someone who is, a senior employee at a reputable Middle East analysis outfit (can't give the name, you'll have to trust me). He is a particular expert on Syria (p.s. he's not a spy). He said:

- He had been aware of the blog for several months (since before the uprisings in Syria). He had no reason to question its authenticity then. It wasn't a political blog, more about everyday life and culture.
- The blog did stridently stop recently, and a message was posted (purporting to be from her cousin) saying Amina had been kidnapped
- It's common for bloggers and activists in Syria to hide behind pseudonyms
- If Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari is indeed a pseudonym there is no point in petitioning the Syrian government to release her, as they can just say they have no one of that name
- It is not inconceivable that this questioning of her identity is part of a disinformation campaign by the Syrian government, who have a track record of this kind of thing.

So where does that leave us? It does seem that until we get more information regarding the identity of the blogger there is no point in signing a petition or trying to pressure the Syrian government. But, we need to keep an eye on the unfolding story because if we all decide (as some seem to have already) that in fact the whole things is some sort of hoax, but there really is an actual person in custody in Syria, then she is the big loser, and we will have been conned. Personally I don't mind so much being conned by a creative writer, however deluded they may be. But I do mind being conned by a government.

Stay tuned, and please add any other information in the comments.

Bill introduced to place restrictions on Sharia courts

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A private members bill has been introduced into the House of Lords which would place restrictions on the use of Sharia law in England. The bill, which can be read in full on the parliamentary website, would make it a criminal offence to falsely claim that Sharia courts – which may be used for arbitration in civil disputes with the agreement of both parties – have legal jurisdiction over family or criminal law. It would also prohibit any activity "that constitutes discrimination, harassment or victimisation on grounds of sex", notably "treating the evidence of a man as worth more than the evidence of a woman", a common practice under some readings of Sharia law.

The bill has received backing from some Christian groups, including Christian Concern and the Christian Institute, and the National Secular Society, whose executive director Keith Porteous Wood spoke at the launch event:
"Laws should not impinge on religious freedoms, nor should courts judge on theological matters. By the same token, democratically determined and human rights compliant law must take precedence over the law of any religion."
The bill has been tabled by Baroness Cox, an outspoken critic of "militant Islam" who caused controversy in 2009 when she invited the Dutch MP Geert Wilders to show his film Fitna at the House of Lords.

AC Grayling's New College of the Humanities – an update

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© Martin Rowson
A lot has happened since I first blogged about AC Grayling's new £18,000-a-year private humanities college on Monday, so it seems appropriate to provide a quick round-up of what's happened since then.

With outrage building among students and proponents of state-funded higher education on Monday, a piece by Terry Eagleton (no stranger to locking intellectual horns with Grayling, and the two would later go toe-to-toe on Radio 3's Nightwaves) for the Guardian provided opponents with some highly-quotable ammunition to deploy in their campaign against the New College of the Humanities:
"British universities, plundered of resources by the bankers and financiers they educated, are not best served by a bunch of prima donnas jumping ship and creaming off the bright and loaded. It is as though a group of medics in a hard-pressed public hospital were to down scalpels and slink off to start a lucrative private clinic. Grayling and his friends are taking advantage of a crumbling university system to rake off money from the rich. As such, they are betraying all those academics who have been fighting the cuts for the sake of their students."
With both Birkbeck College (from which Grayling has resigned) and the University of London distancing themselves from the endeavour, other critics focused not on the private aspect of New College, but rather on the education its prospective students stand to gain. "The New College of the Humanities should be opposed because it is simply a sham," wrote legal blogger David Allen Green at the New Statesman:
"Careful attention reveals it to be just a branding exercise with purchased celebrity endorsements and a PR-driven website. The College has no degree giving powers, nor any influence over any syllabus for any of the offered degrees. The degrees that its students will study for are normal University of London degrees, which for external students can undertake at a fraction of the proposed £18,000. The College will seek access to University of London facilities, which it will presumably have to pay for at a commercial rate."
Harsh words indeed, and the heat would continue to rise as students got wind of the fact that Grayling was appearing at a debate on the future of education at Foyles bookshop in central London on Tuesday evening. According to reports, Grayling – never one to shy away from a debate – was happy to discuss the issue with his opponents and defend his position, but a raucous event was brought to premature end when a smoke bomb was let off in the room (surely a first for Foyles, or indeed any London bookstore?) Video of that here:

As the smoke cleared, Wednesday morning saw the publication of a couple of pieces in defence of Grayling. The first, by free school cheerleader Toby Young, may not be much help to Grayling in winning over his student opponents, given that it amounted to a declaration of war on "left-wing zealots", but it was a defence nevertheless:
"Remember this, Professor: We will win. Why? Because we’re right and they’re wrong. They are the prisoners of a bankrupt ideology whereas we are free thinkers. You may not have wanted to join this battle but you’re in it now and it’s a battle to the death."
The second defence, however, from respected academic Sarah Churchwell, may have been more welcome. While not coming out in favour of Grayling's initiative, Churchwell called on opponents to at least give the New College a chance:
"UK universities are in a parlous state, as anyone who works in them will tell you. The NCH is trying something different; the nation is rushing not merely to judgment, but to tarring and feathering. The NCH may indeed prove "odious", as Eagleton thinks; if it further erodes the already fragile condition of UK humanities – and their availability to any able student regardless of financial means – I will oppose it as fiercely as anyone. But shall we learn more about what it hopes to achieve, and how it proposes to achieve it, before we greylist, boycott or hang its academics in effigy?"
 Away from the comment pages, though, New College suffered a fresh blow as the Guardian revealed that some of the star academics involved, particularly historians David Cannadine and Linda Colley, haven't exactly made deep commitments to the project:
"Two of the star academics signed up to AC Grayling's new £18,000-a-year private undergraduate college will only teach for an hour each in the first year, the Guardian has learned. Linda Colley, a leading historian of Britain, empire and nationalism, and her husband, Professor Sir David Cannadine, an expert in British history 1800 to 2000 – both based at Princeton University – have taken equity stakes in the New College for the Humanities, but will deliver only one lecture each in the first academic year, Grayling confirmed."
There was also criticism from within Britain's higher education establishment, with the government pointing out that New College does not yet have the right to refer to itself as a "university" and the warden of New College, Oxford (founded: 1379) saying he is "not very pleased" with the name Grayling has chosen for his initiative.

As we move into Thursday, defence from within the commentariat continues, with the Guardian's Deborah Orr asking why people are afraid of New College:
"What, exactly, do people fear from this new private establishment? The University of Buckingham has operated since the 1970s, and has not yet ousted Oxbridge. There's no great likelihood that Grayling's institution will have massive significance either. People from rich families will be offered further choice in their higher-education, in a small adjustment to already choice-laden lives. Big deal. At least they'll be spending their money on something worthwhile, that could even, just possibly, improve their understanding of the world."
I'll leave the round-up there for now. We're lining a comment piece up for the new issue of New Humanist, which we're working on now, but for the time being I'll hand things over to you – how do you feel about New College? Has your view changed since the news broke on Sunday? Please do share your comments.

Update: The latest development is that protesters are planning to confront Richard Dawkins about the issue tonight at a BHA event he's appearing at with the blogger PZ Myers. And Anne Mroz, editor of Times Higher Education, has called New College "a scheme that would make a second-hand car salesman proud".

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

How should we respond to Nadine Dorries and the anti-choice agenda?

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I attended a meeting last night, organised by Jess McCabe of The F Word and Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy, on how to respond to the renewed efforts of the anti-choice lobby, highlighted by the efforts of the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries on abortion and sex education, and the government's inclusion of the anti-choice group Life on its new advisory forum on sexual health. There's lots to think about in light of the meeting, so I thought I'd share some of what was said and invite you to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

First, we heard from Diane Abbott, the Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Public Health, who began by saying that, in campaigning on these issues since the 1990s, she has learned that the "price of the right to choose is eternal vigilance" – just when you think the argument has been won, the anti-choice lobby always comes back. Her second point was that we should not be fooled into thinking that those who oppose abortion do so in the interests of the unborn child – the people who would vote to restrict abortion rights are often the same people who would happily cut welfare for children once they have been born. Abbott also pointed out that Nadine Dorries isn't entirely stupid. She is approaching the issue via a genuine problem – the high rate of teenage pregnancy – but attacking choice is not the answer. Those who want to lower teenage pregnancy should focus on improving education and social conditions, rather than pursuing an abstinence-based approach that gas a proven record of failure. It is shocking that a group like Life, which pushes an anti-scientific approach for ideological reasons, should have been invited by the government to sit on a sexual health forum that should be scientific. Abbott also noted that the new intake of Conservative MPs is quite right-wing on these issues – "these are not people you want voting on women's reproductive rights" – and ended with a call for people to stand up for the right to choose. The anti-choice agenda, she said, is not about the rights of the unborn child or the sexualisation of children – it is an attack on women and the advances made in the last century. For the sake of women who have no voice, those that do need to find theirs.

Next up was Darinka Aleksic, campaign co-ordinator at Abortion Rights, who noted that there has been a sea change since the general election last year. Instead of a major attack on choice, such as the attempt to lower the time limit for abortion in 2008, we are seeing small measures designed to reframe the debate. Dorries is presenting it as a "pro-woman" agenda, tying the abortion debate in with the question of the sexualisation of children. It is important, said Aleksic, for those who are pro-choice to take back control of the agenda and remind people that the majority of people in the UK support the right to choose.

We then heard from Lisa Hallgarten of Education for Choice, who began by pointing out that pro-choice campaigners need to think carefully about the terminology they use, ensuring they do not allow the debate to be framed by the anti-abortion lobby. The term "anti-choice" should be used, not "pro-life", and we should not accept the notion that "every abortion is a tragedy". Abortion has been a huge boon to public health, and it is important, not just for the women accessing it, but also for communities and society as a whole. Dorries' tactic, said Hallgarten, is to throw as much mud as she can in the hope that some of it will stick. Everything she says is based on a false premise. For example, she has proposed amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill that would require women seeking abortion to access "independent information, advice and couselling services", under the entirely false premise that women do not already have access to counselling. In terms of her abstinence bill, it is not true that children how told to go out and have sex, and the hypocrisy is that the people who support such measures are the same people who have cut funding for good sex education. Hallgarten ended by pointing out that the pro-choice movement should argue from an evidence base – evidence-based practice unites everybody, and sexual health policy should not be based on the whims of ideologues. It should be about what works, and that is why arguments for choice should be based on evidence.

There followed an open discussion on how to proceed with responding to the anti-choice lobby, in which the 40-50 people present offered their ideas. Many were in favour of backing a pro-choice rally that is taking place in London on 9 July, and there was discussion of how to mount a stronger response in the media – the pro-choice message is prevalent in the liberal broadsheets, but how can it get a better hearing in the tabloids? One of the best points made, in my opinion, concerned the need to seize the initiative from Dorries and the anti-choice lobby. Those in favour of abortion rights need to press the fact that the status quo isn't good enough – women in Northern Ireland don't have access to abortion, there is a postcode lottery in the rest of Britain, and the two doctors rule is an unnecessary obstacle for women seeking abortion. There was discussion of the shock-tactics used by anti-choice groups such as Life and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in schools (the Guardian reported on this a couple of years ago) and the need to highlight and oppose this, protecting children from being exposed to lies disguised as sex education. It was also noted that we should not fall in to the trap of thinking the anti-choice lobby represent the religious perspective – most religious believers in the UK support access to contraception and many support choice.

So, while there were no firm conclusions from the meeting, there was plenty to consider and there are clearly lots of ways in which those who are pro-choice can take back the initiative and answer Nadine Dorries and the wider anti-choice lobby.

The purpose of the meeting was to share ideas, so let's get a discussion going in the comments below. How should we respond to Nadine Dorries and the anti-choice agenda?

Monday, 6 June 2011

Government to target "un-British" values in new counter-extremism strategy

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Following a review of the Preventing Violent Extremism strategy, which was put in place by the Labour government in 2007, reports suggest that the government will this week unveil an updated strategy that will see it take a firmer approach to tackling the threat from Islamic extremism.

According to yesterday's Observer, David Cameron has won a cabinet battle over the approach that should be taken towards groups espousing fundamentalist but non-violent viewpoints, and the new Prevent strategy will see funding denied to Muslim organisations that do not "reflect British mainstream values". Reportedly Nick Clegg had argued, along with the Conservative chair Baroness Warsi and the attorney general Dominic Grieve, that engagement with such groups was necessary in order to counteract violent forms of extremism. It's a position Cameron is known to oppose – in the February speech in Munich in which he stated that "state multiculturalism" had "failed", he described such an approach as "nonsense", saying:
"Would you allow far-right groups a share of public funds if they promise to help you lure young white men away from fascist terrorism? Of course not."
It also appears likely that the new strategy will involve a firmer approach towards the toleration of extremist groups in universities. In an interview in today's Telegraph, the Home Secretary, Theresa May says that universities need to “send very clear messages" regarding the extremism on campus:
“I think for too long there’s been complacency around universities. I don’t think they have been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place. I think there is more that universities can do.” 
It will be interesting to see what's in the new strategy, particularly how it goes about defining "key British values". The Telegraph piece suggests that extremist groups will be categorised as those that do "not subscribe to human rights, equality before the law, democracy and full participation in society” – if those are the British values the strategy will set out, then they are unlikely to be controversial, but any attempt to delve further into the issue of what constitutes "Britishness" would be more contentious.

While it seems likely that the new strategy will please those who favour taking a more hardline approach, it will be equally important that it is well received within Muslim communities. As I discovered when I researched this subject in 2009, Labour's Prevent strategy alienated many Muslims, who felt that it stigmatised them as a threat to be contained without focusing on the root problems of poverty and education affecting their communities. In taking a more "hardline approach", will the Coalition's strategy neglect these issues too?

AC Grayling launches private university for the humanities

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AC Grayling
As many of you will have seen, one of the big pieces of news to emerge this weekend is that a group of celebrity academics, spearheaded by AC Grayling, are to launch a private university for the humanities, with courses beginning in October 2012.

The New College for the Humanities, based in Bloomsbury, London, close to several of the city's universities, including University College, Birkbeck and SOAS, will charge students £18,000 per year, which is double the maximum £9,000 that public universities will be able to charge from next year. It will focus on teaching humanities, with undergraduates able to study degrees drawn from five core subjects – Law, Economics, History, English Literature and Philosophy – while also requiring students to study compulsory modules in Logic and Critical Thinking, Science Literacy, Applied Ethics and Professional Skills, emulating the broad education provided by elite universities in the United States. Degrees will be awarded by the University of London, and the college is promising students tuition to rival that provided by Oxford and Cambridge – according to its website, they will receive one-on-one tutorials in their major subjects, and "12 hours of contact with academic staff each week, compared to 4-8 hours (or even fewer) at leading British universities".

The college's senior common room, as it stands at the moment, is a who's who of celebrity academics. In addition to Grayling, who will be master of the college, the "professoriate" is made up by Simon Blackburn, David Cannadine, Linda Colley, Partha Dasgupta, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin, Niall Ferguson, Steve Jones, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, Christopher Ricks, Peter Singer and Adrian Zuckerman. The college has attracted funding from city financiers, with the founding professors all reportedly holding shares.

Understandably, the college has attracted significant criticism since news of its launch emerged in the Sunday papers. While Grayling has defended the move as a response to "the economic reality" of cuts to public humanities funding, saying "either you stand on the sidelines deploring what is happening or you jump in and do something about it", others see the college's foundation as a step towards the entrenchment of the humanities as the preserve of privileged students. While Grayling (who has previously spoken out against tuition fees) has defended the college, which will expect entrants to have three A grades at A Level or equivalent, against this charge by pointing out that more than 20 per cent of students will receive bursaries, this will still leave 80 per cent paying twice the amount demanded by Oxford, Cambridge and other leading British universities. Quoted by the Guardian, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union, criticised both the college and government cuts to the humanities:
"At £18,000 a go, it seems it won't be the very brightest but those with the deepest pockets who are afforded the chance. The launch of this college highlights the government's failure to protect art and humanities and is further proof that its university funding plans will entrench inequality within higher education."
One major question raised by the founding of New College concerns its relationship with the University of London. Examinations will be conducted by the university, which will then award the degrees. Of particular concern to existing students at the university (of which I am one – I study for an MA part-time at Birkbeck College) is the news that New College will apparently make use of university facilities, with its website stating that "accommodation, teaching, library, student welfare and union facilities all within easy walking distance, shared with Birkbeck College and the University of London Senate House and Students’ Union". Looking at the course descriptions, it also appears that New College will follow the University of London degree programmes very closely – for instance in my own subject, history, the New College course outline mirrors that of the University of London.

Taking all this into consideration, there is clearly an important question for the University of London to answer – given what appears to be an extremely close relationship between New College for the Humanities and the University of London, has the university effectively introduced a private college within its existing publicly-funded structure? It's a question many at the university are asking, with a group of students having already initiated a public meeting to discuss the matter.

Another question being asked about New College concerns the position it may take towards matters of religion. The professoriate contains several of the world's best-known atheists in Grayling, Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, Steve Jones and Peter Singer, and so, somewhat inevitably, religious commentators are wondering whether the college is set to become an academic institution for the new atheism. The Church Mouse even asks whether it will take a fair approach towards religious believers in admissions. The latter question seems unfair – the college (or perhaps its PR firm) has been pointing out on Twitter that it "is not an atheist college", and it should be judged on its actual admissions rather than on speculation based on the professors involved. But questions about the college's academic slant do seem worthwhile – Grayling and Dawkins have long pointed out that critical thinking and greater science literacy would help counteract fundamentalist religious thinking, and both subjects are part of the diploma that all New College students will study for.

Of course, many would argue that this is no bad thing, and if a group of professors are setting up their own college, why wouldn't students at the institution pursue the form of learning that they favour? Still, these questions are interesting, and are bound to be posed. Thinking beyond the atheism/religion issue, I think it's worth wondering about the academic slant that may prevail in other subject areas. For example, a look at the nascent history faculty (David Cannadine, Linda Colley, Niall Ferguson) suggests New College is unlikely to be a hotbed of cultural history and postmodern thinking.

Still, I don't think questions around the college's academic slant are the most pressing right now – as with admissions, it will have to be judged on that count once it is up and running. The key issue for now is that of its private status and the implications for British higher education. It will be very interesting to see how this story unfolds in the coming months.

I'm keen to read all your thoughts on this – please do share in the comments.

Update: As debate over this has continued today, both Birkbeck College and the University of London have issued press releases clarifying their relationships (or rather non-relationships) with New College. Richard Dawkins has commented on his website clarifying his own role in the college, and AC Grayling has written a short comment for the Dawkins site answering some criticisms. There's an open letter going round asking Dawkins not to get involved.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Humanist George Thindwa briefly detained and fined as he attempts to stop a witch-hunt in Malawi

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In the current issue of New Humanist, Richard Wilson reports on the work of local humanist campaigners fighting to prevent the persecution of women and children accused of witchcraft in Africa, focusing in particular on the work of George Thindwa in Malawi and Leo Igwe in Nigeria.

We received an email from George this morning, explaining how he was detained and fined by village chiefs as he attempted to prevent a witch-hunt as it happened on Wednesday in the Chimutu area of Malawi. It's an extraordinary story – here's George's account in full:
The crowd at the witch-hunt in Chinoko
On 1st June, I went to deliver N. Kamphata, the oldest elderly woman prisoner at her village at T/A Chumutu, Dowa who was released on a witchcraft offence.

On my way back, I was informed that there was a witch hunt at Chinoko village, T/A Chimutu about 15 kms from Kanengo on Lilongwe-Salima road. I decided to investigate. Indeed, the witch hunt was in full swing with the witch-finder named Boston (25-30 yrs old) doing searches of witchcraft charms. By the time I arrived at the village, the witch finder was at the grave yard. It is alleged that a “witch” by the name of Frazer Kaphanga had hidden his charms at the grave. There were many people at the grave site with drumming and singing.

I managed to join the crowd and take pictures. I went into the graveyard where some people had gone to watch the witch-finder digging the charm of Mr. Frazer. At the grave, I found the witch-finder busy with his act and within a short time; he managed to bring out the charm. He showed it to the crowd claiming that it was a rat that Frazer uses to steal money from other people. Then, Mr. Frazer was detained at the camp smeared with flour all over his face as a witch.

Next, the witch-finder went to the house of an old lady by the name of Kwajere, Ms Mukhalepo Chinsapo (80). I followed and took pictures. At the house the old lady was very disturbed and confused. She was smeared with flour on her face and asked to stand in the middle of a circle so that the witch-finder could search her house for charms. The old lady noticed that my mission was different. She faced in desperation clearly asking me in her heart so that I should her help. I went closer and took her hand and whispered to her that I will indeed rescue her at the appropriate time. I assured her that my mission there was to help such vulnerable people and her request would be answered.

I left and went aside to call the police to come and stop this illegal practice. The police headquarters told me to contact the Kanengo police. The community security men were alerted by the witch finder that my presence there was suspect. He briefly suspended his work and told them to bring me to him. The security men wanted to harass me. I resisted and told them that I had no time to go to the witch finder but to the Group Village man. At this time, I alerted my relations and humanists friends about this unfolding drama.

Three of the women accused of witchcraft
We went to the camp where the Group Village headman, Chinoko Kawenga, was supposed to be. He was not there. But all the chiefs were there. At the camp, there were 10 “witches” by that time, surrounded by people. Kwajere, Ms Chinsapo was dragged to the camp while I was there. One could not help to shed a tear to see live how the people labeled as witches are victimized and mistreated.

Mostly it is the elderly and women. Here are their names:

1. Mr. Kaphanga Frazer - is said to have a charm in the form of a rat for enrichment.
2. Mr. Boswell Kamuseza - the witch doctor was yet to visit his house to find the charms
3. Mr. Nasoni Kacholora - is said to have a charm to steal manhood from others.
4. Ms Naphiri Nabanda - is said to have a charm for tying pregnancies leading to still births.
5. Ms Moneyi Makata - her charm moved and was found to be at someone's house.
6. Ms Mukhalepo Chinsapo-Kwajere - very old woman and her charm was found in the roof of the house. She is a very old woman, possibly 80.
7. Mr. Herbert Kupenga
8. Ms Nankhoma Genitla
9. Ms Anasani Jojo - her charm was said to cause measles to others
10. Ms Angela Mawumusamathe
11. Mr. Kumbali Kamuseza

I was told that once the witch-finder had finished his searches of charms, he would come to the camp to deliver his final verdict on the “witches” in terms of punishment.

The chiefs told me that I was being charged with 3 offences: of taking pictures, of entering the grave yard without permission and attending the witch hunt without permission. I was told to pay a fine of MK 13000 ($85). I negotiated this down to MK 5000 ($32) and paid.

I was determined to stop the witch hunt and to have those in captive released. I went to the captives when I was discharged on my own and greeted them one by one and assured them that their freedom was at hand. I went to Mchezi roadblock at Kanengo and told the police about the witch hunt and they quickly phoned their superior. By 8 pm, the police arrived in full gear and we went to the village. At the village when police presence was noticed, people ran in all the directions. All the chiefs and two lieutenants of the witch-finder were taken for police questioning at Kanengo police. The witch-finder disappeared and he was nowhere to be seen.

George Thindwa with three of the women
following their release
As of 2nd June, 4 chiefs have been arrested and detained at Kanengo police; four lieutenants of the witch-doctor are detained. The arrested chiefs are Kalumbu Byton, Chinoko 2, Nachimbo Chapotela and Kachiundu. The police went back on 2nd June to look for the witch-finder and brought back two of his lieutenants. They did not find the witch-finder.

The so-called witches came to the police to give statements on 2nd June. I was with them. Some due to old age could not make it. I managed to deliver them back to their village, especially the very old. At the village the situation is calm now. Some villagers did thank me for helping them and stopping the witch-hunt.
Richard Wilson also discusses the work of George and Leo Igwe in the latest edition of the New Humanist podcast.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

American Imams sign letter backing evolution

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Imams in the United States have begun adding their names to a letter which affirms the compatibility of evolution with the Islamic faith, New Scientist reports. The so-called "Imam Letter" is an extension of the Clergy Letter project, which has seen more than 12,000 Christian ministers put their names to a statement rejecting creationism and Intelligent Design. The project was launched in 2006, and was extended to include Jewish clergy in 2008, with almost 500 adding their name to a "Rabbi Letter".

The Imam Letter, which emphasises the need to keep creationism and ID out of US schools, reads as follows:
"Literalists of various religious traditions who perceive the science of evolution to be in conflict with their personal religious beliefs are seeking to influence public school boards to authorize the teaching of creationism. We, the Imams of the mosques, see this as a breach in the separation of church and state. Those who believe in a literal interpretation of scriptural account of creation are free to teach their perspective in their homes, religious institutions and parochial schools. To teach it in the public schools would be indoctrinating a particular religious point of view in an environment that is supposed to be free of such indoctrination.

We, the undersigned Imams of the mosques, assert that the Qur’an is the primary source of spiritual inspiration and of values for us, though not for everyone, in our country. We believe that the timeless truths of the Qur’an may comfortably coexist with the discoveries of modern science. As Imams we urge public school boards to affirm their commitment to the teaching of the science of evolution. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth."
With both Islamic and Christian forms of creationism continuing to pose problems on this side of the Atlantic, for instance in the case of the threats received by the London Imam Usama Hasan on account of his suggestion that evolution and Islam are compatible, or the work of the newly-founded Centre for Intelligent Design in Glasgow, perhaps a similar initiative wouldn't go amiss here in the UK?

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

New Humanist Podcast June 2011

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I've just published the June 2011 edition of our podcast, which features interviews with two of the contributors to our current issue. Writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik came into the office to discuss his critique of Sam Harris's argument that moral values can be derived from science, presented in Harris's new book The Moral Landscape, while human rights campaigner Richard Wilson spoke to us about his piece on the bogus witch-hunts in Malawi and Nigeria, and the work being done by local humanists to combat them.

The podcast music, which you'll hear at various points throughout, was composed by Andrea Rocca, exclusively for New Humanist.

To listen to the podcast, which comes in at just under 20 minutes, use the player below,  subscribe via RSS or email, or download the full file from 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're also on iTunes - just search for "New Humanist" in the store and select the podcast subtitled "The podcast for godless people".