Friday, 29 July 2011

L Ron Hubbard slammed in verse - by his own great-grandson

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Here's something worth nine minutes of your time – performance poet Jamie DeWolf puts the boot into the legacy of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard – his great-grandfather – in a piece for US radio show Snap Judgement.

I recommend you watch the full video, but for those who can't straight away, here's how it opens:
“Every family has a black sheep. On my mother’s side, our black sheep was a shepherd that enslaved his own flock. The king of the cons. A man who made himself a messiah, even though he never called himself a god."

(Via the Washington Post)

Thursday, 28 July 2011

How to sidestep bad publicity

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Brazilian televangelist Edir Macedo
The Guardian reports that Bishop Edir Macedo, one of Latin America's leading televangelists and head of Brazil's Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, has initiated a three-week "media fast" among followers, urging them to steer clear of newspapers, TV and online social media.

"It will be a fast from each and every kind of secular information," Macedo announced. "TV, internet, newspapers, magazines, radios … from everything that is not Godly." For the opening three weeks of August, Macedo's congregation will be encouraged, in the bishop's words, to "abstain from all forms of media and entertainment ... from all the trash of this world."

Now, leaving aside the "not godly" aspect, I have to say Macedo's media fast is something I could actually get on board with. OK, so maybe three weeks would be a bit too long, but I'm sure we could all benefit from a bit of time away from Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

So full credit to Macedo? Maybe, although the bishop's critics have pointed out that the call for a media fast may be motivated less by spiritual, and more by pragmatic concerns. As is noted in the Guardian report, Macdeo has called two media fasts in the past, and both have coincided with him receiving negative press attention in Brazil, including allegations of financial irregularities.

So why the need for a fast next month? Over to the Guardian:
"Earlier this month the Universal Church came under attack after claims that a nine-year-old boy had been coerced into selling his toys during one televised service. As his mother underwent a violent exorcism on stage, the boy told the preacher he hoped selling his toys and donating the proceeds to the church would stop his parents fighting at home."
You have to agree, if you were a millionaire televangelist, that's certainly a story you'd want your followers to avoid.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Fifty thinkers, zero belief in God

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This brilliant cut 'n' paste, compiled by Jonathan Pararajasingham, brings together bits of interviews with 50 world-famous thinkers where they discuss their religious beliefs, or more accurately their lack of religious belief. From Richard Feynman to Brian Cox and Noam Chomsky to David Attenborough, we get a survey of all the reasons why the vast majority of scientists and philosophers don't buy the idea of God. It makes for pretty fascinating viewing.

(via Normblog)

Mass-murder in Norway highlights the need to oppose the ideas driving the European far right

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Tributes to the victims of Anders Breivik in the Norwegian capital, Oslo
Since I got back to work from holiday yesterday, I've been wondering what, if anything, I might write about the horrific events that occurred in Norway last Friday.

On the one hand, I find myself questioning what I can possibly add. Yet on the other, the mass-murder committed by Anders Behring Breivik seems directly relevant to the cover story I wrote for the current issue of New Humanist. Often, in the wake of acts of extreme violence, media commentators are forced to resort to blind speculation as to the motives of those involved. As Charlie Brooker noted on Monday, there was no shortage of blind (and wildly inaccurate) speculation from commentators this time, but Breivik largely spared them the trouble by emailing out a 1,516-page "manifesto" explaining his motives before setting out to commit his atrocities. Given that this document, entitled 2083 - A European Declaration of Independence, bears, with its attacks on "Islamisation", "multiculturalism" and "cultural Marxists", all the hallmarks of the European far right, which I examine in the current issue with reference to the English Defence League, it would feel a little odd not to discuss the attack on this blog.

In writing about anti-Muslim prejudice and the far-right for New Humanist, I have had it suggested to me that I am addressing the wrong issue. Why would I focus on far-right extremists when I should be focussing on the threat posed by Muslim extremists, as well as the misogynistic or homophobic attitudes that some hold and justify in the name of Islam? My answer to this – and it's something I felt I addressed in my piece – is that we must speak out against all forms of extremism. We've tackled the issue of Islamic extremism plenty of times in New Humanist, certainly far more times than right-wing extremism, so in the latest issue I wanted to address what I perceived as a rise in anti-Muslim prejudice, not just in Britain, but in the rest of Europe and the United States. At its most mainstream, this prejudice manifests itself in the scare stories we see about Muslims in the tabloid press, about Muslim-only toilets and the banning of Christmas to placate Muslims and so forth. Beyond that, commentators such as Mark Steyn, Melanie Phillips and Robert Spencer promote the idea of "Eurabia" – a Europe becoming "Islamicised" by Muslim immigration, high birth-rates and a perceived refusal/inability to integrate – and this idea is picked up by right-wing politicians such as Holland's Geert Wilders to justify proposing policies intended to curb the perceived advances of Islam. On the extreme fringe, this anti-Muslim sentiment reveals itself on our streets in the form of demonstrations against "Islamicisation" by far-right groups, with the English Defence League leading the way in this regard.

As we have learned in recent days, Anders Breivik shared these views, and appears to have cited them as justification for the "gruesome but necessary" murder of 76 people. As the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, who I spoke to for my recent piece, have pointed out in recent days, Breivik was in regular contact with English Defence League members online, having told them in March of this year that they are "a blessing to all in Europe". In his "manifesto", he urges people to join Facebook groups of "European patriots" such as "English Defence League", "Ban Islam!" and "Stop Islamisation of Europe", and he cites Steyn, Spencer, Wilders and Phillips, as well as Bat Ye'or, who coined the term "Eurabia".

Does this mean these people are responsible for the murders committed by Breivik? No, it doesn't. The responsibility lies with Breivik who, it is believed, acted alone in planning and implementing his terrorist attack. But what I think has been highlighted this week is that the supposed rationale for violence and murder can be found on the extreme "anti-Islamist", nationalist right just as it can be found in extreme Islamism. This doesn't mean we should necessarily expect further atrocities like Breivik's, but it does demonstrate the need to speak out against the far right.

While it is perfectly legitimate to protest against the use of Sharia law, or condemn attitudes towards women and gays that find justification in Islam, or debate issues surrounding integration and community relations in places that have experiences high levels of Muslim immigration, what is not legitimate is the scapegoating of entire communities and the targeting of them in street demonstrations such as those organised by the English Defence League (which have often resulted in violence). The message behind such rallies is that Muslims do not belong in this country, and this view, I think, finds encouragement in the tabloid articles about everyone being forced to eat halal and cafés having to remove their extractor fans because the smell of bacon "offends Muslims". It is also driven by the myths, perpetuated by Steyn, Phillips, Wilders et al, of "Islamicisation" turning Europe into "Eurabia" and destroying our "Western" way of life (as the satirical Daily Mash amusingly highlights today, that way of life currently seems to be doing OK).

I don't believe such views should be censored (we should all follow the lead of Norway's Prime Minister, who immediately expressed the importance of defending his country's open society), but I do believe we should be asking, as the Liberal Conspiracy blog did yesterday, what exactly it is that commentators like Melanie Phillips want? They do not, in my opinion, have any constructive answers to the questions and challenges posed by our modern, multicultural society. As banal as it may sound, I think the vast majority of people in Britain, and, indeed, the rest of Europe, just want to live alongside one another and get on with their lives in peace. For that reason, I'm interested in exploring ideas that might help promote this, and opposing those that won't, whether they come from the Islamists, the tabloids or those commentators and groups that helped inform the thinking of Anders Behring Breivik.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Nine Lessons update - hurry if you want tickets

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Nine Lesson and Carols for Godless People, our seasonal rationalist jamboree, is selling out fast. It runs 18-23 December at the Bloomsbury in London. 23rd is already SOLD OUT. Get your tickets now (Pic: Ed Byrne from last year's show)
Latest line up:
18-23 December 2011
All Nights
Robin Ince, Richard Herring, Helen Arney, Josie Long, Matt Parker, Martin White + Orchestra


18th - Darren Hayman, Alex Bellos

19th - Darren Hayman, Helen Keen, Mark Thomas, Alex Krotoski

20th - Issy Sutie, Chris Cox, Mark Thomas

21st - Issy Sutie, Jim Bob (of Carter USM)

22nd - Mark Miodownik, Jim Bob (of Carter USM)

23rd - Stewart Lee, Tim Harford

Thursday, 21 July 2011

3 things we have learnt from the Public Administration Committee debate on faith and the Big Society

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Today the transcript was released of the discussion of faith and the big society by the Public Adminsitration Committee of the House of Commons, on 30 June 2011. Expert witnesses for the discussion were chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Right Rev Tim Stevens Bishop of Leicester (CofE), Charles Wookey Assistant for Public Affairs at the Catholic Archbishop's office and Andrew Copson CEO of the British Humanist Association.
It's not an especially long or complex document so I recommend you give it a read, but here, for what its worth are three things I learned from it.
1. Andrew Copson is an excellent advocate of the humanist and secular cause.
He was in no way intimidated by the august company he was in, and well able to hold his own. Here's a sample, his response to the question posed by the chair Bernard Jenkins as to whether the fact that people participate in voluntary activity demonstrates that we are still a Judeo-Christian country, even though precious few go to church:
"I would not say that", Andrew replied. "I think the important values of of civic participation predate the various Christian institutions even in Europe, that they are shared around the world, that they are more likely to be human values because we are social animals of cooperation and participation. I think that is a firmer foundation on which to build than separate religious beliefs." It give me a warm feeling to know that such words were said, and said so well, in Parliament, especially during a discussion of the nebulous "Big Society" pseudo-policy. Bravo Andrew.
2. Even religious groups are worried about the Big Society.
Although religious groups have a lot to gain from running social services in terms of reinforcing their relevance to a society which is in danger of out-growing them, even they can see that if the Big Society is primarily a cost-cutting exercise this could well backfire on them. As Bishop Stevens put it: "I think we in the Church need to be alert to the dangers that the Churches might be turned into utilitarian provides of services, that we become a means to an end." Churches, he said at another point "cannot be an alternative to public service provision across the piece. They cannot deliver the professionalism, they cannot deliver the resources, they cannot deliver the standards, they cannot deliver the consistency, and they should not be expected to." Quite. It could all go badly for religious groups if they were expected to provide the high levels of service (under extreme pressure) we are used to from our publicly provided services.
3. Apparently dry discussions like this can be inadvertently funny .
Andrew Copson was discussing the case of the charity Eaves Housing, who had recently lost the contract to provide services for trafficked women to the Salvation Army. Andrew having made his point chairman Jenkins interceded with this:
"It is interesting that a secular organisation should call itself after a biblical figure."
"Who is that? Eaves?" asks Andrew.
"Eve", responds Jenkins. "
"I think, "Andrew explains, "it refers to the eaves of a house."
"Oh, I beg your pardon, " says the chair, "I just have religious hearing."
"It is very common", is Andrew's dry response. Jeeves couldn't have done it better.

So there you have it. Democracy in action and gags too. Have a read.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Nine Lessons tickets selling fast, and new acts confirmed

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Tickets to this year's Nine Lessons run 18-23 December at London's Bloomsbury are selling fast - don't miss out. Latest guests added are maths and Brazilian football expert Alex Bellos, Chris Cox "the award winning mind reader who can't read minds", and "the undercover economist" Tim Harford. Tickets here.

Come back for regular updates.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People 2011 on sale now

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Robin Ince performs at the 2009 Nine Lessons shows (photo by Des Willie)
Tickets are now on sale for our fourth annual rational Christmas science, comedy and music extravaganza Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. Running at London's Bloomsbury Theatre for six nights from 18-23 December, this year's shows will feature host and mastermind Robin Ince, alongside Richard Herring, Josie Long, Helen Arney and Martin White.

They'll be on every night, but as always the line-ups will be packed full of special guests, many of whom we will reveal over the coming months as they are added to the bill. So far we can confirm that Darren Hayman will appear on the 18th and 19th, Helen Keen on the 19th, Isy Suttie on the 20th and 21st, Mark Miodownik on the 22nd and Stewart Lee on the 23rd.

Tickets cost £25 (£15 concessions) and are on sale now from the Bloomsbury website, or the box office on 020 7388 8822.

As many of you will know, Nine Lessons has become something of Godless Christmas institution over the past four years, and tickets tend to sell out quickly – book yours now to avoid disappointment.

If you're new to the whole idea, take a look at our backstage videos from last year's shows, which should give you a sense of what Nine Lessons is all about.

Update (24 October 2011): 18, 19, 20, and 23 December are all sold out. Tickets still available for 21st, 22nd.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Rationalism comes to the theatre

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David Swain stars as lead character Will in Alternative
Anyone who enjoys seeing the credibility of homeopathy being diluted still further (was there ever any credibility to dilute?) may be interested to hear about a new play opening in London this summer. Produced by Trunkman Productions in association with The Nightingale Collaboration, an organisation launched by Simon Singh to challenge the questionable claims of alternative health practitioners, Alternative tells the story of a man trying to get to the bottom of an unusual illness:
"What do you do when you're unwell?  Go to the doctor, right?  So what happens when the doctors aren't helping? When they tell you they don't know what's wrong with you? That you have the strangest set of symptoms they've ever seen? That your test results look like David Lynch directed them. What then?

Alternative follows Will on his long, painful and frustrating journey to finding an answer. Stuck between a doctor new to the job, a nagging girlfriend, an infatuated fellow patient and a meddling homeopath sister, it's a battle on all fronts, and it is up to Will to decide who to trust, and at what cost.

Alternative is the new comedy from the award winning and critically acclaimed Trunkman Productions team.  It challenges us to consider the decisions we make, in matters of health and heart, when faced with our own mortality and what we expect, rightly or wrongly, of modern medicine."
Written by Trent Burton and directed by Melinda Burton (the award-winning husband and wife team – and discerning New Humanist readers – behind Trunkman Productions) – Alternative premieres with two performances at London's Etcetera Theatre on 2 and 3 August, during the Camden Fringe, before embarking on a longer run at the same theatre from 13-18 September. Tickets are available through TicketWeb. There's also a Facebook page for the play that you can join, should you choose.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Austrian "Pastafarian" wins right to wear colander on his head in driving licence photo

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Nik Alm's Austrian driving licence
Hats off to Niko Alm of Vienna, Austria, who has just won the right to use a photograph of himself wearing a colander on his head for his driving licence. I doubt any readers of this blog would question why someone would want to do this, but just in case it's worth noting that the colander is worn out of reverence for the Flying Spaghetti Monster and His Noodly Appendage, and is of great significance to followers of the Pastafarian faith.

Alm embarked on his driving licence campaign after discovering that Austrians are only entitled to wear headgear in their photos for religious reasons, and victory has taken three years, during which time he was required to obtain a doctor's certificate confirming that he is psychologically fit to drive.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

(Not so) nice wheels...

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If the owner of this trailer isn't already a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, he/she should probably give them a call. (Click on the image for a larger version.)

(Via @DorianLynskey on Twitter – he found it on a message board, so sadly we don't know who to credit. Do let us know if it's yours!)

Rupert Murdoch's Papal knighthood

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As the phone hacking scandal continues to worsen, among the many groups with cause to question their relationship with Rupert Murdoch is the Catholic Church which, as several bloggers, most notably the excellent Richard Bartholomew, have pointed out, made the NewsCorp mogul a Knight Commander of St Gregory (a so-called "Papal Knight") in 1998, following sizeable donations to Catholic education funds.

Of course, the Catholic Church is hardly alone in cosying up to Murdoch, but I thought I'd mention the issue briefly, if only to draw your attention to the debate over the issue taking place on the Catholic Herald's website. The paper asks whether the knighthood should be rescinded, and a lively discussion follows in the comments – well worth a look if you have a few minutes.

Giant Jesus statue news: 129-footer planned for Croatian port of Split

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Split viewed from Marjan peninsula, where the city's mayor plans
to erect a 129-foot statue of Christ
Is there some kind of competition going on? Last month I reported on the outgoing Peruvian president Alan García's plan to erect a giant statue of Christ as a parting gift/hubristic vanity statement to the people of the capital city, Lima. García's statue, which was eventually unveiled last week, stretches to a colossal 123 feet, three feet taller than Rio de Janeiro's famous Christ the Redeemer, but it seems his attempt to become 2011's leading proponent of height-dependent devotion could yet be thwarted by Zeljko Kerum, mayor of the Croatian port of Split. Kerum is planning to erect a 129-foot-high Jesus statue on Marjan, a hilly peninsula overlooking the city which used to be home to the summer residence of Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito. This would dwarf* another recent contender for World's Biggest Jesus, "Christ the King" in Świebodzin, Poland, by a whole 21 feet, although in that instance the putative Son of God scales greater heights by way of standing on top of a rather large mound.

As with the Lima statue, Kerum's plans for Split are meeting some opposition, with 4,000 people joining a Facebook group against the erection of the statue. Some object to the financial costs inherent in the construction of enormous representations of religious figures, while others appear to think the initiative is just plain unnecessary. Having visited Split and the Marjan peninsula myself a couple of years ago, I can concur – the area is beautiful enough as it is, and in my view wouldn't benefit greatly from a gargantuan Messiah. And lest that should sound like godless humbug, I'll hand the last word to Marko Gundic, a poster on the Facebook group who simply stated: "If I want to see the statue of Jesus I will go to a church and pray to Him."

* be a bit bigger than

Monday, 11 July 2011

New Humanist Podcast July 2011

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We've just published our July podcast, in which editor Caspar Melville presents interviews with three of the contributors to the July/August issue of the magazine.

First up, novelist AL Kennedy (01:30) talks about the research she carried out for her new novel The Blue Book, which features a fake psychic as one of the new characters. To prepare for writing it, Kennedy sat through stage shows, visited mediums and sat for palm readers, and in the podcast she discusses their techniques and the reasons why people fall for them, which she also dissects in her column in the current issue.

Next, I talk about my piece on the questions surrounding "Islamophobia" and the right to criticise religion (10:50). Are we seeing a rise in anti-Muslim prejudice? Is it confined to extremists such as the English Defence League, or is it, as Baroness Warsi suggested earlier this year, acceptable around the dinner tables of middle England? How can those wishing to criticise Islam do so without demonising Muslims in general?

Finally, Caspar speaks to leading science writer John Gribbin about what we owe the Moon (16:40). It's a question John considers in the new issue of New Humanist in a piece adapted from his latest book The Reason Why: The Miracle of Life on Earth – is the Moon the reason we are here at all, and where does that leave the question of life existing elsewhere in the universe?

Original music © Andrea Rocca

To listen to the podcast, which is just over 23 minutes long, use the player below, subscribe via RSS or email, or download the full file via our podcast page, where you can also find the full archive of the podcasts we published during 2008-9. We're also on iTunes - just search for "New Humanist" in the store and select the podcast subtitled "The podcast for godless people".

Friday, 8 July 2011

Just say No to the attack on sex education and abortion rights

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Recently on this blog we've been keeping a close watch on what appears to be a growing attack on women's reproductive rights and sensible sex and relationship education (SRE) in the UK. Just this year we've seen the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries launch an assault on both, targeting abortion rights through an attempt to change the rules on counselling for women seeking abortions, and SRE through the bizarre promotion of abstinence-based sex education for girls. We've also seen the elevation of anti-abortion groups by the government, with the anti-choice organisation Life being invited on to a new advisory forum on sexual health in place of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

Pro-choice advocates have not been blind to these attacks. Last month, a diverse group of campaigners gathered to discuss how to answer the anti-choice agenda, and tomorrow central London will see a public display of support for the right to choose, as a rally organised by the Swansea Feminist Network takes place in front of the Houses of Parliament. If you'd like to attend and show your support, the place to go is Old Palace Yard, Parliament Square from 1.30pm.

For more on why we should say "No" to Dorries and stand up for abortion rights and sex education, read what Zoe Margolis, author of the sex blog Girl With A One Track Mind and an ambassador for sexual health charity Brook, has to say in our latest issue.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Join the call for a public inquiry into the News of the World phone hacking scandal

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Before the revelations surrounding the hacking of the voicemails of teenage murder victim Milly Dowler broke on Monday, our editor, Caspar Melville, joined the list of names throwing their weight behind a campaign calling for a full public inquiry into the News of the World phone hacking scandal. The campaign – Hacked Off – was already planned for launch today, but with shocking revelations emerging on a daily basis, it has come at a time when the scandal is at the very top of the national news agenda.

As the Hacked Off website explains, it is only through a public inquiry can we hope get close to the full facts about what has occurred within News International with respect to illegal phone hacking:
"News International has been slow to acknowledge the extent of the wrongdoing. It has made limited admissions and is trying to buy off of civil claims. Most other news organizations have kept their reporting of the scandal to a minimum. And public concern has been heightened by the response to these activities from the Press Complaints Commission, the Metropolitan Police and by politicians and Government.
A police investigation and civil proceedings are under way, but they are narrowly focused. Even if there are prosecutions, they will concern themselves only with specific cases and individuals. Without an inquiry most of the evidence will stay secret and the wider story of illegal information-gathering and the official response to it will never be told."
For a campaign that officially launched just this morning, Hacked Off has already proven extraordinarily successful, with David Cameron announcing in today's PMQs that there will be a full public inquiry. Even so, adding your name to the Hacked Off petition is still an important way of voicing your outrage at the phone hacking scandal and keeping up the public pressure on the government, the police and News International to ensure that the scandal is fully investigated and addressed.

Add your name and browse the list of public figures who have added theirs on the Hacked Off website.

The Rap Guide to Evolution: Revised

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A quick plug for our friend and favourite scientific hip hop artist Baba Brinkman, who has just released a new revised, remixed and updated version of his Rap Guide to Evolution, which, you may recall, is the world's first (only?) peer reviewed hip hop album. It's available for download on a pay-as-you-like basis, and you can have a preview listen using the player below. More on Baba and his work on his website.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Richard Wiseman's book Paranormality considered too sceptical for the US market

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Psychologist Richard Wiseman has self-published his excellent book Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There in the United States after failing to find a publisher. It's an odd situation, considering that Paranormality has been a success in the UK and elsewhere. Wiseman explains on his blog:
"The book has done well in the UK and has been bought by publishers in lots of other countries. However, the major American publishers were reluctant to support a skeptical book, with some suggesting that I re-write it to suggest that ghosts were real and psychic powers actually existed! We didn’t get any serious offers and so it looked like the American public (around 75% of whom believe in the paranormal) wouldn’t get the opportunity to read about skepticism."
Wiseman's solution is to release the book in the US himself, retitled as Paranormality: Why We Believe the Impossible. American readers can support the release (and get a great book on why people believe in implausible things – see his March cover story on ghosts for New Humanist) by buying either the hard copy or Kindle edition through Amazon.

It's quite a bizarre story, really (particularly the fact that Wiseman was asked to re-write bits to say the opposite of what he thinks). It's well-known that both religiosity and belief in the paranormal are greater in the US than Europe, yet at the same time all the big "New Atheist" books have been published and become big hits over there. Are ghosts and psychics really a bridge too far for American publishers? PZ Myers has a characteristically uncompromising take, saying Americans are being "insulted" by their publishers.

What do you think?

Monday, 4 July 2011

Urgent appeal: Mustard Seed Secular School in Uganda needs to raise £22,000 for a new school building

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Students at Mustard Seed Secular School in Busota, Uganda chat
before a lesson on the discovery of oil in Uganda
There are currently three humanist schools in Uganda: Mustard Seed School, Busota, Isaac Newton School, Masaka, and Fair View School, Kamengo. Each offers a broad non-dogmatic education to secondary pupils, where students are encouraged to develop their own views about religion and the world. Each has received significant financial support from humanists and rationalists in the UK. New Humanist and the Rationalist Association have taken a central role in supporting the Mustard Seed School, Busota. Readers have so far donated more then £35,000, which has allowed the school to educate hundreds of children who would not otherwise have gained a secondary education. Mustard Seed School has made great strides in the past year, becoming certified by the Ministry of Education (having met their exacting standards), sinking a borehole to provide clean water and building a science block and computer lab. For the first time every pupil had access to books this year, enabling the school to achieve their best ever exam results.

But they still need your support. The main need is for more space for the school to grow. An historic opportunity has come up, because the Muslim School next door to Mustard Seed has closed down, and the land come up for sale. It includes a block of four classrooms, offices and a kitchen, and would enable Mustard Seed to become a local exam centre, meaning students would not need to travel long distances to do exams, and bring the school additional revenue. The land and school have been offered at a very competitive price, but the offer is time-limited. We need to raise £22,000 as quickly as possible.

If you can help please visit the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust's donation page or call Steve Hurd on +44 (0) 1782 750338.

To learn more about Mustard Seed, take a look at Andrew West's photo essay from the current issue of New Humanist.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Ledge: atheism's Brokeback Mountain?

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Liv Tyler and Charile Hunnam star in The Ledge
We had an email the other day from team behind a new film, The Ledge, a psychological thriller due for cinematic release in the US next Friday. If you're wondering why they'd contact a magazine like New Humanist, it's because the film is being billed as " the first drama in Hollywood history to feature an openly atheist hero in a story about religious conflict".

So what's it all about? Here's the synopsis from the film's website:
"On the rooftop of a city skyscraper, Detective Hollis (Terrence Howard) pleads with Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) not to jump. What he does not know is that Gavin, an atheist, is involved in a deadly feud with Joe (Patrick Wilson), a Christian extremist. Joe's wife, Shana, (Liv Tyler) is caught in the middle as Joe seeks to test Gavin's faith or lack of it. Cutting between the present and the past, tension escalates as verbal shots give way to deadly threats in a race against time that neither God nor the police can stop. Along the way, the film provocatively explores the intellectual and emotional conflicts between religion and atheism."
 And here's the trailer:

The Ledge, which was nominated in the Best America Drama category at the prestigious Sundance film festival, is currently showing on Video on Demand services (I think this may be only available in the US), but from next Friday, 8 July, it will begin a "test run" at cinemas in New York and Los Angeles. If it is successful it is hoped that it will achieve a wider release, and there are plans for it to be released internationally in August. The team behind the film hope it will help to raise the profile of atheists, pointing to the success of 2005's Brokeback Mountain in raising the profile of gay rights. The Ledge's British director, Matthew Chapman, certainly has high hopes, suggesting he would like the film to inspire atheists to be open about their views and also help increase understanding between believers and non-believers:
"I want Christians and other believers to watch The Ledge and see that atheists have a valid point of view. There are a lot of us, we are thinking people, we care about many of the same issues as believers, and yet we are rarely heard and widely hated. I hope atheists who are still in the closet will take heart from the film and think, 'I am not alone'."
If you'd like to help build the momentum behind the film, there is a whole list of ways you can on the official website – if you're in New York or LA you can go and see it, you can watch online in the US, or you can spread the word via social networking sites (there's a Facebook page you can join).

So what's our take? Well, in terms of whether it's a good film, it's hard to say without having actually seen it, but with a well-known writer/director, a cast of names and a Sundance nomination, it certainly sounds like The Ledge could be worth seeing (have a look at this very positive review from the Huffington Post).

Perhaps the more interesting issue for us is the matter of whether The Ledge can be a "Brokeback Mountain for atheists"? It's a question that reminds me of Richard Dawkins' "Out Campaign", in that it involves a comparison between coming out as gay and "coming out" as an atheist. This comparison has always seemed more valid in the US, where many atheists do feel unable to admit to being non-religious in what can be a very religious society, than it does in the UK, where levels of religiosity are much lower. The question you find yourself asking from a British perspective is: do we need a "Brokeback Mountain for atheists?"

I'll throw that one out to you – do share your thoughts in the comments.