Friday, 30 September 2011

The rise of scepticism in Uganda: leading Ugandan sceptic James Onen speaking in London on 12 October

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Ugandan sceptic
James Onen
Regular readers will know that there are thriving humanist and sceptical organisations in numerous African countries, including Uganda, where our readers have for several years supported a successful humanist school.

Those of you who are keen to learn more about the brave and fascinating fight against superstition in Africa may be interested to hear that James Onen, a leading Ugandan sceptic who runs the Freethought Kampala blog, is in the UK and Ireland in October, when he will be speaking in several cities.

The London event is hosted by the British Humanist Association, and will take place at the Camden Head pub in Islington on Wednesday 12 October at 6.30pm:
Irrational beliefs – such as the acceptance of the power of witchcraft – are pervasive across the African continent, and are not restricted only to the uneducated. It is hard to believe that given all the advancements in medicine and science in the last 500 years, so many people still attribute their misfortune and sickness to evil spirits and demons, courtesy of witchcraft. These beliefs benefit from the tacit support of mainstream religions (particularly the fast growing ‘charismatic’ forms of Christianity) which, while denouncing witchcraft as evil, fully endorse the view that it is efficacious. In their view witchcraft is seen as evidence of ‘Satan’ at work. Mainstream religions are also guilty of promoting a belief system that leads to:
  • Pastors conning thousands of believers by stage-managing fake miracles
  • Many HIV positive believers dying because they were abandoning ARVs based on unsubstantiated miracle testimonies
  • Making people believe that they have been bewitched or are victims of ‘generational curses’
The lack of a rational voice in this public conversation about what are spiritual matters prompted a number of local rationalists to come together and form Freethought Kampala, a club that seeks to promote reason, logic, science and critical thinking in a highly superstitious society.

As a founding member of Freethought Kampala, James Onen will give an insight into:
  • the experience of being a sceptic in a deeply superstitious society, including the fight against witchcraft
  • the phenomenal rise of charismatic forms of Christianity in Uganda, and its impact on belief in the efficacy of witchcraft
  • the politicisation of religion, spirituality, and mass conformity; and
  • the rise of scepticism, challenges for scepticism, and the way forward from here.
Onen will also be speaking at the following events:

Thursday 6 October - Cardiff (Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub)

Sunday 9 October - Dublin (Dublin Skeptics in the Pub)

Monday 10 October - Belfast (Belfast Skeptics in the Pub)

Tuesday 11 October - Edinburgh (Edinburgh/Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub)

Thursday 13 October - Lewes (Lewes Skeptics in the Pub)

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Christian pastor facing execution in Iran after refusing to recant his faith

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Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani with his family. He
faces execution following conviction for apostasy
The human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide report that an Iranian pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, is facing execution after twice refusing to recant his faith. Nadarkhani, of Rasht in northern Iran, was convicted of apostasy in September 2010 and sentenced to death two months later, following his arrest in October 2009 while attempting to register his church. He was reportedly accused of questioning the compulsory Islamic education of children in Iran, and eventually charged with apostasy and evangelising Muslims. Apostasy is not a capital offence under Iranian law, but the sentence is based on fatwas by Iran's revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

While it should, of course, make no difference from a human rights perspective, it is interesting to note that the court in Rasht has ruled that Nadarkhani was never a practising Muslim, but has upheld the conviction on the basis of his Muslim ancestry. On 25 and 26 September, Nadarkhani was offered the opportunity to renounce his faith in exchange for his life, but refused and now faces execution by hanging. Christian blogger Cramner reports that he turned down a third opportunity to recant yesterday.

Christian Solidarity are calling for international leaders to raise the case of Nadarkhani, and his lawyer Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, who has been convicted of "actions and propaganda against the Islamic regime", with the Iranian government, and are also urging members of the public to contact the Iranian embassy.

New Statesman blogger David Allen Green has examined the case in more detail, and includes a translation of the judgement handed down to Nadarkhani in his post.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

New Humanist Podcast October 2011: Chavs, Nine Lessons and football

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We've just published the latest New Humanist podcast, in which we bring you interviews with two of the contributors to the latest issue of the magazine, plus a look ahead to the return of our rational live Christmas shows Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People.

First, we talk to Owen Jones (00:40), whose debut book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class (Verso) has been credited with reopening the tough debate around class in modern Britain. Owen describes the reaction to the book in his article for New Humanist, and in the podcast we ask him how his arguments have fared in light of the August riots, which saw him catapulted into the spotlight as a media commentator (he was in the Newsnight studio when historian David Starkey infamously declared that "the whites have become black").

Next, comedian Robin Ince (11:07) enters our studio/meeting room to discuss his plans for the forthcoming Christmas rationalist shows, plus what else he's been up to and what he thinks of our new offices. Listen for news of some surpsise potential musical guests at this year's shows.

Finally, journalist Sam Delaney (17:12) talks faith and football. He's a staunch West Ham fan, and when they were relegated from the Premier League last season, the religious parallels in his blind faith became all-too apparent. They're outlined in his piece in our current issue, and he discussed them with us in the podcast.

To listen to the podcast, which is just under 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".

Monday, 26 September 2011

The end of history: BBC bans BC and AD. Or not.

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There was, no doubt, much consternation around the breakfast tables of middle England yesterday as the Mail on Sunday declared that the "BBC turns its back on year of Our Lord", in a cover story that claimed executives at the public broadcaster had banned the use of the dating terms "Before Christ (BC)" and "Anno Domini (AD)" in favour of the "politically-correct" terms "Before Common Era (BCE)" and "Common Era (CE)".

So have the BBC, as the Mail suggested, really "jettisoned 2,000 years of history"? It would certainly be an impressive feat, even for an organisation of the BBC's size and influence, but of course a close reading of the story shows that there was really no need for the paper to have its readers spluttering into their Earl Grey. As the Mail point out in the final paragraph, via a spokesperson from the broadcaster, history is safe and the use of AD and BC is still considered perfectly acceptable within the BBC:
"The BBC has not issued editorial guidance on the date systems. Both AD and BC, and CE and BCE are widely accepted date systems and the decision on which term to use lies with individual production and editorial teams."
Not that such a clarification means much to Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, who this morning uses the story to rail against "members of the majority who want to destroy their own culture" through political correctness and suggest that "it is hardly frivolous to wonder how long it will be before the Bible itself is banned".

Because, obviously, the next logical step after an organisation gives its staff the option of choosing between two sets of terms for historical eras is the outlawing of a major religious text.

(For more on this, I heartily recommend Guardian blogger Martin Robbins' piece, which alerted me to the story in the first place and amused me a great deal.)

Update: If Melanie Phillips' interpretation isn't sensationalist enough for you, why not try James Delingpole's "How the BBC fell for a Marxist plot to destroy civilisation from within".

It's also worth noting that the journalist Cristina Odone has today launched a new site, "Free Faith", aimed at "fighting the new atheist intolerance". Now that should be interesting...

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Atheists just as likely to volunteer as Christians

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A common assertion in the ongoing debate over religion and atheism is that the religious – in particular Christians – are far more likely to engage in charitable activity and generally be far better citizens than the pesky non-believers. Indeed, it's one of the reasons the government is so keen to involve religious groups in the provision of public services as part of the Big Society (something James Gray takes a look at in his piece in our current issue).

But are Christians really so much more benevolent than atheists? While the government continues to extol the virtues of religion in the Big Society, its own statistics suggest that the godless are just as charitable as the godly. The Citizenship Survey: April 2010 - March 2011, produced by the Department for Communities and Local Government, found that atheists were only marginally less likely to participate in volunteer work than Christians, with 56 per cent of non-religious respondents saying that had done so at least once in the least year, compared with 58 per cent of Christians. Hindus and Muslims showed the lowest levels of participation, with 44 per cent in both groups having volunteered in the last year.

This is a debate that's likely to continue, so it's worth remembering those statistics next time it comes up.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Has secularisation eroded our understanding of history?

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Historian and MP Tristram Hunt
A piece on the state of history teaching and the declining levels of historical understanding [PDF] among the British public by the historian and Labour MP Tristram Hunt, published in the new issue of the History Workshop Journal, contains a provocative assertion that many secularists and humanists will no doubt take issue with. Having provided some figures from polls on public knowledge (84 per cent of university undergraduates don't know who commanded the British at Waterloo, for example), Hunt suggests that such shocking historical literacy may have its roots in the decline of religion:
"[W]hat these figures hint at is the steady dehistoricization of the public realm. This has, in my view, gone hand in hand with increasing secularization. The institutions of civil society through which our forebears gained their knowledge of the past and their place within it – close-knit, multi-generational extended families; the church or chapel; girl guides and boy scouts; trade unions or Lodges; political parties or civic institutes – have haemorrhaged members. Learning outside the classroom has collapsed. Today, it is really the National Trust (with its 3.3 million members) which keeps the flame alive. The consequence has been a remarkable loss of historical bearings."
Hunt backs up the assertion with two supporting quotes, the first from the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm's study of the 20th century, The Age of Extremes:
"The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in."
 The second quote is from the conservative historian of religion Jonathan Clark, who reaches a similar conclusion to Hobsbawm:
"Religious identity was once a potent source of a sense of historical bearings: it underwrote individual identity in a way that turned history into a procession, and a procession set within a wider providential scenario . . . The growing separation of Church and State [in the UK], formally avowed in statute and delivered in practice by the market, therefore produces a culture that is not only officially secularized, but also silently dehistoricized."
This is certainly a challenging assertion. It seems difficult to deny that historical understanding is getting worse (although as with all narratives of "decline", I feel I would need to see convincing evidence that things were better in the past before I could be absolutely sure), but is secularisation really to blame? My instinct as a humanist and secularist is to say no, but I can see Hunt's point that organisational activities such as church or the Guides and Scouts can expose people to a historical tradition and thus increase their understanding of the past. Likewise trade unions or political parties, although this raises the question of what we mean by "secularisation" – are we talking about the decline of communal activities in general, and if so is this secularisation?

However, it is important to ask what kind of historical understanding was provided by such organisations. Here, I think the quote from Clark is rather telling, as he bemoans the loss of a religious identity which "underwrote individual identity in a way that turned history into a procession, and a procession set within a wider providential scenario". Such a teleological view is well suited to religion, which can provide believers with a folk history that explains the world in a manner that fits the traditions of the faith. You could certainly argue that modern, Western secular society – so focused on the present and beset (or blessed, depending on your perspective) by consumerism and individualism – is lacking this kind of collective memory, which serves a purpose in binding a society together around a shared narrative, but is this the type of history we are talking about when we look to address the decline in historical knowledge?

The government's review of the history curriculum, which aims to furnish children with an understanding of "our island story", would suggest that it is, but others, such as the historian Richard Evans, have warned of the dangers of attempting to construct national identity through the teaching of a teleological view of British history. Personally, I'm inclined to agree with Evans, who has stressed the importance of scepticism in history:
"History is by its nature a critical, sceptical discipline. Historians commonly see one of their main tasks as puncturing myths, demolishing orthodoxies and exposing politically motivated narratives that advance spurious claims to objectivity."
If historical literacy has worsened (and I think it probably has), I agree that it is a problem, but I don't think we should necessarily bemoan the decline of providential religious perspectives, even if involvement in religion did contribute to historical knowledge in the past. History should teach young people how we have arrived in our modern secular age, and that entails an understanding of the advances that have occurred, both socially and scientifically, as well as knowledge of the injustices we humans continue to perpetrate in spite (or because) of modernisation. It should demonstrate that at times the past can provide guidance for confronting our present and future problems, while pointing out that at other times it can prove to be no guide at all. At heart history is the story of humanity's imperfection, and surely nothing is more secular than that.

Interested to hear views on this - please share in the comments.

Archbishop of Canterbury: atheism is cool

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Party on, dudes
I was interested to read that the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in conversation with comedian Frank Skinner at Canterbury Cathedral last week, has remarked on the difficulties faced by the Church of England in competing with the "coolness" of atheism.

Commenting on the current popularity of so-called "New Atheist" authors, in particular Richard Dawkins, Williams suggested that it is hard for those making the religious counter-arguments to reach a large audience:
“The problem is it becomes a bit of a vicious circle. Atheism is cool, so books about atheism are cool. They get a high profile, and books that say ‘Actually, this, this and this are wrong Richard Dawkins’ don’t get the same kind of publicity because atheism is the new cool thing. It’s the sort of dog-bites-man, man-bites-dog thing. One’s news, the other not so much. So it’s difficult to break into that, but plenty of people are trying.”
Nevertheless, the Archbishop also expressed scepticism as to how many people have been converted by Dawkins et al:
“I’d want to know how many atheists [Dawkins'] The God Delusion created. The book sold, but did it make a difference to the number of people who were actually committed one way or the other? . . . I’m not avoiding the point that the coolness of atheism is very much in evidence. I’m just not quite sure that it shifts people’s serious commitments that much in the long run.”
It seems Williams is rather keen on this characterisation of atheism, which makes me wonder if it's all a clever ruse – can anything truly be cool once the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that it is?

Monday, 19 September 2011

Islam in a secular Europe

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On Friday I attended a debate in London on "Islam in a secular Europe", organised by the British Humanist Association and the Central London Humanists ahead of the March for a Secular Europe, which took place on Saturday afternoon. It was an interesting debate which highlighted some useful areas for agreement, as well as some tricky issues on which the religious (in this case, Muslims) and non-religious find it more difficult to agree.

The debate was chaired by Rashad Ali, a former member of the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir who is now director of the counter-extremist organisation CENTRI, and he began by allowing each member of the panel to make their opening remarks. First up was Maleiha Malik, Professor in Law at King's College London, who stresssed that, in contrast to some hysterical public perceptions, European Muslims are a very powerless religious minority, and therefore need secularism to protect their religious freedoms. She outlined her own definition of secularism, which entails the absolute institutional separation of law and politics from religion, and the provision of secular, not religious, justifications for public policy. Malik went on to argue that, on the whole, liberal constitutional law in the UK has proven perfectly adequate for resolving issues concerning the accommodation of Muslim culture, as well as other religious disputes. As examples she cited the equality laws around sexual orientation, in particular the Ladele Case, where it was ruled that a Christian registrar could not refuse to conduct same-sex civil partnerships.

Second to speak was Yahya Birt, a convert to Islam and co-editor of the recent book British Secularism and Religion: Islam, Society and the State. He began by saying that there is every reason to think that the majority of Muslims in Europe are perfectly comfortable with secularism. He then discussed the importance of recognising that there are various forms of secularism, and pointed to the differences between the American and French versions. Neither, in Birt's view, particularly apply in the UK, where the attitude towards religion is one of "neither dominance nor disappearance". He suggested that a key question is whether there are secular justifications for the role of religion in society, for instance faith schools (Birt thinks there are).

Next we heard from Maryam Namazie, who is spokesperson for the Council for Ex-Muslims of Britain and One Law For All, which campaigns against the use of Sharia law in the UK. Where the previous panellists focused on the position of Muslims in Europe, particularly in the UK, Namazie addressed the issue in terms of the power of Islamist regimes around the world. She started by pointing out that secularism is a crucial and minimum precondition for civil society, and that religion is central to the debate. Of all religions, Islam, argued Namazie, is most central to the debate, because it is the banner of a political movement – Islamism. She suggested that a major problem with the debate over secularism and Islam is that if you show concern about Islamism and Sharia law, or more specifically stoning or executions under Islamic regimes, you are accused of Islamophobia and scapegoating Muslims, and this is used to close down debate. She ended by advancing her view, which she has previously outlined in more detail, that we are living under an "Islamic Inquisition", whereby Islamists hold political power in many parts of the world and seek to close down criticism and dissent.

Namazie was followed by Humeira Iqtidar, who is a lecturer at King's College and author of Secularising Islamists? Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Pakistan. She began by saying it is important that secularism does not become an ideology that "trumps democracy", as it has in being used as a reason to support dictatorship in Pakistan, for example. Iqtidar then turned to the issue of Islam in Europe, arguing that current anxieties stem from Europe's colonial history and the perception of Europe's unique place in world history, and pointing out that it is important to remember that the presence of Muslims in Europe is not something new. She also addressed Namazie's notion of an "Islamic Inquisition", suggesting that it is a dangerous idea, as it implies that there is something analogous to the Christian Inquisition, with a methodology behind it. She compared this with the Nazi demonisation of the Jews, which eventually created a situation where anti-Semitism could be instrumentalised.

The final panellist to speak was the former diplomat Sir David Blatherwick, a supporter of humanism and secularism who once served as the British Ambassador to Egypt. He pointed out that religious fanatics falsely like to present secularism as a threat to religion, whereas it is really about providing a level playing field for all beliefs. It is a framework, not an ideology. He also suggested that Muslims and non-Muslims spend too much time discussing their differences, when most people would agree on basic principles of human rights. With that in mind, he asked what we are really talking about when we mention a "clash of civilisations". He pointed out that secularism should entail a common society in which everyone can participate, and ended by noting that nothing divides a society as much as religious separation in schools, as he discovered during his time working in Northern Ireland.

Following Blatherwick's contribution, the event was opened up to questions from the audience, and it was at this stage that some of the areas of disagreement became apparent. The issue of burqa bans always has the ability to divide opinion, and this was the case on Friday, as Humeira Iqtidar's view that bans, such as that imposed in France this year, close down conversation, was contrasted with Maryam Namazie's contention that bans are not necessarily totalitarian, and can instead be about where society draws a line as to what is considered acceptable. As evidence for her "Islamic Inquisition" thesis, Namazie pointed out that the conversation always focuses on the right to wear the burka, rather than the right not to wear the burka. There was conflict within the audience as one member stated that the elephant in the room when discussing Islam in Europe is race, and suggested that some opposition to the burka stems from racism. Other audience members objected, pointing out that their opposition is based on feminism, and there was further controversy when Maleiha Malik suggested that some European feminists have allied with the racist far-right in their opposition to Islam, citing the Somali-Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi-Ali as an example.

There was also controversy over an audience question concerning the Qur'an, with the Muslim panellists being asked if there were any parts of the book (particularly those concerning violence) that they reject. Both Humeira Iqtidar and Maleiha Malik objected to the question, with Iqtidar pointing out that there is a fantasy that Muslims in general are more religious than followers of other faith, and Malik suggesting that picking out lines from a text and asking individuals to justify is at best an anti-intellectual pursuit, and at worst something verging on persecution. From the humanist perspective, David Blatherwick agreed that analysing a text verse-by-verse is pointless, and suggested the best solution is to talk to Muslims about their beliefs.

So was it useful to debate the subject of Islam in a secular Europe? I'd say it certainly highlighted the fact that secularism isn't something that is valued only by atheists, with all the Muslim speakers pointing out that it is essential for guaranteeing the religious freedoms of Muslims as a minority living in a multi-faith society. The debate also highlighted numerous disagreements, but that too is useful for understanding the position of Islam in Europe.

One subject that is clearly controversial is the link between criticism of Islam and the far-right, with humanists and secularists objecting to the notion that their positions on Islam can have any connection to the positions of racist groups such as the British National Party or the English Defence League. Humanists are quite right to distance themselves from those groups, but in my view it is wrong to act as though the two positions exist in isolation from each other. There are times when the secularist and far-right views will overlap, for instance on an issue like the burqa, and it is important to acknowledge that this can cause problems in communicating the secularist arguments to Muslims. This is why it is crucial, in my opinion, for humanists to mount a critique of racism and the far-right that is as robust as the critique of Islamism.

Another controversial issue in the debate was Maryam Namazie's "Islamic Inquisition" thesis. Namazie is an Iranian dissident who campaigns courageously against Islamist regimes around the world, and her critique is informed by that international perspective. However, Friday's debate was about Islam in Europe, and I am unsure how useful it is to frame such a discussion in terms of am "Islamic Inquisition". I agree that we have had issues in Europe concerning Islam and free speech, not least with the Rushdie affair and the 2005 Danish cartoons controversy, but I found myself in agreement with Maleiha Malik when she pointed out that it is important to make a distinction between Tehran and Tower Hamlets. While international events have had a significant effect on Islam in Europe, particularly since 2001, there is clearly a huge difference between the experience of those living under oppressive Islamist regimes and those living in a Europe which now includes a sizeable minority of Muslims, and I think we risk losing nuance if we frame a debate on Islam in Europe in such terms.

Interested to hear your views on these issues – please do share in the comments.

Teach evolution, not creationism! Leading scientists sign up to new campaign

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A new campaign coordinated by the British Humanist Association is lobbying the government to take action to prevent the teaching of creationism in schools. The Teach Evolution, Not Creationism! campaign is supported by thirty leading figures from the world of science, including David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Michael Reiss and Steve Jones, and calls for current guidelines on creationism to be enshrined in legislation, as well as for the inclusion of evolution on the national curriculum:
"Creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools. There should be enforceable statutory guidance that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type.

But this is not enough. An understanding of evolution is central to understanding all aspects of biology. The teaching of evolution should be included at both primary and secondary levels in the National Curriculum and in all schools."
The campaign is supported by he Association for Science Education, the British Humanist Association, the British Science Association, the Campaign for Science & Engineering and Ekklesia.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Mormons on the buses

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A Stagecoach bus, which may or may not be like the ones
Mormons have been preaching on
We've become rather accustomed to being told what to believe (or not) from the side of buses in recent years, most recently in the form of Islamic creationist Adnan Oktar's scientifically-suspect banner ads, but on the whole actually travelling on them has remained a decidedly un-metaphysical experience.

That, however, could be changing, if news from Lancashire offers any guide. The Guardian report that the Stagecoach bus company has asked Mormons to refrain from engaging commuters in on-board existential chats, following a complaint from a customer who was accosted during a journey from Lancaster to Morecambe. Rick Seymour of Heysham was "engaged" on three separate occasions by Mormons professing their love for Jesus, with the third instance prompting him to write to Stagecoach to complain:
"I firmly believe that the Mormon Church is using your service as a place where the public cannot escape the attempt to indoctrinate them. Whilst I respect that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs or none, telling others that their beliefs are misguided or plain wrong is wrong in itself. Practice your own personal beliefs in your own home and do not ram it down others' throats. I hope that Stagecoach will write to the Mormon Church in Chorley and tell them their behaviour is unacceptable."
After Stagecoach pointed out that they "do not permit any commercial or other organisation to promote their products, services or views through direct engagement with passengers on our services", the Mormon church did seem to acknowledge that the bus-chats are part of an active programme of proselytising, with the president of its Manchester branch praising the 140 young Mormons engaging in such work in the North West:
"They will sit next to someone, and they will introduce themselves and try and have a good conversation to explain a point of view that someone might never have heard before. We do encourage this, but we would not want people to feel intimidated. If it becomes clear that someone does not want to hear that message they should move away."
Stagecoach's reaction suggests the bus companies would be keen to avoid a widespread outbreak of this kind of on-board "engagement", but it's hard to see how you could really stop people talking to their fellow passengers, be it about the new timetable, the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ, or the power of the intergalactic overlord Xenu. Could we be seeing the start of a new bus-based battle for hearts and minds?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Bad Faith Awards 2011: put forward your nominations

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At the end of each year, we give New Humanist readers the chance to vote to decide the winner of our annual Bad Faith Award, which we launched back in 2007 as a means for dishonouring the year's most outspoken enemy of reason. Last year the award went to Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, the head of the UK Islamic Sharia Council, following his assertion that it is not possible for a man to commit rape within marriage. Previously the award has gone to the Pope (2009), Sarah Palin (2008) and Dinesh D'Souza (2007).

Before the voting opens later this year, we need to put together a shortlist of nominees, which is why I'm inviting you to share your nominations by commenting on this post. It's not as though 2011 has been a stand-out year for rationality, as a quick scroll down our blog, or a flick through some of our recent back issues, highlights. Just looking at our last few issues, I'm seeing a few potential champions – there's past nominee Anjem Choudary with his attempt to set up "Sharia Controlled Zones" in the UK, for example, or evangelical US preacher Pat Robertson, who suggested that New York's legalisation of gay marriage could mean the end of American civilisation. And no doubt some of you will be looking to nominate the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries following her failed efforts to impose a ban on abortion providers offering counselling to women seeking their services, as well as for introducing legislation that would lead to abstinence-based sex education for girls.

That's surely just the tip of the iceberg, and I urge you to help get the nomination process started by leaving a comment on this post, preferably with a supporting web link. The shortlist and poll will appear in November.

International Criminal Court asked to investigate Pope over child abuse cover-up

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Will Pope Benedict XVI face prosecution before the ICC?
The New York Times reports that victims of abuse by Catholic priests have today formally asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Pope Benedict XVI and leading cardinals Tarcisio Bertone, Angelo Sodano and William Levada for crimes against humanity. The victims, represented by the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests and the Center for Constitutional Rights, have filed an 80 page complaint with the ICC, accusing the Pope and Vatican officials of abetting and covering up abuse, with lawyer Pamela Spees explaining that the international court is the most appropriate forum for dealing with the allegations:
“National jurisdictions can’t really get their arms around this. Prosecuting individual instances of child molestation or sexual assault has not gotten at the larger systemic problem here. Accountability is the goal, and the I.C.C. makes the most sense, given that it’s a global problem.”
However, experts in international law have pointed out that, while the complaint will help to raise awareness of the ongoing fight for justice for those abused by priests, it is unlikely that the ICC will conclude that the issue falls within its jurisdiction.

US congressman in charge of hearings on Muslim radicalisation to testify in UK parliament

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Republican congressman Peter King will testify before a parliamentary
inquiry into violent radicalisation
Scanning the news this morning, I was interested to see that US congressman Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is in London today to testify before the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs, as part of its inquiry into the "Roots of Violent Radicalisation".

King, who will become the first member of Congress to testify before Parliament, has headed a similar inquiry in the US into the radicalisation of American Muslims, and the Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz has welcomed his appearance, describing it as "a unique opportunity to create an unbreakable bond between Westminster and Washington".

However, it's worth noting that King's inquiry in the US has proven highly controversial, with some likening it to Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into "un-American activities" in the 1950s. While King has stressed that "the overwhelming majority of Muslims are outstanding citizens", an open letter [PDF] from US Muslim groups to Congressional leaders earlier this year, which was also signed by human rights groups including Amnesty International, argued that it was a violation of religious freedom to single out one religious group for investigation in such a way, particularly against a backdrop of hostility towards US Muslims exacerbated by the extreme reactions to the construction of the Park51 Islamic centre in New York, which has been dubbed the "Ground Zero Mosque" by opponents. King himself is a controversial chairman, having made outspoken comments about Muslim extremism in recent years, and he has been subject to accusations of hypocrisy on account of his past support for the IRA.

It will be interesting to see what he has to say before Parliament today – while an inquiry into radicalisation could prove worthwhile, the discourse around Islamic extremism in the US, exemplified by the "Ground Zero Mosque" debate, is not necessarily something we would benefit from replicating in the UK.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Evagelism by post for Jersey residents

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Exciting news for residents of Jersey – an evangelical CD is to be delivered to every household on the Channel Island after postal service bosses reversed a previous decision not to deliver the discs.

The CDs, which feature a dramatised audio recording of St Mark's Gospel, were produced by the Christian ministry Switch On and intended for delivery to all Jersey addresses until a postal service employee classified them as "offensive material" that could not be delivered.

However, post chiefs have not reversed the decision, and managing director Kevin Keen has issued a profuse apology:
"We got it horribly wrong. I am trying to get hold of the sponsors of the project and I have apologised profusely. If they want us to deliver it, then we will deliver it. I know who did it and they got it wrong. The person took the decision about whether we should distribute religious material and that was completely wrong of them and not the policy of this company."
So the people of Jersey can now look forward to receiving their free dose of unsolicited evangelism, although if the comments on the local newspaper website are any guide, it isn't a prospect that fills the islanders with glee.

[Thanks to reader Reg Le Sueur for the link]

Friday, 9 September 2011

9/11 ten years on: the reinvention of Islam

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Illustration by Martin Rowson
Many words have, of course, been written to mark the ten year anniversary of September 11, and you're unlikely to find time to read them all. Nevertheless, we'd like to draw your attention to what we think is a wonderful essay on the subject in the current issue of New Humanist by the historian Stephen Howe.

Howe examines the global impact of the attacks on New York and Washington and argues that the greatest, and most dangerous, change to the world has been the emergence of "Islam" as a monolithic cultural identity – a change brought about both by Islamists and their enemies:
"Perhaps the greatest political and intellectual change since 9/11, then, has been this: the reinvention of Islam, both by many of its adherents and by those who view it from outside, and often with fear or hostility. That change has not come only since, let alone because of, 9/11. It had been in process, more slowly, unevenly and hesitantly, for some time: in Britain, arguably at least since the Satanic Verses controversy. But in the new century it seemed suddenly to accelerate, to become global and ubiquitous. The idea of a worldwide Islamic ummah, as something far more than a simple religious attachment, indeed something like a “people” or a “nation”, politically self-conscious, essentially uniform (at least in some versions) across both time and space, took hold. Like Communism, but unlike almost any other “alternative” to capitalist modernity, political Islam came to be seen as a supposedly rival universalism to that (or those) of the West. In that, it stands virtually alone – and certainly in unique prominence. And even though Islamism evidently functions in many parts of the world as a form of – or perhaps surrogate for – cultural nationalism, the central thrust of the ideology is determinedly antinationalist, decreeing loyalties far more inclusive and compelling than any more localised identity-claim."
Read the full essay on the New Humanist website.

What's it like growing up in the Jehovah's Witnesses, and what happens when you want to leave?

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Vicky Simister was excommunicated from the
Jehovah's Witnesses at the age of 17
If you're anything like me, your perceptions of the Jehovah's Witnesses will probably revolve around the knock on the door. When I was growing up, the well-dressed group of adults and children going door-to-door was quite a common sight on our street, and in our house it always prompted the same reaction. While I know some atheists like to get into doorstep theological arguments, the message from my parents was clear – don't answer the door, because the people on the other side just want to convert you to a religion where you don't even get Christmas presents (a pretty scary idea for a child).

And that was all I really knew about Jehovah's Witnesses. I learned a little more later in life, as you might expect for someone doing this job, but on the whole I didn't know much about the subject, so when I received an email from the feminist campaigner Vicky Simister offering us an account of her experience growing up in the sect, I was very keen to learn more.

In the new issue of New Humanist, Vicky describes what it was like to be raised in a strict Jehovah's Witness household, where "worldly" non-believers are shunned, wives are expected to "submit" to their husbands and children are strictly disciplined:
"I developed into a self-righteous little madam. We went to Witness meetings three times a week, and spent Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons in door-to-door preaching work. We weren’t allowed to play with 'worldly' children from school, but spent much of our spare time praying, meditating and studying in preparation for the next meeting. TV, toys and reading materials were strictly censored, to protect our minds from corruption. I was bullied in school for not celebrating Christmas, birthdays, Easter or anything else kids consider fun. This only served to strengthen my resolve to be a Witness, not part of “the world”. I felt safe within our small community of 40 congregational members. Not that bullying didn’t happen just as much on the inside – as at school, if you didn’t conform you were teased, humiliated, left out or 'told on'."
She also describes what happened when, as a teenager, she began to question her faith and rebel against the strict rules of the sect – something which would eventually lead to her excommunication and the loss of her relationship with her family. It's a fascinating and powerful account, from which we hope you'll learn more about the reality of the Jehovah's Witness sect, and we're very pleased to have been able to publish it in the magazine.

Please do share your views in the comments below – we're particularly interested to hear from those who may have had similar experiences in the Jehovah's Witnesses or other strict religious sects.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Where now for marriage?

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Peter Tatchell campaigns for gay marriage at the 2010
London Pride event
Over on our main site we have a piece by the leading human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, in which he outlines the aims of the Equal Love campaign, which is calling on the government to end the twin bans on gay marriage and heterosexual civil partnerships. As part of the campaign, four gay couples have applied for (and been refused) marriage licences, while four heterosexual couples have applied for civil partnerships, and an application has subsequently been made to the European Court of Human Rights.

As Richard Hull, who was refused a licence to marry his partner David Watters in Greenwich last year, explains, the campaign revolves around the simple matter of equality:
“If we live in a country where we are supposed to have equal rights regardless of our sexuality, why is it necessary for the gay community to be relegated to a separate institution, civil partnerships? We should have the same access to civil marriage as heterosexual couples. The ban on gay marriage should be overturned because, until it is, we are still not truly equal citizens.

“Civil partnerships are a recent invention, which create a divide between homosexual and heterosexual couples. They are a legal form of segregation, much like apartheid but based upon sexual orientation rather than race."
The campaign (to which you can add your voice by signing this petition) is confident of success in the European Court case but, for evidence of how far there is to go in overturning entrenched prejudice around the issue, look no further than the words of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, who just yesterday expressed his opposition to any move by the Scottish government to legalise gay marriage:
"The Church esteems the institution of marriage as the most stable building block upon which any family can rest. 
The view of the Church is clear, no government can rewrite human nature; the family and marriage existed before the State and are built on the union between a man and woman.

Any attempt to redefine marriage is a direct attack on a foundational building block of society and will be strenuously opposed."
Marriage seems to be the issue of the day on our website, as the other article we've published is a column from our new issue by the American writer Pamela Haag, who asks whether humanists should rejoice in the demise of marriage. While some may think so, Haag offers a defence of matrimony, suggesting that marriages underpinned by secular values are often more successful than those built on religion: 
"I’ve got a quirky optimism about marriage. There’s a case to be made for it – and we shouldn’t cede that case to religion. Traditional marriage is our institution, too. It’s a civil contract, and we need a humanist “defence of marriage” to match the religious one.

In fact, our case for marriage is already being made, but silently. It happens in actual marriages, rather than in political rhetoric. We tend to talk about marriage in black and white terms, but we live marriage in ambivalent shades of grey. And in this world of real marriages, as I discovered interviewing dozens of couples, improvisation, compassion, flexibility and even ingenuity are happening.

Furthermore, these thoroughly human qualities of innovation and adaptability are defending traditional marriage more successfully, it seems, than the rhetoric of traditional marriage, if new divorce and marriage statistics are any indication. In the US, “Bible Belt” states with the most traditional marriage values have the highest divorce rates. Also, an unprecedented marriage class gap has emerged. Better-educated, more affluent Americans, who tend to be more secular, are both getting married and staying married longer."
So do humanists have any use for marriage? Very interested to hear your views on this – please do share in the comments.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

MPs reject Nadine Dorries' proposal to change law on abortion counselling

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Nadine Dorries
Following a debate in the House of Commons this afternoon, MPs have voted overwhelmingly against an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill tabled by the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, which proposed requiring GPs to offer women seeking abortions counselling from "a private body that does not itself provide for the termination of pregnancies" or a "statutory body".

The amendment, which was widely viewed as an attempt by anti-abortion campaigners to increase the obstacles faced by women seeking abortion (see this excellent piece by Suzanne Moore from Saturday's Guardian), would have prevented abortion providers such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service or Marie Stopes from providing counselling, with anti-abortion groups potentially stepping in to take their place. It was defeated by 368 votes to 118, following a combative and highly defensive debating performance by Dorries, who had earlier clashed with David Cameron during PMQs.

More information on the Guardian's live politics blog.

Mobile phone ad featuring a winking Jesus banned by Advertising Standards Authority

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The offending Phones 4 U "winking Jesus" ad
An ad for mobile phone company Phones 4 U which featured a winking Jesus giving the thumbs-up to "miraculous deals" on phones has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority. 98 people submitted complaints about the ads, which were published in newspapers during the Easter period this year, and the ASA have ruled that they must not appear again:
"The ASA noted that Phones 4 U had not intended to cause any offence and we welcomed their explanation that the ads had been withdrawn following the receipt of negative feedback. We noted that the ads featured a cartoon-like graphical illustration of Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, and the Sacred Heart, a sacred symbol central to the Christian faith. We considered that, although the ads were intended to be light-hearted and humorous, their depiction of Jesus winking and holding a thumbs-up sign, with the text "Miraculous" deals during Easter, the Christian Holy Week which celebrated Christ's resurrection, gave the impression that they were mocking and belittling core Christian beliefs. We therefore concluded that the ads were disrespectful to the Christian faith and were likely to cause serious offence, particularly to Christians."
In responding to the ASA, Phones 4 U, which withdrew the ads following the complaints, pointed out that they were "not intended to be disrespectful of the Christian faith" and were meant to present a "light-hearted, positive and contemporary image of Christianity relevant to the Easter weekend". However, "with the benefit of hindsight, they understood and regretted any offence the ads had caused to some Christians and they apologised to anyone who was offended by the ads".

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Poll finds little support for collective worship in schools

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An opinion poll commissioned by the BBC has found that 60 per cent of adults do not support the enforcement of the law requiring a daily act of “broadly Christian worship” in state schools, with 64 per cent of parents polled saying their children's schools do not adhere to the law.

Secularist and humanist campaigners have long argued for the abolition of the law, suggesting that it is incompatible with the diversity of religious and non-religious views in the UK and the freedom of children to reach their own conclusions about religion. Under the law, parents do have the right to withdraw their children from collective worship, and pupils over the age of 16 can withdraw themselves.

Commenting on the poll, the British Humanist Association's chief executive Andrew Copson pointed out that the results highlight the need for reform:
"The continuing requirement to hold collective worship is widely opposed. Teachers don’t want it, parents don’t want it, pupils don’t want it. The fact that so many schools don’t enforce the law shows that the law, as it stands, is not workable. Where it is enforced it is a violation of young people’s right to freedom of religion or belief and a barrier to the development of better, genuinely inclusive, assemblies which would build community and be educationally useful.

Requests for advice in connection with collective worship are the single largest category of advice requests received by us. It is long past time that this law is repealed, and that collective worship is replaced by inclusive assemblies, which can bring together pupils of all beliefs to celebrate shared values and purpose."
If you have any stories about dealing with the collective worship law, either as a pupil, parent or teacher, it would be interesting to hear them, so please do share in the comments. I know from my own time at school that our teachers certainly didn't abide by it, and it seems pretty clear that it's an archaic piece of legislation that could easily be abolished and replaced with something better (although I have to say I don't remember assemblies being of any real benefit myself – interested to hear views on that).

The BHA are running an e-petition encouraging the government to reform the law, which you can sign if you like.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Islamic creationist Adnan Oktar launches London bus campaign

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Adnan Oktar's ad on a London bus
I've just returned from a two-week break this morning, and as I sift through the seemingly endless list of emails, one thing in particular stands out – our old friend, the notorious Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar, AKA Harun Yahya, has launched a London bus advertising campaign.

There's not really a great deal to say about the ads themselves, other than that they say “Modern Science Demonstrates that God Exists”, and promote Oktar's ludicrous series of Atlas of Creation books. Over to Richard Dawkins to explain their ludicrousity (which isn't actually a word, but should be.)

For anyone who has seen the ads around London and wondered who the man gazing out from the side of the bus actually is, I recommend reading our 2009 Adnan Oktar exposé, in which we examined the sinister workings of his Turkish creationist organisation / Islamic sex cult.

(Photo of the bus via Twitter follower @GodChecker)