Monday, 31 January 2011

The secret life of Stephen Green

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Stephen Green imparting his moral opinions on Channel 4's
4Thought.TV last year
Saturday's Daily Mail included an extraordinary exposé of Stephen Green of Christian Voice. Having endured 26 years of marriage, which eventually ended in 2006, Green's ex-wife Caroline has finally spoken out about life with the self-appointed guardian of Britain's moral conscience. It's a grisly tale, which you'll have to head to the Mail website and read yourself if you want the full account, but to give you a sense, here's a passage:
"He told me he’d make a piece of wood into a sort of witch’s broom and hit me with it, which he did. He hit me until I bled. I was terrified. I can still remember the pain.
Stephen listed my misdemeanours: I was disrespectful and disobedient; I wasn’t loving or submissive enough and I was undermining him. He also said I wasn’t giving him his ­conjugal rights.
He even framed our marriage vows — he always put particular emphasis on my promise to obey him — and hung them over our bed. He believed there was no such thing as marital rape and for years I’d been reluctant to have sex with him, but he said it was my duty and was angry if I refused him.

But the beating was the last straw. It ­convinced me I had to divorce him."
Hypocrisy is, of course, the one word that immediately comes to mind. But does it apply only to Green himself? A quick search of the Daily Mail website returns plenty of examples of times the paper has quoted Green as the apparent voice of Christianity in Britain, on everything from gay marriage and prayers in council meetings, to atheist buses and Lily Cole posing naked for Playboy. I guess this exposé means they'll need to look elsewhere in future.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Johann Hari on Melanie Phillips and the "gay agenda"

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Those of you who use Twitter will no doubt have come across a particularly repulsive piece by Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail earlier this week, in which she picked up on the recent legal victory for the gay couple turned away from a Cornish B&B, and the proposal that teachers could use LGBT History Month to encourage greater tolerance of homosexuality and reduce homophobic bullying, in order to suggest that "just about everything in Britain is now run according to the gay agenda".

It caused a lot of outrage (probably the desired affect, sadly), and the only reason I mention it now, and introduce it to those of you who have been lucky enough to avoid it so far, is so I can prescribe you the antidote, provided by the excellent Johann Hari in today's Independent. I urge you to go and read the piece in full, but to give you an idea, he offers a picture of the realities facing young people growing up gay in Britain by recounting the tragic story of Jonathan Reynolds of Bridgend, a 15-year-old who was subjected to homophobic bullying at school and committed suicide as a result:
"I guess nobody told Jonathan Reynolds that, as the columnist Melanie Phillips put it, “just about everything in Britain is now run according to the gay agenda.” The great Gay Conquest didn’t make it from her imagination to his playground, or any playground in Britain. Gay kids are six times more likely to commit suicide than their straight siblings. Every week, I get emails from despairing gay kids who describe being thrown against lockers, scorned by their teachers if they complain, and – in some faith schools – told they will burn in Hell. Every day they have to brave playgrounds where the worst insult you can apply is to call something “gay”. They feel totally lost. This could have been your child, or my child, or Melanie Phillips’ child.

Is it “political correctness” and “McCarthyism” to try to ensure these kids can feel safe in their own schools – or is it basic decency? A few very mild proposals were made this week for how to change the attitudes behind this. They came from an excellent organization called Schools Out, which is run with a small grant from the tax-payer. They gave out a voluntary information pack in which they suggested that, to mark LGBT History Month, teachers acknowledge the existence of gay people in their lessons. They could teach in history about how Alan Turing played a vital role in saving the world from the Nazis and paved the way for the invention of the computer, only to be hounded to death for being gay. They could learn in science that homosexuality occurs in hundreds of species of animals. They could – yes! – maybe even look in maths lessons at the census data, figuring out how prevalent gay people are."
Hari goes on to explain how such measures have been found to help reduce bullying in schools, and point out that the real "gay agenda" consists merely of ensuring that gay people are treated equally and protected from the ostracism and violence that they are still subjected to throughout the world (you only need to look at the horrific death of gay rights campaigner David Kato in Uganda this week for evidence of that).

It really is an excellent piece - do take some time to read it if you can.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

See Philip Ball talk about the "unnatural" at the Royal Institution

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Science writer Philip Ball, who wrote our current cover story on the enduring fascination with the monster myth, is speaking at the Royal Institution on 8 February on that very subject, marking the release of his new book Unnatural: The Heretical Act of Making People.
"Philip delves beneath the surface of the cultural history of ‘anthropoeia’ – the creation of artificial people – to explore what it tells us about our views on life, humanity, creativity and technology, and the soul. He suggests that, from the legendary inventor Daedalus to Goethe’s tragic Faust and the automata-making magicians of E.T.A Hoffmann, the old tales and myths are alive and well, subtly manipulating the current debates about assisted conception, embryo research and human cloning, which have at last made the fantasy of ‘making people’ into some kind of reality."
The lecture starts at 7pm on 8 February at the Royal Institution in Mayfair, and tickets are £10 (£7 concessions, £5 RI members). You can find out more and book a place via the Royal Institution's website.

See Martin Rowson in conversation with Laurie Taylor

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Martin Rowson's cartoon of Laurie
Taylor in the current
issue of New Humanist
If you're a fan of our cover illustrations, you may be interested in seeing cartoonist Martin Rowson in conversation with our commissioning editor Laurie Taylor at London's Frontline Club:
"Although they are often ignored as a serious form of journalism, cartoons not only capture the flavour of a political era, they can provide some of the most enduring memories of politicians.

Cartoonist Martin Rowson will be speaking at the Club about the power of satire, how he uses cartoons to create acerbic critiques of the world of politics and politicians and explaining how he goes about his work."
That's on 1 February at 7pm - the full details are on the Frontline Club website, where you can also book tickets. Prices are: standard rate £12.50, early bird £10 (afraid I don't know what constitutes early bird, so check with Frontline) and concessions £8 (seniors/students).

As a footnote, the Frontline page on the event contains the following passage about Martin:
In 2001 Ken Livingstone appointed him London’s first Cartoonist Laureate in exchange for one pint of London Pride per annum. This payment is still six pints in arrears, and despite being apparently reappointed by Boris Johnson, not a single pint has been forthcoming from the current mayor.
I knew about Martin being the Cartoonist Laureate, but I was not aware of Ken and Boris's unpaid debts. I must say I'm shocked and appalled – surely the political integrity of both men will suffer as long as those pints remain unserved?

Murdered: the Ugandan gay rights activist targeted by a newspaper

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David Kato
David Kato, a leading Ugandan gay rights campaigner, has been beaten to death in his home in the country's capital Kampala, according to fellow activists from the campaign group Sexual Minorities Uganda. The police have confirmed that he was found dead, and are investigating the circumstances of his death.

Kato was one of the men targeted in a front page story in the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone last October. Under the headline "Hang them: 100 Pictures of Uganda's Top Homos Leak", the paper published the names and addresses of 100 people, apparently urging readers to attack and kill them. At the time it was reported that at least four people were attacked and several more forced into hiding.

It's a truly horrific story, and a reminder of what those campaigning for gay rights in Uganda (who include many humanists) are up against. We can only hope that this strengthens their resolve, and a press release from Sexual Minorities Uganda suggests that this will be the case. Speaking about Kato's death, their executive director Frank Mugisha said:
"No form of intimidation will stop our cause. The death of David will only be honored when the struggle for justice and equality is won. David is gone and many of us will follow, but the struggle will be won Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) and the entire Ugandan Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Community stands together to condemn the killing of David Kato and call for the Ugandan Government, Civil Society, and Local Communities to protect sexual minorities across Uganda."

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Agreeing to disagree: is dialogue between believers and non-believers worthwhile?

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Last night, I attended a meeting between representatives of Catholic Voices and members of the Central London Humanist Group (CLHG), which took place in the hall of St Saviour's Church in Pimlico. It was the second such event, the first having taken place in central London last October – the point, as I explained in a piece in the current issue of New Humanist, is to experiment with the idea of humanists and Catholics sitting down and engaging with each other on contentious issues in a cordial manner. At least that's how I see it, and I would imagine others who have attended the meetings would agree – the aim isn't to change each other's minds, or to speak on behalf of humanists or Catholics beyond those in the room, but rather to gain an understanding of each other's perspectives in a way that sidesteps the adversarial tone that often pervades the public debate over religion and its related issues.

There are, of course, questions over what exactly can be achieved by such discussions, and I will come to those later in this post. But first I'd like to run through the details of last night's meeting – there's not really an established method for conducting discussions such as these, so I think providing an account of the format and the contents, along with some of my own personal impressions, will serve as a useful basis for assessing whether such meetings are worthwhile. It'd be very interesting to hear what people make of it all, so please do take some time to read what follows and offer up your critiques in the comment thread.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Free marketing for Kevin Smith courtesy of the Westboro Baptist Church

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The poster for Red State
I'm trying my best to ignore the Westboro Baptist Church, in the name of starving them of oxygen (or nitrogen, or carbon dioxide or whatever it is they happen to breathe). But I think their latest protest deserves a mention, as it involves the tables being turned on them rather brilliantly. A group of them turned out on Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah to picket the premiere of Red State, a horror film about a crazed preacher, played by Michael Parks, whose hatred of homosexuality turns murderous. Directed by Jay and Silent Bob creator Kevin Smith, it's clearly inspired by the Westboro Baptist Church and their hate-filled leader Fred Phelps, prompting them to turn out and voice their objections at Sunday's showing (along, presumably, with their wider objections to every single thing in the world).

If the intention was to discourage people from seeing the film, it was a pretty flawed plan to begin with (I'm aware it may be stretching it a little to attach things like "intentions" and "plans" to the WBC), and it was exploited to great effect by the director himself, who organised a counter-demonstration attended by over 200 of his fans. I for one was yet to hear about Red State, but after discovering this story I've read up on the plot and watched the trailer, which I've included below for you viewing (dis)pleasure.

It's a nice piece of marketing – perhaps the Westboro Baptist Church have finally found their niche.

What do you get when faith meets modernity?

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In a speech yesterday, on the Vatican's annual World Communications Day, the Pope urged Catholics to "make good use of their presence in the digital world" and embrace social media platforms. It's not the first time Benedict XVI has raised the issue, but it's always a popular one with newspapers, which get to run stories on how he's endorsed Facebook, blogging and the like. When you think about it, it's all fairly obvious – from the monastic chroniclers to newspapers like the Vatican's own L'Osservatore Romano, religions have always made use of up-to-date means of publishing, so it would be a fairly unwise move for the Pope to discourage his followers from using blogs and social media. And as the lively Catholic blogosphere demonstrates, web-savvy members of his flock hardly waited for the Papal blessing before stepping into the digital age. Throw in the wider religious blogosphere, as well as the large online world of atheism/humanism, and it's clear that the debate over matters of faith (or the battle for hearts, minds and spirits, depending on how you view it) is becoming increasingly digitised.

The Pope did, however, preface his endorsement with a warning. In addition to urging Catholic social networkers to be "honest, open, responsible and respectful of others" (one for all internet users, maybe?), he suggested people heed the dangers of leading a predominantly digital existence:
"It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives."
Again, not the worst advice (though I imagine you'd be less responsive to the bit on how the "Gospel demands to be incarnated in the real world and linked to the real faces of our brothers and sisters").

As an aside, though, I wonder what the Pope would make of products such as Premier Christian Radio's prayer beads app for the iPhone (pictured above), sent to me by an iTunes mole this morning. If virtual contact can't replace human contact, can it replace contact with beads?

Friday, 21 January 2011

Bad Faith Award reaches the corridors of power

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The New Humanist Bad Faith Award, presented each year for outstanding contributions to unreason, finally appears to be getting the recognition it deserves. Just take a look at the opening lines of the lecture given by Conservative Party chair Baroness Warsi at Leicester University last night:
"Back in September I made a speech about faith at the Bishops Conference.

It was the first time that a Cabinet Minister had spoken so frankly about faith for many years.

I think it’s fair to say that the speech caused a bit of a stir in some quarters.

The New Humanist Magazine ran a poll of their readers which ranked me the fifth most dangerous enemy of reason last year.
I was about to think that actually, I hadn’t done too badly, when I discovered that the Koran-burning Pastor, Terry Jones, came one place below me!
But overall I believe the impact of the speech was really positive.

And the main thing I discovered by doing the speech was that there is a large, untapped appetite for a more mature discussion of faith in this country."
The speech to which Warsi refers there was the the one where she suggested that the new government will be one that "does God", a reference, of course, to Alastair Campbell's contention that Tony Blair and his government didn't "do God" (you have to hope that if there is a God, he/she/it finds innuendo rather endearing). Baroness Warsi was nominated and voted for on account of this, with many readers doubtless feeling that such outright willingness to involve religion in government would represent a backwards step for secularism. Nevertheless, it was perhaps a little harsh that Warsi, as she notes in her speech, came higher in the poll than the Florida I'm-going-to-burn-a-Qur'an-actually-oh-wait-no-I'm-not Pastor Terry Jones. Maybe voters just felt that the government's threat to secularism was a little closer to home than the Pastor's pyromaniacal provocation.

Anyway, it's nice to be noticed. Warsi's lecture was, of course, the one trailed in yesterday's papers in which she made her controversial remarks about Islamophobia becoming socially acceptable. If you have the time, it's worth reading it in full. And just in case the Baroness thinks we only nominate her for Bad Faith awards and don't actually take what she has to say seriously, here's my blogpost from yesterday in which I considered her comments on Islamophobia.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Has anti-Muslim bigotry become socially acceptable?

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Baroness Warsi
According to the Daily Telegraph, the Conservative Party chair, Baroness Warsi, will use a speech at Leicester University this evening to warn that prejudice against Muslims in Britain has become socially acceptable, having passed what she terms "the dinner-table test". Part of the blame for this, in Warsi's view, lies with the way in which Muslims are often defined as either "moderate" or "extremist". In one of the extracts from the speech published in the Telegraph, she says:
“It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of 'moderate’ Muslims leads; in the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: 'Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’. In the school, the kids say: 'The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’. And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: 'That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.”
She will also warn that Muslims should not be subject to collective blame for the violence committed by extremists:
"Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law. They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims."
Clearly it's a good idea to wait and see what Warsi says in the full speech, but it seems it is likely to prove controversial (she's already attracted the ire of Tory grandee Norman Tebbit, who suggests she might like to take a look at what Muslim preachers are saying about members of other religions and none). One contentious issue is the word "Islamophobia", which, while it is used in the Telegraph story, doesn't actually appear in the quoted excerpts. The implication of the word is that a "fear" of Islam pervades society, and gives rise to prejudice against those that practice the religion. The problem with that idea is that it confuses (or conveniently combines, depending on which way you look at it) two things that are not necessarily the same. Are we talking about the questioning of aspects of the Islamic faith, which involves legitimate concern about issues such as the role of women or attitudes towards violence? Or are we talking about open prejudice and discrimination towards those that practice Islam?

I think the latter is something that does need to be taken seriously, but it needs to be separated from the legitimate discussion and criticism of religion. To term bigotry towards those that practice Islam as "Islamophobia" sidesteps the fact that such prejudice, surely, often has as much to do with race as it does religion. Islam is, of course, a very visible aspect of life in communities of South Asian origin but, having grown up in Lancashire and seen this kind of prejudice, which is indeed a very real problem, at first hand, I don't feel that religion is the primary issue. The derogatory terms used tend to be racial epithets, which (if you assume any real "thinking" goes on in their use) are intended to cover anyone of Asian origin, many of whom are not Muslims.

So bigotry is a serious problem, but to suggest that the main issue is Islam, and imply that all criticism of the religion contributes to prejudice, is, in my view, wrong. And I don't think Warsi is right to say that "Islamophobia", or racism, or whatever we call it, has become socially acceptable – it does exist, but I think the majority of people would recoil on hearing any of the insults directed at ethnic minorities around the dinner table, to use Warsi's example. Yet this is not to say that she has raised a non-issue – you only need to take a look at the pages of the Daily Mail or Daily Express to see how Muslims are singled out for negative news coverage (the Mail's recent story about a café removing an extractor fan because it "offended Muslims", which as the Tabloid Watch blog showed was inaccurate at best, comes to mind). But I think we need to look more closely at what is going on in cases such as those, and separate out the perfectly valid discussion of religion from instances where the link to a religion is used as a convenient means to inflame issues around immigration and race.

Essentially, we need a more mature debate, and a good starting point, in my view, would be to drop the confusing label "Islamophobia", which has the obfuscating effect of stigmatising the discussion of religion, while diminishing the racist angle to the prejudices it is intended to describe. Perhaps some people value this confusion, but it serves little purpose for those who are serious about getting to the bottom of the issue.

What do you think? I suppose we'll know more after Warsi's full speech, but I'd be interested to hear your views – has prejudice against Muslims become socially acceptable? Is "Islamophobia" a useful term? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Malawian humanist kicked off a bus for objecting to Christian preacher (and reading a bit of Hitchens)

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George Thindwa
We were very interested to hear from George Thindwa, chair of Malawian Association of Secular Humanism, about a recent encounter he had with an evangelical Christian preacher while travelling on a bus to the Malawi's capital, Lilongwe. Like Nigeria's Leo Igwe, whose work we have reported on here, George is a fearless campaigner against religious abuses, including the persecution of people accused of "witchcraft". He was travelling to the capital from Bantyre, and enjoying his copy of Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, when a preacher boarded the bus and began proselytising to passengers. When he reached the part of the bus where he was sitting, George decided he didn't want to hear preacher:
"A pastor came closer to where I was sat and started delivering his sermon. I told him to move away from me as I could not understand what he was preaching because I am not a believer."
Not entirely unreasonable, you might think, but some of George's fellow passengers decided to rally behind the preacher:
"I was also reading a book  by Christopher Hitchens titled God Is Not Great. And when a passenger sitting next to me heard what I said and saw what I was reading, he labelled me a Satanist. Then noise erupted and the pastor left the bus."
Trouble over, then? Not exactly – when the bus reached a  roadblock, the driver decided to involve the authorities:
"The bus driver and his crew went to police to complain, saying they were not comfortable with my presence in the bus. We discussed the issue with the police officers for about one-and-a-half hours and we settled that I should not join them again."
Saying he feels that he has been discriminated against, George has since expressed his intention to sue the bus company for breach of contract.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Gay couple successfully sue B&B owners who refused them a double room

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Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, the gay couple who were refused a double room at a Cornwall bed and breakfast in September 2008, have been awarded damages after successfully suing the hotel's owners under equality legislation. Peter and Hazelmary Bull, who run the Chymorvah Private Hotel in Marazion, Cornwall, must pay the couple £1,800 each after Judge Rutherford rule that their actions amounted to sexual orientation discrimination under the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007.

As human rights campaigners have pointed out, this was a landmark case for the equality laws, and in his ruling [PDF] Judge Rutherford made it clear that religious belief will not stand up as a legal justification for discrimination:
"We live today in a parliamentary democracy. Our laws are made by the Queen  in Parliament (leaving aside any European dimension). It is inevitable that such laws will from time to time cut across deeply held beliefs of individuals and sections of society for they reflect the social attitudes and morals  prevailing at the time that they are made. In the last 50 years there have been  many such instances – the abolition of capital punishment; the abolition of  corporal punishment in schools; the decriminalisation of homosexuality and of suicide; and on a more mundane level the ban on hunting and on smoking in  public places. All of these (and they are only examples) have offended sections of the population and in some cases cut across traditional religious beliefs. These laws have come into being because of changes in social  attitudes. The standards and principles governing our behaviour which were unquestioningly accepted in one generation may not be so accepted in the next.

In our parliamentary democracy it is for parliament to frame laws which reflect these changes in attitude or which give a lead to such changes. Whatever may have been the position in past centuries it is no longer the case  that our laws must, or should, automatically reflect the Judaeo- Christian position."
The message, of course, is that times change – Judge Rutherford recognises the sincerity of the Bulls in their belief that homosexuality (and indeed any sex outside of a traditional heterosexual marriage – their policy on double rooms covered any unmarried couple) is a sin, but in choosing to run a business, the couple have a legal obligation to treat their customers in a non-discriminatory manner.

Responding to the news, Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, pointed out that cases such as this are not about restricting religious freedom, but rather preventing discrimination:
"We support without question the absolute right of people to their beliefs but there will be instances, such as in this case, where acting upon those beliefs can be legitimately restrained in order that the rights of others are not infringed. Domestic equality legislation protects people from illegitimate discrimination and so engenders a public space where individual liberty can thrive. The narrative whipped up by political Christian groups around cases such as this suggests that Christians are being marginalised or religious freedom is being restricted, but this is a false and misleading picture. Instead, what we are seeing time and again is the courts upholding the rights of people not to be discriminated against on the arbitrary convictions of someone who does not wish to treat them equally."
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has welcomed the ruling, and interestingly notes the more general implications for the equality laws:
"If the court had ruled that the Bull's were allowed to ban gay couples from sleeping together in the same room, it would have opened the floodgates to a deluge of similar religious-motivated claims for exemption from the equality laws.

"We could have ended up with some Jewish supermarket workers demanding the right to not handle pork, Muslim restaurant staff refusing to serve alcohol and Christian solicitors declining to represent gay or cohabiting heterosexual couples.

"Businesses would grind to a halt, and social cohesion decline, as religious fundamentalists of all hues claimed the right to discriminate on faith grounds. Our equality laws would soon be in shreds. Discrimination would become rampant again. It would be hugely damaging to harmonious community relations."
Meanwhile, supporters of the Bulls have reiterated their view that such rulings amount to religious discrimination, with Andrea Minichiello Williams of the Christian Legal Centre, a conservative Christian organisation that is often involved in cases such as this, saying:
“Bed and breakfast owners have now become another category of people in the UK who will be penalised if they try to serve the public without compromising their religious conscience. Under the guise of equality, the restrictions on Christians in the public sphere keep getting tighter. We are heading towards a two-tier society where only those who subscribe to secular, humanistic values will be able to operate in many areas in the public sphere.”
It is, of course, all very interesting, and I'd like to hear what people make of it. Personally, I struggle to see how refusing someone a service on account of their sexuality is any different than doing so on the basis of race or gender. That's why I appreciate the "sorry, times change" message that underlies the ruling in this case – if you really insist on holding privately racist views in 21st century Britain, no one can really stop you, but if you want to run a business it'd be a pretty good idea to keep those views to yourself. You might have got away with it a century ago, but not now. Is the issue of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation really any different? I know some people would claim that it is, but I struggle to see any convincing reason why.

Another point that's interesting with this case is the fact that the Bulls' room policy also covered unmarried heterosexual couples. They argued that Hall and Preddy were unmarried, but as they are in a civil partnership, that didn't stand up legally. I wonder what would have happened if a heterosexual unmarried couple had sued for discrimination after being refused a room? If anyone has any ideas, do weigh in in the comments.

Which brings me on to my final point, which is the argument that, as B&B owners, the Bulls were inviting guests into their own home. Again, to me, this doesn't really stand up – if you want to turn your home into business, surely you've sacrificed its status as your castle? To offer a different perspective, the eChurch Christian Blog suggests that "as long as the business receives absolutely no funding from the public sector, then this to me would still constitute a private matter". I'm unconvinced – what do you think?

Lots to consider there - please do get involved with some comments.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Nigerian humanist campaigner Leo Igwe on his recent arrest

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Last week, I reported on the arrest, and subsequent release, of tireless humanist campaigner Leo Igwe in southern Nigeria. Leo has since written an account of what happened for the Butterflies and Wheels website, which I urge you to read. He was arrested, and beaten, by police in the city of Uyo after he had just rescued an alleged child witch from a man who was sexually abusing her. The article provides an insight into the fearless human rights work being conducted by humanists such as Leo in Africa, particularly in areas where the persecution of people identified as "witches" is widespread, and often sanctioned by law.

Friday, 14 January 2011

So, about all that stuff we predicted for you...

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Meet Ophiuchus. In the past I was represented, on a celestial level, by a centaur armed with a bow and arrow. I was happy this – it was good to know that, while others had to rely on some fish, or those balancing scales, Sagittarius had my back. That, however, was then. From now on, it would seem, my spiritual fortunes will be represented by a skull with a snake in its mouth. I'd say this is a coup – frankly, I feel like my astrological capabilities have just been upgraded from conventional to nuclear. When Ophiuchus says the alignment of Pluto and Saturn promises a shift in your financial fortunes, you know the alignment of Pluto and Saturn promises a shift in your financial fortunes.

But who, I hear you ask, is Ophiuchus? Well, in addition to being the last snake chomping skull you'll ever see if you take that tone again, what's required here is a little background. Somewhat surprisingly, there is a chance that astrologers may have been wrong in their assertion that there are a mere 12 signs of the zodiac. According to astronomers, who are like astrologers in every way except for the fact that everything they think is different and based on scientific knowledge, the gravitational pull of the moon on the earth means that the planet's alignment with the constellations than it was 3,000 years ago, when the zodiac was first developed by the Babylonians. So there are, in fact, 13 signs, with Ophiuchus the serpent-eating skull stepping in to fill the lucrative 29 November to 17 December gap between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

All of which, some fear, would mean that the predictions previously doled out by the esteemed astrological community carry an increased margin of error. (What's that? It was all bollocks to begin with? Look at Ophiuchus – look at him!) Will the Mystic Megs and Russell Grants of the world be handing out refunds to those who followed their gravitationally-skewed advice? Perhaps not, for as esteemed astrologer Shelley von Strunckel has quickly moved to point out on Twitter, the whole 13-not-12 story is probably just a big mistake:
"re new sign. It's astronomers - scientists - who don't know astrology. The signs fm year's seasons. Always were and still are."
So there you go. Panic over. It's just those bloody scientists failing to understand things again. As you were, people.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Brand loyalty gets a boost with new Church of England website

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A screengrab from the new C of E homepage
Is the Church of England's image undergoing a PR overhaul? Our own religious demography correspondent reports...
"Looks like the PR chaps have taken over at the poor old Church of England, doubtless trying to undo some of the harmful publicity the masochistic Bishops and Archbishops constantly garner. The latest evidence of PR in the ascendant is the new C of E website, which appeared out of the blue last weekend. The old website was replete with statistics from the C of E's own market research, most of which showed church attendances dwindling, and the use of churches for baptisms, marriages and funerals downright plummeting. Somebody must have twigged that all this negative info wasn't good for the C of E's brand image, as the with-it parsons call it, so the detailed data has now been replaced by brief sentences from the PR lexicon which try to put a smoothie gloss on the difficulties, using phrases such as 'as many as x%...' (which really means 'as few as x%....') , and 'almost stable at...' (which means 'a slightly smaller fall than last year, at....') and the like. How much, in bankers' bonus equivalents, are the PR chappies are being paid for this wise counsel d'you think?"

Humanist campaigner Leo Igwe arrested in southern Nigeria

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We have reported previously on the work of humanist campaigner Leo Igwe, and the problems he has encountered with the authorities in Nigeria. We have just heard from his brother, Uche Igwe, that Leo has been arrested in southern Nigeria, where he is currently campaigning against the persecution of alleged child "witches":
"Leo Igwe, Humanist leader and representative of International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) in Africa has been arrested by the police in Akwa Ibom State. The information reaching us is sketchy but someone has confirmed that Leo and his colleague Ernest Asuquo are currently being held at the anti-kidnapping unit at the Police Area command in Uyo. He is in communicado and has not been allowed to speak to any member of his family or his lawyers. Leo Igwe and his colleagues have been working on the campaign against child with witches in Akwa Ibom State. He has led a statewide campaign and has freed many children who were accused to be witches. A few days ago he freed a child who fled persecution because of the accusation that she was a witch by her family.

We are outraged and we urge the Akwa Ibom State government to immediately and unconditionally release these activists (Leo and Earnest) who are helping to advance the rights of abandoned children and who are fighting relentlessly for the abolition of the inhuman act of killing innocent citizens in the name of belief."
It's not clear exactly why Leo has been arrested, but it is thought that it is related to his campaigning in Akwa Ibom State – in a message reposted on the Think Humanist forum, BHA trustee Josh Kutchinsky reports that Leo had been due to give evidence before the Akwa-Ibom State Commission of Inquiry into Witchcraft Accusations and Child Rights Abuses tomorrow, adding that:
"The issue here has been Leo and others defending human rights in relation to accusations of witchcraft. A conference organised by Leo had been disrupted and Leo had been attacked and physically assaulted. The situation is complex. Others, it is now being claimed, are being hounded by the Governor of the State of Akwa Ibom for the embarrassment that such human rights activities is causing him."
We'll pass on any more news as and when we receive it - meanwhile, Think Humanism is probably a good place to look for information.

Update: We have now learned that Leo Igwe has been released. Gary Foxcroft of the charity Stepping Stones Nigeria writes, "I have just spoken with Leo. He has been released without charge. He got a bit of a beating in custody but is in good spirits. ... The judge has been of great help."

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Arizona and the blame game

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The tone of political debate in the United States at present is certainly enough to make you glad for the Dave/Nick/Ed humdrum we're treated to here in the UK. But was it responsible for the horrific murder of six people by gunman Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona last weekend? I have no way of knowing, but then neither do the people looking to apportion blame through various channels in the US. It is, of course, standard media practice to descend into speculation from almost the very moment a tragedy occurs. A plane crashes, so an "aviation expert" takes wild guesses as to why on 24-hour news. A series of apparently linked killings takes place, and we're subjected to conjecture about the childhood abuse the perpetrator endured before the police have even had chance to identify their suspects.

The Arizona shootings come with the added potential for commentators on one end of the political spectrum to attribute blame to their opponents on the other. So on the one hand some on the American left are suggesting part of the blame may lie with the rhetoric of the Tea Party, and more specifically a map endorsed by Sarah Palin which marked, with gun targets, constituencies "targeted" by the movement in the recent congressional elections (the Arizona constituency of congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is fighting for her life following Saturday's attack, being one of them). And on the other, some right-wingers are casting around for evidence that Loughner is of a "liberal" persuasion – one of his favourite books, we are told, is The Communist Manifesto (that famous liberal tract), an argument somewhat weakened by the fact that the list of favourite books on his YouTube page also features Tea Party favourite We the Living by Ayn Rand, alongside a selection of other books that includes Animal Farm, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels and Mein Kampf.

All of which, of course, doesn't move us any closer to knowing why Loughner acted as he did (it has also been helpfully pointed out that he smoked pot and read Nietzsche in college, which just leaves the question of why millions of others haven't followed that combination through to its deadly conclusion), but this isn't preventing people from trying. Some right-wing Christians have, perhaps inevitably, jumped upon the suggestion that Loughner was an atheist - according to a piece on the Mother Jones website, he listed his religion as "none" when he applied, unsuccessfully, to join the army in 2008. So far discussion about atheism seems largely limited to internet message boards (as a quick Google search for "Jared Loughner atheism" shows) but, as Religion Dispatches reports, (see this link also) talking heads from the religious right are stepping forward with their views on how Loughner's apparent non-religious views led to his actions last Saturday. In a way it reminds me of the tiresome "Was a Hitler a Catholic or an atheist?" debate - as though somehow having a mass-murderer on the "side" is a moral blow to the millions or billions that share that metaphysical outlook.

As with the political point scoring, it's all rather self-serving, and does nothing to illuminate the situation or aid the victims of the atrocity. I think you could say the same of most speculation that takes place in the immediate aftermath of tragedy - was Columbine caused by heavy metal, was Fritzl the result of Austria's history? Many have pointed to the words of Jon Stewart who, as he so often does, struck the right note in his response to the events in Tucson. Political discourse in the US may have become overly toxic, but to suggest that Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, or the millions of people who form the wider Tea Party are somehow to blame for Jared Loughner's actions is a step too far. The same goes for other aspects of the blame game - I'm sure there's satisfaction to be had for those who feel they're putting one over their perceived opponents, but that's about the only thing being achieved.

Should schools require Christian worship?

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Not the most difficult question to answer, but it's the topic of the week on the Guardian's Comment is Free Belief, with contributors discussing the current statutory requirement for state schools to provide a daily "act of Christian worship". Humanists and secularists, of course, argue that the requirement is divisive, archaic and more than a little ridiculous, while the Church of England continues to cling to the idea that it is somehow practical or justifiable in today's pluralistic and increasingly multi- and non-religious society.

First up on Comment is Free was Anglican blogger the Church Mouse (whose blog, for an interesting religious perspective, is well worth bookmarking), who acknowledged that it is hard to defend the requirement, saying "It is pretty difficult to get away from the issue that compelling children to take part in religious worship is wrong. It simply cannot be right for the state to mandate religion." So far, so reasonable, although humanists will surely part ways with the Mouse on their assertion that schools should instead "be required to allow faith organisations to establish voluntary clubs". The thought of everyone from Anglicans through to Scientologists and Falun Gong vying for your kids' attention is surely enough to make you enrol on a home schooling course right away. Come back, vague and barely-enforced collective worship law, all is forgiven...

Putting the godless case on CiF today is our editor Caspar Melville who, while acknowledging that the law doesn't tend to mean very much or be enforced in practice, suggests that it is time it was scrapped in the name of clarity and modernity.

Do have a read of both and share your thoughts. There should be further contributions appearing on the Guardian site this week - not sure who from, though.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Rational romance...

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In the run up to the recent Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows, I had an interesting email from Markus Engbrecht, who lives in Siegen, Germany. Every year since the shows started, he and his girlfriend, Silke Dreiner, have travelled over to catch one. As Markus explained to me in his email, the trip was becoming something of a tradition. But in order to turn it into a real family tradition, he needed to ask Silke an important question. Was there any way, he asked, that we could help make it happen at Nine Lessons?

We were only too happy to oblige, and realising that Simon Singh's set, in which he was taking cosmology questions from the audience, might be the perfect moment, we asked Simon if he would like to get involved. He was delighted to (as rational, in no way pre-ordained coincidence would have it, it was 4 years to the day since he proposed to his wife, Anita), and you can see the outcome in this video from our YouTube channel. Altogether now - awwwww....

That upload completes the set of videos from the recent shows – have a look at our YouTube channel, where you can see backstage interviews with Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Richard Wiseman, Ben Goldacre and many more.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Hollywood director to spill beans on Scientology

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Director Paul Haggis left Scientology in 2009
Intriguing news via Gawker, which reports that New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright is working on a book about Hollywood film-maker Paul Haggis's time in the Church of Scientology. The Crash director, who is cooperating with Wright on the project, spent 35 years in the cult before coming one of the most high-profile members to walk away, or "blow" when he left in 2009.

While less well-known former members, such as Marc Headley (who I interviewed last year), have turned whistleblower, few celebrities, with the exception of actor Jason Beghe, have told their stories, so the Wright-Haggis book has the potential to be a highly revealing exposé of life inside the bizarre bubble of Scientology.

The forthcoming book, entitled The Heretic of Hollywood: Paul Haggis vs.The Church of Scientology, is featured in a catalogue from Wright's literary agent, Andrew Wylie. It is set for completion in June, but lacks a publisher at present (wonder who will step up and show a willingness to face up to the fiercely-litigious Church?). Here's the blurb from the catalogue:
"The Academy Award winning writer and director, Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash), spent three decades in the Church of Scientology. Haggis was one of the church's Hollywood trophies, along with Tom Cruise and John Travolta, whose paths cross with Haggis's. His resignation from the church in August of 2009 was a crushing disappointment to the organization. This is the first time Haggis has spoken about his experience.

The roots of Scientology are explored in this book, particularly the life of its eccentric founder, L. Ron Hubbard, whose flashes of brilliance and insanity are woven into the fabric of this elaborate belief system. Through Haggis's eyes, we discover the appeal of Scientology, especially to talented and ambitious members of the entertainment industry. Haggis conducted a personal investigation of the church, in which he was told about the wanton physical abuse on the part of its current leader, David Miscavige, of senior members of the organization. He was told that young volunteers in the Scientology clergy, called the Sea Org, are subjected to conditions approaching slavery or imprisonment, and that many female members have been forced to have abortions.

The most profound reckoning to date with this powerful and secretive organization, The Heretic of Hollywood is also a moving human story of the lure of extreme faith and the price of leaving it."
Sounds fascinating – I can't wait. And on the subject of Scientology, if you haven't read it already, take a look at Michael Bywater's exploration of the 'ideas' of cult founder L Ron Hubbard, from our current issue. If you ask us, exposure and mockery are complimentary strategies in the face of something like Scientology.

Update: It was since reported that Haggis won't be "collaborating" with Wright, although his experiences will inform Wright's exposé of Scientology

Controversy! Or not, as YWCA changes its name

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The YWCA in England and Wales, founded in 1855 as the Young Women's Christian Association, has changed its name to Platform 51 for what sound like fairly unremarkable and understandable reasons:
"During the 156 years since we were founded, we’ve had to evolve to reflect changes in society and the needs and expectations of women. This is true not only of the work we do, but also of our name. Our original name no longer stood for who we are or what we do and people often confused us with another charity."
It would seem that the charity, which "works with girls and women of any age or background" and lobbies "for changes in the law and policies to help all women", felt that the Christian aspect of its name wasn't inclusive enough. As it explains on its website:
"Our new name more accurately represents us: 51% of people are female, and girls and women use us as a platform for having their say and for helping them into the next stage of their lives."
Although, having said that, the charity's name hasn't explicitly featured the word "Christian" since 2002, when it formally adopted the simple YWCA acronym. So no big deal then? Not in the eyes of the Daily Mail, which manages to spin a few hundred words out of the change to Platform 51. The new name, it suggests, is proving controversial:
"The decision to drop all mention of Christianity from the charity’s name and purposes drew criticism from religious groups yesterday."
Note the plural. So there must be a few different religious groups getting upset about this, then? Well, just the one, actually. Here's what Mike Judge of the Christian Institute, an evangelical lobbying group that hardly represents mainstream Christian opinion, told the Mail:
"Many believe there is an anti-Christian bias among those who decide which charities get state funding. It was the Christian character of the YWCA that made it great. It is a shame that it is turning its back on those values."
Forget the century and a half of helping vulnerable women. Having the word "Christian" in its name was what made this charity great. It's an outrage! Or is it just another failed attempt to manufacture a "Christianity being marginalised" controversy where no such thing exists?

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Homepathy and Power Balance bracelets – the reliance on anecdotal evidence

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Simon Singh takes on Zofia Dymitr, chair of the Society
of Homeopaths, on last night's Newsnight
Last night's edition of Newsnight featured an excellent report on homeopathy, with one of the topical hooks being the recent news that the government has clamped down on the use of the homeopathic remedies in animals, meaning the restrictions are firmer than they are in relation to human use. (A little shout out to Horse and Country magazine with that link – I hear it's very similar to New Humanist, but for horses.)

Newsnight went undercover to catch a North London homeopath offering up preventative treatments for malaria. There's not much more of a guarantee that orthodox treatments provide better protection than homeopathy, she says, perhaps 70 per cent success with orthodox, 60-65 per cent with homeopathy, although she admits she is "plucking those out of thin air". There follows a handy summary of how homeopathy works from the reporter, with the degree of dilution it entails described as "quite literally the equivalent of a drop in the ocean." This is followed by the subtle coup de grace, "By the standards of modern medicine, that's quite an unusual idea." The segment concludes with a debate between Zofia Dymitr, chair of the Society of Homeopaths, and Simon Singh – highly enjoyable viewing, but I don't think you need me to tell you who comes out on top. Here's the YouTube video:

In the main report, we're also shown a leaflet available in a pharmacist, which provides a guide to preventative homeopathic treatments for malaria. The leaflet helpfully points out that there is no scientific evidence for the efficacy of the treatments, before going on to state "We rely on anecdotal evidence of those who have chosen to use them successfully throughout the world." Watching this, I was immediately reminded of another piece of pseudoscientific news from yesterday, regarding the marketing of Power Balance bracelets in Australia. For those of you unfamiliar with Power Balance, they are rubber bracelets (I was reminded of those charity bracelets when I saw one) featuring a hologram. According to the company's website:
"Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body."
A Power Balance bracelet
This, say Power Balance, can improve balance, strength and flexibility, which is why they are popular with atheletes (David Beckham and Kevin Pietersen are famous wearers, as is Kate Middleton, who isn't an athlete). As it happens, a relative I saw over the Christmas break was wearing one and espousing the benefits (RRP £29.99), prompting me to suggest it might be cheaper and just as beneficial to put an elastic band (which you can often find on the pavement after the postman has done his rounds), around their wrist (before thinking better of it and shutting up in the name of Santa). The reason they were in the news yesterday was because the company has had to admit "misleading conduct" following an investigation by Australia's consumer regulator, and release the following statement:
"In our advertising, we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the trade practices act 1974."
Surely a setback for the magic bracelet industry (they "may be no more beneficial than a rubber band", noted the head of the Australian regulator), but Power Balance came out fighting yesterday, with the main US company announcing:
"This is simply a matter of correcting prior marketing claims [in Australia]. We have heard from fitness professionals, athletes, coaches, personal trainers and everyday users who tell us they have experienced benefits from Power Balance."
As with homeopathy, it seems that when there is a complete absence of scientific evidence, anecdotes will do just as well.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Happy New Year... and now some reading - just what are the Institute of Ideas all about?

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Happy New Year to everyone who reads the New Humanist blog – I trust you all made the most of Christmas / the War on Christmas and are feeling suitably refreshed. After a lovely break this site is now creaking back into life, preparing to tackle anything the competing worlds of reason and unreason might throw this way in 2011.

To get you started, I've just uploaded one of my favourite piece's from the January issue of New Humanist, in which Richard Wilson investigates whether there's more to the Institute of Ideas and Spiked Online than hollow liberal-baiting. Are they really revolutionary entryists, committed to changing the world via ... well, contrarian online articles, or have the Institute's leading lights simply moved on from their Revolutionary Communist Party days?

We've had our fair share of criticism from Spiked in the past (as has Richard), and the Institute of Ideas has attracted criticism of its own from the likes of Nick Cohen and George Monbiot, but we've never quite got to the bottom of what it's all about, despite reading a very informative piece in the LRB last year by Jenny  Turner. So we asked Richard, author of Don't Get Fooled Again: A Sceptic's Handbook, to attend the Institute's flagship event, the Battle of Ideas, to see what he could find out. His piece is now online, so see what you make of his conclusions and let us know your views by commenting on the article.

Also, if you didn't catch them all before Christmas, be sure to check out the backstage videos from our Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows, featuring Al Murray, Ben Goldacre, Richard Herring, Josie Long, Ed Byrne and many more. They're all available on our YouTube channel. Last to be uploaded before Christmas was Stewart Lee – here he is talking about his state of mind. Enjoy.