Friday, 25 February 2011

March/April issue out now: featuring Richard Wiseman on the science of spooks

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The new issue of New Humanist hit the newsstands yesterday, and we have to say we're rather pleased with it. Underneath that cover, in all its pastel purple glory, are several treats, starting with psychology professor Richard Wiseman's fascinating (and amusing) cover story on the scientific reasons why people see ghosts and gods – I've just put that up online, so have a read and keep the knowledge in your back pocket for the next time someone starts telling you how their old house was haunted or that there "must be something going on" in those Derek Acorah shows.

Also in the issue we ask whether the new free schools system will provide sufficient protection against religious schools teaching creationism and Intelligent Design. Worryingly, the evidence unearthed by our reporter James Gray suggests not. There's also science journalist Angela Saini's look at the confused meeting of religion and science in an increasingly-booming India, Winston Fletcher's survey of the biased nature of the census religion question, Laurie Taylor's interview with biologist Lewis Wolpert on the science of ageing, Jonathan Rée on Percy Shelley's atheism, Eliza Griswold on the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, and much, much more, including a gruesome report from an art exhibition featuring exhibits made from human tissue.

The magazine is on sale in selected branches of WH Smiths and independent newsagents around the country. To find out where your nearest copy is, you can now use our distributor Comag Specialist's search engine – simply put in "New Humanist" and your postcode and it'll tell you the locations of 10 stores in your area that have recently stocked copies.

Alternatively, you could always just subscribe – only £21 for the year (£25 overseas), and we'll throw in a pack of God Trumps for free.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Interviewed in the Catholic Herald

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As I've written a bit about last year's Papal Visit, and been involved in a couple of humanist-Catholic discussions since then, Ed West of the Catholic Herald got in touch and asked if I'd talk to him about these things, and other related issues.

I've never really been interviewed before, so it was an interesting experience in that respect, and I think the article turned out rather well. See what you think - agree or disagree, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

AQA exam board confirm that creationism and Intelligent Design will no longer appear on their biology papers

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The exam question from the 2009 paper
Yesterday, I blogged about the fact that a story concerning the inclusion of a question about creationism and Intelligent Design on a GCSE biology exam paper in 2009 had resurfaced via the websites of biologists Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.

I pointed out that the exam board involved, AQA, had said at the time they would look into it, and that the 2010 paper didn't contain any mention of creationism and ID. However, just to check, I contacted AQA and asked if there had indeed been a change in policy. A spokesperson just got back to me, saying:
"The subject team have confirmed that future exam papers will not contain any questions on creationism or Intelligent Design."
This is good to hear. AQA, quite rightly, received a lot of criticism for including the question in 2009, so it's encouraging to know that they paid attention and ensured that the mistake would not be repeated.

Papal Visit: the final bill?

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Protest the Pope campaigners march in
London, 18 September 2010
The Foreign Office has announced that the cost to the taxpayer of the Pope's UK visit last September was £6.9 million. In a written statement, junior minister Henry Bellingham revealed that the Catholic Church, which has already paid £3.8 million, will reimburse an additional £6.3 million of public money that was used to fund the visit. It is worth noting that this figure does not include policing costs, or funding provided by the Scottish government.

So is this the final bill? While religious commentators, as the Church Mouse blogger has already, will see the news as confirmation that the Papal Visit was not as costly as opponents suggested, the National Secular Society, citing the omission of policing costs, has described the figure as "disingenuous at best" (last year the NSS estimated that the visit could cost £100m).

However, even if we take the figure provided by the Foreign Office at face value, it's important to point out that the objections that many people had to the Papal Visit did not revolve exclusively around the finances. It was a point made by the British Humanist Association at the time, and I asked their head of public affairs, Naomi Phillips, for her thoughts in light of the latest news. Here's what she said:
"Our main opposition to awarding the Pope the honour of a state visit, as head of the “state” of the Holy See, was never just about the cost – there were plenty of many principled objections to it. Things like the Holy See’s opposition to the distribution of condoms in AIDS prevention programmes and opposition to abortion that destroys people’s lives. Or the Holy See’s international opposition to gay equality. Or perhaps the failure to address, and even to cover-up, the systemic child abuse within its own organisation throughout the world.

But if we are looking at the money, at least £7 million has been funded by the taxpayer, being taken from funds including for international development (i.e. money meant to help the world’s poorest), and from crucial environmental budgets. Many more millions than that will have been spent on the security costs – the exact figure not yet known – and it seems we’re still waiting to be ‘reimbursed’ for another £6 million or so for the many pastoral activities the Pope undertook during the state visit."
Clearly, the matter of costs won't be closed until the policing figures are properly disclosed, but it's well worth remembering that the debate over the Papal Visit was about more than just money.

What do you make of the latest news concerning costs? Do share your thoughts in the comments.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Creationism in GCSE biology exams

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Yesterday, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins both alerted their readers to the inclusion of a somewhat bizarre question about the development of life on an AQA GCSE biology paper (the full paper can be viewed here [PDF]):
QUESTION TWO

There are several theories of how new species of plants and animals have developed.

The statements below outline four of these theories.
  • Creationism: Each organism is made independently.
    Evolution does not occur.
    Gaps in the fossil record support this idea.
  • Intelligent Design: Living things work in too complex a way for them to have evolved by chance.
    A higher being has designed all living things.
  • Lamarckism: Changes occur during the lifetime of an individual.
    These changes can be passed on to offspring.
  •  Darwinism: Variation exists between members of a population.
    Only the organisms best suited to a habitat survive.
    Survivors pass on their advantages to their offspring.
Use the above information and your own knowledge and understanding to answer this question.

Match the theories, A, B, C and D, with the numbers 1– 4 in the sentences.

A Creationism
B Intelligent Design
C Lamarckism
D Darwinism

The idea that Manx cats, which have no tails, are the offspring of a cat which originally lost its tail in an accident could be used to support . . . 1 . . . .

Unsuccessful competitors die and so do not reproduce, is part of the theory of . . . 2 . . . .

The complicated way in which cells work can be used to support . . . 3 . . . .

The observation that fossils of all the different kinds of animals appear suddenly in the rocks, with no evidence of ancestors, supports . . . 4 . . . .
It's fairly damning, really – the clear implication of the question is that creationism and Intelligent Design are genuine theories (as in proper scientific theories, rather than, to borrow a joke of Robin Ince's, theories in the sense of "my mate Dave's theory..."). As the Dawkins site points out, it clearly contradicts education secretary Michael Gove's assertion that "you cannot have a school which teaches creationism". If this question is appearing on GCSE papers, then it must be receiving attention in biology lessons. Which, even if we leave aside the more serious possibility that children will be coming away actually believing this nonsense, begs the question of why time is being wasted on pseudoscience when it could be better spent helping pupils to develop a deeper understanding of biology that falls within the scientific mainstream (i.e. actual science).

I must say, however, that I knew when I read the story this morning that it felt familiar, and then I realised why. It was actually reported in the Daily Telegraph in July 2009, and I blogged about it then. The question appeared on a paper in June 2009, making it a little unfair to apportion any blame to Michael Gove, who only became education secretary in May 2010. The AQA responded at the time, telling the Telegraph:
"Merely asking a question about creationism and intelligent design does not imply support for these ideas. Neither idea is included in our specification and AQA does not support the teaching of these ideas as scientific.

In the examination question, information was given to candidates and they were asked to relate evidence to conclusions. The use of the term 'theory' was intended in its common, everyday sense. However, we accept that in the context of a science examination this could be misleading and we will be addressing this issue for any future questions."
You have to be fair and accept that this statement still stands. The 2010 paper (PDF) didn't contain any reference to creationism, which suggests, hopefully, that the AQA have learned from their mistake and excised pseudoscience from their examinations.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Is South Dakota set to legalise the murder of abortion providers?

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In a shocking story on its website, Mother Jones magazine reports that the US state of South Dakota, where abortion is already subject to some of the most severe restrictions in America, could be set to legalise the murder of people involved in the provision of abortion services.

A bill is under consideration by South Dakota's legislature, sponsored by the Republican representative Phil Jensen, a well-known opponent of abortion rights, which would amend existing legislation to include killing someone "while resisting an attempt to harm" an unborn child within the definition of "justifiable homicide", in cases where the unborn child is your own, or that of a spouse, partner, parent or child.

As Mother Jones reports, Jensen claims that the legislation is designed to bring "consistency" to the state's justifiable homicide laws (it is common for US states to consider the murder of a pregnant woman to be two crimes), but advocates of abortion rights say that it amounts to a legalisation of the killing of abortion doctors, with Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation telling the magazine, "The bill is an invitation to murder abortion providers".

I recommend reading the full piece over at Mother Jones – in addition to bringing you up to speed on the justifiable homicide proposal, it provides an insight into the difficulties faced by women seeking terminations in US states with restrictive abortion regulations. Choice is a fragile right and, as South Dakota shows, it is under constant threat from the anti-abortion lobby.

Friday, 11 February 2011

This is about Egypt, not Islam

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Amazing scenes in Tahrir square and across Egypt as Hosni Mubarak's 30-year regime crumbles. But what happens next, and should we be worried about the rise of extremist Islam? Egyptian-born journalist Mona Eltahawy, who has been commentating on and supporting the uprising since the beginning, writes exclusively for New Humanist on the future of the revolution.
"The uprising in Egypt has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. And it annoys me that as the most exciting mass uprising in modern Arab history unfolds, too many want to obsess over a movement that missed the boat only to belatedly play catch-up to stay relevant.

I’m tempted to yell “mind your own business” at everyone who asks if I’m worried whether the Muslim Brotherhood will hijack the revolution. But here I am taking a deep breath and reminding you that when they did finally throw their institutional heft behind the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood said it did not want to rule Egypt and that it would not field any candidates for post-Mubarak presidential elections."
 Read the rest on our main site.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Why does the media persist in giving Stephen Green a platform?

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Writing in the best-selling gay magazine, Attitude, Johann Hari addresses a question many of us have been asking for a long time – why is Stephen Green, a viciously homophobic representative of a marginal fundamentalist brand of Christianity, consistently given a platform by the BBC, Channel Four and other parts of the mainstream British media?

And as he so often does, Hari hits the nail firmly on the head – do take a look.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Established church aims to re-evangelise us all

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John Sentamu
The Church of England's General Synod has been meeting this week, and in his speech yesterday the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, spoke of the Church's "God-given duty" to re-evangelise the country.

Which is fair enough, I suppose. This is a church we're talking about – if they didn't have a desire to turn everyone into good Christians, they would hardly be doing their jobs properly. But the Church of England isn't an ordinary church – it's an established church, which, if you hold a wish to re-evangelise a nation, is quite a useful position to find oneself in, as Naomi Phillips of the British Humanist Association points out:
"This is a tension at the heart of the Church of England which demands resolution. The Church of England wishes – as a church – to promote Christianity and of course it should be free to do so, but it should not be privileged in doing so, and it is not legitimate for it to enlist our shared and publicly-funded schools, social services and our parliament in its evangelistic task."
It'd be odd for a blog to adopt too many fashionable 19th-century ideas, but isn't it time for disestablishment?

New Yorker publishes major Scientology exposé

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Paul Haggis
A few weeks ago, I blogged on the news that New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright was working on a book based around the experiences of Hollywood director Paul Haggis, who left the Church of Scientology in 2009. That book, presumably, is still in the pipeline, but the wait is already over as the latest issue of the New Yorker features a lengthy (to give you an idea, the printout on my desk runs to 45 pages!) piece by Wright on Haggis and his defection from Scientology. As you can imagine, it's causing quite a stir – see this piece in the LA Times for some detail on the fallout, and the reaction from within Scientology. Away from Haggis's own testimony, the major revelation in the piece concerns allegations that the Church is engaged in human trafficking and child labour, which the FBI is apparently investigating.

As I say, it's something of an epic, so I'm still working my way through it myself (if you want a potted summary, see here). One observation I will make though, is that it's interesting how, as Scientology is so intertwined with Hollywood celebrity, it takes the testimony of an erstwhile celebrity member to make the world sit up and take notice of the abuses going on within the cult. Much of what we learn from Haggis, concerning, for instance, the behaviour of Scientology head David Miscavige and the goings-on at the international headquarters ("Gold Base") in California, has been said previously by non-celebrity defectors, such as former "Sea Org" employee Marc Headley, who I interviewed in New Humanist last year. Yet it takes the story of a major film director to really pique mass interest – I guess it's a reminder that Scientology is a ultimately a product of Hollywood, and that's the way the Hollywood works.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

'Appy now, Father?

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Hot on the heels of the Pope's endorsement of blogging and social networking last month, the makers of the Confession iPhone app ( "the perfect aid for every penitent") have proudly announced that the Catholic Church in the US has approved their product for use by sinful believers.

As I'm sure you've already worked out, the app allows Catholics to confess their sins from the comfort of, well, wherever they happen to be at the time, although according to Reuters it "is not designed to replace going to confession but to help Catholics through the act" – the bad news for armchair Catholics is that they "still must go to a priest for absolution".

Which may leave you wondering if there's any point whatsoever in the app, although its designers, Little iApps, would firmly disagree. In welcoming the official endorsement, provided by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne, Indiana, they pointed out that they were cashing in on heeding the Pope's call to embrace new media by inviting "Catholics to engage in their faith through digital technology".

So there you go. Although if you're a UK-based Catholic who has worked out exactly how an iPhone app could possibly help you through the act of confession and decided that it is something you would like to try, don't get too excited. Speaking to the BBC, a spokesperson for the Church in England and Wales merely said that they "would look into the issue".

Monday, 7 February 2011

Theme park changes location of a new ride because old site was "haunted"

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Just a quick post to bring you one of the more absurd stories you'll see today – the construction of a new ride, called Storm Surge, at Thorpe Park has been moved to a different area of the Surrey theme park after builders reported that the initial site was haunted by a headless monk. The park called in a "paranormal expert", Jim Arnold, who reported, presumably with the assistance of tried and tested scientific methods, that the area was indeed haunted:
"Results were picked up immediately, with orbs, ghostly images in photography and ouija reaction results being strongest around the site where they were proposing to build Storm Surge. The results were so strong we felt the only explanation could be that an ancient burial ground or settlement was being disturbed, prompting the extra paranormal activity."
As the Twitter follower who sent me the story points out, this "could of course just be a pre-summer PR campaign" (and here I am blogging it, so well done if it is), but if you ask me, Thorpe Park have missed a trick. I'd have continued construction at the initial location, and swiftly redrafted plans for a ghost train.

Government drugs advisor loses job over views on homosexuality

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Dr Hans-Christian Raabe, who was appointed as the GP member of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs last month, has been removed from the role after failing to disclose that he was the co-author of a 2005 paper that linked homosexuality and paedophilia. Commentators, including the former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, had drawn attention to the views of Raabe, who is a leading member of the Manchester-based evangelical Christian Maranatha Community, at the time of his appointment, with Harris quoting from the controversial paper, titled "Gay Marriage and Homosexuality: Some Medical Comments", in a post on his Guardian blog:
"While the majority of homosexuals are not involved in paedophilia, it is of grave concern that there is a disproportionately greater number of homosexuals among paedophiles and an overlap between the gay movement and the movement to make paedophilia acceptable."
According to the Daily Telegraph, Raabe had been asked during interviews for the ACMD role "if he had anything about his professional or personal history that might cause embarrassment to the government or the advisory panel". Having failed to mention the paper, which has received much negative attention since news of his appointment broke, Raabe has been removed from the committee less than a month after taking the role. Speaking to the Daily Mail, which provides a sympathetic report of his sacking, Raabe claims he has been "sacrificed on the altar of political correctness":
"I have been discriminated against because of my opinions and beliefs which are in keeping with the teaching of the major Churches. This sets a dangerous precedent: Are we saying that being a Christian is now a bar to public office? My appointment has been revoked based on the wrong perception that I could potentially discriminate against gay people – something I have never done; neither in my private nor professional life. Even the Home Office has not questioned my knowledge and expertise in matters relating to substance misuse and drug policy. My appointment has merely been revoked as a result of my views on matters completely unrelated to drug policy."
For some detailed background, I recommend reading Evan Harris's Guardian post in full – the issue for Harris, as he made clear at the time, was not Raabe's views on homosexuality, but his apparent lack of expertise in relation to drugs policy.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Why was £1.85m of overseas development money spent on the Papal Visit?

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Pope Benedict XVI
MPs sitting on the international development select committee have asked ministers to explain why £1.85m was transferred to the Foreign Office from the Department for International Development in order to help fund the Papal Visit last September. Querying the allocation of funds, the committee's chair, Malcolm Bruce, said:
"Many people will be as surprised as we were to discover that UK aid money was used to fund the pope's visit last year. Ministers need to explain exactly what this was spent on and how it tallies with our commitments on overseas aid."
Defending the decision, a spokesperson for the department said:
"Our contribution recognised the Catholic Church's role as a major provider of health and education services in developing countries. This money does not constitute official development assistance and is therefore additional to the coalition government's historic commitment to meet the 0.7% UN aid target from 2013."
The news is sure to cause outrage among those who opposed the decision to grant the Pope a state visit last year. Questions have already been raised about the use of public money to pay for the visit, which cost a total of around £10m, and the revelation that a sizeable portion of this came from international development funds will prove particularly controversial, given that one of the key objections to the Papal Visit centred on the impact of the Pope's stance on contraception on health in the developing world.

Interested to hear you thoughts on this – do share in the comments.

Update: The British Humanist Association have responded to the news. Their Head of Public Affairs, Naomi Phillips, said:
"Millions and millions from the public purse has been used to foot the cost of the Pope’s visit to the UK, with much of that diverted from crucial funds, including from foreign aid designated to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It is irrational and wrong for government to say that the money was paid to recognise the work that the Catholic Church does overseas as an NGO – questionable in itself – when the money was used to fund the state visit. Most people, including Christians, did not think that the British taxpayer should pay for the Pope’s visit in the first place, and many will be astonished to see the detrimental impact that this illegitimate use of public funds has already made."

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Sympathy for the devil: inside the world of exorcisms

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Anthony Hopkins in The Rite (2011)
I just had to share something I found via the Catholic Herald earlier today. The current number one film at the US box office is a horror movie called The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins as a Catholic exorcist tasked with training a sceptical young priest (the last article I read about it, prior to today, was an amusing piece entitled "The Seven Types of Roles Older British Actors Can Always Sell Out With, From Priest to Pagan God"). The Catholic Herald was pointing readers to an interview with Father Gary Thomas, the Californian priest on whom Hopkins's character is based.

As you might imagine the interview, from the Catholic World Report, provides a fascinating insight into one of the most bizarre elements of Catholicism (even many Catholics would agree, surely?), and contains some real gems. I urge you to go and read it yourselves, but to give you a sample, here's one of my favourite bits:
"I think it takes more than just saying, “In name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave.” We have a rite that’s recognized, even by the demons, as legitimate. Spontaneous prayers of deliverance are not the same thing as the official rite of exorcism."
I don't know about you, but I just love the idea of demons recognising something as legitimate. It's as if they've looked at the rites of the Catholic Church, assessed them, and agreed: yes, those are legitimate. Brilliant.

In the piece, you'll also learn how the recent increase in demonic possessions has been caused by the internet. Enjoy.