Friday, 27 January 2012

At the altar of non-belief: philosopher Alain de Botton proposes a temple for atheists

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An artist's impression of Alain de Botton's "Temple to Perspective
Alain de Botton has been accused of many things – of being superficial, self-absorbed and most recently (by Terry Eagleton) "banal" – but no one would call him stupid. The PR campaign for his latest book Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, is a case in point. To accompany the book’s publication he has launched a campaign to build a “£1 million atheist temple” in the City of London, dedicated to the wonders of the evolution. It sounds rather nice – a 46 metre narrowing tower (De Botton himself refers to it as "A Temple to Perspective") with a roof open to the sky, with layers of fossil-studded rock representing the different eras of the earth’s life, ending at the ground with a wafer-thin strip of gold depicting the infinitesimally short span of human life on the planet.

De Botton, who has some previous motivating property developers to invest, claims he has already raised half the money, but, more importantly for the sale of his new book, he has raised the ire of Richard Dawkins and the interest of the media. According to today’s Guardian, Dawkins is appalled at the idea, and would prefer to see the money sunk into his (not entirely uncontroversial) idea of secular schooling. It was also dismissed by Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, who said humanists can get their sense of awe and wonder from art, theatre and long walks in the country, thanks very much.

Some on the other side are not happy either: Rev Katharine Rumens, rector of St Giles' Cripplegate church, in Barbican, near where the temple is likely to be located, suggested that it would lack the sense of community of a church and wouldn't really speak to the human condition. However, media vicar George Pitcher welcomed the move as offering a more positive form of atheism than that represented by Dawkins.

All in all a perfect strategy. Reject God and piss of Dawkins? Check. Have a groovy picture and a slick website? Check. A million quid to chuck in the headline? Check. Stoking the embers of the debate over modern architecture, and available for comment at short notice? Check and check. Which is probably why every newspaper appears to have run with the story, no doubt the TV news shows will follow suit, and Hamish Hamilton will be licking their chops.

I interviewed De Botton at length last week for the next issue of new Humanist (out Feb 16). No spoilers, but I’ll say this: he’s a smart guy.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

A giant Jesus for London?

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Here's an idea sure to divide opinion – the Camden New Journal reports that there are plans on the table to erect a giant statue of Jesus Christ, evoking Brazil's iconic Christ The Redeemer statue, on North London's Primrose Hill to mark the end of the 2012 Olympics and the transferral of host city status to Rio de Janeiro.

The proposal has not yet been reviewed by the local planning department but, according to the New Journal, a London-based planning consultancy working with the Brazilian Tourist Board recently sent an email "to a handful of Primrose Hill residents" informing them of the plan and requesting secrecy in order to retain "a 'wow' factor" for Londoners and “the world’s media" when it is unveiled at the end of the games.

Opinion among those interviewed by the New Journal is divided between those who wouldn't mind if it was temporary and a local councillor who says it "sounds a bit like some marketing brainstorm" and who thinks the planners "need to get some more original ideas". But the religious nature of the project has also attracted the attention of secularists, who question the wisdom of erecting a giant symbol of Christianity above the London skyline. In a statement on its website, the National Secular Society's president Terry Sanderson said:
"The Olympic Games is supposed to unite people of all creeds and cultures through sport. Introducing something as blatantly sectarian as this would completely go against the spirit of the games and be a kind of triumphalist statement about Christianity. It is a very bad idea and must be kicked into touch immediately."
So what do you think? Could London do without a Saviour lording it over its population, or is it time our decadent capital city acquired some new religious iconography and climbed on board with JC? Answers in the comments.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Get the New Humanist app for iPhone and iPad

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We're very pleased to announce that the New Humanist app for iPhone and iPad is now available for download from the iTunes store.

The iPad/iPhone edition is available as a free download and brings you selected pages from the latest issue as soon as it is published. You can subscribe within the application for full access, which brings you every page of the issue and a searchable archive back to March 2006. A subscription costs £1.99 per month or £9.99 per year.

The app, produced by our digital edition provider Exact Editions, has the following features:

• Swipe or tap the page edges to flip to next/previous page.
• Use the animated thumbnail view to flick through the pages.
• Pinch or double-tap pages to zoom.
• Switch between single or double-page view (iPad only).
• Search the current issue or (paid-only) the archive.
• Tap any page links to web sites, email addresses, phone numbers or maps.
• Tap contents-page links to jump to a particular article.
• Sync back issues to your device for offline reading (requires wi-fi).
• Network connection required otherwise.

We recommend first running the app within a wi-fi area so it can sync the latest issue to your device - after that you can use it anywhere. Subscribers will receive new issues automatically via Newsstand.

For those asking about other platforms, including Andorid, we do hope to be able to offer a branded app for those in the not-too-distant future. But in the meantime, a regular digital subscription will give you access via the Exact Editions Android app for just £9.99 per year.

Jesus & Mo cartoon censorship controversy reaches LSE

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The Jesus & Mo cartoon strip that has sparked controversy
at London's universities

Following the recent controversy surrounding the use of a frame from the satirical cartoon strip Jesus & Mo by the atheist student society at University College London, it has now emerged that the cartoons are at the centre of a similar dispute at the London School of Economics.

The Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society at LSE (LSEU ASH) reproduced the Jesus & Mo cartoons on their Facebook page following news of the controversy at UCL, and were yesterday instructed by their student union (LSEU) to remove them. In a statement released on the union website, LSEU explained the decision:
"On Monday 16th January it was brought to our attention via an official complaint by two students that the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society posted cartoons, published by the UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, depicting the Prophet Mohammed and Jesus "sitting in a pub having a pint" on their society Facebook page. Upon hearing this, the sabbaticals officers of the LSESU ensured all evidence was collected and an emergency meeting with a member of the Students' Union staff was called to discuss how to deal with the issue. During this time, we received over 40 separate official complaints from the student body, in addition to further information regarding more posts on the society Facebook page.

It was decided that the President and other committee members of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society would be called for an informal meeting to explain the situation, the complaints that had been made, and how the action of posting these cartoons was in breach of Students' Union policy on inclusion and the society's constitution. This meeting took place on Friday 20th January at 10.30am. The society agreed to certain actions coming out of the meeting and these were discussed amongst the sabbatical team. In this discussion it was felt that though these actions were positive they would not fully address the concerns of those who had submitted complaints. Therefore the SU will now be telling the society that they cannot continue these activities under the brand of the SU.

The LSE Students’ Union would like to reiterate that we strongly condemn and stand against any form of racism and discrimination on campus. The offensive nature of the content on the Facebook page is not in accordance with our values of tolerance, diversity, and respect for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religious affiliation. There is a special need in a Students' Union to balance freedom of speech and to ensure access to all aspects of the LSESU for all the ethnic and religious minority communities that make up the student body at the LSE."
The atheist society have decided not to comply, and have appealed to the union to withdraw the instruction. In a statement on behalf of the society's committee, LSEU ASH president Chris Moos said:
"There are no reasonable grounds for the LSESU’s instruction because we are in no way violating their policies or byelaws. The cartoons on our Facebook page criticise religion in a satirical way and we totally reject any claim that their publications could constitute any sort of harassment or intimidation of Muslims or Christians.

That there was no deliberate intention to offend is illustrated by the fact that the cartoons were posted only on the LSESU ASH page and not in other spaces. But even if some people are offended, offence is not a sufficient reason for certain artistic and satirical forms of expression to be prohibited. A university should hold no idea sacred and be open to the critiquing of all ideas and ideologies.

We want to engage with LSESU and work with them further to resolve the situation, but not in a way that jeopardises the legitimate criticism or satirising of religious and other beliefs. That is a freedom which is indispensable."
As was the case with UCL, the LSEU ASH have received the backing of both the British Humanist Association and the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), which have announced that they will conduct an investigation into the handling of free speech issues by student unions, with a view to providing guidance to student atheist, secular and humanist societies.

"There has been too much conflation recently of being offended and being intimidated, with the implication being that they are equivalent," explained Jenny Bartle, president of the AHS. "Such an assumption is a potential threat to free speech and free debate, and we are concerned to address this underlying problem in the long term."

A demonstration in defence of free expression, prompted by the student controversies and organised One Law For All, is set to take place in London on 11 February.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Nadine Dorries withdraws her bill proposing abstinence-based sex education for girls

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Nadine Dorries MP
Conservative MP (and New Humanist Bad Faith Award winner) Nadine Dorries' Ten Minute Rule bill proposing abstinence-based sex education for girls, which passed a first reading in the House of Commons last year, was due for its second reading in Parliament today. Campaigners for comprehensive sex education, including humanists, feminists and sexual health charities, had gathered outside Parliament this morning to hold a demo against the bill, but as they did, news emerged that the proposed legislation had not appeared on the Commons order of business for the day. Here's what the author of the Guardian's Politics Live blog, Andrew Sparrow, has to say:
"10.54am: Nadine Dorries's sex education bill has been removed from today's order paper – meaning it will not now be debated today, the Commons information office have confirmed to me.

It may be debated another day, but for now it has been "removed from effective orders", a spokeswoman told me.

The bill is likely to have been withdrawn by Dorries herself. "No one would be able to remove a private members' bill without the permission of a member."

I am just going to ring Dorries's office to find out why she has withdrawn the bill."
In an update a few minutes later, Sparrow added that the person he spoke to at Dorries' office could not explain why the bill had been withdrawn.

So we don't know for sure that the bill has been permanently withdrawn, but if it has it's a victory for comprehensive sex education in our schools, as the British Humanist Association's Andrew Copson points out:
"If the Bill had been debated, it would not have been passed, and there was always a good chance that there would not be enough parliamentary time for it even to be debated. It would be nice to think that Mrs Dorries withdrew her Bill because she at last realised that  abstinence 'education' is a dangerously unrealistic and irresponsible proposition for our young people; in the more probable eventuality that her decision was guided by politics rather than a change of heart, we will all certainly need to remain on our guard against such foolish proposals in the future. The fact that the Bill ever got tabled for a second reading at all has given all those who care about good quality, comprehensive sex and relationships education to say so, and take a stand against the sort of un-evidenced, ideologically motivated policy making that the Bill represented."

Thursday, 19 January 2012

UCL atheist society issue statement over ongoing Jesus & Mo cartoon row

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The controversy over the UCL Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society's use of an image from the cartoon Jesus & Mo, which I reported on last week, has made it into the national press today following news that the society's president, Robbie Yellon, has stepped aside.

The society's new president, Michael Thor, has issued a statement regarding the situation:
"Since the cartoon image was put up in the event page of our pub social, many things have happened very quickly. First came the complaints, the Union complaints, our petition, then the counter-petition. These events were reported by various articles and blog posts, and it doesn’t seem to stop. We are continuously being contacted to make a statement but we have a society to run and lives to get on with so we're making a statement now to mark an end to this immediate situation.
"What makes a student society is the ability to be open, foster community and - most importantly - encourage critical debate. The principal objective of our Society is to maintain a sceptical view on everything, be it astrology, numerology or theism. I am personally a strong believer of freedom of speech and I believe that it is a vitally important freedom to maintain. Freedom of speech guarantees the space for  intellectual discourse, and in that space, people should be able to say what they want, without being afraid of censorship on the grounds of offence.
"By our publication of this image there was no intention to offend and I am sorry to hear that people took personal offence when viewing it. However, "offence" was certainly inadequate grounds for the removal of the image to be requested by the UCL Union. Their policies need clarification to prevent this same situation from arising in the future.
"In the meantime, I am looking forward to maintaining the positive spirit and riveting discussions that characterise our Society on campus, both within our group and with other societies."
Meanwhile, Jenny Bartle, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), emphasised the need for student unions to uphold the right to free speech:
"Our members support the freedom of speech of religious societies on campus and we would hope for the same respect from them. Our members are also committed to working with their Student Unions to secure good relations between students with different beliefs. However, Unions should must also understand that the giving of offence does not constitute harassment and when it is the incidental by-product of legitimate activities, offence is not a good reason to inhibit free expression."
This was reiterated by Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA):
"No one has the right not to have the most profound beliefs challenged – and in Universities it should surely be encouraged. We will continue to support our affiliate society at UCL as they get back to business as usual, but the use of the grounds of offence to target non-religious student groups in particular is something that we will continue to monitor." 
The story was reported today on both the BBC and Daily Mail websites, with both stories featuring a quote from Adam Walker, spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association, which has objected to the use of the cartoon by the atheist society. Walker explained that the organisation will continue to protest over the matter:
"The principle is more important than who is being attacked – this time it is Muslims and Christians but in the future it could be atheists themselves.

"There is no need to print these things other than to cause offence and history has told us that these things cause offence."
"I wouldn't say we're specifically pursuing UCL atheist society, it's more about the broader principle."
 The stories also include a statement from the UCL student union (UCLU):
"The atheist society has agreed they will take more consideration when drawing up publicity for future events.

"The society was asked to remove the image because UCLU aims to foster good relations between different groups of students and create a safe environment where all students can benefit from societies regardless of their religious or other beliefs."
The manner in which this story has developed over the past week suggests that there is a degree of pressure on atheist, humanist and secular societies at universities to moderate and censor what they do in order to avoid causing offence to religious groups. Given that such censorship would clearly undermine the status of universities as forums for the free exchange of ideas, the ability of student atheist societies to express themselves freely is something humanists, secularists, and indeed anyone concerned with the right to free speech, will need to monitor closely in the coming months.

South African church billboard banned following atheist complaint

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The offending billboard displayed by River's Church in Sandton, South Africa
I was interested to read that a church in South Africa has been ordered to remove a billboard about non-believers following a complaint from an atheist to the country's Advertising Standards Authority.

The billboard depicted a man, apparently missing that crucial section of the head that houses the brain, holding his temples in deep thought (lack of brain notwithstanding), alongside a line by the English poet Francis Thompson: “An atheist is a man who believes himself to be an accident.”

In his complaint to the ASA, Eugene Gerber argued that the billboard, displayed outside River’s Church in Sandton, was offensive:
"In essence, the complainant submitted that the billboard offends him as an atheist as he does not consider his existence to be an accident. Secondly, the depiction of a man with an empty head communicates that atheists are stupid."
The ASA upheld the complaint, and explained in the ruling how it determines what can and cannot be considered offensive in relation to religion and belief:
"... when advertising with somewhat of a religious connotation or connection does not pass comment or judgement, or belittles a basic belief or tenet of any specific religion or belief system, it would not likely be regarded as offensive to that particular religion."
"the proverbial line is drawn when advertising propagates statements that undermine the dignity and constitutionally protected right to freedom of religious beliefs of any identifiable sector of society."
 By this logic, the River's Church billboard was deemed to be offensive to atheists because:
"The quote [...] suggests that atheists believe that their existence is a result of an unforeseen and unplanned event. The use of the word believe further strengthens this communication.

Furthermore, the visuals of a man holding the sides of his empty head suggest that atheists are 'empty headed' or lack intelligence, presumably as a result of the above 'belief' communicated. This is something that would likely offend all atheists in a manner that the Code seeks to prevent."
A story like this is interesting, because in general we're far more used to seeing religious complaints of this nature than we are atheist complaints. I was alerted to it by Tauriq Moosa, a South African blogger, and he has some good points to make about how it relates to free speech, arguing that atheists should be against such complaints because "it concerns how we defend and articulate free speech and expression, since, by definition, free speech only make sense if you can defend the right of your worst enemies to express themselves too.

It reminds me of something that happened here in the UK at the time of the Atheist Bus Campaign, when the evangelical Christian Party launched a counter-campaign with bus ads saying "There definitely is a God. So join the Christian party and enjoy your life". Large numbers of atheists complained to the British ASA about this, with some arguing that it was a claim that cannot be substantiated and other arguing that it was offensive, making it the country's fourth most complained about advertisement of all time.

Of course, those bus complainants were perfectly within their rights to complain if they wanted, and the same goes for the individual who complained about the billboard in South Africa, but, in my view, if atheists wish to stand at the forefront of defending free speech, such action isn't exactly helpful. If atheists want to be able to say what they like about what others believe, they have to accept that religious people can do they same. In fact, they should welcome it – it's called free debate, and it's actually quite a straightforward way of maintaining a free society.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Gove's Bible for schools plan stalls, becomes confusing

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Considering that he is man in charge of one of the most crucial government budgets, and a key member of a government implementing the deepest public spending cuts in a generation, the education secretary Michael Gove seems to have a bizarre enthusiasm for publicly-funded projects that can at best be described as ill-judged.

Earlier this week, Gove hit the headlines for apparently suggesting that the best way to provide opium for the unwashed masses give the nation a lift in tough economic times was to spend £60 million on a new yacht for a billionaire landowner. This followed the recent news that the education secretary ("My department has found itself in an exceptional financial situation as a result of the need to focus on reducing the national deficit and to do so as quickly as possible" - June 2011) had devised a plan to send every school in the country a copy of the King James Bible, complete with his own foreword.

Sadly, though, today's Guardian reports that the Bible plan has stalled, with Gove having been told, apparently for the second time in a week, that he can not use public money to fund the project. According to the report, the Bibles have already been printed, but will remain in storage in a warehouse abroad until Gove can find private sponsorship for the plan.

However, the Department for Education has denied that this is the case, saying that they do not know whether the Bibles have been printed or where they might be if they have, and have reassured schools, which currently do not possess any copies of the Bible, that the delivery will go ahead before Easter as planned. One source has even told the Guardian that the costs will be covered by public money, if a private sponsor cannot be found.

So to summarise, those two conflicting accounts mean it's not entirely clear what's happening with Gove's Bibles. Have they been printed? Will they be delivered? It seems you'll need to stay tuned for updates in this gripping will-they-won't-they saga.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Great new series of faith-themed fiction from Mark Say

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Nice to see that Duck in a Bottle, a short story by Mark Say has been chosen as story of the week over at the story and poetry site ABC Tales. Readers may remember the story Mint on the Breath by Mark that we published in 2010, about the terrible consequences of abuse suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest. Duck in a Bottle pivots on a Buddhist parable, and together with Mint on the Breath and several other stories (including a brilliant dysopian tale showing what would happen if rationalists took over the UK) will be published as a collection Perversities of Faith, later this year. You can hear Mark read from a new story at the ABC event in Central London on Wednesday 18 Jan. Keep your eyes on this one.

Student-organised talk on Sharia law at the University of London cancelled following threats of violence

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Yesterday evening, a talk on "Sharia Law and Human Rights" organised by the Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society at Queen Mary, University London, had to be cancelled after threats of violence. The talk was due to be given by Anne Marie Waters of the One Law For All campaign, which campaigns against the use of Sharia in the UK.

The president of the society describes what happened:
"Five minutes before the talk was due to start a man burst into the room holding a camera phone and for some seconds stood filming the faces of all those in the room. He shouted ‘listen up all of you, I am recording this, I have your faces on film now, and I know where some of you live’, at that moment he aggressively pushed the phone in someone’s face and then said ‘and if I hear that anything is said against the holy Prophet Muhammad, I will hunt you down.’ He then left the room and two members of the audience applauded.
"The same man then began filming the faces of Society members in the foyer and threatening to hunt them down if anything was said about Muhammad, he added that he knew where they lived and would murder them and their families. On leaving the building, he joined a large group of men, seemingly there to support him. We were told by security to stay in the Lecture Theatre for our own safety. On arriving back in the room I became aware that the doors that opened to the outside were still open and that people were still coming in. Several eye witnesses reported that when I was in the foyer a group of men came through the open doors, causing a disruption and making it clear that the room could not be secured. Unfortunately, the lack of security in the lecture theatre meant we and the audience had to leave and a Union representative informed the security that as students’ lives had been threatened there was no way that the talk could go ahead.
"This event was supposed to be an opportunity for people of different religions and perspectives to debate, at a university that is supposed to be a beacon of free speech and debate. Only two complaints had been made to the Union prior to the event, and the majority of the Muslim students at the event were incredibly supportive of it going ahead. These threats were an aggressive assault on freedom of speech and the fact that they led to the cancellation of our talk was severely disappointing for all of the religious and non-religious students in the room who wanted to engage in debate."
The police were contacted about the incident and the Society is waiting to hear how their investigation will proceed.

Jenny Bartle, president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS), commented:
"More and more atheist, humanist and secular student societies are forming on campuses across the UK and we deserve the same levels of respect as any other community. Our members have as much right as anyone else to participate in the free inquiry, discussion and debate which should exist in universities. The threats our members have received are both troubling and repugnant and we reject all attempts to counter debate with violence. At the same time, we welcome the support from across faiths that many of our societies experience on campus to help us secure the freedom to have our say, just as we support them in having the freedom to have theirs."
 Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association gave support to the society:
"The attempted intimidation that this society has experienced is shocking. Free expression, the free exchange of ideas and free debate are hallmarks of an open society; violence and the threat of violence should never be allowed to compromise that, especially in our universities. We will work to support our affiliate society at Queen Mary’s and look forward to a speedy police investigation and resolution of this case."

Friday, 13 January 2012

Progress in UCL atheist society's cartoon censorship dispute with student union

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This image from Jesus & Mo was used by the UCL atheist
society to promote their weekly meet-up
Earlier this week, I reported on a dispute between the student union and the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS) at University College London over the atheists' use of a frame from the cartoon strip Jesus & Mo on a Facebook page advertising their weekly drinks social. The story attracted an unexpected level of interest, generating nearly 300 comments on our own site and coverage by Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, the Guardian and numerous other busy websites. In addtion, a petition started by the ASHS saw 3,700+ people back the society's refusal to take down the Jesus & Mo image at the union's request.

While debate raged online, however, both the UCL union and the atheist society have been working to resolve the matter, and the ASHS have this morning announced that progress has been made, with the union agreeing that they can not ask the society to take down the image. This is explained by the society's president, Robbie Yellon, in a statement on their Facebook page:
"We feel that thanks are in order. They go to our friends at the British Humanist Association and those at the National Secular Society for their unwavering support. They go to the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies for their unending levels of advice and know-how. They go to the inspiring Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and they go to every blogger, from the marvelous individuals at New Humanist magazine, to the uncompromising Alex Gabriel. They go to every single society member, and to every one of you who signed our wall and petition in support. And of course, they go to the marvelous Mohammed Jones, whose Jesus and Mo comics have kept us laughing the whole time.

We can now tell you that the University College London Union has recognized that mistakes were made and that the initial correspondence with our society was flawed. The Union is to review its stance on such matters and has said that this will not happen again. They can no longer call on us to withdraw the image. We welcome these developments, which set an important precedent for other universities. We also feel it appropriate to recognize the swift response of the Union, which certainly helped us reach this positive conclusion.

Unfortunately, the Union has considered the possibility that posting the image might have constituted an act of bullying, prejudice, harassment or discrimination. We firmly believe in the protection of our fellow students through University and Union policy; however we cannot accept such a suggestion. They have also considered the force of our actions and unwillingness to concede. As such, the society may be risking a disciplinary hearing which could lead to the forced resignation of committee members, or disaffiliation from the Union. In light of our now constructive relationship with the Union, such an event seems unlikely, though we would ask for your support should it ever occur.

We end with an acknowledgement of just how astounded we have been by the unending support that has flooded in from around the world. Over three and a half thousand signatures in under a week is absolutely remarkable. Thank you all."
It's good to hear that this is on the way to being resolved, although it will be necessary to keep an eye on whether the atheist society faces a disciplinary hearing. As was noted in my post the other day, this was not the first time that a student atheist society in Britain has faced censorship, but hopefully this will set a precedent that will ensure free speech is protected at our universities. As the comment thread under the initial post showed, there are strong opinions on both sides of this issue, but it is something that should be discussed, not sidestepped via censorship, and if this was prevented at universities, which must be underpinned by free debate, it would be a major cause for concern.

Stephen Green knows why Tesco's profits have stalled

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Tesco's support for Gay Pride has brought a plague upon its house
Some of you may have heard that Britain's largest supermarket chain, Tesco, endured a disappointing Christmas, causing shares in the company to fall by 16 per cent when the news was announced yesterday. But why did Tesco perform so badly? Was it because the economic crisis has prompted shoppers to rein in their spending? Or because Tesco has pursued a misguided strategy which prioritised low price over good value, as Deborah Meaden from Dragons Den suggested on Newsnight last night? Or was it because of the creeping erosion of the moral bedrock of British society due to the politically correct promotion of gay rights?

It was, of course, the last one, as explained by evangelical retail expert Stephen Green:
"Tesco’s announcement that it was giving £30,000 to Gay Pride came in early November and Christian Voice quickly mobilised prayer and action. The action included emails to directors and leafleting at stores, making ordinary shoppers aware of the store’s support for depravity. We were already disappointed with Tesco’s secret sale of fresh halal lamb and chicken, and their arrogant refusal to label it ‘ritually slaughtered’. But the ‘Gay Pride’ decision was even more serious.
Our prayer – which we said ‘will humble proud Tesco’ – centred on a desire that the Tesco board would rescind the decision, which has not happened yet. Indeed their announcement on 23rd December made matters worse.

We also prayed for confusion in the Tesco boardroom. As the ‘Big Price Drop’ was launched in September, it seems that Almighty God, who operates outside space and time, was well ahead of us, anticipating our prayers, and seeing by our actions that our prayers were serious. Significantly, we prayed for a drop in their share price, which, with £3b erased from the value of Tesco, has been answered on what you could describe as a Biblical scale.

On top of that, their ‘Gay Pride’ announcement, made six weeks before Christmas, could not have come at a worse time for them. It was madness to think that such brazen support for the tiny 1% of the population who are homosexual could have a positive effect. As a result, thousands of Christians and other decent people boycotted the store at what should have been its busiest time of the year.

I now call on Tesco to see sense before their company is ruined. Don’t display the arrogance of Pharoah. Withdraw the grant to Gay Pride. Apologise to the decent families upon whose patronage their business depends. Deal better with your suppliers. And label ritually-slaughtered meat so people can see what they are buying."
If you were planning to purchase any economics textbooks this weekend, don't – they are currently being rewritten.

[Via Liberal Conspiracy]

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Government effectively bans teaching of creationism in free schools

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Good news via the British Humanist Association, who have pointed out that the government's recent revisions to the "model funding agreement" for free schools mean that it would not be possible to establish a school that would teach creationism and Intelligent Design as science. The relevant revision, which can be found on page 11 of the model funding agreement document, states that free schools:
"... shall not make provision in the context of any subject for the teaching, as an evidence-based view or theory, of any view or theory that is contrary to established scientific and/or historical evidence and explanation."
The revision, which has been welcomed by the BHA, follows a long campaign to ensure that the coalition government's free schools policy did not lead to the opening of academies that would teach creationism as science. The Department for Education had previously stressed that the teaching of creationism would not be tolerated, and in October last year an application by the evangelical Everyday Champions Church was rejected on account of creationism, but campaigners argued that this stance should be made clear in the rules governing free school applications.

Student atheist society in censorship row with student union over Muhammad cartoon

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The Jesus & Mo image used on the society's Facebook page
Update: The dispute between the ASHS and the union has now been satisfactorily resolved. See our post dated 13 January.

The Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHS) at University College London has become embroiled in a censorship row with the university's student union over the use of a Muhammad-related cartoon on a Facebook page advertising its weekly drinks social.

The image is taken from Jesus & Mo, a well-known web comic that depicts the title characters engaging in theological and philosophical chats while propping up a pub bar. Consistently amusing, frequently thought-provoking and often heart-warming, Jesus & Mo is anything but savage and crass, with its gentle take on the absurdity of theological differences and underlying message that humans really ought to just get along providing the perfect antidote to the violent and illiberal censorship it aims to satirise.

It would, therefore, be somewhat ironic for someone to demand the censorship Jesus & Mo on the grounds that it is offensive, but that's precisely the mistake UCL's student union have made in response to the atheist society's Facebook page. Citing a "number of complaints" regarding both the depiction of Muhammad and the fact that the image shows him with a drink that looks like beer, the union contacted the ASHS president demanding that he removed the image as soon as possible.

Having given a talk and chaired a debate on offence and censorship with the ASHS a few months ago, I know that they're a clever and inquisitive bunch who have thought long and hard about these issues, so I'm not surprised to learn that they're taking a stand against the union's attempted censorship. Pointing out that UCL was the first university in Britain to be founded on secular principles, the ASHS have refused to remove the Jesus & Mo image and have launched an online petition to defend free expression at the university. The petition, which you can sign, includes the following statement:
"In response to complaints from a number of students, the University College London Union has insisted that the UCLU Atheist, Secularist & Humanist Society remove the following image from a Facebook event advertising a pub social. It has done so on the grounds that it may cause offence to Muslim students.

This is a gross infringement on its representatives' right to freedom of expression taken by members of the first secular university in England. All people are free to be offended by any image they view. This does not give them the right to impose their beliefs on others by censoring such images.

We the undersigned urge the University College London Union to immediately halt their attempts to censor the UCLU Atheist, Secularist & Humanist Society and uphold its members' right to freedom of expression."
It will be interesting to see how the student union responds now that its attempted censorship has been made public. A request for some students to remove an image from Facebook may seem like a relatively minor issue, but the fact that a student union would take this action can be viewed as evidence of the way in which our society has become quietly accustomed to such censorship in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons controversy of 2005-6.

Writing in our current issue, the Danish academic Frederick Stjernfelt warns of the dangers of this in relation to the cowardly response of the Anglo-American press to the firebombing of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo at the end of last year, and makes a compelling case for keeping the open society open in the face of both violent and non-violent attempts at censorship. Those in charge of the student union at Britain's oldest secular university would do well to heed his call.

Update: one of the Islamic societies at UCL, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association, has put out a statement arguing that the ASHS is wrong to refuse to take down the image from Jesus & Mo. The author argues that there is a difference between freedom of speech and freedom to insult, and suggests that once something has offended someone, it should be withdrawn:
 "Once a particular act is deemed to be offensive to another, it is only good manners to refrain from, at the very least, repeating that act. In this particular case, when at first the cartoon was uploaded, it could have been mistaken as unintentional offense. When certain Muslims voiced their offense over the issue, for any civil, well-mannered individual or group of individuals, it should then be a question as to the feelings of others and the cartoons should then have been removed."
Update 2: the umbrella group for atheist student societies, The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, has released a statement in support of the UCL society, which also includes a quote from the union pointing out that there are plans to discuss the matter further with the ASHS.

I have also spoken to the ASHS, and they tell me they are planning to meet with the union with a view to settling the issue informally. They have also sought to clarify the role of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students Association (AMSA), whose statement I linked to above. Leading atheist blogger PZ Myers picked up on this post and their statement, and his post on the subject has led some to think that the complaint about the cartoon originated with the AMSA (Myers also gives the incorrect name for that society). It did not, as ASHS president Robbie Yellon points out:
Whilst the society and I are great admirers of P Z Myers, I must correct his reference to AMSA. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Students association of UCL are not THE “Muslim Student Association” of University College London. They do not represent all Muslims at our University.
AMSA has never been anything other than reasoned and courteous towards us. They may not agree with the posting of the image in the first place, but numerous individuals of the Ahmadiyya community have made it perfectly clear that they support our inalienable right to freedom of expression. I consider those at AMSA to be our friends and, though many may disagree with the contents of their article, I do not feel it appropriate to insinuate that any of this began with them.
Update 3 (13 Jan): The dispute between the ASHS and the union has now been satisfactorily resolved.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Vatican uses Wikipedia for information on newly-appointed Cardinals

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According to Wikipedia, cardinals are collectively known as
the "College of Cardinals"
It's to the eternal credit of Wikipedia's vast army of editors and contributors that, eleven years on from its launch in 2001, the collaborative encyclopaedia can, on the whole, be considered a reliable source for factual information. Take biographies, for example – if you want to know the potted history of someone vaguely well-known, the first Google result will generally take you to Wikipedia, where you can usually learn, with confidence, the positions they have held, the teams they have played for, the films they have starred in, the embarrassing arrests they have suffered, and so on.

Nevertheless, if you're using the site to learn information for publication, it's a good idea to check it against another source and, if its veracity holds up, it's probably best to put the details into your own words. Unless, that is, you happen to work in the Vatican's press office, which has attracted some (presumably unwanted) attention over a press release issued to announce the appointment of 22 new cardinals last week.

Reading the biographies of the cardinals provided in the release, Italian blogger Sandro Magister noticed that some of them were described in language that seemed unusual for produced by the Vatican. For instance, the Guardian point out that press release states that Willem Jacobus Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands, has a "strong tendency to conservatism, specially regarding abortion and homosexuality, which has made him one of the most talked about religious men in the country". Magister subsequently checked the biographies against those on the Italian-language Wikipedia, and discovered that the information had been lifted verbatim from the encyclopedia.

The discovery has prompted plenty of disparaging news stories (the present post included), but is it really so bad? After all, the Vatican has since pointed out that the press office was in a rush, and, while the language may be a little odd given the supposed source, the press release surely contained useful information for journalists reporting on the new appointments.

That said, while much of the information taken from Wikipedia would have been useful, there is one thing the Vatican could have omitted – it was probably unnecessary to remind the reader that each of the newly-appointed cardinals is a Catholic.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

US evangelical Pat Robertson: God has told me who the next President will be, but I'm not telling you

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Gift from God: US televangelist Pat Robertson
While the uncertainty around the Republican nomination race following this week's photo finish between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses could be interpreted as good news for Barack Obama, the incumbent president's continuing struggle with America's economic woes mean it would be a bold call to say precisely who will be in the White House just over a year from now.

But there appears to be one man in America who would be able to say for sure. Speaking on his own Christian Broadcasting Network TV station, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson revealed that God has exclusively revealed to him the name of the man who will be inaugurated as President of the United States on 20 January 2013.

So who will it be? Obama? Romney? Santorum? Ron Paul? Or even a candidate who did badly in Iowa, such as Newt Gingrich, or Jon Huntsman?

Sadly, as Robertson says in the CBN interview, he is not at liberty to reveal the name given to him by God. But don't worry, we do still get to hear some words from the big guy, in the form of an apocalyptic prediction about the ruin of America that has its basis in a right-leaning analysis of the current global economic crisis. God, it seems, is nothing if not a neo-liberal economist.

While we all spend the next 11 months waiting to find out exactly which name was given to Robertson by God, you may like to take a look at the cover story from our new issue, in which US journalist Abby Ohlheiser assesses the role of religion in the race for the Republican nomination.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Notorious Nigerian witch-hunter to preach in the US

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The Nigerian humanist campaigner Leo Igwe has alerted us to the fact that Helen Ukpabio, one of the leading figures in the persecution of alleged "witches" in West Africa, is to preach in the United States in March.

Last year in New Humanist, Richard Wilson reported on the fight against African witch-hunts, which are often aimed at children, and he spoke to Igwe about the activities of Ukpabio's Liberty Gospel Church, which have included legal and physical intimidation of those campaigning against witch-hunts.

Now, Igwe is urging humanists to take note of Ukpabio's attempt to extend her ministry to the US, where she is scheduled to hold a 12-day "Marathon Deliverance" in Houston, Texas from 14-25 March. The poster offers the chance to "receive ... freedom from the Lord" from the following:
  • In bondage
  • Having bad dreams
  • Under witchcraft attack or oppression
  • Possessed by mermaid spirit or other evil spirits
  • Untimely deaths in family
  • Barren and in frequent miscarriges
  • Under health torture
  • Lack of promotion with slow progress
  • Unsuccessful life with disappointment
  • Financial impotency with difficulties
  • Facing victimization and lack of promotion
  • Stagnated life with failures
  • Chronic and incurable diseases?
In his message to us, Igwe writes of the importance of raising awareness of Ukpabio's work in the US:
Helen Ukpabio is a Christian fundamentalist and a Biblical literalist. She uses her sermons, teachings and prophetic declarations to incite hatred, intolerance and persecution of alleged witches and wizards. Ukpabio claims to be an ex-witch, initiated while she was a member of another local church, the Brotherhood of Cross and Star. She later founded the Liberty Gospel Church to fulfil her 'anointed mission' of delivering people from witchcraft attack. Ukpabio organises deliverance sessions where she identifies and exorcises people mainly children of witchcraft. Headquartered in Calabar in Southern Nigeria, the Liberty Gospel Church has grown to be a witch hunting church with branches in Nigeria and overseas.
The activities of Helen Ukpabio, including her publications, films (like the End of the Wicked) and sermons, are among the factors that have fuelled witchcraft accusations against children in the region.
This was captured in a documentary, Saving Africa's Witch Children which was broadcast in 2008 on Channel 4 in the UK. Thanks to the activities of a UK based charity, Stepping Stones Nigeria, and its local partners, the problem of witchcraft accusations against children and the ignominous roles of Ukpabio and her Liberty Gospel church and other 'superstition miners' were brought to the attention of the world. Since the broadcast of the documentary, Ukpabio and her thugs at the Liberty Gospel church have been campaigning to undermine Stepping Stones Nigeria and its efforts to tackle and address the problem of child witch hunting in Nigeria.
They brought several lawsuits against SSN and its partners, and lost. They have embarked on smearing campaign using local journalists to publish reports in the media which portrayed the projects of SSN in Nigeria as fraud.
In 2009, Ukpabio mobilised her church members who invaded the venue of a local seminar on witchcraft and the rights of the child organised by Stepping Stones and the Nigerian Humanist Movement in Calabar, Cross River State. They beat me up and stole my personal belongings. While the police were still investigating the matter, Helen Ukpabio and her church members went to court. They sued me, SSN and its partners, asking that we pay them millions of dollars in damages for depriving them of the right to believe in witchcraft. Again they lost.
The police have yet to arrest and prosecute Ukpabio and her church members for invading and disrupting our seminar, for attacking me and stealing my personal items. Police have yet to bring this woman to justice for abusing children in the name of delivering them from witchcraft and for inciting violence, hatred and persecution against persons accused of witchcraft
Efforts must be made to stop this evangelical throwback from spreading her diseased gospel in the US.
You can find out more about Igwe's work via the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which has supported his work in Western and Southern Africa. You can also learn more about the campaign against witch-hunts via Stepping Stones Nigeria.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Mutiny at Sea (Org): top Scientologist launches attack on leader

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Scientology leader David Miscavige
Big news from the higher echelons of the Church of Scientology, where a leaked email from a senior member provides an indication of mutiny within the ranks of the Church's secretive, military-style bureaucracy, the Sea Org.

Debbie Cook, who worked for the Church for three decades and led its Flag Service Organization (as many of you will know, this kind of jargon is standard Scientology fare) in Clearwater, Florida before leaving the post a few years ago, began the New Year by sending an email to 12,000 Scientologists criticising its notoriously uncompromising leader David Miscavige.

The email is long and jargon-filled (you can find it in full here), but, to summarise, it accuses Miscavige of mismanagement and failing to uphold the legacy of the cult's founder, pulp science-fiction author L Ron Hubbard. In particular, Cook suggests that the Church's vast wealth, accumulated through donations and the large sums required to take Scientology training courses, goes against the teaching of Hubbard, who wrote that lifetime membership should cost no more than $75:
"Currently membership monies are held as Int [jargon for Scientology's international management] reserves and have grown to well in excess of a billion dollars. Only a tiny fraction has ever been spent, in violation of the policy above. Only the interest earned from the holdings have been used very sparingly to fund projects through grants."
What's particularly interesting about Cook's email is that it is not the work of an ex-Scientologist looking to discredit the organisation, but rather someone who continues to firmly believe in the religion, as it was imagined by Hubbard before he died in 1986. Cook makes this clear at the end of her email, where she urges fellow Scientologists to protect Hubbard's legacy by taking action against Miscavige's mismanagement:
"I [...] know that I dedicated my entire adult life to supporting LRH and the application of LRH technology and if I ever had to look LRH in the eye I wouldn’t be able to say I did everything I could to Keep Scientology Working if I didn’t do something about it now."
While the Church's organisational discord is fascinating, and welcome news for those who have followed stories concerning Miscavige's hardline leadership (see, for instance, my interview with whistleblower Marc Headley from a couple of years ago), this persistence of belief among some of those who have rejected Scientology in its current, Miscavige-led form is of equal interest to cult-watchers. The former senior Scientologist Mark Rathbun has been criticising the Church in this manner for a number of years, even going so far as to regularly leak confidential documents via his blog, but he still professes his belief in Scientology. That those who have witnessed the abuses of Scientology at first hand, and have even gone so far as to publicly split with the Church, can nevertheless continue to hold beliefs that are widely dismissed and ridiculed in the world outside certainly provides an interesting case study in the resilience of religious belief.

It will be intriguing to observe how this apparent schism develops this year – could we be seeing the beginnings of a breakaway Church of Scientology, and if so how popular will it prove with those currently within Miscavige's organisation?