Friday, 27 April 2012

Does critical thinking lower belief in the supernatural?

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Does looking at The Thinker make
you less likely to believe in God?
Are those who engage in analytical thinking less likely to believe in God? Many atheists will no doubt see this as self-evident, and now they may have some scientific evidence to back it up.

In a paper published in the journal Science (news summary from Science here, full paper here), Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, report the results of their research into the relationships between intuitive and analytical thinking and religious belief. Previous research has suggested that intuitive thinkers are more likely to hold religious beliefs, so Gervais and Norenzayan set out to test the hypothesis that "analytical thinking might encourage disbelief":
"To test this idea, the duo devised several ways to subconsciously put people in what they considered a more analytical mindset. In one experiment with 57 undergraduate students, some volunteers viewed artwork depicting a reflective thinking pose (such as Rodin's The Thinker) while others viewed art depicting less intellectual pursuits (such as throwing a discus) before answering questionnaires about their faith. In another experiment with 93 undergraduates and a larger sample of 148 American adults recruited online, some subjects solved word puzzles that incorporated words such as "analyze," "reason," and "ponder," while others completed similar puzzles with only words unrelated to thinking, such as "high" and "plane." In all of these experiments, people who got the thinking-related cues reported weaker religious beliefs on the questionnaires taken afterward than did the control group.

In a final experiment, Gervais and Norenzayan asked 182 volunteers to answer a religious questionnaire as usual, while others answered the same questionnaire printed in a hard-to-read font, which previous studies have found promotes analytic thinking. And indeed, those who had to work harder to comprehend the questionnaire rated their religious beliefs lower."
So what does this tell us? The Science news story has a comment from Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who suggests there are limitations to the findings:
"All they have shown, and all that can be shown, is that when you're thinking more critically you reject statements that otherwise you would endorse. It tells you that there are some religious beliefs people hold that if they were thinking more critically, they themselves would not endorse."
For a counterpoint, it's also worth reading Philip Ball's post for Nature, in which he advises approaching the study itself with some analytical thinking.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Children at Catholic school urged to sign anti-gay marriage petition

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In an exclusive story, the Pink News website has revealed that pupils at St Philomena’s Catholic High School for Girls, a Catholic state school for 11 to 18 year-olds in South London, have been urged by the headmistress to sign the Coalition for Marriage petition against the legalisation of gay marriage. This followed a request from the Catholic Education Service, which sent a letter to all Catholic secondary schools asking them to draw attention to the petition and the Catholic leadership's opposition to the reforms.

Pink News quotes Katherine, a sixth-form student at St Philomena's, who told the website about an assembly in which the headmistress promoted the petition:
“In our assembly for the whole Sixth Form you could feel people bristling as she explained parts of the letter and encouraged us to sign the petition.

“She said things about gay marriage and civil partnerships being unnatural. It was just a really out-dated, misjudged and heavily biased presentation.

“A few of us in my year are buying Gay Pride badges to pin on our uniform and thought about staging a Stonewall coup by posting the ‘Some people are gay – get over it’ posters around school.”

“Most importantly though, there are several people in my year who aren’t heterosexual – myself included – and I for one was appalled and actually disgusted by what they were encouraging.

“After all, that’s discrimination they were urging impressionable people to engage in, which is unacceptable.”
Read the full story, by Stephen Gray, over on Pink News.

Also, do take a moment to check out the revamped website of the Coalition for Equal Marriage, which New Humanist is supporting. The petition calling for equal marriage rights is now approaching 48,000 signatures.

Update: The British Humanist Association have responded to the story, pointing out that the Catholic Education Service may have broken the law by asking schools to promote the petition:
"Pink News’s article highlights that the CES’s actions likely broke the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits discrimination against pupils based on their sexual orientation. The BHA believe the CES’s actions likely break sections 406-7 of the Education Act 1996, which forbids ‘the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school’, and requires balanced treatment of political issues."

Holy Redundant: BHA launches campaign to get the Bishops out of the Lords

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Under the current proposals, the Bishops look set
to retain their seats in Parliament
As I reported on Monday, it's looking increasingly likely that the government's proposal for reforming the House of Lords will include provision for retaining the automatic seats for Bishops, after the joint parliamentary committee examining the issue backed a plan to keep 12 places for the Church of England.

Following that news, the British Humanist Association has launched Holy Redundant, a new campaign against the proposal that puts forward the arguments in favour of finally removing the Bishops from Parliament, and ending Britain's status as the only country other than Iran to have seats reserved for clerics in its legislature.

You can see all the details over on the campaign's website, where you'll also find a handy section debunking the arguments often deployed in favour of keeping the Bishops in the Lords.

New Humanist cover star Alom Shaha lecturing this Sunday

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Alom Shaha, photographed by
Des Willie for New Humanist
If you're in the London area this weekend, you may be interested to know that Young Atheist's Handbook author and current New Humanist cover star Alom Shaha will be speaking at Conway Hall on Sunday morning, on the subject of how to be good without God. Tickets are £3 on the door - more details on the Conway Hall website. And if you haven't already, do read Alom's piece in our new issue, on his journey from Islam to atheism, and the need for non-believers to be open about their views.

Incidentally, if you're interested in freethought-related talks and debates, it's well worth keeping track of what's on at Conway Hall, as it has a busy programme filled with fascinating events. At the end of next month, our editor Caspar Melville is chairing a discussion entitled "Four Ways to Live Forever", featuring Stephen Cave, who recently wrote for us on the subject, biologist Lewis Wolpert, and journalist Catherine Mayer. That's on Thursday 31 May at 7pm, for £7 on the door (or £5 for concessions and members of the Rationalist Association, the British Humanist Association and the South Place Ethical Society. Full details on the website.

Monday, 23 April 2012

House of Lords reform: committee supports retaining Bishops and appointing other faith representatives

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A cartoon of the Lords Spiritual, drawn for
us by Martin Rowson for a 2007 piece
on the issue
The parliamentary committee examining the government's proposals for House of Lords reform has thrown its support behind the plan to retain automatic places for Church of England bishops, and has recommended that religion should be taken into consideration in allocating other appointed seats.

The Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, formed of 26 MPs and Lords, has recommended that the reformed House should consist of 450 members, 80 per cent of whom would be elected and 20 per cent appointed. The committee has also recommended that the reforms be put to a referendum before they can be adopted.

On the subject of the Bishops, the committee agreed, by a majority decision, with the government's proposal to retain their ex officio places, with their number being reduced to 12 from the current total of 26.

As to representatives of other religions, the committee's report describes discussion of the issue during its hearings:

283. Irrespective of the continued presence of the Church of England bishops, many witnesses spoke of the desirability of having other faiths represented in the House too, ad personam rather than ex officio.[375] There was also a presumption that the Appointments Commission should see this as part of their remit.[376] Some argued for no specific faith representation.[377]

284. Some witnesses addressed the difficulty in identifying suitable representations from faiths with no priestly hierarchy. [378] But the Muslim Council of Britain countered this by saying that it would not be difficult to identify suitable candidates, at least from the main minority faith communities as identified in the National Census (Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh): "... All major religious communities have well developed national representative bodies which can provide the link. MCB would be pleased to present specific proposals in this regard for our community".
The report goes on to conclude that "the Appointments Commission consider faith as part of the diversity criterion".

The committee's report is, of course, a disappointment for humanists and secularists, who have long argued that a reformed House of Lords should not include places for Church of England bishops, or use faith as a criteria for awarding appointed places. As the British Humanist Association have pointed out, the proposals will actually increase the Church's representation in among appointed peers. In the current House of Lords, 26 out of around 800 members equates to 3 per cent of appointed peers. In a 450-member House with 12 Bishops, their overall percentage would drop to 2.7 per cent, but of the 90 appointed members, 13 per cent would be Bishops.

In contrast to the committee's recommendations, a recent poll conducted by IPSOS Mori on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science found that even those who identified as "Christian" on the census do not tend to support seats in the Lords for Bishops. Asked for their views on the issue, 32 per cent of "Census Christians" said they oppose them, with only 25 per cent in favour. A further 32 per cent said they neither support nor oppose.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Win a pack of God Trumps on the NH Facebook page

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A quick word to the wise – because it's Friday and we're feeling generous, we're giving away some free packs of our hit sacrilegious parlour game God Trumps over on the New Humanist Facebook page.

All you need to do is join our Facebook page, if you haven't already (and if not, why not?), and then follow the instructions about tagging or sharing the cover of our latest issue.

If you've never seen God Trumps, you can flick through them on our website. Like thousands before you, it'll leave you wanting a real pack!

And on the subject of our new issue, featuring cover star and Young Atheist's Handbook author Alom Shaha, you can find out more in this post.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Dawn of the dead? Tupac's holographic resurrection could be just the beginning

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A resurrected Tupac Shakur stunned fans at California's
Coachella music festival
This is a guest post by Peyvand Khorsandi

Two American rappers about to go on tour are considering reviving their colleague to join them in holographic form – because he’s dead. Earlier this week CGI wizardry allowed Tupac Shakur, gunned down in Las Vegas 1996, to join his contemporaries Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre at the Coachella festival in California to perform his song "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted". [See embedded video below.]

Pac had barely changed, it was all still there – the bounce, the rippling muscles, and his distinctive (if now even more ironic) tattoo: “Thug Life”.

The holographic Pac was so animated that he made his duet partner Snoop look like the dead one. He strutted about the stage with impossible energy as the Dogg, dressed in dark tones, cut a shadowy figure, upstaged by the bizarre spectral spectacle of his former peer.

Rather eerily, Tupac addressed the festival by name “What’s up Coachella!” – for this is CGI, not archive footage. (He could potentially deliver a lecture on kitchen hygiene in Cantonese.)

Now he’s about to go on tour, posthumously, a feat only previously accomplished by Chris De Burgh. Apparently his mother approves. She was “positively thrilled” by her son’s brief return to the stage courtesy of entrepreneur Dr Dre, who forked out a considerable sum to fund the resurrection.

While reports suggest some at the festival were unnerved by the live performance, Dr Dre’s investment seems to be paying off with all the publicity generated.

Death and technology fascinate us endlessly – witness new pictures this week of the effects of people who perished on the Titantic. (We’re not going to be satisfied until a head pops through a porthole like in Jaws.)

In the CGI rendering of Tupac death and technology meet – but surely touring a dead man without his consent is wrong, even if his mother says yes. Can such a tour amount to anything more than tomb-raiding?

How can a person rest in peace when they are made to dance on stage? Or do dead people lose their right to autonomy?

It all seems a bit tasteless – next we’ll hear Gunther van Hagens, creator of the Body Worlds exhibition, has leant Dr Dre one of his corpses to recreate the rapper proper.

If you put the dazzle aside – and let’s face it, this is nowhere near as impressive as R2-D2’s projection of Princess Leia in Star Wars – death is being exploited for profit.

Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse and Michael Jackson could be back before we know it. And Martin Luther King will join Barack Obama on the White House lawn.

An iPhone app in 20 years will allow you to invite dead relatives around for Christmas, and occasions such as weddings and, in a macabre twist, funerals too. Click your fingers and hey presto, there’s Nana, on the sofa, knitting away while watching telly, just like she used to.

In his song “Life Goes On”, Tupac issued instructions for his death: “Bury me smilin’/ With G’s [a couple of grand] in my pocket / Have a party at my funeral”.

But he also communed with a dead friend. “We’re gonna clock now” – the life of hustling continues, he says – “and basically just represent for you baby”; presumably what Dre and Snoop are doing.

In “How Long Will They Mourn Me”, though, he complains of losing his friends: “They should’ve shot me when I was born / Now I’m trapped in the motherfuckin’ storm / How long will they mourn me?”

It’s a good question.

Speaking up for atheism: May/June issue now on sale

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"I was born in Bangladesh and raised on a housing estate in South London as a Muslim. I wrote my book to show that atheism is an option – you don't have to be trapped by your parents' beliefs."
Those are the words of Alom Shaha, cover star of our May/June issue (which is out today), and author of the forthcoming book The Young Atheist's Handbook (Biteback). In his book Alom tells the story of his journey from Islam to atheism, and in the process he delivers a powerful message, arguing that young people, in particular young people from Muslim backgrounds, should not be afraid to speak out and be open about their atheism.

Of course, things aren't so simple, and there can be many reasons why young people do not want to admit to their loss of faith, not least the fear of angering or disappointing their parents and close friends and family. In Alom's view, this obstacle would be perhaps be easier for some to overcome if the atheist, humanist community was more inclusive, and made more of an effort to demonstrate that "atheism is not the preserve of an intellectual elite":
"[I hope] that my work will go some way to encouraging atheist and humanist movements to recognise that they need to do more for people from backgrounds like mine. To be a true 'community', atheism needs to move away from its white, male image and encourage black and Asian people to join."
Also in the new issue: I take a look at the war on British secularism; James Gray explores Britain's growing religious sects; Sarah Ditum asks what can be done to prevent the horrific child abuse caused by belief in witchcraft in the UK; Ralph Steadman celebrates man's best enemy – the domestic cat; Philip Ball traces a curious history; Marcus Chown watches the sun set on Mars; Martin Robbins explains how he became a poster-boy for polygamy; Chris Mooney asks whether a brain can be right-wing; Sally Feldman explores Joan of Arc's hold over French politics; and much, much more.

Some of the issue is already online, and can be read here, but for the full issue you'll need to get yourself a copy. If you don’t already, why not subscribe now? We'll even welcome you into fold at the incredible special offer price of just £1.

Alternatively, you could subscribe to our fantastic iPad/iPhone app via Exact editions - you can download the app and preview it for free, then subscribe for just £1.99 a month or £9.99 a year if you like what you see. For non-Apple users, there's also our web subscription, which includes access to an Android app.

And finally, you will find us in hundreds of stores nationwide, including selected WH Smiths (use the store finder box on our home page to find a stockist).

Monday, 16 April 2012

Amid claims of Christian persecution, the assault on British secularism continues

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Lord Carey
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, was in the headlines again this weekend after the Telegraph published details of his submission to the European Court of Human Rights, ahead of a case brought by Nadia Eweida, the British Airways worker who was suspended for refusing to remove a cross in 2006, Shirley Chaplin, the Exeter nurse who ultimately quit nursing as a result of her dispute with Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust over her cross, and Gary McFarlane the relationship counsellor who refused to work with same-sex couples.

In his submission, Carey argues that equality law is being used in Britain "to remove Judaeo-Christian values from the public square", leading to a situation where "Christians can be sacked for manifesting their faith, are vilified by State bodies, are in fear of reprisal or even arrest for expressing their views on sexual ethics, something is very wrong". The former Archbishop goes on to argue that Christians have become the victims of persecution in modern Britain:
“It is now Christians who are persecuted; often sought out and framed by homosexual activists. Christians are driven underground. There appears to be a clear animus to the Christian faith and to Judaeo-Christian values. Clearly the courts of the United Kingdom require guidance.”
Carey's remarks are the latest to emerge from a conservative Christian lobby that has become increasingly vocal in its attacks on secularism and its claims of persecution. Indeed, it's an issue I look at in the latest edition of New Humanist, in which I argue that, contrary to claims that faith is under fire, it is in fact secularism that is under attack, both from religious activists and members of the government, who are increasingly promoting the idea that Britain, contrary to most statistical evidence, remains a "Christian country".

I've put the piece online this afternoon - take a look and see what you think.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Mayor of London bans "gay cure" bus ads

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The controversial slogan has now been
banned from London's buses
Yesterday afternoon, I blogged on how two conservative Christian groups, Anglican Mainstream and the Core Issues Trust, had booked advertising space on London buses for an ad promoting the notion of "gay cure therapy". The ads, featuring the slogan “Not gay! Post-gay and proud. Get over it”, were designed to counter a recent campaign by the gay rights group Stonewall, which has seen London buses displaying the words "Some people are gay. Get over it!".

News of the Christian campaign, which was due to start next Monday, quickly sparked controversy online and, just hours after the story had broken, the Mayor of London Boris Johnson announced that he was banning the ads from London's buses.

Speaking to the Guardian, Johnson said:
"London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world and intolerant of intolerance. It is clearly offensive to suggest that being gay is an illness that someone recovers from and I am not prepared to have that suggestion driven around London on our buses."
While many have welcomed the news, it has also prompted a debate over censorship, and not just among those who support the Anglican Mainstream and Core Issues Trust message. Speaking to the Independent, Padraig Reidy, News Editor of Index on Censorship (and a former Deputy Editor of New Humanist), expressed concern about the ban:
“There is an increasing rush at the moment by people demanding anything which they find unpleasant should be immediately banned, deleted or removed. We’re closing down any trace of controversy or debate within public discourse and that is extremely dangerous.”
What do you think? Are you happy to see this controversial message banned from London's streets, or are such bans on contentious advertising detrimental to free speech? Share your views in the comments.

Update: the Independent is now reporting that Anglican Mainstream and the Core Issues Trust are exploring legal options following Johnson's ban.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Bus ad battle over gay rights as Christian groups launch campaign

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Christian groups supporting "gay cure therapy" are launching
a bus ad campaign using this slogan
In a development reminiscent of the Atheist Bus Campaign and the Christian ads that followed in response, two Christian groups have responded to a recent gay rights bus campaign by launching adverts of their own, Pink News reports.

London buses have recently been displaying the gay rights group Stonewall's well-known slogan "Some people are gay. Get over it!", and from Monday 16 April the words “Not gay! Post-gay and proud. Get over it” will be seen on the side of some of the capital's buses.

The new ads are the work of the Anglican Mainstream and the Core Issues Trust, conservative Christian groups which both support the controversial, pseudoscientific notion of "gay cure therapy” – indeed, this is the primary activity of the Core Issues Trust, which describes itself as a "Christian initiative seeking to support men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression".

The two groups say they reject the Stonewall ad because it “implies the false idea that there is indisputable scientific evidence that people are ‘born gay’, and that they have no choice but to affirm their homosexual feelings”.

While the two groups behind the campaign have said that they “recognise the rights of individuals to identify as gay”, the Chief Executive of Stonewall, Ben Summerskill, suggested that the new campaign has its roots in homophobia:
“It’s sad that any self-styled “Christian” group promotes voodoo “gay cure therapy”, which has been discredited by the BACP, the UK’s leading professional body for counselling psychotherapists. Life would be much easier if these organisations just admitted that they don’t like gay people.”

Leading Indian Rationalist facing blasphemy charges over miracle clash with Catholic Church

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The dripping crucifix at the Church of
Our Lady of Velankanni in
Vile Parle, Mumbai
Sanal Edamaruku, President of the India-based organisation Rationalist International, is facing charges of blasphemy after he exposed a "miracle" involving a crucifix statue in the Vile Parle area of Mumbai.

On 10 March, Edamuruku, who is well-known in India for his debunking of supposed miracles and the abilities claimed by religious gurus (see this 2008 piece for New Humanist), was invited by the TV-9 channel to visit the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Vile Parle, where water had begun dripping from the feet of a statue of the crucified Christ. Worshippers claimed that this was "holy water", and the crowds flocked to the church to collect the miraculous liquid in containers.

Upon inspection, Edamuruku was able to reveal that the source of the "miracle" was a leaking drainage system, the water from which was being sucked up and ejected through the nail holes of the crucifix via a capillary action. You can see a video of his investigation here:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edamuruku's debunking of the leaking crucifix angered local religious leaders, who took to the airwaves to denounce his investigation. Father Augustine Palett, pastor of the Church of Our Lady Velankanni, told the Catholic press agency AsiaNews that Edamurku's claims that the Church had created the "miracle" and was exploiting believers to make money were false:
"Something has happened here that is beyond our understanding and that has gathered together Hindus, Muslims and Christians, united in prayer. Sanal Edamaruku's statements are unwarranted, unfounded and false. The Church does not try to make money from people's devotion. Its institutions relentlessly serve poor and marginalized, without any discrimination of caste or creed, to build this nation."
Edamuruku was also denounced by Msgr. Agnelo Gracias, the Auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai, who argued that the Catholic Church always tries to explain "miracles" scientifically:
"The Church is always cautious in attributing supernatural causes to out of the ordinary phenomena. Whenever possible, it always tries to find 'scientific' explanations for similar events. It does not pay great attention to things like this, although it accepts the possibility that God can intervene in human life in 'extraordinary' ways: what we call 'miracles'."
Edamuruku debated Palett and Gracias on TV, and the Rationalist International website describes how the Catholic representatives reacted to his arguments by threatening to pursue a blasphemy case against him:
"When they saw their hopes dashed to force Sanal to his knees and apologize, they publicly threatened to file a blasphemy case against him. Sanal pointed out that this would give him an excellent opportunity to support all his statements with evidence in a court of law, with the bishop of Mumbai in the witness box. Foaming with rage, the church people vowed to harass him by filing an array of cases against him in all Mumbai police stations. They did."
You can see a video of this TV debate on YouTube:

Now, Rationalist International have announced that they are aware of blasphemy petitions being filed against Edamuruku:
"We know of three petitions on the base of Article 295, Indian Penal Code that have been filed against Sanal. Meantime, Mumbai police announced that they were out to arrest him. Sanal can be arrested any moment. In every single place where a petition is filed against him. He could be forced to appear in person to answer them. If his answer is not found satisfactory, he could be arrested. He could be forced to fight a multitude of criminal cases in different places. This is not only immensely time and money consuming. Given the fanaticism of some Catholic believers, it can be a danger for his life."
Rationalist International has responded by launching a Sanal Edamaruku Defence Committe spearheaded by the human rights lawyer N.D.Pancholi, and asking supporters around the world to spread the word about these events. You can read more on their website.

We're in touch with Edamuruku and will have more on this story soon - look out for further details.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Cameron expresses support for "Christian fightback"

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The Prime Minister has expressed his support for a
Christian "fightback" against secularism
At an Easter reception at Downing Street yesterday, David Cameron told faith leaders that he welcomes a Christian "fightback" against secularism, citing recent cases, such as the Bideford ruling on council prayers, which some Christians argue are part of an attempt to drive religion from public life. The Prime Minister said:
“I think there’s something of a fightback going on, and we should welcome that. The values of the Bible, the values of Christianity are the values that we need.”
The meeting was the first time Cameron has met Christian leaders since the government launched its consultation on legalising same-sex marriage, and the Prime Minister took the opportunity to tell them that he hopes they "won’t fall out too much" with him over the proposals.

Cameron's remarks are the latest sign that the government is siding with the Christian right against secularism. Earlier this year, the Conservative Party chair Baroness Warsi (who last year said the current government will "Do God") declared that "a militant secularisation is taking hold" of society, likening it to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, while the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles responded to the Bideford judgement by suggesting that an "intolerant secularism" was being used to marginalise and attack faith in public life.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Time for atheists on Thought for the Day?

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Today presenter Evan Davis would like to hear atheists
on Thought for the Day
It is, perhaps, the ultimate bĂȘte noire for Britain's atheists and secularists (or at least those who listen to Radio 4) – each morning, they tune in to the Today programme, and in the middle of three hours of otherwise weighty current affairs content, they must endure three minutes of religious platitudes in the form of Thought for the Day.

Humanists have long called for the BBC to open Thought for the Day to non-religious contributors and, although the powers-that-be at the corporation have repeatedly refused to do so, they have at times gained support from Today programme presenters, with veteran anchor John Humphrys suggesting in 2009 that it was time for atheists to feature in the slot.

Now, the non-religious cause has received the backing of one of Humphrys colleagues, with Today regular (and professed atheist) Evan Davis telling the Independent he thinks Thought for the Day should be opened up:
"I think there's a very serious debate about whether the spot – which I would keep – might give space to what one might call 'serious and spiritually minded secularists'. I don't think "Thought for the Day" has to only be people of the cloth."
Those wishing to hear atheists Thought for the Day will surely welcome Davis' remarks, but they do raise one question – what's a "spritually minded secularist", and do you have to be one of those to be serious?

I'll leave you debate that one.