Friday, 29 June 2012

Fatwa the video game – extremism for the idle Islamist

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In The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie
and the Implementation of his Verdict,
fanatical video game players will be
given the opportunity to fulfil
the fatwa against Rushdie
This is a guest post by Peyvand Khorsandi

When Salman Rushdie was whiling away the hours in hiding after his fatwa was issued, he could scarcely have imagined that 23 years later a) he would be alive and b) the Iranians would release a video game called The Stressful Life of Salman Rushdie and the Implementation of his Verdict, in which players set about acting on Ayatollah Khomeini’s death warrant.

Rushdie is presumably chased from literary party to catwalk after-party with an attractive woman on his arm (in a fetching head-to-toe number, of course, for this is Iran) ducking to avoid YOU, the Islamist, hellbent on destroying him. The game was unveiled this week at the second International Computer Games Expo in Tehran which sets out to provide “an opportunity to introduce Iranian culture, value and Islamic identity and also a way to present Iranian products to international computer games designers and producers”.

“We felt we should find a way to introduce our third and fourth generation to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and its importance,” said a spokesman for the Islamic Association of Students, which invited script submissions for the game which it then handed to games developers.

More than anything, the game is an insult to Ayatollah Khomeini – when a Mafia boss orders a killing he’s not going happy if subordinates hand him a joystick and a bag of crisps.

This week two men were sentenced to death in Iran for the possession of alcohol – if only the Islamic Republic were content with punishing them with a video game called The Stressful Life of Anyone Who Fancies a Pint in Tehran.

Stressful Life could become a brand for the Islamic Republic – it accurately describes the effect of its rule, not just on Rushdie but the scores of people whose lives it has blighted over the past three decades.

If there is any hope to be gleaned from this perverse video game, it is that the most vicious fundamentalists might be content to console themselves with games consoles. Next will probably be a game for killing a Danish cartoonist or crushing the Green movement, or another one called MP, where an employee of Iran’s state-owned Press TV stands for election in the UK parliament (will he manage to convince the Pakistanis of West Bradford that he's more Pakistani than the Labour candidate?)

If video games are a vent for violent urges, then bring on the fantasy fatwa: these games should be supplied to radicals the world over.

Some years ago I spotted Salman Rushdie in a pub with his then partner Padma Lakshmi. I plucked up my courage and went up to apologise personally for the Ayatollah’s fatwa – I was very possibly the first Iranian to have done so. I was wearing stubble and a camouflage jacket which didn't help, but I like to think Mr Rushdie appreciated the gesture.

As the West fails to hit Iran where it hurts, with infantile posturing and bluster about a nuclear threat instead of Iran’s ongoing human rights abuses, its political prisoners and its suppression of the opposition, the mullahs are having are laugh and going “Wiiiiiii”. If the West backs the people of Iran rather than war, the mullahs will fail the next level: game over.

Majority in Britain want Bishops out of House of Lords

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56 per cent of Britons want the Bishops
out of the House of Lords
As I reported on Tuesday, the Coalition government, in putting forward plans for an 80 per cent elected House of Lords in its Reform Bill, has proposed that 12 places will be reserved for Church of England bishops.

Considering the government's determination to keep the Lords Spiritual in the House, you might think that the general public share the view that Britain should remain the only state other than Iran to reserve places for clerics in its legislature. But, as a new YouGov poll [PDF] on House of Lords reform shows, this is clearly not the case.

Asked whether they "think a reformed House of Lords should or should not retain seats for the bishops", 56 per cent of respondents said that it should not, with 26 per cent saying the Bishops should stay and 19 per cent expressing no opinion. Even when broken down by political affiliation, the results still show majorities in favour of removing the Lords Spiritual –62 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters and 53 per cent of Labour voters want them out, as do 52 per cent of Conservatives.

So with those figures in mind, will the Coalition now rethink its commitment to retaining the Church of England's unelected Parliamentary seats? I wouldn't hold your breath for that, but the British Religion in Numbers Blog does raise the intriguing possibility of MPs tabling an amendment that would see the Bishops removed during the bill's passage through parliament. Could that happen? You can't rule it out, so perhaps the battle of the Bishops isn't over just yet –  keep following the British Humanist Association's Holy Redundant campaign for the latest news on the issue.

Update, 29 June, 1.40pm: A comment left below by "ColonelFazackerley" is worth including here, as it provides an insight into the government's thinking on this issue. He wrote to his Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood, and here's what she had to say about the Bishops:
"I appreciate the concerns raised about unelected Bishops in the House of Lords. Of course, the relationship between Church of England and the state is  an important part of the constitutional framework that has evolved over centuries in the  UK. The Government considers that, in a mainly elected House of Lords, it is right to maintain their presence, which is felt to provide an important extra dimension to the legislative process.

While I also appreciate the view that other faiths could be represented in the Lords, I know that the Bishops there see their role as speaking for those of  all faiths. Religious belief has an important role in many people's lives and I  believe it is important that this should be recognised and reflected in  the House of Lords' considerations."

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Thomas Paine express shock at David Starkey accusations against Laurie Penny

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David Starkey confronts Laurie Penny
during the Sunday Times Festival of
Education debate on Britishness.
Today we received this statement from the Thomas Paine Society, regarding the accusations made by David Starkey against Laurie Penny in their ill-tempered debate on Britishness at the weekend, which their fellow panelist Musa Okwonga wrote about for us earlier in the week. Watch video of the relevant part of the debate.
From: Thomas Paine Society

Statement regarding the incident between David Starkey and Laurie Penny, 23 June 2012

The Thomas Paine Society Committee was distressed to hear of last weekends’ altercation between David Starkey and Laurie Penny at the Education Festival. Ad hominem attacks do not move a debate forward about any subject, and we’re sorry to see that it appears both speakers made these.

In February/March this year Starkey and Penny kindly agreed to headline a debate the weekend after the Jubilee in June for expenses only. We also asked a number of other activists, journalists and historians to speak from the floor, and they agreed to this for expenses, although some waived this as well. The event was to be free of charge and open to the public, from whom we were as interested to hear as any of our invitees. Although Starkey was going to open by speaking about the benefits of a constitutional monarchy over a republic, the intention was to get to a more wide-ranging discussion about how people think society should or shouldn’t be governed.

When Penny indicated in the second week of May that she might not be able to get back from the US in time, we tried to find a replacent but couldn’t. We offered to pay her airfare back. By the time she replied to our offer (with the request for an additional fee) however, time was too short to do adequate publicity and we cancelled the event. The timing was the issue not the money [emphasis in original document].

We were shocked at Starkey’s accusation, and disappointed to read later that Penny didn't want to appear at our event anyway. Considering what happened last weekend, however, we seem to have avoided spreading more heat than light on the important topic of democracy and how best to achieve it.

We had looked forward to hosting a lively and interesting afternoon, and hope to find another occasion in which to have this discussion in Paine’s spirit of open inquiry. The Thomas Paine Society is dedicated “To promote the recognition of Thomas Paine’s contribution to the cause of freedom, and to spread knowledge of his work and activities with a view to encouraging the growth of a similar spirit of constructive criticism in every aspect of public life.” At the moment we are involved with two exciting schools projects about Thomas Paine in Sussex and London, and have regular free public events.

The Committee of the Thomas Paine Society

27 June 2012

Clash over religious freedom in Germany as Cologne court ruling outlaws circumcision

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A court in the German city of Cologne has ruled that
religious circumcision violates the "physical
integrity"of the child
Jewish and Muslim organisations in Germany have responded with outrage after a Regional Court in Cologne ruled that circumcision of infant boys for religious reasons constitutes "bodily harm" and "a violation of physical integrity" which is not outweighed by the parents' "right to religious upbringing of their children".

The ruling concerned the case of a four-year-old Muslim boy who suffered medical complications following a circumcision carried out at the request of his parents in November 2010. The doctor who performed the operation was charged by state prosecutors, but was acquitted when a lower court ruled that he had not acted improperly. The court also ruled that circumcision was in the child's interests as part of his membership of the Islamic faith.

The prosecution appealed to the higher Regional Court, which upheld the doctor's acquittal but ruled against the practice of circumcision for religious reasons. According to an informative post by Adam Wagner on the UK Human Rights Blog (which also provides an English translation of the ruling), the court upheld the acquittal on the basis that the doctor was acting under an “unavoidable mistake of law”, and went on to declare that, in the case of circumcision, religious freedom does not take precedence over a child's right to "physical integrity". Circumcision, the ruling states, leaves the child's body "permanently and irreparably changed", and therefore "conflicts with the child's interest of later being able to make his own decision on his religious affiliation".

Reacting to the ruling, Dieter Graumann, President of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, described it as “outrageous and insensitive” and an “unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination”. The news also prompted outrage in Israel, with the speaker of Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, calling on German legislators to act to overrule the court's "intervention in freedom of religion and worship". Having met with Rivlin, the Bundestag President, Norbert Lammert, suggested that the ruling may yet be overturned by Germany's highest Constitutional Court, saying “The German court has yet to say its final word on this matter”.

Objections from within Germany and Israel were also echoed by the Anti-Defamation League, the US-based international body that campaigns against anti-Semitism. In a statement, its director, Abraham Foxman, said:
“Circumcision of newborn male children is a core religious rite of Judaism, practiced by Jews around the world. The decision by a district court in Cologne, Germany, to deem non-medical circumcision a crime places an intolerable burden on the free exercise of religion by Jews and also by Muslims who practice male circumcision as part of their religious faith.

We support the call by the Central Council of Jews in Germany for the German parliament to quickly pass legislation specifically protecting circumcision as a religious practice. Germany’s commitment to religious freedom requires nothing less.”
The ruling against circumcision has raised similar objections from within Germany's Muslim communities, with Aiman Mazyek of the Central Council of Muslims describing it as “inadmissible” and “outrageous".

Since news of the judgement appeared in the UK media yesterday, it's been interesting to follow how secularists and humanists have reacted, and consider my own views on the issue. On the one hand, from a secular perspective the case seems fairly straightforward – of course children shouldn't be subjected to the removal of a part of their genitals (many would call this "mutilation") without their consent, in an operation which can on occasion prove dangerous and even life-threatening, simply because their parents consider it to be a key requirement of their religion. Observing the reactions of fellow humanists online, there seems to be something of a consensus on this, with many welcoming the ruling as a victory for common sense.

One particularly thoughtful articulation of this viewpoint came from Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, who in a post on his personal blog "Don’t cut bits off people without their informed consent" makes "a good general ethical principle". Copson acknowledged the difficulties that come with the state intervening in a religious practice steeped in tradition, and noted that we should be sympathetic towards the significance that many Jews and Muslims place on circumcision, but concluded that such considerations "are not enough to outweigh the ethical case for a total ban on genital mutilation of either boys or girls".

However, opposing such arguments in favour of a ban are arguments concerning religious freedom and, while the court in Cologne concluded that the rights of the child ought to take precedence over the parents' religious freedom in the case of circumcision, it would be wrong to discount those arguments, or indeed the pragmatic social and cultural arguments against a ban. In doing so, it's impossible to escape the burden of history – while a 21st-century legal case over circumcision may well be driven purely by medical and human rights considerations, there is no avoiding the fact that the outlawing of religious practices has historically been associated with religious persecution. In Germany, of course, such bans carry horrendous historical baggage, and many will surely be uncomfortable with seeing a German court making a judgement that could lead to the outlawing of a practice so closely associated with Jewish identity. This isn't to say, of course, that such history should be used as a debate-stopping reason for not taking action against religious practices that might be seen to violate human rights but, thinking pragmatically, it's an unavoidable consideration.

So do I think religious circumcision should be banned? You'll have to forgive the equivocation, but I'm not sure. Watching the German case from a distance, I find it hard to disagree with the court's reasoning, as I agree that the religious freedom of parents should not trump a child's right not to have their genitals altered in infancy. My thinking on religious freedom has been influenced recently by Kenan Malik's excellent 18-point guide in our new issue (do click the link and read it – I highly recommend it), and, reading that with this in mind, it seems clear that circumcision should come under the category of religious practices that should not be permitted:
"As a society we should tolerate as far as is possible the desire of people to live according to their conscience. But that toleration ends when someone acting upon his or her conscience causes harm to another without consent, or infringes another’s genuine rights."
However, when I consider the possible social consequences of a ban on circumcision, in particular its possible effect on the relationship between Jewish and Muslim communities and the rest of society, I find that I am less convinced of the wisdom of enforcing it. There's no denying that the ruling by the Cologne court is a bold one, and perhaps such bold decisions are necessary to enable societies to finally move on from what many would consider to be antiquated and harmful practices. But if a ban on circumcision was passed here in the UK, I think I would be uncomfortable with the social implications it could have.

This is an issue that's going to run and run, and as it happens we have a piece lined up in our next issue (Sept/Oct) on the debate around circumcision here in Britain. With the news from Germany, there will be plenty to discuss in that, so watch this space.

In the meantime, please share your comments – do you agree with the decision by the Cologne court to outlaw circumcision? Here's a poll for you to register your view:

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Creationist exams approved by government-funded agency

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Exams based on a curriculum involving the teaching of creationism, studied by pupils at around 50 private Christian schools in Britain, are recognised as equivalent to A Levels by a government-funded body that judges the credibility of qualifications, the Times Educational Supplement reports.

The International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE) tests students on the material they have studied as part of the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme (see this old NH blog post for a previous mention of ACE), which includes creationism and references to the potential benefits of racial segregation. One passage in the ACE Biology textbook even suggests that the Loch Ness Monster helps disprove the theory of evolution:
"Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence.

Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie,’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.

Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all.”
The National Recognition Information Centre (NAIRC) carried out a "benchmarking exercise" on the ICCE qualifications last year, and according to the TES ruled that:
"... the course’s general certificate, which involves two to three years of study, should be compared to Cambridge International’s O-level at grades C to E; the intermediate certificate to the international O-level at grades A to B; and the advanced certificate to an international A-level."
For more on this story see the Liberal Conspiracy blog, which has a guest post by Jonny Scaramanga, a former ACE student who has complained to NAIRC about its approval of the ICCE exams.

12 Bishops to remain in reformed House of Lords

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Rowan Williams addressing the House of Lords
The Coalition government published its House of Lords Reform Bill today and, as expected, if the reform goes ahead the Church of England will retain its reserved seats in Parliaments upper house.

The proposed reforms would eventually see the size of the House (see the Bill's breakdown of the proposed composition here) reduced to around 460 seats, with 80 per cent of members (360 members) elected for 15-year terms and 20 per cent (90 members) appointed. In its completed form, the seats would be retained in the House of Lords for "up to 12 Lords Spiritual", i.e. Church of England Bishops.

However, the reformed House of Lords would not be composed in this way until 2025. The first proposed election to the House, in 2015, would see a third of elected members (120) and a third of appointed members (30) introduced, with those figures increasing to 240 elected and 60 appointed in 2020, and 360 elected and 90 appointed in 2025. From that point onwards, one third of elected seats will be up for election every 5 years.

Meanwhile, while elected and appointed members are gradually phased in, the Church of England Bishops will be gradually reduced in number. Twenty-one will sit in the House during its first term following the reforms, with the figure reduced to 16 in 2020 and 12 in 2025.

While the news that the Bishops will be retained is not surprising, it is still a disappointment for secularists, who had hoped that the return of Lords reform to the political agenda would provide an opportunity to end Britain's status as one of just two states to retain clerics in its legislature (the other state is Iran). Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, summed up why campaigners for reform are unimpressed by the proposals:
"This is deeply disappointing. The proposals revealed today are patently at odds with the evidence submitted to the Government and goes against society’s understanding of fairness, accountability and democracy.

Not only do arguments to retain Bishops possess no intellectual credibility, they are also unpopular with the public, with polls indicating 74% of the population –including 70% of Christians – believe it is wrong that Church of England Bishops are given automatic places.’

Representatives of the Church of England will retain the right to sit in the House of Lords by virtue of their faith, denomination, gender and vocation. In a Britain which is not only religiously plural, but also increasingly non-religious, there is absolutely no justification for maintaining the Church of England preferred status. It is an affront to the principles of democracy and equal citizenship."
Of course, the Bill is in its early stages, so the retention of the Bishops isn't a done deal (assuming the reforms ever pass at all - see YouGov's Peter Kellner for why this looks fairly unlikely). The BHA have been running a campaign, Holy Redundant, calling for the removal of the Lords Spiritual, and that's still very much live. Follow it on Twitter and Facebook, and keep an eye on the website, for news of future developments.

PS: Meanwhile, it was interesting to hear the Conservative hereditary peer Lord Trefgarne holding forth on Radio 4 on his divine right to sit in the House of Lords and perform the duty imposed on him by the Almighty. And to think that some people view the House as archaic.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Uganda to ban gay rights organisations

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In 2010, the Ugandan newspaper Rolling Stone called for the
lynching of 100 gay men
Last year, the Ugandan government's shocking record on gay rights came to global attention as a result of attempts by MPs to introduce legislation imposing strict penalties for homosexuality. In the end the bill, which at one stage would have provided for the death penalty in certain cases, did not pass, although there have been attempts this year to reintroduce it into the Ugandan parliament.

However, while the anti-gay bill has so far remained off the statute books, a reminder of the severe difficulties faced by LGBT communities in Uganda comes with the news that the country's Minister for Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo has just announced that 38 NGOs will be banned because they "promote" homosexuality. While the organisations have not been named, it appears clear from the minister's comments that they will include many groups working to defend gay rights:
"I have investigated and established beyond reasonable doubt that these NGOs have been involved in the promotion and recruitment in terms of the 'gay' issues. The sooner we can do this the better."
Gay Ugandans have long been the victims of severe persecution, spearheaded by political and religious leaders, as well leading newspapers, which regularly publish articles inciting homophobic discrimination and violence. In 2010, the Rolling Stone newspaper published a list of 100 Ugandans, complete with photos, calling for them to be hanged for being gay, and three months later one of the men named by the paper, the gay rights activist David Kato, was murdered in his home in Kampala.

While the situation in Uganda has probably received the most attention globally, neighbouring countries in East Africa have equally poor records on gay rights. Indeed, just this morning Pink News reported on a recent article in the Ethiopian newspaper Yenga daily which warned of a gay "infestation" in the country, and suggested that homosexuality is being "exported" into Ethiopia by foreign agents such as the UN, NGOs, European countries and the USA.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Web designer wanted for exciting new project

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We're looking for a web designer with flair and a grasp of clear simple design and navigation, someone who knows their UX from their UI (and can do both), to help us on an exciting new web project.

The budget is tight (we are a charity) but you will be getting to work in a team with experienced web builders, editors and consultants, and have a hand in creating something really beautiful and lasting. Would particularly suit a web design student or recent graduate freelancer looking for experience, a chance to see their creative ideas realised and the opportunity to make a real contribution to reason, science and rationalism online.

Interested? Send an email to with a link to your work.

Secular immortality: New Humanist July/August 2012

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At New Humanist we don’t do themed issues, but in every issue themes seems to present themselves, popping up unexpectedly in several different places.

In the new July/August issue the themes are the problems of secularism, and the desire to live forever. On the former we have Kenan Malik’s amazing step-by-step guide to religious freedom. Put that way it sounds abstract, but it’s actually very concrete and practical, providing the clear ethical logic behind some great dilemmas: should states ban the burqa? Should employees be allowed to wear religious symbols at work? Should the Church of England allow gay marriage? In the piece Malik suggests that it is incoherent and prejudiced to expect religious people to leave their religion at home. This seems to have become something of a secularist demand, but Malik is not alone in thinking it does not stand up to scrutiny. In his opinion piece in this issue, Richard Smyth also dismisses the insistence on privatising faith – far better, he says, to have faith out in the public sphere so we can argue with it.

The arguments of transhumanists – those who would like to use science to enhance humanity, defeat disease and potentially live forever – are much in evidence these days. In this issue Adam Smith provides a handy guide to the different groups trying to perfect mankind (with wonderful satirical drawing by Martin Rowson). Elsewhere transhumaist ideas pop up philosophical superstar Bruno Latour’s book The Cult of the Factish Gods, reviewed for us by Jonathan Rée, and in our Q&A with the prolific author Iain Banks, who has invented his very own transhumanist civilisation, The Culture, in his sci-fi novels. In our cover story this time, Julian Baggini goes in search of the sources of secular hope – do we have to give up hope if we don't do God? The outlandish optimism of transhumanism rates a rather scathing review from him, though he does find other reasons to be cheerful.

All this, plus: an assessment of how Mitt Romney's Mormonism will play with America's Republican base, how Snow White reflects us, Clive Stafford Smith on a real life Miami murder mystery, and a profile of the atheist basketball superstar John Amaechi.

The magazine hits the newsstands this coming Thursday, but to make life easier why not subscribe? We'll even make you an offer you can't refuse – follow this link and get the next three issues for just £1 (order by phone and request the July issue to make sure your sub starts with that).

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.

Police tell pensioner he can't display an atheist sign in his window

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A pensioner from Boston, Lincolnshire, has been told by police that he risks criminal charges if he continues to display an atheist message in the front window of his home, the Boston Standard reports.

John Richards has an A4 sheet with the printed message "religions are fairy stories for adults" in his window, but was recently told by police that he could be arrested under the Public Order Act, which outlaws the display of "any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting", if he does not take it down.

Richards, however, says he will not be removing the message:
“The police said I could be arrested if somebody complained and said they were insulted, but the sign was up two years ago and nobody responded or smashed the window.

“I am an atheist and I feel people are being misled by religion. I wanted to show people that if they thought they were alone there was at least one other person who thought that.

“I accept that the police emphasised the words could lead to an arrest but the implication is a threat to free speech which surely should be fought.”
Update, 22 June 2012:

Lincolnshire Police have posted a press release on their website with their side of the story:

"Lincolnshire Police have not advised Mr Richards that he faces arrest for the specific posters he is displaying and he is not committing any offences by doing so.

The 1986 Public Order Act states that a person is guilty of an offence if they display a sign which is threatening or abusive or insulting with the intent to provoke violence or which may cause another person harassment, alarm or distress. This is balanced with a right to free speech and the key point is that the offence is committed if it is deemed that a reasonable person would find the content insulting.

If a complaint is received by the police in relation to a sign displayed in a person’s window, an officer would attend and make a reasoned judgement about whether an offence had been committed under the Act. In the majority of cases where it was considered that an offence had been committed, the action taken by the officer would be to issue words of advice and request that the sign be removed. Only if this request were refused might an arrest be necessary.

Very explicit or grossly offensive material may be dealt with under alternative legislation."

Monday, 18 June 2012

Sanal Edamaruku: an update

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Sanal Edamuruku at the
Church of Our Lady of Velan Kanni, Mumbai
Thanks to all of you who have signed the petition in support of the Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku, who is facing charges of “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community” after he debunked a supposed miracle involving water dripping from a crucifix in a Catholic church in Mumbai. The petition currently has 5,825 signatures – please do take the time to read it and add your name if you haven't already.

For those who are familiar with the case so far, here's an update – we've been in regular contact with Sanal since the controversy broke back in March, and we're pleased to be able to tell you that he's currently in Helsinki, meaning that the threat of arrest has been lifted, at least for the time being.

Prior to leaving India he was forced to stay away from his home in Delhi, as his lawyers are receiving daily phonecalls from the Mumbai police telling him to turn himself in. Sanal would be only too happy to comply – and face down the ridiculous complaints – were it not for the fact that he has been refused anticipatory bail, meaning he would have to stay in jail indefinitely. This is why the petition is aimed at getting the complaints by several Catholic organisations dropped, rather than at changing the 'blasphemy' law. However Sanal has plans to address this issue too.

His lawyers are busy filing three separate cases: an application to the Mumbai High Court for anticipatory bail, and to have the case thrown out. And they are preparing a case to go before the Constitutional bench of the Supreme Court of India to remove article 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code, a relic from 1860, as it is against free speech.

A ruling by the High Court concerning "anticipatory bail" is expected early this week. If this is granted he will be able to return to India knowing he will not face time in jail. Then he can concentrate on refuting this unfounded and unconstitutional charge.

In the meantime, he thanks you all for your continuing support, and urges you to keep the pressure on the Catholic Church to get the complaints withdrawn.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Prison term for Indonesian atheist who posted views on religion online

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Alexander Aan
An Indonesian man who posted his atheist views on Facebook has been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison after being found guilty of "deliberately spreading information inciting religious hatred and animosity". He was also fined the equivalent of 10,000 US dollars.

As we reported on this blog earlier this year, Alexander Aan was arrested in January in his home town of in his hometown of Pulau Punjung in western Sumatra, having posted "God doesn't exist"on a Facebook page. He was also accused of posting cartoon strips deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.

In passing the sentence, the presiding judge Eka Prasetya Budi Dharma told the the Muaro Sijunjung district court in western Sumatra that Aan had "caused anxiety to the community and tarnished Islam".

Prosecutors had sought a lengthier jail sentence for Aan, but in finding him guilty of inciting religious hatred, the court dropped two additional, less serious charges of blasphemy and persuading others to embrace atheism.

While Indonesian law guarantees citizens freedom of religion, it only protects those who follow Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism or Hinduism, leaving those who publicly express their atheism vulnerable to the kinds of charges brought against Aan.

Ever since his arrest, Aan has received support from atheists and human rights activists around the world. The Atheist Alliance International has been collecting donations for a legal fund, and they are still urging people to contribute in the wake of Aan's conviction. They are also providing contact details [PDF] that can be used to contact the Indonesian authorities to express concern about the case.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Bad Bible passages to live your life by – #2: Matthew 19:12

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When you're on the lookout for religion-based stories, as we are here at New Humanist, one of the things you're regularly reminded of is that, as well as inspiring people to do both good and bad things, religious texts can also prompt people do some incredibly ill-advised things.

Indeed, it was only a couple of weeks ago that I blogged about Mack Wolford, the Pastor from West Virginia who lost his life to a rattlesnake bite as a result of his belief that Christian have a religious duty to handle rattlesnakes, based on the text of Mark 16:17-18, which says:
“And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Could there be a worse Bible passage to live you life by? Given what happened to Wolford it's a tough one to top, but how about Matthew 19:12? According to an article published in the medical journal Psychsomatics, a man walked into the emergency room in St. Joseph’s Hos­pi­tal and Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Phoe­nix, Arizona and, when he was asked to explain what he required treatment for, would only tell nurses that it related to "Matthew 19:12". Let's take a look, as the nurses at St Joseph's were required to, at what you find when you look up Matthew 19:12:
"For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it."
From that text, I'm sure you can work out the rest (take a look at the Freethinker's story if you want the gory details). Following Matthew 19:12 is really not a wise idea.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Evolution to be taught in primary schools

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For the first time, evolution will be taught to pupils in England's primary schools, after it was included on the government's new draft Primary Curriculum. Our friends at the British Humanist Association are justifiably delighted at the news, having campaigned for several years to have it introduced into primary school science lessons.

Provided the proposal makes it into the final curriculum, children in English primary schools will learn about evolution from year 4 (age 8-9). At present, evolution is not introduced until secondary school in year 10, when pupils are aged 14-15.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Petition calling on Catholic Church in India to drop complaints against Sanal Edamuruku over exposure of miracle

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Sanal Edamuruku at the Church of Our Lady of Velan Kanni
As we have reported several times in recent weeks, the fearless Indian rationalist campaigner Sanal Edamuruku is facing arrest over his exposure of a supposed miracle at a church in Mumbai.

In March 2012, Sanal pointed out that the “blood” oozing from a statue of Christ at the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Velan Kanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai was in fact water from a leaky pipe. Following his exposure of this "miracle", a complaint was lodged against Sanal by the local Catholic Archdiocese with the Mumbai police, who are now able to arrest him. He has been denied 'anticipatory' bail which means if arrested he faces a long term in prison merely for explaining the science behind an apparent mystery.

Today, we have launched a petition calling on the Catholic authorities in India to drop their complaints against Sanal, which amount to a misuse of Indian hate speech law in order to silence legitimate scientific criticism of religious superstition.

It is vital that word of Sanal's plight, and the Catholic Church's censorious use of Indian law, is heard around the globe, and we ask you to offer your support by adding your name to the petition. By clicking through to the petition, you will also find a detailed account of the legal arguments being used against him.

Sign the petition calling on Catholic authorities to drop their complaints against Sanal Edamuruku

Creationists triumph in South Korea, as references to evolution excised from school textbooks

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Scientific debate over Archaeopteryx has
been exploited by creationists in Korea
Yesterday I blogged about a new Gallup poll revealing that 46 per cent of Americans hold creationist views, but today attention shifts around the globe to South Korea, following news that school textbook publishers are to remove several references to evolution from future editions as a result of a successful petition by a creationist organisation.

According to a report in the latest issue of Nature, the Society for Textbook Revise, an offshoot of the Korea Association for Creation Research, launched a petition calling on the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to ask publishers to remove examples concerning the evolution of the horse and Archaeopteryx, a winged Late Jurassic creature believed to be an ancestor of modern birds. After the Ministry passed on the petition to textbook publishers, several took the decision to remove the examples from their books.

The focus on the specific example of Archaeopteryx represents a common creationist tactic, whereby genuine disputes among evolutionary biologists are exploited in an attempt to undermine the science as a whole. Archaeopteryx has long been believed to have been an ancient ancestor of birds, but more recent studies have suggested the connection to modern birds may not be as clear as was previously thought. Having successfully taken advantage of that particular scientific debate, the Society for Textbook Revise are apparently now aiming to persuade publishers to remove references to “the evolution of humans”.

Figures for those not believing in evolution in South Korea are relatively high, with almost one-third of those surveyed in a 2009 poll saying they did not. Considering that only 26 per cent of Koreans are Christian, it is possible that the problem lies with science education rather than religion – 41 per cent of those disputing evolution in the 2009 survey cited "insufficient scientific evidence", compared with 39 per cent who cited religious beliefs. Speaking to Nature Dayk Jang, an evolutionary scientist at Seoul National University, suggests evolution is not taught widely enough in the country's universities, with "only 5–10 evolutionary scientists" teaching the theory to students across the entire university system.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Almost half of Americans are creationists, poll finds

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Graph showing the results of Gallup's creationism poll over the last 20 years
A new Gallup poll has found that almost half of Americans hold creationist view. Asked to choose between three statements, 46 per cent of those polled said that answer "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so" best describes their view on human origins. 32 per cent of respondents opted for the middle ground, saying "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process", while just 15 per cent chose "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process".

Gallup have been polling the American public on the same question, with the same choice of responses, since 1982. While the figures have fluctuated over this 20 year period, they have not done so greatly – the 2012 "creationist" figure of 46 per cent is up from the 2011 figure of 40 per cent, but as Gallup point out it is very close to the all-time average of 45 per cent. The figure for those believing humans evolved without God playing a part has risen slightly over time, having stood at just 9 per cent in 1982, but it has hovered around the mid-teens for most of the last decade.

So how should we interpret these figures? As Gallup point out in their own analysis, for anyone hoping to see public opinion catching up with scientific discovery, the poll makes for bleak reading:
"Despite the many changes that have taken place in American society and culture over the past 30 years, including new discoveries in biological and social science, there has been virtually no sustained change in Americans' views of the origin of the human species since 1982. The 46% of Americans who today believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years is little changed from the 44% who believed this 30 years ago, when Gallup first asked the question.

More broadly, some 78% of Americans today believe that God had a hand in the development of humans in some way, just slightly less than the percentage who felt this way 30 years ago.

All in all, there is no evidence in this trend of a substantial movement toward a secular viewpoint on human origins."
So what hope for those who would prefer to see the numbers believing in creationism plummet in the future? The poll does provide a slight glimmer, revealing that those who have had access to better educations are less likely to hold creationist views. However, even among college graduates creationism still wins the day, with 46 per cent selecting the "God created human beings pretty much in their present form..." answer. It's only among Americans with postgraduate degrees that evolution comes to the fore, with 42 per cent saying it happened with some help from God, and 29 per cent saying it happened without a god, compared to 25 per cent opting for the creationist response.

Clearly American advocates of science education have their work cut out for them in the years ahead.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Indian Rationalist accused of blasphemy, is the net closing?

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Further to the story we first reported in April, and updated last month, today we got a call from President of the Indian Rationalists, Sanal Edamaruku, informing us that Indian courts had turned down his application for "anticipatory bail". 

To recap Sanal has had a complaint lodged against him by the Catholic Church in India who accuse him of blasphemy for revealing that one of their "bleeding statue" miracles had a more mundane explanation – the “blood” apparently leaking from the body of Christ turned out to be sewage, as Sanal revealed on Indian TV. The Catholic Church have made a complaint of “deliberately hurting religious feelings” which carries severe penalties in India. Sanal is very keen to answer the Church's accusation in court, but he applied for this anticipatory bail to ensure he would not have to remain incarcerated if he was arrested, pending the start of court proceedings. Ironically his bail request was turned down because the court thought he would be in danger and jail would be safer. 

Sanal is a cool customer used to being attacked for his myth-busting (he famously went after Sai Baba) but he is worried. When we spoke earlier today he told us that the moment the court's decision came through he started getting calls from the police in Mumbai (he's in Delhi) telling him to report to the police station. Even though no formal warrant has been issued he is very vulnerable to being picked up at any time, and his lawyers are advising him to leave the country for a bit. We are inquiring on his behalf into the issues of getting him a visa and perhaps somewhere to stay. We'll keep you posted - in the meantime please spread the word, and if you are able please contribute to his defence fund.