Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Atheist philosopher pulls Sokal-style hoax on theology conference

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Belgian philosopher Maarten Boudry
I know many rationalists are sceptical of the intellectual value of theology (I'll say no more - one to debate in the comments), so I thought I'd share an amusing story I just read on the blog of evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne.

I'm sure many of you will be familiar with the Sokal Hoax but, for those who aren't a summary: at the height of postmodernism's academic popularity in 1996, the New York University physics professor Alan Sokal submitted a paper to the cultural studies journal Social Text entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".

So far, so intellectual. Except Sokal's article was not a serious work of critical theory, but rather, "a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense". Or "bollocks", as it's sometimes known in the trade.

You can read more about the Sokal Hoax, which triggered a fascinating debate about the value of postmodern philosophy and the academic standards involved, all over the web (since we're on the subject of academic standards, why not start with Wikipedia?). But for the purposes of this post, the reason I mention it is because a Belgian philosopher, Maarten Boudry, has just pulled a similar hoax on the discipline of theology.

As Boudry, who is a a research fellow in the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at Ghent University, explained in an email to Coyne, he "wrote a spoof abstract full of theological gibberish (Sokal-style) and submitted it to two theology conferences, both of which accepted it right away".

His abstract, entitled "The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder. Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence" and published under the pseudonym Robert A. Maundy, was even published in the program for the Reformational Philosophy conference held at VU University in Amsterdam last year (see page 42 - PDF link). And to cap it all off, the fake Dr Maundy hailed from the non-existent College of the Holy Cross in Reno, Nevada.

You can read the full abstract on Coyne's blog, or in the programme linked to above, but to give you a sense of what it involves, here's an extract:
"In the Darwinian perspective, order is not immanent in reality, but it is a self-affirming aspect of reality in so far as it is experienced by situated subjects. However, it is not so much reality that is self-affirming, but the creative order structuring reality which manifests itself to us. Being-whole, as opposed to being-one, underwrites our fundamental sense of locatedness and particularity in the universe. The valuation of order qua meaningful order, rather than order-in-itself, has been thoroughly objectified in the Darwinian worldview. This process of de-contextualization and reification of meaning has ultimately led to the establishment of ‘dis-order’ rather than ‘this-order’. As a result, Darwinian materialism confronts us with an eradication of meaning from the phenomenological experience of reality."
Theological genius, I'm sure you'll agree.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Petition in support of imprisoned Egyptian atheist Alber Saber

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Alber Saber has been charged with insulting religion, and
must spend the next two weeks in custody, where he has
already been attacked by fellow prisoners
On Monday we carried a report from a Cairo-based journalist, Austin Mackell, on the worrying case of an Egyptian atheist facing a three-year prison sentence for "insulting religion".

Alber Saber was arrested in Cairo on 12 September after a Muslim friend discovered that he had been participating in atheist groups on the internet, including an Egyptian Atheists Facebook page of which he is the administrator. After an argument broke out and an angry crowd gathered outside Saber's home, police arrived to arrest Saber, and later informed other inmates at the police station of the reason for his arrest, leading to a physical assault involving a razor blade.

In a post published yesterday by the New Statesman, Patrick Galey, has the latest on Saber's case – he has been refused bail and must spend the next two weeks in custody, and his lawyer, Ahmed Ezzat, says the public prosecutor will not tell him where his client is being held.

Meanwhile, a petition has been started on Change.org calling on the Egyptian authorities to release Saber and uphold the right to freedom of expression for all Egyptians:
"Across Egypt, radical Muslims are reacting with violence to anti-Islamic and pro-secular ideas. Now more than ever, it is crucial for the government of Egypt to make it clear that they support the free, peaceful expression of all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). By continuing to detain, abuse, and potentially prosecute Alber Saber, Egypt sends a message to the rest of the world: debate and discussion are dead, and ignorance and intolerance reign.

President Mohamed Morsi promised to be the president of all Egyptians. We want him to prove it. As concerned citizens who value free and open expression, we demand that Egyptian authorities release Alber Saber at once and provide fully for his safety and the safety of all Egyptians who are currently targeted by religious extremists."
Please show your support for Saber by signing the petition, and passing it on to your networks.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Egyptian atheist faces prison for insulting religion

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Alber Saber faces up to three years in prison
This a guest post by Austin Mackell, a freelance reporter based in Cairo

The latest victim of the wave of indignation sweeping the Middle East, this time in reaction to the film Innocence of Muslims is an Egyptian atheist, Alber Saber. He was arrested in Cairo on 12 September and charged with insulting religion, a charge which carries a possible sentence of up to three years.

According to his family, who I met with in the offices of Egypt’s Democratic Front in downtown Cairo, Saber had his neck slashed by a fellow inmate at the El-Marg police station, when police informed his cellmates why he had been arrested. In the heated climate surrounding the reaction to the anti-Muslim film, Saber’s friends and family are deeply concerned for his safety. He has told his family he is going on hunger strike until he is released.

Also present at the meeting in support of Saber was the brother of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak political prisoner, the pacifist anti-military blogger Maikel Nabil, who also brought attention to his plight via a hunger strike, and the founder of the Egyptian Secular Society, Ahmed Saeed. On the steps outside more young, cleanshaven Egyptians were gathered, one in heated debate with a bearded passer-by.

Though from a Coptic Christian family Saber is an atheist, and the administrator of the Egyptian Atheists Facebook page, the largest of several such groups online with over a thousand “likes”. Although not exactly undercover (he had posted several atheist videos online using his own name and showing his face), Saber did not advertise his non-belief within his neighbourhood. On Wednesday 12 September, while borrowing Saber’s computer, one of his friends, a Muslim, stumbled across his online atheist activity. He also saw that someone had posted a link to Innocence of Muslims on the atheist Facebook page. An argument ensued that quickly became physical and spilled out onto the street.

Soon crowds of angry Muslim neighbours began to gather outside his house, threatening Saber and his mother. When crowds came again the following night Saber’s mother Kariman Mesiha Khalil called the police in the hope they would disperse the mob outside and arrest the ringleaders. Instead they arrested her son. After his arrest his mother told me that two men from the neighbourhood returned demanding “Jizya”, a tax historically imposed by conquering Muslim armies on locals such as Coptic Christians, who maintained their pre-Islamic faith. I asked her if she was considering emigrating with her son if he was released, to which she defiantly replied, “Why should I?”

You can show your support by liking the Free Alber Saber page on Facebook.

View from America: A secular guide to voting Obama

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we have been posting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his eighth and final dispatch, he completes his secular guide to November's presidential election. In the last instalment he examined Mitt Romney's secular credentials, and now it's the incumbent's turn. Should secularists vote for Obama on 6 November?
An American Secular Voting Guide: Part Two, Barack Obama


Barack Obama and the Democrats are secularists. So on Election Day secularists should cast their ballot for Barack Obama. Right?

Well, not so fast. The Democrats, as I have been noting for a while now, are no longer “secular” in the sense of advocating strict separationism. Few have played a more important role in getting them to step back from the Wall (of separation) than President Obama.
He’s been at this for some time now. While separationist presidential candidate John Kerry was alienating the “values voters” back in 2004, state senator Obama was blowing the roof off of the Democratic National Convention by waxing poetic about the Awesome God worshipped in the Blue States. It was Kerry’s eventual demoralizing loss to George W. Bush that year that led Democrats to radically rethink their commitment to secularism.

When the presidential election of 2008 rolled around one was hard pressed to even hear the phrase “separation of church and state” on the campaign trail. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, cognizant of the need to reach out to voters of faith, were thumpin’ Bible on the stump.

Senator Obama did that and so much more; he announced that if elected he would expand George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. That star-crossed federal agency was seen as a disaster by Democrats and even many Republicans. Yet here was this brash newcomer on the Left promising to fix it up. A new era was dawning.

Once elected Obama effected a shift from separationism to what is known as accommodationism (what that is and whether it counts as a form of secularism is a problem I engage here). Seen from the old separationist perspective, Obama’s record has been a mixed bag. He had conservative Evangelical pastor Rick Warren offer prayers at his inauguration. Though Obama did surprisingly reference “nonbelievers” in his address on that chilly January day. The president engages in God Talk fairly infrequently. But when Obama does praise Him he does so in ways that would make George W. Bush blush.

The most distressing development, by far, for secularists has been the aforementioned Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This is a unit of government intended to sluice taxpayer dollars into the coffers of religious social-service providers. Then again, during the debate about the HHS contraception mandates (wherein Catholic institutions were not permitted to deny their employees contraception coverage in their health insurance packages) Obama bravely stared down the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

What can I say? The sixties are over, man. The days when John F. Kennedy spoke about “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute” are long gone. This is a new Democratic Party. But compared to the Republicans who seem hell bent on defining America as a “Christian Nation”, the Democrats are presently the only viable alternative.

So in 2012 a secularist should vote for the Democrat. Do so with no illusions. Hope for better days.
Dear readers: my book is now out so this wraps up the first – and I am pretty sure, last – season of SecularCenter. It was tremendous fun and permit me to thank my crew and researchers. Let me also express my gratitude to the fine folks a New Humanist for airing the show.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Tickets for Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People 2012 now on sale

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Jim Bob (Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine), at
Nine Lessons 2011, with bubbles supplied by
Robin Ince, Alan Moore and friends
Tickets for our annual benefit show in London, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, curated as always by comedian Robin Ince, are now on sale from the Bloomsbury Theatre box office. The full run is 16-23 of December but there will be no show on the 21st (Robin has something special up his sleeve for that night – details soon).

At the moment only tickets for 16th-20th are on sale – tickets for 22nd and 23rd will go on sale soon.

Expect another amazing line-up stuffed with the best comedians, musicians and science communicators around. The early confirmed line-ups are below, but as usual we'll be adding loads more acts, and special mystery guests, so you'll never quite know what you're going to get.

It's been sold out every year for 4 years so make sure you get in early. Stay up to date with new acts by following us on Twitter and signing up to our free newsletter.

Confirmed line up for Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, December 2012 (updated 19 September)

Every night hosted by Robin Ince, featuring Grace Petrie, Josie Long, Richard Herring, Gavin Osborn, Joanna Neary, Phil Jeays and Matt Parker. Plus, on selected nights:

16th: Richard Herring, Sue Vale, Stewart Lee, Luke and Nadia, Darren Hayman, Nick Doody, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing

17th: Richard Herring, Isy Suttie, Sue Vale, Tony Law, Luke and Nadia, Dr Hula, Darren Hayman, Frisky and Mannish, Kate Tempest, Nick Doody, Phil Hammond, Helen Arney

18th: Richard Herring, Isy Suttie, Chris Addison, Tony Law, Jim Bob, Aoife McLysaght

19th: Richard Herring, Isy Suttie, Chris Addison, Jim Bob, Aoife McLysaght, Alan Moore, Helen Arney

20th: Richard Herring, Aoife McLysaght, George Egg, Nick Doody, Alan Moore

21st: No Show

22nd: Ian Stone, Phill Jupitus, Andrew Pontzen, Ben Goldacre, Mark Steel, Steve Jones, David McAlmont, Helen Keen, Johnny and the Baptists

23rd: Tony Law, Ian Stone, Phill Jupitus, Andrew Pontzen, George Egg, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, Steve Jones, Helen Keen, Johnny and the Baptists

24th: Panic Present buying

25th: Special solo appearance by The Messiah. Support act: 3 wise men, a donkey and some sheep

Get tickets

Friday, 7 September 2012

Huge public support for change in law on assisted dying

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In our current issue, the gerontologist and Chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying Raymond Tallis puts forward a passionate case for why the law must be changed to allow physicians to assist those who wish to in ending their own lives.

He argues that a vocal minority of opponents, composed largely, but not exclusively, of religious believers, have achieved a disproportionate level of influence in the debate around the issue, and are consequently inflicting needless suffering on those who would prefer to end their lives.

As Tallis points out in the article, public support for a change in the law is consistently demonstrated in opinion polls around the issue, and the results of a new survey released this week have once again shown this to be the case.

A YouGov poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association asked respondents the following question:
"To what extent do you support or oppose mentally competent individuals with incurable or terminal diseases who wish to end their lives receiving medical assistance to do so, without those assisting them facing prosecution?"
Of all respondents, 81 per cent expressed their support, with 43 per cent saying they "strongly support" and 38 per cent saying they "tend to support". By contrast, 6 per cent said they "tend to oppose", another 6 per cent that "strongly oppose", and 8 per cent said they "don't know".

The results are broken down by religious belief, and it's interesting to note that belief does not, on the whole, tend to correlate with opposition to assisted dying. 82 per cent of "Church of England/ Anglican/ Episcopal" followers support assisted dying (combining those who do so "strongly" and those who "tend to"), as do 66 per cent of Catholics. Of the major religious groups, only Islam had more respondents who were opposed, with 32 percent compared with 31 per cent in support (among Muslims, "Don't know" was in fact the largest group, at 37 per cent).

The legal fight by the locked-in syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson, who died of natural causes in August one week after losing his High Court case to allow doctors to end his life, has recently put the issue of assisted dying in the media spotlight. Looking at this poll it seems clear that, while this exposure may not have increased public support for a change in the law (polls have regularly shown support at this level), it has certainly not dented it. An overwhelming majority of the British public wish to see the law change, and those who oppose it in the name of their religion do not represent a minority even within their religious denominations. It is surely time for Parliament to act.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Jonathan Miller: A Reasonable Life, Friday 19 October 2012 at the Bishopsgate Institute, London

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We're hosting event on Friday 19 October at the Bishopsgate Institute in central London, featuring the President of the Rationalist Association Jonathan Miller in conversation with our Chair Laurie Taylor.

Jonathan Miller: A Reasonable Life

7.30pm to 9.30pm, Friday 19 October 2012

Bishopsgate Institute, London, EC2M 4QH (opposite Liverpool St Station)

The Rationalist Association presents the humorist, doctor, opera and theatre director and President of the RA, Sir Jonathan Miller, in conversation with the sociologist, broadcaster and chair of the RA board Laurie Taylor about his life, work and attachment to reason.

There will a chance to have drinks and mingle with the RA team and board members, including the Chair of the RA Laurie Taylor, as well as your fellow RA supporters.

All proceeds from the event will go towards supporting the work of the Rationalist Association.

Tickets are on sale now, priced at £15 for members of the Rationalist Association, and £25 for non-members.

If you're interested in coming along and you are not an RA member, why not consider saving money by joining? You can join for a first year introductory rate of £45 (Direct Debit only), which includes a free ticket to the Jonathan Miller event, and you will then be able to buy additional tickets to the event for £15.

By joining the Rationalist Association you will receive a print subscription to New Humanist magazine, and also get free access to our online and app versions; priority and discounted tickets to RA events; and access to our new online rationalist community (an exciting new project currently under construction, due for launch later in 2012). You will also be supporting a 125-year-old organisation that promotes reason, science, and critical thinking, and campaigns to defend reason and rationalists worldwide.

Numbers for the event are limited and we expect demand to be high, so get ahead of the crowds by ordering today. To book visit our events website, or call 01371 851881.

It promises to be a fascinating evening, and we hope to see you there.

Winston Fletcher, 1937-2012

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We are very sad to hear that our friend and trustee Winston Fletcher died suddenly of heart attack on Tuesday, 4 September, at the age of 75.

Winston joined the board of our parent charity, the Rationalist Association, in 2008 and, as our Chair Laurie Taylor recalls in his tribute on our website, brought with him precisely the kind of no-nonsense expertise you would expect from someone involved in governing a charity dedicated to reason and free thought.

A Londoner through and through, Winston was born in the city on 15 July 1937, and after studying philosophy at Cambridge he went on to enjoy a long and extremely successful career in the advertising industry, working to establish several agencies during what you might call the "Mad Men" era, albeit on this side of the Atlantic. He later served on the boards of numerous charities including the Royal Institution (where he was Chair), Barnado's, Autistica and the Rationalist Association.

Winston was also a talented and prolific writer, publishing 14 books, including his history of advertising, Powers of Persuasion (2008), and a novel, The Manipulators (1988), and contributing to many leading magazines and newspapers. You can read his contributions to New Humanist on our website, including a witty account of his exploits drinking alcohol during a 2008 trip to Damascus (a sad reminder that the city previously enjoyed a thriving tourist trade), an acerbic assessment of the world's most successful PLC, the Catholic Church, and a dissection of all that's wrong with the government's census question on religion.

We're very fortunate to have been able to enjoy Winston's expertise and, more importantly, his company here at the Rationalist Association, and we extend our condolences to his family and friends. He will be missed.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

View from America: A secular guide to voting Romney

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we are posting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his seventh dispatch, he turns his attention to November's presidential election, with a secular guide to voting. First up he assesses Mitt Romney, with Barack Obama to follow next week.
An American Secular Voting Guide: Part One, Mitt Romney
One point I have made fairly consistently about American secularism is that it is not necessarily a synonym for “things that the Democratic Party does”. Actually, over the past few years – more precisely since the devastating defeat of John Kerry by George W. Bush in 2004 – the party seems to be moving away from the separationist secularism it once held dear (Kerry being the unsmiling avatar of that form of secularism).
It emerges from this that we ought not to automatically assume that Democrats are the Party of Secularism. Nor does the converse hold: the Republicans aren’t always anti-secular (though, admittedly, they seem hellbent of late on being precisely that).
It is for these reasons that I crafted this here visual “voter guide” for secularists. Today, I start by looking at Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney (President Obama’s turn is next week). What I conclude about the former governor of Massachusetts might mildly surprise you. Let’s put it this way: certain ascriptions of culture endow him with true secular potential.
Ah, American secularism: on the skids, but not without its unpredictable charms.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Baroness Warsi becomes Minister for Faith and Communites

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Baroness Warsi, no great fan of secularism, has been made
Minister for Faith and Communities
Well, it's been an interesting morning for aficionados of cabinet reshuffles. Personally I started off the morning suggesting on Twitter that a switcharound in government is a dull affair, while noting the news that Baroness Warsi had been removed from her role as Chair of the Conservative Party.

You'll probably remember that earlier this year Warsi used a visit to the Vatican to condemn secularism, likening its advocates to supporters of totalitarianism, having previously declared that the Coalition was a government that would "Do God", so from the perspective of a secular magazine it was hard not to welcome that news that she would no longer be a member of the government.

But wait. Not long after greeting her departure, we were hit with the news that the Baroness would in fact be moving into a new role – as Minister for Faith and Communities. It's a department where she'll join another enemy of secularism, the Secretary of State for Communities Eric Pickles, and Warsi's appointment suggests that the remaining years of the Coalition could be characterised by continuing hostility to secularism. For a sense of how the government has approached such issues during its first two years, take a look at my piece from the magazine earlier this year, in which I looked in more detail at its baffling fight against secular principles.

And as if Warsi's new role didn't make it a bad enough morning for rationalism, we also learned that the former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, a man who favours restrictions to abortion rights and NHS funding for homeopathy, is being promoted to Health Secretary.

Still, as the British Humanist Association's Chief Executive Andrew Copson has pointed out, at least the news should keep us occupied.

Update, 13:30  – another appointment worth noting is Maria Miller as Minister for Women and Equalities, who has a consistent record of opposing reproductive choice in Parliament.

Religious discrimination cases to go to European court

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Nadia Eweida's long-running dispute over her right to wear a
cross is emblematic of the debate over religious freedom
The European Court of Human Rights is to hear the cases of four British Christians who claim they were the victims of religious discrimination by their former employers. Two of the cases concern the right to wear religious symbols at work, and have been brought by Nadia Eweida, the British Airways worker who was sent home for breaking uniform rules in 2006, and Shirley Chaplin, the nurse from Devon who lost an employment tribunal over a similar issue in 2010. The other two cases concern Christians who refused to provide services to same-sex couples, and have been brought by Gary McFarlane, who was sacked by Relate for refusing to give relationship counselling to gay couples, and Lilian Ladele, the Islington-based registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.

All four cases have been backed by the Christian Legal Centre, which claims that British equality law is damaging religious freedom. Andrew Marsh, campaign director at the CLC's sister organisation Christian Concern, told BBC News that, in all four cases, the employers should have been able to accommodate the beliefs of their employees:
"The crucial question in these cases is this: could these four individuals have been reasonably accommodated and their Christian faith respected, without detriment or damage to the rights of others - and the answer to that question is clearly yes.

Each of them could have been reasonably accommodated without there ever being any danger of risk, significant risk to others or indeed of anyone who is entitled to a service being denied that service." 
However, secular campaigners have long argued that the cases pose a threat to equality laws, with the potential of creating a "hierarchy of rights" with religious rights at the top. Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, has expressed his hope that the European court will uphold the judgements of the British courts, which have rejected claims of religious discrimination:
"Our domestic courts have been robust in dismissing these cases and the victim narrative that lies behind them has no basis in reality. What they describe as discrimination and marginalisation of Christians is in fact the proper upholding of human rights and equalities law and principles. All reasonable people will agree that there is scope in a secular democracy for reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs when that accommodation does not affect the rights and freedoms of others. But if believers try to invoke their beliefs as a defence for treating other people badly – denying them a service because they are gay or claiming a right to preach at them in a professional context – the law is right to prevent them."
For a guide to some of the ethical considerations at play in the debate over religious discrimination, it's well worth taking a look at Kenan Malik's guide from our July issue, in which he draws on moral philosophy in order to consider how recent real-life conflicts over religious freedom could be resolved.

It's interesting to note that the ECHR will be hearing all four of the British cases together, as in some respects the cases concerning crosses and uniform are very different from the cases concerning the provision of services to same-sex couples. If you read Malik's guide, you'll see he comes to very different conclusions on how to resolve these situations, suggesting that employees ought to be allowed to wear religious symbols "in almost every case", but saying that Christians should not be able to refuse services to gay people. Could the ECHR be making a mistake by considering the four cases as one?