Thursday, 29 March 2012

God punishes Tesco's support for Gay Pride with a mouse infestation, says Christian Voice

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The Tesco-fixated
Stephen Green
Regular readers may recall that, at the turn of the year, Stephen Green of the fundamentalist organisation Christian Voice was gloating that Tesco's poor financial performance over the Christmas period was due to God punishing the supermarket giant for making a donation to London Gay Pride.

Now Green, who appears to be devoting much of his time to Tesco-watching, has expressed joy at the news that a branch of the store in London's Covent Garden has had to close due to a mouse infestation.

"Nothing has gone right for Tesco since they decided to support ‘gay pride’," writes Green on his website. "Their only hope is to repent of that decision and put their trust in God."

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

New Humanist Podcast March 2012: Fukushima, Meades and Tarot

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There's sweet reason and occult irrationality in this month's installment of the New Humanist podcast, as we bring you interviews with three of the contributors to our March/April issue.

First, the reason - one year on from the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the east coast of Japan, science journalist Angela Saini discusses the fallout from the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. While the meltdowns that followed the tsunami have provided anti-nuclear activists with fresh ammunition for their campaigns, and prompted several countries to rethink their approach to nuclear power, Saini argues that the disaster has in fact proven that nuclear power is one of the safer energy sources, and points out that the lessons learned from Fukushima will make it even safer in the future. Skip to 01:25 for start of this interview.

In part two, Matthew Adams tells us about his interview with the broadcaster Jonathan Meades for our current issue. Meades is a hard man to pin down, but Adams managed to run him to ground in his modernist bolt hole in Marseille. He tells the story from 08:38.

And finally, the irrationalism - in the March issue, cultural historian argues that "atheists can embrace the power of Tarot". Now, she's not arguing for soothsaying, but rather that myths can resonate and taking part in a Tarot reading can provide a therapeutic opportunity to examine our lives. So, to test her argument, we thought we'd invite her to the office to read our editor Caspar Melville's cards. You can hear us dabble in the occult from 20:05.

To listen to the podcast, which is just under 38 minutes long, use the player below, subscribe via RSS or email, or download the full file via our podcast page, where you can also find the full archive of the podcasts we published during 2008-9. We're also on iTunes - just search for "New Humanist" in the store and select the podcast subtitled "The podcast for godless people".

Friday, 23 March 2012

It's stupid things like Senatmu's latest outburst which make atheists aggressive

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It's a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy isn't it? There is nothing more likely to produce aggression from even the mildest secularist than the growing ranks of religionists taking to the pulpit to denounce "aggressive militant atheism".

The latest to step up is the Archbishop of York, front-runner to succeed Rowan Williams as Archbish (though he hasn't said he's running yet), John Sentamu, who yesterday on a visit to Newcastle used his unelected status as a senior figure in the established church to repeat the tired old slur that the Church is under attack from militant atheists.

No, John, the church is not "under attack" from anyone (except perhaps tea-leafs nicking the copper from the roof, but there is no record of what their beliefs are). Instead, in light of the fact that barely 20% of the UK population now subscribe to its world view – far fewer actually bother to go to services – numerous people, religious and non-, are simply asking perfectly legitimate questions like what role has the declining Church of England got in the modern world and why should it get all the privileges that accrue from being the established church (26 bishops still in the House of Lords!) when it represents the views of such a small minority of the population.

If the senior representatives of a religion which is supposed to value truth and justice continue to spout this tripe, who can be surprised if even the most reasonable of secularists begin to get just a little bit pissed off?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

From our archive: AJP Taylor explains how he became an atheist

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The letter from AJP Taylor, dated 17 February 1986,
in the Rationalist Association archive
Last night, we held an evening of "Rationalism Past and Present" at the Bishopsgate Institute in London, which holds our historic archive. As well as a fascinating talk by Times columnist David Aaronovitch on why he's a rationalist (which we'll have a video of in the next week or so), there was also an opportunity for guests to browse some documents from the archive, including old copies of New Humanist and its predecessors (Watts Literary Guide, the Humanist) and, perhaps most interesting of all, correspondence with some famous old supporters. I tweeted a few photos while I was there, including this from Thomas Hardy, politely declining an invitation to write for the Rationalist Annual at the height of the First World War, and one from Annie Besant, the fearless pioneer of secularism and women's rights.

My personal favourite find was a letter from the great historian AJP Taylor, writing in 1986 to Nicholas Walter, then-editor of New Humanist, to accept an invitation to become an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association. In the letter, he amusingly explains why he became an atheist:
"Dear Mr Walter

I am very pleased to accept your invitation to become an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association. I am totally detached from religious affairs.

I discovered the release early in life. One day in March 1916 I was looking from a window in Bootham School at York Minster. A voice said 'There is no God'. I thought to myself, 'That lets me out' and never looked back.

Yours sincerely,

AJP Taylor"
If you're interested in finding out more about the history of New Humanist and the Rationalist Association, there's a short article over on our main website.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Pro-choice campaigners to hold protest against abortion clinic picket

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The controversial 40 Days for Life picket has been outside
the BPAS building in Bedford Square for several weeks
(Photo by Sunny Hundal/Liberal Conspiracy blog)
In the last few weeks, Britain's pro-choice campaigners and abortion providers have become increasingly concerned about the use of US-style anti-abortion tactics outside clinics in the UK. In London a Lent-long "prayer vigil" is currently being held by a group called 40 Days for Life outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic in Bedford Square, while in Brighton a similar picket is being staged by a group named "Abort67". Both groups have been accused of harassing women attending abortion clinics.

Now, the Guardian reports that pro-choice activists are fighting back, with a protest planned in London for 30 March. It will take place in Bedford Square, on the same day that the Catholic bishop of Westminster, Alan Hopes, is due to attend and lead the 40 Days for Life picket.

The protest is being organised by the Bloomsbury Pro-Choice alliance, with support from the Abortion Rights group. There's a Facebook event page with further details.

Christians and atheists in blessing and un-blessing battle over Florida highway

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Humanists of Florida used "unholy water" to carry out
their unblessing

A battle has broken out between Christians and a humanist group over the blessing of a highway in Florida, the Friendly Atheist blog reports.

Humanists of Florida recently discovered that a minister in Polk County, just east of Tampa, had in 2010 embarked upon a scheme to anoint the roads surrounding the area, thus warding off unholy spirits and ungodly forces.

Pastor Frank Smith explained his Polk Under Prayer (PUP) initiative in a blog post in 2010:
"It's [sic] objective is to place Holy Angels at all roads that lead into or out of Polk County. A strip of anointed oil has been placed over all lanes of highway at the county line and a prayer has been given at each location asking God to have angels inspect every vehicle that travels into or out of this county and to bring under conviction to those who seek evil and we asked God to bring them to a state of submission and repentance. If they will not submit to God's way of living, then the prayer is to have them incarcerated or removed from the county. We pray salvation for each person and the full knowledge of Jesus Christ as Savior. We are asking God to make His presence known when each person crosses this annointed line.
The results were immediate. There have been a number of arrests for drugs and drug manfacturing [sic] in Polk County since this project began. We are hoping to spread this project to all towns in Polk County so that God's protection and influence will be felt throughout the entire county. We encourage people to do the same with their drive ways and property lines."
Having belatedly discovered Pastor Smith's project, on Saturday the Humanists of Florida set about undoing his work, mopping the stretch of County Road 98 that runs into Polk County. Humanist spokesperson Rob Curry explained that the road would be mopped with unholy water "to symbolically welcome everyone, all citizens, whether they believe or don't believe," and pointed out that the cleansing ritual would not be conducted with malign intent. "We're not doing anything to harm anyone," he said. "No gods will be harmed in the washing of the roads."

The Polk Under Prayer group, unsurprisingly, are unimpressed. "We will probably do it again at some point," PUP member Cassandra Geringswald told the Guardian. "But we are not going to tell the atheists, because they will be back out there again," she added.

Which suggests that the group believe that humanists have ability to successfully carry out unblessings. On which note I'll end this post, because I'm assuming that, having learned that you possess a great power, you will want to go and try it out. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Rick Santorum looks on approvingly as evangelical pastor calls on non-Christians to get out of America

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Rick Santorum
Four years ago, a video of Sarah Palin being anointed by a witch-hunting pastor helped put the spotlight on Republican vice-presidential candidate's evangelical beliefs.

This year, in terms of Christianity, the focus in the race so far has been on the fiercely conservative beliefs of Republican contender Rick Santorum. Voters on the Christian right, put off by Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney's Mormon beliefs and perceived socially liberal politics, have rallied behind the Catholic from Pennsylvania.

Santorum's success is emblematic of Republican polarisation, with the party's more liberal supporters looking on in dismay as he has voiced his views on social issues. Now, a video has emerged that will further horrify that wing of the party, and perhaps persuade any remaining undecided voters to fall in line behind Romney.

Attending a service at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in Louisiana, Santorum can be seen applauding enthusiastically as the pastor, Dennis Terry, delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon declaring that America is a Christian country, and anyone who doesn't agree ought to leave:
“Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out! We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”
He also throws in some lines condemning abortion rights and the American people's sexual immorality:
“As long as they continue to kill little babies in our mother’s womb, somebody’s got to take a stand and say it’s not right. God be merciful to us as a nation. As long as sexual perversion is becoming normalised, somebody needs to stand up and say God forgive us, God have mercy upon us.” 
Santorum, however, has denied that he approved of the pastor's remarks about non-Christians, claiming that he wasn't paying full attention to the sermon's contents:
“I didn’t clap when he said that. I do remember him saying that, I said, well, I wasn’t quite sure he was saying it for himself, I wasn’t quite listening to everything to be honest with you. But I wasn’t sure whether he was speaking for himself or speaking generally, but I didn’t clap when he said that because it’s not how I feel.”

Here's the full video - take a look, it's quite something.



Pray for Muamba: has football found its religious voice?

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Fabrice Muamba is in intensive care
after collapsing during Bolton's FA
Cup match at Tottenham
The on-pitch collapse of the Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba, who suffered cardiac arrest during his team's FA Cup quarter final match at Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, has prompted a wave of sympathy from both within and beyond the football world. Shocked by the fact that an apparently healthy elite athlete can can collapse so suddenly at the age of 23, fellow professionals, supporters and the wider public have rallied to offer their best wishes, and at the time of writing the signs appear to be positive, with Muamba breathing on his own and responding to questions from doctors and visitors.

To a non-religious observer, one thing that stands out is the role of faith in the response to Muamba's collapse. The player and his fiancée Shauna Magunda, who took to Twitter to tell followers that "every prayer makes him stronger", are themselves religious, as is Muamba's manager Owen Coyle, but what of the other players, and the thousands, perhaps even millions of well-wishers who have added their voices to calls to pray for the midfielder's recovery?

In the current issue of New Humanist, Musa Okwonga, who writes about sport for the Independent, takes a look at the role of faith in football, and points out that acts of religion have long been a common sight at matches. While some players, such as Real Madrid's Kaka, are well-known for their strong religious beliefs, Okwonga suggests that many on-pitch displays of devotion are not driven by such firm doctrinal convictions. In a game where "many players have to face almost overwhelming odds before even making it into the professional ranks", and so much is determined by chance, often "faith will take the place of cold logic", and thus casual superstitions pervade the beautiful game.

So how are we to read the widespread use of religious language in response to Muamba's plight? While many well-wishers will indeed be deeply religious, it seems unlikely that the wider constituency of players and fans, or indeed the sportswriters who have run with headlines like "God is in control", have suddenly acquired a devout belief in a monotheistic God. Rather, the reaction is a reminder of the extent to which religious language pervades our culture. While some who actively identify as atheists or humanists might actively steer clear of using language that appeals to a higher power, for most it's simply an automatic response when expressing hope. When something's out of your hands, there's little else that you can do – if you're non-religious and you say you're praying for someone's recovery, you may be displaying a touch of superstition (who doesn't, at some point?) or you may simply be expressing the more worldly wish that the medical care they are receiving will be enough to see them through.

In the end however, the issue of religiosity is beside the point, because the reaction to Fabrice Muamba's collapse tells us something much more important – when millions of people witness a person fall seriously ill as they did on Saturday, the vast majority will care deeply about that person's recovery. That's something in which we can all take pride.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Proposal to relax Sunday trading laws during Olympics prompts Christian complaints

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The Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, near the Olympic
part, could benefit from the influx of visitors
Yesterday, the Chancellor George Osborne revealed that he is to propose emergency legislation that would allow the relaxation of Sunday trading laws in England and Wales for eight weekends from 22 July, in order to avoid Britain being "closed for business" on Sundays during the period of the Olympic and Paralympic games.

While small shops are permitted to open whenever they like on Sundays, under the 1994 Sunday Trading Act larger stores (any covering more than 280 square metres) are restricted to opening between the hours of 10am to 6pm.

While Osborne argues that the move would be good for the economy, his plan has attracted Christian complaints. Conservative MP Nadine Dorries led the way, suggesting on Twitter that proposal may be part of a sinister attack on Christianity:
"Arrogant to impose without debate and vote of whole house.

"Is the coalition government secretly implementing an anti-Christian agenda. And if so, who is driving it, Cameron and Osborne or the LDs?"
Other complaints were more measured. The Keep Sunday Special campaign, which is backed by a number of Christian groups, actually steered clear of approaching the issue from a religious perspective, pointing instead to the effect the proposal may have on retail workers spending time with their families. This was echoed by a west-London vicar, Rev Sally Hitchiner, who offered a similar argument to the BBC:
"We're concerned it could become a precedent, we could lose some of the specialness of Sunday.

Sunday should be a time for relationships, a time when we put some boundaries on consumerism, so you can go to the park and play football with the kids, and take your mum breakfast in bed."
From a secular perspective, there are a couple of ways of looking at this. You could argue that shops should be able to open whenever they like, and certainly shouldn't be restricted from doing so on the basis of a religious Sabbath. But set aside the Christianity (and Nadine Dorries' take on Osborne's proposal) and it becomes harder to disagree with the religious campaigners. With six days a week of unfettered consumerism, surely we ought to take at least one day off?

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Lady Gaga concert has Indonesia's Islamic scholars hot under the collar

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Lady Gaga's Jakarta concert has been
condemned by Muslim scholars
Pop superstar Lady Gaga has been troubling Islamic scholars in Indonesia, after tickets for the Jakarta leg of her world tour sold out last week. Indonesians snapped up the 25,000 tickets for the 3 June gig in less than two hours, but it would seem the singer's fan base in the world's largest Muslim country does not extend to religious leaders, who have condemned the event as haram, or forbidden.

While admitting that he had never actually seen or heard a Lady Gaga performance, Cholil Ridwan, chairman of the influential Indonesian Council of Ulema, warned that the concert could have a damaging effect on the country's Muslims:
“The concert is intended to destroy the nation’s morality. She is from the West, and she often shows her aurat [private parts of the body] when performing."
Ridwan's condemnation of Gaga received the backing of a local imam, Ali Mustafa Yaqub. “Perform naked only in front of your husband,” he said, explaining that on-stage nudity is forbidden in Islam.

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Church of England planning to open 200 new schools

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In a report to be a released later this week, the Church of England will reveal plans to open at least 200 new schools, adding to the 4,800 state schools it currently runs.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the plans, which will also involve rebranding existing schools and providing advice to non-church schools on how to improve their religious education programmes, are intended to "reinvigorate" Anglican schools and tackle what the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, describes as “the level of religious illiteracy in our society”.

Outlining the plans, Pritchard appeared to take aim at secularism, referring to the current conflicts between religious and secular values. “The whole national context," explained the Bishop, "is one in which secularist debates, whether it be on equality, gay marriage, employment in schools, a whole range of things, are bringing up the issues of secularist versus [religious] approaches to society’s life.”

The full report will be released on Friday.

Tory MP Peter Bone: gay marriage reform could lead to two monarchs on the throne

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Peter Bone MP: worrying about how many
Queens are on the throne so you don't have to
Just when you thought you'd heard all the arguments the opponents of gay marriage have to offer, Conservative MP Peter Bone has stepped forward with a new one – changing the marriage law is a bad idea, because it could lead to a monarch and their same-sex partner sitting on the throne of Great Britain.

The story appeared in yesterday's Sun under the headline "Gay marriage law means 'there could be two Queens' on the throne", providing a helpful reminder that, for all the advances in equality made in Britain in the past twenty years, there are still national newspapers that will use a debate over gay rights as an opportunity to indulge in 1970s schoolyard innuendo.

Bone has sent a letter to the Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone outlining his concerns. The legislation, to use the Sun's words, "would mean a lesbian Queen having a Queen consort or a gay King having a King consort", while "a gay monarch who conceived a child either by sperm donor or surrogate would raise wider questions".

"They seem to be rushing this through without thinking of the broader implications," Bone told the newspaper.
You could, of course, say the same about his letter.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail appears to be concerned about the implications of the reforms for another key British institution – the peerage. The newspaper reports that the government's plans may involve giving the married partners of gay knights, dames and peers a "courtesy title". If this has already lost you, the paper helpfully elaborates using the example of Elton John, through which all issues concerning gay marriage must of course be explained: "It could lead to Sir Elton John’s partner David Furnish being known as ‘Sir David’ or possibly ‘the Honourable David Furnish’."

This would apparently be controversial, because at present the husbands of women with honours are not given a "courtesy title".

"Etiquette experts have spent years debating the use of a courtesy title by the husband of a dame or female peer," explains the Mail, "and failed to come up with an answer."

Along with the Higgs Boson and the mystery of consciousness, it is one of the great challenges of our time.

PS: if it makes you angry that this is what a debate about equal marriage entails, you can strike a blow for reason by signing the Coalition for Equal Marriage petition.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Rowan Williams to retire as Archbishop of Canterbury: what does it mean for secularists?

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Rowan Williams
It has been announced this morning that the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will step down at the end of this year, moving on (as anticipated by the Daily Telegraph last September) to become Master of Magdelene College, Cambridge.

For non-religious observers, it's not immediately clear why this matters. After all, if the pronouncements of the Church of England aren't relevant to you, why would it matter who's in charge of making them? In an age when 50 per cent of Britons say they have no religion, and 48 per cent of Anglicans say they never attend church, you could argue that a changing of the guard at Lambeth Palace is something of a non-event.

That's one perspective. But it could also be argued that the Archbishop of Canterbury, as leader of the country's established church, plays a key role in shaping England's religious discourse – and that, of course, includes the discourse around secularism and atheism. By most accounts, Rowan Williams has been a moderate, liberal leader of the Church – while he has criticised the New Atheists and spoken up for religion (he is Archbishop of Canterbury, after all), he has not been a leading voice in promoting the notion of "aggressive secularism", unlike his predecessor George Carey, who has led the way in arguing that Christians are being marginalised in modern Britain. It's not rare to hear atheists speak of their admiration for his intellect (he was widely praised, at least on the left, for his recent guest editorship of the New Statesman), and his debate with Richard Dawkins in Oxford last month demonstrated that he is a man with whom non-believers can engage constructively (at least on abstract philosophical matters).

In contrast, the man being tipped to replace Williams, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, comes across as a less compromising figure. This isn't to say he's a George Carey or, to take a Catholic example, a Cardinal O'Brien, but he has spoken out against gay marriage and joined the war of words over the treatment of Christians in the workplace, suggesting that he could adopt a tougher line over secularism than Williams has. With this in mind, secularists who favour respectful co-existence between believers and non-believers could view Williams' retirement as an unfortunate development.

However, there is another way of looking at it. As more and more people in Britain turn away from religion, you could argue that the moderate, liberal outlook of Rowan Williams has helped to keep the Church of England attractive to the kind of loosely-Christian, occasional churchgoers that prevent it from fading into total obscurity. With a more uncompromising, socially conservative Archbishop in place, perhaps he Church will begin to seem a lot loss attractive to the "cultural Christians" of middle England. If you're the sort of secularist who would prefer to see an acceleration in the decline of religion, you could view the departure of the widely-admired Williams as a step in the right direction.

Those are just some quick thoughts on the matter, really – do share your own in the comments.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Government begins consultation on gay marriage

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The government's consultation on legalising gay marriage – the object of much clerical outrage in recent weeks – has finally launched today, giving the public with a 12-week period during which they can provide their views on the issue.

In introducing their consultation paper, the Home Office outline the proposal as follows:
The key proposals of the consultation are:
  • to enable same-sex couples to have a civil marriage i.e. only civil ceremonies in a register office or approved premises (like a hotel)
  • to make no changes to religious marriages. This will continue to only be legally possible between a man and a woman
  • to retain civil partnerships for same-sex couples and allow couples already in a civil partnership to convert this into a marriage
  • civil partnership registrations on religious premises will continue as is currently possible i.e. on a voluntary basis for faith groups and with no religious content
  • individuals will, for the first time, be able legally to change their gender without having to end their marriage
While the consultation paper [PDF] outlines the government's desire to legalise same-sex civil marriage, it is stressed throughout the document that the proposed reforms will not impact religious marriages:
"We have listened to those religious organisations that raised concerns about the redefinition  of religious marriage. We are aware that some religious organisations that solemnize marriages through a religious ceremony believe that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. That is why this consultation is limited to consideration of civil marriage and makes no  proposals to change the way that religious marriages are solemnized. It will not be legally  possible under these proposals for religious organisations to solemnize religious marriages  for same-sex couples. There will therefore be no obligation or requirement for religious  organisations or ministers of religion to do this. It will also not be possible for a same-sex  couple to have a civil marriage ceremony on religious premises. Marriages of any sort on  religious premises would still only be legally possible between a man and a woman."
You can participate in the consultation by using the online form, accessible through the Home Office website.

Meanwhile, the Coalition for Equal Marriage, which we are supporting through our parent charity the Rationalist Association, continues to gather momentum. The petition has now passed 30,000 signatures, and you can add your name on the website.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Christian rock band spreads homophobic message at US high school gig

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Junkyard Prophet: from a world where channelling Fred
Durst can help keep kids away from drugs
A high school in Dunkerton, Iowa, is facing a backlash from parents after a Christian rock band invited to perform for students used the opportunity to impart their anti-gay views, show images of aborted foetuses, and tell female students they should assume a submissive role in their future marriages.

The band, Junkyard Prophet, are part of the You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International Christian youth ministry, and were invited to Dunkerton High School to spread their "very strong anti-violence, anti-drug, anti-alcohol" message. Described as "rapcore-nu metal", one writer has summarised Junkyard Prophet in the following terms:
"Their sound is grease-bucket funky, with miter-saw guitar work over a tight, bass-heavy rap/rock hybrid, in the vein of Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit on the secular side, P.O.D. and Pillar on the Christian one."
High praise (well, maybe just the Rage bit...), but nothing on what you can learn on the band's own website:
"Controversial, daring, fearless, and honest: these are just a few words that have been used to describe the Minneapolis-based Christian rap, metal outfit - Junkyard Prophet. [...]

If you were to look up the word "independent" in the dictionary, one of the definitions would probably say, "Junkyard Prophet." They truly take the D.I.Y. (do it yourself) concept to the extreme."
And according to a local news report, the musical part of Junkyard Prophet's school visit went very well indeed. "The kids were rocking out," said the local Superintendent, but once the gig was over things started to go awry:
"After performing, the group separated boys, girls and teachers in the building.

During the breakout session, the young men learned the group's thoughts on the U.S. Constitution and what one Prophet referred to as its "10 commandments." The leader also showed images of musicians who died because of drug overdoses, including Elvis Presley.

Members of the group blasted other performers, like Toby Keith, for their improper influence.

The girls, meanwhile, were told to save themselves for their husbands and assume a submissive role in the household. According to witnesses, the leader in that effort also forced the young ladies to chant a manta of sorts about remaining pure."
Jennifer Littlefield, mother of 16-year-old Dunkerton student Alivia Littlefield, told her local paper what she had heard from her daughter:
"They told my daughter, the girls, that they were going to have mud on their wedding dresses if they weren't virgin. I couldn't even understand her, she was crying so hard. They told these kids that anyone who was gay was going to die at the age of 42. It just blows me away that no one stopped this."
The local school district is now trying to recover the fee it was charged for Junkyard Prophet's appearance.

PS: for those of you who are interested in reliving the days of nu-metal and once again asking what everyone was thinking, here's a Junkyard Prophet video:

Benedict: the fragrance for Him

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A whiff of the Pontiff:
Benedict XVI now has his
own cologne
The slightly odd news of the day comes via the Telegraph, which reports that an Italian perfumer has developed a special brand of cologne for Pope Benedict XVI's personal use. Called "Water of Faith", the cologne is "infused with lemon tree blossom and the smell of Spring grass", with the aim of evoking "the German pontiff's love of the forests and animals in his native Bavaria, as well as peace and tranquillity".

Speaking to Italian newspaper Il Messagero, Silviana Casoli explained how she settled on the scent: "I realised that an essence like this had to have at its core something pure and clean, recalling the idea of peace. I thought of the smells the Pope would smell when praying at the Grotto of Lourdes."

BPAS concerned by anti-abortion tactics

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Anti-abortion protesters across from the BPAS building in
Bedford Square, London (Photo by Sunny Hundal)
Following on from yesterday's post on the "40 Days for Life" picket outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service building in Bedford Square, central London, it's worth noting that BPAS themselves have now expressed concern about the tactics being used by anti-abortion campaigners. Speaking to the Guardian about the "40 Days" campaign, which this week claimed on Twitter that it had achieved a "turnaround" in persuading a woman attending the clinic not to go ahead with an abortion, a BPAS spokesperson said abortion providers face a "new era" of US-style campaigns:
"The language that has been used by MPs very definitely has consequences in terms of what protesters are now saying to women outside of our clinics," she said.

"A culture seems to be being fostered where protesters (when they are not filming) think it is entirely acceptable to harangue women outside centres and tell them if they go inside they will be lied to. There is certainly evidence of women being really quite distressed and feeling intimidated on what can already often be quite a difficult day for them."
BPAS say they are looking to raise their concerns with the Department of Health.

Meanwhile, Education for Choice (a project run by the sexual health charity Brook) have published a useful exposé of some of the literature being handed out by protesters from 40 Days for Life. Leaflets given to women outside the BPAS clinic direct them to the Central London Women's Centre, which Education for Choice has investigated using "mystery shopper" visits. They have found that the centre uses pseudoscience and shock tactics to discourage women from going ahead with abortions – in audio recorded during a visit, a counsellor at the centre is heard saying that "the risk of getting cancer after an abortion is 100%" and that "many women have many miscarriages from abortion".

Also, blogger Sunday Hundal went to Bedford Square to take some photos and meet the protesters. You can read his report over on Liberal Conspiracy.

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Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Westboro Baptist Church member: why I picketed Radiohead

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Just a quick update - yesterday on this blog, I reported on the latest picket by the ludicrous and despicable Westboro Baptist Church, outside a concert by Radiohead in Kansas City.

The justification offered by the WBC on their website was pretty baffling - Radiohead were described as "Freak monkey's with mediocre tunes keeps you busy and focused by lightness", and apparently that was enough to annoy God (describing Radiohead with the term "lightness" has to be a new one).

News of the picket has, unsurprisingly, caught the eyes of music fans, and one writer in particular, Wilbert Cooper of Vice magazine, decided to investigate further. Why, exactly, are the WBC so against Thom Yorke and co? He tracked down Steve Drain, "a Southerner who does media outreach and marketing for Westboro", and discovered something surprising – while Drain hates Radiohead for saying "it’s OK to be gay", he actually kind of likes their music, although, like many fans, he thinks it's been downhill since their seminal 1997 album OK Computer. Oh, and he's also a fan of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

I won't spoil the interview any further – go and have a read yourself.

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US-style anti-abortion tactics come to London

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A worrying aspect of the abortion debate in the UK is the way in which the tactics of the anti-choice lobby have begun to resemble those more commonly seen in the United States, where protests outside clinics and intimidation of people coming and going from those buildings are a regular sight.

For our current issue, journalist and blogger Sarah Ditum contributed a column discussing the efforts of Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, and the way in which the anti-abortion campaign in Britain appears to be marching on despite defeats at parliamentary level. Now, on the Guardian's Comment is Free, Ditum looks at another strand of the campaign, focusing on the "40 Days of Life" picket that is currently encamped outside the BPAS building in central London:
"Outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service's Bedford Square clinic in London, the anti-choice group 40 Days for Life has been holding what it describes as a "prayer vigil". For patients seeking the services of the clinic, and for those who work there, the effect of this gathering is undoubtedly one of intimidation. The women who attend there are already dealing with the anxiety of an unplanned pregnancy, as well as an imminent medical procedure and possible fears about how their family or friends might react to their choice. It's a moment when anyone is likely to feel vulnerable, and conscious of their privacy."
This is a disturbing development, and for further details I highly recommend reading the full piece. It's also worth noting that the 40 Days of Choice campaign and the Bloomsbury Pro-Choice Alliance have been working hard to counter the picket, gathering at Bedford Square each Sunday form 12-4pm.

Update: As my predecessor in this job pointed out to me, there have long been small prayer vigils outside BPAS in Bedford Square. Our office used to be just around the corner, and we'd see them regularly. I think they were usually on Wednesday's and there would be a nun and a couple of other people quietly praying and handing leaflets to passers by and people coming and going from the clinic. But the 40 Days of Life appears to be a step up from this - there has not been this kind of 24/7 coverage before. When I walked past recently, there were more people there protesting than I ever saw when I used to work there, and they did appear to be hassling those coming and going from the building. Anti-abortion protests have, of course, long taken place in Britain, but they do seen to have become more visible in recent years, and there does appear to be a growth in the tactics more commonly seen in the US.

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Monday, 12 March 2012

Westboro Baptist Church picket Radiohead gig

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Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead,
'Freak monkey's with mediocre tunes
keeps you busy and focused by lightness'
We have our disagreements over Radiohead's music in the New Humanist office (I'm a big fan, whereas my editor once wrote this), but it would appear that none of us feel as strongly as the Westboro Baptist Church, who used the band's gig in Kansas City as the focus of their latest picket.

You may wonder why Radiohead, in particular, have drawn the ire of the rabidly homophobic group, but you are unlikely to be any wiser after you've read the reasoning offered on their website:
"God is speaking to you by the mouth of Westboro Baptist Church, Doomed america. You have failed and refused to humble yourself at that Word of God. You do that against your own interest.

You have stolen the Word of God from your people and children, and as a sorry substitute, you prop up lightness and lies. You try to get the people to look at the nonsense and not at the wrath of God that abides upon them. "Look at the circus monkey over there and the fluffy setting, blah, blah..." Meanwhile, God is undoing this nation and effecting all of your lives, with the moth that quietly eats the very fabric of your national garment. Radiohead is just such an event. Freak monkey's with mediocre tunes keeps you busy and focused by lightness. It changes nothing, God is undoing and digging up and throwing down this nation."
 I'll leave you to figure that one out.

British government to argue against right to wear crosses at work

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Nadia Eweida has been fighting over the right to wear a
cross at work since 2006
In its submission to the European Court of Human Rights in a case over the right to wear crosses in the workplace, the UK government will argue that wearing a cross is not a requirement of the Christian faith, and is therefore not something a believer can insist on wearing at work under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of belief and conscience.

The case has been brought to the ECHR by Nadia Eweida, the British Airways worker who was suspended for refusing to remove a cross in 2006, and 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. Eweida and Chaplin are being supported by the Christian Legal Centre, and their lawyers argue that the right to wear Christian symbols is not given the same protection as the right to wear symbols of other religions, such as the Muslim hijab or the Sikh kirpan.

In its submission to the court, revealed by the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, the British government argues that, since wearing a cross is not viewed as a required aspect of Christian belief, doing so does not constitute "manifestation" of the faith:
“The Government submit that… the applicants’ wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not a manifestation of their religion or belief within the meaning of Article 9, and…the restriction on the applicants' wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was not an ‘interference’ with their rights protected by Article 9.

 “In neither case is there any suggestion that the wearing of a visible cross or crucifix was a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith, still less one that is regarded (including by the applicants themselves) as a requirement of the faith.”
The government's submission has angered some Christians, with the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, arguing that it will make believers more determined to wear religious symbols:
"The reasoning is based on a wholly inappropriate judgment of matters of theology and worship about which they can claim no expertise.

“The irony is that when governments and courts dictate to Christians that the cross is a matter of insignificance, it becomes an even more important symbol and expression of our faith.”
However, one believer who does not see the cross as an essential Christian symbol is the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Speaking in Rome, where he has been meeting the Pope, the Archbishop suggested that the cross "has become a religious decoration". Andrea Williams, director of the Christian Legal Centre, described his remarks as "unhelpful".

Delia Smith vs New Atheism: celebrity chef takes the battle to Richard Dawkins

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Delia Smith
The God debate took an unlikely turn this weekend, as celebrity chef Delia Smith stepped forward in defence of Britain's status as a Christian country. Smith recently launched a Lent Appeal on her website, raising money for the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD), and began her introduction to the fundraising drive by suggesting that believers are being marginalised in the UK:
"I’m here to ask a favour. What prompted this? Lent. Now, I am aware that - just at this time in our history - Lent could be an emotive word. I am, as you may or may not know, a passionate believer but of late, we are somewhat under the cosh.

There is a running battle going on in the press, and militant neo-Atheists and devout secularists are busting a gut to drive us off the radar and try to convince us that we hardly exist."
The Daily Mail picked up on this, and in their story headlined "Passionate Christian Delia Smith mounts defence of religion in face of 'running battle' with 'militant neo-atheists'" the chef trained her sights on Richard Dawkins:
"Atheists have been saying that Christianity is dying. He did a survey which said we were not a Christian country, which was cheeky – and not true. Secularists and believers have got to work alongside each other. But Christians are alive and kicking. I probably will be saying more on this subject. I am concerned about it."
Could the New Atheists have finally met their match?

Friday, 9 March 2012

Gay marriage: Cardinal O'Brien's misrepresentation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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Cardinal Keith O'Brien
Responding to Cardinal Keith O'Brien's diatribe against gay marriage earlier this week, it was difficult to tackle every single fallacy and misrepresentation that it contained. After all, once you've dealt with the fact that someone's compared gay marriage to slavery, you're pretty much done.

So with that in mind, I'm grateful to the excellent Pod Delusion for taking a closer look at another aspect of O'Brien's Sunday Telegraph article. As Dave Cross points out in the latest edition of the podcast, one of the Cardinal's favoured arguments against legalising gay marriage has been that doing so would contravene the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
"In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women. But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren’t derided.

Instead, their attempt to redefine reality is given a polite hearing, their madness is indulged. Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right."
But what does Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights actually say? The Pod Delusion decided to take a look:
  • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  • (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  • (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
As you can see, in no way is "marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women" in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course, that fact is unlikely to alter O'Brien's views on gay marriage, but it would certainly be nice if he could take note and stop invoking this great document when making his case.

On the subject of gay marriage, we're pleased to announce that we have added our name (as the Rationalist Association, the charitable organisation which publishes New Humanist) to the list of supporters of the Coalition for Equal Marriage, which is campaigning for a change in the law. So far, over 23,000 people have signed the petition calling for equal marriage - please do take a moment to add your name, if you haven't already.

And as one final item before the weekend, I was interested to see that the Pope made some comments today about the dangers of gay marriage, in reference to the United States. There were, of course, the usual references to the "defence of marriage as a natural institution", but it was actually something else that caught my eye. For in addition to his remarks about gay marriage, Benedict XVI also had words for those living in unmarried heterosexual relationships:
“We cannot overlook the serious pastoral problem presented by the widespread practice of cohabitation, often by couples who seem unaware that it is gravely sinful, not to mention damaging to the stability of society.”
If unmarried and live with a partner of the opposite sex, and we're feeling left out by the Church's preoccupation with the evils of gay marriage, I hope you're reassured that the Pope's thinking about you too.

Julian Baggini: life can be harsh, and atheism is about accepting that

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The Atheist Bus message was unreservedly positive. But
should the godless also face up to life's harsh realities?
In the latest instalment of his excellent Guardian series on atheism, "Heathen's Progress", philosopher Julian Baggini confronts one of the toughest questions facing non-believers – should a non-religious worldview be a positive and optimistic one, or is it important to recognise that, without God and the hope of an afterlife, the world can be a dark place and life, for many, a harsh and unrelenting struggle?

As Baggini points out, atheists, confronted with religious accusations of amorality and nihilism, have often been keen to stress the positive nature of life without God. Hence the atheist bus slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life", or attempts to rebrand with terms such as "Brights". Baggini argues that there's nothing wrong with this, but says it's important that atheists don't allow the positives to totally overshadow other, more negative realities:
"Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life? Doesn't the appropriate response to 4,000 children dying everyday as a direct result of poor sanitation involve despair at the relentless misery of the world as well as some effort to improve things? Sometimes life is shit and that's all there is to it. Not much bright about that fact.

Stressing the jolly side of atheism not only glosses over its harsher truths, it also disguises its unique selling point. The reason to be an atheist is not that it makes us feel better or gives us a more rewarding life. The reason to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that, accepting the consequences, even if it makes us less happy. The more brutal facts of life are harsher for us than they are for those who have a story to tell in which it all works out right in the end and even the most horrible suffering is part of a mystifying divine plan. If we don't freely admit this, then we've betrayed the commitment to the naked truth that atheism has traditionally embraced."
I highly recommend reading the full piece over on the Guardian site – and catching up with the rest of Baggini's series if you have the time.

An atheist at Alcoholics Anonymous - can the godless still be saved?

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Illustration by Martin Rowson
In our current issue, we have a fascinating piece by Frank, a recovered alcoholic who found his second chance through Alcoholics Anonymous. As is widely-known, the AA approach to recovery has a significant spiritual dimension. Step three of AA's 12 Step Program of Recovery involves alcoholics acknowledging that they have "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him."

The italics in that last sentence are key. The God into whose hands the alcoholic places his or herself need not be a literal, monotheistic God in the Judeo-Christian sense. There is scope for the God to be metaphorical. But as Frank explains in his piece, this is generally not the case. The God of AA members is:
"...often an old-school God with a capital G who protects, guides and takes the time to schedule the events in your life. Divine intervention and acts of providence are commonplace interpretations of life-altering experiences shared throughout the 77-year history of AA. A benevolent God steps in when all else has failed. This is an approach to sobriety that essentially means from here on in letting God run the show and you getting out of the way through prayer, faith and appropriate loving actions."
Clearly, for an atheist seeking help through AA, this can pose a problem. But, Frank argues, it is a problem that can be surmounted:
"If you are an atheist in AA and AA is your last-chance saloon, then you have to develop an authentic and powerful workaround to make sobriety breathe for you. Pioneering atheist and agnostic AA members fought long and hard to make it explicit that belief is not a prerequisite of staying sober. And I champion their bold lead. I do not participate in any of the prayers. I ignore any raised eyebrows. God is not looking after me and the Cosmos does not care if I relapse on cheap vodka or not. Outing myself as an atheist in AA proved to be an incredibly liberating act. It pared away any delusions or expectations of life. It gave me a way forward of simplicity and responsibility."
It would be very interesting to hear your views on this, particularly if you have had a similar experience. Is it possible for an atheist to reconcile AA's spiritual dimension with their own scepticism or even distaste for that approach? If not, what are the alternatives? Please do share your thoughts in the comments.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Doomsday pastor Harold Camping: my predictions were sinful

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Harold Camping
Last year, California-based evangelical preacher Harold Camping caused something of a stir (or at least created a few ripples in the pool of vaguely ridiculous news stories) by predicting that the Rapture would occur on 21 May. Contrary to expectations, it didn't, so Camping revised his prediction by declaring that the world would finally meet its Doom on 21 October. Again, this didn't happen – winter didn't come, there was no feast for the crows, and Camping was forced to admit, in a somewhat roundabout manner, that he had got it wrong.

You may have thought that was the last we would hear from the nonagenarian Camping, who with three failed predictions behind him (6 September 1994 was his other, in case you're curious) would have been well within his rights to put his feet up and enjoy the rest of his time on the world he had said (and actively willed) wouldn't be around to provide a platform for such idle leisure pursuits.

But Camping has this week issued a letter to followers of his Family Radio ministry, in which he asks for God's forgiveness for his "incorrect and sinful statement" predicting the end of life as we know it. The letter contains much discussion of how Camping and his followers have been "humbled", and the preacher points out that he "has no interest in even considering another date".

However, Camping does point out that his predictions have had some positives:
"The May 21 campaign was an astounding event if you think about its impact upon this world. There is no question that millions, if not billions of people heard for the first time the Bible’s warning that Jesus Christ will return. Huge portions of this world that had never read or seen a Bible heard the message the Christ Jesus is coming to rapture His people and destroy this natural world.
"Yes, we humbly acknowledge we were wrong about the timing; yet though we were wrong God is still using the May 21 warning in a very mighty way. In the months following May 21 the Bible has, in some ways, come out from under the shadows and is now being discussed by all kinds of people who never before paid any attention to the Bible. We learn about this, for example, by the recent National Geographic articles concerning the King James Bible and the Apostles. Reading about and even discussing about the Bible can never be a bad thing, even if the Bible’s authenticity is questioned or ridiculed. The world’s attention has been called to the Bible."
And later in the letter:
"We were even so bold as to insist that the Bible guaranteed that Christ would return on May 21 and that the true believers would be raptured. Yet this incorrect and sinful statement allowed God to get the attention of a great many people who otherwise would not have paid attention. Even as God used sinful Balaam to accomplish His purposes, so He used our sin to accomplish His purpose of making the whole world acquainted with the Bible. However, even so, that does not excuse us. We tremble before God as we humbly ask Him for forgiveness for making that sinful statement. We are so thankful that God is so loving that He will forgive even this sin." 
So, contrite, but pretty keen to make sure God realises that the Rapture folly was pretty beneficial to the whole persuading-everyone-in-the-world-to-kneel-and-worship-Him thing.

How very humble.

Attempt to repeal creationist education law in Louisana

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In the current issue of New Humanist, I report on the work of the National Centre for Science Education, which fights against attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution and climate change in US schools.

Having failed in their more direct attempts to have creationism taught in science classes, in recent years anti-evolutionists have adjusted their tactics, focusing on introducing "Academic Freedom Acts", which present the teaching of "dissenting views" in science as a necessary means of protect free speech in schools. To make creationism and Intelligent Design seem more palatable, and to mask the religious motivations behind the acts, evolution is included alongside subjects such as climate change and human cloning as an issue that is "controversial" and must therefore be challenged in schools. For example, there is currently a bill on the table in the Oklahoma state legislature based on the following premise:
"... that the teaching of some scientific concepts including but not limited to premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics and physics can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on some subjects such as, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning."
To date, only one such "Academic Freedom Law" has found its way on to the statute books. In Louisiana in 2008, the state legislature passed the "Science Education Act. This law states that "the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy", and gave permission to teachers to "help students understand, analyse, critique, and review" those controversies.

This law was, of course, highly controversial at the time of its passage, and campaigners for good science education have opposed it ever since its inception. Now, an attempt to repeal the law, which previously stalled last year, has been revived, complete with the support of 74 Nobel laureates. The repeal bill has been introduced by State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, who also introduced the stalled repeal bill last year, and the campaign behind the repeal effort has been driven by Zack Kopplin, a recent high school graduate who began fighting the law in 2010.

The 74 Nobel laureates have signed a letter to the Louisiana legislature, which points out that the 2008 law creates the risk of the state's young people leaving school with a science education so flawed that it could be detrimental to their future prospects:
"Louisiana’s students deserve to be taught proper science rather than religion presented as science. Science offers testable, and therefore falsifiable, explanations for natural phenomena. Because it requires supernatural explanations of natural phenomena, creationism does not meet these standards. [...]

Scientific knowledge is crucial to twenty-first-century life. Biological evolution is foundational in many fields, including biomedical research and agriculture. It aids us in understanding, for example, how to fight diseases like HIV and how to grow plants that will survive in different environments. Because science plays such a large role in today’s world and because our country’s economic future is dependent upon the United States’ retaining its competitiveness in science, it is vital that students have a sound education about major scientific concepts and their applications." 
While the last attempt at a repeal was unsuccessful, the campaigners hope that the heavyweight backing behind the latest effort will help to persuade Louisiana's legislators to remove the Science Education Act from the statute books.

Look - cartoons!

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A simple blog post, this one. We've just published all the cartoons from our current issue online, and thought you might like to take a look.

Pocket cartoons are dotted through each issue of New Humanist - just browse the magazines by issue on our site to find the older sets.

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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Controversy over atheist billboards in New York

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The two versions of the American Atheists' billboard
One of the leading US non-religious groups, American Atheists, has sparked controversy with a new billboard campaign aimed at Jewish and Muslim communities in the New York area.

The billboard, which reads "You know it's a myth and you have a choice", comes in two versions, one in Hebrew and English and one in Arabic and English. The Arabic version will be revealed in Paterson, New Jersey, which has a large Muslim population, while the Hebrew version was set to be unveiled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is home to a large Hasidic Jewish population.

However, attempts to erect the Hebrew billboard failed when Kenny Stier, the landlord of the site where it was to be displayed, refused to allow its installation. According to The Brooklyn Paper, the president of American Atheists, David Silverman, claims that local rabbis used their influence to encourage the landlord to block its display, but Stier himself has refused to comment. The paper was able to obtain a comment from a local rabbi, David Niederman, who branded American Atheists "a group of crazies":
“They lost their purpose in life. They’re not even going to make a dent. It’s a disgrace. The name of god is very holy to us and to the whole world.”
Silverman, who is promoting the 24 March Reason Rally, which will see thousands of atheists gather in Washington DC to hear speakers and performers including Richard Dawkins, Taslima Nasrin and Tim Minchin, says he is disappointed with the landlord's decision, pointing out that the Hasidic community is "teeming with atheists" looking to break away from their religious backgrounds. The organisation has identified a new site for the Hebrew billboard, and will have it erected on Thursday.

Meanwhile, New York isn't the only area in which an American Atheists billboard is causing a stir. Last night, a billboard linking Christianity with slavery was vandalised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The advert is said to have caused offence among member of the town's African-American community.

In defence of uncertainty

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Richard Holloway
As the debate over gay marriage continues to rage, one thing that has characterised the religious statements against a change in the law, particularly the remarks of Cardinal Keith O'Brien at the weekend, is a sense of absolute certitude as to the wrongs that same-sex unions would represent.

Writing on the Guardian's Comment is Free, the former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway, who has since become agnostic on matters of faith, suggests religious leaders could elicit more public sympathy by allowing a little doubt into their pronouncements:
"It is striking that when these otherwise kindly and even-tempered men clap on their mitres to address the nation, they lose not only their sense of humour, but all sense of proportion. This is one reason why many decent-minded people are turned off religion in our society, being so blinded by its exaggerated prejudices that they fail to recognise its many virtues."
There is, of course, plenty that non-religious observers will dispute in that statement (it's hard to picture Keith O'Brien as "kindly and even-tempered", for example), but for my own part I would agree that it would be refreshing to hear some doubt in the religious contributions to the big debates. Reading Holloway's piece, I was reminded of an article we published last year by Christopher Lane, which argued that atheists, along with the religious, should not be afraid of being uncertain:
"Doubt and its religious cousin agnosticism, a word rarely heard nowadays, may have fallen out of fashion, but they have much to teach us, despite the disdain of Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote in The God Delusion: “I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.” He also quotes approvingly Quentin de la Bédoyère, science editor of the Catholic Herald, who in 2006 wrote that the Catholic historian Hugh Ross Williamson respected firm religious belief and certain unbelief, but “reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.”

To see doubters and freethinkers such as Herbert Spencer, Leslie Stephen, George Eliot, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word “agnostic”) and Darwin himself mocked in this way, given their intense engagement with complex human issues, only highlights the boldness of their thinking and the intellectual hubris of today’s unbridled certainty. The stridency of both Dawkins and de la Bédoyère misses how these and other Victorian intellectuals saw doubt as a creative force – inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, and a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and zealotry."
Again, plenty to take issue with there, but nevertheless something to bear in mind amid the increasingly polarised public debates involving religion.

Infanticide debate: Moral philosophers need to defend their arguments, not hide behind 'thought experiments'

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The debate over abortion, infanticide and academic freedom continues ... a quick recap. Following the publication of a paper by the Australian academics Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva called "After-birth abortion: Why Should The Baby Live?" in the Journal of Medical Ethics, The Sun ran with the headline "Slaughter newborn kids, say academics"  and anti-choice UK MP Nadine Dorries repeated her ridiculous slander that humanists support infanticide. We responded with this comment from philosophy lecturer John Appleby which defended the right of the authors to publish what was, he said, a thought experiment in moral philosophy, not a policy proposal.

Now Kenan Malik enters the fray with this characteristically thorough and well-argued piece on his blog. Malik defends the right of the academics to publish, but criticises those who have leapt to their defence, including John Appleby. The paper does not, he argues, despite the claims of the authors, read like a thought experiment: "Their argument," he writes "is part of a long-standing philosophical tradition that has pushed to break down traditional moral boundaries and done so for practical reasons. Peter Singer’s arguments, for instance, have transformed attitudes to animal rights over the past four decades, and helped shape contemporary debates on abortion and euthanasia." He goes on to point out several places in the paper where the authors do seem to be making clear practical proposals. Though he can understand why the authors chose to defend themselves, from vitriolic attack, by saying they were merely doing abstract thinking, Malik thinks this is very bad for both free speech and moral philosophy: "Moral philosophy is important, intellectually, socially, politically", he argues, and therefore should not be downgraded, especially by its practitioners, as merely abstract logical reasoning. And in terms of free speech "you must also accept responsibility for what you say. Otherwise free speech becomes a game rather than a political and social necessity."

Peter Singer himself has just broken ground on the issue, telling the Chronicle of Higher Education:
"The moral status of newborn infants is a real issue, and it is proper for academic journals to publish articles that, like this one, discuss it in a serious and well-reasoned manner. People who wish to defend the traditional view of the sanctity of all human life should respond to the authors’ arguments, not by mere abuse."
I hope Singer gets to read Malik's piece, which is a philosophically serious response to the kind of utilitarianism that Singer, and the paper's authors, represent. We'll keep our eye on this one.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Introducing the new atheist martyr... Miley Cyrus

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Miley Cyrus
Be still my achey-breaky heart, we have a new atheist heroine, in the, ahem, divine form of Southern-fried popstril and film starlet Miley Cyrus aka Hannah Montana. According to this report she has enraged "the haters and her fans" alike by tweeting a photo of the theoretical physicist and prominent atheist Lawrence Krauss, alongside the following quote:
"Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than the atoms in your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about the universe.

You are all stardust.

You couldn't be here if stars hadn't exploded. Because the elements (the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the things that matter for evolution) weren't created at the beginning of time. They were created in stars. So forget Jesus. Stars died so you could live."
Miley apparently thought this sentiment was "beautiful" thus revealing herself to be, in the eyes of her public, Satan and Richard Dawkins rolled into one. A torrent of hate from the haters followed. “You seriously believe that crap?" asked one Twitter follower. "It’s so ridiculously stupid. Go to hell.” “So are you no longer a Christian?" asked another "Forget Jesus??? Seriously? What has happened to you out there in the famous world? What????”

As her outraged fan highlights, Miley has a lot of questions to answer.

Letter against gay marriage to be read out in every Catholic church this Sunday

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The Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nicholls,
head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales,
is a co-signatory of the letter
Following on from Cardinal Keith O'Brien's controversial remarks condemning proposals to legalise gay marriage, which he likened to legalising slavery, a letter has been sent to every Catholic church in England and Wales, co-signed by the Archbishops of Westminster and Southwark, calling on Catholics to resist the government's plans.

The letter, which avoids the uncompromising tone adopted by O'Brien on his weekend media rounds, will be read from the pulpit of all 2,500 Catholic churches in England and Wales this Sunday and restates the anti-gay-marriage campaign's argument that "neither the Church nor the State has the power to change [the] fundamental understanding of marriage itself". It then sets out what this "fundamental understanding of marriage" involves:
"Understood as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, and for the creation and upbringing of children, marriage is an expression of our fundamental humanity. Its status in law is the prudent fruit of experience, for the good of the spouses and the good of the family. In this way society esteems the married couple as the source and guardians of the next generation. As an institution marriage is at the foundation of our society.

There are many reasons why people get married. For most couples, there is an instinctive understanding that the stability of a marriage provides the best context for the flourishing of their relationship and for bringing up their children. Society recognises marriage as an important institution for these same reasons: to enhance stability in society and to respect and support parents in the crucial task of having children and bringing them up as well as possible."
Thus, marriage must not be opened up to same-sex couples, because doing so would fatally undermine this "fundamental understanding" of its meaning:
"Changing the legal definition of marriage would be a profoundly radical step. Its consequences should be taken seriously now. The law helps to shape and form social and cultural values. A change in the law would gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage. It would reduce it just to the commitment of the two people involved. There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children"
As the academic and blogger Norman Geras points out, even if you leave aside the issue of gay marriage, many heterosexual marriages would not meet the definition the Catholic church is offering here. Marriage can indeed simply be about "the commitment of the two people involved", to borrow the Archbishops' words, and the idea that it is ultimately a means for creating an environment for raising children has long been an archaic one.

Meanwhile, the Coalition for Equal Marriage, which has been established to counter the anti-gay-marriage Coalition for Marriage and campaign for a change in law, continues to gain in strength, with more than 16,000 names on their petition at the the time of writing. You can add your name to that, if you like, and also follow them on Twitter to track the progress of the campaign.

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