Thursday, 31 May 2012

Snake-handling Pentecostal Pastor dies from rattlesnake bite

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Mack Wolford believed viewed snake-handling as a test
of Christian faith
A pastor who believed Christians must handle rattlesnakes as a sign of their faith has died – after suffering a rattlesnake bite at an outdoor service in Bluefield, West Virginia.

Mack Wolford, who was 44, based his belief on Mark 16:17-18, which says:
“And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Wolford was well-known in his region of the US on account of his snake-handling, an archaic Pentecostal practice that he continued to enthusiastically promote, despite watching his own father die from a rattlesnake bite when he was just 15.

Appealing for followers to join him at what would be his final service last Sunday, Wolford promised an inspiring day out in the West Virginia countryside. “I am looking for a great time this Sunday,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “It is going to be a homecoming like the old days. Good ’ole raised in the holler or mountain ridge running, Holy Ghost-filled speaking-in-tongues sign believers. Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes, brother.”  

The spirit of Paul the Octopus lives on as psychic animals gear up for Euro 2012

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Citta the Elephant will predict Euro 2012 results from her
home in Krakow Zoo
Back in 2010, a humble German octopus named Paul defied rational science and stunned the world by making a series of correct 50/50 decisions, predicting the correct outcome for all his country's matches in the World Cup, as well as the result of the final between Holland and the champions, Spain.

Tragically, Paul is no longer with us but, as the football gears up for this summer’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, his legacy thankfully lives on in the forms of a psychic pig and a clairvoyant elephant, both of which will offerpredictions for the big games.

The pig, imaginatively named “Psychic Pig”, will reside in a special pen outside the main stadium in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, selecting the likely winner of each game by choosing from plates of food tagged with the flags of the competing nations, while the elephant, called Citta, will make her predictions from her home in Krakow zoo by choosing apples labelled with the correct flags.

For those debating whether to bet their houses on the creatures’ choices, it’s worth noting that Citta recently secured her place as Poland’s psychic animal ahead of a donkey and a parrot by correctly predicting Chelsea’s recent Champions League final win over Bayern Munich. Psychic Pig’s powers, however, have yet to be tested.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Spanish artist on trial over 1978 "How to Cook Christ" video

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Javier Krahe is charged with "offending religious feelings"
over a 2004 broadcast of his 1978 film "How to Cook
Jesus Christ"
Spanish folk singer Javier Krahe has gone on trial in Madrid this week, charged with "offending religious feelings" as a result of a 2004 television broadcast of a short film he made in 1978 entitled "How to Cook Jesus Christ".

The full 54-second film is embedded at the end of this post, but for those who can't take a look right now, here's a synopsis from the Independent's report on the case:
"The film uses culinary language and images to show viewers how to 'remove the nails and separate him from the crucifix, which we leave to one side' before the white ebony figure of Christ is shown being lightly smothered in butter, placed on a bed of aromatic herbs in a glass tray, and popped into an oven. Another culinary 'guideline' recommends using a proportion of 'one gaunt Christ' for each two potential diners.

'After three days inside, he comes out of the cooker by himself!' is the film's punchline as the oven door opens unassisted and the tray with the "cooked Christ" slides magically forwards."
Krahe's short film was banned in Spain under censorship laws when it was originally released in 1978, but it was used by a Spanish TV network in 2004 as part of a programme about the artist and his provocative work. The case against Krahe has been brought by a Catholic legal organisation, the Centro Juridico Tomas Moro, and follows two failed attempts to prosecute him over the broadcast. According to the Centro Juridico, the law against "offending religious feelings" has not previously been invoked in a Spanish court.

Krahe has been bailed for €192,000, and says he will go into exile in France if he is convicted.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Islamic fundamentalists force Lady Gaga to call off Indonesia concert

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Lady Gaga has cancelled her Jakarta concert
following fundamentalist threats
A couple of months ago I blogged on how a sell-out gig by Lady Gaga in Indonesia had angered some of the country's Islamic scholars, who were outraged that the singer would be bringing her skimpy outfits and outlandish dance routines to the capital, Jakarta. Cholil Ridwan, chairman of an influential Muslim organisation, the Indonesian Council of Ulema, provided the money quote at the time, expressing his concern at what Indonesian Gaga fans would be exposed to when they attended the concert:
“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."
The gig was due to take place on 3 June, but Gaga was this weekend forced to cancel following threats from the fundamentalist Islamic Defenders Front, which claimed it had supporters with tickets to the event who would take action to stop it once inside.

Following news of the cancellation, the Islamic Defenders Front expressed its delight that the singer had withdrawn from the 50,000 capacity concert:
"This is a victory for Indonesian Muslims. Thanks to God for protecting us from a kind of devil."

Police thwart vandalism of GM crop trial

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Following on from Friday's post regarding the planned anti-GM crop protest in Herefordshire, it's pleasing to be able to report that, while the event did go ahead, the more zealous supporters of the Take The Flour Back campaign were thwarted in their attempts to damage crops in a "decontamination" exercise, as a heavy police presence ensured protesters could not access the field being used by Rothamsted Research to carry out a genetically-modified what crop trial.

Addressing the crowd of protesters (organisers claim there were 400, while a report in the Independent says there were "about 200"), Kate Bell of Take The Flour Back expressed her disappointment that the group had been denied access to the wheat field:
“In the past, kids, grannies, and everyone in between has decontaminated GM trial sites together. Here at the beginning of a new resistance to this obsolete technology, we see GM hidden behind a fortress. We wanted to do the responsible thing and remove the threat of GM contamination, sadly it wasn’t possible to do that effectively today. However, we stand arm in arm with farmers and growers from around the world, who are prepared to risk their freedom to stop the imposition of GM crops.”
 Meanwhile, scientists appealed for activists to allow them to get on with their work. Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Douglas Kell, chief executive of the wheat trial's funding body, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), said he hoped threats of vandalism could be avoided in the future:
"Now that the protest at Rothamsted has ended peacefully I hope that the BBSRC-funded scientists can be allowed to complete their project without the ongoing threat that their work will be destroyed. As scientists, we do not claim to have all the answers. However, our scientific community must be able to conduct regulated and approved trials and experiments without the threat of vandalism hanging over them."

Friday, 25 May 2012

Row rages over anti-GM activists' plan to vandalise crop research

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A flyer for the Take The Flour Back protest
This Sunday, 27 May, anti-GM food activists will descend on Rothamsted Park in Harpenden, Hertfordshire to protest against a wheat crop trial being carried out on land belonging to the nearby Rothamsted Research centre.

The protest, entitled Take The Flour Back, will begin with a picnic, but once they have eaten, the activists will take the event in a far more controversial direction, walking from Rothamsted Park to the trial site in order to engage in something they are terming "decontamination". Browsing the campaign's website, it's not exactly clear what the protesters mean by this, but reading between the lines there can be little doubt as to what this will entail: the protesters plan on destroying the GM crop, or in their words, "clean it up".

Unsurprisingly, Take the Flour Back has provoked a fierce backlash from the scientific community, which has condemned plans to vandalise a piece of research. The scientists working on the Rothamsted project, which involves growing wheat that has been genetically modified to release a pheromone used by aphids to warn each other of danger, produced a video calling on activists to abandon their "decontamination" plans, while numerous science journalists and communicators have attacked the reasoning behind the campaign.

The row over Take The Flour Back is emblematic of the uneasy relationship between the green movement, which is often hostile to technologies such as GM and nuclear power, and supporters of scientific research who view such technologies as potential solutions to the world's environmental problems. This conflict was thrown into sharp relief yesterday, when the Green Party's candidate in the recent London mayoral election, Jenny Jones, announced that she would be attending the protest in Harpenden on Sunday.

For those who would like to see a scientifically-literate Green Party acquire a louder voice in British politics, this was disappointing news. The excellent Daily Telegraph blogger Tom Chivers, who voted for Jones in mayoral election, wrote a post entitled "Don't vote Green until they drop the anti-science zealotry", arguing that no one who cares about scientific research should feel comfortable supporting the party in light of its stance on Take The Flour Back:
"[T]his is an experiment. It is an attempt to find out more about how the world works, and it may allow us to feed more human beings. Agricultural technology, as led by the father of the Green Revolution Norman Borlaug, is credited with saving a billion lives last century, and GM is just another aspect of that. How can a serious political party back acts of vandalism against scientific research? Until Jenny Jones and the rest of the Green Party drops this awful, damaging, stupid behaviour, no serious environmentalist should be able to vote for them."
In a reply on Chivers' blog, Jones was keen to point out that she would only be attending the Take The Flour Back picnic, and not taking part in "decontamination", but she stopped short of condemning the planned action, and appeared to suggest that, while she doesn't support it, vandalising the crop might be morally justifiable:
"The rumours are wrong; I'll be at the picnic on Sunday, not destroying the crop. I shall voice my opposition to research into GM crops that I think is a bad, possibly dangerous use of public money. I strongly support non-violent direct action and disown damage to property, but there's sometimes a conflict; in damaging military jets in an attempt to sabotage an unjust war, or breaking windows in the name of women's' suffrage, direct action has a complicated and distinguished place in our democratic history. And I do understand the depth of despair and the desperation that protesters feel. But they must face the legal consequences of their actions, and think deeply about the ethics of their actions – like lots of things in life it's more complicated than some of my critics seem to want to admit."
In her post, Jones says she supports more research into GM, but argues that the Rothamsted trial carries too great a risk of contaminating non-GM crops. Yet Professor John Pickett, who works on the trial, has written that this is highly unlikely, pointing out that "wheat is 99 per cent self-pollinating":
"[I]s cross-pollination possible? Yes, as scientists we work on the principle that anything is possible. Is it likely? No. What’s more, even if it did happen, the actual chances of this GM wheat successfully establishing itself in the wild are extremely low, since wheat is uncompetitive with other plants."
While there's nothing wrong with adopting a cautious attitude to new technologies, the hostility of some greens towards GM carries the risk of undermining an area of scientific research that has the potential to help address some of the environmental problems they are most concerned about. For more on this, I highly recommend reading the latest blog post by Mark Henderson, author of The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters, in which he's reproduced the chapter from his book on GM and green opposition. It's a helpful guide to the current scientific thinking on GM, and serves to illustrate why the green movement ought to be allied, and not in conflict, with the scientific community.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Indelible bigotry: a Leviticus tattoo and some inconsistent thinking

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I can't help but share this photo, which has been doing the rounds on Twitter over the past day or so ... someone who is clearly rather troubled by the existence of gay people decided to make a stand by having the words from Leviticus 18:22 tattooed on his upper arm for the rest of his life. Not a bad decision, if homophobia is the message you want your right bicep to send out, given that it reads as follows:
"Thou shall not lie with a male as one does with a woman. It is an abomination."
However, as has been pointed out around the web, there is a slight ink-onsistency (sorry) in the tattooed one's thinking as, just a few pages further into the Bible, Leviticus 19:28 says:
“Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord."

[Twitter source]

Tunisian atheist appeals conviction for publishing Muhammad cartoon

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Via Index on Censorship, we learn of an appeal in the case of two Tunisian friends who were sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in jail for publishing cartoons deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.

At the end of March, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, who are both atheists, were convicted by a court in the city of Mahdia of "insulting others via public communication networks”, and disseminating material that could “disturb public order". Beji has since fled the country, but an appeal was lodged on behalf of Mejri, and Index report that a verdict is expected on 28 May.

The law used to convict the two friends, Article 121 (3) of the Tunisian Penal Code, which prohibits the dissemination of material "liable to cause harm to the public order or public morals", was adopted in 2001, in what Index's Tunisian correspondent Afef Abrougui says was an attempt by the now-deposed regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to clamp down on press freedom.

For activists, it is a cause for concern that draconian laws from the era of dictatorship are still being used to curtail free speech in the new democratic Tunisia. The law used to prosecute Mejri and Beji was also used to fine a TV executive for broadcasting the film based on the graphic novel Persepolis, by the exiled Iranian author Marjane Satrapi, while Index report that an anonymous cartoonist known as "_Z_" is coming under pressure for cartoons satirising the country's ruling Islamists.

For more background, see Afef Abrougui's Index post from January this year, warning that censorship in Tunisia has taken on a religious tone.

Event: Find out how to live forever, Thursday 31 May

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Next week's debate at London's Conway Hall, Four Ways To Live Forever, which I'm chairing, is shaping up to be a fascinating evening. Stephen Cave, who kicked it all off with his book Immortality (here's his piece for us summarising the argument) will start with a historical perspective, looking at how successive civilisations and generations have found their own language to discuss their dreams of immortality (from ideas of the after-life to notions of legacy).

This will be followed by Catherine Mayer, who has written a book called Amortality about contemporary ways of "living agelessly". For the book Mayer hung out with the gurus of death-cheating Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey (cranks or visionaries? Perhaps she can tell us), and she also visited an "age management clinic in Las Vegas", whatever that might be. Can't wait to hear more.

Then we have biologist Lewis Wolpert, who will be talking about the actual science of ageing, which he explored in his book on ageing You're Looking Very Well, whether death can be defeated, and whether we should even try. So if you're around in London next Thursday, 31 May, do come down. No booking required, first come first served, £7 on the door, £5 for Rationalist Association members, starts at 7pm.

(NB: For the next issue of New Humanist we're working on a handy guide to the whole cheating death gang: Singularians, transhumanists, Cryogeneticists and the rest.)

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Tom Cruise given advance viewing of Scientology-inspired film

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Director Paul Thomas Anderson could be set
to ruffle a few Hollywood feathers with his
Scientology-inspired film The Master
Beyond the summer blockbusters, one of this year's most anticipated films is The Master, from There Will Be Blood and Magnolia director Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, and due out in October, The Master will tell the story of a charismatic leader launching a new religious movement in the years following the Second World War, in what is widely expected to amount to a critical take on the origins of the Church of Scientology (Hoffman plays the L Ron Hubbard-alike).

Telling such a story is a risky and controversial move for a leading director to make, given that Hollywood is the spiritual home of Scientology, and ever since The Master was announced critics have wondered how the movement's high-profile followers might respond to a perceived attack from one of their own.

One such follower is Tom Cruise, and if Hollywood rumours are to be believed, it appears that Anderson may have taken measures to head off a public row by providing the actor with a special advance viewing of The Master. The Chicago Tribune reports that sources close to film say that Anderson recently screened it for Cruise, adding that the actor "had issues" with some elements.

If the rumours are true and Cruise has indeed been shown the film, what could it mean? Was Anderson simply showing it to him as a courtesy to an old friend (the two worked together on Magnolia), or could changes be made as a result of the screening? There are also suggestions that the film's distributor, the Weinstein Company, also plan to show it to another heavyweight Scientologist, John Travolta, before it is released. It seems clear that those behind the film are concerned about how the Church of Scientology is going to react, but will they let those concerns affect what makes it on to the big screen?

Of course, the proof will be in the final cut, and for now it's hard to tell how clear the allusions to Scientology will be (reports from a screening of some clips at Cannes suggest very clear, but that's all we know).

The first teaser trailer was released this week, and that gives very little away – you see a menacing Joaquin Phoenix (great to see him return to acting) as a war veteran talking to an army counsellor, but that's all. Nevertheless, it's well worth watching – even leaving aside the Scientology angle, The Master looks as though it could be one of the films of the year.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Twitter briefly blocked in Pakistan over "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" tweets

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In 2010, in South Park's 200th episode, creators Matt Stone and
Trey Parker satirised the censorship of Muhammad cartoons by
depicting the prophet in a bear mascot costume
Two years ago, controversy raged online over a campaign to promote 20 May as "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day", with people around the world urged to draw pictures of the prophet in protest at the censorship and attacks aimed against those who have produced such images. In particular, campaigners expressed their support for South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, who experienced censorship by the Comedy Central network, and received death threats from online jihadists, after they satirised the issue in a 2010 episode of their hit show.

Yesterday, on the second anniversary of the first "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day", the campaign once again resurfaced, with messages appearing on Twitter urging people to participate. Back in 2010, protests in Pakistan prompted judges to temporarily block Facebook in the country, and Pakistani authorities seem to have taken similar measures this time around, with Twitter being blocked for around eight hours on Sunday.

According to a report in the Washington Post, it is not clear who in the Pakistani government gave the order for the site to be blocked, but the action quickly provoked a backlash among web users, human rights activists, and even government politicians. Farahnaz Ispahani, an MP and advisor to the country's president Asif Ali Zar­dari, took to Twitter to register her disapproval (such bans rarely succeed in totally blocking web services), stating that "Freedom of speech is an inviolable right”, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik later told reporters that the Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, had instructed the Ministry of Information Technology to lift the ban.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku vs the Catholic Church - lend your support

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As we reported back in April, Sanal Edamaruku, leading Indian rationalist and scourge of fakirs and charlatans, is facing prosecution for blasphemy in India, after the Catholic Church made complaints about his myth-busting to the authorities. We have been in touch with Sanal and asked him to clarify what's happening, what he's doing about it and how his supporters can help. Here's what he told us:

1. What are you accused of by the Catholic Church, and why?

Actually, I do not know. Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, charges a person with “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”. I have no idea how this applies to me. And strangely, we never got a copy of any of the charge sheets filed against me nor any other official document.The church people – stretching my words like chewing gum – keep complaining about this and that statement that I have allegedly made in the TV debate. Well, since all my statements are both perfectly documented and factually correct, there should be nothing to worry about. In fact, I would love to support all that I said about the Catholic Church with evidence in a court of law: about its miracle-mongering throughout history, about its support for fascist regimes, about its promotion of exorcism etc. That would be a landmark historic trial. But it seems that this is not exactly what they want.

2. What have they actually done?

They have filed charges in at least three police stations against me. And they manage to keep at least one police station very actively engaged in persuing the case. There is a police inspector from Juhu station, who calls me nearly every day and urges me to come to Mumbai and offer myself for arrest.Section 295A is a special criminal law that applies as and when the allegedly offended party makes enough noise. In this context the vigorous smear campaigns against me are crucial. They are not just the outburst of a fringe fanatic group, they are setting the stage for a potentially successful trial. It is a classic set-up with the Bishop of Mumbai lamenting that I have allegedly hurt Catholic feelings and the mob howling.Of course, though I am immune to such things, there is also the psychological warfare angle: The police are calling every night. The mob is baring their teeth: (Should such a blasphemer “go scot-free”? What would “other religious communities”, e.g. Islamists, do with him? Put him in a “mental asylum”! etc.) Finally the bishop is offering the classical escape route: I should apologise!

3. How seriously are you taking the charges?

I think nobody takes the charges serious. They have not been filed on merit. The case is a political one, stage managed by the Catholic Church to silence me. Formally, the attack is launched by a kind of Catholic “vox populi”, but there is no doubt who writes the script. “We can rejoice that there are some people who have the courage to stand up when the attempts are made to besmirch the name of the Catholic community”, stated the Bishop of Mumbai.The Catholic Church is a serious opponent, known for being both rigorous and relentless in destroying its critics. Being aware of this we are looking beyond the legal case. While my lawyers are asking the High Court to intervene and stop the charges against me going further, we have considered it necessary to establish precautionary measures for my personal protection.

4. What kind of support are you getting?

Thousands of people are writing letters, tweets and blog comments in my support. There have been some really wonderful articles published and some very sensible interviews with me. Also monitory support for the Defence Fund has come in. It is mainly coming in hundred Rupee and ten Dollar notes: As always, the section of people who cannot really afford it turns out to be most generous. Their donations do add up to real help. Still, we all have to put in our personal money to make my life a little safer, to buy the necessary flight tickets to Mumbai to get things going and to enable our dedicated legal team to work smoothly. Besides fighting the case, we are planning to challenge the blasphemy law in the Supreme Court of India. This law goes against the fundamental right of freedom of expression and we want to put an end to the history of its misuse. We want it to be abolished.

5. Do you intend to continue exposing frauds like this?

I have been exposing frauds and miracle mongers for more than 30 years now. The Mumbai interlude would not change that in any way. It has rather strengthened my resolve to do more. And undoubtedly, it has moved the Catholic Church from an up to now rather marginal position on the Indian rationalist radar a little bit more towards the centre.Since Catholic forces are trying to stop me in a way radical Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Buddhists never did, I feel enormous energy in me to fight against obscurantism. The pace is increasing: during the last three weeks, I have done nearly 100 hours on air, participating in various TV panel discussions to corner faith healers of different religious origin. These programs are quite successful and they seem to trigger a public wave of awareness that may go a long way.

6. What can people do to help?

Regarding the blasphemy case, there are mainly two ways to support us: to spread information about the Catholic attempt to silence me and to donate to the Defence Fund, enabling us to cover the direct and indirect costs of the case.The Defence Fund is in urgent need of money and any penny helps. Some people seem to worry there could be a surplus after running the cases. A very friendly blogger (unknown to me) moved me by expressing hopes I would finally be able to buy the Ferrari that I – according to his opinion – deserved. Nice wishes, indeed, but so far not realistic. Still, if there is any overflow of the Defence Fund any time, it will be absorbed into a rationalist trust that we are planning to establish soon. It will power the engines of our work, and could yield great results.

Please donate anything you can to Sanal's Defence Fund

An example of the kind of vital work Sanal does

Some background on the debunking rationalists of India

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Events, dear boy

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Here are a couple of events we are involved over the next few weeks. Do come if you can. They are both at Conway Hall, the (ahem) spiritual home of British non-belief, in Red Lion Square, London W1. It's a lovely building, purpose built in 1928 as a home for the South Place Ethical Society, and well worth a look. Here are two reasons to visit:

31 May - Four Ways to Live Forever? 
A debate triggered by Stephen Cave new book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilisation, looking at the many ways humans have tried to cheat death – from ancient Egyptian ideas about preserving the soul to transhumanist dreams of downloading consciousness onto computers (read Stephen Cave 's recent piece for New Humanist on the subject). In addition to Stephen Cave the panel features biologist and expert on ageing Lewis Wolpert (read a recent interview with him), and Catherine Mayer, Europe Editor of Time magazine and author of Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of living Agelessly. Panel will be chaired by New Humanist Editor Caspar Melville. Tickets, on the door, are £7 (£5 for members of the Rationalist Association).

27 June - 5 July - Looking In Looking Out: a philosophy and film festival
An innovative series of films, talks, lectures and workshops exploring the relationship between film and philosophy – from existentialism in Cronenberg's Crash, to the phenomenology of Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, to the ethics of superheroes – in the company of special guests Will Self, Bidisha, Mark Vernon, Julian Baggini, Robin Ince and many more. Earlybird ticket offer until 1st June: £35 week pass, which guarantees access to over 30 screenings, talks and workshops. 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

41% of UK don't think God made the Universe - highest ever

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A press release reaches us from Premier Christian Radio with the headline "UK's belief that God created the Universe at an all-time low". It reports the findings of a study conducted by ComRes for PCR (2054 were polled online across the UK in April), ahead of the conference , called "Unbelievable 2012" PCR are holding in London on May 26 at which "academics and scientists" from the US and UK will be arguing that contemporary cosmology indicates that God created the world.

The headline findings of the survey are that only 26% believe that God created the world, 41% said they didn't believe this and 23% didn't know or didn't want to say. In what the press release describes as a "strange twist" fully 25% of those who identified as "Christian" did not believe that God was the cause of the Universe.

So, why would a Christian outfit be trumpeting numbers which show that the idea of a God-created universe is in decline, even amongst their own gang? It's a canny ploy actually, allowing them to make the case that their conference is important – a chance to hear the "very best" scientifically grounded arguments for God. As the presenter and conference host Justin Brierly says in the release: "I believe that modern science is increasing the amount of evidence for God. But it appears that certain atheistic voices have the ear of the British public. It's a disturbing trend and we need to redress the balance." Aha! So it's Dawkins wot dun it, and here's us thinking that the decline of the belief in a God-created Universe has come about as a result of the rise of scientific literacy, the decline of respect for religious doctrines which are unsupported by evidence, and the general common sense of the public. Silly us.

The language also neatly tessellates with the whole culture of Christian victimhood that has been abroad of late, suggesting that a few influential "militant" atheists have been conning the public and misrepresenting science – and positioning themselves as part of the fightback on behalf of beleaguered believers. What is new here, of course, is the drafting in of "science" to support the case. The press release quotes the cosmologist Paul Davies, recipient of a Templeton prize and someone who is unwilling to discount the idea of a creator without really signing up to any particular version. Davies is on record as disputing Lawrence Krauss' argument that the Universe could have come from "nothing", but I'm sure he does not go as far as to suggest that science confirms the Bible. Needless to say neither Davies nor Krauss will be at the conference, instead keynote speakers include Hugh Ross, Ken Samples and Michael Green (no, me neither) who all specialise in "Christian apologetics" and promise to show how science really does confirm the Bible. If anyone is planning on going do let us know, we'd be fascinated to find out of they succeed in proving that.

That really would be Unbelievable.

Friday, 4 May 2012

New Humanist Podcast May 2012: Alom Shaha, Crying With Laughter, American secularism

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Length: 35:27

In the May 2012 edition of the New Humanist Podcast, we have interviews with two of the contributors to the May/June issue of New Humanist, plus news of a fantastic night of comedy in association with the Helen Bamber Foundation.

First up is Alom Shaha, author of the forthcoming Young Atheist's Handbook, and cover star of the latest issue of New Humanist (01:15). Speaking to New Humanist editor Caspar Melville, Alom discusses growing up as a Muslim in south London's Bangladeshi community, explains how the death of his parents was the catalyst for becoming open about his loss of faith, and argues that atheist communities need to do more to support non-believers from non-white, minority religious backgrounds.

Next, Caspar speaks to comedian Maureen Younger about the forthcoming comedy benefit show Crying with Laughter (12:36). Held in support of the Helen Bamber Foundation, which fights for the victims of torture and human trafficking, Crying with Laughter features an all-women line-up, including Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair and Shazia Mirza. In the podcast, Maureen discusses the history of the show and the work of the Foundation, as well as the role of women in the often male-dominated world of stand-up comedy. Crying with Laughter takes place on Sunday 20 May at the Charing Cross Theatre in London - see the theatre website for tickets.

Finally, we speak to Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau, author of the forthcoming How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (19:20). In the May/June New Humanist, Jacques argues that American secularism is in grave danger, and in the podcast we ask him to explain why he thinks this, tell us who's to blame, and suggest some ways to fix it.

To listen to the podcast, which is just over 35 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".

US secularists appoint former Republican lobbyist to make their case in Washington

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Former Republican lobbyist Edwina Rogers has been
appointed executive director of the Secular Coalition
for America
In what looks like a surprising move, the Secular Coalition for America – an umbrella group that represents a number of American secularist, humanist and atheist organisations – has appointed a former Republican lobbyist as its new executive director.

The appointment of Edwina Rogers, who has worked for both Bush presidents and four Republican senators, has raised eyebrows among US secularists, who view the Republican Party as particularly hostile to their values, but, as spokesperson for the Coalition told the Washington Post, there is a belief that Rogers' connections will help broaden support for secularism:
“She can reach out to segments of the population that may be receptive to our message but maybe never heard of us before or maybe associated us with one particular political party. She can help this organization grow beyond its traditional reach.”
While Rogers' appointment is likely to divide opinion, there's certainly wisdom in seeking to broaden the appeal of secularism in the US. As Jacques Berlinerblau, author of the forthcoming book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, points out in our current issue, American secularism is currently beset on all sides, encountering not just outright hostility from Republicans, but a lukewarm reception from the Democrats traditionally associated with its defence. In Berlinerblau's view, the blame for this lies, in part, with the secular movement itself:
"Aside from conservative religious reaction, there is a second explanation for secularism’s crack-up: a colossal failure of leadership and strategic vision. Those who advocated on its behalf in the 1970s and ’80s had little understanding of who their irate, coalescing adversaries actually were. In the secular mindset these “Fundies” were just a bunch of yokels, sitting on their front porches, cleaning their guns to the musical accompaniment of Pa strumming the gutbucket. In reality, however, the movement had scads of charismatic and savvy, if not incendiary, leaders.

Secular leadership, by contrast, was static and moribund. As I demonstrate in my forthcoming book it is exceedingly difficult to figure out exactly who was steering the good ship secularism while the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons and Ralph Reeds of the nation suited up and took to the pitch. My own research indicates that in the waning decades of the past century, there was little in the way of effective direction and guidance provided to the secular base.

Then again, who was the base? And with that we arrive at one of the most debilitating ironies afflicting American secularism, if not secularism itself. If one looks at the history of this movement it is exceedingly difficult to gain clarity as to what precisely it stands for and what types of people it represents."
We've interviewed Berlinerblau for our May podcast (which is due online this afternoon), and in that he suggests that the key to increasing support for secularism in the US lies with building coalitions between atheists and religious moderates who can agree on the benefits of separating church and state. If Edwina Rogers can use her experience to build such coalitions, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats who understand the importance of secularism, the Secular Coalition for American will surely have made a sensible move in selecting its new director.

You can read more about the appointment on the Friendly Atheist blog, which has a detailed interview with Rogers. For a dissenting view, see PZ Myers, who is unconvinced that secularism stands a chance of gaining a sympathetic hearing among Republican politicians

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Indonesian atheist faces long jail sentence for posting "God doesn't exist" on Facebook

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Alexander Aan
The Guardian has a disturbing report on the plight of Alexander Aan, an Indonesian civil servant who is currently in custody and facing an 11-year prison sentence for expressing his atheism on Facebook.

In Indonesia, the law guarantees citizens freedom of religion, but only as long as they adhere to Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism or Hinduism. By expressing his atheism Aan - who posted the phrase "God doesn't exist" on a Facebook page – is held to have breached Indonesia's official state philosophy (known as the Pancasila), which requires citizens to have "Belief in the one and only God".

Aan is the first atheist to be tried for breaching this aspect of the Pancasila and, as the Guardian reports, his case has led to calls for his execution by hardline Islamists, and he was badly beaten while in custody by a mob who learned of the charges he is facing.

According to Indonesian human rights activists, Aan's case is part of a growing trend towards religious intolerance, with members of non-Muslim religious minorities also facing attack from  the country's increasingly influential religious conservatives, despite the legal protection ostensibly offered to the followers of some non-Islamic faiths.

The Guardian quotes one hardline Muslim, Zainuddin Datuk Rajo Lenggang, whose view seems emblematic of this worrying trend:
"If you are not a religious person, you might be dangerous to others, behaving without control and doing anything you like. Religion brings order. You cannot be an individualist."
Aan's plight serves as a reminder of the severe dangers non-believers face in many parts of the world. Indeed, as Alom Shaha points out in our current cover story, even in Britain atheists from some backgrounds can be afraid of being open about their beliefs, for fear of alienating their families and their wider communities. Alom argues that those atheists who have never experienced such problems need to be aware of this, and suggests that the atheist community needs to offer support to those who face being ostracised, and perhaps worse, for admitting their non-religious beliefs.

There is a Facebook page in support of Aan, and the Asian Human Rights Commission are urging people to petition the Indonesian government on his behalf.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Revealed: the world's most and least religious countries

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The Christian Post reports on new figures released by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, revealing global levels of religious belief, including the countries with the fewest and most believers.

Most religious is the Philippines, where 94 per cent of those surveyed agreed with the statement "I believe in God now, and I always have". Second placed was Chile, with 88 per cent agreeing, and third was the USA, with 81 per cent. In Britain, 37 per cent agreed with the statement.

In terms of atheism, top of the pile was the east of Germany, where 59 per cent agreed with the statement "I don't believe in  God and I never have". Second was the Czech Republic, with 51 per cent, and third was Sweden, with 32 per cent. In Britain. 20 per cent agreed with this.

(If you're wondering why Germany has been measured in terms of east and west, it's presumably explained by the fact that there is a tendency for former eastern bloc countries to have high levels of atheism, and splitting Germany in this way allows the researchers to examine that aspect.)

The survey, which examines the responses to a number of statements about religion, also looks at the strength of belief in God. Here, unsurprisingly, figures for those with strong belief are lower than the figures for general belief. The Philippines is still top, with 60 per cent expressing strong belief, with Israel in second (38 per cent) and the USA in third (35 per cent). In Britain, 10 per cent expressed a strong belief in God.

Another interesting (although perhaps unsurprising) aspect of the survey concerns the age of believers, with religiosity found to be greatest among older people.

To access the full survey, take a look at this summary from the University of Chicago website, where you can also access a detailed PDF.

Nigerian 'witch hunt' pastor suspends controversial US trips

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Publicity material for Helen Ukpabio's now-abandoned US trip
Earlier this year, we reported on a planned visit to the United States by Helen Ukpabio, a Nigerian evangelical pastor responsible for a series of threatening and dangerous campaigns in her home country against those accused of being being witches.

Ukpabio, who featured in our 2011 report on the fight against such witch hunts in Nigeria and Malawi, was planning two trips to the US – to Houston and New York – where she was planning to preach a "Marathon Deliverance" that was billed as offering her congregations the chance to "receive ... freedom from the Lord" from a number of complaints, including "witchcraft attack or oppression", possession "by mermaid spirit or other evil spirits" and "chronic and incurable diseases".

Once Ukpabio's travel plans emerged, campaigners against her activities in Africa began appealing to the US authorities to prevent her from preaching in that country. Prominent Nigerian humanist Leo Igwe, who has had many confrontations with Ukpabio and her Liberty Gospel Church, wrote that "efforts must be made to stop this evangelical throwback from spreading her diseased gospel in the US", while online campaigners called for her exclusion from the US, and set about raising money for the UK-based charity Stepping Stones Nigeria, which campaigns to protect children threatened by witch hunts in the Niger Delta region of Africa.

Now, four months after details of Ukpabio's US trip first emerged, it seems the campaign against it has paid off, with Nigerian media reporting that she will no longer be visiting the country. In a report sympathetic towards Ukpabio, the Nigerian Voice website quotes the preacher's attorney Victor Ukutt, who confirms that the trip has been cancelled, and makes a series of bizarre allegations against her opponents, including Stepping Stones, suggesting that the campaigns against her are a front for obtaining money through fraudulent means. This is a common tactic for Ukpabio, who has long dismissed the “child witch scam” as an atheist conspiracy.

While the threat to children through accusations of witchcraft may seem distant from a UK perspective, it's important to remember that such beliefs have led to cases of serious abuse in this country too. Indeed, the issue was at the top of the news agenda recently with the horrific case of 15-year-old Kristy Bamu, who was brutally murdered by close family members who were convinced that he was a witch.

In the latest issue of New Humanist, Sarah Ditum looks at how widespread cases of abuse linked to belief in witchcraft are in Britain, and asks what can be done to protect the children who are most at risk. It's a powerful and disturbing piece – please do take the time to read it.