Friday, 30 November 2012

Government rules that free schools must teach evolution

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In a welcome development for science education campaigners, the government has announced that free schools will now be required to teach evolution.

Since the implementation of the government's flagship free school policy following the general election in 2010, the approval of a number of schools run by evangelical Christian organisations has prompted concerns that pupils in state-funded schools would be taught creationism in science lessons. Campaigners, including the British Humanist Association, have long argued for firm rules requiring the proper teaching of evolution, and this will now be the case following a change to the "model funding agreement" for free schools, effective from 2013.

The new clause in the model funding agreement states:
"The Academy Trust shall make provision for the teaching of evolution as a comprehensive, coherent and extensively evidenced theory."
The development has been welcomed by the BHA's Chief Executive Andrew Copson, although he notes that there are still concerns about the fact that Christians with a track record of promoting creationism, such as those behind Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland, have received approval from the government:
"A requirement to teach evolution in free schools is an excellent additional safeguard against state-funded creationist schools and must be welcomed.

"However, we continue to be concerned about the three free schools recently approved which are supportive of teaching creationism as science and which we must worry will continue to find ways to circumvent a ban in practice."

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Two out of three winners of Blair Foundation faith film comp are atheists

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Well here's cheery news. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation held their awards for their Faith Shorts film competition on Monday, and of the three prize winners two were atheists. We're quick to jump on the TB Foundation when they promote faith guff so we should make a point of saying well done when they don't.

The event was pretty starry by all accounts – with a video message from Hugh Jackman (sporting rather nice Wolverine sideburns) and speeches from TB and Jimmy Wales (who you may know from such fund raising messages as 'give Wikipedia $5'). You can see for yourself if you want.

Of the two "atheist films" our favourite is the winner of the 18-27 category, Death Bed the Musical, the charming stop-motion animation musical by 25-year old Israeli Liat Har-Gil (below).

Accepting her prize Liat said: “I myself am not a religious person but I believe that promoting an understanding between different religions is very important and should be celebrated. I am grateful that the Foundation understood the message of my movie: the dangers of religious intolerance”.

Also worth a look is The Mirror, by 15-year-old Mudit Muraka from New Delhi, who won the Face to Faith category of the Faith Shorts film competition.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Secularism and democracy

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We like to think that one of our jobs here at New Humanist is to bring together secularists from around the world and get them into productive dialogue. While secularism and humanism are common, global values, they are inflected differently across the world and require different strategies and tactics, and much can be learned from talking to people working in different settings with different tactics.

Of course debate will also flush out disagreement.

One such case is that of American secularist Jacques Berlinerblau's new book, just published in the US, called How To Be Secular: A Call To Arms For Religious Freedom. As the title might suggest Berlinerblau is attempting to reframe the argument about secularism in the US and to distinguish secularism from atheism (a confusion that prevents the kind of cross-faith coalition that is necessary for secularism, he says). We gave the book to the prominent British secularist writer Kenan Malik to review for our current issue. This is where it got a bit tricky. Despite finding points of agreement with Berlinerblau, Malik took issue with some of its central claims. Berlinerblau asked for a right to respond, which we gave him. In his response he claimed that Malik has misread him, and taken descriptive argument for prescription.

Malik has now, in his turn, responded to that on his own blog.

I have mixed feelings about this disagreement. Not only do I like both Berlinerblau and Malik personally, but I think they represent some of the best thinking on secularism on either side of the Atlantic. I'd like them to be allies, or at least have a productive debate. Because, underneath the issues about whether Malik has misread (he insists he has not), or Berlinerblau has misrepresented Malik's criticisms (he says he hasn't), is what I think is a really interesting and important argument about what secularism is, and isn't, and how best to preserve and promote it. This argument, which emerges a few paragraphs into Malik's latest post, is about secularism's relationship to democracy, and whether and to what degree we secularists should insist on the separation of church and state as a minimum condition. These questions feed into what is an important comparative debate about secularism and politics across the world.

I hope Berlinerblau wants to respond again on the two substantive points Malik raises. We need to hear more intelligent discussion  among secularists, about how best to achieve and secure secular society. If he does respond we'll let you know.

Uganda could pass anti-gay law imminently: sign the petition to stop it

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The gay rights activist David Kato was murdered in 2011
after a national newspaper published a 'hit list' of gay Ugandans
Sign the petition calling on Uganda's legislators to withdraw the Bill

Legislation imposing strict criminal penalties on homosexuality could pass in Uganda imminently, after legislators resurrected a bill which has appeared on the country's parliamentary agenda on numerous occasions over the last three years.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was first submitted to the Ugandan parliament in 2009, and in its early stages would have allowed for the imposition of the death penalty in certain cases. When the bill was last on the agenda in May 2011 the bill's author David Bahati said capital punishment was "something we have moved away from", but the law would still have left gay Ugandans facing strict criminal penalties.

While it was hoped that the bill had perhaps disappeared for good when it was not passed last year, there has always been the danger that it would resurface, and it has been reported that Uganda's parliament speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, has suggested that it could now be passed
"as a Christmas gift" to Ugandans.

The bill has this week appeared on the Ugandan parliament's order of business as “order of business to follow”, which means that it could be debated at any time in the next few working days. If it is debated, it is expected that the country's legislators would vote in favour of its passage.

Ugandan gay rights activists have vowed to carry on resisting the bill, with Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), saying that his organisation "will continue to fight until we are free of this legislation". For campaigners in Uganda, gay rights are a life and death issue – in 2010 a national newspaper, Rolling Stone, published a list of names of gay Ugandans, alongside the headline "hang them", and in January 2011 on of SMUG's best-known activists, David Kato, was murdered in his home.

In response to the news of the possible imminent passing of the anti-gay law, a petition has been launched calling on Rebecca Kadaga and Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, to withdraw the bill. 

International outcry is widely believed to have helped prevent the bill's passage on past occasions, so it's well-worth adding your own name to the 120,000+ who have signed already.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Bad Faith Award: a last minute plea for the heir to the throne

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Can Prince Charles ascend to the throne of unreason?
Our Bad Faith Award poll closes this coming Monday, and after several weeks of voting the US Congressman Todd Akin is currently on course to take the 2012 prize, on account of his August comments regarding pregnancy and "legitimate rape".

However, in the interests of keeping the ball of unreason rolling, I thought I'd share a comment we received on the blog this morning from one of our readers, John Hind.

John was the man who put forward Prince Charles back when we were inviting nominations, arguing that the heir to the throne deserved to seize the 2012 Bad Faith crown as a special "lifetime acheivement" award for his services to irrationalism.

He returned to the blog this morning to make an impassioned last-minute plea for his fellow New Humanist readers to vote for Charles, posting a comment so good I just had to share it here. John's clearly a master electioneer when it comes to the Bad Faith game – see if he can influence your vote:
The case for Charles
You could vote for one of the usual ideological nutters from the right wing of Christianity or Islam, but at best it would be water off a duck's back and at worst the opprobrium of a bunch of, in most cases, foreign atheists would be seen as a badge of honor. By my reckoning that leaves Charles, Baroness Warsi and the Indian Catholics. Worthy candidates all!

The latter are tempting, but again the verdict of foreign atheists is unlikely to do good and may well do harm. Shaming their fellow Catholics or Christians into taking an openly critical stand might be more constructive.

Warsi would be a deserving winner, but she makes enemies easily and already has plenty. Is it worth making common cause with the thinly veiled prejudice of the backwoods of the Tory party and the (entirely unveiled) misogynists and theocrats of her own religion just to add one more voice to this discordant choir?

Or we could take this opportunity to send a last minute signal to the heir to the monarchy reminding him that multifaith does not cut it when more of your future subjects are free of faith than profess any one faith. In a constitutional monarchy, the king or queen cannot afford to take sides in any controversy; just steering clear of party politics is not enough. You cannot afford to alienate any significant group of those who must accept you even though they have no say in your selection. And it is not just faith. He openly supports all manner of irrational causes from quack medicine to the mystical, neo-feudal wing of the green movement. Hell, some of us even like contemporary architecture! Think of this as an opportunity to send a warning shot across his bows before it is too late!

Shameless personal plea: Since the editors have kindly (and uniquely) identified me personally as the sponsor of this nomination, it would be cruel indeed if I lost any chance of a place on the honors list and still failed to bag my man!

Vote Charles!
Can John's plea help raise Charles to the status of a last-minute Bad Faith usurper? Place your vote below (read up on the other nominees here), and remember – the polls close on Monday 26 November.

Is the Church of England's stance on women bishops an argument for ejecting the Bishops from the Lords?

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Martin Rowson illustrates the Bishops in
the Lords for New Humanist back in 2007
Yesterday I wrote a brief post asking for your views (i.e. non-religious views) on the Church of England's vote to continue preventing the ordination of female bishops, in which I raised a few possible atheist positions on the issue, without committing to any opinions of my own.

The truth is, I wasn't really sure what I thought about the matter. On the whole I'm fairly indifferent (why does what the Church of England does matter to me?), while believing that any organisation in receipt of public funds ought to comply with equality law and provide both men and women with access to the top jobs. Ultimately, I'd be quite keen on seeing disestablishment become a 21st-century idea – it's always puzzled me why this has been seen as a crazy idea for the past 100 years or so, rather than simple secular common sense.

For secularists, one of the most infuriating aspects of the Church's established status is the enduring presence of 26 Bishops in the House of Lords, and as such it wasn't a huge surprise this morning to see a petition going round suggesting that if the Church is unwilling to accept women bishops, it should no longer be allowed to retain its automatic seats in the Lords.

Entitled "No women Bishops, no automatic seats in the House of Lords", the petition, aimed at the Government through its official e-petitions site, says:
"The Church has chosen to be a sexist organisation by refusing women the right to hold highest leadership positions and therefore should not be allowed automatic seats in the House of Lords, as this clearly does not comply with the spirit of UK Equality law."
At first sight, this may seem like a good argument – if an organisation can't comply with equality legislation, why should it be handed seats by right in the legislature? However, in my opinion this is the wrong basis for arguing for the removal of the Bishops from the Lords, because it implies that the status of the Lords Spiritual is a problem because of the Church's structure, rather than because it is anti-secular and anti-democratic (we'll leave aside arguments about the Lords and democracy in general for now) to afford a religious domination the special privilege of 26 seats in Parliament.

While it could be argued that there are pragmatic reasons for using the women bishops decision to highlight the absurdity of Bishops in the Lords, for me it is a mistake to build an argument for their abolition around this, because it implies that if the Church of England was able to resolve the issue the presence of its clerics in our legislature would be fine.

The reason I want the Bishops out of Parliament is simple – it's because I believe that religious representatives (of any stripe) should not be given an unelected role in the legislative process, and not because I have an issue with the internal gender politics of the Church of England.

In the end, I don't really care about whether the Church allows women to be bishops. But I do care that 26 unelected clerics are afforded special privilege in the making of the laws of the land.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Taking on the miracle-mongers: Sanal Edamaruku and blasphemy in India

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Sanal Edamaruku at Church of Our Lady of Velan Kanni
in Vile Parle, Mumbai, 10 March 2012
A large audience gathered at London's Free Word Centre this lunchtime for a free event organised by the Rationalist Association and Index on Censorship in support of Sanal Edamaruku, the Indian rationalist facing blasphemy charges after he debunked a supposed miracle involving a dripping crucifix at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. The event was a panel discussion featuring Sanal alongside the retired appeals court judge Stephen Sedley, the distinguished philosopher Richard Sorabji, and the journalist Salil Tripathi, who has written widely on free speech and Hindu nationalism in India.

First to speak was Sanal Edamaruku, who began by saying that his main aim is to go back to India. He is currently staying in Europe as he faces arrest without the guarantee of bail back home, but he said he wants to go back because he has started a job that he wants to complete. There are two Indias, in Sanal's view – the modern, progressive India, and the India controlled by holy men, astrologers and tantrics, underpinned by the caste system. The modern India has to win, because an India with a prominent role on the world stage must not be controlled by the forces of reaction.

Sanal said that his aim has always been to promote the "scientific temper" in India, fulfilling one of the "fundamental duties" outlined in the country's constitution. For decades, Sanal and his colleagues in the Indian Rationalist Association have done this by promoting reason and humanism, and by going out and demonstrating the science behind supposed miracles through what they call "Rationalist Reality Theatre", which involves travelling to villages, posing as holy men, and performing "miracles" before pulling back the curtain and revealing their scientific basis.

Sanal strives to remove the fear of astrologers and holy men held by many in India, and he is able to carry out his work because the constitution protects the right to free speech, as well as the country's status as a secular state.

However, he has recently fallen foul of another aspect of India's legal system, namely the penal code established by the British colonial authorities in 1860. On 10 March this year, Sanal was invited to attend the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Velan Kanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai, in order to investigate water that was dripping from a crucifix statue. After establishing that this was water from a nearby leaking pipe that was travelling up the statue by capillary action, Sanal appeared on prime time Mumbai TV, where representatives of the church, three local Catholic groups, and the Auxiliary Bishop of Mumbai Agnelo Rufino Gracias attacked him over his debunking of the miracle. Sanal suggested to the Bishop that the Church has a long history of "miracle mongering", and laughed when the Bishop argued that science would not have spread through Europe were it not for the Catholic Church.

The next day, Sanal heard that 17 complaints had been filed against him at various police stations, all invoking Article 295a of the Indian penal code, which covers "Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs". Having been denied "anticipatory bail", which would have allowed him to stay and fight the accusations without fear of pre-trial imprisonment, Sanal has been forced to come to Europe, where he must currently remain in order to avoid arrest.

The second of the panel to speak was Stephen Sedley, who began by pointing out that we are not so far removed from India's legal situation here in the UK. We have abolished our blasphemy law, but that has effectively been replaced by the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act. So far this has not been used in an intolerant way, but it is not impossible to imagine it being used in such a way in the future.

With reference to India, Sedley outlined some relevant articles of the constitution. Article 19 guarantees freedom of speech and expression, while Article 25 guarantees freedom of religion. However, the wording does not suggest a comparable right to propagate atheism, which is a common problem around the world – freedom of religion can often imply freedom only for those who have a religion.

Regarding the Indian Penal Code and Article 295a, Sedley pointed out that one of the problems with a law protecting "religious feelings" is that those who claim to be insulted are often able to define the terrain, which puts those accused of blasphemy and giving offence on the back foot.

Next, Professor Richard Sorabji examined some of the philosophical problems around free speech. He spoke of the American case, where many believe in the uninhibited right to free speech, and asked whether there does need to be some restriction in order to protect weak groups. Can we find a balance which would prevent the misuse of the law in order to prosecute someone like Sanal, whose intention was clearly to speak out against fraud, while protecting weak groups from oppression by the majority?

Sorabji said he previously thought "malicious intent" could be a sufficient protection, but in light of Sanal's case (Article 295a refers to "malicious acts") he is now unsure whether that is enough. Perhaps there needs to be a clause in hate speech laws which protects "reasonable argument"?

The last of the panel to speak was Salil Tripathi, who talked about what he described as a "bleak scenario" surrounding Hindu nationalism in India. He referred to an incident that occurred this week following the death of the Hindu nationalist leader Bal Thackeray, when a girl was arrested for posting an innocuous Facebook status update criticising the closing of businesses for a day because of his death. (Staggeringly, her friend was also arrested for "liking" the status.) Tripathi said that the limits of free speech in India are no longer defined by the law, but by bullies and thugs. There is a problem with the supposed "reasonable restrictions" on free speech, because they are no longer applied in a reasonable way.

Finally, Sanal Edamaruku spoke again to outline where his case goes next. He said that he has two options. The first is to reach an agreement with the Catholic complainants. The Archbishop of Bombay, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, has said that if Sanal apologises for the "offence" he has caused then he will see to it that the complaints are withdrawn (the Catholic authorities in Mumbai have denied that they have had any involvement in the complaints, but Sanal sees this as evidence of their influence).

However, Sanal will not apologise, because he has done nothing wrong. He wishes to fight the complaints, and would like to go to the Indian Supreme Court, where he can demonstrate that Article 295a is in direct conflict with the right to freedom of expression enshrined in India's constitution. He will continue to push for anticipatory bail, which would enable him to return to home to Delhi and fight the case, while continuing his wider work of advancing rationalism in India.

Please sign our petition in support of Sanal Edamaruku, and consider donating to his defence fund

Church of England rejects women bishops: what do you think?

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Last night, the General Synod of the Church of England voted, by a margin of just six votes, not to allow the introduction of women bishops.

Two of the three houses of the General Synod – the bishops and the clergy – had voted in favour of women bishops by the required two thirds majority, but in the third house, the laity, 132 votes in favour and 74 against meant that the vote fell six short of the required majority.

It's a highly controversial decision which has seen the Church condemned as being out of touch with 21st century society, but where should an atheist stand?

There are quite a few ways of looking at it. If you're the sort of atheist who is strongly opposed to religious institutions, perhaps you will be glad to see the established Church being exposed as a reactionary institution in this way.

Or, to take a different slant on that, if you're less interested in what religious institutions get up to, perhaps you find it hard to really care what happens within a Church whose relevancy to national life has been declining for several decades.

But then there's the equality argument. The government has suggested that it will not use equality legislation to force the Church to accept women bishops, but shouldn't all employers, particularly those in receipt of public funds, be forced to comply with equality law?

And what of the Church's position as the Established church? If it wants to continue as such, surely it has to comply with equality law?

Which brings us to a final thought – if the Church has decided to take this reactionary path, surely the time has come for a serious debate about a grand old idea: disestablishment.

Those are just a few quick thoughts on how an atheist might view this story. We're keen to hear what you have to say – please do let us know in the comments.

Pope slams Xmas fun!

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At this time of year, atheists are well accustomed to being accused of waging a "War on Christmas", draining the fun from the festive season in the name of political correctness and godless spite.

And now, if it's even possible to acquire an ally in a war you're not actually waging, we have just acquired the most unlikely ally of all – the Pope.

With what might just be my favourite tabloid headline of the year, the Daily Mail has turned on the head of the Catholic Church, declaring that "Killjoy Pope crushes Christmas crib traditions".

Apparently, Benedict XVI has written a new book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, in which he points out that the tradition of displaying oxen and donkeys in nativity scenes has no grounding in scripture. He also says that there is no basis for believing that angels sang to the shepherds to announce the birth of Christ, thereby undermining the traditional reason for the singing of carols.

However, while he may be prepared to question the traditions of oxen and carols, the Mail is able to report that "there is one part of the Nativity story he is firm on - that Mary was a virgin and Christ was conceived with the Holy Spirit alone."

Next week: Killjoy bear crushes forest traditions – but holds firm on bathroom arrangements.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Is a solar eclipse a "cosmic coincidence"?

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The solar eclipse of 13 November 2012, photographed by Francisco Diego
When a total solar eclipse occurred over Australasia and the south Pacific last Tuesday, 13 November, the Daily Telegraph's blogging vicar, Rev Peter Mullen, used it as an opportunity to chide Richard Dawkins (and by extension all atheists, of whom he is the official representative) for his belief that such spectacular occurrences are the mere result of "cosmic coincidence".
"The sun is huge and ninety-three million miles away and the small moon is in our backyard, a mere quarter of a million miles away. Yet in an eclipse their discs precisely cover each other. Don’t therefore imagine that anyone designed it that way. It’s just a cosmic coincidence, isn’t it, Professor Dawkins?"
Well, actually Rev Mullen, that's precisely what it is. A few days after the eclipse, we received an email from our friend Dr Francisco Diego, Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at University College London, who had been in northern Australia on a field trip to observe the eclipse.

In addition to attaching this stunning photograph of the corona at the moment of eclipse, Francisco sent us a short refutation of Rev Mullen's piece, which he'd read while staying in Singapore on his way back to London:
"I read with interest Rev Mullen's comments about the total solar eclipse I just saw from the Australian bush. I agree that this kind of news has an uplifting effect compared with what we do to our planet and our fellow human beings.
Yes, the event has effects in some of us that go beyond the scientific opportunity to better understand the Sun. This was my 20th eclipse expedition and still I experience those feelings of primeval terror when the daytime landscape plunges into darkness in only seconds and the sun goes away to be replaced by what looks like a sinister cosmic eye. Nature gives us amazing displays that hit the core of our deep emotions, inspiring a kind of spirituality without the need of supernatural intervention.

If Rev Mullen thinks that the AVERAGE similarity of apparent sizes between the sun and the moon that we see today goes beyond a simple coincidence, I feel that he should be aware of the way the Solar System formed and the cataclysmic way the moon formed. There are plenty of cosmic coincidences in these processes. But there is another one: it has been measured that the distance from the earth to the moon is increasing a few centimetres every year, so in the future, the moon will be so far away that its apparent size will not be enough to cover the sun completely.

Yes, Rev Mullen, it is a natural coincidence, for the time being."

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Download our exclusive Martin Rowson Christmas cards

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Celebrate Christmas the rational way by downloading three exclusive cards by top cartoonist Martin Rowson, which appeared in the November issue of New Humanist.

We've laid them out on A4 PDFs, so all you need to do is get them printed and folded and start sending them out to your friends, family members and local clergy.

Simply follow this link, where you can download all three cards – they're free, but we're asking you to consider making an honesty-box donation to help us keep speaking up for reason and freethought through 2013 and beyond.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Sanal Edamaruku event in London, 21 November 2012

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Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the ongoing legal difficulties being experienced by the Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku, who is currently staying in Europe in order to avoid arrest at home, following legal complaints filed against him by Catholic groups after he exposed a supposed miracle involving a dripping crucifix at a church in Mumbai. We launched a petition in June calling on those groups to drop their complaints, and at the time of writing it has received more than 11,00 signatures.

We're pleased to announce that Sanal will be visiting London next week, and on Wednesday 21 November he will be speaking at a special lunchtime event at the Free Word Centre, organised by the Rationalist Association and Index on Censorship.

Sanal will talk about his distinguished career fighting superstition and India's powerful gurus, the current case brought against him by the Catholic Church and why he thinks it could prove a turning point in Indian law.

Joining Sanal will be a panel of experts, including High Court Judge Stephen Sedley, historioan Professor Richard Sorabji, journalist and novelist Salil Tripathi and free speech campaigners, to discuss the implications of the case for the future of blasphemy in India and beyond.

It's a free event (with the option to make a voluntary donation to his legal defence fund on the day), and will take place at the Free Word Centre, London, EC1R 3GA from 1.00pm to 2.30pm. Places are extremely limited, so please book your ticket now to avoid disappointment.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The new archbishop - a random vicar's view

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Justin Welby is set to be appointed
Archbishop of Cabterbury

So there I was cycling down London's Borough High Street when I spot a vicar. Having just heard on the Today Programme that the Church of England – or whatever strange star chamber they get to decide these things – are poised to appoint Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, I thought I'd grab the opportunity to find out what this man of the cloth made of the new guy.

So I flagged him down. Turns out it was "Father David" from St John The Divine in Kennington, a church on the (usually quite conservative) Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism (all the popery without the Pope). He was very nice and willing to talk.

Here's a prĂ©cis of what he said: He didn't know too much about Welby – Welby has only been a Bishop for a year – but he was aware that he has a background as an oil executive, and that he is from the evangelical wing of Anglicanism. Though this could seem to be a step toward conservatism, after the relatively liberal days of Rowan Williams, Father David thought it was to be expected: appointments usually follow a pendulum pattern, swinging between liberal and traditionalist to keep all the factions happy. Father David told me that Welby was very much a "product of Holy Trinity Brompton" meaning he really is an evangelical Alpha course type of guy. This, plus his business background, makes him, in Father David's view, a "thoroughly modern man" and therefore a good thing for the church (slight implication that Williams was too other-worldly,  not cut out for the cut and thrust of being a CEO of GodUK Inc? I think so).

I asked him whether he thought that having someone like that at the head of the church, someone associated with the success evangelical churches have had bucking the trend for dwindling congregations. He went into defensive mode (I felt I might have touched a nerve regarding his own not-full pews), suggesting he didn't judge the success of the church on the criteria of bums on pews (my words not his).

And on the hot button issues threatening to tear the Anglican communion apart? Welby is pro the ordination of women – which pleased Father David as he is too – but not gay marriage. So he's a compromise candidate. But will he be strong enough to hold together the fractious communion? "The church", Father David told me, "has always enjoyed schisms". (Nice use of the word "enjoyed" I thought).

So there you have it, the thoughts of a random vicar on his new boss. For my part I know little about him but look forward to seeing how he fares, and of course, I'm delighted that one more senior position in the British establishment has been bagged by an old Etonian.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Jonathan Miller in conversation with Laurie Taylor: listen in full

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Jonathan Miller in conversation with Laurie Taylor,
photographed by Des Willie
On Friday 19 October we held a very successful event at London's Bishopsgate Institute in London, featuring the President of the Rationalist Association in conversation with Laurie Taylor.

Entitled "A Reasonable Life", the aim of the event was to cover Miller's life, work and commitment to reason, and the result was a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion with Laurie Taylor, featuring everything from Beyond the Fringe (with bonus Peter Cook impressions) to opera, Shakespeare, philosophy and medicine.

We've uploaded the full audio recording (1 hour, 22 minutes) as a special podcast, so please do sit back and enjoy hearing about the extraordinary 60-year career of one of our great intellectuals.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Hey! Wanna be a movie producer?

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It's been a bit of an Iain Banks Appreciation Society at our office recently. I've long been a fan of his "literary" fiction, since I read Song of Stones and Complicity years ago, and I really enjoyed his recent coming of age novel Stonemouth. Meanwhile Paul, the News Editor, has been steaming his way through the sci-fi, which is published under the name Iain M Banks. Paul's deep into the Culture series and persuaded me to give them a go - I'm Use of Weapons and Player of Games to the good and embarking on Excession next (wish me luck). I guess you could say we're fans. But it's not just his books. It's also the fact that he's a thoroughly decent bloke – as can be gleaned from this interview we did with him in July – and, as of September a fully signed up Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association. He even said that New Humanist was his favourite magazine. Dude!

All of which meant we were delighted to see that there is a project afoot to make one of Banks' short stories into a film. Independent producers Paranoid Android, with a track record in low budget Zombie films, have optioned the story Piece from Banks himself (it cost them the price of a pint apparently. Like I said Dude!) and plan to start filming in December. They've already got Sean Pertwee on board and they aspire to make an Indie short with high production values for the festival circuit. 

You can hear a short interview I did with Rob Jones from Paranoid Android in our latest podcast. Since they are a small independent they need money for the shoot, so they've set up a Kickstarter page to crowd source funding for the film. Don't miss your chance to invest. They are already more than a quarter of the way to their target of $20,000, and with your help they'll reach their target within the required 43 days, and start shooting before the end of the year. We'll keep you posted.

Rob Leese Jones from Paranoid Android is interviewed about the project in our latest podcast - have a listen from 7 minutes 20 seconds in.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Mitt Romney: "Over a thousand years the world is reigned in two places: Jerusalem and Missouri"

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As Abby Ohlheiser outlines in her feature in our new issue, while both candidates have been pitching for the religious vote in next week's US Presidential election, they have largely steered clear of discussing their own faith. There are various reasons for this, but one of them is rather obvious – it's an issue that has the potential to embarrass the candidates, and therefore it's prudent to avoid the issue.

This is true for Barack Obama, whose past association with the pastor Jeremiah Wright caused problems for him during the 2008 campaign, and perhaps even more true for Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith is considered by many to be a cult outside of the mainstream of Christianity in the US.

And now, just five days before the election, proof of just how embarrassing Mormonism has the potential to be for Romney has emerged in the form of a video of the candidate explaining his beliefs in a radio studio, apparently off-air. I've embedded the fill clip below so you can see for yourself, but here's the stand out quote:
"Christ appears in the Mount of Olives, and splits the Mount of Olives and appears in Jerusalem. That's what the Church says. And then over a thousand years, the world is reigned in two places, Jerusalem and Missouri."
It's certainly an interesting perspective when you're campaigning to lead the world's foremost military power.

Update 2 November: There's a longer version of the video too, which is well-worth watching. Thanks to 5ecular4umanist in the comments for linking to it.

Bad Faith Award 2012: place your vote now

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The time has finally come to tell us who you think deserves to win our 2012 Bad Faith Award, and join a roster of laureates that includes Nadine Dorries, Sarah Palin and Pope Benedict XVI.

You've had several weeks to tell us who you think should be included in the final poll and, through a high-level, albeit possibly fictitious, conference held just this morning between our editorial staff and our in-house bookmakers, we have produced a shortlist from which you now must choose.

Who will be crowned 2012's leading enemy of reason? Examine the shortlist (listed in alphabetical order) and make your choice by voting in the poll below.

Todd Akin: The US Congressman,who represents Missouri's second district, caused a storm in August after he appeared on a local news station to discuss his anti-abortion position. Asked for his view on whether women who become pregnant as a result of rape should have access to abortion, Akin said: "... from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child". Akin later apologised, but his comments have been widely cited during the US election campaign as an example of the so-called Republican "war on women".

Ghulam Ahmed Bilour: There was no shortage of bad faith on both sides as the crude anti-Islamic video Innocence of Muslims prompted a global wave of riots and bloodshed this September, but Pakistan's Railway Minister marked himself out as a spokesperson for stupidity when he appeared on national television to place a bounty on the heads of those who had made the video and call on the militant groups currently engaged in trying to topple his government to carry out the murders. "I invite the Taliban brothers and the al-Qaeda brothers that they should join me in this sacred mission," he told a press conference. "Along with others, they should also join in the good work. And God willing, whoever is successful I will present one lac dollars (100,000 U.S. dollars) to him."

Lord Carey: The former Archbishop of Canterbury has been on fine form this year in his current guise as right-wing newspaper pundit and outspoken opponent of gay marriage. In April he declared that it “is now Christians who are persecuted” in Britain, “often sought out and framed by homosexual activists”, despite having written in the Daily Mail two months earlier that "British Christians are not being persecuted, as some have said".

Prince Charles: Special thanks to blog reader John Hind, who nominated the heir to the throne for a“lifetime achievement” award. Here’s his reasoning: “there can be few other candidates with such a broad, multi-disciplinary record for irrationality and for shamelessly exploiting his inherited position to advance irrational causes,  from his trenchant support of quack medicine and his jumping aboard every anti-scientific bandwagon, to his indiscriminate support of ‘faith’ against secular values.”

Joseph Dias and the Catholic Church in Mumbai: One of the big stories that we have covered on this blog this year concerns the plight of the President of the Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal Edamaruku, who has had to leave India in order to avoid arrest and imprisonment for “deliberately hurting religious feelings" after he debunked a supposed miracle involving a dripping crucifix at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. You can read more about the case on the page for the petition we started in his defence. It's hard to pick one individual to nominate for the Bad Faith Award for helping to bring this illiberal and misguided case against Edamaruku, hence the collective nomination of Mumbai's Catholic authorities, but one individual who does stand out is Joseph Dias, founder of the Mumbai Catholic Secular Forum - he was one of the people who filed a police complaint, and has said he will only withdraw it if Edamaruku apologises for the offence he has caused.

Nelson McCausland: Northern Ireland's former Culture Minister, who hails from the Democratic Unionist Party, was nominated by one of our readers, who suggested that her home country "probably have more suitable candidates [for the award] per head of population than the rest of the UK". She selected Causland because his influence on Ulster politics helped lead to this summer's fiasco around the National Trust's Giant's Causeway exhibition, which featured a controversial reference to Young Earth Creationism. McCausland appealed to Northern Ireland's museums to give greater prominence to creationist views when serving as Culture Minister in 2010, and appeared to have been listened to by the designers of the Causeway exhibition before public outcry led to a redesign this summer.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien: Ever the bridesmaid, the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland has been nominated for the award in the past, but he has surely increased his chances in 2012 with his campaigning against gay marriage. In March he likened the marriage reforms to the legalisation of slavery, and suggested it may be “time now to call a halt to what you might call ‘progress’ in society”.

Baroness Warsi: Another past contender, the former Tory party chair and recently appointed “Minister for Faith” secured a position as one of the favourites for the 2012 award when she used a visit to the Vatican to say that “a militant secularisation is taking hold” in Britain which “demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes.”

So, those are your choices – place your vote now. Poll will close at 9am on Monday 26 November.