The View from Number 80




Backwards Glances Index 2008 part 3


A word of warning - owing to the Weekly Glance's attempted topicality some of the links below may be even more ephemeral than usual.

(Tip - a search for cached versions of missing sites is often productive using either Google or The Internet Archive Way Back Machine.)


September 24th 2008  Muslim Barbie

September 29th 2008  Not Good Enough

September 30th 2008  Welcome To Saudi Britain

October 6th 2008  The Stock Exchange Has A What?

October 9th 2008  The Farce Is With You

October 12th 2008  Stop Sharia Law In Britain

October 21st 2008  Extreme Fear

October 25th 2008  Meeting Of Mystery Mongers

October 28th 2008  What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

November 6th 2008  New Broom Old Problems

November 12th 2008  A Sock Puppet's Cunning Strategy

November 26th 2008  Sharia, Again

November 30th 2008  UFO Nuttery

December 7th 2008  Suffer The Little Children

December 13th 2008  Dignity

December 14th 2008  Scorched Earth

December 22nd 2008  Up Chuck

December 23rd 2008  'Tis No Season To Be Jolly

December 27th 2008  Fields Of Fancy

September 24th 2008

Muslim Barbie - the anti-vice authorities in some Muslim countries have long had, in 80's view, an unhealthy obsession with Barbie dolls. (80 has speculated before about just what the Saudi enforcers do with their confiscated Barbies) So heinous is the Barbie (and Ken) threat to the innocent minds of children the oh-so-caring government of Iran has actually secured its own Islamic versions, Dara and Sara. Even the men in that country have little control of their libido when confronted with the diminutive Western siren, for the Telegraph tells us "Toy seller Masoumeh Rahimi welcomed the dolls, noting that the image of Barbie as buxom, blonde and wearing revealing clothing was "more harmful than an American missile." Quite what Ken, Barbie's male companion does to the womenfolk is tastefully not mentioned This all sounds wonderful and there is only one point on which 80 would like to complain. The report further informs us "Around 100,000 dolls have been manufactured in China and each will sell for 125,000 rials (£7)" What!! This is outrageous! How dare they charge the same for a female doll as a male one. Everybody knows that women are of less worth than men so Sara should be half the price.

Spooked - is this a new ploy to default on mortgage payments or just plain idiocy? Anwar Rashid, a "millionaire businessman" according to the Telegraph, and his wife have "given back" their £3.6 million mansion, Clifton Hall to their mortgage provider. The reason? The place is haunted - Rashid claims that screams were heard, "...mysterious figures which took the form of their children" were seen, and the final straw "When we found red blood spots on the baby's quilt, that was the day my wife said she'd had enough." We are not told if the couple bothered to have the stains examined to see if they really were blood, or whether they recorded the screams or photographed the "mysterious figures". It is a shame the family moved out instead of calling in some ghostbusters. It would have made great reality TV with two investigative teams hunting out the spooks, one headed by Derek Acorah and the other by Richard Wiseman. What a missed opportunity.

Vote For Palin - Michael, that is. See this video for his qualifications.

Blair's Blather - "Bits of religion are very extreme, and the other you can see in the work that faith groups do to alleviate poverty and disease and do great things in the world. So the question is, in the 21st century, which predominates: the good part that brings them together, or the bad part that pulls them apart?" Tony Blair on the Daily Show. Going on current events it is bloody obvious which type of religion is dominating the opening years of the 21st century - the Smirking One's Faith Foundation will have its work cut out fighting fire with fire. Religious faith is based upon one group claiming an exclusive hotline to the deity and the possession of truths unattainable to other groups. It is by its very nature divisive. Even if it is not a root cause of many conflicts it makes it easy to label those of different faiths as being "other" - not one of us - and thereby not deserving of the same consideration extended to fellow religionists. Even Blair's magical godman is on record displaying such a bias - see the story of the Syrophoenecian woman in the New Testament, Mark 7:27. If Jesus, the sinless perfect being, is initially unwilling to help someone of another faith what hope is there for ordinary mortals?

Religious Truth - "All religions make claims to truth, even when they disavow the use of coercion or force to bring others to those truths. Truth claims by their nature necessitate disagreement." Austin Dacey, Center for Inquiry (CFI) main representative at the UN, New York addressing the UN Human Rights Commission. Read more here of how the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an umbrella organization of 57 Islamic states, is attempting to subvert and warp the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in order to stifle criticism (defame in their words) of their religion. Also see The OIC does not speak for Muslims from Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress.

Lord of Light - here is a charming little snap brought to 80's attention by a letter in the National Secular Society's free weekly email newsletter, Newsline. (Thanks to Peter Hearty)

The Difference Between Men and Women - is explained here. Our charming expositor describes how men think before speaking and women, well women don't. Can we say ignorant, arrogant sexist creep? Yes we can. Apparently he is a Saudi cleric. Who'd have guessed?

Guardian Angels - are so outmoded. When the 21st century Pope Ratzinger is out and about he needs something he can really trust to keep a watchful eye on his holy person. Rather than employ the conventional feathered protector at his recent gig in Lourdes we are informed that Ratzinger had the services of an Eagle 1 surveillance drone. No doubt had he not been greeted with the right degree of fawning servility by his flock he could have called down a missile strike. Hellfire, anyone? Meanwhile "More than half of all Americans believe they have been helped by a guardian angel in the course of their lives, according to a new poll by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion. In a poll of 1700 respondents, 55% answered affirmatively to the statement, "I was protected from harm by a guardian angel."" An academic said of the poll ""Americans live in an enchanted world," and engage in a kind of casual mysticism independent of established religious ritual, doctrine or theology."

Slippery Slope to Sharia - “The MCB supports these tribunals. If the Jewish courts are allowed to flourish, so must the sharia ones.” Inayat Bunglawala, assistant secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain quoted in the Times. A blatant example of me-tooism and a good reason to ban all religious courts. (Also see Sharia courts are extending their reach)

Sharia: Sham Justice - “I think it’s appalling. I don’t think arbitration that is done by sharia should ever be endorsed or enforced by the British state.” Douglas Murray, the director of the Centre for Social Cohesion quoted in the Times

September 29th 2008

Not Good Enough - the Times this morning has two reports that are typical examples of sloppy journalism. The first concerns a campaign by the Church of England to get bums on pews. We are told “This week bishops across the country extended a special invitation to people who used to go to church, but have stopped for whatever reason, to come back." This is all very well but the opening sentence of the piece goes thus "Thousands of newcomers were welcomed into congregations yesterday as part of Back to Church Sunday". Who says? Where is the source for this assertion? There isn't one - no doubt we are supposed to take it on faith. This is not good enough, you cannot casually refer to "thousands" without substantiating the claim. It remains to be seen if any accurate, audited figures will be made available - don't hold your breath.

The second item, about grid computing, is on that paper's Tech and Web section. The first paragraph somewhat breathlessly proclaims, "The dawn of a new internet age has begun. A network of supercomputers, known as the Grid, is to revolutionise the speed at which information is downloaded to personal computers"  Cobblers. This version of the Grid, as far as 80 can ascertain, is to handle the huge amount of data generated by experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It will not, cannot, make downloads to home computers any faster, only upgrading the creaking telecoms infrastructure can do this. Many of the folk using ADSL broadband over their phone line, at least in the UK, will need the cable running into their house replaced by optic fiber before any real speed boost is achieved. The "Grid" has nothing to do with it. (also see Don’t let the facts spoil a good story by Ben "Bad Science" Goldacre)

Psychic Warfare Movie - among reports of the military dabbling in the paranormal The Men Who Stare at Goats is surely one of the strangest. 80 wrote about a TV documentary series back in 2004 which looked at such nonsense as remote viewing, walking through walls and a guy who claimed he could "drop" a goat with his mind. Now Jon Ronson's book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, the basis for the series, is to be filmed with none other than George Clooney, Kevin Spacey Jeff Bridges and Ewan McGregor. It is not known who will play Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon, a Vietnam vet who, the Guardian tells us, "...had returned from Vietnam determined to find non-violent means of waging war. He came up with the First Earth Battalion, a force that would carry lambs, wear monks' hoods and play soothing music to the enemy through loudspeakers."

Quote - "I would like people who think more like me to understand that it is OK to stand up and say, 'We're not the crazy ones. The crazy ones are the people with the talking snake.' " Bill Maher in an article on on his movie Religulous. See here for some reviews of a film described as a "spiritual journey" and as a "...piece of agitprop op-ed filmmaking, Religulous is often brilliant."

It's Time for Science and Reason - is an excellent promotional video from the Center for Inquiry (CFI). "The methods and values of scientific thinking have expanded our knowledge about life and our place in the universe. This modern knowledge—based on experience and evidence—has brought enormous benefit to humanity, yet many people still choose to rely on ancient texts and beliefs to guide their lives and their nations.The Center for Inquiry exists to change this situation. We are here to promote the scientific outlook, to expand the methods and values of science into all areas of human endeavor." Many more CFI videos can be found here and the Point of Inquiry podcasts are available here and constitute a valuable resource.

A Load of Crap - so afraid have we become of upsetting various religionists and their demands for special treatment the Olympic Delivery Authority, the bunch organizing that monumental and near criminal waste of money otherwise known as the London 2012 Olympics, has been micro-managing the seating arrangements. Not those in the various stadia you understand but the ones used for defecation. The Telegraph informs us that "Public conveniences are being specially designed at London's Olympic Park so Muslims will not have to face Mecca while sitting on the loo." Also, for those suffering from prayer incontinence, "...special washing facilities will be linked to Islamic prayer rooms."

Elsewhere 80 has helpfully suggested that those concerned about such things should carry a compass to check whether the toilet is facing in an acceptable direction. If it is not but is the only one available and nature's call is pressing, then they could sit on the thing backwards. See? A simple, reasonable, and, in these straitened times, cheap alternative. 80 has written of the problems of accomodating the dumping devout before (see Mind Boggling Bog Business) in which he suggested the use of swivelling toilets but "Then it came to mind that this had already been achieved in literary fashion within the pages of Spike Milligan's glorious Puckoon, ".....and even greater delight the whole Easence was mounted on ball-bearings. A control valve shaped like the crown of Hungary would release steam power that would revolve the commode. There had been a time when the Count had aborted revolving at sixty miles an hour and been given a medal by the Pope". It is certainly an arresting image... (Also see Einstein vs. Islam vs. Toilets for an examination of the problem of orifice orientation)

A Watchful Eye - we hear constantly of the (very real) erosion of civil liberties brought about by the so-called "War on Terror". The Islamist bogeyman has been used as an excuse by the authorities for the widespread use of Big Brother style surveillance and data collecting in many countries, countries that used to pride themselves on their citizens' freedom. For a graphic illustration of how widespread this spying is take a look at The 2007 International Privacy Ranking. As the bard said "...all the worlds a stage" and the spotlight is on you. Are you ready for your closeup?

Witchproof? - a candidate for high office can't be too careful when it comes to malign forces, such as terrorists, homegrown nuts, and the press asking fool questions like "Do you have any qualifications at all for the job?". Here's a threat you may have missed - witchcraft. Well luckily Sarah Palin is probably the only American politician to have been made witchproof - perhaps that is a qualification of a sort...

September 30th 2008

Welcome To Saudi Britain - is the latest video from the estimable Pat Condell. The petition he mentions is Stop Islamic Sharia Law being used in Great Britain. Please sign it, it may be the best thing you have done all year. Update - someone is not too keen on Pat exercising his freedom of speech. The video has been pulled although all past videos are still there. Thanks a bunch, You Tube. Never mind, you'll just have to see it here on Pat's own site. Update - The National Secular Society has written to You Tube protesting the removal of the video. The NSS says that "The Video had over 40,000 hits in the 24 hours that it was up on Youtube and it was the top-rated video on the whole of Youtube."  and that "Other users are posting the video back on to Youtube using their own accounts."  Update to the update - YouTube have bowed to public pressure and restored the video.

The Wrong Rights? - they are called Human Rights, not Men's Rights, not Religious Rights, not Religious Men's Rights. They are there for human beings, for people, and not for religions. It is humans that are protected, not the beliefs they hold, which have to take their own chances in the world of ideas. This is the opposite to the stance taken by those staunch upholders of human freedom and dignity the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) which is pushing hard to place its religion beyond criticism by subverting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and coming up with the oxymoronic Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. This allows them to enshrine the arbitrary, inequitable, misogynist and homophobic sharia law as the basis for Islamic human rights. This excerpt from the Center for Inquiry (CFI) report Islam and human rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations is well worth reading in order to understand the extent of the problem. (The full report is here as a PDF file). Things are certainly not helped when governments, such as that in the UK, allow sharia law courts in by the back door, effectively stripping British Muslim women of their human rights. The UHDR is, in 80's view, one of the most important documents ever published and to have these unrepresentative governments chip away at it in the name of religion is not acceptable. To quote the above-mentioned CFI report "A central tenet of international human rights law is that persons are equal in dignity and rights. By citing shari’ah as the source of law and a constraint on individual freedom and rights, the IHR literature makes a presumption of inequality in rights, for under classical shari’ah, there is no equality in rights for women, non-Muslims, and apostates. The IHR literature does nothing to remove this presumption. As a result, the only plausible way to understand the IHR movement, despite public statements regarding its compatibility with international standards, is that it seeks to use the instrument of Islamic law to curtail the equality in rights accorded to women and non-Muslims by those standards." (Also see Human Rights and Human Wrongs and and Islamic Law versus Human Rights from the International Humanist and Ethical Union. A video from CFI called Islam Rewrites UN Declaration of Human Rights is here)

Right To Offend? - on a related note to the above we have a letter in the Guardian regarding the row over the publication of the book The Jewel of Medina, a romantic novel by journalist Sherry Jones based on the story of the Islamic founder Muhammad and his child bride Aisha. The original publishers withdrew following some, to employ an earthy turn of phrase, shit-stirring by an American academic. This person, Denise Spellberg, took it upon herself to "warn" Muslims of the book. Not only that, she was quoted in an interview thus "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography." That use of the word pornography is a deliberate provocation to those already hypersensitive to any perceived insult to their prophet. Although it cannot be construed as connected directly to Spellberg's actions it is certainly noteworthy that the publisher, Martin Rynja, who took the novel on after its rejection by Random House, has now had his house firebombed. This is part and parcel of a general attempt to stifle free speech and should be seen in the same light as the Islamic Human Rights nonsense above. It is apparently not good enough for all humans to be on a level playing field - this group wants its supernatural beliefs placed beyond scrutiny as well.

The Guardian letter is from a Charlie Gere from the Institute for Cultural Research, Lancaster University. Gere wants to equate Jones' book, a historical romance, with "...denying the Holocaust, or advocating paedophilia, or race hate, or antisemitism, or violence against women?" This is a ridiculous overreaction. The problem is, to quote the excellent Pat Condell, that Islam has a chip on its shoulder the size of a mosque and has discovered that violence, or the mere threat of violence, works wonders in curbing free speech. This has triggered a spate of me too, bandwagon-jumping by supernaturalists of every stripe all calling for respect for their irrational beliefs so that as well as "Islamophobia" we also have "Christianophobia" and other idiotic, inaccurate neologisms. Free speech means people are always going to be offended.

To take one of Gere's references, Holocaust Denial is something, in 80's view, on a par with the claim the Apollo missions were a hoax. To deny the Holocaust is pathetic and very, very stupid given the abundant evidence, but it should not be criminalized. This is the mistake made by the Austrians in the case of writer/fantasist David Irving where the authorities prosecuted him for "...trivialising, grossly playing down and denying the Holocaust". By doing so they handed the Islamists and their apologists a stick with which to beat free speech advocates ever since. Gere indirectly refers to this "The issue with this book and others that have offended Muslims, including The Satanic Verses, is that their publication is liable to give Muslims the possibly correct impression that a culture riddled with its own shibboleths, taboos and areas of interdiction does not consider it a problem to offend their sensitivities, not least by trivialising their religion and their culture in works of fiction. This is far worse than being anti-Muslim. It treats Muslim sensitivities as being beneath consideration. No wonder they are angry." One cannot restrict the natural discourse of a free society just in case some religionist or other is going to take offence - democracy cannot walk  on eggshells. Muslims may well have a right to be angry - but no one has a right to firebomb. (Update - see this response to Gere and an editorial on the Jewel affair. Also see this piece from Kenan Malik on a culture of self-censorship)

October 6th 2008

The Stock Exchange Has A WHAT? - in the current turbulent times with everyone tightening their belts the London Stock Exchange retains a post vital to its proper functioning - a chaplain. Yes, I kid you not, the Temple of Mammon has its very own god-botherer, Rev Peter Mullen, who gives every impression of being a few sandwiches short of a picnic. The Register informs us that Mullen, earlier this year, posted the following on his blog "It is time that religious believers began to recommend ... discouragements of homosexual practices after the style of warnings on cigarette packets. Let us make it obligatory for homosexuals to have their backsides tattooed with the slogan SODOMY CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH and their chins with FELLATIO KILLS." Strange the old boy thinks fellatio (and sodomy for that matter) is an exclusively gay activity - maybe that is just one of his little fantasies. It has always seemed to 80 that those who loudly condemn homosexuality are reacting against their own conflicted feelings. This is not to suggest that Mullen would like to take a walk on the wild side, but he would be in good company if he did.

The Register also points us toward this page in the Times where Mullen, who is also rector of St Sepulchre without Newgate and St Michael's Cornhill, fulminates against secularism, "Far worse than the threat from international terrorism is the aggressive process of secularisation that has gripped our country, and most of Europe, and which is becoming ever more frenzied.". So it was secularists that bombed the tube and the No.30 bus in 2005, was it? He also disapproves of womens' right to choose whether to have a child, saying that "...abortion in fact as merely another form of contraception. So now 200,000 embryos every year are ripped, untimely, from the womb just because people fear that a child would interfere with their lifestyle." Not too hot on the empathy front, is he? Any evidence to support the "abortion as contraceptive" calumny? Of course not. Any visible sympathy for women facing a dreadful predicament? Not from Mullen, he is full of fire and brimstone, busy dispensing condemnation in all directions.

He didn't even enjoy Gay Pride, assuming his catty reference applies to that celebration, "But now the love which once dare not speak its name, shrieks at us in high camp from decorated floats along the high street." Speak for yourself, ducky. World class bigot he may be, but 80 keeps coming back to his day job. Of what possible good is a chaplain to the London Stock Exchange? The mind boggles. His prayers don't seem to have sheltered that establishment from the current stormy blast. Mullen, now that his vile rantings have reached a wider audience than he perhaps intended, is now trying his hand at weaselly backpedalling "I wrote some satirical things on my blog and anybody with an ounce of sense of humour or any understanding of the tradition of English satire would immediately assume that they're light-hearted jokes." Oh that's alright then - no one should take him seriously because he retroactively labels his intemperate mouthings "light-hearted jokes". Not only a bigot, but one without courage in his convictions. (Naturally, in the above paragraphs 80 is joking in the tradition of English satire and any apparent accusations of bigotry are, in fact, light-hearted jokes.)

Saudi Cyclops Silliness - Saudi Arabia doesn't have a monopoly on misogynist pillocks but it is certainly a world leader. Perhaps they should export them. Damn, they already have. After this simpleton and his childish slur on women's intelligence we now have another loony who apparently thinks women should have no depth perception. No doubt only men can cope with all three dimensions, two is enough for women. According to this BBC report Sheikh Muhammad al-Habadan "...has called on women to wear a full veil, or niqab, that reveals only one eye." His thinking, if that isn't too strong a term for what happens between his ears, is that "...showing both eyes encouraged women to use eye make-up to look seductive" although in 80's view, if all they are likely to attract by such outrageous coquettishness is Saudi men why would they even bother in the first place?

Religulous - is the name of a new movie by Bill Maher looking at religion and poking fun. What's not to like? Here is a review and interview with Maher from Salon and in conversation about the presidential campaign, the movie, religious beliefs and Sarah Palin with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. A trailer for Religulous can be seen here.

Talking Snakes - "I would like to say to the atheists and agnostics, the people who I call rationalists, let's stop ceding the moral high ground to the people who believe in the talking snake. Let's have our voices heard and be in the debate. Let's stand up and say we're not ready to let the country be given over to the Sarah Palins of the world." Bill Maher interviewed in Salon.

Quote - "In a plural society, so the argument for self-censorship runs, social justice requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but also that their cultural beliefs are given equal recognition and respect. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it:

'If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others' fundamental beliefs to criticism.'

I disagree. In a plural society it is both inevitable and important that people offend others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. And we should deal with those clashes in the open rather than suppress them. Important because any kind of social progress requires one to offend some deeply held sensibilities. "If liberty means anything," as George Orwell once put it, "it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." If we want the pleasures of pluralism, we have to put up with the pain of being offended." 
Kenan Malik writing in the Guardian

FAITH, n. "Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel." Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (By a spooky coincidence the October 3rd Swift newsletter from James Randi has a piece featuring Bierce)

She's Back - old Yahweh's one night stand is back wowing the gullible in Springfield. One gawper is quoted as saying “You couldn’t get a better image of the picture of Mary, I think it’s some kind of message from God.”  If this is the best "image of the picture" of Mary he has seen perhaps he should get out more. Why would the creator of the entire universe communicate with his flock via the medium of a faulty double glazed unit? Is he moving in mysterious ways yet again?  See here a slideshow of past apparitions of the patron saint of pareidolia.

COMMERCE, n. "A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E." A definition from Ambrose Bierce's fine Devil's Dictionary and somewhat timely. More to follow.

October 9th 2008

Here is the crucial point. Globalisation is pushing people together. Interdependence is reality. Peaceful co-existence is essential. If faith becomes a countervailing force, pulling people apart, it becomes destructive and dangerous. If , by contrast, it becomes an instrument of peaceful co-existence, teaching people to live with difference, to treat diversity as a strength, to respect "the other", then Faith becomes an important part of making the 21st Century work. It enriches, it informs, it provides a common basis of values and belief for people to get along together." Tony Blair, launching his Faith Foundation.

The Farce Is With You - the above quote from the Smirking One needs to be looked at in the light of current events, especially that sentence "If faith becomes a countervailing force, pulling people apart, it becomes destructive and dangerous." What does he mean, if? Let us take a quick look at some current news items culled from this site's Faith-Based News page. In India we have an ongoing purge of Christians by Hindus. The ostensible reason for this disgusting outbreak of arson, rape and torture was the murder of a charismatic Hindu preacher known as Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. This brought to a head simmering Hindu resentment of Christian missionaries in the area and Christians became a target for Hindu mobs. The likely real murderers of Saraswati were Maoist guerillas, who have in fact claimed "credit" for the crime. You would think that such an admission would divert Hindu wrath toward them but no, Christians continue to be targeted. Religion would appear to be the only reason for this.

Meanwhile in Israel the city of Acre is convulsed by violence between Jewish and Arab Israelis. The trouble started after an Arab man was driving his car on the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, and was subsequently attacked by Jewish youths for his lack of respect. Some reports have described the rioting and unrest in Acre, which has now been going on for some days, as racial. It is not, it is religious, in that the Israeli Jews claim that Muslims deliberately go out of their way to offend at this time of fasting and praying. Whether they do or not, the basis, the justification, for the violence is religious. There may well be underlying problems of the status of Arab citizens in a Jewish state and their economic situation but it is religion that supplies the labels, by distinguishing those who are "other", who are not us and therefore to be held in contempt.

In Iraq the government has deployed a 1000 police in the city of Mosul in order to protect Christians from attacks by militant Sunni Muslims with connections to al Qaeda. Over 12 Christians have been murdered in the last couple of weeks. The only reason the Christians are being attacked is because of their religion. Other cities have had similar problems but for some reason the violence in Mosul is escalating. In Iran we are told that legislation is being passed to "...codify the death penalty for any male Iranian who leaves his Islamic faith. Women would get life imprisonment." The assumption seems to be that if you are Iranian you must be Muslim. Oddly enough the right to freedom of religion is "...enshrined as Article 23 of Iran's own constitution, which states that no one may be molested simply for his beliefs." But when a government has mismanaged the economy so badly as the current one anything is useful that can act as a distraction from economic woes. Murdering people for leaving Islam is just such a distraction - and while the reason for such persecution is political  the convenient label of religion once again marks out those as "other", those who are not like us and effectivel sub-human.

These are just a few recent examples and they give the lie to religion being a force for harmony. If you believe your religion has the only true answer then automatically anyone who makes the same claim for their faith is calling you a liar. They can't all be right. This is where Blair's call for faith to help in areas of division and conflict is nonsensical. So many of these disputes have their roots in religion that the only answer is not more religion but less. It is secularism that holds the answer. When you have a theocracy like Iran, a Jewish state like Israel or a nominally secular state such as India which is in fact effectively Hindu, then resentment and violence spreads. Religion is so divisive even monotheistic faiths split internally. Much of the violence done to say, Muslims, is by other Muslims, in the ongoing strife between Sunni and Shia. The so-called troubles in Northern Ireland were between people who label themselves Catholic or Protestant, as a means of designating the foe.  When religion holds sway no one is safe. 

To try and use religious faith to deal with problems like those mentioned above is pointless and no more than fighting fire with fire. Blair's faith foundation has little chance of success. He is irrevocably tainted in the eyes of many Muslims for the part he played in enabling and then joining in what they see as America's attack on Islam. That, combined with the prejudice and hatred built into religions at a fundamental level makes his foundation a farce, a sick joke. Globalisation has removed the geographical boundaries that kept religions in the main isolated from each other and  brought them into direct confrontation in a way that has never happened before. This genie cannot be put back in the bottle but it can and should be controlled - by secularism, not more faith.

CONSERVATIVE, n. "A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary 

October 12th 2008

Stop Sharia Law In Britain - is the latest video from Pat Condell. He is fast becoming a national treasure. The new sharia law petition Pat mentions is here, please sign it if you live in the UK. Someone else who is less than keen about the introduction of this foreign, religious legal system is Gordon Brown's new minister for race relations, Sadiq Khan, who is a former human rights lawyer and a Muslim himself. According to the Times he has "...warned that the growing number of tribunals based on Islamic codes could entrench discrimination against women."  He also said “The burden is on those who want to open up these courts to persuade us why they should do it.”  Meanwhile the Scottish government has denied claims that there are plans to introduce sharia in that country. It said "...that Islamic law had “no jurisdiction” north of the Border, and rejected the prospect of a dual legal system." Baron McCluskey went further saying " would be “daft” for a democratic country to adopt Islamic law."  For 80's view of sharia in the UK see Muslim Women Lose Human Rights. Sharia also featured at the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain's Conference on Political Islam, Sharia Law and Civil Society in London - here are some good videos of the event featuring many names familiar to readers of this site - one such is Richard Dawkins talking* about creationist picture-pilferer Harun Yahya's (or is it Oktar?) Atlas of Creation, followed by a discussion of Creationism, Religious Education and Faith Schools. (*No marks to the camera operator who often fails to show the screen behind Dawkins preferring to show audience reaction thereby missing many good points) Update - do read this report on the conference by A C Grayling)

Quote - “People set up this big conflict between reason and faith. I don't believe that it exists. I think that faith is completely rational. The debate in Britain has become incredibly secularised. Religion is seen as something a bit strange, in the margins. Politics is much the poorer for that because you want people who believe in things to go into politics.” Ruth Kelly, confirming that it is a good thing she is no longer a member of the government. Faith is not, cannot, be rational as it is beyond proof. To believe something with no evidence is not rational - to say otherwise is nonsense (although that hasn't stopped Ratzinger). Unless one subscribes to the idea that all politicians are self-serving, unscrupulous bastards they do"..believe in things". One can believe in social justice, gender equality, the power of the markets (well, maybe not that one) and many other things without needing to claim a supernatural basis for such beliefs. A politician must defend her decisions by argument - appeals to supernatural authority are not acceptable in a democratic government - which would indeed be considered "...a bit strange" by the British public. (Also see Goodbye, good riddance and don’t come back by Terry Sanderson of the NSS about the departure of Kelly and the shifting of the exotically named Lord Adonis from education to transport where hopefully he can do less harm. Good riddance indeed)

ECONOMY, n. "Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford." Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

October 21st 2008

Extreme Fear - earlier this year 80 wrote about an Afghan journalism student, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, who been sentenced to death for the heinous crime of "...downloading material from the internet on women's rights in Islam." We now learn that instead of the death penalty he now faces 20 years in an Afghan  jail - a slower kind of death sentence.  His family will be launching an appeal with the Supreme Court on the grounds that the appeal court that changed his sentence was influenced by "extremists". These extremists are Muslim fundamentalists implacably opposed to any discussion of women's rights. What is it about abrahamic fundamentalists and women? They give every appearance of actually being frightened of them. These big masculine types are scared of allowing women equal status and are so petrified of educated women that they burn schools and behead schoolteachers. This is not a sign of strength but of weakness, of fear of their own womenfolk. What a bunch of heroes..........Supplemental - do read this harrowing and powerful piece by Johann Hari on the plight of many Muslim women - and the steps we need to take to support them in the struggle for equality.

DELIBERATION, n. "The act of examining one's bread to determine which side it is buttered on."  Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Quote - "Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, 'What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?' The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, 'He's a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.' This is not the way we should be doing it in America."  Colin Powell on Meet the Press and quoted in the Washington Post  (reg rqd) by Eugene Robinson on the repeated allegation that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

Stop That Pigeon! - this time it's not Dick Dastardly and Muttley but the Iranian security forces who want to get the bird. A piece in the Telegraph informs us of an intelligence breakthrough,"Iranian security forces have arrested two suspected 'spy pigeons'.." Apparently one pigeon was caught near a no doubt top secret "...rose water production plant in the city of Kashan in Isfahan province." The Iranian press report says "...some metal rings and "invisible" strings were attached to the bird, suggesting that it might have been somehow communicating what it had seen with the equipment it was carrying." (There is no mention of a little leather flying helmet and goggles.) A second bird, similarly equipped for espionage, was already in custody, "Early this month, a black pigeon was caught bearing a blue-coated metal ring, with invisible strings." This one wasn't after Iran's rose water manufacturing secrets for it was caught near the Natanz nuclear facility. Whether these are evil Zionist pigeons has not been vouchsafed us. What punishment the avian snoops will suffer has not been announced either but public hanging from a crane, a popular Iranian entertainment, is unlikely to be practical. 80 will pass over without comment the suggestion in the Telegraph that the pigeons may have been plotting a coo.

Attention Godless People - the kick-off date for Xmas seems to come earlier and earlier in shops and one town has street decorations and lights up already. Also jumping the seasonal gun this entry in the New Humanist blog tells us that comedian Robin Ince is presenting 3 nights of celebration of science and rationalism, called Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. We are told "It's taking place at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London as a benefit for the Rationalist Associaton on the 18 and 19 December (both sold out), and also at the gigantic Hammersmith Apollo on 21 December" and features "...a host of Britain's leading comedians, musicians and scientists including, but not limited to, Stewart Lee, Mark Thomas, Phill Jupitus, Josie Long, Ben Goldacre, Richard Dawkins and some very special guests." Ince's introduction to the shows can be heard here (it sounds like it was recorded on a windy hilltop). It is touching that Ince attributes the inspiration for the show to none other than the deeply sad Stephen Green of Christian Voice. Oh, the irony... (See here for more news of uppity atheists and a campaign " fund two sets of atheist adverts on 30 London buses for four weeks."  One slogan mentioned is "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life"  The Atheist Bus Campaign web site is here if you wish to contribute. Update - here is a BBC report on the amount raised so far and here is Stephen Green's take on it if you want to snigger, but remember it is unkind to mock the afflicted. See here for Joan Bakewell's thoughts on the bus)

Odd Couple - Jesus and Mo are not only having fun with their buddy Moses, they have a new volume of cartoons available here.

Quote - "The use of the veil by women, for example, is designed to keep people at a distance. Muslim schools make sure Muslims growing up never quite fit in to the society around them." Denis MacEoin, an Islamic studies expert at Newcastle University quoted in the National Secular Society's Newsline, a free weekly email newsletter. The web edition is here, where you can also subscribe.

A Heartbeat Away? - flash animation from a possible future Oval Office. Mind where you click.

CONSULT, v.i. "To seek another's disapproval of a course already decided on." Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Quantum Blather - “What I aim to do is to take the fear out of the unexplainable. The class is based on science. I’m showing it’s all to do with energy language and based on quantum physics and not mysticism.” Or, in laymen's terms, pseudoscientific bollocks. The quote is from "psychic" Amanda Hart who has upset Catholics with plans for "spiritual workshops" at the All Saints Pastoral Centre in London Colney. The churchgoers complain that "...tarot readings, crystal gazing and calling on the spirits within a Roman Catholic Church... contradict their religious beliefs."  It is not that this woman is planning to teach supernatural nonsense - it is that, in their view, she is teaching the wrong supernatural nonsense. (The quote above reminds 80 of physicist Erwin Schrödinger who famously said of quantum mechanics* "I don't like it, and I'm sorry I ever had anything to do with it."  The old boy would have been even more annoyed to find the theory used as a figleaf for psychic silliness by the likes of Amanda Hart. (Listen to physicist Lawrence M Krauss in a Point of Inquiry podcast talk about, among other things, the misuse of quantum physics by New Agers) Supplemental - do read Robert Carroll's (The Skeptic's Dictionary) deconstruction of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. Highly recommended)

* note for pedants - actually Max Born's interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

October 25th 2008

Meeting of Mysterymongers - here is an item about an exciting event - until you look a little more closely. We are told "Eight of the world's foremost experts in the fields of History, Archaeology, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Anthropology and Geology are gathering at the Raffles Dubai on November 29th and & 30th to reveal significant discoveries about the life and history of the world." This certainly sounds pretty important and the topic "Mysteries of Ancient Civilisations" sounds fascinating. So what's the catch? The name of the organizers, Adbox Events, sounds more showbiz than academic and the firm's spokesman's talk of "...Our past as the Human race, with all its mysteries and lost knowledge.." starts to sound a bit Hancockish. But it is the very last paragraph that really lets the cat out of the bag. "A teaser for the event is expected in early November, when Robert Bauval, one of the leading authorities in Egyptology and Archaeoastronomy and whose books are used to inspire Hollywood productions, will make a brief appearance in Dubai to reveal some more about the mysteries to be unveiled at the conference." To anyone with regard for real archaeology and real ancient history the name Bauval immediately blows out of the water any suggestion that this event is of any academic importance. Leading authority? Balderdash. (Update - the gathering now has its own web site)

Bauval and the aforementioned Hancock are at the forefront of the lucrative cult archaeology industry. They push the idea of a civilization from which all others were derived and which disappeared underwater at the end of the last Ice Age. Atlantis, anyone? The whole thing begins with a fantasy and then evidence is misinterpreted, misrepresented and often ignored to support the original idea. Hardly scientific. Hancock's obvious petulance when presented with real evidence contradicting his theories on BBC's Horizon speaks volumes (See quotes below). The cult archaeological method is so far removed from the real thing as to be a complete farce, a farce perpetuated by a flood of books and uncritical TV documentaries. For more on this see 80's Don't Mention Atlantis and two excellent essays from The Hall of Maat, The New Atlantis and the Dangers of Pseudohistory and An Analysis of the Quality of Graham Hancock's Science. For a more general look at cult/pseudoarchaeology 80 recommends Bad Archeology and for good links to real archaeology and the fantasy kind check out Doug's Archaeology Site.

Quotes -"I avoid using the word Atlantis in my books because most people when they hear the word Atlantis immediately think that they're dealing with the lunatic fringe. I don't feel that I belong to a lunatic fringe."  Graham Hancock, BBC transcript Atlantis Born Again, on a ploy that has been, in 80's view, singularly unsuccessful. Here he is again when his and Bauval's pyramid celestial alignment theory is challenged "I don't need every pyramid in Egypt to map a star in the sky. The people who built these monuments were making a grand symbolic statement that was supposed to be understood on an intuitive and spiritual level."  So his evidence is good - except when it isn't and has to be "...understood on an intuitive and spiritual level."  It is when one reads comments such as this that one realizes how far such fantasies are from real archaeology and ancient history. Just to labor the point here is his response when it is suggested his claimed alignments of stars and the Giza pyramids are inaccurate, "No they're not absolutely correct and I don't care. I have to stress that in my view the Ancient Egyptian priesthood was not staffed by anal-retentive bureaucrats. The Ancient Egyptian priesthood was a group of creative and imaginative thinkers who were exploring the mystery of life and death and who believed that there was a connection between ground and sky."

October 28th 2008

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? - No original ideas? Then go for a remake. This seems to be the thinking behind many pointless modern regurgitations of classic movies. However the thinking behind the remake of "The Message" is a little harder to fathom. What do you mean you've not heard of "The Message"? The original 1976 movie purported to tell the story of the founder of Islam, although of course Mohammed is never actually depicted. The Guardian tells us the film, bankrolled by Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy, had an impact beyond the movie theater, "The Message prompted controversy in the US when it was rumoured that Anthony Quinn was starring as Muhammad. In March 1977, a dozen Muslims stormed three civic buildings in Washington, taking 149 people hostage and demanding the film be destroyed. The now notorious Hanafi Muslim Siege resulted in the deaths of a police officer and a radio reporter.... The hostages were eventually released after a 39-hour standoff."

The title of the new version is "The Messenger of Peace" reflecting the role of Islam around the modern world. The amazing thing is the title does not appear to be ironic. You can imagine the producers sitting around, brainstorming. "Hey let's remake a film about the Islamic prophet Mohammed". "Great idea, who could possibly object to that?" The new film is being scripted by Ramzi Thomas but 80 cannot but feel they have missed an opportunity by not approaching Sherry Jones, author of The Jewel of the Medina and Salman Rushdie. They one thing they should not do is send an advance copy to Denise Spellberg for review - this has a tendency to backfire.... The final touch would be to have an animated title sequence drawn by carefully selected Danish cartoonists. Supplemental - according to The Freethinker the producer and director of the original movie, Syrian-born Moustapha Akkad, "...died in an al-Queda suicide-bomb attack in Amman Jordan on November 9, 2005".

Quote - "I sincerely believe that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies, and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale. "  Thomas Jefferson

Atheist Bus - continued. As mentioned below, the original collection target was £5500 ($8,707). As of Sunday p.m. it stands at £108,069 ($171,071). Pretty impressive. See for yourself, maybe contribute and enjoy the comments from donors, something I suggest the foolish Mary Kenny tries. Read her nonsense about atheists, "Most of the non-believers I've encountered are gloomy blighters with a depressing message that there is no purpose to life." Better still, she should read the quote below, Time To Get Up, and reflect on her own humorless, guilt-ridden Christian sect. This comment posted on Kenny's piece is well worth repeating, "So, every atheist you meet is gloomy? Does that say something about atheists or about the experience of an atheist meeting you?" Thanks, arbeyu. (Also see Atheism, Depression, & Meaning: Do Atheists Lead Meaningless Lives? by Austin Cline)

Time To Get Up - "After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings." Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow.

Clairvoyant, n. "A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron - namely, that he is a blockhead." Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary.

Medicine That Works - in the sidebar of this page you will find a link to Sense About Science which " an independent charitable trust. We respond to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society, from scares about plastic bottles, fluoride and the MMR vaccine to controversies about genetic modification, stem cell research and radiation. We work with scientists and civic groups to promote evidence and scientific reasoning in public discussion." The latest initiative from the group is described thus, "To mark forty years since the Medicines Act (1968) doctors, scientists, nurses, patients, professional societies, journal editors, patient groups and other members of the public are providing compelling stories about why evidence-based medicine mattered then and matters now."

The Why Evidence-Based Medicine Matters site features many comments from a wide range of people - you can mouse over the images for a single quote or click to read each contribution. A most welcome reposte to the avalanche of nonsense plugging so-called Complementary/Alternative Medicine (sCAM). To quote Richard Dawkins, "Either it is true that a medicine works or it isn't. It cannot be false in the ordinary sense but true in some "alternative" sense. If a therapy or treatment is anything more than a placebo, properly conducted double-blind trials, statistically analyzed, will eventually bring it through with flying colours. Many candidates for recognition as "orthodox" medicines fail the test and are summarily dropped. The "alternative" label should not (though, alas, it does) provide immunity from the same fate."  (Other relevant sites are Science-Based Medicine, Bad Science, The Skepdoc, What's The Harm? and the daddy of them all, Quackwatch. 80 is also a member of the Anti-Quackery Ring a permanent link to which is at the bottom of this page.)

Atheist Bus - the campaign mentioned below (Attention Godless People) has tremendous support which has beaten all expectations (as have ticket sales for Robin Ince's show). This Friday the bus contributions page shows the original target, £5500 and the amount donated so far £97028! (Update Saturday 105,205) Even more heartening are the comments posted by those doing the giving. It shows that many people in the UK  (and elsewhere) have had quite enough of pushy religionists. Organizing unbelievers has famously been compared to herding cats, but the great response to the bus campaign and Robin Ince's Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People shows how many people feel. Those appearing in Nine Lessons include "..Ricky Gervais, Dara O'Briain and Tim Minchin, Mark Thomas, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Darren Hayman, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and Richard Dawkins.." according to the British Humanist Association (BHA) newsletter. The BHA homepage is here.

Needled Needlessly - Puncturing the Acupuncture Myth is an essay by Harriet Hall (The Skepdoc) on this popular form of So-called Complementary/Alternative Medicine (ScAM). This lady doesn't beat about the bush, "“Alternative” medicine is by definition medicine that has not been scientifically proven and has not been accepted into mainstream scientific medicine. The question I keep hearing is, “But what about acupuncture? It’s been proven to work, it’s supported by lots of good research, more and more doctors are using it, and insurance companies even pay for it.” It’s time the acupuncture myth was punctured – preferably with an acupuncture needle. Almost everything you’ve heard about acupuncture is wrong."  Highly recommended.

DELUGE, n. "A notable first experiment in baptism which washed away the sins (and sinners) of the world."  Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary 

November 6th 2008

New Broom, Old Problems - let's enjoy the post-election euphoria for a little while. Right, that's enough. Meanwhile the Bush/Cheney axis has 77 days left to wreak havoc. 80 sees nothing in their record to say they won't. An unpleasant side effect of McCain's desperate campaign was to bring the ghastly Caribou Barbie onto the national stage. It doesn't look like she will go back into her box anytime soon (but see here). Putin's sock puppet greeted the president-elect by stationing nuclear capable missiles on NATO's borders. This is a strange reaction to the impending deployment of a "missile shield". It is as though the Russians need to give the US a reason for doing so. Obama has really got his work cut out. One thing he certainly does have is a surge of goodwill from the many countries around the world happy to see the back of the Bush gang. Obama is to be congratulated on an incredible campaign - let's hope his, and his team's, formidable organizational skills can be brought to bear on the many problems besetting not just the USA but the whole world. One of the few flies in the Obama ointment is his intention to expand Bush's faith-based programs and allow those involved to hire or fire on the basis of their faith - or lack of it. For Obama to say he is in favor of separation of church and state and then give tax dollars to discriminatory groups more than smacks of hypocrisy. But then when you consider what the alternative could have been (President Palin, anyone?) we are all entitled to breathe a sigh of relief.

Stewart Lee - read an interview with the standup and co-writer of Jerry Springer the Opera courtesy of The Freethinker. While you are on the site why not subscribe? By doing so you can "Help keep this venerable Voice of Atheism alive ... and you will receive a refreshing dose of irreligion, blasphemy, and atheist polemic through your door every month."

Nowhere Man - Amid all the election hullaballoo Simon Schama spares a thought for the man who is still President of the United States and his legacy. This Saturday Night Live skit encapsulates nicely John McCain's attempt to distance himself from Dubya and that legacy. On the election, Steve Jones tells us that it will be anything but fair.

Godless and Free - is the latest video from the excellent Pat Condell. Five minutes and forty nine seconds of common sense.

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."
Senator Barack Obama, quoted in Newsline, the National Secular Society's free weekly email newsletter.

Halloween Fun - check out the seasonal content at the Landover Baptist Church. You can accuse the Landover bunch of many things but the possession of good taste is not one of them. Hilarious.

Is There Life After Death? - yes, financially speaking anyway. "It's no surprise to see Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe on a list of the top 10 highest earning deceased celebrities, but what's Albert Einstein doing there?" asks this item in the Guardian. It seems Einstein's estate still makes "...$18m (£11.2m) every 12 months, putting him fourth in the annual ranking compiled the by the US finance publication Forbes." Not a bad performance considering he died in 1955.

DESTINY, n. "A tyrant's authority for crime and fool's excuse for failure." Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Atheist Bus - continued. The total as of Wednesday pm is £ 112,851.16 See here. Contrast this display of atheist giving with the plight of the deeply sad and weird Stephen Green who cannot scrape up the costs for his failed blasphemy case. Here is his petition whining about his self-inflicted predicament. Funnily enough many who have left messages on the petitions page do not appear to be well-wishers.

Quote - “Doesn’t he remember what happened on 9/11? More than 3,000 Americans were murdered. Doesn’t he want to prevent that from ever happening again? If he supports driver’s licenses for illegals, the answer is clear.”  It is? One of the increasingly bizarre  and desperate anti-Obama ads produced by The Republican National Trust Political Action Committee. This bunch certainly seem to have a way with nonsensical non sequiturs.

Sarah Palin's War on Science - is a typically eloquent piece by Christopher Hitchens on what he sees as "The GOP ticket's appalling contempt for knowledge and learning". He takes both Republicans to task for their stance on scientific research but finds differences between them. For him Palin'ing than McCain's, which he characterizes as "...bluff, empty-headed plain-man's philistinism..." Palin's "teaching the argument" view of creationism, her ignorant attack on genetic research and videos of her attending the Assembly of God church in Wasilla lead him to speculate whether "...she is a "premillenial dispensationalist"—in other words, someone who believes that there is no point in protecting and preserving the natural world, since the end of days will soon be upon us."

Hitchen's final paragraph is utterly damning and deserves to be quoted in full. "This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just "people of faith" but theocratic bullies. On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity."  (Another gentlemen with a fine turn of phrase is Gore Vidal, who turns his beady eye on John McCain and, in passing, on his running mate, described as "...a giggly Piltdown princess out of pre-history." )

November 12th 2008

A Sock Puppet's Cunning Strategy - those of you that have followed the scandal of the partisan Dead Sea Scrolls exhibits will know that 80 and others have been accused of being mere mouthpieces (sock puppets) of Charles Gadda (see A Sock Puppet Speaks and other links within that piece) or distinguished scholar Norman Golb. Well, the saga rolls on, as do the accusations of puppetry. This article ROM's Dead Sea Scrolls: 2,000 years old, always controversial refers to a scrolls exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum which is being curated by Risa Levitt Kohn, who perpetrated/organized the San Diego exhibition which started a row that still shows no sign of diminishing. That this is so can be proved by scrolling down to the comments section of the Canadian piece. There are the usual suspects getting all hot under the collar and accusing independent commentators (such as 80) of being Hydra-like heads of some conspiratorial beast. It is obvious that those who fling out such daft assertions have not checked to find out anything about said commentators. As 80 noted in correspondence recently, "I think it is fiendishly clever of me to have anticipated the need to be a scrolls sock puppet by starting my web site 9 years ago and accumulating a 100 plus web pages on widely varying subjects. This is what is known as "deep cover" I believe..." One positive outcome of the efforts of Gadda and Golb and others is that the Ontario exhibition promises to be more inclusive of current scholarship instead of promoting a dogmatic and outdated interpretation of the Scrolls and their connection, if any, to the site at Qumran. If this actually proves to be the case this particular sock puppet will be pleased. Perhaps the study of these fascinating documents and their provenance can in future be pursued in a more academic and less ideologically confrontational fashion. UPDATE -See this important update to the story of "Charles Gadda" and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Where In The World? - "The woman in black wanted an Islamic divorce. She told the religious judge that her husband hit her, cursed her and wanted her dead. But her husband was opposed, and the Islamic scholar adjudicating the case seemed determined to keep the couple together. So, sensing defeat, she brought our her secret weapon: her father. In walked a bearded man in long robes who described his son-in-law as a hot-tempered man who had duped his daughter, evaded the police and humiliated his family. The judge promptly reversed himself and recommended divorce." Now where did this take place? Saudi Arabia? Somalia? No, it happened in the UK. It seems that Muslim women have to park their human rights outside the door when they enter a sharia court. Things only happened when a man pleaded her case. Why the hell is such a mockery of justice allowed to happen? Is the Labour government so keen to pander to Muslim voters in shaky constituencies? If so, they are more than due for an electoral kicking. Or is the government merely acquiescing to the demands of the "me too" brigade? If other religions have recourse to their own courts then there is only one fair answer - abolish the lot. This is what happened in Ontario Canada. There should be only one legal system that is applicable to ALL citizens. Any legal system or culture that treats women as less worth than men is unacceptable. To allow such a parallel system to establish itself can only hinder any chance of integration for Muslims and continue the ghettoisation in Britain's cities. If you are a UK citizen please sign this petition  "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Stop Sharia Law from being binding in law under arbitration tribunals rules".

Skull of Dumb - as an example of sloppy journalism this piece from the Guardian is a fine example. We are told that an ancient crystal skull, the Skull of Doom no less, is to go on display in Edinburgh. We are further informed "The Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull, better known as the Skull of Doom is said to be more than 3,600 years old."  The article then goes on to repeat the highly dubious, if not outright fallacious story of the skull's discovery. "It is believed that the skull on display today was found by FA Mitchell-Hedges, the English adventurer often described as the real Indiana Jones, under a collapsed altar inside a temple in Lubaantun, British Honduras, now Belize, in 1924. He was with his adopted daughter, Anna Mitchell-Hedges."  This tale, in fact, is only believed by those who either don't know or don't care about the skull's provenance. Rowan Walker, the writer of the piece, should have done a little more research.

In July this year 80 mentioned a fine and well-researched article on the Bad Archaeology web site concerning crystal skulls and their possible origins. While agreeing that the Mitchell-Hedges skull is the most famous of several such objects, the Bad Archaeologists find the popular story of its discovery has little to do with the truth and that Mitchell-Hedges himself was a fantasist.  Rowan Walker takes little notice of genuine skulls research merely stating "Some reject the idea that Mitchell-Hedges found the skull inside a temple and say he probably bought it from an antiques dealer in New York. Others say it was purchased years later, at an auction in 1943".  One of the exhibitors shrugs off any responsibility for accuracy by saying "We're not saying to anyone what the skull is or should be; we want people to have a look and make up their own minds."  People cannot make up their own minds if they are not given the facts. For an interesting and informative piece see Legend of the Crystal Skulls by Jane MacLaren Walsh, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History at Archaeology.

The exhibition in Edinburgh at which the skull is to be displayed shows that the skull is at the right venue, as The Histories & Mysteries Conference is full of woo-woo nonsense including an item on "Photographing hidden energy fields" and another on "The Quest for the Tayos Gold Library". The Cueva de los Tayos is a cave first publicized by the notorious Erich von Daniken, a long time peddler of nonsense. Also mentioned in the press release are "The Bosian (sic) Pyramids" presented by their so-called discoverer, Sam Osmanagic. A more accurate description would be not "The Bosnian Pyramids" but "Some Pyramid-Shaped Hills In Bosnia That Have Been Hyped Up". See here. Other subjects covered are "The Truth about King Arthur, the Alchemical Secrets of the Builders of the Great Pyramid,  Proof of Psychic Energy..."  The Histories and Mysteries Conference appears to be a down market version of the gathering in Dubai that 80 dubbed a Meeting of Mystery Mongers. Looking at both of these events 80 is reminded of a quote from Richard Dawkins, "Scientific truth is too beautiful to be sacrificed for the sake of light entertainment or money. Astrology is an aesthetic affront. It cheapens astronomy, like using Beethoven for commercial jingles." Just as the Dubai and Edinburgh shows cheapen archaeology and historical research with their trashy non-mysteries.

"Man is certainly stark mad. He can't make a flea, but makes gods by the dozen." Michel de Montaigne

Imagine - the Vatican's revision department, not satisfied with a statue of Galileo, is now making up to John Lennon. The official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, in the words of this Telegraph report "...absolves John Lennon of his notorious remark.." condescendingly treating said remark about being more famous than Jesus as the "...boasting of an English working-class lad...". Two points can be made here, firstly one doubts whether Lennon would have given a damn about what the Vatican thinks and secondly, unlike the church's god man, John Lennon's actual physical existence is documented. (Also see this report in The Freethinker)

"Imagine there's no heaven, It's easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us only sky..." John Lennon 1940 – 1980

We Are All Born Free - or at least we should be. See this animated video on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, narrated by an all star cast and produced by Amnesty International. Just a shame that it is so irritatingly twee.

Probably - the ultimate odd couple, Jesus and Mo' give their take on the Atheist Bus. By the way, the total now stands at £117,606.00. Well over twenty times the original target. Praise be!

November 26th 2008

Sharia, Again - what is it with some middle-aged British men who seem to think introducing elements of sharia law into the country is a good idea? Maybe they just don't like women. First we had the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Willams, then Lord Phillips, a senior judge, and now Stephen Hockman QC, a former chairman of the Bar Council. Notice it is always blokes in favor of this primitive religious system of - justice isn't the right word - judgement, perhaps? Hockman is reported to have said "Given our substantial Muslim population, it is vital that we look at ways to integrate Muslim culture into our traditions. Otherwise we will find that there is a significant section of our society which is increasingly alienated, with very dangerous results." Substantial population? Muslims represent just under 3% of the population and, according to this survey in the Spectator, the majority of them don't want sharia. Does Hockman know any different? Has he conducted a survey? When someone goes to live in a country other than the country of their birth they should accept the laws governing that country, not try to import their own. It is as simple as that. Note the threat implicit in Hockman's reference to "...a significant section of our society which is increasingly alienated, with very dangerous results." So we should adopt sharia out of fear? This is bloody ridiculous and on a par with the cowardly self-censorship that increasingly occurs in the face of threats from stroppy religionists (and not just Muslims). That a proportion, certainly not the majority, of Muslims, feels alienated is down to a desire to remain apart and unassimilated. Anyone who feels that a justice system that treats men and women on an equal basis is unacceptable has the option to go to countries that are under sharia. They won't have the same social services or a national health service, but what is that compared to having a patriarchal, misogynist, homophobic and barbaric legal system? If you are a UK citizen please sign this petition  "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Stop Sharia Law from being binding in law under arbitration tribunals rules".

DIVINATION, n. "The art of nosing out the occult. Divination is of as many kinds as there are fruit-bearing varieties of the flowering dunce and the early fool." Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Mormon Deceit - “...if they’re going to play politics, then they need to play by the rules.” So says (reg rqd) Fred Karger, founder of the group Californians Against Hate on the news that an inquiry will look into allegations that the Mormon Church failed to fully disclose "..a battery of nonmonetary contributions..." on behalf of Proposition 8 which amended the state's constitution to recognize only female-male marriage. The proposition passed by 52% of the vote. It is interesting to find John Templeton Jnr. among the contributors to the Prop.8 campaign. It is the Templeton Foundation that hands out large monetary bribes prizes to those who promote the union of science and religion, and now we have yet another reason to view this outfit with disdain (which extends to those individuals that have accepted their filthy lucre).  For more on the Templeton Foundation see Of God and Mammon, Begging The Question and by Robert Carroll, The Templeton Fundies. Update - another repercussion of the Prop 8 vote as Mormon film boss resigns.

The Mushroom Gospel - not heard of it? The Rt Rev Patrick O'Donoghue, the Bishop of Lancaster surely has. He is complaining " ...that graduates are spreading scepticism and sowing dissent. Instead of following the Church's teaching they are "hedonistic", "selfish" and "egocentric", he said. In particular, the bishop complained that influential Catholics in politics and the media were undermining the Church. While not naming names, he suggested that such people had been compromised by their education, which he said had a "dark side, due to original sin"." This clown, according to the Telegraph, "...has recently published a report on how to renew Catholicism in Britain, argued that mass education has led to "sickness in the Church and wider society". The Bishop is obviously pining for the days when a cleric could come out with any old bollocks safe in the knowledge his flock were too ignorant to question. Those days have gone. Just claiming to speak for a deity is no longer enough. As president-elect Obama has put it "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason."

The Bishop has realized that his flock is dwindling and looks to place the blame on intellectuals, saying "...that influential Catholics had set a bad example and corrupted the faith of those who had not gone to university. "This failure of leadership has exacerbated the even-greater problem of the mass departure from the Church of the working-class and poor," he said. "For example, the relentless diatribe in the popular media against Christianity has undermined the confidence of the ordinary faithful in the Church."  No doubt part of the "relentless diatribe" includes the reporting of priestly pedophilia. What the good Bishop is trying to say is that he and his fellow fantasists no longer have reliable religious cannon fodder brainwashed to believe their nonsensical fairy tales and that education is to blame. More worrying and sinister is the fact that there is a continuum between O'Donoghue and the Taliban who kill teachers. The gap between them is great but the connection is definitely there - a fear that education will eventually destroy their power base. Oh, and the Mushroom Gospel? That is the one that requires the congregation be treated as fungi - kept in the dark and fed on shit.

November 30th 2008

UFO Nuttery - talking of ley lines (see A Little Thought) brings to mind UFOs, which are often associated with those imaginary alignments. 80 has no problem with UFOs and has seen a couple himself - it is the absurd explanations that stick in the craw. Now it seems that President-Elect Barack Obama has something on his plate apart from a credit crunch, recession, international terrorism, global warming and two ongoing wars. UFO enthusiasts "...have written to Mr Obama to ask that his administration comes clean about the contents of America's "X-Files". " According to this report the request has the backing of a couple of Democratic politicians, John Podesta of Obama's transition team and Bill Richardson, the Governor of New Mexico. The letter, originating from a bunch called the Extraterrestrial Phenomenon Political Action Committee, asks that Obama "...end the six-decade truth embargo regarding an extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race". This  rather begs the question by assuming that UFOs are not only some kind of alien vehicle but that the occupants have actually been in contact with Earthlings. Besides, considering how leaky any government can be, how likely is it that over a sixty year period nothing has been revealed? Not very. Anyway Obama may have an axe of his own to grind - this article asks "Are alien UFO fleets protecting Barack Obama?". One UFO researcher claims "...high quality video was filmed showing what appeared to be flying silver orbs at the October 4th Obama/Springsteen concert and rally, another UFO was filmed and seen by thousands in Colorado, a UFO was photographed at a Nevada rally and finally Orbs were photographed at Obama's Chicago victory rally." Astoundingly none of this was  picked up by the major news outfits but the All News Web knows all about it, including the Podesta connection.

That news organ tells us a source with "military ties" (presumably not neckwear) has revealed "Podesta knows more that (sic) he is giving away" and further asks, "Is John Podesta liaising with Aliens to keep Barack Obama safe?"  Wow, aliens riding shotgun for the President-Elect, 80's mind is now well and truly boggled. As an antidote to this load of tosh let's hear two other voices on the subject of UFOs. Firstly here is Phil Plait, astronomer and now president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, asking (You Tube) quite sensibly, how come the huge number of very competent amateur astronomers worldwide do not report UFOs? Hint - they are familiar with the night sky. (Text version here). Also giving his views (You Tube) on the likelihood that UFOs are alien craft is physicist, genius and bongo player, the late great Richard Feynman. Not that anything these two gentleman say will have any impact on the folks quoted in this entertainingly daft piece from the Hucknall Dispatch in the UK. It seems that Hucknall in Nottingham is a hotbed of UFO activity, a view supported by the wonderfully named Kristian Lander, founder of the Nottinghamshire Paranormal Network. This individual tells a fascinating tale involving a black BMW, "The occupants were as still as mannequins when our contact knocked on the car window. One of the occupants suddenly turned and had no facial features apart from small nostrils and a thin slit for a nose.The car then powered up and drove off. Men in black, perhaps?" (Powered up? Can he mean they started the engine?) As if this were not enough Lander also says "There is a low-frequency audible drone at the Bestwood Village entrance to the country park, which is currently unidentifiable. When you spend more than five minutes listening to it, you have the most incredible headache." Which, by a spooky coincidence, is exactly what 80 experiences when trying to imagine why a creature would have both small nostrils and a thin slit for a nose. (Listen to Point of Inquiry podcast Lights In The Sky with James McGaha retired USAF pilot, astronomer and director of the Grasslands Observatory. Point of Inquiry has a permanent link in the sidebar of this page)

A Little Thought - is required when reading the news. Ugandan police "...warned male bar-goers to keep their noses clean after a probe found a gang of robbers had been using women with chloroform smeared on their chests to knock their victims unconscious." we are told in this AFP report. Surely the fumes from the chloroform, being right under her nose, would knock the woman out long before she could entice her hapless victim? In another story about a pagan couple who moved house and brought their stone circle with them we are informed that each stone "...was placed along a powerful ley line which runs from runs from Maiden Castle through to Muambury (sic) rings." The problem here is that ley lines do not exist, something that seems to have escaped the lazy or gullible journalist writing the piece. The concept appears to go back no further than the 1920s and the fertile imagination of one Alfred Watkins, a photographer and antiquarian. He believed the alignments that he perceived between ancient monuments were in fact prehistoric trade routes. It was only latterly that they became lines of supernatural power when the idea was taken up neopagans and New Age mystics.

Godless and Free - is the latest video from the admirable Pat Condell in which he tells us "We don't need God. God needs us". Pat is one of several people who have been nominated for the £5,000 Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year awarded by the National Secular Society (the full list can be seen here). Check out the society's Newsline newsletter and sign up to have it delivered free to your inbox.

"I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong." Richard Feyman (You Tube)

Who Pays The Piper? - 80 recently mentioned (not for the first time) the Templeton Foundation (see Mormon Deceit) and the large monetary prize it offers to academics and others who, at least in the Foundation's view, have advanced in some way the melding of science and religion. Now it comes as no surprise to discover that recent research from Oxford University that claims religious belief is hardwired into the human brain is funded by the Templeton Foundation. This is the equivalent of a report concluding that anthropogenic global warming is not happening by, say, Exxon. This is not say the foundation has actually purchased the findings it wanted to hear but it does raise questions about the impartiality of the research and the interpretation of the data. Do read this article on the study, its conclusions and the role of Templeton in this typically good piece by A C Grayling called Children of God? (See here an attempted rebuttal of Grayling's observations. To 80's jaundiced eye the the research merely points toward something already known - children are gullible, not just for gods but all manner of supernatural beasties.)

Be Gone, Bogus Bishop! - it is a surprise, at least to a simple soul such as 80, that self-styled bishop Gilbert "Miracle Babies" Deya is still in Britain. The process of packing him off to face justice in Kenya seems interminable. Deya, who claimed that he could make post-menopausal and barren women conceive by his miraculous powers, is facing charges of child stealing in Kenya. This BBC report informs us "Police in Nairobi say their investigation revolves around the disappearance of babies from Nairobi's Pumwani Maternity Hospital and involves suspects in Britain, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya." Deya has now exhausted all avenues in trying to avoid deportation to Kenya although "...his lawyers are considering a last-ditch application to the European Court of Human Rights." For those that wish to recap the whole sorry saga that first came to 80's notice in 2004 see Miracle Babies, and What, Still Here? and the links therein.

ELYSIUM, n. "An imaginary delightful country which the ancients foolishly believed to be inhabited by the spirits of the good. This ridiculous and mischievous fable was swept off the face of the earth by the early Christians -- may their souls be happy in Heaven!" Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

The Price of Idiocy - a study by researchers at Harvard and reported (reg rqd) in the New York Times reveals the price that South Africans had to pay for their president's wilful ignorance and callous stupidity. President Thabo Mbeki and his equally culpable health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, are to blame for the premature deaths of at least 365000 people, by not allowing the use of antiretroviral drugs to combat AIDS. Tshabalala-Msimang is a proponent of "traditional" medicine such as garlic, beetroot and lemon juice in treating the disease. She defended this in similar terms to those used by advocates of so-called alternative medicine in the West, arguing that "that traditional remedies should not become "bogged down" in clinical trials, saying, "We cannot use Western models of protocols for research and development". There is no evidence that this pair have changed their views but at least they are now no longer in a position to obstruct the use of real, evidence-based medicine. (Mbeki is also too keen to parrot Mugabe's rhetoric and is hardly even-handed in the negotiations between Zanu-PF and the MDC)

December 7th 2008

Suffer the Little Children - here is a quote from a 2002 BBC news item on guidelines for senior Roman Catholic clergy handling child rape cases. "Accompanying the guidelines was a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, leader of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - which deals with matters of faith and morals "With this letter, we hope that not only will these serious crimes be avoided, but, above all, that the holiness of the clergy and the faithful be protected," it said. (80's emphasis) The document said bishops and heads of religious orders must inform Rome if they discover "even a hint" of paedophilia by a priest and launch an investigation. Clergymen involved in sexual abuse cases will then go before either a local ecclesiastical court or the Vatican Congregation itself which will be the appeal court in either case. The hearing will all be held in secret." Ratzinger makes a fine boss for Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, who has been whining about how Britain is an unfriendly place for religious people. Given his past record maybe it is only unfriendly to him.

Here is a quote by the man in a book called Faith In The Nation "Religious belief of any kind tends now to be treated more as a private eccentricity than as the central and formative element in British society that it is. Although the tone of public discussion is sceptical or dismissive rather than antireligious, atheism has become more vocal and aggressive." It would be a saner world if religion was treated as a private eccentricity - for one thing it would stop the absurd deference accorded the likes of Murphy O'Connor by the press and some politicians whenever he opens his mouth. Atheism has not "...become more vocal and aggressive" that makes no sense. Atheism is merely the lack of belief in gods, any gods. If this clergyman perceives atheists to be more vocal and aggressive that may well be because  they do not consider questions about religion, its absurdities and its often malign effect on people's lives any more offensive than questions about any other human ideological construct. If Murphy O'Connor can tell people they are going to suffer eternal torment unless they subscribe to his particular superstition then he can expect to be called on it. (Also see this piece by Ophelia Benson on Murphy O'Connor)

One Law For All Campaign - New legislation may be needed to curb the activities of informal sharia courts that are operating in Britain, said the organisers of the One Law For All campaign, which was launched at the House of Lords this week.

The meeting was attended by peers who are interested in challenging the growth and influence of Sharia Councils and Muslim Arbitration Tribunals. Campaign organiser, Maryam Namazie, commented that sharia law was undesirable in any form as it sets up conflicts between both human rights and civil law in Britain. "Even in civil matters, Sharia law is discriminatory, unfair and unjust, particularly against women and children," she said.

Of particular concern was whether women were being coerced into using these courts and tribunals against their best interests.

National Secular Society Vice President and chairperson of the Lawyers Secular Society, Carla Revere, explained how the Sharia Councils and Arbitration Systems differed and how they were ruling on family matters — divorce, child custody and inheritance matters — that were outside their legal scope. She quoted Justice Minister Jack Straw, who said in Parliament recently, in response to a question about sharia law courts in the UK: "Arbitration is not a system of dispute resolution that may be used in family cases. Therefore no draft consent orders embodying the terms of an agreement reached by the use  of a Sharia council have been enforced within the meaning of the Arbitration Act 1996 in matrimonial proceedings". Therefore the decisions of Muslim Arbitration Tribunals are not legally binding in that they are not enforceable in the UK courts.

Gina Khan, a secular Muslim who has been fighting for justice on these issues, spoke of her own and her family's experiences at the hands of sharia justice. She spoke passionately about the way extremists within the Muslim community were exerting control through giving the impression that "real Muslims" would settle their disputes using only "God's Sacred Law". This, she said, led to injustice to Muslim women, many of whom didn't know they had rights in British civil courts.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: "Sharia is becoming a growth industry in Britain, putting growing pressure on vulnerable people in the Muslim community to use sharia councils and tribunals to resolve disputes and family matters, when they could use the civil courts. Sharia "law" is not arrived at by the democratic process, is not Human Rights compliant, and there is no right of appeal."

Mr Wood pointed to the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal's own website, which says "MAT will therefore, for the first time, offer the Muslim community a real and true opportunity to settle disputes in accordance with Islamic Sacred Law with the knowledge that the outcome as determined by MAT will be binding and enforceable." It proudly shows photographs of the recently retired Lord Chief Justice and Justice minister Lord Hunt claiming various types of endorsement by them."

Carla Revere added: "Such self-appointed, unregulated tribunals are gaining in strength; they increasingly hold themselves up as courts with as much force as the law of the land, but are not operating with the same controls and safeguards. They appear to be operating in the area of family law and some even in criminal matters, where they have no right to make binding decisions as they claim to do. Even if the decisions were binding, UK courts do not uphold contractual decisions that are contrary to UK law or public policy. We call on the Government and legal establishment to stand up for the vulnerable and tackle this significant and growing problem, rather than ignoring it."

The one Law for All Campaign website is here. Please add your name to the petition and
disseminate this as widely as possible.

(The above paragraphs were lifted lock, stock and barrel from the National Secular Society's Newsline, a free weekly email newsletter. You can sign up for it here and you can join the NSS in fighting religious privilege here. Also please note the Stop Sharia petition is still open and needs your vote. Please sign both petitions as the effort is minimal and the cause is vital for a free and fair country - thanks)

George W Bush - talking about biblical literalism and evolution. What a mental giant this man is. At least the next President can speak in coherent sentences - even if he is the Antichrist.

Papal Gag - do read this interview with disgraced ex-Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, who was set up in a sex sting by Mugabe's goons in revenge for his condemnation of the vile regime. The Roman Catholic Church, ie Ratzinger, has forbidden him to make any public statements at the very time his voice is needed in a country that is suffering terribly. It would appear the church puts a higher priority on celibacy than confronting a dictatorial regime whose incompetence has enabled a cholera epidemic. Ratzinger's culture of life? That's a sick joke.

"One man's theology is another man's belly laugh." Robert A. Heinlein

A Voice of Reason? - 80 has covered before the concerted attack by Islamic states on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN so it seems strange to hear the UHDR cited by Inayat Bunglawala in an apparent defence of free speech in the Guardian. He sounds quite convincing despite his past record. Convincing, that is, until the penultimate paragraph when he calls Hizb ut-Tahrir " organisation that is unjustly banned in many parts of the world." Unjustly? Certainly not. In a rare instance of 80 agreeing with anything said by the Conservative party it is right in calling for Hizb ut-Tahrir to be banned. This is the bunch whose web site the BBC's Newsnight current affairs show described as one that "...promotes racism and anti-Semitic hatred, calls suicide bombers martyrs, and urges Muslims to kill Jewish people." This was in 2003. There is no evidence that Hizb ut-Tahrir has, to use a rather inappropriate phrase, undergone a Damascene conversion since then. Bunglawala's dissembling may convince the terminally gullible but 80 remains thoroughly unconvinced. (Read here an interesting appraisal of the shiny new reasonable Bunglawala. See here A C Grayling's (and others) series marking the 60th anniversary of the UDHR and, by Geoffrey Robertson, The diamond anniversary of a golden law)

Advent Podcasts - available online and to download from those nice folks at New Humanist. Contributors include Stephen Fry, Alexei Sayle, Dave Gorman, PZ Myers. An excellent start to the festive season.

“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship.” Thomas Jefferson

Soul Competitors - in a world where there are thousands of children orphaned by AIDS, a world where  child soldiers are commonplace, a world where children labor in sweatshops, a world where children are abused (sometimes by clergy) why the hell does Christopher Jamison, the Abbot of Worth in West Sussex, launch an attack on Disney? Now 80 is no great fan of Disney but with the ghastly life many children face it seems strange that this cleric is attacking the Walt Disney Company for its influence on the young - then you realize that Disney is encroaching on his territory - and his diatribe is a salvo in a turf war. Disney entices the young with its (generally moral) movies and shows, all the better to plug its merchandise. Jamison, however, would rather kids were brainwashed into his Christian sect by threats of hellfire, by being made to feel sinful and by having a magical fairyland called heaven promised them if they follow the rules. Of these two, the Catholic church or the Disney Company, 80 reckons the latter is less damaging to young minds. (It certainly has a better record on child abuse.) It is no surprise to find Jamison touted as a successor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor as the next Archbishop of Westminster -although he may not be O'Connor's equal in sheer hypocrisy. That oddest of odd couples, Jesus and Mo' are, as ever, bang on target.

Other religious news from the UK features a Christian marriage guidance counsellor who was fired "...after telling his manager that the Bible forbade homosexual activity and it was his duty to follow this it is claimed." No doubt this devout fellow also condones the stoning of disrespectful children and would never eat shellfish - well he would if he was consistent, as opposed to merely bigoted. This article tells us that "Catholic schools should set aside multi-faith prayer rooms to accommodate Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh students, according to guidance." Oddly it doesn't mention any arrangements for those students who aren't superstitious.

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."  Richard Feynman (Think hydrogen economy)

December 13th 2008

"True wisdom is less presuming than folly. The wise man doubteth often, and changeth his mind; the fool is obstinate, and doubteth not; he knoweth all things but his own ignorance."  Akhenaton, king of Egypt (1353–1336 BCE)

Dignity - (1) The quality of being worthy of esteem or respect, (2) Formality in bearing and appearance. These are a couple of dictionary definitions of a word that is being misused by Pope Ratzinger in his "Dignitas Personae" (Dignity of the Person) statement. This authoritarian old man chooses to interfere in various areas of medicine on the basis of his unproven beliefs. He is entirely welcome to those beliefs - and his opinions - for his pronouncements are certainly no more than that - opinions. Claiming that he speaks for his deity does not in any way make his prohibitions any more worthy of attention than yours or mine. In fact his life within the church, unexposed to many of the cares and vicissitudes that ordinary folk encounter every day, makes him, if anything less qualified to speak with any authority. That he and his fellow priests think that this life is but a preparation for an eternal one that follows reveals how ridiculous and uninformed his opinions are - to hear the leader of what, in the final analysis, is a death cult lay down the law about how others should live their lives would be amusing but for the fact Ratzinger has a numerous and largely gullible audience. In a world where the problems of climate change, pollution, and the destruction of the environment can be laid at the door of human overpopulation it is obscene to hear this celibate old man repeat his implacable opposition to any form of contraception.

He is also incapable of coming to terms with modern medical research and the advances it can bring. To say a human embryo consisting of a few cells has the "...dignity typical of a person" is nonsensical. Ratzinger apparently agonizes about the fate of embryos used in stem cell research but has nothing to say about the spontaneous natural abortions that take place, often unnoticed, all the time. Whose fault is that? His god's? As for his attitude towards assisted suicide that is equally nonsensical. If someone is in unendurable agony and they know that death is the only outcome why the hell can't they and their loved ones decide to end it all at a time of their choosing? In the case of those brain-damaged beyond all hope of recovery is it wrong to let them die? Where is the dignity in mindlessly lingering on, sustained by machines? The pontiff and his advisors have produced a document that is little more than a list of prohibitions. Marco Politi, longtime Vatican correspondent for La Repubblica, made this point forcefully as reported in the Times. "It is one veto after another" Mr Politi wrote. "Not to this, no to that. No, no, no". He said the Vatican was clearly aware that under Pope Benedict it was acquiring a reputation for "banning everything", since it had issued a "pre-emptive statement" noting that "on a superfical first reading" the document on bio-ethics "might give the impression of being a collection of prohibitions". "But that is precisely the public perception", Mr Politi said.

In Dignitas Personae Ratzinger has confirmed his image as a grimly authoritarian old man showing little sign of love or sympathy for his fellow human beings who inhabit the real world. He should stop condemning others and try putting his own house in order. He has arrogated for himself the moral high ground with no justification - if he wanted to prove his concern for others he should address the ongoing scandal of priestly child rape which shows no sign of abating. As he pontificates on the dignity of a cell cluster "Three men who claim they were abused by Catholic clergy in America have succeeded in naming the Vatican as sole defendant in a lawsuit and are hoping to force Pope Benedict XVI to give evidence in the case." But why name Ratzinger? There is no suggestion he has ever physically abused anyone - but he certainly played a major part in sweeping any investigation of such abuse under the carpet. To quote this 2007 article from National Public Radio " a 2001 letter to all bishops, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, ordered that all sex-abuse cases be transferred to the Vatican. As theological watchdog, he also imposed total secrecy on the proceedings, with the threat of excommunication for any violations. Daniel Shea, an American lawyer who has defended many sex-abuse victims in U.S. courts, accuses the Vatican — and the former Cardinal Ratzinger — of obstruction of justice. "This gives them the opportunity to silence the victim, threaten the victim with hellfire for all eternity if they ever reveal what is going on in this transaction," Shea says. Before Ratzinger bangs on about dignity he should deal with the festering sores within the body of his own church and explain his role in supressing investigations of child rape. Dignity? What does he know about dignity? (See here the Center for Inquiry's (CFI) statement deploring the Pope's position on biomedical technology which it calls scientifically insupportable. Also see The Vatican's Immoral Declaration by Jim Fetzer which points out the absurdity of enforcing the Pope's dogma. Highly recommended)

“...the Vatican has once again manifested its regrettable preference for religious doctrine over science. Until roughly fourteen days after conception, one cannot even meaningfully refer to the embryo as an individual, let alone the equivalent of an adult human, since both twinning and fusion are possible until that point.” Lindsay added that the Vatican’s rejection of IVF on the ground that it results in the discarding of embryos is especially ironic since from 60 to 80 percent of embryos conceived “naturally” are spontaneously aborted. “If the Vatican wants to prevent embryos from ‘dying,’ then they will have to instruct couples to avoid sex completely. The bottom line is that the Vatican is telling those who need medical assistance to seek help from theology, not therapy.”  Dr. Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, quoted in the statement mentioned above.

December 14th 2008

Scorched Earth - George Bush and puppetmaster Dick Cheney are setting about leaving a poisonous legacy to cap that of the last 8 years. On the morning after Obama's election 80 said that was going to happen and here it is. Such a prediction is hardly impressive - given the track record of this duo it was well nigh inevitable. In the conservative, big business version of a scorched earth policy Bush has been pushing through a raft of what are called "midnight regulations". Midnight regulations? They exist "...because of a loophole in US law allowing him to put last-minute regulations into the Code of Federal Regulations, rules that have the same force as law. He can carry out many of his political aims without needing to force new laws through Congress. Outgoing presidents often use the loophole in their last weeks in office, but Bush has done this far more than Bill Clinton or his father, George Bush sr. He is on track to issue more 'midnight regulations' than any other previous president." This is precisely the opposite (reg rqd) of what he said he would do back in June of this year.

These measures loosen controls on pollution (particularly with regard to mining, factory farm discharge and air quality), global warming, protection of endangered species, the right to carry concealed and loaded weapons in national parks and much more. Some conservation groups are suing "...the Bush administration to block last-minute rule changes they say would weaken protections for endangered species. Last week, the U.S. Interior Department issued revised regulations to eliminate some government reviews required to assess the environmental impacts of proposed dams, power plants and other projects. The rules, which go into effect next month, would also limit the use of the federal Endangered Species Act to combat global warming.". Meanwhile the Democrats are tracking these changes and seeking ways to overturn them. Bush's legacy, already ghastly enough, has just gotten worse. These midnight regulations are the final insulting parting shot  from this gang of crooks (assuming they don't bomb Iran before January 20th). See Ophelia Benson's impassioned take on these regulations - Access of Evil and read Can Obama Turn Back The Clock On Bush’s Midnight Rules?

Oh Yeah? - "The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Constitution of the United States of America, Article VI, section 3.

Honeymoon Over - Any politician upon taking a new office is accorded what the press like to call a "honeymoon period" in which criticism, if not witheld, is at least tempered. Sadly for 80 and many others it seems Barack Obama's honeymoon period is over - even before he is inaugurated. Any realist knows that politics is the art of compromise and Obama is well know for his pragmatism, an attribute badly needed to heal a nation divided starkly along partisan lines for the last 8 years, but he has taken this too far. Anyone looking at the record and public statements of Rick Warren, pastor of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church, evangelist, author and homophobic bigot will surely recognize his unsuitability to give the inaugural prayer. This is a man who has equated same-sex marriage with pedophilia, incest and polygamy (see YouTube). He also compares abortion to the holocaust and does not believe in evolution. Yet Obama thinks including this deeply unpleasant individual, this man full of hate, is a wise idea. There are other, less divisive individuals he could have chosen to give the prayer but he has chosen Warren. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - if there was ever proof that the power of the religious right in the US is not diminished by his election, Obama's decision to have this individual deliver the prayer is it. (Read this piece by Sarah Posner called What's the Matter With Rick Warren? and this from Ophelia Benson. Also see here for a welcome change of heart by some evangelists. Last but not least check out Jesus and Mo on religion's unhealthy and creepy obsession with what other people do with their genitalia. Update - here is an argument in favor of Rick Warren being involved in the inauguration. Also Warren's acceptance of the invocation spot has enraged some conservatives. One wonders how the man himself views Obama's position on abortion)

Free Thinking - is the name of a new blog launched by the Center for Inquiry. Contributors include Joe Nickell, Ben Radford, Tom Flynn, D.J. Grothe, Lauren Becker, Debbie Goddard, John Shook, and Derek Araujo. Ben Radford contributes This Just In: Blogging Skeptic Skeptical of Blogs. Other entries so far are One God or Many Universes?, Obama to Gays and Lesbians: Go to Hell (on the president-elect's dismaying choice of a bigot to deliver the invocation at his inauguration) and Demjanjuk: ‘Ivan the Bloody’. Given the quality of entries so far, Free Thinking will become a regular port of call for 80.

Listing - Mark Morford seems to be keen on lists at the moment. The latest is described as "Gifts for the Blessed - 11 skewed ideas to make your holiday a bit more fun, strange, blasphemous" the blasphemous bit being a board game called, yes, you guessed it, Blasphemy! Morford describes the game thus "Yes, now everyone gets to play a would-be Messiah as you race around the board maneuvering your personal Jesus through six phases of life, trying to get to the cross in time for the Big Event. Fight the devil! Give sermons! Drink a lot! Die for everyone's sins! You win!" What's not to like? The previous list inspired by recent events* was "12 Things To Throw At Bush" - no doubt you can think of many suggestions of your own...

* Now a popular game.

December 22nd 2008

Up Chuck - Here is a Christmas message from Chuck Norris (yes, that Chuck Norris) tackling the worrying spate of Baby Jesus thefts from Nativity scenes. He finds this sacrilegious and doesn't beat about the bush, "Religious Grinches who steal these symbolic Christs are pathetic piles of yuletide trash". He finds consolation because " matter how often Christmas thugs try to pilfer nativities, they can never take away the real Jesus of history." He then cites various "authorities" that confirm Jesus' historicity - at least to his own satisfaction. Here he is begging the question for he starts out from the position of a devout, if not very bright, believer. (His own usage of the phrase "begging the question" in his article is wrong - but then he does appear to think with his fists.) Norris certainly seems unaware of Earl Doherty's excellent Jesus Puzzle web site and book, in which is set out a convincing and thorough case for a mythical Jesus. Chuck is also unlikely to be following the work of the Center for Inquiry's Jesus Project run by the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, something he would no doubt also consider sacrilegious.

World Nut Daily - Chuck's piece (above) appears in World Net Daily, a right-wing religious site founded and edited by one Joseph Fara. 80 has said in the past that if you manage to enrage those on both sides of an argument you just might be pitching things right. Further down this page (Honeymoon Over) 80 took Barack Obama to task for having evangelist and homophobe Rick Warren deliver the invocation at his inauguration, a choice that has been condemned widely by liberal groups and freethinkers. Now it is Warren's turn to take some heat. Fara's current editorial is adapted from a letter he says he sent Warren - he does not say if he had a reply. In the letter he describes Obama's policies as "evil" painting him as a kind of modern day Herod, a baby-killer, for his views on abortion. Naturally Fara thinks Warren is little better than Obama himself for accepting the request to give the invocation. Fara ends his condemnatory piece thus, "God will not bless the Obama administration's plans for murder, no matter what you say on Jan. 20. It's time for Rick Warren to decide whether he stands with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or if he stands with the world and his "friend," Barack Hussein Obama." (Note the slipping in there of Obama's "heathen" middle name.) So perhaps the president-elect is craftier wiser than 80 gave him credit for being if his choice of Warren has sown such dissension in the ranks of the nutters. Maybe the honeymoon is not over yet after all.

Festive News - amid all the economic gloom and doom this Christmas here is one story to warm the cockles of your heart. According to this item in the Guardian " just over a generation the number of people attending Church of England Sunday services will fall to less than a tenth of what they are now. Christian Research, the statistical arm of the Bible Society, claimed that by 2050 Sunday attendance will fall below 88,000, compared with just under a million now."  Naturally this prediction has been rejected by the Church of England which claims the figures "... were incomplete and ignored new ways of worshipping outside the church network." Of course, they would say that, wouldn't they? One wonders what these "new ways of worshipping" can be that don't involve going to church and partaking of the Eucharist - a ritual that forms the absolute bedrock of Christianity. Perhaps the CoE is happy to place a tick against anybody that claims to be a little bit "spiritual". Meanwhile, on the heels of Rowan William's contention that it would not be the end of the world to finish the Church of England's special relationship with the government - known as disestablishment - the Telegraph reports that there is "...A growing chorus of voices is calling for the centuries-old link between Church and state to be broken..." among Labour MPs, including 3 former government ministers. This is enough to cause horror in the Telegraph's leader column which proclaims "Faith must have a voice in the citadels of power" . To which the only sensible response must be, why?

In an increasingly secular and multifaith society why should one Christian sect be favored over other Christians and over other faiths? The upper house of parliament, the House of Lords, has 26 unelected CoE bishops, or Lords Spiritual, cluttering up the benches. Why should they be accorded this unearned privilege? It is plainly absurd and unworkable to have every faith represented in the Lords therefore it is time for these bishops to step down. If faith groups want a say in government they must take their place among all the other lobbying groups and not be accorded a privileged position. Just because you hold beliefs that are beyond, or more correctly, incapable of proof doesn't mean you merit special treatment. To quote Barack Obama "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason." Much is made of the historical nature of the establishment of the Church of England but it was only founded by Henry VIII in 1534 so that he could get his hands on Anne Boleyn. A tradition founded on one deeply unpleasant man's lust for a woman whom he later had killed is hardly a glorious one.

In more Christmas news Christians should be singing the praises of Mahmoud Abbas, president of Palestine for stepping into a row over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, reputed birthpace of the Christian god-man. Repairs to the Byzantine building are vitally needed but the various Christian sects charged with its care are more interested in fighting each other. This article tells us "In one incident, in 2007, the long-bearded monks scuffled, using fists, brooms and iron rods, simply because one group had tried to wash parts of a wall claimed by another." and furthermore, according to "...the World Monuments Fund, a United Nations body that listed the church as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world, the basilica's custodians have failed to collaborate on its repair for almost 1,000 years." Further proof, if any were needed, of the divisive nature of religion. It is astounding these people cannot even agree to preserve what they believe to be the birthplace of their religion's founder. Happily the Palestinian government, alarmed at the loss of pilgrim revenue if the place fell down, has stepped in to effect vital repairs. Notice the inspiration here comes from a different god, the one called Mammon, not the Christian or Islamic one. The Christmas message 80 has most enjoyed reading over this festive season is one from A C Grayling, the final paragraph of which is worth quoting in its entirety.

"Secularists in the west say to the apologists of the religions: your beliefs are your choice, so take your place in the queue. They also say: you've had it your own way for a very long time - and committed a lot of crimes in the process - and you still fancy yourself entitled, but you aren't. You don't smell too good at times, so don't try to tell me what I can read, see on TV, do in my private time, think or say. In fact, keep your sticky fingers off my life. Believe what you like but don't expect me to admire or excuse you because of it: rather the contrary, given the fairy-stories in question. And when you are a danger to the lives and liberties of others, which alas is too frequently the wont of your ilk, we will speak out against you as loudly, persistently, and uncompromisingly as we can." A C Grayling, Secularists' vital war on religion.

Frock Shock - "I think it's a sort of disorder that these old men dress up in frocks to go to work and call themselves celibate, then point the finger at other people. The 'eternal truth' is that you should love your neighbour as yourself. The 'truth' is not to be found in the minor reaches of Leviticus, where eating prawns and sleeping with a man are matters of moral concern." Ian McKellen, in a piece from the Guardian in which he complains that faith, ie sectarian, schools are preaching religious doctrine in class, including teaching that homosexuality is a sin. Meanwhile, a soon-to-be ex-President comes out of the closet.

"We'll hold the distinction of being the only Nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poor house in an automobile."  Will Rogers

December 23rd 2008

'Tis No Season To Be Jolly - Religion's malign influence, in this case Christianity's, is very much in the news in the run up to Jesus' supposed birthday. In the UK there is more idiocy about creationism and in Italy the Pope legitimises prejudice and hatred. The Guardian tells us that a "... Ipsos/Mori poll of 923 primary and secondary teachers found that 29% of science specialists agreed with the statement: "Alongside the theory of evolution and the Big Bang theory, creationism should be TAUGHT in science lessons". Those capitals are in the original story. The same survey indicated support "...for the views of the Royal Society's former director of education, Professor Michael Reiss. He resigned in September over his views on how to include creationism in science lessons." Just as well he resigned going by the quote from him given in the article, "Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson..." Yes it damn well is. That is why it is called a SCIENCE lesson. Discuss creationism if you must in a comparative religion or philosophy class - it has no place whatsoever in a science class.

Talking of comparative religion, all of the press reports on this survey automatically assume the creation myth to be taught is the one in the Christian Old Testament (Known as the Talking Snake Theory). This ignores the hundreds if not thousands of myths produced by other cultures around the world, all of which are just as valid as the Christian myth - and equally unscientific. If you teach one creation myth you should teach them all. Isn't that what the creationist/Intelligent Design nitwits are always banging on about? They say "creation science" should be taught alongside evolutionary theory but the only creation they want included is the Judaeo-Christian one. That's a little narrow-minded wouldn't you say - and this is before we even discuss the relevance of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to all this. The Guardian also publishes comment from Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones on the inclusion of fairy tales in science class and takes the opportunity to publish an interview with the excessively litigious Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya) and his lavish Atlas of Creation, which contains much that is laughable (purloined pictures) and much that is merely childish. Oktar has claimed to be keen to debate with Richard Dawkins, yet he has had the latter's website blocked in his native Turkey. Very scholarly. Attempting to silence critics is not the scientific method - but then his atlas contains no science.

Meanwhile Pope Ratzinger makes a contribution to world peace by treating homosexuality as a threat to humankind on a par with with worldwide environmental degradation and climate change. Does this cruel old fool think for one second of the lives he is damaging by his pronouncements? What he wants is to extend his, and his church's, control of people in their every thought and deed - how he must yearn for the Middle Ages. He says "Human beings want to do everything by themselves, and to control exclusively everything that regards them. But in this way, the human person lives against the truth, against the Creator Spirit." And who, in Ratzinger's opinion is the only legitimate representative on Earth of this supposed Creator Spirit? Why, dear old humble Ratzinger. He is beneath contempt for many reasons and this fresh elevation of homophobia to a church doctrine is yet another of his crimes. Now thanks to his holiness every moronic queer-basher can claim he has divine sanction for his prejudices.

In the USA Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren, a homophobic right-wing preacher, to give the invocation at his inauguration is still making waves. (Lovely word that, invocation. Conjures up thoughts of pentacles and demons. 80's dictionary defines the word in the first instance as "A prayer asking God's help as part of a religious service" which is interesting as the inauguration is not a religious service - or shouldn't be. The next two definitions are more exciting "An incantation used in conjuring or summoning a devil" and "Calling up a spirit or devil". To those of other faiths and none there is little difference between any of these definitions. The Washington Post publishes two opposing opinion pieces on Obama's choice, one from E J Dionne Jr, A Gamble for Obama (reg rqd), in which he views the selection of Warren as an opportunity to engage with a less dogmatic Christianity - yes, Warren is actually less bigoted than some of his fellow-religionists. Thank heaven for small mercies, as they say. The second piece, by Richard Cohen, called Warren On? Party Off (reg rqd) is far more condemnatory. Cohen concentrates on Warren's homophobia (one of his many prejudices) and finds it unforgiveable. He says it all in one sentence in which he refers to his sister, who was a committed Obama supporter, "She's been in a relationship with another woman, the quite wonderful Nancy, for 19 years, and she resents the fact that Warren has likened same-sex marriage to incest, pederasty and polygamy." Obama has glossed over the "social issues" on which he does not agree with Warren in the name of inclusivity, saying they have other things they hold in common. Cohen has an answer for this which is worth quoting in full "But what we do not "hold in common" is the dehumanization of homosexuals. What we do not hold in common is the belief that gays are perverts who have chosen their sexual orientation on some sort of whim. What we do not hold in common is the exaltation of ignorance that has led and will lead to discrimination and violence." And that goes not just for Warren but also for that cruel and hateful old man in the Vatican.

Finally here is a taster from a highly recommended piece by Polly Toybee - "Secularists take offence too at the way the religious paint unbelievers as poor desiccated rationalists, not only without values, but joyless, lacking a sense of mystery, devoid of awe. Yet, earthbound, there is enough wonder in the infinite capacity of the human imagination, in a magical world of thought, dream, hope, memory and fantasy. To be human is not to be particularly rational, the senses often overwhelming common sense. There is no emotional or spiritual deficiency in rejecting religions that infantilise the imagination with impossible beliefs."

Atheists Are Not What You Think - Here is an informative and entertaining piece that sadly is unlikely ever to be read by those who really need to. How to Get on an Atheist's Good Side is a handy primer for getting along with those unburdened by religious faith, a group which in the US alone numbers in the millions. It is re-published by Alternet from the author, Greta Christina's own blog, which in 80's view is well worth a visit.

December 27th 2008

Fields of Fancy - here is another example of poor journalism, the kind that prints unsubstantiated claims in a long and detailed piece yet only allows a couple of lines for a rebuttal. The town of Glastonbury in Somerset, we are told, is a center for so-called alternative healers. Perhaps these healers are suffering from the economic downturn and decided that a bit of free publicity from the Daily Telegraph might help. The article, obligingly written by Andrew Alderson and Simon Trump, is almost entirely drivel - quite why it took two journalists to produce such a substandard piece of work is a mystery, as neither seem to have employed that obscure tool of their trade known as "fact checking". We learn that "...the residents of Glastonbury, which has long been a favoured destination for pilgrims, are at the centre of a bitter row in which many blame the town's new wireless computer network - known as wi-fi - for a spate of health problems. Some healers even hold that electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) generated by the wi-fi system are responsible for upsetting positive energy fields of the body, which are known as chakras, and positive energy fields of the earth, which are known as ley lines". It is worth noting immediately that both chakras and ley lines are imaginary. There is no objective way of detecting either of these "phenomena" - they have no actual physical existence and can only be sensed by those who think they are attuned to such things. One would think the reporters would be aware of this, or at least have done the minimal research. But no, and it gets worse, "Meanwhile soothsayers, astrologers and other opponents of the wi-fi system have resorted to an alternative technology - known as "orgone" - to combat the alleged negative effects of the high-tech system."  (For a rational, science-based view of EMF and health see here)

The Telegraph article quotes one Matt Todd, who "...who campaigns against EMFs..." He must be a very busy chap as the entire universe is awash with electromagnetic fields. Mr Todd is apparently a devotee of psychoanalyst and nutter Wilhelm Reich, discoverer of orgone energy, for he "...has started building small generators which he believes can neutralise the allegedly-harmful radiation using the principles of orgone science. The pyramid-like machines use quartz crystals, selenite (a clear form of the mineral gypsum), semi-precious lapis lazuli stones, gold leaf and copper coil to absorb and recycle the supposedly-negative energy." This sounds all very impressive but "orgone energy" is no more a real phenomenon than chakras or ley lines. As the Skeptic's Dictionary tells us "Reich claimed that orgone energy is omnipresent and accounts for such things as the color of the sky, gravity, galaxies, the failure of most political revolutions, and a good orgasm. In living beings, orgone is called bio-energy or Life Energy. Reich believed that orgone energy is "demonstrable visually, thermically, electroscopically and by means of Geiger-Mueller counters." However, only true believers in orgone energy (i.e., orgonomists practicing the science of orgonomy) have been able to find success with the demonstrations."  One begins to detect a pattern here. So, Todd is using the non-existent orgone energy to protect the non-existent chakras and non-existent ley lines - at least there is a certain consistency in this lunatic story. The two reporters unquestioningly parrot the Reich/orgone nonsense and quote Todd's paranoid reason for its non-acceptance, "The science hasn't really got into the mainstream because the Government won't make decisions which will affect big business, even if it concerns everyone's health." Whatever one thinks of the government, the reason the "science" of orgone energy hasn't " into the mainstream..." is that it is complete hogwash, something that writers Alderson and Trump obviously couldn't be bothered to check.

Jane Saunders, owner of a "natural health clinic" (one wonders what unnatural health is) claims to be able to detect when the wi-fi is switched on. If she thinks she can do this then she is deluding herself. It would be interesting to test her amazing ability under controlled conditions, ie her not actually knowing whether the wi-fi is switched on or off. If she could do this consistently she would an object of wonder. The two intrepid reporters also asked a "...spokesman for Powerwatch, an independent EMF pressure group.." for an opinion. This bunch claim to " closely with decision-makers in government and business..." They also apparently market, under the name EMFields, an EMF hat to protect the brains of the gullible (just one of their range of products). Powerwatch says "Someone using a wi-fi laptop will be exposed to approximately twice the level of radiation as someone living 70 yards from a mobile phone mast...." which, while mildly interesting says nothing about whether either source of EMF is actually dangerous. The only sop to those curmudgeons who would like a little real science now and again is a quote from Dr Eric de Silva, a physicist at Imperial College, London who said "All the studies which have so far concluded show there is no evidence of a connection between exposure to wi-fi and ill health." This is the only fact-based comment in over 20 paragraphs of uninformed scaremongering. One wonders quite what the science editor of the Telegraph thinks of his colleagues' sad, ignorant and lazy excuse for journalism. (Here is the Register's take on this daft story)

"There is more EMF exposure from radio and TV, and the wiring in our homes and the electrical appliances we use, than from our cell phones or Wi-Fi. No one can avoid electromagnetic radiation. It is everywhere. We are constantly exposed to it from light, commercial radio and television transmissions, police 2-way transmissions, walkie-talkies, etc."  (Skeptic's Dictionary entry on EMF - it is worth scrolling down to the references provided.)

The Incomparable Richard Feynman - talks about electromagnetic waves (YouTube). Not recommended for those frightened of EMF - those damn' waves are literally everywhere...

A Question - which bright spark at Channel 4 thought it was a good idea to have their alternative Christmas message delivered by a man who condones the barbaric judicial murder of children? Ahmadinejad, for it is he, the deranged President of Iran, has also denied homosexuality exists in his country and yet hangs gay teenagers from cranes.






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