Friday, February 29, 2008

Blasphemy abolition moves closer

Blasphemy abolition moves closer
The abolition of the blasphemy laws took a decisive step forward this week with the tabling of a government amendment to do so in the House of Lords.

In January the Government had promised in the House of Commons to table a Lords amendment after a "short and sharp" consultation with the churches. This was prompted by the tabling of an amendment by NSS Honorary Associate Dr Evan Harris. The Government amendment this week, however, comes at a considerably earlier stage than had been expected as it is very unlikely that the consultation has been completed. What appears to have happened is that the Government has been panicked into tabling its own amendment following a near identical one being tabled by Lord Avebury. Lord Avebury is a long-time secular campaigner, with whom the NSS works closely. The Government is determined that changes to blasphemy are made through their amendments, to give the appearance that they are in control.

The Bill is scheduled to be debated on Wednesday.

Richard Dawkins Barry Sheerman MP on The Big Debate - RE in Schools

Andrew Copson (BHA Director of Education) and Maryam Namazie.(Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain - video) are guest speakers.

Richard Dimbleby to RD 'does a god shaped perspective or set of values do any harm to the way children should be taught in schools? RD quotes Ten Commandments ' Thou shall have no other god before me; thou shalt make no graven image; thou shalt keep the Sabbath holy. What on earth has that got to do with morals? Thats 3 of the 10 commandments. It would be deeply depressing if the only way children could get moral values was from religion either from scripture or from a being afraid of god - being intimidated by god - anybody who is good for those two reasons is not being really good at all.
Why not teach children the 'Golden Rule' - do unto others as you would be done unto you. How would you like it if other children did that to you? So why do you do it to them? It is depressing if you have to suggest that anybody needs god to be moral. I would hope that our morals come from a better source than that and that they are genuinely moral rather than based on outmoded scripture or based on fear.'

RD 'What is the penalty for apostacy?'
Answer: Under Sharia Law the penalty is death .. but in the UK we do not live under Sharia Law.

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Jonathan Dimbleby and a panel of experts come together to debate the controversial subject of religion in Britain's schools.

The role of religion in education is a subject rarely out of the headlines. Despite Britain's multi-faith society, schools are still required to include a collective act of worship of a Christian nature, while faith schools and religious academies have raised fears about community cohesion and covert selection.

Claims by some religious educationalists that faith is the best way to teach moral values is challenged by others in schools who believe religious morality to be outdated and dangerous.

Dimbleby is joined by Professor Richard Dawkins, Schools Select Committee chairman Barry Sheerman MP, and a multi-faith studio audience.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Avaaz means 'voice'.

Avaaz was cited as by 21st Century Network

In 6 months claim 1.2 Million members. Avaaz videos here and here

Read about and 2007 campaigns.

View David Milliband discussion hosted by

Al Gore on Climate Change

21st Century Network - a new Humanist Philosophy

This is a group for those who believe that we need to develop a new form of humanism that includes people of all religions and none but who embrace humanistic values as the basis of their actions. These are values of global compassion, personal self-discovery, shared development, planetary concern and a love of community.

Started April 2007 - now has had 12 meetings and with 600 members. Not bad going even for a London based group.

Today we are living in uncertain times as war, natural disasters, famine, poverty and disease resource depletion, global warming, pollution, the effects of rampant globalisation and the fear of weapons of mass destruction all take their toll on our imagination and lives.

In such a world intolerance and chaos grows as religious fundamentalism on one hand and the excesses of globalisation on the other threaten basic human values.

21st Century Network is a movement set up to pursue the following ideas.

* To help redefine humanism so that people of all faiths and none can engage in dialogue around basic humanist principles that embrace the values of tolerance, global compassion, personal self-discovery, shared development, planetary concern and a love of community.
* To help understand that human values can only be pursued when we do not elevate human kind to a plane above all else in the universe but accept that we are part of a greater whole and that it is a respect for that greater whole that will ensure human survival and mutual understanding.
* To create a global network of people who share these views so that a world wide civic culture can develop based upon respect for tolerance as well as planetary and human diversity.

The activities of 21st Century Network will develop as the group grows and other groups form but some activities could be focussed on...

* Discussion between members both online and in actual meetings providing a forum for different cultures and faiths to form a common bond of understanding and tolerance.
* To act as a counter point to religious and secular fundamentalists who wish to impose a one-dimensional dogma on society.
* To develop activities and programmes that reflects the humanistic perspective of the group in relation to global survival, poverty reduction, community development and civic culture.
* To influence decision makers so that they champion both our principles and ideas and therefore help them become policy realities.
* To work with others who share our values and engage in joint discussion and activities.

So this is a chance to form alliances across the religious and political divide by those who believe in valuing diversity and tolerance and helping to build a global culture that is based on that.

What do you think of 21st Century Network Humanist Philosophy?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Is Big Physics peddling science pornography?

Comment: Is Big Physics peddling science pornography?

Michael Hanlon is the science editor of the London Daily Mail and author of Ten Questions Science Can't Answer (Yet) (Macmillan)
From issue 2642 of New Scientist magazine, 09 February 2008, page 22

IF SOME Russian mathematicians are right, then 2008 will be a year to remember. Extraordinary as it sounds, this could be when humanity unwittingly creates its first time machine and we receive our first visitors from the future - presumably wearing, as future-fashion dictates, silver jumpsuits and driving flying cars.

These theorists speculate that at the much-delayed opening of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN on the French-Swiss border, the assembled scientists and dignitaries may be treated to a big surprise. The LHC could, thanks to some mooted possibilities crashing around on the wilder shores of physics, become a time machine - specifically, the end of a "closed timelike curve" connected to the future (see "The accidental time machine").

This is not the first time we have been told that the LHC could change, or rather end, life as we know it. A few years ago someone calculated that the collider might create a mini black hole which would promptly set about eating the planet, starting with Switzerland. Or worse, create a weird subatomic particle called a strangelet that could devour the entire universe. Physics and cosmology stories are like this these days. Once it was all hard sums and red-shifted galaxies; awesome enough one would have thought. Now it's time machines and universe-eating particles.

Does any of this bear any relation to reality? Or is Big Physics guilty of some serious sexing-up, drifting away from the realm of hard data and into the softer universe of science pornography?

As well as accidental time machines we are told of cosmic strings - gigantic filaments of super-stuff that warp and tear space-time like ladders in a pair of celestial stockings - and crashing branes, titanic slabs of maths that give rise to the big bang in the exotically lovely ekpyrotic universe of Neil Turok.

Not crazy enough for you? What about the multiverse? One of the biggest sell-out lectures at last year's Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales starred the UK's astronomer royal, Martin Rees, who entertained his audience with a discussion of the possibility, indeed the probability, of multiple worlds - endless parallel realities existing in a gargantuan super-reality that makes what we think of as the universe as insignificant as a gnat on an elephant's backside. Or there's the simulation argument, philosopher Nick Bostrom's delicious idea that since it should be possible to replicate an entire universe in a computer, and that this could be done countless times, statistical cleverness proves that we are not the real McCoy but the figments of some electronic entity's imagination.

Don't get me wrong, I love parallel universes. I love the idea that, 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 100 light years away is an identical me, sitting down at his computer writing this very same article in a world exactly the same as mine except that the gear stick on the Honda Accord is a slightly different shade of grey. And I love the idea that every time a subatomic particle goes hither or thither, a whole new creation is invoked; forget half-dead cats in boxes, we are talking worlds in which Hitler won the second world war, or where there was no Hitler, and no second world war and no Honda Accords at all.

It is fun to know that serious scientists believe the fabulous alternate realities of the Philip Pullman novels could be accurate descriptions of reality (for in a multiverse of infinite size and scope there will, somewhere and somewhen, be a world where a little girl called Lyra befriends a talking polar bear and where people's souls take the form of animal familiars).

Fun yes, but is it harmless? Scientists, and people like me who stick up for science, are happy to pour scorn on astrologers, homeopaths, UFO-nutters, crop-circlers and indeed the Adam-and-Eve brigade, who all happily believe in six impossible things before breakfast with no evidence at all.
Show us the data, we say to these deluded souls. Where are your trials? What about Occam's razor - the principle that any explanation should be as simple as possible? The garden is surely beautiful enough, we say, without having to populate it with fairies.

The danger is that on the wilder shores of physics these standards are often not met either.
There is as yet no observational evidence for cosmic strings. It's hard to test for a multiverse. In this sense, some of these ideas are not so far, conceptually, from UFOs and homeopathy. If we are prepared to dismiss ghosts, say, as ludicrous on the grounds that firstly we have no proper observational evidence for them and secondly that their existence would force us to rethink everything, doesn't the same argument apply to simulated universes and time machines?
Are we not guilty of prejudice against some kinds of very unlikely ideas in favour of others?

Believing in ghosts takes a different mindset to advocating parallel worlds or cosmic strings. But do we really believe that we are all the creations of a computer sitting in some higher-dimensional adolescent's bedroom, or that time travellers will land at the LHC? Or

are we, too, seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden?

'No-go' Bishop defends comments

'No-go' Bishop defends comments
Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend Dr Michael Nazir-Ali
The Bishop of Rochester has received death threats
A Church of England bishop who claimed Islamic extremism has made some places no-go areas for non-Muslims insists he was right to speak out on the issue.

The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali raised the issue last month in a Sunday Telegraph interview.

Now in a follow-up interview with the same newspaper, he accuses church leaders of not confronting the matter.

"The issue had to be raised. There are times when Christian leaders have to speak out. It's my duty," he says.

'Spiritual leaders'

Since making the comments in January he has received threats against himself and his family. Dr Nazir-Ali and his family are now under police protection.

In his latest interview, he insists his remarks were "based on evidence" and have been "strengthened as a result of overwhelming correspondence".

Do the British people really want to lose that rooting in the Christian faith that has given them everything they cherish?
Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali

He argues that a "spiritual and moral vacuum" has occurred in Britain over the past half-century.

Unless Christianity fills that void, he adds, something else may take its place - "and that could be Islam".

"Do the British people really want to lose that rooting in the Christian faith that has given them everything they cherish - art, literature, architecture, institutions, the monarchy, their value system, their laws?"

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, subsequently faced intense criticism after he said that the adoption of sharia law in the UK was "unavoidable".

But Dr Nazir-Ali tells the Sunday Telegraph that he strongly rejects this analysis.

"People of every faith should be free within the law to follow what their spiritual leaders direct them to, but that's very different saying their structures should replace that of the English legal system because there would be conflicts," he says.

He was born in Pakistan and has both a Christian and Muslim family background.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A national DNA database could bring justice

Ethical questions over police use of DNA || DNA of innocent people should not be kept by police || Should DNA database extension plans have been rejected? BBB Forum

Samples of triumph

A national DNA database could bring justice to thousands of families; our only concern should be over the way it is compiled.

James Randerson


November 2, 2006 1:45 PM

Roy Linzee Tuthill, or Tutts to his friends, was saving up for a bicycle. So, on 23 April 1968 he decided to hitch back home from his school in Chessington, Surrey instead of taking the bus. It was his last journey.

The 14-year-old's body was found three days later. He had been sexually assaulted and strangled. His clothing was found folded neatly and lain across his body.

For 33 years Tutts' killer remained free, until the police picked up Brian Lunn Field (by then aged 66) for drink driving. His DNA matched a sample from the crime scene and in 2001 he was given a life sentence for the killing.

This is the jaw-dropping, humbling power of DNA - a tiny speck of human being that can reach back into history and place a man at a crime scene beyond almost all doubt.

Last year 20,000 people were brought to justice with the help of DNA including the perpetrators of 422 murders and manslaughters, 645 rapes and 9000 domestic burglaries. Countless others have had their innocence affirmed by the technique.

This is science at its most triumphant service of justice.

But what have we given up for this success? DNA fingerprinting is only as good as the database holding the profiles of "suspects". And Britain has by far the most police-friendly laws governing whose DNA profiles go on the national DNA database.

Over 3 million of us are on it including many who have never even been charged with a crime - 51,000 of them are children. Last week the prime minister advocated extending the database to cover everyone.

With so many of us on the database have we handed over too much power to the police? Critics of the database argue that it fundamentally changes the relationship between the state and the citizen. By being on it we are all somehow under constant surveillance. We are transformed from citizens to suspects.

It's an anxious-sounding rhetorical flourish, but what does this actually mean?

What difference does being on the database make if you haven't done anything wrong?

Consider the worst-case scenario. Your DNA profile is on the database and your DNA is found at a crime scene. You are not the villain, but you cannot establish an alibi for the night in question. The police have no other evidence to link you to the crime (because you didn't do it).

If the case gets to court, what can the presence of DNA tell the jury? Simply that you (or your identical twin) visited the crime scene at some time, along with several other people whose DNA was found there. The police would be reckless or desperate to try to get a conviction on that evidence alone.

How is this different from the current situation in which you are wrongly identified by a witness? In this case the state has made you a suspect even though you haven't done anything wrong.

We are all potential suspects in a police investigation as it is. The DNA database doesn't change that one jot. The fact that the police have your DNA profile on file doesn't mean you are being watched by an always-on CCTV camera.
Most of the time the database is blind to your existence. If the proper safeguards against misuse are in place, it is only if your DNA is found at a crime scene that you have some explaining to do.

There are important questions of civil liberties here, but they concern the unfair way in which the database is put together. Currently we have a classic British fudge. The man on the street is, in the eyes of the law, exactly the same as the woman who has been arrested but released uncharged - they are both innocent. Yet her DNA is placed on the database and his is not.

The way the database is compiled at the moment has resulted in a massive over-representation of men on the database, and an even bigger skew towards black men - 37% are on the database.

The way to solve this inequity is for everyone's DNA to be placed on the database at birth.

If we accept that "innocent" people sometimes commit crimes then there is no good reason why innocent people who happen to wind up in a police station should have their DNA taken, but the rest of us don't.

Roy Tuthill's family waited 33 years for justice. Had DNA fingerprinting and a comprehensive database been available in 1968 finding Tutt's killer would have been much easier.

I challenge anyone who would defend the right not to have their DNA profile stored on a computer for use solely in crime-fighting to explain why that nebulous freedom carries more weight than the chance of justice for thousands of families.

This week, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent group that examines developments in medicine and biology, launched a public consultation into the ethical issues surrounding the UK's National DNA Database.

Debating ethics of DNA database

Debating ethics of DNA database
By Iain Haddow
BBC News

DNA swab
The DNA samples of the guilty and innocent are kept on the database
The scientist who pioneered genetic fingerprinting says he's concerned that the personal data of innocent people is being wrongly held by police.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys told the BBC the retention of thousands of innocent people's DNA raised "significant ethical and social issues".

He was speaking as the government launched an inquiry into the way the national DNA database is used.

Per capita, it is the world's largest database and holds the DNA profiles of 4.5m people. The equivalent system in the US, known as CODIS, and run by the FBI, contains over five million DNA profiles.

When first launched in 1995, only the DNA of convicted criminals were kept by police. But following a change in the law in 2001, all DNA collected by forensics - for whatever purpose - can be stored permanently.

Innocent and guilty on database

That ranges from people who voluntarily give police a DNA swab in order to eliminate themselves from investigations - to convicted rapists and murderers.

Since 2004, the data of everyone arrested for a recordable offence in England and Wales - all but the most minor offences - has remained on the system regardless of their age, the seriousness of their alleged offence, and whether or not they were prosecuted.

The database contains the DNA of criminals and a whole number of people who've...never even been charged with a crime.
Roger Smith, Justice

Such is the controversy surrounding the database that last September one of England's most senior appeal court judges, Lord Justice Sedley, called for

the database to be made compulsory for all UK residents as well as visitors to Britain.

At the time he said the current system was "indefensible".

'PR gimmick'

His call has been echoed by the law reform group Justice, which described the consultation as a "public relations gimmick".

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is found in virtually all cells
Only a tiny sample of saliva, blood, semen, etc, is needed for testing
At the molecule's core is a long sequence of chemical units, which is checked for a gender and 10 other 'markers'
Probability of a chance match is less than one in one billion
A match may be with a specific individual or hint at a relative
Profiles can provide indications of ethnic origin
They do not point to genetic disorders or susceptibilities

Justice's Director, Roger Smith, said:

"The national DNA database should either list those guilty of a crime or everybody in the country.

"At the moment, it contains the DNA of criminals and a whole number of other people who have attracted the interest of police officers but never been convicted - in many cases, never even charged - with a crime."

Recently, Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said

the database had helped police solve as many as 20,000 crimes a year.

Institutional racism

But according to the government's own figures, the database contains the genetics of a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities.

Forty per cent of black men in the UK have their DNA stored on the database and there are concerns that it could be open to abuse.

Black men are disproportionately targeted right across the criminal justice system where there is no evidence that they disproportionately commit crime
Ali Dizaei, National Black Police Association

The president of the National Black Police Association, Chief Superintendent Ali Dizaei, said, "Black men are disproportionately targeted right across the criminal justice system where there is no evidence whatsoever that they disproportionately commit crime.

"We see the current data as a classic example of institutional racism."

Professor Sir Bob Hepple, who until December was Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said: "Young black males are over-represented on the National DNA Database. This may have arisen from policing practices and the disproportionate arrest of certain ethnic groups."

But he said:

"The establishment of a population-wide forensic DNA database cannot be justified at the current time. The potential benefits would not be great enough to justify the cost and intrusion to privacy."

A population-wide forensic DNA database cannot be justified...The potential benefits would not justify the cost and intrusion to privacy.
Sir Bob Hepple, former Chair, Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Geneticist Sir Alec Jeffreys first found a way to identify people through their DNA by accident at the University of Leicester two decades ago.

He said he welcomed an inquiry into public attitudes to the database and how it is developing.

"The national DNA database is a very powerful tool in the fight against crime," he said.

"But recent developments such as the retention of innocent people's DNA raises significant ethical and social issues."

Balancing rights and safety

The government consultation will be conducted by the Human Genetics Commission advisory body.

The retention of innocent people's DNA raises significant ethical and social issues
Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, Geneticist, University of Leicester

Over the next six weeks, it will hold sessions with dozens of members of the public
in an exercise costing £75,000.

The conclusions will be fed back to the government in a report next year on the forensic use of DNA.

The man in charge of the inquiry Human Genetics Commission chairman Sir John Sulston said:

"There is an important balance to be struck between individual rights and public safety and we need to know how people feel about these issues".

Should the UK introduce a universal compulsory, or voluntary, national DNA Database? What ethical issues would it raise?

Should everyones DNA record be held on a National Database? What are the ethical considerations? What do you think?

Calls for expansion of the UK's DNA database

DNA in depth || Debating ethics of DNA database || Has our DNA database gone too far? || All UK 'must be on DNA database'

Mandatory DNA database rejected
Mark Dixie [South London Guardian] and Steve Wright
Both killers were convicted with compelling DNA evidence
There are no plans to extend the DNA database to contain information from all people, the Home Office has said.

Calls for its content to be made universal have followed the conviction of two murderers using DNA evidence.

Suffolk serial killer Steve Wright and Sally Anne Bowman's murderer, Mark Dixie

were both captured because their DNA was taken after unrelated offences.

But the Home Office said a mandatory database "would raise significant practical and ethical issues".

The DNA database, which covers England and Wales, currently contains around 4.5m profiles - routinely taken from criminal suspects after most arrests.
7% of UK adult population

However, it could be threatened when European judges are asked to rule next week on a test case of two Britons who want their details removed from the database.

The applicants say their human rights have been infringed by the decision to leave their details on the database, despite the fact that they had never been found guilty of a crime.

Debate call

Steve Wright's profile was on the system after being convicted of theft in 2003.

When police found his DNA on the bodies of some of his victims they matched it with his profile.

But Mark Dixie was not on the system at the time of Sally Anne Bowman's murder.

It was only when he was arrested for assault after a fight in a bar that his DNA was taken and he was linked to the murder.

He was arrested within five hours.

Det Supt Stuart Cundy, who led the murder hunt, said: "It is my opinion that a national DNA register - with all its appropriate safeguards - could have identified Sally Anne's murderer within 24 hours.

"Instead it took nearly nine months before Mark Dixie was identified and almost two and a half years for justice to be done."

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) is also calling for a debate on the issue.

'Vital role'

The Chief Constable of Lincolnshire, Tony Lake, speaks for the association on DNA.

He said: "If there was a national database of everybody then we would solve more crime, of that there is absolutely no doubt.

"In the conviction of Steve Wright - and today of Mark Dixie - you've heard about the vital importance that DNA played. But any database that we hold has to be reasonable and proportionate in the eyes of the public."

The statement issued by the Home Office said: "There are no government plans to introduce a universal compulsory, or voluntary, national DNA Database and to do so would raise significant practical and ethical issues."

The Times estimates if the two applicants succeed in their EU bid to have their records removed, 13% of the profiles on the database may have to be destroyed.

The pair, from Sheffield, had their DNA taken after they were arrested in 2001, but charges were not pressed.

They asked for their data to be removed from the DNA database but this was refused.

They are appealing on the grounds that Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to respect for private life, and Article 14, the prohibition of discrimination, have been violated.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Thought For The World - Nigel Warburton - Death, like love, makes life worth living…

Nigel Warburton

Thought for the day - Thursday

Thought For The Day Transcript
Nigel Warburton 15th February

I was on the train to London a few days ago when, as we were passing through a station at high speed, there was a disconcerting jolt … we went over something on the rails. The train carried on for a few hundred yards, and then stopped… and we waited. There had been an obstruction on the track, we were told, and we had to get clearance. An ‘incident’ had occurred. Nothing more specific. After an hour and a half of waiting, and learning that the driver had had to be replaced, most of us realised what had happened: someone had thrown themselves under the train.

At this point selfish concerns about being late for appointments evaporated considerably. Most people’s thoughts, I suspect, were with the train driver and with the friends and family of whoever had taken this desperate step. But not for too long. We had to get back to our lives despite having been unwilling accomplices in someone else’s suicide. When we eventually pulled into Paddington, we bustled into the underground and got on with whatever we had to do. That’s what being alive is like. It’s a cliché, but still true, that death is all around us, often painful death, but we are shielded from it most of the time.

We rarely encounter death or even give it much thought. But perhaps we should. As a philosopher I think it is something worth thinking about quite hard. I like the classical idea that philosophy should teach us how to accept death. But it can take a real death to focus the mind. If, like me, you believe that death is the end of all experience, then there is great consolation in thinking that when it has happened there won’t be anything else. That’s it.
Epicurus was surely right when he said: when I am there death is not, and when death is there, I am not’. As he pointed out, we don’t worry about the eternity before we existed, why be concerned about the eternity during which we won’t exist in the future?
Atheists often describe believers as indulging in wishful thinking when they claim that there is a wonderful afterlife to come. But from my perspective never-ending life would be a kind of hell that would remove meaning from everything I did, like an interminable piece of music that never reached its final chord. If wishful thinking is believing something that would be pleasanter than the truth, then this is a misnomer. I don’t want what the philosopher Bernard Williams called the sheer tedium of immortality - even if it were an option. What is bad about death is what it does to other people: the ones left behind to grieve, and experience absence. Slow death, and pain in dying are terrible facts of the human condition. But death itself is nothing to fear.
Paradoxically, death, like love, makes life worth living…

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2007 Humanist Society of Scotland

Thought for the World - Julian Baggini - Secularism

Julian Baggini

Thought for the day - Monday

Original audio source

Transcript of Thought For the World's thought for the day

Julian Baggini

18th February 2008

How strange it must feel to be Rowan Williams right now. On the one hand, almost everyone has come down like a ton of bricks on the Archbishop of Canterbury for saying that the introduction of some aspects of sharia law in Britain was unavoidable. But on the other, almost everyone has prefaced their condemnation with remarks to the effect that they greatly respect his humanity and intelligence.

Bishop-baiting may be in, but special respect for religion is not yet out. As it happens, I have rather less respect for Dr Williams, but I also think that, on this issue, he so nearly said something both true and important.

The question he was addressing was how to accommodate deep and real plurality in society without threatening its essential unity. The wrong answer to this is that there should be different laws for people who hold different beliefs. This is a clear non-starter. For one thing, who is to decide to whom such laws would apply? We can't bind people by the religion, or lack of it, of their parents. So the only alternative would be for people to choose themselves which legal code to opt into. This is just absurd. Spirituality has already become something of a pick-and-mix supermarket: law cannot go the same way.

But Williams doesn't want this. For all the stones hastily cast in this debate, the right to throw literal ones was not on his agenda. As has become clearer in recent days, all he meant was that people should have the option of settling some civil disputes through voluntary means of arbitration, and agree to be bound by its conclusion.

There is, and should be, room outside the law for some diversity in how we choose to relate morally to one another. The key distinction here is between laws we all must obey, and practices that can be legally recognised but do not need to be followed by everyone.

A good example of this is gay marriage: the law could recognise this, but that wouldn't, of course, mean there was one law for gays and another for heterosexuals; or that gay marriage was being forced upon the straight community.

Williams's mistake was failing to make clear that the principle of one law for all is sacrosanct.
Secularism requires a neutral public space in which people of all faiths and none can come together to debate and legislate as equals. As long as we maintain this, there is plenty of room in private and community life for people to live by their very different, deeply held beliefs.

Thought For The World - Brett Lock - This Life is the only life we have - Enjoy it!

Brett Lock

Thought for the day - Wednesday

Original audio source

Transcript of Thought For the World's thought for the day

Brett Lock

20th February 2008

Sophicles wrote "No man loves life like he that's growing old", and yet many of us - me included - curse our declining powers. Those of us with no delusions of an afterlife, a second bite of the pie as it were, rue that we are slowing down, filling out, and aching, as Leonard Cohen put it, in the places were we used to play.

All around us, there are reminders of the relentless march of time. Just the other day, I was sitting on a train when the photo on the front page of a newspaper caught my eye. It took me a while to realize that the world-weary, wizen old man on the cover of whatever tabloid it was Paul McCartney, once the most instantly recognizable face in the world.

I turn 40 today. I'm surprised to be here... not because I've ever had any dangerous flirtations with drug abuse, extreme sport or organized crime, no not me, I've always been 'sensible'... My surprise is that I got here so... quickly. The year 2000, and before that 1984, where science-fiction milestones, but are now nostalgia, as I realize that I've probably had more years now than are left to me.

But far from depressing - okay, I confess, it was for a minute or two - the idea that we only have one shot at life is a liberation. It means that we owe it to ourselves to pack in as much as we can in the time we have.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that
belief in an afterlife is a far more depressing state than accepting that death comes equally to us as it does to a bug on the windscreen. It is depressing because people do such terrible things to themselves and to others because they believe this life must be sacrificed to gain points in a hereafter.

Whether it is denying oneself the joy of love and companionship because you believe some God frowns on sexuality, or

blowing yourself up in a crowded marketplace because your faith promises a heavenly reward, the belief that this life - this only life - is not important, not precious, not all there is, is the greatest humanitarian tragedy imaginable. Life deferred is life lost.

Well, I must sign off. There are places to go, things to do, people to meet, and a finite amount of time to do it in.

If there were sin, mine would have been that I have taken time for granted. I have passed on opportunities; I have let friendships slip away. I've stayed in when I should have gone out to play.

But no more, from today I shall let go of these regrets. There is more life to snatch for the willing, for the bold. Yes indeed, no man loves life like he that's growing old.

Thought for the World - Christopher Brookmyre - Religion is like a cantankerous & malevolent relative on a car journey.

Christopher Brookmyre

Thought for the day - Thursday

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Transcript of Thought For the World's thought for the day

Christopher Brookmyre

21st February 2008

It was Shrove Tuesday recently, which reminded me that the Catholic period of Lent is underway. I like to be reminded that Lent is underway, because it always cheers me up to contemplate that I have had nothing to do with it throughout my adult life. My childhood experience of Lent was of being told we had to give up things that we enjoyed, for reasons that remain very poorly defined to this day. If memory serves, the scriptural explanation was something to do with Jesus going on some kind of extreme asceticism trip while the devil was trying to illegally tap him up for a Bosman transfer to the dark side. My ability to say no to Satan was apparently going to be vastly enhanced by practicing my ability to say no to Midget Gems and Liquorice Comfits.

At the very least, we were told, Lent was good for instilling self-discipline, and helped you develop will-power. However, in my experience, the weans who already had self-discipline and will-power were the only ones who were able to give things up for Lent, so let�s get that particular cart back behind the horse where it belongs.

Lent is a horrible concept, dreamt up by people who obviously thought that February and March aren't quite miserable enough what with it being wet, freezing and blowing a gale all the time.

I can't think of another period on the calendar that better illustrates how the principle practical consequence of religion is to make life harder than it needs to be. If life is a journey, then religion is the cantankerous and malevolent elderly relative your parents insist on bringing along for the trip.
Let's call her "Great Auntie Joy". She criticises the driving, moans about the route you're taking, and generally makes the journey far less enjoyable than it would have been if she'd never been allowed inside the car.

"Turn off the radio," she says. "Don't read in the back seat. Don't eat sweets. Stop talking."

Your mum and dad tell you to do as she asks. They don't offer any reason why, only that Auntie Joy said so, and Auntie Joy must be respected. "But why do we have to bring Auntie Joy?" you ask. "She always ruins the trip." Mum and Dad say we have to bring her because we've always brought her. And they tell you that if you knuckle under and keep on the right side of her, Auntie Joy might give you a treat when you reach your destination.

I think we should leave Auntie Joy at the side of the road and get on with enjoying the journey. And before we've even driven a mile without her, mum and dad will be wondering why they ever brought her in the first place. Enjoy the trip. Ditch the bitch. She won't be missed.

Thought For The World - Stephen Law - What is the difference between political schools and faith schools?

Stephen Law

Thought for the day - Friday

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Stephen Law

15th February 2008

The last century or so has seen some huge improvements in our moral attiutdes. Many of these improvements concern discrimination and prejudice. It is no longer considered morally or legally acceptable to refuse to employ women, or homosexuals, or those of other races.

Nowadays, the suspicion that we are being unfairly discriminated against is widespread. Take religious discrimination, for example.
Recently, some Christians have complained that schools are permitting Sikhs to wear turbans, but are not permitting Christians to wear crucifixes. They claim this is unfair discrimination against Christians.

In order to assess whether such claims of unfair discrimination are warranted, we need to be clear what we mean by discrimination, and under what circumstances it is warranted.

The kind of discrimination I'm going to focus on is where a society or organization extends certain rights or other privileges to some, but not to others.

Actually, this sort of discrimination is not always a bad thing. Adults discriminate against children, for example. We don't allow them to drive cars, or vote. But this discrimination is justified. There are obvious differences between adults and children that explain why this discrimination is fair - most children are not sufficiently mature and responsible enough to vote or drive.

Preventing women, or those of other races, from voting and driving, on the other hand, is morally wrong. Yes, women are different to men, but these biological differences do not justify withholding the vote from women. Nor are differences in skin colour relevant to our ability to drive.

That's not to say that racial and sexual discrimination is always wrong. Women are entitled to breast screening. Men aren't. Is that unfair? Of course not. There are biological differences between men and women that justify this difference in treatment. These biological differences may be irrelevant when it comes to the vote, but they can be very relevant indeed when it comes to medical matters.

So, discrimination is not always wrong. In fact, discriminating on the basis of sex or race is not always wrong.

What makes discrimination wrong is when it is morally unjustified.

The moral is this. If we want to extend to some rights and privileges that we then withhold from others, the onus is on us to identify not just some difference between the two groups, but some morally relevant difference that justifies this difference in treatment.

If we can't meet this challenge, then we will rightly stand accused of prejudice.

Let me leave you with an example of this challenge in action.

Suppose political schools started opening up and down the country - a communist school in Putney followed by a neo-conservative school in Billericay. Suppose these schools select pupils on the basis of parents political beliefs. Suppose that each day begins with the collective singing of political anthems. Suppose children are expected to accept the teaching to be found in the schools revered political texts. Suppose that portraits of political leaders beam down from classroom walls.

What would be the public's reaction to such schools? Outrage. These schools would rightly be accused of educationally children - of forcing their minds into politically-approved moulds. They are the kind of schools we find under totalitarian political regimes, such as Stalin's Russia or Mao's China.

But notice that, if we cross out the word "political" and write "religious", we find that there are already many hundreds of such schools up and down the country. Many are state-funded.

Is this discrimination justified? Why, if political schools are totally unacceptable, do we deem their religious equivalents to be acceptable, or even desirable? What's the difference between religious beliefs and other political beliefs that justifies such dramatically different attitudes?

Perhaps there is such a difference. But unless we can identify it, we will rightly stand accused of pro-religious prejudice.

Thought for the World - Julian Baggini - Is religion a hapless Panda?

Julian Baggini

Thought for the day - Friday

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Thought For The Day
Transcript Julian Baggini 16th February 2007

Isaiah Berlin divided thinkers up into either hedgehogs or foxes, depending on whether they knew one thing or many. I’d like to propose another mammalian distinction, one of belief systems rather than individuals, between squirrels and pandas.

To some squirrels are adorable little critters; to others, they are rats with bushy tails who should be wiped out. But whatever you think of them, they thrive and propagate in the wild, without artificial assistance. Pandas, in contrast, are doomed to die out without special protection and nurturing.

From where I’m standing, both religion and atheism look squirrel-like to me. Provoking affection and scorn in equal measure, both are to be found everywhere human life flourishes.

But some people who claim to be friends of religion seem to want to treat it as though it were a panda, and afford it special protection.
Sometimes it is placed in relatively pokey sanctuaries, like a ring-fenced period of time in the television or radio schedules; or a small prayer room. On other occasions the protected zone can be more extensive, such as when it means reserving seats in the second chamber of parliament for representatives of religions, or allowing denominational and single-faith schools.

If I were religious I’d be concerned that my faith were being treated as though it were a species of belief so unable to cope in the modern, harsh world that it needed its own special conservation zones to stop it going extinct.
It may be objected that a scared space is needed, not because religion is weak and vulnerable, but because society is now overwhelmingly secular. But this is a peculiar argument.
Our supposedly secular society is not an atheist one. It is simply neutral as regards matters of fundamental belief, so religion is no more in need of a sanctuary from the secular world as any other form of belief, including atheism.
For those who care about religion, there is also a worry that segregation sends out a signal that it stands apart from the business of everyday life. By separating faith schools from other schools, faith programmes from other broadcasts, faith groups from other voluntary organisations, doesn’t it give ammunition to critics who maintain that religion has nothing to do with the everyday life of ordinary people?
The challenge to religion’s various claims to special status is therefore not essentially anti-religious at all. If religion is real, relevant and vibrant, then let it enter the mainstream on all fours with other species of belief and show itself fit. Only if it were impotent and maladapted, like the hapless Panda, would it need special, protected spaces.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Multiverse - Melvyn Bragg - In Our Time podcast - 21st Feb 2008

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Melvyn Bragg:
If you look up the word ‘universe’ in the Oxford English Dictionary you will find the following definition:

“The whole of created or existing things regarded collectively; all things (including the earth, the heavens, and all the phenomena of space) considered as constituting a systematic whole.”

That sounds fairly comprehensive as a description of everything, but for an increasing number of physicists and cosmologists the universe is not enough. They talk of a multiverse – literally many universes – to explain aspects of their theory, the character of the universe and the riddle of our existence within it. Indeed, compared to the scope and complexity of the multiverse, the whole of our known reality may be as a speck of sand upon a beach.

But what might a multiverse be like, why are physicists and cosmologists increasingly interested in it and is it really scientific to discuss the existence of universes we may never know anything about?


Lord Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge

Fay Dowker, Reader in Theoretical Physics at Imperial College

Bernard Carr, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Queen Mary, University of London

My Notes about the discussion:

Martin Rees: we know about this Universe: since 1920 we know that our galaxy contains 100 billion stars - just one of many billions of other galaxies we can see - started off with Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago - we can see galaxies 10 billion light years away but no further - still a horizon that we can observe - cf in Ocean - what is beyond the horizon - may be parts of space and time that we cannot directly observe; are there galaxies we cannot see but are the aftermath of the Big Bang. Could there be other Big Bangs? We cannot observe other big bangs; can we infer anything beyond what we can observe?; we believe in Einsteins theory of relativity but cannot see inside a black hole. We believe - must be openminded eg big bang was pure speculation 50 years ago - whereas now that is part of serious science.

Fay Dowker: Not part of science to speculate about in principle unobservable objects? No! if theory tested / well founded - then have good grounds - have to sure about theory if cannot see it directly - predicts other non observable universes this is acceptable as good science but the theory has to be strong; regions /other patches. Need greater confidence in (in theory) unobservable stuff.

Bernard Carr: can we explain the big bang - in last 20 years - half a dozen theories of big bang - theories are tested - is tricky - expanding universe in inflationary universe - due to nature of vaccuum - according to inflationary theory it expanded exponentially with time - accelerating - reason is the nature of the vacuum- the universe that we can observe is tiny; other bubbles / domains - say the laws are differant - other patches - these domains / patches may NOT have the same law of physics - these are the multiverse - when inflation occured - microscopic size grew to size of grapefruit. Inflationary theory predicts:-

  • what we can see of our universe is only a minscule amount of what there is
  • there are other domains or patches or bubbles with entirely differant laws of physics - the multiverse
MR: surprising that laws of physics of observable universe are the same; but are their other domains - from the aftermath of different big bangs - have differant laws

FD: black holes , quarks, LHC - working with unobservable is still science. Sort of unobservability - quarks; branch universes. In a multiverse nothing that occured in there could cause something to happen in our universe. This is unlike quarks which although unobservable could have an effect on our universe.

MR: idea of other universes is conjectural. metagalaxy - part of the universe we can observe.

FD: big bang: big bounce theory or proposal - for theory of a multiverse - many big bangs /followed by expansion then big crunches/ laws of physics could be different in each bounce - spread in time (rather than space); each cycle lasts longer than the previous cycle; universe must be flat in beginning

BC: inflation - huge number of universes spread out in space - bouncing universes are spread out in time

MR: extra spatial dimensions cf bugs walking on a 2D universe- another universe a millimetre away with a 4th dimension - speculative ideas - idea will be narrowed down - ideas based on very early hot universe - one day may be able to test in a lab.

FD: anthropic principle - we should take account of fact we are special - we Carbon based life late on in evolution of the universe - we see universe now because of the beings we are; stars must form and die for carbon to be made - carbon is produced late in life cycle of stars; carbon is formed only when universe is OLD; this can give some explanatory power.

BC: anthropic principle based on fine tuning Various forces in nature - the coupling constantants - relationships between constantonts - there is fine tuning between constants of nature - masses of elementary particles and cosmological constant (describes acceleration of the universe). Defines constants of fine tuning required to within 10%. Physics does not explain it. No fine tuner or God - most physicists do not want to bring in a creator; small fraction if multiverse exists. Multiverse theory the is legitimisation of anthropic principle; if you have many universes then it a natural selection effect - we have to been a universe where the correct constants are required for life to exist.

FD: existence of multiverse - if established multiverse - many differant possibilities; multiverse are many differant possibilities. We see these constants or laws of phyics- only type of universe that we could have evolved in.

BC (22 mins): this observable universe is special - that is what the multiverse concept is going against - that is the history of science - we always want to think we are unique - the earth is at centre of the universe is wrong - the Milky Way galaxy is at the centre of the Universe - that is wrong - Some of us think that the observable Universe is all there is. Now I think we have the glimmering of evidence that 'this is the only Universe' is wrong! Its the story in our continual humiliation that we are not special or unique.

MB: but is it humiliation when ? Because nobody has so far said anything about something producing what is hear!

BC : universe is designed for intelligence - mankind is physically insignificant - continual humilliation - humilliation in sense that we are physical insignifiance - could be wiped out by an asteroid - intelligence has occurred - man in 200 years now understands universe - some bubble are stillborn; other bubbles may be far more advanced than our

MR: (25 mins) first atoms, first stars, understand of laws of nature have particular values - special place - rather than a stillborn universe, around a special star - entire cosmic volume of our universe is special. Most of other bubbles of Multiverse (in BC terms) would be stillborn - other universes could be more advanced than ours. We are not necessarily the most complex organisms.

BC: Physicists have independantly come up with multiverse idea - not just to explain the fine tuning of our universe. Since the Multiverse is a sensible thing to discuss - that is the explanation for the anthropic fine tuning. That is why the anthropic principle has become more acceptable. not just as an explanation of anthropic (greek word for man) - nothing to do with man - too conceited - really means life can arise somewhere.

MR (26mins): laws of physics in observable universe is the same; surprising they are the same throughout; but that could be just a tiny fraction of what is out there. eg other domains further away or from the aftermath of differant big bangs were the laws could be different (he repeats himself).

MB (27' 20"): Can you explain how the Multiverse and the universality of the law of physics relates to search for fundamental theory or theory of everything

MR: we are searching for a formula that combines the very small with the very large. Will theory give
unique formula - for basic numbers in nature eg strenght of gravity or mass of electron etc. Are numbers just brute facts - if so there is no room for the anthropic selection arguement. The theory of everything will no predict the exact values of the laws of nature. Some say that strength of gravity or mass of an electron is just an environemental accident. So in a differant big bang the strength of gravity could be completelty differant.
What aspects of physics are truly universal.

Will theory of everything give unique results or just environmental accidensts of electron; what laws of nature are truly universal and which laws of nature are environmental accidents cf. snowflake - all hexagonal - that is feature of water molecule - really fundamental . Which laws of nature are really fundamental - which are environmental accidents (eg differant shapes of snowflakes - even though they ALL hexagonal). Until we know which are the fundamental properties of nature and which are created by the environment - we will not be able to give a complete theory of everything. String theory may not pan out

FD (30mins) : string theory predicts not one unique vacuum state or set of laws for particle physics - but a large number of 10 to 500 power laws for vacuua; each of differant vacua; theory of quantum gravity; granular theory of spacetime - may be able to detect granularity. Multiverse could be formed out of vacuaa.

MB: what made you to a convert of Multiverse possiblitity?

FD: bouncing cyclic model of universe - quantum gravity proposal - explains fine tuning - shape of early universe has to be flat. if wait long enougth.

MR: long haul to unified theory - which are truly universal? Understand nature of space.
link quantum effects - space is trillions and trillions smaller than protons or neutrons. It is part of science - speculative science - not just metaphysics.

MB: 5% of physicists 20 years thought multiverse could exist - now many more think multiverse exist - how do you TEST it!!

FD (35mins) : string theory for quantum gravity.
only a dozen physicists work on granular theory of spacetime - is not smooth - test depends on the theory. How could theory of granularity change the property of light from distant sources?

BC (36 mins): test for inflationary theory - tiny fluctuations give rise to galaxies - can see fluctuations in Cosmic Background Microwave radiation; 5 years ago seen; fluctuations in temperature are 1 in 1000 - inflationary theory predicts formation of galaxies - testable.

MR: relates tiny fluctuations - link between small and large. Essential

FD: link gravity and quantum theory - interplay with theories and cosmology - observations made constrain theories. Look out to cosmology - interplay between quantum gravity - will inform cosmology - constrain the theories.

BC: is multiverse part of legitimate science - multiverse is predicted by string theory - if can test string theory - then can show indirectly that multiverse is possible; string theory / M theory or quantum gravity - may never be testible - energy is too high; or is M theory just maths not physics / science; legitimate science - may have to wait 200 years before we can solve mystery of universe

FD: quantum gravity - very confident that it can be tested; we will know that multiverse is possible; deep confidence in unity of physics - we will know whether multiverse is real
MR: must be optimistic and try very hard to find any answers at all!!

Thought for the World - Kate Hudson - change the world and make it better for everybody

Kate Hudson

Thought for the day - Wednesday

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Thought For The Day Transcript
Kate Hudson 14th February 2007

One day, when I was a child, my father put a poster up at home.
It was a quotation from Che Guevara, and it said, 'Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.'
It somehow seemed compelling but I wasn't quite sure what it meant. My father was happy to explain:
'It means he will act to try and change the world and make it better for everybody, because he loves all people, not just a few'.
The all-embracing nature of that love seemed remarkable to me, and the active nature of it too. That one sentence has inspired me probably more than anything else.

In recent years that sentence has come to my mind again, as I have become more involved with the peace movement. As a CND activist, I've had the privilege to meet a great number of people who've worked tirelessly, often over many decades, to try and prevent the suffering and sorrow of war, and to ensure that the great tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will never be repeated.

Indeed, the story of CND is the story of ordinary people's struggles: to shape a world without nuclear weapons and war, based on legality and morality; to make our governments responsive and accountable over our right to stay alive, our right to breathe air free of radioactive pollution, our right to say no to the indiscriminate killing of other peoples. Whether or not the individuals involved would think of it in this way or not, I don't know, but I would say they are motivated by a love for humanity.

And I certainly don't think this is a minority sentiment in society. I was very struck, by the selfless motivation of those who protested against war on Iraq on February 15th, 2003. Before the big antiwar demos of recent years, the largest demonstrations since the second world war had been the CND marches of the early 1980s. People demonstrated in their hundreds of thousands against siting cruise missiles in Britain, because they feared that a nuclear war would be fought in Europe. This was a matter of life and death to us, and we protested for our own survival. But when 2 million people demonstrated on February 15th 2003, they were not marching to protect themselves. They were protesting against a war on a country they will never see, for a people they will never know.

For me, that demonstration was a true expression of love for humanity, in action. For me, that love for humanity is the true heart of the peace movement, and it is something that we can all share and demonstrate.