Friday, October 31, 2008

The prince has to choose

reposted from:

If Charles wants to lecture us on the plight of the world he must renounce his claim to the throne

Prince Charles is a man of passionate convictions who expresses his views publicly, assiduously and provocatively. For instance, he believes he has a mission to save the world from GM crops, which he described in his recent Sir Albert Howard Memorial lecture as

"a gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity which has gone seriously wrong"
. He tells us that only organic crops are truly sustainable. He has also urged the government to
promote alternative medicine and homeopathy in particular.
In fact
we must go Back to Nature, because he trusts Mother Earth to see to it "that plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease". Science is clearly out of control, and he questions its contribution to modern medicine as well as agriculture.

Such views are held by many, if not generally in such extreme form.

His comments about GM crops have no basis:
authoritative bodies including every national academy of science in the world, the World Health Organisation, the European commission and our own Food Standards Agency have found
no evidence they cause harm.
His views also conflict with present government policy that encourages new GM trials. As for organic farming, its basic principle, which Charles strongly endorses, is that natural chemicals are good and synthetic ones bad: a principle every scientist would describe as a scientific howler.
Charles also believes that homeopathy could save costs in the NHS if used to treat asthma. This would be true only because more people would die.


the merits of his views are not the issue. If Charles were a private citizen no one could question his freedom to say what he thinks. The snag is that he is the heir to the throne, yet seems unaware of the proper role of a constitutional monarch.
The Queen sets an impeccable example. No one knows her views on GM crops or other controversial topics. She has given no hint what she thinks about any aspect of government policy. Nor do the constitutional monarchies in Europe stray into politics. They have all recognised,
since the death of the doctrine of the divine right of kings, that hereditary monarchs have no right to interfere.

Not so Charles. He feels he has a duty, almost a higher calling, to speak out - or, as he put it, to "keep sticking my 60-year-old head above an increasingly dangerous parapet". Even more inexcusably, he does not restrict himself to speeches. He has used his position to damage the careers of those he disapproves of, or, on a more charitable interpretation, has been blind to the effects the strong expression of his views are bound to have.

Many years ago, he famously claimed that architects had done more damage to the City of London than the Luftwaffe and described the proposed extension of the National Gallery as "a carbuncle". Whatever the merits of his opinions about modern architecture, their expression by the heir to the throne severely damaged the practice of several architectural firms. Recently he jeopardised the career of Professor Edzard Ernst, the chair of complementary medicine at Exeter University, who has spent 15 years studying the effectiveness and safety of alternative treatments such as acupuncture and homeopathy. When Ernst criticised a report on alternative medicine commissioned by Charles, the prince's private secretary, as Ernst revealed in a recent letter to the British Medical Journal, complained to the university about an alleged breach of confidence. Ernst endured "a gruelling 13 months of inquiry" before he was cleared.

The prince faces a clear choice. If he feels he must speak out, because the dangers to the planet posed by the excesses of modern science are so great that it is his moral duty to save us from impending doom, he should renounce his claim to the throne. If he wants to succeed as a constitutional monarch, he must shut up. He cannot have it both ways. A democratic country cannot tolerate a monarch who meddles in political matters and whose views only command notice not because of expertise, but because of a position that he owes solely to the accident of birth.

• Lord Taverne is a Liberal Democrat peer and author of The March of Unreason - Science, Democracy and the New Fundamentalism

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sarah Palin's War on Science

reposted (edited) from Slate via

The GOP ticket's appalling contempt for knowledge and learning.

In an election that has been fought on an astoundingly low cultural and intellectual level ... at a speech in Pittsburgh,
Gov. Sarah Palin denounced wasteful expenditure on fruit-fly research
, adding for good xenophobic and anti-elitist measure that some of this research took place "in Paris, France" and winding up with a folksy "I kid you not."

It was in 1933 that Thomas Hunt Morgan won a Nobel Prize for showing that genes are passed on by way of chromosomes. The experimental creature that he employed in the making of this great discovery was the Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit fly. Scientists of various sorts continue to find it a very useful resource, since it can be easily and plentifully "cultured" in a laboratory, has a very short generation time, and displays a great variety of mutation. This makes it useful in studying disease, and since Gov. Palin was in Pittsburgh to talk about her signature "issue" of disability and special needs, she might even have had some researcher tell her that there is a Drosophila-based center for research into autism at the University of North Carolina

.... We never get a chance to ask her in detail about these things, but
she is known to favor the teaching of creationism in schools
(smuggling this crazy idea through customs in the innocent disguise of "teaching the argument," as if there was an argument), and so it is at least probable that she believes all creatures from humans to fruit flies were created just as they are now. This would make DNA or any other kind of research pointless, whether conducted in Paris or not. Projects such as sequencing the DNA of the flu virus, the better to inoculate against it, would not need to be funded. We could all expire happily in the name of God.

Gov. Palin also says that she doesn't think humans are responsible for global warming;
again, one would like to ask her whether, like some of her co-religionists, 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.

Videos taken in the Assembly of God church in Wasilla, Alaska, which she used to attend, show her nodding as a preacher says that Alaska will be "one of the refuge states in the Last Days." For the uninitiated, this is a reference to a crackpot belief, widely held among those who brood on the "End Times," that some parts of the world will end at different times from others, and Alaska will be a big draw as the heavens darken on account of its wide open spaces. An article by Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times gives further gruesome details of the extreme Pentecostalism with which Palin has been associated in the past (perhaps moderating herself, at least in public, as a political career became more attractive). High points, also available on YouTube, show her being "anointed" by an African bishop who claims to cast out witches. The term used in the trade for this hysterical superstitious nonsense is "spiritual warfare," in which true Christian soldiers are trained to fight demons. Palin has spoken at "spiritual warfare" events as recently as June. And only last week the chiller from Wasilla spoke of "prayer warriors" in a radio interview with James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who said that he and his lovely wife, Shirley, had convened a prayer meeting to beseech that "God's perfect will be done on Nov. 4."

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.

A slow but certain demise

by Terry Sanderson, Guardian

Reposted from:

All the signs are there: religion will die. I'm just sorry I won't be around to see it

There are signs that in the western world (including the US) religion is, indeed, beginning a long, slow – although accelerating – decline. All the statistics show that congregations are falling, mass attendance is diminishing and Christian knowledge is passing inexorably from our culture.

There have been two, or in some cases, three generations of people in this country who have had no connection with church at all. It plays no part in their life or their thinking. They are what I term "the religiously indifferent" – they couldn't care less whether religion is there or not, just so long as it doesn't interfere with their lives. Such people make up a vast and increasing swath of the population of Britain.

Why is this? In order to survive, a religion's mythology must be imbued into the next generation at an early age, before critical faculties that might prompt resistance develop. This is Richard Dawkins' meme theory. It is also the reason that most Church of England schools are primary schools and that madrassas start the process so early on in children's lives.

Evangelists know that it takes only three or four generations of unchurched people for the mythology to fall from consciousness, to disappear from the culture. People find that actually they can manage perfectly well without it.

Religious leaders may despair about how difficult it is to reach "Generation Y" (roughly, 16-25 year olds), but if children have reached adolescence and they have not been infected with the religious meme, they will be mainly immune to it. The only way is to get gentle Jesus into their heads when they're four or five.

In the developing world we are told that religion is strong and, apparently, unassailable. We see people in great crowds passionately defending their beliefs from insult, or walking round a giant stone in Mecca. But one needs to ask: do they really believe what they purport to believe? Or is the religious meme so strong in poor countries that it is inescapable? Does religion control so much of the culture that it is simply not possible to function as anything other than a religious adherent, whether sincere or not?

I ask this because I've noticed recently how many people are telling me: "I'm not a religious person, but I am spiritual." This is rapidly followed by a defensive: "You don't have to go to church to believe in God."

And this is what religious leaders should fear far more than the atheism or secularism they like to rail against. The spiritual-but-not-religious brigade represents a creeping disease that can eventually kill religion. It's a way of leaving the church without having the guilt of declaring yourself an atheist.

The founder of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh, said: "No man sees a religion die". That may be so, but religions do eventually die. History is littered with their corpses. Until now they have always been replaced. But one day the human race's growing indifference to the gods will prove more lethal than any anti-clericalist dagger. Religion will die.

I am sorry I won't be around to see it.

21st December, London, 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People

Also with Ricky Gervais!! Details here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"In these uncertain economic times, it is important to remember just how greatly friends can contribute to your general wellbeing and happiness." This earth-shattering conclusion has been reached by Dr Richard Tunney, a psychologist at the University of Nottingham two millennia after Aristotle declared, somewhat more pithily: "The happy man needs friends."

Tunney, however, has gone one further than Aristotle and worked out how many friends we should have. The great Greek advised having "as many as are enough for the purpose of living together".

Tunney avoids such obfuscation and says the optimal number of friends is 10.
Or more. To be precise, you have a 40% chance of being happy if you have five friends or fewer, rising to 50% if you have up to 10, while if you have more than that, you're chances of happiness stand at 55%.

However, it's counterproductive to try to have many more than this, because, as Aristotle again said "it would seem actually impossible to be a great friend to many people ... Those who have many friends and mix intimately with them all are thought to be no one's friend."

It was Aristotle who also said that the mark of the trained mind is not to expect more precision than the subject matter permits. Wise words. Because Tunney's study, and others like it, deal with averages, the numbers mean nothing to us as individuals. If I'm a solitary kind of person, trying to make more friends is likely to cause me distress, not cheer me up. The study is also vague in one area where Aristotle was more detailed: it says little about what kinds of friends make for the best ones.

Nevertheless, even as I dismiss this "latest research" (commissioned by the National Lottery) as shallow and uninformative, I hear echoes of Hamlet's complaint: "You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery. Call me what instrument you will, though you fret me, you cannot play upon me."

We like to think we are deep, mysterious. Any study which threatens to penetrate this opacity is greeted with suspicion. Hence critiques by authors like Richard Schoch and Mark Vernon of "the new science of happiness".

There's certainly more to happiness and the good life than can be said by psychology alone. But the desire to preserve the heart of our mystery is often based more on pride and fear than good sense. Happiness cannot be reduced to a scientific formula, of course. But that doesn't mean that science can't shed some light on how it works. Like it or not, on average, there is no mystery about what makes us happy: health, solvency, rewarding work, friends and social networks. If that makes us seem more predictable and uninteresting, that's tough. There are plenty of real mysteries in human life: we don't need to worry about a few of them being solved.

BOOK CLUB: The God Delusion, CHPT 8

Sunday, October 26, 2008

This chapter explains Dawkins antipathy to religion. He lists many examples of religious fundamentalism and nuttiness, much of it malign. But what of my local vicar? His brand of religion seems very benign. Yet Dawkins sees even the moderate religious person as posing a danger, for they are still, he thinks, promoting unquestioning "faith" as a virtue:

Christianity...teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don't have to make the case for what you believe. If someone announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith or another, or none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to 'respect' it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings. Then there is a great chorus of disownings, as clerics and 'community leaders' (who elected them by the way?) line up to explain that this extremism is a perversion of the 'true' faith. But how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn't have any demonstrable standard to pervert? (p. 347)

I imagine many moderate religious people will see this as a caricature of their faith. "Of course we don't expect children to show blind, unquestioning faith. Of course we encourage them to think and question", many will say.

Many will also insist there is an objective justification for their particular set of beliefs. They'll perhaps start with the historicity of Jesus, say, and build out from there, explaining why this interpretation can be shown to be objectively to be more accurate than that, etc. The philosopher Richard Swinburne is an example of a Christian who certainly doesn't make his belief rest on blind, unquestioning faith, but on e.g. philosophical argument (I think Swinburne's belief is wrong, of course.)

I suspect that, whether or not it's true of Richard, it is true of many thoughtful Christians that they do think their belief is fairly reasonable, and that they could, in principle, be persuaded to reject it if shown that it really isn't very reasonable at all. In which case it's not a "faith" position of the sort Dawkins describes.

So it's true, I think, that Dawkins does oversimplify here. But then he is right about a great deal, too. For example, there is a kind of automatic "respect" given to religious beliefs simply because they are religious - a respect that is heavily ingrained in us (I catch myself giving it sometimes) but which really is not warranted (as I argue here).

WEIRD SCIENCE DAY: Saturday 17th January.

Stephen Law ( 27, 2008 17:29:00 GMT
Please do your best to advertize this event (for an A4 poster, email me).

Centre For Inquiry London
South Place Ethical Society


A day exploring the science of the weird, and weird and flaky science

Ben Goldacre, Richard Wiseman, Chris French and Stephen Law

Saturday, 17th January 2009. 10.30am-4pm.

Conway Hall
25 Red Lion Square

£10 (£5 for students)

To book tickets, send a cheque payable to 'Center for Inquiry London' to: Executive Director Suresh Lalvani, Center for Inquiry London, Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL Alternatively payment can be made by PAYPAL. Use the “Support CFI London” link at and follow the instructions.



Investigating the impossible: A skeptical approach

For over 20 years, psychologist Richard Wiseman has delved deep into the mysterious world of the paranormal, carrying out high profile, and often controversial, investigations into the impossible. In this talk, Wiseman describes some of his more colourful adventures, presenting a scientific look at a range of seemingly paranormal phenomenon, including fire-walking, ghostly encounters, and ESP.


Eight Years of Weird Science at Goldsmiths

The Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) was set up by Professor Chris French in 2000 in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths (for full details, visit Anomalistic psychology may be defined as the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, including (but not restricted to) those that are often labeled "paranormal". Over the last eight years, members of the APRU have investigated a wide range of weird and wonderful topics, including alien contact experiences, sleep paralysis, haunted houses, dowsing, and telepathy. This overview will present the results of such investigations - and also reveal why Uri Geller cannot stand Richard Wiseman!


Is creationism scientific?

Polls consistently indicate about 100 million Americans believe the entire universe is six thousand years old and that all species were created as described by Genesis. Even more amazingly, many of these people also believe that this theory is consistent with the scientific evidence. Indeed, there are multi-million dollar research centres in the U.S. run by PhD-qualified staff, that aim to defend young-Earth creationism. How have so many people become so deluded about what is, and isn’t, good science? What are the basic confusions? Stephen Law illustrates with his own pet theory – that dogs are spies from the planet Venus.


Listen up flakes: science is seriously so much more interesting than anything you can make up with your woolly new age claptrap.

About Ben Goldacre. Ben Goldacre is a writer, broadcaster and medical doctor from the UK who is best known for his 'Bad Science' column in The Guardian newspaper, examining the claims of scaremongering journalists, quack health products, pseudoscientific cosmetics adverts, and evil multinational pharmaceutical corporations, as well as wider themes such as the medicalisation of everyday life and the psychology of irrational beliefs.

Monday, October 27, 2008

our greatest fear is annihilation, not physical death, necessarily, but annihilation as a person.

May your god go with you

by Guardian, David Shariatmadari

Thanks to Ivan Bailey for the link.

Reposted from: via

Understanding why people are religious isn't hard, and it has little to do with the existence of God

At the launch of her new book, psychologist Dorothy Rowe said she intended it to act as a sequel to The God Delusion. Dawkins, she said, had posed the question: "Why do intelligent people believe this garbage?" In What Should I Believe?, Rowe gives an answer, though with less of a blanket judgment as to the rubbishness or otherwise of the religious outlook. In fact, her explanation could be used to understand any form of belief, Dawkins' included.

She starts from the premise that our greatest fear is annihilation, not physical death, necessarily, but annihilation as a person. It is the desire to avoid this that motivates us throughout our lives. For some, religion is the answer, because it tends to suggest quite straightforwardly that life carries on after death.

But a continuation of our existence is what we all clamour for, religious or not; parents hope their worldview will shape the lives of their children; some take comfort from the fact that their "blood" or "genes" will be around after they've gone. Artists imagine the work will stand as a monument to them. Humbler people hope they'll live on, at least, in their friends' memories or through the effects of the good things they've done. To live without any hope of projecting one's soul is, Rowe argues, impossible. Test yourself, if you believe you do.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Humanism Logo

source: Wikipedia via Atheist Revolution.

CFI Pushes Back Against Religious Restrictions on Free Expression, Joins Debate at UN HRC


October 22, 2008

A Special Report:

In September 2008, the Center for Inquiry went to Geneva for the ninth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Although a staunchly secularist organization, it was there to fight for the right to talk about religion.

For several years, a coalition of Islamic states--aided by Russia, China, Cuba, and a group of developing countries--has placed the "defamation of religions" high on the U.N. human rights agenda.

In March of this year, the coalition went further to institute what amounts to a blasphemy prohibition at the Human Rights Council itself.

The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression was changed so that it now includes policing the world for "abuses" of expression that offend religion (this in the context of the release of the Dutch film, Fitna). These events can be seen in the context of a larger movement to promulgate a system of Islamically correct human rights that subordinates rights to a particular political interpretation of Sharia'h, or Islamic law.

In a final irony, when nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the Council (or HRC, formerly the Human Rights Commission) tried to ask whether such a system was compatible with universal human rights, the Pakistani delegation objected that the mere discussion of the matter was an insult to the faith. Astonishingly, the president of the Council ruled that henceforth NGOs would not be permitted to make statements containing “judgments” about religion at all.

Alerted to the gravity of the situation by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)--represented ably by veteran U.N. activist Roy Brown--CFI sent representatives to the HRC for the first time since gaining U.N. affiliation. At the ninth session, the Center for Inquiry

  • co-sponsored a mini-conference on freedom of expression and religion;
  • released two CFI research papers on Islam, human rights, and the “clash of civilizations” to the international press;
  • established contact with NGOs and governments concerned with freedom of expression and religion;
  • publicly participated in the Council deliberations on women’s rights, “Islamophobia,” the “defamation of religions,” and the universality of human rights; and
  • contributed to the international debate on the defamation of religions, which now appears to be turning in a favorable direction. A number of democratic countries are pushing to stop the resolution at the current General Assembly.

Contributing to the Debate

CFI issued five official statements to the HRC, jointly with the IHEU and the Association for World Education. Hugo Estrella, co-director of CFI’s international programs, drafted and read a statement (in Spanish) highlighting religious threats to women’s reproductive freedom, and Austin Dacey drafted and read a statement urging the Council to abandon the dangerous notion of the defamation of religions, asserting:

“Rights belong to individuals, not ideas. . . . Belief depends on the freedom to doubt, to dissent, to discover.”

On September 17, CFI co-sponsored, with IHEU, a panel discussion on recent restrictions to free inquiry into religious matters within the Council chambers themselves. The speakers, in addition to Dacey, were Naser Khader, member of the Danish Parliament and leader of the Liberal Alliance party; Walid Phares, the U.S.-based expert on terrorism and the Middle East; and Tarek Fatah of the Canadian Muslim Congress. The meeting was attended by representatives of the Holy See and the European Union, among others.

At the meeting, and at an international press briefing that followed, CFI released two research papers: “Islam and Human Rights: Defending Universality at the United Nations, ” available at and “Is There a Clash of Civilizations? The Failure of the United Nations Response,” available at

Coalition Building

In Geneva, and at a preceding U.N. conference in Paris, CFI forged high-level contacts with government delegations, most notably the French and American, which are very concerned about the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) push to criminalize religiously offensive speech in international law. Additionally, CFI networked with a large number of NGOs with kindred concerns. They included the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, European Centre for Law and Justice, Freedom House, International Federation for Human Rights, International Commission of Jurists, UN Watch, Bahà’i International Community, Lutheran World Federation, and many others.

In connection with its activities in Geneva, the Center for Inquiry was asked to join the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief, which meets in Geneva and New York.

The importance of CFI’s Voice at the Human Rights Council

It now looks likely that even the OIC will relinquish the notion of the defamation of religions and seek instead to work within the existing legal notion of hate speech that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, and violence. Such notion falls within the limitations on freedom of expression provided for in Article 20 of the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Such an outcome represents progress but signals difficulties ahead. For in seeking guidance in interpreting the proper balance between protection of freedom of expression and protection of individuals against incitement, the discussion may now look to the existing jurisprudence of European human rights courts. These courts by and large have been much more eager than, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court to limit speech that they consider anti-Jewish or anti-Christian. This legal tradition invites the charge of hypocrisy from the Islamic states, which will demand equal protection for Islamic belief. On the other hand, some cultural conservatives may maintain that the heritage of Europe warrants a privileged place for the Jewish and Christian faiths.

Therefore, it will be critically important in the coming debates that there be a thoroughly secular, nonpolitical entity (one that is not compromised by being regarded as a partisan in the highly polarizing issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) to advocate the principled solution to this dilemma: no protection for any belief from criticism, ridicule, and even contempt, except when the speech presents a clear and present danger to some person. As a U.S.-based secular organization, CFI is the ideal representative of this position.

CFI has laid the groundwork for participation in the tenth session of Council, which will focus on issues of freedom of religion. This is to say nothing of the other pressing issues on which CFI’s perspective is needed, such as the restriction on women’s freedoms by religion, particularly in Latin America and Africa.

This December marks the sixtieth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Much remains to be done to fully realize its ideals. The Center for Inquiry has established itself as a major stakeholder in these ongoing struggles at the Human Rights Council and beyond.

No-God squad climb aboard the atheist bus

by Joan Bakewell, Times UK

The bus-funders are young people who feel that no one is listening to them

Advertising account executives must be green with envy; fundraisers must be tearing their hair. A young woman who writes sitcoms for a living came up with an idea around June, posted it on a comment-is-free website and saw it mushroom into something global. The idea of the atheist bus, which will bear the slogan “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”, will not even leave the garages until January, but it has caught the popular imagination. More than that, it has ruffled the feathers of established religious spokesmen, prompted tentative support from unlikely corners and even breached the citadel of religious broadcasting.

The results so far: by midday on Thursday there were 1,800 supportive comments on the blog site: they are often offbeat and full of good humour: “I'm sending a tenner because no one thanked the farmers at my son's harvest festival.” £83,000 has already been pledged, with offers pouring in from as far afield as Russia, Chicago, New Mexico, New Zealand and Ohio. As Ariane, the idea's begetter, says: “The sky's the limit - except, of course, there's nothing up there.”

There have been calls to spread the message to Ireland, Spain, Manchester, the US, Cardiff, Australia and Wales ... Manchester again ... and less hopefully to Kabul and Alaska. There are some surprising contributors: The Christian think-tank Theos has donated £50 in the belief that talking about God is a good thing and there is no such thing as bad publicity. The notion has even broken into the sacred minutes of the Radio 4 spot Thought for the Day, which has been locked in conflict with the British Humanist Society for what seems years. One bright idea from a 28-year-old woman and the atheist bus makes it on to the programme. 
Not since Going to Work on an Egg has an advertising initiative made such an impact, and for so little cost.

Yet as advertising copywriting the slogan doesn't really cut the mustard. It has no lilt, no rhymes, no wordplay. And that word “probably” has opened a can of worms. Many bloggers have asked simply “why 'probably'?” “Probably” was what they worried over most. It's said that Richard Dawkins, who is contributing some £5,000, favoured the phrase “almost certainly”. Another contributor explains that “in science nothing has certainty, only statistical probability”. I can see the copywriters chewing their pens over that one. So "probably" stays. There are other reasons, too. Yesterday in her blog Ariane explained that inserting the word helped to avoid breaching the Advertising Standards Authority rules.

Meanwhile, in the same week a government minister, Phil Woolas - three weeks ago appointed Immigation Minister - speculated in a Times interview that within 50 years or so the Church of England will have lost the special position it holds at the heart of the country's life. He suggested that in any reform of the House of Lords the privileged position of the 26 Lords Temporal - the C of E bishops - would be up for consideration. The Church's disestablishment was suddenly within a lifetime's prospect.

This is exactly where the light-hearted atheist's campaign intersects with national affairs.

It has been obvious over recent years that well-funded religious lobbies have been bringing their influence to bear on a government legislative programme that includes considerations of abortion and the matter of assisted dying. In accordance with their specifically devout beliefs, such groups are able to challenge and defeat legislation that many of us would like to see liberalised. The unelected bishops in the House of Lords rise to speak against such moves as Lord Joffe's Bill to legalise assisted dying.

So what is the atheist bus achieving? First, it establishes a sense of solidarity among those who see religious sentiments carrying the day simply because they are well organised and well funded. From the tone of their blogs the bus-funders are often young people who feel that no one is listening to them. Now they are at least being heard.

Its second achievement is to convey the fact that atheists believe in something rather than nothing. It is a canard of the religious to suggest that atheism is an absence, a void, a moral vacuum. It is no such thing. It constitutes a body of belief in humanity and its virtues. A lack of faith and the decline of religion are often blamed for the current evils of society. Those without belief in God want it to be known that they have as strong a moral framework as those who follow ancient biblical texts and commandments laid down long ago by desert tribes. It is not an unreasonable thing to expect, and the bus is perhaps a jokey way of saying so.

So what next? There is money to spare already beyond the original plans of the organisers. Perhaps there will be billboards around the country. Stephen Green of Christian Voice predicts that such displays will be covered in graffiti. As he dares to declare: “People don't like being preached at”!

My own fear is that while this has started in a gentle and unconfrontational way, it may fuel the notion that people have to be antagonistic to those of other faiths. While it is spoken in the mood of live and let live, I am apprehensive that it may be seen by others as a move in the battle of faith-versus-science. Theology in all its centuries-old intricacies and science with its blossoming insights are both far too subtle to allow of such clichés.

The wheels on the bus go round and round and round and round!

The wheels on the bus go round and round and round and round!
The Atheist Bus Campaign is driving along at full tilt. Donations are pouring in, as are the phone calls from newspapers, sales pitches from ad agencies, and emails from everyone who's ever had a worldview!
As always, we want and expect feedback especially from our members and supporters. Every policy decision and campaign announcement receives some praise and some criticism. There are two things that are special about the feedback on this campaign (both from the public and from our members and supporters). First is how much of it there is! Second is that it is overwhelmingly positive.
Some comments from members and supporters in response to the e-bulletin on Tuesday:
" "Fantastic!! Cheque in the post!!"
" "Congratulations ! I'm distressed to see the puerile ads going out in the name of religion. Whatever it means to any of us,it is great to have an alternative getting publicity."
" "Please can we have this message on our buses in Sheffield too! It's not just about money, it's about visibility and standing up against all this religious crap which seems to be everywhere you turn these days!"
" "Wanna spread a message of comfort and joy to your fellow man? Then join this incredible campaign that grows and grows every time you press the refresh button."
" "Brilliant. Well done." - one of our Distinguished Supporters
" "Thank you for the report on the Atheist Bus. Well done to everyone."
" "People who didn't know about this … have been amazed at how fast the money's pouring in. A couple of the comments I've had are, "Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Bloody marvellous :-)", and "Brilliant!"" - one of our Local Group leaders.
" "This is an excellent campaign idea and I'm glad it's received so much publicity."
" "What a brilliant response! Excellent publicity for BHA. Will it be on News? Can we have regular updates on BHA website please about nationwide/worldwide response?"
" "It is wonderful that you are supporting the bendy bus campaign which will help bring more people to belief."
" "What a brilliant idea---and one for which the world was undoubtedly waiting .Here's to the humanist elbow getting their bus borne message to Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham and Tipperary too." - Another of our Distinguished Supporters
" "Worthwhile so I jumped on board"
We could go on!
Of course there are always some critical comments. There have been numerous suggestions for changes to the wording, major and minor. We appreciate all this feedback, but there would never, ever be a slogan which everyone would be entirely happy with, and everyone who has their own ideas seems to feel that their modification is the only one that would need to be made! One person offers an idea because they think we should be less "presumptious", another suggests that the slogan is already too "soft"! One person says they're agnostic and it's too atheistic, another says that "probably" isn't sure enough of itself! So, in reality, we have hopefully found a balance between the possible "routes" that this bus could have taken, and it's reassuring that despite a handful of criticisms of the negative beginning to the statement ("There's probably no God") the overall message is laidback, positive, and refreshing.
More than half the number of members who join the BHA in a usual month, joined in a single day between Tuesday and Wednesday! It seems that, quibbles aside, Ariane's advert has tapped into an undercurrent of thought which wants to shrug in the face of religious slogans.
Thank you for all your support.

Mapping a clan of mobile selfish genes

by EurekAlert

Much of human DNA is the genetic equivalent of e-mail spam: short repeated sequences that have no obvious function other than making more of themselves.

After starting out in our primate ancestors 65 million years ago, one type of repetitive DNA called an Alu retrotransposon now takes up 10 percent of our genome, with about one million copies. Roughly every 20th newborn baby has a new Alu retrotransposon somewhere in its DNA, scientists have estimated.

"I think of them as molecular machines that can copy themselves and move around the genome, says Scott Devine, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine. "These elements pose a major threat to our genetic information, because they can damage genes when they jump into them, leading to altered traits or diseases such as cancers."

As mutations gradually blur the features of older Alu elements, some become unable to make copies of themselves. To identify the Alu retrotransposons that are still capable of moving around, Devine and graduate student E. Andrew Bennett, who is first author, divided them into families and tested a representative of each family in the laboratory.

The results are published online and are scheduled to appear in the December issue of the journal Genome Research. Laboratories at Emory, the University of Michigan and the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology contributed to the study.

"We wanted to see what dictates whether an Alu element will be mobile," Devine says. "That way we could predict which Alu copies are more likely to damage our genetic information.

This information will become very useful as we enter the age of personalized genomics, allowing us to make predictions about the future health of individuals."

Alu elements get their name because they usually include the recognition site for the enzyme Alu I (AGCT), a common laboratory tool for cutting DNA into pieces. Geneticists have already identified over 40 Alu elements that interrupt genes and cause human diseases, including neurofibromatosis, hemophilia and breast cancer, Devine says.

Bennett and Devine tested Alu elements by putting each of 89 family representatives on a small circle of DNA next to a gene that allows human cells to resist a poisonous drug. They then introduced the DNA circles into cells in culture dishes.

If the Alu element could jump, carrying the drug-resistance gene onto the cells' chromosomes, the cells survived the drug. The authors conclude that around 10,000 Alu elements are still capable of jumping around, with 37,000 having at least a low level of activity. The youngest ones were all capable of moving around, and the oldest ones were all inactive.

"These results mean that Alu is by far the most abundant class of jumping genes and poses the greatest transposon-mediated threat to our genomes," Devine says.

The term retrotransposons comes from how they replicate: first, the DNA is transcribed (copied) into RNA, and the RNA is reverse-transcribed into DNA again. Depending on the type of cell, if an Alu element is located near genes that have been shut off, the Alu element is less likely to get transcribed.

That means the number of Alu elements that do move around is probably slightly lower. The team has constructed a database of Alu elements to compile additional information about each family.

Devine says an enzyme that is part of the normal machinery of the cell transcribes Alu elements, but they actually depend on another type of repetitive element, called L1, to make the enzyme that can reverse-transcribe them.

Scientists think Alu elements "hijack" part of the cell during the copying process. In the cell, Alu RNA is thought to resemble another type of RNA that guides protein production. The team's tests indicate that Alu elements that can best mimic that RNA, called the signal recognition particle, are more likely to be active.

"Alus are really parasites of a parasite," Devine says. "They've cleverly taken advantage of another element's machinery to survive."

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, Sun Microsystems and the Dutch National Science Organization.

Reference: Bennett, E.A. et al. Active Alu retrotransposons in the human genome. Genome Res. Published October 3, 2008, 10.1101/gr.081737.108

'Probably' the best atheist bus campaign ever

by Ariane Sherine,

Thank you! Now you've made the campaign such an extraordinary success, we all need to think about what to do next

Thank you so much to everyone who has donated to the atheist bus campaign. 
As I write this, the total has just broken £83,000 (without Gift Aid) – a truly amazing amount to raise in just two days 
(even the donation website, JustGiving, told us they've never experienced this much support for a campaign before!). You've helped us hit the national news headlines, give atheists more of a voice, and generate debate on TV, radio and newspapers throughout the world. It couldn't have happened without you, and we're extremely grateful for all your support.

There's been an exciting level of debate about the campaign. Lots of you have asked why the word "probably" is included in the ad slogan, and stated that you'd prefer the wording to read "There's no God". While I fully understand this view, there's a vital reason for the "probably"'s inclusion: as with the Carlsberg ads, it's likely to get us around the advertising regulations (specifically points 3.1, 3.2, 5.1, 8.1, 9.1 and 11.1 in the general rules of the CAP Code, which regulates non-broadcast adverts in the UK). In my view, neither version of the slogan breaches the code, but CAP has advised that "the inclusion of the word 'probably' makes it less likely to cause offence, and therefore be in breach of the Advertising Code."

There's another reason I'm keen on the "probably": it means the slogan is more accurate, as even though there's no scientific evidence at all for God's existence, it's also impossible to prove that God doesn't exist (or that anything doesn't). As Richard Dawkins states in The God Delusion, saying "there's no God" is taking a "faith" position. He writes: "Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist". His choice of words in the book is "almost certainly"; but while this is closer to what most atheists believe, "probably" is shorter and catchier, which is helpful for advertising. I also think the word is more lighthearted, and somehow makes the message more positive.

Many people have asked how the extra funds are going to be used. While everyone on the campaign team is elated at the amount raised, we genuinely never expected the campaign to skyrocket like this, and had only planned to use any extra money to buy small ads inside buses. We're hoping to run the campaign throughout the UK, but outside London we may have to think about using billboards and trains instead of buses, since the company Stagecoach runs many regional bus services and may not accept our adverts as its owner, Brian Souter, is an evangelical Christian.

Whatever happens, every penny of the total is going directly towards the atheist adverts. If you have an innovative idea about how we could advertise more effectively outside London, an atheist advertising slogan you like which we could use in future campaigns, or a thought about where we should take the campaign from here, please let us know – we'll read every comment.

Lastly, thank you once again to everyone who has given to the campaign, commented in a debate, blogged about it, linked to a site or story about it, joined the Facebook group, forwarded links to friends, or posted a funny, kind or supportive comment on the JustGiving page. Atheists have truly pulled together to make ourselves heard, and it's exciting to imagine what we could achieve in the future. The sky's the limit, and as one comment on the donation page said: "I hope this is just the beginning."

To donate to the atheist bus campaign, please visit here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Support - Atheist Bus Campaign

Thank you for supporting We’re really pleased that you’re interested in helping. Below is a list of 10 ways you can help the Atheist Bus Campaign distribute reassurance and raise the profile of atheism in the UK:


Donate to the campaign online - click here! The more adverts we’re able to run, the greater a difference we can make. All donations will be administered by the British Humanist Association and used directly to place ads on buses saying “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”, along with links to atheist websites.


Put an banner on your own website! Right-click one of the images below, choose ‘Save Image As’ and download it to your own computer. Alternatively click here to download all of the banners as a ZIPped file (152Kb).


Forward the donation link on to friends you think would be interested in supporting the campaign. Click here to do this quickly and easily.


Join the Atheist Bus Campaign Facebook group. Here you can interact with other atheists, and we can let you know if there are any campaign updates. If you’re not a member of Facebook, you’ll have to set up a Facebook account before you can join.


Click the “Share +” link in the top right of the main Facebook page. Post the link to your profile (you also have the option to add a comment). The group will then appear in your friends’ news feeds and on your minifeed and Posted Items, along with a photo of the atheist bus slogan.


Click the “Invite People To Join” link in the top right of the main Facebook group page. Tick the boxes next to the names of friends you think would be interested, and send them the invitation.


Post a Facebook status update about the campaign, for example: “[your name] is supporting the Atheist Bus Campaign at [donation link].”


Blog about the campaign. Explain why you’re supporting it, and link to the donation URL. You could also cut and paste this list into your blog post to encourage other people to help.


Explain to your friends and family that the majority of the UK’s population is non-religious, and yet their views are rarely visibly represented. If they’re interested in learning more, encourage them to join the British Humanist Association


Tell your friends in other towns, cities and countries about the Atheist Bus Campaign, and suggest that they set up a similar initiative where they live. The campaign is starting in London, but there’s no reason why it should be limited to London or the UK.

Thank you!

Atheist Bus Campaign


The Atheist Bus Campaign launches today, Tuesday October 21. With your support, we hope to raise £5,500 to run 30 buses across the capital for four weeks with the slogan: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Donate online now!

Professor Richard Dawkins, bestselling author of The God Delusion, is officially supporting the Atheist Bus Campaign, and has generously agreed to match all donations up to a maximum of £5,500, giving us a total of £11,000 if we reach the full amount – enough for a much bigger campaign. The British Humanist Association have kindly agreed to administer all donations.

With your help, we can brighten people’s days on the way to work, help raise awareness of atheism in the UK, and hopefully encourage more people to come out as atheists. We can also counter the religious adverts which are currently running on London buses, and help people think for themselves.

As Richard Dawkins says: “This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think - and thinking is anathema to religion.”

Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark


The Science Network, Sam Harris, AC Grayling, Roger Bingham

BEYOND BELIEF DVDs are now available! Purchase them here. Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark DVDs will be available soon.

Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark is the third in an annual series of conversations: an ongoing project to foster and promote the use of reason in formulating social policy. This year, we asked participants to propose a Candle -- a potential solution to a problem that they have identified in their area of expertise or informed passion.

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan wrote:

Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

At The Science Network, we embrace scientific meliorism (last year's meeting, after all, was entitled Enlightenment 2.0). We support science in its search for solutions. Can we better understand the neural underpinnings of human nature, our decision-making processes, the dynamics of trust and fear and human flourishing?

This U.S. election year, when science and reason in the nation's deliberations have been repeatedly challenged as irrelevant or elitist, and science seems to be estranged from society, Sagan's words sound prophetic -- an alarm call. Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark is our response.

Download the program here.

also - Beyond Belief 1 and 2.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Preaching to the masses

The BBC's Catholic director-general holds non-believers in contempt, as his programming shows

Although the headlines majored on the BBC's fearful relationship with Islam, there was another point hidden in the BBC director general's speech to the Theos Christian thinktank this week, and it is just as disturbing.

Those of us who have wondered why there is such a ridiculous excess of religion on the BBC now have the answer. It is because Mark Thompson, an enthusiastic Catholic, wants it. Thompson is a great proselytiser for his faith in the mould of Lord Reith, who thought the BBC was "the nation's church".
And, of course, the BBC gives him a very big pulpit to preach from – one that reaches into just about every home in the country, and which we all have to pay for.

Thompson told Theos that there are now more religious programmes on BBC TV and radio than there have been for decades – whereas coverage has almost disappeared from ITV.

"My view," he told the thinktank, "is that there is a difference between the position of Christianity, which I believe should be central to the BBC's religion coverage and widely respected and followed.

"What Christian identity feels like to the broad population is a little bit different to people for whom their religion is also associated with an ethnic identity which has not been fully integrated. There's no reason why any religion should be immune from discussion, but I don't want to say that all religions are the same. To be a minority I think puts a slightly different outlook on it."

He added that demographers predicted an increase in the number of Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs over the next 20 years, and a fall in the number of those who profess no religion or consider themselves atheists. Religion, he said, is back.

Religion is indeed back, but not in the way Thompson would have us believe. It is certainly crazier and more violent than it has been for a long time and there is no way we can ignore its terrifying extremists, but there is no popular revival of religious belief – certainly not in Britain.

A Home Office citizenship survey in 2001 showed that when respondents were asked: "What says something important about you if you were describing yourself?", religion came just ninth in the list of priorities.

Even more significantly, four times as many thought religion was not important to their identity as those who did. The idea that most people's lives are motivated by religion is simply not true.

The most comprehensive and trusted annual study of religious statistics, Religious Trends, predicts that by 2040 half the population will identify itself as non-religious (up from 22% in 2001).
Similarly church membership will have dropped from 7% of the population in 2001 to 5% in 2040 (with only 2% actually attending services – and most of them over 65).These are conservative estimates, and the reality is likely to be a whole lot worse for the churches. Certainly Islam is growing, and is predicted to grow further – from 1.8% of the population to 3.6% – but that will be almost entirely from reproduction and immigration, not because vast numbers of people are converting to Islam.

The only group that is growing – and growing rapidly – are those who say either they have no religion or that they don't believe in God. Yet this group hardly gets a mention on the BBC.

As for Thompson's claim that there is a mighty audience for religious programmes, I draw his attention to a survey by Ofcom, the media regulator, which showed that religious programmes were not greatly valued by viewers – only 5% found them to be of any personal significance. Other research from Social Capital showed that in homes that had access to digital channels, there was an almost total flight from channels showing religious programmes.

Thompson added: "The fact that the same licence fee is levied from every household means that all audiences are of equal value to us. There is no specially favoured demographic, no premium market."

Oh, give us a break! A few sentences later he says:

"I believe that the BBC has maintained the daily and weekly presence of religion on its services with more consistency and commitment over decades than any other British media organisation, and also more than most of the rest of what you could call public Britain. This year we celebrated the 80th anniversary of the launch of the Daily Service. Songs of Praise, Choral Evensong, Thought For The Day, Prayer For The Day: the reflection of the cycle of the Christian week and the Christian year is there for anyone who wants to find it. So too – though admittedly less prominently – reflections of some of the key festivals of the UK's other major faiths. It's hard to square any of this with the idea of the BBC as the anti-God squad."

I remember meeting Thompson at the BBC some years ago in connection with the National Secular Society's campaign to open up Thought for the Day to non-religious voices. He appeared to listen sympathetically to our point of view, but, of course, nothing happened. It is clear now that for all his vague promises, he had no intention of doing anything about the situation. This speech shows he holds non-believers in contempt.

However, these latest revelations answer a question that we at the NSS has been asking for years: why,

when all the research shows that hardly anyone wants to watch it, is the BBC absolutely awash with religion, particularly Christianity? It is all down to Thompson and his sidekick Mark Damazer, the controller of Radio 4.

It is disgraceful that these zealots should have their hands so tightly round the throat of the BBC and use their positions to promote their personal beliefs at licence-payers' expense. The NSS intends to make a complaint to the board of directors of the BBC about Thompson's blatant bias.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

“I don’t know what to believe…” - Making Sense of Science Stories

source via:

“Is it peer reviewed?” is what Sense About Science is encouraging everyone to ask about science stories. Our short guide, written with input from patients, pharmacists and medical practitioners, among others, lets the public in on the arbiter of scientific quality: the peer review process.
Download the guide (pdf)
Order a copy
During the development of the guide we held workshops for people on the front line of dealing with public concerns, such as doctors and patient groups, and found that they are frustrated by the damage and public anxiety that result from the promotion of poor or unpublished science. Time is increasingly spent trying correct misleading claims found by members of the public on the Internet and elsewhere.

“I don’t know what to believe...” aims to change this by making more sectors of society familiar with what they should ask about research that worries or interests them. It equips people to inquire whether research has passed the scrutiny of other scientists and is considered valid, significant and original.

The guide is being distributed through a campaign involving healthcare providers, Internet sites, helplines and local bodies, based on the ways that people pursue their concerns and interest in particular scientific developments.

Comments on the guide

A guide to help patients

“Rarely a week passes without a ‘miracle heart drug’ or ‘heart scare’ headline appearing in the national media. This can sometimes offer false hope or be very frightening for vulnerable heart patients. We welcome resources like this leaflet, which can help people to read between the lines of newspaper print.”
Jane Shepley, British Heart Foundation
“Whenever there is a story about Alzheimer’s disease in the news the Alzheimer’s Society’s helpline receives calls from people concerned about what they have read. We support anything that helps the general public to understand the health messages they see everyday and encourages people to question the headlines that they read in the popular press. As there is currently no cure for dementia it is disconcerting and disturbing for people with dementia and their families when the results of research are overplayed in the media.” Joe Crosbie, Alzheimer’s Society

A valuable aid for pharmacists

“Pharmacists are often consulted for their knowledge about medicines and diseases. In their daily work, they often have concerned people asking them about health issues and the latest “miracle cures” featured in the media. This leaflet is a really valuable tool to help pharmacists set these claims into context and explain the role of sound science in making advances in health care.”
John Clements, Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Scientists should be more open about peer review
“Peer review is fundamental to scientific and scholarly communication. But it is also its best-kept secret: outside the scientific community, very few people know what it means or how it works. Sense About Science’s initiative is important because, for the first time, it will help the public to understand the unique character of the scientific process, to ask the right questions of scientists and to engage them with confidence.”
Michael Mabe, Elsevier

Peer review can help the public decide which scientific stories to take seriously

“Sense About Science’s leaflet, ‘I don’t know what to believe …’, will go a long way towards helping the public understand how scientific research is evaluated, and the important role peer review plays in this. By increasing awareness of peer review it will help people decide which scientific stories to take seriously and which to view with caution. When confronted with contradictory or far-reaching claims that may impact their own lives, they will know the questions they need to ask to sift out what is fact from what is just opinion or speculation.”
Dr Irene Hames, Managing Editor of The Plant Journal and author of Peer Review and Manuscript Management in Scientific Journals

A helpful guide for communicating about medical research

“The MRC is pleased to support this guide which is an interesting and useful addition to communicating about medical research.”
Elizabeth Mitchell, MRC

Click here for more comments on the guide and about peer review in general.

Responses to the guide are welcome.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Is there an optimum speed of life?

  • 22:00 13 October 2008
  • news service
  • David Robson

It doesn't matter if it's a tiny bacterium, a growing tree or a gigantic mammal – it seems most groups of organisms favour the same optimum metabolic rate.

Previous studies had shown that, within many groups of organisms, smaller species generally produce more energy within each cell than larger species. But according to Anastassia Makarieva from Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute in St Petersburg, Russia, no studies had compared resting metabolic rates across the whole range of life on Earth.

Makarieva's team trawled through a database of 3,006 different species, ranging from bacteria to elephants. They found that the average resting metabolic rate per unit mass varied by a factor of 10,000 – despite the fact that body mass varied by a gigantic factor, 1020.

For most species, the metabolic range was even narrower, with the majority lying between 1 and 10 Watts per kilogram – a factor of 10 difference. There was no consistent relationship between metabolic rate and body mass.

Elephantine metabolism

"The largest organism we studied is the elephant, which has a metabolic rate of 1 Watt per kilogram, and the smallest is a bacterium with a metabolic rate of 4 Watts/kg," says Makarieva.

Using the formulae that had previously been used to calculate the metabolic rate within separate classes of animals, you would have expected a multimillion-fold difference, she says.

Since such a large number of species falls within this narrow range, she hypothesises there may be an optimum metabolic rate for all organisms. "Organisms that lie close to this value may be the fittest to survive," she says.

Although the team don't yet know what evolutionary advantage it may offer, they believe the need to stay close to this value may help explain certain aspects of evolution, such as the size at which invertebrates needed to evolve a breathing mechanism, or the shape and size of tree leaves.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0802148105

Evolution - Learn more about the struggle to survive in our comprehensive special report.

IHEU News - summarised by Margaret Nelson


By Margaret Nelson - Posted on 06 October 2008

Happy human red 2This is a monthly update of news from International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). You can find the full versions of these news stories on the IHEU web site. To receive the monthly news update, sign up here.

This issue includes reports from IHEU's delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where real progress has been made, particularly on issues of freedom of expression and separation of religion and state. For other news, please scroll down.

Human Rights Council: The fight-back begins
In what was probably a first for the United Nations, delegates to the Human Rights Council heard two Muslims describe Islamism as "Racism" and tell their listeners that the OIC does not speak for the majority of the world's Muslims. Danish MP and leader of the Liberal Alliance Naser Khader, and Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress were eloquent in their denunciation of the OIC, its Saudi paymasters, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The conference was widely reported, including in the Pakistan Daily Times. Read more

Egypt accuses IHEU of inciting hatred
An Egyptian delegate to the Human Rights Council has accused IHEU of inciting and promoting hatred. “Every statement is incitement to hatred. Every statement is promoting hatred” he said. The accusation was made during a point of order by Egypt’s Amr Roshdy Hassan, who objected to the statement being made by IHEU representative Roy Brown on the subject of Islamophobia. We have a transcript of the Egyptian intervention in full (below). Readers can decide for themselves whether the accusation was justified. We now have video of this intervention. Read more

Growing opposition to the concept of "defamation of religion"
The tide really does seem to be turning in the debate on combating defamation of religion -- even to the point where there are hopes among some delegates that the concept will soon be buried, at least in the Human Rights Council. Following attacks by France and Belgium last week on the notion of defamation of religion, several NGOs joined the attack on Tursday with several strong statements. The Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies with Article 19, the European Center for Law and Justice, and Center for Inquiry in a joint statement with IHEU were among those who weighed in. Read more

Criticism of religion is not blasphemy
The IHEU position on defamation of religion was strongly supported on 23 September 2008 in a statement to the Human Rights Council prepared by Rabbi Francois Garai of the World Union of Progressive Judaism. Egypt tried to have the statement ruled out of order on the grounds that "Nobody can discuss the basic tenets of any religion in this Council." In other words, a Jewish Rabbi (unlike the Holy See) was not qualified to discuss the basic tenets of Judaism! Read more

IHEU attacks concept of "Islamophobia"
IHEU has told the UN Human Rights Council that the concept of "Islamophobia" is unhelpful and misleading, wrongly implying that any criticism of Islam is based on “irrational fear” and must lead automatically to hatred of Muslims. Read more

New team attacks religious privilege at the UN
After ploughing our lonely furrow at the Human Rights Council for the past five years, often with only the colourful veteran Human Rights advocate David Littman for company, it was a pleasure to welcome three new additions to the team for the 9th session of the Human Rights Council: Austin Dacey and Hugo Estrella from CfI and our new intern Xavier Cornut. Read more

IHEU speaks out (cautiously) against OIC censorship at UN
Following the successful attempts by the Islamic States at the 7th and 8th sessions of the Human Rights Council in March and June to silence any criticism of Sharia Law and the linking of certain abuses of human rights, such as the stoning of women, to Islam, IHEU main representative, Roy Brown, struck back at the 9th session on 19 September with a statement on the human rights of women. He argued that "No State should be permitted to hide behind tradition, culture or religion in order to justify any abuse of women's human rights," adding "It must be possible here to freely exercise the right to freedom of expression in order to defend the human rights of all, including women, and to expose abuse, whatever the attempted justification." Read more

IHEU defends rights of women and attacks censorship at the UN
In a joint statement with Center for Inquiry, IHEU has condemned abuses of women's human rights, including child marriage and "honour" killings, especially in Pakistan and Iran. IHEU also attacked the culture of censorship that now prevails in the Human Rights Council. Read more

AWE addresses human rights violations experienced by women
In an oral statement to the UN Human Rights Council, the Association for World Education has supported IHEU in calling for concerted action to prevent female genital mutilation, "honour" killings, stoning, facial maiming with acid and child marriage. Read more

CFI supports humanity, equality and human rights for women
Center for Inquiry has delivered an oral statement at the UN Human Rights Council supporting IHEU in defending the rights of women. Read more

USA speaks out strongly against OIC manoeuvring on "defamation of religion"
The US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, John V. Hanford III, has strongly supported freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and opposed the OIC's promotion of the concept of "defamation of religions" at the UN as incompatible with international human rights law. Read more

Defamation of religion is not a human rights concept - Belgium
In a statement to the UN Human Rights Council, Belgium has come out firmly on the side of individual human rights. Read more

IHEU calls on UN Human Rights Council to condemn Sudan
In a statement to the Human Rights Council, IHEU has called for Sudan to be condemned for its failure to safeguard the human rights of vast numbers of its citizens. Read more

Spinoza and secularism at the UN
Quoting Spinoza in a statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva delivered jointly with the Association for World Education, IHEU has urged the Council to prioritize freedom of expression over demands for laws of the state to yield to the laws of God. Read more

IHEU stands up for the primacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In a written statement to the UN Human Rights Council, Sixty years after the UDHR: threats to the universality of human rights, IHEU has highlighted the overriding, universal status of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the wide divergence between the UDHR and the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam. Read more


Recognition for the Ainu
Japan's parliament has adopted a resolution that, for the first time, formally recognises the Ainu as "an indigenous people with a distinct language, religion and culture". In a nation that has always preferred to perceive itself as ethnically homogenous, it is a highly significant move. Traditionally the Ainu lived off the land, worshipping natural landmarks and Read more

Celebrating Darwin - February 2009
In February 2009, we shall be marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his great, seminal work, On the Origin of Species. Just as Copernicus and the many great scientists who followed him had upset the view that the Earth was the centre of the Universe, so Darwin upset the view that humans were privileged beings, specially created by divine will and totally distinct from the rest of life. It is no exaggeration to say that Darwin's discoveries have provided a basis for modern Humanism. Read more

HSS conference - Humanism in Scotland - North Queensferry, 25 October 2008
IHEU member organization Humanist Society Scotland will hold its annual conference in North Queensferry on 25 October 2008. The theme will be The impact of Humanism on Scotland in the 21st century. Read more

Humanist events for Europride 2008
On 30 July, as part of the programme of Europride 2008, the Swedish Humanist Association organised two very successful events. The first was a panel discussion, 'Religion: the hotbed of homophobia?' for which the 120-person auditorium in the main Pride Hall of Stockholm was packed to capacity, with many more would-be listeners turned away at the door. The second was a more informal pub evening allowing humanists from different countries to discuss the issues of the day over drinks and food. Read more

Continuum of Humanist Education
IHEU member organization the Institute for Humanist Studies has made its online e-learning materials on Humanism freely available to all. Starting now, anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world can learn about Humanism for free. Read more

National conference on Osu caste system and untouchability - 21-22 October, 2008
Join Humanists, Freethinkers, human rights activists, intellectuals from Nigeria and Overseas to discuss and debate on how to eradicate caste discrimination and untouchability in the world. Sponsorships are available for victims of caste discrimination and untouchability in Nigeria. Read more

International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella organisation for Humanist, ethical culture, rationalist, secularist and freethought groups. Based in London, it is an international NGO with Special Consultative Status with the UN (New York, Geneva, Vienna), General Consultative Status at UNICEF (New York) and the Council of Europe (Strasbourg), and it maintains operational relations with UNESCO (Paris).

Its mission is to build and represent the global Humanist movement, to defend human rights and to promote Humanist values world-wide. IHEU sponsors the triennial World Humanist Congress.

You can find out more about IHEU on the web site