November 2009

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The Theos think tank invites entries in a competition to summarise The Origin of Species in a tweet:  Darwin’s Origin of Species evolves to a Tweet.  Whether this turns out to be a good thing is probably rather moot!  Theos say:

Fans of Britain’s most famous scientist are being asked to encapsulate the over 600-page seminal work into 140-character tweets on the popular Twitter website.  The competition comes ahead of tomorrow’s (Tuesday) 150th anniversary of the publication of the book, which sets out Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The Origins twittercomp was actually announced on 20th November, but it didn’t cross my radar till just now.  The Theos article also punts their recent report, being the fourth and final report in the Theos Rescuing Darwin series: Doubting Darwin.  It’s succeeded, I just downloaded it and will take a look.
One final comment: how does one enter the competition?

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A new poster campaign from the British Humanist Campaign that suggests people should try to avoid indoctrinating children into religious (and other) beliefs seems to have riled certain sectors of society.  The posters feature a couple of happy kids (of which more later) on a backdrop of ideologies and religions, with a slogan in the font and colour scheme familiar from the atheist bus campaign.

Please dont label me

The billboards seem to antagonise religious people (though notice the grey captions in the background aren’t restricted to religions).  For example in Befast, that hotbed of religious tolerance, we see in the Belfast Telegraph (Humanist poster stirs up religious storm) that

Reverend David McIlveen from the Free Presbyterian Church said: “It is none of their business how people bring up their children. It is the height of arrogance that the BHA would even assume to tell people not to instruct their children in the religion. I would totally reject the advertisement. It is reprehensible and so typical of the hypocrisy of the British Humanist Association today. They have a defeatist attitude and are just trying to draw attention to themselves. I think it is totally arrogant, presumptuous and sparks of total hypocrisy. I believe this doesn’t deserve a counter campaign. I will be expressing my public position on it in my own church on Sunday. I will be saying that this advert is another attack on the Biblical position of the family and will be totally rejecting it.”

I call this sad and pathetic.  It’s not telling people how to bring up their kids, it suggesting we might leave kids to make their own minds up in their own time.  How is it an attack on the Biblical position of the family?  Has the Rev McIlveen read the poster?  Elsewhere the press seems equally exercised.  Ruth Gledhill over at The Times (Children who front Richard Dawkins’ atheist ads are evangelicals) gleefully reports that:

The two children chosen to front Richard Dawkins’s latest assault on God could not look more free of the misery he associates with religious baggage. With the slogan “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself”, the youngsters with broad grins seem to be the perfect advertisement for the new atheism being promoted by Professor Dawkins and the British Humanist Association.

Except that they are about as far from atheism as it is possible to be. The Times can reveal that Charlotte, 8, and Ollie, 7, are from one of the country’s most devout Christian families.

Her satisfaction at this news is shared by a variety of evangelicals.  However the backers of the poster campaign point out that

“That’s one of the points of our campaign,” said Andrew Copson, the association’s education director. “People who criticise us for saying that children raised in religious families won’t be happy, or that no child should have any contact with religion, should take the time to read the adverts.

“The message is that the labelling of children by their parents’ religion fails to respect the rights of the child and their autonomy. We are saying that religions and philosophies — and ‘humanist’ is one of the labels we use on our poster — should not be foisted on or assumed of young children.”

Well, exactly.  And it’s really quite telling that the religious axis seem to be so thoroughly paranoid that they regard any questioning of the indoctrination of children into any belief system – political and religious to be an attack on their superstitious claptrap.

It’s not just christians that take umbrage.  Also from the Belfast Telegraph is this gem:

Father-of-four Sheikh Anwar Mady from the Belfast Islamic Centre added: “We believe that every child is born as a Muslim. Religion is not given by the family, but it is a natural religion given by our God at birth. The role of the family is to teach the traditions of the faith. But that faith is implanted at birth.”

This chap is claiming every child as a muslim.  How does that square with his fellow-travellers in mystic mumbo-jumbo?

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The link to this rather wonderful video clip was forwarded to me by Grumpy Art Vanderlay, my erstwhile cycling team-mate.  It features astonishingly dumb phone-ins from dimwits trying to outclass Austin atheists.  I think this is the perfect alternative to the Skeptic’s rather serious guide to debating creationists (previous blog articles).  It even features Ray Comfort’s ludicrous banana story…

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The Skeptic Society‘s e-newsletter, e-Skeptic, has made an interesting document available for temporary download: How to Debate a Creationist. Looks to be a very useful document.

Hat tip: British Centre for Science Education

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Well, it looks as though the splendidly anachronistic daily Radio 4 slot Thought for the Day will remain the province of a variety of a number of religious types (often spectacularly dotty). The Guardian reports (BBC rejects call for non-religious speakers on Thought for the Day) that the BBC Trust has in the face of serious lobbying from the Church of England (among others) rejected calls from Humanist organisations that TftD doesn’t breach impartiality by not including views from atheists, secularists and humanists.

The NSS president, Terry Sanderson, said: “Naturally we are very disappointed. This is a campaign we have been waging for 50 years, ever since Thought for the Day and its predecessors were first broadcast on the BBC. Every edition of Thought for the Day is a rebuke to those many people in our society who do not have religious beliefs.”

In contrast, of course, the religious establishment is delighted. The Guardian reports a Church of England spokesman as saying:

“We are glad that the BBC Trust has protected a unique slot in Radio 4′s schedule where religious views from across the faith communities of the UK can be expressed openly. Thought for the Day is highly valued by people of all faiths and none as a distinctive slot that, if diluted, would have become nothing more than just another comment slot.”

It would indeed be interesting to know whether it is indeed valued by people of all faiths and none. I mean other than as an object of ridicule. And why indeed are the faith-based opinions on current news stories of any worth whatsoever? And is it really the case that they don’t have other opportunities to pontificate away to their heart’s content “openly”?

Of course, there’s a brighter side to this arbitrary and unreasonable decision, continued meat for the very excellent website Platitude of the Day, which can now continue to present entertaining interpretations of the latest drivel emitted by representatives of a variety of faiths, often based on dusty mediaeval or bronze age texts purporting to represent the views of a number of Invisible Magic Friends (all mutually incompatible). Indeed the news is reported there as Glad Tidings:

I bring glad tidings of great joy to my flock of sheep. Thought For The Day will continue in its present form! You realise what this means? Yes, Platitude Of The Day will also continue in its present form.

I knew that the good, noble, principled, unelected people of the BBC trust would not let me down.

As a matter of interest, has a Church of Scientology representative ever been invited to the god-spot? After all, their batty beliefs aren’t really that much more batty than any of the others on display in Thought for the Day…

You can read the BBC Trust Press Release here.

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One of the great stories about American cinema is that in credits for the 1929 Pickford-Fairbanks film version of “The Taming of the Shrew” was the line “With Additional Dialog by Sam Taylor”. Most unfortunately, it would seem that this just isn’t so, and it’s an urban legend. So, why is this turning up in my atheism blog?

The (unfortunately) well-known creationist Ray Comfort, who runs a number of websites aimed at discrediting evolution and/or atheism has re-published Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”. Rather cheekily, this seems to be credited at amazon.co.uk as being written by Charles Darwin and Ray Comfort (it has to be said, in the interests of truth, that the cover image provided by Amazon.co.uk – pictured right – makes no mention of Ray banana man Comfort). Furthermore, judging from the reviews of this edition at amazon.co.uk, the initial listing conflated reviews of this version (bowdlerised not only by inclusion of Comfort’s crass creationist introduction but also by excision of key material) mixed with reviews of more acceptable editions. It would seem that the resounding raspberry of the seven reviews to date are now specifically associated with this version.

There has been an ongoing debate over this edition of Origins over at the US News website, beginning with NCSE Director Eugenie Scott’s piece (How Creationist ‘Origin’ Distorts Darwin) and Comfort’s attempts at justification. Scott pointed out Comfort’s evisceration of Origins:

Unfortunately, it will be hard to thoroughly read the version that Comfort will be distributing on college campuses in November. The copy his publisher sent me is missing no fewer than four crucial chapters, as well as Darwin’s introduction. Two of the omitted chapters, Chapters 11 and 12, showcase biogeography, some of Darwin’s strongest evidence for evolution. Which is a better explanation for the distribution of plants and animals around the planet: common ancestry or special creation? Which better explains why island species are more similar to species on the mainland closest to them, rather than to more distant species that share a similar environment? The answer clearly is common ancestry. Today, scientists continue to develop the science of biogeography, confirming, refining, and extending Darwin’s conclusions.

Likewise missing from Comfort’s bowdlerized version of the Origin is Chapter 13, where Darwin explained how evolution makes sense of classification, morphology, and embryology. To take a simple example, why do all land vertebrates (amphibians, mammals, and reptiles and birds) have four limbs? Not because four limbs are necessarily a superior design for land locomotion: insects have six, arachnids have eight, and millipedes have, well, lots. It’s because all land vertebrates descended with modification from a four-legged (“tetrapod”) ancestor. Since Darwin’s era, scientists have repeatedly confirmed that the more recently two species have shared a common ancestor, the more similar are their anatomy, their biochemistry, their embryology, and their genetics.

The blogosphere has been full of protests about this edition of Origins – I can’t list all articles, but here are two links to PZ Myers’ Pharyngula: Ray Comfort is a parasite (in relation to which, I note that Comfort’s bowdlerised version no longer tops the list in the search results at amazon.com) and Ray Comfort Replies to Eugenie Scott.

(This post was composed offline and submitted via Bilbo Blogger, now sadly renamed Blogilo. Let’s see how well it works!)

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Discover magazine ran a competition for videos which explained evolution in two minutes (The Winner: Evolution in Two Minutes, or less).  PZ Myers (Pharyngula) appears to have been involved in judging the entries (and you can see him in a video there).  The video below isn’t the winner, but it’s the “Peoples’ Choice”, and the one I like.

Evolution on 120 seconds

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At last, some good news regarding the teaching of evolution in UK schools.  The Guardian reports (Scientists win place for evolution in primary schools) that

The government is ready to put evolution on the primary curriculum for the first time after years of lobbying by senior scientists.

The schools minister, Diana Johnson, has confirmed the plans will be included in a blueprint for a new curriculum to be published in the next few weeks.

It follows a letter signed by scientists and science educators calling on the government to make the change after draft versions of the new curriculum failed to mention evolution explicitly.

This seems pretty good news for rational thought, particularly given the unfortunate MORI poll recently, which appeared to show public support for teaching creationism in science lessons.  The campaign for inclusion of evolution in the curriculum was coordinated by the British Humanist Association.

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It transpires (see for example the Not-So-Friendly-Humanist, Freethinker, and Pharyngula blogs) that a student christian union has started an attempt to have bibles placed in each student room at the Edinburgh University Pollock Halls of Residence.

Apart from the sheer arrogance of this approach, this does fill me with amusement.  Back in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was a student at Edinburgh, Pollock Halls appeared to double its occupancy on Friday and Saturday nights following the dread discos (usually closing with the rousing sing-along anthem Hi Ho Silver Lining).  Indeed such frequently carnal activity was reflected in amused comments from University accommodation officers concerning the single beds provided at Pollock Halls.

So, I suppose if passed, the distribution of bibles will be followed with a multitude of other holy books.  Will it extend to the works of L. Ron Hubbard, who’s flights of fancy came a cropper in French courts recently?  After all, Hubbard’s bonkers beliefs aren’t especially unusual in comparison to the tosh found in the bible.

I particularly liked Barry Duke’s (Freethinker blog) suggestion of a warning label that should be affixed to each copy:

I have an upcoming trip to the US – I imagine there will be Gideon bibles in each hotel room I will stay in.  The temptation to affix such labels would be severe…

On the other hand, perhaps the kindly souls at the christian union would consider Robert Crumb’s illustrated version of Genesis.  At least that would amusingly illustrate (probably in a nice earthy sort of way) several elements of the warning label.

Good luck to those who seek to prevent this absurdity.  Students don’t need extra doorstops in their tiny Pollock Halls bedrooms.

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The creationist Noah’s Ark zoo, featured in this and other blogs in recent weeks has apparently been suspended by the British and Irish Association of Zoos (BIAZA), according to the New Humanist blog (Creationist zoo suspended from British zoo association).  Amusingly, I suspect this has more to do with the inappropriate disposal of a dead tiger than any inappropriate mis-education they have indulged in.

It turns out that in addition to accusations they have been breeding animals for circuses (kind of frowned upon these days), The New Humanist reports that:

…it was discovered that the body of a tiger which died during childbirth at the zoo was disposed of in a way that contravenes animal disposal regulations – its paws, head and skin were removed, the carcass was buried on owner Anthony Bush’s land, and the head was revealed to have been kept in a freezer at the zoo.

Mmm…gruesome.

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