Thursday, 31 December 2009

Goodbye 2009

Just a quickie. I'm going to follow up on a couple of earlier posts.

But firstly I'd like to thank you, dear reader, for your visits over the last few months. I've had a lot of fun writing, and I hope you'll continue to visit in 2010.

The Supreme Court has dismissed, by a slim five to four majority, an appeal against the ruling that the state-funded Jewish Free School in north London had breached the Race Relations Act with their admissions procedure. A case had been brought by a child who had been deemed admission on the grounds that his convert mother was not considered properly Jewish by the Office of the Chief Rabbi.

I originally covered this in Sins of the Mothers.

The judges were clear that the school has not been “racist in the popular sense of the word” and that the Race Relations Act may require amendment for such cases.

Personally, I’d rather that we didn’t contort the Race Relations Act into any kind of inconsistent ideological pretzel to appease a form of bias which, if it were less established, would leap out as obviously unpalatable. Let’s just get on with educating our young in an inclusive way.

Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association said:
“It puts beyond doubt the position that, even though there may be a religious motivation for doing so, discrimination against children in admissions on racial grounds is illegal under any circumstances … This is not a matter of restricting ‘religious freedom’ or otherwise: that the admissions criteria of a state-funded faith school have been found to be racially discriminatory should be enough impetus to look carefully at the criteria all faith schools use to discriminate in their admissions.”

And for those of you holding your breath for the reply from the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, I’m guessing that you have a light touch of rigor-mortis by now. The church proposes that a common sleep disorder is a spiritual problem and offers “services for spiritual cleansing” which will “break any curse”. The original blog is here.

I'm guessing the secretary is off or the typewriter is broken.

A very happy New Year's Eve and 2010 to all.

J x

Thursday, 24 December 2009

My Yule (B)log

So who is thinking about the man who will bring us all a warm and happy feeling of cheer on Christmas Day? No, I don’t mean the man behind the counter at Threshers.

Santa Claus didn’t visit the baby Jesus in the manger, but you’ve probably remembered that bit. So had Reverend Paul Nedergaard, who upset the citizens of Copenhagen in 1958 by reminding them that he was a ‘pagan goblin’.

Rev. Nedergaard may not have had career prospects in diplomacy, but he was right. Santa/Father Christmas is an American/European syncrasy derived ultimately from pagan origins. He started out with a green cozzie, which gives a hint. He seems originally to have been a kind of trickster figure – the Fool, Mischief – a representation of the capricious elements of nature – appropriate, given that he appeared at the most bleak time of year.

The role of the Fool, in folkore as in a court, could be frightening and disobedient. But this danger came with wisdom and a mandate to say that which others daren’t. The Roman winter feast of Saturnalia hinted at the same reversal/conflation of diifferent social roles.

In Holland, Santa is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter. He’s often played by a man with a blackened face. I can’t help but see the resemblance. What do you think?

Jacob Grimm thought that the Odin gave out a cry of “ho, ho ho” as he led the Wild Hunt across the European skies, quite often in the spring or autumn, but most often at Yule – the twelve day pagan midwinter feast. The Hunt is preceded by the sound of baying, barking and shouting. Then a rider on a horse erupts onto the scene, thundering through the air followed by a host of strange spirits. The rider is often black, sometimes headless and sometimes (especially in Germany) bears the battle-wounds that would have caused his mortal demise. Fire spurts from the mouths and noses of the phantom horses and hounds which are often only two or three legged. And sometimes, the spirits of the recently dead are seen in the infernal train.

Would you leave mince pies and beer out for such entities?

You should. In folkore, as in life, attempts to mollify the dangerous can start with prezzies. Sheaves of grain were left out for Odin’s mounts. In a tough environment, such a gesture was also a statement of faith that things will get better.

Not breathing fire, but in charge of lugging the Christmas Spirit around, Rudolph was created for the Montgomery Ward group of stores in 1939.

That has been a long-standing concern among Protestants that the non-Christian accoutrements of the festive season would undermine the Christian message of Christmas. The seventeenth century English Puritan government famously banned the pagan elements of Christmas. And when I lived in the US, there were evangelist Protestants still loudly worrying that belief in Santa would help to undermine belief in God. Well, when you finally get to that stage when you are forced to realise that an airborne being won’t grant all your wishes …

Best wishes of the season to you all.

J x

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Campaign for Libel Reform

This morning, a merry band of celebrities, journalists, lawyers, assorted press and bloggers joined representatives of of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science at the Law Society to launch the Campaign for Libel Reform

Their recent ‘Free Speech Is Not For Sale’ has provoked a welcome response from Jack Straw who has set up a group to respond to it. He, like many in the Conservative and Lib-Dem parties, seems to now be amenable to change in English libel laws. Evan Harris MP said:
“There are reasons to be encouraged … there’s a kind of moment around the issue of free speech”. In fact, the timing is crucial.

Journalist Nick Cohen pointed out:
“Across the developed world, money is flowing out of journalism. There isn’t the money to fight libel actions. Newspapers back off all the time”

Perhaps we’re at what A. C. Grayling called a “sewerage moment”, a reference to the mid-nineteenth century ‘great stink’ when Parliament was finally forced to confront a contamination by its arrival at its own front door. As a river running with cloaca precipitated the building of a network of sewers, will super-injunctions be the midwife of fairer libel laws?

It’s not just an esoteric or academic issue. Tracey Brown of Sense About Science reminded us that libel chill in the UK affects many areas including human rights reporting, academic standards and medicinal research: as Edzard Ernst put it: “libel law has the potential to kill”. Nick Ross added: “It’s about bullying … done under a veneer of respectability and decency”.

The campaign has the public support of many, including Stephen Fry, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Jonathan Ross. I spotted Dr. Raymond Tallis, Professor Edzard Ernst, Dr. Simon Singh, Professor Chris French, Professor Richard Wiseman and Professor A. C. Grayling for the academics. Dr. Evan Harris MP, a stalwart of evidence based-policy and major supporter of libel-law reform was there too. Journalists included Roger Highfield, editor of The New Scientist and Observer regular Nick Cohen. Legal types Mark Lewis, Robert Dougans and Jack of Kent joined media folk Robin Ince, Dave Gorman, Nick Ross, Dara O Briain & Alexei Sayle.

Apologies if I’ve missed anyone out.

The ruinous cost of libel in the UK was reiterated. Simon Singh has spent eighteen months in time and £100K in money, and he’s nowhere near finished yet. Dr. Peter Wilmshurst could be ruined if he loses against NMT Medical - although he may not be much better off if he wins, as The Guardian found out when Matthias Rath took issue with an article by Ben Goldacre. They won, but are still out of pocket by £175K

Alexei Sayle, said that he’d once been sued for libel:

“… the thought that I could lose everything for damaging someone’s reputation … it would have been cheaper if I’d stabbed the fucker”

Let’s hope we’re seeing the beginning of a successful campaign. As Mark Lewis, Dr Peter Wilmshurt’s solicitor, put it:
“Libel laws were a more civilised replacement for duelling. There’s something wrong when people say “Maybe duelling wasn’t so bad after all”.”

BBC coverage

Jack of Kent

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Buy This Book

“Not since Sandra Bullock in ‘Speed’ has a woman utlised a bus with such skill” said Rebecca Watson, introducing Ariane Sherine to a fully packed Skeptics in the Pub last night.

Sherine is presently doing The-Big-Book-Tour with ‘The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas’ and appears to be covering more ground than Santa in a month of Christmases, so catch her if you can. Her talk about the conception and growth of the ‘Atheist Bus Campaign’ is extremely funny and I, for one am always delighted by the incongruity of appalling language from such a diminutive and affable person.

The campaign famously started with no more than a whimsical thought in Sherine’s Guardian column, was picked up enthusiastically in the comments section and launched in a small kind of a way after that. The publicity wasn’t grand and the total raised wasn’t huge. It wasn’t ‘til the Telegraph headline ‘Atheists fail to cough up for London Bus Ad’ that a large herd of heathen cats were motivated to try herding and some synchronised sponsoring, all to massive effect.

“I’ll burn in hell for being gay anyway, so what’s £10”, wrote one donor.

The book is a follow-up project edited by Sherine. It has the old favourite science contributors such as Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre and an impressive bunch of media types such as Ed Byrne, Mitch Benn, Lucy Porter and David Baddiel. In total, they number forty-two, to accord with the Cabbalistic Constant from The-Good-Book (‘Hitchhikers Guide’ … surely I didn’t need to say that?) The writers’ profits are going to the Terrence Higgins Trust to somewhat counterbalance that the Pope thinks condoms cause AIDS.

Sherine (and her partner in crime, Richard Dawkins) is presently involved with another campaign, the BHA’s ‘Don’t Label Me’. There was a tiny hitchlet in that the child models (above) turned out to be from an evangelical family, but hey ho. In all, the message seems to have reached many people who didn’t realise that atheism could be so positive. At the very least, as Alexander Armstrong said:
“Being told that god doesn’t exist may make a chap think twice before blowing himself up on the top deck”.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Westminster Skeptics: Christmas Drinks

Just a quickie this time. Enjoyed myself very much at the Skeptics Westminster Christmas drinks last night. The place was stuffed full with bloggers, writers, nerds, political activists and campaigners - great company all.

There was a good atheist turnout despite the Biblical weather conditions. Here are a few pics for those of you who couldn't make it.

Ariane Sherine & Simon Singh

Dr. Ben Goldacre, Dr Evan Harris MP and Tracey Brown of Sense About Science

And remember that Ariane Sherine will be visiting London Skeptics in the Pub at Penderel's Oak on the 7th. See you there!