Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dawkins West Coast Tour: Get Tickets While They Last - - -

Seating is limited for all these events
Prof. Dawkins and Sean Faircloth will be available for signings after each event

Seattle Area - Sunday April 1, two events!
10:30am Renton WA
Dr. Elisabeth Cornwell, Sean Faircloth, Prof. Richard Dawkins will speak at the Northwest Freethought Alliance Convention, in Renton, Washington.
The Freethought Alliance Convention begins Friday.
Details here:

3pm Bellevue WA
Dr. Cornwell, Sean Faircloth, and Prof. Richard Dawkins will hold a public event in Bellevue, Washington:
Working Together for a Secular Society: A Celebration!
Admission to the afternoon event is $5!
Details here:

Professor Dawkins will sign his books, including his most recent, The Magic of Reality.

Sean Faircloth will sign his new book,
The Attack of the Theocrats, How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It.

Wednesday April 4 Santa Barbara CA. Details to follow soon

Friday evening April 6 San Diego CA
6pm, doors open 5pm.
Event and ticket details here:

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Stark warning emerges from science summit - Deborah Jones -

Thanks to Helga Vierich for the link.

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A Nasa Earth Observatory image shows city lights. A stark theme emerged from an annual scientific get-together in Vancouver: the world must be helped to believe in science again or it could be too late to save our planet.

A stark theme emerged from an annual scientific get-together in Vancouver: the world must be helped to believe in science again or it could be too late to save our planet.

Science is "under siege," top academics and educators were warned repeatedly at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting as they were urged to better communicate their work to the public.

Scientific solutions are needed to solve global crises -- from food and water shortages to environmental destruction -- "but the public now does not understand science," leading US climate change expert and NASA scientist James Hansen told the meeting.

"We have a planetary emergency, and very few people recognize that."

The theme of the five-day meeting, attended by some 8,000 scientists from 50 countries, was "Flattening the world: Building a global knowledge society."

"It's about persuading people to believe in science, at a time when disturbing numbers don't," said meeting co-chair Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University in this western Canadian city.

Experts wrangled with thorny issues such as censorship, opposition from religious groups in the United States to teaching evolution and climate change, and generally poor education standards.

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An Arctic fox hunts in Norway's Svalbard close to Ny-Aalesund, a former coal-mining settlement and the most northerly village in the world. It has become an International Centre of Research.

"We have to plan for a future, considering the risk of climate change, with nine to 10 billion people," said Hans Rosling, a Swedish public health expert famous for combating scientific ignorance with catchy YouTube videos.

Rosling, pointing to charts showing how human populations changed with technology and how without science the majority of a family's children die, said it is naive to think that humanity can easily go backward in history.

"I get angry when I hear people say: 'In the rainforest people live in ecological balance.' They don't. They die in ecological balance," he said.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

Professor Stephen Hawking quotes on God and Religion - - -

What does Professor Stephen Hawking believe in?
Some quotes on God and Religion / Religious beliefs

"As we shall see, the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe. This was first pointed out by St. Augustine. When asked: What did God do before he created the universe? Augustine didn't reply: He was preparing Hell for people who asked such questions. Instead, he said that time was a property of the universe that God created, and that time did not exist before the beginning of the universe."

Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), p. 8

"One can imagine that God created the universe at literally any time in the past. On the other hand, if the universe is expanding, there may be physical reasons why there had to be a beginning. One could imagine that God created the universe at the instant of the big bang, or even afterwards in just such a way as to make it look as though there had been a big bang, but it would be meaningless to suppose that it was created before the big bang. An expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job!"

A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), pp. 8-9.

"With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws. However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started -- it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?"

A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), p. 140-41.
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Free Will - Sam Harris - Free Press

Life Without God: An Interview with Tim...

Sam Harris -

Tim Prowse was a United Methodist pastor for almost 20 years and left his faith and career in 2011.

Your God is My God What Mitt Romney...

Sam Harris - The Blog

Your God is My God What Mitt Romney Could Say to Win the Republican Nomination

Everything and Nothing - An Interview...

Sam Harris - The Sam Harris Blog

Everything and Nothing - An Interview with Lawrence Krauss


Sam Harris - Amazon - Kindle edition

September 11, 2011

Sam Harris -

What defenders of religion cannot say is that anyone has ever gone berserk, or that a society ever failed, because people became too reasonable, intellectually honest, or unwilling to be duped by the dogmatism of their neighbors.

Whither Eagleman?

Sam Harris -

Part 1 (we hope) of a written exchange between Sam Harris and David Eagleman.

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Atheist group targets Muslims, Jews with ‘myth’ billboards in Arabic and Hebrew - Dan Merica - CNN

Thanks to Quine for the link.

(CNN) – The billboard wars between atheists and believers have raged for years now, especially around New York City, and a national atheist group is poised to take the battle a step further with billboards in Muslim and Jewish enclaves bearing messages in Arabic and Hebrew.

American Atheists, a national organization, will unveil the billboards Monday on Broadway in heavily Muslim Paterson, New Jersey and in a heavily Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood, immediately after the Williamsburg Bridge.

“You know it’s a myth … and you have a choice,” the billboards say. The Patterson version is in English and Arabic, and the Brooklyn one in English and Hebrew. To the right of the text on the Arabic sign is the word for God, Allah. To the right of the text on the Hebrew sign is the word for God, Yahweh.

Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, said the signs are intended to reach atheists in the Muslim and Jewish enclaves who may feel isolated because they are surrounded by believers.

“Those communities are designed to keep atheists in the ranks,” he says. “If there are atheists in those communities, we are reaching out to them. We are letting them know that we see them, we acknowledge them and they don't have to live that way if they don’t want to.”
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SBC’s Richard Land: Romney Not a Christian, Compares Mormonism to Islam - Jim Meyers and John Bachman - NewsMax

Dr. Richard Land, a leading figure in the influential Southern Baptist Convention, tells Newsmax.TV he does not consider Mitt Romney and other Mormons to be Christians — and likens Mormonism to Islam.

Land is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant body in the United States, with more than 16 million members. He was appointed by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government body.

As one of the leading voices of the SBC, Land’s views on the GOP primary race are significant because the SBC’s membership has been a key constituency of the Republican Party’s national coalition that has given it electoral success for congressional and presidential races.

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The Myth of Militant Atheism - David Niose - Psychology Today

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Nine bullets fired from close range ended the life of Salman Taseer last month, making the Pakistani governor the latest high-profile victim of religious violence. Taseer had the audacity to publicly question Pakistan's blasphemy laws, and for this transgression he paid with his life.

Taseer joins a list of numerous other high-profile victims of militant religion, such as Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas abortion doctor killed by a devout Christian assassin in 2009, and Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker whose provocative movie about Islam resulted in his being brutally murdered in 2004.

With this background, it is especially puzzling that the American media and public still perpetuate the cliché of so-called "militant atheism." We hear the disparaging term "militant atheist" used frequently, the unquestioned assumption being that militant atheists are of course roaming the streets of America.

In fact, however, while millions of atheists are indeed walking our streets, it would be difficult to find even one who could accurately be described as militant. In all of American history, it is doubtful that any person has ever been killed in the name of atheism. In fact, it would be difficult to find evidence that any American has ever even been harmed in the name of atheism. It just does not happen, because the notion of "militant atheism" is entirely fantasy.

When the media and others refer to a "militant atheist," the object of that slander is usually an atheist who had the nerve to openly question religious authority or vocally express his or her views about the existence of God. Conventional wisdom quickly tells us that such conduct is shameful or, at the very least, distasteful, and therefore the brazen nonbeliever is labeled "militant."

But this reflects a double standard, because it seems to apply only to atheists. Religious individuals and groups frequently declare, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, that you are a sinner and that you will suffer in hell for eternity if you do not adopt their supernatural beliefs, but they will almost never be labeled "militant" by the media or the public. Instead, such individuals are called "devout" and such churches are called "evangelical."

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

IN FULL: Atheist in memory lapse and slavery shock - Richard Dawkins - New Statesman

This is the full version of Richard's article for New Statesman, a shortened version of which was previously posted here

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According to the [2001] census, 70 per cent of Britons are Christian. But what does this actually mean? Photograph: Getty Images

Some years ago a colleague was admitted to hospital and a nurse came over to her bedside to fill in a form with her personal details. "Religion?" "None." Later my colleague overheard a pair of nurses gossiping about her. "She doesn't look like a nun."

The absurd presumption that everyone has a religion, almost as a part of their identity, to be ticked off on a form the way one ticks the boxes for sex, eye colour and known allergies, is ubiquitous in our society and it has yet to be expunged from our census forms.

The census of 2001 seemed to show that over 70 per cent of British people were Christian. This figure has been triumphantly and repeatedly invoked by politicians, prelates and apologists for religion, in apparently persuasive justification for a strong Christian presence in our governance and resource allocation. The census showed that we are still a Christian country, so it is claimed to be appropriate that all schoolchildren in England and Wales are required by law to take part in a "daily act of worship of a broadly Christian character"; right that 26 bishops should have seats reserved for them in parliament, where they influence political decisions in very Christian ways - on discriminatory faith schools, on abortion and on assisted suicide, for instance. Not just the unelected bishops: members of the Commons with an eye to re-election must heed the Christian voice and curry favour with the powerful Christian demographic. Seventy per cent of the population wants Christian policies, and 70 per cent cannot be gainsaid.

Many of us suspected that the vaunted 70 per cent hid an embarrassment of non-Christian, non-religious vaguery. "Well, our family has always been Christian and I was christened; I'm not a Jew or a Hindu and certainly not a Muslim, I love singing carols, Jesus was obviously a good person, just look at that gorgeous sunset, and there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, so . . . yes, I'd better tick the Christian box."

Naturally people are free to call themselves whatever they like, and if you want to call yourself Christian even though you don't believe in God and have only the haziest idea of Christian teaching, that is none of my business. However, it very much is my business, and every other citizen's business, if the recorded demographic strength of Christianity in the country is falsely inflated by a very broad and loose definition of what it means to be Christian, and if that swollen figure is then hijacked and exploited by partisans of a much more narrowly defined Christianity.

If you ticked the Christian box because (like me) you are moved to tears by Schubert and the Milky Way, and therefore consider yourself a "spiritual" person, your "spirituality" should not be used to justify bishops in the Lords, or "All Things Bright and Beautiful" in schools. Ditto if you ticked the box because (again like me) you have a nostalgic affection for the Book of Common Prayer and King's College chapel.

It was for this reason, among others, that many of us campaigned to have the religion question omitted from the 2011 census. Unfortunately we failed. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) therefore fell back on plan B. This was to commission a large and comprehensive opinion poll, in the week immediately following last year's census, to find out exactly what people who ticked the Christian box believe, what lay behind their decision to accept the Christian label, and their attitudes to Christian-based legislation. Can politicians and others plausibly quote the percentage calling itself Christian as ammunition in arguments about religion in schools, homosexual rights, abortion and voting by the Lords Spiritual?

The survey was done by Ipsos MORI in accordance with its strict rules to ensure accuracy and impartiality, and on 14 February we published the results in the form of two press releases and a link to the underlying data (all of which is now on together with links to the extensive press coverage). The main conclusions are very much as we suspected. First, although the official census figures have not yet been published, our sample suggests that the percentage that describes itself as Christian has dropped from 72 to 54 (plus or minus 2 points).

That is a significant finding in its own right, but more telling is how small a proportion of even that 54 per cent believes in Christianity in any sense that could reasonably justify giving Christianity privileged influence in public life. In all that follows, it is important to remember (a retired bishop with whom I debated on television this past week got this wrong) that the percentages quoted are not percentages of the population at large, but percentages of the 54 per cent who self-identified as Christian. I will call them "Census Christians".

To pick out a handful of Ipsos MORI's findings, only a third of the Census Christians ticked the Christian box because of their religious beliefs. Not counting weddings, baptisms and funerals, half of them hadn't attended a church service at all in the previous year, 16 per cent hadn't attended in the past ten years, and a further 12 per cent had never done so. Only 44 per cent of Census Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Only a third believe that He was physically resurrected.

Why then did they think of themselves as Christian? Ipsos MORI asked them: "Which of the following statements best describes what being a Christian means to you personally?" Favourite, with 40 per cent, was "I try to be a good person" (well, don't we all, but some of us good people are Muslims, some are Jews, some are Hindus and rather a lot are atheists). Second favourite, with 24 per cent, was "It's how I was brought up" (indeed - I, too, was brought up Christian and I was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England, so I guess that makes me a cultural Christian). Only 15 per cent of Census Christians selected "I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Saviour" and 7 per cent chose "I believe in the teachings of Jesus" as the best description of what being a Christian meant to them personally.

“I try to be a good person" came top of the list of "what being a Christian means to you", but mark the sequel. When the Census Christians were asked explicitly, "When it comes to right and wrong, which of the following, if any, do you most look to for guidance?" only 10 per cent chose "Religious teachings and beliefs". Fifty-four per cent chose "My own inner moral sense" and a quarter chose "Parents, family or friends". Those would be my own top two and, I suspect, yours, too.

The bottom line is that anybody who advocates a strong place for religion in government cannot get away with claiming that ours is numerically a Christian country as a basis for giving religion privileged influence. This conclusion is further borne out by part two of our Ipsos MORI survey. Census Christians were asked explicitly about their attitudes to various social issues as well as their views on religion in public life. Seventy-four per cent of them said that religion should not have special influence on public policy. Only 12 per cent thought it should. Only 2 per cent disagreed with the statement that the law should apply to everyone equally regardless of their religious beliefs (so much for the Archbishop of Canterbury's opinion that sharia law in Britain is "unavoidable", and for attempts to exempt Christians from compliance with equalities legislation). More Census Christians oppose than support the idea of the UK having an official state religion, and the same applies to the presence of bishops in the House of Lords.

Less than a quarter of Census Christians think state schools should teach children a religious belief. Sixty-one per cent support equal rights for gay people and 59 per cent support assisted suicide for the terminally ill, given certain safeguards. And for those MPs worried about re-election and the need to appeal to the allegedly powerful Christian lobby, 78 per cent of Census Christians say that Christianity has no or not much influence on how they vote.

Read on

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Why do the religious insist on presenting a united front? - Julian Baggini - Guardian Comment Is Free

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The Dalai Lama: happy to speak out against capitalism. Photograph: Ashwini Bhatia/AP

The humanist philosopher Simon Blackburn recounts a wonderful anecdote told to him by a colleague about a high-powered interfaith panel discussion. Each speaker took turns to explain some key ideas of their faith – Buddhist, Hindu and so on – and the response from other panel members was always along the lines of: "Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great." The same response greeted the Catholic priest who talked of Christ and salvation, but instead of being pleased with their enthusiasm "he thumped the table and shouted: 'No! It's not a question of if it works for me! It's the true word of the living God, and if you don't believe it you're all damned to hell!'"

"And they all said, 'Wow, terrific, if that works for you that's great.'"

The puzzle for many of us is why this kind of thing doesn't happen more often. The simple fact is that almost everyone who is serious about their religion believes that others have got it badly wrong. If they're not going to hell, then they are at least missing out on life's most important truths. So why the silence about the errors of other faiths?

The most obvious explanation is simple civility and a respect for different opinions. It would be rude and arrogant for a member of one religion to criticise another, so if they can't say anything nice, they don't say anything at all. But this doesn't add up. Rowan Williams, for example, does not seem to think he's being rude or arrogant when he criticises the government (especially since he frames it as "encouraging the present government to clarify what it is aiming for"). The Dalai Lama is not considered rude or arrogant for criticising capitalism for being "concerned only with gain and profitability".

The Association of British Muslims was not rude or arrogant when it quite rightly criticised the UN general assembly for removing a clause abut the sexual orientation of the victims from its resolution on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. It seems religious leaders have no problem finding civil ways of being critical of everyone apart from each other.

So there's got to be something else going on here and it doesn't seem uncharitable to suggest that it's a kind of sticking together for self-interest, a version of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". A religion's direct competitors are not the biggest threat. People rarely switch between them and because the traffic tends to be two-way, the net affect is usually negligible anyway. The real danger comes from people giving up on religion altogether. So religions have an interest in "sector building", seeing promotion of the profile of their kind existential product as being more important than their particular brand.

Read on

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Why Richard Dawkins is still an atheist - Paula Kirby - Washington Post On Faith

In October 2008 I attended a lecture by the Christian apologist John Lennox. He could hardly contain his excitement because the previous week he had publicly debated Richard Dawkins, and Dawkins had allegedly made two remarks that had ‘stunned’ him because they seemed, Lennox said, to suggest the world’s ‘atheist-in-chief’ was experiencing a major change of heart.

According to Lennox, Dawkins had conceded a) that he had no difficulty with Einstein’s God, in the sense of God being the laws of physics and b) that “a strong case could be made for a deistic God.” And what this meant, declared Lennox, almost bursting a blood vessel in his missionary zeal, was that Dawkins had a sense that there must have been an intelligence to account for the beginning of things; and Lennox went on to insinuate that Dawkins was in the process of abandoning atheism and was well on his way to becoming a deist - at least: “There’s a lot going on with Richard Dawkins at the moment!”, he announced ecstatically, leaving his overwhelmingly Christian audience with high hopes of a full conversion to Jesus at any moment.

To anyone who had actually read The God Delusion, this was rather amusing, since there was nothing here that wasn’t in the book, so talk of changes of heart was wishful thinking at best; but to anyone who, like me, had heard the earlier debate, it was also an example of egregious quote-mining. What Richard had actually said was:

“The deist God would be one that I think it would be - one could make a reasonably respectable case for that, not a case that I would accept, but I think it is a serious discussion that we could have.” (Emphasis mine.)

He went on to contrast this idea with Christianity, for which, by implication, not even a “reasonably respectable case” could be made. (At the time of writing you can hear the full debate for yourself by clicking here.)

There is absolutely nothing in this or elsewhere in Richard’s debate comments that suggests a conversion to deism - much less Christianity. Indeed, describing arguments for deism as ‘not a case that I would accept’ is pretty categorical. Yet there was John Lennox, practically killing the fatted calf.

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The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (R) and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University, before their debate in the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, central England, February 23, 2012. (ANDREW WINNING - REUTERS)

The parallels with this week’s press hysteria over Richard’s description of himself as agnostic in his discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury are, I hope, obvious. Religious commentators have become so excited at the thought of his conversion that I almost don’t have the heart to break it to them that he said nothing in Thursday’s discussion that he hadn’t already said six years ago in The God Delusion. You’ll find the relevant section in Chapter 2, including the seven-point scale where one represents total certainty that there is a God and seven represents total certainty that there is not. Right there Richard writes,

“I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 - I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

And how did he describe himself to the archbishop on Thursday, in his supposedly stunning retreat from atheism? “I’d put myself at 6.9.”

Concession? Conversion? The answer to Christian prayers? Hardly! It was as clear a restatement of the position he took in The God Delusion as you could wish for.

So how can this be? How can an atheist also be an agnostic? The answer is simple.

Read on

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An Evolution Animation Unlike Any You’ve Seen Before… - Carin Bondar - Scientific American

How do you make an authentic evolution animation? Quite simply: you allow it to evolve. Tyler Rhodes, a student in the animation program at Virginia Commonwealth University, wanted to create an animation that wasn’t simply linear, but instead represented the true ‘tree-like’ process of evolution. So he enlisted the help of elementary school students from William Fox Elementary School and the Patrick Henry School of Science & Art, and involved them in a type of game.

“Much like the whispered game “telephone” where one person whispers a message down the line until it’s very different by the end due to small “mutations” along the way, I would create a game of telephone using visual imagery.”

Tyler began the game by sketching a nondescript salamander-like creature:

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He then had various groups of students make copies of this sketch, knowing that the copies would contain subtle differences. The natural variation in the ‘progeny’ created from the first salamander sketch was used to determine the survival of the fittest. Tyler would ‘kill off’ 98% of the organisms and start the process again, this time working from the sketches that ‘survived’. In subsequent iterations he would throw out curveballs like desertification or a volcanic explosion (subsequent to the sketching), which would help the group decide which animals were best suited to survive. They would then take these environmental changes into account when sketching their next creatures.

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There was a total of 6 generations, after which time Tyler digitally cut out the images and animated them with his own music and sound effects from the children. The finished product is an evolution video that is completely unique, refreshing and altogether entertaining.

To see the finished evolution animation, please click here


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The Arab world's first ladies of oppression - Angelique Chrisafis - The Guardian

Their husbands have run some of the most brutal regimes of the Arab world. But who are the women who stand by the dictators?

Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma posing for the cameras at the Elysée palace with Nicolas and Carla Sarkozy, 9 December 2010. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

In December 2010, the French first lady Carla Bruni sat down to lunch under the gold chandeliers of the Elysée palace with Asma al-Assad, wife of the Syrian leader Bashar. As they sat demurely with their husbands around a butterfly-print tablecloth dominated by a pastel flower-arrangement, a photographer was ushered in to grab a picture for French celebrity magazines. After all, this was a communion of fashion's high priestesses: a former Italian supermodel turned folk-singer entertaining a Chanel-loving, London-raised, former banker and conveniently westernised Middle Eastern first lady. French Elle had recently voted Asma "the most stylish woman in world politics", Paris Match called her "an eastern Diana", a "ray of light in a country full of shadow zones".

Only days after the lunch, a desperate Tunisian vegetable seller would set himself alight, sparking the first revolution of the Arab spring. Already, as the Sarkozys' butlers served the Assads crystal glasses of freshly squeezed juice from silver platters, there was unease among certain diplomats about the French president schmoozing the ruler of an oppressive dictatorship known for torture, brutality and political prisoners. But Nicolas Sarkozy, an expert on the importance of photogenic wives in politics, saw Asma as his insurance policy. "When we explained that this was the worst kind of tyrant, Sarkozy would say: 'Bashar protects Christians, and with a wife as modern as his, he can't be completely bad,'" the former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner later confided to journalists.

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QED: How to make a success of a conference for skeptics - Andy Wilson -

RDFRS UK is pleased to be one of the sponsors of this year's QED conference.

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In February last year, a culmination of hard work, sleepless nights, robust management meetings and several measured but real risks, paid off. I'll get back to the pay off later.

What am I talking about? Why QED of course. Question, Explore, Discover was the name we eventually settled on for the inaugural QED conference in Manchester. This is the two-day science and skepticism conference I co-organised last year, and which is “back for an encore” this year.

Merseyside Skeptics Society and Greater Manchester Skeptics Society cooperated under the banner of North West Skeptical Events Ltd to run a brand new event in the skeptical calendar.

Now that we are on the cusp of a 2nd QED, March 10th and 11th 2012, and the ever present and crucial question of whether the event will break even is largely settled, here is a guide to the main principles when running an event of this nature. Here I will describe only the most important, high level, considerations.

It's a risk.

To run an event of any scale automatically confers a risk. Financial, legal and reputation risks are all matters to consider. We formed a non-profit limited company to mitigate some of the risk. We set up financial services with Co-operative bank and Google checkout. Having a properly constituted company helps with these.

The financial risk was the most pressing last year. Running QED the second time we felt we had a measurable and receptive audience we could rely on. But the first time every single ticket sale felt like we'd won it individually. Make sure you understand your break-even point, and how you will get there. Ask yourself “Is this realistic?” Negotiate hard with suppliers to manage the timing of outlay to coincide with cash in the bank. Cashflow management is crucial.

Who is my audience?

The claim "If you build it, they will come" is woefully inaccurate. "If you build the right thing, they will come" is much more like it. Between us we had run Skeptics In The Pub and either organised or participated in quite a bit of skeptical activism. But this was a significant step change. Organiser Mike Hall set out his stall right at the outset by saying, "I want us to create an event that I would go to." You can thank this principle for the appearance of a Dalek at QED 2011!

Every decision was monitored against this principle. For example, there are about 5 suitable venues in Manchester. They're all hotels. We didn’t want a split venue. Even though we have the excellent Museum of Science and Industry, and university real estate galore, they failed to make the cut because they were less convenient for travellers, or not geared up for a social event. By which we mean a decent bar in comfortable surroundings within easy reach, with venue, hotel rooms and plenty of inexpensive alternative accommodation nearby. The hotel also increases the accessibility of our guest speakers. With them staying in the same hotel as the event, you’re much more likely to run into them in the bar.

We had to risk a much greater financial investment doing it this way but there was no choice really.

How are you going to manage it?

Insofar as we can claim a successful outcome for the first QED, there was, we believe, a specific reason for this. Our decision-making is consensus driven. We have enjoyed some very robust board meetings. Although Mike chairs the board meetings, we all have responsibilities and share the workload. There are 5 of us this year. We've disagreed on many things. But because we all agree on the desired outcome we seem to get along fine. Each of us has had to give way on something important in order to go along with the consensus. Also, we have no financial interest in the profit from the event, which I think helps. There's no one in overall charge at QED.


If you came to QED last year, or are coming this year, or both, thank you for your participation and excitement. In terms of reward this is, frankly, all we get. But it’s enough.

The success of an event is measured by its participants, and we managed to create a meeting place for them with stimulating content and somewhere to meet, network and discuss with like-minded individuals. How do we know this? Because we carried out a follow-up survey and you told us. We will do the same this year and offer a range of free and paid services to facilitate this. The feedback (we invited everyone to complete the survey and about a third of attendees did so), gave us an invaluable insight and strongly reinforced many of the decisions we had made.

The survey is a also a great way to find out how to improve. This year we’ve paid more attention to AV, and organiser and volunteer visibility, as well as making the British Humanist Association room bigger for the parallel track.


It's fantastic that our speakers give up their time freely to appear at QED. When deciding the line-up we have a pretty lengthy process to go through, with long lists and short lists which are then matched up against availability. We'll never get it exactly right. Last year we paid a lot of attention to the brain, cognitive function and pareidolia in particular. This year someone has already commented that they thought we were not "sciencey" enough.

So in short, if you want to run an event, and if the lessons we have learned are valuable to you, this is what they are:

1 Understand your risks and mitigate them as far as possible
2 Know your audience and build an event around their expectations and budget
3 Set up a robust management team to organise the event. Achieve consensus by being flexible
4 Listen to your feedback and use it to improve the event

See you at QED 2012!

Andy Wilson


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Enough of Rick Santorum’s sermons - Richard Cohen - The Washington Post

Mullah Rick has spoken.

He wants religion returned to “the public square,” is opposed to contraception, premarital sex and abortion under any circumstances, wants children educated in what amounts to little red schoolhouses and called President Obama a “snob” for extolling college or some other kind of post-high school education. This is not a political platform. It’s a fatwa.

But that’s not all. On the Sunday shows he even lit into John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech to Protestant ministers in Houston, in which he called for the strict separation of church and state. Santorum said the speech sickened him.

“What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?” Santorum asked George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.” “That makes me throw up.

Earlier, he said, “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” not noticing that he was speaking from what amounts to the public square.

Read more


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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Revolutionary Idea - Joe Nocera - The New York Times

Thanks to Steve for the link.
“Rick Santorum is John Winthrop,” the historian and author John M. Barry was saying the other day.

Barry is in a unique position to make such a judgment. His most recent book, published last month, is entitled “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul.” To call it a biography sells it short. What it is, really, is the history of an idea — an idea that Williams articulated before anyone else — about the critical importance of separating church from state. So revolutionary was this idea that it caused Williams to be banished from Massachusetts and to seek refuge in nearby Rhode Island, which he founded. In doing so, Williams created the first place in the Western world where people could believe in any God they wished — or no God at all — without fear of retribution.

In opposition to that idea, always, were Winthrop and the other Puritans who first came to Massachusetts. Puritans fled to America in the 1600s because they were being persecuted in England for their hard-edged, Calvinist beliefs, and their rejection of the Anglican Church. Having one’s ears cut off for having deviationist religious beliefs was one of the lesser punishments Puritans suffered; being locked up in the Tower of London, where death was a near certainty, was not uncommon.

Yet Winthrop and the other Puritans did not arrive on the shores of Massachusetts hungering for religious freedom. Rather, Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was meant to be, in Barry’s words, “an authoritative and theocentric state,” no less tolerant of any deviation of Puritan theology than England had been toward the Puritans. Even before Williams’s views about church and state were fully formed, he became an outcast in Massachusetts because he not only deviated from conventional Puritan theology but preached his beliefs from the pulpit — and then did not back down when confronted by the Massachusetts magistrates about his “errors.” Just as in England, the state served to enforce the dictates of the church.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

Vatican told to pay taxes as Italy tackles budget crisis - Michael Day - The Independent

Thanks to Ode2Hitch for the link.

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After several years of scandal in which the Catholic Church has faced allegations of financial impropriety, paedophile priests and rumours of plots to kill the Pope, the Vatican is now facing a new €600m-a-year tax bill as Rome seeks to head off European Commission censure over controversial property tax breaks enjoyed by the Church.

As the EC heads closer to officially condemning the fiscal perks enjoyed by the Catholic Church and introduced by the Berlusconi administration, Prime Minister Mario Monti has written to the Competition Commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, saying that the Vatican will resume property tax, or Ici, payments.

Mr Almunia said in 2010 that the exemption amounted to state aid that might breach EU competition law. A parliamentary proposal by the Italian Radicals party last August to repeal the exemption, with a successful petition on Facebook, upped the pressure. A spokesman for Mr Almunia appeared to give the thumbs-up yesterday: "It is a proposal that constitutes a significant progress on the issue and I hope will be implemented," he said.

"This is a victory for public pressure," said Mario Staderini, the leader of the Italian Radicals party. "We've managed to break down – a little bit – the wall protecting the Church."

The Vatican avoids Ici tax on about 100,000 properties, classed as non-commercial, including 8,779 schools, 26,300 ecclesiastical structures and 4,714 hospitals and clinics.

Estimates of its annual saving from avoiding the levy range widely from €600m to €2.2bn. The Church, however, says the tax exemption is worth only €100m a year. Neither is it clear from Mr Monti's comments how much Ici tax the Church will now have to pay.

Read on


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No blood on the carpet. How disappointing. - Richard Dawkins -

After a week in which the hype about my aggressive militancy has reached new heights, my encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury has obviously disappointed journalists eager to see blood on the carpet. Poor things, they must have believed their own assiduously cultivated legend.

The Guardian begins its article with laboured drollery:

Roll up, roll up for the heavyweight shadow-boxing championship of the world! A grand contest between Oxford's undisputed champions of atheism and Christianity, Professor Richard Dawkins, and Archbishop Rowan Williams! In the blue corner, the charismatic preacher who has made thousands of converts around the world; in the red corner – Rowan Williams.

But has to settle for the obviously disappointed headline: “No knockout blows in Richard Dawkins v Rowan Williams bout.”

The Times’ earnestly naïve Religion Correspondent, Ruth Gledhill, writes under the headline (which, to be fair, she probably didn’t write herself) “Hopes of an unholy row dashed”:

It was set to be the match of the year between two intellectual heavyweights: Rowan Williams versus Richard Dawkins.

But anyone hoping to see a Haye-Chisora style bust-up was left disappointed. Instead, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the ardent atheist engaged in what can only be described as a perfectly civilised debate.

What is this journalistically invented phrase “set to” anyway? Set by whom? Neither the Archbishop nor I ever had the slightest intention of having a bust-up, and neither of us gave any reason to expect it. The Archbishop certainly never does bust-ups, and nor do I – unlike my mythological namesake dreamed up by journalists and religious apologists. Ruth concludes:

There was just one point, near the end, when Dr Dawkins suddenly realised that Dr Williams actually does believe what he says and the debate looked as though it might take off. But both men were far too polite and, much to the audience’s despair, the moment swiftly passed.

Much to Ruth Gledhill’s and the other hacks’ despair, maybe. The audience seemed delighted that the discussion was – contrary to journalistic hopes – civilised.

The Independent does its best to rack up the drama by citing famous debates of the past. And, by the way, some hapless “researcher” is going to get it in the neck for this:

Aldous Huxley vs Bishop Samuel Wilberforce
At the 1860 Oxford evolution debate, Wilberforce asked the Brave New World writer whether it was through his grandfather's or his grandmother's lineage that he descended from a monkey.

That follows Tim Walker’s report of Thursday's debate, in which he says

But anyone hoping for a dust-up would have been sorely disappointed, for the conversation was conducted with utmost politeness. The cleric even confessed his belief in evolution, and agreed with Dawkins that humans shared non-human ancestors.

Is Tim Walker really surprised that the Archbishop accepts evolution? Did he really need to use the word “confessed”?

In a neat parallel, John Bingham of the Telegraph seems to think it is surprising that I should call myself a 6.9 agnostic. His headline. “Richard Dawkins: I can’t be sure God does not exist” is followed by the sub-heading, “He is regarded as the most famous atheist in the world but last night Professor Richard Dawkins admitted he could not be sure that God does not exist.” Er, which god would that be? I suspect that John Bingham, Tim Walker and all the rest of them would probably “admit” or “confess” to not believing in Thor, Apollo, Mithras or Baal. I don’t admit or confess, but I am agnostic about those gods and a thousand others, to the exact same (very small) extent as I am agnostic about Yahweh, the Trinity and Allah. I suspect that even the Archbishop falls at least a tiny bit short of total certainty that his god exists, in which case he too is agnostic, in a mirror of the sense that I am. We are both far from agnostic in the all-too-commonly misunderstood sense of regarding the likelihood of God’s existence as 50/50.

The Daily Mail, as you might expect, picked up the same angle: “Career atheist Richard Dawkins admits he is in fact agnostic.” Their reporter Suzannah Hills writes:

The country's foremost champion of Darwinist evolution, who wrote The God Delusion, stunned audience members when he made the confession during a lively debate on the origins of the universe with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“Confession”? “Stunned”? Nobody who had read The God Delusion would have been stunned. I there introduced a 7-point scale, in which 7 was

“Strong atheist: ‘I know there is no God . . .” and 6 was “Very low probability [of existence of gods] but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’”

I went on:

“I’d be surprised to meet many people in category 7 . . . I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 – I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

In my discussion with the Archbishop I called myself a 6.9. A man I met at the drinks afterwards called himself a “six point nine recurring”, and I agreed with him. Also in The God Delusion I called myself a “Tooth Fairy Agnostic”, quoting a culturally Jewish friend.

I am actually drawn to the Steve Zara / PZ Myers point that it is hard to think of any evidence that would in principle be capable of convincing me of a god’s existence (a trick, or a hallucination, or insanity, or even a visitation by an evolved super-human from outer space would always be more probable). But I didn’t feel like raising this in the Sheldonian, where it would have been so far off the radar of either of my two colleagues as to lead to no fruitful exchange. There was also the risk of a blast of epistemic incomprehensibility from the philosophical referee. And that would have been no way to finish off a civilised evening.

To be fair to the infamous Daily Telegraph, they make partial amends by publishing another article, this time by Tom Chivers, under the headline, "Richard Dawkins is an agnostic? Well, obviously." In it he says:

Richard Dawkins, the world's most famous atheist (© all newspapers) is, it turns out, an agnostic! What a climbdown! Not so cocky now, eh, professor? In a debate with the magnificently eyebrowed Archbishop of Canterbury, the great evolutionary biologist said that he can't be certain that God doesn't exist, and that he would call himself an agnostic.

Except that Dawkins said exactly that – even down to the "6.9 out of seven" description of his level of surety that there is no God – ages ago.

It’s hard to resist a feeling of “You can’t win”. On the one hand we ‘horsemen’ and ‘new atheists’ are attacked, often aggressively and stridently, for being aggressive and strident. On the other hand, when journalists or religious apologists actually meet us and we turn out to be courteous and civilised, they accuse us of climbing down, “admitting” or “confessing” that we have changed, when actually we are behaving exactly as we always have. They seem to feel let down when they discover that the real people aren't anything like the way they so relentlessly portray us; as if, since they've gone to the trouble of inventing extravagant caricatures of us, we should at least have the decency to live up to them in real life.

It would be nice to think the journalists might have learned something from this experience. I suppose it’s probably asking too much that some of them might get around to actually reading The God Delusion at long last, rather than simply continuing to denounce their own invented version of it.


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Trouble in paradise: Maldives and Islamic extremism - AFP - Al Arabiya News

Thanks to hauntedchippy for the link.

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Islam is the official religion of the Maldives and open practice of any other religion is forbidden and liable to prosecution. (Reuters)

At the Maldives’ National Museum, smashed Buddhist statues are testament to the rise of Islamic extremism and Taliban-style intolerance in a country famous as a laid-back holiday destination.

On Tuesday [7 Feb 2012], as protesters backed by mutinous police toppled president Mohamed Nasheed, a handful of men stormed the Chinese-built museum and destroyed its display of priceless artefacts from the nation’s pre-Islamic era.

“They have effectively erased all evidence of our Buddhist past,” a senior museum official told AFP at the now shuttered building in the capital Male, asking not to be named out of fear for his own safety.

“We lost all our 12th century statues. They were made of coral stone and limestone. They are very brittle and there is no way we can restore them,” he explained.

“I wept when I heard that the entire display had gone. We are good Muslims and we treated these statues only as part of our heritage. It is not against Islam to display these exhibits,” he said.

Five people have since been arrested after they returned the following day to smash the CCTV cameras, he said.

The authorities have banned photography of the damage, conscious that vandalism of this kind which echoes the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban is damaging for the nation’s image.

The gates of the two-storied grey building, which opened in 2010, are padlocked and an unarmed guard keeps watch.

The Maldives, a collection of more than 1,100 coral-fringed islands surrounded by turquoise seas, is known as a “paradise” holiday destination that draws hundreds of thousands of travellers and honeymooners each year.

Visitors’ contact with the local population is deliberately kept at bay, however, with most foreigners simply transferring from the main international airport directly to their five-star resorts on outlying islands.

Few have any idea they are visiting a country of 330,000 Muslims with no religious freedom, where women can be flogged for extramarital sex and consuming alcohol is illegal for locals.

Read on


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RDFRS US with Phoenix Atheist Meetup Group 4-Feb-2012 - Holly and The Crew -

If you are reading this you may be one of many who have gone to a Richard Dawkins’ lecture and after waited patiently in line for him to sign your book and perhaps have a bit of a chat with him. So imagine now that you are out on a Saturday morning with your local atheist group having coffee and you find you are sitting with a woman who works for the Richard Dawkins Foundation and she has brought you gifts. Wow, your morning coffee group just got a whole lot better. Now imagine that as your thoughtful conversations ebb and flow you look out to the parking lot to see a group of people walking your way, but this is no ordinary group it includes Elisabeth Cornwell, Sean Faircloth and Richard Dawkins himself! This was not imaginary for some lucky folks from the Phoenix Atheist Meetup Group in Arizona. This is exactly what happened. About a dozen of us spent our morning chatting with some of the biggest names in our non-theistic community. We got to talk RDF America with Dr. Cornwell, strategy and politics with Sean Faircloth and Science and Education with Richard Dawkins. We enjoyed mochas, sunshine and bright conversations. People left with RDF swag, photos and autographs but most importantly we left inspired to create change and with a renewed sense of belonging to our growing community of non-believers.

It was a meetup our PAMG members will not soon forget. I know my 5th grade daughter (Year 6 in England) felt very privileged to meet Dr. Dawkins as she very much enjoyed his Royal Institution Christmas Lecture Climbing Mount Improbable and is excited to read The Magic of Reality. One member who arrived late walked up and thought to herself, ‘Isn’t it strange that now even the atheist group members look like Richard Dawkins?’ As she got closer I watched her jaw drop and steps slow when she realized that in fact in was Richard Dawkins! She is a local teacher so she enjoyed talking education with him and I can safely say she left that coffee excited and reinvigorated. She was planning her next Atheist Meetup and working out her calendar to make sure she could attend the weekend’s events. As the current organizer of this group of over 1200 people I went home beaming and crying to my husband and other kids about how generous it was of all of these people to stop by and say “Hello.” I think it is vital that we do not accidently put people in ivory towers. I want to be a group member first then if worthy, a leader. On February 4th 2012 I and about 16 others had coffee and tea with some fellow atheists, four just happened to be Suzy, Elisabeth, Sean and Richard!

Comments from a few of the others there
“The meeting was fantastic!!” “When Richard Dawkins shows up 5 stars isn't enough. Besides that it was the usual great east side coffee and tea.” “What a great way to spend a couple hours on a Saturday morning!” “It was especially good because Richard Dawkins was there. And so was Sean Faircloth & Dr. Elisabeth Cornwell...”


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