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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Cartoon Time.
Christian agency abandons 'abstinence' strategy over HIV -23/03/06

From Ekklesia

Christian Aid has said that it is moving to a new approach to tackling HIV which moves away from an emphasis on 'abstinence'. The doctrine of 'ABC' has long been used as shorthand by many HIV non-governmental organisations as the foundation of comprehensive HIV prevention programmes. The ‘ABC’ stands for ‘Abstinence; Be faithful; and use Condoms.’ It has been presented as: abstain; if you can’t abstain, then be faithful; and if you can’t be faithful, then use a condom.

Recently, at a Christian Aid conference involving its HIV partners from around the world, Christian Aid says that it became aware of problems implicit in the ABC approach. The Christian agency suggests that some of the messages given to mitigate the spread of HIV have had the unfortunate consequence of adding to the stigma surrounding it, and that 'ABC' is one such message. "ABC as a theory is not well suited to the complexities of human life. If you or your partner have been tested positive for HIV and still have unprotected sexual intercourse, then this puts the other person at risk of HIV infection" a statement from Christian Aid says.

"While abstinence may be appropriate at some stages of life, faithfulness is for many people the preferred choice, but unfortunately is not a guarantee against infection. According to these definitions, the use of a condom automatically puts a person in the category of one who can not be faithful or does not want to abstain. This fuels stigma and precludes safer sexual practices." Christian Aid partner ANERELA+ (the African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or personally affected by HIV and AIDS) has developed a new model for a comprehensive HIV response, called 'SAVE' which emphasises; 'Safer practices', 'Available medications', 'Voluntary counselling and testing' (VCT) and 'Empowerment through education'. In discussions with its partners from around the world, Christian Aid has decided to adopt SAVE as the basis for a comprehensive approach to HIV.

"HIV is a virus, not a moral issue. The response to HIV should therefore be based on public health measures and human rights principles" the Christian agency said. "HIV prevention can never be effective without a care component. The SAVE model combines prevention and care components, as well as providing messages to counter stigma. Correct, non-judgmental information needs to be disseminated to all, inside and outside churches. This will assist people to live positively – whatever their HIV status – and to break down barriers which HIV has created between people and within communities. Education also includes information on good nutrition, stress management, and the need for physical exercise."

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Brown would end PM's hand in choosing bishops -19/02/06

From Ekklesia

In a move that will be welcomed by Christian campaigners against the establishment of the Church of England, Gordon Brown is reportedly planning to return the power to choose bishops to the Church of England for the first time since the reign of Henry VIII. The chancellor has told colleagues that if he becomes prime minister he will reach agreement with the church to give up Downing Street’s role in the selection process, reports the Sunday Times. Brown has won favour with more radical Christians through his support for cancelling debts in the developing world, and was recently liked to the biblical prophet Micah by US Christian Jim Wallis.

It is understood that Brown believes Downing Street’s control over appointments is anachronistic. Returning the role to the Anglican church would also fend off criticism that Brown, a member of the Church of Scotland, should not be in control of English bishops’ appointments. Such a move might also pave the way for the scaling down or removal completely of bishops from the second chamber under House of Lords reforms, if the PM no longer has a say in who they are. Radical Christians have pointed out that having bishops in the House of Lords appears to be at odds with the Christian message of justice and identification with the marginalised.

Currently, when a diocese becomes vacant, the prime minister receives two names from the Crown Nominations Commission — formerly the Crown Appointments Commission. He forwards one to the Queen for approval. He can also refuse both names. Blair reportedly used this veto in 1997 to turn down both candidates proposed for the diocese of Liverpool. Brown’s reforms would retain the commission and the role of the Queen, but would remove the prime minister from the process. Instead, he would simply pass the commission’s choice to the palace for approval.

Colin Buchanan, former Bishop of Woolwich and an outspoken supporter of a full severing of the links between church and state, said: “Anything that enables the church to function without the interference of parliament and government is to be welcomed.” The prime minister’s role in choosing bishops dates back to when Henry VIII took control of the church away from the papacy by a series of statutes in the 1530s. A source close to Brown said changes could be made without legislation: “He is simply altering convention.” It has been suggested that disestablishment of the Church of England would have the support of most of the country’s non-Christian faith groups and Christian denominations. The religious thinktank Ekklesia is amongst those who advocate disestablishment.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Poster Time.
Scarlett Johansson Voted Worlds Sexiest Woman.

From Somewhere on the Web

Scarlett Johansson leads a lovely list of the "100 Sexiest Women in the World," in a poll of readers by FHM magazine.

"One of the best things for a woman to hear is that she is sexy," the 21-year-old actress, star of "Match Point" and "Lost in Translation," said in a statement. "I'd like to thank FHM's readers for the huge compliment." Angelina Jolie is No. 2 on the list, followed by Jessica Alba, Jessica Simpson, Keira Knightley, Halle Berry, Jenny McCarthy, Maria Sharapova, Carmen Electra and Teri Hatcher.

Johansson ranked ninth on last year's list. Jolie was No. 1. "It's remarkable how Scarlett Johansson has caught the attention of our readers," said Scott Gramling, the magazine's U.S. editor in chief, in a statement. "Her sultry voice and striking beauty certainly have a lot to do with that, but so does the confidence she exudes. She seems to be one of those women who would be equally at ease on the red carpet as she would just hanging out with the guys."

[It would seem that I have good taste in women..]

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

US/UK: The Rancid Relationship

by Richard Norton-Taylor for the Guardian - March 23, 2006

A senior British military commander in the invasion of Iraq said the other day that Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, should be tried for war crimes. He was speaking in private and, I assume, did not mean to be taken literally. But there was no mistaking the anger in his voice. It reflected a deep fury at the decision to disband the Iraqi army after the invasion, a decision that was the formal responsibility of the US proconsul Paul Bremer, but, according to British officials, was actually taken by Rumsfeld - and is now regretted even by the neocon warriors in Washington. It also contradicted orders given by British military chiefs to their commanders in the field.

This resentment - shared by senior officials in all key Whitehall departments - is compounded by warnings from British officials to ministers well before the invasion that the Bush administration had no post-invasion strategy. That these warnings were made is clear from leaked Whitehall and Downing Street documents. They also show that, despite Rumsfeld's claims, the US did need British help. "The US saw the UK (and Kuwait) as essential, with basing in Diego Garcia and Cyprus critical," a secret record of a Downing Street meeting noted on July 23 2002. Meanwhile, Tony Blair agreed that Britain would take the lead in eradicating the opium harvest in Afghanistan, the origin of 90% of British heroin. In his new book, State of War, James Risen quotes a CIA official as saying: "The British were screaming for us to bomb those targets because most of the heroin in Britain comes from Afghanistan. But they [the US military] refused." He writes: "The Pentagon feared that counter-narcotics operations would force the military to turn on the very warlords who were aiding the United States against the Taliban and that would lead to another round of violent attacks on American troops."

Risen refers to a meeting between Rumsfeld and Afghan commanders where the message was clear: help fight the Taliban and the US will leave the traffickers alone. British troops are now preparing for a "nation-building" mission to counter insurgents and narcotics in southern Afghanistan. It could take 20 years, according to a leaked Ministry of Defence briefing paper. What is Washington doing in return for all Blair's help? Bush has blocked a billion-dollar deal with Rolls-Royce to build engines for the proposed joint strike fighter - which Britain wants for its two new aircraft carriers - despite repeated lobbying from Blair. The US still refuses to share advanced military technology with us. It is refusing to let British agencies question terrorist suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged September 11 mastermind; it won't even say where they are being held.

There are two areas that traditionally are said to prove the value of the "special relationship" - the Trident strategic nuclear-missile system, and intelligence. Yet there are question marks over their value. What is Trident's purpose or worth in a post-cold-war world? GCHQ, meanwhile, spends time and money eavesdropping on targets at America's behest. As an internal GCHQ manual put it: making the relationship sufficiently "worthwhile" to the US "may entail on occasion the applying of UK resources to the meeting of US requirements". Is it in Britain's national interest to be so closely allied to a US that takes Britain for granted, to an administration that sets up Guantánamo Bay - where the treatment of prisoners led a high-court judge to remark that "America's idea of what is torture is not the same as ours and does not appear to coincide with that of most civilised nations"?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Poll Finds U.S. Warming to Gay Marriage

by Wyatt Buchanan for the San Francisco Chronicle - March 23, 2006

Opposition to same-sex marriage dropped sharply across the country during the past two years, though just over half of Americans still oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center released Wednesday. The poll also showed increased support for allowing same-sex couples to adopt children, and substantial backing for the rights of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. The survey was released one day after a poll of California residents indicated increasing support for gay rights in the state, including for same-sex marriages. The nonpartisan Field Poll found that support for same-sex marriage in the state had risen from 38 percent in 1997 to 43 percent today.

The Pew center's national poll of 1,405 adults, conducted from March 8-12, found that 51 percent opposed same-sex marriage and 39 percent supported it. In February 2004, as same-sex couples were marrying in San Francisco, a Pew poll found 63 percent of Americans opposed the right of gays and lesbians to marry and 30 percent in favor. The margin of error in the latest survey was plus or minus 3 or 4 percentage points, depending on the question. "In 2004, (same-sex marriage) was an emotional issue that struck a very deeply rooted chord in a lot of people," said Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. "It is still an issue -- a lot of people who opposed it then still oppose it now. But a lot of people who opposed it then were in an intense environment and either feel less strongly or feel that people can do what they want to do."

Support for same-sex marriage has grown steadily over the past decade, according to the Pew center, which is an independent research organization. In 1996, 65 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage and 27 percent supported it. Wednesday's poll found the country nearly evenly split on allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children -- 46 percent in favor, 48 percent opposed. In 1999, 38 percent of Americans supported adoptions by same-sex couples, while 57 percent opposed them. Sixty percent of those polled in the most recent survey supported allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, while 32 percent opposed the idea. "It indicates people are changing," Dimock said. "They're becoming more open and tolerant, and we also have a shift in generations, which has a big impact."

The poll noted a distinct change in the number of respondents who said they "strongly oppose" same-sex marriage. In February 2004, 42 percent were in that category. That dropped to 28 percent this year, with the biggest decreases being among people over 65, Republicans and those who described themselves as religious moderates. Gay rights advocates said Americans have had plenty of opportunity in the past two years to hear the stories of gay couples and same-sex parents, which has increased tolerance for gay and lesbian rights. "I think people have thought more about gay families in the last two years than in the previous 30," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force in New York.

Any shift toward support for same-sex marriage has yet to show up at the polls, however, Since 2004, voters in 13 states have passed constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. At least seven states will vote on similar measures in November. A representative from the evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family declined to comment on the poll. The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobbying group in Washington, D.C., did not return a phone call.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Democracy's Regression

Sandi Burtseva for TomPaine.com - 02.27.06

In these times of the Patriot Act and domestic surveillance, we might justifiably be concerned that our society is becoming post-democratic. So, while the government charging a citizen with the good, old-fashioned crime of sedition might not exactly be commonplace, it is in keeping with recent trends. In September, Laura Berg, a Veteran’s Administration nurse in Albuquerque wrote to a local paper, The Alibi, expressing outrage at the administration’s incompetent and inhumane handling of Katrina and Iraq. “Is this America the beautiful?” she asked. Evidently so, given that Berg’s letter prompted the VA to investigate her for sedition, a charge that would have sounded significantly less anachronistic back when “America the Beautiful” was written in 1893. Peter Simonson, Executive Director of the ACLU in New Mexico, was stunned: “Sedition? That’s like something out of the history books.”

While there does still exist a federal law governing sedition, which can carry up to a $250,000 fine and a 20-year sentence, it refers exclusively to intentionally instigating violent revolt against the government. To read Berg’s call to “act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit” as a direct appeal for insurrection is certainly a colorful interpretation. Nonetheless, Berg’s work computer was seized within days of her letter’s publication. It took the VA's chief of human resources, Mel R. Hooker, almost two months to admit that no evidence of the letter having been written on the VA’s computer could be found. Rather than apologize, Hooker went on to reiterate the possibility that the letter constituted sedition. Moreover, according to Berg’s American Federation of Government Employees Union representative, the VA has turned the offending letter over to the FBI.

Although her cause is being championed by the New Mexico branch of the ACLU and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D- N.M., Berg is understandably distraught and, according to Simonson, “scared for her job,” and has not issued any statements to the press. And so a dissenting voice has been bullied into silence—that’s nothing new. No matter what apologies or assurances Bingaman or the ACLU may be able to secure for Berg, she will not soon be able to forget the risks that are again becoming associated with peaceful dissent. And neither will the rest of America, especially given the fact that Berg is only one target in a recent spate of actions taken to silence federal employees expressing dissent or criticism.

Another target: James E. Hansen, top climatologist at NASA, who was threatened with “dire consequences” following a lecture on the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions. NASA public affairs official George C. Deutschhas resigned in the wake of the scandal. A group of Justice Department lawyers who challenged the Bush administration on NSA wire-tapping and torture found themselves harassed, blocked from promotions, and, one by one, forced to resign their posts and leave the public service sector.

And so, the suggestion that this administration does not tolerate dissent—whether in the form a federal employee expressing a personal opinion in the public sphere or challenging policy internally—can no longer be dismissed. All coming to light within the past month, these stories provide chilling, mounting and incontrovertible evidence of our deteriorating democracy.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Cartoon Time.
Call for non-religious chaplains in education and beyond -18/01/06

From Ekklesia

The UK government Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning, Bill Rammell MP, is being urged to ensure fair provision of pastoral facilities for non-religious as well as religious people, after recent comments he made calling for ‘a chaplain in every college’. The call comes from the British Humanist Association (BHA) in a letter to Mr Rammell from its education officer, Andrew Copson.

“According to Department for Education and Skills figures, 65 per cent of 12-19 year olds have no religion,” says Mr Copson. “These young people’s pastoral and moral needs must be catered for.” Continues Mr Copson “If colleges are going to be inclusive of those of non-Christian faith, they must also be inclusive of those with non-religious beliefs. We do not believe this can be done through a single denominational chaplaincy,” he says. “But nor can it be achieved through a ‘multi-faith’ approach, which is often lazily believed to include everyone, but in fact excludes the non-religious – a large proportion of young people.”

Mr Copson also expressed the British Humanist Association’s concern at the non-religious not being made a part of the consultation. He explained: “The government has emphasised in the past that any consultation that includes representatives of religious groups should usually include humanist representatives too. It is a great disappointment that this ideal is not lived up to in practice.” The BHA believes that there should be equal chaplaincy and pastoral provision for the both the religious and the non-religious in the armed forces, hospitals, and prisons.

The lack of such provision was a key feature of the organisation’s submission to the current Equalities Review, chaired by Trevor Phillips. Chaplaincies in public institutions have traditionally been Christian in character, reflecting the historic role and prevalence of the Church of England in such matters. In recent years the number of chaplains of other denominations and faith communities has increased, and training has emphasised sensitivity towards people of different backgrounds and outlooks. The UK religious think tank Ekklesia is among those who have called for equal provision for people of different life stances in public life, arguing that the ‘Christendom’ era of privilege for the church is wrong both in terms of fairness and in its harnessing of the Christian message to an establishment role.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Poster time.
Monks produce pray-as-you-go podcasts -13/03/06

From Ekklesia

A new initiative by the British Jesuits - a religious order of the Catholic church - to offer commuters daily prayer sessions in MP3 format, as free downloads from the internet, has proved an instant success around the world. Jesuit Media Initiatives planned to trial the new project – called ‘Pray-As-You-Go’ - for the season of Lent. They invited people from their parishes and schools in Britain to give it a go by using the audio files on their iPods, mobile phones or other MP3 players to guide them through prayer on their daily journey to work, school or college.

But by the time dawn broke on the first day - Ash Wednesday (1 March) - word had spread, and some 3,300 prayer sessions had been downloaded from the web in countries as far apart as Australia, Mexico and the United States. Since then, a further 18,400 sessions have been downloaded, prompting a flurry of e-mails to JMI’s Director, Fr Peter Scally SJ. Brooks Thoman from Nipomo, California, called it “awesome, wonderful, inspiring”, while Patrick Allen in San Jose, California, declared, “This is the most beautifully produced prayer that I have ever heard. It touches me in ways that I never thought possible.”

Robin Farran, the wife of the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, New South Wales, emailed to say: “It fills a real gap and is professionally and sensitively put together”; her husband is already promoting it in Australia. Nearer to home, a Metropolitan Line commuter from Harrow in North London, Audrey Newbury, said, “There is no better way to spend the tube journey home, after all the stresses of the day.” A new prayer session is offered every day, combining music, a short reading from the Bible and a few questions for personal reflection in a session of guided prayer that lasts around 10 or 12 minutes. The site also offers the option of using ‘Pray-As-You-Go’ as a daily podcast (with iTunes or other podcasting software) which automates the downloading process and keeps you up to date with the site’s latest offering.

Peter Scally says the response has been amazing. “So many people have been enthused by pray-as-you-go that we are left in no doubt that it is addressing a very real need in people’s spiritual lives,” he says. Peter cut his teeth in the internet world as the designer of Sacred Space – a prayer web site launched in Ireland in 1999: this provides users with 10-minute prayer sessions on their computer screens. It has since been reproduced in 19 languages and has logged over 17 million visits worldwide since its inception.

The news comes after a group of Vatican Radio employees gave Pope Benedict XVI his first iPod.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

V for Vendetta.

Both a dark vision of a possible future and a disturbing comment on the present, V for Vendetta pulls few punches and makes few missteps in its portrayal of a country crushed under the heel of a totalitarian government ruling its population through the manipulation of fear.

We are presented with a frighteningly updated version of 1984, complete with giant wallscreens and the screaming invective of ‘Big Brother’ rather ironically played by John Hurt who reverses his role of Winston Smith in the last cinematic version of Orwell’s defining work. After a series of largely manufactured disasters and terrorist atrocities Britain ‘prevails’ through the fear engendered by the ‘fingermen’ who prowl the streets after curfew arresting, beating and ‘disappearing’ anyone who opposes the New Order. During one such ‘arrest’ we meet both Evey (played superbly by Natalie Portman back on form – and how – after the risible Starwars pre-trilogy) and the enigmatic V (played by the outstanding Hugo Weaving acting behind a mask throughout the entire performance) who rescues her from almost certain rape.

V introduces himself and his plan to change everything. For that night is November 5th – the anniversary of the long forgotten Gunpowder Plot when Guy Fawkes failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the hope of freeing his fellow Catholics from religious oppression. V, dressed as his hero Guy, hopes to succeed where Fawkes failed destroying Parliament and freeing England from its present tyranny. To demonstrate both his resolve and his abilities he destroys the Old Bailey which was once a place of justice and is now an arm of the Secret Police. But this is not simply an act of terrorism. This is a symbolic act, complete with music and fireworks. It is also a warning and a promise. V states that on the next 5th November he will return to destroy the ruling Government itself.

So begins a cat and mouse game between V and the police as they attempt to uncover his masked identity. Cleverly this also introduces the audience into the murky history of the ‘Reconstruction’ when order is ruthlessly restored after a terrorist attack on London. Caught up in the chaos are Evey’s parents who are arrested after a protest and ‘disappeared’ leaving Evey to grow up in a government facility. The audience also learn, piece by piece that V had been resident in a Government facility of a much darker type where biological experiments where performed to produce the perfect weapon. During the investigation Inspector Finch (understatedly played by Stephen Rea) discovers to his growing horror that the suspected Islamic terrorists may not have been responsible for the outrage after all. Starting out as a reluctant arm of State security, Rea moves ever closer to understanding and sympathising with V’s need for vengeance against the people and the system that took his future from him.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this is a very political film. Nor should it be surprising that it says much regarding how both the US and the UK have responded to the attack on 9/11. Both of those Governments have used fear and the manipulation of fear in an attempt to paralyse their populations into unquestioning obedience. But if one thing is certain – and made blindingly clear by this movie - it is that (with apologies to Ben Franklin) if we give up our freedoms for the illusory promise of security then we will have neither freedom nor security. This film is first and foremost a warning that if we let it happen we can sleepwalk into tyranny despite the best intentions of all concerned. Our governments should not rely on their ability to spin tales of fear to gain our compliance. (As V rightly observed “The people should not be afraid of their Governments. Governments should be afraid of their people”). Nor should we abrogate our responsibilities in the name of safety and security. Though it is true that we live in a dangerous world it is also true that it has always been thus. Nothing much has changed despite what some would have you believe.

If you haven’t seen this film yet – Go see it. Now.
A Grand Day Out.

I took a day off work yesterday to use up some holiday before our new Leave Year started. After pottering about a bit in the morning I hopped on a train to a near-by city for a bit of shopping and exploring. I haven't been there for 5 months or so and it was good to see the place again. I picked up a few Buddha statues (I'm particularly fond of those) and then popped into the city art gallery to see what they had on show - which brings me to the picture above. It's called 'Queen Eleanor' and its by Anthony Frederick Sandys. Rather nice isn't it?

After that bit of culture I treated myself to my favourite pasta dish at the local Italian and then toddled home with a well earned smile on my face.

It was a grand day out.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Former Top Judge Says US Risks Edging Near to Dictatorship

By Julian Borger for the Guardian - March 13, 2006

Sandra Day O'Connor, a Republican-appointed judge who retired last month after 24 years on the Supreme Court, has said the US is in danger of edging towards dictatorship if the party's rightwingers continue to attack the judiciary. In a strongly worded speech at Georgetown University, reported by National Public Radio and the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Ms O'Connor took aim at Republican leaders whose repeated denunciations of the courts for alleged liberal bias could, she said, be contributing to a climate of violence against judges.

Ms O'Connor, nominated by Ronald Reagan as the first woman Supreme Court justice, declared: "We must be ever-vigilant against those who would strong-arm the judiciary." She pointed to autocracies in the developing world and former Communist countries as lessons on where interference with the judiciary might lead. "It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings." In her address to an audience of corporate lawyers on Thursday, Ms O'Connor singled out a warning to the judiciary issued last year by Tom DeLay, the former Republican leader in the House of Representatives, over a court ruling in a controversial "right to die" case.

After the decision last March that ordered a brain-dead woman in Florida, Terri Schiavo, removed from life support, Mr DeLay said: "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behaviour." Mr DeLay later called for the impeachment of judges involved in the Schiavo case, and called for more scrutiny of "an arrogant, out-of-control, unaccountable judiciary that thumbed their nose at Congress and the president". Such threats, Ms O'Connor said, "pose a direct threat to our constitutional freedom", and she told the lawyers in her audience: "I want you to tune your ears to these attacks ... You have an obligation to speak up. Statutes and constitutions do not protect judicial independence - people do," the retired Supreme Court justice said.

She noted death threats against judges were on the rise and added that the situation was not helped by a senior senator's suggestion that there might be a connection between the violence against judges and the decisions they make. The senator she was referring to was John Cornyn, a Bush loyalist from Texas, who made his remarks last April, soon after a judge was shot dead in an Atlanta courtroom and the family of a federal judge was murdered in Illinois. Senator Cornyn said: "I don't know if there is a cause and effect connection, but we have seen some recent episodes of courthouse violence in this country ... And I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence."

Although appointed by a Republican, Ms O'Connor voted with the Supreme Court's liberals on some divisive issues, including abortion, making her a frequent target for criticism from the right. After announcing that she intended to retire last year at the age of 75, she was replaced in February this year by Samuel Alito, who is generally regarded as being more consistently conservative. In her speech, Ms O'Connor said that if the courts did not occasionally make politicians mad they would not be doing their jobs, and their effectiveness "is premised on the notion that we won't be subject to retaliation for our judicial acts".

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Poster Time.
Archbishop: stop teaching creationism

Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent - The Guardian

Tuesday March 21, 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has stepped into the controversy between religious fundamentalists and scientists by saying that he does not believe that creationism - the Bible-based account of the origins of the world - should be taught in schools. Giving his first, wide-ranging, interview at Lambeth Palace, the archbishop was emphatic in his criticism of creationism being taught in the classroom, as is happening in two city academies founded by the evangelical Christian businessman Sir Peter Vardy and several other schools.

"I think creationism is ... a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories ... if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there's just been a jarring of categories ... My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it," he said. The debate over creationism or its slightly more sophisticated offshoot, so-called "intelligent design" (ID) which argues that creation is so complex that an intelligent - religious - force must have directed it, has provoked divisions in Britain but nothing like the vehemence or politicisation of the debate in the US. There, under pressure from the religious right, some states are considering giving ID equal prominence to Darwinism, the generally scientifically accepted account of the evolution of species. Most scientists believe that ID is little more than an attempt to smuggle fundamentalist Christianity into science teaching. States from Ohio to California are considering placing ID it on the curriculum, with President George Bush telling reporters last August that "both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about." The archbishop's remarks place him firmly on the side of science.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Hayes quits South Park over faith

From the BBC - Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Singer Isaac Hayes is to stop providing the voice for a character in cartoon South Park because he objects to its "inappropriate ridicule" of religion. Hayes, 63, who is the voice of the lustful Chef, has been a regular on the show since its US TV debut in 1997. But co-creator Matt Stone said Hayes had "never had a problem" until the Scientology Church, to which Hayes belongs, was parodied. The show was insensitive to "personal spiritual beliefs", said Hayes.

"There is a place in this world for satire but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry toward religious beliefs begins," he said. Co-creator Stone said Hayes would be released from his contract and had the best wishes of the South Park team. Stone said: "In 10 years and over 150 episodes of South Park, Isaac never had a problem with the show making fun of Christians, Muslim, Mormons or Jews. "He got a sudden case of religious sensitivity when it was his religion featured on the show." The series tells the story of four boys in a dysfunctional Colorado town and regularly deals with sensitive subjects and sends up famous figures.

In a recent episode, one of the gang, Stan, did so well in a Scientology test that church followers thought he was the next L Ron Hubbard, the late science-fiction writer who founded Scientology. Hayes did not take part in that episode but has talked widely about his work for Scientology, which he calls "an applied religious philosophy". A spokesman for the show's makers Comedy Central said producers had not decided if Chef would be dropped from the show. The show sparked another religious row recently when an episode entitled Bloody Mary depicted a bleeding statue of the Virgin Mary. Catholics in the US criticised the show while church leaders in New Zealand called for a boycott of a broadcaster which planned to screen the episode. Osama Bin Laden was killed in another episode of the programme, which has seen guest cameos by the likes of George Clooney, who voiced a pet dog.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Cartoon Time.
How can One thing become Two?

One of the ‘arguments’ against evolution is some peoples reluctance to accept that one species can give rise to two separate species. How can, they say, one thing become two things? They’re usually happy with the idea that creatures can change over time, become a different colour and so on but how can something change into something else?

To answer that question we need to start with an understanding of what a species actually is:

A species is a group of organisms that can interbreed in nature to produce a fertile offspring. Stated in another way, species are reproductively isolated groups of populations. Organisms classified in the same species have very similar gene pools.

So, for example, mice & rats are separate species because they can’t interbreed. Horses and donkeys can produce offspring but the resultant mule is sterile and so the breeding isn’t viable. Oak trees can’t interbreed with Elm trees, dogs can’t interbreed with cats and so on.

The best way to show that one species can become two is by example.

Imagine a group of 100 River Fish happily living in a fresh water river. They are a single species and can easily interbreed with each other. They are adapted for their particular environment and are prospering. But during a particularly heavy rainy season a flood sweeps down the river washing 50 of the fish into the much saltier estury. Almost immediately half of the fish die from the shock of suddenly being exposed to salt water. The remainder have the ability provided by their genes to cope with higher salt levels than their dead relatives but all do not cope equally well. Of the 25 only 5 can cope adequately with their new environment. They are far from perfectly adapted but can still manage to function. The other 20 though are suffering. They are sluggish and prone to disease, both of which make them easy prey. Few successfully breed. Of the 5 fish better suited to their new environment most successfully breed but many of the resulting eggs die quickly due to the levels of salt in the water. Of the eggs that hatch many produce sluggish ill fish that are quickly taken by predators but a significant percentage are like their parents and are able to survive and grow to breeding age. A smaller percentage are actually better adapted to the new conditions than their parents and prosper by both laying more viable eggs and producing more viable offspring.. and so it goes on.

Each new generation of Estury Fish takes a year to grow to maturity. After 100 generations most of the eggs are hatching and most of the hatchings are fairly well adapted to the salty water. After 500 generations – or 500 years – few if any non-salt adapted offspring are being produced and there is a growing number of fish now fully adapted to the salt water. Some are becoming adapted in other ways too by changing fin shape and colour and by growing in size.

Even at this early stage it would be difficult for descendents of the original River Fish to meet and sucessfully breed with the descendents of the original Estury Fish though probably not impossible, at least not yet. However, if we move forward another 500 generations you can see that the two types of fish are moving further and further apart. Due to adaptation to their environment and genetic drift, whereby differences accumulate over time, the Estury Fish are now quite different from the River Fish though both share a common ancestor. When another flood surge washes a group of River Fish into the Estury the survivors meet a type of fish they have had no experience of, know nothing of their mating rituals, and would fail to fertilise their eggs even if they tried.

Over 1000 generations – only 1000 years – and original species of River Fish has given rise to a new species of Estury Fish as well as descendents still living in the river. In this way one species becomes two.
A Few Good Quotes:

I am as firmly convinced that religions do harm as I am that they are untrue. ~ Bertrand Russell

I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking. ~ Henry Louis Mencken

I believe that traditional religious belief and scientific knowledge depict the universe in radically different ways. At the bedrock they are incompatible and mutually exclusive. ~ E.O. Wilson

Saturday, March 18, 2006

A Sheep-Like Nation is Allowing Bush to Erode Our Liberties and Well-Being

by Bruce Mulkey for the Asheville Citizen Times (North Carolina)

February 12, 2006

“If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.” — President George W. Bush, Dec. 18, 2000

“As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.” — Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

What is it going to take for the American people to wake up to the presidential coup d’état that is now under way, a takeover that is occurring in broad daylight by a president who has declared that as commander in chief he has unfettered power to fight an undeclared and never-ending war on terrorism, even if that means ignoring the courts, disregarding laws passed by Congress and circumventing the Bill of Rights in the process? First the Bush administration rams through the so-called Patriot Act in the hysteria immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, legislation that includes the infamous “sneak and peak” provision. Then they usurp the power of the Senate (though our senators didn’t put up much of a fuss) and use fabricated intelligence to initiate a pre-emptive war against a non-aggressive nation. Next this administration decides that it can detain foreign (and several domestic) adversaries as “illegal enemy combatants” without charge for as long as it desires. After that, it chooses to authorize torture of selected prisoners under the designation of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Now we discover the Bush administration has used the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on telephone conversations and e-mails of U.S. citizens on American soil without a warrant and that several other government agencies have been illegally tracking our computer activities.

If the president has the unfettered power that he and his acolytes proclaim, what is the logical next step? Dissolving Congress should it endeavor to forestall his illegal activities? Packing the Supreme Court with his supporters should it declare some of his actions unconstitutional? Proclaiming times so dangerous that he must remain in office even after his term is over? And if he did so, would we finally revolt against this King George as we did against another during the first American Revolution? I awaken many mornings asking myself: “Why haven’t I taken to the streets with my fellow citizens demanding the resignation of this pretender to the throne?” “How can I go about my usual daily routine, while my country gradually slides into fascism in the name of national security?” “What am I so fearful of that I stand immobilized while innocent men, women and children are being killed in my name?” “How can I, in good conscience, continue to pay my federal taxes knowing that a large portion of them is going to the immoral war in Iraq and other such military adventures?”

In 1775, speaking in favor of action to throw off the tyranny of the British crown, Patrick Henry declared: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? ... I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Today we Americans seem to be saying quite the opposite by our acquiescence: “Give me a powerful ruler to save me from the terrorists even if this means surrendering my rights as an American citizen.” From where I stand, there are worse things than passing from this mortal form. For if I permit the loss of my individual freedom, my personal integrity and the liberties that this nation stands for, am I not already among the living dead?

[Thanks to Great White Bear for prompting me to post this. Check out his rant: WHY I AM SO F***ING ANGRY!!!!! It's well worth a visit.]

Friday, March 17, 2006

Global Survey: Who Do You Believe In Any More?

December 15, 2005 by Sanjay Suri for Inter Press Service

LONDON - A global public opinion survey shows people losing faith in governments, business and even non-governmental organizations. The survey showing "an alarming picture of declining levels of trust" was conducted for the World Economic Forum, to meet in Davos in Switzerland next month, by GlobeScan, a public opinion research firm, and is based on interviews with more than 20,000 people in 20 countries. "What the survey shows is people losing faith in a whole range of institutions," Mark Adams from GlobeScan told IPS by phone from Geneva. "This is very worrying for the world community." The Russian government is now the only institution in any country polled to have consistently increased trust since 2001, the survey shows.

Trust in government has fallen the most in Brazil, South Korea, Mexico, Canada and Spain, followed closely by Argentina and the United States, the survey shows. In Nigeria trust in the national government fell by 13 points while trust in all other institutions rose. "Even in countries such as Britain and India, where trust remains positive, it has suffered its biggest fall since tracking began in 2001," the report says. "Only in Italy, Indonesia and France has trust in the national government held steady, although polling was completed prior to the recent riots across France." The poll also reveals that public trust in the United Nations has fallen over the past two years. The survey shows that trust in a range of institutions has dropped significantly since January 2004 to levels not seen since the months following the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"The report shows that the cement which holds world institutions together is coming adrift," Adams told IPS. The loss of faith could partly be a consequence of globalization, he said. "In the cosy world of 30, 40 years back, people relied on governments and companies to do everything," Adams said. "But it's now a more complicated and dangerous world out there." Governments and companies "are themselves struggling to come to terms with a new world order," Adams said, which suggests that these are no longer the firm edifices people had come to lean on in earlier times.

Among the highlights of the report:

Public trust in national governments, the United Nations and global companies is now at its lowest level since tracking began in January 2001.

Since 2004, trust in government has declined by statistically significant margins in 12 of the 16 countries for which tracking data is available.

The UN, while continuing to receive higher trust levels than other institutions, has experienced a significant decline in trust from 2004 levels in 12 of the 17 countries for which tracking data is available, suggesting an impact of the scandal over the Iraq oil-for-food program.

Public trust in companies has also eroded over the last two years. After recovering trust in 2004, it has since declined for both large national companies and for global companies. Trust in global companies is now at its lowest level since tracking began.

NGOs remain the leaders in trust, but they also have to contend with some decline. In 10 of 17 countries for which data is available, trust in NGOs has fallen since 2004, in some cases sharply, as in Brazil, India and South Korea.

"This is a wake-up call for the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos in January," Adams said. "If we do not regain the trust of people, the world will become ungovernable." People feel "rightly or wrongly that systems are not delivering," he said. The World Economic Forum will have to find creative ways of addressing this problem, he said.

The survey involving a total of 20,791 interviews was conducted between June and August 2005 by research institutes in each participating country, under the leadership of GlobeScan. The survey asked respondents how much they trust each institution "to operate in the best interests of our society".

[So, who do you think are the institutions that are operating in the best interests of our society? Why do you trust them?]

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A Very British Heresy

I’m off to one of my periodic University courses this weekend on the Heresy of Pelagianism. This is what Theopedia – The Encyclopaedia of Biblical Christianity has to say about it:

Pelagianism views humanity as basically good and unaffected by the Fall. It denies the imputation of Adam's sin, original sin, total depravity, and substitutionary atonement. It simultaneously views man as fundamentally good and in possession of libertarian free will. With regards to salvation, it teaches that man has the ability in and of himself (apart from divine aid) to obey God and earn eternal salvation. Pelagianism is overhwhelmingly incompatible with the Bible and was historically opposed by Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo, leading to its condemnation as a heresy at Council of Carthage in 418 A.D. These condemnations were summarily ratified at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431).

Pelagius was a monk from Britain, whose reputation and theology came into prominence after he went to Rome sometime in the 380's A.D. The historic Pelagian theological controversy involved the nature of man and the doctrine of original sin. Pelagius believed that the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin (the Fall) were restricted to themselves only; and thereby denied the belief that original sin was passed on (or transferred) to the children of Adam and thus to the human race. Adam's sin merely "set a bad example" for his progeny and Jesus "set a good example" for mankind (thus counteracting Adam's bad example). Pelagianism teaches that human beings are born in a state of innocence with a nature that is as pure as that which Adam was given at his creation.

As a result of his basic assumption, Pelagius taught that man has an unimpaired moral ability to choose that which is spiritually good and possesses the free will, ability, and capacity to do that which is spiritually good. This resulted in a gospel of salvation based on human works. Man could choose to follow the precepts of God and then follow those precepts because he had the power within himself to do so. The controversy came to a head when Pelagian teaching came into contact with Augustine. Augustine did not deny that man had a will and that he could make choices. But, Augustine recognized that man did not have a free will in moral issues related to God, asserting that the effects original sin were passed to the children of Adam and Eve and that mankind’s nature was thereby corrupted. Man could choose what he desired, but those desires were influenced by his sinful nature and he was unable to refrain from sinning.

Pelagius cleared himself of charges, primarily by hiding his real beliefs; however, at the Council of Carthage in 418 A.D., his teachings were branded as heresy. The Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., again condemned Pelagian doctrine and it was banished in the Greek portion of the church. However, in the West, the teachings held on, primarily in Britain and Gaul. Pelagian teaching was replaced with Semi-Pelagianism which sought a middle ground between Pelagianism and Augustinianism, but it too was condemned at the Second Synod of Orange in 529 A.D. However, elements of Semi-Pelagianism continued in the Western (Roman) church. It emerged again after the Reformation in modified form in Arminianism which was rejected by the Reformed churches at the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619 A.D.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Many human genes evolved recently

From New Scientist 07 March 2006

Human genes involved in metabolism, skin pigmentation, brain function and reproduction have evolved in response to recent environmental changes, according to a new study of natural selection in the human genome. Researchers at the University of Chicago, US, developed a statistical test to find genomic regions that evolution has favoured over the last 15,000 years or so – when modern humans dealt with the end of the last ice age, the beginning of agriculture, and increased population densities. Many of the 700 genes the researchers identified – especially those involved in smelling, fertility, and reproduction – are also suspected of having undergone natural selection during the divergence of humans and chimpanzees millions of years ago. But some of the newly identified genes fall into categories not previously known to be targets of selection in the human lineage, such as those involved in metabolism of carbohydrates and fatty acids.

“It’s reasonable to suspect that a lot of these are adaptations in response to new diets and agriculture,” says team member Jonathan Pritchard. For example, gene variants that improve the digestion of lactose have become more common, presumably since the domestication of cattle provided a ready source of milk. And in some Europeans, genes giving a lighter skin have increased in frequency, as populations have moved north to regions where there is less sunlight to generate vitamin D. The researchers analysed the genomes of 209 people from Nigeria, East Asia, and Europe. They found widespread signals of recent selection in all three populations. Only one-fifth of the 700 genetic regions identified were shared between at least two of the groups – the rest were unique to single populations. That supports the idea that the adaptations are recent, Pritchard explains.

The statistical test is a “powerful way of looking for selection in the genome”, says Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona in Tuscon, US. It looks for certain patterns of DNA – called linkage disequilibrium – that show a gene variant is young. It then identifies those that appear at high frequencies, which suggest they have been selected for. Definitive proof that the gene variants are being favoured in the human genome will require detailed analysis of the changes they cause in proteins and how this affects fitness. But Hammer says “they’ve given us a huge list of candidates".

Nonetheless, there are likely to be many more, says Peter Andolfatto of the University of California, San Diego, US: “The genes being mapped here at best probably account for only a small fraction of the targets of recent selection in the human genome.” Identifying the gene variants that are under selection may one day help medicine, Pritchard adds. That is because individuals with a newly evolved gene variant may be better adapted for modern human conditions and less susceptible to certain diseases. Understanding the differences could help guide future therapies.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Cartoon Time.
Churches urged to tackle nuclear 'ignorance and complacency' -21/02/06

From Ekklesia

Churches around the world are being urged to push their governments to pursue the unequivocal elimination of nuclear weapons. The World Council of Churches (WCC) at its 9th General Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil, has adopted a Minute on the elimination of nuclear arms calling on member churches to urge their governments to pursue the unequivocal elimination of nuclear weapons in line with the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The minute says, "Governments that have decided to abstain from developing nuclear weapons should be affirmed and states that are not signatories of NPT must be pressed to sign the treaty".

It urges churches to work to overcome the "ignorance and complacency" in society concerning the nuclear threat, and especially to raise awareness in generations with no memory of what these weapons do. It recommends that, until the goal of nuclear disarmament is achieved, member churches should prevail upon their governments to take collective responsibility for making international disarmament machinery work. The minute also proposes that member churches and parishes should mobilise their membership to support and strengthen Nuclear Weapons Free Zones, which are established in Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and Africa and are proposed for other inhabited regions.

It especially recommends that churches engage with other religions to advocate for the Nuclear Weapons Free Zones during the WCC "Decade to Overcome Violence". Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations, has previously called on countries to uphold the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Church leaders have also urged the British Government to spell out the conditions under which it might forego a replacement of Trident. The minute comes after Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches said that the spread of nuclear weapons technology was "an outrage to all humanity".

Monday, March 13, 2006

Men need to 'move over' says world churches' leader -14/02/06

From Ekklesia

The role of men needs to change in the twenty-first century, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) has said. Society, and particularly the roles of men, need to be re-organized as a pre-requisite for meaningful social transformation and so that women can be mainstreamed into church and society, Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia has said. His remarks came during a dialogue with women delegates attending the WCC’s pre-Assembly consultation from 10-13 February.

Consultation moderator Rev. Irja Askola from Finland, who welcomed Kobia after a brief performance of singing and dancing by a group of African women, told him, “Brother Sam we are behind you, you are not alone.” Kobia said that in the last century, the change in women’s roles from that of homemakers to working outside the home had had an impact on women and family life, but that this had not yet led to changes in men’s roles. “The role of men needs to change for the transformation to make sense in this Assembly and beyond,” Kobia emphasized. Weeping, regarded by patriarchal societies as a sign of weakness, can be transformed into an act of empowerment and healing, said Dr Elaine Neuenfelt in another session.

Neuenfelt, who is professor at the Superior College of Theology in Porto Alegre, Brazil, said in an applauded presentation that in the Bible, the weeping of women is a prophetic exercise that gives testimony of the word of God in daily life. Mrs Louse Bakala Komouno from the Evangelical Church in Congo Brazzaville said there were very few women in church leadership positions in sub-Saharan Africa, and urged the church to give training to women so that they could take up such positions. Mrs Britt Agrell, an observer from Sweden, supported the idea that the Assembly theme should be like a prayer because “even when you have concrete plans, you also need a prayer”.

Sylvia Lisk Vanhaverbeke, chair of World Day of Prayer International (Canada), observed that since the Holy Spirit has no gender, the church needs to be on the leading edge of social transformation by setting an example of women becoming visible as leaders in faith. “Women love the church and are committed to contribute to the renewal of the ecumenical movement” as well as to building links of solidarity between those women divided by a broken and divided church, Kobia observed. He proposed alternatives, including supporting economic justice, that put the emphasis on just communities, just relationships and a protective attitude to the earth, thus recognizing the value of the caring role played by women in society, church and nation.

“It is an economy that is bigger than the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services that are sold in markets. This is a model that deserves to be explored as an alternative economic paradigm to the present unjust world economic order,” Kobia said. Another alternative was eco-feminism, that draws parallels between violence against women and violence towards the environment. Kobia also mentioned the agenda to make water a human right and a common good for humanity. Activists on this issue oppose the privatization of water as it has become a source of conflict for the people who were close to earth, the Indigenous people, he noted. At the end of the exchange, the WCC general secretary warned that men in leadership positions would not give up power easily. Therefore, women should continue in their struggle for social transformation, he declared.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Saturn’s watery moon could harbour life

From New Scientist 10 March 2006

Saturn’s tiny moon, Enceladus is brimming with liquid water and cannot be ruled out as a distant outpost of life. So say Cassini mission scientists after studying the geysers of ice particles and water vapour found spewing out of the moon’s south polar region in 2005. Their analysis all but rules out the possibility that the plumes are caused by water ice sublimating directly into space. Instead the most likely scenario involves significant quantities of liquid water boiling off from near-surface reservoirs.

The conclusion leaves open the tantalising question of what energy source is keeping the water in its liquid state. The decay of radioactive elements in the moon’s rocky core cannot, on its own, generate enough heat to do the job. An insulating shell of clathrate hydrates – a form of water ice containing trapped gas molecules – could help Enceladus retain more heat. Additional warming may come courtesy of the gravitational tug of war between Enceladus and Dione, a neighbouring moon.

A chance to learn more will come during Cassini’s next close pass of Enceladus, scheduled for 2008. Exploring whether or not Enceladus represents a bona fide habitable zone will be a job for a future mission. The likelihood of liquid water “is thrilling beyond imagination”, says Carolyn Porco, head of the imaging team. “If we had done nothing else, these findings alone would have made the Cassini mission worthwhile.”
How old are Things?

How do we know how old things are? Sometimes telling something’s age is simple – it has a manufactured date stamped on it. Other things have certificates or other forms of documentation proving its age. Then there is historical evidence for the age of buildings such as the pyramids and so on. Dating pre-historic things is a bit more difficult and here we use our knowledge of geological processes and techniques such as Carbon dating. After that things get even more exotic. So we can be pretty confident that things are a certain age. Or can we?

What about the assertion (made by some Christian Fundamentalists) that the Earth and everything on it are no more than 6000 years old? This is obviously false right? After all we have hard evidence that the Earth is much older than that. But, the Young Earth advocates say, God can make things appear to be much older. This, of course, is very difficult to argue against – which is the entire point. How is it possible to tell the difference between two hypothetical objects: One that is actually a million years old and another that has every appearance of being that old but was created by God six thousand years ago? Theoretically there would be absolutely no difference between the two and it would be impossible to tell which one was the ‘real’ object. But this does not mean that the Fundamentalists have won this argument. Far from it. On one side of the argument we have faith that the world is indeed very young but appears old, on the other we have scientific knowledge that has been built on over hundreds of years. It is a true act of faith (actually quite a leap of faith) to insist that the Earth is only 6000 years old. But there are other problems with this idea too.

An apparently old Earth raises many questions. For instance, why is God trying to fool us as to the age of his creation – especially when there is so much evidence to the contrary? Also, why 6000 years? Yes, I know about Bishop Usher counting generations in the Bible. Is that the only ‘proof’ of this assertion or is there more? Of course the more you ask about this idea the deeper into the quagmire we get. If God could create a 6000 year old Earth that looks and feels 4.5 billion years old then why isn’t the Earth 600 years old? Sounds silly doesn’t it? After all we have an immense amount of historical records and artefacts dating back well before 600 years ago. But surely God could have easily manufactured this evidence, made it logical and consistent, ‘aged’ the monuments and so forth? But why would he fool us into such a false belief?

Lets take it another step forward into absurdity. What if God created the world 60 years ago. Hold on, you say, that’s impossible. I know people older than that. My parents and grandparents are still alive and they’re older than 60. But how do we know that? Could God have created people with their apparent ages complete with memories? Of course He could. How could we possibly know the difference? If God is perfect there would be no ‘clues’ to this recent creation, no mistakes or anomalies. We would have to accept that things are as old as they appear. OK, we’ll take it just one more step. What if God created the world as we see it 6 years ago? I think that just about everyone reading this is older than six right? I know some of you have children older than that, so it’s plainly impossible, right? Not so. God could have created you, complete with memories and scars and children and anything else he wished – and you would never be able to tell the difference. Is this absurd enough for you yet?

The point I think that I’ve successfully made is this. Either you can accept as an act of faith that the world is not as it appears to be despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary and with it the concept of a trickster God. Or you can accept that things are as they appear to be and as science tells us they are. This doesn’t mean that you have to reject God, it just means that God isn’t playing tricks on us.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Creationism to be in GCSE papers.

Friday, 10 March 2006, from the BBC

Creationist theories about how the world was made are to be debated in GCSE science lessons in mainstream secondary schools in England. The subject has been included in a new syllabus for biology produced by the OCR exam board, due out in September. Critics say the matter should only be discussed in R.E. because there is a danger of elevating religious theories to the status of scientific ones. The government insists creationism is not being taught as a subject.

The exam board says students need to understand the background to theories. Its new "Gateway to Science" curriculum asks pupils to examine how organisms become fossilised. Teachers are asked to "explain that the fossil record has been interpreted differently over time (e.g. creationist interpretation)". OCR, one of the three main exam boards in England, said that the syllabus was intended to make students aware of scientific controversy. A spokesperson for the exam board said candidates needed to understand the social and historical context to scientific ideas both pre and post Darwin's theory of evolution.

"Candidates are asked to discuss why the opponents of Darwinism thought the way they did and how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence," he said. "Creationism and 'intelligent design' are not regarded by OCR as scientific theories. They are beliefs that do not lie within scientific understanding." The area is contentious, with critics claiming that inclusion of creationist or intelligent design theories in science syllabuses unduly elevates them.

James Williams, science course leader at Sussex University's school of education, told the Times Educational Supplement: "This opens a legitimate gate for the inclusion of creationism or intelligent design in science classes as if they were legitimate theories on a par with evolution fact and theory. I'm happy for religious theories to be considered in religious education, but not in science where consideration could lead to a false verification of their status as being equal to scientific theories."

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which oversees the development of the national curriculum, in effect guiding exam boards, said discussions of "intelligent design" or "creationism" could take place in science classes. The National Curriculum Online website says for science at Key Stage 4 (GCSE level): "Students should be taught how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence (for example Darwin's theory of evolution)." Classes should also cover "ways in which scientific work may be affected by the context in which it takes place (for example, social, historical, moral, spiritual), and how these contexts may affect whether or not ideas are accepted."

A spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills said: "Neither creationism nor intelligent design are taught as a subject in schools and are not specified in the science curriculum". In the United States, there have been court cases over what schools should teach. Last month scientists there protested against a movement to teach intelligent design - the theory that life is so complex that it must be the work of a supernatural designer. In December, a judge in Pennsylvania said it was unconstitutional to make teachers feature the concept of intelligent design in science lessons. In England, the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, sponsored by Christian car dealer Sir Peter Vardy, has been criticised for featuring creationist theories in lessons in the three comprehensives it runs. Sir Peter has said the schools present both Darwin's evolutionary theory and creationism. In 2003, he said: "One is a theory, the other is a faith position. It is up to the children."

[I wonder if we’ll see any court cases about this over here. Though I also wonder if there are any legal grounds for doing so since we have no separation of Church & State. The idea does have some merit – in that it’s difficult to judge a subject accurately without some context – however, it should be clearly stated in class that ID has no scientific validity and that proponents of the idea attack Darwinian Evolution on theological grounds only.]

Friday, March 10, 2006

Church of England apologises for part in slave trade -08/02/06

From Ekklesia

The Church of England has voted to do what British Prime Minister Tony Blair has refused to do, and apologise to the descendents of victims of the slave trade. An amendment "recognising the damage done" to those enslaved has been backed overwhelmingly by the Church's General Synod. Debating the motion, Rev Simon Bessant, from Pleckgate, Blackburn, described the Church's involvement in the trade, saying, "We were at the heart of it."

The amendment was supported by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Archbishop of York John Sentamu, who has linked slavery with ongoing discrimination and racism. Dr Williams said the apology was "necessary". He said: "The body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time, it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the body of Christ, is prayer for acknowledgement of the failure that is part of us not just of some distant 'them'."

During an emotional meeting of the Church's 'parliament' in London, Rev Blessant explained the involvement of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts in the slave trade. The organisation owned the Codrington Plantation in Barbados, where slaves had the word "society" branded on their backs with a red-hot iron, he said. He added that when the emancipation of slaves took place in 1833, compensation was paid not to the slaves but to their owners. In one case, he said the Bishop of Exeter and three colleagues were paid nearly £13,000 in compensation for 665 slaves. He said: "We were directly responsible for what happened. In the sense of inheriting our history, we can say we owned slaves, we branded slaves, that is why I believe we must actually recognise our history and offer an apology."

The synod passed a motion acknowledging the "dehumanising and shameful" consequences of slavery. It comes ahead of commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which will be marked next year. The debate heard from descendants of the slave trade including the Rev Nezlin Sterling, of Ealing, west London, who represents black churches. She told the synod that commemorations of the 200th anniversary would revive "painful issues and memories" for descendants.

There is evidence that Christians in the first few centuries after Christ freed their slaves, and even bought them in order to give them their liberty. However following the move of the church to alignment with government in the forth century under the Roman emperor Constantine, the church often endorsed or ordered slavery, urging only that slaves were treated humanely. When the Bishop of Le Mans transferred a large estate to the Abbey of St. Vincent in 572, ten slaves went with it. In the early ninth century, the Abbey of St. Germain des Prés listed 25 of their 278 householders as slaves. Pope Gregory XI excommunicated the Florentines in the Fourteenth Century, and ordered them enslaved wherever taken. In 1488, King Ferdinand sent 100 Moorish slaves to Pope Innocent VIII who presented them as gifts to his cardinals and other court notables.

Renewed opposition to slavery was however evident within the church several centuries before the abolition of the transatlantic trade. Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation urged the recognition of human equality, and an end to slavery, as did Christians at the time of the English civil war. Their actions, along with the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment, is often credited with laying the foundations for the eventual abolition of the slave trade. Evangelical Anglican William Wilberforce led the campaign for abolition although other Evangelicals and Anglicans in the wider church opposed the ending of the transatlantic trade. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has consistently refused to apologise for Britain's part in the transatlantic slave trade despite calls for Britain to do so from such figures as Rev Jesse Jackson in the US.
Picture Time.

How could I possibly resist posting this truely hilarious picture recently viewed on Ms Voyeur's Blog @ Vancouver Calling (pop over there care of my Blog Roll). She normally has really interesting and fun posts to read through. Enjoy.

I can't help wondering what the dog is praying for............

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Chimpanzees show hints of higher human traits

New Scientist 2nd March 2006

Our closest relative the chimpanzee is capable of sophisticated cooperative behaviour and even rudimentary altruism, two new studies reveal. The discovery suggests that some of the underpinnings of human sociality may have been present millions of years ago. "At least some of [those behaviours] are already present in rudimentary forms in chimps – and maybe in the common ancestor of chimps and humans," says Alicia Melis of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. "Humans are biologically prepared to develop these kinds of skills."

To study the cooperative ability of chimps, Melis and colleagues put individual chimps at a sanctuary in Uganda in a test cage with a heavy tray of food in plain sight but out of reach through the bars of the cage. A rope threaded through eyelets on the left and right sides of the tray allowed the animal to pull the food within reach – but only by pulling on both ends of the rope simultaneously. Otherwise, the rope merely snaked through the eyelets, leaving the tray in place. When they could retrieve the food themselves, the eight juvenile chimps tested almost always did so and ignored a second chimp locked in an adjoining cage. But when the tray was widened – and the two ends of the rope became too far apart for a single chimp to grab both ends simultaneously – all the animals quickly learned to unbar the door and let the second chimp in to help.

Then Melis repeated the experiment but gave each test chimp a choice of two potential helpers: a subordinate chimp who was well-practised at the cooperative task, and a dominant male who was not. The test chimps at first chose the dominant male, perhaps out of deference, but quickly learned to pick the better helper. Researchers have reported cooperative behaviour in chimpanzees before – in surrounding prey, for example – or in forming social alliances. However, Melis's experiments are the first to show clearly that chimps understand when they need help and can recognise and choose the best helper. The chimps in this experiment always had selfish motives for cooperating, but chimps will sometimes help others even when they gain no benefit from doing so, as a second study, by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello at the same institute reveals.

The researchers studied what three captive-raised young chimps would do when a familiar human caretaker dropped an object out of her reach. All three chimps were more likely to pick up the object and hand it to the caretaker when she reached for the object than when she merely looked at the object. This suggests that the chimps understood the human's goal and tried to help, says Warneken – even though they received no reward or praise. Human infants also helped in this way and performed other, more complex helping tasks. They would open a cabinet door, for example, to help an adult whose hands were full, while a chimp would not. "This suggests that a tiny bit of helping behaviour is already present in chimpanzees, but they're not as flexible as human infants are," says Warneken.

Such altruistic helping behaviour is common in humans, but had never been documented in other animals before. Researchers now need to understand how often, and under what conditions, it occurs, says Joan Silk, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, US. In earlier studies, Silk found that chimps are as likely to choose a food reward for themselves alone as for themselves and a companion.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blogging book competition hots up.

Wednesday, 8 March 2006 from BBC News

The first short-list for a literary prize that rewards bloggers turned bookwriters has been announced. Dubbed the Blooker Prize, the contest is for those bloggers who have turned their episodic journals into something more substantial. British entries on the Blooker short-list include the intimate diary of a prostitute and a guide to the UK's best "greasy spoon" cafes. The first winner of the Blooker Prize will be announced on 3 April.

The Blooker Prize was first suggested in October 2005 and was the creation of Bob Young, founder of self-publishing site Lulu which sponsors the prize. In the last few years, regularly updated web logs - or blogs - have become a major feature on the internet and now there are believed to be more than 60 million of them in existence. There are blogs on any and every subject and many of the writers behind blogs have found their passions for a particular subject and writing style has won them a regular and appreciative audience.

Some blogs or their authors have become so popular that they have turned to traditional print to collect their thoughts or explore their interest at greater length. Books from blogs, or "blooks", were becoming hugely popular, said Mr Young. Any blook published in English anywhere in the world before the deadline of 30 January 2006 was eligible for entry. A total of 89 entries made it to the Lulu Blooker's long-list and this has been whittled down to just 16 that will compete for the prize money.

The entries are arranged into three categories - fiction, non-fiction and comics - and the winners of two of these sections get a cash prize of £550 ($1,000). The winner of the grand prize gets a cash prize of £1,100 ($2,000). The short-list is dominated by US entries but the UK has two strong contenders in the running. One is notorious Belle De Jour, who blogs about life as a prostitute. The other contender is Russell Davies, who turned his affection for "greasy spoon" cafes into a blog called eggbaconchipsandbeans and a book detailing the 50 best cafes in the UK. "I was looking for something to blog about that was not a picture of a cat," Mr Davies told the BBC News website, explaining his choice of subject matter. "I'm drawn to a full English," he said, referring to the colloquial term for a fried breakfast. "There's definitely a romance to cafes. Once there, you can easily get yourself into the frame of mind that you are about to start a novel." Co-judging the event are writer and activist Cory Doctorow, Robin Miller, editor-in-chief of online publisher OSTG and Paul Jones, director of Ibiblio.
Humanists and Christians argue against faith schools -12/12/05

From Ekklesia

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has added its voice to teachers’ unions and some Christians warning against the possibility of segregation and sectarianism resulting from the UK government’s new Schools White Paper. In its evidence to the Education and Skills Select Committee, the BHA advised against the “creeping gift of the education system to religious interests”. Teaching unions expressed the same concerns in their own evidence. Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association explained: “Trusts will be an easy route for religious sponsors to take over community schools – and many sponsors (as the academies programme has already shown) will be fundamentalists with religious axes to grind.”

She added that, under the proposals in the White Paper, “a small number of religious parents who organize a campaign will be able to command public resources to develop proposals for new religious schools, Local Education Authorities will be under pressure to commission such schools when proposed, and the Schools Commissioner will be mandated to assist.” The Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and representatives of Jewish, Muslim and other faith communities have backed the further development of faith-based schools through the White Paper. But other Christians and those of minority religious traditions question or oppose them. Ms Stinson stresses that many humanists are willing to work positively with faith groups in public life, but that the British Humanist Association opposes special privileges for religious communities – or giving them power over those who hold different convictions.

She declared last week: “All opinion polls show massive resistance – from 64% to 96% – against religious schools and it is time the government brought its policy into line with the wishes of the public.” The lower figure comes from an ICM poll. The higher one derives from a survey carried out by the New Statesman magazine, which some observers say exaggerates the balance of UK opinion. Commented Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK Christian think tank, Ekklesia: “No doubt representatives of some established religious communities will want to argue that properly regulated faith-based schools can contribute towards a plural mix of educational opportunities – but the BHA has put forward a strong case against this view, and Christians who believe that the Christendom mentality harms rather than helps healthy religion are also extremely skeptical.”

Ekklesia has argued a theological case for the disestablishment of the Church of England, an end to a privileged role for religion in public education, removing unelected Episcopal favour in the second chamber, repealing antiquated blasphemy laws, and removing tax advantages and anti-discrimination exemptions from public religious bodies. In God and the politicians the think-tank says: “[Our challenge] is first and foremost to the churches. Are our Christian communities willing and able, on the basis of the distinctive vocation of the Gospel, to disavow the use of money, power and privilege for their own sectional advantage?”

The British Humanist Association is the largest organization in the UK campaigning for an end to the expansion of faith schools and for the assimilation of those that currently exist into a system of inclusive and accommodating community schools.

Monday, March 06, 2006

US Prepares Military Blitz Against Iran's Nuclear Sites

Philip Sherwell in Washington for the Sunday Telegraph - February 12, 2006

Strategists at the Pentagon are drawing up plans for devastating bombing raids backed by submarine-launched ballistic missile attacks against Iran's nuclear sites as a "last resort" to block Teheran's efforts to develop an atomic bomb. Central Command and Strategic Command planners are identifying targets, assessing weapon-loads and working on logistics for an operation, the Sunday Telegraph has learnt. They are reporting to the office of Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, as America updates plans for action if the diplomatic offensive fails to thwart the Islamic republic's nuclear bomb ambitions. Teheran claims that it is developing only a civilian energy program.

"This is more than just the standard military contingency assessment," said a senior Pentagon adviser. "This has taken on much greater urgency in recent months." The prospect of military action could put Washington at odds with Britain which fears that an attack would spark violence across the Middle East, reprisals in the West and may not cripple Teheran's nuclear program. But the steady flow of disclosures about Iran's secret nuclear operations and the virulent anti-Israeli threats of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has prompted the fresh assessment of military options by Washington. The most likely strategy would involve aerial bombardment by long-distance B2 bombers, each armed with up to 40,000lb of precision weapons, including the latest bunker-busting devices. They would fly from bases in Missouri with mid-air refuelling.

The Bush administration has recently announced plans to add conventional ballistic missiles to the armory of its nuclear Trident submarines within the next two years. If ready in time, they would also form part of the plan of attack. Teheran has dispersed its nuclear plants, burying some deep underground, and has recently increased its air defenses, but Pentagon planners believe that the raids could seriously set back Iran's nuclear program. Iran was last weekend reported to the United Nations Security Council by the International Atomic Energy Agency for its banned nuclear activities. Teheran reacted by announcing that it would resume full-scale uranium enrichment – producing material that could arm nuclear devices.

The White House says that it wants a diplomatic solution to the stand-off, but President George W Bush has refused to rule out military action and reaffirmed last weekend that Iran's nuclear ambitions "will not be tolerated". Sen John McCain, the Republican front-runner to succeed Mr Bush in 2008, has advocated military strikes as a last resort. He said recently: "There is only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option and that is a nuclear-armed Iran." Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat, has made the same case and Mr Bush is expected to be faced by the decision within two years. By then, Iran will be close to acquiring the knowledge to make an atomic bomb, although the construction will take longer. The President will not want to be seen as leaving the White House having allowed Iran's ayatollahs to go atomic. In Teheran yesterday, crowds celebrating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution chanted "Nuclear technology is our inalienable right" and cheered Mr Ahmadinejad when he said that Iran may reconsider membership of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He was defiant over possible economic sanctions.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

If it Had happened Otherwise.

Science-Fiction is far and away my favourite form of fiction. Though I don’t read it exclusively I do read it extensively and have done so for… well, many years. After all this time I can still be transported by a sense of wonder. I love it.

One of my favourite sub-genres is Alternate History. These are stories based on the premise that things might have turned out differently if what we regard as an historical ‘event’ had been different. Say for instance that the Confederacy had won at Gettysburg (that’s a particular favourite for authors) or if the assassination attempt against Hitler had been successful – just how would things have turned out? For better or worse? Of course this brings out the interesting and deeper philosophical question: Could things have turned out differently? Could the arrow that is reputed to have killed King Harold at the Battle of Hastings have missed? Could he have led his troops to victory over William of Normandy and changed forever the course of Western history? Is such a thing possible? It certainly seems so.

There are even scientific theories that postulate an idea of multiple universes where every event creates a separate reality. Even extremely trivial events hive off entirely different universes. In one there is a single grain of sand on a beach in California in a slightly different location. Everything else is identical. You could pass between universes on a daily basis and you’d never know – which might explain things like déjà vu and much else besides. But what, if anything, is the point I’m trying to make here? It’s this:

It follows that if the past could have been different, and in some cases quite radically different, then the future can be different too. It means that there is no all encompassing design, no tide of history or historical imperative. There is no fate. God does not have a plan on either a large scale or a small one. There is no pre-determination. Nothing is fixed. We are not the pawns or victims of the whims of destiny. We have at least a modicum of control and influence over events. Imagine for a moment that you where the person who caused Hitler to move far enough away from the bomb placed under his table thereby saving his life. You certainly didn’t intend to do it, but your simple action changed world history. What simple actions do we do everyday that ripple through time? You meet a friend on a street corner and pass a few minutes catching up. In a slightly different universe you where running late and missed him only to hear later that he had been hit by a car and was in hospital or worse. That simple action of meeting a friend changed or maybe saved his life.

Personally I find this idea a little frightening, somewhat humbling but most of all liberating. Whilst we have no one else to blame for how our lives turn out we also have the power to change things. Remember - nothing is fixed. We are not trapped in our jobs or our relationships. We are free to make things different, both personally and on a much larger scale. What we do makes a difference. Our actions can lead to real change and we can accomplish great things. Remember the phrase ‘For want of a nail’? Imagine if you could provide that nail, so the message got through and the battle was won. All you have to do is provide a nail
'God slot' may lose God -10/01/06

From Ekklesia

In a move that will be welcomed by some Christians as well as humanists and secularists, the BBC's director general has said that Thought for the Day, one of the bastions of religious broadcasting, could be open to secular contributors in the future. Mark Thompson, himself a Christian, said he would not rule out the possibility of using non-religious contributors. The three-minute slot, a religious reflection on topical events which regularly features Ekklesia associate Giles Fraser, has been a daily part of the BBC's Today programme on Radio 4 for 36 years.

Groups such as the National Secular Society have campaigned however to end the religious requirement of the slot, and has threatened the BBC with legal action. They have been joined by Christians who believe that secularism and humanism are also based on 'faith'. Some Christians also believe that religion should emerge from its 'safe' ghetto and enter more into mainstream broadcasting.

The secularists point out that as a quarter of Britons have no religious belief, Thought for the Day does not adequately reflect society. In an interview with the Tablet Catholic newspaper, Mr Thompson, 47, promised to improve the creativity of religious broadcasting. But when asked about Thought for the Day, he said: "You can make a case for opening it up to people with other heartfelt belief systems. I would not close my mind to it." Last year, in a shot across the bows of those who feel that religion is being marginalized in broadcasting, Thompson told the Churches Media Conference that Christians should stop trying to defend their privileged positions in narrow religious ‘slots’ on radio and TV and enter more into mainstream broadcasting.

A BBC spokesman said there were no immediate plans to change the content. However in an editorial in today's Daily Telegraph, the newspaper which has in the past frequently mounted arguments in defence of the privileges of Christianity, attacked the move. Thought for the Day began in 1970 and had its first non-Christian contributor, a Muslim, in 1992. It now has regular contributors from all major faiths and has featured the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi.