One of the UK’s oldest Christian denominations – the Quakers – looks set to extend marriage services to same-sex couples at their yearly meeting later.
The society has already held religious blessings for same-sex couples who have had a civil partnership ceremony.
But agreeing to perform gay marriages, which are currently not allowed under civil law, could bring the Quakers into conflict with the government.
The issue of active homosexuality has bitterly divided Churches.
But the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said the Quakers had been more prepared than other groups to reinterpret the Bible in the light of contemporary life.
The Quakers – also known as The Religious Society of Friends – are likely to reach consensus on the issue of gay marriage without a vote at their annual gathering in York on Friday.
They will also formally ask the government to change the law to allow gay people to marry.
Quaker registrars, like rabbis and Church of England priests, have the authority to marry heterosexual couples on behalf of the state.
But many British Quakers feel it is wrong to exclude a religious commitment from civil partnerships and want the right to marriage extended to same-sex couples too.
The Quakers has welcomed same-sex unions for more than two decades, allowing local groups to celebrate same-sex commitments through special acts of worship.
But within Britain’s Christian community more widely, the issue of homosexuality has caused major confrontations.
Most recently, the Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, told a newspaper that homosexuals should “repent and be changed”.
The evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, who stepped down from his post at Oxford University last year, has subsidised the five-day camp in Somerset.
Camp-goers will be given lessons in rational scepticism, as well as sessions in moral philosophy and evolutionary biology.
There will be more familiar camp activities such as trekking, tug-of-war, canoeing and swimming but children will also be taught to disprove phenomena such as crop circles and telepathy.
The retreat is for children aged eight to 17 and will rival traditional faith-based breaks run by the Scouts and church groups. It will teach that religious belief and doctrines can prevent ethical and moral behaviour.
The camp is part of a campaign, backed by Dawkins and Professor AC Grayling, the philosopher and writer, designed to challenge Christian societies, collective worship and religious education.
Prof Dawkins said it was designed to “encourage children to think for themselves, sceptically and rationally”. All 24 places at the camp, which runs from July 27-31, have been taken.
Crispian Jago, an IT consultant, is hoping the experience will enrich his two children.
“I’m very keen on not indoctrinating them with religion or creeds,” he said. “I would rather equip them with the tools to learn how to think, not what to think.”
The emphasis on critical thinking is epitomised by a test called the Invisible Unicorn Challenge. Children will be told by camp leaders that the area around their tents is inhabited by two unicorns.
The activities of these creatures, of which there will be no physical evidence, will be regularly discussed by organisers, yet the children will be asked to prove that the unicorns do not exist.
Anyone who manages to prove this will win a £10 note – which features an image of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory – signed by Dawkins, a former professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University.
“The unicorns are not necessarily a metaphor for God, they are to show kids that you can’t prove a negative,” said Samantha Stein, who is leading next month’s camp at the Mill on the Brue outdoor activity centre close to Bruton, Somerset.
“We are not trying to bash religion, but it encourages people to believe in a lot of things for which there is no evidence.”
A spokesman for the Church of England questioned Dawkins’ decision to stage a summer camp for atheists.
“We would defend the right for anyone to set up an event like this, as long as the young people are happy to attend,” he said.
“But in his imitation of the type of youth events that religious groups have been running for years, Dawkins makes atheism look even more like the thing he is rallying against.”
SAN ANTONIO – The scene was so gruesome investigators could barely speak: A 3 1/2-week-old boy lay dismembered in the bedroom of a single-story house, three of his tiny toes chewed off, his face torn away, his head severed and his brains ripped out.”At this particular scene you could have heard a pin drop,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said Monday. “No one was speaking. It was about as somber as it could have been.”
Officers called to the home early Sunday found the boy’s mother, Otty Sanchez, sitting on the couch with a self-inflicted wound to her chest and her throat partially slashed, screaming “I killed my baby! I killed my baby!” police said. She told officers the devil made her do it, police said.
Sanchez, 33, apparently ate the child’s brain and some other body parts before stabbing herself, McManus said.
“It’s too heinous for me to describe it any further,” McManus told reporters.
Sanchez is charged with capital murder in the death of her son, Scott Wesley Buccholtz-Sanchez. She was being treated Monday at a hospital, and was being held on $1 million bail.
‘In and out’ of psychiatric ward
The slaying occurred a week after the child’s father moved out, McManus said. Otty Sanchez’s sister and her sister’s two children, ages 5 and 7, were in the house, but none were harmed.
Police said Sanchez did not have an attorney, and they declined to identify family members.
No one answered the door Monday at Sanchez’s home, where the blinds were shut. A hopscotch pattern and red hearts were drawn on the walk leading up to the house.
Sanchez’s aunt, Gloria Sanchez, said her niece had been “in and out” of a psychiatric ward but did not say where she was treated or why. She said a hospital called several months ago to check up on her.
“Otty didn’t mean to do that. She was not in her right mind,” a sobbing Gloria Sanchez told The Associated Press on Monday by phone. She said her family was devastated.
Investigators are looking into Sanchez’s mental health history to see if there was anything “significant,” and whether postpartum difficulties could have factored into the attack, McManus said.
Postpartum depression — a pattern?
Postpartum depression and psychosis have been cited as contributing factors in several other cases in Texas in recent years in which mothers killed their children.
Andrea Yates drowned her five children in her Houston-area home 2001, saying she believed Satan was inside her and trying to save them from hell. Her attorneys said she had been suffering from severe postpartum psychosis, and a jury found Yates not guilty by reason of insanity in 2006.
In 2004, Dena Schlosser killed her 10-month-old in her Plano home by slicing off the baby’s arms. She was found not guilty of reason by insanity, after testifying that she killed the baby because she wanted to give her to God.
Sanchez’s neighbors expressed sorrow and horror Monday at the grisly killing.
Neighbor Luis Yanez, 23, said his kids went to school with one of the small children who lived at the house. He said he often saw a woman playing outside with the children but didn’t know whether it was Otty.
“Why would you do that to your baby?” said Yanez, a tire technician. “It brings chills to you. They can’t defend themselves.”
Allen Taylor, another neighbor, said “once she gets back in her right mind, she’s going to be devastated.”
It does seem bizarre that, in 2009, a modern European nation would seek to shield religious belief from criticism – yet that is what is happening in Ireland right now. In repealing the 1961 Defamation Act, the Irish government sought to expunge the worst excesses of Ireland’s draconian laws restricting free speech, but in the process it has ended up making offending religious belief a criminal offence.
Aside from a €25,000 fine (reduced from the €100,000 originally sought by the government), the new Defamation Act gives the authorities the power to stage raids on publishers: the courts may now issue a warrant authorising the police to enter, using ‘reasonable force’, premises where they have grounds for believing there are copies of ‘blasphemous statements’.
Many are asking why on earth blasphemy should be criminalised, particularly at a time when the Catholic Church in Ireland is being investigated for widespread child abuse and its public image has hit rock bottom.
The government has responded to its critics by saying there is a constitutional requirement for a specific blasphemy law in Ireland. Indeed so: freedom of speech is guaranteed by Article 40.6.1 of the Irish constitution. However, it goes on to prohibit the publication of ‘blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter’. One might call the Irish constitution a clear case of the left hand giving and the right hand taking away.
The fact that this has been the case since the constitution came into effect in 1937 seems to have blinded the government to its usual option: the traditional Irish response to divisive issues is to pretend that they don’t exist. It is not for nothing that Ireland’s acceptance of abortion for those with enough money to travel to Britain is called ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the constitution, only one case was ever taken under the blasphemy prohibition since the introduction of the constitution in 1937 (a 1999 case against a newspaper, in which the Supreme Court concluded that it was not possible to say ‘of what the offence of blasphemy consists’ and that ‘the state is not placed in the position of an arbiter of religious truth’). So, at the very least, it seems peculiar to bring the issue into the light of day in 2009.
It is true that the repeal of the 1961 Defamation Act and its replacement with (slightly) less outrageous legislation would leave a hole in the statute books if blasphemy were not outlawed. Yet the obvious answer is to amend the constitution, which, in Ireland, requires a popular referendum. Yet the minister behind the update to the defamation laws, Dermot Ahern, says that a referendum would be ‘costly and unwarranted’. The government is, however, perfectly happy to pay to send the country to the polls on the issue of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty for a second time. Presumably no cost is too high so long as the people make the decision the establishment wants.
Thanks to JT for the tip.
Brad Pitt was raised as a Southern Baptist, but apparently, his faith didn’t stick.
The 45-year-old actor doesn’t believe in God, he told Bild.com.
“No, no, no!,” he declared, when asked if he believes in a higher power, or if he was spiritual. “I’m probably 20 percent atheist and 80 percent agnostic. I don’t think anyone really knows. You’ll either find out or not when you get there, until then there’s no point thinking about it.”
Pitt doesn’t seem to have a problem with others believing though.
“Religion works,” the actor said in a 2007 interview with Parade.
He adds, “I know there’s comfort there, a crash pad. It’s something to explain the world and tell you there is something bigger than you, and it is going to be all right in the end.”
The superstar, currently promoting his upcoming World War II film, “Inglourious Basterds,” also told Bild.com that he enjoys aging, prefers motorbikes over cars, and that while money can make things easier, it can also be a burden.
Pitt says he and longtime partner Angelina Jolie sleep on a “3 meter wide bed” to fit in their six kids.
“But even that isn’t big enough,” he admits. “They all come crawling in in the morning. It’s just about surviving! We all have sleep deprivation.”
PATNA, India (Reuters) – Farmers in an eastern Indian state have asked their unmarried daughters to plow parched fields naked in a bid to embarrass the weather gods to bring some badly needed monsoon rain, officials said on Thursday.
Witnesses said the naked girls in Bihar state plowed the fields and chanted ancient hymns after sunset to invoke the gods. They said elderly village women helped the girls drag the plows.
“They (villagers) believe their acts would get the weather gods badly embarrassed, who in turn would ensure bumper crops by sending rains,” Upendra Kumar, a village council official, said from Bihar’s remote Banke Bazaar town.
“This is the most trusted social custom in the area and the villagers have vowed to continue this practice until it rains very heavily.”
India this year suffered its worst start to the vital monsoon rains in eight decades, causing drought in some states.
A Hillsborough public policy group whose Christian platform included a push for a state ban on gay marriage has embraced a new attack on an old target: the separation of church and state.
Ten billboard advertisements against what activist Terry Kemple called the separation “lie” are being put up across Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Seven or eight of the billboard messages already are in place, and the rest will be by the end of this week, Kemple said.
For the next six months, they’ll be seen a million times a day, said retired businessman Gregg Smith, who rented the ad space for $50,000.
The message, as explained on www.noseparation.org, is that “America’s government was made only for people who are moral and religious.”
“The Judeo-Christian foundation that the Founding Fathers established when America began is the reason that this country has prospered for 200-plus years,” said Kemple, president and sole employee of the local Community Issues Council, which paid for the Web site.
“The fact is, for the last 40 years, as anti-God activists have incrementally removed the recognition of God’s place in the establishment of our country, we have gone downhill.”
Smith, 73, who spends half of the year at his Tampa home, brought the idea to Kemple’s attention as a “separate ministry” needing local support. For now, the initiative is just educational, though both men left open the opportunity for future work.
“Has the thought occurred that this may be the beginning of something bigger? Of course,” Kemple said. “There is no next step.
“We’ll just see what God ordains.”
The billboards showcase quotes from early American leaders like John Adams, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin. Most of the quotes portray a national need for Christian governance.
Others carry the same message but with fictional attribution, as with one billboard citing George Washington for the quote, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”
“I don’t believe there’s a document in Washington’s handwriting that has those words in that specific form,” Kemple said. “However, if you look at Washington’s quotes, including his farewell address, about the place of religion in the political sphere, there’s no question he could have said those exact words.”
Kemple, who was considered last year for the Republican nomination to replace a state representative, is not alone in fighting what Thomas Jefferson wrote was “a wall of separation” built by the “whole American people.”
Former Secretary of State Katherine Harris, while campaigning for the Senate in 2006, called separation of church and state a “lie we have been told,” adding that “God is the one who chooses our rulers.”
More recently, Christian separation critics have scoffed at President Barack Obama’s assertion in April that Americans “do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation.”
At the time, Kemple and Smith were beginning to plan for the billboards.
“I don’t think it’s coincidental,” Kemple said. “I think God had his hand in it.”
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.
CORRECTION: Retired businessman Gregg Smith rented ad space for $50,000. Earlier versions of this story used in print and online incorrectly stated his role in the transaction.
Valerie Celeste Coffey is a woman on a mission. For six years, her small group of local atheists has gathered to exchange bemused stories about the things Christians do in worship and swap tips for raising confident skeptics.
But on a recent Wednesday evening here at the Java Room cafe, Ms. Coffey said the time had come to take the meetings in hand.
“I don’t think this group has a vision,” said Coffey, a freelance editor who lives in nearby Boxborough, Mass. “We need to figure out what our values are.”
Ten days later, something unprecedented happened: The group met over Sunday brunch for a structured discussion with preplanned topics.
The ranks of nonbelievers are on the rise, research suggests, and as they seek out each other online and in small groups, they are increasingly looking to do more than just vent.
Some are adopting rituals themselves, from de-baptisms to wedding ceremonies, as a way to cement ties among members. Others are organizing science-related outings or enrolling in community-service programs. Nationwide, atheists’ groups are now treading, sometimes gingerly, into unfamiliar territory.
“This is the transition moment right now,” says Dale McGowan, author of “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion.” “Some groups are really diving in [to foster a robust sense of community], and some of them are holding their noses and standing on the diving board. They’re not quite sure what to do.”
Some 15 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation, up from 8.2 percent in 1990, according to Trinity College’s American Religious Identification Survey, released in March. Also, the American Humanist Association claims 20,000 financial supporters. That marks a doubling from five years ago, says spokeswoman Karen Frantz.
Moreover, signs point to non-believers seeking fellowship as never before. During the first five months of 2009, 95 new atheist groups have formed through meetup.com, bringing the US total to 372. That’s up from 59 in 2005, says Blair Scott, director of national affiliates for American Atheists, a networking and advocacy organization. Known parenting groups for nonbelievers have proliferated from just one in 2005 to 33 in 2009, adds Mr. McGowan, the author.
The intersection of the two trends is evident across the United States. For example, the North Alabama Freethought Association, which has grown from 50 members in 2006 to 350 today, drew 30 people to a camping event in May and runs regular outings to visit caves or other science-related sites.
“It used to be that these atheist groups … met almost in hiding,” says American Atheists spokesman David Silverman. “Now they’re doing a lot more stands at town parties, a lot more trash pickups, a lot more blood donations — a lot more stuff that gets their group out and noticed.”
Some say such initiatives are necessary to improve an image problem. Rebecca Grieve founded South Lake Atheists and Freethinkers in Groveland, Fla., last year because she felt the nearby atheist group in Orlando “wasn’t doing enough in the community.” Through an Adopt-A-Lake project, the new group monitors a section of Lake Minneola and promotes its efforts on a big sign at Clermont Waterfront Park.
“A lot of atheist groups are really negative,” says Ms. Grieve, who now lives in Derry, N.H., and describes herself as a secular humanist. “They’re not standing for anything. They’re not making a difference…. I want to be accepted just like everybody else. We need to be showing people through example that we’re decent people.”
For some, however, the status quo suits just fine. Of the monthly Atheists of Greater Lowell (Mass.) gatherings, where no one convenes or adjourns the group, Paul Ratner of Lowell says: “I like this group as it is now.”
Rob Butler of Westford. Mass., agrees: “I love coming here because I can just say whatever’s on my mind, and people won’t be offended by it.”
In some ways, the lack of structure or ritual has been a defining characteristic of atheist groups. McGowan notes that many atheists bristle at ritual because it feels too religious or superstitious. American Atheists’ Mr. Silverman insists, “there are no rituals with us.”
But America’s 27 Ethical Societies, which attract many nontheist attendees to their humanist “platforms,” or services, see growing interest in rituals, ranging from children’s education to weddings, according to membership chairman Thomas Hoeppner. Through ritual, “you build up not just common intellectual values, but the emotional and personal connection with people,” says Mr. Hoeppner, a member of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago. “That’s what it’s all about.”
“So when one of my dear friends in his 80s lost his wife, he’d be over at our house every Sunday afternoon for dinner,” he says. “That’s a ritual for us.”
In Florida, atheists are pioneering a new ritual: de-baptism. Since last year, American Atheists’ Florida state director Greg McDowell has been donning a mock clerical robe and officiating at services where family and friends come to watch the baptized renounce their baptisms.
The events spoof baptisms by using blow-dryers in the place of baptismal waters. They culminate in certificates for the “de-baptized” and letters to churches requesting that the names of those de-baptized be removed from baptismal rolls.
Elsewhere, ties that bind the faithless continue to grow stronger, even without ritual per se. After one member of the North Alabama Freethought Association was robbed earlier this year, fellow members collected a few hundred dollars to see him through to payday. And when another was injured in a motorcycle accident, atheists brought meals every day for him and his caretakers.
“It makes me sit back and smile to know that this community has built itself up in a way that they’re looking out for each other, watching each other’s backs, and supporting each other,” says Mr. Scott, who founded the Alabama group six years ago. “It almost makes me feel fatherly — like you raised your child right.”
Religious row as Orthodox Jewish couple sue neighbours for ‘imprisoning’ them with automatic hallway light
A Jewish couple are suing their neighbours in a block of flats, saying an automatic security light is keeping them prisoner in their home because it forces them to break their Sabbath rules.
Dr Dena Coleman and husband Gordon claim they cannot leave their holiday flat on the Sabbath because when they do they automatically trigger the light in the communal hallway – contravening a religious ban on turning on electrical items from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday because it constitutes ‘creating fire’.
They say their human rights are being breached and are now suing the flats’ management company – their neighbours – for failing to accommodate their religion.
The other 35 owners of the seaside flats are liable to pay court costs if the claim is successful.
Dr Coleman, a 56-year-old headteacher at a Jewish orthodox school in London, has been visiting the £200,000 holiday flat in Bournemouth, Dorset, with her husband for six years.
The management company fitted the motion-sensing lights six months ago in a bid to save energy and money.
The Colemans have offered to pay for an override switch to disable the light sensors during the Sabbath.
But the Embassy Court Management Company – which represents all residents and whose three directors also live in the block – said this would set an ‘unacceptable precedent’.
In a letter sent to occupants of all of the other 35 apartments in the block, the Colemans said: ‘Faced with a situation where we could never again have full use of our flat, we were left with no alternative but to seek legal advice.’
The couple said they would drop the case if an override switch was installed and the management company paid their legal costs and compensation.
The argument has sparked controversy between the other residents.
One resident, who did not want to be named, said: ‘It has caused quite a stir here, there have been a lot of arguments.
‘There has been a meeting about it and many of the residents aren’t happy.
‘There’s a feeling that things shouldn’t be changed just to suit people in one flat when everyone else is happy with it.
‘I don’t think the rest of us would think twice about the lights but they’re going to great lengths to get it changed so they must feel very strongly about it.’
The couple say they only moved into the flat in spring 2003 on the understanding that movement sensors would never be installed in communal areas.
They have now issued a county court writ against the management company, saying they have discriminated against them on the grounds of religion.
The claim also accuses the company of breaching their rights under the Equality Act 2006 and Human Rights Act 1998.
In a statement the company said: ‘The directors believe that almost all lessees at Embassy Court support the actions taken by the management company to reduce communal lighting electricity costs, and to reduce repair and maintenance costs by preventing heat damage to light fittings and prolonging their life.
‘The directors further believe that almost all lessees support the installation of movement sensor controls in the hallways and have no personal problems with their installations.
‘Unfortunately correspondence between directors and lessees concerned failed to resolve the dispute.
‘Clearly the lessees [the Colemans] felt so strongly that their rights may have been infringed by the management company that they decided to take legal action. That is their prerogative.
‘A key allegation in this claim is that the movement sensors installed in the hallway discriminate against the claimants, who are orthodox Jews, on the grounds of their religion and belief.
‘The lessees also allege in the claim that when they purchased their flat in the spring of 2003 it was on the basis of assurances from selling agents that that movement sensors would not be installed at Embassy Court.
‘Although other lessees are innocent parties in this legal dispute, in accordance with the lease, the Management Company’s expenses reasonably incurred in these legal proceedings with be recoverable from all lessees in the service charge, to the extent that these expenses are not paid by the other parties to the proceedings.’
The case is due to be heard at Bournemouth County Couty later this year.
Dr Coleman is the headteacher at Yavneh College in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, the author of several books on education.