Stop and smell them.

Stop and smell them.

Sitting outside enjoying the music.

Sitting outside enjoying the music.

The question isn’t whether Britain is Christian, it’s whether it should be

TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 7

(I’ve decided to review the new Cosmos series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson that’s airing on Fox. If you missed it, you can stream full episodes online.) Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Episode 7, “The Clean Room” There may be some fields of science that have absolutely no political implications, but they’re few and far between. [Read More...]

Spinal tap

The NHS plan to stick all our data (“anonymised” for sensitive data in a way that will send you to a dictionary to see if you got the word “anonymised” mixed up with another word like “publicised”) has been temporaily shelved – until people forget that it’s an ongoing scandal. Or it gets overtaken by the new shock-horror of selling off our tax data…. from the BBC.

The HMRC plan is currently undergoing a transparent consultation process, so getting detail from the web is hard. However, even trying to find out about the NHS plans is illuminating enough. They’ve sort of embuggerated their website explanations so it’s close to impossible to work out what is currently included in what pile of NOTpersonal data. But the site Connecting for Health has information – which is apparently no longer relevant but which redirects me to a site where I can’t find any real information at all. (HSCIC)

Information held on the Patient Demographic Service

The PDS only contains demographic details about a patient. No clinical or sensitive information is held on itPDS fields. Here are a few of the fields involved and what each is for:

    PDS field Description of data

NHS Number The unique patient identifier.
Patient name Including any previous names, aliases and preferred name, e.g. Chris rather than Christopher.
Date of birth
Includes main, temporary and correspondence addresses.
The patient’s legal guardian, proxy, family/close contact.
Telecommunication contact details Contact details such as telephone number, fax number and email address.

NHS Care Record consent to share status Indicates that the patient has agreed to share their health record. (Oh, the irony)

I assume that HMRC also have a master index file like this.

General good advice: Never blame on a conspiracy what can be safely attributed to human stupidity.

I shall heed this advice and assume that the people who think it’s a good idea to do this are just ignorant. Can we all club together and send them on a comprehensive course on 21st century data mining? This was David Davis (aka, “the only good Tory, despite his excremental views on many other topics”) reported in the Guardian:

The Tory MP David Davis, a former minister and shadow home secretary, described the proposal as “borderline insane”, adding: “The Treasury lists no credible benefits and offers a justification based on an international agreement that does not lead other governments to open up their tax database,” he said. “The officials who drew this up clearly have no idea of the risks to data in an electronic age. Our forefathers put these checks and balances in place when the information was kept in cardboard files, and data was therefore difficult to appropriate and misuse.

“It defies logic that we would remove those restraints at a time when data can be collected by the gigabyte, processed in milliseconds and transported around the world almost instantaneously.”

A whole year

Yes, we realise that a whole year has passed since the last blog post, but we are busy heathens here at WhyDontYou Towers. Sorry we have neglected this site and we do make a pinkie promise that we will try to update it a bit more regularly in the future. And yes, we do know we’ve made this promise before….

#AAcon14 Wrapup

I’ve just gotten home from Salt Lake City, where I was at the 2014 annual convention of American Atheists. AA always has their convention on Easter weekend (and after all, what better weekend would there be for an atheist not to have other plans?), and this year gave us a double dose of cheekiness by [Read More...]

Christian Radio Fans the Flames of Witch Hunting

A few years ago, I wrote about the horrible “witch children” craze in Nigeria. Like the witch hunts that once swept through America and Europe, this one is fed by sects of fanatic evangelical preachers, inflamed by Western missionaries, that believe in a miracle-drenched, demon-haunted world – and teach that people, including children, can be [Read More...]

Grilling some burgers for Easter. Or as I like to put it.....

Grilling some burgers for Easter. Or as I like to put it.. Grilling some burgers because.. burgers!

Nobel Laureates, campaigners, peers, philosophers, broadcasters and authors write open letter to challenge Prime Minister’s ‘Christian country’ claim

Over 50 public figures, including novelists, scientists, broadcasters, campaigners, authors and comedians have written to the Prime Minister challenging his statement on Britain as a Christian country. The letter was organised by the President of the British Humanist Association (BHA) Professor Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist and science broadcaster.

Among those who have signed the letter are Philip Pullman, Ken Follett, Professor Alice Roberts and Sir Terry Pratchett.

The letter, published in the Telegraph, reads,

‘We respect the Prime Minister’s right to his religious beliefs and the fact that they affect his own life as a politician. However, we wish to object to his repeated mischaracterising of our country as a ‘Christian country’ and the negative consequences for our politics and society that this view engenders.

‘Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established church, we are not a ‘Christian country’. Repeated surveys, polls, and studies show most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities and at a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives and a largely non-religious society. To constantly claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society.

‘Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. It needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who – as polls show – do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.’

Jim Al-Khalili, President of the British Humanist Association, commented, ‘As people who value reason and evidence in public policy and fairness and secularism in our political life we wrote this letter as a result not just of one recent speech and article but of a disturbing trend. Politicians have been speaking of our country as “a Christian country” with increasing frequency in the last few years. Not only is this inaccurate, I think it’s a wrong thing to do in a time when we need to be building a strong shared identity in an increasingly plural and non-religious society.’

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA commented ‘Any politician or government that tried to make Christianity and Christian beliefs the foundation of British values or social morality would be building on seriously unstable foundations. Only a minority of people in Britain are practising Christians and over half of the population sees itself as non-religious according to repeated surveys. British people certainly don’t want to see religion have more influence in government – in a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, “religious groups and leaders” actually topped the list of domestic groups that people said had too much influence on government.’

Commenting on the statistical case for claiming Britain is Christian, Mr Copson continued, ‘Most people in Britain do not have Christian beliefs, do not attend any sort of church, and do not describe themselves as Christians when asked if they have a religion and if so what it is. Reliable studies like the British Social Attitudes Survey show over 60% of people in Britain never attend a religious service, 57% say they are not Christian. Other polls and surveys show over 60% don’t share core Christian beliefs like the divinity and resurrection of Jesus.

‘Even the census, (which because it asks the flawed closed question, ‘What is your religion?’, gives an inflated figure and measures cultural attachment rather than religiosity) recorded a drop in the percentage of Christians in England and Wales between 2001 and 2011 from 72% to 59% of the population. The percentage saying they had no religion, even in the face of the biased question, went up from 15% to 25%.’


For further comment or information, please contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at or on 0773 843 5059 or Andrew Copson, Chief Executive at or on 07855 380 633

Full list of signatories;
Professor Jim Al-Khalili, President of the BHA
Phillip Pullman, author
Dan Snow, historian and broadcaster
Tim Minchin, musician and writer
Dr Simon Singh, science writer
Ken Follett, novelist
Dr Adam Rutherford, broadcaster and science writer
Sir John Sulston FRS, Nobel Prize-winning scientist
Sir David Smith FRS FRSE, eminent botanist
Professor Jonathan Glover, philosopher
Professor Anthony Grayling, philosopher
Nick Ross, broadcaster
CJ De Mooi, actor and professional quizzer
Virginia Ironside, writer
Professor Steven Rose, scientist and writer
Natalie Haynes, comedian and writer
Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
Professor Raymond Tallis FMedSci, physician, philosopher and author
Dr Iolo ap Gwynn FRMS, scientist and mountaineer
Stephen Volk, screenwriter and author
Professor Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics, science writer and broadcaster
Sir Terry Pratchett OBE, fantasy fiction author, satirist
Dr Evan Harris, former Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament and Vice President of the BHA
Dr Richard Bartle, Professor of Computer Game Design
Sian Berry, Green campaigner, politician and author
Professor John A Lee, consultant histopathologist and Professor of Pathology
Professor Richard Norman, philosopher
Zoe Margolis, author
Joan Smith, journalist and author
Michael Gore, CVO CBE
Derek McAuley, General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches
Lorraine Barratt, former member of the Welsh Assembly
Dr Susan Blackmore, writer and broadcaster
Dr Harry Stopes-Roe, Vice President of the BHA
Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC (Hon), human rights lawyer
Adele Anderson, actor and singer
Dr Helena Cronin, co-director, Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science
Professor Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science, anatomist, author and broadcaster
Professor Chris French, Professor of Psychology, editor of The Skeptic
Sir Tom Blundell, scientist
Maureen Duffy, poet, playwright and novelist
Baroness Whitaker, Labour peer
Lord Avebury, Liberal Democrat peer
Richard Herring, writer and comedian
Martin Rowson, writer and cartoonist
Tony Hawks, comedian, writer, musician and philanthropist
Peter Cave, philosopher and author
Diane Munday, campaigner
Professor Norman MacLean, Emeritus Professor of Genetics, biologist
Sir Harold Kroto FRS, Nobel Prize winner, Professor of Chemistry
Sir Richard Dalton, former diplomat
Sir David Blatherwick, KCMG, OBE, diplomat and writer
Michael Rubenstein, writer and legal expert
Polly Toynbee, columnist and broadcaster
Lord O’Neill, Labour peer
Warren Lakin, entertainment producer and writer
Sir Jonathan Miller CBE, theatre and opera director, broadcaster and sculptor
Nicci Gerrard, novelist
David Nobbs, comedy writer and novelist
Robin Ince, stand-up comedian, writer and actor
Professor Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and writer

Please note, the list is being added to as more individuals respond to our initial request to sign the open letter.

Read the Prime Minister’s full statement here

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

The post Nobel Laureates, campaigners, peers, philosophers, broadcasters and authors write open letter to challenge Prime Minister’s ‘Christian country’ claim appeared first on British Humanist Association.

Turning to God for reassurance in the face of wonder

‘Agency detection’ – seeing purposeful minds at work behind seemingly random events – is a powerful human instinct that is thought to play an important role in the generation of religious beliefs.

There’s quite a body of research that shows that a persons ‘agency detection’ can be turned up in circumstances where they are made to feel uncertain or confused. Piercarlo Valdesolo (Claremont McKenna College, USA ) and Jesse Graham (University of Southern California) reckoned that giving people a sense of awe might just unsettle them enough to start detecting agents at work in the world around them.

They ran a series of experiments, all of which involved showing their subjects videos that induced feelings of awe or other emotional states.

For example, to induce awe they showed a dramatic footage from the BBC nature documentary ‘Planet Earth’ or (just in case ‘Planet Earth’ made people think of God, rather than awe) an advert for an LCD TV with amazing imagery, such as waterfalls tumbling through city streets.

As controls, they showed a light-hearted BBC nature documentary (Walk on the Wild Side) or, bizarrely, a 1959 interview conducted by Mike Wallace (this latter was expected to induce zero emotional reaction).

In some experiments, they then simply asked directly about their subjects' belief in supernatural control. In others, to ensure that they were measuring agency detection rather than belief in god, they showed their subjects series of random numbers and asked them to pick out the ones that had been put together by humans rather than computer (none of them had been).

What they found, repeatedly, was that watching an awe-inspiring video increased the tendency to see agents at work. So, for example, they were more likely to believe that the strings of random numbers had been put together by humans (see Figure).

They also measured their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life”. What they found was that watching the awe-inspiring videos did indeed increase their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty.

Watching these videos also affected other emotions (like joy, contentedness, and gratitude). But, running a statistical approach known as ‘mediation analysis’, they found that the balance of probabilities strongly suggested that awe increase agency detection both directly and through increasing intolerance of uncertainty.

They point out an interesting observation from other studies. It seems that in individuals who are prone to feelings of awe , this emotion doesn’t trigger intolerance of uncertainty. If you feel awe a lot, you get used to its effects.

And this lead them to conclude that what they unveiled here is a short-term, immediate response to awe-inspiring events:

Although the chronic relation between experiences of awe and uncertainty tolerance (Shiota et al., 2007) suggests that uncertainty tolerance can be strengthened over time, the present results suggest that in the moment of awe, some of the fear and trembling can be mitigated by perceiving an author’s hand in the experience
Valdesolo P, & Graham J (2014). Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection. Psychological science, 25 (1), 170-8 PMID: 24247728

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Atlas Shrugged: Publish or Perish

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter I The last few industrialists of Colorado are disappearing, and the John Galt Line has been reduced to mostly-empty trains pulled by rickety, coal-burning locomotives. Having run out of leads in her quest for the magic motor, Dagny has finally resorted to contacting Robert Stadler. He comes to New York [Read More...]

American lawmakers are sabotaging their own Constitution

A new law in Mississippi will give businesses the right to refuse to serve people on religious grounds. It's a clear violation of the US First Amendment, says Ralph Jones

Public overwhelmingly agrees that ‘faith’ schools should teach sex education and not teach creationism

A new YouGov survey for the Jewish Chronicle has found the vast majority of the public agreeing that state-funded ‘faith’ schools should not ‘be allowed to refrain from any form of sex education in lessons’ (82% to 9%), and disagreeing with ‘the idea that faith schools should be allowed to teach creationism — “that the world was created in broadly its present form by God”’ (67% to 18%). The British Humanist Association (BHA) has welcomed the findings of the survey, which has been conducted in the wake of Ofqual and awarding bodies together agreeing that no school should be allowed to censor exam questions for religious reasons. Last year Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School, a state funded Charedi school in Hackney, was found to have censored GCSE science questions.

BHA Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson commented, ‘We welcome the findings of this survey, reflecting the view that this is not a question of religious freedom but of the fundamental right, as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of young people to basic knowledge about science. Evolution is overwhelmingly supported by the scientific consensus, with huge amounts of evidence in support of it and no reliable evidence against it. It is a central topic in biology and is core to understanding how humankind came to be.

‘Similarly, it is vital that every young person receives full and comprehensive sex and relationships education as the evidence shows that it is this that leads to the best outcomes in terms of sexual health, consent, and preventing unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Sex education does not make young people more promiscuous, but simply ensures that when people have sex it is more likely to be safe and consensual. Those who oppose such education are in fact achieving the opposite of what they hope to.’


For further comment or information, please contact Richy Thompson at or on 020 7324 3072.

Read the Jewish Chronicle’s article:

Read the ‘Teach evolution, not creationism!’ statement, coordinated by the BHA, from 30 scientists including Sir David Attenborough, Professor Richard Dawkins, Sir Paul Nurse and Professor Michael Reiss, the Association for Science Education, the British Science Association, the Campaign for Science and Engineering and Ekklesia at

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on countering creationism:

Read more about the BHA’s campaigns work on sex and relationships education:

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

The post Public overwhelmingly agrees that ‘faith’ schools should teach sex education and not teach creationism appeared first on British Humanist Association.

The Qur’an’s Extra Apostrophe

Quran_ApostropheMany English readers’ will pause when reading the title of this post thinking there is a mistaken apostrophe. But as many of you know, the vogue way of spelling “the Koran” has become “the Qur’an” so two apostrophes are needed.  For though English does not allow non-possesive apostrophes we use them occasionally when transliterating words from other languages, in this case Arabic. But what the heck does the apostrophe do for pronouncing “the Qur’an”?

My diagram above shows the breakdown of the Arabic letters in the phrase “the Qur’an”. Arabic reads right to left and omits some vowels in common writing — here, the “u”. Many Arabic sounds (phonemes) are different than English sounds and thus can be transliterated in a variety of fashions.  There is not standard transliteration system: here is a list of the main ones.  Due to these complications, several common Roman spelling permutations can be seen for any given word. I grew up with “the Koran” as the standard spelling. You can see in the below google ngram that “Qur’an” is actually a new popular spelling and with this has come a change of pronunciation.  In my day, we pronounced Koran as “core – an”, but for Qur’an, the “o” was changed to a “u” and the sound is more accurate.  The “a” was kept, but is no longer the “a” in apple (or “an”) but is pronounced like the “a” in “father”.  However, the “a” in “apple” actually sounds closer to the Arabic on google translate (you tell me). And though the K became a Q, it is merely a cosmetic change with no one attempting the real lingual-glottal intended with the Q. But almost no English speaker will attempt true glottal Q least best they be thought a snob or at worse laughed at.   I am not an Arabic speaker, so corrections are welcome.


The apostrophe is called the maddah and signals a glottal stop and lengthening of the “a” and thus those permutations in spelling where the “a” is doubled (“aa”) or has a long mark over it (“ā”).  So the new Romanization, “Qur’an”, tells us a bit more about the actual underlying Arabic orthographics, but is correct pronunciation important?

Actually, the pronunciation of “al-Qur’an” even varies between dialects of Arabic. So who cares if we don’t do it right, for there is no real “right”.  Below I list the top Arabic dialects in order of number of speakers:

  • Egyptian – 50 million
  • Algerian – 22 million
  • Moroccan/Maghrebi – 19.5 million
  • Sudanese – 19 million
  • Saidi – 19 million, spoken by some people in Egypt
  • North Levantine – 15 million, spoken in Lebanon and Syria
  • Mesopotamian – 14 million, spoken in Iraq, Iran and Syria
  • Najdi – 10 million spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria

Between the pronunciations differences and these varieties of romanizations options, what is the right way to spell, “the Qur’an” in English? Well, like the myth of definitions, spellings change and are not stable or fixed except by particular groups. If you wish, you can arbitrarily choose an authority to prescribe a spelling for you: Webster’s Dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Style book, the Associated Press Stylebook.  But even their prescriptions will change over time.

The masses may not have power over much, but they certainly do over language — the only place where democracy rules.


How do you spend your days when you’re an ex-pope?

Book review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

If your Nordic knowledge is limited to ABBA, snow and Vikings, read this book, says Anna Vesterinen

Book review: Zealot by Reza Aslan

David Cameron should stop playing politics with religion

My impression of a blank profile picture.

My impression of a blank profile picture.