Wednesday 29 February 2012

Burnee links for Wednesday

Just to prove this blog hasn't actually died, here are a few (somewhat belated) Burnee links:

The BBC's problem with science | Martin Robbins | Science |
The BBC should treat science with the equality it deserves.

New Statesman - Sayeeda Warsi, secularism and the Pope
What on earth does she think she's doing? In the light of the recent poll on what self-identifying Christians actually believe, Cameron should put a stop to Warsi's meddlesome antics.

Baroness Warsi and Religious Identity | HumanistLife
A timely warning from David Pavett.

How To Edit Wikipedia Part I: Set up your account « Skeptical Software Tools
Tim Farley has started a series on editing Wikipedia. I've previously mentioned that this is something I've considered, but been daunted by its apparent complexity. A series of tutorials will be very welcome.

No blood on the carpet. How disappointing. [Also in Polish] - Richard Dawkins - -
Dawkins' (oft-stated) agnosticism surprises no-one who's actually read his books or listened to what he says.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Skepticule Extra 020

Skepticule Extra 021 will be with you shortly, but meanwhile why not listen to number 20, in which the three Pauls talk about blasphemy, ghosts, and the posthumous baptism of atheists by morons  Mormons — amongst other things. The episode also features an interview with Hayley Stevens about the ethics of ghost hunting (the subject of her talk at the CFIUK Beyond the Veil conference).

Go on, you know you want to.

Did L. Ron Hubbard take lessons from St. Paul?

And so we come to the end of the penultimate section in Dembski and Licona's Evidence for God. The section entitled The Question of Jesus ends with "Did Paul Invent Christianity?" by Ben Witherington III, and I can't help thinking it's a filler as it doesn't seem to be relevant to any matter of evidence.

Be that as it may, what does Witherington have to say about the idea that Christianity was invented by Paul?
One can say that Paul was a catalyst which helped lead the Jesus movement out of Judaism and into being its own religious group. Paul was not the inventor of Christianity, but in some senses he was its midwife, being most responsible for there being a large number of Gentiles entering this sectarian group and not on the basis of becoming Jews first (i.e. having to keep kosher, be circumcised, keeping the Sabbath) which in turn changed the balance of power in the movement everywhere in the empire except in the Holy Land.
Saying that Paul was in some sense Christianity's midwife seems to be just another way of responding to the question with "Yes." Other passages in this chapter appear to confirm this:
At the end of the day, Paul's view of the Mosaic law and whether it should be imposed on Christians most clearly reveals that Paul understood that being in Christ meant something more and something different from being "in Judaism". This is why in an elaborate argument in Galatians Paul compares the Mosaic law to a child minder or a nanny, who was meant to oversee the people of God until they came of age, but now that Jesus has come they are not under that supervisor any more (see Gal. 4). Paul even goes so far as to say that one of the main reasons Jesus came born under the law was to redeem those under the law out from under its sway (see Gal. 4:5). Those under the law are seen as being in bondage to it, until Christ came and redeemed them. Now this is clearly enough sectarian language, the language of a split-off group from Judaism. Paul insists in Galatians 2:21 that a person could be set right, or kept right with God by the observance of the Mosaic law then "Christ died for nothing." He even urges his converts "every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law" (Gal. 5:3 NIV). This is also why, in a salvation historical argument in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 he speaks of the Mosaic law, and even the Ten Commandments, as a glorious anachronism, something which was glorious in its day, but which is rapidly becoming obsolete.
Seems like Paul appointed himself high priest and went on to define what it is to be a Christian. In what way is this not inventing Christianity?
In the end, one can say that Paul was a shepherd leading God's people in new directions and through uncharted waters to a new promised land where Jew and Gentile would be united in Christ on the very same basis and with the very same discipleship requirements. Though Paul did not call this end result Christianity, he more than any other of the original apostles was responsible for the birthing of the form of community which was to become the early church. Though he did not invent its doctrines or even its ethics, he most consistently applied its truths until a community that comported with these truths emerged.
Notwithstanding that last sentence, the answer to Witherington's question — based on the arguments in this chapter — seems to be "Pretty much."

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Am I no true atheist?

I'm a bit worried about my credentials as an atheist ("gnu" or otherwise). I know who the Four Horsemen are, but I couldn't tell you which came first (was it Dennett or Harris?). Off the top of my head I can't give you the entire URL for Pharyngula, nor can I reliably list all the hosts of the Atheist Experience TV show. I know there were lots of historical figures who professed atheism, but I certainly couldn't list them.

As if these failings weren't serious enough, I find I'm also unable to recite the full title of Charles Darwin's seminal work known for short as The Origin. Surely no true atheist would fail so miserably at declaring atheism's central dogmas?

Oh wait. Atheism has no dogmas, so I've nothing to declare but my lack of belief in a god or gods.

In an amusing but spurious bit of table-turning, this morning Richard Dawkins found himself being put on the spot by Giles Fraser on the Today Programme. Dawkins was unable to reel off the The Origin's full title when challenged to do so, and for this embarrassing blanking of mind in the heat of a live radio discussion some Christians have unjustly accused him of hypocrisy.

To those Christians I would say you're missing the point. Listen to the radio piece itself:

Here's the Today Programme's page on it:
Research carried out by for a secularist foundation has suggested that most of those who describe themselves as Christian in Britain have only a low level of belief and practice of the religion.

A poll carried out by Ipsos-Mori for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science indicated that half of those in Britain who say they are Christian rarely go to church while nearly 60% do not read the Bible.

Prof Richard Dawkins, founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, told the Today programme's Justin Webb that most people who call themselves Christian merely "tick the Christian box".

When asked whether the figures told us anything of use, Professor Dawkins insisted it "told us an awful lot" because it puts into doubt the place of Christian practices in society such as bishops in House of Lords and the presence of faith schools.

However Reverend Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's, called the findings "extraordinary" and maintained that it was not fair to trump people's "self identification" as Christians.

He said that "there are all sorts of ways to express Christianity" and that we should not be "purging religion from the public square".
Dawkins' fumbling with The Origin's full title was cringe-making but irrelevant, and here's why. Charles Darwin's On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection — Or The Preservation Of Favoured Races In The Struggle For Life is not a sacred text. Dawkins might have been expected, given his area of expertise, to rise to Fraser's challenge, but the fact that on this occasion he was unable to do so means nothing more than that he had a temporary memory lapse. Such lapses are not unusual — most people have them. This particular lapse doesn't mean that Dawkins isn't a "true atheist", nor does it mean the points he was making aren't valid.

Giles Fraser tried, as religionists often do, to make atheism and Christianity somehow equivalent — two sides of the same coin. They're not. Christianity has sacred scripture containing common beliefs about supernatural events and persons, along with "moral" laws and "moral" guidance. Atheism has none of these things. All atheism has is lack of belief in any deity.

The survey in question, however, shows that a majority of people who self-identify as Christians don't meet the criteria that Christianity is commonly taken to involve. They don't know the scripture, they don't hold the beliefs and they don't follow the guidance. Their self-identification should not, therefore, be taken by policy-makers as an indication that a majority of people hold to Christian beliefs, when clearly they don't. There are religious factions in government, however, who seem so desperate to preserve religion's disproportionate influence, they are willing to misrepresent what people believe.

Giles Fraser claims it's unfair to say that people who self-identify as Christians are not really Christian just because they don't know the scripture, don't hold the beliefs and don't follow the guidance. In effect he's saying that just because people who are atheists in all but name still self-identify as Christian, it's unfair to describe them as not Christian. Maybe he's right; people should be allowed to call themselves whatever they want. But this shouldn't give the government an excuse to impose "Christian" laws on a population who, despite what they say, are clearly not Christian in the generally accepted meaning of the term.

And if atheists have no dogmas, can't recite a creed, and don't read Darwin — this too is no excuse for imposing "Christian" law.

Monday 13 February 2012

Burnee links for Monday

Jack of Kent: Lord Carey's "Terrifying Prospect"
David Allen Green comments on Lord Carey's knotted underwear.

God squad weighs in over NSS’s successful challenge to council prayers
A good summary. The God squad is right to worry that the secular nature of government is at last being confirmed, because it will inevitably reduce religion's influence — and that's a good thing.

The Archbishop and Science - steve's posterous
"There is no scientifically moderate theism." I've heard so-called religious moderates claim that the world, the universe, right down to the level of fundamental particles, is not just created but sustained by God, as if a momentary distraction might cause him to lose track of some intricate maintenance he is meticulously attending to, thus allowing some untold physical catastrophe to occur. It's truly amazing what even religious moderates will claim to believe.

The scale of the universe (enhanced) | HumanistLife
Follow the link on that site. Really, follow it — you'll be amazed. It's the Total Perspective Vortexflash version.

Christian hotel owners lose appeal against discrimination ruling
A victory for fairness and non-discrimination in business.

Burden of proof

Does the sandwich exist?

I can see it in front of me. "The sandwich exists," I'm told. And there it is. While I'm looking at it I might want to consider the possibility that despite what I see, and what I'm told, the sandwich does not, in fact, exist.

On the whole, though, I believe the sandwich exists.

But what if, while I sit here looking at it, someone comes along and tells me that the sandwich does not exist? I point at the sandwich, but this person vehemently denies the existence of the sandwich. I shake my head and say, "I believe the sandwich exists." I can see it, touch it, smell it, even eat it (though this last option will, I can tell, have implications for the continued existence of the sandwich). This person — this sandwich denier — then proceeds to explain to me that the sandwich does not exist, and proves it by gesturing a hand through what I thought was the sandwich. The sandwich, it turns out, is not a sandwich but a hologram. I have to concede, therefore, that the sandwich that I thought existed does not, in fact, exist.

Hold on a minute! It may be a hologram, but it's a hologram of a sandwich. The sandwich itself must exist somewhere, for this holographic projection of it to be here. Not so, explains the sandwich denier. The hologram was made by a clever graphic artist with access to some impressive aromagraphic technology. The sandwich itself does not exist.

Whether I cease to believe in the existence of the sandwich as a result of this exchange is neither here nor there. The point is, I had very good evidence that the sandwich did, in fact, exist. The sandwich denier wanted to convince me that it didn't exist, and shouldered the burden of proof to do so.

Let's take another example. Does God exist?

I don't see him. I don't experience any of those things theists describe as revelation. I look at the natural world and see the results of unguided natural processes. There are many things about the world I don't understand and can't explain, but none of these mysteries is made clearer by the suggestion that God had a part in them. In most cases the addition of a deity/creator only adds paradox and makes things more difficult to explain.

Nevertheless, while I'm looking at the natural world I might want to consider the possibility that despite the lack of evidence for his existence, God does, in fact, exist. Anyone wishing to convince me that God exists would need to provide the evidence that so far I haven't encountered. But in the absence of such evidence I feel no obligation to provide counter evidence. Unlike the sandwich that sits in front of me — apparently physical evidence of its own existence — God is not manifest in any comparable way, and therefore does not need to be disproved.

On the whole, therefore, I don't believe God exists.

So what was I feeling when I touched the sandwich? Was my cognition, and my reporting of it, biased by my presupposition about the existence of the sandwich...?

Saturday 11 February 2012

Atheism 2.0 — fundamentally misconceived

Alain de Botton wants to take what he sees as the "good" things of religion and borrow them for atheism. He particularly likes religious buildings, which he seems to think provide examples of something that "atheism" — as some kind of movement — could usefully build. The problem with this approach is that it appears to accept the notion that atheism as a "thing" is in the same category as that other thing — religion.

It's not. According to the definition of religion is this:
a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
Atheism on the other hand is not that. It's not a set of beliefs, it's the absence of belief in a god or gods. It involves no devotional or ritual observances, and says nothing at all about a moral code. Whatever religion is, atheism is not that.

Alain de Botton seems to regret that atheism is not that, and while he wouldn't accept the superhuman agency he seems to want to co-opt some of the "devotional and ritual observances".

On Justin Brierley's Unbelievable? radio programme today Alain de Botton stated that he doesn't really care for the nitty gritty details of science, and it seems that this barely concealed disdain for the hard facts of reality could be at the root of his less-than-rigorous approach to truth — an approach that sets him apart from other philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and A. C. Grayling. And of course Alain de Botton is far too nice to come out with full-blown condemnation of religious belief like Richard Dawkins and his ilk are wont to do. (His niceness was on full display in his conversation with James Orr today, but he was, almost literally, on his own ground.)

Alain de Botton already appears to be borrowing aspects of religion, such as the insistence that an absence of religion will inevitably leave a void requiring to be filled. This is not so, in the same way that removing a cancerous tumour from the body does not require something in its place.

His idea that there ought to be a community for atheists seems to me — someone who has not read his book — to be fundamentally misguided. There is already a community for atheists and people of a secular humanist turn of worldview; it's called humanity. We secular humanists (I count myself among them) can do what others do when when they don't go to church, such as attend or partake in sports, go down the pub, go to the movies, theatre, sightseeing, evening classes, quiz nights, museums, art galleries — or even skeptics conferences if we are so inclined.

All of these are communities of different kinds; pick one (or more) as you like. There's no need for something to serve as an ersatz church.

Alain de Botton gave a TED talk recently on the theme of his book:

Illustrating a bad influence in American politics — BBC Radio 4

Beyond Belief, BBC Radio 4's discussion programme about faith matters, was this week about the Republican nomination for US presidential candidate. Here's the blurb from the Radio 4 website:
What role does religion play in the race for the Republican nomination for the White House?

Ernie Rea is joined by Bob Vander Plaats, head of "The Family Leader" pressure group, Boo Tyson from "Coalition Mainstream" and Dr Alexander Smith from Huddersfield University. Together they assess the influence of the Religious Right on Republican politics, and whether Americans might be ready for a Mormon president.
Some of the talk was sensible, and some was just idiotic. The dire straits of America's so-called "separation of church and state" was amply illustrated by this final exchange in the programme's closing minute, when host Ernie Rae asked each of his guests the same question:
ERNIE RAE: Do you think that a publicly declared atheist could win the presidency at this point in time?

BOO TYSON: No. No I don't, and I think you would be hard pressed to win "dog-catcher" for County Commissioner, much less be the president of the United States, who takes an oath with "under God" in it, and on a Bible.

ALEXANDER SMITH: I suspect not. No. And in fact interestingly, I mean, Ron Paul, who we haven't talked about in this discussion, is probably the closest candidate you could come to who might be described as something of an agnostic. But you know, he's trailing well behind, and obviously isn't much of a prospect.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: I certainly hope not. For us to say that an atheist could lead this country, I sure hope we're not at that point. If we are, I believe God would have every right to remove his blessing from this country.
That last response is precisely what's wrong with religious influence in American politics.

The audio of this programme is available for streaming until the end of the century (or thereabouts):

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Adam Rutherford and the creation of life

Tomorrow evening I'll be at the annual Darwin Day Lecture held by the British Humanist Association. This year it will be delivered by Adam Rutherford:

I attended last year's lecture by Armand Leroi, which was excellent, so I'm looking forward to hearing what, if anything, Adam Rutherford has to say about "Creation". He's known to be provocative when it comes to matters of religious faith, so depending on the audience make-up the Q&A (if there is one) could be lively.

The claims of religious faith are not exempt

The HOTS Bath advertising nonsense seems to have shaken out those wedded to religious privilege. Hayley Stevens has done us all a favour in highlighting it with her ASA complaint.

Brendan O'Neill at the Telegraph seems to be one of the more belligerent fulminators against the ASA's ruling:
This is an outrageous attack on freedom of religion, on the basic right of people to express central tenets of their faith.
Central tenets such as, for instance, homosexuality is an abomination? Or those who don't believe in Jesus/God are destined for "eternal conscious torment"? Or that contraception is an evil worse than AIDS? Granted, these aren't exactly touted around as attractive propositions you might want to try out on the streets around Bath Abbey, but they are as without factual basis as anything promoted by snake-oil salesmen.

You have a recently deceased relative? A central tenet of some religious faith is that God can bring a dead person back to life. Should we allow a religious group to make such a specific claim on the streets of Bath, or anywhere else for that matter? We should not. But by law we must. The ASA covers published advertising only, so any oral claims of resurrection made on the streets are beyond its remit. But apparently HOTS Bath did claim, in their leaflets and on their website, that serious illness can be alleviated by prayer. This is a medical claim, and they provide no acceptable evidence to support it. The ASA was right, therefore, to put a stop to it.

O'Neill is simply illustrating the undeserved privilege religious faith has enjoyed for so long — a privilege built into UK political culture — and which religion in general will try to hang on to for as long as it can.

Elsewhere in the Telegraph Tom Chivers gives the side of sanity:
This isn't an outrageous attack on religion. People are still allowed to believe, and state that they believe, in obvious nonsense like faith healing. But advertising laws can't be redrawn just because someone decides their product is religious; if they make actual empirical medical claims, then they need to be able to provide actual empirical medical evidence.
Personally I'd like to see some actual empirical evidence for religious faith's other claims too.

(Via HumanistLife.)

Sunday 5 February 2012

Burnee links for Sunday

In Antithesis, Vol 2, No. 1
Choosing Hats has published another issue of its apologetics journal. I read Stephen Rodgers' article "The New Atheism, Fast Company, and the Integrity of Doubt". Despite the obscure title the article is engagingly written (if a bit wordy at times — and Rodgers has a fondness for footnotes that leak all over the feet of adjacent pages) but there's little of substance there. Basically his thesis is, "New Atheism? Pfft! We've seen it all before." So that's it folks: to rebut the "Four Horsemen" all you need to do is claim you already have. I do object, however, to Rodgers' maligning the honesty of Sam Harris. Stooping to such low tactics reveals the underlying desperation of the apologetic method.

“It’s Part of their Culture” - Reading Nick Cohen in the light of the Jaipur affair - Richard Dawkins - -
Some "cultures", however, are inherently bad.

UK Advertising Standards Authority try and stop Healing on the Streets | News | Bible Reflections | prayer, healing
HOTS Bath still not getting it.

Anoka, our little blight on the prairie | Pharyngula
Hard to take. But these kids have been ill-served. Children are the future of humanity — don't neglect them.

New Rule: Atheism is not a religion! Unbaptizes Mitt Romney's Dead Father-In-Law! - YouTube
Bill Maher nails Mormon ludicrousness (ludicrity? ludicrosity? whatever...)

The Road to Hell

"What About Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel?"

This is the title of chapter 40 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, and once again it's a chapter that seems to be in the wrong section. I'm currently reading the section titled The Question of Jesus, and this chapter should clearly be in the final section, The Question of the Bible — it is, after all, about the Gospel. True, Michael R. Licona is following on from his previous chapter about whether Jesus is the only path to God, but it nevertheless seems out of place.

That said, this chapter reveals more of the quagmire that Christians stir up for themselves when they insist on taking the Bible as written (or inspired) by the all-powerful creator of the universe. The essence of Licona's thesis here is that there are two types of revelation from God: general revelation and special revelation. (Unbidden, an image of God looking remarkably like Albert Einstein springs to mind.) General revelation is a knowledge of God apparent in Creation (with, naturally, a capital 'C'), and special revelation is a knowledge of God made available through the Gospel. If you reject either of these revelations you're damned to Hell.
According to Romans chapter one, God has made some of his invisible attributes known through the world in which we live. The stars, the sun, the moon, the ocean, and many other wonders of nature were not the work of a bull, a horse, a calf, or a man. These are the products of a cosmic designer of immense intelligence. In Romans chapter 2, Paul tells us that God has instilled basic knowledge of his moral laws in our conscience, so that, instinctively, we know that actions such as rape, murder, stealing, and falsehood are immoral. We all are accountable to God for immoral actions we have committed of varying degrees. Theologians refer to this type of knowledge as general revelation. In other words, given our universe and our conscience, we should be aware that a God of some sort exists and that we have failed to live up to his moral law.
I don't accept the notion that "the world in which we live" is the product of "a cosmic designer of immense intelligence". For me, the evidence for such designer simply isn't as compelling as the evidence for the alternative hypothesis — that the world in which we live is the result of natural processes, without the intervention of a supernatural agent. Therefore, according to Licona, I'm damned even if I never encounter the Gospel.

According to Licona, those who do accept the idea of a cosmic designer, but — for whatever reason — believe that the designer is some deity other than Jesus/God fall into one of two categories: those who have never encountered the Gospel, and those who have. The first category are granted salvation by virtue of their honest, blameless ignorance; the second — sorry, you got the wrong god, despite being shown the right one, so to Hell with your sinful soul.

Several times Licona admits that the Bible doesn't have specific answers to particular questions, and resorts to what he calls speculation. This, it appears, is a code-word for what Christians seem to do quite a lot in their "interpretation" of scripture — that is, they simply make stuff up.
Let’s summarize. We’ve faced the difficult questions pertaining to the fate of those who die without ever having heard the gospel as well as that of babies and the mentally handicapped who lack the mental capacity to understand the gospel. Since the Bible does not directly address either of these questions, speculation pertaining to possible solutions is our only course of action. However, we may look at other situations in which God has acted and get a glimpse into his character. We observed two divine principles: (1) God judges us according to our response to the knowledge about him we are given. At minimal, this knowledge consists of the fact that there is a Creator to whom we will stand accountable for our moral failures. (2) God does not hold accountable those who lack the mental capacity to choose between good and evil.
Licona's two divine principles each appear to be fundamentally problematic: (1) that there is a  Creator is not a fact but a Christian presupposition unsupported by compelling evidence, and (2) according to Genesis God does indeed hold accountable those who lack the mental capacity to choose between good and evil. Adam and Eve were specifically denied the knowledge of good and evil, yet according to the story God still held them accountable, to the extent that their "sin" is visited on every single human being since.

My own take on this "problem" is that it isn't a problem at all, but merely one more part of the obfuscation necessary in attempting to resolve something that doesn't make sense in the first place.

Friday 3 February 2012

Burnee links for Friday

The absurd whiteness of Be Scofield | Pharyngula
PZ Myers is tempted to dismiss yet more bashing of "New Atheists".

The hounding of 'Psychic Sally' is becoming a modern-day witch-hunt – Telegraph Blogs
The hounding of skeptics for their rational demand for evidence in support of extraordinary claims is becoming a modern-day witch-hunt. Witchfinder-General Brendan O'Neill is — at best — apparently happy to let "psychics" spread their delusions to vulnerable people, or — at worst — happy to let known frauds continue to defraud the vulnerable. – The President, the Pill, and Religious Liberty in Peril
This tenor of this article is similar to the attitude of the Catholic Church in the UK — complaining that their religious liberty is infringed, when what they really care about is that they're no longer allowed to discriminate unfairly. But there's another point apparent here. What US law seems to be saying is that employers must provide health insurance, which must include the availability of contraception. Mohler's article is objecting to employers having to pay for something (contraception) that may be against their religious beliefs, but as far as I can tell that is not what will happen. Employers will provide insurance, and that insurance will comply with the law. Employers will not, in fact, be buying contraception, any more than an employer buys the food bought with an employee's salary. If Mohler were a vegetarian and employed someone who wasn't, would he object to his employee buying meat? If Mohler hated football, would he object to his employee buying tickets for a football game? An employer pays an employee for work, skills and experience. What the employee does with the salary is the employee's own affair. If employment law requires an employer to pay for health insurance, any claim the employee makes on that insurance is likewise the employee's own affair.
(Via Chris Bolt.)

The believer’s inner needs | Butterflies and Wheels
Ophelia Benson reads Kenan Malik's talk with which he opened the CFI Blasphemy! Conference.

Too Westernized, secular and progressive to be authentic | Butterflies and Wheels
And goes on reading...

ASA rules against faith-healing claims

First it was the BBC:
Bath Christian group's 'God can heal' adverts banned

A Christian group has been banned from claiming that God can heal illnesses on its website and in leaflets.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said it had concluded that the adverts by Healing on the Streets (HOTS) - Bath, were misleading. It said a leaflet available to download from the group's website said: "Need Healing? God can heal today!" The group, based in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, said it was disappointed with the decision and would appeal. HOTS Bath said its vision was to promote Christian healing "as a daily lifestyle for every believer".
But the BBC was cagey about the origin of the complaint:
The ASA said it had been alerted to the adverts by a complainant, and concluded that they could encourage false hope and were irresponsible. HOTS Bath said: "It seems very odd to us that the ASA wants to prevent us from stating on our website the basic Christian belief that God can heal illness.
It's not odd, it's the law. HOTS Bath may consider it a "basic Christian belief that God can heal illness" but unless they can substantiate that claim they have no business putting it in an ad on a website, and therefore the ASA ruling is correct.

The ASA didn't reveal the identity of the complainant. Said complainant, however, was understandably aggrieved at the statement subsequently placed on the HOTS website:
It appears that the complaint to the ASA was made by a group generally opposed to Christianity, and it seems strange to us that on the basis of a purely ideological objection to what we say on our website, the ASA has decided it is appropriate to insist that we cannot talk about a common and widely held belief that is an important aspect of conventional Christian faith.
Hayley Stevens, well-known skeptic and paranormal investigator — and the complainant in this case — decided to put the record straight on her blog, Hayley is a Ghost, despite the adverse publicity likely to result. This was then taken up by the Bath Chronicle, which quotes Hayley on her reasons for making the complaint to the ASA. Still HOTS Bath fail to understand the issue at hand, illustrating the de facto privileged position religious faith continues to enjoy — and expect — in the UK. They maintain the ASA (and by extension Hayley Stevens herself, as complainant) are objecting to their ideology, when in fact it's a simple matter of evidence for claims made.

The story then appeared on the Daily Mail website, together with an invitation for reader comments. The article itself is reasonably (and unusually) dispassionate — but the comments, as might be expected, are something else.

Hayley Stevens is to be applauded for not only making the complaint in the first place, but also for standing up to be counted despite the unwelcome attention she must have known it would bring.

A short interview with Hayley Stevens, conducted after the recent Beyond the Veil one-day conference at Conway Hall at which she spoke (and before the ASA ruling discussed above), will be featured in the next episode of the Skepticule Extra podcast.

Respect other beliefs (but damn those believers to Hell)

In chapter 39 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, co-editor Michael R. Licona asks, "Is Jesus the Only Way?" — and in the process gets a bit side-tracked, revealing some fundamental inconsistencies with god-belief in general and Christianity in particular.

He begins by quoting the Bible (of course):
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” (John 14:6)
...among other parts, then goes on to claim Jesus's exclusivity in the salvation department by means of his prediction that he would rise from the dead.
This is a pretty good test and differs from those offered by other religions.
It might be pretty good as far as Mike Licona is concerned, but isn't it, at heart, a non sequitur? Will you believe me if I tell you I can get you into Heaven? No? How about if I offer to perform a magic trick — will you believe me now? Resurrection and divinity are too tenuously related, in my opinion, for one to be a guarantee of the other.

Licona grants that literary comparisons of scriptures don't serve to place one above another, so he keeps coming back to the resurrection. This isn't surprising given he has co-written a book about it.
Space does not permit me to provide a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection. Gary Habermas and I have done so in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. If we may assume for the moment that Jesus was truly who he claimed to be, this goes a long way toward reconciling his claim to being the exclusive route to God with the uneasiness it brings.
The "uneasiness" he refers to is the apparent arrogance of Jesus's exclusive claim. But saying "If we may assume for the moment that Jesus was truly who he claimed to be, this goes a long way toward reconciling his claim..." isn't saying much, other than "If we may assume Jesus is the only way to God, then Jesus is the only way to God." Jesus's claim is therefore not arrogant (with its concomitant "uneasiness"), but only if the claim is true — which Licona admits he's simply assuming.

Licona spends some time on the Heaven's Gate cult, extrapolating it to other non-Christian religions. (Personally I feel he could extend his scope to one more religion....)
If we can assess the truth-claims of the Heaven’s Gate religion, we can assess the truth-claims of other religions. Followers of other religions may find that their religious beliefs and practices bring them feelings of peace and hope and give them a purpose for living. In fact, here is a true statement: A number of valuable benefits have been realized by followers of non-Christian religions. However, if Jesus’ claim to be the exclusive way to God is true, then the following statement is false: Muhammad provided an effective way to be acceptable to God. In other words, a religion can be true in a subjective sense while being false in an objective one. I am interested in following religious teachings that are true in both senses.
He may say that, but I get the feeling from this chapter, and indeed the whole book, that everything he and his contributors write is geared not to truth but to confirmation.

Then comes a rather oblique section on the ethics of proselytism, attempting to justify exclusive claims with a so-called respect for other religions (and non-religion). Given the preponderance of special pleading, excuses and spurious rights to non-offence demanded by so many of the religious I find this section not just disingenuous but laughable. Licona then has the gall to come out with this:
Moreover, there are times when truth should not be sacrificed for the sake of avoiding offense. While the Titanic was sinking, since lifeboats were available, it would have been unethical for the crew, in the interest of reducing panic for the moment, to have told all of the passengers to go back to their cabins and sleep through the night because everything would be fine in the morning. Truth is important. Decisions of greater importance should drive us to discover the truth, rather than dilute or deny it in our efforts not to offend, which as we have seen is a no-win situation. However, when sharing our faith with others, Christians should remember to do it “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). We should love others and be graceful in our efforts to share the greatest news ever told.
And to tell them they're heading to Hell if they don't believe.