New year, same drama
This issue marks our 120th year of publication, making New Humanist one of the world's longest-running current affairs journals. The first issue hit the streets in November 1885 as Watts' Literary Guide, and we intend to celebrate the anniversary in style later this year.
On to less celebratory topics: the new Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, shows no sign of backtracking on government plans to make 'incitement to religious hatred' a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison.
'Faith representatives', as the unelected leaders of Britain's religious groups are sometimes called, have gone on record saying they would like to see this law used to ban statements they consider offensive. And government politicians, when pressed to explain exactly who was being targeted by the proposed law and how freedom of speech would be safeguarded, have failed to make the case that this law is really necessary.
One minister, Fiona MacTaggart, even let slip in a radio interview that she hoped the law would have a "chilling effect" on what people say about religion in public, but could not guarantee that the rights of minorities in this country would really be better protected if the legislation came into force.
A chilling effect of a similar kind was produced last month when violent protests occurred outside the Birmingham Repertory Theatre because of a play that depicted rape and abuse in a Sikh gurdwara. The play, Behzti, was written by a Sikh, and the programme went to great lengths to stress the positive aspects of Sikhism.
But that was not enough for the protesters, who called for the show to be ended, a demand which the theatre eventually met out of fear for the safety of the audience and performers.
If the 'incitement to religious hatred' bill is passed, the police officers who protected the theatre from violent protesters may find themselves arresting playwrights and shutting theatres instead effectively doing the mob's work for them.
Interestingly, many other faiths rushed to the side of the Birmingham protesters. The Catholic Church went so far as to suggest that the play was "an offence to all religions" and conspicuously failed to comment on the offence caused to theatregoers, not to mention the injury caused to three policemen and the damage caused to the theatre.
Maybe it is still smarting from a similar case almost a hundred years ago. In 1907 the Abbey Theatre in Dublin witnessed riots at the opening of J M Synge's Playboy of the Western World. The mob objected to the portrayal of rural Irish Catholics as anything other than saints. Nowadays, this once controversial play is on the Irish school curriculum.
Another contentious piece of legislation finally passed the Commons stage last month: it is now up to the House of Lords (bishops and all) to decide whether adults make living wills stating whether or not they wish to have treatment withdrawn should they be irreversibly incapacitated.
This is not, as some of the bill's opponents have claimed, a licence for euthanasia. Rather, it is a recognition of an individual's right to dignity and selfdetermination. In future, relatives and doctors will be spared the agonising dilemma of deciding what is best for terminally ill patients. More importantly, patients will be spared the unnecessary prolonging of suffering.
This is a step in the right direction. We may see, in the not too distant future, the day when a person's right to decide the course of their own life is seen as selfevident.
The end of 2004 was the World Health Organisation's deadline for the eradication of polio. So far, success or failure cannot be predicted, because three years with no new cases of polio have to be documented before victory can be proclaimed.
But according to the chief of the WHO's initiative, Bruce Aylward, it is looking increasingly unlikely the target will be achieved.
The virus is proving particularly difficult to eradicate in three countries: India, Pakistan and Nigeria. Due to high population density and lack of sufficient healthcare facilities they are ideal environments for the virus to spread quickly.
There is another factor hindering the WHO's efforts: superstitious rumours spread by clerics in Nigeria's northern states have led local governments to suspend vaccination programmes. The clerics claim the vaccination is a western plot to harm Africa by giving children AIDS.
This absurd and malicious claim from those who have the most to lose from the advancement, good health and education of the poor is an example of how the quest for a more rational world is as important as ever.