Saturday, 21 January 2017

Call for a secular state

The need for a secular state “has never been greater”, says new report

From the National Secular Society:

A secularist report produced by academics and campaigners has urged the Government to reject calls for more religious privilege.

In late 2015 the Woolf Institute's Commission on Religion and Belief (CORAB) in Public Life published a report which made sweeping recommendations on the role of religion in Britain, with proposals that would have given minority faiths similar privileges to those enjoyed by the Church of England, including seats in the House of Lords.

Just one of CORAB's twenty-one commissioners was from a non-religious organisation and many groups, including the National Secular Society, declined to submit evidence to the Commission over concerns about its unrepresentative membership.

Academics, secularists and campaigners have now produced "A Secularist Response" to the Commission's findings, drawn up by Dr Steven Kettell at the University of Warwick, and based on the deliberations of an expert panel which met last year.

Dr Kettell wrote that the flaws in the CORAB report "are evident from the outset."

Despite acknowledging the decline of religion, along with the rise of non-religion and the growing diversity of religion and belief in Britain, CORAB sought to promote an enhanced and more prominent role for faith in British public life.

Secular voices were also given insufficient weight.

With a growing proportion of Britons now identifying as non-religious, and with levels of cultural pluralism and diversity on the rise, the need for a political and legal system capable of giving equal weight and recognition to all citizens has never been greater.
CORAB's 37 recommendations were "at odds with the realities of modern British society," the response says, and a new path is needed to recognise growing pluralism, diversity and secularisation.

Instead of the multi-faith approach taken by CORAB, the secularist response advocates "a secular state, impartial to all systems of religion" to guarantee "equality for all citizens" and as "the best mean of fostering a free, inclusive and democratic society".

No religious group should be given "an automatic right to representation in Parliament," the response says, in contrast with the Woolf Commission's call for imams and rabbis to join Anglican bishops.

Dr Kettell's response echoes recent proposals made by the National Secular Society in its new report, 'Rethinking religion and belief in public life: a manifesto for change', which also rebutted recommendations made by the Woolf Commission.

Where the Woolf Commission did make nods towards secular reforms, in line with Britain's largely irreligious population, they were typically limited in scope and practicality. On faith schools, the Commission simply said that leaders should "take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion".

Both Dr Kettell's response and the NSS' manifesto call for an end to faith schools.

CORAB "fails to engage" with the debate around religion and education, Dr Kettell wrote and neither justifies the presence of faith schools in the state sector, not provides "any empirical evidence in defence of faith schools themselves."

The new secularist response also said that current levels of support for faith schools looked "set to unwind as the secularisation of British society increases and as the intake of faith schools themselves becomes increasingly secular", a situation which is "likely to become increasingly untenable."

Speaking at the Report's launch at London's Shard, National Secular Society executive director, Keith Porteous Wood, said: 
The need to implement the noble secularist principle of equality for all irrespective of religion or belief becomes all the more pressing as society becomes less religious and more diverse. But too many institutions seem hell-bent on obstructing that equality.
You can read the full report here.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The urgent need of full global access to birth control

By Joe McCarthy Global Citizen:

It will take an estimated $8.1 billion annually, a bargain when you consider it could keep the global population from growing a few billion in size.

Currently, there are 7.4 billion people on Earth. By 2100 there could be 12.3 billion humans.

That’s not just an extra 5 billion people in today’s terms. As the global middle class grows, people demand more meat, more clothing, more cars, more air conditioning, and more. All of this limits how much the Earth can create annually.

Already, humans take out more resources each year than the Earth can credibly replenish. It’s putting a strain on everything from fish populations to grape fields and it’s pushing the world into what scientists are calling the 6th extinction.

So can anything be done to address this?

Well, a once-trendy (if controversial) idea is being dusted off as a solution. To combat the frightening rise in consumption, many conservationists are calling for population control.

If population growth slows, the argument goes, then we can solve existing problems, rather than face even worse problems.

Theoretically, this wouldn’t be hard to accomplish.

The first step would be providing universal and always-available contraceptives to people, especially women.

Right now, 800 million women who want contraceptives cannot get them. In developing countries, the rate of women deprived of contraceptives can be as high as 60%.

If access to contraceptives is provided to developing nations, the effect would be tremendous. From 2011 to 2012, the developing world accounted for 97% of global population growth. The developing world is also experiencing the sharpest increase in consumption patterns.

Of course, you can’t simply airdrop supplies. There has to be a coordinated educational effort and support system that teaches the usefulness of birth control and challenges cultural norms that stand in the way to adoption.

To accomplish this, it will take an estimated $8.1 billion annually, a bargain when you consider it could keep the global population from growing a few billion in size. As a comparison, it will cost nearly $30 trillion for the world to fully switch to renewable energy, according to one estimate.

The next, longer-term step involves broader female education and empowerment.

According to Niki Rust and Laura Kehoe for Quartz, “By simply providing better female education, the overall population in 2050 could be 1 billion less than current projections.”

This makes sense when you think about it.

When a girl receives a full education, she is more likely to delay marriage, invest in her career and appreciate the value of independence. She is also more likely to understand the importance of birth control and how to navigate the barriers that prevent her from obtaining it.

Underlying all of this is not a desire to suppress family size. Instead, it’s a belief that environments around the world can be best conserved through population control.

By suspending the amount of resources that people need, the strain put on the Earth can stay flat and other solutions—like reforestation and renewable energy technologies—can be more effective as a result.

There are critics who say the benefits of population control can only be realized many, many generations down the line. They argue that the momentum of growth has become too steep for birth controls to have immediate effects, and by the point they do make a difference, it will be too late.

Also, population may not even be the main driver of consumption. Rising affluence could be the chief culprit, something that will increase with or without checks on population.

In this case, cities that are more efficiently designed, a shift toward plant-based diets and ending fossil fuel dependence should be the primary goals.

Regardless, it seems clear that population control has to be a part of any global plan to combat environmental degradation and climate change.

There’s only so much space on this planet, and humans are not the only creatures that have a rightful claim to some of that space.

Monday, 16 January 2017

'Race' is a Social Construct

What Scientists Mean When They Say ‘Race’ Is Not Genetic
A new paper explains why it can be dangerous to think otherwise.

By Jacqueline Howard Senior Science Editor, The Huffington Post

STOCKBYTE/GETTY IMAGESRace is a social construct, researchers say.

If a team of scientists in Philadelphia and New York have their way, using race to categorize groups of people in biological and genetic research will be forever discontinued.

The concept of race in such research is “problematic at best and harmful at worst,” the researchers argued in a new paper published in the journal Science on Friday.

However, they also said that social scientists should continue to study race as a social construct to better understand the impact of racism on health.

So what does all this mean? HuffPost Science recently posed that question and others to the paper’s co-author, Michael Yudell, who is associate professor and chair of community health and prevention at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University in Philadelphia. 

Why is it problematic to view race as a biological concept?

For more than a century, natural and social scientists have been arguing about whether race is a useful classificatory tool in the biological sciences — can it elucidate the relationship between humans and their evolutionary history, between humans and their health. In the wake of the U.S. Human Genome Project, the answer seemed to be a pretty resounding “no.”

In 2004, for example, Francis Collins, then head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and now director of the National Institutes of Health, called race a “flawed” and “weak” concept and argued that science needed to move beyond race. Yet, as our paper highlights, the use of race persist in genetics, despite voices like Collins, like Craig Venter — leaders in the field of genomics — who have called on the field to move beyond it. 

We believe it is time to revisit this century-long debate and bring biologists, social scientists and scholars from the humanities together in a constructive way to find better ways to study the ever-important subject of human diversity.

The race concept should be removed from genetics research for the following reasons: Genetic methods do not support the classification of humans into discrete races, [and] racial assumptions are not good biological guideposts. Races are not genetically homogenous and lack clear-cut genetic boundaries. And because of this, using race as a proxy to make clinical predictions is about probability.

Of course, medicine can be about best guesses, but are we serving patients well if medical decisions are made because a patient identifies as part of a certain racial group or are identified as belonging to a specific race? What if, for example, the probability is that if you are white you are 90 percent likely to have a beneficial or at least non-harmful reaction to a particular drug? That sounds pretty good, but what if you are that 1 in 10 that is likely to have a harmful reaction? That doesn’t sound so good, and that is the problem with most race-based predictions. They are best guesses for an individual.

We also believe that a variable so mired in historical and contemporary controversy has no place in modern genetics. Race has both scientific and social meanings that are impossible to tease apart, and we worry that using such a concept in modern genetics does not serve the field well.
We hope that our paper spurs scientists to rethink the use of race in human genetic research.
Michael Yudell, researcher in the fields of ethics, genomics and public health

Based on your research, what is race?

Genetics has long struggled with the definition of race. In the first decades of the 20th century, race was defined by discrete types, the belief that one member of a race was thought to share the same physical and social traits with other members of that race. In these early ideas about race, races generally mapped onto continental populations. Beginning in the 1930s, with the rise of modern population genetics and evolutionary biology, race was reimagined in the context of evolutionary biology and population genetics. Instead of racial groups being fixed between continents, the race concept was a way to understand the frequency of individual genes in different human populations.

In this way, race was a methodological tool that biologists could utilize to study human genetic diversity that did not reflect an underlying hierarchy between human populations. This was simply about gene frequencies between groups. And it is this understanding of race that is still largely the way modern science understands the term.

But the scientist who helped rethink race in the 1930s and 1940s — the great evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Russia-trained scientist who spent most of his career at Columbia University — would later in his career voice concern that the use of the race concept in biology had “floundered in confusion and misunderstanding.

ANONYMOUS/APRosa Parks, known as as the “mother of the civil rights movement,” arriving at circuit court 
to be arraigned in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956.

In the 1950s, Dobzhansky was moved by factors, both internal and external to science, to call into question the utility of racial classifications. The rise of the civil rights movement, the appropriation of biological conceptions of race to counter civil rights advances, and his own disputes with colleagues over the imprecise and sometimes inappropriate use of the term race led him to call on biologists to develop better methods for investigating human genetic diversity.

The problem today is that modern genetics is stuck in a paradox that reflects Dobzhansky’s own struggle with the race concept: both believing race to be a tool to elucidate human genetic diversity, and believing that race is a poorly defined marker of that diversity and an imprecise proxy for the relationship between ancestry and genetics. This paradox is rooted in the nature of the field. Like Dobzhansky, we and many others in genetics, anthropology and the social sciences have called on scientists to devise better methods to improve the study of human genetic diversity. The field is still trying to respond to Dobzhansky, and we hope that our paper spurs scientists to rethink the use of race in human genetic research.

Race also, of course, has social meanings. And by suggesting that race is not a useful tool for classifying humans, we do not mean to say that somehow race is not real. Race is, of course, real. We live in a country and a world where skin color has long been used as a way to systematize discrimination and brutality.

But that is not what we are arguing in this paper. We are arguing simply that race is not a useful tool to study human genetic diversity and that there is potential harm in doing so. We acknowledge in the paper that using race as a political or social category to study racism and its biological effects, although fraught with challenges, remains necessary.

For example, we need to continue to study how structural inequities and discrimination produce health disparities between groups. Your race can impact your health, but your genetics is not a good window into how race affects your health. This line of thinking goes all the way back to the sociologist and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was the first to synthesize data from anthropology and the social sciences to conclude, for example, that race-based disparities stem from social, not biological, inequalities.

How would you explain some of the differences that we see between various groups and the prevalence of certain genetic diseases, such as sickle cell anemia in the African-American community?

That’s a great example. Sickle cell is not an African-American or African disease, although it occurs in higher frequency in these populations. But this is not a racial difference; it is a matter of ancestry, geography and evolution. Sickle-cell occurs in higher frequency in populations from regions of the world where malaria is or once was common, as sickle cell is a disease that is an evolutionary adaptation to exposure to malaria.

The sickle-cell trait is believed to be protective against malaria. Thus, sickle-cell disease is at its highest frequency in West Africans and people of West African descent. But this trait is not common in other regions of Africa, where malaria is not as prevalent. Therefore, it is not an “African” disease. Sickle cell also appears in other regions of the globe, in other human populations, including populations in the Mediterranean Basin, the Arabian Peninsula, and on the Indian subcontinent, where these populations also saw this adaptation to resist malaria. 

How is race currently used in genetics research?

Race is used widely in human biological research and clinical practice to elucidate the relationship between our ancestry and our genes. In the laboratory, race can be used to investigate disease-causing genes within and between populations, and, more generally to classify groups in studies of human populations. Race is also used clinically to inform decisions about a patient’s risk for certain diseases and to help predict how one might metabolize drugs.

Some scientists have argued that relevant genetic information can be seen at the racial level; that race is the best proxy we have for examining human genetic diversity. Other scientists have concluded race is neither a relevant nor accurate way to understand or map human genetic diversity. Finally, others have argued that race-based predictions in clinical settings, because of the heterogeneous nature of racial groups, are of questionable use. So, despite a widespread use of race in scientific and clinical research, race is the most controversial tool for making sense of human diversity that scientists have at their disposal.

We would prefer the field of genetics use concepts like ancestry instead of race in human studies. It is important to distinguish ancestry from race. Ancestry is a process-based concept that helps us understand the admixing events that lead to one’s existence. Ancestry is also a statement about an individual’s relationship to other individuals in their genealogical history. Thus, it is a very personal understanding of one’s genomic heritage.

Race, on the other hand, is a pattern-based concept that has led scientists and laypersons alike to draw conclusions about a hierarchical organization of humans, connecting an individual to a larger, preconceived, geographically circumscribed or socially constructed group.

Your race can impact your health, but your genetics is not a good window into how race affects your health.

Michael Yudell, researcher in the fields of ethics, genomics and public health

With that being said, are some of the biological concepts of race used in genetics research examples of scientific racism?

Unlike earlier disagreements concerning race and biology, today’s discussions generally lack clear ideological and political antipodes of “racist” and “non-racist.” Most discussions today about race among scientists concern examination of differences between groups with the goal of understanding human evolutionary history, and the relationship between our genes and our health with the goal of determining the best course of medical treatments. However, this doesn’t mean that the race concept in biology can’t be used to support racism.

An example of this is the concern many had in the wake of Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance, which made claims about the genetic basis of social differences between races. Wade’s book forced a large group of leading genetics to publicly refute the idea that genetics supported such ideas. Other examples include outrageous and incorrect claims about the relationship between race, genetics and intelligence.

What will it require to take race out of human genetics?

Well, we make two proposals in our paper. The first is that we call upon journals to encourage the use of alternative variables to study human genetic diversity and to rationalize their use. Journals should require scientists publishing in their pages to clearly define how they are using such variables in order to allow scientists to understand and interpret data across studies and would help avoid confusing, inconsistent and contradictory usage of such terms. This has been tried before, but only in piecemeal fashion, making sustained change unfeasible.

We also recognize that the use of terms changes nothing if the underlying racial thinking remains the same. But we believe that language matters and that the scientific language of race has a considerable influence on how the public understands human diversity.

Second, we are calling upon the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene an interdisciplinary panel of experts to help the field improve the study of human genetic diversity.

As an honest broker in science policy, the Academies can play a constructive role in bringing together natural scientists, social scientists and scholars from the humanities to find ways to study human genetic diversity that do not recapitulate the confusion and potential harm that comes with using the race concept.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

Adam Rutherford's new book, on the miracle of human genetics, is not merely informative, but wise.

By Andrew Mueller from New Humanist:

This article is a preview from the Winter 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes (W&N) by Adam Rutherford

The odds against you existing are astonishing. Every person reading this – every person not reading this, for that matter – is the consequence of a chain of meetings and matings reaching back over aeons. We can probably afford to be a little forgiving of those who, contemplating such awesome improbabilities, perceive the qualities of miracle.

Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is his second book-length fathoming of the unfathomable, following 2013’s excellent Creation: The Origin of Life / The Future of Life. In both books, Rutherford is an engaging and accessible narrator, able to deploy his expertise as a torch with which to illuminate a complicated subject. He is also often very funny, alive to the absurd lengths to which humans are willing to go in order to disbelieve the facts.

Rutherford’s particular expertise is genetics, and his purpose in A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is twofold. First and foremost, to provide a layperson’s guide to the basics of, and recent advances in, his field. Secondly, to demonstrate that almost everything on the subject that one might read in the popular press is at best lazily misconstrued, and at worst wilful, meretricious hogwash. On the latter subject, there is surely a case that poor science reporting is a worse journalistic felony than poor political reporting, as science, unlike politics, is not a realm in which the facts can be altered by opinions. The magnitude of the problem is neatly illustrated in the paragraphs in which Rutherford recalls being taken to lunch by a TV producer working on a programme pondering whether humans will ever evolve to be capable of unassisted flight. Spoiler alert: they won’t.

Rutherford’s core message here – and he is well entitled to the weary, sighing “despite what you may have read” in the introduction – is that genetics, especially recent research into DNA, is not destiny. It will not tell you whether you, or your children, are more or less likely to turn out genius or dunce, gay or straight, conservative or communist, astronaut or trouser-press salesman, upright citizen or chainsaw murderer. It will, however, tell you a great deal about who you are, and how you got here.

This is, inevitably, a singularly ripping yarn. Rutherford superbly narrates not merely our species’ progress from our original African heartland, but also the discoveries and advances which have allowed us to map that journey retrospectively. He has a keen eye for the arresting factoid that underpins the broader concept: any reader with even a smattering of European ancestry will be able to henceforth assume the airs and graces of royal descent upon absorbing Rutherford’s explanation of how they are almost statistically certain to be literally descended from Charlemagne.

Most useful is Rutherford’s elegant demonstration that notions of differing genetic predisposition to qualities or defects among races are nonsense: Native Americans have no inbuilt tendency to alcoholism, a Jew is no more likely to suffer “the Jewish disease”, Tay-Sachs syndrome, than a French Canadian, black people are not innately superior athletes. It can only warm the humanistically inclined heart that the more we learn about our origins and our make-up, the clearer it becomes that any tilt in the playing field was built by us, and is therefore ours to dismantle.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is not merely informative but wise. It may well be that the sheer mind-boggling unlikeliness of our genesis, both as a species and as individuals, is what has driven successive generations of humankind to construct elaborate mythologies insisting that we are the carefully wrought masterpiece of some omnipotent creator, rather than the beneficiaries of a cosmically meaningless fluke. Rutherford believes, correctly, that humility might be a more appropriate response to our good fortune. A laminated copy of one of his aphorisms should be issued to every child at birth. “We are all special,” he writes, “which also means that none of us is.”

This article was brought to you by New Humanist, a quarterly journal of ideas, science and culture. To support our journalism, please subscribe.

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Sunday, 15 January 2017

So what is the "alt-right"?

The alt-right is old fascism in new clothes

by Fintan O'Toole of the Irish Times

Like most viruses, fascism adapts to changing environments and it’s just as deadly

A protest in Los Angeles against the appointment, by Donald Trump, of white nationalist 
alt-right media mogul Steve Bannon as chief strategist of the White House. 
Photograph: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

To call the self-styled “alt-right” neo-fascist is a bit of an exaggeration. But the overstatement doesn’t lie in the fascist part. It’s the neo that is a bit of a stretch. Like most viruses, fascism adapts itself to changing environments. We should not expect it to look the same in a 21st century globalised liberal democracy as it looked in traumatised European societies struggling with the aftermath of the first World War and the onset of the Great Depression.

To that extent, the forms it is now taking are largely novel – it has adapted to different political and historical circumstances and to radically new technologies (most obviously the power of social media). But the novelty lies in the forms, not in the content; in the medium rather than in the message.

So of course the signifiers of fascism in its earlier manifestations are largely (though not entirely) absent: the uniformed vanguards, the street battles, the highly developed sense of public theatre. The gang mentality is, for the moment at least, generated more easily online than in physical reality. But these surface changes are surely less important than the underlying continuities.

There are six important ways in which the current version of fascism is fully loyal to the tradition from which it comes.

The enemy within

The first and second are closely intertwined: the belief that everything is defined by membership of a “racial” group and the belief that the relationship between these “racial” groups is inevitably a struggle to the death for supremacy. Because “race” is such a slippery and ultimately nonsensical concept, it can be refigured as a religious or ethnic identity. Thus, both the United States and Europe are white and Christian and these white Christians are in an existential conflict with the Others: Muslims, blacks, Latinos.

History is a zero sum game – either we subjugate them or they will subjugate us. The alt-right takes this social Darwinist mindset directly from classic fascism. Its logic, now as in the 1930s, is eliminationist: they must go and if they won’t go we have to get rid of them.

The third continuity is the enemy within. Fascism is deeply embroiled with the psychology of treason, the stab in the back, the cancer in our own ranks. The big, existential enemies – the Muslims, the black and brown people – are only doing what their evolutionary racial instincts require them to do. It is their nature to want to subjugate us. But it is white liberals, through their weakness and misplaced tolerance, that have allowed them to swamp us. Hence liberals and their false gods of tolerance, inclusivity and equality, are especially despicable. To win the existential war against the race enemy, we must first purge those apostates on our own side who are sapping our will to fight. These attitudes are as essential to alt-right discourse as they were to fascism in the 1930s.

From sexual neurotic to man-god

Fourth, there is the sexual pathology. Fascism reeks of male self-pity. It has always been deeply attractive to men who are insecure about their own sexuality and in particular their relationships to women. It is a magic formula for transforming the sexual neurotic into a man-god. The alt-right world is a masturbatory fantasy in which men who are afraid of women get to assert absolute power over them. It is no accident that the pathetic sexual insecurity of Donald Trump’s crude boasting about assaults on women did him no harm with his followers – on the contrary, they could see themselves in him.

Fifth, there is the devotion to lies. Fascists have always understood that lying is not just (as it is for many conventional politicians) a tactic. It is a strategy. It is not merely about evading an inconvenient reality. It is about constructing a whole new “reality”. Alt-right should properly be alt-reality. Its primary business is the construction of a parallel world that looks like its own dark fantasies. Again, this justifies a special hatred for anyone who can challenge this construct: decadent eggheads, experts, the lamestream media. The playbook for this strategic lying has been updated for the social media age but the 1930s first editions are still the templates.


Sixth, rather weirdly, there is anti-Semitism. The persistence of anti-semitism in the alt-right is very telling precisely because it makes no political sense. In the US, there is a well established alliance between the hard right and the extremes of Israeli politics so there is nothing to be gained by supping this fetid stew. Yet the alt-right just can’t help itself: the final TV ad in Trump’s triumphant campaign featured three Jews (George Soros, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein) as the dark manipulators of the global financial system. Anti-semitism is in the DNA of the fascist virus.

The biggest difference between classic fascism and the alt-right is simply the stage of development. We understand the consequences of the old fascist movements because they came to power. The alt-right has more than a foothold in power, but it is not yet in a position to fully construct a reality adequate to its own toxic idiocy. Its strength means that it is not too early to be alarmed; its weakness means that it is not too late to fight.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Flight 666 to HEL on Friday the 13th Has Landed Safely

by Hemant Mehta from Friendly Atheist

Saying that a flight from Copenhagen to Helsinki went without incident wouldn't have been newsworthy at all, so let's all celebrate the fact that Flight 666 to HEL somehow didn't crash on Friday the 13th.

Britain has no national religious identity, say 18 to 24s

From the National Secular Society:

A ComRes poll has found that a plurality of 18 to 24 year olds believe Britain is a country "without a specific religious identity."

Just 31% of the youngest cohort believed Britain to be a Christian country, and 41% told pollsters it did not have a national religion.

On the other end of the scale, ComRes found that 74% of over 65s thought Britain was still a Christian country, though 20% of this group said it did not have any religious identity.

In each successively younger cohort the percentage of those answering "Britain is a Christian country" fell and the number saying Britain was a country without a "specific religious identity" rose.

NSS campaigns director Stephen Evans said: 

Britain today is one of the most religiously diverse and non-religious countries on earth. The national church is in seemingly terminal decline and it seems clear that rather than aspiring to be 'Christian country', we should be setting our sights on becoming an inclusive secular state in which people of all faiths and none can live together on an equal footing.
Half of the poll's respondents aged between 18 and 24 said they had no religion. Out of 238 respondents in this age bracket just 67 said they were Christian, compared with 121 "nones".

Mr Evans added: 

When they are handing religious groups more control over the state education system the Government should bear in mind that both parents and pupils are among the least religious cohorts in our society.
The National Secular Society recently published a major report calling for reforms to education, the law and the state to reflect Britain's increasingly religiously disinterested society.

Godless Norwich

Where is the world's most 'godless' city?

by John Keenan in the Guardian:

Norwich has the highest proportion of residents describing themselves as having no religion, while Berlin has been called the ‘atheist capital of Europe’. But what about the rest of the world? And is such an assessment meaningful?


Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton wants to build a £1m ‘temple for atheists’ in London. 
Photograph: Thomas Greenall & Jordan Hodgson

Discovering how many people in a given city believe in God (or not) is an almost superhuman task. In territories controlled or influenced by Islamic State, for example, the risks to declared non-believers are drastic and obvious. On the other side of the coin, the state atheism promulgated by the leaders of the Soviet Union meant that believers were stigmatised at best, persecuted at worst.

As sociology professor Phil Zuckerman pointed out in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, even the terminology of religious belief can throw up roadblocks to understanding. If my idea of religious practice is a good deal looser than yours, can we have a meaningful conversation about which cities are godless and which are not?

Naturally, the methodological hurdles have not prevented researchers from making the leap. According to the 2011 Census of England and Wales, Norwich had the highest proportion of respondents reporting “no religion”. The city’s figure was 42.5% compared with 25.1% for England and Wales as a whole.

The survey revealed that Brighton & Hove came in a close second in the ‘godless’ stakes with 42.4% of residents describing themselves as having no religion. Local newspaper reports in both areas pointed to the relative youth of the population and the high number of students as being relevant factors. If you are young and bright, it seems, you are more likely to be irreligious.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, professor of psychology at the University of Haifa, provided a psychological profile of atheists in The Cambridge Companion. He argued that: 
Those with no religious affiliation have been found to be younger, mostly male, with higher levels of education and income, more liberal, but also more unhappy and more alienated from wider society.
Norwich had the highest proportion of respondents in England and Wales reporting ‘no religion’. 
Photograph: Howard Taylor/Alamy

Meanwhile, the author and biopsychologist Nigel Barber has argued that as cities become more stable and prosperous, their inhabitants are less likely to feel the need for religious belief.

These broad generalisations go some way to explain why Berlin has been dubbed the “atheist capital of Europe”. Some 60% of Berliners claim to have no religion, shaped no doubt by the city’s divided heritage. In 2009, a proposal to give religious lessons the same status as ethics classes in Berlin schools was defeated in a referendum. The proposal was backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, but a low turnout of 30% revealed the lack of interest from the capital’s citizens. Ethics classes have been compulsory in the city’s schools since 2006, introduced after a so-called “honour” killing of a Muslim woman by her husband. Before the change, voluntary religious education classes were poorly attended.

One attempt to study the demographics of godlessness is made by the American Bible Society, which ranks the nation’s cities based on their level of Bible engagement. The survey is conducted by the Barna group and regards individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches as ‘Bible-minded’. “This definition captures action and attitude, those who both engage and esteem the Christian scriptures. The rankings thus reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible in various US cities,” the survey organiser says.

The least Bible-minded cities in the 2016 survey were Albany/Schenectady/Troy in New York state with only 10% of residents qualifying as Bible-minded. Boston, Massachusetts (11%), moved from third to second place while Providence, Rhode Island (12%), the least Bible-minded city in 2015, dropped two spots to third place. The only Midwest city to make the top five in ‘least Bible-minded’ list was Cedar Rapids, Iowa (13%), followed by Buffalo, New York (13%). Other cities in the bottom 10 include Las Vegas, Nevada (14%), San Francisco (15%), Hartford/New Haven, Connecticut (16%), Phoenix/Prescott, Arizona (16%), and Salt Lake City, Utah (17%).

A convocation at the Vines Center in Lynchburg, Virginia, which topped the list of ‘Bible-minded cities’. 
Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Emily Heady, an English professor in Lynchburg, Virginia, which topped the list of ‘Bible-minded cities’ told the survey organisers: 
In some ways, when I moved to Lynchburg, I felt I’d stepped back in time 25 years to the conservative small town where I grew up, where the question was where, not if, you went to church and where the line between basic human decency and Christianity was hard to draw. At the same time, as the cultural swerve towards relativism and identity politics picks up speed, and as ideas like ‘basic human decency’ no longer have universal definitions, Bible-minded towns like Lynchburg will have to figure out how to articulate their own values in ways that make sense to those who don’t share them.
Non-readers of the Bible may wish to argue that a lack of acquaintance with, say, the Book of Job, does not mean their values are any less decent. About half of Americans (53%) say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral, while 45% say belief in God is necessary to have good values, according to a 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center.

A report published by the same organisation last year found that atheists, agnostics and others who do not affiliate with any religion, though increasing in absolute numbers, will make up a declining share of the world’s total population in the future.

Over the next 40 years, the report stated, Christians will continue to make up the largest religious group, but Islam will grow faster than any other major religion. If current demographic trends continue, by 2050 the number of Muslims around the world (2.8 billion, or 30% of the population) will nearly equal the number of Christians (2.9 billion, or 31%).

The four largest cities in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are Jakarta, Karachi, Cairo and Lagos. In cities across sub-Saharan Africa Muslim populations are increasing ahead of Christian nations in the west. In 2012, an Australian census showed that while more citizens than ever professed to have no religion, the fastness growing religion in its cities was Buddhism, due to migration from 

Atheist shoes for sale at the World Humanist Congress. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Last year the residents of Hamtramck in Michigan elected what is reported to bethe first majority Muslim city council in the United States. The city boasts a population of 22,000 and it is estimated that 60% of the population is comprised of Muslims. In England, a census data visualisation tool developed by Oliver O’Brien at UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, revealed a clear split between neighbours Bradford and Leeds.

Beyond the big numbers, the intensity of religious practice may matter more to the experience of urban living. It is not what people believe that shapes a city, it is how they put those beliefs into action.

Three years ago, when Upstate Atheists, a South Carolina-based group, approached Spartanburg Soup Kitchen to help give out food, their services were rejected because of their differences in beliefs.

The kitchen’s director, Lou Landrum, told a local newspaper that she was willing to resign from her position as executive director before she would allow atheists to volunteer at the soup kitchen. Eve Brannon, president of Upstate Atheists, said her group knew the organisation was Christian-based before they asked to help, but they did not expect to have their overtures rejected.

In the end, Upstate Atheists handed out care packages across the street from the kitchen. The group gave out 300 care packages containing socks, gloves, deodorant, toothpaste and antiseptic wipes among other items after raising about $2,000 (£1,590) through an online campaign to fund their efforts.

Where do atheists live? Maps show the 'godless' cities of England and Wales
View gallery

If, like believers, atheists are perfectly capable of making life in a city a little more bearable for those at the sharp end, can they also fashion an environment that inspires us to try harder? What would Durham look like without the most glorious cathedral in Europe? Can we imagine Granada without the Alhambra?

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton certainly thinks atheism and awe are compatible. His plan to build a £1m “temple for atheists” in London has drawn flak from the Rev Katharine Rumens, rector of St Giles’ Cripplegate church, in the Barbican, and Richard Dawkins, the militant atheists’ militant atheist.

Apparently visitors will enter the temple through a single door “as if it were an art installation” (it is possible to regard all spiritual buildings as art installations with extra ingredients for those who want them ). The roof will be open to the rain and sun and there may be fossils and “geologically interesting rocks” in the concrete walls. You probably won’t have to be an atheist to enjoy it, but by the same token you don’t need to be a Hindu, say, to have your socks knocked off by Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

From the Sodom and Gomorrah to the urban canyons of Gotham, the literary depictions of godless cities have usually focused on venality and despair, but researchers in real life find atheists to be at least as tolerant, keen on civic duty, and mindful of their neighbours as their more obviously religious fellow citizens. Identifying any one city in the world as the most godless of all remains fraught with problems. In the end, putting a number on holiness is like measuring happiness – it often requires a leap of faith.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Norfolk's Visionary

The Age of Paine  

by Jon Katz of Wired:

Thomas Paine was one of the first journalists to use media as a weapon against the entrenched power structure. He should be resurrected as the moral father of the Internet. Jon Katz explains why.

If any father has been forsaken by his children, it is Thomas Paine. Statues of the man should greet incoming journalism students; his words should be chiseled above newsroom doors and taped to laptops, guiding the communications media through their many travails, controversies, and challenges. Yet Paine, a fuzzy historical figure of the 1700s, is remembered mostly for one or two sparkling patriotic quotes – "These are the times that try men's souls" – and little else. Thomas Paine, professional revolutionary, was one of the first to use media as a powerful weapon against an entrenched array of monarchies, feudal lords, dictators, and repressive social structures. He invented contemporary political journalism, creating almost by himself a mass reading-public aware for the first time of its right to encounter controversial opinions and to participate in politics.

Between his birth in 1737 and his death in 1809, enormous political upheavals turned the Western world upside down – and Paine was in the middle of the biggest ones. His writings put his life at risk in every country he lived in – in America for rebellion, in England for sedition, in France for his insistence on a merciful and democratic revolution. At the end of his life, he was shunned by the country he helped create, reviled as an infidel, forced to beg friends for money, denied the right to vote, refused burial in a Quaker cemetery. His grave was desecrated, his remains were stolen.

A popular old nursery rhyme about Paine could just as easily be sung today:
Poor Tom Paine! there he lies:
Nobody laughs and nobody cries.
Where he has gone or how he fares
Nobody knows and nobody cares.
Certainly that's true of the media. The modern-day press has forgotten this brilliant, lonely, socially awkward progenitor, who pioneered the concept of the uncensored flow of ideas, and developed a new kind of communications in the service of the then-radical proposition that people should control their own lives.

In this country, his memory has been tended by a few determined academics and historians and a stubborn little historical society in New Rochelle, New York, where he spent a good deal of his final, impoverished days.

So what?

We've all been numbed by drowsy history-book pedagogy about founders, patriots, and dusty historical heroes. If journalism and the rest of the country have forgotten Paine, why should we remember another of history's lost souls?

Because we owe Paine. He is our dead and silenced ancestor. He made us possible. We need to resurrect and hear him again, not for his sake but for ours. We need to know who he was, to understand his life and work, in order to comprehend our own revolutionary culture. Paine's odyssey made him the greatest media figure of his time, one of the unseen but profound influencers of ours. He made more noise in the information world than any messenger or pilgrim before or since. His mark is now nearly invisible in the old culture, but his spirit is woven through and through this new one, his fingerprints on every Web site, his voice in every online thread.

If the old media (newspapers, magazines, radio, and television) have abandoned their father, the new media (computers, cable, and the Internet) can and should adopt him. If the press has lost contact with its spiritual and ideological roots, the new media culture can claim them as its own.

For Paine does have a legacy, a place where his values prosper and are validated millions of times a day: the Internet. There, his ideas about communications, media ethics, the universal connections between people, and the free flow of honest opinion are all relevant again, visible every time one modem shakes hands with another.

Tom Paine's ideas, the example he set of free expression, the sacrifices he made to preserve the integrity of his work, are being resuscitated by means that hadn't existed or been imagined in his day – via the blinking cursors, clacking keyboards, hissing modems, bits and bytes of another revolution, the digital one. If Paine's vision was aborted by the new technologies of the last century, newer technology has brought his vision full circle. If his values no longer have much relevance for conventional journalism, they fit the Net like a glove.

The Net offers what Paine and his revolutionary colleagues hoped for – a vast, diverse, passionate, global means of transmitting ideas and opening minds. That was part of the political transformation he envisioned when he wrote, 
We have it in our power to begin the world over again.
Through media, he believed, 
we see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used.
His writing is infused with the sense – especially relevant now as the digital culture spreads across the world – that a new age was about to burst open all around him. This would be an unmistakable, great awakening, even if it came in stages. Instead of seeing a single bud on a winter tree, he wrote, "I should instantly conclude that the same appearance was beginning, or about to begin, everywhere; and though the vegetable sleep will continue longer on some trees and plants than on others, and though some of them may not blossom for two or three years, all will be in leaf in the summer, except those which are rotten." It is not difficult to perceive, he wrote, "that the spring is begun."

Paine's life and the birth of the American press prove that information media, taken together, were never meant, collectively, to be just another industry. Information wants to be free. That was the familiar and inspiring moral imperative behind the medium imagined by Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Media existed to spread ideas, to allow fearless argument, to challenge and question authority, to set a common social agenda.

Asked about the reasons for new media, Paine would have answered in a flash: to advance human rights, spread democracy, ease suffering, pester government. Modern journalists would have a much rougher time with the question. There is no longer widespread consensus, among practitioners or consumers, about journalism's practices and its goals.

Of course, the ferociously spirited press of the late 1700s that Paine helped invent differed from the institution we know today. It was dominated by individuals expressing their opinions. The idea that ordinary citizens with no special resources, expertise, or political power – like Paine himself – could sound off, reach wide audiences, even spark revolutions, was brand-new to the world. In Paine's wake, writes Gordon Wood in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, 
every conceivable form of printed matter – books, pamphlets, handbills, posters, broadsides, and especially newspapers – multiplied and were now written and read by many more ordinary people than ever before in history.
Never skilled in business, Paine failed to foresee how fragile and easily overwhelmed these values and forms of expression would be when they collided with free-market economics. The rotary press and other printing technologies that later made it possible to mass-market newspapers also led publishers to make newspapers tamer and more moderate so their many new customers wouldn't be offended. Big, expensive printing presses churning out thousands of copies meant opinionated private citizens like Paine could no longer afford to own or have direct access to media, and journalism couldn't afford to give voice to opinionated private citizens.

Paine once warned a Philadelphia newspaper editor about the distinction between editorial power and the freedom of the press. It was a caution neither the editor nor his increasingly wealthy and powerful successors took to heart: 
If the freedom of the press is to be determined by the judgment of the printer of a Newspaper in preference to that of the people, who when they read will judge for themselves, then freedom is on a very sandy foundation.
So it is. Paine's worst fear was echoed more than 150 years later by critic A.J. Liebling, who wryly observed: "In America, freedom of the press is largely reserved for those who own one." Almost everyone else has been shut out. But media history is being reversed. With computers and modems, individuals are pouring back in. The people who own the presses still have enormous power, but every day, very much against their will, they're facing a dread reality: they're going to have to learn to share.

The people running the traditional media are in a state of near panic at this competition, at the fragmentation of an audience they once monopolized. In their search for answers, they seem to be looking at everything save what's most important: values. Although journalism presumes great and lofty purpose, it has grown preoccupied with ratings, market penetration, stockholders, cultural demographics, and bottom lines. Almost overwhelmingly owned and run by corporations and business sharks with turnips for hearts and market research for ideology, the press is disconnected and resented. One opinion survey after another confirms pervasive public mistrust.

Like the specters introduced by the Ghost of Christmas Future, today's media are what the Net should never become – but will surely evolve into if it fails to develop, articulate, fight fiercely for, and maintain a value system other than expanded memory, whiz-bang toys, and money. The digital age is young, ascending, diverse, already nearly as arrogant, and, in parts, as greedy as the mass media it is supplanting. The new generation faces enormous danger from government, from corporations that control the traditional media, from commercialization, and from its own chaotic growth.

Thomas Paine is a guide, the conscience that can prompt new media to remember the past chiefly in order not to repeat it.

He often introduced his most controversial ideas formally and courteously, writing, for example, The following notion is put under your protection. You will do us the justice to remember that he who denies the right of every man or woman to his own opinion makes a slave of them, because he precludes their right of changing their own minds.

This notion is put under your protection, too: The Internet is Thomas Paine's bastard child. Thomas Paine should be our hero.

The sad part of Paine's story is that it's necessary to pause here and tell it to those who may never have heard it.

He lived a life that would make the cheesiest Hollywood screenwriter blush in frustration. He was born in England. He ran away from home to sail as a pirate, then worked as a staymaker and matched wits with smugglers as a customs collector. He lobbied Parliament for better pay for himself and fellow customs collectors. He lost his job but met Benjamin Franklin, who urged him to move to America, and who became a lifelong pen pal.

One of the regulars at Independence Hall, Paine was a philosophical soul mate of Thomas Jefferson. He fought and froze with his buddy George Washington at Valley Forge. King George III badly wanted to hang Paine because he helped touch off the American Revolution with his writings, but got the chance to try him for sedition after Paine had the gall to return to England and lobby for an end to the monarchy.

Paine fled to France, where the bloodthirstier leaders of the French Revolution ordered him killed because he urged leniency for the members of the overthrown regime and because they feared he would alert Americans to the increasingly undemocratic Gallic uprising. Clergymen all over the world cursed him for his heretical religious views. Businessmen despised him even more for his radical views about labor.

In between was high drama, great daring, narrow scrapes – wandering revolutionary war battlefields dodging British bullets, fleeing England 20 minutes ahead of warrants ordering his arrest, coming within hours of being guillotined in Paris. Paine seemed to live most happily in boiling water.

The Big Concept man of his time, his deep ideas still resonate: An end to monarchies and dictatorships. American independence from England, of course. International federations to promote development and maintain peace. Rights and protections for laborers. An end to slavery. Equal rights for women. Redistribution of land. Organized religion was a cruel and corrupt hoax. Public education, public employment, assistance for the poor, pensions for the elderly. And above all, a fearless press that tells the truth, gives voice to individual citizens, tolerates opposing points of view, transcends provincialism, is accessible to the poor as well as the rich.

He was as astonishingly productive as he must have been obnoxious, mouthing off about everything from yellow fever to iron bridge construction. Although he wrote countless articles and pamphlets during his life, his core works are four powerful, sometimes beautifully written, flaming-with-indignation essays. Common Sense, an argument for independence, helped spark the American Revolution. Rights of Man, an essay written in support of the French Revolution, attacks hereditary monarchies and called for universal democracy and human rights. The Age of Reason challenges the logic behind organized religion's grip on much of the Western world, and Agrarian Justice calls for radical reforms in the world economy, especially in land ownership. The first three constitute the three bestselling works of the 18th century.

It is almost impossible, today, to imagine the overwhelming impact of Common Sense.

Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 at the age of 37 with little more than a letter of reference from Franklin. He rented a room and landed a job as executive editor of a new publication called Pennsylvania Magazine. In January of 1776, Common Sense went on sale for two shillings.

Historian Gregory Claeys, in Thomas Paine, Social and Political Thought, quotes one colonial observer who described Common Sense as bursting forth "like a mighty conqueror bearing down all opposition." It became America's first bestseller, with more than 120,000 copies sold in its first three months, and possibly as many as half a million in its first year – this in a country whose population was 3 million. Newspapers, then crammed with controversial viewpoints, scrambled to reprint it. Common people quoted it to one another.

It had, wrote a contemporary historian, "produced most astonishing effects; and been received with vast applause, read by almost every American; and recommended as a work replete with truth." It was nicely written, too, one of the first and most dramatic of the anthems and call-to-arms that run through Paine's writing. The cause of America, wrote Paine, was the cause of all mankind. 
O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.
How Paine, poorly educated and inexperienced as a writer, came to produce such a work remains a historical puzzle. American historians have traditionally advanced the idea that Paine, who already hated the British ruling classes and had been disillusioned in his battle to improve working conditions for his fellow customs collectors in England, needed only to step onshore and catch the revolutionary fever raging all around for his literary gifts to ignite.

But Paine's democratic republicanism had deep British roots. He might have been influenced by some of the world's earliest, least-known and best political journalists, such as the late 17th-century pamphleteers Sir William Molesworth and Walter Moyle. But such high-brow English republicans had no notions of democracy or universal suffrage – not to mention representative government, which they considered anarchic and dangerous. Those were Paine's additions. He broadened his definitions of "the people" to include laborers, slaves, women, fishermen, and artisans. Paine's journalistic writings about these new notions of democracy in Common Sense, wrote Jefferson, "rendered useless almost everything written before on the structures of government."

Were Paine to enjoy in 1995 the kind of literary success he had in his day, he would earn millions in royalties, rights, and speaking fees. But Paine didn't earn a shilling from the book. He paid the cost of publication for one edition – 30 pounds – himself, then donated the copyright and all royalties to the colonists' struggle for independence. Royalties would make his work more expensive, he feared, and thus less accessible. It's tough to imagine Paine's words coming out of some Washington journalist's mouth today: 
As my wish was to serve an oppressed people, and assist in a just and good cause, I conceived that the honor of it would be promoted by my declining to make even the usual profits of an author, by the publication (of Common Sense) … and there I gave up the profits of the first edition – to be disposed of, he stipulated - in any public service or private charity. 
This idea cost him, in the most literal sense: Paine was impoverished for much of his life.

Paintings of Washington ferrying his troops across the Delaware have bored schoolchildren for 200 years. Kids might have more interest if they could see Paine's ghost hovering in the background. In 1776, the Colonial Army was virtually defeated, its dispirited troops freezing and starving outside Philadelphia. Even the most die-hard revolutionaries were giving up. Then Paine started cranking out a series of pamphlets called "The American Crisis."

At dusk on Christmas Day, a desperate George Washington ordered what remained of his hungry, ill-equipped army – the snow was spotted red from their bleeding bare feet – to gather into small squads and listen as their officers read them excerpts from Paine's latest rant. In countless letters and diaries, the soldiers were later to recount how many of them wept when they heard what Paine wrote. They found in his now-famous words the strength to continue: 
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
That night, crossing the river through a storm of hail and sleet, Washington's army surprised and defeated the mercenaries occupying Trenton. The victory is considered one of the major turning points in the war.

If it sounds like a fairy tale from another world, it was. But it pales next to the fairy tale that our world would seem to him. We can conceive and transmit ideas and send them all over the world in seconds. We can leave them and store them for others to see and answer. But for Paine, moving an idea from one place to another at all was a spiritual notion, a miraculous vision. He imagined a global means of communication, one in which the boundaries between the sender and receiver were cleared away.

Such freedom was, to Paine, one of the fundamental rights of mankind. And it was the essence of media. He shared this notion most intensely with his cohort Thomas Jefferson. The two corresponded constantly about how ideas were conceived and distributed.

Their foresight and their relevance to the promise of the Net was captured by Jefferson when he wrote: 
That ideas should spread freely from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.
Herewith, to be put under your protection, some of the more striking connections between the Net and its rightful intellectual father.

Paine called for a "universal society," one whose citizens transcend their narrow interests and consider humankind as one entity. "My country is the world," he wrote. The Internet has, in fact, redefined citizenship as well as communications. It is the first worldwide medium in which people can communicate so directly, so quickly, so personally, and so reliably. In which they can form distant but diverse and cohesive communities, send, receive, and store vast amounts of textual and graphic information, skip without paperwork or permission across borders. Where computers are plentiful, digital communications are nearly uncensorable. This reality gives our moral and media guardians fits; they still tend to portray the computer culture as an out-of-control menace harboring perverts, hackers, pornographers, and thieves. But Paine would have known better. The political, economic, and social implications of an interconnected global medium are enormous, making plausible Paine's belief in the "universal citizen."

He would recognize its style and language, too. Paine believed that journalists should write in a short, spare, unadorned language that everyone could understand. He was the first modern political writer to experiment with the art of writing democratically and for democratic ends, writes John Keane in Tom Paine: A Political Life (the newest and perhaps best of the Paine biographies). Paine hammered out his own colloquial style that eschewed "purple passages, sentences without meaning, and general humbug" because he considered it the highest duty of political writers to irritate their country's government.

Reading Paine is eerie after spending time online and in political conferences on The Well, say, or after poring through the most provocative BBS postings. From reasoned arguments to raging flames to the staccato shorthand (LOL, IMHO) of countless e-mailers, digital communications are spare, blunt, economical, and efficient. Paine's style is the style of the Internet; his succinct voice and language could slip comfortably into its debates and discussions.

Paine would understand, too, the loner at the heart of computer lore. Many of the teenagers, academics, and visionaries who pioneered the computer culture see themselves, and have been seen by others, as nerds or misfits – outcasts alone in their labs, bedrooms, or garages.

Paine met with, corresponded with, and plotted with and against some of the most powerful people of his time, from George Washington to Napoleon. But he never partied at Mount Vernon or Fontainebleau and he has never joined the gallery of heroes whose statues adorn Washington's marble halls. He saw the world with agonizing clarity, but never figured out how to live comfortably in it.

His rare social appearances were uncomfortable. He never danced or joked much, and he dressed frumpily and simply in an era of frilly pomp. He never spoke or wrote about the worst personal tragedy in his life, the death in childbirth of his first wife, Mary Lambert, and their child. Friends claimed Paine seemed to hold himself responsible for the deaths in some way. His second marriage was brief and unhappy. For the rest of his life, he was an unyielding ascetic, one of the earliest supporters of women's rights but an asexual man who spent most of his time around men. He seemed lost without a repressive regime to undermine, disconnected if the conversation didn't revolve around politics. He hated small talk. A friend described him at one party as a "solitary character walking among the artificial bowers in the gardens." Paine, said the friend, "retired frequently from company to analyze his thoughts and to enjoy the repast of his own original ideas." He seemed at ease only when writing and railing against various forms of tyranny.

Where would Tom Paine go today for some serious rabble-rousing?

To get any real attention on TV or in the papers, he'd have to march, blockade, or burn something. Maybe he would try to get through to a radio talk show or Larry King Live. But if he had a computer and a modem, he could instantly spread his message. Anyone online can recognize the idea – suddenly in circulation again – of countless ordinary people participating in public opinion, their ideas "expansible all over space."

Net culture, as it happens, is an even greater medium for individual expression than the pamphlets cranked by hand presses in colonial America. It swarms with the young and the outspoken. Its bulletin boards, conferencing systems, mailing structures, and Web sites are crammed with political organizations, academics, and ordinary citizens posting messages, raising questions, sharing information, offering arguments, changing minds. From thousands of newsgroups to the vast public-opinion forums growing on giant bulletin boards, the Internet would give the old hell raiser's unhappy spirit a place to rest.

Cyberspace, not mainstream media, would be Paine's home now. Commentary has virtually vanished from TV, and the liveliest newspaper Op-Ed pages are tepid compared to Paine's tirades. But online, millions of messages centering on the country's civic discourse are posted daily, in forums teeming with the kind of vigorous democratic debate and discussion that Paine and his fellow pamphleteers had in mind. Gun owners talk to gun haters, people in favor of abortion message people who think abortion is murder, journalists have to explain their stories to readers, and prosecution and defense strategies in the O.J. Simpson trial are thrashed out.

If Paine would feel at home there, he would also fight to protect this nascent medium. Learning what had happened to the media he founded as corporations moved in, he would spot commercialization as Danger Number One. He believed in a press that was not monopolistic but filled, as it was in his time, with individual voices; one that was cheap, accessible, fiercely outspoken. He believed that media like the Net – many citizens talking to many other citizens – were essential to free government.

He was right: journalism's exclusion of outside voices and fear of publishing any but moderate opinions has made it difficult for the country to come to grips with some of its most sensitive issues – race, gender, and violence. Media overwhelmed and monopolized by large corporations, inaccessible to individual people and motivated primarily by profit, is the antithesis of Paine's life, his work, and his vision for the press.

We could use his clear direction at a time when mainstream journalists are losing their ethical grounding. Some of the most visible reporters accept fat speaking fees from lobbyists and associations whose issues they often cover. They accept money to appear on quasi-entertainment panels where they pretend to be passionate and argue the issues of the day.

Paine would never appear on talk shows or garner fat speaking fees. At one point during the Revolutionary War – when he was completely broke, as usual – he was offered a thousand pounds a year by the French government to write and publish articles in support of the Franco-American alliance against Britain. He said no. He told friends that the principle at stake – a political writer's ability to express opinions free of any party's or government's taint – was sacred, even if it meant being a pauper. And for him, it did.

During his life, his value system remained intact. Shortly before he died, bedridden, penniless, and mostly alone, he fired off a note to an editor in New York City who had messed with the outspoken prose in one of Paine's final essays for the American Citizen.  Paine wrote:
I, sir, never permit any- one to alter anything that I write; you have spoiled the whole sense that it was meant to convey on the subject.
His deathbed scene was perhaps the greatest example of Paine's refusal to compromise.

Lapsing into unconsciousness, in agony from gangrenous bedsores, Paine woke occasionally to cry "Oh, Lord help me! Oh, Lord help me!" Convinced that Paine's time on earth was nearly up, a physician and pastor named Manley took advantage of one of Paine's last lucid moments to try to save his soul. "Allow me to ask again," Manley inquired, "Do you believe – or let me qualify the question, Do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?"

Incapable of acquiescence, even when it might have provided him some comfort, Paine uttered his quiet last words: "I have no wish to believe on that subject." Small wonder one colonial wrote of him: 
The name is enough. Every person has ideas of him. Some respect his genius and dread the man. Some reverence his political, while they hate his religious, opinions. Some love the man, but not his private manners. Indeed he has done nothing which has not extremes in it. He never appears but we love and hate him. He is as great a paradox as ever appeared in human nature.
It's easy to imagine Paine as a citizen of the new culture, issuing his fervent harangues from He would be a cyber hell raiser, a net.fiend.

Picture him logging on from the small brown wooden cottage still standing on his New Rochelle farm – the one given him by New York State in appreciation of his services during the Revolutionary War. He would get up late, as always, breakfast on his customary tea, milk, and fruit. The six chairs downstairs would be piled high with pamphlets, magazines, printouts, discs, letters, papers, tracts, and research. Technologically challenged, Paine would have an older Macintosh he'd be loathe to replace. A friend would have given him the screen saver with the flying toasters, which he would scoff at as frivolous but love dearly. Friends, surely, would also have given him a PowerBook to write on when he had to retreat to his sick bed.

He might belong to contentious conferencing systems like The Well or Echo, but he would especially love cruising the more populist big boards – Prodigy, CompuServe, America Online. He would check into Time Online's message boards and tear into Republicans and Democrats daily. He would e-mail the New England Journal of Medicine his tracts on the spread of disease, and pepper Scientific American's home page with his ideas about bridges.

He would bombard Congress and the White House Internet site with proposals, reforms, and legislative initiatives, tackling the most explosive subjects head-on, enraging – at one time or another – everybody.

The Net would help enormously in his various campaigns, allowing him to call up research papers, download his latest tract, fire off hundreds of angry posts, and receive hundreds of replies.

They would hear from him soon enough in China and Iran, Croatia and Rwanda. He would not be happy to find a Royal Family still reigning in England, but he would be relieved to see George III's heirs reduced to tabloid fodder. And he'd delight in seeing France a republic after all. He would emit nuclear flames from time to time, their recipients emerging singed and sooty. He would not use smileys. He would be flamed incessantly in turn.

He would be spared the excruciating loneliness he faced in later life on that modest farm, where neighbors shunned him, where visitors rarely came, and where he pored over newspapers for any news of his former friends' lives. No longer an outcast, thanks to the Net, he would find at least as many kindred spirits as adversaries; his cyber mailbox would be eternally full.

It is here, perhaps, that the gap between Paine's tradition and modern journalism seems the most poignant and stark. Journalism no longer seems to function as a community. Since it no longer shares a definable value system – a sense of outsiderness, a commitment to truth-telling, an inspiring ethical structure – journalists seem increasingly disconnected from one another as well as from the public.

Online, feuds rage and people storm at one another, but the vast digital news and information world contains many distinct communities. On bulletin boards and conferencing systems, there is already a moving and richly documented tradition of rushing to one another's assistance, of viewing oneself as part of a collective culture. In America's media capitals – New York, Washington, and LA – there seems to be no such sense of common ground.

Paine in particular might not find much friendship from other journalists. He would hate Manhattan media movers and shun them like the plague.

Paine would greatly prefer the chat room to the cocktail party. His notions of spare, direct writing would work beautifully on the Net, permitting him productivity and an audience even after his gout made traveling difficult. He would find himself, in fact, embarking on his greatest dream, to become a member of a "universal society, whose mind rises above the atmosphere of local thoughts and considers mankind, of whatever nation or profession they may be, as the work of one Creator."

Life might be easier for him, but it would not be easy. Intense personal relationships would still elude him, but he seems a good candidate for one of those online romances that flourish all across cyberspace. Like some of his Net successors, his social skills were not substantial. He would still be reclusive and moody, too offensive to have dinner with Bill and Hillary, too combative to be lionized by academia, and too ornery to get hired by major media outlets. He would probably find most of today's newspapers unbearably bland and write angry letters to editors canceling his subscriptions.

He and the massing corporate entities drooling over the Net would be instantly and ferociously at war as he recognized Time Warner, TCI, the Baby Bells, and Viacom as different incarnations of the same elements that scarfed up the press and homogenized it. He'd have lots to say about the so-called information highway and the government's alleged role in shaping it. One of his pamphlets – this may be the only thing he'd have in common with Newt Gingrich – would surely propose means of getting more computers and modems into the hands of people who can't afford them.

Instead of dying alone and in agony, Paine would spend his last days sending poignant e-mail all over the world from his deathbed via his PowerBook, arranging for his digital wake. He'd call for more humane treatment for the dying. He'd journal online about the shortcomings of medicine and the mystical experience of aging, while digging into his inexhaustible supply of prescriptions for the incalculable injustices that still afflict the world.

John Adams wrote to a friend after Paine's death in 1809:
I know not whether any Man in the World has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine, for such a mongrel between Pigg and Puppy, begotten by a wild Boar on a Bitch Wolf, never before in any Age of the World was suffered by the Poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine.
It's odd that so spectacular a force of media and political nature should be so vaguely remembered. Unfortunately for Paine, the historian Crane Brinton reminds us, revolutionaries need to die young or turn conservative in order not to lose favor with society. Paine did neither and fell from grace. Many of his reform programs will remain unacceptable to political conservatives and his religious views will always offend believing Christians. Though his memory is invoked from time to time, his resurrection will never be complete.

At the moment, though, he is showing signs of minor resurgence. In 1994, officials in Washington, DC, were considering funding a monument to him somewhere. And Sir Richard Attenborough, the famed British actor and director, has been struggling for several years to get studio backing for a film about Paine.

A Paine bio – featuring two bloody revolutions, standoffs with Napoleon, tangles with the British royals, and cameo roles for Washington, Jefferson, Robespierre, and his nemesis George III – would make a socko TV miniseries, too. Nigel Hawthorne could play Paine's father, who intercepted his runaway teenage son in 1756 as he was about to board the Terrible, a privateer captained by a man named William Death. Heeding his father's desperate plea, Paine didn't sail. Shortly afterward, the Terrible was engaged by a French privateer, the Vengeance, and was horribly mauled. More than 150 members of its crew were killed, including Captain Death and all but one of his officers.

Anthony Hopkins could star in Rights of Man, playing the role of the Honourable Spencer Perceval, who stood up at the Guildhall in London to read out the sedition charges against the absent Paine in 1792 and accuse him of being "wicked, malicious, and ill-disposed."

And imagine the scene of his near-execution. Paine went to France after the Revolutionary War as a hero and supporter of democratization there. But the French Revolution was far bloodier and more violent than the American. Paine tried to save King Louis XVI's life and pleaded with the country's new rulers to be merciful and democratic. Eventually, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. In June 1794, six months into his harrowing imprisonment, watching as hundreds of fellow prisoners were led off to be killed, Paine fell into a feverish semiconsciousness. His fellow cellmates barely kept him alive, mopping his brow, feeding him soup, and changing his clothes.

The prison governors were ordered to send him to the guillotine the next morning. At 6 a.m., a turnkey carrying Paine's death warrant walked quietly down the prison corridors, chalking the cell doors of the condemned, marking the number 4 on the inside of Paine's door. Usually the turnkey marked the outside of the door, but Paine was seriously ill, and his cellmates had been granted permission to leave the door open so that a breeze could help cool Paine's profusely sweating body. That evening, the weather cooled, and Paine's cellmates asked a different turnkey for permission to close the door. Knowing that the number on the door was now inward, the occupants of the cell waited, Paine murmuring on his cot. Near midnight, the death squad slowly made its way down the corridor, keys jangling, pistols drawn. One of his friends cupped his hand over Paine's mouth. The squad paused, then moved on to the next cell.

A few days later, the Jacobin government was overthrown. A fellow prisoner said Paine had struggled to keep his democratic values alive in prison. "He was the confidant of the unhappy, the counselor of the perplexed; and to his sympathizing friendship many a devoted victim in the hour of death confided the last cares of humanity; and the last wishes of tenderness."

Despite his close call, Paine stayed in France until 1802 when he managed, inevitably, to alienate Napoleon. At the invitation of Jefferson, he returned to the United States to a hostile welcome.

Although he had left the United States a revolutionary hero, Paine soon outraged the American clergy by publishing The Age of Reason. He infuriated the business community with his pro-labor writings in England and by publishing Agrarian Justice. He also wandered into the middle of increasingly vicious domestic politics. Federalists, looking for ground to attack Jefferson, seized upon his invitation to Paine to come home. Paine was savaged as a heretic, and as an unwashed, drunken infidel. He was attacked in columns and stories, insulted on the streets and in public places. Not only had the children forgotten the father, they had turned on him.

Paine didn't see, writes Keane, "that he was among the first modern public figures to suffer firsthand an increasingly concentrated press equipped with the power to peddle one-sided interpretations of the world."

Perhaps, if a movie is made and Paine becomes a focus of attention once more, somebody could locate his bones. That they are missing may be the most fitting postscript to his life. British journalist and Paine contemporary William Cobbett smarted at the way Paine had been neglected in his final years. Cobbett wrote, in his Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, under the pseudonym of Peter Porcupine: 
Paine lies in a little hole under the grass and weeds of an obscure farm in America. There, however, he shall not lie, unnoticed, much longer. He belongs to England.
Just before dawn one autumn night in 1819, Cobbett, his son, and a friend went to Paine's New Rochelle farm – the hole under the grass is still there, marked by a plaque from the Thomas Paine National Historical Association – and dug up his grave, determined that Paine should have a proper burial in his native country. From there, the story becomes hazy. By most accounts, Cobbett fled with Paine's bones but never publicly buried the remains. Some historians think he lost them overboard on the return voyage. But certain British newspapers report their being displayed in November 1819, in Liverpool.

After Cobbett's death in 1835, his son auctioned off all his worldly goods, but the auctioneer refused to include the box that supposedly contained Paine's bones. Years later, a Unitarian minister in England claimed to own Paine's skull and right hand (though he wouldn't show them to anybody). Parts of Paine, truly by now the "universal citizen" he wanted to be, have been reported turning up intermittently ever since. In the 1930s, a woman in Brighton claimed to own what clearly would be the best part of Paine to have – his jawbone. As historian Moncure Daniel Conway wrote a hundred years ago: "As to his bones, no man knows the place of their rest to this day. His principles rest not."