I've recently returned from Uganda, where I visited the humanist school which is being supported by New Humanist readers. Witnessing the passion for learning of those teachers and children, in classrooms with only a blackboard, no computers, no books, no glass in the windows, you can't help but be conscious of how precious are the rights we too often take for granted: to education, to expression and to liberty. It also reminds you to be aware of when those rights are under threat.

That was the concern of the recent Convention on Modern Liberty held in London, bringing together a wide range of commentators, from the Conservative MP David Davis to Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty. All of them were lamenting the threat to civil liberties characterised by the rise of the "database state". And their warning has been starkly confirmed by the Canadian philosophy professor Michael Neumann, who, deploring the UK's increasingly draconian use of "terror" laws, the proliferation of surveillance and the extraordinary fear which has crept into our civic fabric, reluctantly concedes that America might actually be living up to its self-proclaimed status as freest country in the Western world.

Neumann is not alone in this edition in re-evaluating the American way. In our interview, Economist journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, authors of the ominously titled God is Back, invoke the American constitution as a model for how societies might tackle the phenomenon of the return of religion. Tom Paine, who made such a vital contribution to the stirring language of that enlightened document, died 200 years ago this June. He's remembered by Roger Davidson.

The spirit of 18th-century rationalism is also echoed in this issue. There's Kenan Malik's impassioned plea to renew our faith in universal values; Paul Sims, in our cover story, visits Blackburn to explore the rationale and impact of the government's attempts to avoid a home-grown Jihad; and on the science journalist Angela Saini makes a compelling case for genetically modified foods.

Just in case that's a touch too rational for you, you can always join Michael Bywater on a tour of internet pornography, go Gothic with the American novelist Nick Mamatas, who urges us to revisit the mysterious world of Edgar Allan Poe, discover what Laurie Taylor has in common with Russell Crowe, or take Sally Feldman's advice and cheer yourself up with a new shade of lipstick.

Finally, do join us on 29 June in London for a celebration of astronomy, physics and the universe in comedy, poetry and song. A Night of 400 Billion Stars (and Maybe Some String Theory), our latest collaboration with comedian Robin Ince, will feature science writers Marcus Chown and Simon Singh, poet Ruth Padel, comedians Lucy Porter, Chris Addison, AL Kennedy and Christina Martin, alongside a host of musical guests, in a benefit for the Rationalist Assocation.