Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Social Meetings

I'm proposing to return to the idea of holding informal social meetings in between the more formal monthly meetings. This has been prompted in part by an enquiry from Alexander Hellemans who is a Humanist and is looking into the possibility of starting Cafe Scientifique meetings in Hastings. He and his wife Rita will be at the White Rock Hotel on Thursday this week, at 7pm. All members are welcome and I'm sure there will be much to talk about. Another interest that we have in common is the History of Ideas.

It may be better to hold these social meetings at another venue and on a different day or time, so that members who find Thursday evenings difficult will have another choice. What about a Sunday meeting for example, perhaps in the morning? Ideas for other venues would also be appreciated. Not all of us like meeting in public houses or bars; are there cafes that would be suitable? Of course attendance at meetings is not obligatory! But more choice and more frequent meetings provide a way of attracting more members, or just public interest. Your thoughts are welcome on this.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A Week in the Life ...

On Tuesday evening I went to the Hastings Interfaith Forum, having been invited to speak for ten minutes, alongside a Quaker and a Muslim, on "A Week in the Life of ...". The Quaker spoke first and told mainly of the way they hold their meetings by sitting in complete silence. My contribution was more detailed. Since I've had quite a busy week I fortunately had plenty of experiences to draw on. I began with my visit to the East Sussex SACRE on the previous Tuesday.

I then thought I should explain what Humanism is. As a one-line definition I offered: Humanists try to base their beliefs strictly on the objective evidence. This means, for instance, that we don't believe in such things as angels and demons, or gods, ghosts and ghoulies. As a longer definition I offered the 2002 Amsterdam Declaration, and read out the seven headings from that. In place of the ten commandments I offered the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reading out the first one.

I then continued with further details of my week. The Muslim followed, and although he was allowed to go on for more like fifteen minutes, gave the impression that his life was almost completely given over to ensuring that he prayed five time a day at the right times and places.

There was then a question and answer session, to all three speakers. The most difficult question I received was on how a Humanist would respond to someone who has suffered a bereavement. My reply was that, not being able to offer thoughts of life after death, all we can do is offer sympathy and empathy and normal human warmth, and the traditional consolations of philosophy. I found the experience worthwhile, and think it improved my confidence for speaking in public.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Our TARDIS Brain

I've just been listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4 (1:30 pm) "Music from Beyond the Veil" about people who claim to be inspired by dead composers and singers, or to "channel their spirits". Rosemary Brown was one famous case from the 1960s who supposedly received new works from Liszt. Another was a singer who sang in the style of Caruso or Mario Lanza. The commentary given by Professor Paul Robertson seemed to me to be far too lacking in scepticism, and open to the spirit world being real.

There is no need whatsoever for such fanciful speculation. The way I like to put it is that the human brain is rather like Dr Who's TARDIS, it is much larger on the inside than it appears from the outside. Or perhaps a better analogy is with a multiplex cinema. Within that small space there is room for images to be projected that envisage whole new worlds. Mathematicians indeed can imagine an infinite realm of numbers or spaces of infinite dimensions, without their brains exploding to encompass the distances, or imploding under the weight of the ideas.

Both the supposed mediums featured were I'm sure sincere in their wish to attribute their creations to these past masters, and perhaps too modest to think that they could actually be doing it from withn the abilities of their own minds. Anthony Payne who was interviewed about his completion of Elgar's Third Symphony was more realistic, although the Professor tried to push him to some sort of spiritual view. John Tavener's view that his ideas come from somewhere beyond is only to be expected in view of the explicit religious nature of much of his work.

Friday, 10 July 2009

SACRE Report

My visit to the East Sussex SACRE in Eastbourne on Tuesday was more memorable for the weather than the meeting itself. There was a heavy storm in the morning and another just as I left in the evening. The train I was due to catch was cancelled due to flooding at Victoria station. It seems that the prospect of the account of my adventure was not sufficiently exciting since only two members turned up to our Humanist gathering on Thursday evening.

The SACRE was well attended, though many of the people there were newcomers, apparently unfamiliar with the situation. It was necessary for the Councillors to select a new Chairman from among their number since the previous chairman lost his seat at the local elections. Most of the time was devoted to debating the SACRE's response to the consultation on the draft "Non-Statutory Guidance" for RE issued by the DCSF. The main concern of the RE Consultant to the SACRE (Susan Thompson) seemed to be whether the phrase "Religion and Belief" used throughout the document had legal force. I think it does because of changes in legislation since 1994.

I suppose we should be happy that page 20 recommends that "there are opportunities for all pupils to study ... secular philosophies such as humanism" but this is only after they have studied Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and possibly the Bahai, Jain and Zoroastrian faiths!

Section 2.4 on the "Early Years Foundation Stage" emphasises "Personal, Emotional and Social Development" and "Knowledge and Understanding of the World". Humanists can have no complaint with this, but should it be called "Religious Education"? Most of what I saw of the SACRE's Multifaith project (which paid for a group of children to experience the religious rites of several different ethnic groups) was what I would call "Intercultural Education".

Is the use of religious "stories", such as the last days of Jesus or the fall of Adam and Eve, for the purpose of inculcating emotional understanding really justified, when other more effective stories from literature or history could be used for the same purpose? Or is the purpose really to familiarise (i.e. indoctrinate) young minds with these religious fables?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

What Religion Really Means?

Just to save you the expense should you be tempted to buy "The Case for God: What Religion Really Means" by Karen Armstrong here are some reviews:

Digested Read by John Crace.

This is excellent satire.

All Quiet on the God Front by Simon Blackburn.

"Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music"

Review of The Case for God by Christopher Hart.

"Yet for centuries, ideas of God and the Bible were far more subtle and profound than today’s atheism or fundamentalism can conceive."

ADDENDUM: If you want to experience some more of the subtlety and profundity of modern theology Dan Dennett has been experiencing the joys of "kenotic theology" and "evolutionary christology" at Templeton-sponsored debates during the Darwin-fest in Cambridge.

Saturday, 4 July 2009


The cartoon in this article in The Freethinker amused me. What would convince you that God is real? There is also an article in The New Humanist on the same subject of a proposed Turkish game-show in which atheists compete to be converted to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or Judaism, the prize being a pilgrimage to an appropriate religious site. What would be a place of pilgrimage suitable for atheists?