Friday, 31 December 2010

First Meeting and Programme for 2011

A full programme of topics for the new year has now been put together, as shown in the right-hand column, and you can download a printable PDF version from the Hastings Humanists page of my website (which also has a copy of our Constitution).

The first meeting of the New Year will be 6:30-8:30 pm on Thursday 13 January at the Arts Forum. The subject will be all the numerous different organisations that exist to promote the interests of Humanists, Freethinkers, Rationalists, Secularists, Atheists, Brights, Ethicists, Sceptics and others of similar views. How did all these groups arise? Do they all serve a useful purpose? Are they rivals or do they amount to a coordinated movement? These are some of the questions we can discuss.

As an experiment I intend to illustrate the talk by means of images shown on a television screen instead of by using a projector.

You don't have to be a humanist or a member to attend the meeting. The entry fee is £2.50 for non-members, £1.50 for members of Hastings Humanists. If you are willing to subscribe to our aims, to become a member for the year costs only £5, which besides the reduced entry fee, gives you election rights at the AGM.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Provisional Programme for 2011

The questionnaire on possible Sunday meetings has met with an indecisive response, and the alternative venues considered have not proved entirely suitable, so I have concluded that we should remain at the Arts Forum, and continue to meet on the second Thursday in the month from 6:30 to 8:30 pm as at present. I also think we should make that the venue for all our meetings throughout the year, so that we can publicise this in advance.

I have put together a provisional programme for the whole of 2011, as shown in the right-hand column. This is liable to change before the start of the New Year, but I hope we can then stick to it, again for publicity purposes. Offers of alternative subjects, speakers or presenters will be welcome.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Sunday Meetings at a New Venue?

A questionnaire has been sent out to those supporters who have attended at least two meetings over the past year (23 in all) to ask if a switch to Sunday meetings would be acceptable or present problems, and if acceptable whether an afternoon or evening meeting would be preferred. The proposed new venue is the Reading Room at 12 Claremont, next to the Public Library (though a firm booking has not yet been made).

I'm also mulling over plans for a wider "Ideas Forum" which would promote meetings of a "Science Cafe" or "Skeptics in the Pub" or "Literary and Philosophical Society" type which could be held at the same venue. This would be of a completely open nature, not attempting to promote "Humanism" as a formulaic world-view but simply providing a forum for rational debate.

It may be noticed that the line about being "Affiliated to the BHA" has been removed from our blog heading. This is because it may not strictly be correct. We do not yet pay a fee to the BHA, although a number of our supporters are direct members, and we are listed on their website as a local Group.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Religious Limericks

The HumanistLife site reports that the BBC in the person of Edward Stourton on the Radio 4 Sunday programme has strangely asked for listeners to send in Limericks on Religious themes. I've contributed three, which are included in the comments on the HumanistLife article, though I doubt if they are actually what he is looking for.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Local Publicity

A notice about our next meeting on 9th December has appeared in the "Hastings Observer" though whether many will have bought the paper yesterday may be doubtful in view of the snowy conditions; though today it has thawed fortunately. The headings is "Humanist group to discuss meaning of religion" (top of page24).

The editor has also included a note to say that we are "on the look out for a new permanent venue, suitable for both discussion meetings and lectures" and has given my email address for people to make any offers. It occurred to me that this might be a better way of finding a place, if there is one, than walking all round the streets, especially in this cold weather. We shall see if there is any reply.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Humanist Groups and the BHA

The British Humanist Association is starting a consultation with its local groups concerning whether the relations it has with them should be more formalised. Andrew Copson says in his introduction to a document called "Working Better Together" that the BHA Board of Trustees has produced "updated aims for the BHA that cannot be pursued without a local element". However, having read the strategy and aims, I can't really see anything that changes the situation much.

The main motivation for considering changes appears to lie in "Additional Factors". These are: (a) The coalition government's "localising" policies, that may require more local campaigning, e.g. against faith schools (fortunately not so far a problem in the Hastings area). (b) Growth in BHA membership, resulting for example from the Atheist Bus campaign, and lack of involvement of these members in local groups. (c) Competition from "other players in the field" such as Skeptics in the Pub and Brights Meet-ups, and perhaps the formation of some NSS local groups (though mention of the NSS is studiously avoided in the document).

In my experience the Skeptics and Brights or the NSS are not competition; their active players are also often members of Humanist groups. They just have a different emphasis on particular aspects of Humanism. Personally I would not want to become merely a sort of "Branch Manager" for the BHA, even if it was a salaried position. In fact I would like to be allowed to organise Sceptics in the Pub or Science Cafe style meetings as part of our Humanist activities; thus promoting critical thinking and scientific knowledge, both of which are positive aspects of Humanism, rather than being confined to countering religious bigotry.

A way that the BHA might promote Humanism locally could be by sponsoring local meeting places. One way this might be done would be by a national agreement between the BHA and the Quakers or the Unitarians for example, or even perhaps with Colleges or Libraries, to make rooms available at reasonable prices, with facilities for seating, screen projection and refreshments. The existence of such meeting rooms could well stimulate the opening of new local groups.

Monday, 29 November 2010

What is Religion For?

The Thought for the Day today on BBC Radio 4 was a quite extraordinarily frank admission about the nature of religion. In commenting on the debate held in Canada between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens on the motion: "Be it resolved, that religion is a force for good in the world". Clifford Longley stated:

Christianity doesn't exist to make the world a better place. It exists to make men and women righteous in the sight of God.

Taking up a reference from Christopher Hitchens he also quoted from the recently beatified Cardinal Newman:

I suspect ... John Henry Newman, would have voted with Mr Hitchens in Toronto. He held that it would be better, and I quote, "for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extreme agony, than that one soul should tell one wilful untruth, or steal one poor farthing without excuse."

The point Cardinal Newman was making with maximum poetic overkill was that the mere possibility that one person might be damned to hell for all eternity is worse than the worst thing we can possibly imagine here on earth. If you take hell and damnation out of the equation, as New Atheists would of course, then what Newman is saying is utter insanity.

So Religion is Insanity. He admits it!

On Saturday I went to the AGM of the National Secular Society. The NSS President Terry Sanderson is asking for a debate on what he calls "a sharper focus" for the Society, that is a focus on the separation of State and Religion rather than arguing against Religion. He proposes a new "Secular Charter". As a speake from the floor noted this mentions "Religion" a lot but doesn't actually define what the term means. A members motion that the NSS should actively promote Atheism was defeated. Personally I think there is a lot more to religion than mere belief in gods; as Longley makes clear it is about denial of reality, and indeed is opposed to doing good in the world.

Incidentally I am loking forward to the new series by Ian Hislop on BBC 2 Television starting tonight on the "Age of the Do-Gooders". He is apparently starting with William Wilberforce. I'm wondering if he will mention Richard Carlile who was a victim of Wilberforce's Society for the Supression of Vice. Later episodes will apparently include Robert Owen. I'm wondering whether he will also include Owenites like Henry Hetherington and G. J. Holyoake.

I'm proposing that the meaning of Religion, and the attitudes we should take towards it, be the subject for our December meeting.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Report of Our AGM

The attendance at tonight's AGM was just about quorate, made up of 5 existing members, 1 new member, and 2 prospective members. There were two apologies for absence.

The Minutes of the 2009 AGM were summarised as far as recalled by the Secretary and those who were present at the time. The Secretary's report then summarised the activities of the Group from its start in February 2009. The Treasurer then presented her report, which showed that the income from donations, entrance fees and membership subscriptions just exceeded the costs of hiring venues.

A discussion on membership agreed that the fee should remain at £5 for the coming year, and that we should continue to charge for attendance at lectures by outside speakers, at the rate of £2 for members and £2.50 for non-members. Only those who are paid-up members can vote at the AGM or become officers of the Group.

Helene White indicated her wish to step down as Treasurer, but agreed to stay on as Deputy Treasurer, while Lesley Arnold-Hopkins agreed to take on the Treasurer role. George Jelliss agreed to stay on as Secretary. These appointments were proposed and seconded, in the absence of other names being put forward. No other Committee members were appointed.

A simple formal Constitution was put forward by the Secretary and accepted by those present. A copy will be made available to all members.

Future plans for the Group were discussed. It is proposed to hold less lectures in the next year, say three from outside speakers, interspersed with discussion meetings on specific subjects. The venues will remain the Arts Forum and the Dripping Well pub for the present.

If anyone present has different recollections of the meeting and its decisions please let me know. A fuller report, including names, will be sent to paid-up members. We hope that more of our regular attendees will want to become members and support the work of the Group. Offers of talks for next year are invited. These can be formal lectures or just short introductions to stimulate discussion.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

SACRE Meeting in Lewes

On Monday I went to Lewes for the East Sussex SACRE Meeting at County Hall. I was there as a Humanist observer. Any member of the public who has a sufficiently high threshhold of boredom can attend as an observer! I've made a formal request to be appointed as a Humanist Representative on Group A of the SACRE. This will now be considered at the next SACRE meeting in February, it may require revising the constitution.

Unlike the meeting last February in Uckfield this meeting was well attended, with 16 people in all round the table, although the Council personnel running it have now changed. A draft version of the East Sussex Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education (86 pages) was distributed, although it contains a lot of extra material, in blue, added by the new Local Authority Adviser to SACRE, Lilian Weatherley. The Foreword by Councillor Matthew Lock, does mention the need for "considering other secular beliefs such as humanism and atheism" though I have not yet examined the text in detail for its references to Humanism.

There is a meeting in London at Conway Hall on Saturday for SACRE Representatives which I propose to attend, to get further experience in this field.

There is a BHA Group Representatives Annual Meeting on 27th November, but this year it is being held in Birmingham. I attended the GRAM last year in London but will not be able to get to Birmingham. If any member (or two members) of our Hastings Group would like to attend please let me know and I will give you the necessary details. It runs from about 10 am to 4 pm. It would probably be best to travel the day before and stay overnight. We may be able to cover the cost of the rail fare (if booked in advance), but not the overnight accommodation. You might be able to fit in a visit to the CBSO at Symphony Hall, or other attractions.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Making Up Religion

Andrew Burnham, Bishop of Ebbsfleet, one of the five Bishops who are leaving the Church of England to become Catholics spoke on BBC Radio this morning, saying:
"It's about whether the Church of England, as it's always claimed to be, is faithful to the undivided Church of the first thousand years and faithful to its faith and orders - or whether it feels it can make things up and change things as it goes.
"And, increasingly, over the last few years, it has acted as though it is autonomous in these matters and can make things up as it goes and women bishops is simply the latest example of that."

He doesn't seem to register any irony in his failure to realise that Christianity was all "Made Up" in the first place, mainly by Paul of Tarsus and his friends in the first century. The fact that he wants to go back to the teachings of the mediaeval church as they were in the first millennium is even more baffling. Back to the Dark Ages! Back to a geocentric universe surrounded by spheres of angels. Back to feudalism and divine right of Kings. Back to serfdom and slavery. Can he really mean that?

Monday, 1 November 2010

Our Annual General Meeting

Since we have no formal constitution our AGM will basically be a discussion about the Hastings Humanists Group and how the members and supporters wish it to proceed into the next year, our third. This will be held on Thursday 18th November, 6:30 pm at the Arts Forum.

If I continue as Secretary my plan for next year is for far less formal lectures and instead to have mainly discussion meetings where we can get to know one another and exchange views. I think each meeting should have a leading topic which the proposer will introduce with a short introduction, of say ten minutes, and then discussion of the topic, followed by any other subjects that may come up.

Suggestions for topics we should discuss will be welcomed. Some that I have listed as possible are: Humanism and Science Fiction, The Rewriting of History by Religious Historians, Is Cosmology Relevant to Humanism, Is there any Truth in Conspiracy Theories, The Census (due on 27 March 2011), and several others. Any offers? Any serious omissions, or events coming up we should cover?

I understand Helene is willing to continue as our Treasurer, though she may not be at all meetings. Instead of making an entry charge we propose that there be a £5 annual membership fee (which about ten people have already paid for 2010) other donations being optional. (This is similar to the Brighton and Hove Group.) Lesley will I hope continue as Deputy Treasurer.

These roles are open to other members to put their names forward for selection. This includes the Secretary role. It may be that we should also create some other formal positions, and perhaps a formal Committee. If members have specific proposals they would like discussed at the AGM it would be helpful to have them notified in advance, but this is not essential.

Another problem may be to find a new venue. Personally I am not keen on meeting in a public house since I prefer to avoid alcohol, but on the other hand there is no room fee to be paid. Does anyone know of a better meeting place, perhaps a Cafe? Graham thinks we should start raising funds for our own building, but that seems a bit ambitious at this stage.

Friday, 22 October 2010

In the Local Press

There are two items of interest to our group in today's Hastings Observer.

Civic Service:
On page 7 is a letter to the Editor from me about the exclusion of Humanism from the Civic Service, as reported in the previous posting here. (A News Item I sent the previous week was not published.) I've suggested that if a ceremony is needed it should be representative of the whole community.

Alan Turing:
On page 17 is a news item reporting that Dean Morrison's campaign for a blue plaque to commemorate Alan Turing's connection with Hastings has been successful. It has not yet been decided where it will be placed. The article also states that Turing made "interesting studies into DNA" towards the end of his life (he died in 1954). I hadn't heard of this before. (Crick and Watson published their famous paper in April 1953.)

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Mayor Vetoed by Clergy

The invitation that I received to give a reading at the Civic Service this Sunday morning came to nothing, since the Vicar and Bishop ruled that no Atheist is allowed to speak in a Christian Church.

I was only informed when I got there for the start of the Service. The programme included an interval for statements by Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist speakers, but Humanists it appears are taboo.

Mind you it was difficult to think of something I could read that would not be found offensive to people of faith in some way, and sandwiching it between two hymns in praise of the Almighty would have seemed incongruous no matter what I said.

I've written a longer account that I hope may be accepted for HumanistLife.

The purpose of the Civic Service it seems is to affirm that the traditional hold of the Church over the Secular Authority is maintained.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Our October Meeting

The next meeting of Hastings Humanists on 14th October will be a social gathering at the Dripping Well public house to discuss whatever members want to bring up. There have been a lot of topics in the news. If I have the time I will produce a Newsletter for distribution. The BHA provided ten copies of their Newsletter (unfortunately they arrived just after our last meeting). These can go to whoever asks for them first.

The venue for our AGM in November has not been settled yet. I'm also thinking of changing the date to 18th November to avoid the clash with Remembrance day. I would like to see more people getting involved in the organisation of meetings. Perhaps a committee of six might be workable. We may also be able to do away with charges for meetings and instead ask for an annual subscription and voluntary donations, which is what the Brighton group does.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Battle of Britain Celebrations

Since I was born in 1940 and lived for the first five years of my life in South East London, the big event for me over the weekend was not the Pope's visit but the anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. There has been some quite extensive and good coverage of this 70th anniversary. I even watched the broadcast of most of the service from Westminster Abbey, but had to turn off part when the theological intrusions got too nauseating, turning it on again to see the parade and the fly-past by a Hurricane and Spitfire and four Tornados. The main photo in the press was of heads turning up to see the planes go by. As a humanist I regard the stand that Britain took against the fascist madness as indeed one of the finest periods in our history. I'm disappointed to see very little comment in the humanist columns on this subject.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Media lets the Pope Rewrite History

Will any of our members be going to London for the "Protest the Pope" march?

It's not my sort of scene. But I have been protesting on various websites at the way the Pope's re-writing of history seems to be able to pass without comment in the media. [I was going to put in a link to HumanistLife but the site was inaccessible due to exceeding its bandwith - so presumably this means a lot of people are accessing it to get the BHA reaction to the Pope's comments.]

Here is a reaction from Andrew Copson on the BHA site.

Terry Sanderson in the NSS Newsline has made similar comments to my own.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Secular Hall Open Day

Over the week end I returned to Leicester, mainly for the Secular Hall Open Day on Sunday 12 September, travelling by train to London and then National Express coach to Leicester and staying two nights at self-catering apartments. On Sunday I visited the Hall on three occasions, morning (when the photo was taken) to sign in, afternoon to hear the ceilidh orchestra and buy a couple of books, and in the evening to hear the lecture and take part in the discussion afterwards. Allan Hayes, President of Leicester Secular Society, spoke on "Secularism: The Way Ahead" (as he sees it). It was pleasant for me to meet many old acquaintances again. No doubt the debate will be reported in the "Leicester Secularist".

Friday, 10 September 2010

Report of our September Meetring

Dean Morrison's talk on Alan Turing attracted one of our best attendances so far. Not all of course were Humanists or members of our group. There is a biography of Turing, to which I contributed part of the text, on the Humanist Heritage site. There seems to be a little confusion on Andrew Hodge's biographical site about where Turing lived in Hastings. Dean confirmed that it was Baston Lodge in Upper Maze Hill.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Hawking ditches God

The Times has been devoting masses of pages to publicise Stephen Hawking's new book The Grand Design in which, like Laplace, he points out that physics has no need of the God hypothesis. Cynics are saying Hawking is just trying to boost sales of his book, and that the Times is just trying to boost subscriptions to its now pay-walled website.

The Grand Design is M-theory, a development of String theory, which implies that a universe can spontaneously emerge from nothing, thanks to the negative energy of gravity balancing out the positive energy needed for matter. This is pretty much what Victor Stenger has said, in "The Comprehensible Universe" and "God the failed hypothesis", along with other physicists, but no doubt Hawking carries more clout.

The title The Grand Design strikes me as a bit of a gift to the creationists who will say a Design implies an Intelligent Designer.

The Times has got quotes, for and against, from just about everyone including a whole page from the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He claims "Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean." I would have thought both those processes, analysis and synthesis, were part of science, which is the search for understanding. He also has the effrontery to say: "The Bible is relatively uninterested in how the Universe came into being. It devotes a mere 34 verses to the subject." Now he tells us!

Friday, 3 September 2010

Protest the Pope Campaign

I forgot to mention that a member at the Brighton meeting was wearing one of the garish red POPE NOPE T-shirts issued by the NSS. There is a "Protest the Pope" march and rally planned for 18 September at Hyde Park Corner from 1:30 pm. A contingent from the Brighton group are gathering beforehand at 11:30 at Victoria Station (at Starbucks near Platform 1), and Hastings members are welcome to join them (though I'm not planning to go there myself).

There was a debate on this issue at Conway Hall on 1st September between secular and catholic speakers. There is an excellent report of the debate on the New Humanist blog. However it seems the audience was already decided in its views and the question and answer session deteriorated into one of abuse rather than rational argument, though the arguments presented by the catholic speakers are pretty weak.

Brighton and Hove Humanists

I had a day out on 1st September to attend the Brighton and Hove Humanist Society meeting in the evening. The speaker was Denis Cobell former President of the NSS who was to speak on "Why I am not a Christian". He referred to the 1927 essay with that title by Bertrand Russell, but didn't repeat Russell's arguments. In fact mostly the talk was about his upbringing within an Evangelical Christian family in the Brighton area. It never became clear why he did not become a Christian, other than that he was a natural rebel and found the dogma unbelievable. His sister on the other hand remained within the fold.

Earlier I went to the cinema to see the noisy and difficult to follow film "Inception" which in fact raised more interesting philosophical questions, about whether we can tell the difference between dream and reality.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Alan Turing: Our September Meeting

After the August break our programme resumes with a presentation by Dean Morrison on the life and ideas of Alan Turing (1912 - 1954). He was an outstanding mathematician, philosopher and computer pioneer, and played an important part in breaking the German Enigma codes during the second world war. The circumstances of his death are still controversial. The previous prime minister Gordon Brown issued an apology for the way he was persecuted by the authorities. A PDF poster advertising the talk is now available to download.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Richard Dawkins on the Faith School Menace

Channel 4 on "More 4" is starting a new Richard Dawkins season on Wednesday this week
18 August 9pm, with a documentary on the Faith School Menace. The following text is from the More 4 website:

Professor Richard Dawkins calls on us to reconsider the consequences of faith education, which, he believes, indoctrinates and divides children, and bamboozles parents

The number of faith schools in Britain is rising. Around 7,000 publicly-funded schools - one in three - now has a religious affiliation.

As the coalition government paves the way for more faith-based education by promoting 'free schools', the renowned atheist and evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins says enough is enough.

In this passionately argued film, Dawkins calls on us to reconsider the consequences of faith education, which, he argues, bamboozles parents and indoctrinates and divides children.

The film features robust exchanges with former Secretary of State for Education Charles Clarke, Head of the Church of England Education Service Reverend Janina Ainsworth, and the Chair of the Association of Muslim Schools, Dr Mohammed Mukadam.

It also features insights from child psychologists and key players in faith education as well as insights from both parents and pupils.

Dawkins also draws on his own personal history as a father, arguing that the government must stop funding new faith schools, and urges society to respect a child's right to freedom of belief.

I think his previous "Root of Evil?" series is being repeated, though under "The God Delusion" title, as are some others.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Humanist Heritage in London

Today I went to London to attend a meeting of the group, of which I am a member, which is developing the Humanist Heritage website. The meeting was at 5 pm at the BHA headquarters, 1 Gower Street. During the afternoon I went to the Bayswater area of London to investigate whether the old "Ethical Church" building still exists. The photo I took is of the building at 46 Queensway, which is now a Roman Catholic church. The address of the West London Ethical Church is recorded in this 1927 list of services as 46 Queen's Road, Bayswater, and this pre-war AtoZ of London indicates that Queensway was previously known, at least in parts, as Queens Road. So this would seem to be the right place.

The others in attendance at the meeting were Hamish MacPherson, Jim Herrick, Andrew Copson, Elizabeth Lutgendorff, Stephan Dickers and Bob Churchill.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Interfaith Forum meets Councillors

I went to the meeting of the Hastings Interfaith Forum yesterday (Tuesday 27th, 6 pm) at the WRVS in South Street St Leonards. It was one of a series special meetings called with local community groups, so that the Council leader, Jeremy Birch, and deputy leader, Jay Kramer, could outline the Council’s programme for the year and dialogue about any issues which those present might wish to draw to their attention.

The Labour Council is to try to keep to their proposals put to the electorate (such as the compulsory purchase of the pier and the cultural regeneration programme) subject to working within the coalition government's cuts. There was some talk about an equalities charter, an anti-poverty strategy, improving disabled access to seafront businesses, being open and transparent, and holding a "Big Conversation".

I raised the question of whether the Public Library is included in the regeneration programme and the higher education expansion in Hastings Town Centre, but apparently this is in the hands of East Sussex County Council and plans to move it are indefinite. (I'd have thought it could be combined with the College Library at a considerable reduction of costs, but this seems not to have been considered.)

On Sunday 1st August there is an "Asian Delights" event at St Leonards Gardens 2-6pm, where Middle Eastern and Asian food and music can be experienced, organised in part by Hastings Intercultural Organisation.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Local Transport to Faith Schools Cut

The following news item about our area has been copied from the National Secular Society's Newsline:

Faith school transport to be cut in East Sussex

Another local authority is planning to cut discriminatory subsidised transport for pupils going to "faith schools".

East Sussex Country Council says it will save £500,000 a year by axing the subsidised transport currently provided for primary pupils to get to faith schools if they live more than two miles away (three miles for secondary pupils). The cuts will affect some 1,350 pupils in East Sussex.

Councillor Keith Glazier said: "We need to be very clear that this is about proposed cuts to support we currently choose to provide. Many other local authorities do not provide any assistance for families who chose church schools over their local school. And other parents who choose not to send their child to a local school have to pay the full transport costs."

Mr Glazier said: "Our priority has to be to protect key frontline services, especially those for vulnerable children, and we are having to look at all services to see where savings can be made."

Mandatory free transport provided for pupils of families receiving benefit is unaffected. Parents are to be consulted on council's plans between 22 July and 30 September. A final decision will be made in the autumn, with church school transport likely to be cut from January.

Sunday, 18 July 2010


On Saturday I went to the BHA AGM held in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. This was the first time I've attended the AGM and it was somewhat more interesting than I thought it might be. There were three forums held in the morning, but I missed these since I had other business to attend to. The photo was taken just before the meeting started. The wording above the stage reads "To Thine Own Self Be True" which is a translation from the Greek motto at the Delphic Oracle. What exactly it means is of course open to interpretation, like anything oracular.

The meeting began with a performance by the BHA choir. Somewhat controversially, but apparently at the request of Andrew Copson, they sang "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. That was good. However their rendition of "Somer is icomen in" this time seemed to be a conflict betwen the choir and the pianist, but perhaps I was sitting in the wrong place.

After the reports by Robert Ashby the chairman, Andrew Copson the chief executive and the presentation of the accounts by the Treasurer, the most interesting part of the actual AGM was the election of the Trustees, and the debate that accompanied it. The problem is that you have to vote for people that you may not have met and may know nothing about except what they have written in their address.

The meeting ended with a talk about Education from A. C. Grayling, covering everything from ancient Sparta to the less successful efforts of Russell, Wittgenstein and Popper. I wondered if he is planning to set up some school himself, but no-one asked that question. Why shouldn't Humanists set up Academies if the funding can be found? Otherwise we are simply ceding the ground to the churches.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Our July Meeting: Humanist Weddings

Thanks are due to Lesley Arnold-Hopkins for an excellent and often amusing talk, together with a few musical illustrations, about Humanist Wedding ceremonies this evening (8th July). Thanks also to the two members of the audience who took part in the illustration of hand-fasting.

Despite a good mention for the meeting in the local press we only attracted 10 people this time, in addition to the speaker, but no doubt many people have found cooler things to do in this very hot weather. In common with other Groups we are now taking a break, and the next formal lecture meeting will be in September.

There were some lively questions and answers at the end of the talk, and we also had time for a general discussion session. Len Myers brought an old leaflet, unfortunately undated, from the Brighton and Hove Humanist Group which had the words of John Lennon's poem Imagine on the back page, where it says that he "expressed very clearly the Humanist philosophy". However, Jacob noted that it was more of an Anarchist lyric. The leaflet also contained details of a Bexhill and Rother Humanist Group, and a North Sussex Humanist Group, which no longer exist.

The question of how to define Humanism came up again, and I mentioned the Amsterdam Declaration of the IHEU as one such statement, though it is very much "motherhood and apple-pie" that very few could disagree with.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Tom Paine in Lewes

Photo: Tony Benn examining the memorial to Tom Paine in Lewes, while the man on the left appears to be trying to push it over!

Over the week-end (3-4 July) I visited Lewes on two occasions. The first was to join a group from Berkshire Humanists to visit Bull House, where Tom Paine lived for six years (1768-1774) before emigrating to the American colonies, and to hear a talk on Paine from local author David Powell.

At the meeting I learnt that there was to be another event the next day (4th July US Independence Day) when a new memorial to Tom Paine by local sculptor Marcus Cornish was to be unveiled by Tony Benn. There is a fuller report with other photos on a page of my website:

Tom Paine in Lewes

The sculpture appears to represent something like Tom Paine emerging from obscurity to fame, or notoriety.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Response from Amber Rudd MP

The BHA urged us to write to local MPs asking them to vote for two Early Day Motions: EDMs 243 on "science education in schools" (for evolution to be included) and EDM 185 on the "Ulster museum exhibition" (for creationism to be excluded).

Our new MP Amber Rudd has replied to my email, saying that she will NOT be signing because she is "happy with the current provisions for science education".

She writes that: "The Government wants the new curriculum to be slimmer and less prescriptive, thus giving schools more freedom to innovate." and "will remove everything unnecessary from a curriculum that has been bent out of shape by the weight of material dumped there for political purposes."

This seems to entirely miss the point of the motions. Evolution should be included because it is the basis for understanding biology, not for any political reason.

I note that the "Sceptical Voter" website that I mentioned last year, has apparently not been updated since the election. It still lists Michael Foster as our MP and features Evan Harris on the front page, though he lost his seat.

The Law Scrappage Scheme

You have probably all heard by now of the government's new website asking us to tell them which laws we would like to see scrapped. I tried visiting it yesterday, but it wouldn't come up on my screen, due to being too busy I presume. It has come up this morning, and there are already quite a number of good suggestions.

The first thought of most Humanists was to abolish the law about compulsory Christian assemblies in schools, but I'm sure there are many others. Your suggestions would be welcome in the comments here.


Closer to home, I've just received news that our member Rose Austen has had a fall and is hospitalised - as if she didn't already have enough to put up with. I've tried to cheer her up by saying that my brother Michael also had a fall recently and broke his leg, but was out of hospital in a few days - it's surprising what the doctors can now do with a few nuts and bolts! But I don't suppose this was much consolation. One feels rather useless in such circumstances.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010


On Saturday (26 June) I went to the BHA one-day conference at Conway Hall on "Humanism, Philosophy and the Arts". The performance by the BHA Choir was probably the most entertaining part, particularly their rendition of "Sumer is icumen in", though their attempt to emulate the Swingle Singers with "Sleepytime Bach" was not a success.

The other highlight of the day was Martin Rowson's run through a selection of his cartoons. I'm not really a fan of his drawings, particularly those of the grossly anatomical type, but his latest take on the coalition government, with Clegg as Pinocchio and Cameron as Little Lord Fauntleroy are more gently amusing, though I suspect that after the honeymoon period they will become more trenchant.

Ken Worpole's talk on Humanism and Architecture was a subject completely new to me, so I don't feel qualified to comment. The other talks were on philosophy. As usual I could find little to disagree with in Richard Norman's account of Art in relation to Meaning in Life, though also little to stimulate new thought. Julian Baggini spoke on ethics as illustrated in films, particularly those of the Coen brothers, but can't agree with his idea that "good" people are those who are not a "pain in the arse". My view is that most people who ever got any good reform going were always a nuisance to the powers that be. Nigel Warburton spoke about modern conceptual art, and included as an illustration what appeared to be a photograph of a kitchen, but was in fact a photograph of a paper model of the same kitchen! He maintains that you cannot appreciate art fully without knowing the artist's intentions.

After the conference I bought Nigel Warburton's book "Philosophy: The Basics". What strikes me about this after a first read-through is that many of the subjects and arguments are so old-hat, and take such little account of modern advances in science. It's as if philosophers are living in a time-warp. I'd like to have a go at writing my own account. I've been gathering notes for some years and have a good title, but getting down to organising it into some coherent pattern is another matter.

Report on the Extra Meeting

Our meeting at the Cafe Relax attracted seven, including two that we first met at the last lecture. The venue did not prove ideal, mainly because the noise from the refrigerator which made it difficult to hear soft-spoken people, even though we were gathered close together. If anyone can suggest better places to meet for this type of informal discussion, we would give them consideration.

One of the topics that came up concerned the issues of animal welfare and vegetarianism, which is a subject that divides humanists as much as any other group. Rational cases can be made for either side, though we can usually agree that animals raised for food should be treated as humanely as possible.

I distributed some copies of the BHA News magazine to those who are not direct BHA members. These were provided by the BHA as part of their "Humanist Week" (21-27 June). It's a pity we could not have done more to mark this, but it fell between our usual meeting dates.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Extra Meeting, at the Relax Cafe

We have had a lot of new members coming to our lecture meetings recently, but there hasn't been time for getting to know one another or to chat about things in the news or whatever ideas you might want to raise. So I'm proposing to hold an extra meeting on Wednesday 30th June from 6 pm onwards, at a new venue, The Relax Cafe. This is a few doors along from the Arts Centre. We should be able to use the room on the right-hand side of the Cafe, which is an Ice Cream Parlour during the day. Tea, Coffee and edibles, as well as other beverages, can be bought there, and there is no separate charge for the room or for attending the meeting.

This is in addition to our scheduled talk by Lesley Arnold-Hopkins at the Arts Forum on 8th July, about Humanist Weddings.

I forgot to add to the circular that there is a poster available for the July meeting. See the right-hand column for a link to the page where it can be downloaded.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Report of our June Meeting

The talk by James Williams on Creationism and the Teaching of Evolution attracted a good attendance of twenty in all including at least six newcomers, although I was disappointed at the absence of several regulars who have previously shown a strong interest in science. The speaker arrived fifteen minutes late, due to traffic, but the meeting carried on later than usual, until 9 pm, and Mr Williams coped very well with some pointed questions, from quite opposite directions.

The main thesis of the talk was the insidious way that creationists try to promote their beliefs, by for instance publishing attractively illustrated books on dinosaurs for children, but omitting any geological dating, and including accounts of the myth of Noah's Ark and the Great Flood. He also questioned the morality of scientifically qualified writers who are prepared to see the facts misrepresented, in a way that surely contravenes the commandment about not bearing false witness. He also spoke interestingly about the way young children can get misapprehensions from such teaching that then becomes difficult to rectify.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Humanist Heritage

A new website is being set up to gather biographical and topographical details on Humanist Heritage. There are only a few pages there at present. I have been involved in putting together some of the material, for instance the biography of Fenner Brockway and the photo of his statue in Red Lion Square. There was a previous website of this name, set up by Hamish Macpherson, and he is still involved in the project, but it has now come under the wing of the BHA.

Local groups are asked to provide information for the site about people who made significant contributions to our modern secular culture. For example, I've provided a biography of Alan Turing, based largely on information from Dean Morrison's Quockling website, but this is not yet on the Humanist Heritage site.

This project is part of a Humanist Week 21-27 June designed to increase awareness of Humanism. Unfortunately these dates lie between those of our local Group meetings on 10th June and 8th July. I'm wondering if we should have another meeting during that week, say at the pub, or does anyone have ideas for some other event we could organise?

Monday, 31 May 2010

Science on Television

There are a couple of series about science on television at present. "The Story of Science" fronted by a new face, Michael Mosley, on BBC2 on Tuesdays comes to an end this week, and I shall be interested to see what conclusions he arrives at. I hope there will not be some trite quasi-religious moral judgment. His emphasis has been on the influence of historical events, and the development of the necessary technology to make the scientific breakthroughs possible.

A new series "Genius of Britain" on Channel 4 is by contrast fronted by a series of familiar celebrities, each doing their bit for a particular character. David Attenborough did a good job for Christopher Wren, bringing out his influence on the founding of the Royal Society and his work in biology and astronomy before becoming the prominent architect of the period.

As someone who has studied the history of science intensively for many years I've found many little annoyances with these programmes, though perhaps I shouldn't complain too much, since they are aimed at a popular audience and are spreading the word about science which is all to the good.

For example in the BBC series Kepler's first law that the planets move in ellipses was mentioned, but not his equally important second and third laws. I presume they were omitted because they are of a more mathematical nature. In the Channel 4 programme the emphasis is on British science, but the studied omission of any mention of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and others of the giants on whose shoulders Newton stood seems rather pettily chauvinistic. The emphasis was also on Wren, Hooke, Boyle, Newton and Halley. Although the royal observatory was mentioned the first Astronomer Royal, Flamsteed, was air-brushed out of history. Other people active in the Invisible College at Oxford such as Wilkins and Wallis were similarly ignored.

The current fashion for the denigration of Newton was also apparent in the Channel 4 programme, in which the great man was presented to us by Stephen Hawking and Jim Al-Khalili. The allegation that Newton wrote his famous saying as a put-down, implying that Hooke was insignificant, and that he was behind the loss of the only portrait of Hooke, was presented as established fact, but is opinion, probably coming from Lisa Jardine's biography of Robert Hooke. Newton was also presented as an unsociable eccentric, but if so how could he possibly have been MP for Cambridge University and have held down the posts of Master of the Mint and President of the Royal Society if he was that bad at communication? And by the way, Principia Mathematica was written by Whitehead and Russell. The title of Newton's book is Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). The Natural Philosophy part of the title is important; that was what Science was known as at the time.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Afterlife Fantasies

The BBC Radio 4 programme "Start the Week" on Monday featured David Eagleman a neurologist at Baylor College in Texas who has written a sort of science fiction collection of short stories "Sum" which depict various alternative afterlife scenarios. Including one, for example, in which you relive your whole life but with repetitive episodes all gathered together. What puzzles me is that he seems to regard them all as being "possible". The BBC website also speaks of "the afterlife" as if there was no doubt that there was such a thing.

There was also an item on the PM programme in which Eddie Mair revealed the conclusions to the long-running TV series "Lost" and "Ashes to Ashes" which apparently both ended with the participants finding they had in fact all been dead all along and were living in some sort of pergatory or limbo. I've never watched either series, but it seems that dramatists are no longer able to write about reality.

As a rationalist who goes by the evidence available, the idea that there could be any sort of afterlife has always struck me as a particularly obvious case of wish-fulfillment, and incompatible with all the evidence of physics and chemistry. It is also shown to be fantasy by the total lack of consistency between alternative versions, as espoused by different religions. Of course, as with anything, there is no absolute proof of the impossibility of an afterlife, but neither is there any positive evidence for it, and most scenarios are manifestly absurd.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Report on our May Meeting

Thanks to Bob Churchill of the British Humanist Association for coming to talk to us last night (Thursday 13 May). There were 15 people in attendance, including four new faces. Bob began with an account of the philosophical basis of humanism which led to some interesting exchanges. There still seems to be lacking some simple sound-bite style statement of Humanist belief other than "for the one life we have". Bob gave some account of the history of the BHA, which goes back to the late 19th century Ethical movements, and its association with the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He also spoke about his own role at the BHA and of the current range of campaigns and policies. Regarding local humanist groups he noted that some were getting together to arrange larger events that might attract people from a wide area. However our nearest groups are those in Canterbury and Brighton, and transport communications between us are not easy. Probably any joint meeting would have to be held in London, which the BHA already caters for. This year's one day conference at Conway Hall will be on 26 June 2010 and is devoted to "Humanism, Philosophy and the Arts".

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Electoral Global Consciousness?

The BBC's "Thought for the Day" on Tuesday 11 May, by Akhandadhi Das, was particularly weird. Here is the text. He explains that the election result according to the Sunday Times "could have been engineered by a demonic troublemaker" namely that "averaged-out super-entity, the Electorate".

Das tells us that this is "one form of the notion of Co-creation in which a single picture emerges from a totality of varying viewpoints, subtly influenced and moulded by each of them." That rather sounds like evolution by natural selection to me!

He goes further: "it is also the process behind the creation of the universe as described in Hinduism's ancient Vedic texts". He maintains that: "The sum total of all these souls' subliminal desires provides the underlying information input that guides both the emergence of the physical world and its on-going development."

One of my contacts on facebook points out that the idea of events being influenced by what the masses of us think is being "scientifically" investigated, by the Global Consciousness project. Their website states: "Our purpose is to examine subtle correlations that may reflect the presence and activity of consciousness in the world. We predict structure in what should be random data, associated with major global events."

I suspect a little data massaging.

Barry Norris on facebook summed up the election situation succinctly:
We are all Con-Dem'd!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Justice Laws Judgment

The judgment by Lord Justice Laws in the recent case of a Relate counsellor who refused to advise a homosexual client, although rather technical, is worth reading for the much wider implications of his ruling, including his response to the witness statement provided by the former archbishop George Carey.

From Section 24: "We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion — any belief system — cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens, and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic."

Predictably the usual suspects such as former Bishop Nazir Ali are maintaining that this is all against our "Judaeo-Christian" heritage or even unconstitutional.

However there are also cases occurring where the law seems to be coming down too heavily against free speech. For instance a man in Cumbria arrested for "using abusive or insulting language, contrary to the Public Order Act", while preaching to people from the top of a ladder. This is the other side of the coin from the Harry Taylor case reported here a few days ago. Surely we ought to be able to put up with this sort of public argument.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Early Publicity

I was surprised to find a small notice of our May meeting in Friday's Hastings Observer, which I bought this morning. It is at the bottom left of page 9 in the "News in Brief" section. I was expecting it to appear in the 7th May issue. The text has been edited qute a bit. The heading is "Humanists hear from expert", and Bob Churchill has been promoted to "Head of the London Offices" of the BHA, but I don't suppose he will mind. At least the main details of time and place are correct.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Faith Shuts Down Critical Faculties

An interesting piece of research by Uffe Schjoedt at the Department of the Study of Religion at Aarhus University, Denmark, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) finds that when strongly religious people fall under the spell of a charismatic figure, areas of the brain responsible for scepticism and vigilance become less active. It is reported in New Scientist. This explains why certain individuals can gain influence over others, and concludes that their ability to do so depends heavily on preconceived notions of their authority and trustworthiness. It seems likely that the results extend beyond religious leaders to such figures as parents, doctors and politicians.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Asbo for Atheist Propaganda

This story got a small mention in the news but seems to have been drowned out by other minor issues, like the volcano and the election, but could have serious consequences for unbelievers especially those interested in being actively antireligious.

Atheist gets Asbo

Jurors found Harry Taylor guilty of causing "religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress". This merely for putting on display some well-known cartoons: one image showed a smiling crucified Christ next to an advert for a brand of "no nails" glue; another Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise being told: "Stop, stop, we've run out of virgins".

Would it be possible for atheists to claim "aggravated intentional harassment" the next time we are stopped by Mormons, or Jehovah's Witnesses knock at our doors, or when we pass by a church with a depiction of a man being tortured by being nailed to a cross, or when Bishops tell us that atheists are "less than human"?

This case seems to be bringing back a law of Blasphemy, which I thought we had just abolished.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Misunderstandings of Science

Our April meeting proved popular, with 20 people in attendance, despite the competition of the big political debate on television. Or is it that everyone is disillusioned with politicians?

Alexander Hellemans presented a wide-ranging talk on science, using a projector and screen, tracing the origins of science back to Thales in ancient Greece, and discussed how science differs from belief systems, and from technology, with illustrations from a variety of subjects including climate change and the large hadron collider. The subsequent discussion involving the audience was quite lively, touching on James Lovelock's Gaia theory, and the inevitable evolution versus creationism argument (which we will be returning to in June). And too much else to report in detail here. Thanks are due to Dean Morrison for technical assistance with the projector, and to everyone who participated in the debate.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Our April Meeting

The following is the text of the Press release that I sent out about our April meeting. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have received any mention in the local press, this week or last.

Misunderstandings of Science

There are many ways in which science is misunderstood, even among scientists themselves! Is science a matter of belief, or of social consensus, or of ultimate truth? Can scientists be truly objective? Are scientists responsible for technology? When scientists disagree, who decides? You will probably have your own questions.

Alexander Hellemans, who is co-author of several books on the History of Science, and has contributed articles to many science journals, will introduce a discussion on "Misunderstandings of Science" at the Hastings Humanists meeting on Thursday 15th April. This will be held at the Arts Forum, 36 Marina, from 6:30 pm. There is an entrance fee of £2. Everyone is welcome, you don't have to be a humanist, just remember to bring your questions and join in the discussion.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Pullman Bandwagon Rolls

I have to admit that I am not a fan of Philip Pullman's fiction, mainly because of its derivative nature based on christian symbolism, and will not be buying his new fable "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ". However, I've been going the rounds of the reviews, by the christian illuminati, for whom he is their kind of cuddly atheist, which make interesting and varied reading:

Rowan Williams, Guardian

Richard Holloway, Observer

Alan Wilson (Bishop of Buckingham) Blog

Bryan Appleyard, Times

George Pitcher, Telegraph

My own preferred take on the Jesus story is that it is a myth refined from many previous god-man myths based ultimately on sun worship and the renewal of the seasons, and there is little evidence that anyone called Jesus actually lived. All of the more sensible humanist teachings attributed to Jesus are not original but derive from earlier sources. The christ-the-messiah religion was developed by Paul of Tarsus and institutionalised in the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Brian Cox's Voltaire Lecture

I've just returned from The Voltaire Lecture given by Brian Cox at Conway Hall. It was a privilege to have been able to get a ticket, since there was greater demand than the hall could contain. Not only was his recent TV programme on "The Wonders of the Solar System" inspiring and instructive, but he is also an excellent speaker. He made it clear that this country still "punches above its weight" in Science, but a lot of this is down to our scientific heritage and we may end up living off this capital and decline if we fail to invest in research. The other side of his lecture was on the simplicity and elegance of the standard model of the fundamental particles, as it is now conceived, and the details of the big bang scenario. He joked about an astrologer's claim that everything in the universe is connected, but pointed out that this is in fact the case, though possibly not in the way envisaged by the astrologer.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Opposing Views

In the Radio Times this week there is an article by the Bishop of Croydon, Nick Baines, who calls himself an "e-vangelist" since he writes a blog at, "normally five times a week" - it's a wonder he can find time for anything else.

He says he tries to practise "confident humility", surely an oxymoron, but he is not averse to the occasional arrogant put-down such as: "Richard Dawkins isn't alone in excelling in one field - such as biology - while being awful in another - such as 'thinking'." Ouch! The implication being that his own thinking is hunky dory.

He also has the usual complaint: "An area of challenge relates to the atheists in the blogosphere, particularly those who represent perfectly what their prejudices tell them is the preserve of religious people: fundamentalism and an unswayable confidence in their own unargued-for assumptions about the world and human meaning." I must admit I've encountered a few who give that impression! However all atheists and humanists I know most certainly have thought very hard about their assumptions and about giving meaning to their lives."

There is a point in which I can agree with him: "... what's the point in simply talking to those who agree with you when you could be arguing your way to a better understanding ...", though we may differ as to what needs to be understood. To this end I propose to add a series of links in the right-hand column to various sites that represent Opposing Views, beginning with the Bishop's blog. If you have any links that you think ought to be included please let me know.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Morality and Science

Sam Harris has had a few things to say on this theme recently.

He argued that "Science can answer Moral Questions" in a talk he gave on the TED forum for Technology, Entertainment and Design.

This has been inevitably criticised by those who, following David Hume, maintain that an "ought" cannot be derived from an "is". Though personally I think Hume was more subtle on this point than those who have adopted his slogan.

Harris has followed up on the criticisms received in "Moral Confusion in the Name of Science" on his Project Reason site.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Can a Pope Resign?

In view of the Pope's involvement in the suppression of reports of sexual molestation of children by priests, shouldn't he be asked to resign? He has issued a letter of apology to the people of Ireland. An article in The Observer calls the Catholic church arrogant, corrupt and secretive.

The NSS Director, Keith Porteus Wood has challenged the Vatican at the UN over failure to tackle child abuse.

Last week Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece on the history of the whole business and Cardinal Ratzinger's involvement, before he became pope, under the title The Great Catholic Coverup. He was in charge of the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (aka the Inquisition!). In this role he issued a confidential letter to every bishop, reminding them of the extreme gravity of reporting abuse. Such accusations were only treatable within the church's own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was forbidden. Charges were to be investigated "in the most secretive way ... restrained by a perpetual silence ... and everyone ... is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication."

If anyone in any other responsible office issued such an instruction surely all hell would break loose in the press condemning such actions as clearly illegal. Yet the Queen and Prime Minister will be welcoming this man to this country as a Head of State.

The BHA supports the Protest the Pope campaign.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Please tell me that it wouldn't happen here, but heartwarming, all the same.

Not much to do with Hastings, but it's a great story.......

In the USA, a school prom was cancelled, because a female pupil at the school wanted to take her girlfriend as a date.

In summary, the strongly religious school authority felt that same sex relationships are a sin, and so was going to refuse entry to the pupil and her girlfriend. She threatened to sue for discrimination, and so the school cancelled the event .

They then invited local community groups to hold the prom. The suggestion is that they thought local church groups would run the dance, and the girls would be refused entry without the threat of litigation.

The prom is now being held by

....wait for it.....

The American Humanist Association!

It's a story that raises a smile. The full news article is here, if anyone is interested.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Changes to Our Programme

Since the Arts Forum has been booked for a film show on the 8th April and Lesley can't get there on the 15th I've had to rearrange the programme.

The next meeting will be the talk by Alexander Hellemans on "Misunderstandings of Science" on the 15th April.

The talk by Lesley Arnold-Hopkins on "Humanist Weddings" is postponed to July.

The Annual General Meeting, which was planned for July will now be in November, which is more in line with the practice of other groups, and will include some discussion of plans for next year which I had intended to hold as a separate meeting in January.

There is still a gap in October. So offers of a talk from a member would be appreciated. An outside speaker has already offered to make a presentation but requires a fee of £50 plus expenses. Views on that would be appreciated.

I'm proposing to do a fun piece on "The A to Z of Conspiracy Theories" for December, unless other ideas are put forward before then.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Why Religion? A report on our March Meeting

Our meeting yesterday evening attracted 14 people to listen to a thought-provoking talk from Dr Tom Rees on why religion persists in the modern world, despite wider knowledge of science and alternative religious beliefs. Much of the discussion centred on the difficulties of capturing trends in statistical terms, for instance relating degree of religious obeservance in the form of frequency of prayer to economic measures like income inequality.

In answer to a question at the end about how we can help to bring about a reduction in religious influence, Dr Rees made the paradoxical suggestion, possibly tongue in cheek, that we need more religious people like Bishops in the House of Lords! This is on the basis of findings that where a religion is supported by the state, as in the UK, it has less popular support and declines, whereas when religions have to compete in an open market, as in the US, they become more publicly active and strident.

The BHA has just sent out a circular on their policy on Bishops in the House of Lords, encouraging members to write to the Bishops urging them to support reform of the Lords.

Friday, 5 March 2010


A notice about our March meeting appears in the Hastings Observer today on page 22.

I also wrote the editor a letter, or news item, about the SACRE meeting being nonquorate but this has not appeared. Next week perhaps.

I'm pleased to report that James Williams, whose meeting was snowed off in February, has agreed to come to speak to us in June. This has meant moving the talk by our member Alex Hellemans back to October; thanks to him for his patience. We still have a gap in our programme for November, but to have a programme for six months ahead is probably as far as we need to plan.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Our March Meeting: Why Religion?

Hastings Humanists are pleased to welcome Dr Tom Rees author of the Epiphenom blog, a writer on medical issues, and a founder member of Humanists4Science. He recently had an aricle in New Humanist on "Who Needs God?"

He will speak to us on Thursday 11 March at the Arts Forum, 36 Marina. Doors open 6:30 pm for 7pm start, the entrance fee is £2, and all are welcome.

Dr Rees asks: Why are some nations more secular than others? Why does religion persist in the modern world? What factors drive religious change: Modernisation, Religious freedom, Personal insecurity? Whatever happened to Secularisation? Come and take part in the discussion.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Report on East Sussex SACRE

On Thursday I went to the East Sussex SACRE meeting at the Civic Centre in Uckfield. I was there, self-invited, as a Humanist Observer. What I observed was complete apathy. There were only two actual members of the SACRE there! These were Councillor Matthew Lock representing the Local Authority, and Dr Brenda Vance of the United Reformed Church. These were outnumbered by the three administrators, Susan Thompson (Religious Education Consultant), Connie Hughes (Primary Team Leader, School Improvement Service) and Rebecca Haynes (Clerk to the SACRE).

The other person present was Bill Moore who is Chair of the Executive of the National Association of SACREs (which has the unfortunate acronym NASACRE). He gave a presentation on what SACREs are, what they do, amd the laws governing them. According to one of the quotes in his presentation: RE has to "reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in GB". I queried whether this should read "religions and beliefs", as the wording is in other documents from the Government, but was told those were only "guidance" and did not have legal force. I also asked if there was any chance of Religious Education being retitled to something like Philosophical and Ethical Education, but Mr Moore was clearly against any such change.

One reason for the lack of attendance could be the choice of Uckfield as a venue. The only way I could find of getting there by public transport was by train to Eastbourne and then a one-hour bumpy journey on the number 54 bus, which runs every 2 and a half hours. It seemed unclear whether the meeting would go on until the scheduled 5 pm finish, since the meeting was unquorate, so that no definite decisions could be taken. So I decided to miss the second half of the meeting and catch the early bus back to Eastbourne. It poured of rain all the way (as it did at the last SACRE meeting I attended).

Later I looked up the NASACRE website. Its URL is "" but in fact this redirects to "", and the first part of this URL takes one to the "Me, Myself and I" Independent Educational Consultancy run by Paul Hopkins, which also maintains websites for many other groups with weird acronyms: AREIAC, AULRE, COGREE, ECCE, EFTRE, ICCS, SRSP and others, all relating to Religious Education. I could find no reference to humanism on these sites.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Sex Education in Faith-biased Schools

The British Humanist Association is urging its members to write to their MPs, using the BHA email system urging them to oppose an amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill, when it is debated next Tuesday (23rd February).

The bill as originally worded was designed to ensure all young people have access to accurate, balanced, Sex and Relationships Education that promotes equality and diversity, and to prevent faith schools from teaching that same sex relationships and the use of contraception are wrong.

The BHA, the Children's Rights Alliance for England and the Accord Coalition have condemned the new Government amendment, describing it as discriminatory.

The amendment to the Bill, tabled by the Secretary of State Ed Balls, would permit state-funded “faith schools” to teach "PSHE", which includes Sex and Relationships Education, “in a way that reflects the school’s religious character”.

However Ed Balls has claimed that this is “nonsense”, and that the impact of the new amendment is simply to allow faith schools to represent the religion of the school as one view among others, while still being required to deliver the full curriculum in a way that is accurate, balanced, and promotes equality.

The BHA and numerous other organisations dispute this interpretation.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Chaplains in the NHS

The following item appears in the latest NSS Newsline.

Hospital chaplains paid more than nurses and 150% more than cleaners – but which is more important? By Dennis Penaluna

Figures published on the Royal College of Nursing website concerning the NHS 'Agenda for Change' pay-scales clearly show that chaplains are valued more than the people whose work is absolutely essential for patient well-being.

The minimum starting salary for nurses is £20,710 pa and for chaplains it is £25,829, plus they also get extra for being called out, plus an additional amount as a national recruitment and retention payment of nearly £4,000. In all, a new-starter chaplain will probably earn around £32k pa.

Additionally, all chaplains received an average pay-rise last April of 6.1%. Nice work if you can get it – which you can't, of course, unless you are an ordained priest. The NHS employs around 1,000 full and part-time chaplains (mostly CofE) but only a bare handful of humanist practitioners.

Some of the most important people employed in hospitals, the porters and cleaners, start on the NHS's minimum wage of £6.77 per hour. The pay of a new starter chaplain is roughly 2½ times as much.

Our research into the cost of chaplains in the NHS revealed that most people mistakenly believe that hospital chaplains are there on a voluntary basis and get paid by their religious group. They are paid for by the tax-payer and they place a £42 million p.a. burden on the NHS.

Another myth to demolish is the claim by some in the CofE that the church pays for the training of healthcare chaplains. It does not! It might pay for them to be trained as priests but the NHS picks up the tab for their healthcare 'training'. They start on Band 5, the mid-point of which is £23,345 – nice training if you can get it. (You can't!)

The same Newsline includes this letter from one of our members:
Graham Martin-Royle:

There has been a lot of discussion about chaplains being employed by the NHS. I wonder how many people realise that chaplains are also employed by many other private companies? I wonder how many shareholders in private companies realise that their company is employing a chaplain? The old British Rail used to employ chaplains. Some of the train operating companies (TOCs) that now run the rail services are still employing these chaplains. Why?

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Meeting Report

This evening's replacement meeting attracted seven people, and most stayed until 9pm. This was enough for a lively discussion of a wide range of topics in the news, from voting systems, through assisted dying, to catholic child abuse and much else.

As one of the speakers observed, we do tend to fall into discussing the faults and eccentricities of religion as a default mode, rather than more positively humanist issues, but this is because the religions still pose most of the problems that concern us. This tendency was encouraged by having the "God Trumps" cards, with their caricatures of 24 religions or belief systems, to laugh at.

We now have 35 names on our list of people who have attended meetings and are kept informed of our activities, but a number of these have attended only one meeting, or appear only irregularly, and a few are non-humanists. It would be helpful to receive some feedback as to whether we are moving the group in the right direction, and whether there are other things we should be doing.

The next meeting on 11th March will be at the Arts Forum, where Tom Rees is due to speak to us on "Whatever Happened to Secularisation". More on that shortly.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Replacement Meeting.

Since the 11th February meeting was snowed off, there will be a replacement meeting at the Dripping Well pub on 18th February from 7 pm. This will be an open discussion evening, to discuss any issues those present want to raise.

Tom Rees who will be speaking to us in March has an article in the New Humanist (Jan/Feb issue) on the relationship of religion to income inequalities. I will bring a copy of the magazine and a set of the "God Trumps" cards that came with it.

Lesley suggests the doings of the Church of England General Synod may give food for thought.

There's an article on the Freethinker blog about Two Clerics in Sevenoaks who seem to have reverted to mediaeval doctrines about women.

Next Thursday 25th there is a meeting of the East Sussex SACRE which I hope to attend if I can work out how to get to Uckfield.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Tonight's Meeting Cancelled!

Sorry Folks! Snow is still falling here, and a thaw seems unlikely, several people have indicated they are unlikely to be able to get to the venue, so I've decided to call off this evening's meeting. It seemed all set to go just a day ago, and I was looking forward to it as being our best meeting yet. Such is life.

James Williams, who was due to speak to us, posted a link to the following story on facebook about a student moving creationist books to the religious section in a bookshop: censorship?. What do you think?

I hope James will be able to come to speak to us later in the year. Keep an eye on the Programme.

ADDENDUM: There is a lot going on in Brighton from tomorrow to the end of the month, at their science festival.

Monday, 8 February 2010

It's a Humanist Life

I received quite a nice 70th birthday present this evening in the form of the publication of an article I wrote for HumanistLife on Howard Jacobson and the Temple of Darwin, and it was only lightly edited. The image used, of A. C. Grayling and Howard Jacobson sitting on the steps below the statue of Charles Darwin was one that I obtained by screen capture from the Channel 4 film.

Earlier in the day, before the article appeared, I had filled in one of the forms on the HumanistLife site asking what the site was for, on the grounds that the headline story hadn't changed for 5 days. Is it intended to be a weekly magazine, a daily newsfeed, a bulletin for BHA staff to inform us of the party line, a blog, or a Humanist forum? I don't think they are clear on this yet. It is also not clear who the editor is, or the editorial staff. I hasten to say that I think it is a good development, but it needs to be more lively.

Since there was sleet here in the morning and snow in the afternoon I spent the day quietly in the warm, and listened to the radio. Start the Week featured Robert Beckford, a theologian, who will be doing The Book of Revelation for the Channel 4 series on the Bible. He interprets it in terms of what he thinks it meant to early christians living at the time of Nero. The trouble is that too many modern christians interpret it as a literal picture of the End of the World, and may be inclined to help the world on its way to Armaggedon.

The History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum featured the clay tablet telling the tale of Utnapishtim, the Babylonian equivalent of Noah. What annoyed me about this programme was the inclusion of comments from the Chief Rabbi who has his own peculiar interpretation of the Great Flood story, in which the entire destruction of the human race, apart from Noah and his family, is somehow seen as a supremely moral act. In the afternoon Ernie Rae and other theological guests discussed the Gilgamesh story on Beyond Belief. This is an aptly titled programme as the views of its participants are indeed often unbelievably weird. This time they weren't too weird, but did concentrate overmuch on death and immortality as being the main theme of the story.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Publicity in the Local Press

Publicity for our February meeting appeared in Hastings Observer on Friday 29 January page 15 under the headline "Science expert to talk to humanists". Most of the press release I sent was included (see earlier entry).

A few days ago I recevived a phone call from a reporter on the Hastings Observer asking for a Humanist opinion on the Pope's statement relating to the Equality Bill. Part of my reply has been published in an article in this Friday's issue page 3 as follows: George Jellis (sic) of the Hastings Humanists said: "Obviously we do not think very much of the Pope's comments." and "Lots of churchmen seem to think it is ok to discriminate against people on the basis of what we see as bigotry."

The BHA has condemned what they see as "the Pope's attack on equality". What he actually said was not so explicit: he claimed the bill was contrary to "natural law" (whatever that means) and would "impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs", but the implications are clear.

I also pointed out that the National Secular Society has launched a petition for the Vatican to pay for the Pope's visit, which is estimated to cost tax-payers £20 million.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Evict the Bishops Debate

On Wednesday I went to London for the Evict the Bishops debate, which was held by the Labour Humanists in Committee Room 10 in the Houses of Parliament. We were advised to turn up early to get a seat, and this was just as well since everyone had to spend a long time queueing outside in the cold before even getting through the door. This was due to over-the-top security arrangements, involving everyone having their photo taken and attached to a tag round the neck, and having their coat and bags passed along a carrier through a detector while themselves passing through another. I suppose this is the sort of thing that now happens routinely for air travellers, but to me it was a new and most unpleasant experience. This is no way to treat invited guests. After that there was an enormously long walk to the committee room through the vast open space of Westminster Hall and up innumerable steps past many pretentious statues and busts followed by a twenty-minute wait in the corridor outside.

After this the debate itself was something of a let-down. It seems the Lords had voted on the Equalities Bill the previous night, but no-one present seemed to be aware of much about this or of the role of the Bishops in voting down the amendments. The meeting was advertised as being from 7:30 to 9:30 but the chairman David Aaronovitch seemed intent on ending ot at 9pm, and I felt that comment was consequently cut short. Not as much fun as I had anticipated!

Earlier in the day I had paid a visit to the Cocoon at the Natural History Museum. That also I found a disappointment, but I will report on that elsewhere.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Our February Darwin Day Meeting

I've just sent out the following notice to the local papers:

23 January 2010

Creationism and the Teaching of Evolution

Hastings Humanists are pleased to welcome James Williams of Sussex University who will speak to us on Thursday 11 February from 7pm at the Arts Forum, 36 Marina. The entrance fee is £2, and all are welcome.

Mr Williams is a Lecturer in Science Education at Sussex University, and has written on how science works, and on the ways creationists have tried to introduce propaganda into state schools. Only in December for instance a free book was sent to many school and college libraries with the misleading title "Explore Evolution", which was really antiscientific nonsense.

Hastings Humanists began on Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, 12 February last year, and it is proposed to hold a Darwin Day lecture around this date every year. The ideas of evolution by natural selection are of course of great importance for Humanists, since they provide the basis for understanding many aspects of human life.


I've omitted a bit at the end that gave the link to this blog and my telephone number for enquiries, and put in some extra links for this blog entry.

Friday, 22 January 2010

My Nasty Suspicious Mind?

I've just noticed that there was a debate on Night Waves on BBC Radio 3 from 9:15 to 10 pm this evening on "Is the Enlightenment still relevant today?" Besides the chairperson, one Rana Mitter, no names are given for the other debaters, only that they include "historians, theologians and politicians" (no mention of philosophers). Perhaps I am overly suspicious that this is going to be a largely anti-enlightenment debate? It does say that "To critics, however, the Enlightenment has become a twisted dogma". I'll have to wait until it is available on Listen Again to find out.

The main BBC webpage tonight has a prominent picture of Michaelangelo's ubiquitous God from the Sistine Chapel, overlaid with the leading question "Why Does God Allow Natural Disasters", followed by "Your thoughts". This however, it turns out, is not a request for our thoughts, but leads to the BBC News Magazine which, it says, earlier this week 19 January published an article with the given title, by Philosopher David Bain, which prompted more than 4,000 emails sent in. It gives a selection of about 20 of these, and there are about 11 on the original article, but no invitation for further responses.

Only one commenter, John O'Toole, responds with the obvious "The reason why god does not reduce suffering and evil in the world is simply because he does not exist!" Though he then goes on to embroider his case unnecessarily. The others are convoluted exercises in theology that all contradict one another. This hardly seems to be a balanced discussion, but perhaps the leading question didn't attract sceptical readers. I've never heard of this magazine before.

EDIT: The "Night Waves" programme wasn't as bad as I anticipated, but it certainly wasn't a celebration of the Enlightenment. Here are details of the speakers, not given on the BBC site:
Justin Champion see also. Phillip Blond see also. Karen O'Brien. Baroness Haleh Afshar and also.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Some Assorted Links

Here is a nice video, gleaned from, in which Stephen Fry talks an awful lot of good sense about Humanism and Religion.

"The Essay" this week on BBC Radio 3 at 11 pm continues the series on "Enlightenment Voices" with a look at Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedie.

The Libel Reform Campaign continues. Quote: The law is so biased towards claimants and so hostile to writers that London has become known as the libel capital of the world. The rich and powerful bring cases to London on the flimsiest grounds (libel tourism), because they know that 90% of cases are won by claimants. Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.

Our member Graham draws attention to another petition, directed at the General Optical Council. Quote: We, the undersigned, call on the General Optical Council (GOC) to take one simple step to give us, the consumers, a fairer deal and greater choice when buying our prescription glasses.

Concerning the Haiti disaster, and other charitable causes, see the BHA Good Causes and Charities List for links to secular organisations.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Religious Responses to Haiti Disaster

The despicable response of the US televangelist Pat Robertson is hardly worth giving wider publicity, but he was the first off the mark.

The Archbishop of York John Sentamu interviewed on the Today programme on Thursday 14 January criticised Robertson, but also said that he himself "has nothing to say that makes sense of the horror" in #Haiti.

In the Thought for the Day on Friday Giles Fraser of St Paul's Cathedral could likewise offer no theological explanation other than to pray. Here is an alternative interpretation of his thoughts.

At the end of the Today programme on Saturday a sensible response from a humanist was at last broadcast in the form of an interview with A. C. Grayling.

A correspondent on the NSS Newsline, Michael Green writes:
A little advice for those who want to donate in aid of victims of the Haiti earthquake but want to avoid giving money to a faith-based organisation – don't give through the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). Of the thirteen members of DEC, 5 are faith-based: CAFOD (Catholic), Christian Aid, Islamic Relief, Tearfund (Christian) and World Vision (Christian). Instead, give directly to one of the other 8 or, indeed, to any other secular emergency relief charity which works or will work in Haiti.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

A Note on Our January Meeting

This evening's Hastings Humanists meeting went quite well, with eight people in attendance, including one new member, Graham. We held a round-table discussion on "What Does Humanism Mean for You?" and it was evident that we all come from very different backgrounds, some having received a very religious upbringing and others a much freer life. We also considered what other activities we could initiate to have more effect on the community locally.

I think everyone present agreed to pay £5 to become formal members. I must apologise that I failed to get a proper receipt book, or to print out copies of our programme of events. This will be corrected at our next meeting, if not before. We have now opened a bank account in the name of Hastings Humanists.

When I came home I listened to The Essay on Radio 3, and several back issues from earlier in the week. This week it has resumed it's "Enlightenment Voices" sequence, with a series of essays on Spinoza, who was born in 1632, was influenced by the philosophy of Descartes and his followers, and argued for religious tolerance and a rational basis for ethics. The terms of his excommunication by the Jewish authorities in Amsterdam for atheism were quite terrifying, but he seems to have been unperturbed.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Attempts to Amend the Equalities Bill

Our local MP Michael Foster was appointed Government Minister for Equalities in June 2009, and is responsible for helping to steer the Equality Bill through Parliament.
According to his website the Bill, published in April, sets out "new laws which will help narrow the gap between rich and poor; require business to report on gender pay; outlaw age discrimination; and significantly strengthen Britain’s anti-discrimination legislation."

The BHA maintains that the Bill should be amended to tackle ingrained discrimination against non-religious people in our equality laws. However the Conservative Baroness Warsi, has tabled an amendment to the Bill which would remove the phrase ‘or philosophical’ in the definition of belief, which currently reads: 'belief' means 'any religious or philosophical belief'. This is opposed by the Conservative Humanist group.

The BHA states: "There are now amendments that seek to privilege religion over philosophical beliefs such as Humanism in law, to grant even wider exceptions to permit religious organisations to discriminate in their employment on a number of grounds, including sex and sexual orientation, and to permit people providing public services to refuse to provide a service should that conflict with their personal beliefs."

There was a letter in the Hastings Observer last Friday from a Liam Atkins which maintains "This bill is discriminatory to all religious groups ... and erodes relgious liberty completely ..." but does not give explicit examples of what liberties he means. I hope that the MP will respond in this weeks paper.

This is our 100th post to this blog, since it was started in February last year, so we have maintained a steady flow of ideas, about two a week.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Towards a Multifaith Theocracy?

Do you remember when Prince Charles proposed that he would become Defender of Faiths when/if he eventually became King?

John Denham, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Development has appointed an interfaith coven clique committee of 13 advisors to guide his policy making. It includes my old sparring partner the Bishop of Leicester Tim Stevens who is now the convener of the bench of Bishops in the House of Lords.

Bishop Tim is also taking part in a debate at the House of Lords on 27 January on the future of the Lords Spiritual. He is suported by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, and opposed by Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Bartley with David Aaronovitch in the chair. Could be a fun event!