Sunday, 25 March 2012

Humanists Debate Education

The April meeting of the Hastings Humanists group will be devoted to a debate on education. The issues to be discussed include the continued introduction of Free Schools and Academies by the coalition government under the education minister Michael Gove, and the new proposals by the Church of England for a large-scale expansion of its influence as laid out in its new report “Church Schools of the Future” by Dr Priscilla Chadwick. The National Secular Society interprets the report as making clear that the Church intends to use its schools as a platform to evangelise throughout the community.

There are also existing issues such as the requirement for daily worship of a Christian nature in schools, the exclusion of Humanist representation on the East Sussex SACRE that determines the local curriculum for Religious Education, and the recent studies that show how “faith” schools exclude the poorest pupils, and the failure to provide realistic sex and relationships education.

Time will also be devoted to what Humanists see as the future of education in our fast-changing world. Can our existing education system cope with the coming technological advances? Can you name ten things that are vital for children to know, but are not taught at school? We would welcome anybody who would like to speak for 5 or 10 minutes on an aspect of the subject that concerns them.

The meeting is from 7 to 9 pm at the White Rock Hotel on Thursday 12th April.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Rationalists in Bishopsgate

Another day, another meeting. This time it was a gathering of the Rationalist Association in the Library of the Bishopsgate Institute. On show was a display of some items from the archives of the RA and its predecessor the Rationalist Press Association and its publication the New Humanist magazine.

Also in the programme were brief talks from Caspar Melville, the RA chief executive, who looked back at the history of the Association, from Laurie Taylor, the RA President, who introduced the main speaker and mused on his own rationalism, and lastly David Aaronovitch, the journalist who had been invited to speak on "Why I am a Rationalist" but turned out to be more of a Sceptic. It seems that he is as bemused to find himself recognised as a Rationalist, as much as he is to be recognised as a Jew (he contributes to the Jewish Chronicle) without ever stepping inside a synagogue.

Finally Jim Herrick was given an award (a first edition of George Orwell's Essays) for long service to the cause of rationalism in all of the UK organisations devoted to freethought (RA, NSS, Freethinker magazine, BHA, SPES).

I was disappointed that there was no opportunity for a question and answer session with the speakers. The lack of such a session is a serious failure in any rationalist meeting in my view.

Much of the evening was devoted to networking or mingling among those members attending. Besides Jim Herrick and Bob Churchill (who is now working for IHEU) I spoke to representatives of West London Humanists and a Philosophers in the Pub group in Saffron Walden.

The work of Charles Albert Watts, who was the main founder of the RPA in 1899, and his publishing company which produced the series of cheap reprints known as the Thinkers Library is worth remembering. The RA however now has a presence more on the web than in print. Where it goes from here no-one can foretell. No mention was made of who might be its next President.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Humanists in Canterbury

I visited the East Kent Humanists today. It's straight-forward to get to Canterbury from Hastings by train, one change at Ashford. Their meeting place is on the University of Kent Campus, which is a longish walk from the station, although buses are available. Fortunately it was a beautiful sunny day. I should have taken a camera - there is a good view of the Cathedral from the hill.

Julian Baggini was speaking to the group about ideas from his , Heathen's Progress series in The Guardian, which he says will be ending soon with a sort of Manifesto. He thinks atheists and religious people have to some extent been "talking past each other" without connecting.

There was the usual discussion of names we use for ourselves, such as atheist, humanist, bright, naturalist, rationalist. etc, and asking which aspect was the most fundamental. I would have thought it was obviously reason and evidence. However one member of the audience, evidently a postmodernist philosopher, argued at length that foundations were elusive.

I was surprised that Prof Baggini brought up the argument that we may not have evolved to be "optimal" for truth detection, i.e. that reason is an evolved capacity and may not be reliable. I take the view that logical reasoning is just a matter of step by step argument from simple assumptions, and we could not have evolved to reason in any other way.

The chair at the meeting, no doubt to stimulate debate, suggested that since Humanists are always on about God and Religion, and some people get their kicks from reacting to Thought for the Day, that we are parasitic on religion. In my response I suggested that it is religion that is parasitic or like a virus, and we are the antibodies.

The question was raised of whether reason is sufficient to make people happy or moral. Clearly not, since happiness is not necesarily a good thing (e.g. in situations where painful decisions are needed), and what is moral is often not at all clear (e.g. since we may not be able to calculate the consequences of our actions).

So, a stimulating day out. Thanks to the group for allowing my involvement.