A special issue of News & Views focuses on the conference we held at the Midlands Arts Centre on 7 June 2014. John Edwards reports on the morning sessions.
Memories of Harry Stopes-Roe Adrian Bailey got us under way promptly at 11.00 by outlining the format of the day and then introduced David Pollock to give his memories of our President, Harry, who sadly died on 11 May. David featured in Radio 4’s tribute to Harry in their ‘Last Words’ programme on 23 May, which you still might be able to hear online. David reflected on his ‘rigorous intellectual grilling’ by Harry as they collaborated in 1975 to produce the Objective, fair and balanced booklet which was so influential in religious circles, including the Religious and Values Education Councils. During David’s tribute I resolved to make a point of thinking of Harry every time I use or hear the word ‘lifestance’ being used, for it was he who invented the expression and concept, as well as drafting the internationally recognised ‘minimum statement’ on Humanism: ‘Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance that affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. Humanism stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. Humanism is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.’ It was good to have Harry’s wife, Mary, and his son, Jonathan, present at the conference to hear the tributes to Harry. We are grateful for the sizeable cheque they gave to the group, the result of donations made at Harry’s funeral.
Organising new Humanist groups fifty years ago Adrian then invited Dr Anthony Brierley, a founder member of what is now Birmingham Humanists, to give his recollections of the early days of Humanism, in particular of the BHA and the Birmingham group. Tony mentioned that in the late 1950s he founded the Oxford University Humanist Group (see http://ouhg.org.uk, the online historical archive that David Pollock has created, for more information on this). When in 1960 the Ethical Union advertised for a group organiser, he applied and got the job. Harold Blackham was the Secretary of the Ethical Union, and Lindsay Burnet the Assistant Secretary, but there was very little office support. Working from home in Quinton, using a Gestetner to run off publicity material, Tony promoted the formation of new Humanist groups in the Midlands, the North and the universities. He recalled organising a meeting for atheists and agnostics on 23 May 1962 at the Arden Hotel in New Street, which was attended by interested people including Gail Morrison, and Verna and Colin Campbell, who were here today at the conference. It was at this meeting that the Birmingham Humanist Group was formed and Colin was elected as its Chair, with Verna as Secretary. In the early days, Humanism was not well known and Tony felt one of his main aims was to help put people in contact with like-minded individuals. In Birmingham social events and campaigning reached a peak in the late 1960s and the early 1970s under the chairmanship of Fred Lyne, with meals and discussions taking place in people’s homes. The group moved the venue for the main meetings from the Arden Hotel to Regent House in St Philips Place, then to a room at Aston University. Since then the Martineau Centre and the George Road Quaker Meeting House have also been used. Tony mentioned that a short history of the group had been written by John Edwards and published in the group’s Newsletter in November 2006 and that this forms part of its entry in Wikipedia. Tony recalled that many people in those early days asked whether the various non-religious groups could not be more united. Indeed, in the 1950s the Rationalist Press Association, the Ethical Union and the National Secular Society had come together to form the ‘Humanist Council’. In 1963 the title ‘British Humanist Association’ was given to a closer joining of the Ethical Union and the Rationalist Press Association. However, their different aims, objectives and personalities meant that this eventually fell apart, with the Ethical Union becoming the British Humanist Association in 1967, and the RPA and NSS staying independent. Although Humanism is now much more widely known about, religion still has a privileged place in society. ‘Faith’ is now seen by governments as something to be encouraged in society by state support, notably through faith schools. Today is an interesting opportunity to reflect and to debate on the way forward.