Conference report, part 1

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, 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.


Moral Support

Back after the riots in 2011 there was a lot of talk about the Big Society and the role of faith groups in remoralizing our communities. This disturbed me and energised me. Below is a version of something I presented at a British Humanist Association meeting at that time. Unfortunately I wasn’t in a position to do much about it then, but a chance encounter with Future Shift (which is, I suppose a Big Society offshoot, but it is providing some necessary structure) has got me back on track and I’ve started to do some research and put a team together. This month we’re organising meetings in Kingstanding, where I live, to see how it might work in reality…



A Humanist response to

…the 2011 riots

…the Big Society

…life in 21st Century Britain

This is a time for the country to pull together. We will restore a sense of stronger sense of morality and responsibility – in every town, in every street and in every estate.” David Cameron

I suspect there may be little recognition of the relentless erosion of Christian values in this country that has taken place during the lifetime of successive governments. The result has been a moral deficit in private and public life that has spawned acquisitiveness and dishonesty. It is evident among all levels of our society.” The Bishop of Manchester

“Moral markets, and a return to civic association, require Christian values: mutuality, subsidiarity, reciprocity, solidarity, mediation – both in the theological and institutional sense.” Phillip Blond, ResPublica Thinktank

Morality is important. It’s not religious.

It helps us in our daily lives. It helps our communities to thrive.

In the aftermath of the disturbances in 2011, it was apparent there was a need to connect with young adults, many of whom aren’t religious or interested in religion, on the subject of morality. Not in a heavy-handed or patronising way, but in a way that will assist them in making choices, and raise awareness of the personal consequences of criminal activity.

The initiative is called MoralSupport and the aim is for it to be delivered by a network of workers, volunteers and professionals. Among other things, it could include: youth debates – coffee mornings for young mothers – group activities for young unemployed men – community cleanups – online courses and forums – moral leadership certification pathway – linkups with charities for the elderly, the disabled and the victims of crime.

MoralSupport will apply for grants, including from the government’s Crime Initiative Fund, and welcomes involvement from groups and individuals.

This week’s New Statesman: “After God”

From their website:

For this week’s cover story, Rowan Williams and Lucy Winkett consider the importance of ritual in religion, while the non-believers Melvyn Bragg, Julian Baggini and Robin Ince suggest ways of filling the God-shaped hole in modern life.


Williams describes the ritual of prayer that marks the start of his day and how this enforces the same stillness and physical focus required in Buddhist meditation:


. . . the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the “Jesus Prayer”: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.


Lucy Winkett, the rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, argues that ritual will always be a fundamental part of the human experience:


In theological terms, rituals are performed at the crossroads where time meets eternity; where chronos meets kairos. We live our lives earthbound and rushing: metaphorically looking at the second hand on a clock. It’s accurate, but not a good way of telling the time. Rituals are performed, as it were, by the hour hand; imperceptible movement, no less true but a lot less anxious. Rituals help us do nothing less than live a different kind of time.


Melvyn Bragg finds that though his “early faith has ebbed away”, something remains: “the mysteries, visited on a young mind with force, which now appear like falsities, seem to have struck a chord too deep to be forgotten”. For Bragg, the rituals of walking fill the gap left by religion:


The rituals . . . are few but often seem essential. The garb, the route, the recognition of old favourites – trees, prospects, rivers. Once you are in the rhythm of those rituals what happens, to me at any rate, is that a non-self takes over. A non-drug-induced drift.


The blogger Vicky Beeching finds the same sense of calm after losing her treasured iPhone on the tracks of the London underground: “Smartphone-free, I noticed throughout the afternoon and evening that I’d regained the natural pauses that happen between events.”


The philosopher Julian Baggini argues that it is a mistake to “replace religious rituals with secular ones”. He sets out instead to find ways to “cultivate the virtues that ritual promotes”. And for the comedian Robin Ince the solitary delight of browsing in second-hand bookshops has become a ritual of quasi-spiritual importance:


Once the books are bought, I retreat to a tea shop, preferably one with an elaborate Victoria sponge in the window, and pore over the new purchases. Inside each book is the hope of a new way of seeing the world; each one is a potential adventure.



Here’s a certificate from a Birmingham primary school. Not a faith school, a secular local-authority school. It’s an example of what’s wrong with the attitude to religion in the city’s schools which is exemplified by the city’s Religious Education syllabus. The certificate is for “understanding that God cares for animals.”

The criticism that we continue to have about RE in this city is that the subject is not seen through educational eyes but through religious eyes. It is, in fact, a form of indoctrination. If you say “According to the Bible…” or “Muslims believe…”, that’s education. If you say “God cares for animals,” that’s religion. And this certificate is only an expression of a whole hour’s learning…

Although most RE teachers in the city teach very engaging lessons, we’re afraid that many of them don’t appreciate this blurring of the lines, because it’s inculcated in the syllabus. When asked about this certificate at a recent SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) meeting, a teacher representative couldn’t see anything wrong with it. They thought it was alright because it complied with attainment target 2 in the year 3 syllabus. The teacher was unable to see the bigger picture.

Do you have examples, from anywhere in the country, of where a non-“faith” school is being used as a church (or mosque/temple/etc.)? Please send them to


Beyond Belief

On this week’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s religous affairs show, the panel were asked:

What would be the single major difference that we would notice in society if our religious institutions were to die?

Linda Woodhead: Oh it’d be tragic. Beacuse our mainstream religious institutions are moderate religion. And if you get rid of moderate religion you get extremism, fanaticism and totalitarianism. And that’s actually what we’re starting to see happen.

Sam Wells: We would find it impossible to make an argument for why we should care for people we can’t cure. I think we would become a much harsher and much more economically driven society. And the things in life that you can’t count, we wouldn’t be able to put a name on why we value.

Jasjit Singh: I think you’d lose engagement with people from different traditions. People drive past gurdwaras, mosques and mandirs all the time and might question what is that, what does it do, who goes there, whereas if you lose that marker then how else do you know who’s actually around.

Jane Wynne Willson at 80

It’s great to be a friend and colleague of Jane’s. She’s been a volunteer for several Humanist organisations for many years, and is well known also for her books on Humanist namings, weddings and funerals.

At the event with Sanal Edamaruku on Friday there was a short slideshow about Jane (Thanks Ruth!) and we presented her with some tokens of our appreciation. One of these is a sponsorship of a child at one of the Ugandan Humanist Schools, given in Jane’s name.

Shaikh it all about

While Sanal is here, we’re investigating these adverts in Metro…


This is what CAP says.

Update: Two of us went with Sanal to visit Shaikh Jalal yesterday (Saturday) morning at his abode in Handsworth. Unsurprisingly, after a short £20 consultation, Sanal was informed that help was available, but it would, in the first instance, cost £450. Sanal is going to put the events together into a YouTube video that will be available soon.

Sanal in the Midlands

Here’s a handy guide to where Sanal Edamaruku will be for the next few days:

Wednesday 20th: guest at the Voltaire Lecture, London

Thursday 21st: speaking to Stoke Skeptics and Humanists

Friday 22nd: speaking to Birmingham Humanists and Skeptics

Saturday 23rd: speaking at Asian Rationalists’ Bhagat Singh event in Handsworth

Sunday 24th: guest of Shropshire Humanists

Monday 25th: speaking to Oxford Skeptics and Humanists

Information hotline 😉 07505 381666



“It’s their culture”

Someone on Facebook posted some of the photos from this Daily Mail article, specifically the two showing girls in agony.

Someone else commented: “I don’t know how to feel about this. It’s their culture. They are taught to be strong and fight and never give up; they are very smart. But those children are so very young. I know I couldn’t put my children through that. But like I said it is their culture. They do a lot of amazing things through hard work and pain.”

I have three (Only three? Okay, at least three) objections to these sentiments: 1. It’s not “their culture”. Chinese gym instructors were not doing that to children 50 years ago. They’re doing it because of the *recent* importance attached in China to sports success. 2. The commenter is stereotyping Chinese culture as cruel. What is the basis for the belief that Chinese people are crueller than European people? 3. Culture is not an excuse for cruelty. A good response to cruelty, whether cultural or otherwise, is to take action; e.g in this case one could write to UEG, FIG or your local gymnastics association.

If you couldn’t put your children through that, you can and should object to anyone else wanting to.