Saturday, 26 December 2009

Humanist Life

Time to come out from my seasonal hibernation to see if it is safe for Humanists to venture out without fear of being bombarded by carol-singing proselytisers of the Jesus Nativity cult.

There is a new website apparently launched by the BHA but in some way independent of them. It is called trendily HumanistLife without a break between the words. Unfortunately the first three articles are all dictated by the religious agenda, since they are about Humanists' attitudes to Christ-mas.

The statement in the top right corner reads: "Humanists make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values. We take responsibility and inspiration not from the supernatural and divine, but from what is real and from each other." But why is it necessary to mention "the supernatural and divine" at all, as if they have any real existence? We don't think much of astrology or magic or postmodernism either, so why mention them!

In the left=hand column I noticed that Stephen Law is writing a book on History of Humanism. A work of this nature is needed, as existing works that I have seen are poor. I hope it will be comprehensive and cover such related developments as Freethought, Secularism, Positivism and so on. I've posted a comment to that effect.

This could develop into a good resource for Humanists. It is asking for people to submit content, but I couldn't see any indication about who is editing the content. Presumably BHA staff who may already be overloaded.

Friday, 18 December 2009

In the Local Press

Today's Hastings Observer contains a belated report of our 12 November meeting, with of course the notice of our 10 December meeting removed. It appears in the "News from around the clubs" section on page 18.

Typically it is sandwiched between a large quarter page advert for another "Evening of Clairvoyance" with Stephen Holbrook. (Why is this superstitious nonsense so popular in Hastings? It now seems to be a regular monthly event.) And on the next page a nearly half-page article featuring a large photo of Kevin Carlyon, the local White Witch, who is supposedly placing a curse on the proposed Link Road with Bexhill. (Doesn't this lay him open to being sued by any drivers who have an accident on it? Probably not, since there is usually a get-out clause for religion in the law somewhere.)

There is a more interesting article on page 16 accompanied by the familiar portrait of Thomas Paine. This is about a document found in a shop on the America Ground (the Robertson Street area of Hastings). It is an agreement between Pain (as he then spelt his name) and his former wife Elizabeth, in which he transfers their shared property in Lewes to her before he emigrated to America. For what he got up to when he reached America this page of links to his Selected Writings makes a good read.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Sussex Online TV

The Hastings Observer, last Friday, carried a full page advert for a new Local TV for Sussex,, which is produced by a consortium of local newspapers. I've looked at it a couple of times since then, and the newscast has been the same throughout the week, beginning with Dame Vera Lynn in Eastbourne and including a typical local press Christmas story of the "miracle" of a baby Llama born in Ashdown Forest Llama Park.

There is also of course BBC local radio and regional TV news. This has recently been split into separate Sussex and Surrey sections instead of Southern Counties.

There is also a local venture Hastings Online Times which I encountered on facebook, but this is not yet very active. I sent them a notice about Hastings Humanists, but nothing appeared as far as I could see. If anyone knows about other local media outlets that are worth noting, or on which we might get some publicity, please let us know.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Bishop of Lewes a Creationist?

The Suffragan Bishop of Lewes Wallace Benn appointed in 1997 has written a blurb in support of a book by the InterVarsity Press with the title Should Christians Embrace Evolution? in which he says: "This is a most helpful compilation, which is designed to make one think very seriously about the whole issue of evolution and the Bible. To those who love the Scriptures, and seek to be faithful to them, this will prove enormously helpful."

Of course it's possible that he didn't actually read the book, but just looked at the title page, since his comment is very generalised. However, the internal contents, compiled and edited by Norman C. Nevin, are from well known young-earth creationists, biblical fundamentalists and anti-science polemicists.

Professor Andy McIntosh for example is closely associated with the organisation calling itself "Truth in Science", which has just circulated a book to many school and college libraries with the title Explore Evolution. There is further critical and background commentary available from the BCSE.

Friday, 11 December 2009

December Meeting Report

Our End of Year Quiz attracted, besides the quizmaster, five members, including one newcomer. We only got through 35 out of the possible 50 questions in the time available. First prize went to Lesley and second to Rose. A third was not awarded in view of the low attendance.

One of the rounds was on quotes from Lewis Carroll, in which I included the question: "In the story told by the Dormouse at the Mad Tea Party, where did Elsie, Lacie and Tillie live?" The answer being in a Treacle Well. Since Lewis Carroll is known to have visited Hastings I wondered if he got the idea from the Dripping Well after which the Pub where we met is named.

There was time for some discussion, which our new supporter, Steve, began with some ideas about the coming "singularity" that some computer buffs predict; or are we heading for annihilation, or just financial meltdown? There was also some musing on purpose in life. Our January meeting, which will probably be at the same venue, will allow more time for discussion of such questions. But more of that nearer the time.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Minaret Building is a Human Right?

Thursday 10th December is International Human Rights Day. Tim Miller of the Hastings Interfaith Forum has sent me an email with a link to this article from the German organisation FOREF. The writer, Peter Zoehrer, argues that the Swiss referendum which placed a ban on the building of any more Minarets is a violation of article 18.

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, alone or in community with others, and, in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Nothing I can see there about any right to religious erections! However, as I understand Islam one of its precepts is that once in that religion you do not have the right to change your belief, on pain of death. This is known as apostasy. This is surely a greater violation of article 18. Also there is the fact that some Muslim countries do not permit the building of Christian churches at all, so the Swiss ban is piffling in contrast.

Here is a related article from The Freethinker. The video by Dr Zakir Naik explains why, Christianity just doesn't add up!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Andrew Copson is new BHA CEO

Congratulations and a big welcome to Andrew Copson who has been appointed the Chief Executive Officer of the British Humanist Association in succession to Hanne Stinson. He takes up the position in January. I'm sure he has the goodwill of all members in view of the excellent job he has done in the role of Education and Public Affairs coordinator, since joining the BHA Staff in 2005. He is a very articulate speaker and also cheerful with it, and I'm sure also a competent organiser, although to an old fogey like me he still looks far too young! Let's hope the strain of keeping all us headstrong cats in order will not age him prematurely, and that this appointment will mark a new stage in the public awareness of Humanism.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Our December Meeting

For the December Meeting we will be trying The Dripping Well public house. This is at 1 Dorset Place, though the main entrance is in Cambridge Road, which is the main road from the town centre uphill towards Bohemia.

We will gather there from 6:30 pm, and our End of Year Quiz will begin at 7pm. There will be a selection of books as prizes. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize winners will have 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice from the books. You can enter as an indivisual or as a team of two, but there is only one book prize per team I'm afraid, so you need to decide beforehand who gets the book if you win! There is no entry fee, and you don't have to be a regular supporter or even a humanist to take part.

There should also be time for relaxed general discussion before and after the quiz.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Darwin, God and the Human Species

Yesterday I went to Westminster Abbey for the lecture by Nick Spencer, of Theos, publicising his book on Darwin and God. On the whole his treatment of the subject was objective, based mainly on Darwin's extensive correspondence, much of which survives. He admits that Darwin lost his christian belief in a benevolent god, and that at the end of his life he was an admitted agnostic. Any god belief that he might have had would have been in a deistic creator who left the process of evolution to natural selection.

Nick Spencer objects to modern evolutionists going further than Darwin and arriving at an atheistic viewpoint, but much more knowledge of the nature of the universe and of life has emerged since 1882. In the question and answer session at the end he cited Simon Conway Morris, the Cambridge biologist who in Life's Solution claims that evolutionary convergence would "inevitably" lead to the evolution of some creature like the human species. This argument appeals to christians who see human beings as the pinnacle of creation, but it is also attractive to old-fashioned "progressive" humanists, like myself, who see the emergence of rationality as the spearhead of evolution.

I've said some more about my visit to Westminster Abbey in my personal blog the "Jeepyjay Diary".

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Doubting Darwin

The Theos Thinktank has published a survey with the title Doubting Darwin of the differing attitudes of people, especially creationists, to evolution. Their interview approach doen't seem to have been to ask any probing questions, but simply to accept what people choose to say. Their conclusion, that religious fundamentalists take belief in god and the sacred texts as axiomatic, and try to distort scientific discoveries to fit within that straitjacket, is rather obvious. Why believers choose this starting point, rather beginning with an open mind and basing their worldview simply on the evidence available, they do not investigate.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Some Programmes to Listen To

I've just noticed that there is a play on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 2:30, which is a version of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" trial in Tennessee. This is not the theatre or film version, which was revived recently at the Old Vic, but is based on the actual trial transcript.

I wonder if anyone will similarly dramatise the more recent Dover trial of "Intelligent Design".

Also, the "Essay" series on BBC Radio 3, weekdays 11 pm, is returning to its "Enlightenment Voices" theme with five programmes on Mary Wollstonecraft.

The Population Question

Here are some articles that may help to clear up some of the confusion spread by the lecture of the Chief Rabbi earlier this month.

Tom Rees explains Why Sacks is wrong on religion and fertility by citing the correct statistics.

Caspar Melville thinks the non-religious have their own rather more subtle strategy: Anti-natal atheists?

The Optimum Population Trust thinks the UK Population Increase 'Out of Control', but is unclear on the methods to bring it under control.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Jabez and the Skeptical Voter

There is a new Wiki website called Skeptical Voter that has been set up to record the views of MPs in regard to humanist issues like evidence-based medicine and scientific advice. At first I couldn't find the Hastings and Rye MP on their list. There is another Michael Foster who is MP for Worcester. Our man is listed under J as Michael Jabez Foster. Is that really his name? Anyway there is very little information about him so far. So those in the know should get to work.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Our November Meeting

Thanks to Alexander Hellemans for introducing our discussion on Evolution, Altruism and Ethics on Thursday Evening. Thanks also to our twelve Supporters who braved the heavy winds and made interesting contributions to the debate. Especially to Helene who looked after the finances and Elaine who made the coffee.

Generally I think we ended up being dubious about ethical advances in recent history being attributable to "evolution", certainly to biological evolution. If "social evolution" occurs in some way analogous to biological evolution, the mechanisms have yet to be elucidated. Perhaps there is something in meme theory, but it needs to show more results before it can be regarded as scientific.

Personally I'm happy with traditional explanations of the advances that have occurred over the last few centuries, which put them down to reason, logic, enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire, and radical social reformers like Tom Paine, Richard Carlile, Robert Owen and many others, and of course the general advance of scientific knowledge.

The new venue at the Arts Forum got a unanimous vote of approval. I'm sure we will meet there again, though the December meeting, being a Quiz, will probably be held at a pub, though the venue is yet to be decided. Several of our regular Members were unable to attend due to family and business commitments. And I received last-minute phone calls from two new-comers who pulled out for similar reasons. So I think our group is in a healthy position for next year. I have approached James Williams of Sussex University as a possible speaker for our February meeting, but this has yet to be confirmed.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Strange Thought for the Day

This morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4, is one of the weirdest I've heard for a while. The author is named as Rhidian Brook, but without any details of his affiliations.

He begins with a story about receiving £1000 in a brown envelope through his letterbox from an unknown donor which he used to pay off his rent arrears. He says "The anonymity of the giver left me with no one to thank but God". He says nothing about reporting the find to the police, or how he decided it was meant for him. Might it have been put through the wrong door? Might it have been protection money, or a blackmail payment, or from a drug deal?

Then he goes on to the recent big lottery winners. "I found myself wondering who or what they would thank for the millions they had randomly won." and "The lottery almost certainly transgresses the 1st 8th and 10th commandments." Later he says: "they are people experiencing a shocking unmerited favour". Is he trying to make them feel bad about their luck?

Then he comes to the theology: "While lots were drawn in biblical times they were always a means of determining the will of god and underpinned by a belief that nothing in the universe is down to chance." Does he mean to claim that this is still the case, that nothing is due to chance? Surely this is the belief of fortune tellers and astrologers. This is simple reversion to primitivism.

He then talks of God's "amazing grace" whatever that is. If God is responsible for deciding who wins the lottery he is presumably also responsible for deciding who loses, in life as well as in the lottery. Religion seems unable to come to terms with the undoubted role of Chance in the universe.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

UN in Crisis over Religion

Many humanist and even religious bodies have signed a statement urging the UN not to pass a binding resolution against "defamation of religion" in December. This would be the culmination of a series of earlier non-binding resolutions. The statement argues that such a resolution, effectively making criticism of religious beliefs a criminal offence, goes against all the principles of human rights and free speech. If such a resolution was passed it would be the greatest set-back to the UN for many years and undermine its essential principles.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Darwin's Delight

More good news about evolution in primary schools.

The schools minister, Diana Johnson, has confirmed the government is ready to put evolution on the primary curriculum, a blueprint for which is to be published in the next few weeks.

In the Guardian's Comment is Free column Andrew Copson of the BHA welcomes this as "A birthday present for Darwin". [Did he mean a Christmas New Year's Present?!] He wrote:

It's true that evolution can seem a difficult concept and that most resources on evolution are targeted towards pupils at secondary schools. But the wealth of new works published in this celebratory year for very young children, from What Mr Darwin Saw to Evolution Revolution or even older works like How Whales Walked into the Sea or Mammals Who Morph demonstrate that it is a subject easily made enjoyable and comprehensible by young children. This is a good thing, because as evolution is arguably the most important concept underlying the life sciences, providing children with an understanding of it at the earliest possible age will surely help lay the foundations for a surer scientific understanding later on.

I wish I'd had these books when I was at primary school.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Remembrance Without Religion

While looking back at articles I've published in the past I came across this one on the Leicester Secularist blog from 12 November 2006 that seemed worth revisiting.

I've been thinking, along with the daylight atheist what would replace religion if we ever manage to get rid of it? These thoughts came to me after watching (on television) the remembrance day ceremonies at the cenotaph this morning and in the Albert Hall yesterday evening. It occurred to me that these ceremonies are essentially secular. It is only when the bishops come out to say their little piece, and in the wording of some of the hymns and verses, that the supernatural or theological comes into the picture.

The remembrance day ceremonies essentially provide encouragement for people whose lives are bound up in service to the state, as represented by the monarchy, or to society. That is service to all of us in providing protection, safety, security so that we can carry on our peaceful activities. The ceremonies provide assurance that lives lost in this dangerous work are appreciated by society as a whole, and also that the authorities deserve continued service.

It seems to me that very little value would be lost from these ceremonies if the religious aspects were removed. We are adult enough to know that the dead live on only in our remembrance, and don't need fairytales of an afterlife in a heaven. This is why continued remembrance is important to us.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Chief Rabbi Confuses Everyone

A lecture given by the UK Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, to the Theos Think Tank has been variously reported in the media. Theos has the headline "Religion set to play a bigger role". The Guardian "Falling birth-rate is killing Europe". The "Europe is dying from secularism". The Times "Islam must separate religion from power". The actual text of his speech, a 12-page MS.doc, can be downloaded from the Theos site. Here is part of the text:

Now I am going to do something here which is deliberately provocative, but why should the angry atheists get all the best tunes? So let me give you two very provocative examples; let me begin with the neo-Darwinians. After all, it’s their year – the 200th anniversary of Darwin and 150th of The Origin of Species. I haven’t seen this argument ever presented before; a five step neo-Darwinian refutation of neo-Darwinism.

1. A person is, in Richard Dawkins’ beautiful phrase, “a gene’s way of making another gene”. So forget religion, forget values, forget ideals, its all about reproduction; handing on our genes to the next generation.

2. Europe today is the most secular region in the world.

3. Europe today is the only region in the world which is experiencing population decline. As you know, zero population growth – a stable population – requires an average of 2.1 children for every woman of child-bearing age in the population. Not one European country has anything like that rate today. Here are the 2004 figures: In the United Kingdom: 1.74, in the Netherlands: 1.73, Germany: 1.37, Italy: 1.33, Spain: 1.32 and Greece: 1.29.

4. Wherever you turn today anywhere in the world, and whether you look at the Jewish or Christian or Muslim communities, you will find the more religious the community, the larger, on average, are its families.

5. The major assault on religion today comes from the neo-Darwinians.

From which it follows, as night doth follow day, that if you are a true neo-Darwinian believer you want there to be as few neo-Darwinians as possible. QED.

Now, actually, it sounds like a joke, but beneath it, is a very serious point indeed. Parenthood involves massive sacrifice: of money, attention, time and emotional energy. Where today, in European culture with its consumerism and its instant gratification ‘because you’re worth it’, in that culture, where will you find space for the concept of sacrifice for the sake of generations not yet born?

I thought neo-Darwinism was the modern theory of evolution, not a political philosophy of consumerist capitalism! There are other parts of his talk where he advocates compromise with secularism and cooperation with science. Behind it all, as the Times seems to have detected, is a fear of Islam taking over, though this si not explicit in the text.

Bad Faith Award, Vote Now!

The New Humanist's annual Bad Faith Award is open for voting. Unfortunately my suggestion of the UN, or the part of it responsible for trying to make Islam immune from criticism, has not been included, but there is a colourful choice of candidates.

Monday, 2 November 2009

World's oldest spider web in Bexhill!

Spider webs encased in amber which were discovered on an East Sussex beach have been confirmed by scientists as being the world's oldest on record, says the BBC. The amber, which was found in Bexhill by fossil hunter Jamie Hiscocks and his brother Jonathan, dates back 140 million years to the Cretaceous period.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Was That All There Was?

On Saturday I went to the BHA conference of Humanist Philosophers with the title "Evolutionary Theory: Is This All There is?". The most interesting speaker to my way of thinking was Susan Blackmore who expounded the theory of Memes in an enthusiastic manner. She was however challenged by Simon Blackburn who wondered whether the theory was really scientific and could be "falsified" as the philosopher Popper requires.

The second part of the conference, on Value and Virtue I found unhelpful since the speakers seemed to be bound to the idea of there being absolute standards of "the Good", whereas I've long taken a more relativist view, that it depends who or what it is Good for. There was much mention of Altruism, and I wanted to ask why there seemed to be a general assumption that Altruism is a Good thing. Aren't suicide bombers Altruists, since they are giving up their lives to a cause?

The last session was on Evolutionary Psychology and the meaning of life. Regrettably I don't seem to have much recollection of what was said, probably because it didn't amount to very much. Richard Norman said some things that I'm sure were very sensible but not at all exciting. I see that there is a programme on BBC Radio 4 on Monday at 9pm on Evolutionary Psychology, fronted by Steve Jones, with the title "Aping Evolution" which may be more stimulating.

In the final debate, in which all the seven contributors were on the platform, Susan Blackmore was again the most memorable.

Among the audience I met three of our Supporters, who have attended our past meetings, though they hadn't travelled up from Hastings. The subject of the conference clearly overlaps with that of our own November meeting.

Friday, 30 October 2009


The Hastings Observer today (Friday 30 october) has included, on page 2, a report of our last meeting under the heading "Humanists discuss clairvoyance", based on a News Release that I sent two weeks ago. It concludes with details of our November meeting.

This is the first time we have appeared so near the front of the paper. Possibly this may relate to the connection of our meeting with the paper's promotion of an "Evening of Clairvoyance", so it includes news of their own activities as well as ours.

I've already had an enquiry by telephone from someone who has seen the article and is interested in coming along.

The Arts Forum has put one of our posters in their window. I also gave one to the Hastings Trust, but haven't seen it in their window yet. It's quite time consuming travelling around trying to get people to put up a poster, and I'm not sure that anyone ever notices them anyway! You can download one in PDF form (see the column on the right). Please print it out and put it on display, anywhere legal will do.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Sometimes we should worry about our fellow countrymen

According to a recent poll, 54% of Britons believe that Creationism should be taught alongside evolutionary theory in science lessons!

The story, as reported in the Guardian is here.

Thankfully, the government seems to have come up with a reasonable response:

The UK government has been quick to denounce creationism and intelligent
design as unrecognised scientific theory that did not meet the requirements of
the national curriculum, but it has said that young people can "discuss
creationism as part of their religious education classes".
Neither the
primary nor secondary school science curriculums mention creationism or
intelligent design.

Perhaps creationism could be taught in science with the purpose of demonstrating that there is no evidence for it. This may be a useful exercise in teaching children how an argument or theory can fail when there is insufficient evidence to support it. However, from memory, enough went wrong in the school science lab when we were trying to prove things that did stand up to scrutiny. That seemed to take enough time as it was; surely there isn't enough time in the classroom to take apart an argument which doesn't meet scientific criteria?

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Doublethink Alive and Well

The government has published a response to a petition to 10 Downing Street on Removing Collective Worship from non-faith schools.

All community, foundation or voluntary schools MUST offer a daily act of collective worship which is broadly of a Christian character in keeping with the religious traditions of this country.

Schools can apply to the SACRE ... to have the requirement for collective worship lifted [So it's NOT compulsory like you just said after all?]

... if it is not appropriate for the pupils in their school. [So christian worship is appropriate in a non-faith school?]

... collective worship provides the ... unique opportunity to [do all sorts of other things that are not worship! that could be done in other non-unique ways]

Parents have the right to withdraw their child from collective worship [but only by creating a hullaballoo, and singling their child out for special bullying.]

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Age of Wonder

The Essay series on BBC Radio 3 has resumed its Enlightenment theme whis week with five programmes about Haydn. Wednesday's issue featured the biographer Richard Holmes talking about possible influences on Haydn's "Creation" oratorio of his visit to William Herschel's observatory in Slough, and Erasmus Darwin whose poem "Zoonomia" came out in 1791, at the time when Haydn was in this country. In particular his, non-biblical, depiction of the Chaos from which the Universe supposedly emerged.

Richard Holmes is also the author of The Age of Wonder which explores the history of that period and the relationship between the romantic poets and artists and the scientists and explorers of the time. This has received glowing reviews and won the Royal Society's Prize for science book of the year.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Teaching of evolution in the primary curriculum

There was a petition recently as follows:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to include the teaching of evolution by natural selection in the new national primary curriculum.”

The PM's office has now responded (the following answer follows a load of old flannel about needing scientists for the country's growth, etc):

The proposed new primary curriculum has been developed in consultation with a wide range of key stakeholders including primary head teachers, teachers, subject specialists and learned societies. The development of the scientific and technological understanding area of learning was directly informed by the outcomes of the consultation exercise to ensure that it contained the scientific knowledge, skills and understanding considered essential learning for children aged 5 -11.

The National Curriculum science programmes of study cover evolution explicitly in Key Stage 4 (age 14 -16). The understanding of evolution is underpinned by extensive knowledge about the living world. This underpinning knowledge and understanding for evolution is carefully developed in the primary curriculum and at Key Stage 3 (age 11 -14). In both the current primary programme of study for science and in the proposed programme of learning for scientific and technological understanding, variation between individuals and groups, classification and interdependence are all introduced. At secondary level these areas are developed further and genetics, selection and evolution are all included. In this way the fundamental concepts underpinning evolution are developed, leading to a fuller understanding at Key Stage 4.

Or, to put it briefly (if I'm reading this properly), the answer to the petition is "not quite".

Okay - so they've made their decision on science.

"key stakeholders", "outcomes of the consultation exercise"?

When is someone going to teach the PM's office some plain English?

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Priest attacks "modern" funerals

Some of you may have seen this article.

Speaking as someone who conducts funerals, I'm afraid I have a lot to say on this subject:

Here are a couple of quotes from the article:

Father Ed Tomlinson, of St Barnabas' Church, Quarry Road, said he had better ways of spending his time than at crematorium services where the dead were "led in by the tunes of Tina Turner...and sent into the furnace with 'I Did It My Way' blaring out across the speakers".

Better ways of spending his time than helping someone say goodbye to a loved one? That would not appear to be a very supportive or kind attitude.

He added: "I have... stood at the 'crem' like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present."

Here's the news, Fr Tomlinson - the funeral is not about you - you are merely a tool (and I use the word carefully) to help a grieving family have some kind of ritual as they make their goodbye.

For some people, a priest at the funeral is the right thing; it allows them to pray to their god, and give them the comfort that they get from their religion. But is it really up to the church or its representatives to tell people what they should have?

Another quote in the article, from a local funeral director, suggests that many mourners don't know what they want. This is true, particularly if the death is unexpected. But that's where the skills of the undertaker and the celebrant (religious or otherwise) come into play, to let the mourners know what their options are and to only offer advice when it is requested.

The original blog post (and subsequent article) may simply be the ramblings of a particularly angry priest. However, it could backfire; having looked at the comments to the online article, it would appear that Fr Tomlinson has his supporters, but there are also those who feel that his approach to funerals is not the one that they would want.

And, of course, he managed to let people know (because not everyone does) that there is a humanist alternative to the man in a frock. For that, we thank him.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Faith Good, Secularism Bad?

There have been two attacks on Secularism in recent speeches by religious politicians. The first by Baroness Warsi at the Conservative conference:
The state's continued suspicion of faith is wrong /// under Labour, the State has become increasingly sceptical of an individuals religious belief. /// At the heart of these cases lies a growing intolerance and illiberal attitude towards those who believe in God. The scepticism of senior Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris driving this secular agenda has now grown to become an ideology permeating through many parts of the public sector. It's an agenda driven by the political-elite, who have hijacked the pursuit of equality by demanding a dumbing down of faith. It's no wonder that this leads to accusations in the media that our country's Christian culture is being downgraded.

The second by Tony Blair in a speech to Muslims in the US:
We face the challenge of relevance - showing how faith can be a force for the future, for progress, that it will not fade as science, technology and material prosperity alters the way we live. We face an aggressive secular attack from without. We face the threat of extremism from within. These challenges are not for Muslims alone or Christians or Jews, Hindus or Buddhists for that matter. They are challenges for all people of faith. Those who scorn God and those who do violence in God's name, both represent views of religion. But both offer no hope for faith in the twenty first century.

His equation of "those who scorn God" with "those who do violence in God's name", is particularly pernicious, as if critical words and bombs were equally harmful.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

October Meeting Report

Our meeting at The Pig in Paradise attracted a good attendance, including four first-timers, who were most welcome. We began with an outline of spiritualism, as detailed below, but our following discussions ranged more widely, and mainly followed the questions of two of our new contributors, one of whom admitted to being a christian. We were also asked to give some definition of humanism. The new venue proved to be too noisy, even though we were in a back room, so we will continue to look for a more congenial home.

The topic of the night was Spiritualism, a subject prompted by the promotion of "An Evening of Clairvoyance" by the local newspaper group, featuring Stephen Holbrook who claims to be able to connect with spirits of the dead. This event has an expensive half-page size advert in this week's Hastings Observer and on page 39 an article about Holbrook which admits that "Stephen is being promoted all over the country by the UK's two largest newspaper groups". One of these is Johnston Press which owns the local T. R. Beckett company. Ownership of local papers in the UK is now in the hands of just a few Regional newspaper groups. I'm not sure which is the other group referred to, possibly Newsquest (which in turn is owned by a US corporation, Gannett).

The following article from another regional newspaper on Why a Spiritual Church gives an introduction to what spiritualists believe, and even describes hot and cold reading, which are the methods mainly used by fraudulent mediums to produce their effects, but of course they then claim that "real" mediums don't do this.

An indication of what Holbrook does at his shows is given in this article from another regional paper. There is also a video interview available on the Grantham Journal pages. I have not determined why these newspaper groups are promoting spiritualism. Presumably either some directors of these companies are spiritualists, or it is just a commercial venture.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Alan Turing Campaign

Our member Dean Morrison has set up a site to campaign for greater recognition in Hastings and St Leonards for Alan Turing who was brought up here for the first nine years of his life. He was born at a nursing home in London in 1912, but lived with an uncle in Hastings and St Leonards from 1913 to 1921, before being sent off to a boarding school. His parents did not return permanently from India until 1926. He is reckoned one of the leading mathematicians of the 20th century, a pioneer of computers, and a key figure in decyphering the German Engima codes in the second world war.

The Prime Minister recently responded to a petition by issuing an apology to Turing, and to all other gay men who were subjected to enforced hormone treatment, in the rather repressive 1950s period, which led to his premature death in 1954.

The year 2012 will thus be the centenary of his birth, a date well worth celebrating.

Next year 2010 is the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society, and the Essay series "Enlightenment Voices" on Radio 3 is this week celebrating the life of another great scientist, Robert Hooke.

I get the impression that the coverage of science in the press during this Darwin anniversary year has greatly improved, and The Times is now offering a new montly science magazine Eureka from tomorrow.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Possible venues - as discussed at our last meeting.

Possible meeting venues.

We are trying the Pig in Paradise this week, and I’m sure it will be lovely, but if we find that it’s not to our taste, these are the responses that I’ve had thus for regarding room hire, as discussed at the last meeting.

HVA (thanks to Rose for the info), Priory Street, Hastings
Room hire (room holds max 14 people) £7 for half day.
(They don’t usually hire out in the evening, but it is assumed that due to Rose’s involvement, this would probably be allowed).

University Centre, Havelock Road, Hastings
Room hire (up to 18 people) £45 per session (eg 5pm to 9pm) with the following note:
Please note that there is some flexibility where your requirement crosses the times above and is for less than 4 hours.
If the AV equipment is used, VAT will also be charged.

Friends Meeting House, South Terrace, Hastings
Upstairs room (holds up to 12) - £7Downstairs room - £14
Many of the rooms already have regular bookings, so we will need to investigate availability.

Hastings Trust, Robertson Street
NB – On 1st floor and there is no lift.
£20 for an evening session (including £5 extra, because it’s evening).

Frenz, Robertson Street
This doesn’t have a meeting room, but I was pointed in the direction of French’s. I could get an answer, so will try again another time.

Sorry, this is as far as I’ve got so far. Shall we see how the meetings work in The Pig and take it from there?

Friday, 2 October 2009

Publicity for Next Meeting

Our next meeting is on Thursday 8th October 7pm at the Pig in Paradise and the subject is Spiritualism, though if we run out of things to say on that topic we could also get into Spirituality. The Press Release I sent to the local press has been published in Hastings Observer today (page 27) under the heading "Exploring the human side".

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Voices of Enlightenment

Apparently today is International Blasphemy Day, but I can't really think of anything I want to be blasphemous about. (I've already criticised Richard Dawkins, which is the equivalent of blasphemy in Atheist circles.)

There is a series of programmes in the "Essay" slot, late at night on BBC Radio 3 that is celebrating "Voltaire and Voices of the Enlightenment". The first programme notes that it is the 250th anniversary of the publication of Voltaire's philosophical satire Candide. This is a series well-worth listening to for Humanists, and indeed anyone.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Caspar's Confusion

Over on the New Humanist blog the editor of that magazine, Caspar Melville, has been desperately trying to row back from an endorsement he gave, on a Guardian Science podcast, to a film "House of Numbers" which claims that AIDs is nothing to do with HIV. In Was I Conned by AIDs-Denialists? and A Week of Humble Pie he tries at length to understand where he went wrong. The same posts have very extensive comments, many of them from one or two AIDs-denialist.

Personally I find it difficult to understand how anyone in the sceptical world of rationalism could possibly fall into this cess-pit of conspiracy theory, which is so thoroughly signposted. Perhaps I should add that the New Humanist is not published by the BHA but by the Rationalist Association (the new name since 2002 for the Rationalist Press Association). From his biographical note it seems that Caspar obtained a PhD in "Media" from Goldsmith College, but evidently this course didn't teach common sense. probably it emphasised cultural relativity and postmodernism.

Sorry if I'm sounding a bit mean, but this sort of woolly thought gets to me.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Is Dawkins Moving the Goalposts?

In an article commissioned by Wall Street Journal and published on 12 September alongside an article by Karen Armstrong under the heading "Man vs. God", each article written independently as a reply to the question "Where does Evolution leave God?", Richard Dawkins claims that "Evolution is the creator of life, ..."

This goes further than many science writers normally do. They usually understand "evolution" to mean the process of natural
selection by which new species evolve from previously existing forms of life. How life originated in the first place they are usually a bit cagy about. Of course those of a theistic inclination maintain that this is where god put in his pennyworth.

However the process by which life emerged from non-life is known as "abiogenesis", and it seems it may have been quite complicated, and not the same process as evolution, though once it had reached a critical mass evolution took over.

Even more explicitly Professor Dawkins goes further by stating: "Never once are the laws of physics violated, yet life emerges into uncharted territory. And how is the trick done? The answer is a process that, although variable in its wondrous detail, is sufficiently uniform to deserve one single name: Darwinian evolution, the nonrandom survival of randomly varying coded information."

The article was republished on and has received many comments, however only one, the last time I looked, queried this point, I quote:

105. Comment #414485 by JDLipsitz on September 13, 2009 at 4:38 am
For a group of critical thinkers on this site, we really do let Prof Dawkins over-apply evolution via natural selection as an explanation for the origin of life. Evolution is a delicious explanation for biodiversity and the distinct characteristics of species, but it does nothing to explain how life originated in the first place. While I agree with most of what the Prof says, our nature as a group of atheists should help identify us as critical thinkers. Richard Dawkins is not - nor would he wish to be - exempt from our critical thought. If any opponent thinker came up with something so baseless, he would get trashed in these comments. Please be fair, and apply critical thought evenly.

This has received several reasoned replies, in particular 110 by "Quine", 119 by "bendigeidfran", 121 by Jos Gibbons and 153 by Steve Zara (as well as several unreasoned ones).

Professor Dawkins may perhaps say that he was trying to express a strong case to an unreceptive audience, but although I entirely accept his thesis that life is of solely material origin, I do feel that he has overstated his case here. Or is his view now justified by advances in understanding the chemical origin of life?

Friday, 18 September 2009

Letter to Editor on Spiritualism

I've had a Letter to the Editor published in the Hastings Observer today. It has been printed in full, but the Editor hasn't answered any of my questions. It reads as follows (the heading was added by the editor}:

Can you produce evidence?

I notice that the Observer newspaper series is supporting "An Evening of Clairvoyance with Stephen Holbrook" in October. Does this mean you are endorsing the authenticity of this man's claim to be an "Accurate Clairvoyant Medium"? As I understand these terms they mean that he is able to foresee the future and to communicate with spirits of the dead.

Do you have evidence to support these claims? Are the members of your Board of Directors spiritualists, or are you just promoting the show as a form of entertainment? It seems a strange subject for a newspaper to be associated with, since one would expect newspaper reporters to be of a sceptical frame of mind.

I should declare my own interests in this matter. I have helped to set up the Hastings Humanists group, and one of our aims is to provide a counter to all forms of superstition. Our next meeting, on 8th October, will be a discussion on Humanist views of spiritualism and spirituality.

George Jelliss
Magdalen Road

We are proposing to try out the "Pig in Paradise" pub on the seafront between the Pier and Robertson Street for our next meeting. They have an room on the left at the back which may be quiet enough for a discussion, so long as the juke-box is not blaring.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

A little light amusement

I came across this, and found it funny.

I hope you do too.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Alternative Views

Since I posted John Crace's digested version of Karen Armstrong's recent book, I thought I ought, to be fair and balanced as journalists are supposed to be, provide a link to his take on Richard Dawkins' new book on the evidence for evolution in The Guardian. I take it that the Homo guardiensis megalocephalus from Stoke Newington is a reference to Crace himself, which goes some way to excuse his representation of Richard as a megalomanic obsessive.

Another worthwhile link, mentioned by one of the commenters on Crace's digest on, is to which provides a take on the "Thought for the Day" on Radio 4, and is inevitably more enlightening and thought-provoking than the original. Some of the items in between are of interest too.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

All Things Darwin

There was a really excellent discussion on Newsnight Review on Friday evening, about all things Darwin, which I missed but have now seen on BBC I-player:

Newsnight Review

The strong panel of speakers consisted of Richard Dawkins, Margaret Atwood, Ruth Padel and Rev. Richard Coles. Besides discussing The Origin of Species, and Dawkins's new book on the proofs of evolution, they covered the new film about Darwin called "Creation", and exhibitions at Fitzwiliam Museum Cambridge, and at the Natural History Museum's new Darwin Centre.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Report on AGM

We had eight members at the meeting and held a good two-hour discussion on the way the group should be organised and how it should be developed.

The main result was that we now have a Treasurer, Hélène White. However we did not set a subscription fee for members, instead we will collect donations to build up a fund so that we can pay speakers expenses, hire rooms, etc as necessary.

As Secretary I will be going to the one-day BHA Groups Representative Annual Meeting at Conway Hall on Saturday 3 October, to glean advice on running local groups. There is room for one other representative to attend if you have the time to spare, but the application probably has to be in within the next few days.

It was thought that meetings should have a pre-specified topic, but allow plenty of time for discussion. Lecture-type meetings could be held at longer intervals, perhaps every three months.

The topic for the meeting in October was decided to be about Humanist views on Spiritualism (and perhaps spirituality) in view of the "Evening of Clairvoyance" being promoted by the local newspapers.

We are looking into the feasibility of other venues than the White Rock Hotel, preferably with easier access, perhaps in a pub or cafe where we don't have to pay for a separate room. More on this shortly.

Friday, 4 September 2009

AGM and Newsletter

Our first Annual General Meeting will go ahead on Thursday 10th September in the Notley Room at White Rock Hotel. I hope everyone interested will make an effort to attend, since this meeting is to decide the future of the group.

The September Newsletter, and back issues of earlier Newsletters, can now be downloaded in PDF form from a page on my website devoted to Hastings Humanists. A printed version of the Newsletter will be sent out to those members who have no internet connection (or to others who request a printed copy).

The content of the Newsletter is largely based on what appears on this blog, and the September issue is rather short of material since I've not had the time to devote to it and had to meet the deadline for posting the printed copies in time for the meeting. It would be helpful if members could bring subjects and articles and programmes to my notice that ought to get a mention in the newsletter or on the blog.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Questionnaire Response

Out of 22 questionnaires sent out to people who have attended our meetings or have expressed an interest I have received 11 replies.

The following were the questions, together with a summary of the responses received.

Our next meeting is the AGM on 10 September, to decide the future of the Group.

Please could you answer the following 6 questions.


1. Will you be able to attend the 10 September Meeting? (Knowing the likely number attending will justify advance booking of the room.)

--> 4 Yes, 5 Will try/possibly/don't know/can only decide at short notice/not sure, 2 No.

2. Do you think the Hastings Humanists Group should be formalised or remain informal? (This will mean electing a Committee, and fixing an annual membership fee and Constitution.)

--> 7 informal, 2 formal with qualifications (not yet, maybe later), 1 happy either way, 1 not interested at present.

3. Is Tuesday evening a convenient time or day for you? (If you have another preferred time or day please state.) [This should have said THURSDAY of course, but I don't think it makes any difference to the responses, only one respondent noted the error.]

--> 6 OK with any weekday evening, 1 would prefer Wednesday, 1 any day except Friday, 1 mixture of midweek meetings and Sunday morning, 1 unable to attend but supports group, 1 now has other priorities.

4. Are you a member of the British Humanist Association? (The BHA may help us more if we have direct members.)

--> 4 yes, 7 No.

5. Would you be willing to serve on the Committee? (We need to make use of all the talents available. Please indicate preferred role.)

--> 7 No, 2 Yes, 1 perhaps, 1 not at present.

6. Would you prefer more open social-style meetings rather than prearranged subjects or speakers? (You may prefer a mixture. If you have ideas for how we should go, please bring them to the meeting.)

--> Difficult to assess the replies, but most would seem to prefer a mixture, but would also like every meeting to have a prearranged topic for discussion and not just be social.

Perhaps I should have asked whether the present venue is OK. Its main problem is lack of disabled access and the pub atmosphere.

Monday, 31 August 2009

The Obscurer and Obscurantists

On page 39 of last Friday's Hastings Observer, next to the crossword puzzle, there is a large advertisement for "An Evening of Calirvoyance" with
Stephen Holbrook, who is described as "One of Britain's Most Accurate Clairvoyant Mediums". This evening is presented "in association with" the Observer series of local newspapers.

At one of his meetings in 2006 in Blackburn he was arrested after he punched a member of the audience who accused him of being a fake. According to the Yorkshire Evening Post "The Office of Fair Trading has found that psychic mailouts offering spiritualist services in return for payment cost us £40m in 2006-7. Online, telephone and TV psychic services are also big business. As well as scores of mediums up and down the country there are also more than 300 spiritualist churches." What mediums can claim is also now restricted by new Consumer Protection Regulations.

The show is on at the Phoenix Arts Centre, which is on the campus of William Parker Sports College, which is a Church of England voluntary controlled school. How the C of E views this support of spiritualism I don't know. It costs £15 to attend the event, so I don't think I'll be in the audience.

In the same issue on page 29 there is an article advertising an book on UFOs by Malcolm Robinson who is described as a "Paranormal Expert from Hastings". There were stories about him in the paper earlier in the year, and I've a recollection that he at one time worked for the paper. His book wil be available from Healings of Atlantis dot com!

What is it with "The Obscurer"? (so aptly nicknamed by Robert Tressell) that they have to provide so much support to these obscurantists?

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Atheist and Bishop Part 2

In the second episode of this Radio 4 series the Atheist was A. C. Grayling and the arguments were somewhat more pointed. He and the Bishop visited Bacon College (an inner city academy) and Camp Quest. The ethos of the school, which is a Church of England academy, is naturally to achieve social cohesion and for the pupils not to question their differences too closely. A. C. tried to get some of the pupils to think more deeply about these differences.

Towards the end the Bishop insisted on the importance of Christianity recognising the human "capacity for evil", and there was no time to follow this up, but surely it simply begs the question by assuming the prior existence of good and bad out there in the world before we have applied our reasoning powers to decide what is good and what is bad.

Friday, 21 August 2009


Christopher Hitchens on Slate criticises Yale University Press for self-censoring a book about the Danish cartoons of Mohammed by leaving out the illustrations.

On the I commented: Why keep republishing the same old cartoons? What's needed is more cartoons. Has the author of the Jesus and Mo series received death threats yet? I don't think so. The Freethinker republished the cartoons and its editor hasn't been threatened as far as I know. How about an Islamic Comic Annual?

I did have an idea for a cartoon in my Professor Cranium series, but haven't been in a drawing mood lately. This was to show Christopher Hitchens, with a copy of "God is not Great" under his arm, walking past a fast-food outlet called the "Al R Snackbar". (Allah's n'Ackbar - geddit? - Oh well never mind!)

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Alan Turing

There is a campaign to "Pardon" Alan Turing the mathematician, code-breaker and pioneer of computing. Though that is really the wrong word. He did nothing that we would now consider wrong. Really it is a matter of the authorities admitting they were wrong.

There was a programme on
Channel 4
about this campaign, with comments from Richard Dawkins among others.

If there is to be an apology it should be for everyone affected by the laws against homosexuality in that period, in the same way that there have been apologies about the slave trade. This would just be an acknowledgement that the Zeitgeist has moved on, and we have become more enlightened.

There is a petition on the No 10 website.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Atheist and the Bishop

I've been listening to the start of a new Radio 4 series The Atheist and the Bishop. The participants being atheist philosopher Miranda Fricker from Birkbeck College, University of London, and the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries.

The first person interviewed, apparently outside the BHA HQ, was someone calling himself an Agnostic Christian! His mother, having attended the assisted dying clinic in Switzerland, and who had requested a humanist funeral, was given instead a mixed humanist and christian funeral. Far from being a betrayal, this was described as admirably open-minded!

The next interview was of the mother of a man kiled in the 7/7 London bombings who said she forgave his killers, and had set up a peace foundation in his name. The atheist philosopher thought forgiveness a necessary part of an ethical life, but nothing was said about what this means in practice other than being an emotional form of words. If the killer still lived would this "forgiveness" extend to letting him go free?

Then they met a couple who had decided to have their child baptised. The philosopher, apparently an unmarried mother, had not felt the need of any ceremony but thought perhaps a secular one should be developed for those who might want them. Baby-naming ceremonies do exist, but apparently no BHA celebrant was consulted.

In short it was all a bit flabby, and I don't expect it to get much better. It goes on for seven episodes. Did I miss the good points?

Monday, 17 August 2009

Decision Day

Since nobody turned up for the last meeting I've decided to cancel the proposed extra meeting on 27th August. The 10th September meeting, which was billed as the "first AGM" and has been in our Programme since the start, will be to decide whether to place the Hastings Humanists BHA Group on a formal basis, by appointing a Committee, or whether to carry on as a purely informal grouping. If necessary the meeting can go on longer than usual to allow everyone to speak. This is assuming enough people can come. I'll be circulating everyone on the email list as usual.

Thursday, 13 August 2009


Well one new member turned up for tonight's meeting, hoping for a lively discussion or argument, but I was the only existing member there, so he left after a short conversation, but provided an email address to keep in touch. Where do we go from here? Suggestions invited. I have plenty of other things to occupy my time.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Shofar So Good

This has my vote for funniest news picture of the month:

Rabbis battle swine flu over Israel!

And silliest news story.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Our August Meetings

Our next meeting will be on Thursday 13 August at the White Rock Hotel as usual. The subject will be History of Humanism (Part 2), which will be mainly about 19th century developments including the Positivism of August Comte, the Rational Religion of Robert Owen, the Secularism of G. J. Holyoake and other topics.

Our August Newsletter is now available in PDF form and can be downloaded from this page on my website. I've also converted all the back issues into PDFs, just for the record. The printed version of the Newsletter will now be sent only to members who are not on email, or to those who request a printed copy.

There will also be a Social Meeting on 27 August. This will enable us to prepare for the AGM in September, at which we need to decide whether to put the Group on a more formal footing by properly electing officers such as Secretary, Treasurer and Chairperson, or just carry on in an informal manner.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

The UN - a worrying move?

The following is a quote from journalist Johanm Hari:

The UN rapporteur who is supposed to be the global guardian of free speech has had his job rewritten – to put him on the side of the religious censors

(Full article here)

If this is true, then it is worrying.

Admittedly, I haven't seen anything else about this subject, to give another side to the story, but it's an interesting and thought-provoking article.

Let's keep 'em peeled.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Social Meetings

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

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

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A Week in the Life ...

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Our TARDIS Brain

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

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

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

Friday, 10 July 2009

SACRE Report

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

What Religion Really Means?

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

Digested Read by John Crace.

This is excellent satire.

All Quiet on the God Front by Simon Blackburn.

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

Review of The Case for God by Christopher Hart.

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

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

Saturday, 4 July 2009


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

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Creationist Museums

There's an interesting three-part account here of a visit to Britain's own 'Creationist Museum' in Portsmouth. It doesn't compare to Ken Ham's 27 million dollar museum (or theme park)in Kentucky, though they have equally absurd exhibits. It's all rather sad really. Does anyone know if young-earth creationist views are widespread in Hastings, say in the evangelical christian churches?

Monday, 22 June 2009

Science and Evolution; How Timely!

In light of our fascinating talk from Dean; this quote from the BHA e-letter is very timely.

Consultation on the new Primary Curriculum in England: Science and evolution!
What is the issue?
In January 2008 the Government commissioned a review looking at both the organisation and content of the National Curriculum taught in primary schools in England. The review was lead by Sir Jim Rose. His final report was published on 30 April 2009.

The changes that have been proposed by the Rose Review have now been put out to public consultation. The consultation is being conducted by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). The public consultation will run until 24 July 2009, after which point the Government will consider how to proceed.

Our position
The BHA broadly welcomes the proposed new curriculum. However, we have particular concerns regarding the new ‘scientific and technological understanding’ area of learning, which is one of six new ‘areas of learning’ that have been put forward as the new structure of the curriculum.

Our main concern is that the ‘scientific and technological understanding’ area of learning makes no requirement for pupils to learn about and investigate the concepts of natural selection and evolution. We believe that the theory of evolution – arguably the single most important idea underlying the life sciences today – must be included in the primary curriculum."

This certainly ties in with Dean's observation that science can only make sense when underpinned by evolution. The item goes on:

"The wealth of new educational resources on evolution available for children of primary school age demonstrates their ability to grasp the simpler concepts associated with it, and a basic understanding of evolution will help lay the foundation for a surer scientific understanding later on in children’s school life.

With 2009 being the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the omission of evolution from the curriculum of primary schools is scandalous.

What can be done?
Please write to your MP, urging them to support the inclusion of natural selection and evolution in the primary curriculum. You can use our online facility to email your MP directly at

Please also make a submission to the QCA’s public consultation, which you can do by downloading the consultation questionnaire online at

You can read the BHA's own response to the consultation at

Here the BHA not only make more detailed comments about other weakness in ‘scientific and technological understanding’, but also in some of the other areas of learning. If you agree with the BHA's comments in these other areas then please do consider responding to these sections of the consultation as well....
Please copy any submissions you make or correspondence you enter into on this subject to Paul Pettinger at the BHA ( or by post to British Humanist Association, 1 Gower Street, London WC1E 6HD)."

Let us hope that common sense and enlightened thought win the day.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Did god survive Darwin?

Many thanks to Dean Morrison who gave a very interesting presentation under the heading “Did God Survive Darwin?” on Thursday 18th June 2009.

Dean’s talk was wide ranging, giving an historical perspective, and discussing how breakthroughs in scientific discovery have been received by religious organisations. He also described the evolutionary process in straightforward terms.

Dean is clearly very knowledgeable on his subject, having obtained his science degree in Edinburgh and been actively involved in scientific groups ever since. However, he put across his argument in terms that the non-scientific of us could understand and provided pictures and statistics to demonstrate his points.

In conclusion? God has survived Darwin, but is now seen very differently by most people. Although creationists still accept Genesis as a literal re-telling of history, many believers now see their god within the context of evolution (such as the provider of the “soul” or the being who started the whole process).

The answer to the question posed, therefore, brought a wry smile to some of the members present.

God has survived Darwin, but only by evolving.

Thank you again to Dean.

Friday, 12 June 2009

The Accomodationism Debate

On his blog "Why Evolution is True" Jerry Coyne gives 17 links to the current debate on Accommodationism which make interesting reading, and may be relevant to our meeting on 18th June.

His main argument, in his original article, is that some scientific organisations are biased in their support of those who consider evolution philosophically compatible with religious belief, in the hope of encouraging other religious believers to come to the same accommodation, while at the same time asking those who take an atheist viewpoint to be quiet and not rock the scientific boat.

BHA Urges Response to Consultations

The BHA is urging Humanists to respond to two consultations, though the deadline for one is already very close.

1) Consultation on broadcasting advertising rules on family planning centres and condoms Deadline 19 June

2} Consultation on New Guidance for Religious Education in England Deadline 24 July

I hope to attend the meeting of East Sussex Sacre in Eastbourne on 7th July, as an observer, and will report my experiences at our 9th July meeting, which will be a discussion on the whole area of Religious Education.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

A Day Out at Conway Hall

I've just got back from the Darwin, Humanism and Science one-day conference at Conway Hall. It was more a series of lectures than what I would call a conference. The highlight of the day for me was the introductory speech by Richard Dawkins in which he took the famous last paragraph of Origin of Species as his theme and wove eloquent variations on it line by line.

There were then two lectures about the attempts of young-earth creationists to subvert the teaching of science, and in particular evolutionary biology. James Williams of Sussex University advocated the teaching of evolution from an earlier age to avoid young minds being filled with misconceptions that are difficult to overcome at a later stage.

Two, more philosophical, talks covered the difficulty of teaching evolution, caused in the first place by its non-intuitive nature and secondly by its supposed implications for morality. To counter the charge of immorality levelled at Social Darwinism, Michael Schmidt-Salomon advocated "Evolutionary Humanism" as a worldview, which he traced back to Julian Huxley.

The last talk, by Babu Gogineni of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, warned us against the rising fundamentalism of followers of the Hindu religion.

A. C. Grayling closed the day with some thoughts on Humanism and Science which he connected to C. P. Snow's "Two Cultures" lecture given 50 years ago.

An irritation throughout the day for me was the presence of a simultaneous translation booth at the back of the hall which was not adequately soundproofed. I had to struggle to listen to the speaker and ignore the translator.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Date Change for June Meeting

Unfortunately there has been a clash over booking of the Notley room at White Rock Hotel, so Dean Morrison's talk will now be a week later, 18th June. The Hastings Environment Network also meets at the White Rock for what they call "Green Drinks" normally at 8:30pm, but they have booked the room on 11th June for a committee meeting. I hope we can come to an arrangement to avoid such clashes in future.

Edit: The Hastings Observer today (5 June) has a report of our May meeting on page 32 and a notice of our June meeting on page 26 under the title "Group to discuss the big questions". Unfortunately both still give the wrong date, despite a correction sent five days ago. I will be at White Rock Hotel on 11th June to catch any people who come there for our meeting. Anyone else who cares to come along for a chat in the bar is welcome.

Today I've also sent out the June Newsletter to those whose addresses I have, and also notified the correct date to everyone else whose email address I have.

Edit: 12 June. The Hastings Observer doesn't seem to have reported our change of date for this meeting in today's issue. However their two mentions last week of our proposed 11th June meeting did not result in anyone new turning up yesterday! On the other hand, perhaps everyone interested checked with our blog to make sure of the date. Getting regular publicity is a problem.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Did God Survive Darwin?

As part of the bicentenary celebrations of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of publication of Origin of Species, Dean Morrison proposes to examine the impact of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution on religious belief. He has given his 11th June talk the provocative title "Did God Survive Darwin?".

Did Darwin simply make God unnecessary? Did God need to change to survive? Are there mysteries of the Universe that still need the concept of God to explain? Dean promises an illustrated talk, covering the latest science, and the philosophical implications for us all.

Dean studied Ecological Science at Edinburgh University. His working career has been in environmental protection; for most of the last twenty years organising environmental volunteers in Hastings. He has had a lifelong interest in Evolutionary Biology.

Friday, 15 May 2009

A Most Enjoyable Evening

Thanks to Lesley yesterday's meeting was the best we've held so far. Her presentation, which included musical extracts, was entertaining and informative. The thorough tests that the BHA puts prospective celebrants through are daunting, even for someone committed to becoming a professional. The work itself combines elements of show-business and social work in an unusual way.

Lesley also brought a number of her friends along for support, so that our attendance reached 16 in all, including herself, and we were able to reduce our charge to £1 per person to cover the room hire costs. I hope they will continue to show interest in our future meetings. The two men in attendance were outnumbered. Once again, Rose Austen chaired the meeting. We also welcomed two new members.

Incidentally although I have called people attending our meetings "members" this will not become official until we adopt a constitution and fix a subscription rate, which is scheduled for the first AGM in September.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Our May Meeting

Our next meeting is on 14th May 7pm at White Rock Hotel as usual. Lesley Arnold-Hopkins will tell us the story of "How I Became a Humanist Celebrant". She will describe the BHA courses that are available, and give an account of some of her experiences conducting services.

We failed to get any publicity this time in the Hastings Observer, though I sent a press release at the usual time, a week in advance of publication. Our Newsletter, covering two pages this time, was produced later than usual but I sent it out first class to reach everyone in good time. Perhaps we should look into paying for an advertisement.

I've often toyed with setting up a Zeta Course in contradistinction to the Christian Alpha Course, but with the aim of introducing people to Sceptical thinking -- Zeta standing for Zetetic. The Christians already have an Omega course which teaches about the End Times. I wonder what I could charge for this? Kevin Carlyon seems to get enough from his Tarot readings and spells to pay for an advert every week!

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Women and Islam

I thought I ought to draw attention to this article in the Independent by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown with the title "Who'd be female under Islamic Law?".

She says "I am the kind of Muslim woman who maddens reactionary Muslim men and their asinine female followers." and "Female oppression in Islamic countries is manifestly getting worse. Islam, as practiced by millions today, has lost its compassion and integrity and is entering one of the darkest of dark ages." She lists a series of unbearable stories of the unjust treatment of women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

She concludes: "Disgracefully, there are always vocal Muslim women who seek to justify honour killings, forced marriages, inequality, polygamy and childhood betrothals. Why are large numbers of Muslim men so terrorised by the female body and spirit? Why do Muslim women encourage this savage paranoia? / I look out of my study at the common and see a wife fully burkaed on a sunny day. She sits still. Her children and husband run around, laughing, playing cricket. She sits still, dead, buried, a ghost. She is complicit in her own degradation, as are countless others. Their acquiescence in a free democracy is a crime against their sisters who have no such choices in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere."

This needs to be said by more influential Muslim women. Seeing women in burkas, head to toe in black, with their faces covered, and sometimes also the eyes, was the greatest shock I had when I moved to Leicester ten years ago. I wrote about it to the press, but as an English male I could have little influence. I've not seen this in Hastings yet, fortunately. It is the outward symbol of much more and much worse.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Science and Religion

I went to a series of talks with this title at Conway Hall today, sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry. My main reason for going there was to hear Mary Warnock speak on "Religion as Humanism" but unfortunately she pulled out at the last minute.

She was replaced by Raj Persaud who spoke on a different subject (mainly the psychology of internalising or externalising blame and reward). The other scheduled talks were by Jack Cohen on the Omphalos theory of Philip Gosse, Simon Singh on the Big Bang, and Stephen Law on Theodicy. Frankly I didn't learn from these much that I didn't know already, though Singh's talk was thorough and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed his joke mathematical "proof" that the teletubbies are evil!

However, once I came home I watched, thanks to RichardDawkins.Net, a much more edifying lecture by Andy Thomson on Why We Believe in Gods. This is a tour-de-force on the most modern research into the Cognitive Neuroscience of Religion. Some of his language is difficult to follow, but we are likely to hear much more of it as these concepts and methods develop further.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

BHA News

The British Humanist Association March/April News has just appeared. It is now in a much improved A4 format. Previously it was just a folded broadsheet. One of the main stories is that the BBC's "Central Religious Advisory Committee" is being replaced by an independent "Standing Conference on Religion and Belief" which will include a humanist representative, the excellent Andrew Copson.

There is also a new organisation, the AHS, to coordinate Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies.

Hanne Stinson, the BHA Chief Executive has raised money by having the "Happy Human" logo tattooed on her arm. Personally I dislike tattoos, along with piercings and scoriation, and wouldn't recommend the practice, despite it being a current fad.

Edit: The BHA e-bulletin, dated 20 April, links to a programme on C. S. Lewis called The Narnia Code, which I've just watched. The thesis of Michael Ward is that the seven books of the Narnia Chronicles, which many critics have called a "hotchpotch" are in fact based on the seven planets of medieval cosmology. I find this thesis convincing. However, the books are still a hotchpotch! Moreover, despite the irrelevant pontifications of Prof Polkinghorne at the end of the film, this is not Christian symbolism. It is Astrology!

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Coronation Street Controversy!

Who would have thought that safe and sensible Corrie would cause such an upset for Christians?

The following is from the BBC's Website

Angry Coronation Street viewers have complained to Ofcom and ITV after a character made "anti-Christian" remarks during an episode on Easter Sunday.
The broadcast watchdog said it received 23 complaints over Ken Barlow referring to the faith as "superstition" and God as a "supernatural being".
ITV said it received about 100 complaints over the remarks.
It added the soap was set in modern society and "represents views from all sides of the religious spectrum".
In the soap, while the Barlow family were preparing to go to church, Ken - played by William Roache - questioned his son Peter on why he was allowing his grandson, Simon, to be "indoctrinated" by the church.
He then went on to criticise Simon's school for teaching creationism.

After the family returned from church, Ken began to tell his grandson that Jesus rising from the dead "may not necessarily be true" and that scientists think the Big Bang created the universe.

The episode saw Peter Barlow's son have his rabbit blessed at church
He argued it was important to teach his grandson humanism and give him another viewpoint to balance the teachings from the church.
The character was later seen in the pub saying he believed "children should be told the truth" and that Christianity was comforting because "that's how they get their hooks into you, when you're vulnerable".
Viewers also complained on ITV's message boards that Ken Barlow's comments were "completely unacceptable" and "inappropriate" to be shown on Easter Sunday.
One user wrote: "To choose this script on the most holy day in the Christian calendar is insulting and greatly offensive."
In defending its decision to air the episode, ITV said: "At the moment we have a very positive story involving Sophie Webster and her new found interest in religion, Emily Bishop has also always been seen as a very positive representation of Christianity.
"Likewise Ken Barlow's different views on religion have always been a strong aspect of his character."
Ofcom said it would be looking into the complaints.

If it's true that there is "no such thing as bad publicity" then this furore will help to make more people aware of humanism, whether they watch the soap or not.

Would those that complained have been so offended if the programme had shown a conversation among characters of different faiths? Probably not; it would appear that to many people, any god is better than no god.

But how to we feel about Ken Barlow being our new champion? Would we have liked someone a bit "cooler?"

No doubt it will blow over without further coverage; Ofcom must have more concerning matters than this.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The Population Problem

Although we are Humanists that doesn't mean we want a planet over-run with Humans! The Optimum Population Trust is in the news since David Attenborough has become one of its patrons. He says: "I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more."

The Population Problem tends to be a taboo subject, because of the fear that it could only be controlled by coercive measures. But without some rational approach, presumably based on education and voluntary self-control, it is probable that population will be controlled in the end by flood, famine, pestilence and war.

The world population is now approaching 7 billion (that's 7 with nine zeros) and is projected to go over 9 billion by 2050. It is probably already well above the optimum at which pollution and damage to the environment can be avoided.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Letter in the Press

I have had a short letter published in today's Hastings Observer. It is a reply to one that appeared two weeks ago which advocated following "the Almighty's ideas of how we're meant to live". I signed it as Secretary of Hastings Humanists to give us extra publicity.

Anyone who wants to read the text of the works of Thomas Paine after learning more about him from yesterday's meeting, will find them here: Just click on the red or orange squares.

Disappointingly the notice in last week's paper did not attract any new members to our meeting. Perhaps the Easter holiday week is the wrong time - too many people away or entertaining visitors.