Archive for Humanism

The struggle against religious privilege

Charles Bradlaugh 1833-91

Charles Bradlaugh 1833-91

Report of a meeting led by Dan Bye of the National Secular Society.

Dan Bye was a founder member of Sheffield’s Humanist Group in 1993. He has been active in the National Secular Society (NSS) for 25 years, being the longest serving member on its Council of Management.

Dan gave us some background to the founding, in 1866, by Charles Bradlaugh of the NSS. Various Socialist movements were collapsing in mid-Victorian times. One point at issue was the fact that atheists like Bradlaugh could not pursue any action in Court as they would not be able to take the Oath. Robert Owen’s group proposed a nonconformist Oath, but George Holyoake refused the idea of any Oath, and split from Owen. Holyoake coined the term ‘Secularism’ in 1851, as an ethical movement to unite all people for Social Reform.

Bradlaugh however felt that the group should be campaigning against the privilege of Church and Religion, and split to form the National Secular Society. He was very litigious, battling for 12 years to get elected as an atheist MP, a further 6 years before he was able to take his seat. Eventually, in 1888, a change in the law allowed Universal Affirmation.

The NSS is seen as a more militant organisation than the British Humanist Association. NSS has been instrumental in work towards abolishing the Blasphemy law (2008), and it has been successful in lobbying for the imminent removal of the weak ‘insulting’ term from s5 of the Public Order Act.

Dan explained that ‘secular’ in meaning is the opposite of ‘sacred’, ie not connected with religion. More recently, NSS is concentrating on a narrower definition of its work within secularism, that is on progress towards the separation of Church and State.

NSS takes a ‘strong’ principled line on such matters as religious schools (against), and against any exceptions for minority religious activities such as council money for transport to schools for some, Chaplains in hospitals, ritual slaughter of animals, prayers in Council meetings.

Early on, Dan showed a graph which confirmed that ‘religious affiliation’ has reduced with each generation – a process called secularisation.

An excellent talk and lively discussion.


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Should we fund ‘faith’ schools?

Report on the talk by Richy Thompson, BHA Campaigns Officer.

Richy’s talk covered the history of ‘faith’ schools in England to the present day and the rise of Academies and Free Schools. He gave out an overview of different types of ‘faith’ schools, stating that 34% of state schools in England and 14% in Wales have a religious character. Key points of interest were:

  • The number of ‘faith’ schools is increasing and the Church of England may be planning a large expansion of its schools
  • The running costs of Voluntary aided schools are funded by the Local Authority as well as 90% of building costs. The religious group only have to pay the remaining 10%.
  • All schools have to hold a daily act of collective worship, either in line with the faith of the school, or, if the school is not a ‘faith’ school, of a broadly Christian character, (though the majority of ‘non-faith’ schools do not implement the law – 80% according to OFSTED – and it is not enforced). Many schools do, however, hold ‘assemblies.’ Richy receives many complaints from parents concerned about the effects on their children, including evangelising and the telling of stories which give them nightmares.
  • Academies and Free Schools, many of which are controlled by religious groups, are state-funded. Richy stated that ‘evangelical’ and ‘pseudoscientific’ groups had been approved. These schools do not need to teach the wider national curriculum or hire qualified teachers.

Richy identified ‘six myths’ which are used to defend ‘faith’ schools and he put forward arguments as to why they are untrue. He concluded by reiterating that ‘faith’ schools can be divisive and that all children should be educated together.

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From the Chairman

Welcome to our late spring 2012 edition of the Newsletter, and the Group blog.

We are including an article by Donald Howells, who now lives in retirement in Richards Castle, having been chair of the Portsmouth Humanist Group and great contributor to their regular newsletter, which I believe was called ‘Hemlock’, which does suggest a distinctive sense of humour.

Donald talks about his wakening to the reality of evolution, helped by visits to the wonderful Natural History Museum in Kensington as a child. Similarly, I remember visits to the Natural History and Science museums in London as a child (I was born in Fareham), but this was about three decades after Donald – in the 1960s. Whether this influenced my subsequent beliefs I’ve no idea, but they are a great place to take children, and I still enjoy the odd visit as an adult.

Donald ends his article with a proviso about possible ways humanity could destroy the planet, and that reminded me to mention what I think may be a very important book I’ve just finished, called the Medea Hypothesis, by Peter Ward. Mr Ward is a planetary scientist employed by NASA and so writes with some authority, in this case about the Earth, past and future. His choice of Medea is interesting – for those who know their Greek mythology, you will probably recognise her as the wife of Jason, who infamously killed her own children, exasperated by the behaviour of her husband (not that that’s a good enough excuse).

Peter Ward deliberately sets himself against the popular Gaia hypothesis of life on Earth – which broadly assumes that the total Earth flora & fauna act as a self- regulating mechanism to produce optimum conditions for life. I’ve always personally thought this smacked of wishful thinking, but Mr Ward systematically goes through the 4 billion years of life on Earth to date and points out that several of the mass extinction events were almost certainly provoked by life itself – starting with the mass production of oxygen by the blue-green algae, and going through a couple of ‘snowball Earth’ epochs, and stagnant ocean periods. Looking forward, I was surprised to read that he thinks life on Earth only has another 100 to 500 million years to run (only, because the Sun won’t explode for another 5 billion years). The mechanism of failure he postulates is an unusual one, bearing in mind our current concerns on global warming – the loss of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which will lead to the loss of plant life, as we know it. Plate tectonics and weathering all have a part, but plant life itself will cause its own downfall, using up residual atmospheric carbon dioxide until it reaches the deadly 100 ppm minimum for trees, 10 ppm minimum for grasses – so we’ll go through a period of loss of forests, or perhaps replacement with bamboo, before the end.

The book is not all doom and gloom, though, as Peter Ward sees humanity as the living planet’s saviour – we must engineer on a grand scale to balance the atmosphere and prevent an ‘early’ demise of life as we know it here. That task will start by having to deal with the consequences of the temporary blip of increased carbon dioxide we are currently experiencing – which will lead to loss of the Greenland and, eventually, Antarctic ice sheets through global warming (almost inevitable, he believes) over the next few hundred years. As the seas rise and we lose coastal cities and rich low lying farming land, we will have to make sure that the new land opened up in Greenland and Antarctica is suitable for farming – preventing the inevitable inland lakes (formed by land depressed from the weight of ice) from becoming ‘contaminated’ by seawater. The carbon dioxide rise will only be temporary, in geological terms, and it will steadily decline over the millennia unless we also engineer stability in the atmosphere. Fascinating stuff – and I believe it could be a critical message for future generations. It is also hopeful – humanity can save the planet.  That should cheer us up.

Subscriptions and Donations

Many thanks to all those who have now renewed their membership for this year and made donations. A gentle reminder to those who have yet to renew that only paid-up members of the group may vote at the AGM.

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Darwin and Natural Selection: a reminiscence

A new member, Donald Howells, has sent this article for the newsletter. He is not able to get to meetings but would be happy to welcome a small group to his home for discussions. The Chairman has his details if you would like to do that.

My family background was C. OF E., cultured without being inquisitive, artistic in a staid sort of way. My Mother had been a Sunday school teacher in her youth. I was sent to a Church elementary school. Among the important influences of my childhood were several visits to the Zoo and the Museums at South Kensington.

I remember walking round the Natural History Museum looking at the skeletons and the re-constructions of giant reptiles and the early extinct mammals and brooding over what I saw. I was generally accompanied by one of my aunts on these expeditions and I imagine we conversed as we went round. The brontosaurus, we agreed, was big but not perhaps as big as the whale we had just seen. The mastodon and the woolly mammoth were very like the elephants we had seen in the Zoo.

I did not share my brooding with my Aunt, not because I thought it would shock her, but because my conclusions were so vague and tentative that I hesitated to put them into words. Quite clearly, there was a process of evolutionary development with successions of animal types evolving, competing and replacing one another. The labels on the exhibits and the rock specimens I had been looking at in the Geological Museum next door all talked of periods of millions of years. But my school Bible said 4004 B.C. against the first chapter of Genesis, and told of God making the Heaven and the Earth in six days. (If we had asked our teacher, she would, no doubt, have backtracked and said that ‘days’ meant periods of time, not necessarily of 24 hours.)

Both these sets of beliefs were being offered to me simultaneously by the adult world, and at the public expense. It seemed I had to make a choice, an uncomfortable choice because it involved a rejection of a considerable slice of home as well as school teaching. I had to make a choice between the manifest discoveries of science and what I suspected was a lot of old mythology. I do not think nowadays that I would use phrases like ‘a lot of old mythology’ except when wanting to get rid of some particularly persistent evangelist. I might describe the Judeo-Christian meme complex as a historically generated social artefact, or some such jargon. (Great stuff –Jargon!)

Auntie, too, was uncomfortable, but for quite different reasons. No doubt, she bore her sufferings stoically for a period and then said, “You don’t want to go any further do you? My feet are killing me on these stone floors.” (This, just as I was about to suggest that we should go back and do the Science Museum again!) Auntie led me back to the Refreshment Room (then situated under the main staircase), where she revived herself with tea and me with lemonade.

Evolution? Someone had told me that Charles Darwin had said we were descended from monkeys. I decided to read him.
My family visiting took me on journeys across London on the Underground between the Wars, every Underground station seemed to have quite a good bookstall. One could buy nice case-bound volumes of the Thinkers Library at 1/- each and Everyman’s Library at nearly the same price. I purchased Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in the Thinkers Library. Later I purchased Man’s Place in Nature by T. H. Huxley in Everyman. My parents felt it was safe for children to travel on the Tube. It was safe then.

I leave you with the picture of a bygone self, dressed in a school cap and crested blazer, the colours of his new Secondary school, travelling clickety-clack on the Piccadilly or Northern lines across London. The boy on the train was going to visit his maternal grandparents or an aunt and uncle. He was immersed in reading The Origin of Species or some such book. (Unlike modern boys, I was proud of my school uniform, and wore it for weekend family visits.)

What was important was that a little earlier my view of human life, if I thought about it at all, was of a play commencing in 4004 BCE and concluding in the near future with the Last Judgement. The play was enacted on quite a narrow stage, with God and His angels floating around somewhere near the proscenium arch and the Devil and hell-fire in the orchestra pit.

Suddenly, this frame was swept away. Human beings were still in the centre of the stage, but the scope of the play was extended both in space (I had started buying books on astronomy and cosmology as well) and in time. Behind us were unnumbered billions of years first of astronomical and then of step-by-step biological evolution, and, more important still, instead of the imminent finale of the Last Judgement, there stretched unnumbered billions of years ahead. In this future time the heirs of all the ages would take control of their destiny, and step into possession of their heritage. I tried to envisage what that might be. I read and approved the sentiments in Tennyson’s poem ‘Locksley Hall.’

I had been, not so much converted, as liberated.

[Now, I would add the proviso, unless the present or next generation of humans irreparably destroys that natural heritage by nuclear war, over-population, global warming, radioactive or other pollution, resource destruction or some other unsustainable activities].’

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Previous meetings roundup

We have had two successful and very interesting meetings since the last newsletter.

On 20th March we had a talk by Ann  Leedham who works for Dignity in Dying –the new name for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.  She was largely preaching to the converted, but it was a useful talk in that she defined Assisted Dying, Assisted Suicide and explained the work of Dignity in Dying and the sister organisation Compassion in Dying.  Dignity in Dying researches the area and involves itself in campaigning.  Ann gave all the arguments for helping people to die, should they wish to.  She pointed out that we have to travel to Switzerland to access it.  This has the disadvantage that people have to go while they are still well enough to travel.  Palliative care is not always successful or even available, and shot down the slippery slope argument.  She believes that there should be open and honest discussion about what sort of end of life care we want for ourselves.  At the moment assisted suicide is legal in The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland and assisted dying in three US states. There was a discussion in parliament the week after our meeting, but the vote was against any change despite the fact that an increasing majority of the population favour choice for the individual.

Compassion in Dying is the organisation which can provide you with information about their rights. People should know that they can refuse treatment, provided that they are considered to have sufficient mental capacity to make the decision.  Mental capacity is the crucial test. For this reason you should consider making an advanced decision about what sort of treatment you may want so that it is clear what your wishes are if you are unable to express them, for instance in the event of an accident.  Forms suitable for recording this can be obtained from Compassion in Dying.  They must be witnessed and copies should be given to your family, solicitor, and doctor.  They should be reviewed from time to time to show you haven’t changed your mind.

A commission suggested in 2012 that there is a need to change the law on assisted suicide.  There will be a mass lobby of Parliament on 4th July. We know that families and friends who accompany people to Switzerland are not at the moment at risk of prosecution, but practice could change.

The group has a video in the library which sets out all these arguments.


Compassion in Dying  Information line 0800 999 2434 open Mon to Fri 11am to 3pm

181 Oxford Street London W1D 2JT

T 020 7479 7731

F 020 7287 1760


On 17th April we had a talk on The Lollards given by Bob Milner.  He gave us an overview of the state of the Catholic church and society in the 14th century, and painted a picture of the realities of life in rural Shropshire.  The first protestant was John Wycliffe, a preacher in Oxford.  He began to speak out in 1382 against the many abuses in the church, the sale of relics and indulgences, the opportunities for idol worship, the use of confession to avoid personal responsibility.  He wanted to disestablish the church, to allow women priests and to worship and read the bible in the vernacular. This was felt as a threat to the church and state and they worked together to shut down the discussion. An Act in 1401 allowed the church to burn heretics, although they only got round to it in half a dozen cases in the next 100 years. Bob told us that The Lollards continued to preach in a secretive way and were particularly active in NW Herefordshire. He provided us with a map of local spots with Lollard connections.

He suggested that the Lollards influenced Jan Huss, who influenced Martin Luther, who influenced the thinkers of the British Reformation.  Most of the abuses which concerned the Lollards were dealt with in protestant churches and the movement seems to have died away.

Bob’s suggested reference if you are interested in this topic G M Trevelyan  England in the Age of Wycliffe

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May meeting

The date of the next meeting is at 7.30pm at The Friends’ Meeting House, St Mary’s Lane, Ludlow SY8 1DZ.The AGM will take place on 15th May. The committee would appreciate a good attendance and your support at this meeting. After the meeting we will be showing a short video Why Atheism? and coffee, tea and cake will be served.It would be welcomed if members would give suggestions for speakers, other suitable activities that they might enjoy and support. There is also a possibility of a name change to help with publicity. The committee would like members’ views.

Two members of the committee say they are retiring, so there is an opportunity for someone lively and full of ideas. The agenda is below. Please note that you need to be a member of the WMHG to vote at the AGM.

1. Minutes of 2011 AGM
2. Matters arising
3. Chairman’s report
4. Membership secretary’s report
5. Treasurer’s report
6. Election of Officers
7. Proposal to change to name of the group
8. Proposal to amend the WMHG constitution
9. Future meetings – suggestions for topics/speakers from members invited
10. Donations to charities – suggestions from members invited
11. Any other business
12. Video ‘Why Atheism’ – followed by refreshments AND cake

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AGM – date changed

The AGM date given in the newsletter (11th May) has had to be changed to Monday 9th May at 7.30 pm at the Women’s Centre.

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