Simon Blackburn at the Hay Festival 2009

SimonBlackburn By Sue Falder

Simon Blackburn, a vice-president of the BHA and professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and North Carolina universities, spoke at the Hay Festival on 26th May under the heading “Arguing about Religion: Hume 10, the rest of the world 0” .

He has written a commentary on Hume’s “Dialogues” which were published in 1779 and which he feels can be seen to deal with the current debates on creationism vs. militant atheism in a very elegant way. He explained how Hume created three figures: Cleanthes, Demea and Philo. The first two argued the case for the existence of a god and Philo (representing Hume’s own sceptical position) refuted both their arguments.

Cleanthes’ position was that the world as we see it is so intricate and so inter-connected that there must have been a great `mind’ behind its design. But Philo’s response was to question the assumption of a `marvellous human-being’ model of a deity and then look at it objectively. Why, out of all the existing cosmos, should a deity be modelled on a human being? And when it comes to design, humans are motivated – often by need – to make new things….what would be a god’s motivation, for instance for designing so many species of beetle? And, anyway, isn’t it true that new things can occur in nature without a designer having been involved?

Demea argues from the principle of `sufficient reason’. Everything depends upon what went before, and if you take that back in time to the `Big Bang’ you need to postulate a god as the prime mover. However, according to Philo, in this case you would need to say about this deity that `it must necessarily be as impossible for him never to exist as to make 2 x 2 not = 4’. But we can’t imagine that, because our world only provides evidence of one thing being dependent on a pre-existing thing or situation. Therefore it is impossible for us to recognise the existence of this version of god.

We are left between two equally unworkable positions: God as a `transcendental human being’, or as an entity quite beyond the human brain to be able to grasp.

Simon Blackburn recognised that many intelligent and educated people have faith in one sort of god or another, and feels that the explanation lies not within the sphere of rationality but in the sphere of emotion and feeling. He described people as demonstrably having a `religious yearning’ and feels that the continuation of religious practices is down to what might be called `evolutionary sociology’.

There were many interesting questions from the 4/500-strong audience and the talk and discussion were very well-received.

A.C. Grayling on Darwin and the Darwinian Controversy

A C Grayling Sue Willson wrote this report for the BHA Groups Newsletter…

Groups (and the weather) working together

Sometimes it seems as if Humanists are a combative lot of people who cannot agree about anything. However, recently five local groups co-operated to perfection. Here’s how it happened.

A year ago during the Darwin Festival in Shrewsbury, representatives from five local groups met for the first time. They came from Shropshire, Chester and Greater Manchester Humanists, Marches Secularists, and S Cheshire / N Staffordshire Humanists. We discussed hosting a public event in his birthplace to celebrate Darwin’s bicentenary. We decided that a talk given by a well-known speaker might well attract an audience that would not be embarrassingly small. This event could perhaps be part of the bicentenary festival being planned for 2009 by the local council.

Sue Falder of the Shropshire Humanists group did a great deal of the ground work, writing to several possible speakers, getting details of venues in the town, and arranging that the local theatre would sell some of the tickets. She asked for our views via email, and we had a very pleasant meeting over lunch in an excellent riverside bar in Shrewsbury. Professor AC Grayling had already been booked as the speaker, and Sue had booked his rail ticket and sent it to him. The Lord Hill hotel in Shrewsbury was confirmed as the venue, with an optional and prepaid buffet on offer. Sue then disappeared off to New Zealand on holiday, much of the work being done, and left the rest of us to it.

Perhaps surprisingly, the remaining tasks were shared out without any problems – liaising with the hotel, publicising the event, selling tickets and banking the takings in one group’s account, keeping in contact with Professor Grayling, and making arrangements for getting him from Stafford station to Shrewsbury and back again after the talk: all was going smoothly. We had another enjoyable lunchtime meeting – why not mix business and pleasure? We thought we were doing well when nearly 100 tickets were sold, and we booked the larger room available in the hotel. But it quickly became clear that nearly 200 people would be attending, and 60 for the buffet. Success in all respects, we thought.

BUT TWO DAYS BEFORE OUR EVENT, THE GREAT SNOW FELL: trains were cancelled, roads were treacherous, and a flurry of emails between us rivalled the snowflakes. What if our speaker couldn’t get out of London? What if people couldn’t get through to Shrewsbury? What if an angry mob attacked us for cancelling at short notice?

However, the weather forecasters predicted the best day of the week on Our Day, and all was well. Professor Grayling arrived in good time, and a friendly crowd of over 200 listened to the talk after 70 of us enjoyed the buffet. Many looked at our publicity displays about Humanism and our groups, and picked up leaflets. As this was our first attempt at organising an event together, there were a few hitches, including a less than perfect microphone and failing to record the lecture as planned. And with hindsight, we should have done more to ensure that the buffet provided an adequate choice for vegetarians.

The reps from the five groups are now planning another lunch together, and thinking of organising another event. And we have to decide what to do with the large surplus we made!

Group news 2008: Groups celebrate the Darwin connection

In 2008, discussions and speakers covered a variety of subject areas: Can science explain faith?, Islam: benign delusion or radical threat?, Transition Towns, Peak Oil and its consequences and Religion and the Law.

Then, for Darwin’s birthday, the group arranged an event which drew in people from five other humanist groups and resulted in the formation of an area committee which organised a bigger event for the centenary in 2009.

Over 30 members from six different Humanist Groups gathered in Shrewsbury on the 14th February to celebrate the week of Darwin’s birth in the town of his birth. Meeting up at the Morris Hall, site of the Bell Stone which is reputed to have been the stimulus for Darwin’s interest in geological change, the thirty or so visitors split up into smaller groups for a guided walk taking in the places related to Darwin’s years in the town.

Outside the old Shrewsbury School, now the library

Outside the old Shrewsbury School, now the town library. (Click on the thumbnail to see the picture.)

The group re-assembled to warm up and have lunch at the Armoury pub on the riverside and then in the afternoon they gathered back at the Hall to talk about inter-group links and preparations for next year’s bi-centenary celebrations.

Lunch in Armoury pub


Left to right: Bob Churchill from the B.H.A. with leaders of five groups: Connor Birch, Bishops Castle Secularists, Allan Muir, Chester, John Cross, Manchester, Sue Willson, South Cheshire/North Staffs, Derek Woodvine, Shrops.

Left to right: Bob Churchill from the B.H.A. with leaders of five groups: Connor Birch, Bishops Castle Secularists, Allan Muir, Chester, John Cross, Manchester, Sue Willson, South Cheshire/North Staffs, Derek Woodvine, Shrops.

How I became a Humanist

by Sue Falder, Secretary, Shropshire Humanist Group

Like many others of my generation and background, I was brought up within a C of E Christian framework – that is to say it was an accepted part of life to have a reading from the bible every morning in school assembly followed by a hymn, and going to church was a respectable occupation.

My mother, much concerned with what was done, rather than what she herself would like to do, made sure we jumped through the baptism and confirmation hoops, and, since she was musical, attended church regularly to sing in the choir.

I, too, became part of the church choir, became utterly, tediously, familiar with the liturgy and marvelled at the singing and dramatic presentation of the vicar during services. I toyed with ideas of vocation and spirituality, but it dawned on me fairly early on that in fact there was an emptiness in the ritual unless you yourself were prepared to pretend otherwise; and God/religion apparently had no place in the ordinary everyday traffic of life.

Experience taught me that judging people according to pre-conceived notions of what one should or shouldn’t be or do was inappropriate, and I came to the realisation that `right’ and `wrong’ are complex and relative terms.

By the time I was eighteen I privately considered myself an atheist, and I haven’t changed that view since. I have no belief in a supernatural power, in any metaphysical experience which cannot or will not be explained scientifically, or in any version of life after death.

Knowledge of humanism came upon me gradually. I didn’t really recognise it as a philosophy of life or know about its history, but when we wanted a non-religious funeral ceremony for a member of the family I knew that humanist funerals were available. Subsequently I joined the BHA. and began to find out more about what humanism means and has meant.

The more I find out, the more at home I feel within the bounds of the word `humanist’.

Religion – A secular view

By Gordon Hillier

I prepare this note as a person who has only recently become a ‘humanist’ in formal terms – at least as I have interpreted the word ‘humanism’. That, in the simplest terms, is to believe ‘that man controls his own destiny’, In other words, there is not, nor ever has been, a ‘Supreme Being’ or any such supernatural influence upon this planet or upon any processes or living thing hereon.

Through most of my late teens and adult life I became increasingly sceptical of religious teaching of all denominations – for many reasons beyond the scope of these notes. Suffice to say that I accept logical and rational explanations of all events that have occurred on this earth – from the ‘beginning’ (the big bang?) to the present. This includes the evolution of the human race and its behaviour, both individually and collectively, through pre-history to today. The argument that certain things or happenings cannot be explained in purely scientific or holistic terms does not negate my opinion – there is still much to learn! In fact I will accept the idea of a ‘life force’, for want of a better term, which has not, and may never be, defined – but which may exist as a product of animal and human minds and as a product of evolution. After all, what is ‘instinct’ in both the lower animals and in human animals, what controls activities such as migration……?

So I embrace the concept of evolution in the human mind as well as body, from the development of territorial behaviour to protect the group by the dominant male, to the formation of tribes each with different behaviour and customs, and so on to ‘super-tribes’ and thence to nations in historic times. With this simple concept (perhaps expressed here in too simple terms), surely one can understand the progression of humanity to the present potentially catastrophic global situation, where human is pitted against human, nation against nation. The need to protect has now become, by development of a powerful intellect and the acquisition of knowledge about all earthly things, a tool for domination by the powerful over the weak, very often in the name of religion. And so ‘goodness1 and ‘badness’ can be ascribed to human actions, and the effects thereof, which may be good or bad for the society that is involved. Consequently, words such as ‘morality’ and ‘conscience’, which can be (and should be) defined in a nonreligious context, have been taken and exhaustively redefined in many different forms by ‘philosophers’ until the straight-forward meanings relating directly to ‘goodness’ or otherwise, has been obscured by jargon and religious hypocrisy.

Hence, whether a religious institution is Christian, Islamic, Buddhist or any other is of no consequence to me. It is evident to me that their doctrines and teachings give rise equally to goodness and badness in their followers, depending upon the degree of moderation or extremism brought about in the individual human. I cannot believe in the existence of a ‘Supreme Being, God or Gods’ or that such beings could directly control human actions in any way whatsoever. But of course, those with faith in such religion as they may believe in will be influenced to a greater or lesser degree by their teachers in that faith. Their subsequent actions may be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with respect to other humans, this goodness or otherwise being explained and accepted as having been given by the god or gods of their faith.

With that background in mind, it may be understood that I have had no need for the philosophers and apologists to help my deliberations regarding the acceptance of humanism as my philosophy of life. My sympathy is with those who need to use religion as a comforter and a crutch. Such deliberations are behind me, and no feelings of confusion and doubt remain – I am content.

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