2010-11 Session

Meetings at FMH

These meetings are held on the second Wednesday of each month, generally with an invited speaker. Notes on the talk and subsequent discussion are given where these are available.


14 April:
Annual General Meeting followed by discussion of progress since the December 2007 Special General Meeting and the results of the recent member survey
The AGM was quorate, with fifteen members eventually present, including two new members who joined at the meeting. The Committee Report and the Treasurer’s Report were discussed at length and adopted. The resolution submitted by the Committee proposing that GMH adopt Uganda Humanist Schools Trust (UK) as its nominated charity for 2010/11 was agreed nem con. Members are encouraged to support this charity individually and we plan to organise at least one public meeting – perhaps a repeat of the Humanism Any Questions? event last February – at which a collection for UHST(UK) will be taken.
The meeting also agreed nem con to the Committee’s proposal that subscriptions for 2010/11should remain as for the previous year – ie £15 waged; £10 unwaged, with the initial subscription for new members joining GMH during the year variable at the discretion of the Committee to take account of the date of joining. As there were no contested positions, those nominated for the Committee were declared elected, namely: Guy Otten – Chair; Robin Grinter – Vice-chair; John Coss – Secretary; Reg Boot – Treasurer; Chris Neilson , Steve Roman, Marge Rose, Gail Thomson – Committee member. Guy Otten invited other members to get involved, and John Brown offered to join the Committee, and has been duly co-opted.

The meeting ended with a short discussion of the results of the recent member survey and the review of progress since the SGM in December 2007 circulated with the April Newsletter.

12 May:
Unitarianism – Rev Jane Barraclough, Minister of Cross Street Chapel

Jane led a session exploring the nature of the ‘spiritual community’ of Unitarianism and some of the overlaps with Humanism. She stressed that the core values of Unitarianism include the worth of human beings, equal respect for everyone, individual liberty and private judgement and the development of personal value systems – all central to the Humanist philosophy. She pointed out that Unitarianism began as a rejection of the authority of the Church in the Act of Uniformity, and has always been critical of Biblical authority. Few Unitarians believe in the existence of an external, transcendental God, and most are complete agnostics. They see doubt as a key virtue, a safeguard against the abuse of power based on undue certainty.

Jane also stressed the ‘Unitarian trinity’ of Reason, Freedom and Tolerance. These three values are always interrelated. Reason recognises the equal authority of other opinions, freedom prevents us enforcing our views on others, and tolerance encourages deep encounters with others. The outcome is a gain in wisdom, and a philosophy of service to the needs of others. Jane described Unitarianism as ‘a covenant of ethical behaviour’ providing principles that act as guides to action. In several respects it is close to Buddhism and Hinduism. She concluded by pointing out that Unitarians made a significant contribution to the development of Humanism. The South Place Ethical Society that nourished the Ethical Union which became the British Humanist Association in 1967 was originally a Unitarian chapel, and the Unitarian Harold Blackham was a key figure in the establishment of Humanism.

The discussion was made really valuable by contributions from a number of Unitarians from Cross Street Chapel. Much of the discussion focussed on terminology, which Jane described as a major source of conflict. Is ‘faith’ belief, or just one’s own deepest experience? Is ‘spirituality’ a valid concept, particularly for Humanists and atheists? Jane noted that our differences here mirror those in the American Unitarian movement. Is ‘emotion’ too religious a concept for Humanists to trust? A debate on whether Unitarianism is a religion and whether Unitarians are Christians revealed the great variety of beliefs in different Unitarian chapels. Christ is an inspiration but not a saviour through sacrifice on the cross. Finally, a question on whether Unitarianism is a ‘liberal religion’ led to the valuable reflection that the gravest failure of liberals is that they have not called extremists to account or adequately challenged intolerance.

9 June:
International Humanism – Jim Herrick, Humanist writier

Jim opened with a definition of humanism from Liberia: Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximisation of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. It advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expansion of an open society, standing for human rights and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognises human beings to be part of nature and holds that all values – be they religious, ethical, social, or political – have their source in human nature, experience and culture.

Jim proposed two reasons for the importance of International humanism. First, globalisation means that we are all inextricably linked – in multiple ways that was not the case even fifty years ago. A second reason is that humanist values are universal values, he did not accept the multicultural argument that different values are appropriate to different cultures.

Jim then took us on a tour of humanism in different parts of the world, starting with some quotations from Ancient China and India. He then focussed on Europe, distinguishing between northern Europe where there is a stress on humanist values, and southern Europe where there is an anti-clerical tradition and a stress on separation of church and state. Both traditions oppose the attempts of Roman Catholicism to exercise political influence. In Norway, the Humanist Association has 73,000 members in a population of 5 million. One reason is the coming of age ceremony – a series of lessons in citizenship and morality and a ceremony in a public place – a rite of passage. The Netherlands has the largest humanist organisation and full acceptance of humanism in society – there is a humanist university, widespread humanist counselling as well as freedom for gays and lesbians and support for voluntary euthanasia. Belgium and Germany provide ethical non-religious education: in the latter, people are required to pay a tax to the churches but those who object can now pay the equivalent to a humanist organisation. France has a secular constitution, strong free thought organisations, and passionate debate about the wearing of religious dress in public. Italy has a strong Catholic culture, and much debate about the political power of the Vatican State. Jim described the situation in Poland as ‘oppressive Catholicism’, with a similar situation in Orthodox Romania.

India has a secular, democratic constitution. Science is important as a key element in economic growth, and there is a strong Rationalist Association. Nehru was a Humanist, and M N Roy was a freedom fighter dedicated to ‘direct action’ against poverty and ignorance and a pioneer of ‘radical humanism’. The Atheist Centre in South India maintains this tradition as well as promoting atheism. The caste system is illegal but widespread: humanists, in particular Babu, are fighting hard to remove it. A recent improvement is the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

The USA is the scene of ‘terrific struggles’ over creationism and gay marriage. Its Humanist Association was established in 1941 and is expanding, with an atheist bus advertising campaign in Washington. The Council for Secular Humanism in Buffalo is ‘the most entrepreneurial humanist organisation in the world’, promoting free thought particularly in schools and on university campuses. President Obama is known for his willingness to embrace non-religious as well as religious groups.Humanism is not widespread or influential in Africa but there are two areas where it is taking root – Uganda with its three humanist schools supported by European humanists (including GMH) and Nigeria where a humanist movement is trying to combat a wide range of inhuman practices. But the obstacles are many, including the antagonism to homosexuality (originally imported from Europe and now sustained by American evangelists).

Australia has a Council of Australian Humanist Societies, though only about 1,000 members. But there is growing secularity and campaigns for separation of church and state and for humanism in schools.

Jim concluded with two short quotations demonstrating why international humanism is important:
– My allegiance is to man. Locally to Nigerians; universally to humanity – the playwright Wole Soyinke
– My country is the world and my religion is to do good – Thomas Paine

Points arising in the extensive and wide-ranging discussion that followed included whether a secular state encouraged religion (cf USA), perhaps an established church was helpful for humanism. Humanism, and advocating gay rights, is dangerous in some Muslim countries. Buddhism has many forms, some not really ‘religious’. Jim knew nothing about the situation in Japan. There were several comments about the place of Humanism in education. Jim quite liked the idea of ‘practical humanism’ as in Norway, Belgium and The Netherlands.

14 July:
An Ethical Jury – led by Michael Imison, BHA Trustee and celebrant

Michael introduced the session, drawing on his paper circulated before the meeting, and then invited all participants who wished to do so to briefly describe a moral dilemma of which they had personal knowledge, after which the group selected two problems for detailed consideration.

We first considered the case of a woman who suddenly became very ill and was on life support for ten weeks before gradually coming out of a coma, during which she could hear people discussing her case and had been in considerable pain and discomfort. When asked if she wanted to be put on life support if similar circumstances happened again, she said no. However, her husband said yes on the grounds that as she had come round once she could do so again. She did go into a coma again, and the doctors acted in accordance with her husband’s wishes. The majority view was that this was wrong. The actual outcome (disclosed after the discussion) was that she again came out of the coma and over three months made a full recovery.

We then considered a non-believer who married a Catholic and agreed that their children should be brought up as Catholics. He became a governor at their school but did not like the way religion was taught there. So he obtained permission to talk to the class (8-10 year-olds), during which he made statements contrary to what some of the children were told by their parents. In particular, he said he did not believe in god, which some of the children took to mean ‘there is no god’. Some parents complained, and the episode caused much disagreement at the school and in the family: his governor role was questioned since his talk was seen as contrary to the ethos of the school. However, the majority of our jury supported his actions.

There was time for brief discussion of a third problem. A lay preacher lost his faith, though his preaching continued to give comfort to the congregation, the vast majority of whom found it very helpful. However, he eventually found he could not continue and therefore resigned. The majority view was sympathetic to this action: one suggestion was to find some other worthwhile activity which accorded with his beliefs.

In the final debriefing session, there was general agreement that the ethical jury was a worthwhile process and strong support for holding an ethical jury ourselves at a future meeting.

11 Aug:
Topics from a Hat – short presentations from members on a topic of their choice

We enjoyed a lively discussion of the following issues:
1. Judith Lacy: When I was a child I asked my mother what a Humanist was. She replied: ‘someone who believes in humans’. Was she right?
2. Honor Donnelly: Can we really determine our own lives (as individuals)?
3. Chris Neilson: If a local group is started near you, what would you expect it to do?
4. Rob Hanlon: What should Humanists do when the rest of the planet are ‘celebrating’ religious festivals?
5. Robin Grinter: Women and Humanism
6: John Coss: should we protest the Pope and, if so, how?

8 Sep:
Objections to Humanism – Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA

Andrew attracted our largest audience for some time to a thought-provoking talk, using quotations from leading Humanist thinkers to provide effective answers to the most usual objections to Humanism:
a) it diminishes the dignity of humanity – well, we just aren’t the apex of creation, but this does not make us bestial, and is the picture really so diminished?
b) Humanists can have no morals – this is a false and dim view of humanity, and anyway, morality is not from god, and we don’t need religion for it.
c) it is too dry, too rational – science IS the way to understand much, and science can be an inspiration, but it isn’t the way to explain everything.
d) it is a secular religion – Humanism is a descriptive word applied retrospectively (from about the late 19th century) to a set of values and beliefs that are at least as old as recorded history. Humanists accept naturalism and use scientific method to gain knowledge, accept that this one life is all we know we have, and that morality arises out of human nature and culture. They believe what is right is what promotes human welfare and fulfillment, and that we can and should create meaning and purpose in life.
e) a myth of human progress – look cautiously on the bright side, would you rather be a medieval peasant?
f) the pointlessness of it all – do not fear death, and what do you mean ‘is this ALL there is?’ In life, the meaning comes from living.

In the discussion that followed, it was suggested that ‘there must be an after-life’ was the biggest objection to Humanism, despite the Humanist view that we can hope to live on through the stuff we have done and in the thoughts of those we have known. Perhaps too the sticking point for many religionists is the thought that there has to be a designer. Others fall back on the ‘first cause’ argument. And some people seem unable to give up on the belief in God despite not following the practices of their religion. It was pointed out that Deism was different from theism in not requiring an intervening god. It was also argued that people are often unable to answer questions about how ‘heaven’ works, so perhaps the concept is essentially just a comfort. And it was pointed out that even people with faith need to think rationally about many ethical issues, as religious ethics can become fossilised, and we should be positive about Humanist ethics.

13 Oct:
An Expectation of God – Penelope Blatchford, member of Leicester Secular Society

Pennie began with the characteristics of a personal god – a loving creator who is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, with whom it is possible to have a relationship, and who ensures the survival of his creations even while disciplining them. She then asked if the almost universal belief in such a god is evidence of its existence, or is there another explanation – does an expectation of God arise from characteristics of human parenting that differ from the parenting of our non-human ancestors? These characteristics include: physical and emotional separation normally determined by the mother; stress in mother and infant when separated is treated as normal, so its consequences are disregarded; medium/long-term separation does not result in the death of the infant; and survival to reproductive success does not depend on the emotional and physical fitness of the mother. They are supported by language, tool use, and child rearing practices, and lead to prolonged stress in mother and infant. The mother is emotionally and physically unavailable before the child is ready for this, which results in separation anxiety disorder: recurrent distress when separated from the object of attachment; persistent and excessive worrying about losing the object of attachment or that some event will lead to separation from it; and excessive fear about being alone without the object of attachment. The ‘promises’ of religion address these issues: God is always there, always listening, always hears you; God is unchanging, God never lies; only your own thoughts and behaviour will result in your ‘separation’ from God – and this will never happen if you are ‘good’. If there is no separation, there is no separation anxiety.

Pennie summarised her argument as follows. Dependent infants do not survive without a mother, so survival is evidence that this mother exists. The more potent, knowledgeable and attentive the mother is, the more likely the infant is to survive. No human mother is infallible, so the infant feels threatened and seeks to reduce stress. Religion supplies a form of stress reduction that applies throughout life. Is this why belief in God is almost universal?

It was pointed out in the discussion that followed that belief in god is multifaceted – there is more than one explanation for old time gods, and monotheism only developed around 7000 years ago. God must be man-made to have a gender, so as we all need a mother, why God ‘the father’? – Pennie thought there were cultural reasons in patriarchal societies. Other aspects of human parenting were mentioned – a long period of dependency, and the ‘naked ape’ having no fur for an infant to hang on to. Perhaps we should give higher priority to nurturing. If we didn’t separate mother and infant so early, this might reduce reliance on substitutes including religion. When asked if good parenting led to less need for God, Pennie felt more research was needed. The distinction between private faith and organised religion was also raised – the latter often being a political tool. Pennie’s view was that private thoughts are no concern of others, but she hoped her hypothesis would help counter arguments for public religion. (Note: this is a link to a paper by Pennie on this topic on Humanist Life: http:www.humanistlife.org.uk/2009/12/an-expectation-of-god )

10 Nov:
World population issues – Roger Martin, Chair of the Optimum Population Trust

Roger began his thought-provoking presentation by saying that his parents were devout Anglicans but he lost his own faith at University and for many years was a Humanist. He now considers himself to be an Ecoist, which he described as focusing on all life not just human beings – he can have a personal relationship with nature although it doesn’t have a relationship back. His key message was that the planet is finite so nothing physical can grow indefinitely, including the number of people and what they consume. So growth will stop in some way, per capita consumption before population. Roger showed how the world’s human population increased slowly to about 250m by 1AD, then reached around 500m by 1600, 1b by around 1800, 2b by 1935 and 4b by 1975. It is currently approaching 7b and is projected to reach 9b by 2050. The increase reflects substantial reduction in death rates, especially at the younger ages, not yet adequately matched by falling birth rates. He pointed out the ethical issues in reproduction in excess of replacement as to the burden on the planet, with more people reducing the share of others. The impact on the environment is a function of population numbers, consumption per head, and technology – current consumption is using up the stock of eg oil, and current technology means we will run out of planet. But numbers are critical: David Attenborough has said that he never sees a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people and would become impossible to solve with more.

With current rates of growth the population in several countries would grow dramatically over the next 100 years, in Kenya for example from 41m in 2010 to 530m in 2110. Roger pointed out that this can end sooner – and humanely – with contraception widely available, leading to fewer births, or later – in nature’s way – by more deaths and a population crash.

Funding for family planning has stagnated while demand increased, so the proportion of needs met has fallen. This is partly due to ‘silo’ government, with contraception promoted for health reasons rather than because of the need for population control. The pressing need is to liberate funders from the taboo on discussing overpopulation, which persists despite it being a driver of all the other development issues.

Roger blamed the religious right, led by the Pope, and the liberal left opposed to rich white people ‘blaming the victims’. He had more sympathy for the position of some feminists, who felt that some policies in the past were men instrumentalising women’s bodies, and opposed what they saw as coercion (which OPT opposes too). This despite some 700k deaths per annum in childbirth, and around 40% of pregnancies worldwide being unwanted, with most of these unintended. He was particularly critical of Humanae Vitae issued by Pope Paul VI in 1965, which maintained church opposition to contraception despite a 1965 report commissioned by John XXIII which was strongly in favour of it.

There are some positive developments. Population stabilisation policies are working in Iran and Thailand – through education and publicity, with no coercion. In Iran, people are required to attend a course on relationships when they marry, which was surprisingly enlightened. A problem in Muslim countries is that you cannot suggest that Allah will not provide. A recent YouGov poll in Britain found that 70% were seriously concerned with the impact of population size on the environment. England in particular is seriously overcrowded, and the sustainable population based on our own natural resources may only be around 20m.

Roger described the aims of OPT as to:
– break the taboo on talking about the population issue – slogan: two is enough
– gain acceptance that having more than 2 children affects everyone (but they are against coercion –
reproductive rights are absolute)
– get reproductive rights balanced with social and environmental responsibilities
– persuade political parties to adopt policies to stabilise and then reduce population
They advocate education to bring about culture shift, and consider that men are responsible for much of the problem. They propose a Minister for Population, perhaps Francis Maude or Nick Clegg in the current government, to coordinate inputs from all over – currently no one has responsibility. They favour balanced migration but acknowledge this is hard to achieve. Internationally, they aim to spread knowledge and as a first priority urge meeting the unmet need for contraception. Roger concluded by inviting our members to join Population Matters (the new name for the group from January 2011).
The discussion that followed covered a wide range of issues, including the psychological problems of small family size, especially if the attention of several adults is focused on a single child with no siblings or cousins. Roger said there was anecdotal evidence that the one-child policy in China was now supported, after initial resistance: awareness of the widescale erosion of Chinese farmland was relevant. In response to another question, he doubted if technological change would be sufficient to address the environmental issues. He agreed that a switch to vegetarianism, or at least to eating less meat, would help. Educating men and empowering women to take control of their own fertility were vital. In the developing world, as women gain more control over their lives, they want fewer children: governments tend to be happy as long as economic growth exceeds population growth. A final comment related to the problems of an ageing population, with the need for enough young people to support the elderly. Roger felt we should look to the fit elderly to help (is 70 the new 50?)

8 Dec:
Special General Meeting, followed by group consultation on Multi Faith Spaces – Symptoms and Agents of Religious and Social Change (a research project of the Manchester Architecture Research Centre) with the lead researchers

The SGM was quorate, with 14 members and 6 non-members present. The resolution to amend the constitution by reducing the quorum for general meetings from 20% to 10% of the membership was discussed at length. The possibility of proxy and/or postal voting was raised, and will be considered by the committee. An amendment to the resolution so that the quorum would be reduced to 15% of the membership was proposed and received overwhelming support, and the amended resolution was adopted nem con. Consequently, the quorum for general meetings is now 15% of the membership.

Multi Faith Spaces – Symptoms and Agents of Religious and Social Change is a research project of the Manchester Architecture Research Centre. Dr Ralf Brand (principal investigator) and the Rev Dr Terry Biddington (theological consultant) carried out a consultation with us as part of the project. Multi faith spaces (MFS) are an attempt to ‘accommodate religious diversity’, and have been created in a variety of public buildings and areas as well as Universities. An example would be ‘a shared building within which different religions and denominations would have their own sacred spaces, alongside collective secular facilities’. Ralf stressed that the project was for people of all faiths and none, and used the concept of ‘shared spirituality’ as a basis for Humanists to relate to MSF.

We split into small groups to go through a number of questions provided by the researchers, with the following conclusions, which are in each case written in a format that includes the question:
– the ‘reason for the development of MFS’ appear to be a response to increasing religious diversity
– as Humanists in general feel indifference to what is primarily a religious initiative with no clear invitation to others to become involved, the only respect in which ‘we regard MFS as a positive development’ is the welcome MFS appears to offer to non-religious people
– we do not feel that MFS would serve any Humanist ‘need for contemplation’ very well, because the ethos would inevitably be religious
– in that case a ‘good MFS’ would need to be free from ‘religious paraphernalia’ and secularised!
– we felt that we do not need MFS to ‘expand our knowledge of religion and spirituality’. That needs conversation and social interaction, not quiet. We are in any case better informed about religions than religious people are about Humanism – and not all Humanists recognise a spiritual dimension
– we agree that MFS and other provisions for different faiths do indeed ‘show that Britain is a tolerant society’. Even when we as Humanists disagree with religion, we support people’s rights to their beliefs and practices, and this is a general British practice
– we could not recognise any ‘new social phenomenon’ in the development of MFS, unless this represents a further reduction in prejudice
– we do not feel that the creation of MFS ‘encourages greater engagement between religions’, because MFS is not about dialogue. In any case this dialogue takes place in other venues.
– we feel that MFS could be the ‘thin end of the wedge towards a greater re-spiritualism of society’, but we are not particularly happy about this.
– our understanding as Humanists of ‘sacred space’ is that this is a religious concept that we do not go along with. The equivalent Humanist concept is ‘special places’ in our individual experiences


12 Jan:
Rules for living – Barry Thorpe
Barry opened his talk by reflecting that all societies evolve a set of rules for living that provide a morality for their members. Humanists and atheists need to develop a morality because if nothing else it provides them with a basis for criticising the immoral actions such as persecution and genocide undertaken by many Churches and religions. He based his talk on a number of extracts:

– ‘the true Ten Commandments’ taken from Exodus 34 (not the ‘standard’ ten in Exodus 20). He pointed out that while many of these rules are common to most cultures, the first four relate to a particular culture, approve of slavery, treat wives as chattels and deny free speech.

– the ten commandments of Solon, the 6thCentury BCE Athenian statesman: Barry noted that all are applicable to society today because they are directly concerned with morality independent of particular cultures. They are almost a written constitution of democratic rights. Barry added to Solon’s list other Greek moral values or rules such as ‘nothing in excess’, ‘know thyself’ and ‘treat others as you expect to be treated’.

– a list of ‘socialist Sunday School commandments’ from Victorian England.

– an account of Milgram’s experiments, where volunteers in an experiment to assess the impact of punishment on learning apply electric shocks under the direction of an experimenter to a learner (actually an actor who receives no shocks) every time he makes a mistake. Contrary to all predictions a large number of volunteers applied increasingly high levels of shock until the learner screams in pain and then collapses, apparently dead. Most people do as they are told rather than question authority and break the rules.

– some non-religious rules for living from Richard Carrier and ‘thinking about ethics’ from the BHA.

Barry ended his talk with a comment on the importance of recent neurological research that has revealed different areas of brain activity for emotions and for logical reasoning, and the interlocking of various brain processes that affects our relationships with others. (Note: the paper on which Barry’s talk was based will be made available on the GMH website, and includes links to some of the source material.)

A lively discussion raised the following points:
– do we need any Humanist rules for living if they are all going to get out of date?
– do we need intellectual justification, or is common sense a good enough guide?
– there is a need for overarching principles and then more local rules for particular societies
– all societies need rules for social harmony and peaceful co-existence, to control our tendencies to violence
– the environmental crisis shows the need for moral guidelines
– morality is the promotion of human flourishing
– all morality is relative
– morality is fragile, as shown by acceptance of Nazi policies in the 1930s by most German people,
by ‘Lord of the Flies’ and in the thinking of Nietzsche
– if survival is at stake, morality takes a back seat
– rapid change threatens our identities and lessens our sense of meaning and purpose
– gross inequality threatens social peace and morality
– we should also consider the list of updated ‘neo-Humanist’ principles developed by Paul Kurtz, and the Ten Moral Rules offered by Bernard Gert as ‘a new rational foundation for morality’

9 Feb:
Assisted Dying: current legal issues and politics – Richard Scorer, solicitor and former Board member of Dignity in Dying

Richard began his excellent analysis with the legal background. The Suicide Act still means that assisting suicide is a crime, punishable with up to 14 years imprisonment. This creates appalling dilemmas for those with relatives suffering pain in terrible illnesses – great risks of potential prosecution. It is argued that it leads to unmonitored, covert euthanasia, perhaps 2-3,000 cases a year – likened to back street abortions.

Dignity in Dying proposes an exemption (as in Oregon). Within strict legal safeguards, mentally competent adults suffering unbearably in terminal illness could exercise the choice of timing and manner of death with assistance. This would be a decision they make themselves, not a medical judgment. The exemption would not apply to people who suffer from catastrophic but not life-threatening injuries – many of whom recover and lead satisfying lives. Assisted dying in some form is legal in a number of jurisdictions including Belgium, Holland and Oregon. The knowledge that you have the choice is in itself liberating.

Richard then considered two important cases. Diane Pretty suffered from motor neurone disease which meant she could not take her own life. She wanted her husband to be able to assist her without risk of prosecution and took her case to court under the Human Rights Act. However, she lost her case: the courts refused to acknowledge that the European Convention on Human Rights provided a right to die – a huge setback. Debbie Purdey, who has multiple sclerosis, was more successful. She sought clarification from the Director of Public Prosecutions as to which, if any, actions her husband might take to help her travel to Switzerland to die in a Dignitas clinic would lead to his prosecution. The court required the DPP to issue appropriate guidelines. The final guidelines clarify the distinction between compassionate acts to assist someone to end their own life which are unlikely to be prosecuted, and cases which will be prosecuted. But this is the end of the road for the legal route, further progress will need an Act of Parliament. Two attempts to get a Bill through the House of Lords have failed (with total opposition from the Bishops) and The End of Life Assistance Bill was recently rejected by the Scottish Parliament.

Opponents of assisted dying argue that there is a slippery slope which can lead to pressure on sufferers to feel a ‘duty to die’, and that the scope of any law would gradually be widened, drawing on the example of abortion which is now almost available on demand. But actual experience where assisted dying is legal, eg in Holland and Oregon, does not follow this pattern. Another argument is the availability of palliative care, but this is a lottery because it varies so much. There needs at least to be a legal entitlement to it, though this is very problematic.

Finally, Richard considered the political aspect, where he was pessimistic about progress. Public support is very high: polls consistently show that 80-85% would support a change in the law. But the 15% opposed are vocal and well organised, including religious bodies. Richard specifically mentioned the growing influence of the Catholic Church, ready to use the particularly offensive argument that suffering can be a good thing. The medical profession is generally opposed, and there are vocal opponents and supporters within all parties in Parliament – with a surprising number of Tory libertarians in favour, including Boris Johnson. Richard ended with the conjecture that it could take 20 years to change the law: in an era of spending cuts there will be a reluctance to legislate, to avoid being accused of ‘killing off the older people’.

The discussion raised the ‘double effect’ strategy of over-prescription of pain killers or withholding of treatment for heart attacks. This undoubtedly takes place, but is it properly regulated? A member who is a hospital consultant (and chair of his hospital’s medical ethics committee) said that the duty to save life is balanced by a recognised procedure of ‘do not attempt resuscitation’. Where there is clear justification, further medication is often not given, after everything has been tried and relatives’ permission secured.

It was pointed out that Advance Decisions (formerly living wills) are legally valid. You cannot mandate ‘mercy killing’, but you can specify medical treatments which you do not consent to, should you lose the capacity to make decisions about your treatment in the future, and this is legally enforceable . Guidance is available from Compassion in Dying (the charity associated with Dignity in Dying).

One member described his experience of facing prosecution when he and his terminally ill wife saved up painkillers until there was a lethal dose which he left her on her own to take, then waited an hour before contacting their doctor: only medical evidence that she was close to death saved him from prosecution.

Other points made included: the Lockerbie case puts medical prognosis in question; no-one who has helped someone travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland has been prosecuted; can assisted dying be tarnished as being ‘cost effective’; the possibility of some kind of tribunal to ‘authorise’ euthanasia where someone has expressed a persistent desire to die; the contrast between our mercy killing of animals in agony and our treatment of human beings.

9 Mar:
Humanism: a historical survey – Robin Grinter, GMH Vicechair

Robin reviewed the development of Humanist thinking in Western Europe from the Greeks to the present, recognising that there are elements of Chinese and Indian thinking, for example, that can also be seen as Humanist. He first considered origins in Ancient Greece, highlighting the contributions of Aristarchus, Archimedes, Protagoras, Socrates, Aristotle, and Epicurus. There followed a period of theological certainty (c300-1400CE) during which Greek thought was carried forward by Islamic scholars. Robin’s survey of subsequent developments was presented under four main themes:

A) rational explanation and scientific thinking:
– the European Renaissance – Leonardo, Erasmus, Michelangelo
– the dawn of modern science – Copernicus, Galileo, Newton
– scientific method develops – Francis Bacon
– rational explanation extends to the nature of life – Charles Darwin

B) freedom of thought and secularism:
– rational not religious explanation – opposed by religious thinking at every stage
– 18th Century Enlightenment – Diderot, Voltaire, Thomas Paine
– the theory of evolution
– John Stuart Mill – philosopher of Free Thought
– organised freethinking: NSS-1866; Ethical Union-1896 (BHA in 1967); Rationalist Press Association-1899

C) non-religious morality:
– being good without God – social groups need altruism and laws to survive, selfishness is damaging
– Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill – philosophers of secular morality
– Abraham Maslow – a founder of humanistic psychology

D) human rights:
– declarations of human rights – American and French Revolutions; UN Declaration of Universal Rights
– John Locke – empiricist and liberal philosopher
– Thomas Paine – radical author and pamphleteer
– Mary Wollstonecraft – writer and philosopher
– Bentham and Mill – advocates of women’s rights
– steps to equality in Britain – universal suffrage, feminist thinking and action, equality legislation

Robin concluded with brief comments on: (a) the impact of related developments such as the printing press, the industrial and technological revolutions, and political reform; (b) the contribution of women to Humanism; and (c) the value and responsibility of being a Humanist in the 21st Century.

Points raised in the discussion that followed included:
– these developments mostly apply only in the Western world, they are still not yet universally available
– in the past, poverty stimulated a ‘need for God’ that did much to prevent Humanism developing
– Quakers, Unitarians and other non-conformists were influential in developing ‘Humanist-like’ thinking
– freedom of thought was stimulated by the availability of the Bible in the vernacular, and the Reformation
– other significant figures include the Levellers, Luther, Marx and Sartre


Exploring Humanism meetings

These meetings began in February 2008 and have been held at various locations, usually on the fourth Tuesday of the month (with no meeting in July, August or December). Most of these meetings in 2010/11 were held in the upstairs function room of The Waldorf in Gore Street, Manchester. There is often a session on current campaigning issues at the end of the meeting.


23 April The Six Ways of Atheism (new logical disproofs of the existence of God) – discussion led by the author, Geoffrey Berg

25 May Update on development of our Introductory Course, led by course presenters Robin Grinter and Anna Whitehead

22 June Membership retention and recruitment – discussion led by Dominic Waters

21 Sep Discussion of fundamental terms such as ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’ and ‘Humanism’ – to be followed up by producing a GMH booklet outlining the range of meanings attached to relevant terms in the context of Humanism

26 Oct The Humanist attitude to suffering – discussion based on a paper written by Denis Johnston of Suffolk Humanists and Secularists

23 Nov Discussion of Humanism in action – Humanism as a way of life, by Vikas Gora (from IHEU website)

25 Jan BHA consultation with local groups – Working Better Together

22 Feb Census campaign – planning meeting

22 Mar GMH Introductory Course – review of developments re Sessions 1-5 led by course presenters Robin Grinter and Anna Whitehead