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.

2011:

13 April:
Annual General Meeting followed by Muhammad, his life and work – Guy Otten, GMH Chair

The AGM was quorate, with sixteen members present. The Committee Report and the Treasurer’s Report were adopted nem con, as were the resolution submitted by the Committee proposing that GMH adopt Uganda Humanist Schools Trust (UK) as its nominated charity for 2011/12 and the Committee’s proposal that full annual subscriptions for the year to 31 March 2012 should be the same as for the previous year (£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; John Brown and Steve Ratcliff committee members.

Guy opened his talk by asserting his right to discuss Islam and Muhammad freely, including making any criticisms he felt were warranted. He gave a number of reasons why the subject is important: billions of people are influenced – Guy would say misled – by Muhammad being held up as a model; jihad is a real threat; the absolutism of Islam is a threat to freedom and the struggle of ideas; and Islamic taboos conceal rotten ideas. However, Guy stressed there were important distinctions between Muslims as people and Islam, Islam and Islamism, prejudice and legitimate analysis and criticism, and Islamophobia and fear of Islam, and acknowledged that most Muslims live a peaceful and reasonably law abiding life DESPITE the role model of Muhammad’s life and what is said in the Qur’an.

Guy then presented a brief biography of Muhammad. He was born in Mecca in 570CE, orphaned at a young age and brought up by an uncle, and married Khadija (aged 40) in 595. He received his first revelation in 610 and began to preach in 613, though his message was not liked by his own tribe. After his uncle and Khadija both died in 619 came the ‘night journey to heaven’ via Jerusalem and in 622 the Hijra – Muhammad and his followers fled to Medina – the start of the Islamic calendar. In the same year he consummated his marriage to A’isha (aged 9). There followed a period of raiding and warfare, culminating in the conquest of Mecca and the rest of Arabia in 630. Muhammad then turned his attention to the Byzantine empire, before dying in 632.

Guy next commented on his sources, including the Qur’an itself (the ‘dictated word of God via the angel Gabriel’) and the Hadith (traditional sayings of or about Muhammad), and their shortcomings. Much of the Qur’an draws on Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian sources. It claims itself as ‘proof’, though not everyone was taken in at the time. It contains both nonsense and contradictory remarks, such as Surah 5.98: ‘Know that Allah is severe in punishment and that Allah is oft-forgiving, most merciful’. And there are inconsist-encies, hence the need for Abrogation – taking a later verse as cancelling out an earlier verse – but why does God need this? Muhammad’s cosmology was that of his time, but if an all-knowing Allah had been the author of the Qur’an would he not have known better? And several convenient revelations favoured Muhammad personally (eg he was allowed more than the four wives permitted by the Qur’an).

In the second part of his talk, Guy turned to Muhammad’s character and actions, noting that Islamic morality originated in the hard environment of the desert: every tribe for itself, the ‘macho’ warrior, and no Golden Rule – outsiders were seen as fair game. While acknowledging the decency of the overwhelming majority of Muslims despite this, Guy wondered if it was the basis of present day Jihadism. He then gave examples of Muhammad’s actions typical of those of a war lord, highway robber, torturer, charlatan, religious cleanser, assassin and imperialist. Muhammad also frequently resorted to deception to advance his cause, and encouraged his followers to do the same – this was apart from his fraudulent claim to be speaking the words of God. Guy gave several examples of killing, rapine and pillage initiated by Muhammad – the usual pattern being to kill the adult men and enslave the women and children, with property shared out among his followers.

As well as major moral defects and antisocial traits, such as those he had just described, Guy argued that Muhammad was probably mentally ill or had an organic brain disorder. Even during his lifetime, some people thought he was mad. Guy gave examples of grandiose delusions and deceptions attributed to Muhammad, including: ‘The very first thing that Allah ever created was my soul’ and ‘Were it not for you (O Muhammad) I would not have created the universe’. Muhammad also displayed other features of narcissism and also many features of temporal lobe epilepsy. Other possible diagnoses were obsessive compulsive disorder, schizoid and schizotypal disorders, bipolar disorder and acromegaly.

In conclusion, Guy questioned the suitability of Muhammad as a role model, and argued that Islam is a totalitarianism which with the defeat of fascism and communism is now the main challenger to secular liberal democracy. Yet multiculturalists and the politically correct ally themselves with islamists and jihadists to protect Islam from justifiable and vitally necessary exposure and criticism.

There was only time for a brief discussion. The wide spectrum of approaches in Islam was stressed – from the Wahibi to Sufism – and a speaker claimed that there were very few ‘real’ Muslims. The evidence suggested that the Qur’an was written by multiple authors in different languages and put together some 80 years after the death of Muhammad, and the Hadith were written to suit the caliph of the time. It was pointed out that even in modern Islam, apostasy was often equated to defection and treason. One speaker was concerned with the dangers from ghettoisation of different cultures, which prompted a comment on the problems arising from faith schools.

11 May:
The challenges facing multi-cultural and multi-faith Britain – Burjor Avari, Principal Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University, with Robin Grinter, GMH Vicechair

Robin set the framework by rejecting David Cameron’s misrepresentation of multiculturalism and by justify-ing the importance of a true understanding of multiculturalism as an essential element of integration. He argued that it has two forms: a very visible element in the diversity in our society, and a strategy for res-ponding to this diversity – the recognition that this diversity enriches our society and potentially strengthens it, provided we welcome and appreciate it as a celebration of differences. It entered education in the 1970s in the hope that future generations would value cultural diversity but unfortunately was seldom taken up in the ‘all-white’ schools where it was arguably most needed, and the inaccurate and demeaning stereotypes of other cultures which developed at a time of assumed European cultural supremacy remain powerful. Hence diversity is seen by many as a source of potential danger, with multiculturalism represented as breeding extreme opinions, tolerating segregation and accepting practices such as honour killings, forced marriages and genital mutilation. This is a fiction, but is used to justify removing funding from and stopping engagement with suspect Islamic organisations, violent or non-violent. These attempts to strengthen our society by suppressing unacceptable expression of differences may in some instances be justified, but the likely outcome is to alienate two million citizens. As a society, we should acknowledge that this nonsense stems from blaming British Muslims for hatreds that may have developed in their communities but reflect a bitterness within the Islamic world about Western interference in their affairs. We should also recognise the unacceptable level of economic insecurity among minority communities resulting from decades of discrimin-ation leading to alienation and hopelessness. In addition, the conditions for racism are being recreated by the current drive to reduce immigration.

Robin recognised one positive element – the need for a better grasp of ‘Britishness’ – giving less attention to the differences in our society and more to strengthening the similarities. He suggested that this involved qualities like fair play, compassion, tolerance and scepticism about extreme views of any kind, and argued that it should be grounded in the principle of Human Rights based on the equal value of all human beings, tracing this back to John Locke, Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstencraft and John Stuart Mill. With national values inspired by this principle, genuine respect for others would expand tolerance into whole-hearted appreciation of differences within our society, while thinking of ourselves as global citizens would extend our sense of compassion to encompass the whole of humanity. Despite obstacles such as the class system, this is what we should be working for. The culture that emerges would be different, richer and better than all the units contributing to it. Multiculturalism is an essential and active contribution to that better society.

At this point, Burjor took over, stressing that he was neither a philosopher nor a theologian. He equated religion to some concept of God at the centre of things. He appreciated that Humanism had some useful insights and as a student of history was interested in how it originated. He suggested it developed in the late middle ages in Europe as a reaction to the church – alongside the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and Darwin – stimulated by developments in education, including the nurturing of critical faculties and questioning of holy books (some parts of the bible are absolute nonsense). Education led to questioning of religious rituals and practices – many were seen as useless or harmful, and following them an insult to human intelligence. Burjor suggested that Humanism sought the pearls within the rubbish. Nevertheless, there was something to be said in defence of traditional religion. People need some form of anchor – without it they can be lost. The majority of the world’s population need this (in particular the less educated) and it leads naturally to the idea of God. In considering why this is nearly universal, Burjor suggested that in much of the world poverty was a key factor. Poor people were sustained by belief in religion and could not be expected to embrace Humanism: many accept divine intervention as an explanation of disasters such as tsunamis. The western world was richer and highly educated, and this was why it was the least religious.

Burjor then turned to the positive aspects of religion and pointed out that the first expression of profound ideas was in works of faith. Positive aspects of particular religions included:
Buddhism – how to detach yourself from this world of delusions, compassion
Christianity – concepts of love and mercy
African religions – the memory of ancestors
Islam – community, togetherness – in India it appealed to outcastes and gave them dignity
Hinduism – meditation
Sikhism – egalitarianism
Judaism – obedience – to God, your elders, your teachers (books at the heart of Jewish culture)
Zoroastrianism – principles of Goodness and Evil – humans have free will to choose between them

Burjor was himself a Zoroastrian and could not leave this behind even if he became a Humanist. He thought all faiths could provide a sound foundation for good living. In Britain, we should have a secular society but not be anti religion, similar to what was advocated by Nehru for India. This allows every faith (and non-faith} to have a space in the arena. It does not favour any particular religion but provides support to people to practice their own religion. All can then discuss and dialogue with one another.

These presentations stimulated a wide ranging and extensive discussion. Education was a major theme. Faith schools indoctrinate religion and culture and so foster segregation – basic ethics should be the commonality taught in schools. Burjor thought that confessional education was completely wrong, and the good results of many religious schools were achieved by selecting pupils. Robin stressed the value of Humanism in RE, ie education ABOUT religion. A member identified local multi-faith meetings in schools and churches as a positive element of multiculturalism. Others drew attention to various negative aspects of particular religions. One speaker thought we should be worried by what people practice rather than the texts, and another felt people should be able to practice their religion as long as they observed the law. A problem here is that with Sharia and Jewish courts there is more than one law. Burjor thought Sharia courts were permitted in the UK because they operate in a quick and decisive manner and participants may feel more comfortable with them. They only have limited jurisdiction – re family disputes. Would there be more tension in the end by insisting on only one law? Tolerance was seen as a crucial issue – several speakers stressed that there were limits, in particular how much intolerance can be tolerated? Robin suggested drawing the line via Human Rights. A problem here is that for Islam this may mean something quite different, ie as subject to Sharia law. Burjor thought that most Muslims accept that the law of the land should be obeyed. Do we share some of the blame for recent developments?

8 June:
Tales from Death Row in Louisiana – DNA and innocence – Helen Middleton-Price, Director, Nowgen, A Centre for Genetics in Healthcare

Helen began her talk by giving a brief summary of her work helping to avoid miscarriages of justice for prisoners on Death Row in Louisiana, stressing that she was not a lawyer or social scientist; her expertise was in the actual science of DNA. Setting the scene, she showed that although China carries out by far the most executions with over 2000 in 2010, the USA was in 4th place with 46 executions, after Iran (252+) and North Korea (60+). There are currently around 3000 people on Death Row in the USA and each execution costs the state about $2.3m, or 3 times the cost of a 40 year jail sentence. Today, 34 states retain the death penalty, which is usually carried out by lethal injection. There was a moratorium in 2007-08, to consider if lethal injection was a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, which would have rendered it unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court ruled that it was not.

Afro-Americans are disproportionately present on Death Row, comprising 45% of inmates but only 13% of the population. In Louisiana, 90% of murder victims are black, but 75% of black Death Row inmates are convicted of killing white people. And the overwhelming majority of Death Row inmates are from poor backgrounds. The legal process itself appears to have more than one inherent racial bias too, particularly in the use of ‘Voir Dire’, a trial within a trial process to assess the suitability of jurors. Helen reckoned it was used to reduce the proportion of jurors who were black, and also that some potential jurors were struck off because they opposed the death penalty. A further problem arises because judges are publicly elected from the ranks of District Attorneys – to be elected they need to be seen as effective in securing convictions

Helen then gave examples of exonerations given at appeal as a result of DNA evidence and summarised the advances in DNA profiling since the mid 80’s. The apparently inordinate amount of time it took for the various stages of appeal was attributed to the need to demonstrate thoroughness, but this did not satisfy several members of the audience. Some problems with DNA evidence were also discussed, such as the technical difficulties, the lack of state-wide standards and the profusion of agencies involved.

Despite all the problems, 271 post-conviction exonerations have been achieved due to DNA evidence, although unfortunately 17 people were executed prior to being found innocent. Common themes in these cases included poverty, racial issues, misidentification, invalid forensics, inept defence and over-zealous police, which apparently led to false confessions in 25% of cases. On average, inmates had served around 13 years before being exonerated. One particular Alaskan inmate sought DNA testing for 8 years before his request was eventually granted. ‘Why does it take so long?’ was again asked, with one person pointing out that DNA testing only takes around a week to perform. Alaska is one of only six states that do not have a law granting post-conviction DNA testing, which the Courts originally ruled to be unconstitutional. Alaska appealed this decision and the Supreme Court ruled that convicts have no constitutional right to DNA evidence after they have been found guilty. This prompted audience comments that the legal system was ‘brutal and vindictive’ and that vengeance and punishment appeared to be the main motivators, rather than justice and rehabilitation. It was also suggested that another flaw in the system could be that DNA samples are not routinely taken from those charged with offences in the USA, whereas they are in the UK. This led to discussion of the ethics of maintaining a national DNA database – it was pointed out that the ECHR has directed that all DNA evidence of those found innocent should be destroyed.

Helen then discussed the case of John Thompson, convicted in 1985 aged 22 and not released until 2003 when it was discovered that DNA evidence had been deliberately withheld in order to secure his conviction. John went on to found ‘Resurrection after Exoneration’ to help support those suffering from the trauma of their DR experience. This tied into Helen’s work with the Innocence Project which operates from the Justice Centre in New Orleans.

Helen then turned to the ‘3 strikes and you’re out rule’ and gave some quite shocking examples, such as a double sentence of 25 years to life for shoplifting. It has been known for people to be sentenced for 10 or even 20 years hard labour for offences such as purse snatching or drink driving even though it has been shown that the 3 strikes rule has had a negligible impact on recidivism. At Angola prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a massive facility covering 18000 acres and containing 5000 prisoners, the ‘hard labour’ aspect is carried out using 19th Century tools: one audience member said that at least one multi-national company benefits from the fruits of this labour. Further apparent exploitation of the inmate population was shown in a video of the ‘Angola Prison Rodeo’ where inmates competed for cash prizes, or to see family; this drew obvious comparisons to the Roman Coliseum.

Not all Americans support the prison system: US Senator Jim Webb has called it a national disgrace and raised a Bill in 2009 to review the Federal Justice system. The USA with 5% of the world population has 25% of the prison population. Comparisons were made to Japan: with about 40% of the population of the USA it imprisons 71,000, compared to 2.3 million in the US. The political nature of the Supreme Court was also explored, particularly the fact that judges are appointed (more or less for life) by the President, which leads to a narrowness of Court decisions, usually by 5:4 majority along political lines.

Helen was asked about the future of DNA testing and what features can now be determined, such as race, gender etc. Testing can now be done within 24 hours, but there are still a number of practical problems to address. The high sensitivity of DNA testing could feasibly lead to injustice, as miniscule traces of DNA could have been left innocently, and it is important to remember that DNA testing is probabilistic by nature.

13 July:
Christian Zionism: the major obstacle to peace in the Middle East? – Hilda Reilly, author and member of Liverpool Humanist Group

Hilda explained that there are three basic types of Zionist: Jewish Religious, Christian, and Jewish Secular. They all call for the return of all Jews to Israel, but for varying reasons. Hilda provided a brief outline of the Christian Zionist rationale, which is that in order to bring on Armageddon (a pre-requisite for the second coming of Christ), all Jews must first return to Israel, and this should therefore be promoted. Hilda referenced Genesis and Ezekiel in support of this position and a member of the audience noted that God appeared to have promised an area much larger than just Israel to the Jews. Some historical events have also been interpreted as being supportive of the biblical prophecies, for example the original establishment of Israel and the subsequent conquest of the west bank, as well as various natural disasters and wars.

In the Christian Zionist ‘end time’ scenario, all deceased Christians, followed by all living and born again Christians, are ‘Raptured’, ie divinely swept into the sky out of harm’s way. The ‘AntiChrist’ then appears and rules the Earth for the next seven years before the battle of Armageddon, after which Christ begins his own 1000 year rule. The audience appeared bemused at how seriously some people actually take these ideas – 59% of Evangelical Christians in America believe in their literal truth and ‘signs’ of the imminent fulfilment of prophecy often make headline news in the US.

Hilda went on to give some of the history of Christian Zionism. It began in earnest in the 19th century with the missionary John Nelson Derby. Derby’s teachings directly influenced Christian fundamentalism and the emerging Evangelical movement in the U.S. The Tory MP, Lord Shaftesbury then translated Derby’s theological ideas into political strategy in order to further the interests of the British Empire. Shaftesbury proposed ‘a people with no country for a country with no people’ in support of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Other key figures were the Rev. William Hechler, Theodor Herzl and Lord Arthur Balfour – author of the 1917 Balfour Declaration in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, which eventually led to the creation of the state of Israel.

Since the mid 1970’s, Christian Zionists have been an organized political force in the US. After Jimmy Carter said that Palestinians deserved a right to their homeland, their support swung dramatically from Democrat to the Republican right, and an alliance was forged between the Christian Right and the Israeli lobby.

A number Christian Zionists gained political power or access to political leaders and policy makers during the Reagan era. The religious right was courted by the neo-cons and the Christian Zionists became more influential on the formulation of US policy towards Israel than Jewish Zionists, whom they substantially outnumber. Hilda gave examples of statements on Christian Zionist lines by Reagan himself, Jerry Falwell (fundamentalist Baptist minister), Pat Robertson (television evangelist and presidential candidate) and George W. Bush. Tom Delay (House majority leader under Bush) was another major figure with apocalyptic views. All this led to an unholy alliance between Christian Zionists, Israeli right wingers and US Neo-cons.

Hilda went on to give a quite disconcerting personal account of her stay with a Christian Zionist couple, Grant and Barbara, living in an Israeli settlement in the occupied territories. It was a strange tale which involved Grant visiting Palestinian areas regularly to plant cedars (in order to fulfil prophecy) and to try and convert Palestinians to Christianity, which led to him being accused of spying. Grant succeeded with one man, who as a result was arrested and beaten, while his whole family was ostracised and victimised by the local Muslim community – this was seen as a success story by Grant. The single-mindedness of these fundamentalists came across very strongly.

An audience member was horrified that this sort of stuff was actually believed – ‘surely people must realise that this is all just pure fantasy’. Others were surprised to hear that there were Christians in Palestine at all, though we were told this was mainly around Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The discussion also covered the financial incentives given to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and possible ways of resolving the Israel/ Palestine conflict. One speaker placed the blame squarely with Israel. It was felt that the solution must be a political one, utilising sanctions, financial boycotts and UN resolutions on Israel. The feasibility of a two-state solution was questioned.

10 Aug:
NO MEETING – scheduled meeting cancelled owing to prospect of riots in central Manchester

14 Sept:
Humanist ceremonies: hatches, matches and despatches – Jan Ferguson, Humanist celebrant

Jan started her talk by describing how she came to be a celebrant. When just 24, she had to deal with her mother’s death and the subsequent religious funeral service, which felt empty and devoid of meaning. Not being religious herself, she felt excluded, not part of the club, and angry – she thought it could have been done so much better. Assumptions had been made, nearest and dearest felt excluded, and what should have been an emotive service just left some mourners cold. Following this uncomfortable experience, a friend discussed Humanist celebrants with Jan and suggested she would be a good one. It was only then that Jan recognised herself as a Humanist and decided to look further into things. Humanist ceremonies appeared to provide the inclusiveness she had found lacking in religious ones, being based on an under-standing of our shared humanity, as opposed to sectarian, exclusive, super-natural, ‘faith’ based services, and seemed eminently sensible. After all, we are all born, live and love, experience happiness and sadness, and eventually die. Asked about the requisite qualities for a celebrant, Jan responded that life experience counts for a lot, along with the ability to listen and empathise. Celebrants come from many walks of life including teachers, academics, scientists and the police.

Jan then walked us through the process of a funeral, from being contacted by the Funeral Director to agreeing and delivering the service. It can take 5-6 hours just to write the ceremony. Jan saw her main role as helping the bereaved get through the process of losing a loved one and stressed how important it is to not proselytise. Asked how she dealt with negative religious relations, Jan said this is not usually a problem as a Humanist service is not offensive in any way. Generally, it is only the feelings towards the deceased loved one that fill the ceremony. She then invited us to consider ‘What makes a successful life?’ A common response was along the lines of ‘To make a positive contribution to another fellow human being’s happiness or wellbeing’. The ordinariness and simplicity of this concept was reflected in a reading from What is success? by Emerson.

Jan described how she interacts with families, gleans information and creates a life chronology in a sensitive and empathic way. She also said that if a family member wishes to deliver the speech she tries to dissuade them. This is partly because this is likely to be a ‘displacement’ activity, where the family member is dealing with things by keeping busy, but also because the ceremony is something for the mourners to experience, not something that causes worry or panic. She had found that funerals where there is little or no family can be especially moving. A member interjected that following the loss of his wife some 6 years earlier he had recorded a 20 minute video for his own funeral.

Jan discussed the significant role that music plays at services and its deeply personal significance, along with the various media options. The relevance of hymns was explored as it is quite common to hear comments such as: ‘He wasn’t religious but loved to sing hymns’. This raised interesting further questions
and divided opinion to a degree. In response to a question about appropriate attire for celebrants, Jan said this was usually formal, unless specifically requested to be otherwise. Asked about what else celebrants do, besides celebrating the life of the deceased, Jan said her intention was to inspire others to do well with their own lives and to give a positive message. People are inspired by lives well lived.

In response to further questions, Jan said that celebrants are encouraged to have an experienced celebrant as a mentor. She could perform one service per day with current demand, which is increasing all the time. Society is becoming less religious: recent surveys suggest around 50% of the UK population have no religion. To illustrate the kind of sentiments expressed at services, Jan gave two short readings, from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and A Time to Dance by C Day Lewis.

Jan then went on to discuss Humanist weddings and the kind of people who choose them and why, noting that a Register Office ceremony is also required to be legally married in England and Wales, though not in Scotland. Generally, it is people who are not religious, but want something more than just a civil ceremony. All the same traditional reasons apply, such as demonstrating to others a couple’s commitment, their shared values and the firm moral grounding which they hope to bring to married and family life. Often people decide on a Humanist wedding after having attended a Humanist funeral. Jan explained that she usually writes the vows herself based on what the couple tell her, and read I Rely on You by Elvis Hovis as an example of the kind of sentiments expressed at wedding ceremonies.

Finally, Jan briefly discussed Humanist naming ceremonies celebrating the arrival of a new baby, a child or new step-children into a family. There would naturally be no god-parents; alternative names for supporting adults taking a special interest in the child include guide-parent, mentor, life guardian and special friend.

A final question from the audience was: If a religious person wants to get married they automatically think of a Church – what do Humanists think of? Where would one go in the first instance? Jan suggested the BHA and the website humanism.org In conclusion, she read an extract from The Dash by Linda Ellis – see here.

12 Oct:
Sufi Islam – Shaykh M Ramadan

Sheikh Ramadan made many parallels between Sufi Islam and Humanism. He began his talk by stating that the purpose of Sufism, like Humanism, is to live so as to benefit others. Sufis are Muslims who oppose extremism, and seek instead to hold the middle ground; they seek exemplary behaviour and avoid dangerous behaviour. They see good people in all faiths and none. This tolerance exists in terms of faith as well: Sufis believe that there are as many ways to reach God as there are human beings – each has their
own unique set of experiences.
The speaker described the development of Sufism and the practical aspects of living a Sufi life. There are many different traditions and practices, which developed in different parts of the world. Sufis are essentially very practical, holding to a few simple things rather than philosophising – although Sufis constantly seek new angles for reflection and understanding of ultimate reality. But as they are seeking reality by opening themselves up to it, they do not truly know it; therefore they cannot lecture others about it, and so do not seek to persuade or convert. How can your belief be better than someone else’s when all is knowledge is
incomplete?
Sufis see themselves as far more than a sect within Islam, but rather as the soul of Islam, with the spirit of Sufism permeating all five pillars of Islam. Sheikh Ramadan described Sufism as moderate, balanced Islam, living together in peace and love, and a Sufi as a person who feels poor when he has wealth and humble when he has power, and shies away from fame. He recommended Carl Ernst of the University of North
Carolina as a source of information (see http://www.unc.edu/~cernst/ ).
A sometimes passionate discussion focussed on suffering, and in particular how an all merciful and all loving god can allow tragedies that harm the innocent, particularly young people with incurable and painful diseases. Sheikh Ramadan affirmed that for him God is not just merciful, and that we suffer from our wrong-doing. Another issue raised was whether a woman could be a Sufi leader – it seems this was far from uncommon in earlier times but is now quite rare. As a final point, Sheik Ramadan expressed his fear that extremism exists everywhere and a concern that even Humanism might be tempted to follow this path. We were invited to sign up to the London Declaration for global peace and resistance against extremism 2011 (see http://peaceforhumanity.co.uk)

9 Nov:
Working with offenders to reduce reoffending – Mohammed Yunus, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

Mohammed introduced and described the Intensive Alternative to Custody (IAC) model depicted here:

The Greater manchester IAC model

Mohammed noted that this strategy is supported by the government as our prison population is the highest in proportion to the population in Europe. Young people have the highest re-offending rate, with many ‘revolving door’ cases that need treatment rather than deterrence. These offenders experience issues like poor family relationships, low literacy, emotional and mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse that prison makes worse. This leads to ‘generational’ problems in criminal families, and all work with offenders is underpinned by ‘persistency theory’ thinking that has developed as a response to this.

IAC is one of 7 national strategies set up to meet this need. It has the support of magistrates who use it regularly. The Manchester scheme only deals with young males, and Mohammed noted that young women have equal if not greater needs, being the victims of institutional sexism in the judicial system that means more and longer terms of imprisonment despite the huge family and social implications.

IAC is a supplement to intensive community orders where these have failed and imprisonment is the likely outcome, but where there is a reasonable chance of the situation being retrieved. A high degree of control is involved, with police officers who have the full knowledge of offenders’ history and behaviour at the core of the multi-agency support teams. 15% of those involved, known as Prolific Priority Offenders, have intensive police involvement, and all are subject to curfew and random checks by home visits.

But an equally high level of intensive support is also needed for credibility. ETE mentoring is the key: Education in accredited courses, Training in work placements, giving meaningful and satisfying Employment experience. Integration back into family life is vital, with a scheme involving family members as ‘Partners of Prisoners’ (though not all families are ideal for the purpose, and there must be at least one non-offender in any family taking part in PoP). The whole initiative is tailored to meet individual need, and repair some of the gaps in the care system. A positive reference on CRB records provides some reward or something to lose that gives offenders a stake in society.

A key element is ‘restorative justice’. Carefully monitored contacts with victims and their families, if appropriate, can have massive benefits for all. Many offenders have no idea of the emotional impact of their crimes, and IAC is about getting offenders to this point. Domestic abuse offenders are of course excluded from this part of the strategy.

IAC does not succeed with all offenders. But the compliance rate within the system is between 60 and 80%, twice what was predicted and well above that achieved by the probation service. Rigorous assessment shows a reduction in re-offending, with over 20% of offenders finding full employment. It was noted that this reflects the steady fall in figures for all crime, including that by juveniles.

14 Dec:
Special General Meeting, followed by discussion of programme for 2012/13 session and informal social

The SGM was quorate, with 16 members and 2 non-members present. The proposal for GMH to become a Partner of the BHA was discussed at length. There was very strong support for the proposal, though one member wondered whether this would make much difference in practice. Both the resolutions submitted to the meeting – (1) to become a partner of the BHA in accordance with the terms set out in the final Working Better Together paper dated 30 September 2011; and (2) to amend the Constitution by changing Clause 8 as set out in the December newsletter – were adopted nem con.

Since the meeting, Guy Otten has signed the Partnership Agreement on behalf of GMH and we are now waiting for the BHA to complete the formalities. GMH will be one of the groups piloting the new Partnership arrangements over the next few months.

In the second part of the evening, we considered the programme for central Manchester meetings for the 2012/13 session, ie the twelve months from April 2012, and one or two further suggestions have since been received from members. The committee is now following up various topics and speakers for our main FMH meetings, and for a number of ‘big’ events, including another Humanist Any Questions? public meeting as part of Humanist Week (17-24 June) and commemoration of our 20th anniversary (9 October). We hope to have the full programme arranged by the AGM (11 April). We also have a considerable number of topics and activities in mind for our 4th Tuesday events – the actual programme is usually decided near the time so that we retain flexibility to respond to current developments. It is likely that progress with piloting the new Partnership relationship with the BHA will be discussed at several of these meetings.

2012:

11 Jan:
Faith Schools and Education – Richy Thompson, BHA Campaigns Officer

Richy started with a brief historical survey. The Church of England provided free education from 1811 through ‘voluntary’ schools, while using its influence to block the state from doing so until 1870. A dual system of state-run and church-run schools existed until the 1944 Education Act. This created three types of school – community schools without a designated religious character run and funded by the state; voluntary controlled schools (about 1/3 of the former ‘voluntary’ schools), also under state control and state funded, with the Church retaining some influence; and voluntary aided schools (the remaining 2/3 of the former ‘voluntary’ schools), largely funded by the state but with the Church appointing most of the governors, setting religious instruction and collective worship, and able to discriminate on religious grounds as to appointing all teachers and school admissions. At this stage, faith schools made up 30% of the total; they fell to 23% of the total by 1959 but have subsequently increased – the present figure is 34% including many more Catholic schools and a large number of Muslim and Jewish schools. Grant maintained schools were established in 1988 and abolished in 1998 when Foundation schools were introduced. Academies date from 2000: the Academies Act 2010 sought to expand their number and also introduced Free Schools.

Richy provided a handout summarising the differences between the various types of school – an updated
version is attached. He went on to debunk some of the common defences of ‘faith’ schools:
1: they improve parental choice – an extra Catholic school does indeed give more choice to Catholic
parents, but those who are not Catholic gain more choice if another inclusive school is opened
2: parents have a right to have their children educated in their faith – in a sense this is true, but there is no obligation on the state to provide or fund any particular sort of school. And what about the child’s rights and the consequences of segregating children according to the religion of their parents?
3: ‘faith’ schools have a better ethos than other schools – Richy disputed the implication that the non-religious are less moral than the religious, or can’t provide as good a moral education, and doubted that organisations with a problematic attitude to gay rights and women’s rights, or wishing to limit sex and
relationships education, had better morals.
4: ‘faith’ schools are more successful than other schools – some are very successful, but this generally arises from selection, including by parental actions, affecting intake characteristics. The evidence for this is that community schools are likely to have 50% more pupils entitled to free school meals than voluntary-
aided schools, and do much better than ‘faith’ schools on measures of improving pupil attainment.
5: CofE schools in particular don’t really seek to indoctrinate, rather to serve the whole community – while they are better in this respect than Catholic schools, Church policy is that ‘church schools should nourish those of faith; encourage those of other faiths; and challenge those of no faith’. How is this inclusive to the
whole community?
6: only the non-religious oppose ’faith’ schools – this is definitely untrue. The ACCORD Coalition working for inclusive education includes Christian, Muslim and Hindu groups as well as the BHA and is chaired by a Rabbi.

Richie then covered some other issues to do with education that are tackled by the BHA:
1: Collective worship – even non-religious schools are required to hold a daily act of collective worship, generally of a broadly Christian character. This is actually unenforced, the last Ofsted inspection of this issue found that 80% of schools were failing to comply. However, many schools do hold collective worship
which can sometimes be extremely proselytising – the source of many complaints to the BHA.
2: Religious education – there is no national curriculum and RE syllabuses are drawn up by local Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education – there are 151 ‘SACREs’ in England. Syllabuses vary greatly in quality and many focus too much on Christianity. Most exclude non-religious beliefs such as Humanism. Humanists are meant to be included on SACREs – this happens with some SACREs, but many include them without a vote and many others exclude them altogether. The BHA would like to see RE included in the national curriculum and reformed to focus on beliefs and values, or morals and ethics, so children are
taught about religious and non-religious beliefs as part of a larger subject based around philosophy.
3: Sex and relationships education – this is an important area of BHA work. Anatomy, puberty and the biological aspects of sexual reproduction are mandatory elements of national curriculum science for all pupils. In addition, secondary schools are required to provide SRE including as a minimum information about STIs and HIV/AIDS. But Academies and Free Schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum, and all schools can choose to teach abstinence education instead of providing unbiased information on
contraception, abortion, sexual orientation, and different forms of family relationship.
4: Evolution and creationism – evolution is only taught from year 9, although educational experts consider it so central to biology that it should be taught from a primary level. As to creationism and ‘intelligent design’ the BHA has just secured a major victory, with a change in the rules governing new Free Schools to preclude ‘the teaching, as an evidence-based view or theory, of any view or theory that is contrary to established scientific and/or historical evidence and explanations’. This change will ban creationism from being taught in Free Schools and prevent creationist groups from opening schools. The BHA hopes to see it rolled out to other types of school as well.

Richy concluded by stressing the importance of the state not funding schools that promote particular religions and of all children being educated together, regardless of religion or belief, and growing up in a harmonious, equal society.

Points arising in the lengthy and wide-ranging discussion which followed included:
– should parents have the right NOT to send their children to a ‘faith’ school?
– the amount of discussion/teaching of ethics in community schools is variable, tends to be more where
Humanism is included in the RE syllabus.
– the momentum to Academies/Free Schools seems unstoppable. The BHA is not opposed to them in
principle, but those which are ‘faith’ schools have more freedom which does concern the BHA.
– five SACREs in Greater Manchester are working together on the RE syllabus with Humanist input, and achieving a lot as to coverage of ethics and morals. We are also engaging with teachers and visiting
schools, eg as part of morning assemblies.
– is Humanism a religion? One member thought it would be better to adopt this position but this idea was rejected by others. Richy pointed out that ‘faith and belief’ both have the same protection. Children can be opted out. The BHA is opposed to segregation of children by the religious beliefs of their parents, so is opposed to Humanist schools (The Humanist schools we support in Uganda are more secular than
Humanist, a majority of the intake is Christian.)
– schools may convert to Academies in the belief that they will get better funding, though the main difference is that they are outside local authority control. However, some Academies feel the need for wider
support, the Church of England is taking the lead in offering a ‘safety net’, with Catholics holding back.
– why is there no more protest about ‘faith’ schools? Perhaps only a minority are strongly concerned and
these schools are so common that people just go along with them.
– a member asked about the approach the BHA should take to achieve the best outcome. Richy said there were a lot of opt-out clauses in UK legislation, but test cases, eg as to the exclusion of Humanists from
SACREs, can be difficult to pursue – the European court process is expensive and long lasting.
– why are more children not opted out of collective worship? Too many parents don’t want to rock the boat. 6th formers can opt out themselves – at one school they just rebelled. Richy thought 14-15 year olds
were mature enough to make their own minds up.
– getting Humanism included in the RE syllabus was the best way to refute the fairy stories.
– are we just tinkering at the edge? What is the BHA doing in practice? Richy pointed to campaigning against particular faith schools, as in Richmond currently. There was also much parliamentary lobbying and
direct contact with the Department for Education.
– what can be done to encourage Free Schools to remain secular? The BHA is operating locally – there is an image problem here: ‘faith’ schools are seen as having a good if undeserved reputation compared to ‘bog
standard’ comprehensives, we would say this often reflects intake characteristics.
– the increase in ‘faith’ schools is inconsistent with the increase in non-belief. So ‘faith’ schools do not seem good at their job (of indoctrination?). This seems to apply especially to CofE schools – perhaps the CofE will become primarily an education provider.
– in his closing comments, Guy Otten pointed out that this is a key battleground, with lots of people very concerned. He appealed to people to get actively involved, eg through our Rapid Response Team, SACREs, and joining the BHA. The BHA website is a resource for ways to support BHA campaigns.

8 Feb:
Freud and Humanism – David Seddon, Humanist celebrant and GMH member

David’s talk analysed the ways in which Freud’s thinking as a philosopher about what it is to be human are of value to a Humanist view of life. He focussed on the issues of what is the human personality, and in what ways how we are parented and other early experiences affect our free will. Two follow-up discussions then explored what Freud’s answers tell us about how we behave and where morality comes from.

The key principle for Freud is the pursuit of pleasure, and David treated us to the Freudian analysis of the origins of oral, anal and genital pleasures in early explorations by babies and very young people. Maturity comes when teenagers grow away from their parents and develop personalities made up of the well-known three concepts of ‘ego’, ‘super-ego’ and ‘id’. The ‘super-ego’ is authority – our parents, schools and churches – instilling demands of perfect behaviour and feelings of guilt if these are not achieved. The ‘id’ is made up of all the imperfections, mess and passions we experience in our feelings and behaviour, that are almost always in conflict with the super-ego. The ‘ego’ is us, each trying to manage this conflict and develop our own way of behaving. Humanist values emerge as part of this attempt to manage our lives.

The next principle is the importance of the ‘unconscious’, typically found in our dreams. For Freud this is a powerful influence on our actions of which we know nothing, and of which only long sessions on the psychiatrist’s couch can reveal anything. The role of the unconscious raises for Humanists the question of whether we ever know why we do anything in the way that we do it, and so whether we can make rational moral judgements.

Finally, Freud’s concept of ‘transference’ suggests that the way we react to people reflects unconsciously the ways we reacted to parents and others who have left deep influences on us. So our judgements of others, hero-worship or instinctive dislike, may be very irrational. This again is a challenge to Humanist thinking. ‘Counter-transference’, where we accept other people’s good or bad feelings about us and think that both wonderful relationships and conflicts are all our fault, is equally irrational.

The first discussion focussed on whose fault it is if a severely abused young person turns to crime. It was agreed that while there is a strong link between being abused and later abusing, many abused persons do not become abusers: it isn’t a necessary outcome. So, as Humanists say, we do have some control over our behaviour – or society can change our behaviour. But Freud’s philosophy suggests that a lot depends on personality and early childhood, and that there are many irrational factors at work.

The second discussion on the origins of right and wrong recognised the vital importance of good upbringing, but stressed the Humanist view that morality evolves socially.

14 Mar:
Paganism, an overview – Linda Sever, University of Central Lancashire

This report is based on the attached selection of slides adapted from Linda’s Powerpoint presentation (referred to in the order shown there). She started her presentation with a picture of the River Ribble, one of the oldest historic places of reference, known to the Romans and Celts and considered a sacred place by many. She cautioned that when considering Paganism you have to break away from the Hollywood per-ception as typified by the Wiccans – Paganism has many paths. The first two slides set out a statement of principles of the Pagan Federation, an umbrella organisation representing all Pagan groups. Many Pagans don’t recognise the divine, so don’t accept the third principle. However others do and Linda quoted the example of Thor Hyerdal who believed in the god Odin and spent much of his life tracing Odin’s footsteps.

The next three slides draw out the differences between Polytheists, Panentheists and Pantheists. For some Pagans, the Polytheistic gods are not seen as eternal entities but more as individual beings living within a given life cycle. When asked whether Pagans carry out rituals in honour of these Gods, again it was a case that some do but others don’t. Linda said that she as a Heathen didn’t. (The term Heathen, though a somewhat negative term in general use today, is the accepted term for northern European Pagans.) The Pantheist god is a kind of divine spirit as might be thought of by native North Americans. Some Pagans see this god as a being with purpose who interferes in everyday life, but others don’t.

Paganism has many paths, as summarised in the remaining slides. Neo-pagan paths grew out of the 1950/60s Wicca movement which is not directly associated with the historic beliefs and traditions. In some senses these ‘New’ Pagans have invented beliefs and symbols and claimed them as being ancient, e.g. the 8-stage wheel of the year symbol, or the fact that Easter emanates from the Pagan word Ostara, a claim supported by Grimm. ‘Reconstructed’ Pagans have uncovered ancient Pagan texts and started to draw on them to direct their lives.

Druidry: the icon shown represents Awen which symbolises a flowing spirit. Druids believe that the body and soul are one, that everything is connected, that ‘everything is nature’, and that their deities are the powers of nature. In this respect Druidry resembles Hindu beliefs. But Druids don’t worship or submit to gods and don’t have anything resembling churches. This was one of the reasons they had difficulty being accepted by the Charity Commission as a religion. (Buddhists don’t either but this had a prior standing as a religion before the new legal definition of religion came into being.) Druids don’t have any fixed morals, but believe in the need to interact properly with other people; it fits with their belief that everything is connected. They will accept science but not to the extent that it can explain the spirit. They observe a custom of coming together collectively at 8 different times of the year (cf the 8-stage wheel of the year), in celebration of the solar and agricultural cycles. These gatherings, the purpose of which is to ‘acknowledge the worth of something’, are not usually ritualistic but some Druids do follow particular orders. (Note: this part of the talk was given by Phil Ryder, who is a Druid, rather than Linda.)

Hedge witch/Solitary witches: the picture is of a Pagan shrine – note the five point star within a circle. Most Pagans have a shrine. The term ‘rider of the hedge’ means between this world and that; it is what gave rise to the notion of witches on broomsticks. The wise woman or cunning man ideas originated from the USA and people being associated with the occult perhaps because some distant relative would have been known as having a skill such as a herbalist or healer. The duotheistic approach to gods/goddesses does not extend to naming these gods.

Wicca: There is no evidence that this is, as was claimed by those who practiced it, an ancient underground belief system. Gardner and Sanders popularised the Wiccan movement and Alistair Crowley introduced some of the ceremonial aspects. In the USA, Wicca is a generic term for Pagans. The Dianic tradition tends to be primarily women and more commonly, though not exclusively, lesbians. The covens are hierarchical, e.g. with high priests and priestesses, and very ritualistic. Some Wiccans see themselves as magicians.

Heathen: Like Druids, Heathens regard the body and soul as not separate. They also believe they can connect with their ancestors through journeying. They do have ceremonies though not related to the wheel of life and these ceremonies usually involve much drinking of mead.

At this point the speakers ran out of time and the meeting ended. The other paths included in Linda’s Powerpoint presentation – Goddess Spirituality/Ecofeminism, Shamanism and Animism – are summarised in the final three slides.

 

 

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 2011/12 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.

2011:

26 April   Review of the new material in Session 6 of the GMH Introductory Course on Humanism.

24 May    Humanism and Islamophobia – discussion led by Guy Otten

28 June
(1)           BHA Consultation with local groups – Working Better Together (Phase 2)
(2)           The latest draft of the GMH introductory booklet

27 Sept    Riots and looting: do we live in a humane society? – introduced by Robin Grinter

25 Oct
(1)            The latest Working Better Together proposals from the BHA
(2)            The GMH programme for 2012/13
(3)            Supporting the new Manchester-based Northwest LGBT Humanist group</pre>

22 Nov
(1)            Report on the recent debate at Manchester University between William Lane Craig (Christian apologist) and Peter Atkins (scientist) on Does God exist? – David Milne
(2)            The Occupy Anti-capitalist camp at St Paul’s – What is the Humanist contribution to this debate?

2012:

24 Jan
(1)            ‘… Christianity and other religions engage in certain humanly essential pursuits which need to be addressed by anything purporting to replace it’ (Sam Norton). What are these ‘humanly essential pursuits’ and how does and should Humanism address them
(2)           Review of progress of our Rapid Response Team

28 Feb     Alternative approaches to morality: Mill and Durkheim – introduced by John Coss

27 Mar    Pantheism and Humanism – introduced by Robin Grinter