Meetings at FMH

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

11 April:
AGM followed by ‘in-house’ discussion: How do Humanists demonstrate a social conscience and be seen to do so?

9 May:
Buddhism and Humanism – Veronica Voiles, Insititute of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University

13 June:
Religious Education and Citizenship in Schools – Helen Jeyes, Head of RE, Manchester High School for Girls
Helen described the RE syllabus she has developed, which focuses on moral philosophy. It includes discussion of issues such as abortion, euthanasia and the concept of a ‘just war’ in Year 10, and the study of philosophical texts at Sixth Form level. She argued that young people today need to study and understand religion in order to tackle many of society’s problems, such as Islamophobia. RE is vital to cohesion in our society as a tool to eradicate ignorance and prejudice. Her approach deals with the big and meaningful questions in life, and has led to increasing numbers of girls taking RE at GCSE. It is also the subject with the highest percentage increase in GCSE entries nationally.

In subsequent discussion, there was general agreement that much of this approach was essentially Humanist. Helen described Humanism as the second belief system in England, and noted that most RE teachers are open-minded and some may be agnostic. As at least 40% of the population declare themselves to be either atheistic or agnostic, there is a real need to address the issue of teaching morality in schools. She accepted the possibility that the main religious faiths were not the only way to teach morality, and that the good life was possible without supernatural support.

She therefore agreed with the proposal in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s ‘National Framework for R.E.’ that pupils should be introduced to secular traditions and Humanism. Her teaching attempts to do this, and she was pleased to receive copies of the GMHG Units that are being submitted to Manchester SACRE for inclusion in its Local Syllabus.

11 July:
Genetic Medicine in the 21st Century : Hype and Reality – Helen Middleton-Price, Director, North-West Genetics Knowledge Park
In this very interesting and informative talk, Helen explored what are the real possibilities created by advances in genetic medicine, and explained the need to be sceptical about some of the more ambitious claims.

Genetic services for inherited conditions arising from mutation of individual genes provide diagnosis and information by blood spot tests. Helen emphasised  that what is provided is information and non-directive recommendations that enable families to make informed choices.  In the light of eugenic experiments in the past, there is no question of developing strategies to rid society of such conditions. Strict criteria are used for screening: serious conditions, significant incidence, simple testing and effective treatment.

The conditions treated include PKU and muscular dystrophy. PKU treatment is dietary and has been very successful. Muscular dystrophy is carried by females and only affects boys: identification of the high risk factor allows for abortion of male foetuses. More conditions are treated in America than in the UK, where intervention is restricted because of concern about prolonging a poor quality of life. But screening will soon be available here for sickle cell anaemia, thalassaemia and cystic fibrosis during pregnancy.

The other main area of genetic medicine is the possibility of predicting common diseases for individuals. This has not developed as some expected, and is over-hyped. Inflated claims have been made, eg for a ‘murder gene’ and a ‘fat gene’. A susceptibility can be demonstrated, eg that most murderers are male, but this is NOT a useful predictor. Any genetic links with conditions work in complex association with environmental factors such as life style, social and economic status, diet and pollution, so we should be sceptical about these claims.

One very useful area of genetic medicine is pharmocogenetics – the analysis of side-effects from drugs (which account for 6% of hospital admissions, resulting in death in 1 in 700 cases). Proper diagnosis can enable doctors to select the best drug for individual patients.  Another important area is the treatment of cancers, where combinations of genes control cell growth. Tumour types have specific patterns of cell activity, and survival chances depend on appropriate treatment, eg herceptin for certain types of breast cancer.

In summary, genetic screening will help families deal with an increasing number of inherited diseases, and help greatly in prognosis and appropriate treatment of many other conditions, but is unlikely to lead to profiling individuals at birth for future susceptibility to illness. But there will always be the issue of genetic discrimination in terms of who receives treatment and who does not.

8 August:
Coronations without God – ‘in-house’ debate led by Chris Neilson

12 September:
A Sceptical Reading of the Qur’an – Guy Otten

10 October:
The Pulpit and the Stage – Derek Slater
Derek, who has been involved with the theatre all his life, gave us a masterly talk, tracing the development of theatre from its origins in Ancient Greece to the present day. Conflict with secular and religious authorities has been a constant theme, and in some periods theatrical performances were banned as subversive or corrupting. From 1824 to 1968, public theatres in Britain were subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain, of which Derek gave several amusing examples.  Attempts at control continue to the present day, eg efforts by some Christian groups to ban ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’ and the cancellation of a play set in a Gurdwara after protests by some Sikh groups. But efforts to extend the depth and breadth of theatre also continue and, whether we consider it a good thing or not, censorship may one day be banished completely.

14 November:
Oxfam in Cambodia – Tracy Woods, Oxfam
Cambodia seems a much improved place since the overthrow of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  Tracy gave a fine illustrated talk about her recent visit; it was both moving and informative, covering Oxfam’s work in general and its work in Cambodia in particular. It was nice to know, for instance, that all contributions go direct to villages; none goes to the government or to local political organisations.  Tracy told of the many interesting people she met, particularly women – her special interest is the abuse of women and improving their conditions. Oxfam is involved in much improvement including the introduction of modern rice production with proven increase in yields. The Oxfam organisation is totally secular and avoids where possible all entanglement with politics and religion. Its sole aim is to help the people to help themselves and it is well worthy of our support.

12 December:
Special General Meeting followed by discussion of GMH Development Plan

9 January 2008:
BHA Report: Quality and Equality: Human Rights, Public Services and Religious Organisations – discussion led by author Naomi Phillips
Naomi explained that the Government is introducing new suppliers of public services by placing contracts with private and voluntary organisations, with the aim of making these services more individualised so as to better address the needs of diverse individuals and communities. One feature of this policy is the Government’s enthusiasm for placing contracts with religious organisations. As Naomi pointed out, this gives rise to significant issues of principle and to substantial practical problems. The BHA believes this strategy carries great risks that vastly outweigh the asserted but unproven benefit of using religious bodies to deliver services. Accordingly, the BHA is firmly of the view that no publicly-funded, comprehensive and statutory public service, to which all citizens have an entitlement, should be contracted out to a religious organisation.  If, however, religious organisations are to be included in the supply and delivery of such services, the Government must take steps to address the problems that will inevitably arise, and Naomi outlined the BHA’s proposals for doing this. Her talk led to several suggestions and comments, as the protection of our public services from religious discrimination is obviously vital.

13 February:
Amnesty International – Anne Walker, NW Regional Representative of AI
Anne gave us a great talk on Amnesty International. She recounted the history of AI which is now truly international with all UN members subscribing to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, not all countries adhere to its declared aims, which include fair trials for all, the condemnation of torture, and the abolition of the death penalty. Constant pressure is needed in many countries to ensure progressing standards, including not only those where totalitarian regimes have long presided, such as China and Russia, but others when claims of national security are made, such as the US. Besides constant vigilence, AI launches special campaigns in areas of special crisis, eg Dafur at present, and in the past has achieved much by focusing attention on such areas. Anne concluded with details of how we could all get involved with AI and hoped that we would do so, displaying for us the impressive motif of a bound candle and the saying: ‘It is better to light a candle than to cry in the darkness.’

12 March:
Humanism and the Challenge of Faith Schools – Andrew Copson of the BHA
Andrew gave us an authoritative talk on Humanism and Faith Schools. The BHA is campaigning in education for all State schools to be open to all, so as to prepare young people for the inclusive society they will join by providing a context in which they can develop their own values and learn from other life stances. Andrew described the present situation, in which many State schools are controlled by religious bodies and do not need to follow a multi-faith RE syllabus. Indeed, the brief of Church schools has been extended: not only will they ‘nourish children in faiths’ but also ‘challenge those of no faith’. Those which are ‘voluntary aided’ may restrict admissions and teacher employment to those of tbeir own faith. The situation in the new secondary Academies is worse – one-third are sponsored by religious organisations, and their curriculum is entirely independent and in science can be twisted to include creationist theories on the same level as Darwinism. Andrew then considered in turn all the main arguments for faith schools, and the corresponding counter-arguments. He thought campaigning had largely been successful, as only 20 new Church schools have been set up since 2001. Local campaigns are particularly effective. National campaigns focus on specific employment, admissions and curriculum issues, which gathers a lot of union and professional support. The overall picture is mixed: Academies sometimes avoid local consultation processes, but the emerging norm for State funding is for schools to provide multifaith education and to not discriminate. Andrew ended with a brief update on Humanist involvement with SACREs.

Meetings at The Ape and Apple

These meetings on the general theme of ‘Exploring Humanism’ began in February 2008 and are generally held on the fourth Tuesday of each month (except December). There is usually a session on current campaigning issues at the end of the meeting.

26 February:
Pilot of week one of Introduction to Humanism course being developed for public presentation by Robin Grinter and Anna Whitehead

25 March:
Pilot of week two of Introduction to Humanism course.