By Guy Otten
Guy is a vice-chair of Greater Manchester Humanists, a humanist chaplain with the Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust, a member of the Atheism UK Council, and a founder member of Northern Atheists.
The annual Humanist Convention is a brilliant fest of ideas coupled with great networking among humanists. This year it started with remembering the great David Pollock, who died in May.
As usual, the Convention was well organised by the Humanists UK office led by Catriona McLellan. Held in Liverpool, it featured, not just the usual gala dinner and comedy evening, but also an array of fascinating speakers – a mix of academics, thinkers and journalists. The ideas fest was buttressed by a tempting bookstall featuring books by many of the speakers, including Adam Rutherford, and others such as Natalie Haynes and Richard Dawkins.
Some suggestions to improve future conventions
Alongside these delights there were some important active groups side-lined to the fringe or to a stall at the back of the main hall, such as Humanist Climate Action. One criticism I received was that the Convention gave us information overload. A related point I overheard was that sitting on (relatively uncomfortable) seats for talk after talk would have been made easier if there were some interactive small groups inserted between the talks.
'It is a successful recharge for our intellectual lives, but this leaves little room for those who form the core of the active humanist movement in the UK... Inserting these more participatory meetings into the main timetable to break up the talks would be a welcome improvement.'
Why wasn’t this done? The explanation is to do, I suspect, with the convention concept in the heads of those organising it. It is a successful recharge for our intellectual lives, but this leaves little room for those who form the core of the active humanist movement in the UK – especially those active in groups such as Humanist Care (the pastoral support arm of Humanists UK), Humanistically Speaking, Young Humanists, LGBT Humanists, and Humanist Climate Action. Inserting these more participatory meetings into the main timetable to break up the talks would be a welcome improvement. The humanist dialogue community did have a successful fringe meeting on the Friday afternoon; the model is there to help vary the mode of the convention.
The other great benefit of the conventions is the networking, the reconnection with old friends and the making of new ones. For instance, I was able personally to introduce people near each other and connect a member to a local group he was unaware of. I think more thought needs to be put into this important aspect of our conventions. As an example, for those who are members of a local group, that could be included on their name tag. And tables in the area set aside for socialising could be labeled with a regional tag, perhaps just for the first day, so that humanists in a particular region could find each other more easily. This would strengthen our community.
What follows are some of the highlights for me. Hopefully, the many inspiring talks will soon appear on social media and on Humanists UK YouTube. The questions from the conventioneers were always piercing – as you would expect – and elicited yet more interesting answers!
A great line-up of speakers
David Voas, Professor of Social Science at the UCL Institute of Education, started proceedings by giving chapter and verse on the decline of religion, but warned that trends could reverse!
Zion Lights, a British writer and science communicator, spoke about misinformation, which she finds is spreading – disturbingly – among young parents. Her take-home message was that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had reached a consensus that nuclear energy is essential for decarbonisation. Zion argued that this would require people to overcome their irrational fear of radiation. Her findings prompted her to write The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting (2018).
Susie Alegre, an international human rights lawyer and author of Freedom to Think: Protecting a Fundamental Human Right in the Digital Age (2022), gave a particularly impressive talk on AI. She discussed what she referred to as the 'forum internum' – a Latin phrase referring to the private, mental space where we form our deepest beliefs and convictions. This is an aspect of the right to freedom of thought which I think many of us had not heard of before. It is this aspect of freedom that AI threatens. This is a book I will definitely read.
'We are perceived as too lefty and progressive...'
There followed a Q&A session hosted by Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson involving four politicians: Tommy Sheppard MP (SNP), Clare Elderfield (Lib Dem), Councillor Rachel Taggart-Ryan (Labour) and Neil Garratt AM (Conservative, London Assembly Member). Perhaps the most interesting part of this discussion was an exploration as to why so many Tories who are essentially atheist and sympathetic to humanism do not join Humanists UK or get involved in groups like the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. We are perceived as too lefty and progressive, although there are definite points we have in common too.
Next came anthropologist Robin Dunbar on How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures (the title of his latest book, published in 2022). He shed light on these questions, with which many of us wrestle. I hope this fascinating talk, packed with insights, will soon be available via Humanists UK on YouTube.
We were then introduced to Steve Bowen who told us how he successfully took the Kent SACRE to judicial review for refusing him full membership as a humanist. (SACRE stands for Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education – the local bodies which design local RE syllabuses). This was in the context of a discussion on humanist work and campaigns chaired by Kathy Riddick, Humanists UK’s Wales Humanist Coordinator.
'Robert Wedderburn, a 19th century freethinker and Jamaican firebrand... got around restrictions on campaigning by buying a licence to become a religious minister and then giving sermons that encouraged uprisings!'
On Sunday, S.I. Martin, author of the novel Incomparable World (1996), gave a presentation on the history of black freethought. This was an eye-opener to me in terms of what I learnt about black thinkers and campaigners going back to the 18th century. He told us about Robert Wedderburn, a 19th century freethinker and a Jamaican firebrand of multiracial descent who, having witnessed his grandmother being almost flogged to death, became involved in subversive and radical political action. Ironically for a freethinker, he got around restrictions on campaigning by buying a licence to become a religious minister and then giving sermons that encouraged uprisings!
S.I. Martin also mentioned Gbenga Adewoyin, another brave Nigerian (along with Mubarak Bala, who is still languishing in prison). Martin recognises him as a very courageous and outspoken campaigner who takes on and exposes religious figures in Nigeria. Adewoyin’s YouTube presentations are addressed to Nigerians, and the demotic English he uses is heavily local but can be followed by non-Nigerians willing to invest a bit of time. (Is Nigerian English developing into a new language?) Adewoyin is also threatened with death for his pains!
Adam Rutherford, President of Humanists UK, stepped in to replace Bobby Duffy to give us an amusing but fascinating talk entitled A Short History of Family Trees. We learnt, for instance, that all Europeans, not just Richard Branson, are likely statistically to be descendants of the Emperor Charlemagne (717-814 CE), and all non-recent immigrant Brits are likely to be descended from King Edward lll (1312-1377). Adam’s books were of course available on the bookstall.
Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson updated us on their seminal work on the ill effects of inequality. Their indispensable books are The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2010) and The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone's Well-being (2010).
'Andrew Copson was asked why he attended the Coronation!'
The convention itself was rounded off by Samira Ahmed interviewing Andrew Copson and Adam Rutherford about the work and campaigns of Humanists UK. Andrew was asked why he attended the Coronation! He replied that for years Humanists UK has been complaining about how humanists are left out of national events. Then he was invited to the Coronation – somewhat of a dilemma given that so many of us feel there should not be a monarchy at all.
The conversation included issues such as bishops in the House of Lords, faith schools and humanism in the curriculum, humanist marriages, what the latest census figures mean for the future, assisted dying, getting more exposure of humanism and achieving humanists’ inclusion in national and local councils and events on a par with religious leaders. Andrew feels confident that with continued pushing we should be able to achieve legal humanist weddings in England and Wales.
The weekend finished with the Humanists UK AGM with some 100 people attending. Humanist Climate Action raised their concerns in a motion which was mostly accepted, and Dr Wendy Savage, a newly appointed Humanists UK patron, submitted an emergency motion calling for the decriminalisation of abortion following the report of women being prosecuted for taking abortion pills. This motion was approved nem con and was a counterpoint to the anti-abortion demonstrators outside the conference who sought to speak to delegates as we arrived each day. A number of delegates did indeed engage with them.
For readers who have not yet attended a Humanists UK convention, I recommend doing so. They are usually held in June, and next year’s will be in Cardiff.