Anthony Lewis, Chair of Windsor Humanists, shares some highlights from Humanists UK's Annual Convention which took place in Liverpool last month, which he attended with his husband Rick Field, who is our guest poet this month. They had a great time and attended some excellent talks. Anthony felt that there was a very 'positive vibe' – and that everyone's 'tails were up' following the publication of the 2021 Census Results showing that 37 per cent of people in the UK now identify as having 'no religion'.
David Voas and the worldwide secular transition
The first keynote address was by David Voas, Professor of Social Sciences at University College London. This got the conference off to a resounding start by celebrating the worldwide ‘secular transition’ which is accelerating and irreversible. He quoted the recently published 2022 World Values Survey which indicates that only 18 per cent of 18-24 year olds in the UK hold any belief in God. He noted that this secularisation process is strongly correlated with the UN Human Development Index and that it is inexorable because each younger generation is consistently and successively more secular than the previous generation, a process he described as ‘generational replacement’. The only area of the world that has bucked this trend of increasing secularisation is the Middle East, which did not appear to surprise anyone in the hall! He did point out, however, that belief in an afterlife does persist and remains high worldwide, even in the young. It is not clearly understood why this belief persists even as belief in God declines.
Zion Lights goes nuclear
The wonderfully-named Zion Lights has been a lifelong environmental campaigner. She delivered a thought-provoking talk with a very different perspective on how to decarbonise our economies. Her career has included being a media spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, a Green Party member, a Greenpeace activist, and also being arrested! She is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting (2018). In her talk, she explained that she left these organisations because, she claimed, they have misrepresented key aspects of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). She is now an advocate for including nuclear power as an integral part of achieving the decarbonisation of our economies. This is a key recommendation of the IPCC. Her view is that fears of nuclear radiation and waste have been deliberately exaggerated and are as irrational as the fear of radiation from 5G mobile phone masts. She pointed out how much easier it is to manage the waste from nuclear energy than the waste from fossil fuels, which is pumped into the atmosphere. Drawing on her knowledge of the grinding poverty experienced by her relatives in the Punjab, she said that ‘poverty is energy poverty’ and that it is immoral for us in the West to prevent economic development ‘to save the planet’. Drawing on data from Hans Rosling’s ‘gapminder.org' and Our World in Data, she demonstrated how the use of nuclear power, as recommended by the IPCC, is central to achieving the energy transition to renewables. It was interesting to listen to the perspective of someone with an activist background outline the practical challenges we face to wean ourselves off fossils fuels, at the same time as alleviating global poverty through economic development.
Robin Dunbar's number
It was also a pleasure to listen to Professor Robin Dunbar summarise his research as outlined in The Human Story (2005) and How Religion Evolved: and Why it Endures (2022). Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University and the only living scientist with a fundamental scientific number named after him. Do you know the number? The day before his talk in Liverpool The New York Times crossword puzzle featured this clue: ‘A number – the cognitive limit to how many relationships one person can maintain’. The answer is the so-called Dunbar Number, which is 150 for humans. Professor Dunbar demonstrated how his number crops up everywhere in human affairs, from the average number of friends on Facebook, the size of clans and tribes in hunter-gatherer societies, the average number of wedding guests in the US, and even the size of the average village as recorded in the Domesday Book (a comprehensive survey and record of landholdings and resources in much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086). Dunbar explained that, although we are a social species we are also violent and competitive, especially males. Living in groups is stressful and we can become increasingly violent as group size increases. The Dunbar number suggests that harmonious human groups are limited to about 150 members, which matches our cognitive capacity for maintaining social relationships. He argued that the emergence of organised doctrinal religions during the Neolithic period, when humans started to settle into villages, was not accidental. The practices and rituals of religions are, in effect, primate ‘grooming’ behaviours which enabled humans to live together in ever-larger communities in relative peace. What this implies for humanity, as adherence to religious belief continues to decline globally, was not addressed! More humanism perhaps?
Adam Rutherford and the isopoint
The most entertaining talk of the weekend was given by scientist, writer, and broadcaster Adam Rutherford, who is the current President of Humanists UK. His talk was called A Short History of the Family Tree. Adam has a flair for the ridiculous and he gave us a masterclass in how to crack jokes about our obsessions with our DNA and ancestry. He was skilful at building rapport and winning over the audience. Despite being somewhat the worse for wear following the previous evening's conference dinner, he provided an erudite explanation of one of the most difficult concepts to grasp in genetics – the ‘genetic isopoint of common ancestry’. This is the point for a given population at which everyone then living, who has living descendants, is the ancestor of everyone now living. For Europeans, this is reckoned to be around the tenth century, give or take a century or so. This means, in effect, we are all descended from the Emperor Charlemagne, who died in 814, and from anyone else alive at that time who also has living descendants.
Meeting like-minded humanists
As with all conferences of this nature, one of the most enjoyable aspects was meeting so many other like-minded humanists from across the UK during the breaks, over lunch, and at the various social events. The theme this year was For a tolerant world where rational thinking and kindness prevail. This theme was very much on display throughout the conference. For example, the panel discussion on 'The Future of Humanism in Politics’, chaired by Andrew Copson, included Neil Garrett who is a Conservative member of the London Assembly and Scottish National Party MP Tommy Shepard, as well as representatives from the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. The discussion was all the richer for including such a broad spectrum of political perspectives. Local humanist groups also held a well-attended fringe meeting – nearly fifty people – to discuss issues of common interest before we headed to the formal conference dinner on the Saturday evening.
Overall, we felt uplifted after attending this year's Convention, as it included a broad mix of talks and presenters which challenged our existing perspectives and left us feeling hopeful for our shared humanist and secular future. We're already planning to attend next year's Convention in Cardiff.