Sunday, 14 November 2010

Smug Atheists?

This is the script for my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Friday 12th November 2010:

Good Morning. The American comedian Stephen Colbert recently defined Atheism as the religion devoted to the worship of one's own smug sense of superiority. Well, I hope that isn’t the impression I have given in my two minute tuppence worth every morning this week. The truth is that whatever your creed or belief, actually living up to a vision of what life should be about is easier said than done. We can’t all be Albert Einsteins and for most of us, just getting by, managing to hold on to our jobs and homes and families is an achievement in itself. The distinguished Humanist Richard Dawkins wrote in his book “Unweaving the Rainbow”, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness that are here”. Viewed from this perspective, we are all lottery winners in being born at all. A Human life, with all its trials and tribulations is still worth living and we have but a short time to grasp an understanding and appreciation of this place in which we fleetingly find ourselves. It is an opportunity, an adventure that might never have been and the contemplation of this truth can surely be the basis for an exuberant and life affirming sense of self-worth.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Armistice Day

This is the script for my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Thursday 11th November 2010:

Good Morning. Armistice Day has been an important day in our nation’s life since the 11th of November 1918, the end of the First World War, 92 years ago today. Over 70 million people were killed during the two World Wars. The scale of human suffering engendered by these two epoch defining events of the twentieth century continue to be a focus of remembrance and reflection on the human cost of war. The words of the poet Laurence Binyon have never been bettered, “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them nor the years condemn, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.” We owe a debt of gratitude to the hundreds of thousands of service personnel who sacrificed themselves for the sake of their communities. There will be ceremonies to mark the occasion throughout the land but I am especially pleased to hear that humanists have been allowed to participate in the remembrance ceremonies in Edinburgh and Belfast for the first time this year and we are hopeful that Humanists will be allowed to take their place alongside the diverse religious groups represented at the ceremonies in London in future years. 12.6% of service personnel are listed by the MOD as having “no religion”, that’s 23,770 atheists and humanists risking their lives to safeguard our freedom and way of life. It’s certainly not true that there are no atheists in foxholes and it has been my pleasure to meet some of our brave service personnel who are also committed Humanists. David Brittain, the Armed Forces Humanist chaplain recently estimated that about 40 of those who have died in Afghanistan lived their lives as humanists. They deserve to be remembered just as much as their religious comrades and any ceremony should recognise that. Neither the bullet nor the bomb discriminates and it is inexplicable why our society should continue to do so when it comes to matters of personal philosophy.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Festival of Reason

This is the script for my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Wednesday 10th November 2010:

Good Morning. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven." So wrote the English poet William Wordsworth, reflecting on his own youthful enthusiasm for the French Revolution. Yet what came to be known as the “Reign of Terror” was a travesty of the enlightenment hope of a better society founded on reason and liberty. On this day, the 10th November 1793, a “festival of reason” was established by the revolutionary government in Paris and the medieval cathedral of Notre Dame was transformed into a “Temple of Reason”. An altar to liberty was installed over the old one, and the inscription "To Philosophy" was carved into the church façade. They even had a goddess of reason. The goal of this “Cult of Reason”, the perfection of mankind, was short lived and their utopian vision would end in tyranny. I think this is likely to be true of all utopian visions. I’m a humanist and critics of Humanism often site the horrors of the two centuries since the French revolution as proof that the enlightenment project of the eighteenth century, the “age of reason” has been a failure and that to believe in human progress is naïve. I think that goes too far. I don’t think humanity is perfectible and science and reason are not my gods. Progress is always going to be three steps forward and two steps back. It is slow and piecemeal. Nevertheless, a quality of life known only to the aristocracy and senior clergy before the enlightenment is now available to all Europeans. This is progress and the improvement is almost entirely the result of the flowering of science and technology through free enquiry, liberal democracy, universal suffrage and human rights, secular government and the liberty which allows individuals to form and express their own opinions and to choose their own way in life, all fruits of the enlightenment.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Albert Einstein's Nobel Prize

This is the script for my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Tuesday 9th November 2010:

Good Morning. On this day, the 9th November 1921, exactly 89 years ago, Albert Einstein, the most famous and celebrated physicist in the world was awarded the Nobel Prize for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. Einstein revolutionised our understanding of space and time and his theory of Relativity occupies a central position in our modern scientific understanding of the universe. His famous equation, e=mc squared is one of the few physics equations familiar to the general public. I even remember a song about it in the pop music charts of the 1980s. People often think of Einstein’s wild hair and eccentric appearance, the quintessential absent –minded professor and a gift to cartoonists throughout the world. What fewer people know about Einstein is that he was a Humanist and was one of the founder members of the first Humanist Society in New York in 1929. He was also an honorary associate of the British Humanist Association and of the Rationalist Press Association whose journal was among the items present on his desk at his death. It’s true that Einstein had an almost mystical appreciation for the lawful harmony of the universe revealed by science. He once said “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” On another occasion he said “I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment”. I think Albert Einstein was probably the greatest genius who ever lived and was all the more remarkable for his compassion and commitment to ethical humanism.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Return of the Jedi

This is the script for my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Monday 8th November 2010:

Good Morning. Every ten years there is a census in the UK and in March next year we will all receive a paper questionnaire through the post. One of the questions on the 2011 Census will ask about religion. The last census in 2001 showed that 72% of the population of Hull and the East Riding said that they were Christians and 18% said they had no religion. 8% didn’t answer the question and all the other religions combined amounted to less than 2%. So according to the census data, most people are Christians, but what does this really mean? When someone ticks the Christian box, do they mean that they believe in God, spend a lot of their time going to church, praying or reading the Bible? Or do most of the people who tick the Christian box do so simply because they were christened in a church, had parents who were Christian or identify as a cultural Christian without any real religious belief. Why should it matter if people who are not religious tick one of the religious boxes? Well, the data from the last census was used to support all kinds of policies which non-religious people in particular might disapprove of such as the increase in the number of faith schools. Surveys which ask more detailed questions about people’s beliefs suggest that the number of non-religious people is more than 18%. The Church of England has just published figures which suggest that about 45,000 fewer people attend their church services now compared to a decade ago. In the last census over 390,000 people said that their religion was “Jedi” like Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. In fact, this is more than the number who said they were Sikhs, and more than Jews and Buddhists combined, although Jedi didn’t become recognised as an official religion. We are all free to put what we like on the census forms but it is important that the Census generates accurate figures because ultimately they will be used to legitimise resource allocation and policy.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Gunpowder Plot

This is the script of my 2 minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Sunday 7th November 2010:

Good Morning. Remember, remember the fifth of November. I’m sure that most of you heard or saw some fireworks on Friday night. Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night is of course the annual celebration to mark the failure of the Gunpowder plot on the 5th of November 1605 when Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The gunpowder plot was an example of religiously inspired terrorism, something that has made an unwelcome return to these shores in the twenty-first century. The conspirators were Roman Catholics and their plan was to assassinate King James I and restore Catholicism to England. Until 1859 it was compulsory to celebrate the deliverance of the King on the 5th of November as the result of an Act of Parliament called “The Thanksgiving Act”. Prolonged war and bloodshed as a direct result of religious disagreements was a constant feature of life in the seventeenth century. The Thirty Years' War between 1618 and 1648 was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, not to mention the English civil wars. Thanks to the enlightenment and the rise of secularism in the Eighteenth century, religious conflict has declined significantly, though conflict between Protestants and Catholics has continued in to modern times in places like Northern Ireland where traditional religion has remained a potent force. Religiously inspired violence in places such as India and Somalia is even worse. Today our society faces new threats from those bent on usurping our hard fought secular traditions, for example by advocating the introduction of religious laws such as the sharia which would inevitably come to rival the one secular law we live under at present. Bonfire night remains a perennial reminder that we should never again allow the explosive mix of religion and politics to dominate our society. To do so is playing with fire.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Larkin with Toads

This is the script for my 2 minute "Pause for Thought" on the Blair Jacobs Sunday morning show on BBC Radio Humberside, 22nd August 2010:

This summer has seen the appearance of giant fibreglass Toad sculptures in Hull city centre to commemorate the death of the poet Philip Larkin twenty five years ago. If there ever was an atheist I might be tempted to describe as “spiritual” perhaps it would be Larkin. Poems such as “Church Going” express a kind of sadness and loss he felt as an atheist visiting an old church, “Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, If only that so many dead lie round.” At the same time poems such as High Windows spoke of the freedom of the young to break free from the shackles of religion, “No God anymore, or sweating in the dark about hell and that, or having to hide what you think of the priest”. Aubade spoke of the necessity of facing the reality of death without “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend that we never die.”

Today is the anniversary of the death of another famous non-believer who once worked at the University of Hull and was known to write poetry, though he was better known as the writer and presenter of the BBC TV series “The Ascent of Man” in the 1970s. Jacob Bronowski died on the 22nd August 1973 and local Humanists have begun a campaign to celebrate his life and work, not with sculptures but with a commemorative plaque at one of the places he lived during his time in Hull in the 1940s. I would contrast Larkin’s gloomy fear about death with Bronowski’s exuberant Humanism and his Promethean spirit. Bronowski once said “It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it” and “knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty”. “Every animal leaves traces of what it was; man alone leaves traces of what he created.”

Friday, 23 July 2010

I'm an Afairyist

This is the transcript of my 2 minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Friday 23rd July 2010:

Good morning. I am an afairyist. I’ll repeat that for clarity, I am an afairyist. Perhaps that is not what you expected me to describe myself as. An afairyist is someone who does not believe in fairies. That’s right; those dragonfly-winged little people who it is said live at the bottom of your garden. You might be thinking that the idea of a word to describe what nobody really believes in is ridiculous, but in fact belief in fairies was widespread until the beginning of the twentieth century. Fairies were believed to belong to a class of supernatural creatures which also included pixies, gnomes, elves, goblins, brownies, sprites and leprechauns. Fairies were blamed for stealing small objects such as pins when they went missing and all manner of mischief were ascribed to them. It was not only simple minded people who believed in fairies, for example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of Sherlock Holmes was a believer in fairies. Someone living in Victorian England might have been sceptical about someone claiming that one day almost nobody would believe in fairies. They might have thought that belief in fairies was sufficiently widespread that the belief would persist, perhaps fulfilling a psychological need in the fairy believer, but belief in fairies did die out and today most of us are afairyists. I doubt if you would describe yourself as afairyist because it would seem to put too much importance on the thing you are not believing in and there are an infinite number of things that you also don’t believe in. It would be better to find a word that properly described what you do believe in. I believe in science, democracy, an open society, secular ethics and a naturalistic view of the world in which fairies, ghosts, miracles and Gods play no part. I choose to describe myself as a Humanist. What word would you choose to describe what you believe in?

Thursday, 22 July 2010


This is the transcript of my 2 minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Thursday 22nd July 2010:

Good morning. In 2001 a man from Massachusetts in the United States called Jack Sullivan knelt and prayed, asking for the nineteenth century English priest and Cardinal John Henry Newman, who died in 1890, to intercede to help the crippling spinal condition that he was suffering from. Sullivan subsequently made a recovery and medical experts convened by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which is the Vatican body responsible for investigating miracles, concluded that his recovery resulted from prayer. Now John Henry Newman is going to be made a saint by the Pope during his visit to the UK in September and Sullivan’s story is being cited as the requisite miracle. Sullivan said his own doctor could offer no medical explanation and said "Something very special has happened to me from a very special person. This thing is real, it's reality." Well, I’m a humanist and a sceptic which means that I agree with the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who taught that a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence and wrote that “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish”. In other words, what is more likely, that the ghost of a man who has been dead for over a hundred years was listening to the prayer and was somehow able to affect the medical problems Sullivan was suffering from, or that Sullivan underwent a spontaneous remission as a result of the healing mechanisms inherent in the human body. I wouldn’t want to single out Roman Catholics for their beliefs in miracles, because miracles are a feature of most of the religions of the world, for example, in 1995 there were claims of statues drinking milk in Hindu temples. In Islam, Sufi literature gives examples of holy men being able to become invisible or produce rain in seasons of drought. I’m sceptical of all claims of the miraculous and all religions equally.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


This is the transcript of my 2 minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Wednesday 21st July 2010:

Good Morning. The Humanist Carl Sagan once said that “You have to know the past to understand the present”. It was on this day in the year 306 that Constantine was made Roman Emperor, here in the north of England, in York which was then called Eboracum. Constantine was stationed in York with his father, the Emperor Constantinus and was made Emperor when his father died. He is most famous for being the first Christian Roman Emperor. It is worth wondering how the history of western civilisation might have unfolded if Constantine had not embraced the Christian religion, which subsequently became the official religion of the Roman world. Up until then, the Christians had been a persecuted minority who were called “atheists” because of their refusal to worship the Roman Gods, such as Jupiter and Saturn. A Roman called Porphyry wrote “How can people not be in every way impious and atheistic who have apostatized from the customs of our ancestors through which every nation and city is sustained?” For the Romans, religion was first and foremost a social activity that promoted unity and loyalty to the state and there was a belief that if this was undermined by Christianity then social justice and unity would disappear. It seems ironic to me that modern day religious people sometimes suggest that our society might be damaged by the disappearance of relatively recent beliefs such as Christianity but there is little evidence of social disintegration in societies which have become less religious such as Sweden and Denmark. In fact greater levels of crime and disorder exist in the more religious societies. It’s true that Christianity has played a part in the formation of our national identity but in a multicultural society we should not turn a blind eye to the contribution of the non-religious member s of our country.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Meaning of Life

This is the transcript of my 2 minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Tuesday 20th July 2010:

Good morning. The poet T.S. Eliot was once recognised by a taxi driver as he stepped in to his cab. The taxi driver told him “I’ve got an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell and I said to him what’s it all about? And you know he couldn’t tell me.” Was it unreasonable for the taxi driver to expect that the greatest living philosopher of his time could have summarised the meaning of life for him during a taxi journey? I suppose it’s easy to say something trite and platitudinous about life and its meaning in a two minute radio slot such as this, some aphorism to inspire you all for the week ahead, Carpe Diem, seize the day. Life is what you make it. I’m a Humanist and we don’t believe that our lives come pre-packaged with an instruction manual and a set of unbending rules provided by some all knowing deity who has a plan for us. The fact is that much of what happens in life seems to be devoid of any ultimate meaning. Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, “...out , out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot , full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Yes, life can sometimes seem both vacuous and transient but that is not the whole story. The view that I take, that the universe is not the product of intelligent design but of natural forces is called naturalism. This view might seem negative to some people but just because there appears to be no meaning or purpose in the origins of human life does not mean that we cannot create our own meaning and purpose. The discovery that life has no ultimate purpose leaves us free to make of it what we like. As for life’s brevity, I agree with the poet Emily Dickinson who wrote, "That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet".

Monday, 19 July 2010

Rational Optimism

This is the transcript of my 2 minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Monday 19th July 2010:

Good morning. At the present time there seems to be an epidemic of pessimism about the future because of the state of the economy. I’m a Humanist and a rationalist which means that I base my beliefs on the available evidence. Is it rational to conclude that life is improving for the people of our planet? The science writer Matt Ridley recently published a book about the evolution of prosperity. In it he writes that since 1955 the population of the world has doubled, yet the average person on our planet earns nearly three times as much money, corrected for inflation, eats one third more calories of food, buries one third as many of their children and lives one third longer than they did in 1955. They are more likely to have flush toilets, refrigerators, bicycles, telephones, to be literate, to have had an education and the list goes on and on. They are much less likely to die as a result of cancer, heart disease, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diphtheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, scurvy, polio, war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding or famine. The percentage of people living in absolute poverty has dropped by more than half. It’s hard to imagine living in a world where artificial light was not so easily available, but the average Briton today consumes about 40,000 times as much artificial light as the average Briton 300 years ago. In the year 1700, Louis XIV, King of France, was fantastically wealthy and every evening he could choose what to eat from a selection of forty dishes prepared by an army of 500 servants, yet this is nothing compared to the vast array of food and drink available at relatively low cost at our nations supermarkets. In 1957, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan said that you’ve never had it so good, yet the average British working man in 1957 was earning less in real terms than his modern equivalent could now receive in state benefit if unemployed with three children. Surely all of this evidence should lead anyone to rationally conclude that life is better now than ever before.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

My Humanist Hero: Jacob Bronowski

I have just submitted the following article for the BHA Humanist Heritage project which is being launched for Humanist Week which runs from 21st-28th June.

The Humanist, polymath and all round Renaissance man, Jacob Bronowski was born in Poland in 1908 to Jewish parents who moved to Germany during the first World War and then on to England in 1920. Bronowski won a scholarship to study Mathematics at Cambridge but was also involved with editing a literary periodical called “Experiment”. This was an early sign that he would be one of the extraordinary few thinkers to straddle the divide between the “two cultures” famously discussed by C.P. Snow in his 1959 lecture and paving the way to the “third culture”, a tradition continued by our current crop of Humanist grandees including Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling and by the British Humanist Association which is ending Humanist Week (21st – 28th June) with a conference on Humanism and the Arts, following last year’s conference on Humanism and Science. Bronowski’s interests ranged widely, from biology to poetry and from chess to Humanism, his commitment to which is evidenced in the following excerpt written in October 1968, the month of my birth:

The notion that a man shall judge for himself what he is told, sifting the evidence and weighing the conclusions, is of course implicit in the outlook of science. But it begins before that as a positive and active constituent of humanism. For evidently the notion implies not only that man is free to judge, but that he is able to judge. This is an assertion of confidence which goes back to a contemporary of Socrates, and claims (as Plato quotes him) that “man is the measure of all things”. In humanism, man is all things: he is both the expression and the master of the creation.[1]

Jacob Bronowski is best remembered for “The Ascent of Man”, a thirteen part TV series produced by the BBC in 1973, in which he explored the history of science and technology. It is said that it was this seminal TV series which inspired the late great American astronomer Carl Sagan to make his own documentary series, "Cosmos", which also inspired a generation of Humanists. Notwithstanding David Hume, Bronowski championed the idea that the ethical “ought” could be derived from the scientific exploration of what “is”[2]. A particularly poignant and moving part of the series was filmed at the Auschwitz concentration camp (search YouTube) and begins with the following:

"It's said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That's false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”[3]

Bronowski taught mathematics at the University College Hull from 1934 to 1942. This might not be the best known fact about his life, but it is a salient one for me as Hull is my hometown. Surely Bronowski deserves recognition in any account of our local Humanist heritage. The economist Eric Roll who worked with Bronowski in Hull said of him:

"He was ... a warm and vibrant human being. Every encounter with him was a powerful tonic which left one feeling intellectually and emotionally stimulated and enhanced. He did not, however, suffer fools gladly and could be bitingly sardonic about human folly or about the glaring discrepancies so often to be found between public acclaim and true worth. But to his friends he was kind and affectionate, a companion whose gaiety and wit counterbalanced his serious approach to life."[4]

Given the stature and influence of Jacob Bronowski on the public understanding of science, it is perhaps surprising that his association with the city of Hull has not been honoured. Bronowski died in New York in 1974, a year after the completion of “The Ascent of Man”. Given this great Humanist’s legacy, I think that Jacob Bronowski deserves a commemorative plaque at the very least.

[1] Science as a Humanistic Discipline, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, XXIV, no8, October 1968 (
[2] Positivists and analysts alike believe that the words is and ought belong to different worlds, so that sentences which are constructed with is usually have verifiable meaning, but sentences constructed with ought never have.....The question of how man ought to behave is a social question, which always involves several people; and if he accepts no evidence and no judgment except his own, he has no tools with which to frame an answer.
"The Sense of Human Dignity”, part 3 (p. 56)
[3] The Ascent of Man, BBC,

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Humanism, Politics and The Blank Pamphlet

This has been a bad election for Humanists. Two prominent members of the 110 strong All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (secretary of the group Paul Holmes and Evan Harris pictured above) lost their seats. Dr Evan Harris, a medical doctor, is particularly well known as an advocate of science and secularism. Unfortunately he lost his Oxford seat by a few hundred votes. I can only hope that he can find some way to continue being a strong advocate for Humanism in some other way. Indeed, Dr Harris is going to be a speaker at the upcoming Enquiry Conference in Birmingham in June, along with other notable Humanists such as A.C. Grayling and Andrew Copson.

I find it puzzling that I still come across the perception of Humanists depicted in the cartoon above. The assumption is that Humanism is like a religion with no core beliefs and values. Most Humanists don’t want to go door-to-door Jehovah’s Witness style to talk about their beliefs (though you will find the odd person who does). The truth is that we Humanists have very definite ideas about the open society, democracy, ethics, secularism, free speech, human rights and the value of science and education, even when we differ on other views such as taxation or the desirable size of government, which is why there are Humanists in most of the major parties (UKIP, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green). We have plenty of pamphlets and books and they are not blank, but our ideas are not dogmatic. Humanism is more of a method, involving the weighing of evidence when deciding on any matter. It’s about asking the question, “What sort of reasons do you have for holding the position you hold” or “What evidence is there that what you say is true”. It is a rejection of arguments based on authority or faith. It promotes engagement with political life through democratic processes; it does not dictate any party political allegiance.

Monday, 26 April 2010


This is the transcript of my 2 minute Pause for Thought on BBC Radio Humberside on Sunday 25th April 2010:

On what basis do people decide what is good and what is bad? Many people think that our ideas about justice, goodness and the right way to live can only have come to us through the commandments of an almighty and perfectly good God. In 380 BC, the philosopher Plato wrote a dialogue called Euthyphro which highlights a problem with this way of looking at things. In the dialogue, Plato’s teacher Socrates asks his friend Euthyphro this question. “Is that which the gods love good because they love it, or do they love it because it is good?” If the former is true, then the gods could choose to love anything they want, whether or not we humans would consider it good. A god could decide that something we think of as bad was good and vice versa. Alternatively, if the gods love the good simply because it is good, then what is good and bad must exist independently of any God. So whether there is or is not a God, I don’t think that believing in God or following the teachings of ancient scripture can absolve us of the responsibility of deciding which values and ideas are going to govern our lives. I think we have to discern these values using experience and an understanding of human nature, and whatever creed you believe in, deciding what is good and true is ultimately a judgement you make yourself. The fact that we have decided to think one thing or another does not necessarily make us right, but carefully thinking about our actions and there likely consequences has to be a better foundation for the good life than blindly following the rules laid down in ages past by people whose understanding of life was limited.

Saturday, 17 April 2010


This is the transcript of my 2 minute Pause for Thought on BBC Radio Humberside on 16th April 2010:

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said “Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves – and the only way they can do that is by not voting”. The general election is almost upon us and for the first time in five years, each of us will have the opportunity to cast our vote to decide the next government of our country. Recent decades have seen a sharp fall in the number of people exercising their democratic right to vote in elections. Voter turnout reached a peak in the 1950 general election where 82% of those eligible to vote did so, but by 2001 only 59% voted. The greatest decrease is in the number of young people participating in the electoral process. What are the reasons for this and should we be worried? Some might say that British people are increasingly content with their lives and the society they live in and don’t really care which of the major political parties forms a government. Others might suggest disillusionment with politicians fuelled by recent media stories about expense claims, but the decline had set in long before these stories surfaced. Perhaps people are too busy to vote, but busy doing what? Many people are more likely to vote for contestants on the X-Factor or Dancing on Ice than to vote in a general election. Some people think that their vote will make no difference to the outcome – they are just wrong. Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms of government that have been tried. Democracy does not exist everywhere in our world and I don’t think we should take it for granted. It is a precious defence against those who would seek to curtail our freedoms or deprive us of our rights.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Religion and Morality

This is the transcript of my 2 minute Pause for Thought on BBC Radio Humberside on 15th April 2010:

Albert Einstein once said that a person's ethical behaviour should be based on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs and that no religious basis is necessary. He went on to say “Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.” I have sometimes met people who say that in order to lead a good and moral life it is necessary to believe in God, to say your prayers and to be religious. Is there a link between morally good behaviour and being religious? I would like you to try to think of an ethical statement or a moral action performed by a religious person that could not have been performed by someone without a religious faith. I doubt if you could think of anything. Now try to think of a wicked thing said or an evil action performed that has been done specifically in the name of religious faith. I’m sure that you can think of at least one example. Do the religious authorities in our world have any special insight in to right and wrong? Reading the newspapers it seems increasingly difficult to think so. It seems to me that the idea of morality has been hijacked by religion. I think that reason, experience and shared human values are a better guide to a good life than ancient holy books and traditions based on a pre-scientific understanding of the universe. Kindness, generosity, goodness and justice do not depend on a belief in the supernatural. I agree with the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg who said “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion”.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Human Genome Project

This is the transcript of my 2 minute Pause for Thought on BBC Radio Humberside on 14th April 2010:

It was seven years ago today that an international consortium of scientists announced to the world that they had completed work on what many regard as the greatest scientific project of all time. This was the completion of the Human Genome Project which involved the complete mapping of the twenty-three thousand genes of a human being. We are already seeing advances in medicine as a direct result of the project, such as the identification of genes associated with diabetes, autism and breast cancer. Ultimately the therapies and treatments that will be developed have the potential to reduce human suffering and unhappiness on an unprecedented scale. One of the things genetics has taught us is how closely related humans are to other animals, sharing 98 per cent of our genes with our closest ape relatives. We have come a long way since great thinkers such Michael Servetus who was the first European to describe the circulation of the blood and Giordano Bruno who first suggested the possibility of life on other planets were burnt at the stake for heresy in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. There is reason to hope that the human race is just at the beginning of the scientific understanding of our world yet to a significant extent we are still wedded to the superstitious beliefs and practices of the ancient world, which hold us back and can exacerbate or even cause the harms that threaten our existence. I think that the time has come for our society to put away childish things and to embrace the world that science has revealed to us, rather than persist with the dogmatic certainties of ancient faiths. The great thing about science is that if a theory is shown to be false, it is discarded and replaced by a better idea. If only the same could be said for all of our discourse.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Faith Schools

This is the transcipt of my 2 minute Pause for Thought broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on 13th March 2010:

About a third of state schools in the UK are “Faith Schools” or “schools with a religious character”. The number of Faith Schools is increasing and many people think that this is a good thing but I am not one of them. I would like to see more community schools with good discipline, high academic standards and a positive ethos, though not an ethos that assumes a commitment to religious dogma. We need schools where children are taught to think critically. In 2008 the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said that “in our increasingly multi-faith and secular society it is hard to see why our taxes should be used to fund schools which discriminate against the majority of children and potential staff because they are not of the same faith". This September sees the opening of a new private faith school in Hull which is being set up with the intention of teaching children a literal interpretation of the Bible, complete with Adam, Eve and the apple and talking about God will be an integral part of all subjects. The website quotes Proverbs 22 , verse 6, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it”. That’s what worries me. Of course, in an open, pluralist and multi-cultural society such as ours, the state should promote tolerance and recognition of different values and beliefs, but is separating children according to the religious or in my case lack of religious beliefs of their parents the best way to create social harmony and cohesion? Just think of the history of Northern Ireland. I agree with Dr Jonathan Romain, the Rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue who said “I want my children to go to a school where they can sit next to a Christian, play football in the break with a Muslim, do homework with a Hindu and walk back with an atheist ... Schools should build bridges, not erect barriers.”

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

First Space Flight and Russell's Teapot

This is the transcipt of my 2 minute Pause for Thought broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on 12th March 2010:

It was on this day in history that Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to leave the Earth and enter space. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of this momentous event. Urban legend has Gagarin saying “I don’t see any God up here”, though these words do not appear in the transcripts of his communications with ground control. What he actually said was “the Earth is blue... How wonderful. It’s amazing”. Many of our ancestors certainly believed in a heaven that was literally in the sky but I doubt many religious people nowadays would have expected Gagarin to see God in space. The English philosopher Bertrand Russell asked us to imagine someone believing that there was a china teapot in orbit around the sun which was too small to be seen even by our most powerful telescopes. Could anyone say with certainty that there isn’t such a teapot? If someone continually insisted that there was such a china teapot somewhere in space without providing any evidence or adequate reason to think so, would it seem odd? Since we cannot prove that there is no teapot, should we be agnostic about its existence? Of course, Russell was making an analogy between the china teapot and God. Unless someone has some evidence that there is a God, why should anyone believe in one anymore than a china teapot floating through space? There are an infinite number of things that could conceivably exist, invisible pink unicorns, the flying spaghetti monster or a dragon in my garage. Just because you can’t prove that something does not exist, doesn’t make it reasonable to believe in it.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Forever Jung

In one of my earlier blog posts (Jan 2009) I talked about my sudden fascination with Myers Briggs Personality Tests (MBTI) and how this would probably be a characteristically short lived fad for me. Well in this case, my interest in Jungian Type Theory has not been short lived and over the past year I have grown to be a fully fledged MBTI bore, expanding my collection of books which now include Jung for Beginners, The Essential Jung, The Undiscovered Self by Carl Gustav Jung, Gifts Differing by Isabel Briggs Myers, Please Understand Me II by David Kiersey (who developed the Kiersey Temperament Sorter), Type Talk: The 16 Personality Types and the latest addition to my library, Personality Type: An Owner’s Manual by Lenore Thomson, a former editor of the Jungian journal Quadrant and in my opinion the best book on personality type that I have read. Some of my fellow Humanists will be sceptical about Jungian psychology. Richard Dawkins has been scathing about Jung’s questionable pseudoscientific ideas, claiming in the God Delusion that Jung believed that books would spontaneously fly off his bookshelf. I gave an impromptu talk about the New Atheists on Monday in York when a planned presentation of YouTube comedy clips was scuppered by a dodgy internet connection. I put up a slide showing Dawkins’ 7 point scale of belief, with 7 being someone who is certain that there is no God and 1 being someone who knows that there is. Dawkins gave Carl Jung as an example of this type 1 certainty about God, quoting an interview given shortly before Jung’s death in with he said “I don’t need to believe in God, I know”. I am sceptical that Jung was claiming to believe in the God of traditional theism but that is a moot point. I think Jung was a more insightful thinker than Dawkins gives credit for. He may have had questionable beliefs in astrology and synchronicity but his ideas about personality type seem to ring true to me. Or maybe I am still a sucker for psychobabble.

At the time of my last blog post on MBTI I consistently tested as INTJ – the Mastermind, to use Kiersey’s terminology. I have since become convinced that I correspond much more readily with the INTP personality type – the Architect.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Good Morning Humberside

I have been invited back on to the BBC Radio Humberside equivalent of the BBC Radio Four Thought for the Day, on Andy Comfort’s breakfast show which is a 2 minute slot called Pause for Thought at a quarter to eight each morning (for a week in April). Yes, I know, I have a face for Radio. I am the first Humanist to be involved with this in our region, though other local stations have Humanists doing the same. Hopefully I will be the first of many. I did the week before Christmas – which was a bit of a surprise and took the opportunity to refute the old chestnut about atheists trying to ban Christmas. I pre-recorded all five sessions the week before, the day after our office Christmas party and was feeling a bit hung-over. Hopefully that didn’t come across in the recording. A friend suggested that I was a bit didactic, but being a bit platitudinous goes with the territory. It’s hard to sound natural when you are reading from a script but at least you can re-record if you mess up, which is not an option if you are going out live. A work colleague suggested I try a more light hearted approach, but that’s not really me. I am quite a serious person when it comes to my Humanist beliefs and I want to at least try to say something pensive without sounding as if I am stood in a pulpit. The British Humanist Association has been running a long campaign to have Humanists included in the rota of speakers on the national Thought for the Day slot on Radio Four. They allowed Richard Dawkins and Ariane Sherine (of Atheist Bus Campaign fame, above) to do a one off each but they have yet to agree to regular Humanist speakers. I had the pleasure of meeting the glamorous and intelligent Ariane Sherine the same day my first broadcast went out as she was giving a very funny talk at the North Yorkshire Humanist Group in York, which was excellent. I explained to Ariane that I was so impressed by her Thought for the day that I typed out what she had said and tried to pass it off as my own work to my wife, who proceeded to tell me that I had definitely not written it “... because you’ve got no feelings”. A bit harsh I thought. What I eventually came up with owed more to the popular Humanist philosopher A.C. Grayling. I now have to come up with another five ideas, any suggestions anyone?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Godless Vicars?

It is 30 years since the classic British situational comedy “Yes Minister” first aired. This much loved show ran for 3 seasons of 7 episodes followed by the sequel, “Yes, Prime Minister” between 1986-88. One of my favourite episodes was “Bishop’s Gambit” in which the now Prime Minister Jim Hacker had to choose one of the candidates put up by the Crown Appointments Commission for a vacant Bishopric in the Church of England. This episode parodies the realities of our state church which to this day is split between conservative evangelicals and catholics who are very religious in the sense usually understood, with conservative views on abortion, euthanasia, drug use, gay rights, etc, and who take the Bible and orthodox Christianity very seriously, and on the other hand liberal, left of centre, “modernists” who seem to come rather close to being atheists. It was often said that this was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite TV show and it was around this time in the 1980s that she vetoed the appointment of James Lawton Thompson as Bishop of Birmingham for his liberal or leftish views. Also around the time of “Yes, Prime Minister”, David Jenkins controversially became the Bishop of Durham and was hounded for his alleged disbelief if not for his left wing political views. Around this time I was a confirmed member of the Church of England and I could perhaps have cynically stayed the course as a non-believing Anglican as some others seem to have done. However, I would have found it impossible to square my own views with what I know to be the faith once delivered to the saints. I am a believer of sorts, just not in Christianity (or at least what I take to be Christianity) and so I have chosen to pursue what I perceive to be the right path, that of Humanism.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Non-Overlapping Magisteria

I have just finished watching the Howard Jacobson programme on the Bible on Channel 4. I wish he would replace the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” with “reactionary atheist” or something similar – to claim that Dawkins’ atheism is “fundamentalist” is wilfully misleading. He also talked about people being certain in their doubt - it doesn’t make sense, since doubt precludes certainty. When I gave a talk in Leeds a couple of weeks ago I put up a slide showing Dawkins’ 7 point scale of belief. Out of a room of 19 people, 3 claimed to be a 7 on the scale – they “knew that there was no God” – this is an attempt to prove a negative which none of the “New Atheists” would have any truck with. This is just a mirror image of religious fundamentalism, an attempt to feel more emotionally secure in whatever you believe by claiming that your beliefs are 100% certain. Of course, being sure that something is the case does not imply absolute certainty. Following Bertrand Russell, I do not believe there is a china teapot in orbit around the sun between Earth and Mars, though I can’t prove there isn’t.
I was also irritated by Jacobson’s defence of the non-literal truth of ancient scriptures. In truth, the only reason that some, more sophisticated, religious people have not continued to believe in the literal truth of scripture has been the constant chipping away at their certainties by scientists and philosophers like Richard Dawkins and his intellectual predecessors stretching back to the enlightenment. The idea of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) which was proposed by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in his book Rocks of Ages and which Jacobson was advocating is a position that is adopted to offer religious believers an opportunity to continue with their religious beliefs without undermining science education – but this is to ignore what many religious people really believe as was shown in the documentary. If any real evidence for God or the supernatural was discovered by science, we can be sure that these NOMA people would drop it in an instant. It isn’t Dawkins and Grayling who are failing to undercover the truth of the matter – it is weak apologists like Howard Jacobson and Karen Armstrong who want to have their cake and eat it.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Touched by His Noodley Appendage

I gave a talk at the Humanist Society of West Yorkshire in Leeds on Thursday evening, which appears to have been well received, though I went on a bit longer than I should have. Titled The New Atheists it was an opportunity to reflect on the end of the first decade of the new millennium which I suggested would be remembered for the rise of the new atheism or what some people would call “militant atheism". In the audience was Chris Worfolk of Leeds Atheist Society who I had met for the first time earlier in the week when he gave a talk to the North Yorkshire Humanist Group in York. I have been looking at some of the stuff Chris has been involved with on his website (see and on the Leeds Atheist website (see and I have to say that for a young guy in his early twenties who has only recently finished university, he has achieved a great deal to promote Atheism and Humanism in the UK, going so far as to set up his own Foundation and organising a conference with big name speakers such as A.C. Grayling. Chris seems to be walking his talk, living out the Humanist mantra of living this one life to the full. Life is not a dress rehearsal for eternity, this is it and that it will never come again is what makes life so sweet. The great Humanist Carl Sagan was once asked what the meaning of life was. He answered “Do something meaningful”. Too many people are content to be spectators in the game of life, waiting for others to provide ready-made social institutions and belief systems. That’s too easy. The Humanist way is to seek happiness through self-fulfilment, daring to make your own decisions about the best way to achieve that happiness. Self-fulfilment does not imply a solipsistic, narcissistic self-obsession. The nineteenth century freethinker Robert Ingersoll thought that the way to be happy was to seek first the happiness of others. He was not wrong. Sometimes the best way to be self-fulfilled is through a commitment to activities which involve other people and most importantly, to ideas that are themselves more important than you are. Humanist ideas such as the open society, secularism, democracy, and free scientific enquiry fit the bill. I suppose all this sounds a bit austere and serious. One of the great strengths of the younger generation of atheists is a capacity to have a good time as can be seen from this clip of the Leeds Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster with the Revd. Chris Worfolk officiating.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Suspension of Disbelief

This Christmas saw the last episode of the classic BBC children’s Sci-Fi drama Dr Who to feature the actor David Tennant in the lead role. Tennant has proved to be one of the most popular of the eleven actors to play the role. It might feel awkward for some adults to admit to liking this long running and immensely popular show, mainly because of an association between science fiction and nerdy socially inadequate adolescent boys. I’m sure the cap fitted in my case and I was always interested in Science Fiction as a child. I used to read Isaac Asimov, who wrote The Foundation Trilogy. Asimov’s books The Bicentennial Man and I Robot were later made into movies and the eagerly awaited Foundation movie is currently being made. I also enjoyed watching the original series of Star Trek on a Saturday morning, another indicator of developing geekishness. At the time I was unaware of the close link between Science Fiction and the Humanist beliefs I adopted later in life. Isaac Asimov was a former president of the American Humanist Association, as was the science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut and more influentially Gene Rodenberry who was the creator of Star Trek - remember that there were no priests and no God on board the Enterprise in the far future! In fact the vision of the future presented in the Star Trek universe, a United Federation of Planets (with a logo almost identical to that of the United Nations) and a racially and culturally diverse humanity working together to explore space probably did a lot to lodge Humanist ideas in the developing minds of children everywhere, though they were almost certainly unaware of the word Humanist. The idea of a perfected logical and rational Spock, devoid of emotion clouding his judgement seems a bit naïve but Star Trek was way ahead of its time. On this side of the pond, the development of Dr Who was influenced by Douglas Adams who was a Humanist and an early writer on the series, also a close friend of Richard Dawkins who’s wife, Lalla Ward was one of the Doctors companions during the Tom Baker years. Dawkins even appeared in Dr Who himself in a recent episode. Arthur C. Clarke, writer of 2001 A Space Odyssey was another writer who was closely associated with the Humanist movement.
Whilst sat enjoying the Christmas episode of Dr Who, it’s hard not to start thinking of the absurdities of the Dr Who narrative, especially about the paradoxes of time travel, but enjoying science fiction is all about suspension of disbelief. I think that this enjoyment of magical thinking is healthy. The narratives associated with traditional religious beliefs are every bit as absurd as a Dr Who plot line. They only really become worthy of ridicule when someone chooses to take religious stories as corresponding to historical reality.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Dour atheistic Calvinists?

I have seen the annual recurrence of the debates within Humanism over the celebration of Christmas in the Think Humanism online discussion forum. Some, rather odd people in my opinion, are vexed over the issue of whether joining in with Christmas is a sell out to the still dominant religion that they have chosen to turn their back on. I lived in Edinburgh during my time at university and the Scots make a bigger deal of New Year (Hogmanay) than Christmas - indeed the English celebrations have a definite Scottish flavour . I saw in the New Year eating haggis, dancing to I would walk 500 miles and Donald where’s your troosers, not to mention the obligatory rendition of Auld Lang Syne, what’s more Scottish than that? Does joining in with Hogmanay suggest I am impersonating a Scotsman? Perhaps if I donned a kilt (as some do in England) I would be going too far. I think that there is an irony in that the reason the Scots focus on Hogmanay for their drunken revelries rather than Christmas is not that they are less religious (I think they are more so - or at least they were) but that the pious and puritan Christians of 16th century Scotland effectively banned the traditional Christmas to impose a more Christian version of it. The truth is that the cultural milieu we find ourselves in is not of our making but traditions gradually change and eventually new traditions will be invented that future generations will imagine to have existed since time immemorial. We all play our part in the formation of that future culture but I doubt if many of us will be around to see it arrive. Our Christmas probably owes more to Prince Albert and Charles Dickens than to the synoptic gospels and if you want to abolish it, perhaps you have more in common with those dour Scottish Calvinists than with the spirit of Humanism.