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.