There’s more in the news today about the report of Professor Alston, who was appointed by The United Nations to report on Poverty in the UK.
His findings may have been pushed aside by our current fascination with other topics but they deserve and cry out for our attention.
‘much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos’.
‘Government policies have led to the ‘systematic immiseration’ of a significant part of the UK population, meaning they had continually put people further into poverty’
‘Some observers might conclude that The DWP has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitised version of the19th Century workhouse made famous by Charles Dickens’.
Many politicians have rushed to deny the report but in our towns and cities, there are ubiquitous signs of austerity and hardship. Soiled cardboard and sleeping bags, in shop doorways. Schools bear witness that they now operate as a 4th Emergency Service; responsible for clothing and feeding children, before they can begin to learn.
Political realignments generate heat and excitement but they don’t focus on the human cost of austerity, which we will be paying for generations.
It’s all a long way from ‘the good life’ that Humanists hold dear and it’s happening on our watch.
Chair, Coventry & Warwickshire Humanists
The news that cases of Measles are increasing nationally and globally has led to me thinking about what I know, or think I know, about the issue.
Humanist, republican and Green Party candidate Mark Summers shares his thoughts on the relationship between Humanism and republicanism. This guest blog post coincides with the eve of a Royal wedding and the annual Leveller’s Day celebrations in Burford. Mark who is also a Shelley expert and parish councillor for Long Lawford can be found at @New_Leveller on Twitter and newleveller.net
“If someone claims that in an earthly government things can go on perfectly well without the king’s ordering or dealing with anything, we can reasonably suspect him of wanting to get rid of the king altogether. Similarly, anyone who maintains that the world can continue to run its course without the continual direction of God the supreme governor has a doctrine that does have the effect of excluding God from the world.”
Exchange of papers between Leibniz and Clarke – Clarke’s first reply (26 November 1715)
This literary exchange between Isaac Newton’s close friend, the philosopher Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) and German natural philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) illustrates a fundamental historical link between republicanism and humanism. Viewed as a twin threat by the traditional ‘King and Church’ establishment they shared a common notion that facts and social structures should be determined by reason, being open to contestability and revision.
Modern republicanism and humanism were born in the same intellectual space. Inspired by the ethical and political writings of the classical world, especially the Greeks Aristotle and Polybius and the great Roman senator and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero they share a common heritage in the Renaissance. Indeed, Classical Republicanism was often used as a synonym for Civic Humanism. Since these beginnings in the Italian City States of the 15th and 16th centuries, republicanism and humanism have drifted apart slightly in terms of their objectives, with modern republicanism placing the advancement of liberty in political and constitutional terms as its central concern. This allows members of religious groups such as Quakers to espouse republicanism but not humanism.
So what were the historical commonalities and how are they reflected today? Central to the concern of Renaissance thinkers such as Niccolo Machiavelli was the provision of a public space as an environment for human fulfilment. Living in tumultuous political circumstances, Machiavelli was principally concerned with power and the responsibilities of those who wielded it to build a safe and secure society for all citizens. But during the seventeenth century, especially in England and Scotland, republicans started to build a case focusing on rights, albeit on the same foundation of public spaces.
Along with a concern for individual rights came an eagerness to question assumptions, to accept no authority as sacrosanct. As J.G.A. Pocock put it:
“…the Enlightenment generally [was] based on a complete rejection of prophecy, revelation and the Hebrew mode of thought at large.”
J.G.A. Pocock (1975) The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition
Putting together the related issues of human rights and a rejection of uncontested authority provides a core set of shared republican and humanist values for the modern world. The Humanist UK main webpage (retrieved March 2018) features the following definition of humanism from the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy:
For a Humanist the crucial factor in deciding whether an action is moral is the welfare of humanity rather than the pursuit of the will of a deity or a sacred text.
There are two aspects of this statement which is reflected directly in republican thinking. Firstly, the word ‘deciding’ implies freedom of individual action, to weigh up evidence and come to a conclusion based on that evidence. Such an ability, free from coercion and the possibility of being punished in some way is part of the explicit goal of republicanism.
Secondly ‘welfare’ implies an interest in the general health and well-being of a group. This is a recurring republican theme, with thinkers such as Montesquieu emphasizing that a well-functioning republic requires widespread civic virtue, by which is meant the active participation of citizens united by a concern for the common good.
Over the past two decades political philosopher Philip Pettit has been instrumental in developing a modern view of Republicanism both as a theory of freedom and a system of government. Pettit has put forward what he calls the ‘eyeball test’ as one indicator of the level of freedom in a society. The test states that in an ideal society any individual should be able to look another squarely in the eye without fear or prejudice. This is yet another fundamental principle which the republican shares with the humanist, that each person should show respect to his or her fellows irrespective of class, political, racial or religious background.
Although republicanism encompasses a much broader view than narrow antimonarchism, it is still a touchstone issue for the principles I have briefly outlined. But with a British Monarchy apparently tightly constrained by custom and statute is the republican concern with rights in such a constitution relevant to the humanist? I believe it is, for the following reasons. Consider, for example, the Royal Prerogative, an essentially accountable power which can be used to bypass Parliament and the judicial system. Though today mostly exercised by Cabinet Ministers this dangerous appendage to the monarchial system must be dismantled and the powers controlled as Parliament sees fit. This is before we consider the status of the Monarch him/herself as Supreme Governor of the Church of England with its enshrined right to have 26 Bishops in the House of Lords is taken into account. Likewise the fact that all legal and executive authority derives from one single source means that the monarch is above the law and cannot be prosecuted or called as a witness in a criminal trial. To do so would effectively mean the Queen prosecuting herself or possibly giving evidence against herself! The existence of a person above the reach of the law not only causes a fundamental problem of accountability but certainly fails the eyeball test.
As both republicans and humanists argue for a society based on open communication, discussion, criticism and unforced consensus, the fact that the Monarchy not only enjoys exemption from Freedom of Information but also forces the media to sign restrictive contracts effectively handing editorial control of any interview material to the Palace presents us with further problems. Finally, that one particular family are kept in a privileged position in perpetuity without being subject to accountability cannot be regarded as promoting the common good.
I have aimed to show that while the modern ideas of republicanism and humanism have diverged in some ways the root concepts of open rational-based decision making, contestability and respect are fundamental core values. The enlightenment which began in the sixteenth century was powered by a willingness to contest ideas and when necessary replace them with new, better or more appropriate ideas. Both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz lie at the foundation of the rationalist enlightenment programme. That they equated republicans to atheists in a heinous category shows just how far we have come in the last three centuries. The fact that we retain a state religion while British republicans are still viewed with suspicion and occasional hostility shows how far we have yet to go.
An Opinion Piece from the Kenilworth Courier, August 2017
New evidence has been published about the continued decline in religious belief. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey showed that, in England, 53% of the population now describe themselves as having no religion. Forty-one per cent are Christian but Anglicans (the established church) are only 15%.
We are not a Christian country in anything other than a narrow constitutional sense.
These figures confirm that the Government, led by an avowed Christian, is going entirely against popular opinion in persisting with the policy of official support, and almost total funding, for faith schools and scandalously planning to allow them to take in only children of their own religious persuasion. It is obvious to most people that the policy is wrong on two grounds. First what is needed in our divided country is integration not segregation. This should start in schools. Second if you wish to teach moral behaviour it is no longer helpful to turn to religions which base their premise on a belief in God that no longer resonates with the majority and particularly younger people.
From a Humanist point of view we would like to see schools teaching ethical and moral behaviour which is not based on faith in a non-existent being but on human experience. Over the millennia we have learned what furthers the progress of mankind. We know that pleasure is better than pain, that cooperation is better than conflict, that kindliness is better than hostility and that all humans must be treated equally irrespective of characteristics such as gender, race, and colour. Children will respond to this with understanding. Requiring a belief in God is not helpful.
Dr Brian Nicol
Coventry and Warwickshire Humanists
The following has been published today as a “Viewpoint” in the Courier Series of newspapers (Leamington Courier, Kenilworth Weekly News and Warwick Courier).
This is the latest of regular contributions to publicise the Humanist outlook and the local group.
This was published next to an article by the Attorney General Jeremy Wright who is MP for Kenilworth and Southam.
Supporting the right to die
Humanists UK, the national Humanist organisation, is supporting its terminally ill member Noel Conway who wants the right to die, and this support is endorsed by the local group, Kenilworth-based Coventry & Warwickshire Humanists.
Noel has said that he wants to say goodbye to loved ones “at the right time, not to be in a zombie-like condition suffering both physically and psychologically”.
Humanists defend the right of each individual to live by his or her own personal values, and the freedom to make decisions about his or her own life so long as this does not result in harm to others. Humanists do not share the attitudes to death and dying held by some religious believers (notably Roman Catholics) in particular that the manner and time of death are for a deity to decide, and that interference in the course of nature is unacceptable. Humanist firmly uphold the right to life but recognise that this right carries with it the right of each individual to make his or her own judgement about whether his or her life should be prolonged in the face of pointless suffering.
It is completely wrong that people who are of sound mind but terminally ill or incurably suffering are denied the choice to die with dignity. The deliberate extension of suffering as a matter of public policy is a stain on our humanity. The majority of the public want change but as long as Parliament is unwilling to act, it is up to brave individuals such as Noel to fight for all our rights. We will always stand with such courageous and public-spirited champions. The right to die, with dignity, in a manner of our choosing, must be understood to be a fundamental human right.
Legalising assisted dying must of course ensure that strict legal safeguards are in place and empower people to make rational choices over their end of life care free from coercion. It is very important that there are strong safeguards in any assisted dying law, but the international evidence from countries where assisted dying is legal shows that such safeguards are effective.
Coventry & Warwickshire Humanists
It’s not often now that the Church of England (CoE) hits the big headlines in mainstream media. Two news items – one on the historic physical child abuse known to the Church hierarchy for many years but only just revealed to the general public, and the other on the debate on the status of LGBTI believers, have both briefly hit the headlines recently. But both stories faded away very quickly, with little comment from outside the church itself.
The first issue is horrific and at the very least should result in prosecutions, not only of those directly involved, but potentially those aware for years of criminal offences who failed to report them – the very governance of the CoE. The second issue makes you wonder what decade the Church is operating in – the 1940s or 1950s? Any other major organisation with open discrimination against people’s sexuality would be challenged in the courts in high-profile cases. But in the CoE just a few dedicated Christian LGBTI groups seem to be pursuing this.
My point is – who really cares now about what happens inside the CoE? Even ‘big’ stories about their actions and their policies barely register in the media, and few outside the church seem minded to pursue them. The church never seems to comment on social policy anymore, or if it does, no-one cares much what it says. Even the CoE’s early involvement in food banks has been overshadowed now by corporate enterprises. World attention on religion is most definitely focussed elsewhere.
The CoE is still guilty of many crimes of morality, but in terms of influence I would suggest it’s largely an anachronism, an out-dated organisation run by elderly white men with a dwindling congregation of predominantly elderly parishioners. It is destined to fade away, I think, particularly in the UK, even if it maintains more influence in other parts of the globe. It’s still a scandal against democracy that Bishops sit in the House of Lords, but they are a small number in an unelected second house now packed with Tory appointees – the whole thing a bastion of privilege and cronyism in which the Bishops are just a little part of a very big problem. The Church still owns some enviable real estate. But did you know there is an organisation, the Friends of Friendless Churches, looking after a growing number of historic buildings that the CoE can not be bothered to conserve, let alone revive as vibrant centres of worship? What more poignant symbol of decline is there than churches disused and falling down.
Who could have predicted that the once great force of Anglicanism would die with a whimper rather than a bang, focussed on fighting internal battles which no-one outside of its walls really notices? How should Humanists respond? Can we look forward to the demise of the CoE without putting much effort in to help that process? I think so, and there will be little need for dancing on that grave, after what looks to be a slow but largely painless fading away. So maybe Humanists can now look elsewhere to fight more current and important challenges to enlightened secularism.
In my mid-eighties myself I was interested to read in Alan Bennett’s diary in the London Review of Books that as an octogenarian he is always conscious of his age with its infirmities and ‘the only end of age’ as Larkin put it. In his case as well as many others the personal situation is acerbated by the visibly worsening of society in many respects nationally and internationally. We can see the pressures on young people setting out on adulthood and on the poor in our own society and the conflicts abroad leading to the miseries of loss of home and livelihood leading many to become refugees. We can see that our cherished western liberal, humane society that we believe in as the beacon for the future, is beset on all sides.
Ironically ‘the enemy within’ turns out to be what we thought of as one of its central pillars namely democracy itself. Large numbers of people have become conscious of their power to bring about change. The change voted for unfortunately is in favour not of greater equalisation of wealth and social opportunities and away from rampant capitalism but is to turn inward to become nationalistic and chauvinistic.
We have turned away from a united Europe once the great post war dream of peace and co-operation. In America they have elected to replace an intelligent, civilised and well-intentioned President with one who is the opposite and whose many shortcomings are overlooked in favour of his appeal exclusively to self-interest.
Alan Bennett finds consolation in the fact that he has no children or grandchildren to feel sorrow and guilt about the future that our generation is bequeathing. I know what he means. Those of us who have staked our hopes for the gradual improvement of mankind in the potential of people to work together cooperatively with good will and kindliness to all, can only take a deep breath and hope that the present situation is just a blip on the upward climb.
Dr Brian Nicol
Coventry and Warwickshire Humanists
Humanists come in all political shapes and sizes. From conservatives to liberals, and socialists to libertarians, we’re a diverse bunch. For this reason, most humanist organisations remain strictly non-partisan, engaging with particular political issues relevant to humanism, rather than backing specific parties or candidates. Despite this, Donald Trump’s victory poses significant challenges to humanists worldwide.
Humanism seeks to understand the world through reason and the application of the scientific method: our knowledge should be grounded in, and tested against, evidence. Trump’s impatience with such values has been laid bare in his assertion that ‘the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive.’ Statements like these, along with claims that vaccines cause autism and that using hairspray indoors rather than outdoors eliminates its harmful impact on the ozone layer, led to Trump being labelled the ‘anti-science candidate’.
The next President will enact legislation that defies the scientific consensus. He has already made clear his intention to scrap the Paris Agreement, row back on regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, and get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency. This will damage the environment and, coupled with his plans to downsize the Department of Education, it could harm scientific literacy. Trump needs scientific policy led by science, not ideology or dogma.
Trump’s social and domestic policies also clash with humanist values. Building walls and banning people on the basis of their religion runs contrary to humanist principles of tolerance, equality, and promoting human flourishing. His tough stance on terrorism and border control risks isolating America from the rest of the world. Humanism relies on building coalitions, international co-operation, and uncompromising secularism. The President-elect must commit himself to defending civil liberties and human rights both abroad and at home.
Within the United States itself, his election risks legitimising his misogynistic attitude towards women. Despite his opponents’ best efforts, even accusations of sexual assault did not derail Trump’s campaign. If Trump’s attitudes become normalised as a result of his success, gender equality in the US could be severely affected. Similarly, the LGBT community risks facing rising intolerance; Mike Pence (Trump’s Vice-President) wants the Republicans to undo protections for LGBT people put in place by Barack Obama. Equality is a traditional battleground for humanists, and senior politicians expressing prejudices of this kind sets a dangerous precedent.
Ultimately, humanists will have to fight hard to ensure that science is not diminished, that minorities are not discriminated against, and that reason and compassion are at the forefront of political discourse. We will not be alone; the majority of voters opted for Hillary Clinton or for third party candidates, and Trump voters were more united by Trump’s anti-globalisation and anti-politics rhetoric than they were by a desire to frustrate humanist causes or divide society.
Campaigning does not end when the president has been elected, but rather, it now begins. Humanists are used to fighting against the odds — we’ve done it before, and we can do it again!
Thanks to the efforts of Bob Jelley and other volunteers, C & W Humanists have been organising a Humanist contribution to Remembrance Sunday by laying wreaths at local ceremonies for the last 4 years.
This year Bob has purchased five wreaths from the British Legion, and we are hoping to cover all the local ceremonies. Bob has organised representatives for Warwick and Coventry, and will cover either Bedworth or Nuneaton himself. If anyone would like to volunteer for Leamington, Rugby, Bedworth or Nuneaton, Bob has kindly offered to deliver the wreath to the volunteer in advance. He will also ring the relevant council to get details of assembly points and timings and then give that info to the volunteer.
Bob has also reminded us that the weather may be cold and the ceremonies can be religious and dour!
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.