The British Humanist Association held its Annual Conference 7-9 June. Since it was close-by in Leeds, I decided I had to go. I won’t go into details about the talks, it looked like it was all being filmed & recorded so, hopefully you will be able to see them yourself soon. So here are just some personal thoughts and impressions of the weekend.
I was a little nervous as I arrived at the venue. Would everyone else be in groups? would they all know each other? The usual thing. I needn’t have worried. Just after picking up my name badge I fell into conversation with a lovely lady called Jean.
Jean is a little older than me (and I am no spring chicken) so her conversation rather illustrates how things have changed. She and her boyfriend applied for permission to marry while they were at Oxford. This was refused so they married in secret, but the college found out and Jean was sent down. She had been a member of the Young Communist League (so was I but only lasted a month – that’s another story) and has been an active campaigner for years, especially for Assisted Dying. We reckoned that when she started public opinion was mostly opposed but now the vast majority are in favour and it’s only really a matter of time before the politicians catch up and the churches give up.
Jean decided to skip the evening’s entertainment so I wished her a pleasant dinner, and went into the hall. I was to meet Jean again on the last day too.
The MC for the evening was a marvellous Timberlina (
@mstimberlina), the alter-ego of Tim Redfern ( @tjredfern). He did a fine job. Introducing, quizzing, giving away prizes, and flannelling while the choir were stuck on the M1. I can also say that, when he gets going, he is the fastest bingo caller I have ever heard!
First up was Helen Arney (
@helenarney). I have seen Helen before, she’s great and she even sang my favourite The Sun Has Got His Huff On. What I wasn’t aware of however is that she is actually 18ft tall and plays a full-size guitar!
Then we had the British Humanist Association Choir (
@BHAChoir). I think they were a little depleted, some of them still apparently stuck on the M1, but they were very good. The highlight for me was their obviously genuine surprise when we demanded an encore.
The evening was wrapped up by the totally unique Robin Ince (
@robinince) Robin describes himself as a science enthusiast who is occasionally rather stupid. Well maybe so but he is also very clever and very very funny. I also wish I had about 10% of his energy.
A beer or two and bed – good start.
We start the day with the keynote and welcome from BHA chief executive Andrew Copson (
@andrewcopson). Andrew is amazing. I’ve seen him giving evidence to Commons committees, on the BBC Big Questions, on Newsnight, in fact I’ve seen him sitting with some of the most loud-mouthed, bigoted, aggressive, ignorant idiots in the world. He always talks sense and stays patient, calm, and polite. If he wasn’t an atheist I’d say he had the patience of a saint.
Next up we have author Christopher Priest talking about myth and magic as metaphor in fantastic literature. A brave man Christopher, at a BHA gathering he starts by criticising Isaac Asimov, comparing him badly with JG Ballard. Sure enough the first question is not actually a question but a defence of Asimov. To be honest I loved Asimov when I was younger but his style is more literal than literary. Which might be why he was an OK SF writer and an absolutely brilliant science writer. Christopher’s talk was fascinating but he also said he found Ray Bradbury “a bit twee” ???? I may never forgive him for that.
Lee Cronin (
@leecronin) took us up to lunch talking about his work on artificial (even inorganic) life and evolution. He was astonishingly confident that his team would soon create inorganic life in one of the cells of his 3D printed ‘reactionware’. Watch this space.
A pretty good lunch talking to someone who has been coming to these conferences for over 20 years. He thinks the modern ones are better but misses some of the arguing and debating that went on in the older days.
No chance to snooze here as we get stuck into “Living without free will”. I love Sue Blackmore rainbow hair, enthusiasm, Zen, a sense of humour and a mind about as sharp as it gets. She tried to convince us that consciousness and free-will were illusions and was doing a very very good job, but there was a little man in the back of my head, the very homunculus that she said I had to evict from my imaginary Cartesian theatre, who kept screaming “Your argument is very good and I should believe you but nooooooo I’m not buying it!”. Brilliant!
The astronomy of Marek Kukula (
@marekkukula) was almost a light relief and the talk, and pictures, were just beautiful. I have never been to the Royal Observatory Greenwich but I will definitely go later this year. “We are made of star stuff” might be a cliché but it is also wonderful, and true.
Last up is Jim Al-Khalili (
@jimalkhalili) or as we now know him, “El Presidenté” who removed any last doubt that free-will is an illusion with a good talk about what relativity and quantum physics have to say about time and determinism.
Catch your breath, change your shirt, off to the Leeds City Museum for the gala dinner, it’s not as if I could choose not to go!
A good meal in good company, though rather too many of us seem to work in IT. The rather poignant highlight being the presentation of the Humanist of the Year award to Terry Pratchett (
@terryandrob). Terry was too ill to attend and the video he sent made us quite sad to see how far his Alzheimer’s has progressed. The bit he had written however was clever and funny and well read by Andrew Copson.
Pavan Dhaliwal & Richy Thompson made a good case for taking more money off us for the fair admissions (
@FairAdmissions) policy. I favour completely scrapping faith schools myself, but this is a good start, and possibly very good tactics.
Several more beers and back across Leeds to the hotel and bed. Everyone else in Leeds seems to be on a stag or hen night!
I skip breakfast and wander in just before the first talk of the morning. And there is Jean again, I haven’t seen her since Friday and yes, she has had a good weekend too. Before the first talk we get a plug for the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust These people are doing incredible work under conditions we have difficulty imagining. We sometimes forget how lucky we are.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the next speaker. Zoe Margolis (
@girlonetrack) is most famous for her blog “Girl with a one track mind” which is basically about her sex life. She started it anonymously but was later named, and very badly treated, by the Sunday Times. She started the blog because of what she saw as hypocrisy and double standards about sex, in society in general and the press and publishing in particular. It was an excellent talk and if you are a bit sceptical, try the Everyday Sexism website or follow @EverydaySexism for a while – it will open your eyes – it did mine.
When the microphone was going round after Zoe’s talk Jean managed to get the last question. I can’t remember it word for word but here is the gist. Jean pointed out that even before Lady Chatterley’s Lover people managed to enjoy sex, she herself had had two husbands and enjoyed them both. While she sympathised with Zoe, she couldn’t think of too much to do which would be of practical help. The Ugandan Humanist Schools, however could be helped, very practically, and if people would each give a pound she, Jean, would match their donations out of her own pocket.
This got a huge cheer and the speaker Zoe said that although it wasn’t really a question her answer was “brilliant – here’s my pound”. Pretty soon a glass on our table was rapidly filling with money and others were organising a collection box. “Well done Jean” I said, “that’s brilliant.” She just grinned and said “I knew if I talked about sex again everyone would be paying attention, sometimes you just have to grab an opportunity when it comes up”
The last speaker was Adam Rutherford (
@AdamRutherford) with a talk based on his new book “Creation: synthetic biology and the origin of life”. He described it as a prequel and a sequel to evolution. Fascinating stuff especially the work being done by the BioBricks Foundation. Creating life as an engineering discipline – Wow!
And that was it – all over. I had a fantastic weekend. The speakers were first class but it was all the delegates like Jean who were the real inspiration. I will now try to get more active and involved. Next year there is no convention because the UK is hosting the World Humanist Congress – even better.
See you there Jean
[ I have just discovered that Jean’s intervention was rather effective. See here http://www.ugandahumanistschoolstrust.org/latest-news/ ]
if you have made it to the end (this got much longer than I was expecting) please bung some money, or time, in the direction of some very worthy, humanist causes. My favourites are:
A very sad post-script
You may have gathered from this piece that Jean made a big impression on me, well she did. I only met her those two times. She befriended me when I looked a bit lost on the first day and impressed me with her sharp mind and sense of humour on the last day.
I never did see her at the 2014 conference, she died on 1st October.
Her death was tragic, she basically starved herself to death because the laws of this country gave her no choice. She couldn’t do anything else without either leaving the country or legally endangering others, both of which she was unable to accept. Jean had spent much of her life campaigning for the voluntary euthanasia society or as it is now known Dignity In Dying. I am sure we will win this battle in the end, I just wish we could have won earlier for Jean.
I only met Jean twice, but she made a big impression on me, and I am very, very, sorry I won’t meet her again.
Please read the BHA obituary for Jean, and this piece in the Guardian. Then go to the Dignity In Dying website and donate.
Another Sad Postscript
Another brave women has starved herself to death this year because she felt the law gave her no choice. I never met Debbie Purdy but in all her interviews and in last nights BBC documentary she came across as very human and very impressive.
I understand some of the fears and reservations some people have, but there has to be a better way than this. Dignity in Dying