Review: Humanists UK convention 2022

Review by SELHuG committee member Tony Brewer

After an enforced break due to Covid restrictions the annual Humanist Convention in 2022 was held in Belfast, Northern Ireland. This location was chosen in recognition both of the rapid progress that the N Ireland Section of Humanists UK has made since it was formed six years ago and of the importance of having a strong Humanist voice in what has, until recently, been a place dominated by sectarian conflicts. Belfast is a city of contrasts: there are still many somewhat run-down areas that attest to the city’s industrial past, plus a few very grand Victorian buildings, such as the City Hall, but there are also shiny new buildings indicating  confidence in a successful future. One of these is the Metropolitan Arts Centre, known as The Mac, which was the venue for the convention.

The sessions on Saturday and Sunday divided into two groups: one concerned with Humanist activity in the province, the other with subjects of more general interest. I found those in the first group of more relevance and interest.

Community Action: Boyd Sleator, the Coordinator for N Ireland Humanists, introduced this session in which activists from a diverse range of backgrounds described their efforts to make a world a better place. Virginia Mendez, co-founder of The Feminist Shop, described her surprise when she arrived in Belfast from her native Spain & discovered that, in this very old-fashioned and conservative place, it was the Catholic community that was relatively progressive! She emphasised the importance of conversations, particularly between those with opposing viewpoints – “critical conversations are activism”. Her personal motto is “Do no harm but take no shit”! Katie Richardson is a musician and chair of Safe in Sound, an initiative to amplify under-represented voices in the music industry and to create a safe creative sector based on equality, diversity and respect. Holly Lester is co-founder with Boyd Sleator of Free the Night, a non-profit that campaigns to recognise and develop the night-time economy. Becky Bellamy and Connor Kerr run Another World Belfast, which exists to “show some love”. It distributes The Love Pack, a care package of hygiene products and underwear for charities supporting people living in hardship. Connor explained that the best way to achieve social change is not to attempt to change the old but to find the new.
The overall message of these sessions was that N Ireland is not the one-dimensional place that tends to be portrayed in the British media but a multidimensional society buzzing with new ideas and initiatives. As Boyd said “N Ireland is the place to be”.

N Ireland’s Humanist Heritage: the comedian Tim McGarry, who is a patron of N Ireland Humanists, introduced this session. Madeleine Goodall, the Heritage Coordinator for Humanists UK, reviewed the history of Humanism in the Province, from the birth of the Belfast Ethical Society in 1896 through various manifestations of organised Humanism up to the establishment of the N Ireland Humanist Section in 2016. Madeleine was followed by Charlie Lynch, Research Associate in History at Ulster University, who described the life of barrister, politician and author H Montgomery Hyde (1907-1989). He was born into a strongly Unionist family and became a Unionist MP but was deselected in 1959 because of his campaigning in support of homosexual law reform. He criticised the Unionist attitude to homosexuality as being based on religious belief and Biblical authority. He considered himself a Humanist for the rest of his life.

In Conversation with Laura Lacole and Eunan O’Kane: this informal session was chaired by Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK. He introduced a most unlikely pair of Humanist activists – former glamour model Laura Lacole and her husband, former professional footballer Eunan O’Kane. They made history in 2017 when they won their battle, via the Court of Appeal in the Belfast High Court, to have Humanist weddings recognised as legal in N Ireland. Unlike in England & Wales, in N Ireland the ability to ratify UK law to allow Humanist weddings was subject to court decision rather than Parliamentary approval. They raised an appeal and eventually this was approved. They were the first couple there to enjoy a Humanist wedding and have since been followed by many others. Eunan explained that religion is entrenched in N Ireland life so going public as a Humanist is, or was, very unusual. He stressed that he and Laura didn’t want to deprive anyone of anything –  but, coming from opposing traditions, they just wanted the freedom to have the kind of non-religious ceremony that they preferred. Since then they have campaigned on a variety of secular and humanist issues and in 2018 were each awarded Humanist of the Year.

End Blasphemy Laws: this was a panel discussion involving Rachel Taggart-Ryan, Senior Campaigns Officer at Humanists UK, Alyson Kilpatrick, Chief Commissioner of the N Ireland Human Rights Commission speaking in a personal rather than professional capacity, Gary McLelland, Chief Executive of Humanists International, and Boyd Sleator. Rachel explained that most religions prohibit blasphemy and many countries have laws against freedom of expression and belief. These are frequently used to oppress minorities and even to pursue personal vendettas. Apostasy, i.e. the renunciation of religious belief, is frequently treated as a version of blasphemy. These laws negate human rights and the Humanist community therefore campaigns against them. N Ireland is the only part of the UK that still has blasphemy laws, reflecting the domination of life by the religious communities. Today, all the political parties apart from the Democratic Unionists support their repeal. Alyson said that while the general concept of blasphemy was well understood there is no agreed legal definition. She warned that the present UK Government, through its proposed new Bill of Rights, prioritises freedom of speech over other rights and is therefore regressive. Gary then reinforced these views, saying that blasphemy laws are bad laws, they violate the right to freedom of expression. In many countries Humanism is regarded as a blasphemous activity and individual Humanists, such as Mubarak Bala the president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria who has recently been sentenced to 24 years in prison, have been targeted.

Towards an Inclusive Education System: This session, chaired again by Boyd Sleator, was a panel discussion with Kellie Armstrong, Alliance Party MLA, Lynn Johnston, Development Officer for the N Ireland Council for Integrated Education, Matthew Milliken, who is undertaking research into the impact of the education system on community relations, and Robert Cann, Education Campaigns Manager at Humanists UK. Lynn explained that the history of education in N Ireland is very complex and even now is dominated by the churches. The majority of schools are either managed by the Catholic establishment while funded by the government, or ‘state’ schools that are in practice managed by the Protestant establishment. In the 1970s a group of parents got together to set up an integrated school and there are now around 70 throughout the Province. Their great strength is that both parents and children meet and learn to respect others with different identities. Matthew said that his research had revealed that not only the pupils but also the schools, the teachers and the administrations are all divided along sectarian lines – the systems are completely self-replicating. The N Ireland government spends £1 million every week maintaining this separation. Kellie likened the education system to a family consisting of powerful elder twins – the religious schools – with a couple of younger siblings – the integrated and independent sectors. The twins determine everything. However, recent polls have shown that 60-70 per cent of the people would prefer an integrated education system. In summary Boyd said that Humanists are working for a single integrated and inclusive education system but that the status quo is very powerful.

The group of sessions with a more general interest started with Professor Anthony Grayling, a vice-president of Humanists UK, asking ‘Is global agreement on global challenges possible?’ He suggested that climate change and the rate of development of high-impact technologies are two of the greatest challenges facing the world today. But these challenges will not be met because of a global deficit in global social and economic justice. Tragically, our problems and our technologies are out-stripping our moral and political capacity to deal with them. Rectifying the deficit of justice, rights and democracy throughout the world is the challenge to Humanists everywhere.

In a session titled Deviant Bodies, Andrew Copson attempted (unsuccessfully!) to control an animated discussion between geneticist Adam Rutherford, the newly appointed President of Humanists UK, & Professor Francesca Stavrakopolou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter. Given that one is a scientist and the other a Biblical scholar, one might expect that they’d have very different ideas about what it is to be human. They argued that this is not so – science and religion have conspired to impose a paradigm that limits and defines what is thinkable. In particular, although we all have bodies, some bodies are deemed to be superior and more ‘normal’ than others. These others, including women, non-Europeans, and black-skinned people, are therefore regarded as ‘deviant’. Virtually all biological classifications have placed European white males at the ‘top’ of the classification. The roles of science and Humanism today is to treat these issues more rationally and in the light of modern scientific evidence.

Kate Devlin, Reader in AI and Society at King’s College London, summarised the basic principles of artificial intelligence. She defined an AI as a collection of code designed to enable a machine to do a particular job. She identified a number of AI successes, including the identification of tumours, disaster management, crop management & Zoom, but warned that all AIs have potential weaknesses, especially the validity of the assumptions on which they are based. So we should always ask who is shaping the technology, what world-view are they using to form their assumptions, who is benefitting from the technology, and who is being left out?

In a session on Unravelling the Secrets of the Universe Dr Meg Schwamb, lecturer in the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queens University Belfast, described her work investigating the climate on Mars using contributions from thousands of citizen scientists through the Zooniverse Project. Collectively, these individuals have been generating a wind map of the surface of Mars by examining photographs of carbon dioxide geysers on Martian icecaps. She summarised by asking ‘should we go to Mars?’ and answering ‘No, not yet, our disaster backup should be to fix the problems on Earth rather than to escape elsewhere.’

In a hilarious session titled Investigating the Impossible Richard Wiseman, Professor in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and an accomplished magician and illusionist, entertained the audience with some clever tricks that demonstrated how the brain focuses and simplifies and sometimes arrives at incorrect conclusions. This is the basis for making the seemingly impossible become possible. He illustrated this with the history of the NASA moonshots: apparently the average age of the mission controllers was 21. They were recruited from young men with no previous knowledge of space travel but with a burning ambition to make it work. They just didn’t know that it couldn’t be done so they did everything they could to make it happen. 

The final session was again presented by Adam Rutherford and linked back to his discussion on Deviant Bodies earlier in the conference. He talked about Eugenics, which he described as the pernicious cousin of genetics. The idea of population control has a very long history, even dating back to Plato in the 4th century BCE, and still prevalent even today. The scientific argument is very simple – we improve the stock of cows and dogs through controlled breeding so why not do the same for humans? The problems arise in philosophy and ethics, in particular in ranking who are the desirable superiors at the top and who are the undesirable deviants at the bottom. What is now known as Replacement Theory is still prevalent in the United States, where there is a fear that inferior immigrant races will displace the superior, i.e. white Anglo-Saxon, stock. The role of Humanists is to protect and enforce people’s human rights and to use rational argument and scientific evidence to overcome the claims for Eugenics.

The Convention ended on Sunday afternoon and I think I can speak for the majority of attendees in regarding it as hugely interesting and a great success. Even though Belfast may be slightly off the beaten track it was worth the journey and learning about the life and ambitions of the local Northern Irish, particularly the younger generation, was a real eye-opener. Thanks for their hospitality and good luck to them all! 

Next year’s Convention will be held in Liverpool.