As a member of the British Humanist Association I decided to attend their annual conference; though in a personal capacity and not as an official of Atheism UK, as I am interested in the issues relevant to the Atheism and Humanism movements, and was intrigued if any differences between the two movements would be obviously apparent, as I had also recently attended the European Atheist Conference in Cologne. I soon discovered that the differences appeared to be far starker than I had anticipated; skip down the page if you want to read about those rather than the summary of the event.
The BHA 2012 conference commenced on the Friday evening in the very impressive venue of the National Museum in Cardiff; a building of grand architecture similar to the great museums in London. The first session was a useful get-together around a humanism-related pub quiz and comedians. Ivy Lawrence was very amusing but a bit difficult to hear in the dampening acoustics of the Grand Hall. Richard Herring was easier to hear and was deliciously irreverent and crude. The humour of both was aimed at times at the absurdities of religion.
The Saturday sessions began in the lovely Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre with a welcome talk by the BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson.
The first speaker up was Kevin Warwick with The Cyborg Experiments”. He gave a review of some of the experiments carried out at Reading University with some simple human-machine interfaces, as well as some simple autonomous robots which can roam around a controlled environment and avoid walls. It was amusing and interesting but it doesn’t look like Artificial Intelligence has improved much in the 15 years since I was studying AI at university as the level intelligence of the artificial agents still appears to be equivalent only to that of a slug.
Polly Higgins spoke on “Ecocide: Leadership and Law” concerning the endeavours to get Ecocide (the destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystems) to be internationally recognised as a crime alongside genocide and other such crimes.
“Humanism and the Future” in conversation with Greg Claeys and Paul McAuley. Some random musings about the future, with some references to the reduction in religiosity being desirable.
In his talk “Technology and our Inner Life” Ben Hammersley talked about how technology changes fast and how political and social planning must take account of what the state of technology will be in the future.
Roger Martin spoke on “Population Growth: Multiplier of Impacts; Divider of Resources; Provoker of Conflict”. Population is growing and it’s going to be an increasing problem. The main solution is provision of family planning services. Currently the global budget is equal to 10% of the Goldman Sachs bonuses; apparently.
Carole Jahme, “The Better Apes of our Future”. A “performance-art” presentation involving forced audience-participation and humiliation, something to do with empathy that is felt by apes; didn’t really get it.
At the Gala dinner on Saturday evening Richard Dawkins was given the BHA annual award for services to Humanism. There was also a brief but very interesting talk from a probation officer who spoke about her experiences in Winchester prison to get support for non-religious prisoners.
The Sunday morning sessions began with Sir David King, who, in his talk “Human Ingenuity and the New Demand for Collective Action” spoke about the need for collective action to tackle the world’s problems such as climate change, energy security, population growth and the exponential rise in consumption of resources.
Mark Stevenson gave an interesting and amusing talk, “An Optimist’s Tour of the Future”, with an positive look at the future of humanity, with a perspective that it does require innovation and a reboot of the way we think about some of the global issues.
So, that’s about it, the weekend was very interesting with some very impressive speakers raising some very important topics for the future of humankind; and I met lots of extremely nice and intelligent people.
The elephant in the room; religion!
I found it distinctly odd, if not extraordinary, that, at a Humanist conference, apart from a few minor references (and the comedians) religion wasn’t mentioned; though those references (criticisms) did get a positive response from the crowd. The topics of presentations and discussions contained virtually no Atheist (or even Humanist) perspective. It was like being at a meeting of the Civil Rights movement where no-one mentioned racism.
The talks were in stark contrast to the European Atheist Conference where the topics concerned the malignant consequences of religion, such as Taslim Nasrin talking about here experiences of the human rights abuses, death threats, physical violence and persecution she has personally experienced, teachers from Germany and Switzerland being sacked for not being believers and the situation within German Catholic-run hospitals and schools which try to control the private lives of employees who can be sacked if they do something of which the church disapproves, such as getting divorced or not going to church.
I can understand that people find it desirable to maintain a positive attitude by exploring how the outlook for humanity can be improved, but, for me at least, one major imperative is to say, to paraphrase the Civil Rights movement, “No to Thesim”, and to explore how that can be achieved in order that the undoubted potential of humankind is not stifled.
On the whole a very enjoyable weekend, but based upon the evidence of these few days, although it’s members might be atheists, Humanism does not do Atheism.