Sunday, 5 August 2018

Morality - A Tale of Three Evolutions

At Stockport in July Brian Gane of Central Lancashire Humanists spoke about Morality: a Tale of Three Evolutions.

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe” said Carl Sagan. The Big Bang resulted in the evolution of the universe. Gravity pulled together matter to make stars and eventually material from stars made planets. Under the right conditions amino acids were formed leading, after 3 billion years, to the Human Brain. Some examples of evolutionary stages include Pikaia which had the beginning of a spine and may have been related to the common ancestor of all vertebrates. Eusthenopteron lived in the mouth of rivers and moved into the shallows, developing a neck, lungs and stubby fins which eventually extended into limbs. Aconthostega was among the first vertebrate animals to have recognizable limbs. Tulerpeton lived in shallow waters and breathed air. Its limbs were stronger than the fins from which they developed and it could lift its head giving it an advantage over other animals whose heads only moved side to side. 

The animals that survived the dinosaurs were very small shrew like creatures which developed into modern mammals. Human beings have 96% genes in common with chimpanzees. Humans are more intense and better at reading faces than chimps are. As chimps have no whites to their eyes it is difficult to see where they are looking.

Brian claims that morality begins with early humans and he considered three moral clusters which contribute: co-operation, empathy and justice. Humans are born with a co-operative streak and this is shown by the behaviour of young children who are eager to help where they can. They would pick up items that someone had dropped accidentally, but would not pick up an item that had been thrown in anger. Examples of co-operation are when taxes are paid to obtain infrastructure etc that would not be possible for individuals. The ultimate in co-operation is the CERN project, funded by 10 countries and employing scientists from 100 countries. Threats to food supplies leads to tribalism in early humans. In modern times gangs and political organisations take over this role. 

Small children tend to get upset if companions are upset. If a child is put with an upset child he/she will join in. Laughter is also infectious. Smiling results in a release of hormones into the blood. People with big smiles tend to live longer than those who rarely smile.

A sense of good and bad begins at about 4 months of age and a sense of fairness is a very powerful emotion. Some issues where unfairness has been addressed, at least in part, are slavery, health care via the NHS, women’s rights, the labour movement. Gay rights and the legal system.

Legal systems have been internationalised. Interpol has reciprocal arrangements with other countries, and the International Criminal court was formed in 2003 to put on trial those people accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity whose own countries will not or cannot put them on trial. The United Nations encourages Jaw Jaw rather than War War. The EU has the European Court of Justice and the European court of Human Rights.

The Brain has three levels of morality.1. Basic Instincts about In-Groups( Co-operation, empathy and sense of justice), and 0ut- Groups(tribalism), 2.Individual caring, 3. Societal caring (evolution of social norms). There is an expanding circle from the Human Family to International events.

According to Steven Pinker there has been a decline in violence from biblical times to the present day. And that in many areas (e.g. homicide, war and poverty) we are doing better than previously.

We are all connected.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Is Humanism A Religion?

At the Stockport May meeting John Coss considered the topic Is Humanism a Religion? Much of the answer depends on the definition of Religion, which is a toxic word in Humanist circles. John considered two definitions which he called Religion 1 and Religion 2. Religion 1 is the strict dictionary definition which includes supernaturalism; Religion 2 is a more modern definition which permits, but does not require, dogma or supernaturalism. John hopes that religions will increasingly drop these features but until they do it is best not to refer to Humanism as a religion. But it is still worth regarding Humanism as a religion in the Religion 2 sense.

So Humanism can be a religion or an alternative to religion. Less controversially it is: a belief system, a world view, a life stance, a philosophy of life, a moral perspective, an ethical system, a spiritual path, an approach to life and a meaning frame.

The Amsterdam Declaration is a statement of the fundamental principles of modern Humanism and is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought. Humanism is ethical, rational, supports democracy and believes in personal liberty and human rights, values artistic creativity and imagination, and aims at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living. It provides an alternative to dogmatic religion.

Humanists live as if there is no god or other supernatural agency intervening in the world or taking an interest in world affairs. 

John dealt with a range of views on Humanism and Religion of various non-religious thinkers including our own David Seddon, Alain de Botton, Noel Cheer, Julian Huxley, Albert Einstein and Ronald Dworkin. 

So what kind of thing is religion? And what is it about/for? Its beliefs are about matters of ultimate importance, community/fellowship, ethics, making sense of the universe, rituals and ceremonies, spirituality, the meaning of life and how are we to live?

According to the anthropologist, David Eller, Its functions fill individual needs, provide explanation for origins and causes, exercise social control, provide solutions for immediate problems and fulfil the needs of society. According to Jared Diamond it provides explanation, diffuses anxiety, provides comfort and hope and meaning in life, justifies obedience to the state, getting along with strangers and hatred of believers in other religions. 

There are some humanly essential pursuits that religions engage in such as supporting people through difficult times (chaplaincy, spirituality or emotional fulfilment, morality without authority, a forum for philosophical discussion and debate, and community fellowship that need to be addressed by anything purporting to replace it.

It is difficult to get a consensus of a definition of religion. There are various dictionary and encyclopaedia definitions and many thinkers have provided their own definitions. E.g. Thomas Paine: “independence is my happiness . . . and my religion is to do good.” David Sloan Williams: “a religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices that unites members into one single moral community”. Examples from various websites include: “an explanation of the meaning of life and how to live accordingly” and “Our human response to being alive and having to die”. 

From these and other definitions John concludes that Humanism is a religion according to some reasonable modern ideas of what religion is (Religion 2) He went on to discuss the implications of this conclusion for Humanism and the challenges ahead.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Suicide Prevention

Rising to the Challenge of Suicide Prevention: Psychological Approaches.

Stockport's April meeting heard from Yvonne Awenat, a Research Fellow at the, University of Manchester, Division of Psychology & Mental Health, School of Health Sciences.  She discussed her team’s research into suicide prevention.

In the UK there is one death from suicide every 90 minutes, so each year about 6,000 people die by suicide, and there are about 140,000 suicide attempts - that’s one attempt every 4 minutes.  These figures have only slightly reduced over the last 30 years.

There are various risk factors for suicide based on Demographics; History of suicidality and Mental Health Problems. There is an increased risk associated with: Psychiatric hospitalisation / Imprisonment, Depression, Psychosis, Trauma (PTSD), personality disorder, substance and / or alcohol misuse, adverse life events.

There is no accurate method of predicting who will die by suicide. Static risk factors cannot be reduced (E.g. gender). Current practices are flawed – most patients who died by suicide had been assessed at No or Low Risk. Suicide risk assessment scales have limited clinical utility and may waste valuable resources and are no longer recommended (NICE, 2011; Quinlivan et al, 2017)

Psychological treatments are effective in reducing repetition of suicidal behaviour and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one of the most promising treatments. Psychological treatments are effective in reducing repetition of suicidal behaviour. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is one of the most promising treatments but should have a specific focus on treating the underlying psychological mechanisms specific to Suicide involving: Attention Broadening, Thought Challenging, Problem Solving Training, Mood Management, and Improving Self-Esteem & Resilience.

Qualitative Research involves semi-structured in-depth interviews to investigate participant or other stakeholder’s: ‘Real-world’ subjective experiences; views, perspectives, attitudes; understandings; needs, priorities, preferences. Interviews are audio-recorded, transcribed and analysed.

Qualitative Analysis involves a systematic rigorous method to identify patterns (or themes) within participants’ narratives, reading & re-reading transcripts, line-by-line coding, clustering similar codes together and Identifying tentative themes, then collapsing tentative themes to form final themes.

In experimental intervention, treatment is given by a qualified clinical psychologist or CBT therapist employed for the clinical trial over a period of 4 – 6 months, once or twice a week. There are normally 20 -24 sessions each of 30-60 minutes. 

One particular study was Cognitive Behavioural Suicide Prevention (CBSP) in Psychosis, also known as the Recovery Trial. It took patients aged 18-65 years on the schizophrenia spectrum who had previous suicide attempt and/or current suicidal ideation. There was improvement in suicidal ideation. A reduction in suicide probability, and an increase in self-esteem. However there was increased risk of depression. 

Another study (PROSPeR) for the prevention of suicide in Prisoners aimed to demonstrate the feasibility of conducting an RCT of CBT for suicide prevention in a prison setting showed a reduction in self-injurious behaviour in the therapy group given CBT.

A randomised controlled trial of CBT for suicide prevention in inpatient settings (THE INSITE study) suggested that CBSP may be cost effective.

The CARMS trial: Cognitive Approaches to coMBatting suicidality is ongoing and has not as yet yielded any results.

Future studies will build on and extend exiting research on suicidal prisoners and psychiatric inpatients and explore new areas such as: suicide and bipolar disorder, suicide and alcohol or substance misuse, suicide and sleep problems.

There are the following sources of help for sufferers;

NHS - GP; A&E; NHS Direct 111, or 999.
Samaritans – Phone 116 123 24 hrs. all year 
NHS Choices – more resources 
The Sanctuary – Phone: 0300 003 7029      8pm – 6am overnight support

Sunday, 1 April 2018


In March Peter Baimbridge spoke to us about Autism. Autism is a Condition not a Disorder, a Disability, or a Disease. It is an observable state in which autistic people are different. They are Apple Macs in a PC world.

An MRI scan shows much more activity than a “normal” brain leading to some of the problems faced including a greater incidence of nightmares.

Peter described his own position. He has an IQ measured at 150 and has a degree and Chartered Status in Marketing and Sales Management and managed to trash a number of careers and businesses. He spent 30 years in and out of Mental Health Services before being diagnosed with Autism at the age of 56. He is now off medication and is self-managing his condition. He is using his experience and expertise to support, advocate for and to train others.

He has given presentations to various University Departments such as Clinical Psychology (University of Manchester) and Nursing (University of Salford). 

Peter created the charity Salford Autism which is run by autistic professionals. It provides support for everyone who is, cares for, or is affected by someone with an ASC and has a 24 hour emergency phone line.

Ordinary people seem nuts to autistic people, who do not do innuendo but work on precise information. The UK prevalence rate of autism is 1-1.5% but as it is thought that as many people go undiagnosed it could be as high as 5-6%. There is an impact on the health and benefit bill as most workers in the field do not understand the problems. Most children with autism look normal but with some abnormal attributes. Women are just as likely to be autistic as men but are better at “fitting in”.

Work is a big problem as 75% of autistic people are able and willing to work but only 15% have a job. 

When stressed autistic people, particularly children, can go into meltdown. Many people think they are tantrums but they are quite different. Tantrums are controlled, targeted, manipulative and stop when successful, leading to a happy aftermath. A meltdown is spontaneous, involuntary, random and unstoppable, leading to an emotional wipeout. It is similar in nature to an epileptic fit. To help someone in meltdown it is essential that one person only helps and keeps everyone else away. They should not tell the person to calm down but they should speak softly and reassuringly and wait it out. They should be ready to deal with the total emotional wipe-out the follows.

Autism is neither a learning disability nor a mental health problem, although mental health problems can be more common among people with autism and it is estimated that one in three of adults with learning disability also have autism. It is a life-long, pervasive, developmental spectrum condition with many facets, any of which may be present (or not) to a greater or lesser degree. 

Autism is an 'abstract diagnosis' arrived at with difficulty by assessment of reported behaviour. In communications and social behaviour visible indicators include: non-verbal to highly articulate communications, problems with unwritten rules of conversation & social interaction, difficulties with non-verbal communication, poor attention, single-channel processing, using and interpreting language literally, processing delay, and receptive language problems. Autistic people have different communication motivations, they find social interactions stressful and draining rather than energising and need lots of 'alone time' to 'recover' after socialising. They struggle with “rules” of social interaction and often “get it wrong”.

Autistic people have inflexible thinking and rigid repetitive interests. They struggle with imposed, unexpected or unexplained change, struggle to see another's point of view, and struggle to plan and organise. They are often focused on detail, missing the context, and struggle with imprecise or incomplete information. They struggle to generalise skills and learning, needing rules and clarity. They are often oblivious to common dangers (including danger from others). They need routine, ritual and structure for reassurance and often have obsessive special interests. 

Relevant legislation and guidelines include the Mental Health Act (1983), the Mental Capacity Act (2005), the Autism Act 2009, the Equality Act (2012), the Care Act 2014, Think Autism: updated strategy for adults with Autism in England (2014), Autism in adults: diagnosis and management (2012), Challenging behaviour and learning disabilities: prevention and interventions for people with learning disabilities whose behaviour challenges (2015).

Further Information:
National Autistic Society (

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Prisons - A Broken System?

In January Alan Brine spoke to us in Stockport on "Prisons - A Broken System?" Alan has been working as the humanist Chaplain for one day a week in Manchester prison for two years. Prisons are not the holiday camps so beloved of the Daily Mail. They are overcrowded with many prisoners sharing cells for up to 23 hours a day, eating their meals there and with a toilet in the same room. Every day prisoners are bussed around the country to extraordinary locations to make sure every last bed space is filled.  Prison reform is desperately needed and historically Humanists have been at the forefront of this cause.  Many prisoners are victims – of their upbringing or drugs. They are our prisons and we are all responsible.

England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe and the prison population has risen 80% in the last 30 years although there has been no significant increase in crime. Why?

There has been an increase in sentencing and there are new offences. We use prison for petty and persistent crime. In 2016 68,000 people were sent to prison, 71% of whom had committed non-violent offences, and 47% were sentenced to six months or less. The use of Community Sentencing has nearly halved since 2006 in spite of the fact that short prison sentences are less effective than community sentencing; and the numbers released on temporary licence (ROTL) have been dramatically reduced (40% in the last three years) in spite of the consistently high success rate.

Current challenges include: aging estate and overcrowding; recruitment, retention and training of staff; drugs and their associated problems; rise in violence against staff and prisoners; self-harm, suicide and mental health problems; and boredom and lack of purposeful activity. Young inexperience officers suffer and many older ones have old-fashioned attitudes. Poor health care in prisons puts further strain on the NHS. In the year to March 2017 344 people died in prison. A third were self-inflicted and nearly three in five were due to natural causes. Only 5% of the prison population are women but they contribute half of all self-harming cases. Serious assaults on staff have more than doubled over the last three years.

A wide variety of prisoners are in the same prison. Manchester prison has a large number of remand also has Category A offenders, kept in isolation, sex offenders and those with a price on their heads due to gang activity. First time offenders struggle to make sense of the system and many recidivists fear freedom. IPP (Imprisoned for public protection) prisoners are considered so dangerous that they cannot be allowed out until they demonstrate they are fit to be released – something that is difficult to do. The parole board system is broken, and even if released a minor offence results in immediate recall.

10% of people sent to prison are women even though only 5% of the prison population are women, so most must serve sentences of less than twelve months. 50% have experience domestic abuse and 30% were in care as children. 60% leave without a home and only 10% have a job to go to. 90% of the children leaving the family home are as a result of the mother’s imprisonment. Because there are few women’s prisons many are far away from home making visiting difficult or impossible.

Alan’s personal view of prison culture is: there is no such thing as a typical prison; the regime is confused and contradictory, unsafe and unstable; an alien environment for most - harsh, tense and raw; a place of hierarchy power and authority in which security comes first.

There are statutory obligations on the prison service regarding the provision of Chaplains. All prisoners must be able to practice their religion, have religious artifacts, celebrate festivals, have the opportunity for weekly religious services or meditation and request a Chaplain. A Chaplain from each denomination must be provided on request and the Chaplaincy Team have a duty to provide pastoral support for all prisoners in times of bereavement, serious illness, self-harm or suicide intent, or following a death in custody.

Humanist Chaplains are popular because they get things done. However there is some resistance to non-religious Chaplains and being a part-timer can be problematic when there are serious on-going situations.

Many prisoners find comfort in religion and there are advantages for some in being religious e.g. being allowed out of one’s cell to attend prayer meetings.

There is a need to work out protocols for Humanists working with religious colleagues.

Humanists UK trains and accredits humanist Pastoral Support Volunteers to work in hospitals, prisons, schools and the armed forces. Humanist PSV’s come from all walks of life, but share these qualities in common: a personable disposition, a profound sense of empathy, a non-judgmental attitude, a keen commitment to helping others, patience and a strenuous ethic of professionalism.

If you are interested in becoming a humanist pastoral care volunteer please contact:
Simon O’Donoghue 
Useful links: 
Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile Autumn 2017 
Howard League for Penal Reform: 
Prison Reform Trust 
The Bromley Trust 
Clinks – support for offenders and families 
Prisoners Education Trust 
Grendon Prison 
Prison UK: an insider's view 
@PrisonUK – Twitter page for Alex Cavendish – excellent

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Britain's Religion and Belief Landscape

In November Jeremy Rodell spoke to us in Stockport on the topic - The Big Change in Religion and Belief: How Might a Humanist Respond? Jeremy took the inspiration for his talk from the book - A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead.

We are undergoing some of the most significant shifts in religious belief and practice since the Reformation as traditional religious authority, doctrine and practice have given way to a much wider and more diverse range of religious and non-religious commitments.

Nationalities whose populations think religion is most important range from Ethiopia (98%) to China (3%). The UK is low down with 21% who think religion is very important in their lives. It is projected that over the next 45 years Islam will grow faster than any other religion to rival Christianity in numbers. In the same period it is expected that the religiously unaffiliated will decline as a share of the global population.

 Belief is only one dimension along with Belonging and Behaviour. For Example of British people “Uncertain or with no belief in God” there are 40% of Jews, 35% of Anglicans, 18% Catholics, and 8% of Muslims. Amongst British Catholics 14% of under 40s support a ban on abortion more than 50% of under 50s say same-sex marriage is right, and 58% support a change in the law to permit assisted dying for the terminally ill.

The number of British people identifying as non-religious depends on how the Question is asked. When the 2011 Census asked ‘What is your religion?’ 59% said Christian and 25% said no religion. When the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey asked ‘Do you regard yourself as belonging to a particular religion?’ 6.5% said Christian and 46.2% said no religion. Over the period 2012-14 these changed to 44% Christian and 50% No Religion. According to Local Census Data Stockport is close to the average for the UK.

According to the BSA survey the trend for the non-religious is going up, with a big decline in C of E but  an increase in non-denominational Christians and Muslims. Romans Catholics stay the same as immigration from Catholic countries offsets the decline in indigenous believers. Younger people tend to be less religious; more than 60% of 15-24 year olds professed no religion in 2015 compared with 24% of 75 and over.

The non-religious are not all atheists. About 64% do not believe in a god, 18% think there must be something, 14% do not know and 4% believe there is a god. Around half with no religion have a broadly Humanist worldview.

The future looks as if there will be Cultural super diversity with substantial religious minority and a non-religious majority. The religious minority will have diverse religious identities, diverse views within each identity and a higher average commitment and seriousness. The non-religious will have diverse beliefs and practices (including don’t care); around half will have a broadly humanistic worldview, many will be from faith backgrounds, and the situation will be evolving.

Challenges ahead include: polarisation and lack of social cohesion; uninformed generalisations about “the other”; faith-based and race based prejudice; declining institutions defending privileges; and conflicting values. 

Humanists UK says “We want a world where everyone lives cooperatively on the basis of shared human values, respect for human rights, and concern for future generations. Of importance are: Secularism; Education; Dialogue and Participation

Secularism means the separation of religious institutions from the institutions of state; freedom of thought, conscience and religion for all; and no state discrimination against anyone on grounds of their religion or non-religious worldview. It does not mean Atheism or Humanism; denying the role of Christianity in our history and culture; or denying the right of religious individuals to express their views (providing no special weight is given simply because they are faith-based).

In Education there needs to be high quality education about religious and non-religious beliefs and ethics. This can be achieved with a positive contribution to curriculum development and by providing Humanist speakers for schools. We need to end faith-based admissions to state-funded schools, compulsory collective worship, and state funding for faith schools. Children need a broad preparation for life in a plural society. This means: sex and relationships education; curiosity, thinking skills and creativity; and values & citizenship. We need institutions where the core values are defended.

In Dialogue and Participation we first have to view others primarily as fellow humans; religion and belief are only one dimension of personal identity. Dialogue is preferred to Debate. We need to beware assumptions and generalisations, but recognise areas of disagreement and also common ground. There are some limits to Dialogue. There should be no tolerance of bigotry and no succour for terrorism. Humanist engagement in dialogue has two objectives: Making a positive humanist contribution to building a peaceful plural secular society, and improving others’ understanding of Humanism. Three broad types of dialogue are: Interfaith Dialogue and participative action via established organisations; public events; and private bilateral dialogue series and actions.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Dementia Research

In October, Dr Sarah Ryan talked to the Stockport Group about dementia research.

Dr Sarah Ryan began her talk with some biographical details about her career and how she became a Research Associate in the Division of Neuroscience and Experimental Psychology at the University of Manchester, specialising in Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration.

According to  there are about 850,000 people suffering from dementia in the UK. One is more likely to get it as one gets older. Notable people with dementia include Terry Pratchet and Robbie Williams. Dementia is an umbrella term covering a number of different diseases: Alzheimer’s accounts for 50-75% of sufferers, Vascular Dementia 20-30%, Lewy Body Dementia 10-25% and Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) 10-15%.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s include memory problems, getting lost in familiar places, and difficulty recognising people and things. Vascular Dementia sufferers have problems with planning /organising, making decisions or solving problems. In Lewy Body Dementia patients may have movement difficulties, problems with attention/alertness, hallucinations and Sleep disturbance. Frontotemporal dementia is characterised by personality changes and difficulties in communicating. 

The differences are because different parts of the brain are affected. In Alzheimer’s one of the first parts of the brain to be affected is the hippocampus but it is a progressive condition that gradually destroys connections between cells in the brain. In Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) damage to the frontal lobe will show up on an MRI scan and the sufferer will suffer personality changes possibly becoming, rude or lazy or naughty. Some patients have FTD with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and this is usually fatal in 2 to 5 years. There are no good treatments for either FTD or MND.

Working at the microscopic level researchers in the laboratory investigate how the proteins are different in a Dementia brain from a normal one. This can only be done after death. Brains are sectioned and slides prepared. Sarah showed pictures of a section of brain with FTD and one without, showing TDP -43, the major disease protein FTD.

Sarah has a special interest in FTD caused by genetic mutation transcription, in particular C9orf72 found in frontal cortex brain tissue in sufferers. Human cells are grown in a dish and experiments carried out such as the effects of drug treatments.  Experiments can also be carried out on mice or Fruit flies.

Sarah supports Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK) and a small fee for the talk was donated directly to ARUK.