Sunday, 3 March 2019

A Rational Christianity?

In February the Reverend Phil Edwards talked to the Stockport Group about "A Rational Christianity?" beginning by saying that it is important to understand one another. 

He is confident of evolution and that creationism is ill conceived. Plenty of biologists hold religious beliefs and have no difficulty reconciling science and belief in God. He himself has a background in Physics and has joined a Science and Religious forum which holds annual conferences. He had a gap year in which he studied the relationship of science and theology.

His talk was in three sections: what religious belief is about; what science is and rationality; and conflicts between religion and science.

Many Christian sects focus on Jesus and the New Testament.  The theologian Mark Higton of Durham University says religion is about making sense of things. Theology has developed over centuries and he sees this as a strength.  Unquestioning faith leads to fanaticism. Christians get their theology from scripture, tradition and reason. Later theology takes culture into account. The Bible is a difficult book and can be dangerous. It can be read as a fundamentalist view of the world on the one hand or a great work of literature on the other. There is a middle view that, by a coming together of divine view and that of writers, it is possible to tease out what God is saying.

Biblical criticism provides important insights into Jesus Christ. The truth does not depend on the accuracy of the stories but on the validity (whatever that means). There is lots of symbolism in the Bible. E.g. In St John’s gospel water is turned into wine, in the old testament there is the Tower of Babel. There are numerous other examples.

Science explains things but there are many forms of rationality and different kinds of knowledge. People like Richard Dawkins reject supernaturalism.  Descartes made a distinction between mind and body but that brought another set of problems. You can apprehend God in all things and there is Imminence in all aspects of creation. People have huge difficulties with miracles. David Hume defined them as a violation of the laws of Nature which needs to have law-like regularity.

Some things like the weather can be unpredictable and at the subatomic level we have the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Can god tweak the world at that level?  If he needed to tweak the system he wasn’t a very good Creator. God’s purposes are redeemed through the processes that science discovers such as evolution, therefore there is no dualism.

Perhaps God acts as an information exchange – an influence in terms of complex systems. He rejects  interventions such as answering prayers. The Natural world is created by God with potential for evolving  - bringing about  the natural processes of the universe.  Even though someone prays for healing they usually still go to the doctor.

During the Q and A session which followed the Rev Phil Edwards admitted to being somewhat agnostic and to sharing many humanist ideas.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Capital Punishment

At our January meeting Anne Walker of Amnesty International presented a workshop on Capital Punishment exploring the use of the death penalty around the world and looking at the arguments for and against its use, especially in relation to real people who have been sentenced to death.

Anne based her workshop/talk on the 2017 Amnesty International Report on Capital Punishment. She began by providing a quiz to ascertain what people knew or thought they knew about capital punishment around the world. Questions included: How many executions in 2017, how many people were on death row, which countries executed the most people, what crimes are punishable by death worldwide and when did the UK formally abolish the death penalty for all crimes?

There were at least 993 executions in 23 countries in 2017, down by 4% from 2016 and 39% from 2015 which had had the highest number since 1989.

Most executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan – in that order.

China remained the world’s top executioner – but the true extent of the use of the death penalty in China is unknown as this data is classified as a state secret. The global figure of at least 993 excludes the thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in China.

Excluding China, 84% of all reported executions took place in just four countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.

During 2017, 23 countries are known to have carried out executions – the same as 2016. But there were five countries that resumed executions in 2017 and another five which carried out executions in 2016 did not record any in 2017.

Executions noticeably fell in Belarus, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Executions doubled or almost doubled in Palestine (State of), Singapore and Somalia.

In 2017, two countries abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes so that at the end of 2017, 106 countries had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes and 142 countries had abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

Amnesty International recorded commutations or pardons of death sentences in 21 countries and 55 exonerations of prisoners under sentence of death were recorded in six countries.

At least 2,591 death sentences were recorded in 53 countries in 2017, a significant decrease from the record-high of 3,117 recorded in 2016. At least 21,919 people were known to be on death row at the end of 2017.

Methods of execution used across the world in 2017 were beheading, hanging, lethal injection and shooting. Public executions were carried out in Iran (at least 31).

At least five people were executed in Iran who were under 18 at the time of the crime for which they were sentenced to death. In many countries where people were sentenced to death or executed, the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards. This included the extraction of “confessions” through torture or other ill-treatment, including in Bahrain, China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

The report goes on to give a regional analysis.

As well as the Quiz Anne divided us into two groups and invited one group to provide arguments for the death penalty and the other to provide arguments against.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Environmental Legacy of Conflict

In November Laurence Menhinick, of The Conflict and Environment Observatory, gave a talk on The Environmental Legacy of Conflicts - an overview of the past 100 years.

CEOBS- the Conflict and Environment Observatory was founded in 2018 and builds on the work of the Toxic Remnants of War Project. Its aim is to increase awareness and understanding of the environmental and derived humanitarian consequences of conflicts and military activities. Laurence has worked with the Toxic Remnants of War team and is now one of CEOBS trustees.

The War Damage Act of 1965 is an Act of United Kingdom Parliament which exempts the Crown from liability in respect of damage to, or destruction of, property caused by acts lawfully done by the Crown during, or in contemplation of the outbreak of, a war in which it is engaged. It abolishes the rights at common law to compensation for certain damage to, or destruction of, property.
There are many types of war including: invasion; civil war; and external engagement, such as the French in Mali. It is often difficult to establish responsibility for clear-up and remediation.

Laurence gave a long list of conflicts which have taken place over the last hundred years, but said that there are many we never hear about. The direct results are Toxic Remnants of War due to military weapons contamination, damage and loss of access. Indirectly there is often loss of governance; lack of property; trafficking, theft and dumping; and minimal health monitoring.

World War 1 left much ground contamination, a devastated landscape and piles of shells, exploded and unexploded. Shells were made of heavy metals lead, copper and bronze, fuses of copper and zinc.

Ammunition contained noxious chemicals. Other sources of contamination are: leaky unexploded ordnance, open-pit burning of waste, poor storage of chemical weapons and corpses.

The Post War clean up involved filling in the trenches, removing barbed wire, and rebuilding/repairing 293,000 dwellings.

To deal with soil contamination, areas were divided into zones, designated Red, Yellow and Blue. Red Zones were considered impossible to clean and were just fenced off. Most are still there as evidenced by a map shown to us by Laurence. In other areas there was de-mining; disposal and burial of the dead; clearing up of dead animals and a clean-up of chemical weapons. Clean-up was poor until the mid-1970s. Today 30 tons of explosives and ammunition remnants are recovered each year.

The Yellow and Blue zones are now mostly cleaned up and a limited range of activities is allowed in them e.g. woodland management, remembrance tourism, ghost villages and military activity. A Hundred Years on there is no end in sight for a total clean up.

Chemical Weapons were banned by the 1925 Geneva protocol, but many are still produced “in case the other side has them”. Many of these weapons were disposed of at sea (maybe up to 1.6 million tons). There is a possibility of leakage and a chance of them being caught by trawlers.

1972 brought The Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention and The London Convention on Prevention of Marine Pollution. In spite of these Conventions the Americans were able to use Agent Orange, a mass defoliant, and Napalm as both were said to have other primary uses. An estimated 73 million litres of chemical agents were deployed. 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange and 3,100,000 hectares of forest were defoliated, not to mention the water contamination and the effect on wildlife. 

Nuclear fallout and depleted Uranium (used in weapons and armour) affect large parts of the world not just Japan and Iraq.

Industrial contamination when factories are bombed, as in Syria, is characterised by release of toxins from pharmaceuticals, textiles and plastics.

Oil contamination is also widespread in the world. Some examples are the 1989 NATO bombing of Novi Sad, when refineries were targeted resulting in contamination by 73,000 tons of crude oil products. The Oil Well fires in Kuwait in 2007 left a black deposit a foot deep on the desert.

There are many indirect consequences. Loss of governance in The Yemen and the Civil War there pose a risk to the Red Sea Ecology. Floating Storage and Offloading terminals (FSOs) are a disaster waiting to happen. Large refugee camps e.g. in Jordan, make demands on water supplies, firewood etc. and produce pollution because of lack of suitable infrastructure. In many countries where war has resulted in lack of governance there is illegal exploitation of natural resources. Artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo results in DNA damage in children.

CEOBS, the Conflict and Environment Observatory, wants the United Nations Environment Program to be broadened beyond the post-conflict environment and to take the principles of International Law into wartime. They aim to gather data for better monitoring, push for recognition of the needs of civilians, and push for remediation action. 

For further information go to 

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Living in Styal (Prison)

At Stockport in September Eddie Tarry, Community Engagement Manager at HMP and YOI Styal talked to us about the history of Styal Prison, the daily life in the prison and the activities delivered to benefit women on release.  He called his talk Living in Styal “Building Hope, Changing Lives”.

Eddie spent five years in the Royal Navy before joining the prison service and was also a football referee for 25 years.

The prison has 16 houses each now holding 16-20 women (formerly 36) set in 32 acres of land of which 2/3 is grass. About 70 women, some of whom have never had a job, work on the grounds. 

The place was originally built in 1890 as an orphanage which was closed in 1956 to be used for holding Hungarian refugees.

The first female prison opened in 1962 with prisoners being transferred from the then women’s wing at Strangeways. In 1985 a Young Offenders Unit was added and in 1999 a new remand wing was added because of the closure of HMP Risley remand centre. The remand wing is called the Waite Wing named after Terry Waite who used to live in Styal Village. It was designed to hold 180 but this has now been reduced to 140. The wing is painted in bright colours.

In 2013 Styal became a Complex Prison costing £16 million per year to run of which £8.2 million is spent on health care. Healthcare is provided by Spectrum Community Health CIC. In 2014 it became a resettlement prison, in line with all female prisons in the country, where prisoners are held for the last three months of their sentence as near to their homes as possible. In 2015 an Open House Unit was added for 25 prisoners in Open Prison conditions.

He went on to discuss a profile of the offenders. 46% have suffered domestic violence and 53% have suffered emotional physical or sexual abuse as a child compared with 27% of male prisoners. 23% self-harm compared with 5% in the total population, and 48% will be reconvicted within a year of being discharged.

On arrival from the courts prisoners are processed in the reception area. They receive an initial induction, a medical assessment, and risk assessments including cell-sharing risk assessment, following the death of a male Asian sharing a cell with a violent racist.

Attempts are made to reduce reoffending. The main focus is on addressing the offending behaviour. Programmes available include Thinking Skills Programme, Drugs and Alcohol Recovery Service, and Victim Awareness. Restorative Justice done on a voluntary basis can work.

Education is also important and concentrates on functional skills. Foreign nationals with little or no English, such as Colombian Drugs mules, are offered English as a Second Language courses.

Vocational courses include: hairdressing, beauty therapy, Industrial cleaning, IT, Horticulture and Radio presenting. Pay for work in the prison is about £9 per week.

Work in the community includes the Clink Restaurant which employs 14 women per session and the chance to get an NVQ level 3. Recycling Lives is a recycling charity that takes women on strict criteria and supports them on release. Silk ties made in the prison are sold in John Lewis. Fruit and vegetables grown in polytunnels are sold to staff and prisoners. Styal prison has had an entry in the RHS Tatton Flower Show for six years and has received 5 silver medals and one silver gilt.

Eddie showed a DVD of the work done by Recycling Lives but unfortunately the sound did not work very well.

Sunday, 2 September 2018


Julia Marwood of Manchester Stoics described how she became interested in Stoicism during her times as a student including going to Stoic Week. She downloaded a handbook of exercises and then joined Manchester Stoics. She recommended the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, which describes principles that can help with anxiety.

She gave a short history of Stoicism, comparing the Greek and Roman philosophers. In ancient times Greek stoicism was aimed at developing morals, while in Roman culture it was about gaining tranquility.  Zeno of Citium (333BCE) from Cyprus was considered the founder of the Stoic school of Philosophy which taught that Reason was the greatest good in life. He taught in Athens from about 300BCE. Other Stoics included: Musonius Rufus, Roman Stoic philosopher in the 1st Century BCE; Epictetus, born a slave, but ended up as a Stoic philosopher in Greece; Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher; and Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor known for his philosophical interests especially Stoicism.

In more modern times Rene Descartes’ ethical philosophy was influenced by stoicism - his ethics gives a central place to the notion of appropriate action in a sense reminiscent of the Stoics’ kathekon (appropriate behavior). Within this category are included a human being’s duties to God and to other human beings, and actions whose aptness stems from their promotion of the survival and health of the body. 

Victor E. Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and a holocaust survivor, had a philosophy based on Stoic Principles. He said; Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Albert Ellis was an American psychologist who in 1955 developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy which led to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. He said: The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. 

Modern Stoicism is the home of Stoic Week, Stoicism today and Stoicon (conference). Donald Robertson was one of the founding members of Modern Stoicism and Stoic Week, and is the author of: The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010); Build Your Resilience (2012); Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013).

Massimo Pigliucci, scientist and philosopher wrote How to be a Stoic.

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman is a translation of selections from several stoic philosophers including Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Zeno and others. It aims to provide lessons about personal growth, life management and practicing mindfulness

Stoic techniques for a happier life include:

The dichotomy of control (DOC) - the assertion that some things are ‘up to us’ (within your power), and others are ‘not up to us’ (not within your power).

 Negative Visualisation- appreciating what you have by imagining being without it.

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.