Leicester Secular Society

Sections on this page: — -The ProgrammeReadings ListsPresentation by Wilfred GauntTwo Leaflets by George Jelliss.

NOTE: I hope soon to be able to obtain the texts of some of the other contributors to the dialogue, to give a more complete picture of the event.

Humanist / Christian Dialogue


The Programme

A series of eight Humanist - Christian Dialogues was organised during January - March 2007, held on Mondays at 7:30pm at Christchurch, Clarendon Park Road, except for the one on 22nd January which was at Secular Hall. This was a joint project between Leicester Secular Society and the Leicester branch of Christians Aware.

Monday 15th January: Christian - Humanist Dialogue 1:
Secularism and Humanism – What Are they? speaker Allan Hayes.

Monday 22nd January: Christian - Humanist Dialogue 2:
Education - Integrating Religious Education, speaker Allan Hayes, with BBC Video.

Monday 29nd January: Christian - Humanist Dialogue 3:
Radical Christianity – The Sea of Faith speaker David Paterson.

Monday 5th February: Christian - Humanist Dialogue 4:
Women’s Rights – Caring for Others Speakers Eleanor Davidson and Wilfred Gaunt.

Monday 19th February: Christian - Humanist Dialogue 5:
Science and Religion speaker Allan Hayes.

Monday 26th February: Christian - Humanist Dialogue 6:
The State and Religion speakers Chris Williams of LSS and Simon Barrow of Ekklesia.

Monday 5th March: Christian - Humanist Dialogue 7:
Frank airing of differences. An open discussion.

Monday 12th March: Christian - Humanist Dialogue 8:
The future - common ground and co-operation. An open discussion.


Reading Lists

(Compiled by Allan Hayes)

Christian/Humanist Dialogue 3 — Radical Christianity

David Boulton: The Trouble with God, religious humanism and the Republic of Heaven, 2002.
Don Cupitt: Sea of Faith, 1984.
Don Cupitt: The Way to Happiness, 2003.
Richard Holloway: Dancing on the Edge, 1997.
Richard Holloway: Godless Morality, keeping religion out of ethics, 1999.
Richard Holloway: Doubts and Loves, what is left of Christianity, 2001.
Richard Holloway: Looking in the Distance, the human search for meaning, 2004.

Lloyd Geering: Christianity without God, 2002.
Tony Windross: The Thoughtful Guide to Faith, 2004.
Jonathan Bartley: Faith and Politics after Christendom, the Church as a Movement for Anarchy, 2006.

Christian Research: The Mind of Anglicans, 2003.
Christian Research: Believe it or not!, 2003.
Sarah Savage et al, (edt): Making Sense of Generation Y, the world view of 15-25-year-olds, 2006.
John M. Haley and Leslie J. Francis: British Methodism, what circuit ministers really think, 2006.

Sea of Faith.
Catholics for a Free Choice.

Christian/Humanist Dialogue 5 — Science and Religion

Jacob Bronowski: The Ascent of Man, 1973.
Bill Bryson: A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003.
Charles Freeman: The Closing of the Western Mind, the rise of faith and the fall of reason, 2002.
Michael Shermer: The Science of Good and Evil, 2004.
Leonard D. Katz (edt): Evolutionary Origins of Morality, cross disciplinary perspectives, 2000.
Peter Watson: A Terrible Beauty, the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind, 2000.
Peter Watson: Ideas, a history from fire to Freud, 2005.
Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, 2006.
Daniel C. Dennett: Breaking the Spell, religion as a natural phenomenon, 2006.
Brian Moynihan: If God Spare my Life, William Tyndale the English Bible and Sir Thomas More – a a story of martyrdom and betrayal, date?.
Michael Baignent and Richard Leigh: The Inquisition, 1999.
Stephen O’Shea: The Perfect Heresy, the life and death of the Cathars, 2000.
Muhammad Abul Quasem: Salvation of the Soul and Islamic Devotions, 1981.

skeptics annotated bible .
skeptics annotated quran.
catholic encyclopedia — (on heresy, particularly sections IX and XIII).

5th February 2007

Presentation by Wilfred Gaunt

Concerning History of Human Rights

Good evening.

Until the age of seven, I was brought-up by my grandparents in Liverpool. They were staunch Methodists; and my toys were put away each Saturday night, and only brought out again on Monday. On Sundays, I attended Sunday School in the afternoon, and accompanied my grandparents to the morning and evening Church Services. My grandfather ensured that he always had with him a good supply of those sweets called ‘pear drops’; because, during the sermons, I became afflicted with a twitch and a cough that only a continuous supply of pear drops could miraculously cure.

Well folks, it’s pear-drop time again.

For the last fifteen years of my working life I was based in Holland - the Netherlands. The University libraries there were open to the public for the piffling subscription of only 10 guilders a year: £3 in our money. Not many made use of the option, so the library, being vast, was not crowded; and I spent many happy hours there in quiet contemplation.

On one of the occasions that a book I wanted was not available, I happened to remember a man with whom I’d worked in the 1950s. He’d been wounded in the Second-World-War’s North African campaign against Rommel’s army, and invalided to a hospital near Jerusalem. While convalescing, he took the opportunity to visit the holy sites; and would rail to us about the contrast between the abject poverty of the beggars outside the sites, and the richly jewelled and gilded opulence of the shrines’ interiors. He also enjoyed telling us that the Lord’s Prayer could be found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. So it came about that, nearly forty years later, in the library of Utrecht University, I checked it out.

After wading through a whole lot of bombast, I did, eventually, find a version close to the Lord’s Prayer: it was the “each morning coming-out prayer” onto the Elysian Fields. But what I had not been prepared to find, on the way there, were the Beatitudes. The Egyptians had forty-one Gods that needed to be placated before being allowed onto the Elysian Fields - where there are, incidentally, “many mansions” – and each one of these Gods needed to be assured by the supplicant that they had been merciful, shown suitable humility, not killed anybody, etc., etc., etc.

This discovery excited me because it gives credence to the Bible legend of Jesus having spent his formative years in Egypt. It also illustrates that there is a certain universality about the requirements - the needs – of person to person interactions within a civilised society: a universality that transcends cultures, beliefs, and time. Egyptian civilisation, by the time the New Testament was written, was already 3,000 years old.

My own stance on matters religious is best covered by the definition: “Agnostic”; and, in particular, the view expressed by the Buddha when someone asked him: “You say nothing about God?” The Buddha replied: “I know nothing about such matters.”

It is, then, appropriate that a current high representative of Buddhist philosophy – the Dalai Lama – should write an ethical guide for the non-religious. In it he reiterates the Beatitude type principles of a concern for others, love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of harmony that brings happiness to both oneself and others. He also points out that no one could suppose that peace comes about as the result of aggressive, inconsiderate, and unethical behaviour. Ethical behaviour consisting in not harming others; and the Dalai Lama restates the Golden Rule as: “Conducting oneself in a manner that will promote others’ happiness.”

Buddhism started in the fourth century BCE, and representatives of the new movement went to meet Alexander the Great during his transit through Northern India. On his retreat from India, Alexander ordered his soldiers to carry their wounded comrades with them. One day, he caught a group of soldiers burying one of these casualties who was still not quite dead. They protested that he would be dead soon anyway, and it wasn’t worth the trouble of carrying him. That night, Alexander debated the matter with his troops, and finally posed the question: “How would you like it if someone did it to you?”

In Greek and Roman culture, then, morals and ethics were social matters, and not connected to their religious beliefs. Only with the advent of Christianity were morals regarded as God-given: in the Jewish tradition. Unfortunately, in the fourth century CE, with the accession of Christianity as the state religion under Constantine, all the old traditions were eventually banned, and the old learning lost: as is well illustrated in the novel: “The Name of the Rose”.

This meant that morals and ethics, instead of developing and progressing in the light of experience, were stuck in a millennia-long time-warp.

Fortunately, the old learning WAS picked-up, kept alive, and further developed by the early Islamic scholars and the learned men of the Byzantine Empire. The fall of Constantinople – first to the Crusaders, and later to the Turks – drove those scholars to Western Europe, and so triggered the Renaissance: which was helped along by contacts with Islamic learning in Spain and Sicily. The main Islamic influence in the thirteenth century was the setting-up of the universities and the beginnings of independent and systematic enquiry.

St Thomas Aquinas, who was mentioned by one questioner last week, belongs to this period; but he tended to try putting the old learning under the yoke of Christian dogmatism, and succeeded in funnelling Simonedes’ mnemonics into an exclusively Sermon-giving resource, while completely suppressing some pretty advanced logic systems, which were only dreamed–up again at the turn of the 19th/20th century by Frege, Whitehead and Russell.

One important line of enquiry, which was started in that period, involved trying to work out what was the nature of humanity’s place in the scheme of things – standing, as we do, between the animals, below us, they being without morals, on the one hand; and an omnipotent God, above us, dishing-out commandments that are ‘ipso facto’ beyond criticism, on the other - they realised that the only thing left for humanity was the autonomy of a reasoned set of ethics, which develop in the light of experience. This study eventually took on the name “Humanism”: from the Latin word “Humanus”. It involved rediscovering the works of the classical scholars.

Examples of those early, devout Humanists, who are still well known, were Montaigne in France, Erasmus from Holland, Sir – or Saint – Thomas More here in England, and the last of the Medici who supported Galileo Galilei in Italy.

The Galileo debacle is the best known example of the Christian authorities’ resistance or objection to scientific enquiry and discovery. This because an activity which claims to discover the realities of the universe, which we inhabit, is always going to be a threat to any convention that claims prior infallibility: and it is a struggle that is still being fought out today.

During just the one year of 1767, in the coffee house in London frequented by Doctor Johnson, there came together a remarkable meeting of minds in the form of Benjamin Franklin, Johnson’s long-time friend; David Hume, the philosopher, who had just brought back with him Jean-Jacques Rousseau from France; the famous young reformist MP Edmund Burke; and, least in that company, a certain Thomas Paine. These, among others that attended there, were a good representation of what we now call the enlightenment.

Franklin, at that time, was famed as the man who had tamed lightning, which seemed nothing short of miraculous. In fact, he was initially accused of trying to play God by all the Christian denominations, and it was only after a series of disasters that his ideas were accepted. Even as late as that same year, of 1767, the Italian Church authorities were still holding out against the use of Franklin’s Lightning Rods: believed to be Devilish. But, in a small town in part of the Venetian Republic, some idiot had stored a huge arsenal of weapons and powder in the basement of a church tower. A lightning strike set it off; and a large part of the town was devastated, with 3,000 people losing their lives. Imagine a disaster on the scale of 9/11 ravaging a town the size of Blaby. So that ended the argument.

Thomas Paine, brought up a Quaker, had just upset the authorities by telling the truth about his work as an excise man, and been sacked. He'd applied for a living as a clergyman and been rejected. It was probably the good offices of David Hume that got him reinstated into the excise, and posted to the South West of England, where he became a lay METHODIST preacher. Judging from his later activities, Paine must have absorbed much from the conversations which took place in that coffee house.

Methodism in those days was a rabble-rousing activity, for the downtrodden against the system: it was in the middle of the enclosures-act period. It is the sort of genesis that it shares with Secularism. Paine also formed what we would now call a trade union among his fellow excise men, and eventually found himself once again sacked. So it was, that Franklin gave him letters of introduction to Jefferson, and packed him off to the American colonies.

Within a year of arriving in the colonies, Paine had produced the pamphlet “Common Sense”, which decisively changed what had been a struggle for people’s rights into a war of independence. He was also the first to coin the phrase “These United States of America”; which it remained until the end of the Civil War: when “These” was replaced by “The”. Paine also wrote a very moving and successful pamphlet called “Crisis”, when George Washington’s fortunes were at their lowest ebb. Paine was, in fact, one of the movers and shakers of the American independence debacle, and was recognised as such even by Adams, who disliked him intensely: though Jefferson remained Paine’s friend all his life, even though it cost him a second term as president.

And the reason for that hatred? Well, when he was incarcerated in the Bastille in Paris, during the “Reign of Terror” following the French Revolution, Paine wrote a criticism of the Bible called: “The Age of Reason.” This was in a similar vein to a work by Jean Meslier, earlier in the Eighteenth Century. Since then, Paine has been studiously written-out of the American history books.

The American Declaration of Independence marked the high point of Enlightenment achievement, and it can be seen as asserting the first form of a Declaration of Human Rights.

Jefferson, initially, became the fledgling USA’s ambassador to France; and, while the Bastille was being fought over, he and Lafayette produced the first formal Declaration of Human Rights: which Lafayette was instrumental in getting adopted by the French legislature; and, in so doing, coined the phrase: “The Rights of Man.”

Alarmed by the revolution over the water, the authorities here paid Paine’s old pal Edmond Burke to knock up a propaganda piece called: “Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Mary Wollstonecraft and Dr Richard Price were the first to respond to Burke; but it is Paine’s “Rights of Man” that became the definitive, scathing refutation of Burke’s arguments, and which has inspired generations of reformers ever since.

The Gordon riots in London – which came close to toppling our government – and the reign of terror following the French revolution, frightened the establishment and ALL the churches here in Britain, with the result that reform movements during the 19th century tended to be ruthlessly suppressed, and churches taught the virtues of obedience to God’s ordained scheme of things; as typified by the verse in the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” that goes: “The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, He made them, high or lowly, And ORDERED their estate.”

Inevitably the reform movements took on an anti-religious flavour, with Tom Paine’s “Rights of Man” as their banned Bible. Though it was more a matter of the churches being anti-reform. This is at the root of Secularism in this country, which was, at base, a POLITICAL reform movement.

However, HUMANISM in the nineteenth century, still remained in the intellectual domain of religious radicals ‘thinking things through’. It was only with the arrival of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and Huxley’s coining of the notion of Agnosticism that a large-scale schism began to threaten along the intellectual front between reason and blind faith.

While Holyoake and Bradlaugh developed Secularism. Unitarians like Conway and Coit carried this intellectual movement forward to its logical conclusion of breaking away from religious influence completely around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries. The Ethical Union, as it then called itself, finally purloined the form Humanism in only 1963 – a mere 44 years ago.

Those EARLY notions and declarations of human rights were expressions of ideals that their authors wished to achieve. The post Second-World-War declarations, although using similar language, have been reactive responses to the horror of the Holocaust genocide, and an attempt to retrospectively justify the doubtful legality of the Nuremburg trials.

So, here endeth a potted history of the last five thousand years. I did not dare to go any further back in time; because, in this company, it might have proved too controversial.

For personal reasons Mr Gaunt had to leave immediately after his presentation, so there was no opportunity for him to answer questions. One of the points made from the audience was that the offending verse of Mrs Alexander's hymn, written 1848, was removed from the English Hymnal (1906) and Songs of Praise (1931); though probably many congregations continued to use Hymns Ancient and Modern, which included the verse, for many years after that date.

Some further links that may be of interest:
Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948
Biblical Origins in Ancient Egypt


Two Leaflets by George Jelliss

Views of a Sceptic

When the series of dialogues was announced I was considerably sceptical that they would be of any value. However, as they proceeded I found myself becoming more involved, and when John Moores circulated a "Comment" describing his responses to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, I felt the need to respond, and printed out a little leaflet. Then for the last meeting I put together my views of what I felt I had learnt in a leaflet on Trying to Understand Christianity. The text of these two leaflets follow.
25 February 2007


The magic word
That with its peaceful black, starred cloth
Confounds the reasoned mind
Deceives the teeming brain
And stems the flood of thought

Mankind has ever sought
For ends, but sought in vain
For ends are undefined
Mere shadow-play of paradox
Of formless shape

From cell to ape
Though higher yet we strain
To reach perfection's peak
Or greater heights to scale
In our ever restless search

Fear not: no creed nor church
Of truth or grace can hold the grail
For, ever though we seek,
For ever will remain
Some unsolved

[George Jelliss]

This little leaflet is written partly in response to John Moore's "Comments on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins" and other comments made in the course of our Christian / Humanist dialogue.

The poem on the other side [above], which I wrote many years ago and has gone through a number of revisions, was an attempt to express my attitude, and that I think of many people of scientific viewpoint towards "the unknown". Einstein, quoted in the Comments, described his sense of "something that our minds cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly" as his idea of "religion". However, he also said quite explicitly that he did not believe in a personal God. So what he is expressing here is a form of mysticism, common among those of a Platonic turn of mind, particularly mathematicians. Knowing that there are questions we cannot, at least at present, answer is both a stimulus to further research and to keeping an open mind about possibilities, and the need to be honest with ourselves about our capabilities and modest and accurate in our claims.

John Moore in his "Comments" concedes that he accepts the findings of science, for instance the overwhelming evidence for evolution by natural selection. However he insists that "... for me as a Christian believer, the something behind our experience is an intimation of a creator who is beyond human comprehension and yet can be partially experienced in the complexity and improbabilty of the observable universe and in the myriad living organisms". He also says "we experience God through living in the physical world" but that "religious people struggle to find the words to express their concept of the relationship of God to the cosmos". Well this is all very well, and all very vague. All it expresses is a personal mystical reaction in response to one's experience of the world. Anyone, even an atheist, can have such experiences, but they do not necessarily justify the conclusions drawn from them.

Mr Moore says "the need for Dawkins' anger is hard to understand". On the contrary, for anyone committed to the pursuit of truth, based on rational evaluation of evidence, it is very easy to understand. Religious people seem to make up their beliefs out of thin air, and to select the bits from their holy books that they want to believe in based only on their whim or the latest evangelical fashion. Mr Moore asks for "a respectful dialogue with thoughtful religious believers" and "a greater effort to understand our viewpoint". Most unbelievers I know have spent a great deal of their lives on doing exactly this and frankly our patience is running out.

11 March 2007

Trying to Understand Christianity

This is a summary of my thoughts as a result of the Humanist / Christian dialogue that we have held over the last nine weeks.

The question I was asked at the end of last week's session was "Why do Secularists or Humanists not listen properly to people who have Religious views?" Well, of course, I think we do listen. In fact it is my experience that Humanists know more about religion, for instance the contents of the Bible, than most religious people do. The trouble is that what we hear either confuses us or arouses our opposition because of its irrationality.

At one extreme what we hear is so vague or mystical or personal that it is difficult to grasp anything definite. This includes the postmodernists, such as some of those in the Sea of Faith, who even question the very idea of any actual truth or reality. At the other extreme, as with the Creationists, what we hear is a retreat to literal interpretation of the sacred texts, so dogmatic and contrary to scientific evidence that we are obliged to fight against it. What I would like to see is an attempt by the Church of England to counteract the evangelical churches that promote antiscientific creationism, which I see as the dangerous vanguard of a new Dark Age of ignorance. Between these two extremes there is a whole spectrum of so-called Christian belief. The Wikipedia [Christian denominations] lists 300 different branches of Christianity.

I understand 'Christians Aware' is 'ecumenical' which means you try to bring together at least some of these disparate strands, but I'm afraid the differences only seem to be worsening. On the 'Christians Aware' website I could find nothing about what you as Christians actually believe. There are just vague aims of "... raising awareness of the gifts and needs of God's people everywhere. A spirit of sharing, encounter and friendship is encouraged ..." Another page speaks of Peace, Love, Justice, Understanding. Without the reference to God this is pure Humanism.

On other pages however you speak about prayer and faith. Prayer in the sense of meditation or openly expressed hopes could be compatible with Humanism. Faith in the sense of trust in the inherent goodness of most people could also be Humanist. However praying, in the expectation of some sort of supernatural intervention, or placing ones faith in providential guidance rather than making efforts for oneself are definitely seen by Humanists as irrational, since there is no evidence for any such benevolent God.

In a recent article Paul C. Campos wrote: "Of course, there are lots of people who claim to be atheists, just as there are lots of people who claim to be orthodox religious believers. But how many people ... believe in the orthodox doctrines of Christianity with the same degree of confidence that they believe in, say, the existence of Antarctica? / Naturally it's considered quite rude to press people on such matters, but in my experience most supposedly orthodox religious belief, on closer examination, melts away into a vague sense of an ultimate moral order, supervised by an even more vaguely conceptualized divinity. Among a lot of liberal Christians, this is asserted openly, to the point where they seem to adhere to a form of Christianity that excludes all specifically Christian beliefs. / Conversely, when one presses a purported atheist, one almost always finds that the person believes in various propositions that simply don't make sense without a belief in some source of an ultimate moral order, i.e., what most people would call 'God'. For instance, almost everyone who claims to be an atheist still makes lots of 'ought' statements, as in 'we ought to preserve biological diversity', or what have you."

Perhaps this is what you at 'Christians Aware' mean by God? Not something supernatural, but a concept of moral order. However, contrary to what Professor Campos thinks, Humanists are sure it is possible to derive sound ethics from purely human considerations, without the need for a supernatural justification. This I think is the major point where we differ. How we should live can be worked out from the need of humans to live together in a reasonably harmonious society. Of course this working out, by reason and trial-and-error, often leads to different conclusions from those based on Biblical texts, and evolves over time, as evidenced by our changing attitudes to slavery, voting rights, homosexuality, treatment of criminals, and so on. Many views now accepted by the churches as moral originate from Humanist thought.

Rondeau: Lament

There's so much I could do
If I but knew the way
I feel it through and through
There's so much I could do
That's good and right and true
Must I always go astray?
There's so much I could do
If I but knew the way.

[George Jelliss]