‘Only connect’? Forsterian ideology in an age of hyperconnectivity

Emily Buchanan explores the pitfalls of modern hyperconnectivity with a look back at two great stories by beloved humanist writer E. M. Forster, as well as film and commentary from the period.

E. M. Forster wrote Howards End and The Machine Stops, and was a key figure in the Humanism movement in Britain

E. M. Forster wrote Howards End and The Machine Stops, and was a key figure in the humanist movement in Britain

Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, E. M. Forster was uncannily aware of our future dependence on technology. In his short story The Machine Stops and in parts of Howards End, Forster explores the notion that technological advance is at the expense of authentic human connection. In a little over 100 years, technology has made our world unrecognisable. But has it, as Forster foresaw, made us isolated and individual, rather than interconnected?

Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

- E. M. Forster, Howards End, 1910

The turn of the century was a time of frenzied advance and rapid rural development. Queen Victoria had just died, kick-starting our modern propensity for progress, and machines had begun to dominate industry and culture. As Forster’s writes in Howards End, ‘month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky.’

A state of ‘continual flux’ gripped a society straddling the old and new, and this tension is captured with startling clarity in the social reportage films of Forster’s contemporaries, Mitchell and Kenyon. In particular, a film of Bradford in 1902 shows electric trams sharing streets with horses and carts. If you look closely, ads for familiar brands display the first rumblings of 21st century capitalism and yet the people are timid and formal, every bit the Victorian. This is most clearly exhibited in their overt, often comical reactions to the camera. At the time, a hand-cranked camera would have been an impossibly advanced sight and this is why hoards of delighted children chase the filmmakers up the street and adults gawp at them with a frightened, almost ludditian curiosity. Their mesmerised discomfort is, in itself, mesmerising.

Turn of the century Bradford. Credit: BFI

Turn of the century Bradford. Credit: BFI

After all, in the modern day most of us carry a smartphone as if it was an extension of our hand. Technology has been absorbed into every aspect of our lives, affecting our personal relationships, our identities, even our memories. In many ways, our dependence on it means that we have become man and machine, and our access to a world wide web of infinite connectivity has changed our understanding of human connection all together.

Until his death in 1970, E. M. Forster was President of the Cambridge Humanists and a member of the Advisory Council of the British Humanist Association. His humanist principles are at the heart of his writing, so while Mitchell and Kenyon’s footage exposes the condition of Industrial Britain, Forster’s work continues to strive to reconcile that condition with what it means to be human.

In Howards End, this is personified by two London-based families: the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels. The Wilcoxes represent colonialism, social mobility, reason. They are cold, calculated, perfunctory. The Schlegels are literary, sensitive, earthy. They feel that ‘one is certain of nothing but the truth of one’s own emotions,’ and the increasingly fragmented, anonymous nature of London threatens their emotional wellbeing daily.

At the time, Forster felt that Edwardian society was suffering an ‘imaginative poverty.’ Consumerism was thriving and a great monster of a railway had sunk its claws into the British countryside. But rather than connecting humanity, the rail was just another Wilcoxian commodity, taking people from one mechanical city to another – not allowing them to take root in the earth or in each other.

‘Man is an odd, sad creature as yet, intent on pilfering the earth, and heedless of the growths within himself. He cannot be bored about psychology. He leaves it to the specialist, which is as if he should leave his dinner to be eaten by a steam-engine. He cannot be bothered to digest his own soul.’

- E. M. Forster, Howards End, 1910

This ideology comes into its own in The Machine Stops, a dystopian science fiction story about technological dependence. In this world, the toxic smog he vilifies in Howards End has long since suffocated the earth and it is now an uninhabitable wasteland. Each human lives underground inside a single hexagonal cell held within a beehive-like colony. Each cell is controlled by an autonomous computer known as ‘the Machine.’ The people are withered shells of their ancestors and live in total isolation – although the omnipotent Machine connects them to the rest of the world through instant messaging and video calls. It also delivers music, information and all amenities at the touch of a button. Subservience to the Machine is considered an advanced human quality, as is physical weakness, and eventually it is worshipped as god.


A new century, and a brave new world. Credit: BFI

A new century, and a brave new world. Credit: BFI

Written in 1909, Forster’s cautionary tale is staggeringly apt in a modern context. He predicts a number of modern technologies, in particular the internet, and in doing so exposes our increasingly problematic relationships with the environment and technology.

‘But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.’

- E. M. Forster, The Machine Stops, 1909

Whilst Vashti, the main protagonist, is in complete isolation, she is never alone. The Machine connects her to the world and although she can select ‘the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her,’ the hum of the Machine is eternal. In fact, when the Machine inevitably stops, the silence kills ‘many thousands of people outright,’ for they have never known ‘the silence which is the voice of the earth and of the generations who have gone.’ Connection is infinite, and Vashti knows ‘several thousand people.’

However, just as Margaret Schlegel remarks in Howards End, ‘The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them.’ Too many connections devalues each one in a kind of emotional hyperinflation. For the Schlegels, this is the constant danger of London; for Vashti it is the inevitable by-product of remote communication technology, and something that she has been indoctrinated to approve of.

There are a number of prominent modern parallels here. Today, people tout the benefits of disconnection as if it were an antidote to a social problem. Many of us need to remind ourselves to ‘unplug,’ to select the isolation knob, so that we might be present in the moment, or simply alone, and this is no easy task. For some, disconnection induces anxiety, a fear of missing out, a sense of isolation. So whilst hyperconnectivity is isolating in the way that it denies direct, personal experience, we have to isolate ourselves even further just to get away from it. It’s an absurd paradox.

From the isolation of our smartphone bubble, our hexagonal cell, we can discuss, arrange, meet, read, watch, remember, create, destroy, repair, buy. We needn’t interact on a human level to achieve any of this. As technology becomes more autonomous and the boundaries between reality and technology become blurred, we will lose more direct experience – that fragment of connection that is fundamental to our humanity. In The Machine Stops, Vashti is crippled by ‘the terrors of direct experience.’ She has spent so long connected to the machine that personal interaction has become obsolete.

Autonomous technology only intensifies this risk. It takes away a fundamental aspect of our humanity – the need to think and act for ourselves. In the story, the Machine uses its ubiquity for surveillance and mind control, systematically devaluing every aspect of humanity by rendering it useless through advance. Our ubiquitous technology is already being used for surveillance. Before long, it too could be used to deny us basic human rights.

This degradation of humanity comes to a head in The Machine Stops when Vashti admits that ‘she would sometimes ask for Euthanasia herself. But the death-rate was not permitted to exceed the birth-rate, and the Machine had hitherto refused it to her.’ Although this might seem like an extreme depiction, we are reminded of Anne, the retired art teacher who chose euthanasia just last week because she had ‘grown weary of the pace of modern life’ and of how technology had changed society. Anne, who did not want to give her last name, believed that people were becoming robots attached to their gadgets. ‘They say adapt or die,’ she said, ‘At my age, I feel I can’t adapt, because the new age is not an age that I grew up to understand.’

It is difficult to digest, but the truth is that our society has become a dystopian science fiction of sorts. We are disregarding the plight of our environment in order to advance. We are disregarding our humanity in order to connect. Our devotion to technology is borderline theological and our desensitisation impacts our ability to relate to the natural. We are all well aware of the dangers of that by now. Indeed, the repercussions of the industrial-technological age can already be felt the world over and the more we surround ourselves with a virtual reality controlled by machines that are infinitely smarter than ourselves, the more out of touch we become with the reality of our situation.

Forster felt this stronger than most. His whole ideology rests on ‘the building of a rainbow bridge’ that would reconcile our societal need to progress with our propensity for unconditional love. That latter aspect, although such a primordial compulsion, anchors our humanity and our ability to connect in a way that progresses both man and machine.

‘I am dying – but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.’

Emily Buchanan is a writer and digital editor living in Norwich. An interest in history and literature lends itself to an affection for long-form content, and specialisms include environmental policy, international affairs and sociology. Emily is a blogger for the Huffington Post, an employability speaker and an aspiring fiction writer. You can follow her on Twitter.


If you enjoyed the above, here is a video of The Machine Stops from Out of the Unknown in 1966. Enjoy!

Galha’s journey to success

Derek Lennard of Galha LGBT Humanists reflects on just how far LGBT rights have come in this country in the time since Galha was founded.

Humanists Peter McGraith and David Cabreza were two of the first couples in the UK to get married under the new laws

Humanists Peter McGraith and David Cabreza were two of the first couples in the UK to get married under the new laws

Galha LGBT Humanists was formed in 1979 in the wake of the Gay News blasphemy trial. Its formation was a result of growing concerns about the effect of religious bigotry on the lives of LGBT people, at a time when the legalisation of gay sex between consenting men over 21 in private was barely 10 years old. Many people joined Galha for deeply personal reasons – almost all had experienced prejudice at school, work, and in their communities and families. Many more told of being shunned by the religious communities that they had grown up in. In order to make sense of the world they lived in and the persecution they had experienced, many of them eagerly sought an alternative ethical and social framework for their lives, given the negative stance of so many religious groups. Humanist organisations offered such a stance. Over the years our belief in humanist values and equality for LGBT people became married together.

Galha members have played an important part in LGBT rights over the years. It has not always been easy and we have certainly in the early years particularly faced hostility from religious groups. Central to our battles has been the fight for LGBT rights at home and abroad. Galha members have taken part in humanist affirmation/partnership ceremonies for more than thirty years. Of course these had no legal backing for these ceremonies. When Ken Livingstone, the then Mayor of London set up the London Partnership Register in 2001, Galha members were quick to take part in humanist ceremonies to support this effort, partly to inspire Parliament to consider supportive legislation. Well before the civil partnership laws came into place, Galha was arguing and organising with a handful of other groups, for equal marriage.

Galha members have come on a long journey for gay equality. In our collective memory are the dark days of the 1950s when aversion therapy was legally sanctioned and many of us were imprisoned for being homosexual. In the struggle for equal rights, we have been there every step of the way. We (and many like us) have earned the right to come out loud and proud as gay and as humanists, and we call for the full backing of the law to re-affirm our commitment to both! We will never forget the marriage of our supporters Peter and David at Islington Town Hall at midnight on Saturday 29th March. In all their interviews they stressed that the battle for LGBT rights was not finished and that they hoped that one day LGBT people in countries where today they are persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity, may one day be able to marry their partners too. Galha’s international work is more important than ever.

Derek Lennard is a committee member of Galha LGBT Humanists, a section of the British Humanist Association which campaigns for equality and diversity, particularly relating to sexual orientation and identity.

This article was originally published on Ritelines: The Journal of Applied Humanism, which is produced by Humanist Ceremonies.

An atheist Scout leader on the recent promise changes by the Scouts and Guides

Atheist Scout leader Ralph Parlour presents his own personal view on the recent reforms made by the Scout Association and Girlguiding UK.

Scouts take the promise at Brownsea Island, Dorset

Scouts take the promise at Brownsea Island, Dorset

On the 1st of September 2013 and the 1st January 2014, the British Guide and Scout Associations respectively changed their promises, opening both movements to atheists and humanists.

The promise is a central and important aspect of both movements, and all who wish to become members have to make it. The changes made are quite radical given the religious origins of both movements. Before these changes, all guides, irrespective of their own beliefs (or lack thereof) had to promise to ‘love God,’ and scouts had to promise to ‘do my duty to God.’ Even more importantly, the Scout Association has lifted a formal ban on atheists becoming full leaders. Although the ban was not strictly enforced and many atheists like me were already leaders, it is a relief to no longer have to hide my (non-)belief, or to have to ‘cross my fingers’ when making the promise.

Now instead of saying to ‘love God,’ all Guides now promise ‘to be true to myself and develop my beliefs.’ The Scouts however have taken an alternative approach and instead of completely throwing out the old religious oath, they have introduced a new promise that atheists can choose to say instead. ‘To do my duty to God,’ in the revised promise, has been replaced with ‘To uphold our Scout values.’ It is however the case that the religious oath will continue to be the default, so most new members will continue to take the religious oath, while atheists can request the secular alternative.

The Scout Association’s reforms have been widely supported, even by religious figures. Paul Butler, Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, said that ‘In enabling people of all faiths and none to affirm their beliefs through an additional alternative promise the Scout Movement has demonstrated that it is both possible, and I would argue preferable, to affirm the importance of spiritual life and not to restrict meaning to arbitrary self-definition.’

There has however been some resistance to the changes made by the Guides. The main contention is that, unlike the Scouts there is no option to choose a religious oath. There are several Guide groups that have refused to adopt the new promise and continue using the old, religious one. While I have found no article from any major newspaper or website critical of the changes made by the Scouts, the reforms in the guides have come under considerable criticism, especially from the conservative Right. The Church of England General Synod, on 12th February 2014, passed a resolution saying that ‘girls and women of all ages in the Girlguiding Movement should be able to continue to promise to love God when enrolled,’ and Alsion Ruoff, a member of the Synod, claimed that the change is ‘rank discrimination,’ and that it is part of  the ‘further marginalisation of Christianity in this country.’

Girlguiding UK has offered a concession, saying that Guide troops could, if they choose, have their own religious pre-amble to any swearing in ceremony, and say something like ‘In the presence of God I make my Guide Promise.’ But it is still too early to know whether this concession will be acceptable to critics.

These changes should rightly be seen as a victory for secularism and an advance against superstition. These changes will strengthen both youth movements, the Scouts especially, making them more appropriate to an increasingly secular nation. But while claims of discrimination are obviously spurious (given the favourable treatment of religious institutions, especially the Church of England), the Girl Guides do seem to have been heavy handed in response to groups refusing to adopt the new promise. The First Jesmond Guides for example have been threatened with expulsion from Girlguiding UK if they do not conform.

In an ideal world, not only would the secular promise be the default but there would be no religious promise at all. Despite this, I think it is important to not force people, atheist or theist, to make a promise they are not comfortable with.

Additionally, the relationship between these uniformed youth groups and organised religion is deep, so to sharply turn these groups secular could cause significant harm. Many groups, my own included, meet in a church hall and are not charged for the privilege. Without such an available, and low-cost meeting place, it would be much more difficult to keep the troop afloat financially and I have no doubt that many troops would close without the aid of churches. Both organisations do considerable good, and benefit not only their members but society in general. So an overzealous approach that harms the organisations, even if born of good motives, would be like cutting off the nose to spite the face.

The heavy handed approach taken by Girlguiding UK has damaged the organisation and has alienated some lifelong members. As a lifelong Scouter, I feel that it would be preferable to accommodate some heterodoxy, in order to keep the organisation unified, strong and better able to continue the valuable work they carry out.  All this controversy within the Guides is, ultimately, over one sentence, albeit a very important sentence, so I wouldn’t have thought it too difficult, or too offensive to the sensibilities of secularists, to allow Guides the same choice in promise as the Scouts.

Ralph Parlour is an Atheist Scout leader.

The British Humanist Association at the United Nations

by Amelia Cooper

The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in the Palace of Nations, as used by the United Nations Human Rights Council

The Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room in the Palace of Nations, as used by the United Nations Human Rights Council

Representing a non-partisan organization such as the British Humanist Association at the United Nations Human Rights Council comes with certain frustrations at the increasingly politicised atmosphere in which we work. The Council was established as the global authority for the protection and promotion of human rights, yet its mandate is often undermined or obstructed by its members, as demonstrated by the recent election of new member states, in which human rights violations are not only commonplace but legally sanctioned. Similarly, the presence and objectives of certain interest groups, such as the new, moral-sounding Friends of the Family coalition, seem to run counter to the principle of universality that human rights are based upon.

However, despite despairing at certain elements of the Council, the past session has been an undoubted success for the BHA, with four formal speeches being delivered, one State reply, international media coverage, a film premiere, and positive connections being made with a range of other like-minded NGOs.

Following the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief’s annual report, which focused on collective religious hatred, the BHA emphasised the importance of correct and inclusive reference to non-believers in legislation. The Special Rapporteur’s report had set a significant precedent for this, referring explicitly to non-believers as common victims of narrow identity politics, and advocating secularism in saying that ‘it seems difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of an application of the concept of an official “state religion” that in practice does not have adverse effects on religious minorities, thus discriminating against their member.’

The BHA, citing the Human Rights Committee’s 22nd General Comment, which states that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘belief’ include‘theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs,’ reminded the Council that:

‘Creating de jure equality for all members of religious and belief minorities, regardless of the State’s religious preference, is essential to establish a framework in which equal rights can be enjoyed. ‘Oppression of thought…is a sign, not of strength, but of egomania and cowardice’. [1]States have a duty to remove any obstacles to freedom of religion or belief from their constitutions and penal codes. Failure to do so violates their international obligation as formal guarantors of equal human rights for all.’

This speech was reinforced by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, who spoke on the importance of reference to non-believers in UN documentation.

The second speech by the BHA, on anti-homosexuality legislation, warranted a response by the Nigerian delegate, and received coverage that was reproduced internationally. The BHA disproved the notion that there is no international legal agreement on, or ‘legal backing’ for, equal rights for homosexuals:

There is no legitimate justification that can be used to undermine the universality of human rights. Fetishizing the origins of homosexuality negates from the fact that imprisoning someone on the basis of their sexual orientation is a violation of human rights, including freedoms of expression, association and assembly.

  • Article 1 of the ICCPR states that there will be no distinction ‘of any kind’[2] in the application of human rights.
  • Human Rights Council Resolution 17/19[3] is the international agreement to prioritize equality for LGBT.[4]
  • The High Commissioner herself noted that there is no room in international law or UN Documentation for exclusion.’[5]

The Nigerian response hinged upon misquoting our speech, and the fact that their bill was voted in democratically, yet did not address our principal arguments that any discriminatory legislation – regardless of how it is passed in to law – violates international human rights law.

Our third speech addressed the abuses of freedom of religion or belief in Malaysia, the gravity of which is often underestimated.  Just last week, for example, 114 Shias were arrested for commemorating a Shia festival – including a four-month-old infant.[6]

  • Registration of religion on state identity cards[7] is obligatory, and only certain classical religions are recognised.[8]
  • Ethnic Malays are automatically considered Muslim[9]: conversion is almost impossible,[10] and apostates subjected to punishments such as enforced rehabilitation[11].
  • A fatwa declaring Shia Islam a deviant ideology has been incorporated into the legislation of 11 of Malaysia’s 13 States.[12] 
  • ‘Offenses against religion’ are punishable by up to three years in prison and a $1000 fine.[13]
  • Proselytizing is constitutionally restricted to Sunni Muslims by Article 11.4.[14]

We joined the international call for constitutional amendments, emphasizing that ‘Malaysian legislature remains the greatest obstacle to freedom of thought and its concomitant rights.’  Unfortunately, Malaysia refused to accept the recommendations made by both states and NGOs regarding freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief within the country.

Our final speech was on the pernicious instrumentalisation of cultural prejudices and traditional values in the social and systematic denial of equality to women, and the necessity of creating de jure equality, supported by implementation, to combat impunity:

It is incumbent upon States, regardless of their internal socio-culture, to respect international legal obligations, and to repeal or amend domestic laws discriminating against women, for example those inherent in the application of Sharia law.[15] Secondly, this must be supported by real enforcement. The UN Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific found that between 72 and 97%[16] of the men studied who had perpetrated rape did not experience any legal consequences, while until an international petition was launched, the punishment given to a gang of rapists in Kenya, whose violent abuse paralysed a sixteen-year-old girl, was to cut the grass at the police station.[17] These cases are demonstrative of the worldwide climate of impunity surrounding gender based violence.’

We called upon States to renew their 1993 commitment to the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, and to do so with ‘an introspective examination of both their legal systems and the quality of their law enforcement.’

This speech chimed with the screening of Honor Diaries that we co-sponsored with US Center for Inquiry and the International Humanist and Ethical Union. The film explores the concept of honour and its impact on equality (or the denial thereof) for women. The screening was followed by an engaged and practical discussion on how best to promote gender equality, with Paula Kweskin, the producer, and Raheel Raza, one of the activists featured in the film and a representative for CfI, as panellists. Raza was also able to present the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, with a scarf signed by hundreds of women calling for gender equality.

Humanist principles are repeatedly proven to be deeply intertwined with human rights. At the Human Rights Council, we will continue to advocate these principles in the creation and implementation of international legislation; such that one day all people are able to fully enjoy the basic rights established in the UDHR more than sixty years ago.

Amelia Cooper is the British Humanist Association’s representative at the United Nations Human Rights Council.


[1] Kacem El Ghazzali and Alber Saber, as quoted in ‘Freedom of Thought 2013’, International Humanist and Ethical Union, available to download at http://freethoughtreport.com, p.13
[2] Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
[3] A/HRC/RES/17/19, adopted by the Human Rights Council in June 2011.
[4] ‘Expressing grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination, in all regions of the world, committed against individuals because of their sexual orientation and gender identity…How international human rights law can be used to end violence and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity…Further decides to remain seized of this priority issue.’ A/HRC/RES/17/19 http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G11/148/76/PDF/G1114876.pdf?OpenElement
[5] Navi Pillay in her response to the States during the Interactive Dialogue, 6th March 2014
[7] National Registration Department (NRD) (known as Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara, JPN in Malay) http://www.jpn.com.my/docs/MyKad.htm
[8] This violates General Comment 22 of the Human Rights Council: ‘Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief’ http://www.humanrights.gov.au/freedom-thought-conscience-and-religion-or-belief
Article 160 of the Constitution: ‘”Malay” means a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and – (a) was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or is on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore; or (b) is the issue of such a person’ http://confinder.richmond.edu/admin/docs/malaysia.pdf
[10] The case of Lina Joy, who applied to have Islam removed from her MyKad, as detailed in the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s ‘Freedom of Thought Report 2013’, p.146. The report is available to download here: http://freethoughtreport.com/download-the-report/
[11] Freedom of Thought Report 2013, International Humanist and Ethical Union, p.146. Available to download http://freethoughtreport.com/download-the-report/. This report also noted that ‘The state governments of Kelantan and Terengganu passed laws in 1993 and 2002, respectively, making apostasy a capital offense. Apostasy is defined as the conversion from Islam to another faith. No one has been convicted under these laws and, according to a 1993 statement by the Attorney General, the laws cannot be enforced absent a constitutional amendment’. While the legality of these laws is unclear, they are demonstrative of the attitudes held by some Malaysian states regarding religion.
[12] ‘Shia Malaysians on Trial’, Wall Street Journal, published 15th December 2013 http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB30001424052702304173704579259473076713800
[13] Articles 295-298A of the Malaysian penal code, http://www.agc.gov.my/Akta/Vol.%2012/Act%20574.pdf[14] Article 11(4):State law and in respect of the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Lubuan, federal law may control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.’
[15] ‘Women’s Rights Under Sharia’, The Clarion Project, 19th February 2014 http://www.clarionproject.org/understanding-islamism/womens-rights-under-sharia
[16] ‘Why do some men use violence against women, and how can we prevent it? Quantitative findings from the UN Multi Country Study on men and violence in Asia and the Pacific’, 2013, p.3 http://www.undp.org/content/dam/rbap/docs/Research%20&%20Publications/womens_empowerment/RBAP-Gender-2013-P4P-VAW-Report.pdf

Convincing others of reality

by John Watts

Photo by BWJones

Science lets us know what’s real. But letting others know, and advocating why this is important, isn’t always easy.

How do we best convince mankind that any belief can only be deduced from proven reality, not vice versa, reality from unproven belief? Since religion is thus irrationally entrenched, this in essence is the problem for humanists.

As man’s knowledge of the world grows at an accelerating rate, we have overwhelming humanist arguments to present; so, without necessarily adding anything new, let us be clear on the following. Even the best of believers cannot produce any real objective evidence for their beliefs, but when pressed they usually eventually admit that the existence of God is objectively unprovable. They then insist their subjective, imagined or mental experience is equally valid. This is refuted of course by the continual retreat of faith in the light of new knowledge. Galileo and Darwin and a host of rational seekers forced the faithful to discard certain subjective beliefs. The faith of each age therefore must reflect truth from the real world or die.

Ask them to define what they actually believe and you will be lucky to get an unequivocal reply, since that gives to easy a target; but you can usually tie them down, often to the survival of the soul after death. Here we are on strong ground from both traditional and new views. Firstly and obviously, Hell (exquisite torture for eternity) is not just unjust; it is infinitely unjust to sinners who exist for only a speck of eternity. How can they accept that? So if there is no Hell, can there be a Heaven? Only a little intellect shows that one requires the other. Secondly, every construct in our universe is born or evolves, lives a span, then dies: from the very small to the most complex. This is even the universe itself, we are now told. Mortality is assured for everything without exception; except man! How likely is that? Well, at least it should make them think.

Of course as man has created, lost and created again innumerable gods, to assist him to escape them is difficult. We are not playing on a level pitch. The slope against us is man’s very desire for simple answers, for guidance, for meaning. It is his fear of the unknown. All these are claimed to be simply supplied by a magic doctrine, derived from primitive times, but given enough credence by annexation of man’s best attributes, Morality and Beauty, to counter justified scepticism. Who cannot experience the emotional charge of Faure’s Requiem in one of our wondrous cathedrals? Few indoctrinated from the cradle will seek to leave this for rational truth that is implied to be a godless, and therefore wicked, cult.

Well, of course Morality and Beauty were created by, and so belong to, humanity and not God. There is no comparable art or beauty in the Bible or elsewhere in the Church which has not derived from man’s intellect. So let us make sure we proclaim this.

We need to consider everything to be effective advocates of rational enlightenment, so it is important to share and exchange views. We need also to bear in mind that success here is best achieved by a clear and positive presentation of our belief rather than negative criticism of the Church, however obvious the target. I think this ought to be the British Humanist Association’s prime objective.

I believe we can show how humanists have answers to all the fears that beset mankind, which religion claims only they provide. Does anyone feel there are any areas that Humanism cannot address successfully?

John Watts is a long retired financial adviser living in Somerset, an enthusiastic humanist, and a writer and poet keen to support humanist ideas.

Humanism and the hereafter

A humanist funeral ceremony.

A humanist funeral ceremony: family members and friends meet to celebrate the life of a deceased love one. 

It seems that primitive man, everywhere and in every culture, had an instinctive belief in some sort of existence after death.  For the primitive psyche perhaps there was no other way to come to terms with the dread and mystery of death.  As the traditional religions evolved, elaborate myths were created, claiming that every man had an immortal soul that survived his bodily death.  In a master-stroke (deliberate or otherwise) traditional religions linked the fate of this immortal soul with good behaviour in this life. Ordinary people, conditioned as they were from early childhood to adapt to regimes of earthly reward and punishment, readily accepted this vastly magnified scheme of reward and punishment that extended into eternity.  Morality, which really had its roots in human nature, became a prisoner of reward and punishment. ‘RAP morality’ (reward-and-punishment morality) is perhaps a good name for it.  RAP morality gave religion an iron grip on the lives of people. As Sam Harris says in his outstanding book, The End of Faith: “Without death, the influence of faith-based religion would be unthinkable.  Clearly, the fact of death is unbearable to us, and faith is little more than a shadow cast by our hope for a better life beyond the grave.”

              Unspeakable atrocities were committed by the medieval Christian church in the name of saving souls.  Russell tells us that “The Spaniards in Mexico and Peru used to baptize Indian infants and then immediately dash their brains out; by this means they secured  these infants went to heaven..” and goes on: “In countless ways the doctrine of personal immortality in its Christian form has had  disastrous effects upon morals…”  The horrors of the Inquisition are too gruesome to describe.  In our own time we have the phenomenon, in the Iran-Iraq war, of children being used for clearing minefields.  They, and their parents as well as the commanders who let them get blown up, evidently believed that ample rewards awaited these children in paradise. (It must, however, be mentioned that reliable firsthand accounts of the use of children in human wave attacks are rare.)  Suicide bombings are an everyday occurrence in Palestine, Iraq and Pakistan. So problems arising out of a belief in life after death are very contemporary and very real.  And the tragic growth of suicide bombings has given them a wholly unexpected twist.  How differently William Empson’s Ignorance of Death reads today!

“Heaven me, when a man is ready to die about something
Other than himself, and is in fact ready because of that,
Not because of himself, that is something clear about himself.
Otherwise I feel very blank upon this topic,
And think that though important, and proper for anyone to bring up,
It is one that most people should be prepared to be blank upon.”

            In most humanist statements, there does not seem to be a pointed reference to the issue of life after death.  This could be because the humanist rejection of the supernatural also entails the rejection of the idea of an immortal soul or life after death. However, the Memorandum of Association of the Indian Humanist Union (June 12, 1960) does state: “Though Humanism is not identified with any views about the factual question of life after death, it does not accept the goal of salvation. It is content to fix its attention on this life and this world.  It is concerned with the preservation and furtherance of moral values in all relations and spheres of life, and with the building up of a better and happier human community.”  Narsingh Narain has elaborated this further:  “…There is no need for us, as Humanists, to consider the evidence for and against human survival.  For whether we survive or not makes no difference to our practical ideals.  Moreover, the craving for a future life is unhealthy, if only for the simple reason that our wishes can make no difference to whatever the fact may happen to be.  Belief in a future life was not based on evidence.  It was an expression of faith arising out of a certain mental background.  The important thing is to outgrow that mental outlook, not to disprove survival, or to rule out faith altogether.”

            The problem is that, while this position will be seen by humanists  as being eminently  logical and pragmatic, it will do nothing to induce the ordinary believer in traditional religions (to whom life after death is a fact) to re-examine his world-view.  The Humanist Movement came into being to provide an alternative to traditional religions, and its main task is to address the major factors which have given traditional religions such a grip on their adherents.  Of these, the two most powerful factors are:  belief in a personal God; and life after death.  Sam Harris is right when he says: “What one believes happens after death dictates much of what one believes about life, and this is why faith-based religion, in presuming to fill the blanks in our knowledge of the hereafter, does such heavy lifting for those who fall under its power.  A single proposition - you will not die  -  once believed, determines a response to life that would be otherwise unthinkable.”

            Humanism cannot afford to remain ‘blank’ (or agnostic) on this issue; just as it is not agnostic about a personal God.  We must affirm that there is no scientific evidence for personal survival after death.  However, death does not have to be equated with non-existence; although Hume (reportedly in a conversation) held that there is no more difficulty in conceiving my non-existence after death, than in conceiving my non-existence before birth, and no reason to be distressed by either.  We can look upon our existence as being of two kinds: conscious, and consequential.  While my conscious existence ceases with death, my consequential existence does not. In many different ways and in many different spheres every individual’s life interminably affects the future.  This thought gives one responsibility and hope, and a sense of worth.

Great essays in the humanist tradition: ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr Cumming’ by George Eliot

George Eliot, as painted by Samuel Laurence, c. 1860

George Eliot, as painted by Samuel Laurence, c. 1860

In the first of a series, HumanistLife brings you a great essay from the public domain.

Born Mary Ann Evans, George Eliot was a remarkable person. Not only did she pen brilliant novels such as Middlemarch, she was a fierce and formidable essayist.

Even in her personal life, she defied the oppressive Victorian morality of her day to live with her married boyfriend, the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes.

Today Eliot is buried in Highgate Cemetery in an area reserved for agnostics and dissenters. Since her death, many great men and women have been inspired by the excoriating wit of her essays; the influence of her non-fiction is especially evident in writers like Christopher Hitchens.

The below essay is called ‘Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming’, a scathing attack on the intellectual dishonesty of the clergyman Rev. John Cumming, and in which Eliot expresses in clear and beautiful language her own humanist perspective.

Beware only one thing: she writes in long paragraphs.

[Read more...]

Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision?

by Lesley Close

Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision, by Lesley Close, published 12 February 2014.

Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision, by Lesley Close, published 12 February 2014.

Eleven years ago this month I was helping my brother, John Close, to prepare for his death. He was 55 and coming to the end of his life because he had motor neurone disease, diagnosed two years earlier.

John had seen the story of Reg Crew, the first Briton whose journey to Dignitas was publicised. He told me, by typing with one finger at a time on his computer, ‘That’s how I’d like to go when my time comes.’

My response was to confirm that his life was his to deal with as he saw fit. I told him that I would do everything I could to help him achieve his goal of a peaceful and dignified death at the time of his choosing.

That’s how I came to arrive in a tiny flat in central Zurich at three o’clock in the afternoon on Monday 26th May 2003. John was only the seventh British person to have Dignitas’ help to die, so we had no idea what to expect from the experience as the last day of John’s life unfolded.

It was hard to accept that John was dying of MND, but it was comforting that he could be in control at the end of his life. With Dignitas’ help, my dear brother obtained the peaceful and dignified death he sought, but it did not happen at the time of his choosing. As well as fitting in with Dignitas’ plans, John had to travel to Switzerland while he still had sufficient bodily strength to undertake the journey. There was no question about his mental strength – like everyone who has made that journey to have help to die, John was a strong determined individual.

That’s an important characteristic – nobody is being compelled to go to Switzerland against their will. People who are suffering intolerably as their lives come to an end because of terminal illnesses are looking for – and finding – the information they need to contact Dignitas and are making their own plans to undertake that final journey.

The statistics from Oregon, where assisted dying has been legal since 1997, confirm that the option of an assisted death appeals to individuals for whom being in control is very important, predominantly college-educated people.

I thought I knew a great deal about the subject of assisted dying when, a year ago, I started writing the personal stories which form half of the book published by Peter Owen on 12th February, Assisted dying – who makes the final decision? but I learned a huge amount by editing the chapters which appear between my own. I was previously ready to debate the subject with anyone but now I feel armed to refute almost every objection which is raised to changing the law.

I have learned the importance of challenging people who say things like ‘In the Netherlands people no longer trust their doctors’ and similar things intended to make an audience doubt the wisdom of changing the law here. I now ask for statistics to back up those assertions. There aren’t any!

Unless and until someone shows me a different way to solve the UK’s problem of intolerable suffering at the end of life, I will campaign to change the law to something like the Oregon ‘model’. Assisted dying works there and Lord Falconer’s Bill contains even more safeguards than Oregon’s legislation. Doctors in that state are not regarded as murdering monsters and the rest of the medical and social care system works perfectly well. And Oregon has not been consumed by hellfire… which brings me on to my final point.

I have never yet heard an argument against assisted dying that I have not been able to refute, other than those which are based purely on the dictates of a person’s religious belief. Everyone who, like me, has no such belief – as well as those people with faith who can reconcile their faith with assisted dying – should assert the need for individual choice in decisions about their death. I do not want to dictate how anyone should see out the end of their life and I believe we should all be shown the same respect.

Lesley Close is the author of Assisted Dying: Who Makes the Final Decision?, released 12 February 2014. She works as a design company administrator, and is the sister of the late John Close.

Alternatives to Religion: A collaborative project

by Nicky Hilton

Irreplaceable humanist archives, are being rediscovered as part the Alternatives to Religion Project. The material, described by the National Archives as having the potential to ‘transform research and understanding of alternatives to religion’ includes items created by the British Humanist Association (BHA), Conway Hall Ethical Society (CHES) and the National Secular Society (NSS). The current phase of the project is funded by the National Cataloguing Grant Programme and will see historic material from all three organisations catalogued, preserved and made publicly available.

As the professional Archivist implementing this phase of the project, I’ve come across a huge array of items since I started work on the collections in April. The archives consist of official records, such as minutes, deeds and annual reports, as well as campaign material, plans, correspondence and photographs.

My favourite items from the archives are those which convey the changes to thinking of those pioneering agnostics and Unitarians who established the Ethical Movement and laid the foundations of Humanism.

Tracing the origins of Conway Hall Ethical Society through the archives, the researcher will soon encounter minutes and ledgers of Parliament Court Chapel, Artillery Lane. The records evoke a time when this progressive East London congregation (led by William Johnson Fox from 1817), were still navigating the boundaries between dissenting religion, agnosticism and humanism. The congregation met from approximately 1807 until 1824 and although Christian, the congregation were non-conformists, and described in some reports as Universalist. A natural leader, Fox gradually led his congregation away from Christianity to rationalism and presided over the move in 1824 from Parliament Court Chapel to the purpose built South Place Chapel (near Moorgate Station). The official minutes from this time convey a simple shift away from describing the attendees as ‘the congregation’ to the word ‘members’. From this point, the members of South Place Chapel continued to move away from established religion, but it was the arrival of another charismatic leader, Dr Stanton Coit in 1888 which finally saw a complete break from Christianity. The archives record that Coit was appointed Lecturer (no longer Minister) and presided over the change of the organisation’s name from Chapel, to Religious Society, and finally to Ethical Society.

In the British Humanist Association Archive there is further evidence of this gradual, but confident break from religion. As well as leading South Place Ethical Society, Dr Coit was a member of the Ethical Union (forerunner of the BHA) and his vision for the Ethical Movement created some of the most interesting items in the archives. For example, Coit’s scrapbook reveals his unwavering commitment to relieving the plight of the Victorian working classes, not through salvation, but by education and self improvement. His Neighbourhood Guilds, a type of trade union based on locality rather than employment, attracted international attention because of the socialist undertones and atheism. This desire to support people within an ethical framework also led Coit to establish the unique Ethical Church at Bayswater. Occupying a former Methodist Chapel, Coit saw his non-religious church as a template for an inclusive, secular, Church of England. Photographs of the interior of the building show the lectern from where Coit gave his Sunday lectures. Behind him stood an engraving which could easily be taken from a modern work of Humanism: “Thanks to the human heart by which we live”.

The material mentioned here is just a tiny fragment of the total collection. These archives are a treasure trove of humanist, secular and ethical activities, with more untold stories waiting to be uncovered by researchers. Cataloguing of CHES and BHA archives is continuing, and the records of the NSS are due to be started in the new year. Highlights of the Alternatives to Religion project so far are displayed on the project blog at: http://alt2religion.tumblr.com/   which is updated weekly. You can also search the partial BHA catalogue at: http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/Library/Library-Catalogue ; and the partial SPES catalogue at: http://www.conwayhall.org.uk/catalogue

Nicky Hilton is the Archivist for the Alternatives to Religion Project.

Countering pessimism

[W]e see, surrounding the narrow raft illumined by the flickering light of human comradeship, the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour; from the great night without, a chill blast breaks in upon our refuge; all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears.
From “A Free Man’s Worship” by Bertrand Russell

How full is this glass?

How full is this glass? Vir Narain muses on consolation and optimism.


Bertrand Russell was a courageous and defiant man who would not hesitate to discard a comforting belief – perhaps even if he suspected that it was true.  Along with other humanists, he wanted people to have the courage to give up the comforting religious myths about a caring and loving God and face life as it was.  As Narsingh Narain said: “Our ancestors solved the problem of pessimism (in so far as they did solve it) by convincing themselves about a future life guaranteed by the existence of a merciful and all-powerful God.”   So “… belief in gods produced an unintended result by restoring that optimism which is natural to life but had suffered disturbance as a byproduct of man’s mental evolution.  It was more necessary to regain that optimism than to achieve external results.  A life weighed down with chronic fear and anxiety would lack the spirit and the power to face and survive misfortunes.  In comparison the lessening of the severity of the misfortunes themselves was not so important.”  Russell conceded that: “… belief in God still serves to humanise the world of nature, and to make men feel that physical forces are their allies.”

It is very important, but practically impossible, to avoid using words such as hostile, friendly, pitiless, uncaring etc. when discussing the relationship of man with nature.  It is perhaps best not to attempt it here.  Russell talks of “humanity amid hostile forces”.  Carl Sagan says:  “The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.”  Narsingh Narain says: “Let us have the courage to accept the fact that the universe does not care for us, for the human race or for life.”

I shall argue that there is an element of exaggeration here; perhaps as a reaction against all the religious nonsense about a loving and caring God.  If humanity was surrounded by hostile forces, as suggested by Russell, it would not have survived even for a nano-second.  The anthropic (a needlessly anthropocentric misnomer) principle cannot be lightly dismissed. The very existence of life shows that the laws of nature are pro-life which, of course, entails being pro-death as well.

“The philosophy of nature” says Russell “must not be unduly terrestrial; for it, the earth is merely one of the smaller stars of the Milky Way.  It would ridiculous to warp the philosophy of nature in order to bring out results that are pleasing to the tiny parasites of this insignificant planet.” (Emphasis added).  But these tiny parasites are, as far as we know now, the only living beings in this unimaginably vast universe. And size is not everything. Isaac Asimov tells us: “Man’s three pound brain is the most complex and orderly arrangement of matter known in the universe.” In any case, we cannot escape being terrestrial when dealing with the relationship of life with nature, with the philosophy of life. The Philosophy of Life is a subset of the Philosophy of Nature.

According to Russell, “Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naïve humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and it is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy.  All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.” Even if optimism and pessimism are ‘cosmic’ philosophies: they have an exclusively human context and deal with human attributes.  A little biology – rather than a little astronomy – might be more helpful in understanding the relationship between life and nature.

The astonishing facts of evolution which has produced so many, and so diverse, near-perfect forms of life; the incredibly complex immune systems which are constantly fighting to protect each individual   creature from infectious disease; the delicately poised and infinitely complex ecosystem which holds these life-forms in balance and, above all, the miraculous emergence of creatures which are capable of abstract thought, all point to the life-promoting processes of nature. The pessimistic view that nature is hostile or indifferent to life as such is not supported by the facts of science.  Also, this view promotes an unhealthy man-versus-nature mindset: nature is to be conquered or subdued.

Narsingh Narain quotes Colin Wilson as saying: “… the task of Humanism is to attempt to destroy pessimism wherever is appears”. This is an important task which is becoming more difficult with the passage of time. Increasing urbanisation and industrialisation – among other conditions of modern living – are leading to unprecedented levels of angst and alienation.  Presenting a needlessly gloomy picture of nature does not help.

As the half-full/ half-empty glass cliché shows, pessimism and optimism represent two mutually exclusive attitudes which are not necessarily fact-dependent. Only a robust and positive attitude in the face of adversity can enable us to cope with the vicissitudes of human life. As Narsingh Narain says: “Let the tender-minded continue to hug the old delusions or invent new ones. For the tough-minded, stoicism is the only dignified answer.”  Iris Murdoch’s observation: “Anything that consoles is fake.” is largely true.   But the belief that nature supports life is not a consoling myth.  Even down to the level of the individual, as our immune system shows, nature is at work to preserve life up to a point.  Inevitably, it withdraws this support in the fullness of time. This shows nature’s triune character as creator, preserver and destroyer.

Even without the idea of an uncaring or hostile nature, the challenges to man’s fortitude are enormous.  If this idea no longer seems to conform to the facts as we know them now, it should be discarded.  Homo Sapiens must guard against becoming Homo Ingratus