A Devout Sceptic

Saw David Boulton speak on Thursday last, at a meeting of North-East Humanists in the Newcastle Irish Centre nestled incongruously between St James’s Park and Chinatown.

In the history of UK secularism and TV broadcasting, Boulton’s fame precedes him. Editor of many journals in this space over the decades and particularly known for his “World in Action” documentaries for Granada TV, his books including “The Trouble with God” and his involvement in the Don Cupitt inspired “Sea of Faith” network.

Fascinating to hear the story of his own evolution from an ultra- doctrinaire and insular Plymouth Brethren upbringing via socialism and CND to a firmly committed Non-theist Quaker Humanist. (A “Quaker” – being simply the ironically self-adopted pejorative epithet from 17th C critics of members of The Society of Friends. A branding that has stuck.)

When he started uncertainly with a self-effacing introduction to his “Confessions of a Devout Sceptic” title (a title which he has of course used before in talks over the years) and a list of 12 reasons why Beer is better than God, I thought for a brief moment he was going to give us a born-again anti-God polemic. I needn’t have worried. (He didn’t and the audience wasn’t entirely 21st C  New-Atheist types, notably 2 or 3 Christian Apologetics types including Jonathan McLatchie – PhD in Evolutionary Biology at NCL.)

He knew his history of UK secularism almost first hand – recounting Holyoake and others and touching on the whole christian-cultural, Quaker-industrial socialism crossover, Cadbury, Rowntree, Unilever and the New Lanark Mills, (though he didn’t mention the latter two by name). Fascinating story in its own right.

Particularly wonderful the whole creed-free “fellowship” angle to every human interaction whatever the context, religious or otherwise – a feature of the Society of Friends. I’ve already mentioned that as well as self-identifying as a Christian Humanist, he calls himself a Non-Theist on the God vs Atheism scale – exactly as I do. Whatever our creeds or lack of them, we’re all human, even theists and theologians, as I often point out.

The highlight was his honest response to a question – from the apologetics – that there was no rational explanation, nor even any post-rationalisation – of how he’d arrived at any intellectual description of his current Non-theist, Quaker, Humanist position at all. It was simply an evolutionary process of changing perspectives from real life experience. Long tradition being as important as the fellowship itself. Perfect.

[Post Note – interesting given my other ongoing dialogues with Libertarians, his Quaker position on near-absolute pacifism is probably the only point at which we’d maybe part company. Worth some dialogue.]

[Post Note – also, as in so many topics of discussion here on Psybertron, there is the “meta” angle. The only creed is no-creed. So hard for the one-dimensional strictly objective scientistic types to get a grip on such logical Catch-22’s.]

[Post Note – give his many secular editorial duties along the way, and the Jonathan Miller connection, presumably some Boulton tie up along the line with the Rationalist Press Association now Rationalist Association / New Humanist, of which I am a trustee and Miller was president.]

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