BHA2015 Review in Brief – Rough Notes

BHA2015 Conference – Bristol, Grand Hotel, 19 to 21 June 2015 (~400 delegates)
Not detailed notes, just rough for-the-record of my own. Will use some to create constructive feedback.

Friday afternoon started with a so-called “Ethical Jury” list of suggested ethical dilemma topics from which to discuss 2 or 3 in round-tables of 8 or so. Worked as an “ice-breaker” to start conversation with the table of fellow attendees with whom you found yourself thrown together. (Clearly with enormous personal context differences in starting points, pretty random which topic examples were meaningfully discussed and how much progress even agreeing the issues is pretty minimal – except to note that even the simplest stated issues were complex on many levels and connected to all the others.)

Next was a Meet the BHA session – by popular request apparently. Not sure best use of time for delegates, since many will already know many. Perhaps more use with 3 or 4 sentences of self-introduction each from the front better that attempt at hot-dating moving desk to desk – at least not without a little more preparation and facilitation.

Evening session started with Julian Baggini – ostensibly showing the value of philosophy by taking basic philosophical questions of real life from the floor as part of a stand-up routine. Actually very good from Julian’s perspective in handling it with entertainment value but slightly let down by mixed audience input, initially not getting the point of the level of questions to make it work. Too many men with their hands up making too complex philosophical points to start with – though the “I have a friend who …. What would philosophy advise” format did catch-on.

Headline was Kate Smurthwaite doing a slightly cut down version of her stand-up show. Excellent performance level; pace, energy and passion. One of the highlights of the conference.

Saturday morning started with Dr Caroline Watt of the Edinburgh Koestler Parapsychology unit standing-in at less than 24 hours notice for Prof Francesca Stavrokopolou‘s advertised talk. Dr Watt gave an accomplished and entertaining talk on aspects of their work on paranormal beliefs that “might be of interest to Humanists”. Ghostbusting myths and creating normal hypotheses to test paranormal claims. Psychic claims, near-death (NDE) experiences and out-of-body (OBE) experiences, ghostly sightings, and so on. Many good psychological and neuro-scientific reasons to understand why people do sincerely believe the impressions they appear to experience. Seeing ghosts driven largely by Paraedolia – the naturally evolved tendency to seek out faces, human and animal forms in our environment. Understanding paranormal claims is part of the science of understanding actual normal psychology and neuro-science.

Next up was Prof Tim Whitmarsh, on his Deep History of Atheism. Despite parts of the delivery being read presumably from his book or prepared lecture based on it, the content was for the most part informative. Apart from a little too materialist / atomist philosophical foundation reading from Democritus onwards, Whitmarsh demonstrably knows his Greek and Roman history of daily life, politics and empire. Clearly details affect the narrative you draw from such history and a 40 minute presentation can only hit the highlights, but the main message was clear enough – the atheism of times where what gods there were, were all too human and not supernaturally powerful – indeed heroes were those humans who fought against the fates and the gods. Blasphemy would have been a meaningless concept. The transition via Mosaic invented interpretation of monotheistic religion, to become dominant as it was promoted for imperial political ends most notably by Constantine. That narrative is well enough established, even if details are up for debate. Perhaps most interesting, after Daedalus and Icarus, Dionysus and Demeter, Belerophon and the rest Whitmarsh did approach a surprising conclusion, that religion probably did have a future, religion redefined with some form of tolerant polytheism, loosely federated across global communities. A conclusion very similar to that of Jonathan Sacks last week. [Post Note : Andrew Copson’s 2016 review of Whitmarsh’s book in New Humanist.]

[The morning closed out with a discussion between the Specialist Sections of the BHA (Young Humanists, Prison Humanists and Defence / Armed-Forces Humanists pastoral support groups and LGBT sections), chaired by Andrew Copson. The afternoon session opened up with The Greater Manchester Humanist Choir renditions of their selection of secular hymns and protest songs.]

The highlight of the weekend entertainment-wise had to be the next session by Dr Phil Hammond, ex-GP, Private-Eye writer, and stand-up comedian. Serious and strongly delivered messages about health and NHS priorities – Love and Clangers, but told with anecdotes that had the audience rolling with laughter and, in my case, unable to laugh for crying. Humanist message, apart from the love obviously, was believing evidence, and not falling for the myths of management. Beautifully done. Reminded me personally very much of the work of Dr James Willis.

Follow that Helen Lewis, Sarah Ditum, and Nimko Ali in conversation on feminism, culture and belief. A tough act to follow and somewhat understated staging (low stage for seated discussion, light, sound and inadequate introductions) but some interesting content – particularly on patriarchal cultural drivers quite independent of their specific religious or racial contexts. The necessary paradox of rejecting any form of segregation whilst nevertheless providing women-only-spaces in such cultures.

Last session of the afternoon was another top-quality stand-up routine from Prof Richard Wiseman. Less uproarious laughter than Dr Phil, more understated self-deprecating meta-jokes, but very cleverly done. A major part of the routine was really about illusions – where Prof Richard has conjuring skills, in fact the main objective was to use known science of sleep and dreams to establish most effective and healthy sleep routines and habits.

[At the Gala Dinner Prof Alice Roberts was awarded British Humanist of the Year. Jim Al Khalili’s introduction to the award struggled to maintain the suspense as Alice’s achievements were already recognised by all and hence well deserving of the award. Most notable in the conversations afterwards, was the highly personal and committed tone of Alice’s acceptance speech – true emotion, very real – moved many of us grumpy old gits. Edinburgh fringe award winning Jay Foreman provided the after dinner entertainment of musical humour.]

The Sunday morning, kicked-off with what was really the only deeply technical session of the weekend from Jim Al Khalili. If you’ve seen the TV programmes and read the book, the new stories of the quantum effects at bio-chemistry levels of life are no longer new. Brave to attempt to present to a mixed, captive, lay audience, but nevertheless both fascinating and, as Jim honestly admits, downright weird. Quantum mechanics just is – trust me I’m the BHA President! Gratifying for me was the reference to the personally inspirational “What is Life” by Erwin Schroedinger – much maligned after WWII thanks to the associations with those with Nazi agendas. Biggest disappointment – Jim mentioned his damned cat, Schroedinger’s that is, after managing to avoid doing so in the TV programmes 😉

The much anticipated interview of Prof Alice Roberts by Samira Ahmed followed, though with time-pressures it ended all too soon as the dialogue started to get interesting. Alice agreeing in response to an audience question, that the future probably depended on collaboration between Humanists and the faith-based churches. They do say, leave your audience wanting more.

To round off what was for the most part an entertaining but much lighter-weight conference than last year’s World Humanist Congress – intellectually and politically – I’m sure neither Alice nor Samira would begrudge ceding the stage to Leo Igwe for our final session. As well as highlighting the inhuman irrationality around beliefs in supernatural witchcraft – mainly against women and largely supported by local the evangelical African churches – Leo was able to make a passionate case for the real value in British humanists actively supporting African humanism. There were local activists and latent sympathisers even if they couldn’t always maintain a visible profile without support, and there were real achievements in setting-up secular schools. Funding and resources to support such activities were essential, and that included follow-up resources. No point funding the building of a secular school as a physical building, only to leave it to the mercy of local extremists to turn it into a madrassa of indoctrination.

Support does work and is a multiplier in the message it gives to encouraging local initiatives.

Thanks to all the BHA staff and volunteers, and the hotel & catering staff for a successful weekend.

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