BHA Conference 2011 review

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Even without a Grayling grilling, the first BHA Conference in a decade is a success.

Written by Richard Godbehere. Published for The Skeptic online on 13th July 2011.

On the weekend of Friday 17th June, the great and the good of the British Humanist Association gathered in Manchester for the first annual conference in a decade. Boasting talks from some of the most prominent humanist thinkers, the weekend promised to be a carnival of rational thinking and Godless morality focusing on the search for the meaning of life, with talks from such luminaries as likes of A.C.Grayling, Peter Atkins, Chris French, Philip Pullman, Natalie Haynes and Stephen Law. It was a weekend I couldn’t possibly miss but, being an impoverished student at Goldsmiths College, not one I could afford. Thankfully, through a little eyelash fluttering and help from one of the speakers, namely Professor Chris French, I managed to blag my way in as volunteer. Here are my thoughts of the weekend.

The day before, A.C.Grayling had announced that he was declining the position as President of the BHA due to worries about the controversy caused by his New College of the Humanities. I arrived unsure as to whether or not he would be joining us as planned, and soon discovered that rather than drag a media circus to the event, he had decided to stay away. It was a disappointment, but the show went on nonetheless.

Friday night kicked off with the ever hilarious Robin Ince- although I wonder how many of us had recently seen him on the Uncaged Monkeys tour as there was a certain familiarity with his act- and continued with a quiz hosted by BBC2 Egghead regular CJ De Mooi. It was, perhaps, overlong, but it was also a great bonding opportunity; as was the hotel bar immediately afterwards.

Saturday began with Peter Atkins’ talk ‘On being: The limitless power of science’, summarising the enormous contribution science has made to the question of the meaning of life, and why those areas of existence believed by some to be beyond science have been, or look likely to be, placed under the microscope despite protest. It was a little far into the camp of ‘scientism’ for my tastes, but a fascinating talk nonetheless. Next up Julian Baggini asked ‘What does religion have that we don’t?’ and his conclusion, which included such supposed essentials as ceremony and ritual was interesting, but certainly not pleasing to all; Robin Ince declaring that he had ‘never heard such a load of B*****ks in all his life’ although he thought the presentation of this ‘B*****ks’ was excellent.

After lunch, what was to be the highlight armchair discussion between outgoing President, Polly Toynbee, and incoming President, A.C.Grayling, became a discussion between Polly Toynbee and BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson. She talked politics and Humanist movements causing mild controversy; one audience member questioning her as to whether the BHA were aligning themselves too closely with socialism, while another asked her to stay on as President for another term. If anything, this discussion showed the BHA for the herd of cats it so rightly should be.

Saturday afternoon was, for me at least, the highlight of the weekend. Stephen Law gave a talk based around his superb new book Believing Bullshit  This book is the holy grail of sceptical apologists and a great source for anyone who has come across those annoying tactics used in debate by the proponents of woo woo and magical thinking. If you don’t already have it, I suggest you get it. Following this, Chris French gave a superb lecture on ‘Meaning and Randomness: On Seeing Things That Are Not There’, featuring his often copied (or so he tells me) but rarely equalled demonstration of the backwards message in Stairway to Heaven. This demonstration of the ability for our brains to paint words to sound when we can read them led to one of the biggest rounds of applause of the weekend, Professor French reminding us that though our brains are wonderful things, they can mislead us in many ways, especially when looking for patterns in the meaning of life itself. Rounding off Saturday was Phillip Pullman, author of the fantastic His Dark Materials trilogy and the equally impressive The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Mr Pullman astounded the audience with his dislike of all things fantasy, rubbishing Lord of the Rings and similar for its need to describe its world at the expense of story; this broke the hearts of more than a few nerds, myself included. Saturday wrapped up with a gala dinner event, one to which, sadly, the volunteers were not invited, but I did manage to tip toe back into to chat with James O’Malley et al from the Pod Delusion who were recording the talks and interviewing the speakers. Those recordings are available for download from the Pod Delusion website.

On Sunday morning, Natalie Hayes opened up with tales of ‘Ancient wisdom on the meaning of life’, humorously explaining that life in relation to its meaning was not all that different in Ancient Greece and Rome than it is today. Pulling the whole weekend together, Richard Norman concluded proceedings by asking if ‘Meaning’ was ‘made or discovered?’ It was quite a deep talk for this time on a Sunday morning, but an excellent round up which, Came to the conclusion that our lives are stories that we tell and that, perhaps, on our deathbed, we all hope that our story was a good one.
All in all it was a successful, interesting and challenging weekend. It informed and entertained as planned but moreover, it left me with a sense of the people that make up the BHA; some of the kindest, most honest and trusting people I have ever met, all with a thirst for knowledge, all with a desire to live the one life they believe they have well. Not bad for a bunch of Godless heathens!

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